Wednesday, July 13, 2016

When Emptying Out Isn't Enough

According to the Four Noble Truths, the goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment by emptying yourself of the things that cause desire and that thereby lead to suffering. In other words, you must detach or empty yourself in order to reach Nirvana. And what is Nirvana? It is emptiness, "nothingness" or ceasing to exist. That is the goal of Buddhism—to totally empty oneself out into the universe.

Perhaps that sounds attractive to you. In all honesty, there are days when emptying yourself out into nothingness might be a nice alternative to the feelings of stress, exhaustion & pessimism that you might go through. For folks who feel constant pain and who sense the pain of others, there’s likely to be a recurring desire to shake free from these feelings.

The Christian faith also teaches the importance of emptying. But there are significant differences in this regard between Christianity and Buddhism. Emptying oneself is not the goal of being a Christian. The objective of the Christian life is to be filled with God's goodness. Emptying occurs not for the sake of emptying but for the sake of being filled.

Jesus told a short parable in Matthew 12:43-45, "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation."

Cleansing your life from "bad stuff" is a great step. When you are able to stop smoking or end an addiction, that's a fantastic stride we can all cheer for. If you finally say goodbye to a dysfunctional and abusive relationship that was destroying you inside and out, we can all celebrate your decision to get rid of something that was killing you. Emptying is good!

But emptying is just one step for a Christian in the bigger process of spiritual formation. Paul writes, "Be filled with the Spirit" (Eph 2:18). A Christian should definitely allow God to clean up and clean out the messes in your life. But emptying out isn't enough. You also need to be filled with good things from God. Otherwise, the lingering emptiness will be an invitation for bad things to come storming back into your life in an even greater way.

Do you think the Christian life is one of emptying? If you think following Jesus is just about getting rid of things, then you will eventually fall back into your old life. In one sense, the battle against evil was won when you turned to Christ. In that moment God drove out Satan and filled you with his Spirit. The sign of this change is your place in the people of God. Yet this emptying and filling also takes place gradually over a long period of time. The old life will still haunt you well into your Christian life. Your past mistakes and shortcomings can still cause problems in your new life as you allow God to slowly empty you of the old and fill you with the new. But don't give up. Because emptying out isn't enough; it's just a part of the process.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Do You Understand God's Forgiveness?

How we view forgiveness shapes our understanding of everything in the Christian faith. To be more specific, our view of God's forgiveness impacts the way we forgive.

For a long time, many folks believed that God only forgave sin if he could punish before offering his act of forgiveness. This is a punitive or transactional view of forgiveness.

The standard storyline went something like this: God can't stand sin. Even though God loves you, God can't stand to be with you if you sin. God wants to forgive you but has to take out his disgust with sin by punishing you somehow until you get it right.

Since we're all sinners & repeat offenders, this creates quite a problem. According to the traditional story, Jesus came along and lived without ever sinning. Finally, here was someone God didn't have to punish. But in order to forgive you of your sins, God punished Jesus instead of you.

This standard version of the story of forgiveness is mostly rubbish in my book—and not very biblical. There are slivers of truth within it. But the key problem is the belief that God's forgiveness is always punitive, that he must always punish before he can forgive. This simply isn't what scripture teaches. God forgives out of his great love. It's true that those who sin sometimes experience sin's ugly consequences. At other times, God must punish in order to get people to wake up and seek forgiveness.

But if you can begin to understand that forgiveness is a free gift, then it will transform your view of faith.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Forgiveness vs. Transactional Forgiveness

Do you practice transactional forgiveness or just plain forgiveness? Here's the difference:

Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but you have to grovel and be in the doghouse for a long time."
Plain forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but I'm going to hold this over your head as long as I like."
Forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but from now on you'll never be equal to me."
Forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness says, "I'll forgive you if you somehow do enough to prove to me that you've earned it."
Plain forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness flows out of fury & rage.
Forgiveness flows out of love.

