Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Change Your World # 9 - "From Bitter to Better"

            Here’s an old one that I heard when I was a religious studies student:

"Make me one with everything," says the Buddhist to the tofu hot dog vendor.

Then, after getting his tofu hot dog, the Buddhist hands the vendor a $20 bill.

The vendor takes the money and begins helping the next customer.

The Buddhist looks puzzled and asks the vendor, "Where is my change?"

The vendor replies, "Change comes from within." —Liam Gorman[i]

            The truth is that change does come within, and that inner change makes you one with everything.  But you don’t have to be Buddhist to know that—that’s what Jesus’ Beatitudes are all about.  Today we will finish our study through these eight key attitudes we need to have in order to be all God made us to be.  With a change in our inner attitudes, we use a different lens through which to view the world.  When we begin to see the world through a lens of blessing instead of a lens of bitterness, our response to the world changes.  And once our response to the world changes, then bit by bit the world begins to change around us. 

            When we talk about the Beatitudes, we often miss the fact Jesus gives us these sayings in a specific order.  That’s because they aren’t a random list, but a continuum of Christian growth, that happen in three stages.

The Internal Stage:  The internal stage of Beatitudes involves changing our attitudes. 

The first step is being poor in spirit.  This means recognizing our own spiritual poverty.  Only when we empty ourselves can we get to the next step of mourning our own sin. 

The second step is mourning.  This happens when spiritual emptiness shows us our own faults, flaws, and failures, and when we grieve those things enough to make changes in life. 

The third step is meekness.  This only comes after we get honest with God and ourselves about how sin grieves us and the Holy Spirit, and entering a time of repentance.  Without these prerequisite steps, we tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, and can never be humble. 

The fourth step is hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  This comes only after a person has developed meekness.  Without first obtaining meekness, people are too self-indulgent to hunger and thirst for anything but their own gratification.  But when a meek person relishes righteousness, Jesus says they will be filled.

The External Stage:  This happens when believers move from internal beliefs and changes of attitudes (changing the lens through which they see the world), to external actions (changing the way they respond to the world.) 

The fifth step is mercy—something that only a meek person can practice.  Having the strength to bring harm to their enemies, they choose to keep it under control and bring blessing instead.

The sixth step is purity of heart.  The word pure comes from the Latin purus, which means "unmixed."  Until a person has practiced mercy, they cannot truly say that they have an undivided heart.  Unless he reaches out to his enemies in love, he maintains a sense of "I'm right and you're wrong, and I'm better than you are." Mercy defeats that kind of attitude, and allows a person to grow enough to move past the divisions in his heart, and on to purity. Then, having reached a point of mercy and purity, the growing believer develops a greater desire.

The seventh step is peacemaking.  People with undivided hearts seek not only personal restoration, but communal wholeness.  Like Jesus, peacemakers are willing to put themselves at risk in order to bring reconciliation.  But this isn’t always the most popular of stances.  When you change your response to the world this much, it begins to change in response to you.  And often those changes aren’t the most pleasant.  This brings us to the next phase.

The Sacrificial/Transcendent Stage:  This is the stage where few dare to tread—because it often results in personal loss for the sake of the common good.  But for those who venture down this path, tremendous blessing awaits.

The eighth step is persecution.  This is the highest level of spiritual growth, when you grow so Christlike that the world ceases to honor you and wants to do away with you instead.  In John 15:18-19, Jesus says, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you."  Jesus also says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).” 

            This stage is called sacrificial because it reminds us that there is a price to pay for spiritual development.  People intuitively know that the world won’t long put up with peacemakers—because the world loves its conflict too much.  This is why the world kills the peacemakers and prophets.  But this stage is also called transcendent because these are people who know that “change comes from within,” and that this deep-level change makes us “one with everything.”  While peacemaking means sacrifice, it also leads to transcendence.  Peacemakers are called “children of God,” and those who are persecuted for righteousness inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Ghandi once said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him…we need not wait to see what others do.”[ii]  He was definitely right.  In allowing himself to be persecuted, and in teaching peaceful activists to allow themselves to be beaten and imprisoned for the sake of peacemaking, eventually the occupying British government began to see its own inhumane treatment of Indians.  In time, the crown’s own sense of conscience made it change its behavior towards Indians.  Without a revolutionary war, India won its independence, by sheer force of conscience.  But of course, not everybody wanted that kind of harmony and resolution.  Because the dark world hates the light, Ghandi’s peacemaking got him assassinated, and he stepped boldly into the role of martyr for the cause of peace.

