Saturday, August 06, 2005

Friend of the Outcasts, Lord of the Faithful, Conqueror of Evil (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 11)

Matthew 8

After chapters five through seven of Matthew's Gospel, which recount a time of extended teaching by Jesus, we come to the markedly different chapter 8.

If the previous three chapters are Jesus' verbal portraits of life in the Kingdom of God, this chapter presents us with the kingdom in action as Jesus, God in the flesh, encounters one person after another.

Matthew 8:1-4: Here, Jesus meets a leper. Even today, in some parts of the world, leprosy is a tremendous problem, its victims sent to live in colonies away from society. In Jesus' day, people suffering from the disease were subject to all sorts of religious laws and social customs designed to keep them separated from others. They often lived together on the outskirts of towns and cities. Those not afflicted with leprosy certainly avoided touching those who were.

All of this makes Jesus' encounter with the leper especially remarkable. The leper kneels before Jesus and prays, in essence, "Your will be done." "Lord, if You choose, You can make me clean," he tells Jesus.

In response to the man's trusting prayer, Jesus reaches out, touches the leper, and says, "Be made clean!" "Immediately," we're told, the man's leprosy disappeared.

Given the taboos Jesus violates here, it's fair to ask: What is the biggest miracle in this encounter, the healing itself or the fact that Jesus touched the leprous man?

For the religious legalists, appalled by Jesus' message that God loves sinners and saves those who believe or trust in Him, the leper's healing is of secondary importance. For them, Jesus break with tradition gives proof that He really isn't from God.

Once again, we see Jesus' attitude about God's commands and religious laws. They're designed to help us live closely to God, not designed as impediments to be negotiated. When we use religious law to forego acting compassionately or lovingly toward others, we're ignoring the two great themes of all of God's law: loving God and loving neighbor.

Old Testament law proscribed that those no longer suffering from leprosy were to go to a priest at the temple in Jerusalem. His job in this situation was to certify that the leper had in fact been "cleansed" and could therefore resume a normal life at home and in the larger community. Jesus tells the man to go do this, prefaced with an admonition: "See that you say nothing to anyone..." What's up with that?

Jesus' miracles, such as this healing was, weren't meant to dazzle people or be seen as ends in themselves. They were what the New Testament Greek calls semeia, signs. Signs don't point to themselves. They point to something else. Jesus' signs were meant to point to the fact that He was the Messiah, the Lord's Anointed, the long-promised Savior of the world.

Jesus often told people not to tell others about His signs because, until His mission on earth was completed, they could easily form a wrong impression of Him. They could follow Him for the sake of His signs, rather than for the deeper deeds He came into the world to accomplish.

People did form misimpressions of Him. They saw Him as a mighty miracle-maker. As a powerful weapon to be used against the Romans. As someone who could call down the blessings of ease, wealth, and power for His countrymen.

But restoring people's physical health, feeding masses from a few scraps of fish and bread, or even bringing a person back from the dead--among the miracles Jesus performed--didn't address the fundamental human problem, Jesus pointed out. That problem, in a nutshell, was (and is) that human beings were and are sinners whose sin deserve death and everlasting separation from God.

Only after Jesus had gone to a cross, accepting our rightful punishment for sin, and had risen from the dead, certifying His power over sin and death, would His signs make sense. The signs pointed to Jesus' dominion over life, death, and eternity. They pointed to our need of turning from sin and completely depending on Him. But until His death and resurrection, people might be inclined to see His miracles as ends in themselves.

Many people today, like the Romans and Judeans who put Him to death two-thousand years ago, seem to want Jesus without His cross or tomb. Their attention is riveted to His signs. They want Jesus as their cosmic rabbit's foot, the God-Man Who will do their bidding.

But they don't want Jesus' Lordship over them.

They don't want to submit to humbly admitting their sins or their need of God.

They don't want everlasting dependence on God.

They don't want to be crucified with Christ--which is what happens when we turn from our sin.

They don't want the often psychologically, spiritually, and relationally painful "cross" of admitting their limitations and their desperate need of the help God provides through Jesus Christ.

By commanding the leper to defer telling anyone how he had been healed, Jesus was telling him, "There's no resurrection without the cross, no life without complete surrender to Me."

One of my favorite contemporay lyricists is a guy named Steve Taylor. In one song he writes, "Jesus is for losers, the self-made need not apply."

Matthew 8:5-13: From a leprous Jew of tentative faith, an outcast of His own people who wants to believe in Him, Jesus moves on to meet a foreigner of exemplary faith. The centurion was a commander of one-hundred Roman soldiers. The Romans, of course, were conquerors and occupiers of Jesus' homeland of Judea. Jesus' fellow Jews hated the Romans,

Yet, here is a Roman who is concerned about the well-being of his Jewish servant and presents a prayer request on the servant's behalf.

