Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Modern Church and the WWJD Question

Jan of TheViewfromHer has one of the most interesting blogs around. Go read her interesting post called WWJD, in which she challenges the notion of presuming to ask, "What would Jesus do?"

I left some comments at her blog. They're presented, with links, and edited for clarity below:
I take your point about Christian art, or what passes for Christian art. It's often marginally Christian and not really art.

I also take your point about the WWJD slogan. An acquaintance of mine once said that the real question for all of us is, "What has Jesus done?" What, in other words, has He accomplished for us through His life, death, and resurrection? That action calls for the response of faith that will have as seeking to live like true disciples. (I accept Dallas Willard's definition of discipleship as striving to live our lives as though Jesus were us.)

But of course, the minute I say, "I can't live like Jesus because I'm not God," a true statement, I run into some troubling things that Jesus said. Among the most troubling are His words in John 14:12: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father..."

The New Testament book of Acts reports that the first-century Church performed many miraculous signs on the order of those performed by Jesus...and more. I don't remember, for example, that when people sat in the shadow of Jesus, they were cured of their diseases; that happened with Peter.

Acts emphasizes repeatedly that a Church in prayerful dependence on Christ, Who was acting as their advocate and intermediary with the Father, did amazing things. In essence, they did what Jesus did, including getting themselves killed for their faith. (That's another thing that Jesus had promised His followers would happen, in John 16:33 and elsewhere.)

Of course, the miracles performed by Jesus and the early Church were never meant to be ends in themselves. They were semeia (signs) pointing to Christ's power to bring about eternal transformations to those who repent and believe in Jesus. As many have observed, Jesus didn't heal every leper, raise every dead person to life, feed all the hungry, or cast out every demon in Judea. Nor did He stay in every town He visited until He worked every wonder He could have possibly done. This fact, in itself points out that we Christians shouldn't get hung up on miracles. God grants them only when they have something to do with telling people about His redemeptive power.

Another thing about miracles, which William Willimon talks about in his wonderful commentary on Acts, is that no two miracles performed by Jesus or the disciples were precisely the same. Each one was meant to be a unique sign of Christ's power and love, pointing to His ultimate triumph for us over sin and death.

I believe that a modern Church that prays "Your will be done" could also do a lot of miraculous signs in Jesus' Name, so long as there is a concomitant willingness to follow Jesus to the cross and beyond. (There's the rub, for me anyway.)

"If you'd like to hear this post in Swahili, press 4."

One day this past week, I called a local branch of a bank in our area to determine where my son could exchange dollars for euros for a trip he and some friends are taking.

Mind you, this is a small branch operation and I fully expected to speak to a real person who could respond to my question inside of fifteen seconds.

Instead, I got a recorded voice. "Welcome to Big Honkin' Mega Bank, Podunk branch," it announced. "For service in Spanish, press 2. To learn about online banking, press 3. To get directions and branch hours, press 4. To speak to a loan professional about business loans or home equity lines of credit, press 5. To speak to a branch associate, press 6."

I pressed 6 and was subjected to several hours of Barry Manilow's new fifties CD. (It may have only been thirty seconds, but thirty seconds with Barry is like at least ten years of root canal.)

As I listened to the "options" and the auditory torture on my phone, I had a thought: None of this is really for me or for any other customer, in spite of the fact that the recorded voice assures me that that's the case. "For your convenience," the voice lies. In fact, the automated switchboard is designed to foist the work that formerly would have been done by bank employees onto the hapless customer (in this case, me).

In former days, a friendly, if somewhat harrassed "associate" would have answered my call after three or four rings. He or she might have asked if I could hold, but most of the time they would have asked me something like, "How may I help you?"

I could have explained the reason for my call and shortly, the employee would have told me the same thing which the bank associate with whom I ultimately spoke did tell me: "Dollars can be exchanged for euros at our main office downtown." "Thank you." "You're welcome."

Instead, I was forced to make decisions about the best way to direct my own call. I was doing the job of sending me to the right desk, a task that in former times (and I think rightly) was done by an employee. It's the moral equivalent of being sent into the Pentagon with a blindfold and told to take a request to the widget procurement office. (Well, maybe not that bad. But you get the idea.)

