You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
A very good friend gave me a surefire way to determine whether you have violated this commandment. Just follow these questions -
Is it in your possession? (yes)
Did you buy it? (no)
Did you trade something for it? (no)
Did someone give it to you? (no)
Did you make it? (no)
Then you stole it. Give it back.
That logic is pretty easy to follow if we are talking about a candy bar at the local convenience store. But when the discussion gets to adult issues the answers are not so easy to come by.
Is gambling stealing? Well, at least if you win something?
What about the lottery, is that really gambling? And if you win something, are you guilty of stealing other people’s money? (They obviously don’t have it anymore!)
And, (drum roll please) what about the 6 million dollar question – is making a living off of welfare considered stealing? A person on welfare (and a whole host of other governmental give-aways) is not earning anything, is not receiving the benefit of any labor. A whole bunch of other people do not have the money that they did earn by hard work that was taken from them (by force of law, by the IRS). So, is welfare stealing?
Some would argue that living off of welfare is simply being taken care of by a benevolent government. I would agree with that argument if the government was accepting donations for the welfare system. I would also be more willing to accept it if the recipients were required to produce something in order to get the benefits. But when you coerce people into surrendering large portions of their income to support a systematic method of discouraging industry and self-reliance then I have to question whether there is any benevolence in the system at all.
In God’s economy as illustrated in the Old Covenant, a wealthy land owner was able to cultivate, plant and harvest his crops. This provided for his family, and no doubt the families of his hired hands (or slaves, as the case may have been). Perhaps he also sold or bartered his crops for the other things his family needed. It was an economy that was certainly not capitalistic as we use the term, but it did allow for hard work and industry to be rewarded. However, the land owner was specifically commanded not to harvest to the very edges of his field, and was not to scrape every last grape from his vine. He was to leave the edges, the corners, and the odd bunch of grapes for the poor, the homeless, the landless, and the outcast. There was no welfare system in God’s economy. Provision was made so that poor people could eat, but they had to get out and harvest or glean for their well-being and the care of those who were depending upon them. It was a perfect system of checks and balances. The wealthy could earn a decent living, the poor could be taken care of. But everyone had to contribute.
In my opinion, welfare is nothing other than legalized stealing, big government sanctioned theft. As I mentioned, that goes for a host of other government sanctioned subsidies and grants. We are simply stealing from the industrious and giving to those who cannot work, or more insidiously, are able to work but are simply not willing to work.
What about gambling and playing the lottery? A case could be made that, since everyone involved plays willingly, there is no theft as such. While the issue is not as clear-cut to me as the issue of welfare and other governmental “redistribution of wealth,” I do have some serious misgivings about such “games of chance.”
For one, gambling and the lottery have been rightly described as a repressive tax against the poor and ignorant. There is a reason wealthy people do not use gambling and the lottery as a way to get more wealthy – they know that the house always wins. It is true beyond question that the wealthy gamble, and gamble in huge amounts (just consider horse racing, the “sport of kings”). But I would suggest that for wealthy people gambling is primarily a recreation – a sport, a competition that raises their adrenaline level and makes their otherwise boring lives a little more interesting. On the other hand, the poor and the ignorant see gambling and the lottery as a way to move up, “I’m gonna hit it rich sometime.” There is a joke that says rich people have IRAs, 401(k)s, stocks, bonds, and other retirement portfolios; rednecks have PowerBall. That would be a lot funnier if it were not so true, and so very sad. Billions of dollars are wasted annually that should have been spent on rent, food and clothing.
(I suppose in the interest of open disclosure, I have been known to occasionally buy the tempting PowerBall ticket myself. The baby always needs a new pair of shoes. What was I saying about “ignorant”?)
It all boils down to those simple little questions and the heart of the disciple. Did you earn it? Did you make it? Was it a gift fairly given? Did you buy it or trade for it with money or something else you fairly earned?
If not, you stole it. It does not belong to you.
Give it back.