When Jesus offers to go to the servant in the home of the centurion, the centurion humbly demures. "Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof," he tells Jesus.

This is an interesting situation. Jesus' fellow Judeans would have deemed it improper for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile, a non-Jew. If they did enter such a home, they would be required to undergo ritual cleansing before they could participate in any of the routine religious rites of the time. (This is why the religious leaders would later stand outside of the home of the Roman governor, Pilate, as they sought Jesus' execution.) Yet Jesus offers to go to the Roman's house.

What makes things even more interesting is that the centurion, a member of the army of the most powerful nation on earth, tells Jesus he isn't even worthy of welcoming Jesus, a poor, itinerant preacher, into his home.

The centurion goes on to explain to Jesus that as a military man, he knows how authority works. He knows that if Jesus just says the word, even from the spot on which He's standing, the servant will be healed.

One can almost imagine the mixture of excitement, admiration, and love with which Jesus hears the centurion's amazing confession of faith! "I've never seen a faith like this among all the descendants of Abraham, we children of Israel!" He says. Then, He turns to the centurion and tells him his prayers have been answered; the servant has been healed.

While the leper in the first few verses of this chapter may have been humbled into asking for Jesus' help, the centurion seems to have chosen humility before Jesus. That's remarkable!

Matthew 8:14-17: At Peter's house, Jesus finds Peter's mother-in-law ill. He touches her, violating yet another taboo--this one against men touching or speaking to women in public encounters--and relieves her of her fever.

One thing that cracks me up about this encounter is that after the woman is healed, "she got up and began to serve Him." She gets to feel better and then has to go to work!

Matthew 8:18-22: An 0ld hymn says, "I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home." Jesus encounters a man who wants to follow Him, but doesn't understand that doing that means traveling light. No matter what our profession, Jesus may ask us to move to places or circumstances in which we personally feel uncomfortable. But Jesus doesn't call us to be comfortable, only faithful.

Another follower says that he'll go with Jesus, but first he has to take care of his father's funeral. Jesus' response may seem cold. He says, "Let the dead bury the dead." To me, the underlying message is, "Don't get caught up in all the proprieities of life when they prevent you from following Me and doing My will."

These five verses are, for me, among the most challenging and difficult in the Bible!

Matthew 8:23-27: Here, Jesus, a landlubber from Nazareth, falls asleep in a boat during a fierce storm, while the seasoned boatmen who regularly fish these waters, become terrified.

When they finally are able to wake Jesus, He commands the winds and seas to be calm.

The question the disciples ask of themselves after Jesus does this is left unanswered, left for us to answer for ourselves. "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?" The answer is obvious: The One Whose Spirit (spirit, wind, and breath are all the same word in both the Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek) moved over the stormy waters of primeval chaos and life came about. (Genesis 1:1-2)

Matthew 8:28-9:1: Pigs were considered filthy animals. Yet when Jesus cast a flock of demons into a herd of pigs, all of which madly flung themselves into the sea, the swineherds and all the people in town asked Jesus to leave. It won't be the first time in history that people choose commerce over Christ.

[Here are links to the first ten installments of this series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression

Happiness

Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics]

Coldplay Goes Double Platinum

Coldplay's X & Y has been certified double platinum, meaning that it has sold one-million copies since its release of about a month ago. The band is coming to our town this week, but I won't be able to make it. I review X & Y here. I've enjoyed all three of the band's releases...even though I'm not clear on what their songs are about.

Friday, August 05, 2005

A Sequel AND a Remake

Tonight, just as I was cranking up a VHS copy of Ric Burns' New York for my wife and me to watch, I channel-surfed through Rooster Cogburn, being shown on one of the movie channels. This 1975 release, starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn, was the sequel to Wayne's 1969 movie, True Grit, for which he received his only Oscar.

But, as I watched the raft sequence in which Wayne and Hepburn negotiate fierce rapids, it dawned on me that the film was also a remake of sorts. The movie is very similar to Hepburn's 1951 film, The African Queen, in which she played opposite Humphrey Bogart.

In that first film, directed by John Huston, Hepburn plays the puritanical daughter of a missionary to Africa. In the latter, she plays the puritannical sister of a frontiersman pastor. In both, a strong-willed woman falls for a tough-as-nails, irreligious loner.

Rooster Cogburn, which I remember seeing with my wife when it was released to the theaters, is certainly not as artistically successful as either True Grit or The African Queen. The latter is, to my mind, one of the truly great films of all time. But it was fun seeing Wayne and Hepburn in their only screen pairing.

Now though, I realize that there was something truly extraordinary about Rooster Cogburn: It was sequel and remake at the same time!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Addendum to 'No Need for Dyeing...We're All Dying'

ADDENDUM: I'm far less critical of women who color their hair to conceal the aging process than of men. (Although I do find ninety year old women in wheelchairs sporting blazing red hair, thoroughly ridiculous.)

