AVOIDING WANNABE PHARISEES: Four Ways to Protect Your Freedom

“Exclusiveness and exclusion always result from making a false idol of purity. Pharisaism, in fact, is the result of a perverted passion for theological purity just as ethnic cleansing is for racial purity.”

Os Guinness

Our separation from God makes us want to belong to something exclusive, something important, something that will give us a sense of belonging and significance. Examples abound. Until his 2017 retirement, NASCAR fans were either part of Junior Nation, or they weren’t. Duke basketball fans are willing to endure the scorn of all NCAA fandom to identify with Coach K’s success. Harley Davidson is so popular that, not only do they earn hundreds of millions on non-motorcycle merchandise, people tattoo the company logo on their bodies.

Our desire to belong is matched only by our penchant to exclude. Every clique—from the silly to the deadly serious—has those who are in and those who are out. Airlines have first class, business class, and the unwashed masses class. Colleges have fraternities, sororities, and nobodies. The media-elite have the Trumpsters, the Nazis had the Jews and the Shia Muslims have the Sunni. Clearly, we love to exclude one another as much as we long to belong.

Sadly, the church is not immune. No matter how often Scripture tells us to accept, love, and serve one another, we find reasons to belittle, berate, and exclude each other. And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Moses had confrontations with Korah and his band[1], Jesus had the Pharisees, and Paul the “spiritually superior” Corinthians as well as various Judaizers—legalists who wanted Gentile believers to obey Jewish customs—to deal with.

To this day and to our shame the evangelical world has various versions of wannabe Pharisees: people who insist on imposing their convictions about non-essentials on those who are walking in the freedom purchased for them by the Cross of Christ. Few things are more damaging to a Church, diverting its energies away from its mission or derailing its spirit in worship than such division.

Why do Christians find so many things over which to break fellowship? And how do we nurture unity in the face of it? How do we deal with wannabe Pharisees and avoid becoming one ourselves? I offer four principles.

First, keep a clear conscience before God. Wannabe Pharisees want to impose their conscience on your life, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the Spirit within or the clear instructions of Scripture. Make sure you aren’t engaging in something that opposes Christ. As Paul warned the Corinthians not to “participate with demons,”[2] ask yourself, “Am I uncritically adopting and aligning myself with a worldview and values that are opposed to Christ?” If not, you are free.

Second, ask, “is it beneficial to me and everyone else?” Wannabe Pharisees find fault with all kinds of things that aren’t explicitly “Christian.” Insisting that everything we buy, eat, listen to, or read must be labeled “Christian” or it isn’t spiritual enough is not only transparently shallow it’s also completely subjective. It puts the freedom Christ died to give us into the hands of unqualified spiritual umpires.

Third, disengage with wannabe Pharisees as soon as possible. Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will end up in the ditch and told his men to “leave them alone.”[3] Paul told Titus to avoid foolish controversies and “have nothing to do” with divisive people after a second warning. Wannabe Pharisees don’t know when to quit, mistaking our kindness for consent to continue badgering us with their priorities. Withdraw from the conversation and let there be no mistake.

Finally, ask, “does exercising my freedom open doors to evangelism or close them?”[4] Jesus said the Pharisees “bind up heavy burdens and put them on men’s shoulders,” but refuse to lift a finger to help. He warned them that they, “… shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” by their hypocrisy. Wannabe Pharisees are more concerned with controlling others than helping them know peace with God and freedom in Christ. Never let someone rob you of the joy of sharing the life of Jesus with someone else.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” [5]

[1] Numbers 16

[2] 1 Cor. 10:20-11:1

[3] Matt. 15:18.

[4] 1 Cor. 9:19-23

[5] Ga 5:1

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

“Look at yourself! You went to law school. You never took the bar.  You went to business college. I can’t get you near the office. You studied languages you don’t speak, instruments you don’t play. You have a series of girlfriends you never see more than twice. Do you not see a pattern here? You’re a grown man, David. Finish something!”

Linus Larrabee to his playboy brother in a scene from our favorite rom com, Sabrina. David had proposed to the latest love of his life but was having second thoughts: “I’m not ready to make this kind of commitment!”

“She’s a millionaire, David, and a doctor. She won’t be a burden!” said Linus.

No doubt, no doubt at all, we are witnessing a generation of David Larrabee’s when it comes to marriage. Fewer and fewer young men have the courage to “pop the question” and make good on lifetime commitment.

