Hypocrisy, or Jesus’ Thoughts on Avoiding Becoming a Child of Hell

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[The Traps, by my genius friend Laura Kranz]

I’m feeling it tonight.  This is either going to be the best thing I’ve ever written or completely unintelligible…or I’ll give up and watch one of my shows.  If you’re reading this, it wasn’t option three.

Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy.  

Before I go on, I want to make clear that I do not know Jesus as an angry, scolding, critical person/teacher/savior/deity.*  In fact, my experience is quite the opposite.  

Among the many things that I love about Jesus in the Gospels was his focus on building people up.  He confronted certain people a fair amount, sure, but if you look at his interactions, you see how frequently and consistently he encouraged, empowered, and affirmed people.  If that description makes you uncomfortable, I will respectfully suggest here that you may have gotten too strong a dose of a theology that emphasizes what miserable wretches we are and always will be.  

Jesus told a woman with a nightmare hemorrhaging condition that had left her impoverished and an outcast that her faith had saved her!  Had Jesus’ power healed her?  Of course.  Was she going to manage that without Jesus’ power?  No, obviously not.  Her faith was in Jesus, both his power (ability to heal) and love (willingness to heal)–although if you know the story, you know she had a lot more confidence in his power.  She was hoping he wouldn’t notice that she needed his help.

Not only did he notice, he stopped the emergency rush to heal the Jewish official’s dying daughter so he could speak with her.  Affirm her.  Listen to her.  Look her in the eye and restore her to the society that had (ignorantly, callously) cast her out.  

That’s one of my favorite stories in the Gospels because it so powerfully captures Jesus’ treatment of people: not only do I long to heal you, I’m not going to let you get away with less than what you need.  Had she touched his cloak, been healed, and snuck away, she would have stopped bleeding but missed out on the emotional and spiritual restoration Jesus desired for her.**  How does it impact you when someone who is so powerful that a mere touch of his clothing can heal you says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  


When I say Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy, I mean a few things.  First, it may have been the characteristic he most objected to in people.  Arguably, Jesus considered hypocrisy the most dangerous spiritual condition.  

I’ve said before that Jesus gave such dire warnings about the dangers of wealth and greed that you can’t find anything else in the Gospels he describes this way.  “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Cannot.  He doesn’t say, ‘That’ll prove difficult,” or “heads up, you could have troubles pulling that off.”  He says it’s impossible.  Obviously, we then have to figure out what “serving” wealth might mean, if we’re taking Jesus at all seriously.  

Similarly, Jesus calls out hypocrisy with a fervor, directness, and consistency we see with virtually nothing else he addresses.  Why?  I believe he knows and is telling us it represents the gravest danger to our souls.  I won’t make an exhaustive inventory of hypocrisy Jesus confronts in the Gospels, especially because some interactions may have hypocrisy as one element–for example, when Jesus tells his disciples he will be betrayed, beaten, and killed, and Peter rebukes him, yet Peter had just identified Jesus as “messiah” (or “Christ”)–and this would become a book-length blog post.  If you read through the Gospels just looking for when Jesus initiates confrontations, it is striking how often hypocrisy figures in.  

Keep in mind, too, that Jesus chooses to target hypocrisy among a whole bunch of what we would term “bad behaviors.”  I mean, starting with “He was perfect and lived a sinless life,” he would have been acutely aware of the negative stuff going on around him.  He hung out with people who were labeled as “sinners” in his culture, and they loved him!  Loved having him at their parties, loved hearing what he had to say.  

Jesus wasn’t a scold.  He didn’t nitpick.  He didn’t jump at every opportunity to call out fault.  He walked around most of the time with a bunch of followers who screwed up a lot and failed to grasp and/or apply his teachings, over and over–“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us”–sometimes nastily–“Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven on them?”  He spoke the truth and corrected, but even with people you know were doing hurtful stuff to themselves and others,*** Jesus led with love and grace and kindness.  Paul wrote, “It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance” and I believe this describes Jesus’ interactions with people.  

This builds to my point: Jesus treated hypocrisy differently.  He jumped on it.  He would not abide it.  When we hear Jesus say that people are calling him a drunkard and a glutton, we can infer it is because he was spending time with drunkards and gluttons.  I’m not saying drunkenness and gluttony are fine, but the Gospels make no mention of Jesus confronting drunks or gluttons.  Again, to be clear, I’m not making some argument from silence that Jesus approved of binge drinking, alcoholism, or feasting while others starve.  I’m saying that however bad we might consider other things, Jesus made communicated unmistakably that hypocrisy is vile, especially when practiced by leaders.  

The religious leaders of Israel during Jesus’ lifetime were also the civic and political leaders, because Israel was a religious state (as well as a Roman-occupied state) and the competing religious sects (e.g. Pharisees and Sadducees) got along approximately as well as our current political parties do.  There were inner circles of power, which we see during Jesus’ trial.**** Jesus calls the leaders hypocrites.  He says this many times.  He leaves no doubt who he means or what he thinks of their actions.  

If you’ve never read Matthew 23 and/or you want to know how to dismantle someone verbally, take a look.  When people object to the image of “Jesus meek and mild,” they usually bring up the whole chasing the vendors out of the Temple with a whip adventure.  They have a point.v*  But for my non-mastering money, I’ll take Matthew 23.  Tough love looks like this.  I don’t believe Jesus says these things because he hates the scribes and Pharisees.  I am absolutely convinced he loved them and this was their chance for redemption.  As unlikely as it seems, they could have received this as conviction and repented.  It’s possible some of them did.  We know that at least two of their group did not go along with the position against Jesus (wow, that’s a euphemistic way to say, “Their burning desire to kill him in the bloodiest way possible.”).  

Hypocrisy looks like this:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;  therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

They don’t do what they say; they don’t do what they say to do.  They tell you to do one thing but they do something else.  Hypocrisy.  

Jesus calls them hypocrites.  Jesus isn’t one for name-calling.  He does like to rename people, but that’s a different deal.  

They do all their deeds to be seen by others…

Acting with false motives also describes hypocrisy, perhaps especially when one claims pure, “religious,” or selfless motives.  A bank robber is a thief, a man who convinces you to invest and walks away with your money is a swindler, but a televangelist who gets rich in the name of God?  That’s a hypocrite. The bank robber doesn’t claim to be anything else.  But the “righteous” preacher with a different motive?  

Jesus said the Pharisees do their deeds, which are intended to be acts that express worship to God, in order to be seen by others.  They look pious so others will admire them–which means they are not being pious, but the opposite.  What’s the opposite of pious?  Not to be circular, but it might be “hypocritical.” v**

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell[ as yourselves.

 If you have a belief in God and God tells you, “You cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves,” it may not get much worse than that. 

 If you are a religious leader and you make your converts twice as much a child of hell as yourself, then you are doing the antithesis of your position’s purpose.
Jesus is not simply saying, “Misleading people is bad,” though it is. Jesus tells them, “You have violated your role, the very essence of why this role exists.”  
 ‘
I was once mentoring a young woman who told me about a horrible interaction she had with her father.  He was disappointed in her.  They were arguing. 
He asked, “So what do you want from me?”  
She said, “I just want you to tell me you love me, Dad.”
And he looked her in they eye and said, “I can’t do that.”  
 ‘
As she was reciting this story, visibly in pain, I had to break in and tell her, “He violated what it is to be a father.”  
God’s wisdom or my own opinion–and looking full in the face all my own failures as a father–I’ll stand by that assessment.  
The scribes and Pharisees were teaching the same hypocrisy they were practicing.  They were mentoring young men into the evil they were practicing.  Jesus was pissed.  More on that in a moment.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
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Remember, these are the same folks who watched Jesus heal a man with a palsied hand and immediately discussed how they could crush him.  They tried to get a man born blind whose eyes Jesus had healed to confirm their opinion that Jesus was evil.  Being full of hypocrisy equals being full of death and all kinds of filth.
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Jesus declares seven “woes,” most beginning with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  I’ve described only a few.  The rest aren’t nicer.  I’m convinced Jesus felt anger as he spoke these.  Why?  1)They have damaged people Jesus loved (and for whom he would soon die), 2)He calls them “Snakes!  Brood of  vipers!”  3)He calls them “blind” five different times, including “How blind you are!”; “Blind fools!”; and “blind guides” twice.  Maybe he said all this gently and tenderly, but if so, I cannot read tone at all and God will need to correct me.  Since I’m starting with the presupposition that Jesus never sinned, that means righteous anger is possible…at least for Jesus.  I’m  not good at it.  