This attitude may seem like vestigial sexism. I actually think it's the opposite of sexism.

I'm offended that women tend to be more readily thrown out to pasture for daring to get older than do men.

If you don't believe that's true, consider how absurd it is that in one recent movie, the aging (albeit still disgustingly good-looking) Sean Connery was romantically paired with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Or that in real life, Zeta-Jones is paired with the nearly-as-old Michael Douglas, who often plays romantic leads opposite women much younger than him. (Or that 63-year old Paul McCartney is paired with his thirtysomething model-wife, Heather Mills, and making babies with her.)

Yet, no actress of Connery's or Douglas' generations is likely to be asked to play romantically opposite men substantially younger than themselves--on film or in real life.

Indeed, few actresses past a "certain age" are even allowed to appear in movies. It's Hollywood's version of Solyent Green.

But it isn't just Hollywood. This seems to reflect a societal attitude. Women who go grey are likely to be dismissed as "aging." But men are called "distinguished." Middle-aged women who take on some weight around the middle are ridiculed; most men are given a pass.

So, in a youth culture that basically says, "If you're not young or at least, youthful, you're not a human being to be taken seriously, especially if you're a woman," I do understand why some women feel compelled to dye their hair.

But I'm glad nonetheless, to be married to my thoroughly organic and very real wife. There isn't a fake follicle--or phony bone--on her whole person.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

No Need for Dyeing...We're All Dying

If you saw Paul McCartney in his pre-Super Bowl interview on Fox in January, this won't come as a surprise to you.

Nor will you be taken aback if you've seen him at any point in the past fifteen years in photos or personal appearances.

The rest of you might want to brace yourselves.

McCartney has gone public with an earth-shaking revelation and shocking details:
Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney has confessed he dyes his hair. The singer admitted he tries to maintain his youthful looks by colouring his locks - but has had some dyeing disasters in the past.

The singer, who is married to model Heather Mills, revealed: "Ten years before I met Heather I was thinking about dyeing my hair.

"I tried it in Australia - it looked cool until I went on stage. Then this blue liquid poured down my forehead. Highly embarrassing," he added.

Sir Paul also said he finds it difficult seeing himself as an older man.
To that last statement, as a member of McCartney's aging fan base, I have to say, "We all find it difficult to see ourselves as older people. Get over it, Paulie."

When I first noticed that McCartney was coloring his locks a few years ago, it bugged me a little. While I knew that my favorite Beatle and favorite solo musical artist had always been the most show-bizzy of the Fab Four, there had also always been a down-to-earth realism to Macca and his band. In fact, when I took the time in later years to analyze why the Beatles had so dazzled me back when I was ten and first saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show, I decided that the main reason was that, unlike all the musicians I'd heard up to that point in my life, they sounded so real, so accessible, so organic. In the intervening years, the only time I've ever been thoroughly disenchanted with McCartney was when he released overproduced schlock in the early-80s.

It seemed like something of a paradox for Mother Nature's Son to dye his hair or to try to hide the fact that he, like the rest of the human race, was aging.

Better than that sort of denial, it seems to me, is the attitude of a high school friend, expressed to me last Sunday when my wife and I met her and her brother for lunch. "Mark," she told me, "I'm just glad that we're still alive." Leaving aside the theological point that I intend to be alive for eternity, I agree with my friend. I've decided to not let aging get me down.

Yet McCartney's feelings are understandable. In his book, Prayer is Good Medicine, physician Larry Dossey--who I seem to be quoting a lot lately--notes:
One of the greatest burdens we carry is the certainty that life will end tragically in death. This fear rests on our belief that time flows, much like a river, and that it carries us irreversibly toward extinction. Death awaits everyone; nobody escapes the ravages of time.
Dossey goes on to point out that some contemporary physicists believe that time isn't linear, not composed "of successive units such as seconds, minutes, and hours." Instead, in the words of string theorist John Hagelin, "The only natural unit of time is Eternity."

The Bible agrees with the physicist. Time and its ravages--including greying ex-Beatles and fifty-one year old preachers whose knees creak as they ascend stairs--are encroachments on the way things are supposed to be for us and the rest of creation. No wonder we can't quite get used to this aging thing!

But, speaking for me, I can't see coloring my hair, getting face lifts, or having tummy tucks, either. Although I'm dying, I won't be dyeing.

We're all aging and no amount of false advertising can stop the universal clock from moving forward...or fool anybody.

I choose to handle the aging process in two ways.

First: I accept it. Good things do come with age. If you're paying attention to your lifetime of mistakes, there's wisdom. If you're open to them, there's an expanding coterie of friends and colleagues to accompany you through life. With family members, there can be relationships that deepen over time. With work and hobbies, there is the possibility of heightened mastery and deeper fulfillment. Too many people are trying to capture their past, whether their views of it are idealized or realistic. Better to let the future capture us...and when it does to find us living the moment to its fullest.

