Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Divine Discipline

As I write this post, snow is on the ground.  I don't know about you, but personally I look forward to Spring thaw.  As the weather warms up, I’m excited to get back to my regular running routine.  I started running last May—something I said I’d never do unless someone was chasing me.  Then I realized that the Grim Reaper is chasing me, so my wife and I laced on some running shoes and got started.  We ran our first 5k in September, and ran a 10k in October.  Then it began to cool down.  Then it began to COLD down.  Then, I quit running—not because of the cold air on my skin, but because cold air in your lungs hurts.  But now as it’s warming up, I’m beginning to run again. 
Since it’s not exactly summertime yet, I dress in layers to stay warm at the beginning of my run.  But as my body temperature heats up, I begin stripping off layers.  When I was new to all this, I would tie my jacket around my waist, tuck my extra shirt into my waistband, stick my hat in my pocket, and so on.  But getting all tied up in extra clothing tangles me as I run—so I’ve just begun dropping the extra clothes on the side of the trail, and picking them up when I’m done.  Even if somebody decided they wanted a sweaty shirt (which they wouldn’t), it’s pretty low-risk compared to the risk of tripping over something tied around my waist.
The author of Hebrews must have been a runner, and must have understood this exact thing, when he wrote, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (1:1[i]).”  If the Christian life is like a race, Hebrews tells us that our sin is like that extra clothing that easily entangles us.  When you begin the race of faith, it’s like your core temperature heats up.  You decide you don’t need that sin anymore, so you strip it off of yourself—but you tie it around your waist, just in case you want to put it on again later.  Instead, you need to get rid of it—and keep your eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” 
When I first started running, I did all kinds of research on the best kind of running shoe, what type of fabrics to wear (and not to wear) for hot weather and for cold weather, and every other subject I could imagine.  But better than any research I did was the advice I got from actual runners—people who knew what they were doing because they had made running their life.  In the same way, we’ve got to look to Jesus, who ran this endurance race before us.  Just as a runner might need a physical trainer, let Jesus be your spiritual trainer.  Keep your eyes on Him, and let Him discipline you.  That way you won’t “grow weary or lose heart (v. 3).”
“Discipline” isn’t a word that most people want to hear.  It makes us think of punishment and pain.  But there’s a difference between punishment and discipline.  Punishment is to satisfy an offended person’s desire for power, after a violation has been committed.  An example of punishment is when a parent smacks a child on the mouth after the child speaks rudely to the parent.  The main purpose of punishment is to make the parent feel better.  Unfortunately, many people view God as a punisher rather than a trainer.  Like good parents, trainers teach by using discipline, correcting and encouraging along the way.  God wants to be that kind of a trainer to you—if you’ll agree to His discipline.
Hebrews 1:3-11 talks about parental discipline.  Just as good parents train their children, God is teaching us every day.  Parents have all kinds of methods of disciplining their children—all of which may be necessary at different times, depending on the situation.  From gentle rebuke to louder rebuke, and even enforced silent time-outs, God corrects His children.  Like a good parent, God sometimes takes away His children’s privileges or allows natural consequences to teach us or even (though rarely and in a controlled manner) spiritually spanks us when we refuse to listen.  Nobody enjoys discipline when it comes, but God’s word tells us, “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts (Heb 1:6).”  The child whose parents never discipline him don’t really love him; but the child who is corrected is greatly loved.
It would be a sad case indeed if a child grew to maturity, yet continued to need her parent’s discipline.  It would prove that she hadn’t learned anything at all.  The goal of divine discipline is to get you to the point where you don’t need it—where you begin to exercise self-discipline instead.  You’ll know when you’re beginning to exercise self-discipline when you can shed that extra sin that so easily entangles, leave it on the side of the trail, and run away from it without thinking you have to tie it around your waist.  Verses 12-15 (emphasis mine) talk about the things that you need to do, in order to exercise self-discipline, training yourself in God’s way:

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
14 Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. 

