Monday, April 30, 2018

Over and Over and Over Again

Jesus is quite clear that the Lord is not impressed by long-winded prayer, the kind of prayer that the Pharisees prayed while standing on the street corners and in their places of honor. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the prayer of Hannah, a prayer so passionate that the priest, Eli, mistook her for being drunk. The prayer that Jesus taught His disciples is short and rhythmic, following a precise pattern and hitting on a number of characteristics of God's heart and glory. 

And all of this raises the question: how, then, should we pray? 

It's an age-old question in Christianity. It seems that no matter who you talk to, no matter how they do it, no matter how much confident assurance they have in the Lord, no one (or at least, very few) of us know if we are praying "right." What even is prayer? 

One of the pieces of advice I've heard fairly often is that of all the things you should avoid in prayer, repetition is one of them. You don't get what you want by badgering God about it. You don't get what you want by just saying it over and over again. And, they say, repetition in prayer is one of the ultimate signs that you don't really trust God. If you did, you'd know that you only have to ask once, then trust.

Yet repetition in prayer is one of those things that I find myself doing over and over again. I just can't seem to help myself. But the older I get, the more I pray, and the more I pray the same prayers again and again and again (and often, the same sentences over and over and over), the more I realize that my repetition in prayer is not for God's sake; it's for mine.

I need to hear what it's like for me to trust God. 

I need to hear what it's like for me to tap into that place of deep hope and confident assurance that lies within me. I need to hear what it's like for me to say something that seems completely unfathomable, out loud, and not only want it, but believe it. I need to hear what it's like for me to lay my burdens down, to own them and share them and let them be real, but to also let their answer be just as real. I need to hear myself speak faith. 

And I need to hear it again.

The truth is that when I repeat myself in prayer, it's not because I'm wondering if God heard me. It's not because I'm wanting Him to know how badly I really want something. It's not because I think that if I say it more often, it somehow entitles me to have it. It's purely and wholly because every time I say it, I believe it a little more. I believe God a little more. I feel a little more what it's like to have a God that can even do that and a faith that can even believe it.

And oddly enough, that doesn't end up backing God into a corner. It doesn't hinge my faith on God's answer. It doesn't require that I hear a resounding, cosmic "yes" in order for my belief to have been real, for my God to be good. In fact, it's quite the opposite. This repetition gets my faith and my God so deep into my heart that I can't help but remember who He is, I can't help but know for sure. And this lets me actually let go of the answer, for whatever the answer is, the Lord is the same. 

Sometimes - okay, a lot - I laugh at myself because I know there's all this stuff about how you're not supposed to repeat yourself in prayer, about how you're just "supposed," I guess, to pray once and then leave it alone, let God do His thing. There's something important about letting God do His thing, but in faith, there's something important about doing my thing, too. And my thing, sometimes, is to repeat myself. Over and over and over again, until I feel what faith feels like and remember who He is.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

Throughout the Scriptures, the Lord our God is referred to - and refers to Himself - frequently as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." For Israel, this was a reminder that He was the God of their fathers for many generations, a family treasure passed down from one man to his son to his son to his sons across all time. 

But as I read this phrase last night for the hundred thousandth time, a new understanding of it struck me that expands the notion of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob into something new for those of us who are not biological sons of Israel. 

Abraham was the original patriarch, the first man to form the kind of faith-full relationship with God that would build a whole people. In the New Testament, Hebrews tells us much about Abraham, but focuses on the fact that it was his faith that was counted his righteousness. In other words, he was righteous in God's sight because of the way that he wholeheartedly believed and acted and lived upon that faith.

Isaac was the son that Abraham was set to sacrifice on the top of the mountain, at God's direction. He is the one who walked with his father, carrying unbeknownst the firewood that would burn under his own body, asking innocently along the way what was going to happen once they got there. It's a heartbreaking story, really, even though we know that it ends well for both of them. But we should not let it get past us that Isaac is the one who is saved at the sacrifice of the son, even though he himself is the son. 

Jacob is the favored second son of Isaac, who steals his first-born brother's blessing and becomes a great nation in exile even before he becomes a father himself. He wrestles with God on the banks of the Jabbok River and is renamed Israel, the nearest patriarch of the chosen people of God. For the rest of the history of the people of God, Israel plays a pivotal role in all that He does, by nature of their special chosenness. 

These are the men that God routinely identifies Himself as the God of, and to Israel, they were the true fathers of the faith. 

But they are our fathers, too. (And it is Hebrews, I believe, that also says this, at least about Abraham.)

Abraham is the father of all those who live by faith, who are accounted on their righteousness because of the way that they wholeheartedly believe, and how they live and act on that faith. 

Isaac is the father of all those who are saved at the sacrifice of the Son. As Jesus hung on the Cross, He imparted to us this saving grace, and we all, by this act, become sons of Isaac. 

Jacob is the father of all those who wrestle with God and are chosen by Him, those who have special favor in the Lord's sight by His calling of them by name. 

We may not be Israelites by biology, may not be descendants by blood of these great fathers, but they are our fathers, indeed, and we, their children - the children of God. 

The children of the very God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Holy Strangeness

When we first looked at this story a couple of days ago, we said that our God is a strange God. And this strangeness of God goes far beyond the fact that He actually heard and responded to an offering of hemorrhoids. 

It extends even to what He apparently expected of them.

To understand what's going on here, we have to look at what happens when the Ark of the Covenant, which carried the strange offerings, arrives back in the land of the Israelites. It comes to this little town on the outskirts of God's people, and they, of course, rejoice. Then, they opened the Ark. 

They probably opened the Ark to make sure that the things that were supposed to be inside of it were still inside of it and to make sure that nothing inside of it had been damaged. After all, they had already lost one set of tablets that the Lord had written on; it would be no good at all if the second set were stolen or broken in captivity. So they open the sacred box and discover that all is well, but they also find inside the gifts of the Philistines - five golden hemorrhoids and five golden rats. They pull out the molten gold offerings and place them on a rock as part of their celebration and sacrifice.