But commit-a-phobia happens in spiritual life too. Maybe the rise of the seeker movement, where everything in the church is tailored to the consumerist whims of the latest generation, has contributed or maybe it’s just a symptom. But you know it’s real when pastors say, “I’m haunted when I look into the eyes of my congregation and realize they are only two weeks away from leaving for another church.”[1]

Psalm 119 reminds us of the power and potential, the risks and rewards of commitment to God’s word and God’s way. The psalm is unique in scripture, a 176 verse Hebrew alphabetic acrostic masterpiece of devotion to the “word of God and the God of the Word”[2] that interweaves precepts with prayers, and praise with petition.

Six verses stand out against the backdrop of recent events that speak to the rewards and risks of commitment to God’s way. I’ll come to the events in a moment.

First, the commitment:

I have chosen the way of truth;

I have set my heart on your laws.

I hold fast to your statutes, O Lord;

do not let me be put to shame.[3]

Commitment is embracing with our entire being the risks and rewards of a definite path, the snot and vomit of Olympic training for the promise of the podium. It invites the order that the thing committed to imposes on life, the discipline of saying “yes” to things that align with it, and “no” to those that don’t.

Next, the risks:

Though rulers sit together and slander me,

your servant will meditate on your decrees. [4]

The arrogant mock me without restraint,

but I do not turn from your law. [5]

Remember the catty remarks emanating from media elite about Vice President Mike Pence’s faith? First, it was his commitment never to meet a woman, other than his wife, for dinner alone. The scorn at his godly stand melted away in the smutty heat of Weinstein, Lauer, and #MeToo. Next it was The View Co-host Joy Behar’s contempt at Pence’s confidence that—like followers of Christ for two millennia—he hears from God.

Indeed, the arrogant mock without restraint. That’s the risk of commitment to God.

Finally, the reward:

I run in the path of your commands,

for you have set my heart free. [6]

I will walk about in freedom,

for I have sought out your precepts.[7]

Edmund Burke said,

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites … It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”[8]

David Larrabee lives in all of us, but the more we indulge our commit-a-phobia the heavier we forge our chains. Commit to God’s word and God’s way and fly free.

[1] Os Guinness, The Call, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2008. P. 71.

[2] NIV Study Bible notes.

[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:30–31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:51). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:32). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:45). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[8] The Works of Edmund Burke, quoted by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkel in Practical Guide to Culture, David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO. p. 139.

Can We Hear Them Now?

Can We Hear Them Now?

Facebook, 2018: A young father shared the moment he felt his daughter in her mother’s womb.

“I’d only briefly felt this baby move before. I tried to feel her move again and again to no avail. But finally, lying there last night next to her mom, snuggled up close because of the cold, I felt kick after kick. Long after my lady had gone to sleep, there was our little one still kicking away. There ain’t words to truly describe what my heart felt.”

I read that post and smiled, remembering what it was like to be a young father many years ago, when before my daughters had voices they spoke to us with kicks.

Another story I saw this week took me back even further, to the moment the world stopped hearing the voiceless words of children in the womb.

Dr. Richard Selzer, an enlightened surgeon, fully committed to the latest medical philosophies, and desiring to learn the best techniques, wanted to watch a new procedure. He’d heard of it, but never seen one performed so he asked a fellow physician if he could attend.

The patient was 19 weeks pregnant, lying on the table, prepped for the procedure. The surgeon took a syringe filled with a prostaglandin solution, sank the needle up to its hub into the woman’s belly, pushed the plunger down and left it there for a few moments.

Selzer described what happened next. ““I see something other than what I expected here. … It is the hub of the needle in the woman’s belly that has jerked. … Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish.”

Slowly, the desperate fight for life faded. The needle stopped jerking. The voiceless screaming ceased, but not in Selzer’s head. “Nothing can argue against the truth of what I saw that day.”

That story, “What I Saw at the Abortion,” originally appeared in Esquire in January 1976, and appeared most recently in Marvin Olasky’s World Magazine interview with pro-life feminist Frederica Matthews-Green.*

The trajectory of Green’s life was changed by that brief paragraph in Esquire. Up until then she sported a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t labor under a misconception. Legalize abortion.” Now she is known by her most famous quote: “No woman wants an abortion like she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion like an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

Would that the trajectory of the world had changed with her.

Ideas have consequences and, as John Stonestreet says, they also have victims. The two greatest victims of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s were women, who lost the protection long afforded to them by traditional mores and the covenant of marriage, and children, who lost the protection not only of a two-parent home, but of the womb. Both suffer in abortion. Both need our help.

The women were voiceless until 2017, stifled by fear, or powerful men, or both. Now they are speaking and the nation is listening. Maybe in the context of so much truth-telling those other heretofore voiceless victims will also speak.

Can we hear them now?

