Category Archives: Thinking Outloud

Winning the Battle, Losing the War. Really?!

As I read twitter posts from Christians it becomes apparent that we “Christ-followers” have lost the ability to win graciously.  I rarely write about current events.  I don’t intentionally avoid being topical and, even though I usually start my posts with a verse from the Bible, I certainly don’t consider my writing expository.  But the current twitter debate concerning same sex marriages distresses me.

Many of the posts by those over 40 years old ring with “nana nana, boo boo.”  They make sure to point out that a majority of states either ban or remain tacit on the subject of same sex marriages.  Others brag about “being right” along with undertones of “God loves us better than He loves you.”  Really?  If a vote goes against my position does that mean that God loves me less?  The Bible describes God’s love for me, and you, as infinite.  My limited understanding of math is that you can neither add to nor take away from infinite.

This  whole thing reminds me of the Buffalo Bills during their Superbowl years.  The Bills of the late Eighties and early Nineties did very little celebrating in the end zone.  Their philosophy under coach Marv Levy was that end zone celebrations were for teams that didn’t score often.

If you haven’t read all the way to the end of the Bible, or at least skipped ahead, I’m about to ruin the climax for you (*spoiler alert).  Not only has the touchdown already been scored, the game has already been won.  Jesus great lesson for us is to be gracious winners.  He certainly was.  If anyone had the privilege of an end zone dance it was Jesus.  He could have jigged it up and spiked a fish…er, football, on the shore when He told Peter to cast his nets on the other side.  Over and over Jesus had opportunity to say “I told you so,” but instead recognized that His Kingdom is not about being right, it’s about being reconciled.  In fact, the only time that I find Him coming close to saying “I told you so” is when He describes Heaven that is being prepared for us, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you…” (John 4:2).  That hardly seems like a victory dance.

It is true that we Christians are known mostly by what we are against.  I believe that’s because we celebrate more about temporal victories than we do about the Ultimate Victory.  We’ve already won.  Rubbing people’s noses in it just reveals us to be petty.

But there’s another distressing aspect to the twitter posts that I’ve been reading.  Many of these come from those under 40 and they concern “winning a battle, but losing the war.”  Really?  Loosing the war?  Again, spoiler alert.  The war is over.  While it is correct that we didn’t win the war, it is also correct that Jesus did.  At the point that we start lamenting losing the war we begin to give Satan a foothold to convince others that the outcome is still in question.

I believe that much of this thought process comes from the culture that surrounds us depicting life as a battle between good and evil.  It’s a Star Wars mentality.  Concerning ourselves with whether we need to concede ground in order to win the war is what lead to ten out of twelve spies convincing the rest of Israel not to taking the land God already had promised them.  My fear is that many Christians love their friends, but don’t love them enough to confront sin.  God wants everyone to be saved (I Timothy 2:4).  The aversion to confronting sin is denying the power of God to see everyone saved.  Do I think that everyone will go to heaven?  Hardly.  But if it’s God’s desire, then I want it to be my desire.

It is true that Christians have lost the culture war (please read “Stop Shooting the Prisoners”).  However, I’m afraid that we’re in danger of not rescuing the prisoners.  I’m afraid that when we don’t build relationships that are strong enough to withstand confrontation, and then actually confront, then we’re simply helping someone feel good about themselves until the inevitable happens.

My fear is that we’ve lost either the ability to love in confrontation or the ability to confront in love.  And this is a dilemma that will perplex Christians until we no longer see “through a glass, darkly.”  Funny, that phrase is in the “Love Chapter.”  Hmm…

Lightning Arrestors and Other Unsuspecting Sacrifices

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11

If you’ve followed my twitter feed for more than 10 minutes you know that I’m an amateur radio operator.  A “HAM” in the vernacular.  Amateur radio is quite an excellent fit for my Myers-Briggs personality profile, INTJ.  In particular, INTJ’s are most comfortable when things make sense.  We not only like things to work, we like to know how and why they work.  We want the world to make sense.  In HAM radio, an understanding of electrical theory is invaluable, even indispensable.  Also, much to the boredom of those closest to us, we want everyone in our circle to know about our hobby along with the why and the what.

If you’re reading this, you’re in my circle so let me tell you about amateur radio (my wife would really appreciate me talking to someone else about it for a few minutes).

HAM radio antennas, both those huge monstrosities that resemble something E.T. might use to phone home or the modest vertical pole that I use, make excellent lightning rods.  Of course, that’s not their purpose, but even the smallest rumble of thunder can strike terror into the heart of a HAM.  Therefore, we have several strategies that we employ to protect thousands of dollars worth of equipment against lightning damage.