I am frightened that being called on one’s hypocrisy no longer seems to hold much power.  I believe there was until recently, a sense that one needed to disprove this accusation.  Now, I see very little shame over having hypocrisy fully exposed.  Of course, redirecting fault has a long and glorious history (“It was the woman’s fault,” said the first man), and we’re all pretty talented spin doctors, explaining how what appears to be our hypocrisy is actually not, due to mitigating factors or misunderstanding.  

But I want to return to the main point:  Jesus doesn’t like hypocrisy. 

If people in our time or culture have lost their shame over being hypocrites, they are wrong.  And if I’m right that this is happening, it is a scary trend.  

If we take Jesus seriously–I mean, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” level seriously–then hypocrisy in ourselves, in our church leadership (which might be the same thing, *cough, cough*), and in our political leadership should do more than cause us to raise an eyebrow.

 In terms of Gospel urgency, hindering little children from coming to Jesus, stepping over starving people at our gate while dogs lick their sores, and ignoring hypocrisy should send that bolt of touched-the-loose-wire electricity down our spines.  Cold sweat and soul searching. The guy who writes a blog entitled “Grace Is Greater” which I believe with every bit of my heart–about the grace, not always my own blog–I’m saying some things are horribly dangerous to us.  Hypocrisy is one.  Jesus says so.  


It would be utmost foolishness to finish this without addressing my own hypocrisy.  So I will now

list all the ways I’m a hypocrite

invite you to list all the ways I’m a hypocrite

do some earnest soul searching on the personal retreat I’m going to take in a few days.  

But I will end with this:  our commitment to grace and the transparency that grace allows–I don’t have to pretend to be anything more than the trainwreck I sometimes am because, even so, God actually is quite fond of me–frees us from the temptation to choose hypocrisy.  That doesn’t take us all the way off the hook, but it helps a lot.  Now we have to ask God to show us hypocrisy to which we’re blind.  A scary prayer, certainly, but I’m choosing it over being filled with bones of the dead and every kind of filth.  That’s an easy choice, particularly when I remember that God is merciful.  So if you do need to tell me that I’m hypocritical, I’ll do my best to hear that as God’s kindness and mercy to me.  

I still may not thank you right away.  

 

 

 

*I believe Jesus was God incarnate in human form, and my list of what Jesus is goes a lot longer than these four.  I know not 6everyone believes this.  

**I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to bail with the minimum healing because I’m afraid it will hurt and/or be humiliating, but that’s a different post.  

*** One definition of sin is “that which damages us.”  God objects to sin not because he is controlling or makes arbitrary rules, but because he loves us and does not want to see us damage ourselves.  I know that’s not everyone’s definition, but I believe it is biblical and reflects God’s character.  Any theology that warps God’s character for the sake of its own consistency is…how do I say this?  Wrong.  

****For example, Jesus was first sent to Annas, the high priest, before he was sent to Caiaphas, the high priest.  There couldn’t be two.  Annas was the former high priest, was succeeded by five of his sons as high priest, and was the father-in-law of Caiaphas.  There were some power struggles here.

v* It’s also cool to note that, in Matthew, the next sentence immediately after Jesus chases those guys out of the Temple and explains why is “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

v** It is striking that “pious” now has as it’s first definition “marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship” but its second is “marked by conspicuous religiosity <a hypocrite—a thing all pious words and uncharitable deeds — Charles Reade>   https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pious

Unity in Christ Manuscript

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Last week, the seniors at Nicaragua Christian Academy International put on a “Color Run,” in which people ran a certain distance, either three or five kilometers, while other people, stationed along the race route, sprayed the runners with water and then threw colorful powders on them. It was hilarious. It was fun. I ran with my 9-year-old and we had a blast. AND, a certain blonde daughter of mine ran…and her hair is now what she terms “aggressively strawberry blonde.” Or you might call it pink.

The humorous part of this is that Nicaragua Christian Academy International, the school at which I teach Bible classes and coach basketball and soccer and do a few other things, also has a rule against dyeing one’s hair. The rule states specifically that the student’s hair may not be dyed any “unnatural” colors.

Aria, and a few other students, have of course been attending their classes faithfully, with dyed hair.

Now what does that have to do with Unity in Christ? I have no idea, but I think it’s really funny.

Just kidding.

In I Corinthians, Paul is addressing the Jesus followers in Corinth about their conflicts and arguments. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

They are fighting over which person discipled them, who helped them to know Jesus Christ, from which teacher or pastor they learned the Gospel.

Paul goes on to say in verse 18, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Here’s the thing about the Cross of Jesus Christ: why? Why does God choose to became a helpless baby and then a young man who argues with Rabbis in the Temple instead of being where his parents thought he was supposed to be and then a rabbi himself with, seemingly, with no formal training who calls utterly underqualified disciples many of whom probably can’t stand each other, judging by their conflicting backgrounds, and why does he walk around Galilee and Capernaum and all over Israel teaching women and holding children on his lap and casting out demons and touching lepers and even walking on water and raising the dead back to life…and then just dies. No, doesn’t just die, is tortured to death in the most horrific, brutal manner, while his enemies mock him—his enemies mock him while he’s dying, and then he’s dead.

But of course that isn’t the end of the story—not even close to the end of the story, considering that we’re part of the story. But it looks like a foolish story—a love-preaching, healing rabbi rises up, gets a few thousand followers by feeding them and teaching them to love not just their neighbors but their enemies, their enemies for Pete’s sake, and the bad guys—some of those very enemies he was talking about—grab him by paying off one of his closest disciples to sneak them information about when they could ambush him without being caught in the act by his thousands of enthusiastic followers. They stage a travesty of a trial, getting witnesses to lie about what he’s said and done. And then they find him guilty—for telling the truth—and they beat him brutally. He dies a ghastly death.

But the after story is even more foolish-sounding than the story. He rises from the dead.

He does what?

But wait, it’s more than that, not merely that he has somehow not stayed dead but that during the time he was dead, he was doing what? Changing the past? Changing the future? Talking with the spirits of people in hell? Absorbing all the guilt of all the bad things ever done, or ever will be done, into himself, into his spirit because his body is dead at this time?

That’s a crazy story. That’s foolishness. What on earth do you believe? You say something awful to your wife or husband or child or friend this morning and you think this guy who lived and died like I described has anything to do with that? You ask forgiveness not just of the person to whom you spoke nastily but also to this guy? And you think because he died and then something happened while he died, that means you’re forgiven for saying the bad thing? Or for doing much worse than that, you’re forgiven. Or that you can be forgiven for literally anything you’ve done?

What?

Nope, that’s not all. This guy’s death doesn’t only mean your forgiveness, it means your life. You will live forever, in God’s Presence, in God’s love, because A)what happened when this guy died, and B)you ask him to forgive you and make you part of his deal.

And of course that’s not all, either, not by a longshot, because once you ask him for help and forgiveness, then it turns out this guy has big plans for your life, that he has this whole radical kingdom which most people around you don’t even realize is happening, based on that whole “love God and your neighbors and your enemies and yourself” (sometimes even harder than loving our enemies) and people’s lives are getting transformed and turned upside down because they asked to be forgiven and made part of this guy’s deal. This guy who died a really long time ago.

I get why some people are atheists. This sounds crazy. It sounds impossible.

It sounds like foolishness.

The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God, this guy’s death, letting himself be killed, is stronger than human strength. People think they have power. Human beings have enough weapons to kill everyone in the world how many times over? That sounds powerful. This guy’s idea of power is loving people who hate us and watching that love change both us and them. It’s more powerful to love an enemy than it is to kill a human being. The weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Or, as this guy Jesus put it, Do not fear the one who can kill the body and, after that, can do nothing else. No, fear the one who can cast both body and soul into hell. Saying the weakness of God is stronger than human strength doesn’t mean God is weak, it means even his weakness surpasses human power, just as his foolishness, or what appears to us as foolishness, surpasses human wisdom.

