Monday, November 23, 2009

Off the Hook

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12)

Two robbers forced their way into a home in Indianapolis last week. They tied up the owners and hit one with a handgun, but as they ransacked the house, the family’s infant son, Jaylin, started to cry. Jaylin’s mom asked one of the invaders if there was any way he could let her oldest son feed the baby.

“Yeah, dude. Yeah dude; I can do that,” he said.

He even warmed Jaylin’s bottle in the microwave, Jaylin’s mom reported.

Maybe you don’t expect someone who breaks into someone else’s home, ties them up, and pistol-whips them to have much of a heart. That’s why this story is news, isn’t it – because it’s unexpected? We know, after all, who these guys are who break into homes and hurt people. We know what kind of people they are, and we don’t have a lot of room for the picture of them taking time out of their busy day of robbing and terrorizing to take care of a hungry baby. It doesn’t fit.

Could it be, maybe, that we’re too quick to put people into boxes based on the limited knowledge we have of their motives, actions, values, and situations? We’re so prone to judge people on so little evidence: on the basis of one bad day or a few careless words, a poor choice made in a weak moment, a disagreement, a personality quirk. We shove them in our mental boxes and bolt down the lids: liar, thief, cheater. Heretic. Selfish. Failure. Sinner.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” Jesus once cautioned. The reason he gives emphasizes what a double-standard it is when we pigeonhole people a little too efficiently and expeditiously: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” None of us want to be placed in a box based on a few of our worst actions. We all prefer to be evaluated, if at all, on our entire body of work. Jesus just reminds us to extend that same courtesy to those with whom we share life.

No one would suggest that it’s OK, under any circumstances, to break into a house, assault the people living there, and take their possessions. I wouldn’t know where to begin to defend those actions, and wouldn’t want to try even if I did. From the perspective of the law, of simple right and wrong, the people who committed that crime should be found and punished. That’s not at issue here.

What Jesus reminds us, though, is that we don’t see people as just the sum total of their bad decisions and less-than-greatest moments. Even as we hold people accountable for their actions, we can recognize that they’re more than the sum of their actions. And even when we come into contact – as we will – with people who have elevated wrongdoing to an art form, he reminds us that it’s too much like the world and too little like him to slap a label on that person and dismiss him or her as irredeemably and irretrievably broken.

What do you think when you see a homeless person? What are your opinions of a friend who’s hurt you? How do you evaluate a person who’s victimized you or someone you care about? A brother or sister who’s disappointed you? A spouse who’s taken his or her vows too lightly?

Even home invaders can have compassionate moments. You can never tell what might be buried in a person’s heart, waiting to be rediscovered. And don’t we believe that God can uncover the things that have been buried by years of pain, bitterness, self-preservation, and bad choices?

James reminds us in no uncertain terms that there’s only one who’s qualified to be judge and jury, only one who can be trusted to truthfully evaluate hearts and minds. He will save and destroy. “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” he asks. That’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? Who, exactly, am I to sit in judgment on anyone?

I’m a person who’s made my share of bad decisions, that’s who. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been angry. I’ve said things I’ve regretted, and probably a few things I should have regretted and didn’t. I’m aware enough of my own failures that I feel pretty sure that, given less-ideal circumstances than the ones I enjoy, I might very well have made even worse choices. Given all that, I need to be very cautious about treating anyone else in way that keeps them perpetually on the hook for every sin they’ve ever committed. I don’t want to spend my life in someone’s convenient box for my sins, and I’m certainly grateful God hasn’t treated me that way. I’m grateful that he sees value in me in spite of the sinful things I’ve done and the good things I haven’t. How else can I show that gratitude but by giving others the grace I’ve received.

Because that’s what it is not to pass judgment: grace. To say to someone, in words and actions, “In spite of what you’ve done I see and celebrate the image of God in you” – that’s a great gift to give. That’s not to say we celebrate or wink at sin. It’s not to say we don’t mourn the way the image of God in a person can be so warped and obscured. In the end, we choose not to pass judgment because in doing so we human beings almost always overlook the potential for good that exists in all of God’s creation. And that’s an affront to our Creator.

Our Creator. That’s what we all share in common, whichever side of the law or respectability or society’s approval we may find ourselves on at any given moment. We’re all God’s creatures, and none of us are called to sit in judgment on any of the rest of us. We’re called instead to love each other, serve each other, and be witnesses to the grace of God in Jesus Christ by the things we do and say.

