Sunday Morning in a Garden, II

As Roadie and I walked a few minutes ago, we passed little Webster Methodist Church across the street from my house. There, in the tiny garden beside it, congregants had gathered in a circle inside the perimeter of its white picket fence. They had gathered for a sunrise service, but no sunrise was in evidence. Standing in their pastels with sweaters and jackets against the chilly fog, they were singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” in unison, with increasing volume at each verse. Inside, a piano plinked away the harmony through open windows.

I wanted to pull out my phone and take a picture, but it was too sacred a moment to capture in a photo or a vine.

“Christ hath opened paradise!” they sang, and awakening songbirds joined in.

Roadie alerted and mumbled as if he would like to join in, too.

At the center of the tulip-graced garden is a path in the shape of a cross, lined with timbers and paved with wood chips. From it, there is really no place to go but up.

No miracle happened. The sun did not break out of the clouds. The chill did not give way to warmth. All over town, graves remained closed.

But they sang a song of faith that sometime, all that will change.

And it will.

For Better or Worse

A year ago, we received the initial diagnosis of Angi’s stage four pancreatic cancer.

A couple of days ago, I lost my uncle Mark Alfred.

A couple of hours ago, I posted on Twitter and Facebook, “I was going to whine, but I decided I am too blessed for that.”

And I am.

Whether you believe in a loving, forgiving God who brings people back to life, or an angry all-powerful God who strikes people dead, or both, or neither … you can bank on this:

Things can always be worse than they are.

There, I’ve said it. I’m not taking it back. Cheap, televangelist, sop wit philosophy.

Nevertheless: true.

One year ago and less, things were much worse than you know in my world and you still don’t need to know how bad or what it was that made it that bad. Some of you prayed about it, not even knowing what you were praying about, and that didn’t matter because I believe God heard.

And He kept things from being much worse.

You see, last night I dreamed about Angi. Dreams don’t make sense, so just ride with me. Angi and I were touring the local high school. Maybe it was a parent night; I don’t know. In this dream, Angi could talk.

But she couldn’t make sense. Just as she couldn’t in reality, those last few days of her life.

In this dream, she could walk. But barely, and she couldn’t mount stairs without a lot of help — just as it was in those last weeks of her life, while the cancer attacked her brain.

You know, she could have survived. Angi could have survived like that, for a long long time, suffering and struggling to climb steps and make sense and express herself. She could have had the kind of life no one would wish on themselves, and no kind person would wish on anyone else.

It could have been worse than even that. I could have lost her, and a child, or both children, more family, more dear ones. It happens to all kinds of people all the time, in crimes and terrorist acts and wars and disasters.

I could have been widowed plus childless, jobless, homeless, penniless, friendless, hopeless. Any combination, or all.

None of that took place. People who loved us and cared for us … edged quietly in from every part of my life to help, provide, shelter, comfort, to mourn, and to respect the sudden vacuum created in my family’s lives without trying to replace the dearest one that we had lost.

You can choose to believe they did it of themselves. You can choose to believe that God worked through them. Whatever you believe, they were there.

Keeping things from being so much worse than they could have been.

I know what I choose to believe.

I don’t think the phrase “for better, for worse” was a part of the wedding vows Angi and I repeated to each other. We wrote our own, and in the joy of the moment, each forgot much of what we’d written — and winged it. I remember promising “… in good times and bad, wealth and want, prosperity or poverty, illness or health ….”

Things were always better when Angi was in my life.

And I choose for them to remain better because Angi was in my life.

I don’t think it has taken me a lifetime or the 22 years of our marriage or even the past year to come to that conclusion … just to put it into words.

Those are my two-bit words of wisdom: We choose.

We choose how we view and how we deal with what life brings us, and what it takes away.

Every hour, every day, every year.

For better or worse.

By Keith Brenton Posted in family

The Difference Between Truth and Fact

There is a difference, you know.

Before you argue with me, let me define my terms for the sake of the conversation.

