Skip to content

The Myth of Sacrifice – A Maundy Thursday Meditation

April 2, 2015

The Myth of Sacrifice

(Matthew 9:9-13)

jesus-really-follow-me-twitter

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.

10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”

12 When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” 13 Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

In 1219, St. Francis of Assisi determined that it was God’s will that his Franciscan Order devote its resources to converting the Muslims to the East of their headquarters in Italy. And so he hand selected five monks, led by Berard of Carbio, whose main qualification, it appears, was his fluent in the Arabic language, as missionaries to Morocco.

The five men set sail for Seville, where they began to preach the Gospel, but they had little success. Frustrated, they went on to Morocco, where they turned up the intensity of their efforts, standing all day every day in the town squares, not only sharing the Good News, but loudly denouncing the Islamic faith and its followers.

The more they were asked to stop, the louder and more strident they became, interpreting resistance as a sign of God’s favor. Local officials became concerned because they were upsetting and frightening people, who assumed that they were insane, and possible dangerous. Again, they were warned to leave or face legal sanctions. Berard and his colleagues determined that the greatest sacrifice they could make for Jesus was their very lives, and so they continued to antagonize the local people until, out of frustration, the local king ordered them arrested. When he himself confronted them about their behavior, they were so defiant that, in a fit of rage, he beheaded each of them with his own scimitar.

Today, the Feast of the Martyrs is celebrated every year on January 16th in their honor, remembering their great and noble sacrifice for the cause of Christ.

But I wonder – what would Jesus have to say about all of this?

If we are honest with ourselves, there are two very different types of sacrifices we can make: on one hand, we have those that are made in order to make us look good; to put others in our debt; to help us get something that we want; it sacrifices out of anger or fear and produces martyrs. The second type of sacrifice is made for the good of others; it doesn’t care about our reputation or what we might get in return; it sacrifices out of love, and it produces followers.

Those who were threatened by Jesus were religious people of the first category. They created rules upon rules and made a great show of how much they suffered for God, and yet, rather than applauding them, Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs” and “sons of Satan”. Why? As Richard Rohr puts it, this type of sacrifice is characteristic of a person “seeking moral high ground and the social esteem that comes with it.” They want notches in their spiritual belts and high fives from other religious people, but meanwhile, they alienate others who desperately need God.

That’s why Jesus’ words are so important for us to understand today. “Forget about the sacrifices,” he says. “I don’t want martyrs. I want you to do something even more difficult: instead, show mercy.” The Greek term he uses here (eleos) refers to outward acts of kindness and care that demonstrate an inward state of compassion and love toward the miserable and afflicted. The Pharisees looked at Matthew and saw a failure, a traitor – a sinner who deserved destruction; Jesus look at the same man and saw a lost and hurting man who desperately needed to be reminded of God’s love and acceptance.

As we contemplate the great sacrifice Christ made on our behalf this evening, I encourage you to turn your thoughts away from what you can do to convince others that Christianity is right or that the Bible is God’s Word. I encourage you to set aside the shoulds and ought tos and musts for a moment and, instead, ask God to fill your heart with the mercy and compassion for which all of creation is groaning. Ask him to make his life within you so evident that each day you fulfill St. Francis’ original commission to his followers: “Preach the Gospel wherever you go, and, when necessary, use words.”

Advertisements

Call me Mara: Why Duck Dynasty is Bad for Christianity

November 30, 2013

Call me Mara:

Why Duck Dynasty is Bad for Christianity

 phil-robertson

“She replied to them, ‘Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty.’”                                                                                                                                             – Ruth 1: 20-21 (CEB)

“I’ve come to believe that only broken people truly worship. Unbroken people – happy folks who enjoy their blessings more than the Blesser – say thanks to God the way a shopper thanks a clerk.”                                                                                – Larry Crabb, Ph.D.

First, a Confession

Although it will come as no surprise to those who know me, I feel it important to make clear right from the start that I harbor a passionate dislike for all things Duck Dynasty. No, it isn’t the Robertson family’s appalling lack of fashion sense, atrocious and persistent butchery of the English language, or even their poor hygiene habits; what offends me the most about the show and its impact on the popular culture is the way in which they trivialize Christianity.

Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty paterfamilias, makes no bones about his faith, and for the record, I applaud his belief in Christ and his willingness to share his faith with others. Robertson has favored us all with his recently published tome “Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander”, which was predictably followed by son Jase’s “Good Call: Reflections on Faith, Family, and Fowl” and, of course, the sage insights of Uncle Si in “Si-Cology 1: Tales and Wisdom from Duck Dynasty’s Favorite Uncle”.  It takes only a cursory perusal of the comments section of the Amazon.com book reviews to understand that most people see a cause and effect relationship between being a Christian and being “Happy, happy, happy”, and that is where I start to get irritated. In fact, while we’re being honest, the very phrase itself triggers my gag reflex.

Let me be clear, I don’t blame the Robertsons for where all of this has gone. I have no doubt that they are sincere, hardworking, devout Christians, and if a publisher threw a bunch of money at me if I would agree to put my name on a ghost-written book, I’d probably jump right in as well. My problem is that the show and the resulting phenomenon have given new life to a mindless, shallow, and downright wrong understanding of life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a genius, or even a particularly observant individual, to notice that, although we love to focus our attention and adoration on Christians whose lives are going just ducky (pardon the pun), the reality is that there are many more of us who are walking in dark places, and, worse yet, the Bible makes no guarantees that any of us is assured of a “Happy, happy, happy” life this side of heaven. When we place people who promote that lie on a pedestal, much less reward them for it, we lay the groundwork for a lot of disillusionment and give fuel to the perception of the culture at large that Christians are dimwits who believe in fairy tales and actively seek out simplistic answers to all of life’s questions.

No Happy Ending

If you’ve never read the Book of Ruth, or even if it’s been awhile since you last did so, I encourage you to sit down and do so. In four short chapters, the author lays out two possible tracks for understanding both life and God – one, which I call the Fairy Tale Track, and the other, which I call the No Happy Ending Track (I realize the latter is not as catchy, but it is the best I could come up with).

The story opens with things going from bad to worse. Naomi, whose name means “delightful” or “pleasant” in the Hebrew, is married to Elimilech and has two grown sons named Mahlon and Chilion. Their life together is interrupted by a famine in the land of Judah, and, in order to avoid starving, they are forced to make a difficult choice. The story tells us that they leave their home, their family, and all that they know, and move to Moab. In our highly mobile culture, it is difficult for us to understand just how hard this would have been. Semitic peoples are strongly attached to their ancestral lands and their extended families. In many ways, moving a short distance, much less to another country altogether, would be much like amputating a limb. Add to that the distaste that their people had for the people of Moab, dating back to some hard feelings over political and religious espionage, and you have four people who are hoping and praying that the famine ends quickly so they can get home and resume their lives as soon as possible.

Fast forward ten years, and not only are they still living among the Moabites, but Elimilech has died, leaving Naomi a widow. On top of that, her two darling sons have gone and married Moabite women, making them members of the household, which, I’m sure was a source of tension around the dinner table for awhile. But, wait, there’s more! Both of the boys die as well, leaving not one, but three widows to fend for themselves.

Hebrew culture made women extremely dependent on their husbands. They were basically passed from their father’s household to their husband’s, and if he died, they were left with three choices: find another husband soon, rely on your sons to care for you, or resort to begging and prostitution. By now you can see that Naomi’s prospects are pretty grim.

By the time she comes limping back home to Judah with her tail between her legs, she is not only shamed by her failure in Moab and burdened with the problem of trying to survive as a widow, but she has Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, in tow. When you take all of this into account, it is little wonder that, when greeted by her old friends, she admonishes them not to call her by her old name anymore.

See, while Naomi means all sorts of pleasant and, dare I say “Happy, happy, happy” things, “Mara” translates as “bitterness” or “pain”. In her mind, God has betrayed her trust. She did her best to stay faithful in the midst of difficult circumstances, and in return, she has been left with a handful of ashes.

The Gospel of Dumb

I know how Naomi feels because I live right there. I know what it is like to have the world you knew and loved come to an end overnight. I know what it is like to pray and plead and hang onto your faith by your very fingernails and to watch as days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, as things only get worse. I know that sinking feeling that slowly turns to bile in your mouth as you feel the doors of heaven shut to your supplications.

My job also exposes me to a lot of other people who feel the same way. I sit and visit with the elderly woman with failing health whose kids are too busy and self-centered to visit her, who is lonely and sick and sees the life she built dissolving like so much tissue paper in the rain right before her eyes. I stand in the hospital room with the young man whose cancer diagnosis will soon leave his wife and children without their husband and father, who has prayed and fasted and begged for healing, but can see in the eyes of the doctors and nurses that no such help is forthcoming.

Among my many frustrations, not only for myself, but for those to whom I minister, is that modern American Christianity has no good answers for the Naomis of this world. And because we are either too intellectually dishonest or emotionally shallow to address this problem, we settle for spewing a series of feckless bromides that I call the Gospel of Dumb or Duck Dynasty Christianity. Let’s look at three of the main pillars of this approach.

You Must Deserve It Somehow

Having lived in her shoes, I would have to guess that this was as much a source of Naomi’s pain as the other losses she experienced. In her culture it was widely accepted as gospel that bad things happened to people for a reason, and that reason was sin. If you were sick or deformed, you were getting what you deserved. If you got leprosy, you asked for it. If your house burned down, your cattle died, and your kids ran away with the circus, it was God’s loving way of bringing to everyone’s attention that somebody needed a remedial lesson in following the rules. Of course, since it was “God’s will,” that justified turning their backs on the “sinners,” excluding them from polite society, and even reveling in their suffering. The fact is, Naomi came home in the throes of grief, and her hometown was more than happy to add a heaping shovel full of guilt, shame, and ostracism to it.

