Friday, February 26, 2016

Very old wine

Dear ones, Followers of the Way, Fellow travelers in Christ:

I have watched the latest election cycle with a mixture of amazement, anxiety, anger and amusement. I have been voting for more than forty years and have never, ever in my life seen a cycle like this one. But my friends, as the rhetoric and hand-wringing rise to a crescendo, the time has come to encourage one another; to say some things that need saying.

First, we have to know that this election is about so much more than who will be elected President. I believe it is a test—not to pass or fail, but a test given to throw a light on what we're trusting. The world is in terror about the economy and our future, but this is not a time to let fear rule us. It’s time to take a breath…a step back and remember that God is in control, whether we end up with a distasteful Republican or a distasteful Democrat. Even if we elect the candidate we love, the problems America faces cannot be fixed through the political process. We must cry out for the remedy only God can bring, which is much bigger than a particular party proving victorious in November.

I don’t know that God is wanting to “Make America Great Again.” I don’t know that He is concerned about our comfort zone. I don’t know that He cares very much whether democracy triumphs or our pensions are intact. I do know that He cares deeply about the world…the world which only exists because of love. I know that a new heaven and a new earth are coming in which love reigns supreme…but first the old, broken world must go. I do know that God’s plan is to save as many people as will come to Him, before the end arrives. And the end will eventually arrive, because it would not be loving for God to allow evil to go on destroying forever.

Could it be that God is allowing this troubling election in order to shake us awake? To splash cold water on us? To break the soul-tie evangelical Christianity has forged with American politics? Is our allegiance to a political party, or to Democracy, or to the American economy, or to maintaining our comfortable lives? Or is our allegiance to God and His plan…even if that plan means the overturning of everything, everything with which we are familiar? What does “shaking everything that can be shaken” look like? That is not punishment; that is love and kindness. After all, what good does it do me to gain the whole world and lose my soul? If the American dream has become an idol to American Christians, what might God do about that?

Second, It is only a matter of time before our economy will suffer another calamity. That is not prophetic alarmism or negativity, it is a fact. Every rational adult knows that you cannot consistently spend more than you earn without ultimately facing a dire financial consequence. Yet we have an entire block of voters clamoring for free college, free healthcare, free whatever they can get. It matters not to them who will pay for it. And the other side is just as guilty…it has its own pet projects, its own play for power. America is going bankrupt, because no one on either side of the aisle has the moral fortitude to close the candy store. No one has the courage to tell the American people, “No.” No one, from the politicians in DC to the man on the street, wants to lose their goodies. So we continue down a political and bureaucratic path that cannot help but end in disaster for us all.

But friends, for Christians this is only a disaster in the ‘we like our lives to be as undisturbed as possible’ sort of way. For Christians, this is an exciting (though scary) chance to adjust our reliance from a government system to God’s provision. Zephaniah 1:12 speaks of a time in which men became complacent…so undisturbed that they grew dull and stopped believing that God was active in their daily lives either for good or evil. God compared them to old wine settled on its lees (dregs). Wine which sits too long becomes soured and bitter and undrinkable. To maintain its goodness, it must, from time to time, be poured off its lees and into a new container.

Could it be that God pouring us off our lees; preparing us for a new season for which we need new containers? It is very easy in a country that permits great freedom, to begin to trust and rely on that freedom, instead of God. It is easy to become comfortable and complacent and protective of our pleasant way of life, instead of accepting what God has for us. It is easy to expect that comfort to continue, instead of rejoicing whether in abundance or lack. It is easy to make plans for ourselves and ask God to rubber stamp them with His approval, forgetting that He may have something else in mind entirely. When we’re dependent on ourselves and regular paychecks and the rule of law it’s easy to see God more as a vague spiritual influence rather than a dynamic force, actively involved in every detail of our day to day lives. Like wine set aside to age, we have been settled, undisturbed for a long, long time.

If Jesus is my everything, that must affect my role in this election. A choice based on fear of ‘what ifs’ is an exercise in vain imagination. Especially if we worry that we might waste our vote by voting for someone “who can’t win.” If we glorify God with our choice in this election, leaving the consequences to Him, then our vote counts in the only court that matters.

I’ve been reading about a young girl named Sophie Scholl. Only 21 when she died, Sophie was a Christian, raised in the Nazi dominated society of Germany during WWII. She and her brother Hans and a small group of friends were troubled when they learned about the atrocities Hitler was committing. So they formed a group and, knowing the cost, created and mailed out protest pamphlets, which were passed from hand to hand at the University of Munich and many other places. Did their protest make a difference? Did the atrocities stop? Did everyone listen to them? No. Sophie, her brother and another friend were arrested and beheaded only five days later. Why did they bother? It seems such a waste. But not in God’s economy. They were seeds sown on our account, and her story has been reverberating in my soul for two solid days. Weeping, I ask that God raise up more like Sophie and Hans…that God make me like Sophie and Hans. So that when faced with any choice, I would not think of results or waste, but only what God is asking of me.

Whether or not my guy wins, It matters how I vote because it’s one more indicator that I am different than the world. It signals my choice to do what I believe is right, not what’s popular. It demonstrates my confidence that God is in charge, whether our government continues as before or becomes something else entirely. It declares that whether or not my rights are upheld, my finances increase or my faith is permitted by law, I stand with Jesus. If that stance brings me pain in this world, then I rejoice that I am in the company of a tremendous cloud of witnesses like Sophie, waving me on to the finish line.