Facts are a set that overlap the set containing truth, if you want to graph the difference. Dictionaries define “truth” as “a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like;” they define a “fact” as “a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.”

There’s an objective value to fact. Facts are known by “actual experience or observation.” Facts can be researched, measured, quantitatively tested, verified, proven.

There’s a subjective value to truth. Truth can be a “fact, proposition, principle or the like.” Truth can be expressed, discussed, qualitatively evaluated, affirmed, accepted.

Facts populate the language of science.

Truth populates the language of faith.

Truth allows people the dignity of making an informed choice, of thinking for themselves, of meditating and considering and evaluating and coming to a point where they can say within themselves, “I believe.”

Well, this is what I believe:

creation

The Bible is not scientific study. Scientific study is not the Bible.

The study of the origins of the universe through science is not the study of the beginning of God’s story about mankind.

One looks to answer how was the world created; the other, by Whom and why.

Let me put it this way. You can look up what grass is at Wikipedia. I already have, and here it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass.

You can look up a poem that asks and answers “What is grass?” by Walt Whitman, and it goes like this: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-child-said-what-is-the-grass/

grass

Now, who is right?

Wikipedia? or Whitman?

Well, they both are.

They’re both “right.”

Because Wikipedia is trying to answer the question in a scientific way — with facts.

And Whitman is trying to explore the question in a poetic way — through truth.

You don’t get faith from scientific study, although many of the answers you will find within it are formed from evidence, conjecture, experimentation, AND faith in the conclusions based on the results and the logic used to reach them.

You don’t get science from the Bible, even though many of the things you read there have a basis in communicating source and order and reason and purpose. So we meditate on it, talk about it, come to conclusions, and we believe what we choose to believe.

The purpose of science is to help us find answers.

The purpose of the Bible is to help us find faith.

What might happen to our worldview if we stopped trying to see the Bible as a book communicating dry facts and tedious law, and saw it as a volume telling us the truth, a Story leading to a proposition/principle/or-the-like to be accepted or rejected?

And that proposition would answer the most important question of all:

Is Jesus the Messiah looked forward to in prophecy from earliest times … the fulfillment in full obedience of the law of God … His very Son through whom and by whom and for whom all things were created … the last Adam undoing the fatal lock of sin upon our souls wrought by the first Adam and every Adam’s child of us since … the perfect-yet-crucified-yet-resurrected Savior and Reconciler of all creation to her Creator?

How would it affect our view of others if we saw them not as good or evil; right or wrong; lost or saved; this or that; one or the other — but as beloved of God to the point that every last Adam’s child of us since Eden was worth the price of the very life of His Son?

How could it not improve our ministry of the gospel if we focused on the gospel, the Story, the main thing and not all the seeming factual contradictions or the tantalizing mysteries or the difficulties of translation or the differences of language and meaning? If we left behind the elementary doctrines of man about salvation and sanctification and predestination and excommunication — and only, singularly, lovingly told the story of Jesus over and over and over with undiminished and increasing passion; passion that is the very witness and hallmark of His Holy Spirit within us?

What if we let the facts sort themselves out by the ones who are enamored and enraptured by facts and science and proof, and we just told the simple truth?

And gave people the gift of reaching their own conclusions?

Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves. - current Wikipedia definition

By definition, we do this unconsciously. But that is no excuse for not trying to step outside of ourselves and looking at things the way they are, rather than the way we want to perceive them.

For instance, I have a problem with the argument that Galatians 3:28 only refers to “salvation.” Galatians 3:28 is a foundational principle of God’s view toward people generally, outweighing any of the manmade rules and regulations we might wish to superimpose on other scriptures for all eternity. (Rules and regulations for all time, you see, that exclude a woman from leading in public worship or serving God’s church in certain ways.)

Here’s what the verse says:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Simple enough.

The context in chapter 3 is the issue of faith versus works of the law in salvation.

Fair enough.

Notice, however, that the immediate context is unity and equality.

