Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pronoun Trouble

One of my favorite Warner Brothers cartoons is the 1952 “Rabbit Seasoning.”  Check out the hilarious dialogue between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck:
Bugs Bunny [to Elmer]:  Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now! Shoot him now!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now! [to Elmer]: I demand that you shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]
Daffy Duck: Let's run through that again.
Bugs Bunny:  Okay.  [in a flat tone]: Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: [flat tone] Shoot him now, shoot him now.
Bugs Bunny: [flat tone] You keep outta this. He doesn't hafta shoot you now.
Daffy Duck: [with sudden passion] Ha! That's it! Hold it right there! [speaking to the audience]: Pronoun trouble.  [to Bugs]  It's not: "He doesn't have to shoot *you* now." It's: "He doesn't have to shoot *me* now." Well, I say he does have to shoot me now! [to Elmer]  So shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]

            Pronouns are important.  I am not trying to be some weird grammar nerd (although I would be okay with that reference).  What I am attempting to get at is that the use of pronouns in the way Christians talk and write belies how we view ourselves, our world, the church, and, even God.  If we are not careful, pronoun trouble will get us sidelined from God’s agenda for the church.

            For example, a person comes up to the pastor and says something like “we don’t like _____.”  Go ahead and fill in the blank.  It could be anything.  The gun goes off.  The important thing to note is that an individual is speaking on behalf of a group, or the entire congregation.  That says a lot about the person.  It says that not only is the person taking on a grandiose position of assuming that he/she knows what everyone else is thinking, but, maybe even more significantly, this person does not differentiate him/her self from the group.  The person is so enmeshed in the group or system that speaking as an individual is not practiced.  Many people within the church need the ability to step back and discern what it is they actually need and want, then be able to state “I would like to see ______.” 

            Let’s take the opposite kind of example.  A parishioner approaches another congregant and emphatically states something like, “my needs are not getting met here, so I am going elsewhere.”  In this case, the individual is too detached from the larger congregation and can only use the personal pronoun.  The parishioner needs to adopt some plural pronouns in order to better connect with others.  The real problem is one of not having a sense of community and the role that the individual plays within it.  There is too much of a focus on self and not a missional sense of working together to achieve a noble cause.

            So, then, there are here two approaches to be avoided.  On the one hand, some congregations can be so entrenched in a particular system and way of doing things that they cannot imagine doing things differently.  “We have always done it this way” are the seven deadly words of the church.  On the other hand, there is the solitary person who can never quite seem to think of others but constantly evaluates everything done in the church through the filter of what she can get out of it for herself. 

            How Christians talk of others outside the church is also of much importance.  “They” and “them” are pronouns that can easily be used to refer to some nameless people that we do not want within the fellowship.  It is prescient to keep in mind that a pronoun refers to a proper name.  Who are “they?”  Are “they” really a threat?  It would be much better to define who we are talking about and why. Sometimes pronouns are not the best way to talk to each other.  “The missions team would like to reach young urban professionals with the gospel of Jesus” is better than an amorphous “we do not want them in our church services.”

            I hope you get the picture here.  Pronouns are important.  Their proper use can either further the mission of the church, or they can get us into trouble.  Pay attention to language, because it has been given to the church as a sacred trust.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Price of Prayer

All of the Christian life is grounded in two important theological truths:  God is good; and, God acts powerfully in the world for good.  Prayer is based in the conviction that God is concerned to hear us; and, that he is able to respond and answer.  Prayer might be something that we can engage in at any time, but real God-focused, God-honoring prayer has a price.  It will cost us time, effort, vulnerability, and following through with action.  Biblical prayer is not just throwing up some private requests, but is an activity that requires something of us as a community of believers in Jesus (James 5:13-20). 

            The entire church is to pray – all of us, the happy and the suffering, the healthy and unhealthy.  More specifically, the New Testament letter of James tells us that the leaders/elders of the church are to pray for those who are “sick” (James 5:14).  The word James used refers not just to a physical illness, but also to those who are weak and weary, those who are completely worn down because of their life circumstances.

