Saturday, May 31, 2014

To Pour or not To Pour--It's Not in the Rules

One of my favorite pictures in the Bible is the one of Mary Magdalene pouring perfume on Jesus' feet:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair.--John 12:3
When a disciple objected, saying that the money should instead have been given to the poor,  Jesus told him,
You will always have the poor, but you will not always have Me.--John 12:8

It's lovely--a wonderful exposition not only of the love Mary bore for Christ, but also for Christ's affection for her and her helpless effusion. The poor are important, He says, but not as important as individual, intimate relationships with our God.

But then I think of Christ's discussion with His disciples regarding compassionate care when He said to them about those sick, or in prison, or naked:
Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for Me.--Matthew 25:40

Well which is it?
Are we supposed to spend all of our extra energies lavishing the perfume of worship and praise on Christ Himself, or are we supposed to use that energy serving the poor? Is Christ best served outwardly, or is our direct worship more important than any service?

Well, when I think about this, I think that the answer must be yes and yes.
After all, He clearly states both of these. He doesn't exclude one from the other. And if we try to do so, we run smack into legalism.

Why is it that we are always trying to boil down what Christ gave us into a bunch of rules?
Do this and don't do that. And some of them are so petty.
Christ is risen, so He can't be on a crucifix anymore.
Dunk, don't sprinkle.
He's Jehovah, not God or Christ, or Lord.
Worship on Saturday, not Sunday.
No instruments in church.
Don't drink, don't gamble, don't dance.

Why don't we get it? It's just not that simple. Christ and life in Him can't be reduced to rules. Like here. It's not just about what we give to whom and when. Ask Cain and Abel. Then both gave to God an offering from the best of their labors--Cain the crops he'd grown and Abel the animals he'd raised--but God did not accept Cain's offering.
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his gift, but on Cain and his offering, He did not look with favor. --Genesis 4:4-5

Why not? What was wrong with it?
Well, I think that Cain and Abel's situation is the same as Mary's. Everybody brings what they have when they have it, but the thing offered does not necessarily make for an acceptable sacrifice. God needs more:
The Lord loves a cheerful giver.--2Corinthians 9:7
Give generously and do so without a grudging heart.--Deuteronomy 15:10

This is what made the offerings of Abel, and Mary, and whoever clothes or feeds the needy or does anything else for God: Abandon.
That's it. Christ watched Mary pour that nard on His feet and it wasn't the perfume, it was the love with which she brought it that  filled Him with joy. And it works the same for us. If we are going to give, give passionately. And He means it:
Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.--Revelation 3:16

We have to abandon ourselves to the opportunities God brings, whether He brings a bottle of perfume our way or if He brings a stranger with an outstretched hand. Then our offering to Him becomes an outpouring of love, not the fulfillment of a requirement.

I remember when the book of Mother Teresa's personal letters, Come Be My Light, was published in 2007. It shocked a lot of people to learn that this sweet, holy, devoted lady was spiritually desolate most of her life. Always faithfully appearing before the Lord in prayer every day, and devoting all of her practical life to ministry to the poor, she nevertheless suffered from frequent spiritual desolation. "There is no God in me," she wrote. And sometimes, you and I get there, too.

Mother Teresa gives me hope that all I have to do is show up, whether with nard or with a hot dish or an overcoat. When Christ presents Himself, I can love Him while He is near. When He is not, I can love His people. As long as the love is passionate and without reservation, He will accept my gift.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

For His Eyes Only

I've come to accept that there are some things about God that I just won't get in this life. I won't get to understand the Trinity. I won't comprehend the real nature of love. I won't even get to know whether God really cares whether we dunk or sprinkle. But it never occurred to me until recently just how much Christ invested in His relationship with His Father, a relationship from which we are pretty much excluded. 

Oh He tells us about it, all right.
I and the Father are One.--John 10:30
...just as you are in me, Father, and I in you...John 17:21
In fact, He uses it as an example of the closeness He wants to share with us. But He also makes it clear that we're not there yet. What He has with His Father is something very special, very different, and we are, by its very nature, left out of some stuff.  After all, they are both GOD, and we're not.