And, even more importantly, salvation cannot be categorized to include only eternal life to come nor even to eternity AND the 167 hours of each week spent  outside of the walls where worship takes place.

Salvation is as much here and now as it is hereafter and to come. When we are saved, we are bought with a price and given a purpose in life to prepare ourselves and help others prepare for a life to come. It is a lifetime of worship, not an hour on Sunday morning, and it starts now and lasts forever.

Either we are all one in Christ Jesus twenty-four hours of every day, or we are not one in Christ Jesus at all.

The whole gist of Galatians 3 and the rest of the epistle surrounding it is a plea to break the yoke of the law from which we should have graduated into a faith and a relationship with God through Christ which transcends law. We live a life that expresses our desire to worship God all the time and in every way we can. We proclaim Jesus as Lord. We go into all the world. All of the world. All of the time.

All of us.

There is no exclusion clause that says, “Except for women on Sunday morning in front of the gathered saints” or “except for females in the presence of males over the age of twelve” or “except when people of both genders are served and shepherded.” Exclusion clauses are a part of the world of laws, and we’re supposed to be over that.

Over a picture of God as damning tyrant, eager to punish the least infraction of encrypted rules and regulations because we failed to crack the code.

Over the need to behave by rules rather than walk by faith.

Over the craving to achieve our own salvation rather than working it out as a fait accompli through the grace of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of His own Holy Spirit living within us.

You can’t compartmentalize out Galatians 3:28 of leadership in the life of any follower of Christ.

You can’t minimize it as a fundamental principle of God’s expressed relationship to people by categorizing it as a rule whose exceptions prove it.

You can’t resolve your cognitive dissonance that way. If you perceive dissonance between what scripture actually says and what you are comfortable having it say, then what you are comfortable having it say must be re-examined, discredited, and discarded.

Discarding what it actually says is not an option.

And we absolutely must be honest with ourselves by asking and answering the question of ourselves:

Why do I want for scripture to exclude women from certain responsibilities of service within the Kingdom of God?

Is it only my zeal for the word?

Or do I have an agenda there that undermines what the word actually says?

 My own comfort with what I believe? My satisfaction with scripture as encrypted rulebook? My desire to be in control?

I’ve had to be honest with myself about this and come to a different conclusion than I would have reached thirty years ago. It hasn’t been easy.

But it is worth letting go of logically unjustifiable compartmentalization to get to the truth, and get a little closer to what God really wants for me; for everyone:

A life of faithful proclamation of the Story and service to others, uninhibited by race, social status or gender.

You see, that’s not just what Galatians 3:28 is all about, or what salvation is all about.

It’s what the Bible … the word … the Story is all about.

Uncompartmentalized.

Preaching

I estimate that, over the past 50 years, I’ve probably heard about 5,000 sermons.

That, of course, makes me an expert on preaching.

That, and the fact that I’ve been preaching part-time, maybe every third or fourth Sunday, for a whole year now.

Oh, and maybe leaving preaching and going on to meddling in my blog for about nine years now.

I’ve found that I don’t do as well preaching from a script or from an outline as I do when just speaking from the heart. I’ve discovered that my audiences seem to listen, evaluate, and appreciate that more.

I’ve seen that funny isn’t always funny and sometimes the unintentional, spontaneous, earnest comment is more hilarious or touching or convicting than anything you can possibly plan to say.

I’ve experienced the attractive magnetism of the gospel, the Story; and I’ve experienced the repellent force of opinion expressed as if it were gospel. I’ve tried proving a point, and I’ve tried telling the Story.

I’ve learned that I can spend too much time preparing for a sermon and end up chasing rabbit trails and speaking too long.

I’ve accepted that short and bittersweet beats didactic and saccharine.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

So my only expert advice after one whole year of part-time preaching experience would be this:

Find what works for you as a minister of the gospel, and what works for your audience — whether you speak, write or live the gospel — and strike an effective balance between the two. You’re not going to reach everyone. Some will be drawn by the one who planted; another by the one who waters. God will give the growth. Reach as many as you can as well as you can without trying to strain too far beyond the gifts His Spirit has given you to do so.

