Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Self-Deception





Back in the day we kids used to say to someone who was full of himself: “well, aren’t you just hot snot!”  The problem was that we usually thought more of ourselves than we should have and took the moral high ground even as we detected pride in another.  The fact is we are all targets for the temptation of self-deception.  King Saul in the Old Testament was the epitome of one who paid lip service to God and thought himself faithful, but never could bring himself to see that he was a disobedient clod and in need of coming clean about his true character (1 Samuel 15:1-26).

Many followers of Jesus are surprised when they end up in trouble.  They never saw the major inconsistencies of their lives, and did not take the preacher’s sermons and a well-meaning friend’s rebuke to heart because the message was really needed for “that other person.”  Too many of us Christians actually traffic in lies rather than truth through offering rationalizations, assessing blame on others for our problems, and evading responsibility.

When confronted squarely with our own wrongdoing, instead of trying to wriggle out of it by believing we aren’t as bad as other people, there is a much better and biblical response:  own up to it, and receive God’s grace.  The basis of grace is the cross of Christ, and that grace is most often dispensed through others.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian who resisted the evil of Hitler and chose a life of radical discipleship, had this to say:    

“A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.  As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins, everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother, the sin has to be brought into the light.”

            If we easily confess to God something that we would never think of sharing with a trusted friend or pastor, we are back to thinking too highly of ourselves and of the opinions of other people and not highly enough of God’s grace designed to shoo away the snakes of pride that slither about our feet.

            We must face our own addiction to self and a false self-image, and create a love for the truth of grace.  Deception can come in many forms, but the self-deceiver is in a special need for healthy spiritual introspection.  Are you willing to speak honestly about your own struggles, weaknesses, and shortcomings?  Or will you rely on reading a wimpy blog post to substitute for genuine and honest confession?

            God is glorified not when we are perfect or give the illusion of perfection; He is glorified in the struggle to live a holy life with a group of like-minded believers who have each others backs.  Wise church and ministry leaders will take care to cultivate a culture of confession throughout its organization.  So, may you have the courage to pursue hard after grace and find in Christ and his people newness of life.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Spiritual Blindness





Jesus had a lot to say about spiritual blindness.  He didn’t like it.  Some of his harshest words were reserved for those who should know better, those persons for whom the light of God’s truth ought to be clear and present.  Yet they are in darkness.  Having spiritual blindness is terrible to Jesus because it not only keeps the blind person in the dark, but slams the door of God’s kingdom in other people’s faces.

Many of the Pharisees of the New Testament, most of the heretics in the early church, and some of the spiritual phonies of today are actually not charlatans, that is, they are not deliberately trying to deceive or lead others astray; they are not trying to keep people out of God’s kingdom – they think they are doing the right thing when they are actually doing the wrong thing.  One of the eye-opening realities I learned when I first started studying church history is that the early heresies that were condemned at the church councils were doctrines promoted and put forth by men who were not evil bad people – they were just sincerely misguided.  They thought they were helping the church better understand the nature of God and Christ when in fact they were teaching really bad doctrine.  They were unintentionally slamming the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of ordinary people.  And later when I worked on my master’s thesis in 19th century American Religious History, I read hundreds of sermons from southern preachers before the American Civil War.  I learned that they had a biblical defense of the institution of black chattel slavery.  Many of them were pastors of large churches and led many people to Christ, that is, white people.  They were super-slamming the door of God’s kingdom right in faces of African-Americans, and teaching others to do the same.

            We can unwittingly super-slam the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of people when we say God’s grace is for all, and turn around and avoid certain people; when we have explicit written statements or rules that exclude people from service; and, when we bind people to human traditions and practices instead of Holy Scripture.  The seven deadly words of the Church that slam the door of God’s kingdom in people’s faces is:  “we’ve never done it that way before.”  Never mind that there are people trying to enter the kingdom of God – that is against our tradition!  However well-meaning and sincere that might be, it is sincerely wrong because it leaves people who need to be saved by God’s grace on the outside and unsaved.  And that kind of practice will bring the condemnation of Jesus every time.

Jesus gave us some telltale signs of spiritual blindness, which he calls “hypocrisy” (Matthew 23):  hypocrites don’t practice what they preach; they keep other people out of God’s kingdom with their burdensome legalism; they focus on externals and ignore the inner sanctum of the heart; and, they major on the minors.