Nowhere did this seem so obvious as when I realized during this Easter season (head slap) that Jesus rose from the dead in the presence of God His Father alone. Nobody else was around--not His best friends, not the women who loved and served Him, not the Pharisees, not Pilate and his government officials, not even a passing shepherd or centurion. Nobody.

What gives with that, I wondered? Where was everybody? I mean, this was the single most important thing Jesus did. Lots of people die, but HE ROSE! Only Him!

And then I started to get it.

Jesus became a man, and the most of what we can grasp about Him is connected with Him as man, not with Him as God. We understand love as human beings, the same way we understand obedience, charity, worship, prayer, and everything else. We don't know the first thing about being God. Jesus shared the God-part of Himself with His Father alone. It had to be that way. 

Why do you think He was always going off alone to pray? When He was alone with His Father, He could be Himself--fully God and fully man.  Only once did He share that with anyone human:
Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John...and let them up to a high mountain by themselves.  There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.--Matthew 17:1-2

THAT's who Jesus really was. And it freaked them out. They right away wanted to start a building project, right there on the top of the mountain. They didn't get that Jesus. And if they, who knew the man Jesus better than anyone, failed so miserably to assimilate that little display, think what they would have done if Jesus had arranged they be there when He walked out of His grave, looking for all this sad world like His true self.
"C'mon, guys. Meet at the gravesite just after midnight. I've got a surprise for you..."
Not hardly.
After Friday, they'd already had as much as they could take. They were long gone.

No, this moment, like some of the most important moments in our own lives, was too intimate to share. After all, we do the same thing in our own lives. The consummation of marriage, often the birth of a child, and often, too, our first real glimpse of God--they all occur away from prying eyes. We treasure them for this. No one knows, and they don't need to. We might share the fruit of those moments, or some of the less private parts, but when hushed privacy cloaks a special moment, it becomes a sacred touchstone and in that context, Jesus reserving the holy moment of rising for His Father alone makes perfect sense.

We get to share the result, though, and to that end, Jesus' arms are wide open, filled with the fruit of His dying and rising. We don't need to see it. We get to know it. And He did not withhold any part of that experience. He lets us touch the holes in His hands and feet. He lets us eat with Him. He walks with us on our own Emmaus road.

Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ lives, and we are beckoned to join Him.
I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.--Psalm 27:13

Saturday, May 24, 2014

His Back is Enough

Moses wanted to see God.
He did. Or thought he did.
He'd been up on the mountain with God's presence and with Him in his tent in the Israelite camp.
The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.--Exodus 33:11

It didn't really happen that way, though. Not literally. I know this because God also said to him:
I cannot show you my face, because no one may see Me and live.--Exodus 33:20

We're not talking about the skin and bone face--the one our eyes and nose inhabit. We're talking about a metaphorical face, an entity that exhibits our emotions and helps us communicate. And we have more than one face like that. There's an old saying that a man has three faces: one he shows to the world, one he shows to those closest to him, and one no one but himself ever sees at all. So God must have faces, too. Like the one He shows without showing it--the one Moses saw on the mountain, the one that friends see. But it's not God's literal face. No man gets to see that and live.

So when Moses wanted more of God, he declared,
Now show me your glory.--Exodus 33:18
And he got it. God said,
You will see my back, but my face must not be seen.--Exodus 33:23
His back. God turned His back on Moses.

Now, as I think about that, I wonder whether that isn't the part of God I see most often, too? His back. God going away. God after He's finished doing whatever it is that He wants to do in my life. God stepping back, saying, "See--I made this."
See! I am doing a new thing!--Isaiah 43:18

It isn't easy to see what God is doing while He's doing it, you know. While God is doing something, I'm usually looking for Him somewhere else. When I'm looking for Him to heal my friend, He's increasing her faith instead. When I'm looking for Him to open the way for a new job, He's arranging a raise for my husband so I can volunteer instead. When I'm looking for Him to save my son's marriage, He's planning for a daughter-in-law who loves Him. I never see it coming. Never. 

