Friday, January 20, 2006

And justice for all

So what is the sign of repentance anyway? How do we truly know when someone is face down on their penitent face and when they are simply posing for the cameras? And my God, what gives us the right to be concerned with this matter in the first place? Let me first state that in attempting to scratch the surface of this one, the finger that so often comes dangerously close to pointing at God’s vengeance and eternal damnation is pointing right back at myself, because I am the worst of sinners when it comes to judging (and so many other areas). So here goes nothing. Where do we draw the lines between “gently” rebuking our brothers and sisters, harshly judging them under the guise of saving their mortal souls, and biting our tongues when we believe they are “backsliding”? And when they profess to be “giving it to God,” what then?

Let me lay a foundation and define judgment as I see it and then I’ll get into our obsessive flirtation with it. What is it? Judgment is not characterized by speech alone, but can come in the form of a disdainful look, a sigh of disappointment, or even the distancing of oneself from a long-time friend for fear of becoming “guilty by association.” And now, where does it come from? In all honesty, I am more apt to believe our judgment of others is better explained as a deflection of our own guilt about the sins in our lives than as a genuine concern for their salvation. Either way, I think too many of us are confused about how we approach judgment in the Christian community. As far as non-believers are concerned, we may as well be charging admission when we point our disapproving fingers, roll our disbelieving eyes, and dispel our urgent calls to repentance because these tactics we’ve come to know and love are nothing short of entertaining to non-believers. Seriously, I pray for the whole world to know Christ, but you and I both know that isn’t going to happen, so let’s concentrate on the smaller picture for now.

I guess the real problem then is Christians…not the ones who have mastered the art of empathy and surmounted the challenge of coupling compassion with admonition (hats off to all 3 of you!), but those who have intentionally (God forbid) or unintentionally tarnished the crown of mercy and singed the garland of grace. In a perfect world, all Christians would be skilled at gentle rebuke. If we were truly learning from the master, rebuke would play out as it does in Mark 16:14, “…Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.” Jesus rebukes the disciples in this passage not for their wicked ways per se, but for their lack of faith in Him. So when one of our brothers or sisters is sinning, is it their actual sin that bothers us or is it their lack of faith? If there is ever an instance in which I feel it is appropriate to correct one of my friends, it should be when he/she is not trusting in God’s power to heal and forgive, not solely because I disapprove of his/her choices. And even then, my approach should be such that the playing field is level. We are both sinners; both in need of God’s love and mercy; and both under the blanket of grace, rather than the weight of condemnation. Ah yes, in a perfect world…

But here’s another one for you to chew on. Not only have we eclipsed gentle rebuke with biting judgment, but we’ve actually taken it one step farther. One of the biggest problems it seems is that many Christians have not learned to distinguish where rebuke ends and forgiveness begins. Daily we walk the line between responsibility as a Christian and responsibility as a friend. What is truly disheartening is that we have somewhere along the line divorced the two and come to the conclusion that we cannot play both roles at the same time. In our rush to ensure that God’s precious flock does not wander from the field, we have unknowingly pushed a few sheep off the proverbial walk of faith and down a cliff of despair and guilt.

Let me be very clear. I am extremely apprehensive to express any sort of disapproval of one’s actions to begin with (though I do it quite often), but I am only human. So, when I have truly invested in one of my friends, given myself some sort of a platform from which to speak, and genuinely feel that out of concern alone I cannot shut my mouth any longer, I have been known to share my feelings about the choices he/she is making. And then, when I have spoken my peace, I do my best to let it go! But is this what the Bible calls us to do or are we called to a much greater duty? You ready? I really don’t have an answer for you on this one, but I do know one thing – there is a very finite line that has been drawn in the sand for us to take note of and it addresses the following question. When do we expel the immoral brother (which is most often, ourselves) and when do we lovingly embrace him? I got three words for you…RE-PENT-ANCE! The moment a sinner cries out to God for forgiveness, our rebuke falls to the wayside and God’s mercy takes over. But as one writer points out, “The trouble with most Christians today is that they would rather be on the judgment seat than on the witness stand.” Don’t we love it when someone else’s sin is more visible than ours? We get to feel better about our own iniquities or at least about our ability to camouflage them. And God forbid someone should actually acknowledge their sins and cry out to God for help. Then we get to judge their sincerity and the motives of their heart. Listen to what God’s divinely inspired have to say about that. 1 Corinthians 4:3-5”I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” If that isn’t enough to squash the pride in you, consider this. The appearance of our righteousness in the church often leads to the disappearance of God’s righteousness and who wants to answer for that one on judgment day?

