Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Playing the Game

This week, we've been talking about the devil's game and how he sometimes uses goodness in  your life to accomplish your goals. We've seen how a little measure of goodness can be just what you need in order to forfeit your hope and question your faith, and we've established two key ways to tell the difference between the devil's game and the goodness of God (the goodness of God is not fragile nor will it distract you from other good things). 

The question then, is, what do you do with the devil's goodness when he gives it to you?

And the answer, quite simply, is that you enjoy it while it lasts

There's something in us that wants to say that we shouldn't enjoy anything the devil gives us, that our best course of action is to reject his goodness even when he gives it. But that's foolish. And to do so hands him yet another victory. 

Imagine that you have been in so much pain that you haven't been able to get out of your house for two weeks. As part of his game, the devil takes your pain away (usually right before you're ready to stand up for yourself and demand your doctors try something new). Knowing that it is the devil's game that you are not in pain today, would you then lie around in bed anyway and refuse to get up and go anywhere and do anything because you know the goodness is false and won't last? Of course not. What a wasted day to spend in bed! You'd get up, go for a walk, do some grocery shopping, buy yourself some flowers. And you should.

Take advantage of the goodness. Just don't get sucked into it. 

Don't get lulled into its false sense of security. Don't let yourself think that this is your new normal. Don't let yourself believe, in a fragile goodness, that it's 'over,' that you're healed and the battle is won and you no longer need those things you've set your hope on. 

We can enjoy goodness, even a fragile goodness, without forfeiting our hope or questioning our faith. We can take the gift of goodness however it comes and live it to its fullest, knowing that God Himself desires good things for us, without accepting all of the baggage that comes with it when it's just part of the devil's game. And we should. We should throw ourselves into it for all that it is and enjoy it...while continuing to call it out for the cheap substitute that it is. While continuing to remind ourselves how fragile it is. 

But wait a minute - didn't I say yesterday that it's the very fragility of goodness that should cause us to question it? Yes. Yes, I did. This is where we have to draw one of those sticky little lines again. 

The fragility of goodness reminds us where it comes from. The goodness of God is not fragile, and we can throw ourselves into it wholeheartedly and without reservation. But the goodness of the devil's game is extremely fragile. That doesn't mean that we can't throw ourselves into it; what it means is that we do so reservedly, rightly naming the goodness as fragile and boldly declaring that we understand where it comes from. And then, being thankful for it anyway, for the devil himself cannot truly corrupt goodness; even when it is fragile, it is still good - and if it is good, then it is God's, even when He's not the one who has given it. 

It's complicated, but it doesn't have to be. It's really quite simple: embrace goodness whenever it comes into your life. Life into it as fully as you can. But keep goodness in its proper perspective - is it a gift from God or is it part of the devil's game? Figure that out and act accordingly, but whatever you do, don't neglect the goodness altogether. That's foolish. 

No one stays in bed on a day on which she finally has the strength to move. That doesn't teach the devil anything. 

If you really want to teach him a lesson, live all of the goodness he gives you, right to the very last drop, and then hold onto your hope anyway. Hold onto your faith anyway. Tell him, "thanks, bro" but in the same breath remind him that this little game he's playing? You just won. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Goodness of God

If the devil can use a little goodness to play his game - to make you forfeit your hope and question your faith - then how are you ever supposed to know what is truly goodness from God? How do you know which goodness to hang your hat on and which to hold with more cautious hands? 

Because the truth is that the goodness of the devil is still goodness. Those good days you're having, those good moments, those good times are not an illusion; they really are good. Those moments when you believe that your life has finally turned a corner and that your burden is lifting are actually moments when your burden is lighter and you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. It's not an illusion; it really is happening. 

But if the devil is taking these moments that actually are good and telling you that if you love God, you'll trust Him for them, and if the devil is taking these actually good moments and using them to question your faith and forfeit your hope, then how do you ever believe in a thing like goodness at all? How do you know when the goodness is from God or when it's just part of the devil's game?

There are two fairly simple answers to this question, and goodness must meet both criteria in order to be the goodness of God. 

First, the goodness of God is not fragile. You never feel like you have to carry it gingerly, like it's going to break if you lean on it too hard. The goodness of God is hardy and it can withstand the pressure of your life pressing in on it. If you're afraid to move, afraid to breathe, afraid to really fully step into a goodness because something just doesn't seem quite right about it, it's not goodness from God. The goodness of God is not fragile; it won't break. 

That's because the goodness of God comes from something outside of yourself. It's not dependent upon you to keep it going. The devil's goodness whispers to you that it's something you did that made it happen, some decision you made, something you deprived yourself of. Your own hard work is finally paying off, and as long as you keep all of your plates spinning just like they are right now, you can hold onto your goodness. That's the devil's goodness. It's so fragile that you blink and you mess the whole thing up. But the goodness of God is no such thing because it doesn't depend upon you. You can tell instinctively from your heart, if you're paying honest attention, which kind of goodness is which. 

Second, the goodness of God will never take your eyes off of hope. That's the entire reason the devil uses goodness - to distract you from any real opportunity to step toward healing. But God will never give you something good to convince you that you don't need something else that's good. God will not give you goodness to take your mind off your infirmity. He will not give you goodness to take your focus off your brokenness. The goodness of God is not a distraction; it's a gift. 

That means that if things in your life are so good right now that you don't even think you have to ask questions any more, it's probably not the goodness of God. If your life is full of satisfaction and not thankfulness, it's probably not the goodness of God. If you're convinced that your life has finally turned a corner so much so that you no longer need to seek goodness because you already have it, it is probably not the goodness of God. The goodness of God compounds upon itself; it will always lead you to seek more goodness, not to back away from it. The goodness of God will never - can never - take your eyes off of hope. 

Yes, our own human frailty plays into this a little bit. Some of us are just not good at accepting goodness, even the goodness of God, but we know our hearts better than we pretend that we do. We know when we're just so relieved to have a little bit of goodness that we're biting off more than we can chew and we know when goodness is real. We just have to be willing to be honest with ourselves about it. The above two considerations are a great place to start. 

Does this goodness feel fragile? God is not fragile. 

Does this goodness so satisfy my soul that I no longer seek good things? God does not distract us from seeking good things - ever. 

So if the answer to either of these question is 'yes,' then what you've got is the devil's game. Play accordingly. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

A False Goodness

If you read yesterday's post about the devil's game, then at this point you might thinking that I'm being a little silly. You know what's good. You know what's good for you. And certainly, you know what goodness comes from God. No one's going to fall for this game from the devil where he just gives you good things that aren't really good. Of course, you'd know the difference between a truly good thing and a farce, right?

That's where the devil's game gets a little trickier. 

He uses this false goodness to lull you into a false sense of security and then, if he thinks that perhaps you're onto his game and that it's not working as well as he wants it to, he starts to attack your faith. 

You faithless, wicked person. Something good is happening in your life, and you won't even thank God for it. You won't even give Him credit for it. Heck, you're unwilling to believe it's even Him. See if God will keep doing good things for you, you faithless ingrate. Maybe you're not as much of a Christian as you thought that you were. Maybe you need to go back to Vacation Bible School and sit at the kiddie table and learn a few things. 

You wicked person. If Sodom had seen the kind of goodness that you're seeing right now, even they would have turned their hearts toward God. (That's a Scripture somewhere - something like that.)

All of a sudden, you've gone from being so sure of the devil's game to being so uncertain of your own faith. And it seems like a reasonable argument. God is good, and it's time for you to double-down on good. 

That's how the devil gets you. If he can't simply convince you that all good things come from God and that whatever seems good must truly be good, then he will attack your very faith until you believe that if you want to continue to be a faithful person, you have to hold onto good, even if that means letting go of hope. And then BAM - you're right where he wants you - trading in the moment that you've been waiting for, the moment that could actually bring you real goodness, out of fear that you're falling away by clinging to hope. 

And then, when you forfeit your moment only to have the devil's false goodness give way and your world comes crashing down on you, now, you're mad at God, who you think has failed you. You questioned whether you had enough faith, and now, you're questioning whether you should still have faith at all, whether God is worth loving or even believing in.

Do you see how devious this is? Not only do you lose out on your hope and forfeit your chance for real goodness, but you've attacked your own faith from two sides. 

And all he had to do was give you a couple of good days. 

Still don't think the devil will give you good things sometimes?

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Devil's Game

Last week, I posted on my social media that "Part of the game is knowing how the devil plays it." And that seems like something, doesn't it? 

We often think of the devil as the prince of darkness, but did you know that he can also play with the light? We think of him as the bringer of great doom, but did you know he can bring you good things, as well? We know that he quoted Scripture at Jesus in the temptation in the wilderness, and this is exactly the kind of game play from our enemy that we have to watch out for and prepare for. And we can, when we realize his tricks.