Always make it clear when you are reading and relating scripture, and when you are expressing your opinion or interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with expressing an opinion or an interpretation and encouraging your audience to weigh what scripture actually says and come to their own conclusions. God wants us to meditate on His word and share our thoughts on it. But perceiving our own thoughts on it as equal to His word leads to presumptuous arrogance, and judgmentalism, and that pushes away those whom we would seek to draw closer to God. It might draw them closer to you or me as a minister if they strongly agree with some point we’ve made, but that’s not what we’re called to do.

Tell the Story. Tell it in its simplicity and beauty and exquisite poignancy. Tell it from your point of view. Tell it from scripture’s point of view. Tell it from any point of view you can comprehend. Tell it as if your life and soul depended on it. Tell it as if your audience’s lives and souls depend upon it. Never tire of telling the Story. Never apologize that it is, in fact, a Story — because that’s the way God wanted it told to us, and that’s the way He wants us to tell it to others.

Spend a moment at the table. It’s usually a prop that is always present. Whether you and your church family have just celebrated the supper at that table or are about to, it’s a reminder of the centerpiece of your worship together: Jesus Christ, Son of God, given and crucified; body and blood; life and death and life again. It’s at the heart of why we gather. Refer to it often, and lovingly, and meaningfully.

That’s pretty much what I’ve learned in a nutshell. It’s worth almost as much as one. You can’t expect too much from something that comes out of a nutshell, because most of what comes out of them is nuts.

So take it with a few grains of salt.

(I’ve found so far that most folks like salted nuts.)

Not Exactly a Prayer

God,

I think I understand now why the Charlie Anderson character in “Shenandoah” feels more comfortable talking to his dead wife than he does talking to You.

I understand Charlie’s dinner-table prayers better now. The anger. The insistence on self-sufficiency. The determination to pray anyway because that was what she had done and it would have made her happy if she were still there at the dinner table.

I comprehend better what he feels to have a son distant and a daughter to whom awful things have happened.

Is that what this is all about, God? Becoming more compassionate toward a character in a drama?

No. Of course not.

But it’s not like You’re going to tell me what it’s all about, either. Those days of You speaking out of the whirlwind are gone, aren’t they?

Even Your answers to Job were mostly questions. Like that would help.

And It’s not like I blame you that Angi’s gone. You didn’t do that. I know who did, and I hate the evil that urges sin that leads to death at least as much as You do.

Yet you permit it. Sin and death, I mean. You let it happen. And there are millions of us who are trying to figure out why. Some will pin their disbelief on it. If You existed and You are good, they say, You wouldn’t permit it.

As if they understand all about You and can judge You any better than Adam and Eve did. Or what good is. Or what love really means.

Oh, I have my theories. That You created us to choose, and to make the choice fair You make it based entirely on faith and our perception of good in what we experience. You give us the choice to love You and others more than self or to love self more than anything else. And it doesn’t always work. A lot of us choose to love self thinking somehow that in spite of all the consequences of social alienation and personal guilt and even some perception of Your absence in our lives, being in love with self feels so good that it’s the best thing ever. I get that.

What I can’t fathom is why You would put someone in my life and the lives of so many others who loved self less and others more — someone who did that with such grace and abandon, like Angi — only to allow her to be taken away when so many years of that exemplary love could have blessed so many more, and so deeply.

I don’t get that at all.

I suppose it’s part of this whole faith environment that You remain inscrutable as a stone Buddha on the matter.

No, I haven’t forgotten Your Son. I know you allowed the same thing to happen to Him, and worse, and at probably half Angi’s age. I also know she went out of this world with all of the confidence in Your power to bring life back and better that He did.

Is that what this is about? Faith at the end? Faith that doesn’t quit? Faith that looks ahead in love?