There are two very sad things about what I will deem Phase One of the Gospel of Dumb. First, for whatever reason, the people who are truly bad – who deserve to have things go wrong – almost never get what they deserve, and, second, not a whole lot has changed in the last two thousand years. Sure, people come around with the old stand-bys like “I’m praying for you” and “If there’s anything I can do . . . “but those don’t last long. They are soon replaced with “Well, I heard (insert rumor of the day here), so maybe you need to do some soul searching” or the tried-and-true favorite “God doesn’t give us any more than we can bear or any less than we deserve”.

We as a Church need to come to grips with some very hard truths, foremost among them being that Christianity is not a guarantee of a happy, fulfilling, or even fair life. Things happen to people that they have done nothing to deserve; things happen to people (and regularly, I might add) that are considerably more than they can bear; things happen to people that your promises to pray for are not going to fix. If that’s the best we can do, it may be better to just say nothing at all.

You’re not Trying Hard Enough

Predictably, when the week or two of “I’ll pray for you” and the thinly-veiled “You must have sinned” comments don’t move heaven and earth, Gospel of Dumb adherents move to Phase Two: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves, also known as Put on a Happy (happy happy) Face.

The subtext here is basically this: “Hey, your failure to overcome your circumstances is really harshing our joyfest here at the church, so could you just go ahead and smile even if you don’t feel like it?” and it makes me want to say and do things I know I shouldn’t. People who trot this one out have never been through a real loss in their lives. They may know of someone who went through a tough time, but it resolved itself to their (the observer’s) satisfaction, which means everything is great.

I’m guessing Naomi got her share of chiding, too. Of course, no one would have taken into account that she had traveled 60 miles on foot – a seven to ten day journey in rugged and mountainous terrain – from Moab back to Bethlehem. They wouldn’t have considered that, as a widow, she likely had very little to eat during that arduous journey, nor would they have tried to imagine all of the begging and humiliation that was already behind her, much less that which lay ahead of her for the rest of her life, and how it might weigh on her psyche. Add to that the reality that, barring a miracle, she was going to spend the rest of her life alone in a world of families, and life looked pretty hopeless.

Sad faces force us to confront the possibility that hardships come to us all. They make us uncomfortable because we prefer the “I asked Jesus into my heart and my alcoholism went away and my marriage was restored” stories to the “I’m really struggling and it is hard for me to believe that God even cares about me right now” testimony. Unfortunately, what happens is that we shame the very people who need answers and encouragement the most into either pasting on a fake smile or, worse yet, staying away from church altogether while we allow our worship to turn into a callow pep rally that celebrates the good things that have happened to some of us and hopefully pumps us up enough to endure the week ahead. There is no depth or compassion or grounded faith – just easy believism and the same mantras chanted over and over again as a way of warding off evil and misfortune. Do we have anything more to offer a hurting world than “Hey, things are bad right now, but if you hang on for _____ years, you’ll get to go to heaven when you die!”

And then we wonder why our sanctuaries get emptier and emptier every week.

You Just Don’t Have Enough Faith

This last one seems to kick in right about the time that any desire to believe has pretty much petered out. Church attendance is either a thing of the past or is now just some rote, robotic task that is endured out of obligation or fear of what people might say, but it is dry and lifeless. People notice that Phases One and Two of the Gospel of Dumb haven’t had their intended effect, and so they decide to go nuclear and unleash Phase Three, the Faith-O-Meter Failure. In a nutshell, well-meaning individuals who feel “impressed by the Holy Spirit” and who have “given this matter a lot of prayer” feel it incumbent upon themselves to ask you to consider the possibility that God is testing your faith. Of course, the implicit notion here is that, since your life is still in shambles, the real issue is that you are not responding with enough faith, thus dooming yourself to more pain and suffering.

The questions we never really seem to answer here are many: What does faith look like in my circumstances? How much is enough? Is faith measured by time or quantity of suffering and disappointment endured? How can I both not have enough faith and not being doing enough for myself at the same time?

My favorite implication of Phase Three admonishments is that “If you had enough faith, God would be sufficient in your life. I wouldn’t matter that you don’t have (insert loss or losses here). You’re choosing not to be filled with joy because you are focusing on what you don’t have.” Again, people who say, much less think, this kind of idiocy, have likely never spent more than a few nights alone, don’t know the heartbreak of their children rejecting them or losing their home. They are fairly sure that the time they got passed over for that raise in 1994 and the time they didn’t get elected Homecoming queen qualify  them to understand your pain, and, hey, they got past it, so why can’t you?

People often point to particular biblical stories as examples of how God always sets things right. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but I wonder if they see the whole picture? Jacob got a happy ending as a reward for his faith, but what about Esau? He got screwed over time and time again, yet he forgave his brother when he could have wiped him from the face of the earth. Nothing. Isaac gets the good life, but what about Ishmael? What did he do to deserve to lose his home and his father? Nothing. The story of Ruth is yet another example. We celebrate God’s faithfulness to her by bringing Boaz to serve as her kinsman redeemer and bring about her happily ever after, but what about Naomi? If you’ve already made it to the end of the book, you’ll find that there’s no such happy ending for her. No husband, no life of her own. We’re left with the notion that Ruth’s son being a part of the lineage of Christ is blessing enough.

And maybe it is. That is definitely one of those questions on my list for God. My point is that we compound the suffering of hurting people when we refuse to acknowledge the fact that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between our faith – however you choose to quantify it – and getting what we want or need in life. When we allow people to believe this, we are liars, and worse yet, we are driving people away from God.

Not a Very Good Friend

The problem with Duck Dynasty Christianity as I see it is that it reduced the God of the universe to a good ol’ boy/best buddy who just wants us to be “Happy happy happy”. Hey, if I had millions of dollars in the bank, a smokin’ hot wife, and got to spend all day blowing things up and lighting my flatulence, I’m guessing I’d be pretty happy, too. Good for you, Phil. Enjoy it. Just don’t try to sell us on the Gospel of Dumb while you’re at it.

In his excellent book “Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy”, Dr. Larry Crabb points out that the “God as best friend” analogy really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He invites the reader to make a list of all the people in their life on whom they can depend to do whatever is in their power to make a problem go away. For the average person, there are probably four or five people on that list, but, if we are honest, God isn’t one of them.

What do we do with the fact that the God who spoke the universe into existence and owns the cattle on a thousand hills won’t fix your marriage, cure your cancer, or bring that special someone into your life to end your loneliness? “My real problem with God,” Crabb notes “becomes apparent when long-held and deeply-cherished dreams are shattered and he does nothing. . . Depending on an unresponsive God in the middle of crumbling dreams can be tough on faith. Relating personally with a God who is less responsive than friends with far fewer resources is difficult.”

The answer to this dilemma is complex. It can’t be explained or resolved in a short conversation or explained in passing. In large part, this is due to the fact that a satisfactory answer requires healing in our hearts and souls that penetrates much deeper than mere words can reach. That is something God has to work out in us individually. But it doesn’t absolve us as Christ-followers from responsibility. It also demands that we search for answers, that our responses offer relationship rather than patronizing words that comfort us but leave the other in agony. It calls us as a Church to stop pretending that we are “Happy, happy, happy” when we are not, and to stop shaming those who can’t find peace and joy in the midst of their storms, to redefine what it means to gather for worship as an opportunity to bind the wounds of the hurting rather than to watch a performance or attend a pep rally, but most of all it is a call to reject easy answers that can be tied up in a neat bow after twenty minutes, to acknowledge that, although salvation is a great thing, we need answers to help us navigate the days until we meet our maker.

Kyle Idleman sums it up best in his book “Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus” when he says “In teaching people what it means to be a Christian, we spend much of our time and effort bringing them to a point of belief without clearly calling them to follow. We have taken “believe” and we have written that in capital letters with bold print: BELIEVE. But everything that has to do with following has been put in small print: follow.”

May we stop trivializing the cost, the pain, and the frustration that come as a part of following Christ and start providing real answers as to how to do so faithfully.

Rude Awakenings, Troublesome Restraints, and Harsh Reality: The Long Road of Redemptive Failure

May 20, 2012

Rude Awakenings, Troublesome Restraints, and Harsh Reality:

The Long Road of Redemptive Failure

             

“(Samson) woke up, thinking, ‘I’ll go out, like always, and shake free.’ He didn’t realize that God had abandoned him. “

                                                                                                                                – Judges 16:20 (MSG)

 “We all move uneasily within our restraints.” 

           – Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind

Unpleasant Transformations

A recent bout of insomnia has left me ample time to reread some of my literary favorites. In addition to discovering how we understand great literature on different levels depending on our stage in life, I also found it to be a bittersweet walk down memory lane.  I find that I tend to associate certain books with particular stages in my own life.

In the winter of 1996 I was beginning to hit my stride as a young man. I had married, bought a house, and was awaiting the birth of my first child. I was also in the throes of my first foray into graduate school; reading, writing, and thinking deeply, and eager to be prepared to talk a big game. I had taken up listening to classical music as much as possible, and picked up a habit, that persists to this day, of carrying a book with me wherever I go.

Sitting in the birthing suite of the hospital, I was contentedly rereading Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis, which opens with the familiar lines “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” I wrestled at the time with what Kafka was trying to convey with this imagery; the implications of transformation, both good and bad; the power of self-concept to shape our perceptions of the world around us, when the moment came. Abigail arrived to the strains of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, The Ode to Joy, pulsing through the room, and as I held the tiny baby to my chest and we stared into each others’ eyes for the first time, I realized two things: one, I hadn’t really understood what love was until that moment, and two, there was no going back from here. This baby, for good or bad, was a permanent part of my life.

The other night, now almost 16 years removed from that experience, Kafka took me back in time. I felt warm tears sliding down my cheeks as I remembered, but I also felt a coldness in the pit of my stomach, a chill emanating from the depths of my soul, at the realization that neither I nor my daughter, not to mention my life, were ever going to be the same as they were at that beautiful, irreplaceable moment in time.

How, I wondered, had life gone from there to here? At what point had the train come off the rails, and could I have stopped it if only I knew where it would come to a stop? Will there ever be moments like that again for me?

No Going Back

If we are honest, we all experience metamorphoses throughout the course of our lives. The word itself implies a process of maturation, of necessary changes that take place, propelling us from one stage of life to the next. They are gradual in the sense that they never stop, but feel sudden in the sense that we only become aware of them when they reach the point that something within us has to change consciously in response to what has come about unnoticed. And once we are aware of them, there is no going back.