And then God smote them all.

He smote them because they had looked in the Ark at all, even with noble purposes, for the Ark was holy and off-limits to them. Remember that at one point in Israel's story, a man charged with actually carrying the Ark reached out his hand to steady it when it hits a rough patch and starts to turn, and he, too, is smitten by the Lord. Rule number one in Israel, in terms of faithfulness, is: you don't touch the Ark. For any reason.

These men had touched it, so they died. Right there.

This raises two interesting questions. First, why had God not smote the Philistines for opening the Ark? They would have had to open the sacred box to put their strange offerings inside, but we don't hear about them having been smitten; we hear about them having been healed.

Quite simply, the Philistines were not under the same law as Israel. The sacred box, though it was holy, was not holy for them. They, being outsiders, made holy their offerings by placing them inside. Insiders would have contaminated the holiness by letting it out. It's the mystery of God that resides within that is part of what is holy for Israel.

The second question is perhaps even more interesting, however. What if the people of Israel had followed the rules of their own faith and not opened the Ark? They would not have found the strange offerings, which means they would not have had an opportunity to pull them out. And this means that the strange offerings would have dwelt permanently in the Ark, along with the two tablets of stone, the jar of manna, and Aaron's blossoming staff. How incredibly weird to think that the most sacred element of all Israel's worship would forever contain five gold hemorrhoids!

And apparently, that would have been the way that God wanted it. Which makes this God of ours incredibly strange.

Here's what happened: when the foreigners placed their offerings in the Ark, they became holy. They don't become unholy just because they are removed; once holy, always holy. And what a powerful testimony it becomes to all Israel, to all the world, if the offerings of a people who are not the Lord's have become holy because they have offered them to Him. What a testimony that the Philistines, long-time enemies of Israel, had this moment where they recognized the power and holiness of their Lord, enough to offer Him gifts, even strange ones.

What a testimony to the amazing strangeness and wonderful goodness of this Lord that He somehow made even hemorrhoids holy.

Again, it's not what we expect. We expect "clean" things. Pretty things. Nice things. We expect God to clean up the messes of this world, not to somehow make them holy. But that's exactly what He does. It's what He's always done. He's always taken our unspeakable things and somehow made them a holy part of His testimony.

But only when we dare offer them.

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. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Winning a Brother Back

Recognizing that there is no such thing in this world as a business transaction - every interaction that we have is a relational one, involving a human being at some point - we have to look for wisdom not at what Jesus said to do with the world, but at how He said to engage human beings. 

Here, one of the passages that jumps immediately out is Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus talks about confronting a brother who has sinned against you. There are some fundamental differences between mere disputes or dissatisfactions and actual sins; it would not be fair to say that a person who falls short of what he has promised, unintentionally, has sinned against you. Rather, he has only erred. He has only shown his human weakness.

It's an important line to draw, especially in a world that's growing more entitled every day. We think we have the right for others never to fail us, for everything to be perfect, for us to always get exactly what we expect and often, even more than that, and that any failure by anyone to give us this is clearly a sin. At the very least, it's personal. At the very, very least, it's intentional. After all, those who serve us ought to know how to do their jobs. They ought to be the experts at whatever it is we're paying them to do. If they fail, they meant to, and doesn't this make it a sin against us?

No. A million times no. That's why we have to start with recognizing the real human beings at the heart of any interaction, including our business dealings. That's why we, as Christians, have to stand against the tide and stop pretending we are entitled to this or that or the other, especially when we are prone to presume we are entitled because we have paid money for it. We, as Christians, have to be the first ones to get over ourselves so that we can get on to loving others the way that Jesus has called us to love them.

It's not a sin. It's a mistake, maybe. A weakness, perhaps. An area of oversight or a novel problem that requires something beyond training. But it's not a sin. 

Still, the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 offer some helpful guidance for beginning to engage these situations. Most important of them all is the way that He requires us to begin with our brother, with one person who is directly involved in the situation at hand.

In an age of social media and online reviews and television news "investigative teams" and all of the other ways that we have to quickly ruin a reputation, we seem to have forgotten this. We seem to have forgotten how to attempt to solve our disputes personally. We take to the masses almost immediately and draw someone else through the mud, all the while claiming the high road because we are somehow "right" about it all when really, we are only acting entitled. (See above.) 

Most of the time, it's our fear that gets us. Or our powerlessness. We sense, in our entitlement, that the big, bad business is playing a game with us, using the strength of its force to crush the little guy, and so it seems only natural to us to take to social media, to news teams, to the masses, to whoever or whatever can get power back on our side so that we don't feel so small. 

Jesus says, start small. Start with the person. Start with your brother. Start with the human being and see if there's not a way that the two of you, as human beings, can figure out to resolve this. And if the human being agrees that something wrong has been done and is willing to attempt to remedy the situation, then what has happened here is a beautiful thing. It is endowed with dignity. This is the way to go.

It's also how I got myself onto the long road, taking two months to resolve a problem. Because every time, I started with the man. I started with the human being. I started with a phone call or a drop into the office to say, hey, something's still not right here. Do you want to try again? And every time, he said yes, he wanted to try again. He wanted to make this right. And every time, we had a chance to talk more, to become more real to one another - not just as customer and company, but as two human beings who actually shared a lot of the same ideas. 

People said I was crazy. Foolish. Stupid. That I was doing this the hard way, and all it would take was one good strategic move to swing this whole situation back my way and end it once and for all. But I had a brother here. And the more that I engaged this man one-on-one, addressing the problem as two human beings just trying to find a way through, the more I recognized him as my brother. 

And you never know, you might just win a brother back.