When Jesus spoke the Beatitudes to his disciples on the mountainside, he called them to a radical love.  He invited them to change the way they viewed their world—from a lens of bitterness to a lens of blessing.  When we do the same thing, we change the way we perceive the world around us.  Then, at least, OUR world changes.  If we persist in this blessing and love, the natural outgrowth is that our attitudes will turn to actions.  And our actions will change the world.  How much do you really want to follow Jesus?  Do you want to be a follower, or just a fan?  If you follow him—if you live like him—you can change your world.

[i] Hudson, Hayley.  “16 of the Most Profound Jokes Ever Told.”  June 6, 2014.  http://www.businessinsider.com/profound-jokes-2014-6.  May 21, 2018.
[ii] Morton, Brian.  “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.”  August 29, 2011.  The New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html.  May 21, 2018.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Change Your World # 8 - "Peacemakers"

            When I was a kid, I could sometimes be a verbal or physical target for bullies.  I remember Keith, who used to pick on me.  I don’t know what his problem was, but I’m guessing it was hard to pronounce.  He’d make a short joke or make fun of me for my pasty white skin. He thought he was pretty funny, but I thought it was kind of hilarious watching him fit his entire vocabulary into one sentence.  Sometimes he would shove me around and take my stuff.  This problem went on into adulthood.  To this day, Keith still takes my lunch money.  On the plus side, he makes great Subway sandwiches.[i] 

            Maybe you’ve been pushed around too, at some point in life.  It could have been that punk on the playground, or the jerk at work, or even that cheeky churl at church.  Perhaps you were socially assaulted, physically insulted, or had your character assassinated.  It’s hard to know how a Christian should handle such things.  You hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and you think, “Yeah, I’d like a Peacemaker.”  Because it’s been said, “God created man; Sam Colt made him equal.”  Trust me—if that’s the way you think, you wouldn’t be alone.  A lot of people have a hard time swallowing what Jesus says in the Beatitudes.

            For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about the Beatitudes, or the “Blessed Be’s” of Matthew 5:3-12.  The Beatitudes are the eight key attitudes we need to have as Christians, if we are going to be all that God made us to be.  Some of these sound nice, like “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8 NIV).”  But some of them just don’t sound right, if we’re honest, do they?  Not long ago, someone asked me if I thought it was okay for Christians to disagree with Jesus.  I told him I thought most Christians disagree with Jesus about one thing or another from time to time—and this is one of them.  Yeah, when we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t agree with Jesus on this one very much.

            Jesus’ disciples didn’t agree with him, either, so I guess we’re in good company.  One time, Jesus’ disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven on a village that didn’t listen to Jesus’ message. Luke 9:55-56 (NASB) says, “But He turned and rebuked them, [and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”  Another time, when Jesus was arrested, Peter decided to take matters into his own hands.  Drawing a sword, he cut off the ear of one of the servants who was arresting Jesus.  "’Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52 NIV).’”  Here Jesus was, advocating peace, when clearly Peter knew defense was called for.  It seems a lot of times, the disciples didn’t agree with Jesus at all.

But being a Christian doesn’t mean you agree with Jesus—it means you follow him. 

Yes, did you know that it’s okay for a Christian to disagree with Jesus?  Following Jesus doesn’t mean you agree—but it does mean you put your personal disagreements aside, and submit yourself to the one that you call Teacher.  Like a soldier doesn’t always agree with his commanding officer, or a bridesmaid doesn’t always like the dress that the bride chose for her to wear—if you call yourself a Christian, it’s not necessary that you agree with Christ.  But to be a Jesus-follower means whether you agree or not, you follow Jesus.