Spiritual self-discipline involves Bible study, prayer, fasting, solitude, simplicity, giving, worship, meditation, submission to godly authority, service, confession, seeking spiritual guidance, and celebrating God’s blessings.[ii]  By exercising these spiritual disciplines, we ensure that we don’t stumble over roots of bitterness that may be in our path as we run the race of life (Heb 1:15). 
As we enter the season of Lent, I hope that you’ll consider the ways in which you can practice self-discipline in your own life.  Many people practice a form of fasting, giving something up for Lent.  Others increase their times of worship and fellowship with other believers.  Still others commit to a more intensive time of Bible reading and prayer.  I hope that this season of Lent will lead you to understand that sometimes life’s suffering is God’s way of disciplining His children.  I hope that you’ll grow past divine discipline, into the practice of self-discipline so that you can grow more like Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  I hope that you’ll “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and… run with perseverance the race that is set before [you].”

[i] All scriptures taken from the NRSV.
[ii] For more about this, please read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Harper Collins.  2009.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Good Guys and Bad Guys

 I grew up watching those old black and white Westerns—the kind where the bad guys wore the black hats and the good guys wore white hats, and you always knew which one was which.  Those were the days of heroes.  The good guys were good and the bad guys were bad.

But movies changed with the advent of color.  What you thought was a black hat turns out to actually be royal blue.  What you thought was a white hat is actually bright yellow.  And the gray dress that the leading wore—it's a red dress after all.  Does that distort the way you see her?  It may, if you understand color symbolism at all.  The fact is that color changes everything.  Red dresses mean something, don't they?  And if the hero turns yellow, what does that say about him?  And what about a royal color worn by the "bad guys?"  Now we're all confused, aren't we?

Modern writing recognizes that real human beings are more complicated than the flat characters of black-and-white Westerns.  Modern movies are more apt to reveal both a hero’s flaws and a bad guy’s conflicted emotions.  Good guys aren’t all good, and nobody is completely bad.  The anti-hero has emerged in literature and in movies, realistically revealing the internal struggles experienced by all good guys and bad guys.

But that’s not the way we see it—at least not in our own lives.  We tend to group people into categories of “good” and “bad.”  And, of course, we’re the ones wearing the white hats.  It’s impossible that we might be the bad guys, isn’t it?  And, since we’re the good guys, then the ones who oppose us—let’s call them “enemies”—they must surely be all bad.

Of course, we have good reason for perceiving people as bad when they appear to us as threats.  Some of our enemies threaten our physical safety.  Terrorist organizations like ISIS and nations like North Korea appear at the top of our lists, while certain individuals may come to your own mind.  Then other enemies threaten relationships.  While they are no physical danger, they mistreat or mislead the ones you love.  You may feel your place has been usurped in a friendship or marriage.  Perhaps your younger teenager is hanging out with a new bunch of friends, and you’re having a difficult time dealing with the fact that as a parent you are no longer the primary influence in his life.  All these can qualify as enemies if they make you feel defensive.

Your enemy might not be a physical or relationship threat, yet they challenge your ideologies in a way that makes you angry.  Maybe they have a different morality from you, and you’re concerned about the influence they will have on your grandchildren, or on society as a whole.  Ideological enemies might have different politics than you, or a different biblical interpretation from you.  They make you feel uneasy because, if you’re honest with yourself, you just don’t know how you might handle the shift if you were to find out that they were right and you were wrong.  (And, of course, you’re positive that you’re right.)

Financial enemies might be the people who moved in next door to you, who have those loud parties at night, and who throw trash around their yard.  Because they let their house get run down, it brings down the property value of the whole neighborhood.  Maybe they’re even willing to work the same job for less money than you, or maybe they don’t work at all, so you see them as a threat to your financial security.   This makes you feel selfish in your dealings with them. 

Defensive, angry, selfish—the list goes on and on.  An enemy is someone who brings out the negative in you.  When you cry out for justice, what you really mean is revenge.  They make you rage.  They make you want to launch a preemptive strike against them.  Get them before they get you. 

But is this God’s way?

In Luke chapter 6, Jesus gives a different strategy for dealing with enemies.  He tells us to love them and pray for them.  Bless them, do good to them, and even yield to them.  Give to them.  Lend to them, expecting nothing back in return.  In short he said, “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you (6:31 NASB[i]).”  We call this the “Golden Rule.”  You see, Christians are supposed to be different.  We’re not supposed to act like the rest of the world, which cries out for an eye for an eye.  Instead of a preemptive strike of violence or hatred or manipulation, why not try a preemptive strike of love?

