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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Snake Pit

If a brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying “I repent,” you must forgive them. (Luke 17:3-4)


Sometimes I wonder if we're too nice to each other at church.

Maybe “nice” isn't the right word – that word doesn't really say very much, does it? I think what I mean is that I think sometimes we're too...hands-off. Unwilling to be involved. Unwilling to care enough about each other to engage and to disagree, clash, and otherwise get into one another's faces when necessary.

Sometimes churches need to be more like the Snake Pit.

When General Norman Schwarzkopf returned to the States from the Vietnam War, he had to undergo surgery to repair damage to his spine caused by numerous parachute jumps. The surgery saved him from paralysis, but the recovery was slow and painful. Schwarzkopf became depressed. He began to seriously contemplate giving up, retiring from the Army, and abandoning his recovery. And that's when his doctors moved him to the Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit was a ward in the hospital populated by soldiers recovering from some of the most horrific injuries war can inflict. Many of the patients in the Snake Pit had been there for months or years. For them, every day was a fight to win back a little more of their previous lives. They were often coarse and irreverent. They terrorized the nurses and orderlies. And, especially significant for Schwarzkopf, they didn't tolerate whining.

The doctors often assigned patients to the Snake Pit to get their fight back, and it seemed that they usually would. When a new patient to the ward would start to whine, the others would lay into him. They'd tell him he was a wimp, that he should stop complaining, that there were a lot of guys in that word that were in a whole lot worse shape. One, Tom Bratton, who had lost a leg, asked Schwartzkopf with perfect military discipline, “Sir, if I can walk on one leg, how come you can't walk on two?”

Schwarzkopf wrote of the Snake Pit, “They'd often reduce a man to tears. But after that, he'd grind his teeth and fight back, which was precisely what they wanted.”

And then he says, “The guys in the Snake Pit were relentless, but they brought people back to life.”

If our churches don't do much in the way of bringing people back to life, maybe it's because there's not enough of the Snake Pit in us.

I know. The church has been known to get this wrong by being too harsh, too judgmental, too willing to shoot our wounded. Sometimes we've been guilty of using the Bible as a club, the threat of hell to manipulate and control. That's not what I'm talking about. It doesn't take much investment in a person to judge, manipulate, or control. All it takes is a need for superiority and a hunger for power. Sometimes we've been quick to argue and divide over the splitting of theological or doctrinal hairs. Again, that's not what I'm advocating. It doesn't take love for someone to argue over the ways his theology differs from your own. All it takes is a determination to be the one who's “right” in any debate.

I'm talking about something much more difficult, and therefore almost unknown in most churches. I'm talking about the willingness to know someone and be known by them to such a degree that we can say hard things with credibility and hear them without defensiveness.

It's hard for most of us to hear criticism from someone who we're sure loves us. It's almost impossible to hear it from someone whose motives we question. That's why, for instance, you don't rebuke a brother or sister in Christ for divorcing his or her spouse if you haven't wept and prayed with them about the circumstances of their failing marriage. That's why, when you do have to say something hard to someone, you say it with love and concern for that person as a friend and fellow believer. And for the same reason, when we have to rebuke each other we do so as fellow strugglers and stragglers, feeling no need to pretend that we're something we aren't.

That's why it worked in the Snake Pit. General Schwarzkopf could hear Tom Bratton's rebuke because he could see Tom Bratton in front of him, with only one leg, and knew that Bratton knew the battle Schwarzkopf was fighting. And wanted him to win it.

“It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools,” the Teacher of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes wrote. (Ecclesiastes 7:5) We'd all rather hear the song, I'm sure. But the song won't give us our lives back. The song won't confront our failings or push us toward repentance. It will comfort us when we shouldn't be comfortable. Make us forget what we ought to remember. It will give us excuses instead of conviction and leave us in bondage instead of setting us free.

“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline,” says Jesus (Revelation 3:19). So don't imagine that you love someone if you're never willing to say something that they might find hard to hear. And if there are people in your life who can credibly call you to repentance for the stupid stuff you do, be grateful for them. God might use them to bring you back to life.

Let's be for each other what Tom Bratton was for Norman Schwarzopf. Let us behave toward each other in such a way that the love we have for each other is obvious. Let's understand clearly that we're all running the same race, all fighting the same battle, all trying to be true to our Lord while learning and growing in him. And let's understand clearly that we all stumble and struggle and spin our wheels, and that from time to time we need someone to kick us in the seat of the pants (spiritually, or maybe literally) and push us to straighten up. Never out of a desire to control, or punish, or make up for our own insecurites. Always for the same reason Jesus rebukes and discipline: love.