That, Jesus says, is the point of it all. Not getting your money back. Not getting your due. Not getting what you paid for or what you expected or what you feel entitled to. Not obtaining the proper service or receiving the proper good, but extending grace and doing good and winning your brother back. Because at the heart of it all, even on opposite sides of the cash register, are the hearts of men.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Long Road

If the conflicts that we find ourselves engaged in are not truly business conflicts, but human ones, then that necessarily changes the way that we must handle them. Specifically, it requires that we take the long road.

Business dealings are easy. Transactional realities are easy. It's the short road. If the service, product, offering, whatever does not live up to your standards in some way, then you simply take your business elsewhere. Sometimes, you demand that you be given your money back first, so that you are able to invest it in actually receiving what you thought you were getting in the first place or whatever seems to suit your need better than what you weren't satisfied with, but there's not a lot to it. You just cut and run.

You can't cut and run when the trouble is human, when you see beyond the transactional and recognize what is relational in the situation at hand. Because even when they are employed by an organization, by a business, humans are not business-wired. There's something in us that makes it personal, no matter how hard we try not to.

In this case, that meant sticking with it. Sticking with him. Sticking, actually, with them, because there were actually two human beings deeply involved in the situation from the other side of it. And they were invested. 

So we had to take the long road.

We had to take the long road that said that as long as these two men were willing to continue working at it, as long as they asked for the opportunity to make it right, as long as they were showing due diligence in taking new steps and trying again, then I needed to give them that opportunity. It was ridiculously inconvenient. It took a huge emotional investment from me. It required a major sacrifice on my part, one that was eating away slowly at whatever good measure of heart I had left...particularly as it dragged into its second month. Yes, that's right - the long road took more than two full months when the best road should have taken just a few days.

It took two full months and a good bit of forgiveness, too, for there were mistakes made along the way. Mistakes that, really, should not have been made, but remember - we're talking about human beings here, not businesses. We're talking about actual men made in the image of God and fallen, no longer perfect but still sacred. We're talking about judgment calls and communication errors and all the other little things that plague us all.

And I have to be honest and say that there were not a lot of persons in my world who could understand why I was sticking with them after even two weeks, let alone after two months. All I can say to that is that I knew what it would feel like if I didn't.

Imagine that you're working on a project, a project that is such a passion for you that it's more of an art than a science, even though you know that the recipient of that art expects more of a science. To them, it seems cut-and-dried; to you, it's the building of a masterpiece. And suppose that you do your very best to make sure that every single detail is perfectly right, just the way that you want it, just the way that it seems, to your trained eye, that it ought to be. And then suppose the recipient isn't satisfied. It's not at all what they wanted, not what they expected, not what they thought they commissioned from you.

Now, imagine that the person who received your piece of art doesn't give you the chance to rework it. They just take it and tell you they're going somewhere else with it. They're going to get someone else to "do it right." You're crushed, as you should be. This was your art, and not only was it rejected, but it's about to be taken away from your hand and given into someone else's. That hurts.

Worse yet, imagine that you make things for a living, that you specialize in making things that perform certain functions. And you work very hard to make sure that your final product does what it is supposed to do, but your client calls you back and says it doesn't work. At all. Not a single bit. And then, instead of letting you fix it, instead of letting you try again, instead of letting you even inspect your work to find your error so that maybe you don't make the same mistake the next time, they just take it away and take it to a maker down the street who can "do it right." You're not only crushed; you're discouraged. Now, you're questioning your entire skill. You're questioning your entire work and your ability to do it. 

The hearts of the makers in our world, the hearts of our artists - even if they work in factories - don't sound like business dealings to me. They sound like human ones. 

Because you're not just telling a business that they didn't do a good job. You're not just telling an organization that they failed you. You're not just swapping money back and forth, from one hand to another, and asking for it back because you're disappointed. You're doing the disappointing. You're telling a man or a woman that they failed, that they didn't do their job, that they didn't live up to your expectations. You're not just leaving a Yelp review; you're etching a performance review on the heart of the artist at work, and that's serious stuff. 

And if you think it's not, think about the last time someone said you weren't good at your job. I'm willing to bet that no matter what your job is, it felt personal. Right? 

It's always personal. There is no such thing in our world as business transaction; it's all personal. At the end of every line, somewhere, there is a real human being whose real human heart is at stake. 

That's why we have to take the long road, even if it's not the easy one. It's why we take the long road, even when it's not the convenient one. It's why we take the long road, even if it takes two months. Because if the human being on the other end of the deal wants a chance to make it right, or a second chance, or a third chance, or a fifteenth chance, we need to give it to him. Lest we risk branding the heart of the maker forever with a single moment of failure.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Conflict Resolution

Recently, I found myself entangled in a drawn-out battle with a local place of business, where I was working directly with one man to address a problem that I had encountered, and this man ensured me that he was on my side and that we were working together toward the same goal.

Let's just say it didn't quite turn out that way. 

What should have taken a couple of days, perhaps a full week depending on how it went, turned into a two-month, six-encounter, tense situation in which not only was the problem not being taken care of, but the two of us who had shared a number of light-hearted, laughter-filled conversations and good-natured back-and-forths were coming to dread the moment that either one of us called the other - him knowing that I was going to push again for resolution and me knowing that he was not making any actual progress on the issue at hand. 

And I documented some of my frustration with the process on Facebook, although I was careful not to make it personal. Nearly everyone who knew what was going on was sharing the frustration that I was feeling (I think), and a number of possible solutions continued to come up. 

A number of persons, for example, said that I needed to get local news crews involved. Rat this place of business out to the media and let the negative publicity handle my dilemma for me. They even knew which local news crew I should call, exactly which one, and even told me how a specific person on that news crew would be my best ally in all this. And that's a popular way these days for the world to handle their conflicts, but it was not the most God-honoring way to do it. For two reasons, actually.