This means loving your enemies even when you don’t want to do that.  It means going the extra mile even when that’s the last thing you had in mind.  Remember, Jesus wasn’t speaking into a cultural vacuum—he was talking to people who hated their Roman occupiers, hated anybody who conspired with or helped them, and hated those who were complicit.  So when Jesus told them to do good to people who misused them, his audience didn’t like it.  By law, Roman soldiers were allowed to grab any Jewish man at random and force him to carry his pack for a mile.  But here Jesus said to go the extra mile.  No, I’m sure that Jesus’ disciples, when they heard this stuff, didn’t agree with it.  But Jesus told them to do it anyway.

Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would say, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24 NIV).”  Jesus believed that your religious duty to God could wait until after you fulfilled your human duty to another human being.  Too many Christians act pious, while they are at odds with other people.  Jesus told us that our first priority is to make peace with our sisters and brothers—only then will our religion mean anything.

The expression “burying the hatchet” is a term that originated among First Nations people in North America.  Historical records show the concept of burying a hatchet as a symbol of peacemaking, going back as far as 1644.[ii]  Later, Europeans would give pipe tomahawks to war chieftains when treaties were signed.  The hatchet blade was a symbol of war, but the pipe represented peace.  Together, this depicted the tenuous relationship of people who have a history of conflict.  The tomahawk pipe shows the fact that with some people, the difference between war and peace may be a simple flick of the wrist.  But instead of the blade, they chose to sit down, smoke, and talk together.  So in the old West, Colt wasn’t really the peacemaker—the tomahawk pipe was.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  Jesus calls us to this, because this is what He did—making peace between humanity and God, and then calling us to make peace with one another.  It’s not about calling yourself a Christian or performing religious duties—it’s when you receive the peace of Jesus and become a peacemaker yourself, that you are called a child of God.

[i] 50 Hilarious Comebacks That Will Shut Everyone Up (And Make You Look Like A Genius).  By Mélanie Berliet, February 22nd 2016.  https://thoughtcatalog.com/melanie-berliet/2016/02/50-hilarious-comebacks-that-will-shut-everyone-up-and-make-you-look-like-a-genius/.  May 7, 2018.
[ii] The Phrase Finder: Bury the Hatchet.  https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bury-the-hatchet.html.  May 8, 2018.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Change Your World # 7 - "I'm Lovin' It!"

Recently, I became interested in finding out about the purity of the food I’m eating—because purity is important to me, when I eat at McDonald’s.  I asked the question, “Are the french fries 100% potato?”  Because sometimes I could swear I get cardboard fries in my box.  It turns out they are potato—plus 18 other ingredients.  CNBC says, “In addition to different oils, the list includes several chemicals that perform various functions, including ones that adds flavor, an anti-foaming agent that keeps oil from splattering, another aimed at keeping ‘the potatoes from going gray’ and preservatives.”[i]  Turns out the fries aren’t really French, either—so there’s that.  Then I asked, “Are the milkshakes made out of real milk?”  Turns out, not exactly.  According to Business Insider, they contain soft serve, something called “shake syrup,” and whipped cream.  They also contain seaweed.  But, to be fair, they don’t call them “milkshakes” anyway.  They’re just “shakes.”[ii]  While their burgers are (technically) 100% beef, last year, McDonald’s underwent a class action lawsuit because their “pure breast meat” patties also contain rib meat.  Not that there’s anything wrong with eating that, but claiming pure breast meat makes the Artisan sandwich seem superior to the McChicken.  That superiority allows Artisan customers the opportunity to pay more, and also lets them look down their noses at McChicken eaters.[iii]

Yes, truth in advertising is important, especially where false purity claims are concerned.  Of all the people who drove Jesus bananas, the Pharisees were the worst at their false purity claims.  And they loved looking down on the McChicken eaters.  They demanded purity of everybody else, but found plenty of loopholes for themselves.  For example, they were divorcing their wives (throwing them out on the streets) for any reason that suited them—including burning dinner, according to some accounts.  They felt like that was okay, and that their purity was intact, as long as they gave the women certificates of divorce.  Or they felt like they could make an oath and then break it, as long as they pulled a fast one on somebody like, “I swore by the gold on the altar, not the altar itself.”  Or they said, “I’m not exactly committing adultery if I’m only doing (________).”  But Jesus saw through their loopholes and their false purity.  He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8[iv]).” 

