Sunday, February 14, 2016

"The Zax"

 Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was a modern prophet. At the same time that he entertained children, he used his books and poems to instruct their parents who were reading to them about all sorts of deeper issues. His books contained themes like learning to try something new (Green Eggs and Ham), environmentalism (The Lorax), nuclear armament (The Butter Battle Book), and that “a person’s a person, no matter how small (Horton Hears a Who!).” In his story The Zax, Dr. Seuss addresses the issue of noncooperation. 

One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-Going Zax.
And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped. There they stood.
Foot to foot. Face to face.
"Look here, now!" the North-Going Zax said, "I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I'm a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!"

ugh the rest of the story, those two Zax never can solve their problem. Neither of them will budge, and each of them insists that the other has to move. By the end of the story, they say:

“I'll stay here, not budging! I can and I will
If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!"
Of course the world didn't stand still. The world grew.
In a couple of years, the new highway came through
And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax
And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks[i].

Have you ever had a relationship like that? One where two people reach an impasse, and it seems that no matter what you do, there’s no way to reach peace or get around it? This can happen in any relationship—at home, at work, at school, at church. People get their egos all tangled up so that they feel like they can’t back down without becoming the “loser.” So they stand toe to toe for all time, while everything changes around them and they become more and more irrelevant to other people because of their stubbornness.

On this week of Valentine’s Day, when we focus so much on love, we ask ourselves, “Isn’t there a better way than to live like a Zax?” In Romans 12:9-10[ii], the apostle Paul gives a solution: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” Whether you’re talking about your spouse with whom you’re fighting, or an argumentative church member, God’s Word calls Christians to let love be real. In other words, don’t say that you love someone while at the same time you’re refusing to budge. Instead of looking at their bad points, hold fast to what’s good in them. Show honor to them, even if it means you have to back down.

Paul continues in verse 11, “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” How can you possibly do this? When relationships are difficult, how can you not lag in zeal and be ardent in spirit? By remembering that it isn’t the other person you’re serving anyway. If you can’t bring yourself to care for the other person, remember that it’s God in them that you’re honoring. Verse 12 says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” God knows how difficult it is for you to yield to someone who isn’t treating you fairly. But isn’t that what Jesus did as he submitted to arrest and torture, showing love to his persecutors? Just as God sustained Him through prayer, God will be with you. Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (verse 14).” On your own, you can’t do this, but by the power of the Holy Spirit you can “live in harmony with one another (verse 16).” God will help you so that, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, [you can] live peaceably with all (verse 18).”

In the story of the Zax, the two who refused to budge remained there until the world grew up around them. Their stubbornness and refusal to yield didn’t result in them getting their way. It only resulted in them living their lives stuck and powerless. They became more and more irrelevant and obsolete to the surrounding community. This is what happens when churches can’t resolve their issues and fight against growth. Interpersonal relationships that refuse to give in are really going nowhere—they get lost in obstinacy.

The line at the center of Seuss’ poem says, “Then the North-Going Zax puffed his chest up with pride.” This shows that pride lies at the center of the issue. When you refuse to move and someone else just will not budge, there’s nothing happening besides two pigheaded people butting heads for eternity. Instead of letting pride overtake your life and causing you to stop in your tracks, Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (verse 21).” This is the good news of the gospel—this is living like Jesus, who refused to let the evil of his tormenters overcome him, but who instead transformed their sin into salvation. Anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is called to do the same. Today I pray that you’ll be able to stop, reconsider, and repent (which means to turn around and go the opposite direction). That way the two of you will be holding hands and walking side by side.

[i] Geisel, Theodore. “The Zax.” From The Sneeches and Other Stories. 1961.

[ii] Scripture references taken from the NRSV.

Monday, February 8, 2016

"Know Thyself"

At the end of this past October, I attended the funeral of a dear friend named Earl Clore, who was my pastor for seven years. I was pastoring a church that he had previously served, back in the 1970s. He had gone on to other congregations, but when it came time for him to retire he moved back to that former church, where some of his children had married into the community. The whole time I took care of that congregation, Earl took care of me. When I was new there, he introduced me to people. When I was frustrated, he encouraged me. When I was trying to discern whether to stay or leave, he counseled me.

