DOING WITHOUT THE DO-OVERS

 

“What is behind-a me is not-a before me!” shouted the Italian racer as he ripped the rear view mirror off the windshield and put the pedal to the metal in one of those silly seventies rally movies. We used to quote it when heading out on family road trips, exaggerating the dialect for effect.

Most of us would like to live that way, “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…” as the Apostle Paul would say. But the truth is many of us do look back, are held back emotionally and spiritually by mistakes we’ve made in the past, things we wish we could “do over.” We don’t necessarily call them sins. We’re still uncomfortable with that verdict. But if we were honest we’d admit that most of them were. We were raging, deceitful, covetous, gossipy, greedy, or gluttonous and sometimes all of the above. We indulged our sinful nature and it cost us.

In our guilt we look for “do-overs,” ways to fix what we did wrong, or we indulge in melancholy self-loathing, a kind of mental and emotional self-flagellation, in an attempt to appease God or balance our internal scales of justice.

Trust me; God doesn’t need your melancholy. If you are living with some left over guilt allow me to share some encouragement. It comes from the tenth chapter of Hebrews.

Under the old covenant, the Law of Moses, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:11 NIV). That didn’t help much because the sacrifice of an animal was never enough to cover all sins. In fact, verse three explains, “…but those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins,” (emphasis added).

All the Law could do was to remind us of our inadequacies and encourage an eternal longing for “do-overs.” But Jesus Christ, “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God…” In the Bible, sitting down is a symbol for finished work. Jesus was one and done. He made one sacrifice, himself, and it was enough.

Hebrews goes on to explain that the whole Old Testament temple system was a model, a type, a shadow of the real thing in heaven. When Jesus made his sacrifice it wasn’t offered on earth alone, it was offered in the real temple, the heavenly temple. It was once for all, eternal, infinite in its ability to wipe out the sins of all who believe.

In other words, the sacrifice of Christ enables all of us to do without the do-overs.

So no more do overs. Grab that mirror, rip it off the windshield, and say it with me as we continue the race that lies before us: what is behind-a-me is not-a-before me!

 

JESUS, COLBERT & SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

You’ve probably seen the meme with Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show on NBC, holding a Bible next to a picture of Jesus saying, “I would like to read to you what Jesus said about homosexuality … I’d like to, but he never said anything about it.”

Colbert ran this gag in 2012 and the debate has moved on since then with most people assuming he was correct. But a young mom passed it along to me this week, asking for clarification and, assuming she represents a larger group, I’m sharing my response with you for your edification.

At first glance Colbert would seem to be correct. Enter the word “homosexual” into your e-Bible concordance, limit the search to the four gospels and you won’t find Jesus using the word.

It is true that, unlike the Apostle Paul, the Lord never used the word homosexual, but he did address the issue of human sexuality and his teaching does more than affirm the traditional view, it is its foundation.

First, Jesus, who never traveled outside of Palestine, was a Jewish rabbi speaking to a first century Jewish audience. Paul, on the other hand, was a Jewish missionary to a predominantly Greek and Roman audience. In Jesus’s culture homosexuality was probably present, but not out in the open, ditto pedophilia which he also never mentions. Homosexuality and pedophilia were notoriously common among the Greco-Romans Paul was teaching, which explains his emphasis on the subject.

Jesus did, however, refer to homosexuality in a different context. When he taught, in Matthew 15:18-19, of the heart as the source of sins he used the broadest term possible — the Greek word is porneia — to describe sexual sin. Porneia is not limited to one particular sexual sin, like adultery, but includes the whole sweep of sexual sin. Any sexual activity outside of the marriage of a man and a woman was considered porneia, including homosexuality.

Second, Jesus affirmed that marriage is between male and female. In Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus explained what marriage is by going back to the original design of God in Genesis 1:27, 2:23 and 24. The union between male and female is the order of creation, God’s design for men and women. This is the foundation of everything Jesus taught about human sexuality. Same-sex marriage is a direct contradiction of his teaching on sex in general, and marriage in particular.