And why does this surprise me?
Eye has not seen and ear has not heard and has not entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love Him.--1Corinthians 2:9

What God has planned is better than what I have planned. Period.
So, if all I get to see is His back, well, that's OK. After all, how bad can it be? So what if I don't see it until it's all over? So what if He leaves me scratching my head, saying, "So THAT'S what You were doing."

So what if all we get to see is God's back? His fingerprints, His trailing, glorious echo. I'm good with that. His back is enough.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

God Has Free Will, Too

God gave me free will--a very good thing--at least I think so.
Why? Why is free will a good thing? What does it let me do?
Well, free will allows me to choose without being forced. In essence, free will allows me to do exactly as I want to do. I like that.

Here's what free will sounds like:
"I want vanilla, not chocolate."
"I want to marry Bob, not Tom."
"I want to go to Tahiti, not Atlanta."
"I want to sleep late, not go to church."

The goal of free will, from my point of view, is to figure out, then act on, what I really want. From God's point of view, however, free will is a bit different. God wants me to want what He wants.
I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.--John 15:5
Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.--Ephesians 5:17
I am in my Father and you are in Me and I am in you.--John 14:20 

Until I do, however--until I want what God wants, He will not stop me from making my own choices and, in the meantime, I make some pretty crummy ones. And, while I'm making these crummy choices, God is what?  He's patient. He's long-suffering. Remember what its' like when our own kids insist on doing what we know will lead to a crash-and-burn? Like that. It happens to everybody.

In the process, though, I've spent a lot of time saying No to God. 
While I'm saying No, however, I forget that  He can say No to me, too. I don't like that very much.
When I say No to God, I expect Him to be OK with that. He gave me free will, right? Well, God has free will, too. That's why it's a relationship. God will love me, but He will do it the way He wants, not the way I want.*

He did it to Paul, right?
Three times I pleaded to take [the thorn in my flesh] away from me. But He replied, "My grace is sufficient for you."-2Corinthians 12:8-9
Translation: I am not going to love you that way. I am going to love you with myself instead, with my very own presence. You will keep your thorn, but you will come to know me intimately.*

Not a bad deal when you think of it. God told Paul No to something small, but Yes to something much bigger. It's like asking for a scooter and getting a Lamborghini instead.

God said No to Jesus in the garden, too. Jesus wished for the cup to pass from Him, that horrible cup of pain, but God said No. Instead, He perfected all mankind through that suffering and made it the source of salvation for everyone.

He does the same thing for us. If Mother does not get well, if we don't get the job, if the godly husband I want is still not showing up, God is saying No, but it's OK. God always has a Yes to go with it. Don't see God's Yes in your life? Look around for Him. His hand is out, full of blessing. If not satisfaction, then comfort. If not health, then holiness. We so rarely ask for the eternal gifts, and these are His best ones.

*Henry Cloud and Jim Townsend, Boundaries, 1992, Zondervan

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Humpty and the King

I keep trying to understand why some people believe and some do not. It has nothing, apparently, to do with intelligence, because lots of very smart people have no faith in God. It has nothing to do with exposure, because, in this country at least, an overwhelming majority of people have heard about creation and Christ. It has nothing to do with behavior, because many very nice folks refuse to consider faith in God as the only logical reason to behave decently.

So what is it? Why do some believe and some don't?

The simple answer is that some have heard the call of Christ and some have not, and that is true. God is clear about that.
I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion--Exodus 33:19
Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God--John 8:47

But even that understanding does not satisfy. I look at unbelievers and they seem so....well....happy. They do. Life is often easy for them. I hear sometimes about how unhappy life is without Christ, but the evidence often does not seem to bear that out. In fact, it looks just the opposite. Once belief does come, the believer is plagued by a stubborn, inconvenient truth by which an unbeliever is not troubled. 