I frankly hadn't thought much more about my phone call revelation until I read the following in British humorist Lynne Truss' new book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door:
...modern communications technology contributes to the end of manners. Wherever you turn for help, you find yourself on your own...In the age of the automated switchboard...we are all co-opted employees of every single company we come into contact with. "Why am I doing this?' we ask ourselves, twenty times a day...
Of course, this stuff is only going to get worse as the years roll by, as technology becomes more sophisticated and the labor shortages resulting from lower birth rates take hold. But I felt a sort of vindication as I read Truss' words. I'm not the only one this bothers. There might be others, too. Maybe we could form a support group. If you feel this is a good idea, press 1. If you feel this is a bad idea, press 2. If you have no opinion but find automated switchboards annoying, press 3. If you'd like to hear this post in Swahili, press 4.

UPDATE: Thanks to Reader I Am at Either End of the Curve for linking to this post. I liked her thoughts on this subject over at her blog.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 7

Servanthood is a byproduct of a surrendered life.

That may seem strange given the deliberateness with which we’ve said servanthood should be pursued. In the first six installments, we’ve said that:
  • God’s goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus.
  • Above all, Jesus means for you to be a servant.
  • The life of a servant, servanthood, is an active way of living.
  • Servanthood is the clearest sign of greatness.
  • God made you for servanthood.
  • God values servanthood more than anything.
Human beings are naturally “religious.” We think of God as a cosmic Santa Claus “making a list, checking it twice,” all in an effort to find out “who’s naughty or nice.” We think that if we’re nice enough, God will be forced to let us into heaven or answer our prayers or bless us.

But the Bible says that “everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence” (Romans 3:23, Good News Bible). Religion can’t save us. Nor can our acts of service. There’s only one thing that can save us from sin and death and restore our relationship with God. “God puts people right [with Him] through their faith in Jesus Christ...” (Romans 3:22, Good News Bible).

Do you remember the Bible passage around which yesterday’s reading was built, Matthew 25:31-46? If you don’t read it carefully, you might think that the “sheep” made themselves acceptable for entry into heaven by accumulating servants’ merit badges. Wrong! They were surprised by Jesus’ invitation. “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?”

What made the sheep acceptable to heaven was their faith in Jesus Christ. Once they surrendered their lives to Jesus, He began to change them and their lifestyles. Servanthood was an outgrowth of their surrender to Jesus Christ. Servanthood was the sign of their faith in Christ. Servanthood is a byproduct of a surrendered life.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life” (John 3:16, The Message).

Friday, March 10, 2006

What is Beauty?

Charlie Lehardy has some beautiful thoughts on that question.

More on Yesterday's 'National Get Over It Day'

Deborah White sent this comment in response to yesterday's post on 'National Get Over It Day,':
What a great idea! I once knew a middle-aged woman still angry at her father, who steadfastly refused to move past her anger. Never married or had children because of it.

Seems to me that at some point in time, one needs to let go of that heavy baggage, and get on with life.
That elicited from me this rumination on the God Who calls us away from the past and into the future:
I thought that it was great idea, too!

The New Testament word for 'I forgive' is 'aphiemi.' It literally means 'I forgive.'

I've always felt that that word perfectly conveys the two-sides of forgiveness: We release those who have done us wrong from the consequences of "their trespasses against us"; we also are released from the debilitating and grace-blocking burden of holding a grudge.

This is exactly why Jesus says, in His explanation of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6, that if we refuse to forgive others, God will not forgive us. The person who refuses to forgive erects a fortress around his or her soul through which God's grace won't penetrate. People like that make themselves miserable in prisons they accuse others of making, but that really are their own custom-made hells.

In my dialog with Richard Lawrence Cohen a few days ago, I mentioned the song by Larry Norman, 'Weight of the World.' In the bridge, these lines appear:

It all comes down to who we crucify; We either kiss the future or the past goodbye.

When we refuse to forgive, we may think that we're crucifying others. At least that's the self-righteous buzz we're trying to get. In fact though, we crucify our futures and our very own souls. Christ went to a cross so that doesn't have to happen!

Paul says that our past sins and our sinful selves must be crucified with Christ in order for the new self to rise with Christ. In forgiveness, we put the past in the past and set out to live in reliance on God and His goodness, come what may.

In a sense, it's safer to rely on the known hurts and injuries of the past; we know them (and can catalog them), while the future is a blank screen. But God is always pulling those who surrender to Him to venture into the unknown future.

