Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Second Sunday in Lent: The faith of Abraham

The lectionary reading for the just-past second Sunday in Lent had one focus on the faith of Abraham, both in the original Genesis setting and in Paul's re-envisioning of it in Romans 4.

Abraham is always held up as an example of having faith in God, and Paul uses him as the example of the kind of faith that God counts as righteousness.

But as we consider this, we should be careful not to co-join Abraham's faith with some idea that it was his exemplary life that pleased God. Yes, Abraham did a lot of things right. Most importantly he was willing to migrate when he was already 75 years old. But he lived in a nomadic society, and God did not call him to do this until after his father had died. It was not as important that he migrated, as is was that he heard and listened to God, then headed in the direction God asked. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 4: the important thing is that Abraham believed God. Even then, Abraham migrated in part because God also promised him this would be a good land that would be given to his descendants.

Notice that God was not asking Abraham to sacrifice his lifestyle, or do a lot of good deeds, or to obey a set of laws, or love his neighbor as himself. He was really only asking Abraham to believe what he said, and move. It was only then, after Abraham took this first step, that God revealed more to him and the two of them began to establish a relationship of trust, promise, obedience and fulfillment.

As they lived in relationship, God seemed to prefer direct and unmistakable communication, spaced at length intervals. For his part, Abraham felt free to question, to try to change God's mind on behalf of others, and to wonder if he'd misinterpreted something—especially after long periods of silence with an important promise left unfulfilled after decades.

We see Abraham treating visitors and the peoples he lived among with respect and hospitality. We see him willing to give his nephew the supposedly better deal. Abraham emerges as a straight dealer who keeps his word. And God seemingly rewards him by steadily  increasing his wealth and standing.

Yet we should not miss that life is not always easy for Abraham, and that like us he must deal with his share of hardships, life events and uncertainties, as well as those long periods of non-communication from God. It's easy for us moderns to chide Abraham's passing off Sarah as his sister (twice!) when they end up in Egypt because of the famines. Or both Abraham and Sarah giving up on the long-delayed promise of children, and figuring that after all the silence from God, perhaps they'd gotten it wrong and Abraham needed to give it a try with Hagar. Or the harsh treatment of Hagar by Sarah, with Abraham's tacit approval. Or the fact that this family "owned" other people to begin with. But this was 4,000 or so years ago, in a culture very unlike our own. Likely the ancient Hebrews nodded in understanding at the passages we read with a skeptical eye today.

But here is precisely where we can take solace with Abraham's life story and his relationship with God. In the end, what is counted to Abraham "as righteousness" according to Paul? That he believed God.

Abraham listened to God and did what God asked, when he asked. In between those times, Abraham lived the kind of life available to people of his time period. He had slaves. His wife had a certain position and status typical of the day. He had sex outside of marriage. He experienced hunger and preserved his family by lying and yes, opening up the possibility his wife would essentially be raped. He heard things from God and then years of silence passed in which he wondered whether he'd missed something or was remembering things the wrong way. He saw God destroy Sodom; he saw God not intervene in famines. It seems he had to negotiate deals with the locals and live much of his life without God's direct help.

He lived his life then much as we live ours now: some occasional periods of certainty about God, a couple of mountaintop experiences, periods of figuring stuff out on his own, wondering whether he was doing what God wanted him to do, making mistakes, being blessed, enduring hardships. The constant was that Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness. Abraham stuck with it, even when things did not make sense (as with the almost-sacrifice of Isaac), even when he seemed to be on his own. There were just enough God events to keep Abraham going, and to his credit, he did. God credited it to him as righteousness.

This is what God really wants from us: to believe him and listen to him, to enter into and then stay in relationship with him. Will we make mistakes? Yes. Will God let us make a lot of our own decisions and plot our own course? Yes. Will the bad things of life happen to us? Yes. God does not promise to take those things away from us.

But there will be times, like Abraham probably with lengthy intervals in between, when God will speak to us, instruct us, ask something of us. There will be times when we argue with God. Those times seem to matter very much to God, and if we believe him and continue to honor and remain in relationship with him for the long haul, we will be emulating our brother Abraham.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Meditation on the will of God

The devotional book I am following this year is A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God, published by Upper Room Books.

