Monday, June 20, 2011

Forgive and Move Forward

When people do wrong, we have a mixture of emotions. Do we know the person? Do we like the person? Do we despise the person? Our reactions to the transgressions of others is colored by a lot of subjective filters that can cause us to become biased, even if unintentionally.

I recently had a lengthy, shallow, social network conversation about forgiveness, casting stones, judging, and so on. Everyone involved in the conversation was a Christian, so all of us understand the basics about sin, grace, and forgiveness - I hope. All of us, I think, would agree that repentance is a part of the experiential side of forgiveness, even as we know that, transcendentally, we experience forgiveness based on an eternal decree of God, acted out about 2000 years ago on "an old rugged cross." There are some who would argue that, since Christ paid for our sins by His shed blood, we don't need to say anything at all, or, at most, just thank God for our forgiveness.

I can see why that idea would be attractive. It keeps us from having to grapple with the impact of our actions, both on those who are directly involved, and upon others who look to us for inspiration and direction. Jesus said, while declaring that not everyone would be punished the same for their failures, that "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12:48b). Those who enjoy the benefits of being in the spotlight also have to carry the burdens. If you get to exercise authority, you will also have to exercise discipline, over yourself as well as over others.

There was a time when we understood that, without question. Commissioned officers were held to higher standards than were noncommissioned and petty officers, while recruits were basicly required to do whatever they were told by those more senior to them. In the civilian world, executives could be punished for violations of "moral turpitude," actions that were considered to be vile or depraved, as well as general violations of policy. People would seek to avoid shame, as well as the actual punishments that could result.

Now, it seems as if apologists spring up from every side to defend shameful and even illegal activity. A Senator consorts with a prostitute? No problem, since he is a good conservative. A Representative sends leud pictures of himself to relative strangers, and then lies about it? How dare we feel that he has violated the public trust? A pastor is accused of carrying on a sexual relationship with some of his teen-aged congregants? "Judge not," his supporters respond.

I don't know how we got here, in fact, I don't even care. That is all in the past. I do care, however, what we intend to do about it. I just spent yesterday being encouraged to be a man of integrity, reminded that my son will be watching me for direction of how he should conduct homself as a man as he grows up. I hope that is true, but I wonder. It seems that the acceptance of transgressions has become so commonplace in our culture, that those who are against us may seem to be more than those who are for us. Many times I have been surprised to hear that my concerns about integrity are now viewed as hypocrisy on its face, even though I say that I am only applying to others, the same standards that I apply to myself. Then I'm called a legalist, a prude, self-righteous, or worse. Have we lost even a cricket-sized sense of morality, in our quest to avoid excessive zeal in demanding excellence of one another?

I cannot force anyone else to find their seemingly-lost moral fiber, but I can make sure that I maintain what I still have. "Stolen waters" may be "sweet," but sooner or later, "be sure your sin will find you out." As the old song goes, "Where will you run to, on judgement day?" Those crowds who rose up to defend the moral failures of others will not be there at the Judgment Seat of Christ, and "the weakness of the flesh" will be insufficient to stand as a defense. Will the blood of Jesus wash away the sins of those who welcomed, rather than resisted, the devil? God knows, I don't, and I hate to gamble. I must, therefore, encourage myself, my son, and you, my friend, that our labor is still not in vain in the Lord. Whatever others may do, and regardless of what position they may hold, they are not God, and they have not changed His ways to make them like our ways, nor His thoughts, to be like our thoughts.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Submitting to 2000-year-old ideas takes faith

Fellow blogger, Lisa Blue, recently asked a question about a wife's responsibility to submit to an unbelieving husband. Lisa and I often have spirited conversations on Facebook, and I enjoy the interactions. This particular conversation, I expect will generate some energy, and I wanted to craft a response that was deeper than a FB post allows. In our modern world, do the directives of the New Testament need to be amended, re-interpreted, or obeyed, if we are seeking to please God?

In 1 Peter, Peter, one of Jesus's chosen apostles and the one to whom Jesus gave the initial responsibility to "feed my lambs" and "feed my sheep," writes, in his opening paragraph, about the wonderful inheritance we have received through faith in Christ. After the glowing affirmation, he writes the following caveat: "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls"(1Pe 1:6-9). Later on, he further develops the idea that this faith may call for a different type of lifestyle than that of our unsaved fellow-humans, writing, "but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct"(1Pe 1:15).

