Too Much is Never Enough

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

EDITORIAL NOTE:  I took a couple of months off posting to regroup and consider several new developments in my life, all good.  I’m back now and will resume posting commentary on how God works in all our lives.

One of my favorite movies every year is the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  I suspect we’ve all seen this film many times, maybe with at Christmas time with friends or family.  One of the key early scenes is a confrontation between the hero, George Bailey – a man who has his life in front of him and wants to see the world and find his fortune – and the evil millionaire Henry Potter, a man who has gained everything but has no redeeming qualities.

In this scene, George is preparing to leave on his long awaited trip to Europe, but is stopped by Potter’s desire to take over the Building and Loan built by George’s father.  Of course, we know how the story ends.  George stays, loses the $8,000 meant for his European trip which he decided to use to save the Building and Loan, and learns the true meaning of life along the way.  The true meaning of “having it all.”

What if we could really have it all?  Money. Power. Love. Sex. Respect. Popularity. Absolutely anything we wanted. Many of us spend our lives wishing for that very scenario—or at least imagining what it would be like. But not many of us get there.

Mel Gibson got there.

Once an obscure Australian actor, Gibson got his first big break starring in the cult classic Mad Max when he was twenty-three. More big roles followed in blockbusters such as the Lethal Weapon series, Maverick, Ransom, Conspiracy Theory, Payback, What Women Want and Signs. As his international stardom grew, so did his bank account. At one point Gibson was one of the top-paid actors in the world getting $25 million for every movie he starred in.

But acting wasn’t enough for him. In 1993 he stepped behind the camera to direct The Man Without a Face. Two years later he earned two Academy Awards for directing and producing Braveheart.

Gibson’s success didn’t stop with his career. He was married to the same woman for 25 years, and they had seven kids together. People magazine named him the Sexiest Man Alive. Premiere magazine listed him as one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Worldwide fame. Unlimited riches. True love. Fatherhood. Widespread respect for his talent. International renown for his sexual appeal. Virtually limitless power in his career. Rarely does one man get so much in one lifetime.

Mel Gibson had it all. So he must have been the happiest man on the planet, right? He had the power to do almost anything he wanted. The money to buy almost anything he could imagine. Almost nothing was out of reach for him.

Yet Gibson felt something was missing. All he had wasn’t enough. So he added some new experiences to the mix: addiction. Drugs, alcohol, women, anything. His addictions very nearly ruined his life, if not his career.

Eventually Gibson sought treatment for his addictions. But after getting clean and sober, he found himself right back where he had started: with an emptiness in his life.

Gibson wasn’t the first guy to reach that depressing conclusion. In fact the viewpoint is as ancient as the Old Testament.  King Solomon, sometimes referred to as the wisest man in antiquity, was such a man.  Solomon reached the same conclusion about life on earth over 3,000 years ago.  In the Book of Ecclesiastes, he spells out everything he tried in his quest for meaning in this life—and how all of it left him feeling empty.

What happened to Solomon in his quest for meaning?  How did a man who began with so much promise end with such despair and hopelessness?  And more importantly, could this happen to you and me?

Early in his reign, Solomon was described as a king who could do no wrong.  The first 10 chapters of I Kings offer numerous instances of Solomon’s remarkable fitness as King of Israel.  In 1 Kings 2 Solomon consolidates his rule.

In Chapter 3 he asks God for wisdom rather than wealth or honor and in return, God grants him all three.  This chapter is where we learn the story of the two mothers who are arguing over the child.

In Chapter 4, we see Solomon coming into the fullness of his wealth and fame.  Verse 26 reads “Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses and, and twelve thousand horses.”  Imagine having the wealth to build a garage for 4,000 cars … or even 400 hundred. How much is enough?  When is too much enough?  Solomon’s wealth exceeded that of any other king in the world.

Yet in the same chapter we also read of his wisdom. Verses 29-34 tell us of how his wisdom spread across the Middle East and that he was wiser than all the people in the surrounding countries.

Chapters 5 – 7 describe the building of the Temple and Solomon’s palace, where over 180,000 men were conscripted to provide the labor.  In an incredibly shrewd piece of politics, Solomon makes a treaty with Hiram, King of Tyre, who had participated in the wars against King David.  He bargained for Hiram to cut down cedars of Lebanon to build the temple, and he offered to pay “whatever wages” Hiram’s men set.  In addition, Solomon agreed to provide wheat and olive oil for Hiram’s Royal Household, and so a peace was made between Israel and Tyre.  Again, Solomon displays his wisdom and understanding.

Chapter 8 details the dedication of the Temple and the placing of the Ark into inner sanctuary.  During the Dedication ceremony Solomon stands before the altar and delivers a compelling prayer to God for guidance and protection of His chosen people.  The prayer covers virtually every aspect of Jewish life from justice, to war, to plagues and famine.  He concludes with these words in verse 52: “May your eyes be open to your servant’s plea and to the plea of your people Israel, and may you listen to them whenever they cry out to you.”

It was this prayer God answered in Chapter 9, appearing to Solomon for a second time, saying He had heard Solomon’s appeal and promising to put his Name and eyes and heart on the Temple forever.  God further promises to establish Solomon’s royal throne over Israel forever, so long as Solomon walks before Him “faithfully with integrity of heart and uprightness.”

But then God says something else, something that foreshadows not only Solomon’s later years but the very future of Israel itself.  Listen to the God’s admonition from verses 6-9:

“But if you or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples.  This temple will become a heap of rubble. Allwho pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’  People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the LORD their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why the LORD brought all this disaster on them.’”

This is a remarkable warning from God, directly aimed at Solomon’s one significant character flaw – indeed, the central character flaw in each of us – pride and the belief that he could discern a better path than the one God has directed.

What I find most interesting here is God’s consistency.  Throughout scripture, God compels us to stay on a path to righteousness.  He doesn’t lurk in the dark corners, waiting for us to make mistakes and raining down punishment when we do.  He tells us plainly, simply, how to lead a life of fulfillment.  He also tells us the consequences when we don’t.

We see this as early as Genesis 2:16-17, where God tells Adam “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”  And indeed, when Adam and Eve ate from that tree they started the cycle of death we suffer from to this day.

We read it in Proverbs 14:2 and 16:25, being warned not to stray down the paths of evil.  Jesus decried it throughout his ministry.  Each time, God warns us of the consequences.

Solomon seemed to have his reign secured.  He had followed God Faithfully and used his wisdom and wealth judiciously.  Yet lying in Solomon’s heart was the seed of his downfall.  Against God’s Instructions, Solomon began to take on foreign wives from the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites.  All nations that God had specifically said to avoid because they would lead Solomon to turn his heart toward their gods.

We read in 1 Kings 11:4-6 that ultimately, Solomon began turning away from God, following the gods of his waives instead.  Using his great wealth, Solomon erected temples to each of the gods of his foreign wives.

God’s reaction was as promised:  He stripped the kingdom from Solomon’s descendants, promising all but one tribe to Jeroboam.

What caused Solomon’s downfall?  In a word, COMPROMISE.  Solomon compromised his wisdom to gain earthly possessions and fame.  Ultimately, these compromises emptied Solomon’s heart of his love for God.

Solomon compromised his heart for God by allowing bad influences to creep into his life.  As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians “Do not be misled, bad company corrupts good character.”  Solomon allowed corrupting influences to steer his heart away from God, trusting instead on his wealth and fame and own opinions.

Solomon’s compromise is our compromise.  Solomon’s downfall is our downfall.  Solomon’s problem was not ignorance but outright rebellion – just as we rebel in our own ways.

Late in life, reflecting on his past, Solomon would realize the mistakes he made in writing Ecclesiastes.  His conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:13 is telling: “Now all has been heard; here is the heart of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is duty if all mankind.”