The real question is whether we allow them to remain everyday changes or open the door to the power of redemptive failure to transform them into something beautiful. Samson’s story in Judges 13-16 is one of both metamorphosis and redemptive failure.

Redemptive Failure – God ordained experiences of failure and loss that are so painful and devastating that they bring us to the end of ourselves and open the door for God’s power to work anew in our lives.

We watch him grow from a child with prodigious abilities into the protector of an entire nation; we cringe as he pushes the limits and laughs at danger; we shake our heads sadly as he falls from grace. But what we often lose in the process is the faithfulness of God in the midst of Samson’s failures. Samson does not escape the consequences of his arrogance and disobedience, but he dies with the knowledge that he has returned to God’s good graces and has accomplished great things.

Let’s take a look at four steps that most of life’s metamorphoses take in our lives: weakening, emptiness, humiliation, and redemption.

Weakening (Judges 16:19a)

The entire Book of Judges is a study in the hard lessons of redemptive failure. After the death of Joshua, the last remnant of Israelites faithful to God drifted away. Barely one generation after passing over into the Promised Land, the grandchildren of the slaves liberated from Egyptian captivity were living lives indistinguishable from their pagan neighbors. A catastrophic metamorphosis brought about 325 years of disaster and oppression designed to draw God’s people back to him.

Samson was one of twelve judges, or heroes of the faith, appointed by God to intervene on his behalf and lead a return to faithfulness. Although none of them were perfect, each judge was endowed with special gifts and charged with importantl duties geared toward leading their people up the path of redemptive failure. We join the story of Samson as he continues to play with fire, toying with the Philistines and trying God’s patience. Up to this point, the narrative has been one of Samson beating up and slipping away from his enemies as they seek to find the source of his supernatural strength. His downfall finally comes about at the hands of a beautiful Philistine woman named Delilah.

The biblical account identifies her as coming from the Valley of Sorek, a Hebrew word loosely meaning “choice fruits”. This would likely have had a double meaning to the original readers, as Samson had taken a Nazarite vow (see Numbers 6), meaning he was God’s chosen servant and could not consume grapes, wine, or vinegar, touch dead bodies, or cut his hair – the source of his strength. It would also have been a reference to the forbidden love of a woman of a pagan culture. Additionally, the name “Delilah” means “feeble” and comes from a root meaning “low hanging”. Samson’s downfall began, then, with disobedience wrought of settling for the low-hanging or easily-gathered “fruit” in his life.

So many of our problems start right here. We know we want things from life, but we are not willing to a) put forth the time and effort necessary to gain them, or b) wait on God’s timing for them to come about. We push God; we take shortcuts; we bend the truth just a little, and before we know it, we have pulled down much more than we bargained for.

In Judges 16:19a we find that Samson has finally been worn down and gives away the secret of his strength to Delilah. In doing so, he transfers his trust and allegiance away from God and places it in the low-hanging fruit dangling before him. Once that happened, the Scriptures tell us that Delilah began to “subdue” or “weaken” him. The Hebrew `anah  means “to bend the knee; to be completely focused on another”.  It can refer to someone other than God, as in Samson’s case, or to times that God uses circumstances to turn our focus back to him, as when David wrote in Psalm 119 “It was good for me to be afflicted (‘anah) so that I might learn your decrees.”

One Hebrew scholar noted that “ . . . there are varying degrees of ‘anah, and oppression, affliction, and slavery are characteristics of more extreme degrees.” As we will see, God doesn’t just allow us to be weakened as a means of punishment, but to demonstrate to us through hard experience that his ways are the only way to live; that the easy way is not always the best way; that the low-hanging fruit is tempting, but must be refused.

We can’t experience redemptive failure until we are weakened to the point that we are ready to listen. I am convinced that many, if not most, of the things we pray to ask God for deliverance from remain in our lives until we come to the realization that they are there precisely to afflict and weaken us as a means of drawing our attention to that which needs to change within us. Perhaps the degree of affliction and the amount of time it is in our lives corresponds to our willingness to change in response.

Emptiness (Judges 16:19b)

As soon as Delilah had weakened Samson, we are told that his “strength” left him.  “Koach” can mean physical strength, but more specifically refers to “ability or firmness”.  As human beings we tend to draw our identity from our God-given strengths and abilities, and as time passes, begin to live as if they not only define who we are, but originate with us. We lose sight of the One from whom we are to draw not only our identity, but our very strength. When these things are torn away for a season, we find that a gaping void is left behind.

The word picture for Samson’s strength leaving him is of a vessel being emptied out. It is designed to point out to us that we, as the vessels, aren’t the valuable part of the equation; rather it is what fills us that should matter. When God’s Spirit departed from Samson, he was a mere shell of a man.  When he called on his strength again, he found that it was gone. Some of the saddest words in the entire Bible are in Judges 16:20: “But he did not know that the LORD had left him.”

True emptiness is one of the most desolate places we can be. There is nothing more dumbfounding than to try to draw on that which we assumed would always be there for us and find that there is nothing in our hands. It is to be blindsided by our own frailty, to have the very breath knocked from us on a spiritual and emotional level. It is helplessness personified.

I think God has to let us move beyond mere weakness because true repentance can’t come about until we are forced to look in the mirror and see ourselves for who we really are apart from God. It is one thing to grab hold of the offer of eternal life, but quite another to understand to the very depths of our being just how mean, petty, and devoid of any good thing our humanity is. It is not until we are empty that we know what it is to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6); it is not until we are rendered powerless that we truly comprehend along with Paul that we are saved only by grace “and not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9); it is not until we are reduced to nothing that we can beat our breasts and cry out along with the tax collector “God, have mercy on me, a sinful man!” (Luke 18:13).

But even emptiness is not the end of the journey. Emptiness alone would soon be forgotten once we were filled again. Sadly, this is the point in the journey where I see so many give up. At our lowest points we are tempted to leave the path and conclude that God is either cruel or nonexistent when, in reality, he is gently guiding us precisely where we need to be.

Humiliation (Judges 16:21)

The victorious Philistines pounce and take their prize back home with them to their fortress. The Scripture says that after gouging out his eyes they “took him down to Gaza” where he was placed in chains and forced to work for them in the prison. The language here tells us a couple of important things. First, we are told that he is taken “down”. The Hebrew here is used to describe a state of sinking or being made prostrate; it is a picture of forced humiliation. Likewise, “Gaza,” although a name for one of Palestine’s five major fortress cities, also means “strong,” “mighty,” or “fierce”. What we see, then, is that Samson, for the first time in his life, meets someone more powerful than himself and is forced to admit his own weakness.

Emptiness without the admission of one’s own helplessness is of little value. We can write off emptiness as a transient state brought on by bad luck or other forces beyond our control, but true helplessness cuts to the core of who we are. When we really comprehend what it means to be without any means of changing our circumstances, we are forced to admit the greatness and power of Another in our lives. If we choose to remain empty but defiant, we guarantee ourselves a lifetime of pain and devastation. It is only through true humility that we signal to God that we are ready to be restored.

I have spent a great deal of time in hospitals and nursing homes over the past year. Few things can alter one’s perspective more profoundly than sitting at the bedside of someone nearing the end of life. Intermingled with pain and fear are often a sense of bewilderment at what seems to have been a sudden transformation from a vital and full life to one that is, against their will, slipping away. It is humiliating to have to rely on others to care for you; it is humiliating to have to admit that you can no longer do what you once could; it is humiliating to realize that even your next breath is a gift from God.

And yet there is also freedom in that realization. When we accept that we are not in control, that our standards of success and failure, of joy and unhappiness, of fair and unfair are not the ultimate authority, we are at liberty to stop yanking at the reins of the universe and direct our attention to who and what God has always intended us to be. Rather than wasting so much of our time and energy on inconsequential things, we are set free to pour ourselves into those that will matter eternally.

Redemption (Judges 16:30)

Even when life’s circumstances look their grimmest, there is always hope. God promises that he will never leave nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6), that his plans are to prosper us, to give us a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11) and that he will work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). These promises of redemption – a process of reclamation or rescue – are not the same as a promise of restoration –a return to the way things were. Like it or not, our choices have consequences, and sometimes there truly is no going back to the way things were. God’s promise is not to wave a heavenly magic wand and make it like it was, but he does promise to take what we have done and use it for good.

Even as Samson was languishing in the Philistine prison, God was working behind the scenes, sowing seeds of redemption. Judges 16:22 says that in the midst of his suffering, Samson’s hair was growing again. God was opening the door for great things to happen right in the midst of his enemies’ headquarters.

Our moments of redemption come at just the right time, not because we earn them, but because we are finally brought to the point that we can recognize them for what they are. Samson had stopped looking for a way to return to his former state of glory and ease. His own words in Judges 16:30 indicate that he had finally reached the point where he understood that true redemption was defined by God and God alone. He was ready to do what he had been called to do all along. “Sovereign Lord,” he prayed, “remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.”

Samson recognized that it was he who was in the wrong; that he had wandered away from God rather than God abandoning him. He acknowledged that God alone had the power and authority to grant redemption, and he asked for nothing more than to fulfill his God-given purpose in life. The Scriptures say that he stood between the two supporting pillars of the palace roof and “pushed” (natah) with all his might. Some scholars argue that natah is better translated “bowed” or “inclined”, indicating someone who is reaching heavenward in a prayerful attitude. Whatever the case, God, the source of Samson’s great strength all along, allows him to bring down the palace roof, killing more of God’s enemies in one moment of obedience than he had during an entire lifetime of waywardness and pride. His journey of redemptive failure was at an end.

Learning to Live with Less than Perfect

I struggle daily with the desires of my own heart. My youthful dreams and longings never included life as it is today, and the temptation to despair and even give up is very real. And yet, when I focus my spirit on redemption rather than restoration, I am able to see the hand of God at work in and through my life in ways that were never possible before. Things aren’t perfect, but they are good.

