Sunday, January 24, 2010

"With Gentleness and Respect"

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
- 1Peter 3:14-16 (NIV)

A Jewish teenager from New York on his way to spend some time with his grandmother in Louisville, Kentucky, had his flight diverted to Philadelphia this morning. When the plane landed, he found himself greeted by bomb-sniffing dogs and the FBI.

All because he wanted to pray on the flight.

The teenager, Caleb Leibowitz, wanted to use the time on the plane to catch up on his usual morning prayers. But Caleb prays using traditional Jewish tefillin – small Scripture-filled boxes worn strapped to the left arm and forehead. A passenger noticed as Caleb removed the boxes and began strapping them on. Mistaking the straps for wires, she notified a flight attendant, who asked the boy what he was doing. When he answered that he was praying, without explaining the tefillin, she notified the crew, who made the decision to divert to Philly.

As soon as it became clear to Philadelphia police and TSA representatives that Caleb posed no threat, he was put on another flight to Louisville.

What impresses me about this story is the way that Caleb, his family, and his Rabbi responded to the situation. Caleb’s grandmother, after acknowledging that police pointed guns at Caleb and handcuffed him, went on to quickly add that they only pointed their guns “a little bit” and that the handcuffs were “only for a short period of time.” She acknowledged the fact that terrorist threats had made Americans “skittish,” and said she hoped people would learn about the rituals and not be fearful.

Caleb’s Rabbi, Shmuel Greenberg, said that Jewish people “can’t expect the whole world to know what this ritual is all about.” He added, “When we see people carrying explosive material in their shoes and their pants and I am the passenger next to him and see someone strapping, I would panic too.”

“I would suggest, pray on the plane and put the tefillin on later on,” he finished.

Caleb, for his part, was helpful and cooperative in explaining the prayer ritual to police and other officials who questioned him.

Honestly, the first thought I had as I read the story was, “Here’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.” It doesn’t seem like that’s on Caleb’s radar, or his family’s or his congregation’s, however. I’m sure Caleb was embarrassed by the incident. I’m sure that someone could make a very strong case that his rights were violated – however well-intentioned the violation may have been. I imagined that, if they were so inclined, they’d stand a good chance of winning some damages from the airline. But none of that seems to be on their minds.

In fact, if I didn’t know that Caleb was Jewish, I’d say that he, his grandmother, and his Rabbi, acted in a very Christian way.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that about some Christians I know.

Inconvenience some Christians I know, and all hell breaks loose. Seriously – divert a flight carrying some Christians I know for a good reason, and be ready to hear about it. Or get stuck in traffic with some Christians I know, and you’ll think traffic headaches are the end of the world. And if it’s a real hardship? A real slight? A real injustice? Oh, look out. Some Christians I know are very knowledgeable about their rights. Some Christians I know are very aware of what they’re entitled to, and will make sure you’re aware, too, if you dare deprive them of it. Any of it.

Please understand; I’m a great fan of individual rights. But some of us seem to think that it was Jesus who guaranteed Americans the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But it wasn’t Jesus who said that. Jesus said things like, “Don’t be surprised if the world hates you,” and “take up your cross and follow me.” Peter said that we should respond to persecution with a gentle and respectful testimony to the hope that we have in Christ. That’s real persecution, mind you – not jokes by our co-workers or an ordinance from the town council that says we can’t put a nativity scene in the square or a vote on gay marriage that doesn’t go the way we’d prefer.

Jesus was unjustly sent to the cross, yet he didn’t stand up for his own rights. He didn’t threaten legal action or plot elaborate revenge against his tormentors. “As a sheep before her shearers is silent,” the prophet said, “so he did not open his mouth.” If we’re going to follow him, where do we get the idea that it’s OK for us to bear our crosses complaining, arguing, and demanding our rights the whole way?

It’s not enough, in the end, that we be willing to suffer for him. We’re called to suffer like him, as well. There is no greater testimony to the power of God, the love of Jesus, and the presence of the Spirit in a person’s life than graceful suffering. When we take the difficulties of life and the misunderstandings of others on our shoulders with love, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, the world must take notice. They can’t dismiss us as cranks, or claim that our boorish behavior brought that suffering on us. It may even be, Peter says, that the very people who abuse us, insult us, and misunderstand us may be brought to shame when they see us take what they give us with courage, grace, and even joy. It may be, like the centurion at the cross who saw how Jesus died, that they might even say, “Surely this person is a child of God.”

Let’s be more thoughtful and more prayerful about how we handle difficulty, inconvenience, and injustice. May we put aside anger, suspicion, cynicism, and bitterness. May we not fear what the world fears, but “rejoice that [we] participate in the sufferings of Christ.” May we speak boldly, but more about Jesus and not so much about our own rights. May we give more thought and prayer to our words and actions when we’re under duress. And may the world speak highly of our Lord because we wear his name.