So let me explain it in one more way. Eric Sandras says in Buck Naked Faith, “It is the pursuit of the kind of the relationship with the Father that Jesus had, and not the expectation of attainment in this lifetime, that we’ve needed all along.” I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more. We get so caught up in trying to be Jesus that we often fail to be WITH Jesus. God desires us to pursue a relationship with Him, to seek Him and long for His friendship. To strive for the very same intimate bond that He had with Jesus. But He’s also made it perfectly clear that while we are on Earth, in our sinful bodies, we will never have that perfect relationship. So maybe we should focus on a more feasible goal. We should be encouraging each other to pursue a relationship with God through confession, trust, and ever-increasing need for His grace, not holding each other to the impossible standard of filling His shoes. So when you get the urge to pick up your gavel, don your black robe, and shout, “Guilty!” try to remember that you’re the one on trial and throw yourself on the mercy of the court.

God, we throw ourselves on the mercy of your court. Please silence the voices of our accusers and when we look to you, let them look away. If we do allow their misplaced anger and hurt to sting our souls, gently reminder us that as long as we trust in you, you will never abandon us. And if we ask ourselves – what does it look like to trust God? May we always hear the answer – it looks like a cross set upon a hill, stained red as a reminder that we are loved.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rest Assured

"I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly God was speaking: 'My name is I am.' I waited and God continued, 'When you live in the past, with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I was. When you live in the future, with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I will be. When you live in this moment, it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.'" ~Helen Mellincost

Wow, I really need to write; it’s been way too long. So on this day of turmoil and chaos, frustration and rage, busyness and restlessness, I will make time to write, because only one other thing soothes my soul such as this. There is too much these days for any one person to handle (except Jesus, of course). There is too much noise, too many errands to run, too much stress, too many crazy California drivers, too much heartbreak and too many worries that bombard us from one minute to the next. Shall I go on? Oh, what a girl would give for just five minutes of solace! We wonder why we all have difficulty falling asleep, and no, it’s not because we haven’t given in and bought a sleep number bed yet. We can’t get our bodies to rest at night because we can’t get our minds to rest at night. The worries of yesterday and the anxieties of tomorrow weigh on us like a ton of bricks and in the stillness of the night, our “to do” list is anything but still.

So try to follow my random thoughts for a minute and don’t freak out when I say this. Those crazy Buddhists have it all figured out (well, some of it anyway). Buddhist ideals rest on the challenge of maintaining consciousness of one’s surroundings at any and every given moment. Buddhist philosophy rests on this principle – be here now! When you are sitting, feel the chair beneath you. When you are speaking, listen to your own words. Whatever you do, focus on the physicality of the task and try to align your thoughts with those actions. In other words, THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE DOING FOR THE LOVE OF GOD (ok, maybe the Buddhists would leave out the love of God thing, but you get the picture)! Hmm, easier said than done and even the Buddhists know that, but it’s a good goal to have, right? Ok, here comes that movie trailer guy again…”In a world with too much of everything, where chaos ruled and busyness triumphed, one man came to awaken their hearts, put to sleep their minds, and change the course of history forever.” I love that movie trailer guy! Anyway, in a perfect world our “to do” lists would only get smaller (and our bank accounts larger, but I’ll leave that one for another day). So let me just touch on the “be here now” idea for now.