The believer knows he is broken. 
Irretrievably, unrelentingly broken.
And there is nothing he can do about it.
He's like Humpty Dumpty. All the king's horses and all the kings men can't put Humpty back together again.

And, in case you haven't noticed, brokenness is not fun. It makes none of us happy. And yet, that's the first step on the road to faith. It's a step down, not up.
What gives?

I remember a few years ago, when our parish priest was baptizing several adults, he told them that they were mistaken if they thought that their newfound faith would make their life easier. "It will make your life harder." he told them, "Do it anyway." And he was right. Faith does make life harder. I no longer measure myself against other people to figure out how I'm doing. I have to measure my behavior and motives against a holy God. And I always, always come up short. The unbeliever just has to look around to see whether he's doing better than the next guy, and that's not too hard.

We've all seen them. The alcoholic who is absolutely convinced that he's in control of his habit. The mobster who has a good handle on his life by declaring that "it's only business." The serial monogamist (of either sex) who knows that her life is OK because she's 'not hurting anyone.' They are happy, satisfied, undisturbed. And sometimes, I am jealous of their comfort. I don't get to have that. 

Instead, I'm laying at the bottom of the wall in pieces, looking up at a God I just realized has given me the dubious privilege of seeing the true state of my life and thinking, "Gee...thanks a lot. I could have done without this, God." And I'm tempted to think that He's the one who pushed me over.

But He's not. He just helped me to see. And he follows that sight with an immediate solution. He extends his hand with a remedy, the same one Peter extended to the cripple in the name of Christ at the temple gate:
Rise up and walk.--Luke 5:23
The man had been a cripple his whole life. Sure, he knew that he wasn't like everybody else but, well, begging may not have made for a bad living. It didn't require much effort, and no one expected too much of him. In some ways, it made for a pretty comfortable life.

Then, one day, he discovers he's broken...and there was Jesus.
Imagine his surprise.

Humpty never did get put back together again, but we can be. In the instant we know the extent of our brokenness,we are reassembled not only as good as new, but better than new. The King Himself does what all His horses and all His men could not.  
See! I am doing a new thing--Isaiah 43:19
And behold! The new thing is me!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Taking off the Mask: Wearing Truth

I'm a hypocrite.
I admit it. So are you.

This is why:
Every time I sin, I have lied about what I believe. I have lied to whoever has witnessed my sin but, worse, I have lied to myself.

Here's how it works: I say I want to do the right thing, that I don't want to sin. And then I do. How does that work? Is someone twisting my arm to take a third piece of cake? To snark at my husband? To spend time at work on the phone with friends? Really?
Even the writer of Hebrews knows:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of death.--Hebrews 12:4

This is the truth--
I always do exactly what I want to do. 
Every time.
The devil never makes me do it. He can't. I have to cooperate. I have to agree. We all do.

Think about it. Imagine someone who is a compulsive thief. He says he loves God and wants to obey Him, but just can't seem to stop himself. We call this behavior an addiction and it probably is. Addiction is a real thing, but even an addict lies to himself and we often let him. Even given the physical pull of addiction, at some level the addict likes his behavior. He enjoys the thrill of cheating, the belonging of gossip, the comfort of the drug. They not only feel like they can't, but deep down do not want to give it up.

We choose our sin.

Here's a more honest approach. Just say it.
Adultery is exciting.
Gossip makes us feel important.
Food makes us happy.
Anger vindicates us.

Our faults and habitual sins are not mitigated in the least when we go to church on Sunday or read our Bible but don't change. Unaltered sinful behaviors do not characterize a Christian. They indicate a Pharisee.

There is a a relief, a kind of grace, in admitting who we really are. Try it sometime.
Substitute "I struggle with nagging, but can't seem to stop" with "I don't dare stop nagging him. Nothing will ever get done." Admit that we care less that nagging is wrong than about getting the garbage taken out.