And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)
I did not specifically plan to write about parents just before Mother’s Day. I guess that was just serendipity. But it does allow me to get something off of my chest. More of that in a moment – but first, let us look at this command.
Have you ever wondered why, after four commands that specifically relate to God and how we are to honor Him, that the first command that relates to our fellow humans is a command to honor our parents? This is not just important, I think this is critical to stop and ponder.
Our culture is respect phobic. Just think about what passes as humor today, what gets the biggest laughs. If a comedian can make a joke about any authority figure the house goes crazy. We disrespect the office of the President of the United States. We disrespect the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court. We disrespect the courts and our police officers. We disrespect spiritual leaders (especially if they are conservative Christian spiritual leaders!) and we disrespect school teachers.
And all of this disrespect begins in the home. We, as a culture, have virtually dismissed the concept of respecting our fathers and our mothers.
Unfortunately, I fear a great deal of this situation began with parents who decided they did not need to be respected. Somewhere back in the 1960′s or maybe a decade or so later the latest and greatest philosophy was that parents were not supposed to be authority figures, they were to be their children’s best friends. So, respect went out the door and it was replaced with a faux friendship, something that was neither friendship nor was it parental leadership. A generation deprived of parental guidance then went on to raise their children without any real understanding as to how to be parents. Now, at least the third generation of children is being raised by parents who do not know how to instill respect, and more tragically, will not support those adults who are left who are capable of teaching respect.
Respect must be learned, but if there are no teachers, how can it be taught?
Strangely enough, it is exactly during this time that the “Hallmark Card” holidays of Mothers Day and Fathers Day (and now Grandparents Day and who knows what other day we will choose to celebrate) exploded. I think there is a telling sociological process going on here.
Simply put – we are not honoring our parents throughout our normal year, so when that one “special” day comes along we have to assuage our guilt and so we buy flowers, or an expensive necklace, or a fancy gizmo for dad, and we pass that off as “honoring” our mother or our father. How many times will you be told just before Mothers Day or Fathers Day to “honor” your mom or dad by spending a lot of money on something that is either basically pretty trashy or on something that will wilt and fade away within days if not hours? That is honor? Excuse me, but that is buying forgiveness to mollify a guilty conscience.
We don’t honor our parents by giving them some cheesy gift once a year. We honor our parents by respecting and obeying them while we are in their homes, and by continuing to honor and respect their guidance throughout our adult years. We honor our parents by raising our children to believe in and to respect the teachings that our parents instilled in us. We honor our parents by working hard and by doing our best in everything that we do. We honor our parents in the way we treat other parents who are both older and younger than we are. We honor our parents by mentoring younger parents in the craft of raising children – and that means that we demand respect from those tyrannical three year olds who absolutely refuse to offer it. We honor our parents with our words, our actions, and our thoughts. Everything that we do communicates either that we respect and honor our parents, or that we could not care less about those who raised us.
We honor our parents when, at that point we must disagree with them, or decide that we must act or believe in a way that our parents would never act or believe, that we still honor and cherish the guidance that brought us to our adult decision. No parent is ever perfect, and in a way it is no dishonor to disagree with our parents. But it is a huge sign of disrespect to mock or disparage the thoughts and beliefs that our parents held deeply. We can disagree in a most holy and honorable manner.
Our “retirement centers” and “nursing homes” and other facilities have become nothing more than warehouses for abandoned and disrespected parents. I know that many older adults can no longer take care of themselves and require specialized attention. I am not speaking about those individuals. I am speaking about those parents whose children cannot be bothered by the physical demands of taking care of an older parent and who simply ship them off to some out-of-the-way institution so that they can maintain their upper middle class lifestyle of soccer games and ballet recitals and country club events.
When we disrespect and dishonor our parents the land will vomit us out. I think that is pretty much the message of Exodus 20:12.
I do not think that day is in our future. I think it is here and now. We live in a land of mockery, abandonment, disrespect. Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. That which a man sows, he shall also reap. I think that is pretty much a New Testament principle. And, sadly, I think we are living it out right now.