If a particularly severe lightning storm is impending we will disconnect the wire leading from the antenna.  This is rather cumbersome and renders the radio useless until the storm has passed.  For other less severe weather events, ranging from cloudless skies to mild-storms, we put loops in the cable (lighting prefers straight lines) or we use devices called “lightning arrestors” that are placed along the cable in between the antenna and the radio. In the former case, the lightning will “loop” back round on itself, effectively blocking its own path.  The electrons collide and effectively blow up the cable similar to a fuse blowing to stop the flow of electricity.  Regarding the latter, lightning arrestors filled with some non-conductive material impedes the flow of electrons.  Like the looped cable, the energy is dispersed through the destruction of the device.  In both cases, the destructive energy is rendered inert long before it can enter the house.  (I warned you that it would be boring, but please stay with me just another paragraph or so.)

Both strategies employ similar tactics.  A length of antenna feed-line routinely costs between $75 – $100.  Lightning arrestors often cost even more.  Both have but one purpose: to be destroyed.  In these here parts $75 is some serious coin, but that’s less than ten percent of the cost of most amateur radios.

Better expressed, both have but one purpose: to sacrifice themselves in order to save something much more valuable.  Both only work once.  Before they are needed, both devices add nothing to the performance of the station.  After they have done their job, well, in most cases they don’t exist anymore having vaporized in an acrid smelling puff of smoke.

At this point it would seem that I have a clever analogy for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us.  Unfortunately, I don’t.  The more accurate analogy would be that the radio gives up its life to protect the wire or the arrestor.

What?  That makes no sense!  Why sacrifice a $1500 radio in order to save a $50 piece of wire?  Precisely.

Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t make sense…at least not by earthly standards.  It would have cost infinitely less for me to die than for the Son of God to be crucified.  If it had been me on The Cross of Calvary my name wouldn’t even be a footnote in ancient history.  No one would have cared.  There would be no mad raving anti-“Joe”istian atheists ranting.  There wouldn’t be any “sheep in wolves in sheep’s clothing” false profits.  There wouldn’t be anyone manipulating religion for the own purposes.  Why?  Because a cheap “tool” has no value, no power, no meaning when it is used up.  Who cares when “good for nothing” ceases to exist?  But when the “Radio” gives itself up for the tool people take notice, it means something.

Fortunately, God doesn’t calculate worth the way that I do.  I’m not valuable because of the purpose that I serve; my worth doesn’t come from earning potential or what I can “do for the Kingdom.”  At the risk of mixing metaphors, it’s the Good Shepherd that lays down His life; not the “good for nothing” shepherd.  Understanding God’s sacrifice of His only Son, Jesus’ willingness to give Himself up on my behalf, requires that I know who is who.  The “Radio” sacrificed itself for the cable so that the cable might be valuable.

That’s why worship.

The Dead Tell No Tales (nor do they stand on their head)

“When they heard this, they praised God.  Then they said to Paul: ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.'” Acts 21:20

To put this verse in context, James and the elders were requesting that Paul demonstrate his bona fides, his street creds, by showing some observance of the ceremonial law.  Evidently some of Paul’s teachings were being twisted to discount the law.  In a cultural context talking down the law was like talking about yo’ mama.  Paul wasn’t talking down the law, but wasn’t emphasizing it as much as some of the “ol’ timers” would have preferred.  Of course Paul could have set them straight, but he realized that Kingdom relationships aren’t about being right, they’re about being reconciled.  Paul also realized that the law was powerless under the New Covenant.  It wasn’t irrelevant, just powerless, so he decided that this wasn’t a mountain to die on.  In his incomparable style Matthew Henry addresses this passage this way, “It [the law] was dead, but not buried; dead, but not yet deadly.”

When you get right down to it, the law has always been powerless.  In and of themselves laws have never made anybody do anything.  Anyone at anytime can chose to either obey or not obey a law, but the law doesn’t “make” someone exhibit a certain behavior.  Even threatened punishment can’t force someone to obey any given law.  It might cause a potential law breaker to reconsider, but ultimately obeying, or disobeying, a known law is a choice.  Sometimes laws are broken as a result of ignorance or inability, but still the law was powerless to dictate behavior.