Second: The Bible teaches that those who follow Christ, the Eternal Lord, are "aliens and strangers" in this world. I take that to mean that we're not just alien from the world's self-aggrandizing, navel-gazing, power-grabbing, approval-addicting values. We're also alien to this whole time thing. We're eventually heading for a place where we will receive a complete cosmic makeover.

So, I will live this moment to the fullest, but I won't try to desperately wring blessings from it. I will also try to give and be blessings to others. After all, those with faith in Jesus Christ have an eternal supply of that good stuff to give!

UPDATE: You may want to check out the brief addendum I wrote for this piece.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Jesus' Radical Ethics (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 10)

Matthew 7

German Biblical scholar and theologian Ernst Kasemann tells the story of what happened one Sabbath day in a remote Dutch village. The Netherlands' famed systems of dams and dykes were giving way to torrential rains. The village was being threatened by rising waters just miles away. Authorities contacted the only figure capable of activating local citizens to erect a temporary barrier of sandbags that might stave off the waters; they called on the local pastor.

The pastor was torn. Clearly, the Sabbath was to be kept holy, a time when believers refrained from work. Putting up a temporary sandbag wall would require the people of the village to violate that command. Yet, the need was pressing.

He called a meeting for the villagers to discuss matters. The pious people there were minded to simply let nature take its course and to rely on God to do His will.

Almost against his own will, Kasemann says, the pastor decided that he needed, in fairness, to hold up an opposing viewpoint, one with which he didn't fully agree himself. "Good friends," he said, "isn't it true that Jesus Himself allowed the disciples to pluck grain in the open fields through which they passed one Sabbath Day? In other words, Jesus allowed the disciples to harvest--to work--without chastising them."

A silence fell over the assembled group. Finally, an elderly man spoke up. "Pastor, I feel I must venture to say something I have never dared to say before. It seems to me that sometimes our Lord was a bit of a liberal."

I suppose that by human standards, Jesus is a liberal. And I'm grateful that He is. Jesus makes it clear that the God we meet on the pages of the Bible was unlike the God commended by other religions. The God of the Old and New Testaments is a God of grace--that is, charity--who accepts sinners as they are and welcomes those who turn from sin and trust in Christ into His kingdom.

"The just shall live by faith" is a truth affirmed in several places in Scripture. In a nutshell, that means that we cannot work our way into God's good graces. All good things are gifts from God, not anything we can earn by good behavior, including everlasting salvation. "Those who call on the Name of the Lord shall be saved," is another frequently underscored Biblical truth.

This is because God is not a grim taskmaster, a surly Santa Claus toting up our good and bad deeds to see if we deserve to live with Him forever. None of us do deserve heaven. But God wants to give it to us anyway. He remembers, the Old Testament says, that we are dust. And so, He says, "If you will place yourself in the hands of My Son, He will share His victories over sin and death with you and I will send My Spirit to help you believe and follow Him." (I'm paraphrasing tons of Biblical passages there.)

In the Old Testament, it's only after God commits Himself to a covenant relationship with the people of Israel that He even brings up laws like, "Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy." This is precisely what God did when He gave the Ten Commandments, of which that command is a part. God tells His people, "I am your God and I will be with you always. I love you and I will never abandon you. Now, let me give you ten rules for optimal living."

In other words, God's commands and rules aren't meant to be straight jackets constraining us from doing what is right or wise or helpful or holy. This is precisely what Jesus was getting at when He responded to the religious critics who challenged Him for allowing His disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath Day, the very incident to which the Dutch pastor referred. He told these people--members of a sect of His fellow Jews called Pharisees--that the Sabbath was made for people and that people weren't made for the Sabbath.

God intends to liberate us to become our best selves, not turn us into slaves to rules. In the particular instance of the Sabbath, God wanted to give us days of rest when we contemplate His word, His will, and His love for us. In the normal course of things, that's what we should do at least once a week. But if people are hungry and need to be fed or if floodwaters threaten us and our neighbors, only a tyrant-god would insist on a slavish observance of a rule. Doing so would, in fact, be contrary to God's intentions for giving the rules in the first place.

I bring all this up because in Matthew 7, Jesus completes His famous Sermon on the Mount with a series of sayings that showcase His radical ethics. I confess that I have never lived up to them. But the patient God I know through Jesus forgives repentant sinners like me and daily gives us the power to seek His help in living optimally, with the kind of love of God and love of neighbor that God will bring to perfection in followers of Jesus once we have died and risen, free of the constraints of sin and death that exist here and now.