In September of 2012, during that time of personal searching, we had a baptismal service at the Hardware River, just like we did every year. We had a lot of baptisms, and a few people who had already been baptized, who were immersed again in order to reaffirm their original baptism. I was going through a lot of personal change and growth during that time, and felt that I also wanted to get immersed. Now, I had been baptized at the age of six when my family transferred membership from the Presbyterian to the Baptist church. But as an adult, I needed something to mark the time of personal change that I was going through, something like a sign post to point to the new beginning and new self-understanding that I was developing. So re-immersion was the perfect thing for me. And the beautiful thing was that Earl could do that for me. Imagine how my church responded, seeing their own pastor put under the water. For me, it wasn’t a baptism of repentance, but the marker of a new commitment, renewed faith, and a greater understand of the direction God was giving me.

Everybody goes through times of personal growth and change. These might be brought on by personal tragedy, or by ecstatic visionary ideas. What we need during those times is the ability to look into ourselves, hear the voice of God, and follow God’s call. The problem is that too often we are busy listening to other people’s opinions or expectations, to hear the word of the Lord. We get distracted by the activities of life that crowd out that voice. We need to be able to quietly reflect so that we can know ourselves.

The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras said, “Man, know thyself; then thou shalt know the universe and God.” In Luke 3:15-22, we read about two who took time to look deep within themselves, to find God’s direction, and to live their lives authentically, according to God’s calling. John the Baptist and Jesus knew themselves, their place in the universe, and the purpose that God had for their lives.

John’s family were strict adherents to the law and customs of the Hebrew people. As the only son of Zechariah the priest, John would have been expected to grow up to be a priest himself. Yet John knew himself well enough to buck the system, to seek his calling within himself, and to live it out to the glory of God. Verses 15-16 say:

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[i]

John knew both who he was, and who he wasn’t. He knew God’s mission for his life, but he also knew better than to claim authority that wasn’t rightfully his. He wasn’t the Messiah, and he didn’t try to be who he wasn’t. But he did try to live authentically, according to the person God made him to be. He knew himself well enough to refuse to follow other people’s expectations for what he should be. Instead, he concentrated on God’s expectations for him. His unwavering commitment to authenticity and truth landed him in prison and eventually led to his martyrdom, but at least he died a man who was faithful to himself.

There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Those who understand others are intelligent;
Those who understand themselves are enlightened. Those who overcome others have strength;
Those who overcome themselves are powerful.” This is the kind of enlightenment and power that John and Jesus had. Verses 21-22 say:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus looked deep within himself and knew that in order to mark the beginning of his ministry, he needed baptism. It wasn’t a baptism of repentance for sins, but something that He did “to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).” In other words, it was the right thing to do, according to the vision that God had given him when He took time to look inward and seek God and know himself. Sure, it was different than what his family or synagogue or anybody else thought he ought to be doing—but it was exactly what He needed to be doing. And at His baptism, Jesus got to hear God’s voice of approval.

There’s a story that “Rabbi Zusya years ago said, ‘In the world to come I will not be asked, Why were you not Moses? I will be asked, Why were you not Zusya?'"[ii] God means for you to be authentically who you are—not who other people expect you to be. God had a calling for John. God had a calling for Jesus. God has a calling for you. Lamentations 3:40 says, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” He invites you to get quiet and take time to seek God, and “know Thyself.”

[i] Scriptures taken from the ESV.
[ii] .  B. Larsen, Luke, p. 42.  February 6, 2016.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Altar of Religion

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time with Messianic (Christian) Jews, and with the Christians who associated them. In 2014, I shared with you about my friend Chris:
One of our friends, a devout Christian, decided that in order to be truly fulfilled in his faith, he had to adopt all the Jewish practices of Jesus our Messiah. So, Gentile though he was, he began wearing yarmulkes, phylacteries, and prayer shawls. He kept the Sabbath from sundown on Friday til dusk on Saturday. He observed all the Jewish feasts and festivals. In fact, he probably followed the letter of the law more closely than the most orthodox of Jewish believers.
When Passover came, he wanted to share this earliest of Jewish traditions with his eight-year-old son. So he did as Hebrew law prescribed. He raised a pet lamb from the time of its birth until Passover. It was his plan to slaughter the lamb with his son, put the blood on the doorposts and lintel of his house, and then make a meal out of it.

