One Second

It is terrifying how quickly our lives can change. No matter how much we plan, no matter how we protect ourselves, no matter how many layers of padding or insulation we wrap around ourselves, our entire life can be irreversibly changed in the time it takes to blink an eye.

In what can only be described as a horrific and unimaginable tragedy, a police officer shot a man in his own apartment. There is no “sense” to be made here – reason simply fails us. There are times in this world where all we can do is hang our heads and cry, “Oh God!” That is why we call them tragedies. Tragedies are unexplainable. They break our hearts and they devastate our lives, but trying to make “sense” out of them is hopeless.

And in that exact moment when disciples of Christ should be the most circumspect, the most hesitant to jump to conclusions, the most reticent to assign guilt or blame, we have “Christians” screaming for the blood of the officer. The hatred that has been expressed by those standing in or in front of churches is, quite frankly, repugnant. It seems, according to these “Christians,” that even the very lowest bar of justice – that of “innocent until proven guilty” is WAY too high for them to consider. The words of our Savior in the sermon on the mount about praying for one’s enemies, about walking the second mile, about loving as God loves – forget that. “I know I say I am a Christian, but that does not matter in this case. I can hate cops – its my right.”

I think I know why this case troubles me so deeply. A number of years ago I was involved in a car accident. I say, “involved,” but I should really say I caused it. I carelessly did not see a warning sign. No one was hurt, although to this day I don’t know why. One second earlier or later and there would have been serious injuries if not death. I was careless. I was negligent. I could have been criminally charged were it not for that blessed second of time.

I do not know what went through that officer’s mind as she entered that apartment, why she did not step back, why she drew her weapon, why she decided she had to shoot. None of us do – except that officer. Which makes it particularly important that we not assign motives to her actions without knowing more of the story.

It may very well turn out that she knew exactly what she was doing. She may have staged the whole event. She may indeed be guilty of a crime far worse than negligence. I am not omniscient, I do not know. None of us do. Right now I know she took the life of an innocent young man, my brother in  Christ. He was washed in the same blood that washed me, and it is that reality that pushes me to my knees when I think of the many times in my life when I have done things that have hurt other people – sometimes physically but much more often emotionally – and through that blood I am promised that I stand forgiven. Honestly, I don’t understand why.

One second. When I remember that accident I break out in a cold sweat. I think of the way I could have been treated. I think of the way I was treated. I had no excuses, I had no defense.

I just wonder – how many of the people who are screaming for the blood of this officer have been one second away from a similar tragedy – senseless, inexplicable, indefensible.

Almost 2,000 years ago a man stood in a Roman courtyard and received the whipping that I deserve. He died the death that was reserved for me. “By his wounds we are healed.”

I am terrified by the thought that only one blessed second separates me from the position this officer finds herself. If her story is true – if there is even the smallest possibility that she has faithfully and honestly reported her impressions and her actions to those investigating this case – at the very least she is guilty of negligence. In such a case there is no doubt in my mind but what she wants that one second back – would give anything to have that one second back. It won’t happen.

As I sit here hundreds of miles away from Dallas, I wonder: of all the thousands of “Christians” who are demanding that this officer be punished to the very extent (or even beyond) of what the law allows –

Is there one Christian, one disciple of Christ, who is willing to reach out to her?

One second. Dear God, I am so guilty.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

Wounded – or Victim?

It is funny (not comical, but strange) how the meanings of words change. Generally it takes many years, although sometimes it can happen relatively quickly. I consider myself somewhat of a lover of words, and my work depends on the proper use of words, so when words change meaning I take notice.

One word that is in the process of changing, although probably has not completed the change, is the word victim. Primarily the word means that someone is the unintended, and innocent, recipient of an unwanted and detrimental event. That even can be caused by nature (tornado, hurricane, flood, fire) or it can me man-made (theft, violence). In this “pure” sense, a person is victimized – becomes a victim – completely against his or her will, and although they will forever remain scarred by this event, they work diligently to overcome its effects.

Increasingly, however, the word victim has acquired a new meaning, one that is sought after, cherished, and valued. Victimhood, once avoided, has now become a prize to be won. People now glory in their victimhood – they are “victims” of racism, of homophobia, of classism, of genderism. Once a person can claim the status of victim, that badge is worn proudly, as it is believed that declaration protects said individual from any possible responsibility for their actions. Once you have been declared a victim, either  by society or by yourself, you have been exonerated from any and all culpability or liability regarding anything you say or do.