Because I’ve got to tell You that, even with all the faith I can generate, life without her seems pretty awful right now, no matter how many other blessings You may send. Maybe I should see them better for what they are, but the proportion of pain seems so gigantic in my life that they are often eclipsed.  Life is empty and dark and cold, and its purpose is murky and its foundation is shaky and its ultimate end is never in sight — like the horizon of a planet too big to circumnavigate in a thousand years.

My friends say it’s all right to be angry with You. That Job got angry with You. That the psalmists were often angry with You. That You’re big enough to take it.

But being angry doesn’t help. And blaming doesn’t help. And being theoretical about theodicy doesn’t help. And being overwhelmed by grief doesn’t help.

Nothing. Helps.

Angi’s gone. And I’m still here. And, with the tiniest fraction of all her extraordinary gifts, I’m supposed to muck through all of this life stuff without her.

I get that, too.

She’s not around to talk to anymore. She’s not here to listen, not here to offer advice, not here to comfort or counsel or give warmth or a sweet embrace when words don’t work anymore. She was never stingy with any of that.

So I hope You understand that, just like Charlie Anderson, sometimes I’d rather talk to her.

Than to You.

And I trust that You really are big enough to take that.

Amen.

I Feel a Little Betrayed

I admit it.

I thought they were a few words from God, whispered by His Spirit into my mind:

“You could be very happy married to this woman for the rest of your life.”

I thought that they implied somehow that I would, in fact, be married to Angi for the rest of my life.

That I would go first, because she was the stronger and smarter and sweeter and more spiritual of the two of us and she would be able to handle everything better without me than I ever could without her.

angi

The pain. The loss. The alone-ness.

There was no second phrase, “if she outlives you.”

Or “until she succumbs to pancreatic cancer.”

I feel a little betrayed. Because the implication seemed so clear.

And those words 23 years ago (and a little more) proved to be so very prophetically true.

was happy. Blissfully happy. Gloriously happy. Sometimes ridiculously happy.

But that’s not what the words actually said; those words that I heard in my mind and heart in that once-and-once-only-in-a-lifetime moment when I thought I heard God.

“You could ….”

I could have chosen to be unhappy anyway, married to the sweetest person God ever put in the path of anyone ever.

I could have decided to hurt and betray her and end our marriage in divorce and wound our children and friends and family and church – not that it was ever a temptation, ever.

The point is, those were possibilities; things I could have done, among many other things that I could have chosen.

And she could have chosen. Not that it was ever in Angi’s nature to choose anything that didn’t, to the best of her ability, strengthen our marriage and benefit our kids and honor God.

And He could have chosen something else.

He did. He chose to let His Son take her home, long before I was ready, long before we had enjoyed the retirement years we had just begun to talk about, and just before our kids are fully though nearly grown.

That’s what I’m beginning to realize, and what I’m trying not to feel betrayed about.

What I heard in my heart all those years ago was an opportunity.

A chance to do-over, since my first marriage failed.

A choice that I could make to be happy with the once-and-only-once-in-a-lifetime Angela Laird.

That’s what I chose.

The hard part is choosing the same thing now, without her in the years ahead that we had envisioned and hoped for and had begun to plan for.

Those words were not a guarantee, implied or expressed.

They were an opportunity.

I don’t have to hear them whispered into my mind again to know that I have the same opportunity now that I did then.

Or to know that, in that way, you and I are no differently blessed.

I could be happy.

You could be happy.

Did I hear those words from God?

In this life, I may never know.

I only know that they were true.

Fellowship and Judgment

This post originally appeared as an article in the February, 2012 edition of New Wineskins.

Let’s cut to the chase.

Fellowship is a choice that we make; we choose whether to extend it or not. And to make that choice, we use our judgment.

Judging people is not acceptable. Jesus teaches this unequivocally in the sermon on the mount:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” ~ Matthew 7:1-2

The verses that follow are clearly relational; they are about relationships with others. We are not to judge others. It is just as apparent in His sermon on the plain:

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” ~ Luke 6:37

These instructions are more specific iterations of the golden rule (Matthew 7:12), if you think about it.