            James provides a clear chain of responsibility.  The onus is on the sick person to contact the elders of the church.  James clearly puts the need for communicating the situation on the person who is undergoing the trouble.  For many people, this is humbling and difficult, so they do not do it.  But prayer has a price – it will cost us some openness.

            When the needy person communicates the trouble, then the elders are to anoint the person in the name of the Lord and offer a prayer of faith on his/her behalf.  It is the leadership’s job to pray.  In the Bible, anointing with oil was a deeply symbolic act of encouragement in which a tangible thing was being done in order to lift the person from the trouble.  Physical ailments of bodily sickness; sinful problems of anger or bitterness; spiritual struggles of doubt; emotional challenges of depression; anything and everything that would cause a lack of health could be prayed over and people could be anointed and encouraged.

            Prayer for James was not a strictly private affair; it was a communal activity.  I want us to entertain the notion that if we are not experiencing healing, wholeness, and health whether it is physical, relational, or spiritual, then maybe God is calling you and I to not only personal private prayer, but corporate prayer offered by the elders of the church.  It is not just the prayer offered by one solitary individual that makes the sick person well – it is the collective faith prayer of the church’s leadership on the troubled person.

            The goal of prayer is healing in its complete form:  physical, mental, emotional, relational, and, of course, spiritual.  Effective prayer results in reconciliation with others, and a restoration to the community of faith.  To bring those who wander from the truth back – to realize a return of a prodigal – will result because of prayer (James 5:19-20).

            In the past ten years, the American church has experienced a pronounced slide of people out the door.  According to Christian pollster, George Barna, 25% of the U.S. population now identifies themselves in the religious category of “none.”  They have no religious affiliation.  Many of them have left churches.  You already know this.  You know it because this is not a statistic to you.  You know some of the “nones” personally.

            What will you do about it?  Wish it were different?  Lament it?  Complain about it?  Or will you and your church pray with heartfelt, earnest, passionate, deliberate, sustained, and believing prayers so that prodigals will return and those who have wandered far from God will experience the grace of Jesus Christ?  Bring them back.  Do it with prayer.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Source of Conflict

A reality of the human experience is the ubiquitous presence of conflicts, quarrels, infighting, and animosities.  Although we might readily identify such situations at work, amongst extended family, or even while out shopping, the presence of conflict also exists within the church.  Every New Testament epistle we have was written to address some set of problems or circumstances which contributed to a breakdown in church fellowship.  In the epistle of James, we get a straightforward question asked of us:  “What causes fights and quarrels among you?”  The Apostle James did not get caught up in the presenting symptoms of verbal battles and animosities.  He went to the heart of the trouble (James 4:1-3). 

James said that the root of trouble is our desires that battle within us.  The word for “desire” that he used is the word from which we get our English word “hedonism.”  Hedonism is the belief and practice that pleasure is the chief good in life.  It is a consuming passion to satisfy personal wants, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain those wants.  The early church was fighting because of their hedonistic practices.  Certain people wanted what they wanted and they would do whatever it took to get it.

            Selfish hedonistic pleasure-seeking is the disease that creates infighting and trouble.  In February 2009, a 27-year-old woman from Fort Pierce, Florida, walked into a McDonald's restaurant and ordered a 10-piece McNuggets meal. The person behind the counter took the order and received payment. The McDonald's employee then discovered that they were out of those bite-sized, warm, tasty McNuggets. The employee told the customer that the restaurant had run out of McNuggets, and she would have to get something else from the menu. The customer asked for her money back. The employee said all sales are final, and she could have a larger priced item from the menu if she wanted.  The customer got angry. She wanted McNuggets—not a Big Mac, not a McRib, not a Quarter Pounder. She hedonistically desired her McNuggets and, so, this was clearly an emergency, and she knew what to do in an emergency: she took out her cell phone and called 911. Apparently the 911 workers didn't take her seriously because the McNuggets-loving woman called 911 three times to get help!  She never got her McNuggets that night, but she did later get a ticket from police for misusing 911.