            “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus said.  He knew all about their false shows of physical purity, how they liked to make their prayer shawls long so they flapped in the breeze as they waggled back in forth in prayer.  He knew how they made a display of giving in the temple. He knew how they avoided being around the “wrong” kind of people, when it was those people who needed the most help.  To Jesus, it was far more important that your heart be in the right place, than that you keep all the purity rules.  In fact, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment (5:21-22).”  It was far more important to Jesus that a person have a pure heart toward another person, than that they simply refrain from murder.  It’s what’s in your heart that counts.

            Instead of basing your purity laws on what you have and haven’t done with your sexual body, Jesus says true purity is when you get your mind straight and look at another person without a lustful spirit (vv. 27-28).  Not that he was advocating physical adultery—but he was saying if you get one thing straight, the rest takes care of itself.  Instead of basing your purity on which iota of the law you have kept, or on which loopholes you’ve found and exploited, base it on whether you have loved God and your neighbor with a pure heart.  Then, Jesus said, you will see God.

            See, the Pharisees were like McDonald’s—claiming purity for the world to see, just so people would say, “I’m lovin’ it!”  But God wasn’t lovin’ it.  And God’s not lovin’ it when we Christians think we’re pure simply because we have kept this or that law with our physical bodies, all the while our hearts are rotten on the inside.  Jesus said sin’s in the heart.  Get that right, and the rest takes care of itself.

            I know, some of you will quote Psalm 24:3-4 to me (one of my favorite psalms, by the way):  “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?  Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  Pharisees would quote this verse, because they’re so fixated on clean hands.  Modern Pharisees would quote it, because they’re so caught up in living sinlessly.  But Jesus came to fulfill the purity laws in himself, to forgive all those times when we get it wrong, and to make them learning experiences for us.  He came to give us pure hearts so we can see God.

            Do you know how having a pure heart helps you see God?  Jesus isn’t talking about God appearing to us out of the heavens, and he isn’t talking about the sweet by and by.  When you have a pure heart, that becomes a lens through which you see other people.  Then that person you hate becomes a bearer of God’s image.  That person you’re lusting after becomes a picture of God to you.  That person you’re jealous of becomes God in human form.  When you have a pure heart, it changes the way you see everyone—it changes the way you see the world.  And when you change the way you see the world, you change your reaction to the world.  Then you can look around at this broken world, with all its problems.  You can throw open your arms and say, “I’m lovin’ it!”  Because that’s what God does.

[i] Little, Katie.  “What are McDonald's fries really made of?” Published 12:39 PM ET Tue, 20 Jan 2015  Updated 3:18 PM ET Wed, 21 Jan 2015.   https://www.cnbc.com/2015/01/20/what-are-mcdonalds-fries-really-made-of.html.  May 1, 2018.
[ii] Taylor, Kate.  “The real reason why McDonald's calls its frozen drinks 'shakes' — and not milkshakes.”  Jun. 7, 2017, 10:05 AMhttp://www.businessinsider.com/mcdonalds-shake-is-not-a-milkshake-2017-6.  May 1, 2018.
[iii] Campbell, Lucy.  “McDonald's Chicken Purity Consumer Fraud Class Action Filed.” November 9 2017. https://www.bigclassaction.com/lawsuit/mcdonald-chicken-purity-consumer-fraud-class-action.php.  May 1, 2018.
[iv] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Change Your World # 6 - "Mercy!"

If you’re my age or older, you may remember the old game “Mercy.”  Opponents faced each other and grasped hands with interlaced fingers.  The object of the game was to squeeze the other person’s fingers and wrench their wrists painfully until one or the other surrendered by shouting, “Mercy!”  Pretty simple game—and I have to admit, it’s the first thing I think of when I read in the Beatitudes, Jesus’ famous phrase, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 6:7 NIV).”

            When you think of mercy, many things might cross your mind.  You might picture a convicted criminal pleading for the court’s clemency.  Or you might imagine a defeated enemy groveling before his conqueror.  Mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.”[i]  Invariably it involves one person in the superior position showing kindness towards another in an inferior position.  Jesus frequently speaks of mercy towards our enemies.  What Jesus starts in the Beatitudes, he picks up further on in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 5:38-48 parallels Luke 6:27-31, 35-36 (NIV), in which Jesus says:

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

We tend to love these words of Jesus, until they apply to us.  When we start thinking of our own enemies, those who may be threats to our jobs, our sense of security, our prestige, our status—we generally say it applies to other people.  Or we say, “Jesus’ words work in theory, but not in the real world.”  But if this is so, then we’re just Jesus-fans, not Jesus-followers.  To be a Jesus-followers means you actually do the things he says, that you live by his example.