Transactional forgiveness comes from a heart filled with the fear of deprivation.
Forgiveness comes from a heart filled with gratitude for God's abundant provision.

Which one do you most often practice ... with your spouse? with your kids? with your brothers & sisters? with your friends? with those who hurt you?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Biblical Age of Kings #13: God's Love Endures

Here's a short meditation on Lamentations 5:19-22:

It's good to praise God and to remember his love. This is especially easy when we experience the majesty and wonder of creation. It's also equally simple when you can witness the deliverance of God, either first-hand or through the stories of those who lived it.

For example, Psalm 136 is a hymn of hope. In it, the psalmist tells the history of creation and redemption—how God made the heavens and the earth, and how God redeemed his people from slavery and brought them to a good and prosperous land. After each affirmation in this psalm (26 times), we hear the same refrain, "For his steadfast love endures forever."

But can you testify to the goodness of God's love when your world has collapsed and when your enemies are having their way with you? Can you sing the praises of God's enduring love when it feels as if God is looking the other way? How can you declare, "God's love endures forever," when you feel forgotten, mistreated and unloved?

The story of Lamentations is a sad one. Lament is its obvious focus. The poetic lines point toward loss, agony and despair: "God shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver. . . He has filled me with bitterness . . . my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is."

This story of bitter endings is the story of God's people. It's the story of Israel told in several volumes, ending at the cliff of Babylonian exile. It's where the narrators leave us as readers when 2 Kings comes to its unsatisfying conclusion: "So Judah went into exile out of its land."

In the midst of the pain, Lamentations tells the story of a people who still proclaim God’s love. "But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." This is the plight and the hope of God's people. We see how bleak our reality is. We do not pretend to be living a fairy tale or try to fool others into thinking that we are the invincible kings of our own destiny. Our eyes are open to our hopeless situation.

As people of faith we speak with the words of the lamenting prophet, "Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—even if you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure" (Lam 5:21-22).

This is what God always wants from his people—that you would turn to him and trust with all your heart no matter the outward circumstances. Will you join me in praying this prayer? Will you honestly admit that you fall short of the glory of God? And will you turn to God for renewal, restoration and love?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Biblical Age of Kings #12: The Day of the Lord

Lord, come quickly!

It's a prayer that many people utter every day. When folks grow weary of life's struggles, they cry out to God for help. Especially in light of tragedies like the Orlando mass shooting, believing people pray to God, "Lord, come quickly."

This prayer or a variation of it goes back before time of Christ. God-fearing Jews apparently longed for God to come and save them. They coined the phrase Day of the Lord to refer to this hopeful concept. This was apparently an important turn of phrase, a way of signifying their special status as God's chosen people and of expressing their need for God's deliverance.

We don't know the total weight of this term. But we know this. They thought the Day of Lord was good news. They assumed that the Lord’s coming would protect them and crush their enemies in the process.

Onto this scene marches the prophet Zephaniah. Referring to the Day of the Lord, he tells his listeners, "Be silent before the Lord God. For the Day of the Lord is at hand!"

We know enough to guess what Zephaniah's Jerusalem audience might have thought when they heard those words. Their initial reaction might have been, "Woohoo! The Lord God is coming. Won't that be nice!?" They were almost certainly thrilled at the prospect of the coming Day of the Lord.

But then Zephaniah, truth-teller and prophet of God that he was, broke the bad news. The Lord wasn't coming for the Assyrians or the Egyptians or the Edomites or the Babylonians. God was coming for the people of Judah! The Lord’s wrath would pour out on God’s own people and on God’s own holy city.

You might be able dismiss such talk as the mad ravings of a lone prophet—if these exact sentiments didn't repeat elsewhere in the mouths of other prophets. The Lord's spokesman Joel says, "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the Day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!" (Joel 2:1-2). The prophet Amos declares, "Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the Day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:18-20). When the Lord finally did come, it meant the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity in Babylon. It was not good news for God's people who were relying on their name rather than their piety.