You might say, “You just don’t understand who I have to deal with.  This person is just plain evil!”  Yet Jesus says that the Father is “kind to ungrateful and evil men (6:35b).”  Christians are supposed to be like Christ—it’s just that simple.  Jesus says that in response to people like this you should “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (6:36).”  You may insist that these people are horribly sinful, and deserve judgment or punishment.  But the Bible says, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).”  This includes you, too.  The more you insist on judgment and punishment for them, the more you insist on it for yourself, because you’re no less a sinner than they are.  It’s so much better to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12).”  In Luke 6:37-38, Jesus says:

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”

This means that God will use the same measure to judge you that you have used to judge others.  God will use the same measure to punish you that you have used to punish others.  So, even if you’re thinking selfishly then you should know that treating your enemies with love is just spiritual self-preservation. 

So be good to your enemies—and not so that you can transform them, but so that you can change your own heart towards them.  One mistaken way that Christians often “love” “sinners” is that we forgive and accept them as long as they change their ways and become “like us.”  We tell them that God will love them if only they will stop being—well, them.  We make public statements about how bad they are just so that no one will mistakenly believe that we actually approve of them.  We want them to know just how bad they are so that they will want to be like us.  But why would they want to be like us if we’re going to be like that?  Which is worse, their sin—or your judgment and treatment of them because of their sin?  How are you any less of a sinner than they?  Maybe it’s your heart that needs to change, before they’re ready to change theirs in response to you.  In Luke 6:39b, 41-42, Jesus says:

“A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?...Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

Jesus says there are a lot of Christians who are locked in a blinding sin of judgment of our neighbors, labeling them as “bad guys” when they’re really just “guys” who are struggling the same way that we are.  Who is worse—the one who is honest about the speck that she has in her eye, or the Christian who denies the log that he has in his own, all the while trying to make the speck-eyed person more like himself?  Why would she want to be like him?

When it comes to our enemies, our goal is not to destroy them by violence or hatred, or even by making them “fix themselves” and become like us.  Abraham Lincoln had it right when he said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”  In other words, don’t change them—change yourself  by praying for them and doing good things for them until your attitude toward them has become like Christ’s.  God wants to help you stop seeing people as if they’re characters in an old black-and-white Western.  He wants to open your eyes and help you see in vibrant color, to understand that your friends and your enemies are deeper human beings than you once imagined.  Instead of pointing your finger in judgment, open your arms in acceptance and friendship.  “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (6:36).”  And the Father of mercy will have mercy on you as well.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NASB.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Stop, Look, and Listen

As my grandchildren visit me this weekend, I am reminded of how dangerous the world can be for toddlers.  When children first learn how to safely cross the road, we tell them to stop, look, and listen.  Instead of looking at their friends playing and all the other distractions, we want them to look .  Instead of listening to the kids who may be calling their name, we want them to listening for cars.  In the same way we need to stop, look, and listen to God.  Instead of watching for the things that may distract us, we need to look with fresh eyes at what God is sending our way. 

Reality, however, is that our powers of spiritual observation are often feeble.  We see, but we don’t look; we hear, but we don’t listen.  In her blog, “Seeing, Creating, and Being,” Elizabeth Watts writes about the difference between seeing and truly looking:

                Have you ever thought about the difference between ’seeing’ and ‘looking’?  For me, seeing is active; looking is passive. Looking is like showing up, punching the clock, not necessarily engaging. Remember the scene in the hysterically funny National Lampoon Vacation movie where Chevy Chase schleps his family to the Grand Canyon for an ill fated summer vacation? After an arduous journey, they arrive at the edge of the canyon, get out of the car and look out over the view for 7 seconds at most, jump back in the car, done—they’ve looked at the Grand Canyon. He did not however, engage with, or experience the Grand Canyon.
                Seeing speaks to understanding, illumination, discernment, and wisdom—seeing past stereotypes, cliches and preconceptions. Do you see?  To ’see’ is to look past the obvious, the expected; to take the time, to pay attention.[i]
            Seeing goes beyond just getting a look at something.  Listening is more than hearing.  Not long ago, I was told about an incident where one of my children said something to me, then repeated it again, and I just walked away.  They were standing so close to me that I must have heard their voice, but apparently my mind was somewhere else and I wasn’t listening.  Like my children, God would probably say that too often I have something that looks like a hearing problem, but in reality it’s a listening problem. 