Jesus has real-world situations in mind when he says all this.  He is speaking to people who were directly oppressed by Rome’s invading armies.  Jesus’ hearers are harassed and threatened, abused, over-taxed and humiliated daily by their oppressors.  Yet Jesus advocates nonviolence, love, and generosity toward their enemies.  If Jesus can model this, teach this, and expect this from his followers in such a brutal situation, surely he can expect you to be nice to those irritating people at work, church, or in your family.  And Christians in leadership positions within our community and nation can figure out how to be both strong on one hand, and merciful on the other.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us that we get what we focus on, and what goes around comes around.  You’re blessed if you’re merciful, because you’ll receive mercy.  Jesus’ brother James reminds us of the prostitute who demonstrated mercy to her enemies.[ii]  James points out how the Israelite spies entered Jericho, and how Rahab sheltered them instead of turning them in to her city guard.  In return for the mercy she showed them, they promised her that when they conquered the city, they would grant sanctuary to her and her household[iii].  Because she showed mercy, she lived—and not only lived, but became an ancestor of Jesus himself.  So the Lord knows from his own family tree how this principle of mercy worked—and he passes it on to you today.

But Jesus can’t actually mean that, can he?  To love our enemies and be good to them, to show them mercy and care for them?  Yes—this is exactly what he means.  And to underscore it, Jesus imbeds the Golden Rule into his teaching: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Notice, he didn’t say, “Do to others before they can do to you.”  Jesus isn’t talking about preemptive strikes or defensive postures.  He’s talking about giving love and mercy, and expecting the best from people—because you tend to get what you focus on.  This isn’t a foolproof way of always being treated well, but it is a way of living out God’s love and changing your world.

Around 1:30 PM on April 23 of this year, 25-year-old Alek Minassian drove a rented van onto a crowded sidewalk on Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada.  He left ten people dead and fourteen injured in a 2.2-kilometer stretch of sidewalk.  The van was stopped, with “severe front-end damage.”[iv] With drawn pistol, Constable Ken Lam confronted Minassian.  According to CBC News:

"Come on, get down," the officer shouts after drawing his weapon.
"Kill me," the man says in between making quick-draw motions with his arm.
"No, get down," the officer responds.
"I have a gun in my pocket," the man says.
"I don't care. Get down," the officer responds. "Get down or you'll be shot."
The man begins to approach the officer after a few more verbal exchanges, still pointing the black object at him.
"He kept on taking steps forward, and it is at that point that the officer, I believe, realized that that was not a gun in his hand," said Shahnam Ashgar, who witnessed the scene unfold.
The officer does not fire. He holsters his gun and takes out a baton as he strides toward the suspect, who tosses aside the object in his hand and lies down on the sidewalk, where the officer handcuffs him. 
The whole incident was over in 37 seconds, and police now say there is no evidence the man was armed.[v]

            Today, Officer Lam is being praised for his quick thinking, his level head, his compassion.  He had every legal right to use deadly force, yet he realized he didn’t need to.  In addition to preserving Minassian’s life, the suspect could be arrested and questioned, so more could be understood about his mental condition.

            Jesus said that God is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,” and he calls us to be god-like in our relationships as well.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  I wonder, how can you show mercy today?  Who do you have in your life, that you have the power to harm, and maybe with good cause—but you also have the power to act with compassion?  How can you be like Jesus, and change your world?

[ii] James 2:25
[iii] Joshua 2
[iv] “Toronto van attack: What we know so far about the suspect, victims and more.”  April 25, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-toronto-van-attack-what-we-know-so-far/.  April 25, 2018.
[v] “Officer praised after taking down Toronto van attack suspect without gunfire.”  April 24, 2018.  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/officer-praised-taking-van-attack-suspect-custody-peaceful-1.4632661.  April 25, 2018.