Let me say this to make myself perfectly clear: we are all wounded. To be alive means that we have been hurt. We have been wounded by our parents (no human parent has ever been, or will ever be, perfect), by our friends, by our school system, by our churches. You cannot exist and say that you have not been wounded.

By the same token, we all wound others. We wound our spouses, we wound our children, we wound our friends, we wound our co-workers, we wound our fellow church members. To be alive means that we make mistakes, we fail – and in so doing we hurt, we wound, others.

Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite Catholic authors, wrote a short book he entitled, The Wounded Healer. I love that book, and re-read it often. It reminds me that I am wounded, that I wound others, and that if I am called to be a healer of wounded people, I must admit to both of those facts.

But, and here is where the changing meaning of the word “victim” comes into play. I refuse to remain a victim. I have been wounded, yes. I did not want, nor did I enjoy, the wounds. Wounds hurt – and many leave scars. But, contrary to the newly acquired meaning of the word, I refuse to bask and to glory in my woundedness. Being wounded does not give me any special privileges, it does not give me absolution from my sins. In fact, many of my wounds are self-inflicted, and for those wounds I must bear total responsibility.

If you are reading this you have been wounded. In one sense we are all victims – but I pray that we as disciples of Christ never fall into the temptation of becoming perpetual, and professional, victims.

Let us all ascend by climbing lower.

An Imperative and a Challenge

The subtitle to this blog is “Living the crucified life in the 21st century.” I want to build on that ideal for a few moments. Nothing, in my opinion, is more critical for the health and vitality of the church today than the goal of each disciple of Christ to surrender his or her self and walk a crucified life. I do not think that is an option. I believe that to be an imperative. Cultural Christianity is dead, and with it the scores of churches who sold their souls to the god of the moment. We have “crossed the Rubicon” in terms of what is real and what is fake in Christianity, and if Christ’s church is to survive, it will be due to the witness of those who have surrendered their life to the cross.

So here is my challenge: make a list of what you believe the world considers to be important. Here is my short list – power and money. If you have the power you can enrich yourself, and if you have wealth you can purchase (or at least influence) power. These two worldly goals coalesce in the realm of politics – the very reason to be involved in politics is to gain power, so that ultimately you can gain wealth. Those who have wealth are frequently those most interested in politics, as they want to ensure their wealth remains protected.

Now, compare that to the life of Jesus, and that of the early church. Was Jesus focused on the acquisition of power, or the accumulation of money? NO! In fact, he repudiated the subversive nature of both power and money and instructed his disciples to do the same. To the extent that the modern church is focused on either power or money (or both), it is rejecting the plain and simple teachings of the One it claims to follow. I cannot stress that point enough. Focus on power, or wealth, and you deny Jesus.

So – how do we purge ourselves of this lust for power and money? Try this simple (yet painful) task. For the next thirty days, consciously remove yourself from every source of media that attempts to persuade you to act in a way that would demonstrate the use of power or wealth. Do you follow certain political sites on Facebook? Mute them. Do you follow political sites or politically motivated people on Twitter? Mute them. Better yet, try a 30 day Facebook and/or Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat fast. Just stay off of your favorite social media site for a month. Call it 30 days to purify your soul. Notice what happens.

I am going to make a statement here that I know many Christians will disagree with – that’s okay, I am gracious enough to let everyone be wrong every once in a while. It is impossible to wallow in the filthy depths of power, prestige, and money and not have your soul corrupted. It is just impossible. This is why (among other reasons) David Lipscomb was so adamant that disciples of Christ abstain from any form of political activity, up to and including even the act of voting.

If you think I am crazy, just stop for a moment and ask yourself why you think it is valuable, or even appropriate, for a disciple to crave political power or the wealth that drives the political system in America. If you say that if Christians are not active in the political system the other side will “win,” you have just identified your god – power. We elect certain people to give them the power to do things – things we want done. Our opponents elect certain people to do things – things they want done. If our guy or gal wins, we say our god won. If their guy or gal wins, they say their god won. And, to be blatant, both sides are right – power has won.

Jesus told his disciples to renounce power. He told us not to be like those who lord it over their subjects. His greatest example of leadership was taking a towel and washing the feet of his apostles. He then surrendered his life to be lifted up on a cross – the ultimate victory over the “power” of this world.