*Marvin Olasky, “Path to Pro-Life: Overcoming Pro-Abortion Peer Pressure with Facts.” Interview with Frederica Matthews-Green by Marvin Olasky in World Magazine, January 20, 2018. https://world.wng.org/2018/01/path_to_pro_life

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Nevertheless, everyone feels isolated, everyone feels alone now and then, perhaps especially during the holidays. It’s part of the human condition, a result of the fall. Eve caved to the serpent’s song followed closely by Adam, each seeking to be like God, only to find that they lost connection with God and each other. Loneliness began in the garden.

From that day to this every man, woman and child knows the ache of loneliness, the pain of separation from his fellows and his Creator. Loneliness assails us especially on significant anniversaries when we feel the loss of loved ones long gone. The divorced also feel the pain, with the added grief that separation was by choice rather than by chance.

It was with such melancholy mental meanderings that I turned to meditate on John 14:1-4, a passage so familiar that the words felt lukewarm on my tongue as I recited them back to God. Lukewarm that is, until I spoke verse three: “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to his downcast disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

… that you also may be where I am. That little phrase lit a pale flame on the horizon of my soul that grew in magnitude like the sun rising in the porch window, filling it with warmth and banishing the night.

… that you also may be where I am, is Jesus telling us that he is just as unsatisfied with the separation as we are, that he knows the ache in our hearts, and that he is doing something about it.

… that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us how much he wants to be with us, even more than we want to be with him.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are welcome at his table no matter how inadequate we may feel about being there. It is he who prepared the way, not us, for he was the only one who could.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are not alone.

I don’t know where this meditation finds you today, perhaps full of joy and good fellowship. But if you are experiencing that existential ache, if you are feeling deeply the losses of life, Jesus offers the way home.

How? Funny, that’s the same question Doubting Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

THE MEMORY TREE

THE MEMORY TREE

The tree appears like magic every year, the day after Thanksgiving. Rising from the floor to its full seven feet, strung with lights and nothing else, a green canvas of branches waiting to be adorned by the master artist I married.

From old boxes emerge simple ornaments, each a reminder of years and blessings past. First the forty, communion cup ice cream sundaes, created the year we met.  Then twenty-five Nut Cracker characters, crafted from clothes pins our first year of marriage when we were poor as church mice. Twenty decorative fans follow, formed from folded Christmas cards and glue-on lace that second year of seminary poverty. Cross-stitched frames with our girls’ names find their favorite branches, gifts from Grandma’s hand. Miniature presents from the “My Gift is Me” story, wrapped in metallic green, red, blue, silver, and purple are accompanied by popsicle-stick sleds the girls made with Mom.

A starfish Santa that came from the lady who had a Christmas tree in every room – “Can we do that?” my dear decorator asked.

“NO!”

But she could make driftwood Santa’s to keep the solidified starfish company, and she did, along with thirty of our fifty-odd nativities, made of cloth, flower pots, fabric, wooden spoons, and everything you can think of. An angel from our missionary friend, a star from Sandie, in our then-new pastorate. And finally, on winter’s first whisper, sixty hand crocheted snowflakes, gifts from another pastor’s wife, because snow can’t fall till it gets cold.

I gaze with greater wonder each year. How does she do it? There is no plan, no scheme, no blueprint or photo of where to place each ornament. Even if I had one I couldn’t do it, not without her. She has the eye, the perspective, the balance of all the elements in her head. By themselves in a box they are just pieces of paper, thread, and popsicle sticks. Stuff other folks would throw away. But in her hands, they come together to form something money cannot buy: beauty.

Simple, lovely, one-of-a-kind, a memory tree never exactly the same from year to year, but always a powerful visual aid that the Creator-Redeemer can take whatever we give him, no matter how plain or simple, and arrange it into something beautiful.

Merry Christmas!

FRANCIS COLLINS FINDS THE LIGHT

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

(John 1:4 NIV)

We call Christmas the season of light in no small part because of the meaning of this verse. But what are we to make of this mysterious word? How was Jesus the light of men?

Famed geneticist Francis Collins’s journey to faith is a good example.

Collins’s credentials and accomplishments are legendary in the scientific community. He headed up the Human Genome Project before serving as the Director of the National Institutes of Health. In 2007 he wrote a New York Times best-seller, The Language of God, which weaves together the story of his work as a world-renowned scientist and his journey from atheism to faith in Christ.

As a young doctor and atheist at the University of North Carolina Medical Center, Collins cared for many desperately sick people who, in spite of their illnesses, had profound faith. He wondered, “why were these people not shaking their fists at God and demanding that (their families) stop all this talk about a loving and benevolent super power?” After all, most of them were dying from illnesses they had done nothing to deserve.