Let's say you're carrying a heavy burden. The weight of this burden is just crushing you to your very last bit of dust, but there's hope on the horizon. In a set period of time - say, a couple of weeks - you will have the chance to advocate for yourself, try something new, do something differently that might bring you relief. You will have a chance to get out from under this heavy burden. All you have to do is hold on until the time of hope comes. All you have to get there.

Do you know what's going to happen as that day and time approaches? You're going to get better. Your burden is going to get lighter. You're going to start to see a way out from under it, and you're going to have some better days. You are probably even going to have some amazing, beautiful, wonderful days - days when you seem to somehow forget your burden altogether. You're going to believe that your trial is over, that your tribulation is finished. You are going to feel like you are living in victory. 

And that's exactly his plan. 

The devil doesn't like giving you good days; he doesn't. But he also can't help himself. He knows how powerful hope is, and he knows how possible healing is, and he knows that if he can give you a few goods days right now, he will crush them both - hope and healing, dead as a doornail. Just like that. He knows that a few good days, rightly timed, can plunge you into a darkness so deep that you might never recover (except, of course, by the grace of God, if you have the energy left to seek that). 

Here's how it goes: you're clinging to hope with the very last bit of everything you've got. You're dreaming about what it's going to look like if that moment of hope goes well. You're rehearsing in your mind what you're going to say, how you're going to act, what you're going to demand when you get your opportunity to speak for just a second with the real possibility of lifting some of your darkness. 

But then, you have a day that's a little better. And then another day that's a little better. And then, you have a day or two that are just great. And then, when that moment of hope that you've been clinging to comes, you...have nothing to say. Everything you've rehearsed doesn't matter any more. Everything you dreamed of doesn't seem that big. You're getting better without it. You're living good right now, and you're getting better and stronger and more settled every day. So your moment comes, your big moment of hope and healing and possibility, and you look it right in the eye and say, "Thanks, but no thanks. I think things are going to be fine." 

An hour later, things are not fine any more. Not by a long shot. But you missed your chance at hope and you missed your chance at healing and now, you can't just turn around and say that you lied - who will that make you out to be? You can't just turn around and walk back toward hope; no, now you have to reschedule it. The devil got you right in his trap, and you fell for it and now, you're free-falling deeper into the darkness than you ever were the first time. That hope that was drawing so close is once again so far away, and there's nothing to cling to here. 

And that's why the devil is going to give you good days. That's the game he's playing. He doesn't love it when you love your life, but if that's what it takes to get you to forget your need for hope, he'll do it. He'll let you be happy if that temporary happiness will throw you into a deeper pit. All he needs is for you to buy into it, for you to sell your hope for a little relief and give up your moment for the one you've got right now. 

That's what I mean when I say that part of the game is knowing how the devil plays it. You have to be aware of how he's working so that you don't give up that moment of hope and healing that you've been waiting for, so that you aren't suckered into a sense of false security and miss your chance to advocate for yourself, to confess your struggles, to ask for and to receive help. 

And about that false security....that's another little game he's playing. More on that, tomorrow.  

A Disciplined Life

Is your prayer life really awesome when your life is in shambles? Do you brush the dust off your Bible when you're in trouble and turn instinctively to the Word for hope? Do you have a playlist of worship songs for 'a time such as this'? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you're like a lot of Christians. Our faith suddenly becomes super-important to us when we 'need' it, when we're having trouble navigating life on our own and have given up on all of our own attempts to fix things. 

The problem is that when we have a faith like this, it's hard to know how to use it when we need it. We open our Bible, but where are we supposed to start reading? What part of God's story is going to speak to us right now? We play the worship music, but maybe the tone we thought would be so helpful just grates against our wounded souls. Now what? We don't know any other worship songs off-hand. We pray, do you pray? How are we supposed to pray? Do we have to kneel? How do we start? Is it God or Father or Father God? All of these questions come rushing to our minds. 

What we come to realize is that when we are not practiced in the faith, then every time we come to God, we are practicing the faith. And anyone who has ever been surrounded by waters that threaten to drown them knows that this is not the time to be practicing. 

That's why we need to invest ourselves now in the daily practices of faith. That's why we need to be disciplined about engaging the spiritual disciplines. When the time comes in your life that you need to know for sure the love of God, you don't want to be practicing; you want to be harnessing the power of the God who loves you. 

Several weeks ago, I completed the Indianapolis 500 Mini-Marathon for the first time in my life. It's an event that I signed up for in March when everything seemed possible, and then, well, life happened. My training plans went out the window. In fact, I didn't get to train at all. In April, I was barely running. Still, I was determined to cross the finish line - even if I had to crawl.

Race day came, and you know what? It wasn't as big of a push as I feared it was going to be without intense, focused training for it. I was a lot more comfortable for a lot more of the distance than I thought I would be, and even though I had to slow down more than a few times, I was able to run more of it than I thought I could. My time, too, wasn't all that bad. I understood that better this past week when the leaderboards updated and I saw that I placed in roughly the top third of both all runners and of all female runners, and I was in the top quarter of female runners in my age group. 

How does someone who doesn't get to train for a mini-marathon end up finishing in the top third? 

Because I have been training for years. Because for six years, I have been running as often as I can. Except for when I've been recovering from injury or illness, I have run five days a week for six years. Some days, I've run a mile; some days, I've run seven. Some days, I've run 11-minute miles; some days, I've run them in just under 9 minutes. But I run. Consistently. So when I asked my body on race day to run, my body - my 'untrained' body - said, "Okey dokey. Running, I can do." And I did. 

This is what happens when you invest yourself consistently in something, and it's as true for the spiritual disciplines as it is for physical exercise. If you commit yourself to reading your Bible regularly, to praying continually, to worshiping routinely, then when you come up against something in your life that's bigger than you, something that maybe even seems impossible, all that training kicks in. You ask yourself to hold onto faith, and something in your soul - your weary, beaten, burdened soul - says, "Okey dokey. Faith, I can do." And you do it. And you're more comfortable and more capable and more satisfied in trouble than you ever thought you could be. 

Maybe you hadn't prepared for this particular moment, but you had trained for it nonetheless by investing yourself faithfully in the disciplines that you were going to need to draw on. 

So don't wait until you need God to learn to talk to Him. Don't wait until you don't know what else to say to start digging through His Word. Don't wait until the song has been stolen out of your heart to start worshiping. Do it now. Start now. 

Because when those hard days come - and they will - you don't want to be practicing; you want to be ready for this. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Better Way

We are living in a culture of shame, and it's not good for us - culturally or personally. But is there really a better way? 

There is, and that better way is 'love.' 

This is complicated because love is one of those things that becomes twisted in a culture of shame and is used as a weapon of shame. On Monday, we talked about a commercial in which every word is a word of affirmation, a positive-sounding commercial that sounds like it's praising persons for their choices, but in actuality, it's a tool meant to shame those it cannot affirm into becoming those that they can. It's meant to make those it doesn't approve of sound selfish and ignorant, hoping to push them toward conforming to the standard that the commercial has adopted as 'good.' 

In a culture in which we are bombarded by these messages all the time, it's difficult to figure out how to love. When the persons around us are always listening more to what isn't said or to what's implied but left out, love is hard. Love speaks plainly; it has no room for duplicity, but in a culture like ours, everything is duplicitous and so even love becomes a contortion of itself and sometimes, it even comes to look like hate. 

I think one of the ways that we combat this is by remembering where love starts. Shame starts by dividing the world. It divides the world into good and bad, right and wrong, us and them. Shame starts with a standard to be met, and then it goes about judging others on the basis of that standard, whatever it is. 

Love is different. Loves starts on common ground, by recognizing the things that all of us have in common. Love doesn't start by trying to figure out who is good or bad, right or wrong, us or them - love starts by establishing that there is a common thread that runs between us all. Love starts at the human level, not at the cultural level, and that permits it to be something that shame never can be: earnest. 

It's the earnestness of love that is the game changer. Love truly yearns for the good of all - not for some adopted standard of 'good,' but a holistic wellness that cannot be culturally bound. Love isn't in the business of deciding who is worth our love and who isn't, who is likely to conform by our loving them. Rather, love asks who stands to benefit from love in their lives. Who needs a touch of grace? 

The commercial we were talking about affirms those it agrees with; love affirms goodness, whether we agree with the person or not. Love says, "Great job! I'm proud of you!" and doesn't have a side-eye toward everyone it is not right now proud of. Love affirms not on the basis of conformity, but on the basis of inherent dignity. There is no double message in love, only genuine goodwill. 