Laws only have the power granted by those that obey them.  A law can be passed that requires everyone to stand on their head for two hours everyday (absurd, I know, but work with me here).  Some would obey willingly and some begrudgingly in order to avoid punishment.   Others would intend to obey, but would fail due to inability (this would be me).  Others would decide to blatantly disobey and refuse to do it just out of rebellion.  Another group might weigh the cost of punishment and decide it’s too ridiculous to obey such a ridiculous mandate and risk any penalties.  Regardless, the “Stand on Your Head Act of 2012” would hold no power.*

Let’s take a look back in the Old Testament at Leviticus in general and chapters 23 and 24 in particular.  Rule after rule after rule regarding worship.  Did these rules and regulations cause the Jews to be “worshipping” people?  Only as far as they did worship.  If anything, the law resulted in them being legalistic.

So, why was the law necessary?  For one thing, it kept humanity from killing itself.  Earlier I stated that laws don’t cause behavior, but they do give some people, that might otherwise be “knuckleheads”, a chance to reconsider ill-conceived intentions.  From that perspective enough people chose to obey the law that we didn’t kill each other to the point of extinction.

Also, the law gives us a point of reference, a measuring stick.  It reveals that I “fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:33).  Taken out of context that’s bad news.  Without the ellipses it’s “hellfire and brimstone.”  But that’s only half of the verse, half of the story.  “And” is one of my favorite words.  “And” comes after the ellipses.  Not “but,” not “although,” not “however,” not “except.”  All of those erase what comes before.  “And” means that what comes after is meaningless, cheap without what comes before.

We “fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” (emphasis mine)

We all fall short, but without the measuring stick of the law we would never know it.  More accurately, we’re dead and without the law we wouldn’t know it.  In the words of Mister Henry, we’d be “dead, but not buried; dead, but not yet deadly.”  If you don’t bury a dead body it stinks up the place.  Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good or sick people well.  He came to give dead people life.  Some of us have been brought alive with a brand new self, but we drag the old dead carcass around with us.  Others are dead, but because we ignore the law we don’t know that we’re dead.  At best having that much dead, decaying stuff around stinks up the place.  At worst death breeds disease and more death.

Without the point of reference the law provides we have no idea how much we have to be thankful for.  Without knowing that I’ve “fallen short” I have no idea how precious is the price of my redemption.  When I start smelling the stench of death in my life it’s the law that helps me identify what it is that stinks and needs to go.  It’s the redemption that came by Jesus that leads me to bury it.

It’s the law that reminds me that I was meant to bring glory to God.  It’s the redemption of Jesus that compels me to do it.  And worship washes away the stench of death.

That’s why worship.

*Every analogy breaks down at some point and the “Stand on Your Head Act” breaks down in that in the context of Jesus and the law none of us are capable of standing on our heads because without Jesus’ redemption we’re dead.  Dead people can’t stand on their head, duh.

Paul, Barnabas, John Mark and other distractions

“Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in ministry.” II Timothy 4:11

It confounds me what we Christians allow to distract us, even scripture. What do I mean by scripture distracting us? How can scripture distract us if God’s word doesn’t return void?

Scripture distracts us when it draws us into debates, arguments, pious ramblings that, frankly, are vain. Scripture distracts us when we miss the point of what is being said and use it to prove we are “right” when it’s overarching message is reconciliation and restoration.

II Timothy 4:11 is one of those verses that brings us back to reconciliation. Let me press the rewind button…

Sometime earlier the same Mark mentioned above “deserted” (Acts 15:38; Acts 13:13 uses the term “left”) Paul and Barnabas. In Acts 15:36-41there arose a “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas about Mark, who was also known as John, rejoining them. Barnabas said “yes”; Paul said “no.” Here is where the distracting question of scripture rears its ugly head. Who was right and who was wrong. Some contend that Barnabas was wrong because he didn’t submit to Paul’s apostolic authority. Yet, in Acts 14:14 both Paul and Barnabas are referred to as apostles, so that argument is tenuous at best. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Barnabas was politicking for his cousin.)

On the other hand, when Paul and Silas departed for their missionary journey the were “committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.” This certainly lends credence to Paul’s apostolic authority. In addition, scripture is replete with testimony to the effectiveness of Paul in ministry and is rather quiet about Barnabas. Seeing that scripture is divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit there must be some reason that we’re told of Paul’s effectiveness and not Barnabas’.

And, of course, the arguments could continue in support of both. But that continues the distraction of what really happened. That would be like saying that the point of God coming to earth was to die on the cross and stopping there. Was Jesus’ death on the cross a necessity? Yes! But only to the point that it led to His resurrection. The point of Jesus on earth isn’t His death; it’s His resurrection. Simply dying on the cross would make Him a martyr. Coming back to life reveals Himself as Savior.