Here’s the thing about the Cross of Jesus Christ: it doesn’t matter how crazy it sounds to us if it’s true. People want to say, “Well, why did God do it that way?” And that question sounds like it makes sense until we think it through and say, “Hmm, why did God himself, incarnate in Jesus the Messiah, die on a cross to forgive our sins and reconcile us to himself, instead of what? Instead of that much more rational sounding plan for salvation that God used on some other planet? In some alternate universe?”

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

I know it sounds nuts, but that isn’t the point. The point is, is it true? The point is, are we forgiven because Jesus died and resurrected?

Paul is breaking up the Corinthians argument by reminding them that the things they have as distinctives, the things that separate them, are nothing when compared with what brings them together. Was Paul crucified for you? Is Christ divided? No, and no.

I’m going to read from verse six to the end of chapter 2 so you will have Paul’s argument in context.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

We have the mind of Christ. Remember I told you there was more to the crazy-sounding story? That guy who lived and walked on top of water and stopped storms from happening by saying “stop” and claimed to have the authority to forgive other people’s sins—and who can forgive sins but God alone?—and who died not by accident but because he laid down his life for our sake, that guy Jesus has given us his Spirit. We have God’s spirit within us. That makes us able to recognize the gifts God has given us, meaning the spiritual gifts that God gives each of us so that we can partner with him in this work of love and redemption and justice that is his Kingdom.

We have the mind of Christ. Listen again:

14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.’’

For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.”

Jesus did die on a cross, he did resurrect from the dead, he does forgive our sins, he has given us his spirit, and we have the mind of Christ. God has given us his wisdom, specifically that this entire “foolish” story I’ve been describing this morning is not only true, it’s the one truth that matters most. This truth gives meaning to every other truth. It’s true that the earth orbits the sun and that light travels at 186,000 miles per second and those facts have meaning because God created this universe in his wisdom and it works perfectly because of his artistry and those mind-boggling facts reveal something about God to us because God’s creation reveals his eternal power and divine nature, even though they’re invisibile, they’ve been understood and seen through the things God has made. Because we discern the world spiritually through God’s spirit, we know, we can see that the sky and sunsets and the ocean and brown and blue and green eyes are reflections of God, revealing his eternal power and divine nature.

And now, at last, I’m getting to the point. We have Jesus Christ in common. We have our unity in Christ.

That isn’t a small thing, an afterthought, or merely a point to remember when we’re arguing.

The wisdom of God, which is foolishness to those who do not have God’s spirit and do not discern things spiritually, reveals to us the central, unifying truth of the Universe, that this isn’t just some guy who taught some nice things and died a long time ago. This is God in the flesh, the Creator of the Universe making himself just like his creation so that they can understand who God is. When I say this is a story, I don’t mean this is fiction. We all have our life stories. And we are all part of the one story, God’s Love Story, His redemption of his Creation, which is through Jesus Christ, eternal and almighty, Jesus who is both Savior of the world and coming again in power, next time not in meekness but in a way that will be unmistakeable that he is, in fact, Almighty God.

When we have conflict or disagreement, which we do, our unity is deeper. I will tell you, honestly and bluntly, that I’ve bee discouraged lately. I see a lot of disunity, a lot of arguing and name-calling and demeaning others. Let’s be clear, I’m not Paul in this scenario, calling out the believers in Corinth for saying, “I am of Apollo,” “Oh yeah? I belong to Cephas!” I’m also one of the people in conflict.

And don’t misunderstand me, there are things that are worth disagreeing over. I don’t believe that our unity in Christ means that we pretend to agree on everything or even that we automatically set aside any differences as if those don’t matter. If you’re convicted in your spirit of a truth, you have to figure out how to act on that conviction. But this requires very careful discernment. Our unity in Christ is the core of what we believe.

But Paul urges the Corinthian believers, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

So let’s be honest. We’re not all in agreement. We have conflict sometimes. We disagree. So how can there be no divisions among us?

We are united in the same mind and the same purpose.

What mind are we united in? We have the mind of Christ. I’m not spouting platitudes up here, feeding you with cliches to send you home full of spiritually empty calories. We have the mind of Christ. Jesus who is Christ has given us both his Spirit to be with our spirit and his mind to guide our minds and give us wisdom and discernment.

In what purpose are we united? We’re united in God’s Kingdom that is becoming present in our lives and through our lives. Jesus introduced it in Luke, quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then Jesus sits down in the synagogue, all eyes are on him, and he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is the good news to the poor, he is the release of the captives, he gives sight to the blind and lets the oppressed go free. Our work in his Kingdom is to be agents of what he has proclaimed.

And this: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

We are agents of God’s kingdom, we are ambassadors for Christ; God makes his appeal to people through us.

Our unity comes not through agreeing on everything but through agreeing on the deepest things and remembering that all we do, and all we are, is part of God’s Kingdom. Being part of God’s Kingdom is not only something we do, it’s who we are, just like being God’s children is not something we do, it’s our identity.

God’s life in us, foolishness to the world, is true. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are one in Christ, even when we fail and argue and say stupid things and make terrible mistakes, because our unity is in God’s Spirit. Because of course God’s grace, which we depend on for our very lives, applies to our unity in Him, as well. We don’t have unity in Christ because we try really hard; we have unity in Christ because God’s Spirit unites us. That doesn’t mean we are absolved of responsibility, it means we have confidence that when we fail, God will be faithful to restore us.

Bottom line, what is our bottom line?

Who saved us? Who died for us? Our unity is through Jesus Christ’s spirit and it’s bought with Jesus Christ’s blood.

That’s our agreement. And now we work everything else out.

Oh, and the pink hair?

I think the pink hair is a great reminder not to take ourselves so seriously. Our school both has the rule against pink hair and put on the Color Run that caused the pink hair. It’s a reminder that human wisdom is foolishness to God and that we’re just not as wise as we imagine, so we need to be able to laugh at ourselves. We need to be able to keep our sense of humor, even in our disagreements, remembering that even though we think we’re right, there’s every possibility that we don’t have it figured out. We need God’s wisdom, not our own.

Can We Understand Each Other?

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I originally started this post with an angry story.  Two days ago, someone gave me a long justification for the behaviors of the President.  That was the immediate motivation for writing this, but I was so incensed, it took me two full days to be willing to edit that story out, though I knew I needed to because it conflicts with the point I’m making here.  Or perhaps it proves the point but contradicts the tone I’m hoping to convey.  

 

As I’ve had these conversations, it has become increasingly clear to me that we, meaning people who have different views of the current President and Administration, are not understanding each other at all.  


As long as I’ve been aware of politics, I have seen friends with different political perspectives disagree.  That’s not new or surprising.  I’m not talking here about run-of-the-mill blue and red stuff. 

I’m talking about a level of misunderstanding that amounts to people on both sides shouting, “What on earth is going on?”  Accompanying this I hear a rousing chorus, again in stereo, of “What is wrong with you?”  Of course, there is plenty of name-calling and insult-flinging from both directions.  Again, there always has been, but this feels qualitatively different to me.  

Of course, having said that, I’m revealing much about my perspective here, because one of the big questions I’m hearing from the political right is “Why are you acting like this is any different than any other President?  You had eight years with Obama; now we’re in charge because we won the electoral college.  Politics as usual, but you’re marching and losing your minds.”  And often this is accompanied, from the less circumspect, by another round of name-calling.  

First, let me state the obvious: We’re not getting anywhere with this.  No one who is being called a Nazi or a Snowflake is suddenly looking up as if from a movie slap, saying, “Thanks, I needed that,” and jumping on the opposing bandwagon.  Divides are deepening, friendships are splintering, hostility is increasing.