That's because love is so focused on the object of its affection that it doesn't have time to play politics. It doesn't waste its energy looking around at everyone else because it's busy pouring into this person, into this place. Love is so intense in one intimate direction that there is no space for an extra thought to something else. Love is thinking so much about the good right in front of it that for a minute, all the bad around it just seems to fall away. Love is pure like that. 

Love is just such the coolest thing because it gets us out of all of these traps that the world has set, particularly the traps it has set in shame. Love knows there is no us and them; there never has been. There has always only ever been an us, and if you start with understanding that the person you're looking at is fundamentally a lot like yourself, that changes the way you engage with them. If the person you're looking at is not selfish or ignorant, but is just as measured and considerate and conflicted as you are, you can't condemn them. You can only have grace. 

Love is the better way. It always has been. It always will be. Jesus not only said it; He proved it by the way that He lived in love. 

That doesn't mean it's easy. Especially not in a culture so built on shame that it's always looking for the double message. The world will not simply accept love; it doesn't know how. But that shouldn't keep us from loving them anyway. 

It's the only way we break this cycle of shame.  

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

A Burden of Shame

We are living in a culture of shame, and we saw yesterday how this is creating a cultural problem for us - it creates a distance between us and others and establishes 'us' vs. 'them' mentalities that keep us from truly connecting. 

But shame is also dangerous for us personally. 

Shame is a tremendous burden to bear because it hits at the very core of who we are. Very few of us are ever simply ashamed of our behavior or of something we've done; shame cuts right down and tells us that whatever we've done is because that's who we are. Our actions are representative of a fundamental flaw in our personality, and that makes it difficult for us to live with ourselves. 

Add to that the culture of shame that is ready to shun us, excommunicate us, call us out in the most public ways and make sure that no one ever anywhere again will associate with us, and shame is just soul-crushing. No one wants to hang out with us, and we don't even want to hang out with ourselves. We are lonely, and we are trapped in a deficient spirit that just can't do anything right - or anything honorable. 

When shame first hits us, it sends us diving into the bushes, as we've seen when we talk about Adam and Eve. We do everything we can to try to hide our nakedness, to try to cover our exposed flesh. The thing is that society doesn't operate with the same kind of grace that God does, so there's nothing really that can cover our shame. Once we've been exposed, we've been exposed forever, and this world will never let us forget it. We cannot redeem ourselves and the sad truth is, we cannot be redeemed. 

So there comes a point in shame where we stop even trying to hide our nakedness. We give up trying to atone for our shortcomings. We don't try to prove ourselves anymore, and we don't believe - because the world has so convinced us - that we can be redeemed. So we come to live defeated lives, just letting our nakedness hang out there because who even cares now? What difference does it make?

But it makes a huge difference. 

It makes a huge difference because you can only show up naked to your life for so long. You can only live exposed for so long before it starts eating away at you. There's something in us that just doesn't tolerate our own nakedness, even when we try to pretend that we aren't bothered so much by it. Even when we live in defeat and seem to just accept it, there's something in us that...can't. 

Our nakedness then becomes our insecurity, and our insecurity becomes our nakedness. Our shame compounds upon itself and we are ashamed of our shame, but at the same time, we know there is nothing that we can do to alleviate it. We cannot win against shame. Adam and Eve never went back to not knowing their own nakedness. 

For many of us, shame bears down on the fragile places that already exist in our soul and the pressure is just too much. The tragedy of shame is that it takes away our living and then, too often, it takes away our life, as those trapped under a burden of shame often choose suicide as the only way out. 

And for what? Because they didn't take their cart back to the corral in the parking lot? 

The world loves to nitpick when it tears at our flesh, but shame is no little thing. It's a great big thing. It's more powerful than even the world thinks it is, and the world thinks it can harness shame for its own means, but shame doesn't work like that. Once it's here, it's here, and it gets down into the soul and doesn't come out except by the grace of God and even then, only rarely. Our flesh is just so fragile; our spirits are so weak. 

And that's why shame is so dangerous. Not just culturally, but personally. It's crushing. 

So can we just stop with all the shame already?

Monday, June 21, 2021

A Culture of Shame

Yesterday, we looked at how our culture is becoming more shame-based. This is dangerous, I have proposed, in a couple of ways. And the first way that it is dangerous is in relationship to our culture itself. 

Shame creates distance between persons. We know this is true because we saw how quickly Adam and Eve dove for the bushes when they heard the mere footsteps of God in the Garden, a God whom they loved and a God whom they knew loved them. Shame told them they were not as connected as they thought they were - and how could they be? They were not who they had proposed to be in the relationship, so the relationship itself was fundamentally shaken. 

But this is magnified exponentially when shame is used as a weapon. Because shame as a weapon is meant to be sharp enough to divide us. It is meant to help us create categories of 'in' and 'out,' or as we like to call it, 'us' and 'them.' We are the ones living with honor and dignity and grace; we are the ones getting it right, working hard, doing our part to be honorable human beings. And they are the ones who aren't even trying, who are failing so miserably at even the basics of being human.

And once we have a 'they' who are not considered honorable, then we have a 'we' who are under no obligation to even attempt to honor - or respect - or love - or encourage - or help - at all. So we, who are honorable, become less honorable by drawing lines, but then we convince ourselves that we are actually more honorable because the lines that we have drawn are somehow lines of honor. 

Shame convinces us that this is possible. Not only that this is possible, but that this is good. And that we are good for doing it. 

Then we have all of this tension build up between persons, persons who sometimes even once loved each other, and we wonder how we got here. Well, we got here because we were betrayed by someone we thought we knew when we discovered they were actually on the other side of the shame line. When we discovered they were actually someone shameful. We cannot possibly believe that our friend, our good friend, is someone who doesn't return their cart to the corral in the parking lot. How dare they. And then we start to wonder what other little secrets they are keeping from us. 

That's one of the things that is weird about shame: we know that it is a betrayal of ourselves (and for those of us who are persons of faith, of our God), but in a culture of shame, it is viewed as a betrayal of the other. When we are not who we pretended to be, we are a liar. 

This not only damages our relationships with the one we believe betrayed us; it damages our relationships with everyone. We're always on guard against another betrayal, always a little bit on edge about what secrets our friends or family might be keeping from us. We keep a little bit of distance between us and others lest we come to find out they, too, are shameful persons and perhaps even their shame will rub off on us. 

All of a sudden, we're living in a so-called 'community' where we will only allow ourselves to be in relationship with persons we do not find shameful in any degree. Thus, we become a 'community' that pronounces our shame very loudly, condemning others very loudly, weeding them out very publicly in search of a 'pure' friendship - one untainted by shamefulness. That's how we got to where we are - our public shaming is our attempt to weed out of our communities those that we find distasteful and to condemn them to the bushes before we even get started so that they don't mess anything up for the rest of us. 

At the same time, we use our public shaming to hopefully coerce compliance - we want persons like this living in our community, so if you want to enjoy all of the fun things that we enjoy and create a safe space for yourself here where you are not called out all the time and where we don't have to keep chastising you for your inappropriate behavior, then simply do not do these things. 

We are naming our price of membership through shame, and then we are wondering why our communities are broken. It's because we cannot draw near, lest we fail someone or lest they fail us. Lest we come to reveal that...oops, we are humans and make mistakes and sometimes, even bad choices. We look in the mirror and know that we are not perfect, and because of our culture of shame, our imperfections deem us unworthy of one another. So we live isolated lives surrounded by others, too afraid to step into a culture too quick to shame us for things that most of the time, we didn't even know were 'wrong.' We become afraid of the very community that we seek because we can never know if we will be accepted or not. 

Are we an 'us' or are we a 'them'? In a culture of shame, we never know. And sadly, what too often happens is that we attempt to prove ourselves an 'us' by calling out another 'them,' and so on and so on and so on it goes until no one is safe here. 

That's why shame is dangerous for our communities. 

Friday, June 18, 2021

A Word on Shame

Two weeks ago, we talked about believing and what it takes to put our trust in something. Last week, we talked about living a dynamic human life by properly identifying and naming our emotional realities. Today, I want to blend these a little bit as we talk about something a bit more difficult: shame.

Whether we like it or not - whether we realize it or not - we live in a shame-based society. It's not very well structured and can, at times, be extremely fickle, but shame is the driving force between so much of the conversation that we have with one another, particularly on social media and in mainstream media messaging. 