No prosperity in the world matters more than this, even today.  As Jesus admonished the crowd in Luke 12:15: “Watch out! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possession.”  Rather, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,” just as Solomon had done early in his life.

Let me close with a personal story.  I know the legacy of Solomon all too well. Over the course of my adult life I’ve fallen victim to the pursuit of position, of money, and yes, the lure of adoration.  Every achievement – a promotion, a large bonus check, flattery from someone – fed this sense that I was somehow in control of my own destiny, that I needed no one but myself.

Well the truth is I was in control of my own destiny.  Each of us is.  God grants us that choice.  He calls us to righteousness and we have the choice on how we respond.  We can choose God’s path or we can choose a different path.  When we select a path different from the one God has put before us, He warns us of the consequences.

David wrote in Psalm 19:11 that God’s laws were warnings for His servants, and in keeping them there is great reward.  Hosea 4:6 warns “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge,” that is the knowledge of the Truth in God’s Will.

Like Solomon, I’ve chosen wrongly in the past.  Those choices have taken a large toll on my relationships, my health, even my walk with God.  All for the pursuit of wealth and recognition.  And all for, as Solomon discovered, nothing.

Yet the story of redemption is, ultimately, the story of return: returning to the path God has set before us, returning to our true selves rather than the selves we have created, returning to the unconditional love given to us by our heavenly Father.  At the moment of my own turning point, a time in my life when nothing seemed to really matter to me, I found redemption and acceptance and welcome back into the arms of a loving God.

Those who know me will attest I still suffer from the aftereffects to this day, traveling endlessly in my business, determined to win, focused on achievement.  The difference is today I bring God with me.  I bring purpose and intention to my pursuits, always trying to listen for God’s voice as I make my way from place to place, engaging those I meet along the way, and bringing God into my life rather than keeping Him at an arm’s length.

Solomon had choices.  We have choices.  God awaits our response.

In Peace.

Copyright © 2012 Robin Green.  All rights reserved.

Posted in belief, Faith, God, God's plan, redemption, Self-Delusion, Self-love | Leave a comment

The Greatest Fixer of All

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. Everything is possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23

I’ve always been a fixer.  It’s kind of what I do.  When something’s broken, I fix it.  See a cracked or chipped place in the wall?  I patch it up. Leaky faucet?  Yep, that’s me with the wrench (well, in truth I’m not much of a plumber but I’m dynamite with a cell phone so I know who to call).  Broken relationships?  Bring ‘em on.  Thorny problem at work?  Send it my way.  And don’t even get me started about crooked pictures.  Tip: if you ever invite me over for a cup of coffee or bite to eat, don’t be surprised to find me wandering around your house looking for crooked pictures, smudged windows, out-of-place books.  It’s a curse.

As a boy, I had a reputation for figuring things out.  The neighborhood kids always knew they could count on me to make a broken bike good again, or come up with something to do on a boring weekend afternoon.  I built model planes and cars without ever looking at the directions, because that’s just what I did. I never needed directions.  Being a typical man, I don’t ask for directions to this day.  Um, yeah – it’s gotten me into trouble more than once or twice, but that’s a different subject.  Regardless of how lost I may seem, I’ve never accepted a situation as hopeless.

One of my great childhod heroes, one of the guys I modeled myself on, was Captain James T. Kirk.  Kirk defined the idea of the ultimate fixer.  He never believed in the no-win scenario.  Yeah, yeah, I know he was created by Gene Roddenberry and only lives in films, but Kirk could fix anything!  I wanted to be just like him.

Of course, with age comes “wisdom” – that grown-up sounding word too often serving as a proxy for “acceptance” in place of “perseverance.”  We learn of consequences.  We learn of fallibility.  We learn of our own shortcomings and inadequacies.  We learn of the brokenness in our hearts and how sometimes no matter what we do, we can’t fix the problems right in front of us.

It’s a hard realization for someone convinced of their own invincibility.  Someone like

I have a friend, a very close friend.  My friend has recently been struggling; wrestling
with internal voices and external pressures and doubts and uncertainties.  Many of the same issues a lot of us face every day.  There are times when these voices and pressures and doubts become deafening, drowning out the real truth: my friend is, in ways large and small, amazing.  As a parent, as the child of parents, as a friend, as a sibling, as a human being. Absolutely, utterly amazing.  A miracle – just as we all are.

The fixer in me wants to help, to rush in and begin barking orders, to repair the brokenness. But I can’t.  It saddens me, and hurts my heart.

How many of us have faced this, a situation where we are absolutely powerless to solve the pain we see in someone else, wanting to solve the problem but unable to execute the rescue?  It’s a sobering, humbling experience.  And sometimes, it causes us to doubt.

A story very early in the Bible, from the book of Genesis, reminds me of this scenario.
Abraham and his wife Sarah had wanted a child for years.  Yet they had never conceived.  Sarah, assuming she was simply not meant for motherhood, had long ago put away her hope.

One day, God appears to Abraham, in the form of three men standing under a tree.  Abraham instructs Sarah to prepare a meal for the strangers and visits with them.
During their conversation, God asks Abraham where his wife is. Then He says something incredible: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” (Genesis 18:10).

Nearby, Sarah overhears their conversation and laughs out loud, saying she and Abraham
were too old and she would never have the pleasure of a child.  She had given up.

When God heard Sarah’s laughter, He said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?”

Is anything too hard for God? We each face challenges and difficult situations in life. And in the midst of them God asks, “Do you think your problem is too hard for me to fix? Or do you believe I can work it out for you, even though you think it’s impossible?”

Jesus reminds us in Luke 18:27 “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  How many of us really believe this?  How many of us accept that God can perform the
impossible in our lives, in our families, in our jobs, in our futures?

Of course, we’re quick to counsel others that He can. We tell others to pray, to have hope, to believe in the impossible because God is the doer of the impossible.  But do we really believe these truths for ourselves?

Sarah, who was filled with doubt, would likely have offered this very counsel to her friends. Imagine she heard about a Godly couple in a similar situation – faithful people who wanted a baby but were too old to bear one. The couple believed God had promised them a child, but now they were growing older. And little by little, they were losing confidence in their dream.

She might tell them, “Hold on. Don’t give up hope for your dream. You serve a God who does the impossible. He will fix everything for you.”

Yet Sarah didn’t believe this for herself.  Many of us feel the same way today, boldly proclaiming God’s power to others, but in our hearts lacking belief in His word for ourselves.

Unspoken truth: we can’t really believe in
God until we believe He is God of the Impossible

You won’t read that in the Methodist Book of Discipline, the Presbyterian Book of Order, the Church of Christ Book of Worship, the Baptist Manual of Theology Christian Doctrine Church Order, or even the Catholic Book of Canon Law.  Astonishingly, it’s the ultimate
Truth of our faith.  God is not simply the Creator, the maker of all things, who acts and then sits back watching it unfold.  God is also an action-oriented DO-ER who yearns to do the impossible in our lives.  The message of Scripture is clear: if we don’t believe this about Him, we don’t believe in Him at all.

Counseling is big these days.  In my experience, no amount of counseling does a person any lasting good if he or she doubts God for the miracles He delivers every day of our lives. I talk to a lot of folks, many of them seeking … something, anything.  Most of these individuals live their lives in relative resignation, content that they will get by, and not expecting anything remotely miraculous.  Others are in real pain, believing their lives to be hopeless, their situations beyond redemption.

In both cases, counseling can’t do much beyond temporarily assuaging discomfort, like a soul-sized aspirin.  Words will dull the pain, but only for a time.  The real cure, the permanent fix, comes not from the patient and wise counsel of a friend or professional, but rather from our surrender to the healing power of God.