Matthew 7:1-5: Jesus tells us to avoid judging others, especially we ourselves have faults. One of the prominent features in contemporary American culture is how severely we, who have largely abandoned God, judge one another. But when we have truly surrendered to Christ, realizing that we "are dust" and totally dependent on God for all our good blessings--including eternity through Christ, we are less inclined to be harsh in our judgments of others. We see others as fellow sinners in need of the same grace and forgiveness we need.

Matthew 7:7-11: Pray. God is anxious to hear from us and do what is best for us. Just as a good parent wants to have heart-to-hearts with his or her children, God wants us to talk about what's important to us with Him.

Matthew 7:12: How radical can you get? Don't treat others as they deserve to be treated. Don't exact revenge from them. Treat them as you want to be treated.

This is so utterly countercultural, it isn't hard to imagine that Jesus was crucified precisely because of the Golden Rule.

Many interpret this statement of Jesus as weakness. But only people who dare to live with this radical ethic have a chance of breaking the logjams to human progress created by the haters of the world, including the religious haters.

Matthew 7:13-14: Jesus is the narrow way to heaven. He is, as He describes Himself, "the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6) Unless we're imbued with the righteousness that only Jesus gives, we'll be veering off course for connection with God. We'll fall into self-serving, self-aggrandizing living that takes us away from God.

Few will choose the narrow way of following Him, Jesus says. Primarily, one can only surmise, this has to do with our egos. The toddler daughter of good friends of ours would often say insistently, "Mine-a do it!" That is our human inclination. Like Eve and Adam, we want to "be like God."

Following the narrow way of Jesus means that by our trusting dependence on Christ, God will liberate us to be our best selves. Liberation appeals to us, but we hate the idea of depending on anyone but ourselves, unless that dependence results in self-glorification. There is no freedom without dependence on the God Who designed us.

Matthew 7:15-20: I always encourage the people of my congregation not to depend on me for all their spiritual knowledge. After all, I'm capable of being wrong.

Each of us need to develop a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That can happen through study of the Scriptures, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, service to our neighbors, and sharing the good news of Christ with others. Being engaged as followers of Christ will prevent us from getting caught up in the religious fadism often palmed off as Christianity by false prophets.

Matthew 7:21-23: The will of the "Father in heaven" is that we turn from sin and follow Jesus. This is what the Bible calls "repenting and believing."

When we do this, God's Spirit enters our lives and over time, the way we view life and the ways we live it will change. In the great judgment scene that Jesus paints in Matthew 25:31-46, those who have repented and believed in Him are welcomed into heaven for all the good they've done for Jesus. But none of them remember doing these good things.

That's what happens in the believer in Jesus: She or he becomes less conscious of themselves and God's radical love begins to take up residence in them, altering their priorities. They can't take credit for it. They simply did the will of God by believing in Jesus and God makes a revolution in their souls!

Matthew 7:24-27: Self-explanatory, I'd say.

Jesus, verse 28 says, taught "as one having authority." But his authority didn't stem from owning the trappings of power, theological degrees, or liturgical garb. It stemmed from a radical ethic of utter dependency on God and nothing else.

[Here are links to the first nine installments of this ongoing series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression

Happiness

Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust]

Know Anything About Voinovich's Book Recommendation?

Michael Meckler, who has an interesting piece on the recess appointment of John Bolton on his web site, wrote to me this morning.

He asked if I knew anything about the book that Senator George Voinovich, the Ohio Republican who opposed the Bolton appointment, announced yesterday he was going to send to Bolton. I told him that I am unfamiliar with it, although apparently it has some Christian connections. If you can help Michael out, drop an email his way.

By the way, his is an excellent web site!

Monday, August 01, 2005

Celebrating Thirty-One Years of Marriage: Ten Things I've Learned

Tomorrow will be my wife's and my thirty-first wedding anniversary. When I announced yesterday morning during worship that this day was coming, the congregation burst into applause, and one woman shouted out that this was an amazing achievement...by my wife.

But I have learned some things about marriage, not only from my own, but from others I've observed. Here are a few of them:

1. There probably is no "right age" to get married. I was twenty. I've spent most of the past thirty-one years trying to grow up. I still am and probably will continue to do this for as long as I'm living. No matter when you start your married life, you'll have lots to learn. So long as you're not married before the legal majority, it probably doesn't matter when you get married.

2. There is no "right amount of time" for dating prior to marriage. Although we'd known each other in high school--she hated me, for good reason--and had become friends before we began dating, my wife and I had only dated about six weeks when I popped the question. We were married less than seven months later.

My mother and father celebrate an anniversary today. It was on August 1, 1950, that they met on a blind date. Four months later, on December 2, 1950, they were married.

On Friday, we were visited by some friends. They dated for three years before they were married. They soon will celebrate their sixteenth anniversary.

The length of one's "courtship" has little relationship with the success of a marital union.