“Holy God, as our eternal Father – teach us how to respect. Give us the courage both to respect our elders and to instill respect in our children. Help us to once again live in a land blessed by the sweet odor of respect and honor. Help us to see the error of our way, and lead us back onto the path that we have forsaken so long ago.
I have a weird library collection. Mainly that is because I am weird, and weird is as weird does. I have some volumes written by some of the most conservative authors who have ever taken pen to paper. And I have a couple on the other end of the spectrum as well. The largest single collection in my library belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, in my “devotional” section another name is very prominent – Thomas Merton.
For those of you who do not know me that may not be such a stretch at all – hardly considered weird. But theologically I come from a heritage that is anything other than Roman Catholic. I believe very strongly in believer’s baptism (famously nicknamed “credo-baptism” as opposed to “infant baptism”). I most certainly do not believe the scriptures teach the doctrine of transubstantiation. Nor do I believe that there is an unbroken line of apostolic authority from Peter down to the latest leader of the Roman Church known as the Pope. There are other differences between what I believe the scriptures teach and what the official stance of the Roman Church details.
And yet I find myself drawn to a spirituality that is exemplified by writers such as Henri Nouwen and, in this case, Thomas Merton. I have purchased and read several of Merton’s books, and the prevailing wisdom is that you really have not understood Merton until you have read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I had resisted for several years, because I really liked his devotional writings but was not sure about an autobiography. Finally, I decided to lay aside my misgivings and read the book.
Boy, am I glad that I did.
I would concur that reading The Seven Storey Mountain sets Merton’s other writings in context. You learn so much more about the man and the time period in which he underwent his amazing conversion. To understate the matter – Merton is an absolute wordsmith. He has the gift of writing that I wish I had, and that is an inspiration to me. Reading his autobiography you get an idea about how that craft was born into him, and how he honed it to its razor-sharp perfection.
Because this is an autobiography (at least through his entrance into the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani), it would not be of any special value here for me to critique each chapter or section. It is simply the story of Merton’s life. But my copy is full of beautiful expressions of Merton’s keen eye, his talented pen, and especially of his deeply observant eye of faith. The book is a moving account of a young man’s journey from secular emptiness to spiritual fulfillment. There were times I did not want to put the book down – and other times I did put it down just so I could process something that Merton communicated. If you like the story of spiritual journeys, and you do not already have this book, by all means this is a journey that you do not want to miss.
With all of those positives noted, I must add that I felt a palpable degree of sadness as I read about Merton’s conversion to certain aspects of the Roman Church that I simply do not understand. His devotion to Mary, for example, while admirable in one respect, is so far outside of my process of understanding that I just do not comprehend how someone born outside of the Roman Church can come to accept its implications. The adoration of Mary is a relatively young belief in the Roman Church, and receives no biblical support. I had a Roman priest explain the philosophy behind the adoration of Mary (at least from his point of view) and so I think I understand that, but I must insist that it is a tragedy when a person who professes a love for Jesus as the Son of God takes some aspect of Christ’s divinity and attaches it to his earthly mother. There are other aspects of Roman Catholicism that I disagree with on doctrinal grounds, but this is not a book arguing doctrine. This is a book documenting one man’s journey from unbelief to belief, and a special kind of belief at that.
About the only thing I found missing (and I bet I am about to REALLY expose my ignorance here) is why Merton spelled “Storey” with an “e.” I have a suspicion that if I had a better resume of literary understanding I would “get it.” But, I don’t, so I don’t. I am awaiting someone to let me in on the explanation, and then I will be that much more informed about the book and the life of Merton.
So, bottom line, do not read this book if all you are looking for is a way to argue against Roman Catholicism. Read this book if you are interested in Thomas Merton’s journey. Read the book if you have read some other of Merton’s writings, and you want to know more about the man. Read this book if you are interested in the process of contemplative faith. And, by the way, read this book if you are interested in really good writing, and if you want to increase your own skills at the craft of putting words on paper.