Some answer, “But you don’t know what I’ve been through. I’ve been wounded deeply. My hurt is beyond what you could ever imagine.”  And it’s true that there are private hells many of us have lived that no one can fathom.

Yet, this kind of response points to only one thing: they’ve bought into The Lie. The Lie of Hopelessness.  The Lie of Impossibility.  The Lie that God is powerless to help them.

No amount of counseling or shoulder-leaning or therapy in the world can help us unless we absolutely believe God’s word: Nothing in our lives is beyond His ability to fix. Otherwise, our faith is in name only, futile and impotent. The unspoken truth underlying our faith is this: we can’t really believe in God until we believe He is God of the Impossible.

I’m a father, blessed with two amazing, beautiful daughters for whom I would do or give anything.  So I relate very well to a story told in Mark 9:14, where a distraught father brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus’ disciples seeking deliverance.

This boy was considered hopeless. Both deaf and speechless, he spewed out only guttural sounds. He foamed at the mouth like a mad dog, and physically he was skin and bone, emaciated by his awful struggle. His father had to hold onto him continually, because the demons constantly tried to cast him into the nearest river, lake or open fire, wanting to kill him. His situation was dire.

While the father asked the disciples for their help, the boy’s demons began manifesting
themselves as he foamed at the mouth, rolling on the ground, contorting and gyrating wildly. Scripture tells us the disciples prayed over him – perhaps for a long time – but nothing happened.

It must have seemed an impossible situation. Soon the doubting scribes crowded around, asking, “Why is the boy not healed? Is this case too hard for your Lord? Is the devil more powerful here?”

And then Jesus came on the scene. When he asked what was going on, the father  answered, “I brought my son to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him. He’s a hopeless case.”  Jesus responded simply, “All things are possible to he who believes.”  Christ
was telling everyone present, “Do you believe I’m able to handle anything except what Satan has claimed for his own?  I tell you, there is no problem, no impossible circumstance, I cannot fix.”

Then,with a single word, Jesus made the impossible a reality.  He discharged the unclean spirit and, taking the boy by the hand, lifted him from the ground.

Can you imagine the joy in this scene?  That clean, freed boy must have run to his father and embraced him.  And the father’s heart leapt with joy.  God had fixed it all.

God restores whatever appears dead in our lives with a single word.  The news in recent months has been filled with stories of desperate economic conditions. Are you having financial problems, unable to pay your bills?  So it was with Christ’s disciples – and he fixed their situation supernaturally.

When tax time came around, Christ and his disciples had no money to pay the needed
amount.  How did Jesus fix the situation? He sent Peter out to catch a fish.  To fish! Jesus told him he would find a coin in the mouth of the first fish he caught, and that coin would cover their tax bill.

Imagine what Peter must have thought: “Money in a fish’s mouth?  Really?? Jesus must have enjoyed a little too much of that wine last night…” I can relate.  Yet, when Peter reeled in the first flopping fish, he opened its mouth to find a gleaming coin. The amount
was enough to pay their taxes, just as Jesus had said.  We need, and God acts.

Here’s the point: whether it’s cleaning a foul spirit from a child, or providing for taxes, or raising someone from the dead, or feeding a multitude, or reaching into our lives and pulling us from the depths of despair, God’s greatest work is that He can fix our situations as well as the reasons we find ourselves there.

You see, God acts even when we don’t, even when we won’t, even when we can’t.  He stands ready to save us even from our most desperate brokenness.  And He does this
with or without our acceptance.  Yet to receive the power of those actions, we must accept as true His ability to act as God of the Impossible.  In a word, we must Believe.

The friend I mentioned earlier is, I’m happy to report, taking action, even as I write these words.  And I’m so incredibly proud of my friend for taking this step. I may be unable to fix the situation, as much as I want to believe I could, but with God’s help, and with prayer, I have no doubt my friend will overcome the doubts and fear and pain and sense of insufficiency holding them back from realizing the miracle they truly are.

God can fix anything.  Even us.  It’s kind of what He does.

In peace.

Copyright © 2011 Robin Green. Feel free to share.

Posted in action, belief, Christ, Faith, God, Jesus, Persistence, Religion | 1 Comment

Safe Distances

“Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.” – Mark 14:54

Hartzo the Magician – at least, I think that was his name – was a touring illusionist “back in the day,” as they say.  When I was a kid,  he came to my home town in Nashville and my pal Buddy (yes my friend’s first name was really “Buddy”) and I went to watch and wonder at the magic.  Looking back, it was pretty standard fare:  rabbits, doves, card tricks, assistants being sawed in half (that still looked real, I don’t care what anyone says), the usual.

Then came for the moment Hartzo asked the audience for two volunteers.  I don’t know what possessed us, but without any mutual prompting Buddy and I leaped from our seats – we were conveniently on the aisle – and began running to the stage before Hartzo could
choose anyone else.  As we smugly marched up the steps while Hartzo made some joke about our enthusiasm, I remember thinking how much I preferred being in the middle of “the action” rather than on the sidelines.

This has remained true throughout my life.  Somehow, I’ve always found my way onto the
field rather than staying on the sidelines, both literally and figuratively.  I’ve never been a comfortable spectator in my own life.  Sometimes this has led for interesting (euphemism for “challenging”) life experiences, but mostly, it’s worked out.

Of course, as we grow older most of us spend an increasing majority of our lives on the sidelines.  Sports is a great example.  Allow me to channel Dennis Miller:  “With-the-recent-NFL-‘Lockout’-now-finally-resolved-so-that-obnoxious-billionaire-team-owners-can-tell-their-third-trophy-wives-they-held-their-ground-against-those-pesky-start-up-millionaire-players (who, as it so happens, are the very reason you and I shell out $198 for a seat, $9.50 for a hotdog, and $4.75 for a flat beer at an NFL game in middle of scorching heat in September or bitter cold in mid December, but why quibble about facts?) over-a-few-ownership-points-which-at-the-end-of-the-day-won’t-make-a-material-difference-to-either-side’s-Fiji-vacation-plans-those-of-us-on-the-sidelines-are-now-free-to-set-up-our-make-believe-“we’re-so-macho”-Fantasy-Football-teams-and-scream-at-television-screens-every-weekend-until-January-about-the-bonehead-play-Yasshmhahil-I-Can’t-Pronounce-His-Last-Name-just-made.”

Whew!!!  I think you get the picture.  We live to watch others do what we only wish we could do.

Life is easier on the sidelines.  Never having to make real decisions, or stick with the decisions we make.  Wishing for things we can’t quite bring ourselves to reach for.  Wanting forever but afraid of tomorrow.  Safe distances.

Do you know people like this?  I do.  They keep the most exciting, challenging and even transcendent possibilities in their lives just out of reach, at safe distances.  Perhaps they fear being hurt, or perhaps they lack the confidence to pursue their dreams because they fear failure.  Or maybe they just can’t suit up and step onto the field.

Regardless, they set up endless barriers between themselves and the amazing fate that could be theirs if they only had the courage to believe. This is true in our Faith walks as well.  Indeed, it’s been the case since the first followers of Christ professed their devotion but seemed to lack the backbone to exercise their desire.

The core issue is found in our ability (or lack thereof) to follow into the unknown, or
the dangerous
.  We resist.  We argue with ourselves.  We lie awake at night and wrestle with what we should or shouldn’t do.  For Believers, many times these contemplations center on how we should respond to God’s call.

The “following” theme appears throughout the New Testament, most prominently in the
Gospels. Matthew offers twenty-four examples alone. And the theme of following in Matthew isn’t limited to merely being close to someone, marking their footsteps
at safe distance.  Rather, it calls for a relationship; a relationship between us, God, and other followers. A relationship of intimacy, not distance.