Maybe McNuggets are not a weak point for you.  But something is, and a hedonistic pursuit of that thing can twist our perspective and skew our judgment. It can grow like a cancer in the Body of Christ.  It can make small things big and big things small. Will we do anything it takes to gain satisfaction?  A passage in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has the Senior Devil giving his understudy, Wormwood, some advice:  “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is God’s invention, not ours.  He made the desires; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced and get them to go after them in ways in which He has forbidden.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”

James gave an alternative to no-holds-bar pursuit of hedonism.  He said that you do not have because you do not ask God.  And even then, if you still hold onto the hedonistic stance through prayer, you will not get what you ask for because you ask with wrong motives.  Prayer that is nothing more than cozying up to the world is simply spiritual adultery; it is talking to God, but having a spiritual mistress on the side to meet the needs that God does not seem to care about.

So, then, it must always be borne in mind that it is terribly easy to wander from the truth and go the way of indulging our hedonistic pleasures – even in the church.  Sometimes we need a reality check because God cares just as much about why we do what we do, and how we go about it, as he does the actual thing.  When we call people back to their senses and bring them back to godly well-ordered desires, remember this:  we save them from a multitude of sins.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Taming the Tongue

Words are powerful.  God created the entire world with speech.  Since people are created in God’s image and likeness, our words carry a great deal of weight.  Within the church, the tongue is the most powerful tool we have for building up the Body of Christ, giving praise and offering prayer to God, and for proclaiming the good news of forgiveness in Christ.  However, the bald truth is that there are far too many duplicitous tongues within the church which can say something good one minute and something hurtful the next.

Whatever comes out of our mouths reveals what is on the inside of our lives (James 3:0-12).  If we can grasp the truth of this, I believe it could transform the way we talk to one another.  Salt water and fresh water cannot both come from the same spring.  A fig tree cannot bear olives, and a grapevine is not going to produce figs.  Here is the biblical point:  Whatever comes out of the mouth reveals the source.  Evil words come from an evil source; and, good words come from a good source.  If a person has a pattern of negative condescending speech, then that person is drawing from a well pumping up words from the depths of Hell.  And if a person has a practice of continually saying helpful words that encourage others, that person is producing good fruit from roots that draw nourishment from God’s Word.

            Here are four ways to bring the tongue under control so that our speech and our words can reflect the God who created us for good:

  1. Train your tongue for good, just like you would train anything else.  When starting an exercise regimen, you are training your body for health.  When dieting, you are saying ‘yes’ to certain foods, and ‘no’ to others.  The tongue needs to be trained to express gratitude, gospel, and grace.  And one of the best ways to do it is through speaking Scripture out loud in a daily regular regimen.  Consider going on a fast from talking, and seek only to be silent and listen for a specified amount of time.  Paul said to Timothy:  Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7).  The writer of Hebrews said:  Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:14).
  2. Read a chapter of Proverbs each day for a month.  There are thirty one chapters in Proverbs, one for each day of the month.  Pay attention to the power of words.  Notice the difference between the speech of a wise person and the words of a fool – and take to heart the consequences of both approaches.  Here are just a few of Proverbs’ short pithy statements about the tongue:  When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (10:19); Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (12:18).
  3. Foster relationships and friendships with people that are positive and encouraging.  If a negative person keeps being negative, even after you have warned them more than once about it, you likely need a new relationship.  Paul was straightforward with his young protégé, Titus, by saying:  Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time.  After that, have nothing to do with him.  You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned (Titus 3:10-11).
  4. Listen and learn before speaking.  A judgmental spirit comes from an inability to rightly interpret another person’s words and/or actions.  We can too often jump to conclusions about something or someone with only partial information and a fact or two without the whole story.
When it comes to using our words, love is to be our guide, as the Apostle Paul so eloquently said in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13:

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects (does not destroy or harm), always trusts (gives the person the benefit of the doubt), always hopes (that is, thinks the best of others), and always perseveres (never gives up on loving speech).  Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled….