3. Love is essential to the success of a marriage. Love is not that feeling of romantic or sexual attraction, as wonderful as it is. Love is often what you do in spite of how you feel. It's that commitment you have after you've hurt her or she's hurt you, to accept and give forgiveness, and move on together.

As I've pointed out on this blog before, most of us know and aspire to the kind of love that Saint Paul talks about in First Corinthians 13. You know, not boastful or arrogant, not into collecting lists of wrongs perpretrated against us, and so on. Only one Person in the history of the human race has ever exhibited this sort of love. He also happened to be God. His Name was (and is) Jesus.

So when my personal tank of love winds down to "E," I fill up on Christ's love, asking Him to give me the supply of love my wife deserves. In fact, I fill up on it long before I hit "E." The last thing I want to do is hit the inevitable difficult passages of life and marriage and not have enough of real love, including compassionate and unconditional regard for my wife, on hand.

4. There is no leader in good marriages. Instead, there are two people who give themselves mutually to one another. Even in a New Testament passage from Ephesians which is often used (I think misused) to contend that husbands are superior to wives, close scrutiny shows that the apostle Paul who wrote it saw marriage as a relationship of mutual surrender between two equals.

5. Sex is great. God invented it. So that shouldn't be a surprise. He only makes good things. But be careful not to make it the focus of your marriage. Great sex is the byproduct of a great relationship. Sex can't take the strain of being the central focus of a relationship.

In a sense, sex is like happiness. Many people make happiness the ultimate objective of their lives and end up miserable and lonely. If we make the twin objects of our lives those two great commands that Jesus gave--loving God and loving others--happiness will be a byproduct.

Similarly, make loving and serving each other your goal and sex will usually turn out to be wonderful.

6. Fight fair. That means avoiding throwing insults, sarcasm, and accusations. Not to mention feeling sorry for yourself.

When you're upset with your spouse, avoid saying things like, "You are so inconsiderate." Instead, try saying things like, "When you do such and so, it makes me feel this way." You immediately disarm your spouse by deciding not to be accusatory, you take responsibility for your emotions, and you invite your spouse to solve a problem with you. You move from being uselessly confrontational to being productively collaborative. In addition, by simply idenitifying your feelings about something, you own the possibility that you could be anywhere from 1 to 100% responsible for the problem to which you're reacting.

This has been hard for me to learn because I can be so self-absorbed and I tend toward self-pity. Indulging these inclinations has only been a red flag waved before my wife when we argue. But when I simply identify my feelings in a firm, but fair, way, we can begin to resolve things.

Paul advises us to, "Be angry; but do not sin" and not to allow anger to become the means by which sin enters our mind or actions. We should try to work things out when we argue with each other. We should also avoid the constant rehearsal of our anger, either internally or even worse, with third parties.

It's also good to resolve our conflicts quickly. "Don't let the sun go down on your anger," Paul also writes.

7. Forgive! Eric Segal's characters in Love Story liked to say, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." What a crock! The only human being who has no reason to say they're sorry is dead.

We all make mistakes and will do so for as long as we live on this planet. We expect others, especially our spouses, to view our faults and sins charitably. We should strive to do the same thing for our spouses. In His teaching on the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us," Jesus makes it clear that if we choose not to forgive others, God will withhold His forgiveness from us.

But of course, forgiveness is another one of those things we don't do so well. It isn't native to us. So, we need to ask God to help us to forgive.

A pastor told me about a woman he knows who had an affair. Her husband was devastated when he learned of it from various sources, long after the event. He talked with his pastor about it and ultimately decided not to even bring it up with his wife. He knew that she had opted out of the adulterous relationship and he saw that everything about her subsequent behavior demonstrated that she was committed to the relationship and wanted to go on with it. This husband issued no grand pronouncement of absolution, which may only have been self-aggrandizing and condescending; he simply asked God to help him forgive and committed himself to being a good husband.

Usually, of course, the offenses perpetrated against by our spouses, big or small, will be known to us. Even when we confront, we should do so with the idea that you want to forgive, not humilate.

8. Express your appreciation. There are millions of ways to do this. But it's important to do it in ways that are meaningful to your spouse.

When my wife and I were first married, I bought gifts and flowers, things I thought that she would appreciate, for things like birthdays, Valentine's Day, Christmas, and anniversaries. But because of our poverty and because of her simple philosophy that if either of us really want something that we can afford, we should purchase it without folderol, I learned very quickly that gift-buying and flower-giving were not good ways for me to express appreciation or love to my wife. For our anniversary tomorrow, she'll find three cards scattered around the house with heartfelt inscriptions in each one. She'll like that!

9. Love and take responsibility for your kids, if you have children. Some men and women view their children as unwanted impositions, which is a tragedy. If you're not willing to take equal responsibility for the upbringing of your children, then don't have them. But if you are willing, they will bless you and your marriage.

And you're not allowed to change your mind after your kids are born or adopted! They don't go away; neither should your commitment.