Mark also discusses following Jesus – fifteen times in his short Gospel, connecting it to an emphasis on discipleship. In Mark 3:14 we read that Jesus appointed the Twelve to be “with Him,” that is, to engage in daily interaction and to follow wherever He led. Jesus sought the allegiance of His followers in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision. Simon, Andrew, Levi, a Galilean multitude, large crowds, some disciples, blind Bartimaeus, and a number of unnamed women all followed Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.

Yet even in the Scripture we see the shortcomings of our ability to stay committed.  Take the example of Peter.  On the eve of Jesus’ arrest, after three years of being as close to Jesus as anyone possibly could, Peter shifts his focus, deciding to step to the sidelines.  In Mark 14:54 shortly after Jesus’ arrest, we read that Peter followed Jesus at a distance:  “Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.”

Peter thought he was playing it safe.  He was watching from the sidelines. Yet he was actually in greater danger because of his fear.  Just like following Jesus’ example of God’s Plan requires more than physical proximity, removing himself from Jesus and staying “at a distance” required Peter to do something more than physical detachment. In trying to protect his life, Peter in fact endangered himself even more by placing distance in his relationship with Jesus. That distance left him vulnerable – like losing sight of the driver who knows the way – and Peter quickly drifted off course. The very next time he appears in the text he denies Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-72).

Believers, members of this great body we call the Church, are followers of Jesus’ example
– perhaps not physically but certainly from a relationship standpoint. God asks for our allegiance in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision.  He pleads for our fellowship if we will only agree to follow where He leads.

Like Peter, however, we too often follow the right person but at the wrong distance. We do this out of fear, and that fear makes us vulnerable to doubt and insecurity.

There are many reasons many of us keep distance in our lives, both in our relationship
with God as well as our relationships with one another.  Do any of these resonate with you?

  • Fear of being associated with something uncomfortable. Like Peter, we often permit distance in our relationships because we prefer the approval of people more than the approval of God. We routinely follow God at a distance and utilize him only when we have needs – say, an emergency, or in times of financial hardship. Perhaps we’re embarrassed to be close to God or to someone others might not approve. Yet when our need is greatest, we seek what we hide from.
  • Busyness and distractions in everyday life. We allow the seemingly urgent things in our daily lives to crowd out the truly important things God is pointing us to.
  • Time. How often have we thrilled at the initial excitement of a new relationship, unable to separate ourselves from the object of our affection for even a moment, only to find that as the journey turns into a lifelong marathon we find we’ve
    drifted apart?  Remaining close over time requires diligent work from both parties.

Any or all of these can highlight the distance we put into our lives; distance from loved ones, distance from God, watching our lives from sidelines.  How do we recognize this distance, and more importantly, how do we close the gap?

I was in an airport yesterday (actually, I’m in airports every week, but that’s another story) when I saw real-life example of how we can so easily close the distances in the relationship spaces of our lives.  A mother and her five or six year old son were walking through the busy concourse and the child kept getting distracted and wandering off.  The mother, apparently exhausted with trying to keep up with her son, finally just stopped in the
middle of the concourse and watched as the child continued wandering several yards ahead.

I smiled when I saw this, know what would come next.  The child suddenly looked around, no longer able to see his mother.  Realizing he was alone and sensing the distance that had grown between them, the child quickly ran back to his mother, enjoying the safety of being close to his protector. When you and I become aware of being separated from God or a loved one, do we rush back or continue drifting, perhaps placing even more distance between us?

Here are a few things I’ve found that work for me when I find myself drifting to the

  1. Re-establish your bearings. Determine when and how the distance began to form and how far you’ve drifted from God, or from someone you love. As in all relationships, the sooner we recognize the distance the easier it is to adjust our pace or direction and close the gap.
  2. Admit your shortcomings. Our grievances against others prevents closeness in that relationship. If something you are doing is generating distance between you and God, confess it and seek restoration.
  3. Schedule regular time to communicate. Building a relationship with a loved one requires regular and transparent communication.  This exchange is the very heart of any relationship, and its absence is a clear indication of distance.  Similarly, we need regular communication with God to establish a full relationship.  All too often, we allow our communication with God to be crowded out of schedules overloaded with meetings, events, carpools, and kids’ activities. Just as we hold our feelings back from another person, we often hold our honest feelings back from God in prayer. Or sometimes, we simply talk more than we listen. Schedule time each morning before a busy agenda distracts you from this priority, or every evening after dinner or after the kids are in bed.
  4. Pledge to follow.  A lifelong journey with another person requires agreement on the route and destination. Some believers have diverged from Christ’s leadership, and have decided on a different direction for their life, their kids, their career, their time, and their priorities. As difficult as it may be, tell God you want to follow Him more closely, wherever He may lead.

Fortunately, Peter’s story had a happy ending. After denying Jesus, the rooster crowed a
second time, forcing him to get his bearings and realize that distance existed in his relationship with Jesus. He confessed his shortcomings by weeping bitterly for denying Jesus.  Luke and John write that Peter fellowshipped with Jesus following the resurrection, and boldly accepted Jesus’ challenge to take the Gospel to the world. As far as we know from the recorded life of Peter, he never permitted such dangerous distance
to form in his relationship with Jesus again.

Staying at a safe distance may seem comforting. In fact, it can be the most dangerous place of all.  Get engaged with the passions of your life.  Follow the direction of where God
is leading you.  Being a spectator in your own life is, ultimately, the loneliest seat in the stadium.

In peace.

Posted in action, apathy, belief, Christ, Christianity, courage, distrust, Faith, God, God's plan, Gospels, Safety, salvation, Scripture | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dead Christians Walking

Jesus said to him, “Let dead people bury their own dead. You go and tell others about God’s kingdom.” – Luke 9:60

This month, Daughter #2 is in the middle of a five week intensive Summer pre-College program at Emerson College (we used to call these “camps” back in the day but kids are oh-so sophisticated now) in the far away land of Boston.  She’s loving it.  Me?  Not so sure.
She’s literally disappeared into the lion’s den of Red Sox fever (not an altogether agreeable thing for me as a die-hard Yankees fan with a growing love for the Rangers).  Other than the sporadic Face Book post or one-word text in reply to my 3-screen messages, it’s like she simply evaporated. Oh well.

Summer camps are like that.  They fill our imaginations even as they fill our days.  I remember the seemingly endless weeks I spent at the YMCA Summer Camp my mom dutifully enrolled me in every summer as a child.  Horseback riding, hiking, archery, marksmanship, fort building (I always loved that one), swimming…

One of my most indelible memories of Summer Camp occurred when I was 9 years
old.  This particular day we were at the oversized outdoor pool – the one that seems like the size of two football fields when you’re 9 but in reality is just a little larger than the Olympic size pool most of us learned to swim in.  Our group had been swimming all morning, and then pigged out on hot dogs for lunch.  Boys being boys, we didn’t listen to the warning about not swimming right after lunch (because really, who does?) so off
we went.

My friend Joey and I were racing from one side of the pool to the other.  Being the hyper-competitive kid I was, I worked mightily to keep up with Joey who was a year older than me and a better swimmer.  About halfway across the last lap, Joey suddenly stopped in mid-stoke, thrashed about a little and then sank to the bottom of the pool.

“Cool!” I thought.  “He’s cocky and thinks he can still beat me!”  After making it to the
edge of the pool, I turned to look for him but he was nowhere to be seen.  Glancing around, I saw him still at the bottom of the pool.  Thinking he’s just showing off, I hopped out and as a joke yelled at the lifeguard “Hey!  My friend’s at the bottom of the pool!”