Maybe there’s someone you need to let off the hook. You need to open the box you’ve placed them in and let them out. Maybe just in your heart, to start with – but rest assured that choice will affect the way you treat that person, talk about him, and think about him. You’ll start to see how much he matters to God, and you’ll start to imagine what God can do with him and in him.

Trust him to judge. He will, rightly, and at the right time.

And you won’t want to change a thing.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Eternal(?) Flame

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said...
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25, 28-22)

What part of “eternal” don't they understand?

Late last year, town officials in Bullhead City, Arizona, came to terms with a veterans' organization to pay for the maintenance on a park and memorial honoring veterans that the organization had financed and built. Part of the memorial is an “eternal flame” intended to symbolize the city's remembrance of the sacrifices of veterans and their families. But for most of this year, the eternal flame has been cold and dark.

In December of last year, the first month's gas bill arrived, and the city was on the hook for $961.17.

They bit the bullet through the holidays, then pulled the plug – or turned the valve, I guess – on the eternal flame.

Not surprisingly, people were upset. The city manager suggested that the “eternal” flame only be lit for holidays and special occasions, but of course that sort of misses the point of an eternal flame. The veterans say that the cost of gas for the flame had been factored into the agreement all along. Some city officials said they didn't think anyone actually realized that they'd have to pay the gas bill.

I don't know – “Occasional Flame”? It just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?

How easy it is for human beings not to follow through. We make grand pronouncements, develop ambitious plans, dream big dreams, commit to important causes. We get married, change jobs, start diet and exercise regimens, and take up hobbies. We sign up to be part of the PTA, or serve at a soup kitchen, or support a child in a third-world country. And all these things we do sound like good ideas at the time. No one commits to something intending not to follow through.

It just happens.

Not always, but often enough, that's what has failed in a failed marriage. Not love, but commitment. We think commitment ends when we don't feel love anymore, but in Jesus God showed us that it works the other way around. Commitment is to love what oxygen is to fire. Feed a marriage commitment, and love will provide life, heat and warmth eternally. But if even one partner fails to live up to his or her responsibilities – well, love will wind up a lot like an eternal flame in Bullhead City.

We so easily get discouraged, tired, burned out, or distracted. Our loyalties get shifted to newer, more novel commitments. The old commitments lose their luster. Maybe we get tired of the obstacles in our paths. Sometimes it's disillusionment, or depression, or even just distance that does it. For whatever reason, we often find it easier to just bail out on the plans, commitments, and promises we've made.

Jesus knows that about us, and that's why he talks about tower architects and kings going to war. He was speaking to “large crowds” that the Bible said had been travelling with him. They thought they were his followers; after all, they followed him.

But Jesus warned them. “Who's going to start building a tower without budgeting first?” (Several developers in Chicago, it appears.) “What king would go to war against an opposing army without running the numbers and calculating win and lose scenarios?” The answer the question expects is “no one.” No king, no architect, would make such commitments without being sure they could finish what they begin.

“In the same way,” Jesus warns, “any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Understand, Jesus doesn't want to discourage anyone from following hm. But he wants his followers to be clear about the cost: if you aren't ready to “give up everything you have,” you might not quite yet be ready to follow him. He isn't trying to make us doubt our devotion. He wants us to reaffirm our commitment to him. To be willing to give up our lives.

Bullhead City has decided to redesign the flame. It will use less gas and be protected fron strong winds. They re-lit the flame in October and will leave it on for a month to monitor it. I hope it can stay lit.

I hope the same for you: that your flame will stay lit. I can tell you, though, almost certainly that it won't if you don't often re-affirm your decision to follow Jesus. It'll become an occasional flame, at best: only lit at certain times and places for people to appreciate, and quickly extinguished when it's time to go back to “real life.” It certainly won't survive when the cost seems high and the challenges difficult.

Maintaining an eternal flame for Jesus in your heart will demand patience. It will require prayer and discipline. It will be oxygenated by thanksgiving and praise, and will burn best when fanned by others who have the same fire burning in their hearts. And it won't be a one-time decision, of course: more a series of choices to keep the flame lit or let it be extinguished. There will be days when it will seem to burn low, but on those days you huddle in prayer and listen to his word and call on others and then trust in his Spirit to keep it alive. And then you'll hear a song, or a sermon, or bend low to serve, or receive service from someone else, and it will roar to life again. And then others will be able to get warm.

How's the flame? Eternal, or occasional? You know, don't you, which one burns for you in the Lord's heart?

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.