Can his disciples claim his name and refuse to follow in his steps?

I don’t think so. Renouncing power is an imperative. Challenge yourself to see if you have what it takes to deny the god of this world his grip over you.

Let those who call themselves disciples of Christ start living a crucified life.

Jesus Contradicted Jesus

I love that title. And, no, it is not necessarily created  as “click-bait,” although, if it got you here, so much the better. But, my title is absolutely correct. Jesus did contradict Jesus, and in the most emphatic way. Confused? Irritated? Wondering if I’ve lost the only two working synapses in my noggin? Let me explain.

Many Christians wonder what Jesus (son of Mary) was talking about in Matthew 5:43 when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Up to v. 43 it appears that Jesus has been quoting mostly from the Torah, the book of the Jewish law. I have often heard this verse explained away (and have probably explained it away) by saying that Jesus is quoting oral teaching here – that nowhere is it specifically written that a Jew was to love a fellow Jew, but hate an enemy.

Except, it was written that Jews were to love their neighbor and hate their enemy. It was not written thus in the Torah, but it was written down. In case you were wondering, here is the passage:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. Sirach 12:4-7

Those words were written approximately 200 years before Jesus, son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem. They were written by a Jew by the name of Jesus ben Sirah. His book is entitled variously as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah, or simply as Sirach.

Now, the words of Jesus our Lord do not perfectly match the words of Jesus ben Sirah, but that is not the point. The point is that for approximately two centuries there had been a strain of Judaism that was promoting the very teaching that Jesus our Lord was seeking to destroy. There was a written document that promoted the active hatred of one’s enemies. Jesus our Lord was not making this up on the fly. His teaching had a specific audience – those Jews who were so distorting the Torah that they were actually teaching the opposite of what Moses taught. [For confirmation, see Leviticus 19:18, 33-34]

What is simultaneously fascinating, and deeply troubling, about this passage is not so much that it exists (although, that is troubling in itself), but, if the comments in the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha are correct, the Jews came to reject the book from their canon, and it was certain Christians who accepted it into their canon of Scripture! This explains the title Ecclesiasticus, or “church book.” [See the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, page AP 86.] That really bothers me – here we have a book that, on the whole, teaches some marvelous things about God and human nature – but that in this one instance alone is so clearly and unambiguously refuted by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, there you have it folks, I was not making this up, and I did not create a title in order to deceitfully bring you into this blog. Jesus did refute Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth our Lord clearly and with great power refuted the writings of Jesus ben Sirah. I would suggest that today we are all followers of Jesus – the question to answer is, which Jesus are we following?

Let’s ascend by climbing lower.

In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)

In my post entitled “No Strength to Answer” I wrote a paragraph the gist of which was that the Pharisees were in a better position to defend their view of the Sabbath than we are to defend some of our cherished traditions. I want to expand on that thought.

The Pharisees are our favorite whipping boy(s). If we need a villain to preach against, we never have to look farther than the Pharisees. In our common understanding they were vain, pompous, hypocritical, obnoxious – all the things we love about hating others. And, to be sure, some of those characteristics can be deciphered from the many mentions of conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees as a general group.

But, I want to step back a little and try to view the world from the perspective of the Pharisees, hopefully without becoming Pharisaical.

No one knows for sure exactly when and how the Pharisees as a religious group came into existence. For sure it had to have been at some point during the Babylonian exile – or perhaps shortly after the return from that exile. They were not referenced in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament their influence is unmistakable. So, this much is fairly certain – they were “born” during a time of extreme spiritual hardship and questioning. Without a doubt, the number one question that would have given birth to such a spiritually elite group would have been, “What caused this catastrophe upon our people, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?”

The Pharisees would not have had far to look to find an answer. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention a number of the “minor” prophets) addressed that very question. The answer was clear and unambiguous. The answer was spiritual compromise and moral laxity. Ergo, the solution was spiritual rigorism and moral perfectionism. The links from cause to effect are not that difficult to see in the formation of the sect of the Pharisees.

Where I want to crawl out on a limb (metaphorically speaking) and offer a defense of the Pharisees is in regard to their “rigorism” regarding Sabbath keeping. There is no way you can read Jeremiah and Ezekiel without coming away with the realization that one issue that burned in the prophets’ hearts was the manner in which the Jews were profaning the Sabbath. For evidence, simply read Ezekiel 20 – but that is not the last, or only, word on the subject. It really does not take a Ph.D. to realize that the honoring of the Sabbath was really an important issue to the exilic, and post-exilic, prophets.