The next thing I know whistles are blowing, people are screaming, and lifeguards
are ordering kids out of the pool.  They hauled Joey out of the water and onto the deck.
He wasn’t breathing breathing.  The lifeguards all had very stern looks as they worked on Joey, and I was feeling a little nervous.  Maybe a little more than nervous.

Now, the brain of the average 9 year old boy doesn’t work like the brain of the
average grown man – well, ok, let’s say in most cases, like except a movie where Megan Fox is fighting off mechanical robots in cut-off short shorts.  9 year olds haven’t yet developed a sense of decorum in social settings.  So I thought nothing bad about peeping through the crowd at Joey laying on the pavement and asking “Is he dead yet?”  I meant no harm or disrespect, I was just cutting to the chase.

The lifeguards were not amused and asked me (not so politely) to leave the pool area and not come back that day.  Fortunately, Joey turned out to be ok and we were all laughing about it the next day.

This story came back to me as I read through the passage from Luke at the beginning of this message.  In the passage (whether the Luke 9 version or the Matthew 8 version), Jesus is speaking with his disciples about the meaning of following him.  One disciple, meaning
well, speaks up and asks if he can go bury his dead father before joining the journey.  Jesus responds with the well-known phrase “Let the dead bury their dead.”

I’ve always found this passage a little harsh, even disturbing.  The guy’s father had just died!  What could Jesus have been thinking?  How callous for a preacher to react this way toward a fellow follower of God!

I believe the answer lies in Jesus’ perspective on the question.  In fact, Scripture leads me to the conclusion that much of what we view as compassion would be considered by Jesus as little more than misplaced caring for the “walking dead.”

For context, we need to remember where this passage occurs.  In Matthew’s account, Jesus had completed a series of healings (a man with a skin disease, a Roman commander’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, many people suffering from various demons), demonstrating yet again the proactive nature of his ministry.  When a teacher of the law suggested he would follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus replied “Foxes have holes. Birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” meaning his ministry had no time to rest and that following him came at a cost. It was then the question of burying the father was put to him.

Luke places the story at the end of chapter 9, which is filled with accounts of Jesus’ ministry in action: the sending of the twelve, the feeding of the five thousand, the explanation to Peter of the meaning losing oneself to God’s larger plan, the mountain top epiphany, healing the boy with the evil spirit, the explanation of how the least important person is actually the most important person, forgiveness of the Samaritans for rejecting him.  Then Jesus exchanges comments with followers about the cost of following him and again the question of burying the father was put to him.

In both versions, Jesus draws a stark contrast between what it means to really follow the path God has laid before us and the easier, less painful path we often choose for ourselves.  This second path is what Jesus refers to when he tells his follower to “let the dead bury their own dead.”  Jesus doesn’t literally mean to let rotting corpses bury rotting corpses.  Rather, he’s addressing the tendency so many of us have to allow other things to come between us and God.  In this sense, Jesus was recognizing that the follower was more considered with matters of the flesh than matters of the heart and the spirit.  The follower was, in effect, a “dead man walking.”

In truth, we’re all dead men walking, condemned ultimately to die. Time eventually runs its course and there is nothing we can do to reverse it.  Regardless of how much success we achieve or fame we receive, no matter who our families are or how widely we travel the world, even with all the money of a Bill Gates or the professed charity of a Warren Buffett,
nothing can create a barrier between us and death.  This was also true for Jesus.

Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie, Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, put it this way:

“On the day he died, Jesus was escorted from a Roman prison and marched to Golgotha – a trash heap outskirts on the Jerusalem. Roman guards walked to his right and to his left. Soldiers walked before him and behind him in a cross-like procession.  He was a dead man walking. He was alive and breathing, but he was living under a death sentence. His fate was sealed. Time had run out. His death was imminent.”

I imagine not even Jesus himself believed God would intervene on that final walk.  Jesus knew he must walk the walk each one of us walks every day – the walk of condemnation to death – in order to receive the greatest gift of all, the gift of eternal life.  God lifted Jesus from that death sentences and returned him to us as a way of announcing that we, too, can receive this amazing gift.  Yet importantly (and to Jesus’ point when speaking to his follower), this gift is not free, and is not our birthright.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates that true faith, the faith that leads us to the Kingdom, is “verbish” rather than “adjectival.”  Jesus continually pushes his followers and, by extension, you and me to understand that the Kingdom already is.  We are invited, to enter, but that invitation must be actively acknowledged, accepted and received.  We must act here and now rather than delay for some future time.

This is the real lesson Jesus was teaching his follower when telling him to let the dead bury the dead.  Spiritual deadness, the way of this world, leads to true death.  Jesus was saying “tend to the living, the needs and the relationships of those who need your attention, those who need to hear the Word of God.”

My question standing at the edge of that pool so many years ago looking at my young friend’s cold, wet, and apparently lifeless body is the question we should ask ourselves every day:  “Are WE dead yet?”  Have we given up hope?  Have we lost our ability to believe that God’s Kingdom is meant not for some future time alone but for each of us, right here, right now?  Have we forgotten that the ultimate purpose behind Salvation is for us to enter into relationships with each other as we grow together in our relationship with God?

Jesus teaches us that our lives are meant to be lived in active service to each other, rather than dwelling on the past.  The present is all we can affect moment-to-moment, and if we look backward, regretting the mistakes or losses of yesterday, we lose sight of what God has laid out for us today.

This week, try two things.  First, reflect on something in your life that has you looking backward.  Perhaps the loss of a loved one, perhaps a mistake resulting in a change in your life plan, or maybe simply a general feeling of failure and regret.  Hold that thought in your mind.  Focus on it.  Then write it down on a piece of paper, find a match, a burn it, letting the flames melt the pain and regret from your heart as they consume the paper.

Then, find someone in need of your attention, reach out to them, and let them know you love them.  Focus on now rather than yesterday or tomorrow.  Be the love for them you seek for yourself.

In peace.

Copyright © 2011 Robin Green, All Rights Reserved

Posted in action, apathy, belief, Christ, Christianity, Christians, cost, Faith, God's plan, Gospels, Kingdom, relationships, Religion, Scripture | Leave a comment

The Self-Delusion of Self-Absorption

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” – II
Timothy 3:1-5

Navel-gazing – it’s a common occurrence.  No, I’m not talking about the lustful look I often have when browsing the produce section of H-E-B (that’s Texan for grocery
store) while passing by the overly-genetically-enhanced navel oranges that look
oh-so-good but actually taste kind of like extra pulpy Sunkist without the cardboard container.

Nor do I mean the vacant stares so many people have when practicing those annoying
Yoga postures and they really are gazing down at the their navels.

And I’m certainly not referring to the shifty eyes some of my guy friends have when
some young lady (or not-so-young, these days) walks past in a bare-midriff top
with one of those sparkly piercings winking out from the stub of what was
originally an umbilical cord.

Rather, I’m thinking of an entirely different kind of navel-gazing; the type usually
accompanying self-preoccupation, self-obsession, self-absorption.

I tend to read a lot.  Some of my reading turns to online blogs, a veritable cornucopia when it comes to the self-absorbed.  Any given day yields post after post of exhausting self-analysis and historical references to lost childhoods and failed marriages and abusive bosses and generally all the bad things that have kept the writer from being who they really should be, if only XYZ wouldn’t keep popping up in unexpected (although in reality perhaps completely predictable) ways.

The self-absorbed individual perpetually turns the focus of every conversation back
to their own trials and worries.  In fact, some people have developed it to a high art form and to the uninitiated even seem witty in their hand-wringing.

There are many types of self-absorption.  There’s the pity seeker who wants the world to know how challenging their lives are; the attention lover who talks incessantly
about how attractive or intelligent or desirable others seem to find them; the
reverse psychologist who rejects any form of flattery only to seek and expect more
(also known as the passive aggressive reverse maneuver).