            But condemnation and warning is never the last word.  The last word to everything is God’s grace.  At the end of his tirade of pronouncing woes on the Pharisees and those like them, Jesus did something that we would do well to follow:  he broke into a tear-filled, heart-rending love song for his wayward people.  Christ was not just concerned to blast the bad guys; he has a deep pastoral sensitivity to people, all people, so that they will come back to the true worship of God.  May it be so, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Real, or Fake?





Some things are pretty unrealistic.  But for most things in life, you often cannot tell a fake by the external appearance.  When it comes to Christianity and the true worship of God a person might give a good outward performance, but actually not be the real deal because he or she is full of bitterness and death on the inside with a heart far from God.

What is sobering for devoted believers in God is the reality that the Church may have people who are religious on the outside but not really be a Christ follower on the inside.  Having all the outward signs of faith without an inward reality is like putting perfume in a vase – it might smell like flowers but the flowers aren’t really there.  

            At the heart of Jesus Christ’s teaching is to be humble and avoid pride by not comparing ourselves to others and wondering if we are getting our due attention; rather we are to compare ourselves only to Christ and the Word of God and, so, become truly meek and humbly serve others out of a genuine heart that loves God.  What we proclaim and profess cannot be separated from who we are.

Jesus condemned the religiously committed Pharisees because they put heavy burdens on people and were unwilling to help them carry those burdens.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry he approached the crowds with the understanding that they were following him for a variety of reasons, some noble and some not so noble.  Some of those people heard of Jesus and genuinely wanted to be healed.  Some followed him because their hearts burned within them when he spoke and they wanted to know God better.  Some desired a true way of living and saw in Jesus fresh hope for their lives.  Yet others followed Jesus around wanting to see the next cool miracle, to maybe get a free handout, or just to hear him so that they could tell all their friends that they heard him speak and saw him heal.  Jesus was always trying to press and challenge the vast crowds of people into a genuine, real righteousness from the heart that would submit to God’s kingdom.  But the Pharisees and teachers of the law kept undermining Jesus, talking behind his back, and tried to stir up resentment against him.  

            The Pharisees’ motives were not to help people know God better through service, but to just talk a good line.  Interestingly, Jesus did not chastise them for what they taught (Matthew 23:1-12), but leveled condemnation on them for not helping people live-out their obligations.  The Pharisees knew their bibles and had a high view of Scripture.  The problem was not so much their doctrine but that they did not practice what they preached.  It isn’t so much what the Pharisees taught as how they taught it – it was neither gentle, nor had any grace.  People need one another in order to truly live for God, but if there is a double-standard that exists among folks in the church then there is only heavy loads that aren’t getting carried because some individuals think they are above helping others or think too little of themselves and believe God could not use them.  In both cases the person declares “someone should do something!”  Someone should give, someone should pray, someone should visit, someone should tell that person about Christ, someone should help.  To which Jesus would say that someone is you!

            Jesus also condemned the Pharisees because they loved to do things for a show, for the attention.  Everything the Pharisees and the teachers of the law did was for others to see.  They thought they deserved the accolades of others.  We can be hard on the Pharisees, yet whenever we plaster on fake smiles, only obey and serve when others are looking, and/or pretend like everything is just peachy keen when we are dying inside then we have fallen under the same condemnation and are in need of putting aside caring so much about how we look to others and grieve, mourn and wail asking the God of grace to have mercy on us.  We can be so obsessed about the right thing to say that we never say what is really on the inside because we think it isn’t spiritual enough and we fear looking bad.

The Pharisees also were men who sought status and prestige.  Respect and honor was everything to many Pharisees which is why they wanted the positions of prominence and insisted on being recognized for whatever they did in the synagogue.  In public they insisted that the people respect them in their greeting and acknowledgements.  They did not want to look bad, ever.

            But facades will not do for Jesus.  Pharisees are very predictable because they always act with the spectator in mind, and seek to elicit praise and respect everywhere they go.  To Pharisees, it does not matter what is on the inside as long as the outside looks good.  In his autobiography, Be Myself, Warren Wiersbe writes about his first church building project as a young pastor in Indiana. He and the church's building committee were working with a church architect. At one of the committee meetings, Wiersbe asked the architect, "Why do we need such an expensive, high ceiling in the auditorium? We're not building a cathedral. Why not just build an auditorium with a flat room and then put a church façade in the front of the building?" Wiersbe writes that in a very quiet voice, the architect replied, "Pastor, the building you construct reflects what a church is and what a church does. You don't use façades on churches to fool people. That's for carnival sideshows. The outside and the inside must agree."