On the original Star Trek series, an alien force invaded The Enterprise and incited anger, conflict, and violence in everyone.  The Klingons boarded The Enterprise, phasers were mysteriously disabled, and sword-fighting rang out across the ship.  Finally, Captain Kirk grasped the situation and called everyone on both sides to lay down their weapons and laugh at the creature, which turned out to be this swirling cloud of translucent energy or something.  It couldn’t bear being laughed at, so it fled.  (How did Kirk know?)

I’m not suggesting we need merely laugh at the hostility that has arisen and all will be mended.  Our problems are deeper than that, although from a spiritual perspective I do believe Satan delights in this state of antagonism, especially between Jesus followers.  So that’s a bad sign.  

Second, I’m making the assumption as I’m writing this that you, reading this, would like to make things better.  If you are of the ilk that you are perversely enjoying all of this conflict and division–“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” to quote the ever-wise Alfred in The Dark Knight–then have at it and I will pray for your soul.  Sorry for how harsh that sounds…and I’m totally serious.  The people enjoying this are not in a good place spiritually.  How’s that for a blanket statement that I will stand behind?  If you think it’s awesome how miserable certain people are in our present situation: repent.  I don’t think I can say it any clearer than that.  

But I’m trusting you’re not there.  My blog is not so widely read as to get trolls, thanks be to God.  I’m assuming as I write this that we simply do not understand one another and we’re mutually unhappy at the state of things, though we don’t all agree on the solution.  

I don’t know the answer to my own question.  I’ve never felt so confounded and so utterly at odds with people I respect before.  Why can’t you see what I see?  How are you not getting this?  

Clearly, then, I’m not offering the solution on this post (“Let’s all laugh together like Captain Kirk did…”).  But I’m asking and I’m trying, because I believe in grace, I believe in redemption, and I believe that truth sets us free. We are, corporately, pissed off and acting hostile, but we are not free.  At least we are not the free that I’m praying for.  

So here’s a deal I’ll make:  read the rest of what I say with as open a mind as you’re able, and I promise not to use the opportunity to try to persuade you that you’re wrong.  

Deal?


Jesus gave very strong instructions about when we have disagreements with each another.  Strikingly, he commands both the person who did the offending and the person offended to go make peace.  So whichever role you imagine yourself in, it’s on you to seek to make peace.  

I don’t hold the view that we should stop discussing politics and steer to safer waters…unless we should.  By that, I mean if you have a relationship that is currently so strained and at odds that the best hope is to cease and desist, then do.  

If not, how can we disagree respectfully?  

Are you a racist?  See, I didn’t guess that you thought so.  I’m guessing that you see yourself having different motives for your positions.  I will acknowledge that some of the responses that I categorize as fearful seem motivated by racial issues.  I’ll bet that being called a racist, explicitly or implicitly, hasn’t a)made you change your views, or b)improved your relationships with whomever said or suggested that.  

In arguably Jesus’ most famous saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,”  we’ve got the golden rule…that we’ve (almost) all been breaking like crazy since this political divide widened into a chasm.  I’m sure there are some (more) righteous among us.  But I’m not a snowflake, I don’t “want to see terrorists kill Americans,” I’m not a whiny crybaby (except sometimes when I lose at ultimate) and I do, in fact, read and research and try to grasp what’s going on in our world.  I’m not naive, stupid, a dupe, ignorant, or a pawn.  I’m not even hate-filled.  Have I been called all that?  Yeah, directly and indirectly.   By you?  Nope.  Nor did I call you a racist.  

But neither am I doing to others as I would have them do to me!  I would have them give me the benefit of the doubt.  I would have them hear me out before they judged me.  Heck, I would have them hear me out and then, if they disagreed, try not to judge me.  

And so that’s what I’m going to try.  Understand, I think a lot is at stake right now. (Still not trying to persuade you, just giving context.)  I don’t expect you to surrender your position lightly or casually, because I’m choosing to believe that you understand we’re at a crucial juncture in our history.  I’ve written a few posts asking people, and trying to help people, to see the other side.  A few folks who agreed with me also said, “Oh, Mike, that’s a lost cause.  They don’t care.”  But again, how do I want others to do to me?  I want them to take me seriously enough and respect me enough to try to reason with me.  

So I’m inviting you–and I think I mean this–reason with me if you disagree with me.  Don’t simply tell me my news is fake.  Don’t attribute my views to a flaw in my character or a glaring lack of patriotism or Christian conscience.  But if you think I haven’t heard you properly, give me a chance to try.  I won’t attack and you won’t have to defend.  And I don’t know if we’ll “get anywhere,” but if we can show mutual respect, that’s a win.  That would be a big improvement over what I’m seeing all around me.  


Here’s the next part:  if you are from the right side of the political spectrum, you are likely inclined to give things on that side the benefit of the doubt.  Another friend of mine said because he is a conservative, he is willing to believe that the President has stopped doing and saying certain things that he was doing and saying before.  He is inclined to believe that because he sympathizes with that perspective and those positions.  

This is the “my terrorist is your freedom fighter” issue.  Likewise, those from the leftward side will view most if not all of what is going on with doubt and concern.  They are likely to believe reports that confirm those doubts and concerns.  Never mind for a moment the bias within various media, even the most respectable and those practicing the highest levels of journalistic integrity, which is certainly present–we all have our own bias toward the sources we read and see.  

So when we’re disagreeing, it’s unlikely to go well when I have cited a source that I trust and you counter it with a source you trust, while we mutually roll our eyes at the other’s go-to news.  

If I’m saying things that are obvious, it appears that most of the folks arguing on social media haven’t caught on how obvious these are.  One of the terrors I face (I don’t say that lightly) is that truth and facts seem to be losing power.  If we can’t ever agree on a source of truth then we are in serious trouble.  In a recent post, a debate ensued because some people–who were, let’s say it, disinclined to believe the article in the first place–produced articles and evidence that refuted the posted claims.  I will note that one was Snopes, which I tend to respect as a less biased source.  One of the folks who agreed with the original post–again, with a predisposition to do so–provided anecdotal evidence she had from direct relationships.  In other words, her report was second-hand, but from people she considered trustworthy friends.  

Would that sway you?  It did not seem to impress the folks arguing against her.  

I think the more we have at stake in winning an argument, the more convinced we are of our own sources and the quicker we are to reject contradictory sources, whatever those might be. If you don’t find this frightening…well, I’ll just say that I do, because this leaves us almost no ground or hope to reach a common understanding, short of God intervening directly with one or both of us.  

Where does this leave us?  Can we understand each other?  I still don’t have that answer.  But I know this:  we are called to peace and reconciliation.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

I’m not asking for cheap peace, where we act polite and pretend.  I’m repenting of my anger.  I’m repenting of failing to give you who disagree with me the benefit of the doubt.  For you Jesus followers, I will try to hear you with the belief that you are seeking and following God’s Spirit as faithfully as you can.  I don’t promise to believe your sources, nor do I expect you suddenly to believe mine.  But I’m aiming to respect you.    

In exchange, I’m asking that you take my concerns seriously.  Perhaps I’ll ask this:  if you take me seriously in other areas, then take me seriously here, too.  If you’ve ever been inclined to believe that I have any wisdom, that I have a decent heart, that I’m trying to do good in the world and help some folks know God’s love, then allow for the possibility that I haven’t taken a radical departure from that here.  

You might still think I’m wrong.  Absolutely, we can still disagree.  But can we understand each other?  Can we try?  

If not…

I say let’s try.  

Keeping Focus

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[Our daughter after winning second prize in a cookie baking contest.]

Last night, I got to hang out with a friend who moved away from Nicaragua a year-and-a-half ago.  It was great to see him.  He shared some miracles God has done in his life–his wife was literally dying and now, not only is she well, they have a beautiful baby girl–and the challenges of transitioning back.  

He also told me something that encouraged me tremendously.  He reminded me of something I had shared with him about God’s redemption in our lives, he quoted it virtually word for word, and then said, “I’ve probably told twenty people that.”  

I used to really hate the whole Power of Positive Thinking deal. It seemed to me like a way to convince yourself that things aren’t really as bad as they are. Before I became a Christian, I prided myself on being able to face reality and admit how horrible the world is. I listened to angry music and read depressing literature. And guess what? I was unhappy.

