Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Offering of Affliction

It's not often that we say, or that we are willing even to consider, that a non-Israelite nation, a non-Christian people, would have anything to teach us about honorable worship. It's not often that we say that we have something to learn from someone whose god is not the Lord. But here we are with the Philistines, who captured the Ark of the Covenant and brought the Lord onto their own turf, only to come face-to-face with the reality of who He is.

And they have something very important to teach us about worship.

As we saw yesterday, bringing the Ark of the Covenant into their own towns did not go well for the Philistines and because of the resulting plagues of hemorrhoids and rats, it didn't take long before they had nowhere in their own territory to even house the thing. It should be no surprise that, knowing what happened to the town where the Ark was stored, no other town wanted it.

So the Philistines sent the Ark back toward Israel, back to the place where it belonged, having placed inside of it their own offerings to the Lord - five golden hemorrhoids and five golden rats. And this is where our lesson begins.

Honestly, most of us would have taken a different direction. Most of us would have offered good and beautiful things, giving God all the praise and glory that He is due, even in our affliction. This is what we have been taught. We have a Christianity that puts God on a pedestal and protects Him from our unclean things. We have a Christianity that tells us that no matter what is going on in our lives, we're supposed to praise His incredible glory anyway. We have a Christianity that says that you give God the very best of all things, no matter what, and that anything else is unworthy. We have a Christianity that says that you offer to God only those things you want memorialized, build only those altars that you want to remember.

We have a Christianity that wouldn't have thought to offer Him our affliction itself.

But that's exactly what the Philistines did. They gave God, this strange God, their afflictions in the hopes that by doing so, He might heal them of these terrible things.

It's a very different approach. They have in their possession this sacred box, essentially, of the glory of the Lord, and as they prepare to send it back to its people, to His people, they want to add their measure to it. Every time Israel added something to the Ark, it was in remembrance of something incredible that God had done. That's how there came to be a jar of manna in there, to remember how God had provided for them in the wilderness. That's how Aaron's staff came to be in there, to remember how God demonstrated His choosing of the tribe of Levi for the priesthood. Israel, and most of us, put into our sacred box those memories we want to share, reminders of those moments of God's goodness and glory, so that when we see them, we say, "Hey God, remember that time when You....? That was awesome."

Hey God, remember that time when You afflicted us with hemorrhoids? Yeah, that was great.

One of these just doesn't seem to fit, and yet, the offerings fit perfectly in the Ark. It held them well. And you know what? God healed them. He did. He healed the Philistines of their afflictions, of their hemorrhoids. He drove out the rats so that their cities were no longer plagued. He heard their cry because they dared raise it to Him, and He answered.

We have a lot to learn from these Philistines. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Strange Offerings

Strange things happen all the time in the Bible. And that is truly good news because strange things happen all the time in life. At least, strange things happen all the time in my life, and I suspect I'm not alone in that.

Most of the strange things that happen in the Bible are God's doing, of course, and this gives us a glimpse into the kind of strange God that we have - a God with a strange sense of humor, a strange sense of hope, a strange sense of wonder. The strangeness of God is invaluable to building a real life of faith, to learning to trust Him and even to love Him. If we are to love God, we must love His kookiness. 

But occasionally, we see something in Scripture that is the strangeness of man, and this is good news, too. It's good news because I think it helps us to see how we ought to handle the strangeness of God. By being, of course, made in His strange image.

One of the stories that truly demonstrates our strangeness comes in 1 Samuel 6. 

The Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant and taken it to one of their own towns, and immediately, their people are afflicted with rats and hemorrhoids. Yes, really. And they think to themselves that they'll just move the Ark to a different town. That way, these afflicted people won't be afflicted any more. But surprise of all surprises, no other town in Philistine territory wants the Ark of the Covenant. They've heard what it did to the first guys. 

So the Philistines devise a plan to get the Ark back to the people of Israel, where it belongs. They build a little cart for it and take some animals to carry it. They set up the animals with the Ark and turn it down the road, telling themselves that if the animals, undriven by human hands, go toward Israelite territory, then they will know that their affliction was truly from the Lord. So of course, the animals head straight toward Israelite territory, and the Philistines know that it was the Lord who afflicted them with these terrible things. 

In preparing the Ark to return to the Israelites, however, at least one of the Philistines says that they need to include with it some gift from their people. They need to put in with the Ark some token of their own atonement, some symbol that they recognize the power of the Lord and that it is on His account that they are returning the thing to where it belongs. 

Now, what precious, wonderful, worthy gift do we give to a God who is not our God? What glorious, valuable treasure do we include with the sacred element of His very Word and mercy? 

Aha! We shall send five golden hemorrhoids! And five golden rats. 

And you probably thought God was more interested in our hearts or something.....

It's not the way that our faith normally works. At least, it's not the way we normally work it. Our inclination is usually to give to God what seem like actual gifts, truly precious, wonderful, worthy, glorious, valuable treasures that complement the sacred element of His Word and mercy.

I wonder what Israel did when they opened the chest and found the "gift." I wonder what the people of God determined to do with such a strange offering. The Bible gives us a few clues, although they're not what you'd probably expect. 