That’s when an older patient, suffering from untreatable angina, asked a question for which he was not prepared, “What do you believe?”

“I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words,” he wrote, “I’m not really sure.”

Collins was in the dark and knew it. He began to question his integrity as a scientist and realized that, rather than consider all the evidence and come to a rational conclusion on life’s greatest question, he had engaged in, “willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance … Suddenly, all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.”[1]

After a long period of searching, which included a review of the world’s great religions, grilling a pastor with questions, and reading C.S. Lewis’s classic, Mere Christianity, the light dawned:

“On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”[2]

Perhaps you can identify with Collins. You know something is out there, something true, and good, and powerful enough to give dying people hope and peace, but you have been avoiding it. That something is really Someone, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.

Maybe you are ready to begin your journey into the light today, or you know someone who is. If so let me recommend C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, the book that helped Collins so much. Then there’s Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith, a modern classic. And finally, if you are of a scientific bent, The Language of God is a great place to start.

[1] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 20.

[2] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 225

TIME FOR A NEW REVOLUTION: Thoughts on Rampant Sexual Assault

My dad, Schafer J. Skelton Jr., never played flag football. That puzzled us because we knew he was on three Conference and two State championship teams in high school, earning all-state guard honors in 1950. Mom asked him once, when the men at a church outing were dividing into teams, why he wasn’t joining in the fun?

“I play football for keeps,” he said. “If I go out there, somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Dad understood himself well enough to know that once on the field, in the heat of competition, his natural aggression and fierce competitiveness would likely send somebody to the hospital. I wonder if we understand our sexual selves that well.

What does this have to do with the epidemic of sexual assault?

The Bible is clear that from Noah’s son Ham to Harvey Weinstein, men have been guilty of sexual harassment and assault. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s, however, tossed out every warning the Bible had to give. It said that sex is like flag football; everybody has fun, and no one gets hurt. But the headlines tell the tale. Sex is one of the most powerful forces within us.

Ideas have consequences and, as John Stonestreet likes to say, they also have victims. The sexual revolution kicked the referees off the field, pitched the helmets and pads that once protected the players, and produced predictable fruit: millions of women, children, and men have been hurt.

But the men are the primary perpetrators, so allow me to speak directly about them.

As a pastor, my exposure to some of the grimier parts of life is limited. So, I did an informal survey of my wife, mom, three daughters, and two female cousins, asking, “How bad is it out there with men?”

It is very bad, much worse than I imagined. Some of the things men say and do are too foul to print. Combined with the reports we’ve all read about high profile abusers and rapists my first reaction is profound grief. My second is deep anger.

Schafer would have broken their teeth out.

A word to those men, and the ones like them. The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.[1] You may imagine that you are too smart to be caught, but no one gets away with it. I urge you to repent and ask Jesus Christ for mercy and forgiveness. If you refuse, do not imagine that you will escape the wrath of God.

But what about the rest of us? The climate is so charged with rancor and suspicion that some men are wondering if they should ever ask a girl out on a date, and some women are wondering if they should accept.

I had in mind a list of practical guidelines for men and women to help cultivate virtue and curb our baser instincts, but anyone can come up with a list of do’s and don’ts. Here at the nasty end of the sexual revolution we need a reason to follow the list in the first place. Rod Dreher reminded me of one in The Benedict Option.

Scripture gives us a reason to respect the bodies of others and refrain from sex until marriage that is much more powerful than the fear of punishment. Our bodies, the complementarity of male and female together, bear the image of God and are thus sacred. Using another human being for sexual gratification without the protective covenant of marriage is, at the very least, to undermine their dignity. Abusing or assaulting another human being for sexual gratification is to desecrate the sacred.

Bottom line, when we see other human bodies as sacred, the rules about how we should treat them, the respect we owe to them, become self-evident and internally energized.

Dreher writes, “… man has a purpose. He is meant for something, to achieve certain ends. When Paul warned the Christians of Corinth that having sex with a prostitute meant that they were joining Jesus Christ to that prostitute, he was not speaking metaphorically. Because we belong to Christ as a unity of body, mind, and soul, how we use the body and the mind sexually is a very big deal.”

“Anything we do that falls short of the perfect harmony with the will of God is sin. Sin is not merely rule breaking but failing to live in accord with the structure of reality itself.”[2]

We have been living contrary to the structure of reality now for over fifty years and the results are obvious. Isn’t it time for a new revolution? Isn’t it time to turn around?

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Pr 15:3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York, 2017. P. 200.