Third, Jesus condemned homosexual practice in his condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Matthew 10:15 Jesus explained to his disciples that in the judgment to come the towns that refused their message would suffer a greater judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah. Again in Matthew 11 Jesus denounced Capernaum telling the people, “It will be more tolerable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Some say that Sodom was only judged for its brutality to strangers but you have to ignore the clear meaning of multiple Old and New Testament texts to arrive at that conclusion. Sodom and Gomorrah are bywords throughout the Bible for sexual perversion, especially homosexuality. Jesus, though he had many opportunities to do so, did not upend the teaching on Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. He affirmed it and quoted from it.

When we dig a little deeper we find, as with most things surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage, that the truth is more profound than a five second night show gag.

RENDEZVOUS WITH JESUS: Alpha 2017

A new friend sat across the table at the local deli, eager to tell me what had happened to him.

“On the third week, when Nicky Gumble led in prayer, I prayed with him and gave everything to God. I told God I couldn’t do anything without him and didn’t want to try. Up until then I had some good days and some bad days, well, really a lot of bad days and some OK days, full of anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression. All of that is gone. I felt this incredible lightness after I prayed. I’m sleeping the night through now, and I’m so happy.”

That was in 2011, about five weeks into our first Alpha Course, and conversations like it have continued to happen ever since. That’s the reason our church will offer Alpha in September for the eighth time since 2011. I’m writing today to ask you to pray for the course and for friends you might invite this summer.

Haven’t heard of Alpha? Wonder what it’s like?

The Alpha Course is completely apolitical. More importantly, it isn’t built around a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101 if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community.

Learning is a process that happens best when we are in the presence of friends. This is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one is pressured to “buy” anything and all questions are welcomed in a community of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared meals and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. People who have attended church all their lives will enjoy it. Those who’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity will also enjoy it and come away enriched, with new understanding and new friends.

The Alpha Course Team, the people who make the event happen each fall, consists of two parts: task force, and hosts / facilitators. The task force prepares the meals and handles logistics. The hosts / facilitators make  guests feel welcome and facilitate small-group discussions. The only prerequisites to serving on the team are to have attended the course at least once and meet a few times prior to launch for prayer and training.

One of the most important things our Alpha team has learned over the years is that the primary reason people attend the course is because a friend has invited them. So even if you choose not to serve on an Alpha Course team, your prayers for and invitations to friends really count. Of course you’ll also want to attend with whomever you invite.

The coolest thing in the world is to sit with new friends, see the peace and joy on their faces, hear how awesome it is to know that they are loved and cared for by the Creator of heaven and earth, and know that we got to play a small part in their rendezvous with Jesus.

Interested? Visit  http://alphausa.org.

OUTGROWING POVERTY

My heart went out to the young man on the phone and the woman who had taken him in. He had fallen in love with her at work and needed a place to stay and, well, one thing led to another. He had only been out of prison for a few months, still trying to get back on his feet, and his original housing arrangement hadn’t worked out. Her power was about to be cutoff on this damp, cold night.

I had helped in enough of these situations to know that a few bucks weren’t going to keep the heat on, and it was too late in the day to involve the church or other agencies, so I went to the ATM, pulled out $350, and handed it to her in Wal-Mart so she could get the money order and pay her bill.

That’s what Christians are supposed to do right, help the poor? Then why did I feel robbed when she unceremoniously kicked him out before the next billing cycle? Well, frankly, because I had been. I was a voluntary victim of my own hyperactive empathy, unbiblical anthropology, and upside-down economic theory. The only reason I’m sharing this is so that you won’t think me a cold-hearted capitalist if you keep reading.

Nobody likes poverty. No one enjoys seeing other people suffer with only thin blankets between them and a frigid night. Everyone with a conscience informed by Jesus’s Good Samaritan wants to, and should, help in an emergency. But the only way to help people get out, and stay out, of chronic poverty is to help them outgrow it. That’s a lot harder than pulling a few hundred bucks out of an ATM on a cold November night.