First, it's a power play. It's an attempt to use muscle and force and worst of all, shame, to get someone else to do what we want them to do or what we think we deserve for them to do (which, by the way, is entitlement, as though this world owes us anything at all), and our God is a God of humility. To engage in the power play is to act in direct contradiction to the quiet, calm, and humble spirit that God has called us to have even when we are being wronged. Love your enemies, and pray for those who spitefully use you.

Second, when you try to tell someone else's story - in this case, the business's - you also tell a part of your own. If I were to go to the local news crews, it wouldn't be the place of business that centered in the story; it would be me. And what would I be saying about my God? That He permits me to feel entitled? That He permits me to drag others through the mud? That He permits me to whine and complain and take to the public forum to settle my dealings in the world? That's not what God asks of us, nor does He permit it, and I knew that if I went public, there would be those who would not see a Christian trying to honestly settle a legitimate dispute, but another entitled, whining, perhaps even "holier-than-thou" woman claiming God but not living Him. Because, friends, even though the world says sometimes it's necessary to "out" someone as loudly as you can, it's always ugly. God doesn't do ugly.

Then there were those who recommended lawyers. What I needed was a good lawyer who could go after this business for me and, if not fix the problem, at least get me every penny of my money back, money that I had invested in trying to acquire the service that I thought would solve my initial problem but had now only created more. Or if not a lawyer, then at least business-overseeing organizations. Yes, I should file formal complaints! Let the powers that be do my fighting for me. After all, this was a business dealing, and business dealings must be dealt with as business transactions. 

For the record, I briefly considered it. It makes all the sense in the world that when dealing with a business that doesn't seem to be doing its legitimate duty by you, you need an ally who speaks business. You have to make it transactional. Of course it makes all the sense in the world. 

But I don't belong to this world. 

At the heart of the whole thing, for me, it wasn't transactional; it was relational. Yes, I was dealing with a business, but I was interacting with a human being - a very real human being with a very real human life and a very real human spirit and very real human failings. It was a human being I had had interactions with in the past, at the very same business, and had not had problems with. The problem we now faced was an anomaly, given the other situations we had successfully navigated together. I trusted the guy, and I even liked the guy (still do). 

And when you're dealing with human beings, it's even more important to get the Christian spirit right. It's even more important to get the love of God right. It's even more important to get humility right. Because human relationships are never transactional. Never. 

They're always sacred. 

Even when they're difficult. 

(Stay tuned.)

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Prayer and a Song

Hannah prayed a powerful prayer in 1 Samuel 1, a prayer so earnest and so raw that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk. And this is a beautiful portrait of what a heart of prayer looks like. But Hannah also prays a beautiful prayer in 1 Samuel 2, and this one...this one is interesting.

This prayer is not a prayer of an aching heart, but of a longing fulfilled. It is not a prayer of wanting, but of worshiping. It is not a prayer of sadness, but of celebration. It takes an entirely different tone than the first prayer that we see Hannah praying. And it sets up an incredibly beautiful parallel in the Scriptures. 

For Hannah's second prayer sounds very much like Mary's song.

For this, we need look no further than the opening words: My heart finds joy in the Lord. My head is lifted to the Lord. Fast forward, then, to Luke 1: My soul praises the Lord's greatness. My spirit finds its joy in God, my Savior.

The words are only slightly different, and the structure is essentially the very same. Each woman begins with an inner wellspring of joy and exultation, notes the Lord's intervention in her own life, recalls His power and the way He historically has smitten His enemies and defended His own name, and ends with praise and glory. 

Once you see the connection between the two, you cannot un-see it. Once you read the opening lines of Hannah's prayer and hear Mary's heart leap in song, you cannot deny it. Once you hear Mary sing and remember Hannah's praise, you cannot turn back. These are two women whose stories are intimately connected.

As they should be. Just look at the number of similarities between their lives, between what God is doing through each of them. 

Hannah is a barren woman who has given birth to a child that she has set apart for the Lord; Mary is a virgin pregnant with a child who will be set apart for the Lord. Both of these women have become vessels for God's glory, and they know it.

Hannah's son, Samuel, breaks the precedent in Israel that only Levites may be priests. He is set apart and sanctified, given to Eli for service in the Temple, even though he is from the tribe of Ephraim. And he becomes not just a priest, but the priest after Eli's sons commit sin before the Lord and prove themselves not only unfaithful, but unworthy. 

Jesus, too, breaks the precedent for priesthood and becomes not just the priest, but the high priest for all of us. Neither is He a Levite, nor even a man from Ephraim; Jesus is from Judah, which has historically been the tribe of kingship (David was from Judah, which means David's line was from Judah). 

Hannah's son, Samuel, is committed to the tabernacle service and set apart as a Nazirite. Jesus was a man from Nazarene. 

Hannah was shown special favor by her husband, Elkanah. Joseph did a special favor indeed to Mary by not quietly divorcing her, as he had planned. 

Both women were visited by an angel, foretelling the birth of each of their sons and giving instructions for his upbringing and care.

The more you dig into it, the more you find in their stories that parallel. And this is not an accident. It's the kind of thing that God does all the time. 

What's interesting here is that He does it through women, which is not where we often look for it. We are used to seeing these kinds of things in the stories of men. John the Baptist and Elijah, for example. Or Jesus and David. Or Jesus and Isaiah. Or Jesus and Adam. Or David and Solomon. Or whoever. But it's not very often that we look for it in the stories of biblical women. 

After all, they're just "bit characters," right? Nothing important happening here.... 

Something incredibly beautiful happening here.

My heart finds joy in the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Paradox of Prayer

As with so many things that are central to the Christian faith, the power of prayer is paradoxical. A paradox, of course, is a situation in which two things are true that do not appear as though they could both be the case, especially not at the same time. And the paradox is one of the hallmarks of our God, who declared, among other things, that the last shall be first, the weak shall be strong, and that wisdom shall be foolishness.