I have three wonderful children today, including a nearly 16 year old daughter who is tall, blonde, brilliant, and beautiful, but more importantly, who loves God with all her heart. I strive each day to make sure that I do everything in my power to draw their hearts close to me and to point them in the right direction. I hope with all of my being that they will be shielded from the consequences of my failings and will avoid the magnitude of mistakes their dad has made in his life.

But most of all, I live with a renewed appreciation of a father’s love that will move heaven and earth to draw a wayward child back to himself for no other reason than they are his own.

The Tyranny of ‘If’: Wistful Longings, Foundering Ships, and the Struggle to Believe

May 7, 2012

The Tyranny of ‘If’: Wistful Longings, Foundering Ships, and the Struggle to Believe

“’If you can do anything, do it. Have a heart and help us!’ Jesus said, ‘If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.’ No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, ‘Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!’”                                                                                     – Mark 9: 22-24 (MSG)

“Doubt is natural within faith. It comes because of our human weakness and frailty. Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God. It is a deliberate decision to reject Jesus Christ and all that he stands for. But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. But it is not and need not be a problem.”

                                                                                                                                                                           – Alistair McGrath

Milestone or Millstone

I passed another milestone this week. May first marked one year since I embarked on a new chapter in life. In a sense, I backtracked almost twenty years and began doing what I should have done all along. It was no easier or less scary as a middle aged man than it appeared when I was younger and stronger, but this time around I had an added factor at work: Basically, I had nothing to lose.

After seventeen years of marriage, I was homeless, broke, and alone in the world. I was profoundly depressed and confused, reeling from a series of heartbreaking betrayals and losses, and desperate for some sense of meaning and purpose in my life. When an opportunity to go into full-time ministry service opened up, it was one of those moments where you don’t ask a lot of questions because the answer is manifestly clear. The door couldn’t have been open any wider.

Last May was tough. I struggled with living alone. I cried a lot. I raged and bargained, I prayed and fasted, I read and meditated. Did I mention I cried?

Slowly, things began to look brighter. It wasn’t anything miraculous, just a day here and there where I wasn’t miserable every waking moment. Sometimes I’d even find myself smiling and laughing without having to fake it for the benefit of others around me. It has ebbed and flowed, though. Just when I feel like I may have finally put the grief and pain behind me, it wells up again in new and surprising ways.

The worst moments for me, I have discovered, are milestones. In retrospect, I imagine it is because I tend to expect too much of life and myself. When Christmas came and went, my triumph at having made it through a year since I almost died was tempered by sadness that I was still alone and empty inside. I guess that’s how I keep myself going, for better or for worse; I tell myself “It may suck now, but by this time next year . . . “ Then, when next year comes and I still haven’t found the fitness instructor who is into older guys with no money and wants to have a family; when I still haven’t published a book; when my kids still don’t understand who and what their mother really is; when I still have long periods of time when I doubt if God is going to ever really make anything good come of all of this suffering, I hit a brick wall. The milestone ceases to be a celebration and becomes a millstone around my neck, dragging me down into the cold, murky depths of sadness and despair.

Doubt, Faith, and Reality

Doubt.

I guess that’s what it all comes down to in the end. I’m a pastor, after all. People expect me to have the answers, to be unflaggingly positive and optimistic, to be strong. But sometimes I look around and say “Really, God? Seriously?”

And then I feel guilty. I feel like a hypocrite. I berate myself for my lack of faith. I paste on a happy face, suck it up, and charge back into the fray, even though I still ache inside and hope desperately that no one notices.

But the guilt stays with me.

I came across the quote by Alister McGrath at the top of the page while reading today, though, and the wheels started turning. Could it really be true that doubt is not the same as unbelief? Is it really possible that, not only is doubt a natural part of our faith journey, but that doubt can’t exist unless there is already faith at work in our lives?

My mind went to the familiar story in Mark Chapter 9. Jesus and his inner circle of disciples have just experienced their own milestone moment. Peter, James, and John were witness to Christ’s transfiguration – a literal mountaintop experience. They were the first human beings to see Jesus for who he really was. They heard the actual voice of God. For a fleeting moment things made perfect sense.

It was so great that they didn’t want to go back to the realities of life in ministry. Mark’s account says that, as they made their way back down the mountain, all they saw was Jesus. How awesome would that have been?

But then reality set in. Jesus started talking – again – about how he was going to be mistreated and would suffer and die, and the farther they walked the louder the sounds of the crowds that followed them everywhere became. The dust in the air, the smells of sickness and unwashed bodies, the cries for help all had to be a huge buzz kill compared to what they had just experienced. Why all of the pain and suffering when the Messiah who walked alongside them could just wave his hand and make it all go away? Why the day-to-day struggles? Why the everydayness of the crowds?

Had any of it even been real?

And then Jesus has an encounter with a man and his son that lays out three very important principles about faith, doubt, and Christian maturity.

Doubt Doesn’t Cancel out Faith

Waiting at the bottom of the mountain are ten frustrated and confused disciples. While Jesus has been off team-building with his favorites, they have been toiling away among the crowds. We aren’t told how long they have been at it, but we can assume that they have been doing the work Jesus taught them to do – healing the sick and the lame and proclaiming the Good News in his absence. But for some reason, this one particular boy, the one prone to epileptic fits and self-injurious behavior, won’t respond.

And to add to their fatigue and frustration, the Pharisees have swooped in to throw in their two cents, probably laughing at them as they try again and again the relieve his suffering. Imagine their state of mind. For that matter, imagine what is going through the mind of the boy’s father. He traveled all this way, stood in line in the hot sun for hours waiting their turn, watching as others are healed and their hope is restored, but when it comes to the person he loves most in the world – that which is more important to him than anything else – nothing.

The doubt hung so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife.

That’s why Mark is so careful to include a very important word in his account of the father’s entreaty to Christ. “If”.

It’s such a tiny word, but it has the power to take a tyrannical stranglehold on our lives. If God is good, then why  . . . ? If God loves me, then why . . . ? If God can really do anything, then why not . . . .?

Jesus, sensing the waning strength of his disciples and the anguished father, cuts right to the chase. In so many words, he makes a revolutionary statement: belief is always stronger than doubt.

We forget that sometimes, don’t we? In our fallen humanity we assume that we either have faith or we have doubts – one or the other. But what if it’s like a half-full glass of water? The top half isn’t really empty, it’s full of air. It is a full glass – half water and half air – the only variable at work is how much of each it contains at any given moment.

It is a battle of belief versus doubt. The Greek term used by both Jesus and the boy’s father, pisteuo, means “to entrust something to another; to obey or follow instructions”.  In the culture of the day, it would be understood that the word referred to both belief that comes from the head as well as from the heart.

Jesus is saying that we can’t sit around waiting to gin ourselves up to the point that all of the unbelief is forced out of us, we must start where we are by taking the first baby step in the right direction. We can’t entrust something to someone else until we first open up our clenched fist and let go of that which we are clinging to so desperately. It all starts with moment-to-moment obedience. And the good news is that it doesn’t take a whole glass full of faith to accomplish great things. In fact, Jesus told his followers in Matthew 17 that if they merely had pisteuo the size of a mustard seed – the tiniest of the tiny – they could move a mountain.

It’s really not about us, in other words, it’s about letting God do what God does.

That’s hard for me. I don’t want to live the rest of my life alone, but as I have discovered in my tentative forays into the dating world, I also no longer have what the opposite sex today is looking for. To try to find companionship without the bank account, home ownership, and material trappings of success that I not only once had, but now seem to be the price of admission for a relationship, is humiliating and discouraging.

My natural impulse is to stamp my foot and say “Fine, God. If you won’t give me what I want, then I’m not doing what you want!” But Jesus waits patiently, asking “Do you believe? Will you open your hand?” And like the boy’s father, I am forced to admit that, yes, I still believe, but there’s a lot more doubt in my glass at the moment than belief.

Doubt is no Match for God’s Love

Once the father is willing to admit his deficiency, he takes the most important step: “Help me with my doubts!” he cries in desperation. The word for help (boetheo) is a combination of two words meaning “to cry out” and “to run”. The idea is that one is crying in such desperation that the other is compelled to run full speed to their aid. It is not a casual request for assistance.

The word was a part of the everyday vocabulary of those in the shipping industry, describing a practice known today as “frapping”. When a ship was caught in a particularly fierce or prolonged storm, the captain would order his crew to “boetheo” the ship, a process by which ropes or chains were wrapped around the hull of the ship and cinched up very tightly so that the beams that held the vessel together would not be loosened and forced apart by the waves.

When the waters rise and we grow tired of treading water, when it feels as if it has been an eternity since our footing was firm and secure, God is waiting at the ready for one simple word from us. When we indicate that we are done trying to force the issue and admit that we truly need help, God wraps us in his arms and pulls us back together again.

In his time. In his way. On his terms.

Doubt is Intended to Drive us Deeper into God

Mark’s account tells us that with a few words, Jesus accomplishes what the disciples were unable to do with hours of effort. The boy is healed, and Jesus goes on as if nothing happened. “Wait just a minute, Jesus,” his followers demand. “Was there something you forgot to tell us? What’s the deal here? We said all the right words, but nothing worked. Why?”

Have you ever felt like that? You’re doing everything you know to do, but life isn’t working out according to plan. I’ve been there more times than I care to admit. We try our best to get God to fit into a simple equation: When this happens, I do this, and therefore God will do this. Sometimes our obedience brings about expected outcomes, but more often than not, things don’t go according to our plans.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples is frank but instructive. “Some things in life don’t change without a lot of prayer and time invested.” In other words, God has more in mind than just answering a simple request. He is using our momentary pain and frustration to accomplish a task of far greater eternal value – to drive us closer to him. As we labor through these chapters in life, we learn that prayer is more than simply reeling off a laundry list of complaints or wishes to a vending machine in the sky, instead it is a drawing near to the God of the universe, who, by virtue of our contact with himself, changes us first and the situation second, if at all. The disciples’ question was about power and control, but Jesus’ answer was about relationship and obedience.