What does this mean? What's the message for us? Let me quickly break down with the prophets are saying—even to us today: When you wish for the Lord to come, be very careful what you wish for. Is your life in the right shape? Are you truly ready for the Lord’s coming?

Christians today must carefully and humbly take on the prophetic task. Our job today isn't necessarily to announce to the world that the Lord is coming. Our task is to remind and demonstrate what it looks like to be truly ready for the Day of the Lord. And among those who mistakenly think that the color of their skin or the nationality on their passport somehow garners them special favor with the Lord, our job is to announce that they're badly mistaken.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

After Orlando: A Believer’s Response to Tragedy

The massacre of fifty people at an Orlando night club is a horror story. Unless you are emotionally numb, you ought to feel incredible sorrow when hearing about the victims. And as you learn about the gunman's perverted views on the value of life, you should feel some sense of revulsion.

But is it enough to feel anger or empathy? Isn't there something we ought to do? How should believing people respond to tragedies like the one in Orlando? What should our words look and sound like in the wake of disaster? How do we bear witness to the hope of Jesus Christ when folks are torn by grief and fear?

Here are three biblical responses to tragedy.

1. Be present and be silent.

Job's personal disaster would make headlines in our world today. Job was a leading figure in his society, one of the wealthiest and largest employers around. Yet in one fell swoop, Job experienced a terrorist attack and natural calamity rolled into one. He lost all his family (except his wife), his workers and his property in a rapid-fire series of mind-boggling events.

Job was understandably desolate and inconsolable. His three God-fearing friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, heard the news of Job’s great loss (Job 2). What did they do? How did they respond? They came and were present with Job. For seven days and seven nights, they sat with him. And what did they say? No one spoke a word. They were silent, because they saw how much he was suffering.

Why do so many believers feel the need to make what to them sound like profound comments in the wake of disasters—comments that sadly come across as naïve or obnoxious? After Orlando, should a Christian’s first impulse be to blame the gun lobby or defend their guns? Should believers try to provoke additional panic and terror about the spread of Islamic extremism? That’s not what Job’s friends did. They just came and sat quietly by their friend. When they did eventually open their mouths after seven days, what they shared was regrettable.

Here’s a thought. Instead of making lots of noise, try practicing the power of presence and silence. Is your friend or neighbor grieving right now? Go and silently sit with them.

2. Focus on personal repentance.

One of the many questions put before Jesus dealt with a regional tragedy. The Romans apparently massacred a group of Galileans. We assume this was a show of imperial might to beat down any hint of insurgency, but we don't know the details. We only for sure know that it was a tragedy, and that some folks asked Jesus about it (Luke 13).

How did Jesus respond to their question? What answer did he give to explain this sad loss of life? He said that none of the victims deserved their fate more than anyone else. Instead of judging or defending them, worry about yourself. Repent. Examine yourself. Change your ways.

I can't believe that some so-called believers use catastrophes as platforms for their own personal agendas. A few bad apples give us all a black eye. One Sacramento pastor dedicated his Sunday sermon to praising the killer as "having made Orlando a safer place by killing child molesters." Dude, you seriously need to look in the mirror and repent.

So here's a thought. Instead of rushing to judge the victims or even make them into saints, judge yourself. No one is promised a long life, so focus on the need for personal change. Use tragedy as a moment for personal reflection and repentance.

3. Pray

Paul experienced some unbelievable personal tragedies. He was arrested, beaten, left for dead, shipwrecked, bitten by a viper and mercilessly ridiculed. Folks who loved and appreciated Paul must have been horrified at what he went through.

Believers often (mis)quote Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10:13. They assume from this text that God will never allow believers to go through more than they can bear. Folks who lean on this verse have clearly never read 2 Corinthians 1:8 where Paul writes, "We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself." Sounds to me as if Paul had more than he could bear. His life (and the lives of those with him) was a living calamity.

Paul goes on to write that one thing got him through. Well, I mean the power of God obviously sustained him. But there was one human thing that he describes as a charismatic or spiritual gift (Gk: charisma) that was his lifeline. In other words, people did something that made a real difference.