The power of prayer by which a woman like Hannah prays and finds only her heart changed would not be a paradox, nor would the peace that she experiences be paradoxical by itself. So there is a very real element to the power of prayer that is not wrapped in a seeming contradiction, and we should not ignore or dismiss this vital truth. But neither should we miss the paradox inherent in Christian prayer that makes it wholly unlike anything we could ever come up with:

It is only by faith that we can pour out our empty hearts and find them full again.

If that's not a paradox, then I don't know what is. Take anything else in all this world, anything else you like, and make it empty. Now, try to pour it out. You can't; it's already empty. Now, tip it upright again. Is it full? Of course not. Take a cup, your favorite coffee mug, perhaps. Take it empty and turn it upside-down. Nothing comes out. Now, turn it upright...and drink from it. Oh, you can't? There's nothing in it?

This is the paradox of prayer.

Hannah comes before the Lord with an empty heart. An empty womb. An empty house. An empty life. Everything about her screams "empty," and she doesn't feel like she has anything really to bring except for her empty self. She falls to her knees, humbles herself before God, pours out her emptiness at His altar...and walks away full.

The same is true of any number of pray-ers in the Scriptures. Follow along with a number of the psalms, and you will see the psalmist begin in emptiness and somehow end at fullness. Keep watch with Jesus in the Garden, and you will see that He begins with no strength and ends up with strength, by sheer virtue of having poured out what He didn't have in order to walk away with the very same. It's crazy. This is not the way the world works.

But it is the way that God works.

Not just in prayer. If you're stuck on how this happens, if you can't fathom how this possibly works, if you're wondering if you might even still be a little drunk on this point, too, consider this: the God who fills an emptiness poured out is the same God who crafted the universe out of the formless and void. The God who holds the paradox of prayer is the same God who poured an empty vat full of wine that didn't even exist until it was poured out. The God who answered Hannah is the same God who took a tiny shepherd boy with nothing to offer and made him a mighty king, a young virgin girl and made her the mother of Christ.

God often starts with empty vessels, empty spaces, empty hearts, and He does this most amazing thing in making them full. But we have to pour them out first.

Which doesn't seem possible, but always is necessary.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Christian Confessional

Let's get something straight - as Christians, we are not immune from the same kind of thinking that the world has about prayer (or about any number of other spiritual disciplines, for that matter). We are just as aware as anyone else that it doesn't seem like our circumstances have changed. We are just as aware as anyone else that our lives after prayer are often extremely similar to our lives before prayer. 

And honestly, we're asking ourselves the same questions. Most of us, if we're being real about it, have asked ourselves (or even still ask ourselves), are we drunk? 

Are we just lying to ourselves to feel better about things? Are we holding onto something hollow, hoping not to hear the echo of our souls in it? Are we pretending in the face of all objective evidence to the contrary that something is different? 

Is this for real?

Because there's something about being human in today's culture that cautions us against faith. It just does. That hasn't always been the case; in the pre-modern world, faith was a given. It was natural to simply believe that God was up to something and to live one's life on the basis of what one could know, or even suspect, about God. The modern era changed that, demanding evidence for things both seen and unseen. The postmodern era has changed it even further, insisting that everything we do is driven by our own experience or feelings. Which means that those of us who experience the power of prayer today are naturally conditioned by our culture to question it, recognizing how subjective the "feeling" of peace is. 

I'm not saying that these things are noble. Or that they're not. Or that they are Christian things or that they are not. Or that God honors them or that He doesn't. All I'm saying is that this is a reality of being a Christian in a postmodern world: we question even what we know. 

There are a lot of things I'm not saying about this, but I am saying one thing, and hear me on this: That's okay. If you're a Christian and you find yourself questioning sometimes whether this whole thing is real, whether you're lying to yourself, whether you're fooling yourself, whether it's you just telling yourself the things you know you want to or need to hear...if you're a Christian sometimes wondering, right along with the world, whether you're drunk, it's okay. 

It doesn't make you less of a Christian. It doesn't make you less of a believer. It doesn't mean your faith is somehow weaker than someone who never seems to have any questions of the sort. (And let's be honest - someone who doesn't seem to have these questions is either living blindly in denial or has skeletons of doubt in their closet that they aren't willing to let out. There may be exceptions to this, but they are rare.) In fact, however, I think that a faith that does question itself, one that continues to ask the big questions, one that seeks affirmation again and again and again and is constantly seeking to know whether it is a human voice speaking or a holy one...this is the faith that ends up the strongest. 

Because this life is full of questions, and if we don't practice asking them, they will knock us off course. If we're not comfortable digging deeper into the unknown, we're never going to get any closer to God than we are right now. It is only by asking, by reflecting, by yearning, by desperately wanting something more than we could ever give ourselves that we come to faith. And a faith that has to choose again and again and again and again to believe there is a God and He is everything He says He is is a faith that is ultimately stronger. 

Let's not pretend that once upon a time, we confessed our belief, prayed a prayer inviting Jesus into our hearts, were baptized, and went on and never doubted. The truth is that the best among us, all the way back to Thomas Didymus, have wondered at one time or another whether or not we're just drunk. 

And then Jesus pours us a drink at His table...and that's how we know. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Foolishness of Faith

If Hannah was no longer sad simply from the act of praying, then isn't it true what Karl Marx (I think it was Karl Marx) once said - that religion is simply the opiate of the people? Isn't it true for what the world mocks us - that we are simply fooling ourselves, and dumb enough to fall for it? 

After all, nothing had changed in Hannah's life. Nothing real, anyway. She was still as barren as she'd been a mere five minutes before. She was still a wife, and Peninnah still a mother. She was still empty - she felt it and she knew it, but she convinced herself by her mere belief in prayer that she was actually full, though no new life leap't inside of her. 

The wisdom of the world says it takes quite a fool to just believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The wisdom of the world says it's a weakness, perhaps even a fatal one, to be changed by what has not seemed to change anything at all. The wisdom of the world says this...this is the very problem with Christianity: it bears no fruit but convinces us all that we've got juice dribbling down our chins. 