Roads and Signposts

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Christian author C.S. Lewis shared the story of his own struggles with faith. His mother died when he was very young, and his father, unable to cope with his grief, sent Lewis and his brother off to boarding school, where they were physically, and possibly sexually, abused. When his fervent prayers for his mother’s recovery from cancer were not answered, Lewis rejected God and set off on a lifelong search for the sense of happiness and satisfaction that disappeared when his mother passed away.

He searched in alternative religions, in academia, and in the horrors of World War I’s trenches. When he at last found God again, he noted that those things he had been chasing all of his life suddenly seemed unimportant in comparison to what he had gained. That which had been the central desire of his heart was merely a signpost to guide him back to the One he had lost so many years before.“When we are lost in the woods,” he concluded, “the sight of a signpost is a great matter. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They shall encourage us, and we shall be grateful for the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold.”

Keep moving forward in the faith you have. Admit your doubts and ask for God’s help. Let your struggles serve as signposts that draw you closer to the One who waits at the end of the path.

Welcome Home: Becoming God’s Place for Life’s Wounded, Lonely, and Weary

March 26, 2012

Welcome Home:

Becoming God’s Place for Life’s Wounded, Lonely, and Weary

 

“Then the LORD said to Joshua:  ‘Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses.  When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them.’”

     – Joshua 20: 1-4 (NIV)

“Finally, in a sanctuary for outcasts, I understood the truth. Surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own.”                                                                                                     

– Neil White in In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

A Sudden Stop, An Unlikely Sanctuary

Life, as Neil White knew it, ended abruptly in early 1993. Convicted of bank fraud, committed as he tried to keep his magazines afloat in the midst of an economic downturn, White found himself sentenced to eighteen months in prison. But, as he would discover, God had a strange twist in store for him, one that would alter the course of his life and of his very soul forever.

As part of an experimental cost-cutting measure by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, White was one of several hundred men assigned to do their time in an unusual venue. The tiny island compound known as Carville had been home to men and women afflicted with leprosy, now known as Hansen’s Disease, for nearly a century. Due to declining numbers among residents, Federal prisoners were assigned to one wing of the isolated campus on the Mississippi River, while the remaining patients, some of whom had been committed there as small children in the early part of the 20th Century, inhabited the other.

During his stay there, White’s wife divorced him, his friends abandoned him, and he wrestled with intense periods of grief and despair. Slowly, however, he pushed past his fear of the strangely disfigured denizens of Carville and forged close friendships with individuals who had found not only peace, but joy in the midst of losses that made his own look insignificant by comparison.

A major shift for White was Carville’s lack of preoccupation with appearance. For people who were missing fingers, noses, hands, and even legs, looks had long since ceased to have relevance. Instead, time was spent on cultivating character traits such as kindness, acceptance, honesty, and simplicity. For the first time in his life, White began attending church regularly, and the Bible began to take on new significance. The man who formerly lied and deceived in order to make enormous house and car payments, who sacrificed integrity for status and appearances, suddenly came face to face with some hard truths.

“The very act of being honest with myself, taking an objective look at my life, was freeing.” He wrote. “I still did not know exactly how to change, but I had discovered some simple truths: A good life with my children did not require wealth. It was vital to be honest, without worrying about my own image. And helping others was more noble than winning awards.”  Like many of us, Neil White found refuge in unexpected places, and God was waiting there to meet him.

I had always prided myself in being a composed person. It was a great source of satisfaction for me that I had the ability to walk through life without betraying the slightest hint of the turmoil that raged beneath an otherwise placid surface. I recall some who knew me well lamenting that I was impossible to read and maddeningly stoic. Problem was, it was all an act.

The reality was that deep inside I was the most insecure and anxious person I knew. I disliked just about everything imaginable about myself; from my weird hair to my enormous feet; from my inherent clumsiness to my social awkwardness; from my inability to be a morning person to my near total lack of mathematical acumen, I loathed all that was me. And so, for more than forty years, I compensated by adopting a mask of arrogance, haughtiness, and downright meanness to keep people at arms’ length. If nobody got close to the real me, I reasoned, nobody would have the chance to reject me. It would hurt much less if I did the rejecting first.

The façade started crumbling away in my late twenties. I started having my first panic attacks while in seminary. Without warning, the person I was on the inside started seeping out in disturbing and embarrassing ways. Not being able to predict when an attack would come, when I might break down and start crying, or how my anxiety might manifest itself in some bothersome physical symptom, filled me with shame and anger. The medication I had to take packed on some 60 pounds no matter how little I ate or how much I exercised. I tried going to counseling, but the mere notion of having to admit I didn’t have it all under control galled me so much that I never bothered to listen to anything the therapist might have to say. I simply put in my time and chalked it up as a waste.

I look back at that decade of my life as a near complete loss. I was a bad husband and father, son and brother, employee and boss. I hid in darkened rooms, slept as much as possible, refused help or counsel, and generally did everything in my power to alienate anyone who tried to help me. I was convinced that if I could just add one more achievement to the pile, I would emerge from my cocoon as a magnificent butterfly who had overcome his weaknesses.

It started with education. But three Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. later, I still felt worthless. I tried making money, starting up and running a successful private practice. I made more money than I thought possible, but also hit the wall of burnout, compounding my anxiety and depression. I tried martial arts, earning a brown belt in karate and a black belt in taekwondo, as well as dabbling in jiu-jitsu, but could always find someone better than me to be mad at. I hopped from job to job to job, always hoping against hope that the next stop would be the remedy I so desperately needed. Meanwhile, my kids yearned for my attention, friendships faded, and my marriage slowly died of starvation.

Like Neil White, I found myself in a place I didn’t want to be with no say as to how long I would be there. Locked up in a mental institution, surrounded by people I wouldn’t have even considered associating with on the outside, crying uncontrollably, and secretly cursing myself for having even failed at the fundamental task of ending my own miserable life, I unexpectedly found my own place of refuge. Amazingly, God was waiting there for me as well.

As the Israelites crossed over the Jordan and into the Promised Land, one of the first guidelines God passed along to them was the need to establish cities of refuge. These six cities were to be placed under the control of the Levites, and were designed as places where people who had made mistakes could find protection until the situation was sorted out and proper judgment could be passed. The Hebrew for refuge used in Joshua 20,(miqlat), is derived from the root for “stunted” or “deformed”, implying that these were to be places that welcomed people who were in some way ill-equipped to cope with what they were facing in life.

Although the old covenant has passed away, I believe that Christ has tasked us today with the job of serving as individual and corporate cities of refuge – people and church bodies who accept and shelter the lost and hurting with the hope of redemption and healing. Let’s look more closely at the concept of individuals as refuge from three different angles.

Refuge as a Source of Hope

In 1984, psychologist Richard Lazarus published the first in a groundbreaking series of studies about the link between perceptions and emotional suffering. In studying patients with chronic medical problems, Lazarus discovered that those who believed that they would get better, even when that belief was neither realistic nor encouraged by the treating medical professional, suffered less emotional turmoil over the course of the illness. Further, he found that patients who believed they had the resources – whether financial, medical, emotional, or relational – to cope with what lay ahead fared better than those who did not, regardless of prognosis. In other words, Lazarus established that human beings are designed to seek refuge, and even when they can find none externally, will create an internal place of hope and comfort for themselves.

God’s command to designate specific physical cities of refuge was a way of offering concrete sources of hope to those who were desperately in need of a lifeline. The Hebrew `iyr (city) denotes a sense of safety or being watched over, but is based on a root word that described a state of awakening, or opened eyes. In this sense, a city, then, is purposely characterized as a space in which the lost, hurting, and hopeless may find not only safety, but a new perspective regarding the opportunities in front of them.

In times of crisis we often seek out the counsel of others, not so much because we think they have answers that will solve our problems, but because we instinctually crave reassurance that all is not lost, that God is faithful and able to make all things new, that we have not fallen beyond the reach of His hand. To paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, we long for someone to remind us that, even if we are disappointed in the short term, we can still rely on infinite hope to sustain us. As individual followers of Christ we all have the capacity, as well as the opportunity, to share hope and encouragement with those around us. Whether it is taking a moment to bless someone with a hand on the shoulder or a query about their struggles or sitting silently beside a grieving widow or next to a hospital bed, we embody the very Source of hope in the Holy Spirit, who speaks to and through us, even when we have no idea what to say or do.

Refuge as a Forum for Repentance

There is an elegant simplicity to Freud’s concept of the human psyche. Three divisions – the Id, the Ego, and the Superego – run behind the scenes at all times, determining what comes to our conscious awareness and, in turn, how we respond to life’s challenges. The Id is our instincts and animal desires; it seeks to gain pleasure at all costs, and might be analogous to our sin nature. At the other extreme, the Superego seeks to attain perfection in every circumstance; we get our sense of shame and guilt from it, and much of our anxiety and depression evolves from an unchecked pursuit of these things. In the middle is the mediating Ego, which functions on the reality principle. It stands between the unrealistic and unhealthy demands of the Id and the Superego and works to find a reasonable and healthy compromise between the two. According to Freud, and strong Ego equals a healthy psyche.

Problems arise, however, when we hit life’s metaphorical walls, when we fail or are failed by others so badly that the Ego is overwhelmed. Perhaps the Id’s demands for revenge are too strong or the Superego’s constant rehashing of our shortcomings becomes too strident, but whatever the case, Freud theorized that, in order to keep the inmates from running the asylum, the Ego puts in place defense mechanisms – self-preserving distortions of reality – to shield the Ego while it recharges. We get commonly-used terms like “denial,” “projection,” and “repression” among others, from this theory.

The problem we encounter on our spiritual journey is that, where there are unrecognized and unaddressed defense mechanisms, there can be no repentance. When we continue to point the finger of blame instead of accepting our responsibility, we cannot begin to heal, grow, and change. Cities of refuge play an important role here.

In verse 4, refugees are given two simple instructions upon arriving at the city gates: stand in the entrance and state their case.