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7 RSV)
This is commonly understood as the potty-mouth commandment, or rather, the anti-potty-mouth commandment. This commandment has been used for generations to keep pre-adolescent boys’ mouths somewhat antiseptic and to keep sailors at least partially on their best behavior whilst in the company of tender female ears.
Except that now the ladies can out curse even the most blue-tongued sailor, but I digress.
While it is quite appropriate to keep pre-teen boys, rough and tumble sailors and even prim and proper ladies from cussing a blue streak, I am convinced that this commandment does not specifically relate to cursing, except when the LORD’s name is specifically used in a curse or imprecation. We actually use the “potty mouth” interpretation as a dodge. As long as I do not say “God” in front of my “d” words or some other such expletive, I’m okay, so the logic goes.
And almost on a daily basis we take the name of the LORD in vain.
We use the LORD’s name in vain when we vacantly tell someone we will pray for them, knowing full well we have no intention of doing so. We take the name of the LORD in vain when we try until we are unable to lift our arms and then we say, “All we can do now is pray.” We take the name of the LORD in vain when we ask God to “forgive us of our many sins” and then partake of the Lord’s Supper in a vacant and meaningless manner. Oh, yes, we take the name of the LORD in vain often. Most often, ironically, in the comfort of our church pews.
But we also take the name of our LORD in vain when we ascribe actions to Him that are repugnant to His very nature. We say things like, “Well, it was just God’s will that those children were killed in Newtown.” God wants children to die in a terrorist attack? Your god maybe, but not my God.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Don’t be sad, it was God’s will that your little infant die of cancer.” Um excuse me, the line for those entering the smoking pit of hell forms over there on your left.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Yes I know I’ve been married for 20 years to the same person, but God wants me to be happy and this person just doesn’t make me happy anymore.” Please, feel free to join the line on your left.
I am very concerned that we get perilously close to taking the name of the LORD in vain when we pray, “God, we want little Susie to get better, but we pray your will to be done, and if it is your will that little Susie die, please take her peacefully.” Just exactly what do we think the “will of the LORD” involves? To listen carefully to some of our prayers you would think that God’s will involves making children and old people die in some of the most dehumanizing and painful diseases imaginable.
LORD, please save us from our own religion.
The Israelites became so fearful about breaking this commandment that they ultimately refused to even pronounce His name, the four letters that we now refer to as the “Tetragrammaton.” In English those letters would be YHWH, but we do no know their exact pronunciation in Hebrew. We assume it would be something like “Yahweh,” which has come down to our English translations as “Jehovah,” but once again, that is just a conjecture.
But taking the LORD’s name in vain has nothing to do with mispronouncing His name. Taking the LORD’s name in vain means to misuse it, to use it cheaply, to use it for our own benefit, to use it as a shield when we put ourselves in a defenseless position. To take the LORD’s name in vain means to demean the highest and most Holy name that exists.
When Isaiah came into the presence of the Holy One, he could not find a hole big enough to climb into. We should be just as fearful when we invite the presence of the LORD by invoking His name. When we use the name of the LORD, we enter into his presence.
The Preacher had this divine advice, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2 RSV)
Better yet, do not take the name of the LORD in vain. When you speak His name, remember – He hears every word you say. Make sure you mean your words, and especially make sure the words you speak in His name are in harmony with His perfect nature.
Today, command number 2:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6 RSV)
As all the commands have a common thread they must all be read together. But command number two is inextricably linked to command number one, the command to have not other gods before, or beside, God. In my meditation on the first command I listed some, but by no means all, of the possible gods that we set up in opposition to the one, true God.