10. Build your life and your marriage on the God made known in Jesus Christ. In Jesus' famous parable of different householders, the one who built on rock found the house standing even after the fiercest of storms. Saturate your day with prayers offered within your mind or in whispers, asking Christ to be at the center of your marriage and to give you guidance and help, constantly inviting Him into your inner counsels.

No marriage is perfect because no person is perfect. But when we invite Christ to be the foundation of our marriages, we learn the truth of the Biblical saying that His love covers a multitude of sins.

Let me be clear: I haven't mastered any of these lessons. But I'm asking God to help me with them so that in the next thirty-one years, I'll be a better husband than I have been the first thirty-one and a better counselor to those contemplating or involved in the adventure of marriage.

UPDATE: Welcome to those visiting the site from Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit. I hope that you'll find useful and thought-provoking stuff here. Thanks to Glenn for the link.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Robert at Bright Mystery links to this post and adds his own insightful comments.

STILL FURTHER UPDATING: Betsy of Lunar World linked to this piece through Instapundit and then, explored this entire site a bit. She said nice things about Better Living on her blog and then linked to a piece I wrote last week. Thank you, Betsy!

David at Ridgecrest Blog also linked to this piece and then presented his own additional--and sometimes very funny--bits of advice on marriage.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Sean Bradley of Lex Communis has linked to this post and amplified it with a few interesting thoughts.

How Christian is America?

That question is one of the provocative take-aways readers will get from Bill McKibben's essay, The Christian Paradox, in the latest issue of Harper's Magazine. One doesn't even have to agree with the liberal political agenda to which McKibben apparently subscribes to know that the guy is onto something, something very important.

In addition to being a liberal, McKibben is an active, church-going Christian appalled by the failure of the American Church to take seriously Jesus' call to love one's neighbor.

It also concerns him, as it does me, that so much of America has embraced a cartoon version of Christian faith advanced by people like Joel Osteen. These peddlers of a fake Christianity may appeal to Americans' inclination toward self-serving spirituality and the worship of money, but they have little in common with the Savior Who says that the last shall be first and the first last, Who calls His followers to love others as we love ourselves.

McKibben also decries how most Americans who identify themselves as Christians have no notion of what Biblical Christianity is about. This is all the more appalling because, as McKibben points out, fully 85% of Americans call themselves Christians, making the United States the most religiously homogeneous First World country on the planet. (By comparison, only 77% of Israelis identify themselves as Jewish.)

Lest you think that McKibben is nothing but a scourge or a screed, I assure you that he's not. He approaches his entire discussion with great humility, acknowledging his own faults and his own hypocrisy. In the end, McKibben seems to be aiming at two things in his well-written piece:

(1) He wants to lament the unwillingness of American Christians to apply the teachings of Jesus to everyday living;

(2) He wants to hold out the hope of what could happen if Christians got serious about living out their faith, not in the impositionalist posture of Christian legalists, but as people set free from worry about self after surrendering to the Lordship of a crucified, risen, and ever-living Savior.

McKibben's essay will make it worth your while to pick up a copy of the August issue of Harper's.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sharing Christ? Three Attributes I Think Should Always Be Present When We Do

In my message this morning, I talked about the need for we Christians to grow in our passion for sharing Christ with others. In an earlier post, I discussed three attributes I hope would always be associated with doing this; here's the link.

Growing in Our Passion for Sharing Christ

Romans 9:1-5
(A message shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 31, 2005)

John Harper was a sort of prodigy. A Scotsman born in 1872, he came to faith in Jesus Christ at the age of thirteen and within four years, he’d begun getting notice as a convincing preacher with a passion for helping people to know and follow Christ. In 1896, he started a church in London, beginning with a core of 25 people; thirteen years later, when he left to become pastor of a congregation in Chicago, there were 500 members there. (I envy that.)

In 1912, Harper and his six year old daughter took a trip on the maiden voyage of the HMS Titanic. When the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, John Harper made sure that his little girl got safely onto a lifeboat and then began running up and down all the decks of the ship, looking for women, children, and those uncertain about where they would spend eternity, hoping to get them all safely on lifeboats.

“Survivors report that he began...” telling anyone who would listen, that eternal life belongs to all who will turn away from their sin and trust Jesus Christ with their lives. “He continued preaching even after he had jumped into the water and was clinging to a piece of wreckage (he’d already given his lifejacket to another man.)”

Four years later, Harper’s final moments were recounted by a Titanic survivor at a large public gathering in Hamilton, Ontario:
“When I was drifting alone on a spar that awful night,” said the man, “the tide brought Mr. Harper..., also on a piece of wreck, near me. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘are you saved [from sin and death by Christ]?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I am not.’ He replied, ‘Believe [in] the Lord Jesus Christ and [you will] be saved.’