God knows this is hard, but He wants us to examine our real motives:
I desire truth in the inner parts--Psalm 51:6

Before we can turn our true face to the world, we have to turn a true face toward God and toward ourselves.
What are we really afraid of? The Christian mask we are wearing will have to come off sooner or later. We might as well take it off now. The Christian truth lies underneath.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Modern Disenchanted: Hey, Jesus--Wassup?

Judas Iscariot is a hard one to figure.
He had to have been fairly smart and, at some point, to have inspired some measure of confidence. The apostles let him handle the group's money, after all. We tend to think of him as evil, but he couldn't have been, not completely, not at the beginning.

What happened to Judas?
Maybe he fell victim to the same weakness that some popular pastors do--the allure of intelligence, the confidence of skill. He sure went wrong somewhere, that's for sure, becoming at best, the cartoon thief who shakes your hand while picking your pocket. At worst, well, we saw his worst. He betrayed the Son of God. And people still do--by desertion, by betrayal, by ignoring the promise He made regarding His church.

I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.--Matthew 16:18

Judas' most revealing discourse with Jesus comes in the upper room after Judas had already concluded negotiations with the Pharisees and agreed to hand Jesus over for thirty pieces of silver, a paltry sum for such an act. All the apostles are sitting down to supper and Jesus tells them all that He knows what's coming--that He's been betrayed and Judas looks right at Him and asks along with the others,
Surely not I, Lord?--Matthew 26:22

Who does he think he's kidding? He sounds like a gangster who, thumbs hitched in his drooping jeans, saunters into his rival's hangout slurring, "Wassup?" As if he doesn't know. He's not fooling anyone, at least not for long.

Tertullian, a theologian who lived around 200AD, had something to say about what plagued Judas and so many others:
At the height of a man's sin is his refusal to recognize Him of whom man cannot be ignorant.*

Judas refused to recognize Jesus for who He was. Disappointed, unable or unwilling to understand, and eventually marginalized because of it, Judas blamed not just Jesus, but the whole bunch. He turned his back on all twelve of them.

Judas' rejection of Jesus is the same as modern men rejecting the organized church founded by the same Christ because it fails to live up to their expectations.  Judas went off the reservation so completely that even when he realized he was wrong, it didn't save him. He sealed his fate not because he'd sinned but by what he did next.
Then he went away and hanged himself--Matthew 27:5

Had he asked forgiveness, had he added repentance to his conviction, he could have shared heaven. But it didn't happen. And, as modern men do the same, they end in the same place.

This is the hard reality. Churches will behave badly. They all do it at one time or another. But the good ones recognize their wrong, admit it openly, ask forgiveness of those they have wronged, and change. The process of forgiveness and restoration is the same for groups as it is for individuals and some make it. Some don't.

We may have to change friends or change churches when things go bad, but we do not get to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are not smarter than the church God left us. We are not better or more clever than the Body of Christ.

We all share Judas' basic failing. We all have the potential to do exactly as he did. The test is what we do when we're tempted to think we are too smart for God, when we are so sure of ourselves. It is that moment when we stand in the shadow of the hanging tree, where even Judas discovered what he should have done.

*Apologeticus 17

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Time's Up, Death

There are some people I have a hard time just being around. I'm not sure why, but some folks just make me edgy, like I have an itch I can't scratch, or like I'm sitting on a particularly uncomfortable lump. When I'm around them, I just have to MOVE....preferably to somewhere else.

I'm not proud of this. Whoever they are, God, after all, gave them life, just like He gave it to me. My life is not better or cleaner or more presentable to God than is theirs. They are flawed. I am flawed. And, deep down, I pretty well know that Jesus does not love me any more than He loves them. We are joined by our common, and commonly imperfect, humanity. 

But I just don't like them.