A graven image may or may not be synonymous with another god. That is to say, a graven image, or an idol, may actually be a false god, or it may be a false representation of the one true God. For continuity sake, in my last post I mentioned that some false gods are power, sex, glory, honor, entertainment, etc. I cannot remember if I mentioned ambition or not, but certainly ambition would be a false god. I believe each of these can be represented with a “graven image” or an idol that represents that god. On the other hand, we may have an image, an idol, that we believe represents the true God, but instead of worshipping the true God, we end up worshipping the idol, which then becomes a false god. In this regard I note that in Exodus 32 the name of the LORD was mentioned in regard to the golden calf that Aaron had created. Also, in 1 Kings 12 when Jeroboam set up the two golden calves in Dan and Bethel he said, “here is your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” connecting the two graven images to the one true God. Thus, creating a graven image certainly violates the second command, but also may violate the first command.
What are some of our graven images today?
A gun is an idol. It is an idol of the false god of power. It can also be an idol of the false god of safety and security. If I trust in the killing power of cold steel and lifeless wood, I am rejecting the power of the life-giving and life protecting God.
The flag can certainly be an idol. It is the image of political power, and also of an ideology. This is why I am growing very uncomfortable with the concept of pledging allegiance to the flag. In a very real sense I believe we are violating the second command, and possible the first as well, when we do so.
Methods of birth control can be considered idols. They are symbols of our unending fascination and slavery to our sexual natures. When anyone, male or female, loudly protests that “you cannot tell me what I can or cannot do with my body” you can be sure they are not very far away from idolatry.
Houses and cabins can be idols. We have an idol in the cool mountains to escape the summer heat. We have an idol in the warm south to escape the winter snow. We have an idol on wheels that we can drive or pull to escape the tedium of the work week. Some of us have all three, in addition to the mundane little mansion that we inhabit daily.
Health equipment are used as idols. They are images that we worship in order to create the perfectly sculpted and healthy body.
Vehicles are used as idols.
Anything that distracts us from our daily routine can be idols: music instruments, cameras, tools for hobbies, books, computers.
How do you know if any of these, or something else in your life, is an idol? Simply follow two well-traveled trails. The most obvious is the trail of money. How much money do you spend on a particular item? The larger the percentage of your annual income the greater the possibility that it is an idol. The second trail would be the trail of attention devoted to that object, especially measured by time devoted to spending with that object and the emotional attachment you have to that object.
Absolutely unwilling to part with your guns? Say hello to your idol. Salute the flag, pledge “allegiance” to the flag, and bow down before the flag as it passes by? Welcome your idol. Spend thousands of dollars annually and countless hours chasing a little white ball around a carefully manicured park? Meet your idol.
God said not to make any graven image, especially that of something involving a creature only he himself created. We have broken ourselves of worshipping calves and birds and cats and snakes. But mark these words well – our lives are full of idols.
The question is, when we stop and spend some time meditating and thinking about Exodus 20:4-6, will we rid ourselves of those idolatrous behaviors? Or will we make excuses for ourselves, and thus end up infuriating a God who very plainly tells us He will not stand for any created thing to replace Him as the center of our lives?
Dear God, as we contemplate the deeper meaning and application of this second command, please reveal to us our graven images. Purge our lives of our idolatrous thoughts. May we truly and wholly focus on you as our one and only true and living God.
One thing I want everyone to know about this post – I am attacking myself, not others (at least explicitly). When I refer to others it is to illustrate my failings, not to heap scorn upon derision. This is a confession, not a broadside.
I have been struggling mightily with something over the past few weeks, months, and maybe even years. It has finally bubbled up to the point that I either have to deal with it or it will destroy me. Possibly it has already overcome me, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t know for quite a while.
But, political correctness is killing me. I don’t mean the kind of sloppy journalism or political hatchet jobs that continually assail me. I am talking about my own political correctness and how I seem utterly unable to confront or defeat it. For those of you who follow this blog regularly you might be surprised at that admission. There are times in my writings in which I become (or surrender to) my acerbic self. But, interestingly, that is part of the problem. This is my own little space of the cyber world in which everyone is invited but no one is forced to enter, or stay. If someone does not like what I write they ignore me. Thousands upon thousands assiduously do so on a regular basis. Knowing that, I steam and vent about subjects that are important to me, but obviously not too significant for others.