“The waves bore him away, but, strange to say, brought him back a little later, and he [asked if I had allowed Christ to save me yet]...’No,’ I said, ‘I cannot honestly say...[that I have been saved.’ He said again, ‘Believe [in] the Lord Jesus Christ and [you will] be saved,’ and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed...”
That man was one of only six people plucked out of the water by the packed lifeboats. Harper was one of 1522 people who were left to die that horrible night. But at least one of the survivors owed his eternal life to John Harper’s faithful witness.

For Harper, dying was not the most frightening prospect he faced as the Titanic sank; the most frightening prospect was for the thousands who surrounded him to enter eternity without believing in Jesus Christ as the advocate Who covered their sins and charitably gave them a place in God’s kingdom.

Do you and I have that same passion, that same zeal for those who are living this life apart from the empowering presence of Jesus?

Do we ever give a thought to the thousands of people around us who, day in and day out, try to live life without the lifeboat of Jesus Christ to see them through good and bad times?

Do we really care about all those who haven’t called out to Jesus to save them from their sins, from death, from everlasting separation from God?

Sometimes, I’m afraid, I’m so bent on just getting through my day and I so desire to “get along” with others, that I allow my passion and my love for my neighbors to be forgotten and I don’t tell them about Jesus. Shame on me for that! Shame on me for lacking the passion of a John Harper!

This was the passion with which the writer of today’s Bible lesson dictated the letter to the first-century church at Rome from which it’s taken. Early in that letter, Paul tells the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel [the good news of life forever with God for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ]; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [which means everybody else].” (Romans 1:16-17)

Today’s Bible lesson, from a later chapter in Romans, finds Paul contemplating his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus. Contemplating is too tame a word to describe what Paul is doing. Agonizing is better. It hurt Paul to think of anyone not knowing Jesus and facing the titanic questions of how to live and what will happen to them when they die without Christ at their sides.

Paul writes, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 9:1-5)

In this passionate passage, Paul was pleading with the non-Jews among the Christian believers in Rome to never forget his fellow Jews. It was their people, he said, who first bore testimony about the gracious God Who came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. They shouldn’t be written off or ignored, Paul argues. They too, need Jesus.

As John Harper knew on that fateful night in April, 1912, you and I who follow Jesus Christ are called to live with that same sort of passion for Christ, anxious to find opportunities to present and live the good news about Jesus. But of course, it has to be done with the right motives and the right sensitivity.

Years ago, when I was in my teens, a neighbor called me on a Saturday afternoon. It surprised me because the guy had always pretty much ignored me. He asked if I were doing anything in the next few hours. Caught by surprise, I said, “No.” Long story short: He invited me to go with him to see a movie. It sounded like a comedy, but turned out to be an evangelistic drama. I might have gone willingly with the guy had his invitation been forthright and honest, even without his subterfuge. But I felt like he’d ambushed me.

As I sat there in the Ohio Theater in Columbus that summer’s day, I was seething with resentment through that whole movie. My neighbor’s sneaky invitation turned me against him and helped to turn me off for a long time against Jesus, especially after my neighbor high-pressured me into surrendering to Christ once the film was done.

When our motive is genuine concern for others though, I have found that people don’t object to our putting in a good word for Jesus Christ with them. And they don’t resent our asking them to worship with us.

I’ve told you before about something that happened in the life of one of my favorite seminary professors, Trygve Skarsten. Tryg was the son of Norwegian immigrants and he grew up in New York City, where as a teen, he was a member of a gang. In his late teens though, no doubt as the result of the patient praying and quiet witness of his parents, Tryg gave his life to Jesus Christ and went off to college and then seminary.

After serving as a pastor for a few years, he went back to New York to get a doctorate in New Testament studies at Columbia University. Every day, he took a bus to Columbia and during these commutes, he struck up a friendship with a rabbi. They enjoyed one another’s company. Tryg was coming close to completing his degree requirements when he decided to ask God to give him the courage to tell his friend how important Jesus was in his life and to invite the rabbi too, to follow Jesus.

On the bus one day, Tryg told his friend that he would feel guilty if at some point in their daily conversations, he didn’t tell him about his best friend, Jesus, and ask him to follow Christ. The rabbi smiled at Tryg and replied honestly, “My friend, I can't take you up on your offer. But I am deeply touched; only someone with great love in his heart would share what is most precious to him with his friend.”

Is Jesus the most important Person in our lives? If He is, let’s ask Him to stir up our zeal for the well-being of our neighbors--all our neighbors--so that we too, can share with our friends what is most important: Jesus, the Messiah, God blessed forever. Amen!

[The true story of John Harper is from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion and is reprinted from "Sacrifice at Sea" by Elesha Coffman on christianhistory.net (August 11, 2000) and was adapted from The Titanic's Last Hero (Moody Press, 1997).]