Stand in the Entrance

The Hebrew for “stand” (`amad) literally means “to be still; to endure”. The picture here is of a lost and hurting person waiting at the crossing over point between bondage and probable death on one side and freedom and healing on the other. The impulse is to force our way in by any means necessary. We may threaten; we might beg and plead; we might lie, cheat, or steal to gain access. God emphasizes the importance here of stopping and waiting. There is a period of “dead space” for many of us between our realization that we need to change and the presentation of that opportunity. We wonder if God has heard our prayers or even cares, but often it is merely a necessary time for us to overcome our defense mechanism and come face to face with the person everyone else already knows we are but whom we have conveniently locked away somewhere.

My “dead” period lasted for almost a year. It seemed interminable, but it was necessary. As I agonized and raged, wept and plead, my defenses fell away and I began to see myself for who I had become – an arrogant, petulant, supremely selfish individual who had lost sight of who God had called me to be and how that should inform my words and actions. Although I was in incredible emotional pain, those closest to me shared that they could almost day-by-day see the person they had known and loved re-emerging from the one I had become over the years. Admitting who we are is a bitter pill to swallow, but the taste helps us fight the temptation to veer back onto that path in the future.

State your Case

This time of waiting has another purpose. The person is supposed to be thinking about how to present him/herself. In other words, they need to get their story straight. The language used for this phase loosely means “speak their speech”. The reuse of the word in the original language is a device to intensify its meaning. This is not a rote recitation of wrongdoings or a perfunctory canned speech; it is intended to be contemplative and introspective.

Life’s tragedies tend to enter our brains via the right hemisphere, the area responsible for emotion and possibility, but they also tend to get stuck there. When the imagery, feelings, and worst-case scenarios cycle around and around the right brain like clothes in a dryer, our negative emotions intensify, our ability to find a way out is dulled, and our sense of paralysis and hopelessness reaches a crescendo. The only way to transfer this data to our left hemisphere – planning, processing, and logic – is to speak or write it out. When we take this vital step, things start to make sense and healing can begin.

Herein lies the value of counseling or accountability partners. An impartial third party can listen without judging, offer unbiased observations, and ensure that we don’t brush off important insights gained. God has designed us such that it is impossible to accomplish this on our own; we must have help to get past our trauma and loss.

Refuge as a Place of Acceptance and Healing

Erik Erikson had a fundamental disagreement with Freud’s vision of human development as purely individual or internal. His reworking of a fairly simple model to incorporate the social aspect of development revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human. The stage at which we spend a large part of our adult years is a conflict between the need for intimacy and solidarity and the unproductive alternative of isolation and superiority. We cannot, it seems, become fully-functioning, mature individuals without the acceptance and affirmation of others, and herein lies the final value of the city of refuge. The two instructions given those in the city are consistent with this goal: admit him and give him a place.

Admit Him

Perhaps our greatest fear on a social level is that, once we have dropped the façade and allowed others to see us as we really are, we will be rejected outright; doomed to wander alone as a penalty for our shortcomings. The biblical model states that the risk of transparency is to be rewarded with fellowship and acceptance. The Hebrew here (‘acaph) means “to be brought into association,” or “to welcome home”. It is a concrete expression of acceptance and belonging to someone who has no one or nothing to hand onto for support.

Give Him a Place

As Erikson’s theory implies, when we approach life alone, we are weak and powerless, but when we walk the journey in community, we have the strength of the pack behind us. The root word for “place,” used here is from a root word that means “to become powerful,” or “to become valid”. What an amazing opportunity we have to be a part of a fundamental transformation in the life of another human being when we engage in the simple act of welcoming them into our church, our family, or our circle of friends. This side of heaven we may never know just how deeply we have touched the lives of others with our gestures of welcome and love, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant at the time.

Grateful for My Chains

The apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Philippian church from the depths of a Roman prison. In this cold, dark, and desolate environment, it would have been understandable if his words were at the very least muted or sorrowful; yet the Book of Philippians is traditionally known as the Bible’s joy manifesto. From the very outset, Paul is able to give thanks for his chains because they are an opportunity for others to be encouraged, His focus is not on his temporal discomfort, but on the eternal value of his sacrifice.

As Neil White’s sentence at Carville drew to a close, he was faced with many questions. He no longer had a wife or a home to return to. He was a convicted felon without a job or a bank account, abandoned by many of his former friends, and a source of embarrassment to his family. Yet, as his book concludes, we find him in the prison chapel, taking communion alongside the very social outcasts who welcomed him into their home and gave him the refuge he needed to turn his life around.

“I was honored,” he recalled, “to take communion in the same sanctuary where society’s outcasts asked God to console their suffering. I felt privileged to live and work and play in a place that few had ever seen. And I was grateful I had been imprisoned here, in a leprosarium, where I could begin to rebuild my life a different way.”

Take time to look at your chains from God’s perspective. They may merely be the keys to a new and better home; Take time to look at the lost and hurting around you from God’s perspective. They may very well be at your door for a divine appointment with the hands and feet of Christ; Take time to look at your blessings from God’s perspective. They are neither deserved nor guaranteed, but are opportunities to praise the One from whom every good and perfect gift (and different path) comes.

More than I Can Bear: Of Restless Hearts, Weed-Free Souls, and the Grace of Redemptive Failure

March 4, 2012

More than I Can Bear:

Of Restless Hearts, Weed-Free Souls, and the Grace of Redemptive Failure

                       

“Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’”

 – Genesis 4:13-14 (NIV)

“But my soul, heart, mind—what has grown, what has ripened, what has been discarded together with the weeds, that can’t be communicated and set down on a sheet of paper…. In general, prison has taken away many things from me and brought many others.”

                                                                                                                                                                    – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Buried Alive and Left for Dead

In April of 1849 twenty-eight year old Fyodor Dostoevsky stood shivering hour after hour in the biting Russian wind, the ankle-deep slush numbing his toes as he waited to die. The firing squad, equally confused, stood at the ready, waiting on the final word from Emperor Nicholas, who had passed sentence on the young author for reading aloud works that opposed autocratic rule. Finally, Dostoevsky was informed that his sentence had been commuted from death to four years of exile and hard labor in Siberia.

In January of that year he was herded with a group of other prisoners onto a prison train bound for Omsk, an isolated outpost in the Siberian tundra, where he would serve his time. The next four years were an interminable period of privation and suffering unimaginable to him until that time. In his letters to family he described his experience as “being shut up in a coffin,” noting, “It was inexpressible, unending suffering, because every hour, every minute weighed on my soul like a stone.”

Dostoevsky went into prison a man of nominal faith and convictions, but emerged a man profoundly changed, who described himself as transformed. His writings took on added depth and began to explore the inner workings of human nature and “eternal questions”, but more importantly, a grounded faith in God.

There is nothing quite so horrifying as the experience of being locked away against one’s will. It is nearly impossible to adequately describe the helplessness, the humiliation, and the feeling of utter hopelessness that follow the sound of doors clanging shut behind you that will only open if and when someone else deems it appropriate.

The involuntary hospitalization following my suicide attempt is filled with bad memories – the kind that I try not to think about, but often resurface in my dreams. Looking back, I can’t think of even a moment when my mind wasn’t racing with ways to bargain or beg for my freedom. I was overwhelmed with the need to get back to a home that no longer existed, to salvage a marriage that was already over, to reassemble a family already shattered beyond repair. I remember writing long, rambling letters with the short, soft-leaded pencils we were allowed to use, taking blame for everything that went wrong in our marriage, even making up things that I had done and seeking absolution in the hope that it would be enough. I prayed; I cried; I hoped – all in vain.

The word “hospital” implies that some sort of rehabilitation or healing takes place. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My time there was nothing short of imprisonment. My clothing – right down to my underwear – was taken from me, replaced with ill-fitting hospital-issue apparel, including open-toed beige shower sandals that flapped as one walked. There was no therapy, only unfilled time spent sitting in a large common room with a TV that ran nonstop, and which was difficult to hear over the near-constant arguments between inmates and, more often, between inmates and the voices in their heads. Nearly half of the population was overflow from county jails – inmates awaiting sentencing or psychiatric evaluation before moving on to prison, which meant a constant threat of violence. It was a noisy, malodorous, miasma of misery that fairly vibrated with a mixture of agitation and hopelessness. I would do nearly anything to avoid experiencing it again.

And yet it changed me.

Like Dostoevsky, I went in an arrogant, entitled, petulant man who demanded an exponential return for his efforts and affections, and who was not above punishing those around him who disappointed or fell short by means of scorn, sarcasm, or just plain refusing to any longer acknowledge their existence. It took nearly dying, and then being buried alive, to bring me to the place where God was able to chip away at the sharp corners and rough edges that defined me as a person.

As Peter Hitchens, brother of recently deceased atheist author Christopher Hitchens, recently wrote in his book Rage Against God, we tend to bring these circumstances upon ourselves by virtue of our entitled attitudes and lax values. In reflecting upon his own journey from Christian to atheist to Christian again, he writes, “Perhaps (my attitude) was because (my parents) brought us up too kindly, convinced in the post-war age that we should not endure the privation, danger, and strict discipline that they had had to put up with, so we turned arrogant. I certainly did.”

Sometimes a course correction is in order, and sometimes that correction proves painful.

Redemptive Failure Defined

These experiences, which I have come to refer to as redemptive failures, are what I believe to be God ordained experiences of failure and loss that are so painful and devastating that they bring us to the end of ourselves and open the door for God’s power to work anew in our lives. Although I hesitate to imply that God brings about such catastrophic events, I do believe that he allows our choices and those of others to bring them about and then gives us the option to be redeemed and restored through them.

Despite the fact that God does take away a great deal during these times, it is a mistake to think that he takes away everything, much less leaves us for dead. As we take a deeper look at the story of Cain in Genesis 4, we will see that there are three very important doors that God leaves open for everyone.

God Never Turns His Back

I doubt Cain ever set out to kill his brother. Like most of us, he was doing what he thought was expected of him at the time. His reaction to God’s correction – “Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (v.5) – indicates that he was extremely embarrassed and humiliated. He probably brought his sacrifice in complete confidence that he would be praised for his hard work in the fields and the excellent quality of his offering. When he got an unexpected reaction, it set off a flood of emotion inside of him.