If you have a local community social media group, you already know what I'm talking about. Frequently, someone will show up to post something just to shame someone else. A group didn't leave a tip at a restaurant. A neighbor's weeds are overtaking someone's yard. The trash men left a few scraps in the middle of the road. Someone did a horrible parking job in a public parking lot. Another person didn't take their grocery cart back to the corral. And on and on and on it goes. The aim of these posts is to shame those who do not act according to whatever social standard the original poster is attempting to appeal to - and to shame anyone like them who might secretly not see the problem, or claim to not see the problem, with the behavior. 

Sometimes, it works, and commenters will jump on the bandwagon and group-shaming begins to happen. Sometimes, commenters will jump in and start shaming the original poster, telling them that any reasonable human being would just accept it and move on or would take care of the problem him/herself. Not everyone tips; you have to accept that if you want to be a serve. No one has to park in a way that you approve of in a public lot or on a public street; it's unfortunate, but you're a real jerk for calling them out. If your neighbor's cat pooped in your flower beds, just grow up, pick it up, and move on with your life. 

But remember when I said it's fickle? It's fickle. Because if your neighbor has a dead animal on their property, you should pick it up instead of try to shame them about it. If your neighbor's weeds are overtaking your yard, you should just shut up and trim them instead of making a big deal about it. And it's your responsibility to pick up your neighbor's cat poop in your garden; it's not that big of a deal. But if your neighbor's dog poops in your yard, they are, in fact, a horrible human being and do not deserve to own animals. 

We cannot know what we should shame and what we shouldn't and whether or not we're going to end up getting shamed ourselves as a result or not. Like I said, it's fickle. 

And now, we've got an ad running on local TV that is based on the same shame principle, although the language itself doesn't exactly say that. It's a vaccine ad. It shows a bunch of persons with heart-shaped bandages on their arms and says things like, "This is not a bandaid. This is a badge of honor. (The opposite, you might recognize of shame.) This is a mark that says that you listened to your doctor and got your vaccine. This is a mark that you are doing your part to help all of us get back to normal. Good for you!" 

But this isn't a commercial meant to affirm the vaccinated; it's a commercial meant to shame the unvaccinated. It implies they don't have any honor. It implies they don't listen to the wisdom of their doctors, so they are arrogant. It implies they don't listen to 'science,' so they are foolish. It implies that they aren't doing their part to help us all, so they are selfish. The message of this commercial is not mean to be "Good for you!" The message of this commercial is "Shame on you!" It is intended to urge compliance through shame. And even the vaccinated who watch it understand that this is the message.

We are, whether we like it or not and whether we realize it or not, a shame-based society. It's become a weapon of social coercion, though we call it a bestowing of honor for social cohesion. 

And it's dangerous. 

It's dangerous for a couple of reasons - culturally and individually. So we'll take a few days to look at shame because this is important, particularly for us as a people living in this culture.  

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Joy, Joy

We've been talking about emotions all week and how we limit our human experience when we confine our feelings to such a limited vocabulary as fear, anger, sadness, and happiness. It's unfortunate, I think, that we've done this; we were meant to live more dynamic lives than this vocabulary affords us. I hope that what we've looked at in the past four days has allowed you to start thinking more deeply about what you're actually feeling so that you're invited to engage with your life to its fullest.

That brings us today to something called 'joy,' which will be a great way to start a weekend. 

We think that joy is an emotion, probably a lot like happiness but perhaps to the extreme. Joy is festive and celebratory and boisterous, we think. It is happiness 2.0. When we want to sound particularly religious or holy, we might say that something brings us 'great joy' when it really satisfies our soul or strokes our ego or simply makes us 'happy' (ugh). And when we read in the Scriptures that God gives us 'joy unspeakable' that won't go away, well, we're prone to think that this means that God makes us 'happy' all the time. That He's supposed to make us 'happy' all the time. That we, as Christians, are supposed to be 'happy' all the time. Isn't that joy?

No. Not by any stretch of the imagination. 

The thing about joy is that joy is not an emotion, and we can't tie it to emotions. Joy is a temperament; it's a characteristic of who we are. 

The language that we use about joy tells us this plainly. We don't 'feel' joy; we 'have' joy. And if we try to say that we feel it, we know that something seems wrong about that. We know that the minute that we try to 'feel' joy, we realize it is something so much more substantial than the other emotions that we are prone to 'feel.' 

And we know that our emotions are often tied to our experience, that they come from an internal or external orientation that recognizes the circumstances we are traveling through and seeks to embrace them in whatever way we can. But joy isn't like this, either. Joy isn't circumstantial. It's not a response that we have to the life that we're living; it's an orientation toward our life. 

When we think about biblical joy, we get the image of a deer leaping through a meadow. That's not something the deer 'feels;' that's who the deer is. And joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, and not a single one of the other fruits is something that we 'feel;' they all represent who we are (or who we're supposed to be). 

This is why we hear so many talk about having joy despite their circumstances. It's why we hear about how we're supposed to be joyous, even in trial. Because joy is not an emotion; it's not something we feel. It's a temperament. It's our orientation toward the world and toward our life. It's fundamentally part of who we are. We are a people meant to have a spirit of joy that sends us leaping through our fields, be they on mountains or in valleys. 

That's why we can't cheapen joy and make it just like something so banal as 'happiness' (ugh). We can't make it something we feel when it's meant to be something we are. Joy encompasses all of the emotions that we feel - thankfulness and gratitude, contentment and satisfaction, sorrow and pain. Joy is what permits us to maintain our spirit, come what may. 

In a world with such a limited vocabulary for emotions, we need to learn to live a dynamic human existence and get out of that very small box. I believe that joy is one of our keys to doing this. I believe that developing a temperament of joy, an orientation of joy toward our world and our life, is the best way to embrace the fullness of our emotional reality and to live the dynamic - Jesus calls it 'abundant' - life for which we were created.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Happy, Happy

The same thing that we do with 'fear,' we also do with 'happy' - any good feeling that we have is happiness. It must be; happiness is a good feeling. 

Of course, we run into the same problem here that we ran into with fear, and that is that we are missing out on a dynamic range of human experiences when the only word we have for a good feeling is 'happiness.' We'll get to that in a minute. 

But what most troubles me about 'happiness' is that happiness is an entirely self-centered feeling. It finds its roots only in our recognition of an internal goodness. We subjectively feel happy because we subjectively feel good inside of ourselves. To this end, what they say is correct - that happiness is a choice. We simply choose to feel happy. Happy is, at its core, all about us. 

In contrast, so many of the things that masquerade as 'happiness' in our limited emotional vocabulary are actually much richer, deeper experiences that exist externally, that are dependent upon more than what we feel of them. 

You might feel 'happy,' for example, when you actually feel 'blessed.' Rather than being based in just what you feel, blessed is a posture of receiving. You are not blessed just because you are; you are blessed only when someone or something else blesses you. It's not all about you, and so blessedness invites you to connect to your community and your surroundings and your experiences more than happiness ever could.

Or maybe when you say you feel 'happy,' what you really feel is 'satisfied' or 'content.' Both of these words are a reflection on an embrace of our circumstances. In order to feel either, we have to be in touch with our needs, our wants, and our provisions and understand them in context. Satisfaction and content only exist in deep connection to our own lives, to everything in them, and not merely internally, the way that happiness does. 

Sometimes, we say we are 'happy' when what we really are is thankful. We are full of gratitude. This is usually connected in some way to the previous two positive emotions - blessedness and satisfaction - but again, it's a recognition that something external to ourselves has impacted our lives in some way. Something that does not depend upon us has come to bear on us, and it's been positive for us. 

This is a great place to put a little more skin on this. When we mislabel our thankfulness or gratitude as mere 'happiness,' what we do is retreat into the gift that we've been given and enjoy whatever it is that we're thankful for. It's a kid who finally receives the video game system he's always wanted and immediately starts playing it and doesn't turn around until it's time to go to bed (and then, only in protest). He doesn't even remember to say thank you

Happiness keeps us from saying thank you. It turns us in on ourselves, focuses us only on what we're getting out of an experience or a gift or an event. But if we recognize that what we feel is not really happiness, but thankfulness, then our first response is to turn outward and to say thank you. To recognize someone or something else who has made an impact on our lives. To connect with someone or something and not just wrap ourselves in our own self-involvement. 

This is precisely why I hate happiness; it's so cheap. It's so shallow. It robs us of the rich experience of truly enjoying being human and being in community and being God's. Happiness is...lame. It's too easy. And it requires us to disconnect ourselves from too much. 

Thankfully, very few of us actually experience true happiness. What we're actually experiencing is something much greater, though we too often lack the words for it. And that brings me to the final piece of emotional language that we're going to talk about this week: joy. 

We'll talk about joy tomorrow.  