I occurred to me, however, that although Jesus loves us all equally, there are some things He simply cannot abide, either. 
Like Death. 
Yes, Death.
Jesus hated death. He warred against it. He undid it. And eventually, He defeated it.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.--1Corinthians 15:26
He Himself also partook of the same that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, Satan.--Hebrews 2:14
I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades.--Revelation 1:18

This is no gentle Jesus. This is the guy on the white horse, the one with the sword, the one so bright I can't even look straight at Him. This Jesus is a warrior and every bit as powerful and terrifying as His Father. This is the Jesus who walked out of the grave and confronted Death himself.

And it was no contest.

Because Jesus didn't really have to fight at all. He just had to show up. The conquering didn't require any hewing and hacking. The outcome was never in doubt. All He had to do was to withdraw His permission.

Death existed only by God's express permission, but when His time was up, it was up. Jesus put His perfect thumb on our side of the scale, and Death fell off the other side. All done.  Death had already obeyed His command a number of times in full view of anyone who happened to be around. He chased Death away from Lazarus, from the son of the widow in Nain, from Jarius' servant and, of course, from Himself. Death has been warned. Christ will not allow it to exist either in His presence or outside of His express permission.

Why is this so hard to understand?
Maybe because all of life's other terrors happen while we still live. Yes, we get sick, but we usually get well. Yes, we might lose our job, but the possibility of getting another one is still open to us. But death, well, we just END. We disappear from the face of the earth. Death is a lot scarier for us than misfortune or hurt or loss. 

But not for Christ. They are all the same to Him--one cause, one temporary tolerance, and one permanent solution. Death to God is no stronger than a bug to us. Swat it and it's gone.

And He's done it. Our body may still die, but we will live. We will live with Him and laugh at Death. You know the old taunt:
Where, O Death, is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?--1Corinthinians 15:55

Talk about a knight in shining armor...

Saturday, May 3, 2014

I AM: The Ultimate Selfie

Everybody's taking them.
They can be kind of fun, like when we get to see our daughter's pregnant belly shot, or when we get to put heads together with that friend we've long missed. Selfies can also help us see ourselves the way others see us, and for that, they may have value. Most days, I wouldn't be caught dead in a selfie. They show what I really look like...yikes.

But, whether I want to show myself off to someone else or not, I'd better know who I am. I need to know where to find my own borders--the boundary lines that mark off who I am from who I am not. I may not make beautiful material for a selfie, but I am. Just that. I am. I exist. I have been given a real, palpable life and corporeal flesh.

Most of us don't know where to begin to think properly about ourselves. We can turn around our little camera phones and snap them, but of what have we taken a picture? Of whom? What am I? Wife? Mother? Writer? Lover of God? Teacher? Citizen of the United States?  Yes, all of these, but they aren't really who I am. These are what I do or where I live. I am more than these.

I am that unique signature that doesn't change regardless of how old I get, or where I live, or what I do. I am someone separate and particular before the Lord. I soar and invent and love and fail and sin in a way peculiar to myself alone. I am the whispers of my heart, the flight of my soul. No one is completely like me. I am known to God by my own unique name. I am created in the image of my own Creator.

Jesus knows me this way. He knows me according to who He made and recognizes me by what He did to me and gave to me. In return, He wants me to recognize Him the same way, but He has a much clearer understanding of who He is than I do. And He didn't hesitate to say so:

I AM the Bread of Life--John 6:35
I AM the Light of the World--John 8:12
I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life--John 14:6
I AM the Door--John 10:9.
I AM the Good Shepherd--John 10:11
I AM the Resurrection and the Life--John 11:25
I AM the Vine--John 15:1

I AM...
Strong statements. So strong they got Him killed.

This is the bold Jesus I can't help but follow. He gives us a picture of value and strength and confidence and, to the extent we can follow Him, the original from which we can stand in reflection. We can look like Christ, all parts of Him.  We will not BE God, but we can LOOK LIKE God.

When Christ talked about Himself, he never flinched or hesitated. He behaved outrageously and to be sure, to say that we can be like Him is an outrageous statement. But I can say it anyway. I can say it because I have God's permission and example to say it.

Christ said,
Before Abraham was, I AM.--John 8:58

I say:
Because You are, I AM.