Make no mistake - the world is watching, just the same as the priest watched Hannah. And they're coming to much the same conclusion:

Are you drunk?

And we tell them, no, we are not drunk. We are blessed. We are beloved. We are forgiven. We are saved. We are beneficiaries of a tremendous grace, recipients of a gift we never could have merited. We are products of mercy and children of the one true God. And this pretty much confirms it for them:

We're drunk.

Or in some amazing form of denial that, honestly, the world kind of envies, even though they know they'd just be lying to themselves. 

But the world is not unfamiliar with this kind of shift, with the way that the heart sometimes just...takes over and convinces us of things for which we have no "evidence." Take, for example, the sudden peace that someone has when coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis. It is not uncommon to hear of a moment when the whole heart just shifts and is suddenly at peace about living and dying. 

Or think about a dream that's finally becoming a reality, that moment when the hard work doesn't seem so hard any more because you know, you just know, that it's going to succeed. Maybe it's the first coat of paint on the storefront or the first benchmark of money from investors or the first time you see the boxes for shipping or the first customer walks in the door. Whatever it is, there is a moment when the dream becomes a reality and the hope becomes a life and you feel it in your heart. It 

We do not say this is foolishness, even though nothing here has changed, either. The cancer is not gone; it is simply accepted. The hard work of living the dream is still hard work; there's just a new energy behind it that seems to lessen the load. The truth is that the cancer patient, the dreamer - they have to do the same things today that they were doing yesterday; all that has truly changed is the position of their heart. 

The same is true for the pray-er. 

Our lives don't have to change for our hearts to change.

That's what happened to Hannah. It's not that her life suddenly changed just because she prayed; it's that her heart shifted. It came around to line up with the living faith that she possessed. It was the moment in which she settled into her peace, settled into His presence, and in a breath, it washed over her. This is good.

Foolishness? Hardly. Are you drunk? Not at all. Are you sure? Pretty sure. 

Just call me "blessed."

Monday, April 9, 2018

Power of Prayer

One of the most earnest prayers prayed in all of Scripture (not counting, of course, the prayer so earnest that Jesus's sweat turned to blood) is that prayed by Hannah at the yearly feast of worship at Shiloh. (You can find this prayer in 1 Samuel 1.)

Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah, and she was the more loved of the two. But it was the other wife, Peninnah, who had been able to bear children and had thus given Elkanah all of his heirs, at least up to this point. As barrenness always has, this deeply troubled Hannah, who wanted nothing more than to bear a child for this man that she loved - and who loved her. 

At the annual feast, Peninnah was mocking Hannah once more, making fun of her the way that she always had, the way that insecurities tend to make us do. She knew she was the lesser-loved wife, but at least she had given him children. The love he had for Hannah must have been pity-love. Yes, that must be it. What a waste of a woman, barren as she was, so Elkanah had no choice but to pretend to love her. Make no mistake - Hannah was a wife, but Peninnah was a mother, and she never let Hannah forget it. 

So here is Hannah at the feast of great joy and worship, tears of absolute sadness streaming down her face. She was crushed...again...or maybe still. It was the one thing she wanted more than anything in the world, to have a child. It was the one thing it seemed she could not have. And every breath that Peninnah took only pushed Hannah's grief deeper into her very soul.

Thus, we find Hannah praying fervently before the Lord. From the depths of her very being, she pours out this prayer so earnest, so full of emotion, so full of her heart that the priest, Eli, mistakes her for being drunk. Her mouth is moving, but she speaks no words out loud. Her heart is stirring, but she makes no motion of it. She is just pouring herself out before God, a pure sacrifice at the yearly feast. 

The exchange between Hannah and Eli is an interesting one, and it's worth engaging, though it is not particularly important to our discussion here. He accuses her of being drunk, telling her to go home and to never come before the Lord again in such an altered state. She explains that she is not in an altered state, but an altared one - her heart is deeply troubled, her soul crushed. Then, Eli blesses her and speaks over her a benediction, that the Lord would give her whatever it is that her heart has prayed for. 

But what's beautiful is what happens next. Having finished her prayer and her conversation with the priest, Hannah rises to go on her way. And the Scriptures tell us, she wasn't sad any more (1 Samuel 1:18).

Don't read right past this. Pause here and think about what's happened. Think about what's going on. 

Hannah's not pregnant. Nothing in her situation has changed. She is still a wife, and Peninnah is still a mother. No angel of the Lord has appeared to her, as had and will appear to so many other barren women, promising her a child. Her womb did not leap. We have no record of her "feeling" like things had changed or even believing that the next time she laid with her husband, she would conceive. Even the priest has not blessed her future child, but only acknowledged her prayer - non-specifically; he doesn't know what she has prayed for.

In other words, Hannah came to the Lord in deep sadness and walks away with no sadness and the only thing that has happened at this point is that she prayed. 

Let that sink in. Hannah, deeply troubled, prayed, and she was no longer deeply troubled. Not because her circumstances had changed. Not because some promise had come. Not because an angel whispered in her ear. Simply because she prayed. 

That right there is the power of prayer.

Friday, April 6, 2018

For and Against

At one point in the Gospels, the disciples come and tell Jesus that they found a man who was casting out demons and doing all kinds of amazing things in His name, but that they stopped him because he was not one of the disciples. That is, he wasn't in the inner circle. And Jesus told them, "Don't stop him. Whoever is not against us is for us." (Mark 9, Luke 9)

This would seem to say that Christ was only concerned about those who were vocally or actively against what He was doing, that anyone who was not staunchly opposed to His work was no problem for it.

But then, at another point in the Gospels, the Pharisees begin talking about how Jesus must get His power from the Devil himself, casting out demons by the power of the head demon. When Jesus responds to them, He says, in part, "Whoever is not with me is against me." (Matthew 12)

And all of a sudden...what?