Today I read this devotion by E. Glenn Hinson. It recalled to me the many people I have met over the years who had been told that not only must they determine God's will for their life in order to please him, but that they also must make sure they are in the "center" of God's will. There is a teaching out there that only by finding and staying in "the center" of God's will will one make God happy, and only then will God bestow all the blessings he desires that person to have. Many people seem to take this to mean a happy, long life with a trouble-free family and a settled, prosperous existence. I've seen more than one person agonize over how to find this "center" and then remain in it to gain God's maximum favor and approval. They never seem to be able to rest in God's grace; instead they are always worried they've strayed from the "center."

Hinson sees it differently:

Many conceive of the will of God as a track laid out before them which, if they will get on it and stay on it, will assure that their lives run smoothly, but, if they jump off the track, will bring only sadness and despair and lead ot wreck and ruin. Others think of the will of God as a blueprint which, if properly read and followed, will help them build a sturdy house in which they may live safely and happily.

The Apostle Paul gave a different twist to this concept. In his letters, the will of God, what pleases God, or what is acceptable to God has to do with what kind of persons we are, with attitude and outlook. God wants us to be persons who live our lives from the vantage point of a covenant with God through and in Jesus Christ, conscientized and sensitized and tenderized by love, making the very best decisions we can make in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

| A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God |

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Collateral damage 10

Something is going on here as we mutually cause each other harm, participating in the cycle of collateral damage.

I believe this is one reason Jesus said forgiveness was so important. The cycle has to be broken at some point, and the way to do that is through the healing power forgiveness offers.

It's why I needed to find a process of forgiveness that worked for me, and why I shared it with you here.

I don't want to spend the rest of my life being a hostage to the collateral damage I've experienced. I don't like living in victimhood. I want to acknowledge things that have happened, give them their due, and then move on from the hold they have on me. Forgiveness is the way to reclaim who God wants me to be and begin to live for Him again.

Through soberly considering my own PTSD and collateral damage, I have been given the gift of empathy for others in similar situations. I can use the feelings I've experienced, the lost opportunities, hurt and pain I know firsthand to have compassion for people caught in bad situations around the world. This has become an important part of my prayer life and my witness to others.

Such experiences, I've found, in the end also bring me closer to Christ, who was misunderstood, ignored, bore pain and heartache, suffered, and was killed. Jesus understands and fights against collateral damage. I can use the same tools of compassion, forthrightness and forgiveness as he did to do the same.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Collateral damage 9

When you've devoted years to thinking you were making a difference, realizing instead that you were actually collateral damage is not something you easily embrace.

You have to let go of believing certain things:

-- That you are respected by others
-- That people care about what you say and think
-- That you have the ability to influence outcomes
-- That others will rally to your ideas
-- That you have control in the situation
-- That you can come up with a plan that will work

This can do a number on your ego and your sense of place in the world. It can lead you to wonder whether you've been thinking you were someone you were not. It can cause you to question what is really important to you. It can lead to changing your priorities and retreating for a while.

But it can also help you make sense of your physical ailments, failing confidence, emotional swings, depression, poor sleep and diet, anxiety, short temper and more. All of a sudden you realize these things are tied into having been collateral damage. And things begin to make more sense.

A fog starts to lift. You give yourself permission to be hurt, to be somewhat of a mess. You realize it's OK to change your perspective and priorities. It's OK to rest for a while. It's OK to take stock and reconsider. You understand that you are angry at some folks, some situations, even some institutions. You realize maybe you need to talk to someone, get some help so you can heal.

And then you begin to take the steps you need to take—and you begin to get better.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Collateral damage 8

I have finally admitted to myself that on numerous occasions I've been the collateral damage in other people's wars with sin and each other. This has changed the way I think about myself and my work for the Kingdom. I'm still sorting out whether this is a change for the better.

I first considered this about six months ago when I was trying to figure out why I was having trouble visiting churches for Sunday worship, and having trouble even considering getting involved in a new congregation.

I had a revelation at that point: I felt like I was a soldier, or a first responder, or a battered spouse, or a disaster survivor or any number of other people who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I realized I had a pretty bad case of PTSD from my years of church leadership and the series of crises I'd been through.

I also realized that even though my Christian friends were encouraging me to find and get involved with another church, that was not a good idea for me. I needed to deal with the PTSD first. I pictured a soldier being told the best way to deal with their PTSD was to get right back out there on the battlefield. That's how this felt to me: hey, you're a mess because of church—now get out there and find another one in which to serve.