Prevailing models of aid view economic resources as limited. There are the haves and the have-nots, and the only way to help the have-nots is for the haves to hand it over. That’s called wealth redistribution, which is completely different from wealth creation. If we’re going to help people get out and stay out of chronic poverty, we need to believe in the expandable economic pie. World Magazine’s Joel Belz reminds us of this in his tribute to American Catholic philosopher (and lifelong Democrat) Michael Novak, who died last month.[1]

Novak often referenced eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith, saying, “The really unusual insight of Adam Smith is in effect a theological insight—that the world is not a finished system. If it were finished, then the urgent need would be for a distributive system. But God made the world differently, with the potential for constantly creating new wealth.” Finding the causes of poverty is not difficult, but we need to find ways to help the poor create wealth.

The first way to help people outgrow poverty is to help them believe that God has given them the power to create wealth, to provide for themselves. Doing this restores their dignity as creatures made in his image who have power, some ability to determine their own destiny.

Another Novak quote corrects the unbiblical anthropology undermining our attitudes toward the poor as well as our ideas about helping them: “Socialism is a system for saints. Democratic capitalism works because it’s a system for sinners.” If we’re going to help each other, we have to be truthful about human nature–that we are prone to oppression and greed, as well as fraud, and indolence. Socialism is brilliant, if we can count on rich and poor alike to ignore economic incentives, but we cannot.

Pure, unregulated, free-market capitalism will almost always favor the strong over the weak, or uninformed. That’s why we needed, for example, some of the credit agency and loan industry reforms passed by the last administration, the “democratic” in Novak’s capitalism.

But the “sinners” part of the equation covers the poor as well as the rich. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Many single young women now see having babies in order to collect more government assistance as a de facto career path. Marrying the father is out of the question because he would be expected to provide for his own, thus reducing the monthly stipend. The result is that more children are born to more unwed mothers. Perverse economic incentives reap a cycle of increasing dependence as well as the social pathologies that arise from families without fathers.

The biblical view of human nature takes these things into account. That’s why in the Bible, help for the poor recognizes the difference between a crisis and a chronic need. Ongoing, versus emergency assistance, was always predicated on the idea that the receiver performed some kind of work (Deut. 24:17-22).

The bedraggled man at the end of the off-ramp held a crude sign: “I have a wife and child and another on the way. Will work today.” Reliable reporting tells us that these guys often pull in hundreds of untaxed dollars a day. Even so, avoiding his pleading gaze as he made his way along the line of cars was almost more than I could take. Everything in me wanted to pull out a twenty and hand it over. But he kept a respectful distance and I, feeling like an absolute shmuck, kept my wallet in my pocket.

Perhaps the hardest part of helping people outgrow poverty is overcoming our hyperactive empathy. And I don’t believe that God will ever judge us for handing a few bucks to a beggar. But I am utterly convinced that he will ask us one day, “Why did you, in the most prosperous economic system ever developed by man, allow poverty to perpetuate itself, when you knew how to help people outgrow it?”

[1] https://world.wng.org/2017/03/system_for_sinners

BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

EMBRACING YOUR JESUS CRISIS

There is an old story about a gathering of people listening to recitations of the 23rd Psalm. One man everyone wanted to hear was a well-known actor with a deep melodious voice. He wasn’t a particularly spiritual man, but he appreciated the Psalm and was happy to comply. He stood and delivered it beautifully and everyone was duly impressed. Then a very old gentleman, one with no great skill at public speaking, but a man whom everyone respected, was also urged to recite. He slowly rose to his feet and in a quiet voice quoted the Psalm from memory. As he spoke a hush fell over the room, a silence and peace no one wanted to disturb even after he sat down. Finally, the actor spoke the truth everyone knew: “I know the Psalm. He knows the Shepherd.”

Many people are like the actor in the story. They say things like: “I’ve read the Bible. The teachings of Jesus are brilliant. I like the idea of going to heaven when I die. As far as religion is concerned, I check the “Christian” box on official forms. But this whole idea of a relationship with God is beyond me. I know other people experience it. I believe they are genuine. But I don’t seem to be able to have it myself and I don’t know why.”