So, let us look at Jesus’s actions through the eyes of the Pharisees. He was, in the most strictest sense, violating the Sabbath by performing “works.” They did not have to depend on oral tradition in order to be horrified by this. The Jews had been devastated and thrown into foreign captivity for, among other things, profaning the Sabbath. They had numerous “thus saith the LORD” passages to back them up. They had not one, but many, “book, chapter, and verses” to point to.

And, yet, they were utterly, completely, and totally wrong.

They were perfectly accurate and correct readers of Scripture, and entirely erroneous in interpretation. They believed with all their heart, and with good technical reason, that Jesus was doing the very thing that God punished their fathers for doing. In their day they were the good, “Bible toting, Scripture quoting” conservative believers, and Jesus was the wild eyed, long haired, hippie progressive.

Okay – let’s move on to today. One of the things that terrifies me as I ponder this situation is how might I be a Pharisee – someone who is perfectly correct and without spot or blemish in my reading of Scripture, and yet someone who is utterly bereft of understanding how to interpret it. The example of the Pharisees is instructive on many different levels – certainly we do not want to miss the surface level where Jesus warns us repeatedly not to follow their hypocrisy and pomposity. Yet, is there not another level, a deeper level, that we completely miss? Are we not the great-grandchildren of these Pharisees when we quote “book, chapter and verse” and utterly, totally, and completely miss the point?

As I said – it scares me. On one level I do want to be spiritually rigorous and as morally perfect as I can. Those are NOT inappropriate goals. But, along the way, I never want to fall into the trap of becoming so technically perfect that I miss the heart of God revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus was NOT  violating the Sabbath. In God’s eyes he was fulfilling the Sabbath – note Isaiah 58:1-7 (although the word “Sabbath” does not appear here, the passage defines true fasting and “rigorous” spirituality).

It all goes back to the question of whether we are standing above Scripture, trying to fit it into our ideas of perfection, or whether we are standing under Scripture, and allowing it to shape our lives.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Living in a Negative Image World

Showing my age here – the title of this post is not about negativity (although, that is a part of it). What I am thinking about relates to the world of photography when you actually had to expose an image onto film, then take that film into a darkroom and develop it onto a sheet of photographic paper. The image on the film was the negative, the final product was the picture, or print. It’s just mind-boggling how we live in a negative image world today. Consider:

  • If a criminal resists arrest and is forcefully detained, it is the policeman’s fault.
  • If a child does not perform adequately on an exam, it is the teacher’s fault.
  • If a worker is lazy, unproductive, uncooperative, and is therefore fired, it is the employer’s fault.
  • If a person drinks to the point of drunkenness and then goes out and kills someone in a car, it is the victim’s fault for causing the drunk person’s mental anguish.
  • And, as I have pointed out in my last couple of posts, if someone rejects the message of Jesus, it is the church’s, or more specifically, the preacher’s fault.

Somewhere along the line we have reversed truth and error, cause and effect. It is as if we have reversed our magnetic poles – positive is now negative, and the negative has now become the print. When I was growing up my peers and I rebelled against what we thought of as an oppressive truth, but at least we had a uniform concept of what that truth was. Today there is no truth – or, to be more accurate, truth is whatever the single, solitary individual decides it to be.

If you can choose your own sex, if you can reject anything that displeases you as “fake news,” if your entire concept of reality begins and ends with what you are feeling in the moment, then what is to become of a society that depends on some form of permanence, some reality that transcends the ghetto of this rampant narcissism?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20, ESV)

How we as a culture arrived at this point is instructive, but I’m not sure it is entirely prescriptive of how we are going to recover – if that recovery is even possible. This journey into negative images spans at least a half-century, and the case could be made that it extends much further back than that. But, the reality is that at least one entire generation, and maybe a second, is alive that only views the world through a reversed image – they have no concept of what the final, and true, picture is. All they see is the negative.

In the darkness that this reversed-reality world creates, I am reminded of what I believe to be the three central themes of the book of Revelation: Endure Patiently, Overcome Faithfully, and Worship Joyfully. I cannot change an entire culture by myself. But I can, and must, worship the One who sees and knows and ultimately controls all.

Let us show the world the beauty of the real image – the print that the negative is designed to reveal! Let us ascend by climbing lower.