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Fear No More

I'm not afraid of death and dying. That's where we started on Monday, and yesterday, we took a little detour into the language of emotions, specifically as that language revolves around 'fear.' 'Fear' is an extremely overused word in our society, one that carries heavy connotations with it, and if we would understand more often that what we're feeling is not actually fear, we'd be better equipped to deal with our world and our experience in it. 

So if it's not fear that I feel around death and dying, what is it?

When it comes to death itself (the moment of the loss of life), what I feel is actually grief. It makes me sad. It makes me hurt and ache for the life I've lived and for the ones I love who I leave behind. It makes me think about what it's going to be like for them when I'm not here any more. It makes me wonder whether they knew if I loved them, if I did enough for them, if I was kind and honest and loving toward them. I grieve that the moments I had with them were both everything and not enough and never could be enough. 

I grieve that life is so fleeting, though I know that it is eternal. I grieve that we know the heartache of death at all. 

Now, just imagine how approaching death as grief and not fear changes the experience of it. Instead of being traumatized by death, instead of being intimidated by it, instead of believing that it is something to be avoided or despised or whatever, grief allows me to enter into it, to embrace it, to fully experience it because I'm not in fight-or-flight mode; I'm grieving. Grief requires an embrace. You have to step into it. 

When it comes to dying, I confess that my feelings are much less pure. It's still not fear; I am not afraid of losing the things that make my life meaningful for me, of losing my abilities to live and thrive. What I feel is not fear. 

It's anger. It's indignation. I get mad at my failing body. I get upset that I can't do the things that I want to do. I start to feel entitled to be able to live while I'm breathing, and it feels like a tremendous offense against my being that I can't. 

I know that's not the popular thing to say, probably. Some Christians would probably say that I should be thankful for more time with my family and loved ones, more opportunities to make an impact in the world, or any other number of things that there are to be thankful for while we're living. And there is some truth to that. But I don't think it's helpful when we talk about ourselves as emotional beings to deny the difficult ones. Psalms assures us that we don't have to. And the point of this post is not to tell you what you should feel in times like these - every human experience is unique; the point of this post is to help you start thinking outside of the 'fear' box because not every negative thing we feel is 'fear.' And we can't properly deal with what we're dealing with if we're not honest about what we're feeling. 

So what I feel is anger and indignation. Eventually, I tend to settle out into a measure of gratefulness when I come to recognize the opportunities God is giving me to experience some things I might not otherwise have known. 

For example, I'm currently in a season that forces me to think about death and dying. And at first, I was indignant about having to reorder my life around my current circumstances. But as I began to - somewhat begrudgingly - do it, I began to laugh at myself for being so attached to, and attempting to anchor my identity in, some things that weren't as important as I really thought they were. Then, I was able to start humbling myself and settling back into the rhythm that God has for me. Now, I'm thankful for the lessons I'm learning in peace and rest. It's been, and continues to be, this incredibly dynamic, full experience of life itself, and I wouldn't have any of it if I was simply 'afraid' of dying. Fear would make me run away or cling desperately to things. All of these other emotions, even the 'negative' ones, have enabled me to take hold of this season and actually live it. 

That's why it's so important for us to know what we're actually feeling and not just settle for easy words. Overwhelmingly, the things that we call fear are not fear at all, and all we're doing is keeping ourselves from actually living our lives because we're too busy running from them, thinking that we're afraid. If we realize that what we're feeling isn't really fear, it allows us to engage deeply and in new ways and get the most - and the most holy - out of our experience of living, and it draws us closer to God. Fear never does that. 

So what are you not actually afraid of? 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Emotional Language

This week isn't really about death and dying, although that's part of what started me thinking about this week's topic. The topic is actually emotions in general and the way that we talk about what we are feeling...or what we are certain others are feeling. 

One of the problems that we have when it comes to our emotions is that our language about what we're feeling is terrible. We have boiled our emotional realities down to just a few basic words, and we try to fit everything into the boxes that we are the most comfortable with - sad, angry, happy, and afraid. Those are the basic four.

And by far, the most overused of afraid. Fear. 

We live in a world that has us afraid of everything. If we're actually nervous, they tell us we're afraid. If we're full of anticipation, that, too, is 'fear.' If we disagree with something or don't like something, the world calls us 'phobic' - afraid - of that thing. If we're uncertain, it must be fear. If we are ambivalent, it must be fear. Just right there, just off the top of my head, I have named five other things we might be feeling, but the world calls them all 'fear.' Then it asks us why we're afraid of everything. 

We're not really afraid as often as we think that we are. Nor are we as afraid as the world says we must be. What is actually happening is that we are having a dynamic range of human experiences and reactions to those human experiences, and we have not been taught very well how to describe them, let alone manage them. 

There's something in us that understands that we are not really afraid in a lot of these cases, but we don't know what else to say about it. For example, I'm not afraid of spiders. I don't like them. It startles me when I find them in the bathroom. I am disgusted by their presence in my house; I wish they were not indoors. In fact, I have a rule - if you want to be a bug, be a bug outside, and I will leave you entirely alone. I'm not afraid of spiders; I just don't like them. I feel three or four other things about spiders, depending on the context. But the world simply says I'm 'afraid,' even though fear is not one of the things that I actually feel about them.

I was speaking fairly recently with someone who told me that she has a 'very strange' reaction to things that she is afraid of. She said that when she comes near to something she's afraid of - like heights - her whole body starts to tingle and her breathing changes. Her whole body, she said, responds to her fear. I told her this sounds like anxiety, not fear, but she refused to believe that. She's been told her whole life this is fear and that it is a 'very strange' reaction to fear, indeed, and that this indicates that her fear is very severe and very different than everyone else's fear on the entire planet and so she has to be very careful about things she is afraid of because she might pass out. 

Anyone listening to her description would immediately recognize anxiety, especially any one of the millions of persons who deal with the same anxiety reactions (many of whom have also been told they are the only ones who react that way), but this woman could not even consider the possibility because she 'doesn't have anxiety.' She has 'fear.' 

And I just wondered how much easier her life would be to manage if she could name things for what they really are. 

See, this whole idea of fear - it keeps us focused on the threat. Or the perceived threat. That's what fear is - it is a response to a perceived threat. And our fear keeps us on our toes against whatever it is that we're sure is dangerous. If you are afraid of falling off a tall cliff, the only thing you'll ever know is how close you are to the edge - and no matter how far away you are, it will still feel too close. 

But what if you're just nervous about the edge and not actually afraid of it? Nervousness invites us to step toward things because we know it's not the threat; it's our reaction to it. What if you're just full of anticipation for the incredible view that awaits you if you can just look out instead of down? What if you just know that it's going to take your breath away? All of a sudden, it's not fear that makes you unable to breathe. And when you realize it's not fear, you can step into it instead of running away. 

We have a thousand emotions that are not fear, anger, happiness, or sadness, and yet, we buy into the idea that these are the only things that we feel, even when we know that's not true. We're not truly afraid of the vast majority of things that the world tells us we're afraid of; it's not fear. I'm not afraid of spiders, but that's the only word the culture permits me to use about my aversion to and dislike of spiders in my home.

And I'm not afraid of death or dying. 

We'll return to this idea tomorrow. 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

On Death and Dying

Every once in awhile, life gives us all a reminder that we are mortal. We come face-to-face with these opportunities to think about our own death. And for some, this seems morbid, but I suppose that depends on what you think about death - do you have a resurrection? 

A lot of persons say they're afraid of death. Sometimes, that's true. Sometimes, what they are really afraid of is dying. 

Death is that moment when you cease to be. It raises all kinds of questions for us about whether we did enough, whether we loved enough, whether we lived enough. It makes us wonder what our family and friends really think about us, whether we've been valuable or meaningful in our time here. We wonder whether those we love will carry on without us and how easy or hard it will be for them to do so. We start to have all of these questions about the value of our life and, I guess, it starts to make us think about what we would do differently if we had the chance. It can be a real perspective-giver. 

The fear of death comes in when we believe that perhaps we've wasted too much. When we've missed too many opportunities. When we aren't going to get to say I love you or I'm sorry or Thank you or whatever it is that we need to say to someone who has played an important role in our lives. Our fear of death comes when we start to think about all of the things that we haven't done that we'll never get to do if we die. It can change us. 

Our fear of dying, on the other hand, is a bit different. Dying is the process of losing your life, and it can be either a short process or a long one. Dying can happen in the blink of an eye, or it can take years to drain the last bits of life out of us. Truthfully, we're all dying from the moment that we are born, but most of us don't think of it that way; we'd rather focus on our living. 