I don’t think the goal in life is to be happy. Knowing God, being a disciple of Jesus, and partaking in the work of God’s Kingdom, those are a much deeper calling than “happy,” especially when we realize how little God is committed to keeping us comfortable.  “Comfort” can be a harmless-seeming idol.  As can “security.”

But the truth of the Gospel is that Life overcomes Death, Grace triumphs over Sin, Love is actually the most powerful force in the Universe because God is Love, First John tells us. God is Love. Not that everything we call love all adds up together and equals God, not that Love is God, but that the one true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in fullness, is Love. That means wherever love is present, God is in that—there is no love without God. God is light and in Him there is no darkness. Jesus came that his joy might be in us and that our Joy might be complete. Joy is deeper than happines. Happiness is the emotional experience of what is happening—same root word—now. If it’s going well for me, I’m happy. But joy is the knowledge and confidence that God loves us more deeply than whatever happens to be going on in life right now (he doesn’t love us when things go well and not love us when things go badly) and fullness of Joy is our faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.

We need to be reminded of these big things because sometimes we’re just living in the trenches and all we can see is that the enemy is shooting at us. The truth of the world we live in is also that we’re constantly in a state of spiritual warfare—I Peter says
Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”

If we only pay attention to the spiritual war going on around us, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Worse yet, if we get focused too much on the daily grind, we forget the spiritual reality and get tunnel vision for all the constant struggles and aggravations and the things that aren’t going right.

We’re in a war, and Satan is real and would like to devour the people we love, and God is so much bigger and His Love literally rules the universe and will have the final say.  It’s easy to forget this and think that these disagreements we’re having with other people are the only reality.  They aren’t.  

My friend encouraged me by reminding me that these truths we speak to one another matter.  Words have power.  We strengthen one another’s faith.  

That’s some pretty big thinking for Monday. It’s also the Truth, Capital T, that we need to root our lives in. In light of this truth, which is the truest truth I know, how we speak to ourselves and how we speak to one another really matters. We can remind each other of this Reality we live in or we can distract one another. We can reinforce that God’s Love rules our lives, or we can lose sight of that. Losing sight of it doesn’t make it any less true, but it does make having faith harder.

I don’t know how many times I’ve had people start to tell me something positive and begin with, “Well, it’s a small thing, but…” or “I know this doesn’t really matter, but…” And I just think, “No, any time we remind one another of the Truth, it’s a big thing. Any time we share the Light God is showing us, it really matters.

So, Monday, take a moment. Tell the person near you something hopeful, something beautiful, something of God you can see right now. Anything. It matters. God’s love wins. Speak that, in whatever form you see it. Let’s take a minute to remind one another. And if you’re feeling like crap and you can’t see a single thing that’s hopeful, acknowledge that. Sometimes we just need some light spoken into our darkness. God’s love isn’t diminished because we feel this way, but sometimes it can be stinking hard to see. So we speak the truth to one another and we ask Jesus for eyes to see. 

Amen?

Sunlight

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Okay, breathe.  

Too much hard stuff is going on.  A lot of people are upset.  People are arguing and fighting.  Reading social media no longer feels like a nice break or a way to connect with my far-away friends (or heckle my students).  I need to know what’s going on and at the same time, I’m responsible to keep my little boat afloat.  

My 9-year-old boy has lately taken up playing catch with a baseball and playing marbles.  We don’t have much space outside our house, so we’re playing catch about six feet apart.  One of these days, when he’s a little more confident, we’ll step outside our gate and play out on the “street,” where we’ve seen full-blown baseball games since we moved into this neighborhood.  

Last week, he went to the mercado and Kim bought him a bag of marbles.   They’re all clear with those little stripes through them, all the same size but one “shooter,” and the little bag came with instructions for different games of marbles.  Corin loves making up games and creating new rules for existing games.  He’s very creative:  he’s also constantly inventing things and loves to make origami Star Wars characters.  Of course, sometimes the new rules inordinately help his cause in a game, but a guy’s gotta try, right?  

There is an elderly man who lives in a house on a corner that I pass whenever I walk to school.  I jokingly call him my “lonely man there on the corner” (get the reference?) but he’s actually one of the bright spots of my days.  We call each other “Senor” and always call out a kind greeting to each other, unless he is sitting there napping in the sun.  He uses two canes to walk, the kind that have metal braces for his forearms, but I will see him propped up on those canes with a broom, sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house, or even with a shovel, trying to fill in some of the potholes on his corner.  

My children all have really good friends, the kind of friends we parents pray for.  None of them are experiencing bullying (three of them have in their lives) and, as well as I can tell, they all stick up for kids/people who are picked on.  

I have honest people in my life who love me and speak truth to me.  I don’t just have people who love me but won’t tell me when I have mustard on my face–or am acting like a jackass–and I don’t just have people who are honest and more than happy to tell me what they don’t like about me.  

My friend Juan Ramon, who worked for us for several years and is one of my absolute favorite people, finally got a job as a pastor!  It’s not well-paying–I’d call it the opposite–and it will be a serious challenge, a tiny, poor church in a very rough barrio.  But he has felt called to pastoral ministry for many years and my hope as we have employed him and done what we can to support his family has always been to see this happen.  Remember, unemployment in Nicaragua is 50% and simply supporting one’s family can be difficult or nearly impossible.  I call this one of the biggest answers to prayer I’ve seen since we moved here!  

This year, a guy who graduated last June has been an assistant soccer and basketball coach.  He is an amazingly great young man–when he was a player, I spoke so highly of him one of the other coaches joked that I was his agent.  But due to financial aid issues–and, in my humble opinion, getting jerked around by the college he hoped to attend–he had not been able to start school, though he was qualified and accepted.  One of the other teachers here came up with a brilliant idea–he asked the guy to be his teaching assistant and is paying him by covering an online course so that the guy can get started on his college coursework.  What an empowering idea!  Not charity, but a chance to get some classroom experience and make progress on his education instead of feeling stuck!  Beautiful.  

Every day, I see young people taking risks to grow and become better people, to face the pain and craziness in their lives, to figure out how to love in a world full of hatred.  And some of them aren’t very good at it yet.  But they’re growing.  

Finally, deep inside, I’m feeling a shifting.  I don’t know how big it is yet.  It may just be that my work on forgiving* some people is starting to seep through, which is in itself a big deal.  It may be tectonic plates doing some major movement.  Maybe I’ll have some new continental configurations soon and won’t recognize myself.  I would describe a significant portion of my time in Nicaragua as, to a lesser or greater extent, just surviving spiritually.  Even though I’m still wrestling with some of the same issues–perhaps I always will–I’m also having a breakthrough of some sort.  I really don’t think it’s just the chocolate…because I haven’t eaten any chocolate (yet) today.  At forty-eight, a breakthrough is exciting.  If I can figure out what it is, I’m sure I’ll write about it.  That’s one part of the breakthrough, actually.  

I know I’m privileged, because the bad things happening have not directly hurt or ruined my life.  I’m not trying to stick my head in the sand or wear rose-colored glasses.  Many things are horrible right now and we need to respond as faithfully and courageously as we can.  What I’ve shared doesn’t change that…but they matter.  They are patches of sunlight in my world.  Part of our response needs to be encouraging one another and spreading hope.  

Though a decent number of people read my blog, I don’t get many comments, but I’m asking for this one:  What sunlight can you see in your life right now?  

P.S.  I’ve been happier this week since I stopped, almost completely, reading the arguments “comments” on Facebook.  

 

*If you don’t think of forgiveness as work, either your heart is a whole lot bigger and better than mine, or…you have more work to do.  

What Do We Do Now, Part 2

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Help me, Jesus.

I’ve taken two months to write this post.  I have started it many times.  I’ve written two complete ones, neither of which I’ve posted.  Why?  There’s too much to say.  I’ve felt hopeless, paralyzed, too angry, overwhelmed.  No one is listening, people are mocking others’ pain, people don’t seem able to hear or see or register what is right in front of them.

A few days ago, 2.9 million people–2,900,000 people–marched in protest in the United States, with accompanying protests on literally every continent.  If there are that many people upset, do we ask, “Why are so many people upset?”  Or do we dismiss and criticize and ridicule?  

