Friday, February 8, 2019

Lessons from Ireland: Useful

This picture is a recreation of a famous Chi Rho from the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells housed at Trinity College in Dublin was one of the incredible things we got to see in Ireland. It is thought to have been created by monks in around 800AD.  It was a labor of love to create it, and another labor of love to preserve it from the perils of Viking attacks and the exposure of time. These superbly crafted copies of the four Gospels tie us to a group of fellow Christians from many years ago. We may not understand all of the symbolism but we do know is that these Christians honored the name of Christ as we seek to do the same in our worship and in our life.

The word of God connects us to people from an age far older than 800AD. Scripture is how God speaks to us, and it nurtures our faith while teaching us how to live each day in a way that honors Him.This past Sunday our pastor shared a bit of Greek with us in connection to our Epistle reading in I Corinthians. The word he taught us was Chréstos, translated as kind in the following passage:

But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I Corinthians 12:31 – 13:7

Pastor Will supplies his cell number at the beginning of the sermon encouraging us to text him. When he explained to us that the Greek word for kind in this passage could also be translated as useful, it made me look at the passage in a whole new way, and I got so excited I tried to text him. But, then it took me so long to type that I realized I was missing other good stuff and changed my mind. Texting during sermons is apparently for a different age demographic.

Why is “love is patient and useful” so much different than “love is patient and kind?” 

Kind is vague. We can be kind without any emotional commitment.   

Kind can be misunderstood. Sometimes when I think I am being kind, my words or actions are not received in the way they are intended. 

Kind can be wimpy. It doesn’t seem to be a characteristic that inspires strength or respect.

But useful. . . That is something altogether different. Useful has to be specific, empathetic, and strong, or the action does not live up to the name. If I help someone by doing something useful I have made a commitment to making their life a little bit better. If I want to be useful, I have to think about what the other person actually needs, rather than what I might be willing to do or say. If I am going to be useful, then I need to make more of an investment in my actions and words.

I really like this translation of Chréstos. “Love is patient and useful” is my new favorite verse.

Now, what I was thinking during the sermon -- the idea that I couldn’t text to Pastor because my thumbs type slower than my brain thinks -- was what if we applied this to social media posts?

When Christians are on social media, we have ample opportunity to show love. However, social media does not promote the patient side of love, nor the useful side. We too often quickly shoot off a reply or share a meme. Even if what we post is kind, is it useful?

So, what does it mean to show useful love on social media? It is probably easier to start by identifying what is not useful.

Even when we are passionate about an issue -- even when we are right to be passionate about an issue -- it is not useful to post something that is derogatory, simplistic, untrue, or mean.

It’s derogatory if it insults – even if that insult is deserved.

It is simplistic if it discusses a complicated issue and in so doing puts everyone on the other side of the issue in the worst possible light.

It is untrue if it assumes that a group (such as the far left, or the far right) is plotting to destroy all human morals.

It is mean if it speaks law and does not even consider grace. Law without grace is useless.

I know when I have posted things like the examples listed I was convinced that my passion and my “rightness” would magically persuade people to see my truth. I have come to realize that even when I am on the moral side of the issue -- even when scripture supports my view -- my passion is still steeped in sin.

I need grace and so do my social media contacts. We all need forgiveness.

So, how can our love be patient and useful? I suspect it has to do with action.

Instead of posting something derogatory about an opposing candidate, I can make sure I vote and encourage others to do the same.

Instead of posting something untrue, I can seek out information on the other side of the issue to learn more about the people who believe what I do not believe.

Instead of sharing a simplistic meme I can interact, face-to-face, with people who have different convictions than me.

Instead of thinking the ends justifies my meanness, I can step away from my computer (or phone) and do something helpful, something, patient, something kind.

God created preachers to help us understand His word, but He asks all of us to obey and live His word. Our words are nothing. Our actions, when motivated by the realization that we have been forgiven and brought into the family of God, are useful because God makes them so.

The Greek word Chréstos is close to the same word commonly used as the name for a slave. I am no longer a slave to the law. I am a servant of Jesus and my fellow humans. It would benefit me to remember that the chi that starts the word Chréstos connects me to the Chi Rho that is the symbol for Christ. My words, my tweets, my posts, shared memes, and especially my actions, all speak to my understanding of what it means to be connected to Christ. 

So now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13

Monday, January 21, 2019

Changing Narratives

It is likely you have seen this story, and perhaps you are cringing just a bit to see such behavior. For some of these young men their clothing identifies them as students at a Catholic high school.  Not only that, but they were reportedly in the area to participate in the Right to Life March. Here is a link with a more complete story than most sources. And here is NPRs update. 

[As the new link suggests this story gets more complicated. I apologize for contributing to the confusion and to the incorrect assumptions. I am editing this blog to better speak to my original goal: how do we respond to people who feel the sin of a few Christian shows that all Christians are bad? As I hope this post explains -- Christians are bad -- but God has a plan for that. (edited 1-22-19)]

What can we learn from this?