And then there are the professionals – self-help gurus feeding off the popularization of self-love, self-esteem and the other obsessions of self so en vogue today with modern psychiatrists and psychologists.  With such role models bombarding society from
every corner, is it any wonder we’re dealing with the most conceited,
dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, and rebellious generation in the history
of the world?

Scripture gives us a generous amount of guidance in the perils of self-absorption and self-love.  Paul admonished in his letter to the Philippians “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”

From my perspective, we see so much self-absorption in those around us because in
truth the world can be a harsh place to live. Sadly, many people live a “dog eat dog” existence.  The way of this world is to put self first, love self and provide for self. Some folks do display genuine love and concern for their brothers and sisters, but in truth, most of us (I embarrassingly include myself in this category) are usually wrapped up in ourselves.

Consider how often you’ve heard or seen this: “I’m not pretty enough/smart enough/thin enough/tall enough/funny enough/(insert favorite term here) enough” – in every case, the person bemoaning their shortcomings is highlighting a perfect example of “me-centricity” as a reaction to the harsh reality that life, in a material sense, is tough.  In simple terms, life sometimes sucks.

I know someone very much like this.  My friend is brilliant, witty, attractive in  all the worldly ways, and generally someone most people would be drawn to.  Yet every time this person looks in a mirror,  the face staring back is unrecognizable as worthy of love.  And so the cycle of narcissism is fed.  More validation is needed because they are unable to accept the completeness of God’s love for them.

The central failing here is a lack of understanding that when we put love of ourselves over the love for those around us, the  results are inevitably a focus on how unlovable we are.  Ironic, no?  The more we look inward, the more we crave  external validation.

Scripture is clear that the way of the Believer is vastly different from the way of the world. We are taught that genuine love for our brothers and sisters – not for ourselves – is our calling card. John 13:35 quotes Jesus telling us “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Notice he doesn’t mention anything about self-love. We are also taught in the well known passage from Matthew 22:37-40 that genuine love enables us to fulfill the commandments of God.

How can we avoid the trap of self-absorption?  How do we look outward rather than

Reflecting on this question, I’m reminded of the 3rd Chapter of 1 John. John reveals in verse 11 that as believers we are to love not ourselves, but rather, those around us: “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”  He then goes further, reminding us that our love one for another is one of the strongest proofs that we are saved, (verses 14-15).

Many people, especially those with a high degree of self-preoccupation, appear to love
others.  They lavish those around them with praise and compliments and gifts and attention, making a point to remind everyone how loving they are.  Sadly, the
motivation for this type of outward display is often more about the giver rather than genuine love for the person receiving.  And when their “love” is not reciprocated in
a manner meeting their expectations, the giver can feel betrayed and abandoned.

Yet when we step outside of self-reflection and self-love, when we turn our gaze from within and look instead at the world around us, if we allow our love to be God-like and all it should be, three very clear characteristics emerge.

First, God-like love is extensive.  As early as Genesis 4:8, we read about the perils of self-love in the actions of Cain against his brother Abel.  Cain did this out of jealousy and self-absorption.  Contrast this with the standard set by Jesus, who loved as much as is possible, so much in fact that even as we were his enemies, he laid his life down for us (John 15:13; Romans 5:8).

This type of genuine, God-like love knows no boundaries and sets no limits. It is unconditional in the truest sense of the word. It expects no reciprocity, nothing in return.

Do you love others like this? Honestly, I’ve wrestled with the concept, often asking “Why should I love this person if they don’t love me?”  It’s difficult giving love freely when
we know it won’t be returned. Think of a relationship where someone professes undying love for another … right up to the point where that person disappoints them.

When I find myself in need of a reminder, I always return to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13. Re-read his description of genuine love in the first 8 verses.  There are few better descriptions of love.

The second characteristic of God-like love is that it’s expensive – there is a true cost to genuine love.  No better example of this cost can be imagined than the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross of Calvary.  Jesus held nothing back.  He saw our need and met that need with every resource he had.

That’s what real love for others is about. What we have, what we can give – whether it be our time or money or material possessions – these things we should offer freely to those around us regardless of the cost.

Finally, God-like love is expressive.  Genuine love doesn’t simply talk, it doesn’t build a world of words, it takes action. Without the cross, the promise of John 3:16 is meaningless.

How many of us know people who talk but don’t really do? You’ve seen this person, maybe you’ve even been them at times in your life (I know I have).  Promises to help, best intentions, commitments to follow-through for someone in need of our time or attention – yet we don’t deliver.

I have a friend, an acquaintance whom I’ve actually never met in person.  We share thoughts and ideas occasionally online but really don’t have any deeper relationship.  Not long ago my friend told me he learned that another of our online acquaintances was experiencing a crushing run of bad luck and was at a crisis point.  He asked me if we might pool our resources with one or two other friends and help this individual out.  There would be nothing in return for this help, no tax-deductible receipt, no repayment of the money. It
was simply people with genuine love helping a brother.  Without hesitation I said yes.  My friend reminded me that love, real love, is about action, not about faux concern or empty words of “empathy.”

Over the next few days, have a conversation with yourself.  How is your “love” life?  Are you truly caring for others in a selfless and genuine manner?  Do you give freely with no expectation of a return?  Can you forgive and love even when someone repeatedly disappoints you?

Honest answers to these simple questions will be far more profound than all the self-help books ever written.

In peace.

Copyright © 2011 Robin Green, All Rights Reserved

Posted in action, apathy, belief, Christ, Christianity, deceit, Faith, give, giving, God, Jesus, love, sacrifice, Self-Delusion, Self-love | Leave a comment

And The Verdict Is…

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1-2

I had a love-hate relationship with forensics in high school and college.  Now, for all you CSI fans, the forensics I’m referencing have nothing to do with crime scenes and dead bodies (although my debate partner and I did slay quite a few teams in our day).  Rather, I’m talking about competitive public speaking.  Yes, I was one of those guys – cocky, obnoxious, with opinions on everything. 

To be sure, I loved spending summers at places like Northwestern University in Chicago or Michigan Seven Week honing my debating skills and preparing thousands of 3×5 cards with perfect snippets of cited quotations proving every conceivable angle of any potential topic.  And writing an original oratory speech that made me seem erudite (look it up) and worldly was a blast at 16 and 17.

The “hate” part involved that scourge of every competitive public speaker: the judge.  Not to say judges were bad people, mind you.  For the most part, they were pleasant enough folks who volunteered their time to sit through generally self-indulgent puffery from young know-it-alls like me.  The problem was, well, we usually did know more than the judges.  All you had to do was ask us! 

For 8-10 minutes (depending on the event), we’d pour our heart out on one topic or another, only to wait for what seemed an eternity in some high school or college hallway waiting for a runner to post our fate, determined by someone we’d usually never met before that round and who often told us nothing constructive in their lofty remarks about “deportment” and “fact checking.”  Sheesch!

Three decades later, I found it ironic to be one of those judges supporting Daughter #2 as she followed in my footsteps – albeit more poised and significantly more talented in her various events.  Remembering my own days in the hot seat, I vowed to be fair and balanced, with reasoned remarks and substance in my critique.  These youngsters would learn something from my wisdom, whether they liked it or not!  No, not much has changed with time.

The funny thing about judging another’s performance or technique or even their behavior is that for the most part our judgment is subjective.  We see their actions through our eyes.  Not always, of course.  There are clear winners and losers in track and field where the fastest athlete wins, or in a NASCAR race where the fastest car takes the flag.  But in most human endeavors, judging means rendering an opinion on someone else’s actions.

Which brings us to the topic of this post – Judgment.