In counseling I often find myself explaining to people that anger is what we can a secondary emotion, meaning that it never arises in a vacuum, but rather is caused by another feeling, such as hurt, loss, fear, or sadness. The problem with these primary emotions is that we perceive them as weakness. To admit that we are hurt or afraid is to invite ridicule or that we are unable to handle what is in front of us, so instead, we choose to become powerful in the most convenient way possible – anger.

The problem with anger is that it takes us out of the realm of reasoning and purely into the realm of emotion. We say and do things we normally wouldn’t. Some people even describe periods of blackout when they are extremely upset. The anger described here (charah) means “to kindle,” or “to burn very hot”. It flares up quickly and intensely, often going away just as suddenly, but sometimes not before we do something we regret afterward.

Life is like that sometimes. We are going along doing our best in whatever arena of life it may be, and we make a minor mistake. God, whether through circumstances or direct means, offers a mild correction, and rather than taking the time to let it soak in and really examine its merits, we flare up and rebel. Unfortunately, our rebellion often sets of a chain of events that then requires a much stiffer set of consequences, and that is when we are in danger of falling away from God. The Bible speaks frequently about anger, but never designates the emotion in and of itself as wrong. Anger only becomes bad when it causes us to sin.

Ironically, the very emotional response we use with the intent of protecting ourselves from embarrassment usually ends up humiliating us all the more, and worse yet, creating more distance between ourselves and those we care about. Notice Cain’s first reaction to God’s pronouncement. It is first and foremost an expression of sorrow that God has turned away from him: “My punishment is more than I can bear. . . I will be hidden from your presence” (v. 13). The original language here basically says “you will turn your face away from me”. Cain is heartbroken at the thought of losing his relationship with Him; more than losing his family or his home, Cain is afraid of losing God.

In response, God gives him a reassurance of their bond. The story says that God placed a “mark” (‘owth) on Cain so that everyone would know he was under God’s protection no matter where he went. The word implies that this was proof of an agreement between two parties, a sign of warning. Although God’s correction stood, he didn’t abandon Cain.

In our own lives we sometimes pray for God to take away the consequences of our choices. We protest that it is more than we can bear. But for whatever reason, He chooses to let those circumstances stand. If we look, though, we will always find evidence that he never stops walking alongside us, protecting us along the way, as we grow through it.

God Never Leaves us Alone

A second fear voiced by Cain is that of being alone. Up to this point, his entire world has been the area around the Garden of Eden. The rest of creation is a scary place, and in a culture in which family is not just valued but seen as a necessity, he is suddenly very much on his own.

I never gave much thought to loneliness when I was married. Getting a few minutes alone in a house with three children was a pretty good trick in and of itself, so there was no time or opportunity to be lonely. But as soon as all of that was ripped away from me, the isolation descended on me like a cold, damp, gray cloud. Time slowed down, food lost its taste, sleep was hard to come by, and words stopped making sense. I was painfully, brutally, excruciatingly aware of my aloneness, which was quickly accompanied by nagging feelings that I had come to deserve this state by virtue of some fundamental flaw within myself.

We can hear those same feelings in Cain’s lament, as he heads east to the land of Nod (wandering). The most difficult seasons of our lives are generally those in which we feel lost. Life used to make sense; our goals seemed clear and achievable; we knew exactly where we were going and what to do. But then the rug gets pulled out from under us and we start wandering. Sometimes we wander for a few hours, sometimes for weeks, or months, or years. But God’s plan is to teach us and guide us even as we wander, and he knows we are not meant to be alone.

We pick up the story and see that Cain has found a wife and that she has borne him a son. The specific word used for “wife” here, ‘ishshah, is from an Arabic root word that means “to nest, to take root, or to be established”. In his goodness and mercy, God gave Cain what his heart desired – a sense of stability and place again.

We also see that, in turn, Cain’s heart has changed. The passage says that Cain named his firstborn son Enoch, which means “dedicated,” or “trained up”, Cain’s way of promising that he would make it his life’s work to teach his son to love and obey God above all else. He must have done a good job, because Genesis 5 tells us that “Enoch walked faithfully with God” (v. 21) for 365 years before God “took him away”. Additionally, the genogram tells us that Noah, the one man God saw fit to rescue from the great flood, was directly descended from Enoch, and therefore, from Cain.

Times of loneliness and despair are intended as opportunities for us to examine our hearts before God and allow him to make the necessary changes to our character. As we are faithful in those walks in the fog, we can take comfort in the fact that God knows the deepest desires of our hearts, and seeks to honor them.

 God Never Leaves us Defenseless

Cain’s final fear is that of coming to harm at the hands of other people. God’s mark is a part of that equation, but we also see that, as Cain is transformed from within, his outward circumstances change accordingly. The passage says that not only does God give him stability, place, and heritage in the form of his wife and son, but also that Cain is able to “build a city” that he also names Enoch.

The terms “build” and “city” denote two very significant developments in Cain’s life. First, it tells us that he is restored to wholeness. The term banah (build) means “to restore, to establish, or to rebuild”. Interestingly, it is also used to describe a man who gains a son for himself by impregnating a servant woman or concubine. As such, we get a picture of the transformation of a broken, devastated, hopeless man into a new creation who has a hope and a future ahead of him again, but who knows full well that these blessings have come with help from someone else. It is the mark of someone who has found humility and contentment.

Secondly, the word for “city” (`iyr) comes from a root word meaning “to be excited or triumphant” and indicates it is a place in which there is a guard on watch against danger. As Cain established a safe place of his own, he experienced hope again, but more importantly, he experienced a sense of victory and security that came from God alone.

In our times of confusion, pain, loss, and betrayal, we are tempted to give in to feelings that everyone is out to get us and that we have been abandoned somehow. The truth is that God is working tirelessly behind the scenes to help us find what we need, and it will arrive right on time.

Keeping the Wolves at Bay

In 1876, some twenty years after his release from prison, Dostoevsky wrote a simple story called The Peasant Marey as an account of his own transformation in the gulag. In the story, Dostoevsky is dealing with the daily stresses of prison camp. He is watching as a group of low-born prisoners brawl and argue drunkenly, and finds himself sympathizing with a fellow prisoner of noble birth who laments at the burden they must bear at being forced to live in close proximity to such animals.

Finding a relatively quiet spot, the author drifts into a restless sleep and dreams of an episode from his childhood, where, playing in the forest, he suddenly becomes convinced that he is being stalked by a wolf. Frantically, he runs, screaming for help, and encounters a peasant worker in his family’s employ named Marey. Tenderly and with genuine concern, Marey comforts the small boy, reassuring him that, even if there is a wolf, he will protect him from being harmed. “Cross yourself, lad,” he says, “and the Lord be with you.” When he finds himself too terrified to engage in the simple act of trusting God to care for him, the kindly peasant reaches out and crosses the boy himself, whispering “Christ be with you.” Miraculously, the childhood Dostoevsky is able to return to play, forgetting his fear, trusting in the care of the hired hand.

Upon awakening, Dostoevsky wrote of a dramatic change within:

“I remembered that encounter so vividly, right down to the last detail.  That means it had settled unnoticed in my heart, all by itself with no will of mine, and had suddenly come back to me at a time when it was needed; I recalled the tender, maternal smile of a poor serf, the way he crossed me and shook his head: “Well you did take a fright now, didn’t you, lad!” And I especially remember his thick finger, soiled with dirt, that he touched quietly and with shy tenderness to my trembling lips. Of course, anyone would try to reassure a child, but here in this solitary encounter something quite different had happened, and had I been his very own son he could not have looked at me with a glance that radiated more pure love, and who had prompted him to do that? 

 Our encounter was solitary, in an open field, and only God, perhaps, looking down saw what deep and enlightened human feeling and what delicate, almost feminine tenderness could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian serf who at the time did not expect or even dream of his freedom. 

 And so when I climbed down from my bunk and looked around, I remember I suddenly felt I could regard these unfortunates in an entirely different way and that suddenly, through some sort of miracle, the former hatred and anger in my heart had vanished. I went off, peering intently into the faces of those I met.”

The burden is not more than you can bear. Instead, God is waiting to do a dramatic change in you as well. Wait for it; watch for it; and when it comes, welcome it.

 

In the Strength that is Yours: Navigating Life’s Disappointments and Devastations when Miracles Don’t Happen

February 23, 2012

In the Strength that is Yours:

Navigating Life’s Disappointments and Devastations when Miracles Don’t Happen

“’If God is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all the miracle-wonders our parents and grandparents told us about, telling us, ‘Didn’t God deliver us from Egypt?’ The fact is, God has nothing to do with us—he has turned us over to Midian.’ But God faced him directly: ‘Go in this strength that is yours. Save Israel from Midian. Haven’t I just sent you?’”

 – Judges 6:13-14 (MSG)

“At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”

       – Flannery O’Connor

Painful Grace and the Battle against Despair

Almost from the moment I first cracked the pages of A Good Man is Hard to Find as a high school sophomore, I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor. Her dark, wry sense of humor and her unapologetically grotesque Southern Gothic writing style appealed to my natural cynicism and youthful disdain for easy answers. It wasn’t until I got to college and had the privilege of studying under an excellent O’Connor scholar that my appreciation for her moved to a different level altogether.

O’Connor, you see, was forced to come face to face with the difficult questions of faith at an early age. Her father Edward, whom she adored, was diagnosed with Lupus in her early teens. He deteriorated quickly and died a painful death when she was barely fifteen years old. Her devastation drove her deeper into her inner world of books and faith, and she turned to writing as an outlet for her emotional pain and frustration with easy-believism rampant in the world around her.

By her early twenties it was apparent that O’Connor had inherited her father’s illness, and by age twenty-six she had been officially diagnosed and given less than five years to live. Despite periods of near incapacitation followed by periods of remission achieved by the use of medications that left her anxious and bloated, she refused to allow herself to become bitter or lose sight of the work God was doing in her life. “Grace changes us,” she explained, “and change is painful.”