First and foremost, we are all sinners living in a sinful world. Secondly, sin is not an excuse for ridiculing others or condemning truth and justice. And third, sin is not erased by brute force, by contempt, or a righteous cause. The only thing that defeats sin is grace.

Why then, is the sin of a Christian different? It is certainly not any less consequential.  Sin is selfish; it turns away from God. It is harmful to the sinner and others.  It spreads and justifies itself. It seeks out others to join its cause. It is never on the side of truth. Sin is sin, and we must look it in the eye and call it so.

There are those who feel Christian sin is different because we “claim to know better” or because we “think we are without sin.” No Christian I know believes this. I feel safe in saying that if a Christian says he is without sin, he is seriously deluding himself regarding his Christianity. But, you don’t have to take my word for it:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. I John 1:8

If we want to understand the difference between the sin of a Christian and other sins we need to look at the next verse:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1: 9

Please note that sin is forgiven, not excused. Forgiveness is not about saying that “boys will be boys” or “we all do things in our youth that we regret.” It is important that confession precede forgiveness. We should note that confession does not have as its purpose the earning forgiveness, but instead the purpose of facing the sin head-on, of admitting to the sin, and of regretting it. God could choose to forgive us without confession, but His goal is more than erasing the sin. His goal is redemption.

Once we acknowledge our guilt, we can walk the road through repentance. We feel the grief our sin has caused, and we carry that grief to the cross. At that point, we can experience the overwhelming power of forgiveness. Grace brings about change.

Forgiveness is something learned. Once we have experienced the joy of being released from the burden of guilt we are then able to share that forgiveness with others. We can forgive sin, forgive differences in opinion, forgive different life circumstances, and even forgive ourselves. The experience of forgiveness and of forgiving others is a gift of grace that goes beyond our salvation. It is a gift for our life on earth.

We love because He first loved us. I John 4:19

This love of God is what makes the sin of a Christian different. It is a sin that, because of the power and grace of God can lead to growth and change. Christians are not people without sin. We are people with the sure hope of redemption.

Let us bring our sins to the cross and return with a spirit of forgiveness.

And so, from the day we heard, we have not  ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him; bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to His  glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the  saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Colossians 1:9 - 13

Monday, December 31, 2018

Old Year's Revelations

I am too old for New Year’s resolutions. My mature wisdom tells me resolutions do not work unless anchored in strong emotion.

It’s like the old joke:

How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

Even a strong emotion is often not enough. Last year I set it as a goal to exercise more.  I wanted to be healthier and to reduce my risk of falling. My YMCA personal trainer added cardio and weightlifting to my Tai Chi and walking regimen. I faithfully followed prescribed routines.

By the end of the year, I find I have gained weight, my cholesterol is up, I officially have osteoporosis, and I fell and broke my ankle.

Menopause 4

Kim 0

I anchored that resolution in my desire to live a healthy and safe life, but that desire was not enough. In my case, even following through with action was not enough.

I guess I was today-days-old when I learned life ain’t fair.

Common sense tells us we should make New Year’s resolutions because it is not healthy to dwell in past failures. Instead, we should look to the future with optimism.

Just because sense is common does not make it right. Research tells us that when we make resolutions and announce them to people, we are less likely to achieve those goals. When we reveal the decision, our brains produce those much sought after endorphins, and the brain is happy and ticks off that box. We need to go beyond the resolution and train our brain to crave the actual work of change.

A better way to change is to remind ourselves of the flaws and failures that make us want to change. We need to remember our weaknesses to keep our brains from sabotaging our plans. But, the world tells us it is not healthy to sit in the despair of our failures.

The answer is to understand the difference between guilt and shame. Shame tells us our sin makes us unworthy. Guilt tells us our sin makes us unworthy, but there is hope in forgiveness.

In both a worldly and spiritual sense, change starts with failure. The next step is to own the failure. If you are of the world things can get stuck here. If you are a child of God, then there is a way forward.

Guilt leads to repentance which is swallowed up in forgiveness. Our desire to change must start here and must include the power of God. That is the only power to change.

Because of Jesus we no longer have to fear or deny our sin, failure, or weakness. We can see these aspects of our life as a way to move forward, a way to become stronger.

This year, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I will spend some time with the old year’s revelations of my weaknesses, failures, and sins. I won’t sit in that mess condemning myself – my sin has already done that. Instead, I will look to the mercy and grace of my God and know that He can, and will bring about change in me.

Psalm 32

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

Therefore let everyone who is godly
    offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
    they shall not reach him.
You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    or it will not stay near you.

Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

May God bless your 2019 with growth!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Lessons from Ireland: Abide

This summer Paul and I had the joy of traveling with good friends to Ireland.  Ireland is a beautiful country with stunning scenery, a fascinating history, and lovely people. We stayed at a B&B on Inch Beach. The view from the breakfast room window was stunning, but when we entered the building the words on this bronze wall hanging caught my eye: “Bidden, or unbidden, God is present.”