No, my issue with my own political correctness has to do with those with whom I am forced to deal on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. I fit the description that was leveled against the apostle Paul (although, to be fair, I believe he disavowed such an attack) that his letters were “weighty and powerful, but his physical appearance is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Cor. 10:10) I have visions of being a Great White Shark, and ultimately all I manage to portray is a spineless little jellyfish.
There are times in this world in which a person must stand up – speak up and say what needs to be said. Of course, it should go without saying that such statements need to be made in the spirit of love and correction, not hate and malediction. But still, you cannot read the gospels without seeing a Jesus that was both loving and welcoming as well as direct and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.
And so I struggle with the balance – and all too often I find myself swallowing my words, backing off of a confrontation that I think needs to be made, weakly surrendering to the pressure of the moment or of the possible consequences should my objection be objected to. I defer – and end up kicking myself for it. Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Jeremiah, Amos, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – all had the spine to stand up and confront not only the minions of politics but also the minions of religion and all either paid a huge price or at least had the threat of paying a huge personal price.
I’m tired of my own cowardice, but I’m not sure how to overcome it without being churlish and vindictive.
I’ve just had it to my eyebrows with the skinny jeans, t-shirt and goatee wearing crowd lecturing me about how to fix the church when they have already written the church off as being unimportant. I’m sick to my stomach of authors criticizing spiritual leaders who have been loving and serving the church longer than these twenty-somethings have been alive. I recoil when I hear some academically trained yet theologically ignorant sycophant use some word like “missional” or “incarnational” as if by wielding such verbal weaponry they can slay their Quixotic opponent.
I stand mute when I hear a racist or homosexual loathing comment made in a Bible class, and I offer no word of censure when the same racist or homophobe stands a few minutes later to implore God’s blessings over the table of His Son’s memorial feast. I do not confront the obvious and blatant misrepresentation of Scripture that is done in manifest adoration of “the ancient paths.” When someone who leaves his Bible on the church pew so he won’t forget it next Sunday upbraids me because my hours of preparation and reading the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarship do not match his preconceived ideas, I say nothing. It might cause a scene. And causing a scene is the last thing a politically correct minister wants to do.
I swallow hard, and walk away. I do so because I think that it is better to maintain peace than to cause a disturbance. The times that I have tried to stand up have not ended well. My blood does flow hot, and all too often I let passion get the best of me. But the opposite has been that I say nothing. “Keep your mouth shut and be politically correct.”
I wish, just once, I could justifiably kick over a few money-changing tables and toss some thieving scoundrels out on their ears.
Sometimes being politically incorrect is exactly what God expects. His house is no less a place of prayer and of healing for the nations today than it was in the last week of Jesus’ life.
Maybe someday I will find the balance between personal disgust and zeal for God’s house. Maybe someday before I die I will manage to find my teeth.
I can always hope.
Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article on the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount, says that, ‘The structure of the next triad is straightforward.” That is helpful because some of the triads have not been exactly “straightforward,” at least to a Western, linear thinker like me. So, having something be a little more obvious is always appreciated.
The “traditional teaching” is found in verse 1, and is very similar to the “You have heard it was said…” statements in chapter 5. Jesus simply repeats a proverbial statement that must have had some currency during his ministry: Do not judge, and you won’t be judged. Dr. Stassen views verse 2 as a continuation of the traditional teaching. However, I note that verse 2 could also be the beginning of the “vicious cycle” that virtually always accompanies some self-righteous judgement. If we apply some rigid form of judging, others will apply that same form against us, but usually they will add a little bit to it. We very rarely ever give back exactly what we have been given, we always all a little vinegar along with it. The vicious cycle is then discussed more completely in verses 3 and 4. Invariably what occurs is that we begin to examine others with a microscope when our own sins are so blatant they can be identified a mile away. A mile away, that is, by everyone but us. The illustration Jesus used is meant to be ironic and I believe meant to generate some uncomfortable laughter – at least until the reality of the irony sets it. We are always far more willing to remove specks when the log is protruding from our eye.