So I’ve been trying to figure out a way to work Psalm 23 into my writing, because I truly love it and I guess now is as good a time as any. In case you’ve forgotten, Psalm 23:1-6The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

I love this Psalm for so many reasons. It’s all about the peace, comfort, and solitude that only a loving and powerful God can offer and it’s all about how He chooses to bless us with these things daily. On a side note, I love verse 6, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” Notice it does not say that I will strive for goodness and love or run after them? Goodness and love will follow me. Imagine that…they will come to me wherever I go. God loves me that much. But I digress. What is truly appealing to me is the tense of the scripture. The author is writing in the present tense. He is not concerned about what God did yesterday or what He will do tomorrow. His only concern is what God is doing RIGHT NOW. And right now, God is providing, and leading, restoring, guiding, comforting, and shepherding. God is present at this moment and every moment for that matter. So really, God is the greatest Buddhist who ever lived (LOL). God is the only one who has ever mastered the art of “being here now.”

In the song “Getting Into You” by Relient K, their hearts cry out, “I’ve been a liar and I’ll never amount to the kind of person you deserve to worship you. You say you will not dwell on what I did but rather what I do. You say, ‘I love you and that’s what you are getting yourself into.’” So if God is not concerned with what I did yesterday, why would I care? It seems like wasted energy, doesn’t it? Warren Wiersbe says it this way, “Most Christians are being crucified on a cross between two thieves: Yesterday's regret and tomorrow's worries.” Hmm…thieves, I like that. Yesterday and tomorrow are thieves. They steal our peace, rob us of our joy, and deprive us of the intimacy with God that comes from awareness of His presence at every moment.

So how do I learn to live in the middle? To make my comfort zone the diminutive space between yesterday and tomorrow or better yet, between five minutes ago and five minutes from now? How do I feel the chair beneath me, the air around me, and the keyboard that I’m typing on when my mind draws ever closer to the stack of bills lying on the desk beside me? How do I maintain consciousness of God’s love for me RIGHT NOW and let everything else fade into the background? Here is one perspective: Arthur W. Pink states in an almost urgent tone, “From every pulpit in the land it needs to be thundered forth that God still lives, that God still observes, ... still reigns. Faith is now in the crucible, it is being tested by fire, and there is no fixed... resting place for the heart and mind but in the throne of God. What is needed now, as never before, is a full, positive, constructive setting forth of the Godhood of God.”

The Godhood of God, I like that too. It seems the longer our “to do” list gets and the more crushing the weight of our present circumstances, the less relevance God has to us. In fact, He takes on a whole different role in our lives, doesn’t He? God becomes the punisher, the great unknown, the misunderstood, misrepresented, unloving, unsympathetic, distant, fair-weather friend. He is responsible for our burdens and slow to pull us out from under them. He is selective in His hearing and apathetic about our pain. He is an Alzheimer’s patient, forgetting those He loves. Where, oh where has our great God of compassion and mercy gone? I’ll tell you where He’s gone – nowhere. It’s us who have gone. That author is right, faith is now in the crucible being tested by fire and the real question is, how will we fair? Will we find a resting place for our hearts and minds in the throne of God or in the checkout line at Target? The coffee counter at Starbucks? The big screen at the local theater? God forbid, the bar at the end of the street? Where will our solace lie? Only in the throne of God! So I’ll say it one more time, in case you missed it. COME TO JESUS! Or better yet, stop leaving Him. Lord knows He’s never tried to flee from you. Let’s set forth the Godhood of God, let Him play the role He intended in the first place, and try to believe He really does have it all under control. After all, I’m lucky if I can muster up enough energy to change my cat’s litter, let alone try to change my past or my future.
God, please help me to take back the night. Help me to find rest without the assistance of a million tiny pills. Lead me every second to the middle ground, to the moment between regret and fear, to the throne where your Godhood lies and my need for grace is evident, to the only place my soul finds rest. And when my only focus is on crossing off the items on my list so I can breathe, remind me that only one thing is needed to breathe life into my soul again and that is your love. Help me to live in constant awareness of that love. And in those times of protest when I cry and scream and throw my little temper tantrums, please, drag my sorry butt to Jesus and remind me that I am nothing and life is meaningless without His friendship. And please, oh please, do the same for my friends and family (ok, and all those other sinners too).