What was this gift that helped him survive an unbearable, crushing burden? He may not have even known about it at the time, but in retrospect he could clearly see it. It was the prayer of other believers. He reflects on this: "On God we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the gift granted us through the prayers of many" (2 Cor 1:10b-11). Prayer is a spiritual gift that can combine with God’s power to help rescue people from the pit of despair.

So here's one last thought. Instead of trying to do something or say something, what if you realized the potential power of prayer? What if you just fell to your knees to ask the Father to help those trapped in the deadliest of disasters?

Believing people could do a lot worse than to trust in these three biblical responses to disaster. Be present and be silent. Focus on personal repentance. And pray. It might help those in need. And perhaps even more importantly in our day and time, it might help repair the damaged reputation of believing people who too often have done and said the wrong things to their friends and neighbors.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Age of Kings #10: The Lord's a Witness

Have you ever needed a witness?

Picture the worst kind of rush-hour traffic that you can imagine. Cars on the freeway. Stop and go. Maddening slowdowns and sudden stops. The daily negotiation of gridlock like this requires a huge dose of patience and skill. Even then things sometimes happen. And when it does, you might need a witness.

My friend Martina was driving in this kind of big-city traffic. Cars would stop for a while and then slowly inch forward. At one point when traffic stopped, the car in front of Martina suddenly threw it into reverse and smashed backwards into Martina's car. He jumped out, grabbed his neck and was going to claim that Martina had rear-ended him. Can you imagine how Martina was going to defend herself? Who would believe that this driver had backed into her when read-end collisions are so common in stop-and-go traffic?

Martina needed a witness! As soon as she realized what was happening, she bravely jumped out into traffic and flagged down drivers in the neighboring lanes. They had seen what really happened, and Martina was able to get their names, phone numbers and a promise that they would willingly testify against the jerk who was trying to frame her for an accident. Thank goodness for witnesses!

In Micah 1:2-7, the prophet describes the Lord's judgment on Samaria and North Israel. The setting is like a courtroom. The nations and the whole earth are the audience. God is the primary witness against Israel who has prostituted herself for money. Israel has put profit, fame and glory over a relationship with God, and the testimony against her is damning.

Even worse for Israel is the fact that God’s also the judge and executioner. God has firsthand experience of Israel’s treachery, and God takes personal responsibility for punishing Israel. God will make Samaria into a heap of stones and return it to farmland. God is witness, judge and executioner.

My friend Martina needed a witness, and she found more than one. Israel, however, was not like my friend Martina. Israel was like the guy who slammed his car into reverse and tried to feign an injury to collect money from Martina. Israel was the shyster who was ripping off others in order to gain wealth, fame and glory. And God stepped in as the witness condemning his own people for their rotten behavior.

This story of Samaria's destruction is good news for people of faith and for anyone who is oppressed. To understand this, you might listen to the words of Peter in Acts 10:34-35, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

Peter is essentially channeling Deuteronomic theology, a thought-stream that pervades the books of 1 & 2 Kings. We see this summed up in Deut 10:17-18, "For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing."

Why is this good news for us? God cares for those who need a witness. Unlike most powerful people, God does not show favoritism. God isn't going to protect one group of people at the expense of another group of people.

For folks who only know the worldly way of protecting one's cronies and family, God's method of operation is downright shocking. But God's way is more just and compassionate than any other. God truly cares for those who need a witness. When needed, God is ready to be a witness FOR those who have been wrongly treated. And at the same time, God is ready to be a witness AGAINST those who treat others wrongly, even if that means the destruction of a country that was ostensibly God's own people.

Do you need a witness? God is either FOR or AGAINST you. If you need a witness, I hope you'll recognize the help you have in God. If by contrast you stand in the shoes of Israel and Samaria—as those who oppress others for personal gain—then you should quickly rethink your standing in life lest you wind up on the wrong side of God’s testimony.