The interesting thing about dying is that it doesn't seem to matter how it's happening, everyone seems to always want it to happen the other way. Someone dying a long, drawn-out (often painful) death often wishes it would be over in a second, that their next heartbeat would just be their last already. Someone who didn't know their last heartbeat was coming, we can only imagine, would have wished for more time. We know this from moments that we have with those whose disease or disorder comes on suddenly. Someone whose heart suddenly fails and they have mere hours to say goodbye will tell you a few hours is not enough. 

Of course, a few years doesn't seem to be enough, either. 

Dying takes away our living. It changes who we are because it changes the things that we can do. It changes how we have to interact with the world. Often, dying is a slow process that takes one thing after another after another away from us until we look in the mirror and don't realize anymore who we are. Until all of the things that we loved about living are gone and we're left just existing...just dying. 

There are truths about death and dying that tie directly into our individual personalities and life experiences. Everyone has their own approach to these things, their own reactions. It's easy for us to talk about fear around death and dying - that fear of losing yourself, that fear of being gone forever, that fear of the unknown. That's the word we most often use about it - fear. 

But for me, death and dying are not fear. And my guess is that for many others, the same thing is true. It's not fear, even though we call it that. It's something else. 

And if we can figure out how to relate to death and dying through what we're really feeling about them, well, it might change the way that we think about death and dying. 

So clearly, this week will be a fun week on the blog. You'll definitely want to hang around for this. 

Thursday, June 10, 2021


I have seen a lot of posts on social media lately about "believing" - specifically about "believing in science!" (always with an exclamation point because folks seem very happy and celebratory about this. In the current context, this is, of course, about those who choose to receive the Covid vaccine and in some cases, about those companies who are beginning to require it for their employees. Yay 'science!'

Let me start by making clear that there is no conflict between science and faith. Science has its foundations in the Christian faith and certainly, God gave us minds for understanding and by His intelligence, created an understandable world. And particularly in healthcare, which also has its roots in the Christian faith, science and faith are brothers. 

But let's talk about 'believing,' shall we? 

When someone says they (or someone else) are believing in science, what they mean to say is that they accept the things that science has been able to tell them - or that science is telling them. Now, this raises two sticky points. 

First, we know that science is always changing. It keeps developing based on new information. Even in terms of its greatest successes and achievements, there have always been stepping stones along the way and perhaps, more to come. So what science is able to say today may or may not be true tomorrow as new information keeps coming in. When someone claims to be believing in science, they are claiming to trust only in what science is telling them and they accept it as unchangeable and valid, even though science itself confesses that it may be neither. 

Second, we know that science is always working with a limited (though in the best of times, growing) data set. In other words, science knows what it knows (at least, to a degree), but it doesn't know what it doesn't know. And a lot of times, science's answer to this is to sweep the questions under the rug by simply proclaiming more loudly what it feels certain of today. 

The vaccine works. It is effective against Covid and increasingly, it looks like it even stops the spread of the virus. Science has studies that show this. It feels pretty good about this. But it doesn't know what the side effects are. It doesn't know why some react more harshly than others. It doesn't know what effects it can tie to the vaccine and which it can't. It doesn't know what will happen to the vaccinated a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now. But it can't let itself get bogged down in that. It simply proclaims, "We have a vaccine, and it works!" And then the people rejoice, line up to get vaccinated, and congratulate one another for 'believing in science!' (Always, we might add, with a little jab toward the unvaccinated, who, by implication, must be idiots.) 

Faith has questions, too. There are things that we know about God for certain, and it's on these things that we stake our faith, but if we're being honest, there are still questions. And I think sometimes, we do the same things with them - we either sweep them under the rug or else we drown them out by declaring all the louder what we're certain of. And we speak with the same kind of certainty, the same kind of exclamation points - Yay God! while at the same time, by implication, calling the world idiots for not believing in what we believe. The evidence is so clear and yet...the questions are still daunting to some. 

We have to make more grace for the questions. In science and in faith. We have to make space for those questioning to question out loud. We have to stop shouting them down, implying their foolishness, or using the force of our language to pressure them into pretending that the questions don't matter. We have to let questions be just as valid as answers. Because sometimes, what you know just isn't enough when what you don't know looms so large. 

There is one advantage of faith over science in all of this, and we must briefly mention it - God doesn't change. We don't know exactly what God is going to do a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, but we know He will be loving, He will be gracious, He will be good. 

Even if some of us have grown a third arm by then. (Sorry, vaccine joke.)  

Wednesday, June 9, 2021


Remember the 90s? Of course you do. But in case you don't, let me remind you - the Christian fashion in the 90s was something called a "WWJD" bracelet (or necklace or ring or bookmark or whatever, but most commonly, a bracelet). It was marketed as a way to remind yourself throughout the day to ask yourself one very important question: What Would Jesus Do? But it quickly became just a cool way to say that you were not only a Christian, but a trendy Christian. You wore the bracelet because all of your Christian friends were wearing the bracelet, and you'd hold out your wrists in the cafeteria and compare bracelets to see who had the prettiest one or the coolest one or the most psychadelic one. You'd ask your friends where they got their WWJD bracelet. 

But rarely did anyone ask what WWJD meant. It was just a thing. Like any fad, it didn't take long before everyone knew what WWJD meant, even those outside of the church, but no one talked about it. Everyone wore this important question somewhere on their body, but before long, no one was asking it any more. 

That's the heart of this exchange that Jesus has with the man who wants to know, 'Who is my neighbor?' Jesus responds by telling him that is the wrong question, that the right question is rather, 'Who will you be a neighbor to?' And this is the subtle kind of difference that we keep getting wrong. 

Most of us today are more prone to ask WWJHMD - What Would Jesus Have Me Do? In every situation, or in most of them, or in the ones that we're actually paying attention to in a world with so many distractions, we're asking what God expects of us. What are the guidelines He's set here? What does He want me to do? What's the bare minimum that I can do right now so that God will accept me and be proud of me?

And if God doesn't tell us exactly what to do? Most of us will do nothing at all. 

A question like WWJD requires something that is lacking in today's world: it takes initiative. It takes a willingness to step into something on purpose. It takes us putting ourselves aside and actively seeking to figure out what a situation needs, what we're able to do, what would be the best thing for someone else. Most of us, honestly, are too busy asking what is the best thing for us. We simply can't be bothered to get involved in something that isn't really our problem, and unless God specifically tells us to, we won't. And if He does specifically tell us to, we'll do only as much as He tells us and nothing more (and if He asks too much, we'll argue Him down and justify our hesitation until we've done something, and then say that is good enough). 

That's what the man in this story is asking. He's asking, What Would Jesus Have Me Do? Where are the parameters of my faithfulness? What does God expect of me? 

Jesus's response draws the man back to his own bracelet - What Would Jesus Do? Jesus asks the man, who are you going to be a neighbor to? Who are you going out of your way for? Jesus's story is one scene after another after another of Jesus taking the initiative, stepping in, and actively loving people. That's what He wants us to do, and you can't put parameters on that. You can't set up a set of guidelines to say, "here's how you love." You have to just put it in your heart that you're going to love people the way Jesus loved them. You have to then become a person who looks at a situation and steps in on purpose and loves people. 

It's the difference between asking What Would Jesus Have Me Do? and What Would Jesus Do? It's harder, and it's far more than a fashion statement, but it's what gets us closer to the abundant, thrilling life of love that Jesus has for us. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Called to Love

A man asked Jesus, "But who is my neighbor?" and Jesus's response indicates that the man was asking the wrong question. For Jesus never told the man who his neighbor was, but asked instead who the man would be a neighbor to. 

We're diving into this story this week, and this is such an important concept to grasp. It's been our natural inclination to just assume Jesus answered the question as asked, told the man that his neighbor was anyone who needed his help, and adopted a faith that says that we are required to help anyone and everyone at any time and in every place. 

Not only does this make our faith daunting - who among us could possibly help anyone and everyone at any time and in every place? - but it keeps us focusing on the wrong question, the question that Jesus did not actually answer. 

We're really good at this in our Christian faith. We have a faith that tells us that we know what everyone else in the world ought to do. We have an outward-focused faith that believes it could fix the world in just a few breaths if the world would just listen to the truth that we know. We believe we have our finger on the pulse of eternity and that it's up to us to put this whole world in order by telling it what it doesn't seem to know. 

We have become experts in everyone else's faith. We have become experts on everyone else's life. 

Yet, we never see this in Scripture. We never see Jesus teach this to His disciples (or to anyone else, for that matter). We never see Jesus say, "Y'all know what everyone else should do? They should...." No. Jesus is always telling His followers what they are responsible for. He's always calling His disciples, and everyone else, to responsibility for their own actions. He's always asking men and women to own their own faith and stop worrying about everyone else's. 

That's the heart of what He says when He tells a self-righteous mob, "Whoever among you has not sinned may throw the first stone." Worry about your own faith, not everyone else's. 