May there be a little more Snake Pit in our churches come Sunday.

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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.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Open Your Mouth

On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. (Mark 13:9-11)


I don't know Nayara Goncalves. But I'd be willing to make a small wager that she believes in Jesus' promise that the Holy Spirit will speak through his disciples.

When a man tried to rob the Pompano Beach, Florida, cell phone store where she works last month, he wound up leaving without taking any money. But it wasn't because twenty-year-old Nayara told him that she'd call the police, or that the store had security cameras. It was because she talked to him about Jesus.

The store's surveillance cameras captured the conversation. The man pulled a gun on Nayara and asked for all the money in the register. As he did so, he admitted that he hated to do it and he told Nayara not to be afraid. “I'm not,” she says on the video as she moves toward the register. “I'm just going to talk to you about the Jesus I have.”

“May God bless you for that,” the gunman responds.

“Jesus got something way better for you,” Nayara told him. “I don't know what you are going through, but all of us are going through a hard time right now.” The man told Nayara that he was a Christian, and they chatted for a moment about one of the ministers at a church they had both attended. He told her would be evicted if he didn't come up with $300 for rent, but eventually Nayara talked him out of robbing the store.

“Jesus helps you, he can change your life,” she told him. And she gave him some good advice: “Go back to church. Find a job. Get real friends in church. Talk to a pastor, they can pray for you. You don't need to do this, Jesus is coming soon.”

Nayara said she started to cry after the man left. “I realized what had just happened, what could have happened if God wasn't here with me,” she explained.

If someone points a gun at you and demands money, I think it's generally a good idea to go ahead and give it to him. But it's hard to argue with what happened in that cell phone store in Pompano Beach. Nayara has no doubt at all what happened. “I believe it was the Holy Spirit of God that really made me want to tell him about Jesus,” she later told ABC News. “I would never be able to do that myself. I would never think that God could use me the way that he did.”

Jesus told his first disciples that they'd be in situations like the one Nayara found herself in: standing before someone with power over them and fearing for their lives. And he told them not to waste a moment preparing talking points or outlining a sermon. “Open your mouth, and say whatever is given to you at the time,” he told them. That's the kind of advice that would have made their lawyers cringe, if they'd had lawyers. But it also made them witnesses.

“It's not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit,” he told them.

I wish we could believe that, just as surely as Jesus makes us witnesses for him, he gives us the ability. If we believed that, I think we'd talk ourselves out of fewer opportunities to speak up for Jesus. We'd speak about him more freely: about what he means to us, about the ways he has lifted us up and give us hope, about his power and his grace and his mercy, even about his coming. We'd tell people that they don't have to be alone and desperate, don't have to hate themselves and others, and don't have to live with their shame and guilt and fear any longer. We'd speak freely and fearlessly, believing that when we opened our mouths about Jesus the words that came out would be just the words God wanted spoken, right then. We wouldn't worry about whether we could remember that one particular verse, or had all of our theological ducks in a row. We'd speak, and believe that the Holy Spirit was just using our voices.

The gunman in Nayara's store wouldn't likely have been willing to sit still long enough for a Bible study. She couldn't have possibly been prepared in advance for that encounter. And maybe that's why God did such a powerful thing there. She didn't know what to say, so she opened her mouth and spoke about Jesus. She didn't know how to say it, so she opened her mouth and believed that the Holy Spirit would get the words right.

In Nayara's case, the gunman seemed to have responded to the Spirit's words that she spoke. That's not always the case, is it? And maybe that's our real fear: that if we don't say it just right, people will reject our message and reject us. And so we keep quiet, when we know good and well that the Holy Spirit is trying to pry our mouths open and our tongues loose.

But we're not called to be effective, are we? Jesus didn't promise his first disciples that those governors and kings would believe them, and he doesn't promise us that we'll be believed. And, in fact, rejection is par for the course for followers of Jesus – after all, people rejected him, didn't they? The point in speaking isn't necessarily to convince. It's to witness to the truth. It's to tell people about our risen Lord, who has overcome sin and death and is coming back to put the world right. We want people to believe, and we do our best to convince. But in the end, we're only called to speak. Convincing is ultimately the work of God.