I’m glad I waited this long–sorry if you’ve been waiting, too–because I didn’t have the words before.  Now, I think I do.  

In Part 1, I addressed people who might not understand why others are upset about Trump’s election.  This is for those who are.  If that’s not you, you’re welcome to read on, but I’d ask that you read to understand, not to criticize.


I’m hearing this call from both sides:  

“We need to unite!  Too much division!  Now we must come together!”

But I don’t see uniting.  Do you?  I see anger and attacks and I read, over and over, name-calling and spite and scorn.  

I know this:  Jesus loved his enemies and spoke truth to power.  Jesus threw the vendors out of the temple because they had disgraced it with their actions and, even more, he was protecting its true purpose.  

Jesus didn’t look away when people were abusing others.  He didn’t cough politely and encourage them to talk nicer.  When the scribes and pharisees had taken over and were functioning as if they were holy men leading others to God while actually feeding their own egos and barring the way for others, Jesus got in their faces.  He did.  I can’t read what Jesus says in Matthew 23 with a soft, lilting voice.  I preached this passage once and suggested that Jesus raised his voice.  A man in the congregation got this pained look on his face, as if I had just offended him by speaking something vulgar and mad.  

 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

Maybe I’m wrong and Jesus whispered these words, but at any volume he tells the scribes and Pharisees, who believed themselves the most holy and righteous men of their time, that they are children of hell.  They are children of hell who do even more harm to their followers than they do to themselves.  

Jesus confronted hypocrites.  He didn’t call them names behind their backs or tweet about them with scathing, dismissive insults.  He told them directly that they were in trouble.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  He gave them the list of what they were doing  wrong.  They were acting one way but doing something else entirely, acting like they were devout and praying but actually making a show of their devotion to get attention.  They wanted applause.  They wanted all to speak well of them.  They wanted acclaim.  

These strong, direct, blunt, confrontational words were love for the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus wasn’t taking them apart, throwing them under the bus for the amusement of his crowd.  Jesus desperately wanted them to get it, to change.  These men  were in horrible trouble–assuming here that Jesus knew what he was talking about–and he was screaming, “STOP!”  

What do we do now?  We speak truth to power.  We love.  We show compassion to our enemies.  

 If God’s Spirit is not leading our revolution, then it’s not our revolution.  

I read comments that a Trump supporter demands people show respect, the way they showed respect to Obama in 2008 and 2012.  Then I saw a picture of Obama, hung and burned in effigy.  Does anyone grasp the irony of hanging a black man in effigy in the United States?  Of “symbolically” killing the then-President by the means that people killed slaves and blacks, outside of any legal or due process.  A lynching.  

“Okay, so respect at that level?” is the retort.  

No.  

People have called ex-President Obama and Michelle Obama and their children the vilest, most racist and defiling names they could conjure up, for nine years (they didn’t wait until after the election).  If you think that isn’t true, I’m telling you now you’re in denial.  I’ve read it, over and over.  

I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  I think that behavior was sickening, atrocious, shameful.  I think conservatives and other Obama opponents should have rushed in and objected.  I hope some did.  

So today, when I see that people are now mocking Trump’s son, Barron, I must say “That is wrong.  Stop!”  I don’t imagine I’m being particularly impressive or heroic.  That’s minimum expectation stuff.  Jesus said don’t be hypocrites and love our enemies.  

If we believe that the battle we’re seeing is a reflection of what is happening spiritually, if we believe that the end does not justify the means, if we believe, with MLK, that “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” then our call is not to do back what we’ve seen done.  Our call is never, “They did it first!” 

How do we speak truth to power while living the truth of the Gospel, that love is the strongest redemptive force in the universe?  Again, Jesus loved by using very strong words, and not by making them more palatable.  I’m proposing that we both speak out, challenging the lies and the misinformation and “alternative facts,” and seek to love our enemies as they have not loved us.  

  If we respond with hostility, if we let ourselves hate, we will become what we oppose and we will fail to bring the redemptive good that this moment demands.

I’m angry.  Understand, I’m angry and fearful and horrified at what is going on. Every. Single. Day.  But these feelings mustn’t inform my behavior toward those with whom I disagree.  If we respond with hostility, if we let ourselves hate, we will become what we oppose and we will fail to bring the redemptive good that this moment demands.  I honestly believe we’re needing a revolution, but of the most radical kind, the kind that overcomes hatred with love.  

No, stop right there.  If you’re thinking, or maybe saying out loud, that I’m being too idealistic and naive, I’m not.  I’m talking about being radical disciples of Jesus Christ, which, if we’re admitting it, are the only disciples of Jesus Christ, because you can’t follow that Guy unless you’re willing to do some worldly-wisdom defying, foolish looking, Sermon on the Mount-type stuff.  

 

I’m talking about challenging everything we see and hear that we know is wrong.  I’m talking about remaining not just vigilant, but engaged.  And I’m talking about returning love for spite and bile. If God’s Spirit is not leading our revolution, then it’s not our revolution.

 

Can we do this?  We have to.  This is the time and and we must.  We’re here now.  

Quoting Dorothy Day:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”


We have to do one more thing, one more category of things.  

We must make our world as beautiful as we can.  

Now what the heck bizarre tangent is that?  

It’s not one.  I’m on the same subject.  Here we go.  

Those of us who are horrified by President Trump’s behavior, attitude, words, decisions and plans, all of us must take seriously the task at hand:  

Laugh and play and grow flowers and make music.  

Are you laughing less these days?  That’s a sign.  It’s time to laugh more.  Not bitter laughter.  Free, joyful laughter.  Seek what makes you laugh.    

Take beautiful pictures and share them.  Take ridiculous selfies and share them.  Take pictures of beautiful people in your life and share them.  

Love children, especially children, and live and teach kindness and compassion.  

Advocate for the powerless in our sphere and develop genuine friendships, heart friendships, relationships of mutual giving.  If you can put yourself in the vulnerable position in which someone poorer than you has something to give that you need, that you can receive with joy equal to your joy of giving, then you have risen above charity.  You have bestowed dignity.  You have loved as Jesus loved.  (There was this woman who poured expensive perfume on his feet and he defended her actions and received her act of love as love.) 

Give gifts.  Be generous.  Be overly generous.  Be stupidly generous.  

Speak hope.  Search out the small signs.  Call for everyone’s attention when you see them.  Spread hope.  

Exercise.  Oh, please, get good exercise.  Do the exercise you most enjoy or, if you don’t enjoy any, go (back) to looking until you find one.

Eat better.  Fewer empty calories, more fruits and vegetables.  I’m serious.  

Drink, sure, but be wise.  This is not the time to develop a drinking problem.  Okay, there’s probably never a good time to develop a drinking problem, but right now definitely isn’t it.  We need all of us now.  There is too much work to do. 

Pay attention when you’re lonely, angry, hungry or tired.  Care for yourself.  I mean, always care for yourself, but especially when you realize you’re any of these.  Don’t make significant decisions in this state, don’t believe your own dismal, hopeless evaluation of things when you’re in this state, don’t do yourself harm because you’re in this state.  

Get up, get off of social media and go do these things.  For yourself.  For others.  Stop obsessing, stop reading comments, stop following arguments you know will never go anywhere productive.  

And oh, I am so much preaching to myself with this, but STOP TAKING THE BAIT!  Stop fighting back when people tell you to “get over it” and “stop whining” and “accept it” and “shut up and be patriotic!”  You’re not going to win that argument; there’s no good in having that argument.  If someone wants to have a meal with you and hear you out why you’re so upset right now, go for it.  But just don’t spend the emotional energy on those fruitless arguments.  Disengage.  You will be a happier, more peaceful person making that change alone (he said to himself). I’m not jumping into these debates, meaning I’m not even having these arguments anywhere other than in my own mind and I’m still struggling.  God help me, I’m done with that.  In fact, God give me strength, I’m done reading all those comments and debates, period.  

Do what is lifegiving for yourself and for others.  Now.  I’m serious.  This, too, is the revolution.  