As I write this, “judgment” is very much in the popular psyche.  Today lawyers in the Casey Anthony Murder Trial are making their closing arguments after a month of constant televised testimony.  As a friend wrote today, the case “is on overload.”  Not since the sensationalism of the O.J. Simpson trial has our national attention been focused on such a prime example of judging the actions and motives of others.

The Casey Anthony trial is interesting because so much of the case is hearsay and based on the appearance of actions rather than clear-cut proof as in the track and field example above.  The case will be decided based on what we (the jurors) believe to be true about Ms. Anthony.  How we (the jurors) judge her actions and the motives they imply.

A murder trial, in a civil setting is one thing.  Needed for society to function, of course. But what about when there’s not a civil trial involved?  What if the person “on trial” is your friend, or your neighbor, or an acquaintance?  Or perhaps someone you don’t really even know?  And the judge and jury turn out to be you?

The passage I opened this message with is an admonition against self-righteousness.  Sadly, we see so much of that in churches today.  Indeed, when asked their opinion of American Christians in a recent survey, respondents overwhelmingly responded “judgmental.”  Not “caring” or “empathetic” or “loving.” 

Why is this?  Why are Christians so often labeled “judgmental?”  I believe it goes to the very heart of what Jesus taught again and again when confronting hypocrisy and self-righteousness. 

First, let me be clear that Jesus did not consider all judgment to be wrong.  For example, in verse 6 of this passage Jesus cautions: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”  Here the reader is cautioned to discern where to focus his or her faith on others in order to protect against what Jesus refers to in Matthew 7:15 as “false prophets.”

Elsewhere, Jesus instructed his followers to “judge correctly” rather than by appearances only (John 7:24), and Paul goes further in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 to hold those of the Faith accountable while not judging those outside the Faith.

Where Christians veer onto dangerous ground, where they create the impression of being intolerant and judgmental of those around them is when they render judgment on others without sufficient discernment.  Jesus cautions in Matthew 7:3-5 that we should remove the plank from our own eye before attempting to clear the speck from another’s.  His point here is that too often we attack another for many of the very same faults we have in our own hearts.

I have a friend, about my age, with a similar background.  For 25 years he was married to the same woman, raised four children, was a strong leader in the church.  What few people knew was that he and his wife had experienced marital problems for years.  After many attempts to repair the relationship, my friend determined their differences were irreconcilable and filed for divorce.

Those who did not know the facts spent considerable time expressing their condemnation.  One of these individuals went so far as to suggest my friend should consider finding another congregation, that my friend’s actions were not “appropriate” for his church family.

This kind of story tends to churn up the wrath of overturning temple money changer tables in me.  While I hold no ill-will against the person judging my friend, the criticism came from a place of self-righteousness, rather than love.  My friend’s decision was somehow not acceptable to this person’s view of what church should be.  Alas, my friend did leave.

Jesus tells us to guard against judging others when we are blind to our own faults (in the case of my friend and his accuser, the fault was self-righteousness).  Paul writes further in Galatians 6:1 that any attempt to correct another must be done after considerable introspection lest we also fall victim to our own shortcomings.

In the case of my friend I suspect Jesus would have looked at his accusers and, much like the incident with the woman about to be stoned in the market place, would have simply said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”

Indeed, self-righteous judgment has no place in the Kingdom if we are to live in love and mercy.  Jesus teaches us in Luke 6:36-37 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Later, Jesus’ brother James would write “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” meaning that anyone who judges without mercy will receive the same.

Many of us struggle with this.  I know I do.  Why do we find it so hard to extend grace and mercy to others?  Two potential and rather obvious reasons come to mind.

First, all of us have a tendency to compare – we compare ourselves with others, we compare others against one another.  Differences often make up uneasy.  My youngest daughter just turned 16 and we frequently discuss how her peers dress and act at school – people try to “fit” in with each other, to be the same.  No one wants to stand out as being different (with some exceptions of course).  This is true in Christian circles as well.  We have “acceptable norms,” and those who step beyond those norms are looked at with suspicion. 

Yet the church is not intended to turn out cookie-cutter Christians on an assembly line.  We don’t all have to look alike and sound alike and think alike and act alike.  For example, as parents we naturally compare our children to others, trying to get them to do the same things, often forcing them to be something they were never meant to be.  Unfortunately, in the body of Christ, we sometimes do the same thing—trying to get everyone to do and say the same things, in the same way, forcing them to be something they were never intended to be.  This tendency to compare and get everyone to fit certain “acceptable norms” hinders the extending of grace.

The second reason is our tendency to control.  As I’ve written in previous posts (see a few here), I’ve struggled with control issues most of my life.  I don’t like loose ends.  A close friend and I were talking recently about this subject in relation to her 7 year old son.  My friend is a terrific mother in a shared parenting relationship with her ex-husband, and is going through a transitional period requiring a great deal of patience.  I realized as I listened to her story and how she’s dealing with the circumstances that I’m still learning myself how to let go of control. 

The problem with control is that we tend to browbeat those around us into compliance, to fit our view.  Even when that view is cloudy and flawed.  And those we attempt to control either submit and become less than what they are intended to be, or rebel and push us away.  Neither of these is an example of grace and mercy and forgiveness.

How do we overcome our tendency to judge others?  What can we do to extend grace and forgiveness to those around us?  Three ideas come to mind (borrowed from Chuck Swindoll in his commentary on Romans 14).

  • Accepting others as they are is basic to letting them be.  In the context of Romans 14, the issue was the eating of meat.  Paul tells his readers to “accept others,” meaning meat eaters and non-meat eaters should co-exist.  Not too controversial these days, except perhaps with ardent vegans.  Consider other, touchier subjects facing Christians today.  To drink or not drink alcohol, to watch certain types of movies, to get tattoos or not, to allow ordination of men and women who are same-sex oriented.  Each of these and a thousand other issues can divide us.  Paul tells us to allow for these differences and not judge.
  • Not dictating to others allows God the freedom to direction their lives.  While we are all family, and I may tell you to be cautious in certain actions in your life, grace means I take my hands off and give you the freedom to choose.  God is fully capable of guiding each of us – some to one lifestyle, others to a different lifestyle.
  • Judging others means assuming a position we’re not qualified to fill.  God tells us He alone is qualified to judge; who are we to judge someone else?  We’re inherently inconsistent.  We can’t read the motives of others, finding it hard to be totally objective.  How often have we jumped to wrong conclusions, made judgmental statements, only to later learn of off base and insensitive we were?

Loving others requires us to allow for freedom of choice without judgment.  We may disagree, we may not choose that path, but our charge as Christians is to love our brothers and sisters in the midst of their own choices and let God take them down the path He will.  Sometimes that path leads to and through hardship.  We must love them regardless.

As you reflect on your own life this week, I encourage you to see where you may be rendering harsh judgment against others.  Look into your own heart.  Ask yourself if you are qualified to sit on that judgment seat.  I suspect you’ll find, like I have serving as a judge for my daughter’s peers in forensics, that your first best role is to simply offer guidance, and accept the outcomes with love, grace, and humility.

In peace.

Copyright © 2011 Robin Green, All Rights Reserved

Posted in action, Christianity, Christians, Control, Faith, forgiveness, God's plan, grace, heart, hurting, Judgment, Kingdom, love, relationships | Leave a comment

Love Wins, Every Time

He said to the disciples, “Why are so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Mark 4:40

Control: kənˈtroʊl [kuh n-trohl] – to exercise restraint or direction over; dominate; command. Control has always been a capital-“B” capital-“T” Big Thing to me. Friends, jobs, relationships, family, dog’s bathroom habits, cable channel remote … all of these and a thousand other things offer abundant opportunities to exercise my “control-at-all-costs” gene. Control. Sure, I’m the master of it!