Like my friend Chris, the Galatian Christians exchanged the freedom of Christ for a slavery again to the old law. In the book of Galatians, Paul addresses a church that is trying to make the new message of Christ fit into their old Jewish practices. They were more about following the right rules and keeping up appearances than they were about a relationship with the living Christ.

The Colossian Christians also struggled with a conflict between old and new ways of thinking. In the book of Colossians, Paul writes to a church struggling to force their new faith into the mold of their old Gnostic mindset. Gnosticism was an ancient philosophy that said that spiritual things were ultimately good, and that physical things were sinful. Therefore, like Jews did, Gnostics followed all sorts of dietary laws and other prohibitions. Their lives were full of dos and don’ts, or rules and regulations. In short, the Galatians and Colossians had different belief systems that they mixed with their Christianity, but both groups were very religious.

There’s a big difference between religion and relationship. Religion is a set of theological ideas about God that result in lists of directions, instructions, and procedures for governing daily life in the “correct way.” For an example of religion, see all 613 commandments and laws in the Old Testament. But relationship is having such close and personal interaction with God that you are completely one with your Creator who loves you. See the difference?

Religion is full of protocols for doing things correctly, to keep you from doing things incorrectly. For example, a lot of people insist on singing the Doxology after the offering, because that’s just the “right” way. As I write this in my office, my youth group is above me, painting the youth room blue—and some dear religious person is going to have a problem with that because “everybody knows church walls should be painted white!” According to some, right religion is about not smoking, drinking, or cussing. But is that how we define our relationship with God? Paul writes, “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).”[i]

Paul says that these religious concerns are no concern at all. What matters is Christ. God doesn’t want us to be religious—He wants us to have relationship with our Creator. The problem is that we sacrifice relationship on the altar of religion. We put true spirituality to death, in favor of stale regulation and ritual. Paul continues, “Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).” So we need to quit being religious, and instead spend time with Jesus, letting His spirit permeate our own.

In his book, “God Without Religion,” Andrew Farley writes about Marie Antoinette, who left her home in Austria to marry the Dauphin of France. In a tent with the French countess, she undergoes her transformation.
Marie is…stripped down. Her Austrian clothes are replaced with the finest in French fashion. “The bride must not keep anything from her prior court,” the countess says.
…Marie is now French royalty, and there’s no place for former things in her life. Her upcoming marriage requires her to break free from all things Austria.
And there’s no returning.
Like Marie Antoinette, it’s through marriage that we make a clean break from the old way of religion. Prior to meeting Jesus, we were told that religion is a good thing and that we should do our best to abide by its rules. But we’ve now been married to Jesus Christ. Like Marie, we’ve become royalty (1 Pet. 2:9). That means our former affection for religion has no place in God’s kingdom…
Imagine if Marie Antoinette had asked the French court for permission to wear her old Austrian clothes alongside her new French fashions. Imagine if she’d asked to incorporate her Austrian practices alongside the new ways of France. You can bet the French would have frowned on that idea.[ii]

Today, I’m curious—what are the old religious things that you’re still hanging onto? How are you still trying to please your parents or grandparents, your former pastors from fifty years ago or your current pastor today? How much are you still trying to earn God’s love by your good behavior? How have you sacrificed relationship with God on the altar of religion? Is it possible that these very things you’re holding onto are the very things that are keeping you from real relationship with God? Today I’m going to suggest something radical for Christians—that we start being a little less religious. Because it’s only when we abandon religion that we can be set free.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NRSV

[ii] Farley, Andrew. God Without Religion: Can It Really Be This Simple? Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI. Pp. 40-41. 2011.