The rest of the letter discusses the variety of ways in which Christians, living out this call to holiness of character, will have to do things which are counter-intuitive, going against the grain of the normal ways of modern-day Americans. As Christians, we are called to serve others, to accept a vulnerability in the natural realm, based upon our complete confidence in God oversight of our lives. When Peter wrote this letter, of course, he was writing as a person who lived in a society which was shaped by both Greco-Roman and Jewish sensibilities of the 1st Century C.E. (Common Era). Egalitarianism was not a strongly held conception in relationships, and the idea of hierarchy was pervasive in both public and private life. By contrast, our modern views of equality, which were born out of the Enlightenment, make the very idea of submission and acceptance of what God has allowed, difficult pills to swallow.

The family, rather than the individual, was the basic unit of society in both Roman and Jewish society. In the home, both Roman and Jewish culture made the father the authority figure in the home. Everything revolved around the father; in Roman society, the "paterfamilias" (Father of the Family), even had life and death power over his children. Any new-born child that he rejected was exposed to the elements, subject to either death or slavery. Divorce was relatively easy to obtain; and in Roman society, only wives could be charged with adultery.

In such a background, feminist ideology made no impact upon either theology or practice, such concepts would have to wait 1900 years. A woman could exercise influence behind the scenes, but the man was formally the "master of his domain." He was also responsible for the providing for the members of the family, including his adult children, until he died. In return, the family members helped maintain the family honor. Honor and shame were very important concepts at that time. Today, we are more interested in fame and fortune, and with such a focus, fame and notoriety are kissing cousins.

But I digress. We no longer live in close-knit family units like those of ancient Rome, unless maybe our last name happens to be "Kennedy." As a rule, the father is a poor guy with all of the responsibility, but whose authority is easily challenged on the basis of personal autonomy. Looking at modern entertainment, the man is even the regular butt of humor - clumsy, inept, lacking in wisdom, his sole claim to authority lies in occasional salutes to "the good old days" of Ozzie and Harriet. A lot of us don't even know who Ozzie and Harriet are anymore. We chant, as if it were the 11th Commandment, "respect isn't given, it is earned," not even thinking about the practical implications of such an idea. In a society that values the self above all, how long does it take for someone to earn authority? On what basis does anyone stake a claim for authority that merits acceptance?

Against such cultural static, the Christian lifestyle seems quaint and archaic, and perhaps it is. Certainly, it is old rather than new, about 2000 years old, in fact. Accepting the biblical exhortations and promises requires one to lay aside every weight of modernity and even post-modernity, and embrace becoming the biblically-informed men and women into which the Spirit of God is transforming us. I, as a husband and father, am to love my family sacrificially, laying down my very life for it's sake, as well as "the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). My children are to submit to me, not because I have earned it through doing what they think I should, but because God, their Heavenly Father, has commanded it (Eph 5:22). My wife is to submit to me, not because I embody the husband as expressed by Dr. Phil, Oprah, or Deepak Chopra, but because God said to do so (Eph 6:1), praying for me, that if I am struggling in my call to godliness, the Lord will work in me both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Phi 2:13). The only way I can get around those statements is to ignore them, as some are willing to do, in the name of being "relevant," "cutting edge," or some other nice euphemism for rebellious. Since the entire culture is sliding into decadence, the Church, standing for holiness, can't help but stand out.

I think that this is a good thing. Instead of artificial standards of holiness, based upon picking things to dislike simply because others like them, we will be holy, as He is holy, because we live biblically grounded lives, based not only on appearance, but on a real difference of world-view. Some will admire us, and others will dislike us, just like they did the church in Jerusalem, and just like they did Jesus, Himself. Since Jesus never said that he was trying to win a popularity contest, I think that we can live with that, don't you?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Numbers don't lie, but what do they mean? The Middle

Much of the discussion/debate about financial support of a ministry, at some point, turns towards claims of benefit or loss from the practice of tithing, or that of sacrificial giving. On the one hand, someone tells the story of how they gave their mortgage money and, miraculously, enough money showed up, just before the default deadline, to make the payment, and sometimes with extra thrown in. On the other hand, someone describes, in gut-wrenching terms, giving in response to a request, writing a check with money that isn't actually in the bank yet, or paying that tenth of his/her income and being short on the power or water bill, but then nothing else comes in, and they are left having to explain to family and friends why they are "suffering in the name of the Lord."