Before her death in 1964 at only thirty-nine years of age, Flannery O’Connor had published two classic novels – Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away–  as well as two collections of short stories – A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge. She became well-known for bucking the trend of offering miraculous resolutions to characters’ conflicts and reassuring evangelistic diatribes in religious fiction of the day, preferring instead to allow them to be transformed by the painful consequences of their own foibles and miscues. A firm believer that offering religious faith as an easy and convenient panacea for all that ailed mankind was an insult to both God and man, she summarized her philosophy in a letter to her best friend Betty Hester that later became the epitaph on her tombstone: “Let me tell you this: faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will.”

Balancing Faith and Reality

If my personal experience is any indicator, faith seems to ebb and flow in conjunction with the tides of the grief process. After my wife left, I found myself in a frantic state of denial. I was convinced that God was just itching for an opportunity to swoop in and save my marriage and my family, if only I had enough faith. With a fervor matched only by my mounting anxiety, I threw all of my energy into studying the Bible, reading books about faith and miracles, and praying like never before. I fasted for twenty-one days, begging God to give me back my life, pleading for a miraculous change of heart all around, and desperately looking under every rock for signs of him at work.

Things only got worse. The divorce went through, my financial world collapsed around me, my children bought into the lies their mother and grandparents were feeding them, and my ex-wife’s boyfriend moved into what had been my house, bed, and favorite TV-watching chair. Thanks a lot, God.

My experience was not the kind you read about in Reader’s Digest or Guideposts. There were no warm fuzzies to spread around – it was a scratch-and-claw, day-by-day (sometimes moment-by-moment) struggle to survive. There were days I didn’t want to live anymore; days when I stayed in bed; days when I shook my fist and screamed at the heavens. But bit by bit, my world adjusted and I found pieces fitting together – not perfectly or serendipitously, but, as I am learning to tell myself, better than I deserve.

What I am learning is that God doesn’t come through in miraculous ways very often. If he did, they wouldn’t really be miracles – they’d just be everyday occurrences. Faith is not a magical elixir that we swallow so that the world becomes all that we hope and dream, rather, it is the strength to hold on (sometimes by our fingernails) to the belief that God has something better in store while the winds rage and howl and the earth shakes in our little corner of the world, and life goes on for everyone else as usual.

The story of Gideon illustrates three major stumbling blocks that challenge our faith during difficult times, as well as one not-so-revolutionary solution that God provides to help us keep forging ahead when there is no miracle forthcoming.

Backstabbers and Fair Weather Friends

The story picks up with Israel in trouble once again, this time at the hands of the Midianite people. Midian was a son of Abraham, who eventually spawned a tribe of shepherds, slave traders, and ne’er do wells who proved themselves untrustworthy as allies and as enemies. They were generally friendly to their Israelite relatives so long as they didn’t stray into their prime grazing lands, but after joining forces with the king of Moab, they become pagan idol worshippers and were not above trying to lure Israel into their web of deceit if it benefitted them financially.

Because of their sinful and wayward ways, Judges 6 tells us that God “gave them into the hands” of Midian, and things were apparently bad enough that Gideon and his people fled their homes and were living high in the mountains where they could avoid the raiding hordes, who would take their crops and livestock and drive them away without provocation.

The Hebrew “Midian” means “brawling, strife, or contention”. We all have people in our lives that bring out the worst in us. Like the Midianites, they are our friends when it benefits them, but have little compunction over slipping the knife in our backs when the winds shift. I recall a Saturday morning shortly after I was released from the hospital when my father-in-law made a great show of approaching me at my younger son’s basketball game, giving me a treacly, magnanimous hug, and telling me that he was praying for me. Not long after that I found out that he had been simultaneously spreading lies about me and assassinating my character to a wide range of mutual friends in order to justify my ex-wife’s adultery and dishonesty and make me appear to be a villain.

Brawling and strife are stumbling blocks because they misdirect our energies and attention away from the real task at hand. We are distracted from seeking God and acting rightly and focus instead on lashing back and exacting revenge. We are either tempted to return lies for lies and become caught up in an escalating battle of tit for tat or to retreat to the caves of hopelessness and despair and give up on life altogether.

Paul cautioned the church at Ephesus to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31) because they cut off the power of God’s Spirit in our lives. The term “get rid” (airo) literally means “lift up,” or “carry away”.  It implies that, although we are tempted to blame such behaviors on those with whom we are in conflict, the responsibility for them lies with us. We must take out the garbage and leave it at the curb.

Bitter and Cynical Quitters

The second group of people who were making life miserable for Gideon were the Amalekites (“valley dwellers”).  These descendants of Jacob’s rough and tough brother Esau were known for being unusually tall and imposing – the Arabic word for their tribe means “giant” – and were apparently not above being ruthless, cruel, and tyrannical. They were condemned by God for attacking the Israelites when they were fleeing Egypt, preying on the feeble and elderly who lagged behind, and plundering their goods. Haman, who called for the extermination of the Hebrew people in the Book of Esther, was also an Amalekite.

These types of people tend to come out of the woodwork when they sense that we are down or struggling. In my experience, they were old “friends and acquaintances” who suddenly became concerned about my well-being after years of little to no contact. They pumped me for information about what was going on under the guise of offering support, but were really just seeking grist for the gossip mill or to play both sides of the conflicts between my ex-wife and myself.

Valley Dwellers come into our lives to drag us down to their level. They have been hurt or disappointed by God and want you to be bitter, too. They tell you that your faith is useless and that if God really loved you this would never have happened, but rather than really caring about you, they are looking for entertainment or perhaps an ally in their own conflicts. Nothing good will come out of continued association with them.

The tricky thing about Valley Dwellers is that they are often churchgoers who profess to be followers of Christ. Many of those I encountered were members of my church at the time, and expressed genuine care for me on one hand while eviscerating me to others the next moment.

The Amalekites in your life must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. God gave a straightforward prescription in Deuteronomy 25, commanding “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget” and later to King Saul in I Samuel 15 “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are literally to kill or destroy these people in our lives, but it does mean that we need to disassociate ourselves from them and to stay watchful for their return. In my case, I learned to politely let my Amalekite associates know that, while I appreciated their concern, I only had room in my life for friends who were on my side, and that if they ever decided that they wanted to stop condoning the bad things being done to me, they were welcome to be a part of my life again. Then I deleted their e-mail addresses and phone numbers and moved on.

Beautiful and Worldly Apostates

The third group that was causing trouble for Gideon and Israel was the Amorites, whose name means “popular or noteworthy”. Judges 6:10 tells us that Israel didn’t waste much time after escaping Egypt before they started worshipping the Amorite gods. The Amorite people had a history of living as nomads, but at some point began to infiltrate existing kingdoms, ingratiating themselves to the people therein, and eventually overtaking them like some sort of parasite. They were tall, fierce, and impressive, depicted in Egyptian art as having blonde hair and blue eyes, leading people to assume that they would be a positive addition to the culture, but Jewish apocryphal literature indicates that they were masters of witchcraft and “an evil and sinful people whose wickedness surpasses that of any other” (Book of Jubilees).  They were fond of adorning their idols with beautiful jewels that shone and gleamed in the light, drawing people to the promise of riches and prosperity.

The Amorites of the world tend to stand alluringly on the fringes, parading their outward trappings of success and achievement for us to see. They entice us with the promise of sexual fulfillment, enduring love and friendship, and the undying admiration of the in crowd. But those promises come with a price, namely that we abandon what we know to be morally right in favor of feeding the appetites of our sin nature. They are beautiful on the outside, but empty and devoid of substance on the inside.

As demonstrated in Joshua 11:9-11, the answer to dealing with the Amorites in our lives is to make a clean sweep: “Joshua did to them as the LORD had directed: He hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots. At that time Joshua turned back and captured Hazor and put its king to the sword. (Hazor had been the head of all these kingdoms.) Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed, and he burned Hazor itself.” Notice that Joshua didn’t stop with just ignoring or moving away from them, but “turned back” and finished the job.  The word “destroyed” (charam) means “to eliminate completely; to ban”. Because of the power of the pull that the Beautiful People have on our fleshly hearts and minds, we can’t just ignore or make a partial break from them. It has to be a decisive break.  As Paul was to later exhort the Christians in Corinth, “Come out from them and be separate” (II Corinthians 6:17).

Keep on Chopping Wood

So we rejoin Gideon, skulking around in a hole in the ground trying to thresh some wheat without being detected and having it ripped away. When God’s messenger approaches him, offering reassurance and hope, Gideon responds like most of us when we are going through bad times: “If God is so great,” he seems to ask, “then where is he now? How about a little abracadabra here?”

But God isn’t interested in immediate solutions – he is interested in building faith and developing character – so the reply is somewhat disappointing on the surface. “Go,” the angel instructs him, “in the strength that is yours.” The word used for “go” here literally means to “walk’; the fantastic counsel given by the emissary from God himself basically amounts to “Take the next step. You have everything you need. No miracle is necessary.”

Is it any accident that the main character in this drama is named Gideon, which means “to chop” or “to hew”? It reminds me of a martial arts instructor I knew who would coach us from the sideline to “keep on chopping wood,” during a match. His message was basically to keep doing the simple things he had taught us and to have faith that we would eventually overcome our opponent. In the same way, God is telling Gideon (and, by extension, us) that most of life’s difficulties require a pretty simple response set: Keep on chopping wood. Do the next right thing. Worry more about what God thinks of you than what anyone else says. It is neither glamorous nor miraculous, but it is a thematic thread woven throughout God’s Word.

Truth, Believe it or Not

Flannery O’Connor died without a miraculous healing, but that is not to say that she didn’t experience a miracle. Despite suffering for fifteen years from a deadly and debilitating illness, O’Connor managed to become a prolific and influential writer and speaker who deeply impacted the social and religious thinking of her world to such a degree that she was posthumously given the National Book Award in 1972. God’s faithfulness remained, even if not in the form she would have preferred. Or as O’Connor once put it, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

Cultivate your faith in the good times; hold on to it fiercely in the bad times. It remains the only reliable truth in this life, even when you can’t muster the strength to believe it.