If you are not against Him, you are for Him, but if you are not with Him, you are against Him. That gets a little thick to wade through.

What we cannot say to ease the tension between these two statements is that they were spoken in two very different contexts and so, each is true according only to the situation in which Jesus spoke it. We cannot say this because it introduces both a circumstantial element to God's nature and a contradictory element to His character, neither of which can be true if God is, in fact, God. That is, the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever cannot be changed by circumstances and cannot contradict Himself. 

Yet we have to say something, don't we? 

These statements, when taken in their respective contexts, are actually increasing depths of the same statement, not contradictory ideas. They build on one another and draw us closer to the Christ, but only if we see what was actually going on here.

In the first statement, a man is using Jesus's name to cast out demons, even though he is not part of the formal discipleship. In other words, the disciples don't recognize him. Who even is this guy? But Jesus says not to stop him because whoever is not against Him is for Him. 

What's really happening here is that Jesus recognizes that the man is using the name of Christ to do a rather Christ-ly work. He is not misusing the name of Jesus, and so every demon that he casts out is a call for the people to come to know more about the name by which the demons were cast out. What this man is doing is creating a pathway to Christ, not one that leads away from Him, and this can only be a good thing. This can only be done for Him, for it leads to and not away. Thus, even though the man is not one of the disciples, he is not against them and he is not working against them. He is actually working for them, even if he doesn't know it. Persons will come to Christ because of this man.

And yet, there is another very real truth at play, as well, and that is reflected in the second statement of Jesus - whoever is not with me is against me. Anything that does not come from an intimate fellowship/relationship with Christ is something dramatically lesser. Only what comes directly from Him is the fullness of itself; everything else is less. 

So if we take this back into the context of the man who was casting out demons, Jesus recognizes that although this man's actions may help to pave the road toward Christ, not everyone will walk it. Some will be satisfied with just hearing the name, with just having the demons cast out, with witnessing the man and not the Man of God. And in this sense, the man who is for Him because he is not against Him is also against Him because he is not with Him. 

Put it into the context of the Pharisees, who are the real target of Jesus's words (rather than the devil). 
To their own minds, they are doing nothing wrong by not being Jesus believers. They are trying to keep the religion pure, trying to keep the people on track, trying to keep the Jews faithful. They are doing all of the "right" things, and in their minds, this makes them friends of the Kingdom of God, not enemies of it. But they are not "with" Jesus. Not by a long stretch. And Jesus here says plainly, "If you are not with me, you are against me." In other words, if you are not on board with the Messiah, you are against the Kingdom of God, the very thing the Pharisees believed they were most "for." This is the second statement. 

But the truth goes even deeper, back to the first statement. They are clearly against Him. They are blazing a path away from Him and making it really easy for others to follow them down that road. At every turn, they question and refute what He tries to teach. There is no universe in which you could say they are for Him, for they are clearly against Him. 

These two passages, though they seem contradictory to us, are nothing of the sort. They are complementary. They build on one another, no matter which side of them you fall on. Sometimes, we are not against Jesus and may even be cutting a path toward Him, but if the world is content to stop short and never truly encounter Him, we are fundamentally against what He is doing. If we never actually take the world down that road, they never meet Him, and we have done detriment to His work. Though we were for Him, we were against Him. 

Or maybe we think we've got it right and don't need Jesus. Maybe we aren't Christian, but we still have an interest in "holy" things. We claim that you have God without the Christ or even that you can have the Christ without the Cross, and in this, we are not with Him. It doesn't take long from here before we are blazing a path away from Jesus and inviting others to follow. Because we are not with Him, we cannot be for Him. We are against Him, through and through. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Simon the Magician

Thus far, we have spent the week looking at Simon Peter - the bold, impetuous, speak-without-thinking, tender-hearted disciple-turned-apostle born Simon but named Peter by Jesus Himself. But as we saw on Monday, there were a number of Simons in the New Testament, one of whom is Simon the Magician. So this is not a story about Simon Peter, per se.

Except, of course, that it is.

The story comes in Acts 8. Stephen has just been executed, and the disciples fanned out once more throughout the region to preach the good news about Jesus. Philip found himself in a region of Samaria - yes, that Samaria. While there, he not only spoke the good news, but lived it. Many miracles were done, demons were cast out, people were healed, and even the Samarians came to Christ. Even Simon the Magician came to Christ. 

Sort of.

Prior to Philip's arrival, Simon had been the guy in town. The magic that he worked by his own hand had the people rapt. They were in awe of his abilities. He was the one who was doing all of the unbelievable things. He was the one who could get it done. Think about the magicians in Pharaoh's court, way back in Egypt before the Exodus. Whatever God had done through Moses and Aaron, for awhile the magicians were able to also do through their magic. That's the kind of illusion that we're talking about with Simon in Samaria. 

Because of Philip's preaching, teaching, healing, and loving, a large number of Samaritans were coming to believe in more than magic. They were starting to understand the power of the resurrected Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And when the disciples heard about the success that Philip was having, they sent Peter and John to Samaria to join in the prayers over the new believers. 

When they arrived from Jerusalem, Simon the Magician knew that this was his moment. He boldly came to Peter and John (yes, "Peter" - this is extremely important) and offered them money if they would give him the gift of the Holy Spirit that enabled them to do all the things he was doing by his own hand...and more. In other words, he wanted God to increase his capacity for magic, for the sole purpose that Simon could do even more amazing things among the people of Samaria and wrap them tighter around his own finger. 

It is Peter who answers him. Some translations say that Peter rebuked him. 

Read that again - at the outset of ministry, as amazing things are starting to happen through the Holy Spirit, when God's Word starts to come alive outside of Jerusalem and the church, the very church that Christ said He would build through Peter, starts to take root...Peter rebukes Simon. 

This is no accident. In fact, it's exactly the kind of thing that God would do. Isn't it? It's beautiful.