No wonder, then, that when the man, self-righteous in his understanding, asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells him that he has the wrong question. No wonder Jesus corrects him. It's not who your neighbor is - the locus of your faith is not outside of yourself; it's who you will choose to be a neighbor to - your faith is established in your own heart. 

See, this is our error. Because we think that Jesus has called us to save the world, and that's why it's so easy for us to be so sure about what everyone else should do. That's why we spend so much of our time concerned about how everyone else is living. Don't they know? 

But Jesus never called us to save the world; He already did that. Jesus called us to love the world, and love is an act that we undertake from our own heart. It's not about what anyone else is doing; it's about what we choose to do. We choose to love...or not. It's that simple. 

The command that the man was asking about says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," and the man asked, who is my neighbor? But Jesus says he's missed the whole point. The key word in that command is not 'neighbor,' as the man was so certain that it was. 

The key word is love.  

Monday, June 7, 2021

What to Do

When the man who was so versed in the law asked Jesus the question, "Who is my neighbor?" he was actually asking a question that is familiar to most of us, though we rarely use those words. The man didn't really want to know who his neighbor was. 

He wanted a box to live in.

He wanted to know exactly what parameters God was putting on his life. He wanted to know exactly what lines God was drawing and how he was supposed to best live in them. He wanted to know exactly to the letter what it was that Jesus expected of him, likely so that he could do just that and nothing more. 

He was a box-checker, a rule-follower, a line-toe-r. He was a man who lived doing only and exactly what was required of him. And as someone who seemed to know the law so well, of course he was. That's what the law does. The law draws lines for us through our lives and shows us exactly where the boundaries are. Those who studied and knew the law in Jesus's day had made a profession out of it. They knew exactly how far they could go without going too far and exactly how much was permissible without breaking the letter of the rule. 

That is, then, what this man is asking Jesus - where are the lines? What do I have to do to fulfill the letter of this law? What do I have to do to live within its bounds? What is expected of me in relation to this truth?

And that's precisely why Jesus doesn't answer the question that the man asked. 

Jesus doesn't want the man to constantly be hemming his life in; not when Jesus has come to set him free from that very thing. Jesus doesn't want him to look at other human beings as some line to live by, but as real human beings bearing the image of God Himself who need a touch of grace and love. When this man encounters a neighbor, the last thing Jesus wants him thinking about is the law. 

Which is why Jesus tells him the question is not, "Who is my neighbor?" but rather, "Who am I a neighbor to?" 

This subtle little change in the question changes everything. Because now, when this man meets a neighbor, he's not thinking about the law. He's not trying to figure out if this is his neighbor or not. He's not asking himself what he owes to this particular man on the basis of some relationship he has to diagram first. No, if the question is, "To whom am I a neighbor?" then all this man has to ask is what he's going to do about the situation. 

Is he going to be a neighbor?

It's the question Jesus wants all of us to be asking ourselves. Not what do we have to do based on the letter of some word that was spoken once upon a time, but what are we going to do on the basis of who we are as a person of God? Not what has God required us to do, but what has God equipped and called us to do? Not who is our neighbor, but are we, in fact, a neighbor to this person? Will we be? 

That's the question. 

The Wrong Question

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, Jesus doesn't quite answer the question that He's asked? And yet, there's something in our human nature that makes us believe that He did and just move on with our lives like the whole matter is settled, just like that. 

One of the places that this comes up most strikingly is in the story of the Good Samaritan. 

Jesus is sitting around talking with some men who consider themselves learned. Not only learned, but elite. These guys are pretty sure they are better than everyone else. And one of them, wanting to be proven right in his understanding and superior moral knowledge, asks the question, "How do I gain eternal life?" 

Jesus turns his question back on him and asks him how he thinks he can gain eternal life, and the man has a quick response - of course, love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

But, not wanting things to be so simple, he goes on to ask another question: who is my neighbor? 

In response, Jesus launches into the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

We know the story. A man is traveling along a dangerous road, a road so dangerous that at just the mention of it, everyone in the audience knew the peril that the man (and anyone who might stop to help him) was in. He is beaten, robbed, and left on the side of this road for dead when three men come passing by. The first is a priest, and then there is a Levite, and finally a Samaritan. Two of these men, wrapped up in their own self-interest and perhaps even clouding this self-concern in holy-sounding language, cross over to the other side of the road and ignore the wounded man. The third man, a despised and detested Samaritan, however, helps him. 

The Samaritan takes the man, bandages his wounds, puts him on his donkey, and takes him to the nearest inn, even paying the tab for the man's stay and care and promising more if what he's given is not enough. 

We read this story and we say, okay, my neighbor is the one in need of help. My neighbor is anyone who could use my assistance. My neighbor is every beaten, robbed man lying in a ditch. My neighbor is the one I am in a superior position to, the one to whom I am able to stoop down and give of my vast wealth of resources. All of a sudden, when we ask who our neighbor is, we get the idea that it's anyone who makes us feel wealthy and blessed.

But that's not what Jesus said. In fact, Jesus never told the man who his neighbor was. 

At the end of this story, Jesus turns the question and asks something so similar that we miss it if we're not paying attention, but it's actually a very different question. Jesus asks, "Which of these men - the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan - was a neighbor to the wounded?" 

It's subtle, but it's important. Jesus didn't say, "To which of these men was the wounded a neighbor?" He didn't ask who had a connection with this man, who was supposed to stop and help him. Rather, He asked which of these men chose to be a neighbor to the wounded.

Who is my neighbor? the man asked. 

Jesus answered, Who will you be a neighbor to?

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Living Jesus

Our over-emphasis (again, I know - not a popular opinion) on the death and resurrection of Jesus is not just troublesome for a world in need of His love; it's hard for us, too. It's actually one of the reasons that it is so easy for many to walk away from the church.

That sounds strange. Nowhere else do we have a promise of eternal life, and yet, that promise of eternal life is often the very thing that drives human beings away from Jesus. And it's because in times of trouble, in times of need, in times of pain and wondering and aching, a Jesus who promises we can live with Him for eternity is not enough. Not when we're barely living now. 

The Jesus that we have, on a Cross and in grave clothes, is so often not the Jesus we need, no matter how much we tell ourselves that He is supposed to be enough. 

And that, by the way, is our theology, not His. That's something we've done to ourselves. We don't see it anywhere in the Gospels, yet we've taken it as the entire message of Christ. 

When the blind men call out from the side of the road, Jesus restores their sight. He doesn't tell them that He has good news - that in just a short while, He will die on a cross and walk out of a grave so that they can live eternally with Him. No. He just...heals them. 

When the demon-possessed are brought to Him, He never speaks to the demon and tells it that its time is coming, that He's going to defeat the powers of Hell on the cross and put the final nail in their coffin by walking out of the grave. No. He casts out the demons. 

When the woman caught in adultery is brought to Him, He doesn't proclaim that one day, her sins will be washed white as snow. No. He forgives her right there. 

Not once in all of Scripture does Jesus tell the people who come to Him that He has good news for them...tomorrow. Not once does He tell them the day is coming. No. Every time, He responds to their need right then, right there. He helps them, He heals them, He restores them, He forgives them today

So when the hurting are among us, when the blind are with us, when the sinners are in our midst...when the broken are in the mirror looking back at dare we proclaim an eternal promise. How dare we tell them their vision is too small. How dare we shout with joy that Jesus has conquered death. 

Jesus knew He was going to conquer death, but that was not the heart of His ministry. The heart of His ministry was His life

That's the Jesus we need. 

And when we preach that Jesus's death and resurrection is the very most important thing, we don't get that. And then when we need that, we don't have it. And when we don't have it, we don't need Him. We don't need a Jesus of tomorrow in our brokenness today. That eternal promise means almost nothing when it comes up against the very real ache of being human today. 

It's why so many think they have plenty of time to come back to Jesus once they've taken care of their real problems. It's why it's so easy to walk away from Him in search of something that's meaningful now. And it's our own selective remembering that has gotten us here. 

It's why we need to remember more of Jesus than just a Cross and a tomb. It's why we need to call to mind the Gospels as often as we can. It's why we need all the stories of Him and not just the ones we think are the 'very most important.' Because the truth is that the very most important thing about Jesus is not His death; it's His life. That's what we need of Him. 

And He gave it to us. 

So why do we keep pretending that He hasn't?

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A Loving Jesus

One of the problems with our remembering Jesus incorrectly - that is, with focusing on His death and resurrection as the very most important thing to the exclusion of all else - is dangerous for our Christian faith. In fact, I think it's what the world has been trying to call us on for awhile now, but we get too caught up in the semantics to catch it. 