It turns out that the future isn't so unknown, though. I love the part in [the New Testament book of] Matthew's resurrection account where the risen Jesus instructs Mary to tell Peter and the others to go to Galilee. "There, they will see Me," Jesus says. This is one of many indicators of how Jesus pulls us from the past--along with wallowing and grudge-holding--and into the future where we're with Him. "I am with you always," He told the disciples just before He ascended into heaven. If he's with me as I venture into a future in which I let go of the past, I don't want, like Lot's wife in the Old Testament, to turn back. I want to keep resolutely pointing toward Him. (At least, some of the time I want to follow Him, human sinner that I am!)

Well, I can go on, can't I?
AN UPDATE: In the comments section of my original post on National Get Over It Day, Deborah White has added this comment. It deserves a close reading:

Ron and I have been married for 16 happy years. It's a second marriage for both of us.

My first marriage broke-up after ten years, two children and a boatload of heartbreak and disappointment.

At a well-attended (200= attendees) Divorce Recovery workshop at a local Presbyterian church, I learned the concept of letting go of anger to release myself from its bondage and to move forward....that anger was only hurting me, as well as my relationship with God. The pastor who taught that six-week course was brilliant and touching in his message.

I went on for five years in the 1980s to be a lay counselor in that program, and met Ron there after his divorce.

I wish every church with the resources could offer such a healthy and practical program to hurting people.

By the way, Deborah is a fine writer and a lib Dem activist, as well as a committed evangelical Christian. You can read what she writes here, here, and here.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 6

God values servanthood more than anything else.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the story of the final judgment when He, the “Son of Man,” will return to the world. Jesus says that standing before Him will be two groups of people, characterized as “sheep” and “goats.”

To the sheep, He’ll say: “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.'”

Later, Jesus says, He’ll turn to the goats and tell them: “Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because--I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'” (taken from The Message paraphrase)

There are three things you need to notice about this account. The first and second ones we’ll talk about today and the third will be our topic tomorrow.

The first: Jesus extols the sheep because of their servanthood and condemns the goats because of their failure to serve. Servanthood is the highest virtue in heaven. For we who pray, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven,” this is especially important.

The second thing: Jesus says that whenever the sheep fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, provided shelter to the homeless, clothed the naked, or visited the sick or imprisoned, they were really serving Jesus Himself. This tells us that the key to being a servant is to view each person we encounter as though they were Jesus.

God values servanthood more than anything.

Bible passage to ponder: “’I tell you whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:40, The Good News Bible).

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Today is 'National Get Over It Day'!

Or so I'm informed by one of my favorite colleagues, Pastor Glen VanderKloot from Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois. Each day, Glen shares inspirational pieces via email. More on how you can subscribe below. But first, a bit on 'National Get Over It Day.'

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Today is National Get Over it Day!

Because everyone has something to get over!

What's `Get Over It Day' all about?

No one is happy every day of their life.
Not an American idol, not a desperate housewife.
Not MVP athleties, not Oscar winner stars
Not rich CEOs, not the beautiful people.

We all have issues; all lives contain stress.
At some point we are all an emotional wreck.
There are people to get over in everyone's life.

It's part of life.
It will help you grow stronger.
You can wallow in your problems,
Or you can choose to be strong.
It is time to say:

I'm moving on! It's done!
I'm getting over it today!
• Failed relationships
• Ex's
• Fears or anxieties
• Bad habits
• Embarrassing experiences
• Insecurities
• Unrequited love
• Anything/everything you're struggling to move on from! (You know, the stuff your friends are tired of hearing you talk about all the time?)

One of the most productive ways to get over it,
is to give it to God in prayer and let God take it.
Cup your hands in front of you.
Picture in your hands what you need to get over.
Lift it up to God in prayer and give it to him.
Then open your hands and let go, really let go.
You have placed it God's hands
There is no nothing you can do about it.
No need to think about it.
No need to worry about it.
No need to obsess about it.
Let it go. Get over it.
Philippians 3:13 CEV

My friends, I don't feel that I have already arrived.
But I forget what is behind,
and I struggle for what is ahead.

Prayer: Lord, help me to give to you those things that
I need to get over. Really give them to you and then
let go and get over them today. Amen

[To subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations, e-mail him at and put SUBSCRIBE
on the subject line.]

UPDATE: Pastor Mark D. Roberts links to this post as part of his weekly round-up of blogging. Thank you, Mark. Mark, by the way, has one of the best blogs around!

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Acts 9:36-43

The Bible lesson for this weekend's worship celebrations at Friendship is usually one of the readings during the Easter Season in Year C of the lectionary cycle. (We're in Year B right now.) But during this Lent this year, we're involved in a special emphasis we're calling Forty Days to Servanthood. (You may have read something about that here already!)