I can relate to this idea that God’s presence among us is not dependent on our request.  He does not wait for us to be ready. He does not expect us to clean and decorate our hearts. He does not wait for us to welcome Him. He dwells among us in His love, in His Son, in His Spirit. God abides with us, and because of this, we abide in Him.

To abide is to remain. When Jesus came to earth, He remained for a lifetime. He lived a human life and knew our joys and struggles. He returned to heaven, yet He abides with us through His word. In heaven, or on earth, God is present.

To abide is to wait. Now, we await His return with eager anticipation. We want to abandon this world and one day abide with Jesus in heaven. In working, or in waiting, we have hope.

To abide is to rest. The world careens around us, but in Him, we find rest for our weariness. The peace of a newborn Jesus abides with us, even in the midst of turmoil. In easy times or struggle, God is peace.

As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. John 15:9

Because of this abiding, this love, this joy, we can look forward to the year to come with eagerness and courage. Jesus came to earth as an infant to abide with us: salvation is won, and our hope is secure. I pray His peace, strength, and love abide with you in the coming year.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Hardwood Floors and a Spirit of Gentleness

A load of hardwood sits acclimating to humidity levels in our front room. We are getting rid of the last of the carpet in our house. Allergies and cat spit-up have rendered carpet untenable. In a week, the installer will spend a day or two cutting and gluing. Then, after we move the furniture back, I will likely go out and purchase an area rug. It seems silly, but I can’t quite live with the extreme of carpet or the extreme of hardwood. 

Years from now, some young couple will buy this house, shake their heads at endless yards of cold, loud, hardwood and cover it up with carpet. Neither is right or wrong. The decisions are just different perspectives on household comfort.

This past week, I saw a mix of perspective extremes on Facebook. The discussion following the post of a liberal friend asserted that the conservatives on a particular issue were the only side that was extreme and divisive. 

Really? Don't you know anyone on your side of this issue who has been divisive? 

Within two days a conservative friend posted a warning to her liberal friends they need to stop promoting violence and extremism because it is not fair to conservatives.

Really? Can you think of no examples of your side promoting violence?

I propose that we all live in glass houses. 

Put down that stone.

Or, if you are a recovering kindergarten teacher:

“I don’t care what you are planning, put down that stone! I said PUT down that stone, not THROW it! What are you thinking? No, I don’t want you to throw sticks either!”

Kindergartners are good at asserting that anything they do to someone else is an “accident” whereas anything someone else does to them was done “on purpose.” They are not so much lying as they are unable to see themselves as mean. And surely, if someone else hurt them, meanness can be the only logical reason. It is a childish logic, but one that works for them.

When we join a political tribe, we tend to identify bad behavior on our side as the exception, and bad behavior on the other side as the rule. It is human nature, a remnant from our younger years. 

Robert Fulghum was right. Everything we really need to know we learned in kindergarten. We just don’t practice what we learned.

And that goes for us recovering kindergarten teachers, too.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:1-2

These verses in Galatians are interesting to me because they seem to run together three different ideas: restoration, temptation, and bearing each other’s burdens. Three great concepts but how do they fit together? I think it is a three-step process.

First, we are to restore each other in a spirit of gentleness. This idea tells us that while correction is necessary the emphasis is not on finger-pointing and accusations, but on the restoration of our relationship with Christ and with each other. Too often we are more concerned with being right than with anything else. Being right is about law and law does not restore.

Next, we are to keep watch on ourselves lest we are tempted. I know it is human nature to find our faults in other people. We seem to be on the look-out for the very behaviors that cause us shame. I suppose when we judge someone else our brain ticks off the self-examination box. But, if we seek restoration, our self-examination is a necessary step. And, if we put on the robes of a political tribe, we need to check those robes for holes and stains. We cannot assume our tribe is not mean.

Thirdly we are to bear one another’s burdens. I have always thought of this verse in regards to helping each other through stress and grief. But, when we look at it as a step in this process, we can understand these burdens to be sin. This understanding completely changes our perspective on correction. If I think you are wrong because you are ill-informed, I will present my arguments with a tinge of contempt. If you see my wrongness as being a burden, you will correct me in a spirit of gentleness.

When I taught young children, I thought of the burden of sin in another way. With many sins comes an emotional burden that led to the sin. If a child hurts someone, it is essential to consider why the child acted that way. It is true that we hurt people because of sin, but if we don’t consider the reason behind the sin, the sinner is more likely to be a repeat offender. For instance, the behavior of a brokenhearted child who hurts another child will not be corrected by a time-out. The original pain needs to be addressed, too. I think that is part of the spirit of gentleness.

Think what a different world social media would be if we would follow these steps in our discussions. We might learn from each other. We might understand a different perspective. We might learn to have empathy. We might even find solutions. There are many ways for God to shower us with His grace when we don’t walk away from it in a spirit of self-righteousness.

For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Romans 3:22-23

Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace. Psalm 86:6