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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.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The God Who Sees and Cares

The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” (Exodus 3:7)

You’ve seen the pictures, heard the reports. Numbers so astronomical after a while start to make us numb. “Thousands are dead,” we say, and so we don’t have to think much about those thousands of individuals and the thousands and thousands of individuals whose lives they were a part of. When we talk about as many as a third of Haitians sleeping outside because they don’t have safe shelter, we don’t have to picture the faces of the men, women, and children in that mass of people.

There’s something in us, a psychological switch that helps us cope with catastrophes like this one by keeping them at a distance. TV evangelist’s Pat Robertson’s switch must have been flipped when he tried to connect the Haiti earthquake – and all of the other ills that nation has endured – to a “pact with the devil.” According to Robertson, slaves on Hispaniola supposedly made the pact so that they’d have success in a revolt against their French masters, and that now the nation born in that revolt is under God’s curse.

One problem with Robertson’s theory is that it’s based on a legend used to discredit the slaves and the revolt, and to explain the vodou that’s pretty widely practiced there. There was no pact with the devil, no Satanic bargain that makes Haiti’s problems God’s quid pro quo. Sorry, Pat. You can’t explain such a tragedy so simply and easily.

I’m not really mad at Pat Robertson. His response struck me as more pointless than offensive. His organization’s humanitarian arm is, apparently, at work providing supplies and other relief. He asked for prayers for the Haitian people. I really think Pat was doing what a lot of us do in circumstances like this: trying to keep some distance from the suffering by forcing it to make sense. There must be a reason, we think.

And there are, of course. For one thing, government corruption and a global weariness about Haiti have led to the country’s being stuck for decades as a “developing nation.” They don’t have the luxury of being prepared for emergencies like this. Substandard housing collapses in earthquakes. Subsistence economies, too. By and large, the people who survive this ordeal will be the people who can afford to survive, the people whose resources buy them better homes, medical care, food, water, and other necessities. As was true in Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami in southeast Asia, or in most other natural and man-made disasters known to history, it’s the poor who suffer most. They can’t escape the effects of something like this.

So there’s your reason, Pat. Curse? Only the curse that has infected our world since human beings first thought they knew better than their Creator. Pact with the devil? Personally, I think he’s made much more progress by slyly teaching us that we aren’t our brothers’ keepers, aren’t responsible for each other, are free to leave other human beings created by God alone in their poverty, pain, and hopelessness.

I get why Pat Robertson might not want to think about that. I get it, because sometimes I don’t want to either. In some ways it’s easier to explain away catastrophe than to kneel down beside someone who’s trapped in the rubble of another one and not shy away from getting our hands dirty. I seem to remember Jesus’ own followers arguing about how to explain a man’s blindness theologically. Jesus shut them all up: “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) Then Jesus became the one through whom those works would be done. He engaged the man, interacted with him, even had him play a part in his own recovery. Jesus cared about the man enough to come alongside and heal him.

That, by the way, is what God does. He hears the cries of the people he loves, the people he made. That’s Americans and Haitians, rich and poor, church people and unchurched people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and so on. He’s always come near when he’s heard human beings crying out – never nearer than when he came in Jesus. When something like this earthquake happens, it’s easy to ask, “Where is God?” God is in the middle of Port-au-Prince tonight, suffering with those who are suffering. He gets his hands dirty; he heals, he helps, he rescues, he comforts, he forgives, and he gives life.

Most of the time, he does so through us.

He doesn’t ask us to explain away the suffering we see in the world. He doesn’t need us to defend his reputation as a loving God through argument and debate – certainly not while people hurt and suffer and die. He asks us to be where he is, among his suffering people, doing his work. Not so we can gain new church members or make ourselves look good, but because in doing so we testify to the presence and power of the Kingdom of God.

That’s the central truth of God’s kingdom, you know? Not “God has forgiven your sins” or “you have a home in heaven when you die.” Those things are wonderfully true, but they’re not the Big Idea, the Main Thing. The Main Thing, the One Thing to get straight about the Kingdom of God is that it means that God is here. Though Creation has been broken, though human beings are so twisted that we’re sometimes barely recognizable as God’s Creation at all, though we do terrible things to each other and sometimes suffer seemingly random catastrophe, God is here. He still rules, and his reign has broken in to the world: first through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and then through people who recognize his Kingdom for what it is and start to live it out. As we live out compassion, justice, holiness, forgiveness, and redemption, the light of his rule begins to dawn and the shadows of sin and evil start to recede.