We began Forty Days to Servanthood in earnest this past weekend with a breakfast. The congregation was presented with short readings for the first twenty-one days of our emphasis. Another packet of nineteen will be forthcoming.

In addition to the readings, members are also being asked to attend four Wednesday night Soup, Salad, and Servanthood gatherings. The first one was held last night. We prayed, enjoyed fellowship over some wonderful Italian Wedding Soup and salad, then sang a hymn, read some Scripture, and discussed our reactions to it and the first four of our readings.

Our aim during this Lenten emphasis, which will also incorporate helping our members find their passionate areas of Christian service and training for specific ministry opportunities in which folks can be involved after Lent, is to help our congregation pursue our mission as summed up in our mission statement:
Friendship Church is a welcoming and caring people who seek to share the kindness of God so that all metropolitian Cincinnati may grow in the faith, hope, and love of the living Jesus Christ!
The Bible Lesson:
36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

A Few General Comments:
(1) The New Testament book of Acts was written by the same author behind the Gospel of Luke. It represents then, the second volume of Luke's account of the early years in the new covenant God makes with the people of the world through His people, Israel.

(2) The first Christians were all Jews who, because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are part of God's ministry of reconciliation and love first initiated through Abraham, continued to live as faithful Jews. They did this even though they were spurned by many of their fellow Jews, as well as by the Roman authorities.

(3) Believers in Jesus Christ, initially composed of 120 people, the number that first-century custom said was required to form a separate synagogue, didn't originally call themselves the "church" (a word that translates the Greek term, ekklesia, meaning the called out). They were just followers of "The Way" who saw themselves as loyal Jews and lived according to Jewish customs and laws.

(4) It took a while for the early Christians to understand the universal mission of God in Jesus Christ and in His Church. They had Jesus' words that they were to be His witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:8) and Peter himself had quoted from the Old Testament during his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) that all who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved. But it wasn't until believers began to experience persecution (triggered by the martyrdom of the Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, Stephen) that Christians began reaching out to Gentiles with the Good News of Jesus.

(5) Persecution sent the early Christian believers away from Jerusalem, into the rest of Judea, to neighboring Samaria, and eventually, beginning with the elder Philip's encounter with a court official, to Ethiopia. This is exactly what Jesus said the Church would do, but few who first heard this directive (Acts 1:8, again) would have imagined the means by which the Spirit would make it happen. The Church always thrives and grows in the face of persecution. Among the places where Christianity is growing the most quickly today is China, where all but the domesticated, state-sanctioned churches are growing. These house churches are growing at amazingly rapid rates.

(6) This Bible lesson is part of a brief narrative Luke presents on the preaching and mission of Peter, mostly to his fellow Jews, but also eventually to Gentiles (non-Jews), before recounting the conversion and eventual ministry of Saul (later called Paul).

(7) Acts tells how God's community, the Church, reached out with compassion to the world around it and about the life that God created among its members. According to Acts, to be a follower of Jesus Christ is not a "Jesus and me" life. Christ calls us into community with other believers who serve one another and serve their neighbors. We see this communal, upward- and outward-mindedness in our lesson.

Specific comments:
v. 36: (1) Joppa's modern name is Jaffa. It sets on a cliff close to the beaches of Tel Aviv. Like Lydda, where Peter brings healing in Jesus' Name to a paralyzed man, Joppa is part of the coastal plain called Sharon.

(2) The crossroads quality of Judea is here seen in the fact that Tabitha, an Aramaic designation, is also known by her Greek name of Dorcas. Both mean gazelle.

(3) Throughout the book of Acts, we see how highly the Church regards giving and charitable acts. The person who militates against the world's worship of money to render worship to the one true God of the universe through love of God and love of neighbor is filled with God's Spirit. Another spirit fills those who serve themselves.

v. 37: This was the customary care given to the bodies of the deceased. The body was laid out in this way so that, as in America today, mourners could "pay their respects."

vv. 38-39: (1) I'm always struck by the fact that Peter seems to show no hesitation about going with these emissaries. In a period when the Church was subject to persecution, this is either amazingly reckless or amazingly faithful.

(2) Widows were disdained and marginalized in first-century Judea. But not so within the Church. In fact, the widows, beneficiaries of the Church's decision to pool all their resources and only live on what was needed, were provided with food (and presumably, other essentials) by the Church. (Check out Acts 6, which records the first church fight and its successful resolution.)