Yet they are monumental challenges to us because …

We all judge.

We live in a culture of judgment. We elect government officials; we root for sports teams; we pull for beauty contestants, bachelors and bachelorettes; we try to guess the next decision by Judge Judy; we hope people will be voted off the island.

It’s been that way for a long time. Paul put it this way:

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” ~ Romans 2:1

Some believers – among them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Greg Boyd who builds on Bonhoeffer in Repenting of Religion – have proposed that a key element of Eden’s original sin was judging: God was judged untrustworthy with His warning about the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s difficult to argue with their logic.

It’s wrong, but we do it anyway. Judgment has become so integral to our culture, we have superimposed it on religion and many are convinced that man’s judgment of others is absolutely essential in order to be righteous and preserve righteousness. To a certain degree, that’s understandable, because ….

In scripture, we’re called to judge and use judgment.

“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” ~ John 7:24

We are, as was the crowd to whom Jesus spoke in this passage, expected to judge whether He is the Son of God.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” ~ Matthew 7:15-16

We’re warned to discern when people claim to speak for God and lie.

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?” ~ 1 Corinthians 5:1-2

We are adjured to put immorality out of the assembly.

“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?” ~ 1 Corinthians 6:1

We are challenged to adjudicate small claims within the church.

And on and on – to shun indolents and moochers (2 Thessalonians 3:6ff); preachers of gospels that aren’t (Galatians 1:9); deceivers and antichrists (2 John 1:7-11); obstructors and dividers (Romans 16:17, Titus 3:10); those who are guilty of any of whole litanies of sins that stain a church’s reputation (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).

It sounds like there was a whole lot of judging going on in the church of century one.

How do we square that with what Jesus said?

Not all judging is the same.

Stay with me: this is not a matter of semantics, but of grammar. The verb “judge” requires an object. You don’t just judge. You judge something. Or someone.

When Jesus forbids judging as quoted above, He forbids judging people. He said that even He did not walk this earth for the purpose of judging people:

“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.” ~ John 12:47-48 (See also Luke 12:13-15; John 5:22-30.)

There will come a time when His words will judge them, but while He walked among men it was not the right time. (Even though He knew their thoughts and the motives of their hearts – see Matthew 9:4 and Luke 9:47 – which we certainly cannot.)

There will come a time when believers will judge the world and angels, too (1 Corinthians 6:2-3) – possibly part of a reign with Him (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:4-6), but not yet. Not in this world.

We, like Christ, walk this world to save others. We do so by leading others closer to Him.

Furthermore, He says that if we do not judge, we will not be judged:

“Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. ~ John 5:22-24 (emphasis mine)

When He tells people to judge, it is for themselves and to judge what is right (Luke 12:57 – in the context of recommending reconciliation rather than taking a civil court action).

So, may I propose that when we search the epistles and find instructions for us to judge, these are instructions to judge – not people – but their words and actions to determine whether wrong has been done.

In virtually every instance,* the things which are being judged in these cases are, in fact, things and not people. They are sins. They must be judged, weighed, considered, and identified as sin because Christ also did not come to bring law but grace (John 1:17; Romans 6:14; Galatians 2:21; and 5:4).

There was never an intention for the New Testament to be written, collected and regarded as new law. The concept is foreign to scripture entirely. So there was not a pair of stone tablets or even a collection of written scrolls in Jesus’ handwriting filled with commands, exceptions, qualifications, and encryption/decryption codes. Instead, He taught and lived every day what it meant to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All other applications could be deduced (with the assistance of His present Holy Spirit) and judged from that.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” ~ Matthew 18:18

Jesus isn’t talking just to Peter here. He did say the same thing to Peter a couple of chapters before (16:13-20), but here He is in the middle of a discourse about church discipline. He’s thinking ahead. He’s speaking to us, as well as the disciples around Him at that time.

We are called to judge what is sin in this world and what is righteousness; between wrong and right; between exclusive love for self and love for God and for others as surely as self.