The biblical story of what happened between Paul and Barnabas is similar in a microcosm. When we flippantly proclaim, “I know who was right” and dropping a one liner to support our position is, at best, ending the story early. It certainly risks intellectually bankruptcy. The narrative is much more complex than that. To understand the central message of any story we must follow it to its conclusion.

Please notice that there is no animosity recorded between Paul and Barnabas. There is no mention of “he said/he said” and no mention of the argument continuing. Paul himself cautions against any such distractions when he says in I Corinthians 3:3-7, “You are still worldly. For since there is still jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another says, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men. What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? … neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

The point of the Paul vs. Barnabas narrative (and I hesitatingly use versus at the risk of continuing the pointless argument) is not who was right and who was wrong. The point all scripture isn’t about who is right, it’s about reconciliation. That brings us to II Timothy 4:11. Paul and John Mark are reconciled. I suppose that Paul and Barnabas were reconciled, as well…strike that, I contend that they were never divided. They may have gone their separate ways physically, but spiritually were united and undivided. It’s not unreasonable to contend that both Paul and Barnabas would scold us for being distracted by contention that didn’t exist.

The narrative isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. The narrative is about reconciliation. It’s a reflection of the redemption story. Jesus, the one “who makes things grow,” is the only one that is “right” and He chose to be “wrong” on our behalf so that we can be reconciled to God.

That’s why worship.

Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Wicks and Meat Tenderizers

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…” Isaiah 6:1

I suspect that this will be the first in a new series of posts. When looking through scripture one notices the trend of God bringing prophets, saints, kings, etc. to a place of apparent defeat before His victory can be manifested in their lives and the lives of those around them. A few weeks ago I wrote about Job and his relationship with God in the midst of Job’s tribulation (You should have been there, it was epic). I doubt that Job would have been as “pliable” in communicating about God’s mercy to us today if he hadn’t been tenderized.

Isaiah also comes to mind. In Isaiah 6, a quintessential chapter of worship, the prophet opens with, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord seated on a throne…”  Very little of Isaiah’s relationship with King Uzziah is known, aside from the fact that Jerusalem had become prosperous under Uzziah’s reign.  Scripture refers to Uzziah as a good and successful king in spite of his overstepping his spiritual authority which brought God’s judgement of leprosy on him.  The nation of Judah responded to Uzziah’s death in much the same way the United States responded to the death of President Kennedy, himself a successful and beloved, yet flawed, leader.  The casual observer would find it curious that Isaiah would be divinely inspired to start a passage of worship with reference to hardship.  Yet, I suppose that Isaiah would not have been as tuned into the voice of God had his heart not be tenderized.

Which brings me to the point.  Any “Foody” will tell you that to tenderize meat without adding to or taking away its inherent flavor requires a bit of whacking.  There are chemical processes that can be used, however they alter the intrinsic taste of the food.  To tenderize, yet preserve subtle flavor, one must employ a little hardship.  There are kitchen utensils and gadget designed for the purpose.  In a pinch a cast iron pan will work or the broadside of a hammer or, my choice of weapon, a twelve inch length of two by four.  Regardless of the implement used, a tough piece of meat is much more palatable after it has been “roughed up” a bit.  In Isaiah’s case, his heart was much more palatable toward receiving a call from God because he had been tenderized (feel free to read more on my thoughts regarding Isaiah’s calling at Listen for the Call).

Ravi Zacharias is fond of a poem that speaks well of this dynamic…

When God wants to drill a man

When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man,
And skill a man
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part;

When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!

How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him

Into trial shapes of clay which
Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands!

How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses,
And which every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him
To try His splendor out-
God knows what He’s about.

Anonymous

Scripture is replete with stories of people that needed to be softened up without changing the essence of who God created them to be; Moses, Naomi, Ezekiel, Hosea, Peter, Paul…I could go on and on.  In fact, I probably will start a short series on “God’s Meat Tenderizer.”

Life is hard, but we’re promised, “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3)  Are you feeling a bit bruised?  Is your once bright light just smoldering a thin wisp of smoke?  There are two ways to respond when whacked with the two by four of life; beg for cheese and crackers with our whine or let ourselves become more palatable to God and to a world that his hungry for Him.  Who specifically is God preparing us to be palatable to?  What path of sorrow are we walking now in order to be tender toward the next soul that feels like giving up?