            In Isaiah 55:2[ii], God says through the prophet: “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?”  In the early verses in this chapter, God is not really talking about bread and water, but about spiritual nourishment.  Too often we run after spiritual experiences that do not satisfy.  Like Chevy Chase’s character we run to church, stand there staring at the Maker of the Grand Canyon for a few seconds, and then pronounce ourselves done.  Yep.  We’ve seen the Lord.  We’ve heard from God.  We’re done now—we can go home.  But are we really satisfied?  Have we really experienced anything if we only hear from God but don’t listen to Him?  Have we really known God if we are reminded about Him in church services but never lovingly look into His heart?

            Too often, our prayer lives leave us like people who have eaten at many French restaurants—plates full of beautiful food but portions so small that you’re still hungry when you leave.  We may pray beautiful prayers, but when we’re done, we just don’t feel satisfied.  Do you want to be satisfied in your spirituality?  In this passage, God tells us how we can “eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance (v.2).  The Lord gives us some hints about how to fill your spirit up with His love.  Take a look with me at some of the verbs that we find in this chapter:

            In verse 2 God says, “Listen carefully to me.”  In the following verse He says, Incline your ear and come to Me.  Listen, that you may live.”  As I’ve already said, there’s a big difference between hearing and listening.  The difference is inclining.  Every one of us is spiritually hard of hearing.  In order to hear from God, we need to lean in, cup our ears, stick that old-fashioned listening trumpet out and say, “Eh?”  Too often our prayer time is spent telling God everything we want or need.  We don’t give enough attention to listening. 

            We also don’t give enough attention to observing what God is doing around us.  In order to understand God, we have to see what He is trying to show us.  Verse 4 says, “Behold.”  Verse 5 says, “Behold.”  Believers need to observe what God is doing in life situations, look for lessons from nature, and watch for sign posts along the road that point the way to God’s will.  This is what the Lord means in verse 6: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near.”  God-sightings don’t usually just happen.  You have to seek the Lord on purpose.  This means seeking the Lord himself, rather than just His blessings.  Jesus said, “…Seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  In other words, seek God, and the rest will take care of itself.

            So how do you seek God?  You’ve got to clear out all the wrong desires from your heart and simply listen to Him.  Without asking for anything, complaining about anything, or even telling God anything—just listen.  Listen for His words, His thoughts, His ways.  For thousands of years, Christians have practiced this kind of listening prayer.  Some have called it Contemplative Prayer.  Others have labeled it Centering Prayer or by some other name.  Simply put, listening prayer is quieting your spirit before God, putting your own ways and your own thoughts aside, and inclining yourself toward the Lord.  Verse 7 says, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts.”  The goal is thinking what God thinks, instead of what you think. 

            This concept of listening prayer is foreign to many people who have always believed prayer to be about talking to God and telling Him what you want or need.  But think of it this way: telling God what you want all the time is unnecessary because He already knows what you want.  Also—which is more important?  Getting what you want or getting what God wants for you?  What you need in prayer is less of your thoughts and more of God’s thoughts.  In verse 8, God says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.”  Listening prayer is forsaking your thoughts, and trying to hear God’s thoughts instead.  It means actually getting quiet during your quiet time.  It means leaving the world and its distractions behind and returning to God.

            Verses 10-13 describe the soul that is nourished by this kind of prayer, that listens to God, beholds the things He has to show, inclines itself to Him, forsakes human thoughts and ways, and returns to Him.  Isaiah uses words like watering, sprouting, and bearing fruit.  He describes all of creation breaking forth with song and celebrating.  It is the blessed state of those who truly seek God.

In this environment, refreshed by listening prayer, the final instructions in Isaiah 55:12 are: “For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace.”  Contrary to popular opinion, the contemplative person doesn’t walk around with her head in the clouds.  He does not sit idly by and meditate while life happens around him.  Instead, God’s word commands the person who listens to God to “go out…be led forth!”  There is a mission for these kinds of Christians who have learned to stop, look at what the Lord is doing, and listen to the voice of God.  Their mission is peace—to seek it, to find it, to share it with the world. 

[i] [i] http://www.elizabethwatt.com/blog/2010/10/creativity/seeing-vs-looking/.  March 23, 2012
[ii] All scriptures are taken from the NASB.