We are not called to judge people. We’re not required to assess others’ moral character; just our own. We do not determine others’ salvation. Judging people is not our job. We’re not good at it. We’re not qualified to do it. We’re not authorized to do it.

Yet we must be competent and willing to discern right from wrong because we have a responsibility to fellow believers and to those who have not a clue about Jesus to help them understand Him better and know what He taught, lived, and died for. It’s not an option. Jesus instructs it.

If we are to judge correctly – make righteous judgments, as we are encouraged to do (Luke 12:57; John 7:24) – then we must judge for ourselves what is right (and therefore, what is also wrong). But Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 (above) and Matthew 5:23-24 also burden us with the responsibility to help others judge wisely, too.

How do we judge sin without judging people?

Have you ever heard the expression, “Hate the sin; love the sinner”? Our judgment must be like that; we judge the sin (whether acts and words are wrong) but leave judging the person to the Lord at the proper time.

First of all, be sure that you have judged correctly that what the other person has said or done is, in fact, sin. You can discuss a difference of opinion, but you can’t correct someone about a matter on which scripture is silent. Become overly familiar with Romans 14. Not every person who impresses you as wrong is morally wrong – or even necessarily holds a wrong opinion. Not all churches are Corinth or Sardis.

Investigate thoroughly those scriptures cited above which describe the sins and circumstances that require judgment. If the matter before you is one of those, you have good precedent to proceed. If it isn’t, you may not. If the severity of the matter doesn’t begin to approach the severity of those sins and circumstances, ask for the Spirit’s help in discerning (Luke 11:11-13; 1 Corinthians 2:14).

Is the matter before you a matter of sin? Or a matter of opinion? If it’s a question of words, interpretations and/or opinions, remember 2 Timothy 2:23 and Titus 3:9.

Second: be humble. None of us is perfect. None of us is sinless. Those whom we would lead closer to Christ are keenly aware of that. We need to be constantly conscious of it too: we are saved by grace through faith; forgiven yet still sinners. All of us – those who know Christ and those who don’t – will be judged by what we have done (Matthew 25) and what we have said (James 3:1; 2:12) — with the exception noted above: those who do not judge others.

If you judge a person — rather than the person’s actions or words — then the way you view them and the degree to which you are willing to love them changes. You’ve decided that they’re not good like you anymore; they’re bad. You begin to feel that you have God’s own authority to judge and your heart begins to crave that power for self over others. You begin to feel – in the words of the old Saturday Night Live character “Church Lady” – “a little bit superior.”

If you judge words and actions, leaving the person out of it, you are free to continue loving them as Christ loves. You can correct them in humility and grace — and probably in tears (Acts 20:31; 2 Corinthians 2:4). A different, more effective approach than berating and condemning. It requires a different heart; the heart of Christ.

Third: love others.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” ~ 1 Peter 4:8

By odd coincidence, so does bringing back someone who has wandered from the truth (James 5:19-20). I can’t help but think that the two belong together. Guiding the errant absolutely must be done – and done gently (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:25).

Applying discipline without love rather than correcting others who sin with love is the difference between telling your son he is a bad boy or telling him he is a good boy who did a bad thing. One destroys self-esteem and the other reinforces the child’s awareness of a parent’s deep love.

How do we leave the other person out of it and focus only on the actions and words that are wrong? We have to find a way, and it’s vital to remain loving, supportive and humble.

May I make a few suggestions – examples, really – about doing that?

    • “It’s been said that you (said or did something). Is that true? The only reason I’m asking is – not to judge you – but because I care for your soul. If it’s true, something is coming between you and God.”
  • “You know I love you, brother. And when I see or hear you (doing or saying this sin), I see it killing you a little bit more each time. And it’s killing me to see it.”
  • “I struggle with (the same sin; or a similar one), sis. I know (or “I can only imagine”) it’s hard to deal with. But I’ll make you a deal. I’ll pray for you and you can pray for me.”
  • “I know when people say, ‘Don’t judge me,’ what they really mean is ‘Don’t stop loving me.’ At least, I do! Please trust me: That ain’t a-gonna happen. I am not going to stop loving you. And even if I have a stroke and stop being me and start saying hateful things, God will never stop loving you. His mercies never end.”