It's because Simon has in his head all these grand ideas about himself, but Peter has in heart all these grand ideas about God. And this is the moment, the turning point in all of it when Peter, too, could think of his own greatness. When Peter could ponder what "he" was doing throughout the region. When Peter could start to witness success in the fledgling church and maybe even think that he had something to do with it. But that would be such a Simon thing to do, wouldn't it? That would be the kind of impetuous, speak-without-thinking, turned-inward-to-his-own-heart Simon thing to do, and God loves Simon, but He does not want to lose Peter.

So He calls him to Samaria, where it is Philip who has done the work and Simon who wants the glory and here, Peter speaks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Back to Basics

So how does it come to be that Jesus, who boldly proclaimed over Simon a new name, Peter, and declared him to be the foundation of the church and James, who heard this proclamation and called the man Peter along with the rest of the disciples, at times revert him to his former name, to calling him Simon in some of the most tender and powerful moments of the age of the resurrection, the very age when the church ought to be being established - the very thing Peter was so named for?

Quite simply, these moments did not require a Peter; they required a Simon. They were not about building the foundations of the church, but about getting at the heart of a man. Simon had to know who he was before he could ever be who he would be. 

Sometimes, he had to be reminded of that.

Take the tender scene on the seashore, when Jesus calls the disciple to Himself and asks, three times, Simon, do you love me? He could have called the disciple Peter here. After all, He's been resurrected and the church age has come; now is the time to start building the church. 

But Peter is distraught, distressed with himself. He has just done the thing that he swore he wouldn't do - denied his Lord and abandoned him, turned his back and tucked his tail the way all the other disciples had. They were, as Jesus predicted, scattered like sheep without a shepherd, and Simon here is feeling deeply his own sheepishness. He certainly doesn't feel like a Peter. He is no rock. He is not a worthy man to build the church...or anything else. 

That's why Jesus calls him Simon. Strip away all that. Take away all the expectation, the heavy burden of becoming the one that Jesus has named you to be. Hearken back to that first call, to that day just three years before when Jesus had not called a Peter, but a Simon. Simon.... All of a sudden, his head picks up. He looks, with tears in his eyes, at the Rabbi, the Savior whose call in this moment sounds just like that first one. None of the expectation matters right now - it's one Man to another. Simon....

It gives him the opportunity to go back and get his own firm footing again, to remember who he is. Who he has always been. He is the same Simon who left his boat three years ago to follow this man. The same Simon who, without hesitation, declared, "You are the Messiah." The same Simon who had traveled around, cast out demons, seen miracles, climbed the mountain and witnessed the Transfiguration. He might, one day, by the mercy of God, be the Peter he has been named to be, but he never stops being Simon. On the seashore, Jesus lets him touch that. 

The same kind of distinction is being made in Acts when James refers to him as Simon, not Peter. He is the apostle, yes, who is building the church, but this debate stems from what happens when someone believes. What is the sign that a true witness is being made? And it is not Peter who is the witness, but Simon. Peter is the proclaimer; Simon has always been the disciple. 

So when he stands in the assembly and talks about all of the things that he's seen, the word of God given to him, the miracles he's witnessed, and his confidence in the acts of the Holy Spirit, he's not being Peter. He's not building the church. He's Simon, the witness, the testifier. He is the one who was with the twelve, the one who was with Jesus Himself. He's not the apostle; he is the disciple, and James uses his name, Simon, to honor that. 

Neither of these makes him any less Peter. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The more Simon this man is, the more Peter he is. He could not be the latter if he ever came out of touch with the former. Jesus may have called him Peter, but neither of them (and none of us) should ever forget that He called Simon. These moments help him to remember that, they touch on something at the very core of who he is that, regardless of personal failure or ministerial success, hasn't changed. 

He is Simon...Peter.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Simon Peter

Somewhere in the middle of the course of His ministry, Jesus changes the name of the Simon that we are talking about. No longer will this disciple be called Simon, but he will be called Peter ("rock"). Jesus says, "On this rock, I will build my church." And thus, the Gospel writers refer to him as Peter.

But not everyone does.

You have to pay close attention because it's so easy for us to read right past, knowing that Simon is Peter is Simon and so not thinking another thing of it. But at some very key moments, even after it's clear that Jesus intends for Simon to become Peter, the name Simon comes up once more. And these are not only after Jesus intends for Simon to become Peter, but even after the church age has come - after the resurrection of Jesus.

For example, when Jesus predicts that the disciple will deny Him three times before the rooster crows, He is speaking, as recorded in our Gospels, to Peter. It is Peter who will, and does, deny Jesus. But John tells us that when Jesus arose and appeared to the disciples on the shore, He did not speak to Peter, but to Simon. you love me more than these? you love me? you love me?

Three times, Jesus looks into the eyes of the devastated disciple whom He has named Peter, for on this rock..., and He calls Him Simon. 

And then again in Acts 15, well into the ministry of Simon Peter who is the rock on which God will build - and is building - His church, we see his name once more. There has been a dispute about circumcision in the Gentile churches, a heated debate that has caused not only a lot of tension, but a lot of heartache. Paul and Barnabas have returned to Jerusalem, to the council of believers, to settle the matter and have come, apparently, to the disciples themselves, for many of them are present. 

Peter, we are told, stands and testifies, being himself an expert in the missions work of building the early church and having gone to both the Jews and the Gentiles and seen firsthand what God is doing among them. After he has finished speaking, James stands up and takes the floor. And the first thing he does is refer to Peter as Simon, saying, essentially, Simon is right. 

So Simon has become Peter has become Simon, who is Simon Peter. And it's not even that it is Simon Peter who cannot seem to shake off the old to become the new; it is Jesus Himself and his fellow disciples who continue to know him by both names, who continue to call him by both names, who continue to speak to him and of him by both names. 

It's not easy being Simon. Or Peter. Or whoever. 

Stay tuned....