So, what do we do when we realize that the outside of our lives and the inside don’t match?  We become humble and meek just like Jesus.  We are to revere and honor God, not people.  Putting people on a pedestal is not good because they are just people.  Instead of the mentality “look how great I am!” we are to treat everyone as an equal because at the heart of thinking people owe me something is the idea that I am better than the other person.  The answer to that attitude is to adopt Christ’s meekness and humility.  The zeal to feel important and respected is to be transformed into the desire to serve others.

            The way up is down.  We are to descend, not ascend, into greatness.  So, what does humble meekness look like?  Taylor University is a Christian college in Indiana. Years ago, an African student, Sam, was going to be enrolling in their school. This was before it was commonplace for international students to come to the U.S. to study. He was a bright young man with great promise, and the school felt honored to have him. When he arrived on campus, the President of the University took him on a tour, showing him all the dorms. When the tour was over, the President asked Sam where he would like to live. The young man replied, "If there is a room that no one wants, give that room to me." Over the years the president had welcomed thousands of Christian men and women to the campus, and none had ever made such a request.  "If there is a room that no one wants, give that room to me." That's the kind of meekness Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes.
If there is a job that no one wants to do, I'll do that job.
If there's a kid that no one wants to eat lunch with, I'll eat with that kid.
If there's a piece of toast that's burnt, I'll take that piece.
If there's a parking space that's far away from the church, I'll park in that space.
If there's a need is someone’s life, I’ll meet that need.
If there's a hardship someone has to endure, I'll take that hardship.
If there's a sacrifice someone needs to make, I'll make that sacrifice.

            The greatest among you will be your servant.  Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.  This applies not only to individuals but to groups of people and churches as well.  If we never get out of our comfortable little band of people, then we need to ask ourselves why not?  If we never look beyond the four walls of the church building in order to serve someone, we need to ask ourselves why not?  If we have a chronic critical spirit toward someone then we need to ask ourselves if the genuine article is within us?

            The kingdom of God is not a matter of outward eating and drinking and displays of spirituality but is a matter of inner righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  May we all serve one another deeply from a heart of love and grace.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Death


          Death may not be the most popular of topics, especially at the first of the year, but it is still all around us.  Death does not take a break between semesters.  We typically don't deal well with death in our American culture simply because we don't like to think about it. Yet, it is a reality we all must face. Whether it is seeing the tragedy of murder on the news, or a more personal touch of experiencing the loss of a loved one, the specter of death haunts us.  Death is topic we must confront. As a pastor I do my fair share of funerals.  Many families want to just get it all over quickly.  More just don’t know what to do, how to act, or even how to feel.  The process from death to grave occurs in just a few days.  Typically we “enlightened” Westerners give three days for the process of grief. Most employers give only three days of bereavement pay. Most professors at school still want the work in on time. The expectation is that we get this grief thing all over with and move on with our lives as if nothing has happened.

          Biblically, grief unfolds over a much longer stretch of time. It takes time to come to grips with what has happened and come to a resolution of the reality of the loss. Emotions need time to come out and be expressed through talking about the deceased, through lots of tears, and through listening to the stories of others about the loved one we no longer have. When, in the Old Testament, Jacob died, an extended time of bereavement occurred where the body was embalmed (a long process in Egyptian culture), a funeral procession ran from Egypt to Israel, and, once at the burial site, a period of thirty days was observed in mourning. Contrasted with our bereavement rituals, it is no wonder that people often exhibit long periods of depression and anger months, sometimes even years after a death of a friend or family member.  Sometimes they may drop out of normal routines altogether and are never quite the same.

          Our well-meaning words to the bereaved can also add to the suppression of emotions. When words are offered that God works for the good of the death, that we can be joyful despite our loss because of heaven, or that it is time to move on and put the past behind us, we can unwillingly short circuit the needed process of grief, leaving the bereaved feeling guilty for not being able to cope better with the loss. Everyone's grief is personal, and everyone must have another who will offer a listening ear. Deeds often say much more than words for the bereaved. Bringing meals, helping with the dishes or laundry, or taking the dog for a walk are all examples of mercy and love that speak volumes to those experiencing loss.

          So, let's not avoid death. Let's embrace it. Let's feel the full range of pain that is inevitable in such a loss. For, through the process of grief we can better experience the solidarity of identifying with the suffering Savior of our souls, and we can be agents of God's grace to the hurting. It is through these needs met that a grief observed can bring people to know Jesus and the power of salvation.