So resist the whirlpool of fear and be encouraged! Run hard, my friends. Run hard after Jesus, our coming King. Focus on Him, knowing that He has conquered; trusting that He knows that we need shelter and clothes and food. Run hard, knowing that He is worthy, that He is better than all our worldly goods; better than Democracy; better than the American way. Whether this election ultimately makes you happy or horrified, God is on His throne and it will be well with those who call on His name. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jesus Is Not Nice

Jesus isn’t nice. Isn’t nice?

This seems not only insulting, but untrue as well. Isn’t being nice a Christian imperative? Wouldn’t more niceness fix the nasty turn our society has taken these days? Especially in this election cycle? Those of us born in the 50’s were often told as children, play nicebe nice; and the ever popular if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. When I was growing up, being nice meant being courteous to those around you—not being rude or obnoxious. It meant being kind. But kind and nice are not synonyms.

If you think I'm splitting hairs, consider it this way. Kindness is others-focused. Niceness is ultimately self-focused. To be nice is to conform to the opinions and behaviors of those around you in order to gain their acceptance or approval. Being nice is a means of not rocking the boat, or stirring the pot, or making a fuss, which little girls especially were warned against as not ladylike. Niceness is a means of going along to get along, which might seem like a means of maintaining a certain level of civility in public discourse. But not in today’s world in which we’re being forced into a false, politically-correct civility. Today disagreement means disagreeable; unity means uniform and harmony means homogeneous. So niceness has become a tyrant, demanding that we all believe the same things and say the same things or be considered not only rude but hateful. Our world has somehow become a place in which disagreeing with someone is to cause them harm.

And the kicker is, we often attempt to behave ‘nicely,’ because we believe Jesus would want us to—to be peacemakers and all that. But Jesus didn’t always play well with others; He said what needed saying. He was not concerned with His reputation. He wasn't politically correct. He wasn’t worried about what others thought of him. He wasn’t trying to make every group of people His buddies. His self-esteem wasn’t chained to being the most likeable guy in the room. In every situation with each person He said or did what was needed, because of love. That is kindness—being more concerned with what is best for the other person, even if it causes an uproar.

Niceness seeks to keep the peace, but it’s only, ever, an artificial peace. To keep it, I must always agree with everyone else. And it doesn’t work. No matter how hard I monitor my speech, I will inevitably encounter a situation in which I will be forced to say what I really think and that’s the end of my carefully structured public image as a ‘nice person’. And why have we decided that peace is the ultimate goal anyway? Jesus told us, "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." (John 15:19). If I'm hated for being a jerk, I am getting what I deserve, but if I'm hated for being kind as Jesus was kind, I am getting what I should expect as His disciple. . 

Jesus isn’t nice, He’s kind. Jesus criticized the Pharisees not because He hated them, but to provoke them to repentance (resulting in their good). He told the Samaritan woman to her face that He knew she was sleeping around—not nice—to bring the message of His coming kingdom to an entire village. He insulted another woman, saying that she was no better than a dog, not because He had a nasty streak, but to provoke her to faith and heal her daughter. He identified Peter with Satan, not to put him down, but to raise him up to be a leading disciple.

So are we supposed to stomp around pointing the finger at everyone, shouting the devil down and exposing everyone’s sins? Of course not! Jesus wasn’t scoring points or winning arguments. He caused momentary pain designed to lead to restoration and wholeness. He knew very well that everything He said would not be accepted and approved. He knew some would hate Him for what He believed and taught. And He willingly accepted the consequences of his interactions with others. That is kindness, and it will cost us just as it did Jesus. Niceness will not, cannot, protect us from dislike, criticism or persecution. Responding to others with kindness, regardless of the cost, will place us squarely in the tradition of our rabbi Jesus.*

The world doesn’t need us all to be nicer, it needs the kindness of Christ. Kindness that gives into each situation what is needed, regardless of personal cost. The world is dying of thirst. Kindness offers water at the risk of being condemned for claiming ours is the only clean source. Niceness would have us pretend to be thirsty too—at least in the public square. If we truly carry within us the well of Living Water, how can we keep silent while the world burns?

I can see how far I have to go. As old as I am, I still find myself doing the self-protection shuffle at times when I want to be liked (or left alone). When niceness demands, “Agree or shut up,” I am having to decide all over again whether I want to be liked and admired, or serve as Christ did, laying down my life for the people I encounter. I must confess that true kindness often eludes me. I am busy; I am distracted; I am focused on retaining the comforts of my own life. But if I avoid true kindness so I can continue my way, undisturbed, then I am not loving people as Jesus commands. 

I think I would amend what our mothers told us as children. How about —If you don't have anything nice to say, don't remain silent—say something kind instead.

*And lest we think that being forced to play nice is something that happens only when Christians are hanging out with unbelievers, consider that niceness can also be the buffer we place between ourselves and others in order to avoid intimacy. We might ‘make nice’ to keep the conversation at the surface, in order to minimize the possibility that we might have to shoulder someone’s burden or confess a weakness of our own. Selah :)

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