What, then, is the “transforming initiative?” It is really quite simple. It is called “repentance.” It is removing the very large and blatant sin in our own life so that we can see clearly to analyze the problem in the lives of others. I think something else is taking place here. Jesus is not giving us a blank check to start solving other people’s problems just as long as we superficially whitewash over our own. What Jesus is saying is, “If you are going to condemn someone, start with yourself. Examine your relationship with God. How pure are you? What is your attitude? How have you acted? What is your motive? And how have your actions been in line with the thoughts, intentions and motives of God?” When we really and truly place ourselves under the same microscope under which we love to place others something transforming should happen. One, we should see just how far we have fallen from the standard we would like to think we have exceeded, and two, we begin to notice that the “speck” in our brother’s eye is not so serious at all. It may need to be removed, yes. But instead of trying to remove it with a rusty pair of vice-grips we use sterilized tweezers and an appropriate amount of anesthesia. True biblical repentance should have a profound and lasting effect upon our willingness to condemn other people.
It has often been noted that the best teacher in any subject is the person who, as a student, had to struggle intensely to overcome any misunderstandings and setbacks. I can relate perfectly. As a flight student I had a bear of a time trying to master flying with reference only to my instruments. I had a mental block, and a pretty sizable physical problem as well. Things just did not seem to want to work for me. With patience and enough time I did earn my instrument rating, went on and earned my Commercial Certificate and both Flight Instructor and Flight Instructor/Instrument ratings. Then the day came for me to start teaching students how to earn their Instrument rating. Because I had made virtually every mistake known to flight students in my own instrument training, I picked up on most of my student’s mistakes very quickly. Not only that, but I was able to sympathize with them and give them encouragement. At my first instructor job I was given several of the “problem” students because either (a) I was good enough to get them graduated or (b) I was too sympathetic to turn them down or a mixture of both. But my success rate was pretty good – something that I look back on with a certain amount of pride.
But, the person who is only able to see the faults of others makes for a lousy teacher. That person makes for even a more lousy judge. That person makes for even a more lousy Christian. The life of discipleship is a life that demands first of all that a person is willing and capable of examining him or herself and making the necessary changes before there can be any confrontation of others.
I wonder how the national debate on homosexuality and same-sex marriage would change if the church would simply focus its attention on the sexual dysfunction of its own heterosexual members before it started to “fix” the homosexual population who has no intention of ever being a part of that church to begin with. That is just one example, but the general principle should be clear. The church has a huge blind spot regarding sexual sin, greed, covetousness, racism, compromise with political powers (idolatry) and the environment. How can we justify much of our own myopic rhetoric when we are so complacent toward and complicit with so many behaviors that God specifically condemns in His eternal revelation?
Our world is bent and broken, to be sure. Of that there is no question. But the church shares that same bentness and brokeness. If we do not seek to repent and remove the log in our own eye we will be incapable of helping the world see its own bentness and brokeness. The church’s great commission does not begin in Matthew 28:16-20. The church’s great commission begins in Psalm 51:1-19 (among many other Psalms of lament). If we do not have a broken heart, no amount of preaching and teaching will ever be acceptable in the Kingdom.
Please, learn to be comfortable in your own skin.
I grew up as many people do, thinking that I had to be something that I was not, and quite honestly, was never, ever, going to be able to become. It is, to be perfectly blunt, a lousy way to live. But so many of us are conditioned by society (parents, school mates, teachers, preachers, trusted adults, etc) to think this way that it seems rather abnormal to find someone who just wants to be who they are, regardless of their cultural preconditions. With me it was not my parents (who were and are amazingly supportive) but rather the larger culture in which I was raised.
Just a couple of examples. For many, many years I was led to believe that I had to be an evangelist or else I was going to be a second class citizen of heaven (or worse.) My eternal fate would be sealed by the number of persons who would tell St. Peter at the pearly gates who baptized them. If I met that magical number of inclusion into the sainted masses, well then I was in. Miss it by one or two and I might as well learn how to love sulphur and brimstone.