Still, I think that Israel - and Christians today - have a lot to learn from the Philistines and their strange offering. I think we have a lot to learn about our strange selves made in the image of our strange God and what truly pleases Him. 

(Stay tuned.)

Monday, April 23, 2018

For the Love of Money

We are living in a world that solves all of its problems with money. No matter what the trouble is, or who's responsible, it seems that there's nothing that can't be "settled" by a number. 

An engine blew apart on a commercial airplane, shattering a window and killing one passenger; the company gave every passenger on the plane $5,000. Similar stories have been heard from cruise ships when trips have become infected by norovirus or whatever. Here's some cash. Countless lawsuits are settled this way every day, including a recent high-profile case in which young women abused by a man who should have been stopped were paid money by those who should have stopped him and didn't. 

And then we call it even.

Time for a dose of the truth: for all of the money that we throw at them, there's not a single problem in this entire world that can be solved with cash. Not even, ironically, poverty. Despite what we want to tell ourselves and despite the narrative the world is selling us (at rock-bottom cost!), money doesn't fix things

I think this is what Jesus warned us about. We're in love with money.

We're in love with money to the point that it is the root of all of our evils. We do horrible things to one another, fail in our responsibilities to one another, and essentially write it all off because we think that one check will take care of it. Money has cheapened us to the point that nothing we do matters any more because human beings don't matter any more and even we don't matter any more. We're nothing more than numbers and life is a financial transaction.

Then we wonder why our world is broken. We wonder why no one stops the abusive doctor. We wonder why no one stops the bullies. We wonder why no one recalls the tainted food. We wonder why it doesn't matter what we do or who we do it to...or worse, what is done to us or by whom. It all boils down to how much we're willing to take for it, and if the number fits, it's fair game. 

Companies aren't even scared any more. Criminals aren't even scared. Conmen aren't even scared. You know who's scared? It's the rest of us. Because we know that one day, our number is going to come up, something terrible is going to happen to us, and someone's going to offer us a check for it. 

Only then will some of us realize that a check won't cover it. Money doesn't fix things.

It doesn't fix the shame that hundreds of young women now feel when they think about their own bodies, when they realize they're spending another day stuck in their own skin. It doesn't soothe the grief of the family whose young son and barely-known father is dead because no one told him his vehicle was recalled. It doesn't fix the fear that frequent flyers now pack in their carry-on every time they have to step onto another airplane. And it doesn't fix the betrayal that we feel when we realize that another human being has taken advantage of us and tried to buy us out of it. 

The only salve for our relational wounds is community, and community is not a financial investment. Try as you might, you can never buy it. All the money in the world won't hold your wounded soul together. 

As Christians, we have to be a people who stand up and say no more, a people who refuse to be bought and sold. We have to declare that we know the truth, that we know our real value, and that we know  money doesn't fix things.

Only love can do that. 

It takes a far greater investment, but I think that if we would start loving each other the way that Jesus always told us to, the way that our souls ache in longing for, then we would see for real the high cost of the ways that we wound each other. And then, maybe we wouldn't love our money so much.

Because we'd realize that the more money we throw at each other, the more broke we all are.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Burned Bridges

At this point, you're probably wanting to know how the story turns out (if you don't already). You're probably thinking that taking God's path to conflict resolution, engaging relationally the real human beings involved in every situation, and knowing that at the very least, the worst that can happen is that you unfortunately might have to cut someone out of community, that magical, wonderful things then just happen and everything is hunky-dory. 

Well, life doesn't work that way.

Because for every conflict, there are at least two parties. And although one party may take God's road and make every attempt to settle a dispute without sacrificing brotherhood, it still depends equally so upon the other party to have the same interest. If he does not, then there is not a lot that even the God-loving, God-fearing, God-honoring party can do to resolve the conflict well on her own.

So this particular story doesn't end well. It doesn't end with reconciliation or with apologies or even with things ending up right. It ends with bitterness and back-peddling and burned bridges. 

Finally confessing that they were unable, despite having been for two months quite willing (or at least pretending to be), to solve the problem at hand for which I had contracted their services in the first place, the guy with whom I had been engaged for so long over the same situation offered a partial refund of the monies I had paid them for their efforts. I accepted the offer of a refund, but having realized the man must be treated as a tax collector, disagreed with his math. Not by a lot, but just by enough.

We hashed out the details, with him offering far less and me standing firm on a reasonable more until finally, a few weeks after he had called it quits on the project (remember, he is the one who threw in the towel and said he couldn't do it), he called and offered me a check. It came in the amount I had firmly requested, but it also came with a caveat.

It required a signature saying that not only would I never step foot on their premises again, but also that I would not hold them responsible for anything they had done less-than-well or any trouble that resulted for me because of their efforts. 

That was a tough pill to swallow, for two reasons. First, if someone has truly given you their best, then they ought to stand by it, even when it has not accomplished its intended purposes. The fact that he wanted me to sign a document saying I would not hold them responsible if their work had been subpar made me question whether their work, to this point, had actually be subpar. Remember that at this point, I already know I am dealing with a tax collector; is he also a pagan? (See yesterday.) Was he never in my community at all?