(3) In fact, the grateful widows present were lauding Dorcas for her faithful servanthood. In Dorcas's case, the ministry involved making clothing for the widows.

That's all that I can write this week, folks.

Should Abusers Be Confronted?

My post on How Much Wallowing is Cathartic? may raise the question, "Should abusers be confronted by their victims?"

I indicated there my belief that abusers should be confronted. My only argument there is with the apparently preferred treatment for the victims of abuse these days. I don't feel that the abused find it helpful to continuously rehearse their pain until they think of themselves as inveterate victims.

Some will read this as permission for the abuser to feel no remorse or for his family to treat the abuse as "no big deal." That would be wrong!

Let me tell you a true story. A colleague of mine served as a pastor in a community in which sexual abuse and exploitation by dads, stepdads, uncles, and grandfathers are regarded as something like unstated norms. The family systems are so closed and enmeshed that there is rarely any accountability demanded of the abusers.

One day, my colleague was visited by a twenty-something woman from the community, not a member of his church. She was too embarrassed to discuss this with her own pastor, she said. She explained that she was living in her own apartment, attending a local college, working a full time job, and engaged to be married. In other words, she was building a life for herself and things were going well.

But in recent weeks, she told my colleague, her happiness had been clouded by an event. Her mother, who had given birth to her when she was very young, had just given birth to another little girl. The young woman was terrified by this.

"Why?" my colleague wondered. Because, he was told, this self-assured twenty-something had been, in her teen years, the victim of sexual abuse on the part of her father and several uncles.

A few weeks before, concerned not for herself, but for her baby sister, she confronted her father. He flew into a rage and told her that no such thing had ever happened. He proceeded to tell his wife and extended family what the young woman had said, causing the whole family to go after her. What, some family members wondered, had they been teaching her at that college? Others recalled the "imagination" they claimed she'd always had. After the explosive accusations and recriminations, the family subjected her to the silent treatment, acting as though she didn't exist.

My only reason for talking with my father, this woman told my colleague, was out of concern for my little sister. She said that she hoped that after their conversation, her father would seek help.

He did, of course, but not the spiritual or competent psychotherapeutic help that he needed and might have led to healing. Instead, he called in the reinforcements of a family mired in a sick and sinful groupthink that accepted and ignored sexual abuse.

My colleague left that parish about five years after the young woman first approached him for advice. Her family was still ignoring her at that point. Although she prayed daily for her little sister, she had no contact with them. She had no idea whether her sister would be subjected to abuse herself one day.

Among the walls that abusers and their enablers erect around abuse is to accuse the victims who confront their abusers of making things up, of living in the past, or of more sinister motives. This is true even when the victim is motivated to rectify things and help the abuser, as the young woman who contacted my colleague apparently was.

When a person abuses alcohol, it's difficult for family and friends to lovingly confront them for it. But because the abuse of alcohol is something which, over time, is usually witnessed by more than one person, it's easier to confront than sexual abuse. There is a certain safety in numbers.

The victim of sexual abuse though, almost always stands alone in confronting an abuser. That makes it tough. The abuser usually denies what they have done and often, family systems, fighting for some semblance of sanity and honor, will support such denials.

Confrontation without the agenda of revenge is a healthy thing. But the victim should never be surprised if their confrontation doesn't change others' behaviors and attitudes.

The person who refuses to be a victim must accept a simple fact: The only person whose behaviors and attitudes they can control is their own.

How Much Wallowing is Cathartic?

Helen Reynolds writes in light of actress Teri Hatcher's revelation of being subjected to abuse as a child:
I'm sorry, but is Terri Hatcher being sexually abused as a child really "breaking news?" As a psychologist, I deal with people who have been sexually abused. Is it hard on them, difficult to deal with, devastating at times? Yes, it can be (or not), but is publicizing all of the victimhood really a good way to help those who have been sexually abused? And frankly, from Oprah to Ms. Hatcher to Angela Shelton, it seems like everyone owns up to some abuse at some point. I can't help but feel this play for victimhood is not a good way to promote healing for the sexually abused.
She then goes on to describe her observations of a support group in which persons who were subjected to abuse repeatedly rehearsed their past pains before the rest of the group. "I observed a number of sessions," Dr. Helen says, "but noted that no one ever seemed to be getting better--in fact, some seemed to be getting worse--and I decided then and there that the way sex abuse victims were handled and the emphasis on victimhood was not the answer."

I think that Reynolds is onto something.