A story from Luke 5:1-11, the story of the calling of the first disciples, offers a clue. Jesus was seated in Simon’s boat, teaching. He finished, turned to Simon (later called Peter) and said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Now Simon was an experienced fisherman, a concrete, rational businessman. He was also tired. He and his partners had fished all night without a catch. He had every reason to politely decline. What Jesus was asking wasn’t rational. Peter could have cited a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work.

But Jesus wasn’t thinking about fish. He was working on Peter’s faith, precipitating a crisis in Peter’s life by purposefully, intentionally, and meaningfully pushing him to choose between Peter’s will, intelligence, experience and knowledge, and Jesus’s command. The question was not: would they catch any fish? The question was: would Peter obey?

Peter did obey and the rest, as they say, is history. They caught so many fish that the boats began to sink. But again, it wasn’t about the fish. It was about what happened inside of Peter. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” he said. In other words, Peter now knew Jesus on a whole new level, knew Jesus as God’s Son, and his shepherd, because when his “Jesus crisis” came, he obeyed. He chose submission over experience, Jesus’s will over Peter’s. Life was never the same for Peter after that day.

The ability to experience a living relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit within, does not depend on a blind leap of faith–far from it. It depends on how we respond to our “Jesus crisis” when he calls us to obey against all experience. And call, he will. Perhaps he already has in your life. Perhaps you’ve had many crises with Jesus and, like the rich young ruler in another story, “went away very sad …” without obeying, never knowing the incredible peace and power that comes from obedience. My prayer for you is that the next time he brings you to that moment of crisis you will, like Peter, obey. I promise you, your life will never be the same.

 

SON OF THE MOST LOW

She’s going to break my fingers! But I can’t tell her to stop!

That debate ran through the back of my mind while the front tried, and failed, to help my dear young wife face the panic and pain of her first birth. She was holding the fingers of my left hand all in a bunch, sitting on the sofa of our little apartment, and squeezing the daylights out of them with every contraction. We had already been to the hospital once and sent home. “She’s not ready. Come back tomorrow morning.” That had been hours ago. I thought she might pass out. Heck, I thought I might pass out. But the nerves, and the pain, and the anticipation kept us up all night. By the time the doc decided on a C-section, she’d been in labor seventy-two hours, but that’s another story.

I think about that when I think about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Like many of our contemporaries, we were having our first baby in a brand-new birthing center, with all the latest science, and comforts at our disposal, supervised by an obstetrician with decades of experience. Of course first century mothers had none of that, but Mary had reasons to expect better than she was getting.

Remember what the angel had told her? “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

With that kind of information about the child in her womb, it would be understandable for Mary to have high expectations. What kind of birth arrangements would God engineer for His Son? How would the Son of the Most High make his entrance?

But the birth of Jesus was a true worst case scenario for Mary and Joseph.

It came at the most difficult of times. The census had the whole country in upheaval. Roads were jammed with travelers; the price of 90-octane donkey fuel went through the roof. Tempers were short and lines were long. Everybody was stressed to the max and they had no choice about making the trip. Their son’s first day on earth would be a day marked by an act of oppression. He was born with a Roman boot on his neck.

It came at the end of a draining day. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only sixty miles as the crow flies. Maybe two hours by car. But it was a three-day journey for them–Joseph on foot, Mary at full term on a swaying donkey’s back, camping out under the stars, eating sparse meals. Even if Mary was a teenager, she was no doubt extremely tired and sore. They probably traveled alone as well, because by now it was known that Mary’s condition was not a result of her marriage to Joseph. Both must have felt a sense of isolation. There would be no joyous family celebration like the one at John the Baptist’s birth.

Finally, the baby came in the most desperate of circumstances. Joseph was still searching for a room when Mary’s labor pains began. The inns in Bethlehem were full of other census pilgrims who had traveled faster than an expecting mother could manage. As a last resort they took shelter in a stable, filled with the pungent smells of pack animals. The first air that would fill the nostrils of the Son of God was the air that peasants breathe.

I wonder what Mary must have thought of all this as she remembered the Angel’s words, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” I know what I think. The Son of the Most High came to Earth as the “son of the most low.” God engineered the birth of His Son so that all who believe, from the lowest to the highest, could come to Him without fear, and experience the best gift He has for man, a life giving relationship with Himself.