Follow your Creator in seeing the misery of his people, hearing their cries, and going to them in their suffering. Resist the urge to hold the suffering at arm’s length. God doesn’t. He holds the suffering in his arms and gives everything for them.

Click here to give to Healing Hands International to assist earthquake victims in Haiti.

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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.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Standing on the Rock

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on Godc;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62:5-8)

The young man couldn’t speak. For several seconds, he was at a loss for words. Or too emotional to speak them out loud.

He’d just watched his football team lose, in the biggest game of his life. Watched, because he was injured only five plays into the game. He’d taken the snap, optioned to his left, and was hit by a defensive lineman. “I’ve taken that hit over and over my whole life,” he said. This time, though, wasn’t like the other times. A pinched nerve, maybe: “I’m not in any pain,” he explained in the post-game interview. “My arm’s just dead.”

So he watched, because a quarterback with no feeling in his passing arm can’t do much to help his team. He watched a true freshman try to fill his shoes, as if a freshman with little game experience could ever come into a National Championship Game and fill the shoes of a senior Heisman Trophy finalist. He watched his team try to rally, fight to keep it close, and then watched the freshman fumble away the ball and the game late in the fourth quarter.

The TV reporter had the nerve to ask him how it felt. “What was it like for you to watch this game, your last game in a Longhorn uniform, from the sideline?” Just doing her job, I suppose, but it seemed so heartless to ask that question, then, while the Alabama Crimson Tide soaked their coach with Gatorade and took turns kissing the crystal National Championship Trophy.

But Colt McCoy took a deep breath. He looked down, shook his head, chuckled, stammered a little. For a full eight or ten seconds, the only sound was the background noise of the stadium. But the words finally came. “I’d have given…I’d have given everything I have to be out there with my team…” he said, in measured phrases. Kind of cruelly ironic, then, that the price the game demanded of him was his right arm – the one thing his team needed. McCoy congratulated Alabama on their win, complimented his team for their fight, and his replacement, Gary Gilbert, on the game he played. He said all the right things, and could have stopped there.

But, no, you kind of got the feeling that he couldn’t have.

“I always give God the glory,” he went on to say. “I never question why things happen the way they do. God is in control of my life, and I know that…I’m standing on the rock.”

Having watched McCoy over the last few years, I feel pretty confident that those words were sincere. He has consistently given God the glory for his successes, and there was little doubt that in what must have been his most difficult moment in a football uniform, he found refuge and comfort in his faith in God.

Why ask the question, when you know the answer? McCoy seems to have found the answer to his “Why?” in God.

One of the traits that makes Colt McCoy such a good quarterback is his ability to move in the pocket. He has instincts that let him feel the pass rush, feel the direction the pressure’s coming from, and move enough to step away from it. And he does it all with his eyes downfield, watching for that split second when a receiver comes open and he can fire a pass to him. He’s always moving in the pocket, always shuffling his feet, always ready to step or run away from pressure.

But when the real-life pressure was on this week, he didn’t shuffle his feet. He didn’t run away from it. He took a breath and witnessed to the world that he was standing, still and solid, on the Rock.

The reporter didn’t know how to handle that. She quickly turned the interview to what she thought most of her audience cared more about: McCoy’s right arm. I’m guessing, though, that a good portion of the audience wanted to know more about Colt McCoy’s confidence and faith – even if they didn’t know they did. Because, if I was a betting man, I’d lay odds that there are a lot of people in our world right now who’d like a Rock to stand on.

McCoy wasn’t saying anything new, of course. David wasn’t either, when he called God his Rock in the psalm. God had called himself the Rock for his people, way back when he first gave them his Law while they wandered in the desert. To wandering people, unsure of their next move, or even their own survival, having a Rock sounds pretty good. A Rock who can give those who find refuge there rest and hope, a Rock who won’t be shaken, who’ll be a fortress in which those who trust in him find salvation. People want someone they can trust in at all times, and to whom they can pour out their hearts.

Maybe that’s why we forget, those of us who have just such a Rock – maybe we’re too comfortable. We’re used to things going well. We have homes and jobs and families and churches and friends that let us enjoy the illusion of self-sufficiency. We have strong right arms and know how to move away from pressure.

And then when something happens that shatters the illusion, we panic. “Why?” we ask, as if knowing why will help. We think we’ve lost everything, when we should be remembering that God is in control and that because of Jesus and his work of redemption, we have solid footing on the Rock, whatever may be spinning out of control around us.

Take it to the bank – there will come a day, sooner or later, when the events of your life will spin out of your control. You’ll be left feeling like you’re watching from the sidelines, helpless to call the shots or affect the outcome. When that happens, please remember that nothing has changed with your God. He’s still your Rock and Salvation, your Fortress and Refuge. Please remember that you can pour out your heart to him, and that you can trust him at all times. Especially when everything else fails.