My genetic pre-disposition for control showed itself early. As a third grader, I issued a daily list of my favorite girlfriends, just to make sure there was no confusion about my Intent of the Day. In sixth grade I alphabetized all 113 of my mother’s spices – much to her dismay, as she apparently didn’t cook on an A-Z basis. Later, I would iron. Iron everything (nothing like a good crisp crease to make the world right).

It turns out that Control is also one of our species’ favorite pastimes. Look around you at the endless devices man has erected over the centuries to “control” his environment. We feel if we can just bring order to chaos and make the unpredictable a little more predictable we can make sense of an incomprehensible world. Control becomes our answer to the soul-searing question “why, God?”  Control becomes our proxy for … Love.

This is especially true in times of traumatic global calamity – for example in the face of horrific events such as the Holocaust of World War II. Survivors from death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau tell heartbreaking stories of watching their fellow Jews being marched to gas chambers, wondering aloud why God had so utterly forsaken them.

Since the time of Abraham, the Jewish people had a simple understanding of their special covenant relationship with God: they would worship only YAHWEY as their God, and God, in turn, would protect them. In other words, they would give control over their destiny to God in exchange for God’s blessing.

“What happened?” they wondered. Why had God forsaken their covenant? Why did he not protect them now? A group of Auschwitz prisoners felt so despondent they decided to have a formal trial, to try God for his indifference – apparently in absentia (this true story was turned into a BBC television special entitled God on Trial in 2008). For those who find this a curious notion, putting God on trial would not have been a blasphemous oddity, but rather something altogether understandable to Jews – in the tradition of the psalms, the Book of Job – and even Christ’s terrible accusing cry from the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?”

So a judge was selected, as well as other roles, and the trial began. Numerous possible defenses for God’s abandonment were put forth – was it a punishment for straying from the Law? Was it a purification, as in the flood of Noah? Was it a test of faith as in the story of Abraham and Isaac? Perhaps, they reasoned, it was simply a consequence of free will.

In the end, group of prisoners finds God guilty. And immediately, one of the rabbis among the prisoners says: “So what do we do now?” The reply is classic: “Let us pray.” Was this a wry story about Jewish stoicism? Is it about a failure of moral courage? I think it was a striking example of humans in the most extreme circumstances coming to terms with their separateness from God and letting go of the one thing they craved – control. Even in the midst of war, in the face of death, in the event of God’s apparent abandonment, ultimately these Jews did not abandon their side of the covenant. What they did, in fact, was take God exactly as he was – unfathomable, indifferent, distant perhaps, even unfaithful in an unimaginable way. In the words of another commentator, “A traitor, decidedly, but they still accepted him, AS HE WAS.”

I thought about this story over the weekend as I was reading the passage from Mark 4:30-41. This passage is the well-known story of Jesus calming the waves during a storm while his Apostles panicked. I was most curious with a line from near the beginning, where the evangelist says, “They took him, just as he was, in the boat.”

What might this mean? To put the story in some context, Jesus has been teaching people by the lake all day. Mark mentions several parables in this chapter (the Sower, The Mustard Seed, The Growing Seed) and the implication is that by day’s end Jesus was exhausted, probably in need of rest, maybe a bit withdrawn. Now Apostles had been with him all day, and were probably just as tired. Perhaps they wanted rest. Perhaps they wanted to eat. Yet, the passage tells us that they cast aside those concerns and took Jesus, as he was, in the boat with them. Jesus may not have delivered what the Apostles needed at that instant, yet they accepted him.

I travel a great in my business and I often read books about faith while in flight. It’s fascinating to me how many folks I meet who are interested in talking to me about the matter of belief. Frequently the subject of God’s role in their life comes up, and often it takes the form of disappointment – either God has disappointed them or the church hasn’t lived up to expectations, or they believe that they’ve somehow disappointed God, and turned away from Him in shame.

Obviously, in these situations people feel hurt and abandoned in some way – by circumstances, or God, or God’s people, or their families, or even by themselves. I’ve talked to many people who have a similar reaction: “I don’t need people or gods who I can’t depend on, so I’ll be my own protector.” The ultimate profession of “control.”

This always saddens me profoundly because it is so obvious that these individuals are crying out for love or compassion yet can’t see that the problem is their own need to impose order and control rather than turning their eyes to God in humble acknowledgement that we cannot know all things as God knows them. In the absence of control, we abandon.

Jesus had an entirely different approach. A friend told me recently she had purchased Rob Bell’s “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” for her mother.  She asked if I had read it and I told her it was a wonderfully fresh, if somewhat provocative view of Jesus’ fundamental message of love over retribution.  Yet Bell’s book has stirred up no small degree of controversy among those who see to “control” the interpretation of Jesus’ message, forming it and fitting to their own beliefs.  As though the message of love is not big enough.

Indeed, Jesus’ ministry was built on a deep and profound reconciliation between people and God, as he continuously reminded his followers. He admonished the Pharisees and Sadducees for their insistence arcane rules and points of Law as a way to control the lives of men and maintain righteousness. He chided the self-righteous and pious leaders of his time who rejected those who showed less adherence to the Law than they.

In contrast, Jesus modeled love and reconciliation in everything he did. He accepted everyone, meeting them where they were, loving them as they were, assuring them God loved them the very same way. There was no requirement to perfect their lives before they could enter the Kingdom. He did not try to control their hearts or thoughts. He showed them they Way and invited them to follow.  Love wins every time with Jesus.

Saved does not mean Perfect. If God required that we be perfect, there could be no salvation at all. Perfection is a fiction existing nowhere except in our imaginations, where it rages like an out-of-control virus, leaving nothing but the wreckage of human shells devoid of emotional or spiritual depth in its wake.

I hear this over and over from people I talk with who feel they’ve been pushed away from God by the controlling motives of those who require them to measure up to some arbitrary standard of alleged perfection. And how many personal relationships have been destroyed by this very issue? The saddest thing is that people often turn their backs on God (or each other) when their expectations aren’t met? How many times have we run away from God because we perceive God has let us down?

These are all examples of our reacting to a world we don’t understand by trying to seize control. By abandoning someone who has hurt us, we control our emotional outrage. By turning our back on God when we find ourselves in the midst of what we consider unwarranted calamities, we control our own inner sense of justice in the world.

Yet, these acts of desperation masquerading as bringing order and chaos and meaning to our lives are, in fact, the very things that can destroy souls. Control is not the answer – forgiveness grounded in love is. When Jesus said “turn the other cheek” he wasn’t encouraging masochism. Instead, he was teaching us that the urge to take control of a perceived wrong by inflicting another wrong will only perpetuate the brokenness of the relationship. Forgiveness, accepting people as they are, loving them as they are (or even in spite of who they are) instead of attempting to change them into the perfect example of whom we think they should be is the very essence of living a Christ-filled life.

To be sure, forgiveness and acceptance don’t mean we will never have conflicts or need to exhort or correct errant behavior. In the story from the Mark, Jesus accepted his disciples, and loved them, even though he was dismayed by their lack of faith. He probably didn’t appreciate being awakened from a sound sleep (I wish I could sleep that soundly in a tossing boat!) and if he reacts to low blood sugar the way I do there’s a pretty good chance he wasn’t feeling altogether hospitable (they didn’t have Red Bull in those days). Yet, he also gently scolded them for their inability to trust God.

It’s ok to tell people (or God) when you’re hurting because of something that has happened. It’s healthy and normal to say “this is causing me pain,” or “I think what you’re doing is self-destructive” because that’s what people who really love each other do. That’s what real relationship is about. And that’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with us. It’s the kind of authentic relationship in community that we should have with one another.  Because in the end, Love really does win.

In peace.

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