Second, it's more than a bit strange that a person who owns his own failure would then push the blame off on me. It is not my fault that he was unable to fix the problem that he should have been able to fix. After all, that is the service that he provides - fixing exactly these sorts of problems. I had respectfully given him every chance to try again until he got it right. I had provided the funding for his efforts. And yet, when it all fell apart, he felt it necessary to banish me

Which probably, for whatever it's worth, had more to do with my treating him like a tax collector than anything else, but Jesus said to. 

But I took the money and signed the paper, and then, he burned the bridge. 

It's just the way it happens sometimes. And I think it's important to say that. Because I don't think there was a better way that I could have handled the conflict. I don't think there was a more God-honoring way that I could have handled it. At the end of the day, I stand on this side of the ashes knowing that I never let the business get in the way of the human, that I never let the transactional overtake the relational, that I inconvenienced myself for the sake of maintaining community, and that I did everything I could to keep this man as my brother. It wasn't enough, but it was all I could do, and I can stand confident in that. 

If I had it to do all over again, I'd do it the same way. In fact, I know that something similar will happen again, and I'll say right now - I'll do it again. Despite the sleepless nights, despite the inconvenience, despite the emotional investment and the long road, this is how I'd do it, how I will do it, again. Because I think it's the way that God wants us to do it. 

Even if it all ends up in ashes. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Pagans and Tax Collectors

As Jesus continues His teaching on conflict resolution in Matthew 18, He eventually comes to how a Christian should handle a situation in which there is no resolution possible: treat the offending party as a pagan and a tax collector. 

It is worth repeating here that Jesus was speaking about those who sin against you, while we have been looking this week at those that simply fail you. But at some point, still, you may come up against someone who fails you and is not willing to make it right or to apologize for getting it wrong. (Note that if someone has failed you and cannot make it right, as in, they are not able to correct the situation, this is entirely different, for you have come into a place of human limitation and not into a corruptness of the heart or spirit.)

The principles that Jesus sets forth here, however, are good for those that refuse to do what they can to remedy the situation or even to apologize for getting it wrong. In the case that sparked this series of blogs, it is helpful also in times when someone has wronged you and attempts to place the onus on you, as though you were the one that failed them or you were the one who got it wrong or what has occurred was somehow your fault, though they were the ones who had been responsible for it all along.

These are two words that we don't use a lot in our daily vernacular any more, although they were common words in Jesus's time. We don't often say "pagans" when referring to those outside of the church, nor do we deal very much with "tax collectors" (except, ironically, that this was tax week in the United States, so there is that). But each of these words has a distinct meaning that still applies to our human interactions today.

Pagans were those outside of the faith. In other words, they were those outside of the community. Jesus, throughout His teaching, makes clear that our obligations to those in the community are quite different than our obligations to those outside the community, even as demonstrated in the passage in question when He speaks about what to do with "a brother" who has sinned against you. "Brother" indicated someone inside the community, a fellow faith-man, a member of the congregation. 

When contracting business or relationship with someone, they are brought inside the community. They become part of who we're doing life with at the time, and they deserve the treatment of a brother. After all, if they were not to be a vital part of our living, we wouldn't be dealing with them at all, and we do have options about where we take our business. So we have chosen them, and they have chosen us by entering in, and we have become community. 

But if they wrong you and refuse to make it right, if they will not apologize for getting it wrong, or even worse, if they try to twist the situation into being your fault and blame you for their own failures, and they will not listen to reason or rebuke, then they are no longer a brother; they have become a pagan. They have become one outside of the community, and we ought to treat them as such. They are no longer in the inner circle, no longer a vital part of our living, no longer one who we are doing life with at the time...or at any time. We cut them out. We don't go back there. Jesus says so. 

Not only do they become pagans, but they also become tax collectors. Tax collectors in the Roman Empire were known for their corruption. They were known for inflating the bills, for skimming off the top, for taking advantage of those who were required to pay taxes to the emperor. They were known for being cheats. 

And this is another valuable principle for dealing with a place of business that won't make it right, that won't apologize, or that blames you and shames you for their own failures - you can, and should, assume that they're cheating you in more ways that one. You should stay on your toes and keep your eyes open, always on the lookout for other things that may not be as they appear to be. And you ought to be prepared to engage in battle with them through negotiation. In other words, you have to be prepared to talk them down into something reasonable and know that you're still probably coming up on the short end.

I hate to say it, I really do, but that's the way that a disreputable place of business operates. That's just how they work. If they set up a wall and refuse to take responsibility for themselves, it's not much of a leap to discover that they have failed in their responsibility in a number of other ways. And you have to be prepared to stand at the table and call them on it. Again, Jesus says so. 

It's not really where any of us want to go. At least, it's not where I want to go. I would much rather deal with a brother in this world than with a pagan or a tax collector (or both!), but the truth is that this broken world sometimes gives us no option but to go this route. Sometimes, it's the best thing we can do - for us and for them.