These are just a handful of suggestions. You can probably come up with more and better.

No judgment about moral character, human worth, eternal destiny or fellowship in Christ is required to say these things. They are appropriate to say to those who believe and those who do not. And for the believer who loves others (whether they are in Christ or not) and cannot bear to see them hurt by sin, words like these should fall from their lips like gentle rain from clouds too full to contain it.

*The singular exceptions I have found are 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, where Paul is referring to specific people whose sins threatened the reputation of the church, and 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, where Paul has been judged by some at Corinth as an inferior apostle. The latter, obviously, is not something that he encourages.

 

Following – 4

It’s been a while since I could write a post for this blog. You think the emptiness will diminish, but it doesn’t. You think the confidence will return, but it won’t. You think the words will be there, but they aren’t.

This installment is especially hard to write. Because, to be credible at what you’re writing, you have to be perceived as being knowledgeable about it and good about doing it. I am neither.

This post is about resisting temptation. While Jesus prepared for His ministry with fasting and prayer, He was tempted.

As the last Adam, He resisted temptation in three important ways that the first Adam (and Eve) did not.

When hungry, He turned down food. He was expressing His dependence on God through His fasting, not food, not materiality, not self. Adam and Eve saw the fruit as pleasing to the eye, and consumed it.

When presented with the easy way, Jesus chose the hard way. He could have ruled the earth with Satan and a life of ease. He chose to serve the universe with a death of torture. The first man and woman chose the easy way to learn about good and evil; the quick way; the way that didn’t require walking and talking with God or learning by listening in a garden of grace.

When challenged to verify His identity for His own assurance — to choose fact over faith — Jesus chose faith. He could have thrown Himself down, confident of God’s rescue as His Father. Instead, He chose to believe when fact would have provided certainty. He chose not to tempt God’s interference to prevent a self-destructive act to satisfy a selfish curiosity. The first couple chose to test God’s resolve to introduce them to death that very day; betting that He loved them too much to make good on His word.

There are more temptations in life than these three; but they are foundational.

Will we choose our belly — our self — as our god? Or our God as our God?

Will we choose the easy way to get what we want rather than depend on God’s wisdom and providence for what we need?

Will we gamble that He loves us too much and is too merciful to actually be righteous and just — and therefore to let us see death and destruction as the consequence of what we have done?

I am no expert at resisting temptation. I’ve amassed a lifelong career of failure at the attempt.

But I have a perfect example. So do you.

We just need to understand and keep trying to live out this simple fact:

Following Him means resisting temptation.

Let Me Tell You What I Think

I don’t know what to think.

I don’t know how to think.

I don’t know how to feel.

Life just seems jumbled-up, shaken around in its puzzle-box, disconnected, senseless and out-of-place.

Very little in that life feels known, dependable, familiar, friendly, solid, in-focus, or colorful.

Blogs are supposed to be the place where you tell everyone what you think, even if you haven’t had a thought worth sharing with your own dog for years.

And I can’t. I feel a need to write. There’s an urgency behind it. There’s a frustration with the way the world is. There’s a sense that I used to have an idea what it was all about, but I’ve either forgotten or never really knew.

Or that I was just plain wrong.

Right now, life is a Piet Mondrian painting rendered by Rene Magritte, an Apple device designed by Salvador Dali, an Alberto Giacometti sculpture done by Fernando Botero, a play by Samuel Beckett enacted by Jonathan Winters, a “Matrix” movie directed by Terry Gilliam.

I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like, and the temptation to just not feel at all. Wall it off. Shut it down. Go Vulcan.

It does not compute.

So I don’t know what to think.

And I don’t know what to feel.

There it is, folks: your messed-up friend Keith, in a nutshell, trying not to become a nut.

What do you do with that?

If you’re me, you write.

Sometimes it helps.