Once I figured this out, I began to wonder how I'd ended up with the PTSD. It was then I realized I'd repeatedly been collateral damage in other people's wars. As a leader, I had tried to help, to lessen damage, to find resolutions to issues, to make wise decisions, to help people move forward, to bring healthy ideas. But in a church community, a leader's authority only carries as far as people are willing to listen and be influenced. When people are bent on thinking and acting in certain ways, you may think you're a mediator or a person with some authority. But you're not. I realized in these situations  I'd had no real authority to actually change anything. People were going to do what they were going to do.

Instead of being a mediator, a diplomat, a judge, or a policeman, all I'd ended up being was part of the collateral damage.

It's quite a different way to think of yourself: as a person who thought they had some authority or power to make a difference, but in reality had none. You go from believing you can exert some control over a situation to being someone who's just swept away by it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Collateral damage 7

I expect collateral damage in the world at large.

But somehow, I have always felt that the church should be better than that. Things hurt a little more when they happen in the church.

See, in church, people are supposed to be all on the same page, following Jesus, being transformed and changed into his likeness, living out the beatitudes, following the golden rule, not focused on themselves but on others, out there in mission to the poor, doing good in the world, helping and caring for each other, and so on.

Church is supposed to be a safe place where God is the priority and people come to be healed and to experience community with mature believers, and then sent out into ministry into the world, always having this secure and caring base to which to return. 

In the world at large I have never had a problem understanding that not everyone is operating in good faith. But inside the church, where the Kingdom is supposed to be spreading? It took me a long time to realize the church is a real mess itself, that it is more like the world than not, and that you really can't count on people behaving differently in church than outside of it.

When there's a church problem, I have finally learned that we should never make the mistake of thinking everyone's willing to work things out together because we all are looking to Jesus as our example. I've also learned we should never assume there's good will on the other side in a church conflict, and that if we just talk long enough, reason things out together, and try to understand each other there will be a resolution. I've discovered that sometimes there is no good solution out there that we just haven't been smart enough to find. Sometimes, there are only negative paths, and the only choice is to take the one that is the least negative.

Along the way in my church leadership career I have had to discard two assumptions: 1) that the opposition has taken their position in good faith and is reasonable, and 2) that there's a solution out there somewhere.

I do not like this one bit. There's still a part of me that thinks the church should be a different kind of place with its own (better) rules, and with people who are seriously trying to follow and be like Christ. And that this should lead to a better class of behavior within the church when we disagree with each other. I still think this is how things should be. I just have never seen it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Collateral damage 6

You can cause collateral damage even when all you are trying to do is help.

That's a painful thing for me to think about, consider, and admit.

Such are the effects of sin that those who are called to deal with it cannot do so surgically, cutting it out without causing damage elsewhere.

My church career has been filled with prolonged periods of time when I've been tasked with stepping up to the plate, usually as part of a team, to deal with a harmful situation. These times have entailed weeks, months, even years of debilitating stress, disruption of family life, late and sleepless nights, endless rounds of meetings, communication after communication, fending off accusations, loss of friendships. They've taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on me and those with whom I've served. I suspect they've taken a few years off my life.

But no matter how diligently we served, how hard we tried not to make mistakes, how fair and Christ-honoring we attempted to be, the situations played themselves out in similar ways. Our fingers in the failing dikes may have saved a few people, but when the floods burst through anyway, there was collateral damage everywhere.

You take on the difficult, thankless task, you suffer for it, and still in the end, the actions you have taken contributed to the collateral damage people experience. In this kind of church work there is a kind of mutual collateral damage. It doesn't matter how thoughtful and prayerful you have been. Or how much you care about the people embroiled in the conflict, or how carefully you have considered your course of action.

The nature of sin, even when it is being addressed and dealt with, is to spread and cause as much damage as possible. When we dare to become involved in confronting it, we should harbor no illusions about its power. Collateral damage will pile up, even from the actions of those working to resolve the situation.

All we can hope for is that in the end the total amount of damage was less than it might have been without our intervention. And that is why we stepped up in service to begin with.

It's something worth pondering for an extended period of time:
• Where have you seen situations like this in the church?
• Where have you seen this in the world at large?
• Where have you read about this phenomenon in the Bible?
• Knowing this reality, how should thoughtful and committed Christians gird themselves for confrontations with sin?