I’m exhorting us to these things for two reasons.  Those of you who struggle probably recognize that I’m giving you my best counsel on how I respond to and alleviate depression.*  So many people have told me they are now suffering from some level of depression, including many who never have before.  I get it.  I suspect this administration is going to get worse.  Don’t wait for the political sphere to improve so that your emotional well-being will improve.  

Second, we’re the ones to fight for the United States to become our hopes for it.  Genuine patriotism means holding ourselves to the ideal we preach and doing what we can to make it so.  I’m not the first to say this, but if we want to make America great, again or for the first time, we have to embody what we believe that means.  I think it means a revolution of compassion and kindness and caring for our weak and vulnerable and changing the toxic atmosphere we’re breathing right now. I think it means a thousand small acts that make those ripples.  

What do you think it means?  I sincerely want to know.

If you’re a follower of Jesus and relate to what I’ve been describing, chances are you also feel alienated from much of the evangelical community in the U.S.  (Note that the evangelical community in the U.S. does not, in fact, equal The Church.)  I’ve tried hard to help other Jesus followers see what I see about Trump, but I don’t think this has accomplished much.  I’m remembering that I’m not responsible for their understanding; their relationship with God is theirs, not mine.

 But our responsibility is to pray.  We cry out to God.  We cry for God’s justice, for his protection for the vulnerable and suffering, for immigrants (biblical “strangers”) and for his truth to come to light.  We repent of being judgmental and forgetting or failing to extend the grace we ourselves receive.  We beseech God to search our hearts and make us instruments of love and reconciliation.  

And then, when we’ve done that, we speak up.  We speak prophetically and we come together as God’s people.  We pray more and act more.  We don’t judge Christians who disagree with us; we don’t fight with them.  But we speak.  We act.  We challenge.  We follow Jesus in opposing injustice and racism and sexism and destruction of His Creation.  If  we see these things are becoming institutionalized**–as I fear we will–we stand against them.  We aren’t the first Jesus followers to have to confront our own government, nor will we be the last.  

What do we do now?  

Of course we resist.  Of course we rise up. We also love wildly and boldly and as if our future depended on it.

I believe it does.  

 

 

 

 

*None of these is a cure-all and you’re depression may require medication.  These have helped me all my adult life.  

**Or already have become institutionalized. 

Manuscript: He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease

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This is part of an Irish prayer, commonly atttributed to Patrick and named “Patrick’s Breastplate,” the part of the armor that protects the heart. And I’m Irish.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s a prayer. Asking for Christ with me, before me, behind me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left, when I lie down, when I sit down, when I arise.

Theologically, we believe that God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere, somehow present at the same time everywhere. But I don’t think this prayer is invoking God to be present as if he weren’t before. Patrick wasn’t trying to convince God to be around. This prayer does something different. It speaks a reality that we forget, it invokes not God to be here when he wasn’t but me to be here when I wasn’t. Yes, I’m here. You can see me and hear me. But when I imagine that I’m here without God, I’m kind of living a fantasty; I’m not any less here, but to a significant degree, I’m not living in reality. Christ is with me, Christ is before me, Christ is behind me, Christ is in me. This a great prayer. Sometimes people’s response is, “I know that.” But do you?

I have a habit that some people find humorous, or eccentric, or perhaps some less generous word. I walk to school. That’s between 5 and 6 kilometers. It’s not the best walk, since the majority is on caretera vieja leon, which is usually pretty busy. But I like it, because it’s a good prayer time for me. My preferred ways to pray are to write in my journal or be moving while I’m praying. So I walk for about forty minutes and talk with God, because of course he’s there with me. And I ask God to bless people as I pass them, because, you know, we’re walking together and talking and all.

And then I get to school and it’s almost like I say, “Thanks, catch ya later.” God isn’t any less with me than he was when I was talking with him. But I experience him less. I live less aware of his Presence.  He doesn’t go away, but it’s as if I 

John 3:22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24 —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The first thing to say about John the Baptist is he’s been utterly clear, all along, that he is not the Messiah. He is the messenger. He is the voice calling in the wilderness. To emphasize this, he tells the priests and Levites who ask him, “Are you the one?” “Not only am I not the one, I am not worthy to untie his dirty shoe.” Get this: an ancient Hebrew source says, “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master nor put his shoes on.” 1st century Hebrew slaves are expected to do everything for their master…except untie the thong of their sandals. I’m assuming because people walked through manure and sewage water and even slaves aren’t that lowly. And recorded saying, ““All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher with the exception of undoing his shoes.” John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I am not worthy to undo the thong of his sandal.” Do you feel the weight of that? Hebrew slaves don’t have to untie their master’s sandal and John the Baptist says he isn’t worthy to do for Jesus the thing that is beneath a slave to do.

I would call that a “No.”

John has been directing his disciples to Jesus. Jesus walks by and John shouts to his disciples, “Hey, there goes the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples heard this and followed Jesus. Makes sense. One of them was Andrew, who would spend the rest of Jesus’ life on earth following him, being Jesus’ disciple, and the Gospel tells us the first thing Andrew did was find his brother Simon to tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah.”

So when we look at what John says in our passage, “He must increase but I must decrease,” we’ve already got concrete examples of how John carries this out.

We’re going to walk through the passage and then consider some implications.

In verse 22, John tells us that Jesus and his disciples have headed into the Judean countryside, and they are spending time together there and baptizing people, receiving new followers. Notice this, for Jesus to disciple meant, first, that he simply spent time with them. The first two verses of John four clarify that “in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”

John continued to baptize, as well, calling people to repentance and directing them toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. Aenon means “springs” or “fountain,” so it’s saying John was baptizing at the springs near Salim. Since John had been baptizing “beyond the Jordan,” meaning east of the Jordan, he’s now moved West and is no longer baptizing folks in that river. We can’t really say how far apart Jesus and John were, because “into the Judean countryside” is like saying, “somewhere around Managua.” It’s also interesting that the Gospel writer tells us, “John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.” That’s a way of marking the chronology of this event. But it’s also striking because it shows that the Apostle John’s readers would have known all about John the Baptist, as this is the only reference to the Baptist’s time in prison. The other three Gospels describe when Herod locked up John and ordered him killed, but the Apostle John has a different focus. We get to see the transition between disciples of John the Baptist and disciples of Jesus.

In verse 25, “a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.” The question raised may have been which is superior, ceremonial cleansing or baptism. Before John the Baptist, the Jews practiced ceremonial cleansing as laid out in the Law, for everything from washing before meals to purifying themselves after coming in contact with a leper. John describes his ritual as “ a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And somehow, this debate leads John’s disciples to come talk to him. Really, the underlying motive appears to be jealousy. They go to John and object: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and all are going to him.”

I get this. These guys had committed themselves to following John, and John had made a big impact. Everyone was talking about him. Matthew’s Gospel describes that everyone from tax collectors to Roman soldiers were coming out to hear him. And John could preach up a storm. He was…direct. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

But in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist has one message: go to Jesus. That’s the Lamb of God. I’m not him, I’m just pointing you to him. John needs to correct his disciples now, who are apparently jealous on his behalf (and maybe their own):

No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

There are few statements in the Bible that better capture our position with Jesus than this. First of all, I’m not the Messiah. So true. Neither are you. Agreed? Good. John says, “I have been sent ahead of him.” And here is the relationship he sees: He who has the bride is the bridegroom. Jesus is the bridegroom. Jesus uses this same analogy about himself in Mark 2, when people scold him that the Pharisees and John’s disciples are fasting but his disciples aren’t: The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”

So Jesus is the bridegroom and there’s a big wedding on. So what does the friend of the bridegroom do? He rejoices! The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled. John has his joy fulfilled. I love this answer to “Rabbi, remember that guy? The one you talked about? He’s baptizing [which he wasn’t] and people are going to him!”

Have you ever tried your best to teach something and realized “they aren’t getting it?” I know a bunch of you have. I have. John doesn’t say, “Idiots! Haven’t you been listening? What have I been saying this whole time?” No, he says, “my joy is fulfilled!” Jesus says in the 15th chapter of this Gospel, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” John the Baptist’s joy is complete!