I know that both scenarios have happened - to someone - and that there is the possibility that such things can happen, either for good or for ill. I bet, though, that neither of these experiences are the norm. Instead, I suspect that most people either give or not, pay or not, and life goes on. Since, according to research by the Barna Institute, tithing has been practiced consistently by less than 10% of Christians, generally hovering between 5-7% in the years 2000-2008, apparently the positive anecdotal evidence has either not spread to the general Christian public, or we don't believe it.

Of course, regarding things of faith, as the old saying goes, "one plus God equals a majority." If the things that tithing proponents say are valid, then the statistics don't matter. If less than 10% of believers give 10% of their income, then that means they get more of God's blessings that might have gone to the other 93-95% of church attendees who are rejecting God's offer of protection and provision. If anything, maybe this information should be kept a secret, lest unbelievers take advantage of the spiritual imperative that the principle seems to hold forth. After all, if God is obligated to bless those who tithe, as I have heard preachers say on occasion, then even those who reject the Gospel, but in a pragmatic investment move, support a ministry, will receive abundance from God, in the manner of someone buying the protection of a local mafia family against business competitors. After all, Malachi 3:8-12 has no disclaimer statement limiting the results to those who are baptized believers. It simply promises results to those who "try" God to see if He will "open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing..."

What I have found, in my own experience, is that these anecdotes remind me of similar promises made on late-night television about real estate investment plans, tax certificates, multi-level marketing concepts, and other offerings that promise results that only a small segment actually experience, no one of whom most of us know personally (do you know any Publishers Clearing House winners?). They sound great, and, if true, would make my life so radically different from what it has been for much of my adult life, as to make it seem foolish to not try it out, at least for a while. I admit it, I have closed my eyes, taken a deep breath, and wrote those checks. I have waited, watching my mail box and my bank account, for the promised windfall. "Is my living in vain? No, of course not," I sang with all the energy that I could muster, watching for my change to come.

Unfortunately, just like my attempts with Dean Graziosi, Kevin Trudeau, and Matthew Lesko, I tried and fell short. According to some, like Creflo Dollar, it's my fault. I lack either the necessary faith or the necessary joy. If I doubt, God doesn't have to do anything. If I am less than completely happy about obeying, God can be less than abundant in His response. Of course, Dean, Kevin, and Matthew said the same things, but they don't have a heaven or hell to put me in for disbelieving them, they just say that I'm already there, and I'll stay there for not following their perscriptions for wealth.

Now, that's my anecdotal story, or at least the Cliff Notes version of it. Sorry, I didn't drop names, telling about the pastor that benefitted from my largess, but I don't think that my anecdote should be more weighty than anyone elses. I'm hoping to hear from people who have had what I didn't, who can, perhaps, tell me what step I might have missed. One thing upon which I think we will agree, God has no problem with providing resources, for "the earth is the Lords, and all of its fullness" (Ps 24:1). Most of my adult life, while I have never been rich, I have not been destitute either. Like most members of the middle class, I have moved from payday to payday, making enough to live contentedly, and give regularly, but still needing to get up every Monday to go to work, rather than simply working for the joy of having work to do. There is enough space in the comments for your anecdotal stories which explain the way to do it right, so that we get the promised results. If there is a right way to start a car, and I'm not doing it, it's a lot cheaper to find out the proper technique, than to leave the car sitting on the driveway and take the bus. So tell me your story.

Otherwise, I shall move on to the next part of this saga, a different view on giving. In it, I shall discuss what the concept of Spirit-led giving is, and what it is not. If nothing else, it only offers me the prospect of helping others because I love God, giving me the opportunity to share His love in a way that matters, to God, to others, and to me. Any positive economic change that happens afterwards is just collateral blessings, due to the gracious mercies of God.

By the way, while you're commenting, don't forget to check out the sponsors' links, since they are a part of my page, and "the laborer is worthy of his hire." :)