See, the world says that we barely know our Jesus. And...they're right. Ask a Christian about Jesus, and he or she is prone to tell you about a Cross and a grave, a Cross and a grave. He died for our sins! He loves us! 

But ask about an example of the love of Jesus that isn't the Cross or the grave, and many Christians struggle to come up with one. 

Because when we make the story of Jesus only about His death and resurrection, it doesn't take long for us to start forgetting all of the other stuff. All of the human stuff. All of the real-life, dirt-meets-the-feet stuff. We come to have this very powerful, earth-shaking, death-defeating Jesus but...what about His tenderness? What about His mercy? What about His grace? What about His love?

This is what the world's been shouting at us for so long - your Jesus, they say, loved people. Why don't you Christians get that? 

The love of Jesus they're talking about is not the love that saves persons from eternal damnation or sanctifies their souls. They're talking about the love of Jesus that ate in the homes of sinners. The love of Jesus that made friends out of a tax collector and a zealot. The love of Jesus that forgave a wayward disciple three times (and probably more, if you get an idea of who Peter was). The love of Jesus that spoke to women in despair and distress. The love of Jesus that restored sight to the blind. The love of Jesus that didn't condemn the guilty, but condemned the judgment of the just-as-sinful. The love of Jesus that stared demons and darkness right in the eye and cast them out. 

The world cannot fathom why we, as a people claiming to be God's people, don't seem to know more about the love of Jesus. And it's simply because these are not the stories that we choose to remember. I've said it before - we don't even remember the incarnation of Jesus as significant. Only inasmuch as it leads us to the Cross. We just completely seem to miss the boat on the Jesus story and it's because we've been told, we've learned somewhere, that Jesus's death and resurrection is the very most important thing and that any time we think of Jesus, any time we remember Him, this is what we're supposed to remember. Because our eternal souls live and breathe on this truth. 

But what about our human hearts? 

Our human hearts need a truth, too, and so do our human neighbors. Our world needs the Jesus whose story the Gospels tell - all of Him. 

One of the things that I think is sad is how easy it is for us to meet another human being somewhere - in a grocery store, at work, in church, even - and to curse them to Hell because they aggravate us. To wish them to die and go to Hell "where they belong" because they don't fit into our plan for our day. We see someone doing something we disagree with, and we know that God is going to judge them eternally for it. And what we don't seem to know is how Jesus would love them right now. Right here. How Jesus would reach out and invite them to dinner or anoint them with oil or stare their darkness in the eyes and cast it out. We don't seem to know how Jesus would be tender with them, merciful. How He would love them. How He does love them.  

Because the Jesus we know, the one we remember so readily and so freely, is the Jesus of eternal life. So it's just easier for us to jump straight to this person's eternity (which we've judged without redemption because hey, Jesus died for me, but not for someone like that) than to do the hard Gospel work of loving them in Jesus's life right here, right now. 

The world's been calling us on this. They have. And we haven't been listening because so often, the world is wrong about our Jesus, too. But they're right about us - we don't know Him. And it's because we choose to remember a mere three days of His three-year ministry and His thirty-plus-year life. 

We have to do better. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

A Dying Jesus

One of the criticisms that the world has of the church is that these Christians do not seem to know their Jesus very well. To be fair, the world's idea of Him is fairly off, too, but the criticism is well-deserved. And it's because we are not particularly good at remembering. 

Most of us have heard the stories of Jesus. We know the miracles, the healing of the sick, the casting out of demons, the restoration of the lame. We know how critically He spoke to the Pharisees and how tenderly to the sinners. We know the twelve men that He chose and traveled with, the betrayer with whom He broke bread. Yet, we have also been told that the very most important thing about Jesus was His death and resurrection. 

This has been hammered into us from the very beginning. Jesus died on the Cross and was raised for our sins. For your sins. If you know nothing else about Jesus, know that He died for you. (You don't have to even know that He loves you enough to die for you, just that He did, in fact, die for you.) 

Because of this kind of teaching, we develop this kind of laser-focus dominance on the Cross and the tomb. (Although, to be honest, for most of us, it's the Cross and not the tomb.) When asked, then, to 'remember' Jesus, to call something to mind about Him, it's this - a bloody Savior on a splintering Cross, crying out for our wounded souls. 

Which is great. And important. But...and I'm going to say this even though it's not 'popular' doctrine...that's not all there is to Jesus. 

The Cross isn't everything that Jesus is for us. Neither is the tomb. There is so much more to the story of Jesus, so much written into the Gospels that we just...throw out with the bathwater. It's just back-story, we think. It's just setting us up for what's really important - the Cross. The Bible only tells us these things about Jesus, we conclude, so that we understand how radical it was for Him to die on the Cross the way that He did. We believe that the entire story of Jesus leads us to this point. 

So, naturally, every time we 'remember' Jesus and are asked to pick a scene from His life, this is the one we pick. We've been told it is the very most important thing. 

No wonder the world isn't convinced that we know Him. 

What I'm trying to say is that there is so much more to Jesus than just this moment. There is more that we ought to be remembering when we remember Him. In fact, not even every moment, every sacrament, that He Himself instituted was meant to draw us into His death. Rather, Jesus Himself, from the very beginning of His ministry, told us plainly that His aim was to draw us into His life

And, well, how many times when you 'remember' Jesus do you remember first something He did while He was living and not while He was dying?

This is a problem. It's one we need to pay more attention to. To be continued.... 


Yesterday, I gave my post to Memorial Day, as well I should have. Memorial Day is a time during which we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us. It's tempting for some in the church to want to "Christianize" Memorial Day and to talk about how Jesus made the ultimate, ultimate sacrifice for us, but I think that's cheap - both to Christ and to the men and women who have died on our battlefields. There's nothing wrong with honoring our brothers and sisters, especially our brothers and sisters who gave so much for us. 

But what's also true is that 'remembering' is something I have been thinking about for a long time in the context of my (our collective) Christian faith. It's something I don't think we really understand, and I think that's because it's something we don't pay much attention to. Or pay enough attention to. 

Because it's hard. It's hard for us to remember something that we haven't had first-hand experience of. "Remember Jesus." Great. Except...none of us ever met Jesus. Not in person. We weren't alive when He walked the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem. We weren't there, to answer the popular song, when they crucified our Lord. We have not seen the empty tomb on Easter morning. 

To us, Jesus is an idea, not a person. We spend our whole Christian lives lecturing about how He was a person and insisting that we know this, but it's not something that we comprehend the same way that we do when we look into the actual physical eyes of the man or woman next to us. To us, that Jesus is a also an idea. 

So there's this disconnect. His story, His in-the-flesh story, is so far removed from us that it's hard for us to really connect and engage with it. So instead, we engage with the verb: remember. 

We don't worry about remembering the details. Or remembering something specific. I think it's true that if you talk to most Christians and ask them to 'remember' Jesus and then ask them what they remember about Him, most will tell you that they just have a picture of Him in their head. Just a picture. The same picture we see painted all the time, that portrait of His face and long flowing hair. When we 'remember' Jesus, this is the image that comes to mind for too many of us. Ah, yes, Jesus. That's Him. 

No wonder, then, that we feel so disconnected from our faith. No wonder that it's so hard for us to engage with the heart of God. 

To put this in other terms, imagine that you have a photograph on your fireplace. It is of your grandfather. When you look at that photo, your first thought is, "That is my grandfather." Or if someone were to ask you about your grandfather, that picture would probably pop into your mind. If that person were in your family room, you might even point to it. That's it. That's him. That's my grandfather. 

But despite the fact that we've heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, the picture alone doesn't tell the story of your grandfather. No one who sees that picture would know anything worthwhile about your grandfather from it, and the sad truth is that the more and more that you look at it, the more it becomes just a picture to you, too. You don't think anything particular about your grandfather just from seeing it. It becomes to you just an image. Yup. That's him. That's what he looked like. 

Now imagine, instead, that every time you see that picture, you tell a story. You remember a story. You talk about that time that you went grocery shopping and he bought you an ice cream. Or how you used to sit on his lap every day and watch The Price is Right. Or how rough his hands were from decades of farming the land or working with wood or whatever it was that he did for a living. Imagine that every time you saw that picture of your grandfather - and every time someone asked about him - what you had was a story and not just an image. 

That's what we're missing when we talk about Jesus. That's what we're missing when we 'remember' Jesus. We get this mental image that comes to mind of a (wildly inaccurate) portrait that someone painted generations after He walked the earth, but so few of us get a Gospel story in our hearts. So few of us think about something Jesus did or said or promised or anything. 

All we've got is a picture. Yup. That's Him. That's Jesus. 

And it's just not enough.