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Why, God?"

In Lodi, California, in March of 2006, a city dump truck backed into a car belonging to a man named Curtis Gokey. The car was damaged badly, so Gokey sued the city of Lodi for $3,600.  There is, however, a catch to the story: Curtis Gokey was driving the city dump truck that crunched his personal car. And he admitted it was his fault. The city dropped the lawsuit, stating that Gokey could not sue himself.  Like Mr. Gokey, we are often our own worst enemies. There are times when it is easy for us to justify ourselves while blaming God and/or others in the church for things we don’t like. 

            When life is not going so well, it is possible to slide into a private belief system that thinks God is not good for his promises (James 1:16-17).  At worst, one can start to think that God is the problem and the source of the trouble.  To be “self-deceived” means to go astray or slowly drift from the truth.  And it can happen to anybody.  The first step to self-deception is having expectations that do not get met.  An expected answer to prayer goes unanswered; another person lashes out and there seems to be no protection from it; an expected blessing does not come to pass – it is then that complaining and blaming God for the problem can occur.  Immediately after being delivered from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites faced some significant challenges in the desert (Exodus 15:22-16:3).  They responded not with faith but with grumbling against Moses.  They began to believe that God did not have their best interests at mind, and started to skew how they looked at the past.  The Israelites quickly forgot that Egypt was terribly hard and they were slaves.  Yet, they looked at it as the good ol’ days.

            Trusting God when we do not understand everything that is happening can be a challenge.  Asking “why” questions are not all bad.  God is big enough to take our questions.  “Why, God, did you let my son or daughter die?”  “Why, God, did you give me so-and-so to deal with?”  “Why, God, is there so much suffering in the world?”  “Why, God, do people I care about have to go through such difficulty?”  “Why, God, do the wicked go unpunished?”  “Why, God, are so many Christians dull and apathetic?”  “Why, God, does everything seem to be changing?”  “Why, God?”

            Questioning can help us make sense of our situations.  Questioning may also cause us to doubt that God is there and that he will act on our behalf.  In such times it might be tempting to blame God for a broken relationship, a terrible event, a dysfunctional church body, or an adverse situation.  But God has chosen to give us birth through the word of truth (not a word of deception and lies) so that we might have new life with fresh eyes of faith to see our situations as God sees them (James 1:18).  That is what wisdom is – the ability to see all of life from God’s perspective.  If any of us lacks wisdom, we should ask God, who gives generously without finding fault, and it will be given to us (James 1:5).  This is a promise from a good God who knows how to give good gifts.

            None of us are above falling into misinterpretations that lead to the self-deceptions of questioning the goodness of God.  We need to be vigilant in watching for the clever stories we might tell ourselves:  ‘it’s not my fault; it’s all your fault; there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll just belly-ache about it.’  We are all to take charge of our lives through having a robust theology of God that discerns he is always good, all the time.

            The good news is that a good God has taken care of the sin issue once for all through the cross of Christ.  He has brought us the good gifts of forgiveness and grace.  Furthermore, God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us and guide us into all truth so that we will have wisdom and humility to live the Christian life as it is meant to be lived.  The key to it all is faith – genuine authentic faith that places head, heart, and hands completely in Jesus Christ so that we have right belief, right motives, and right actions all rightly working together in a full-orbed Christianity that glorifies God and blesses Christ’s church. 

            Don’t be your own worst enemy by sabotaging your thoughts with the double-mindedness of wondering about the true nature of God.  Explore the depths of God in Christ and discover the goodness that can result even in life’s most difficult experiences.