So don't be afraid to open your mouth and speak about Jesus. Don't worry too much about what you'll say, and how you'll say it. But when you feel that you need to speak up for Christ, don't ever suppress that urge. Open your mouth, and trust that the words will come. And that they'll be just the ones God wants you to speak.

I think you'll be surprised at how God can use you, too.

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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.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Quitting

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat your brother or sister with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat...So then, we will all give an account of ourselves to God.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister...
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (Romans 14:10-19)



Late last week, Anne Rice quit Christianity. She made the announcement on her Facebook page, of all places, in the following words:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else …In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control …In the name of … Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Many of you may not know who Anne Rice is. She's a best-selling novelist, and the characters in her books have ranged from vampires and witches to...well, to Jesus. Long before Twilight, she was vampires (and her vampires weren't petulant teenagers). More recently, she's written two novels – remarkably orthodox ones, without vampires or witches – about Jesus in his early years and told from his perspective. Even though her characters are usually fantastic and supernatural, her writing is evocative and compelling, and her storytelling is second to none. And it has mirrored her alienation from the church, as well as her journey back to it.

She's been outspoken about her return to faith during her late husband's illness and death, and her return to the Catholicism of her childhood. She's also been outspoken about her disagreement with the church on several important issues, including the ones she raised in her announcement last week. So her “resignation” from Christianity is not exceptionally surprising. Still, when a sister in Christ – even one I don't know personally – announces that she's leaving the church, it's troubling. In the spirit of her announcement, I'd like to make one of my own. Maybe it'll help someone who, like Mrs. Rice, is feeling like she needs to leave Christianity for the sake of following Jesus.

So, here is my announcement: I'm not quitting Christianity.

I can't. For one thing, like Mrs. Rice, I'm committed to Christ. I've been won over by him. The one thing Christianity has going for it is the One it's named after, and the One whose name a Christian wears. His love for me is so compelling, his grace is so rich, his vision of the Kingdom of God is so full of joy and hope, and the lifestyle he urges so right and true, that I can't imagine living without him. I'm like Peter who, when Jesus asked if he and the other Eleven were going to stop following him, could only stutter, “Where would I go?”

It seems that Mrs. Rice gets that, and intends to continue following Jesus. So I'm a little unsure as to what she means when she says that she's quitting Christianity. I think what she probably means is the version of Christianity that she has been living and experiencing in the context of the group of people that she might call “her” church. Most Christians have one of those: the group we mean when we talk about “our” churches where we're members, where we go to worship and pray and have communion and listen to a sermon. That group can be very important to us, but it's not the sum total of Christianity. And, more to the point, its priorities and values and teachings aren't necessarily exactly congruent with the priorities and values and teachings of Jesus. In fact, they frequently aren't.

If that's what Mrs. Rice is talking about, then I get why she's quitting. I do. A Christian's identity shouldn't be all about what she's against. A Christian's identity should be wrapped up in Jesus. And, while he was quite demonstrably against some things, he was against them because they were directly opposed to what he was for, and what his life was about. And I don't think you'll ever find an example of him being against people of any stripe – though he occasionally had some tough words for some.

What Mrs. Rice wants to quit isn't Christianity. It's Christians. It looks as if she wants to follow Jesus, but without responsibility or obligation to others who follow him – particularly those who she doesn't agree with about some things. Maybe the church she's been a part of hasn't been comfortable with her differing from accepted teaching, but I happen to know that she's not the only Catholic to disagree with church leaders on the issues she mentioned. And, to paraphrase Paul, the kingdom of God isn't about homosexuality or feminism or birth control. Those are important issues, to be sure. But nothing that needs to send Christians running for the exits if we can get what holds us together straight first. Jesus. Once we have that straight, we can hear the word of God together, and interpret it together, and sometimes even allow one another to come to differing conclusions with the knowledge that we will all stand before God one day and give account... of ourselves, and of ourselves alone.
Like Mrs. Rice, I've sometimes felt that the fellowship of churches in which I came to Christ and still follow him is “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous.” I've sometimes felt like an outsider, as well, however hard I tried to belong. But then there are the people with whom I worship on Sundays, and for whom and with whom I commiserate and pray during the week. And even though I disagree with some of them pretty sharply about some things, they love me. They accept me. They don't make me agree with them, just so long as my hope is in the risen Christ and the kingdom of God.

So I'm not quitting. And I hope Mrs. Rice – and others like her, who are ready to quit Christians, at least – will find others with whom they can follow Jesus. Because it's hard to do it alone.

And no one should have to.

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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.

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