And then remember to speak up about it. Because someone else needs to know your Rock.

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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.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Last Year's Walls

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The New Year’s wish of the government of North Korea was the same this year as the last twenty or so. The official state newspaper of North Korea reiterated the wish this year, as it joined the rest of the world in marking the beginning of 2010. Their wish? That the concrete wall separating North Korea from South Korea be demolished on the grounds that its presence “runs diametrically counter to the desire and demand of the nation and the trend of the times.”

Kim Il-sung, who died 15 years ago but who is still venerated as North Korea’s “eternal President,” first called for the destruction of the wall in 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell. He placed the responsibility for the wall on South Korea, and called it “a barrier of national division.” He described the wall then as five to eight meters high and as much as 19 meters thick, and claimed that it was built in the 1970’s by a “South Korea military fascist clique.” Ever year since, the North Korean government has used the New Year as an occasion to call for its demolition.

A worthy goal, to be sure. There’s one small problem, however.

There is no wall between North and South Korea.

There’s a 4-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone. There are razor wire fences and tanks on both the north and south ends. There are some concrete tank barriers. But there’s no wall.

A few years ago, South Korea invited journalists and observers to take a look into the DMZ and see for themselves that no wall existed. But that hasn’t stopped the North from continuing to claim its existence, and continuing to blame the South. It seems that they don’t want to contradict their exalted former leader.

You might say it’s sad, to think of beginning another new year obsessed with the same old – and nonexistent – obstacles. You might even suggest, might you not, that as long as North Korea is focused on a wall that isn’t there, they’ll never see the possibility and hope for a new tomorrow that might really exist? You might suggest that. As long as you recognize that it’s not only other people in faraway countries who seem to prefer to dwell on the imaginary problems of yesterday, and blaming others for them, than to move forward into a future of hope and renewal.

Husbands and wives live for years and decades with the same old sources of tension and anger, blaming each other and refusing to forgive, never able to see that the walls between them are often only imaginary. Addicts live defeated and hopeless lives, assuming they’re at the mercy of their addictions and unable to see any promise or potential in themselves. Men and women go through their lives staggering under burdens of self-doubt and fear placed on them by their parents. Churches expend their energy and resources to preserve the old, rigid wineskins of tradition, and in so doing lose the power and promise of the gospel.

Well, it’s a new year. And when many of us make new year’s resolutions knowing full well we won’t keep them, we may need to remember something important. The gospel isn’t just about forgiveness of sins. It’s also about transformation. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul wrote, “New creation!” In Christ, the God who created the universe creates again. He takes broken, injured, frightened, sinful people and remakes them into something brand new. Yes, he forgives sins – but that’s just the beginning. He renovates hearts and minds, restores hope, renews strength. He gives us a new perspective, a new view of the world, a new love for him and for others. He gives us a new desire to do right and a new awareness of when we do wrong. He gives us the strength to forgive, and to maintain hope in the face of trouble, and to say no to ourselves and yes to him.

To be in Christ is to be brand new.

It may not seem like it sometimes, because we still struggle with the evil, death, and despair that inhabits our fallen world. While we’re being made new in Christ, the world in which we live hasn’t experienced that new creation yet. Until it does, we’ll have to struggle with the enduring presence of sin – in those around us and in ourselves. But may we not forget in the struggle that in Christ we are being made new. The struggles and obstacles we face – whether in the world or in ourselves – aren’t the last word.

So don’t start this new year with your attention on the obstacles and difficulties of the past. No doubt you can think of many reasons to enter 2010 with despair, doubt, and fear. I can only give you one to enter the year with hope, joy, and peace. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old is gone, the new is here.”

I don’t know what you’re dealing with this year as the calendar turns. You may be living with real pain, struggle, grief, and hardship. Financial uncertainty is a reality for some. Family discord for others. This year, marriages will end. This year, some will say goodbye to parents. Some will say goodbye to children. Some will be caught in sins that rock their lives. Some will suffer the destruction of close friendships. I don’t want to minimize the pain and heartache of what we might face this year.

But whatever your year brings, please remember that if you are in Christ, God has begun his new creation in you. Nothing that you will face this year will change that, and nothing in your past, present, or future can determine any longer who you are. Yesterday’s walls are passing away; shadowy reminders of the way things were. A new world opens before you, a new world God has created in Jesus Christ. In him, you will have what you need to conquer – or endure – the struggles of this year.

In Christ, the walls are down. God has come to live with us and in us.

Happy New Year.

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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.