It took me quite a while to find Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. It seems to me that the apostle Paul was quite satisfied to admit that not everyone could be, or even should be, an evangelist. Isn’t it amazing to discover that someone who beats you over the head with a Bible has missed such a huge part of it? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love preaching and teaching. I will study the Bible with anyone, anytime. But I am most certainly NOT a personal evangelist and I never will be one. But, I learned that is okay. I had to learn how to be content in my own skin.
When I got out of preaching (for a while) I became a pilot. Now, in the pilot world the equivalent of being a personal evangelist is being the captain of a Boeing 747 or Airbus jumbo jet. I was a little bit older, but I was still driven by the concept that I had to perform at a certain level or that somehow I was just not good enough, or that I still had some mountain to climb. Quite honestly I did not want to pay the price to become a captain of a Boeing 747, so failing to meet that expectation did not hurt too much. But I learned something valuable along the way. New generation Boeings and Airbuses basically fly themselves. And, for the piloting part that the plane does not fly itself there is a crew of two highly trained and very proficient pilots. In the job that I had (flying freight for a small company) all I had was me and a plane that as often as not did not even have a functioning auto pilot. And when I did get a plane with an functioning auto pilot all it did was keep the wings level and the altitude steady. I still had to fly the plane through weather that ducks would not fly into, and I had to do it by myself. That, my friends, is really piloting an airplane. I learned that the big boys could sit on the tarmac and swelter in 110 degree heat all they wanted to. I was going to enjoy flying my little Cessna 402 and 404 and really enjoy flying the airplane. Chalk up another lesson in being content in my own skin.
During my brief stint as a hospice chaplain I had the supervisor from Gehenna. This person was not happy with anything that I did (well, with one notable exception). I did not visit enough, or I visited too much. I did not give enough counsel or I gave too much. Once I met with a family at their request and had a wonderful session. The next week I was called on the carpet for not involving another “team” member (who, by the way, never included me in their meetings with families). It was utter misery. But, my skin was getting thicker and I knew who I was, what I was capable of (and, equally important, not capable of) and so finally I just chucked the whole situation in my supervisors lap and walked away. No one has the right to make another person miserable for doing a job to the best of the person’s ability and giftedness.
I now find myself as an educator and administrator. I find out daily that I am gifted in ways I did not fully realize, and I find out daily that I am a real klutz at things that I once thought I was good at, or at least was going to be good at. But, I’m nearing the age where I could be considered a “classic” (although far from “antique”) and maybe for the first time in my life I can say with quiet calm – I’m good with my gifts and I am cool with my limitations. I cannot take credit for the first, and I refuse to be blamed for the second. I am mortal, and every mortal is good at something and bad at others. I may not be a personal evangelist, but how many personal evangelists have landed an airplane full of critical documents, medicines and other essential freight at an airport shrouded in fog where the visibility is one half of a mile and the overhead ceiling is 200 feet? And in an airplane going over 100 miles an hour? Hmmmmm?
Two words of caution here. One, I am not speaking of throwing up your hands and saying, “that’s just the way I am, get over it” if you are behaving in a way that is truly counter to Kingdom behavior. I am not saying be happy if you are living in a sinful relationship or condition. God expects all people everywhere to live according to His standards, His criteria. I am not giving you permission to dismiss God’s word or the teachings of his Son.
Two, just because I may not be gifted in some areas, or even if I am gifted in other areas, that does not mean I cannot try to improve where I feel God has called me. I want to become a better preacher, teacher and administrator. I would not even mind becoming a better personal evangelist. But I must use God’s standards for my life, not the standards of someone else who is exceptionally gifted in one particular area, and who cannot accept or refuses to accept that not everyone is as gifted as they are in that area.
Get comfortable in your own skin. God made you to be someone special – find the dirt where you feel especially happy and bloom where you are planted.
And don’t let some supervisor from Gehenna tell you that you are worthless. God sent his Son to die for you to tell you you are priceless!