John concludes, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” My joy is fulfilled; he must increase, but I must decrease.” Do you hear any sadness in that? John is completing his work, his calling. His moment to be the center of attention, to preach, to baptize, is passing, and Jesus’ public ministry is beginning. IN fact, the other three Gospels all say some variation of this: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.John’s arrest is Jesus’ moment to begin preaching the Kingdom of God and the good news. But in this moment, we get a response very similar to Simeon when he holds the baby Jesus, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”


That’s our passage. Let’s talk about some implications.

He must increase, but I must decrease.

John’s specific calling was to prepare the people for Jesus. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s task is nearing its end. John must step back out of the center of attention so that Jesus can step into it.

Though I am sometimes wary of spiritualizing a literal truth, I think that we can appropriate John’s statement. Going back to the Irish prayer we began with, Christ is in me and before me and behind me.

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s both a reminder and a request. May Christ be in the heart of every man who thinks of me. May thinking of me be a moment to think of Christ. And may Jesus Christ so increase in me that when someone speaks of me, their words turn to Him.

And because Jesus is always present, Christ is in every eye that seems me, and every ear that hears me.

So how does Jesus increase and we decrease?

1.We lead people to Jesus, not to us.

That’s a tricky line, because they are paying attention to us. But if they aren’t getting more of Jesus, if we are increasing, then we’ve lost the point and might even be leading in the wrong direction.
2. We rejoice in him.

John the Baptist isn’t fighting this, he’s embracing it. He’s rejoicing in it. The friend of the groom is not having a fit that the attention isn’t on him nor that the bride isn’t for him. He is rejoicing that the bridegroom has come.

What does it mean that we must decrease? I don’t think it means that we hide and withdraw and try never to be noticed again. I don’t think we become less than we are. In John’s case, it was time for him to transition roles. For everything there is a season. We, in whatever stage of life we’re in now, are praying for Jesus who is Christ to increase in us, and everything that isn’t him to decrease in us. And rejoicing does this. When I truly rejoice in God, when I consciously remember and thank him, then the small, selfish part of me recedes. God is filing me up more and there just isn’t as much room for that.

3Next, Jesus increases in us and we decrease when we let people know that it’s God’s strength, and not ours, God’s goodness, and not ours.

Paul writes For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” II Cor 4:7 I know you’ve heard this from me before, but you’re probably going to keep on hearing it as long as I’m up here preaching: we are here by God’s grace and we communicate that grace when we let others see how truly messed up we are. Now I know it’s a little unfair that I have more material than most in this area, but we all get to play the cards we’re dealt. God increases in us when we recognize, to others—and more importantly, to ourselves—that it’s God in us, not some power or kindness or love we just summon up within ourselves. In fact, I’d say that when I call others’ attention to this, it helps me also remember and believe this is true.

4. Finally, as I was reflecting on how we seek to have Jesus increase in us and let ourselves decrease, another famous prayer came to mind. When we talk about things that need to decrease in us, that part of me that resists God because it wants to be in control, it wants to be the center and get the glory, we’re talking about something that would kill us. The wages of sin are death. Scripture uses some other words for that: die, crucify, put to death. That’s what we need, because those things are death in us. If I went the other way, I must increase but he must decrease, that would destroy me. Grace means God has us, even when we fail, and he is faithful to help us. Perhaps the most important think for us in cooperating with God that he might increase and I decrease is simply believing that the true me, the me that God made and intends, the most fully alive me, is the one in which God does increases. The real question of faith is whether we believe God that he will make us fully alive or if we believe our ego that screams and yells not to die.

So listen to this prayer as a prayer of belief: Help us to believe that this is what we truly want, so that God will increase in us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

A Little Conflicted

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One of my girls catches the winning score in ultimate–playing for the other team.*

The basketball players I coach, whom I used to dominate, can now outplay me.  In fact, I’m hanging on by my fingernails to keep up.  

My son knows more about the Star Wars universe than I do.  He used to ask me questions to learn; then he asked me questions to quiz me; now, I have to watch The Clone Wars with him to figure out what he’s talking about.**

This isn’t primarily about sports (or Star Wars), I just find those examples the easiest to explain.  These are things about which I’m a little conflicted.  I see the good and I rejoice.  I’m happy for it.  Mostly.  

I’m a little conflicted about dying.  I’m a little conflicted about becoming less so that others can become more.  John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase but I must decrease.”  

It isn’t merely a refusal to let go.  It’s more than an ego war.  Dying to self also involves a change of identity.  Is being a coach better than being a player?  Or is being a player better than being a coach?  

I think the answer is in Ecclessiastes:  for everything there is a season.  John the Baptist first increased.  He gathered crowds.  More accurately, crowds mobbed him out in the desert.  He said scary things and they gathered around all the more.  He had a crucial time to speak, to be heard.  Then he stepped back out of the spotlight because he knew his role.  He understood his own identity.  Blessed is the man or woman who understands that. 

When I counsel young wanting-to-be-married people, often the strongest thing I say is “Don’t get married until you know who you are.”  I did the wedding of a couple of late teenagers who thought they did.  But they didn’t yet and they didn’t stay married.  One day she woke up and realized, “This is not who I want to be.”  And that’s a perfectly valid decision, especially in one’s early twenties–but it does a lot less damage if one hasn’t already made a life covenant with someone else.  

But sound though this advice is for young adults considering marriage, it also suggests something too clear cut for real life.  We don’t come to some glowing epiphany between 19 and 25 when we figure out who we are, once and for all, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to do that well.  Okay, a few of us do, and God bless them.  This blog likely isn’t for them, unless they’re hoping to make sense of the rest of us.  

As I’m starting out 2017 and trying to make some significant changes in my life–because it’s time and I’ve been thinking I need to without actually doing anything about it (which, by the way, does nothing)–one of the things I’m facing is the next step of my identity.  In what ways do I need to decrease so God can increase in my life?  In what ways do i need to focus more on fewer things so that I can become who I’m made to be?  

A friend recently shared this quote from Upile Chisala :  

there is danger in letting people misname you

if you are a fire

don’t answer when they call you a spark

So here’s a funny thing, and by funny I don’t mean funny:  I think some of the dying I need to do involves giving up being less than I am because it’s easier and more comfortable and, frankly, people like me better this way.  Maybe this is a paradox of life.  I have to decrease not by stepping out of the way but by stepping into my role more fully, by stepping into my truer self, the self that I need to become now.

Where is the decrease in that?  Circling back to my original examples, I can’t win every time and also have my girls beat me.  If my basketball players never get better than I am, we won’t be very good; I throw everything I’ve got at them so that they will rise to that challenge and then rise above it, at which time they’ll need a stronger challenge than I can provide if they’re to keep improving.  

Bigger picture–and please forgive the vagueness, I’m figuring this out as I go, making out the shape of the room in the dark by  feeling along the walls while trying not to slam my shins into every single sharp object–I think it’s time to stop feeling bad that I’m not all the things people wish I were.  Next step, it’s time to stop trying to be those things.  Or even to keep making a nominal effort just to appease and receive approval.  

I’m a little conflicted about this.  The small part of me needs to die so that the more solid me can stop tiptoeing around back here and step up.  The scared part of me needs to quit self-sabotaging so that the me-it’s-time-to-become can get on with the becoming.  

I must decrease–sin, fear, self-doubt, self-accusation, all the stuff I let myself believe I’m stuck being now and will be forever, that just has to die–so that he may increase in me. 

Not long ago, a friend said, “I think you have a prophetic gift,” and I said, “Yeah, I don’t want that.”  Assuming my friend is right about me,***  I really said, “I’m refusing what God gave me because it scares me too much.”  

But I’m not a spark.  I just haven’t figured out how to be a fire yet.

 

And you?  

 

* I wrote this late last night; today, my daughter did catch the winning score for the opposing team, after my other daughter, my teammate, caught the score that put us within one point of victory.  

**Not impressed with The Clone Wars yet, but worth it to share it with my son.  I can live with having him outrank me in Star Wars geekdom.  

***Not necessarily a safe assumption, since I have some friends who are pretty nuts. 

Photocredit:  :devdark-indigo-stock