As a pastor who does some counseling and who works in concert with psychotherapists seeing people I refer to them, I agree with Reynolds. Far too much emphasis is placed these days on revisiting and regurgitating past pains in the process of healing. The results are often far from cathartic. In fact, such methods many times result in an unhealthy dependence on the painful episodes for getting attention or worse, establishing a personal identity. People adopt the identity of victim and either repeat victim scenarios in their lives or have such an attitude of resentment toward everybody that they torpedo all of their significant relationships, careers, and other personal pursuits.

They become embodiments of the lines from the old Carly Simon song: "Suffering was the only thing that made me feel I was alive/ Thought that's just how much it cost to survive in this world."

A friend of mine once dated a woman who had been in therapy for something like fifteen years. She had evidently been the victim of some sexual abuse as a child, always a tragedy. But having identified that experience and the difficulties it had caused her, she showed no inclination for learning from it and moving on with her life. Instead, she went from therapist to therapist, finding new docs on whom to dump her story. She was totally "stuck," as they say, and was perfectly content to stay there. She apparently derived too much in the way of attention and a sense of personal identity from her experience of abuse to let it go.

My friend loved this woman and wanted desperately to build a life with her. But for years, she told him that she simply wasn't ready. In the end, she and my friend broke up. She was too intent on living in the past to allow herself to be happy.

Sometimes, our society encourages permanent victimhood, it seems.

Writes Reynolds:
I am not downplaying the emotional upheaval that can be caused by sexual abuse, but I disagree with the methods that our society uses to deal with sexual abuse. A person who has been abused often gets the message, if not directly, then indirectly, that they are "damaged goods" or that this one event in their life defines them in some way. Or that if they do not feel pain, vulnerability and damage from the experience, then they must be repressing something. My concern is how to help people overcome sexual abuse experiences and get better, not how to help them wallow in victimhood. If the mute patient in the group therapy session I described above is any example of how one should deal with sexual abuse, by offering victimhood as a lifestyle, then count me out. I would rather see people heal and move on.
Amen to that! Abuse shouldn't be swept under the metaphorical carpet, of course. (That's why I think that it's a good thing when sexual abuse in the Church is dealt with, as is happening today.) But once sources of difficulty or pain are identified in a person's life, the task should be on changing the present and the future, not on wallowing in the past.

The Carly Simon song I mentioned earlier is, of course, Haven't Got Time for the Pain. It ends with these lines, presumably addressed to a lover: showed me how, how to fill my heart with love
How to open up and drink in all that white LIGHT
Pouring down from the heaven
I haven't got time for the pain
I haven't got room for the pain
I haven't the need for the pain
Not since I've known you
Frankly, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I can identify with those words. The New Testament says that Jesus is "the light of the world" and that the darkness of this world cannot overcome Him. Jesus also says of Himself that if the Son sets you free, then "you are free indeed."

I believe that when people allow the grace of God to flood into their lives, understanding that they're the beneficiaries of God's self-sacrificing love and approval, healing begins to happen. Over time, as they prayerfully surrender to Christ, they experience freedom from their past and their victimhood. Eventually, graciously, they learn that they truly haven't got time for the pain any more.

UPDATE: Charlie has some interesting reflections on why "victimhood" has become so popular. It presents those who have been victimized the opportunity to feel part of something bigger than themselves (i.e., a group of fellow victims). In that sense, it fills a spiritual void created by feeling distant from God. Charlie writes incitefully (make sure you go to the comments and read the whole thing):
Where else can we find liberation from the past and a future of promise except in Christ? The victimhood movement is often a sign of how disconnected we've become as a modern society from the God who loves us and the power of the cross.
Charlie has one of my favorite blogs and writes incredible stuff!

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 5

[These daily readings during Lent are meant to help the people of our congregation--and whoever may be reading along on the blog--to grow into Christian servanthood. To tell you the truth, I don't really want to be a servant of God. That lifestyle is hard. But I want to want to be a servant of God and because God is gracious, He can work with that.]

God made you for servanthood.

Paul writes in the New Testament, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).

Followers of Jesus Christ know that they have been set free from sin and death. But not many followers of Christ realize that by their faith in Jesus, they have also been set free for a way of life, a life of servanthood.

Why would we want to be servants? It has to do with our design. Psalm 139:13-16 tells God, “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because you are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful..When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother’s womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there--you saw me before I was born...” We are all products of God’s careful design.

Built into us is a desire to be part of a community of caring in which each of us contributes something of ourselves to the good of others. This need for community and mutual servanthood is part of what it means to be created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26).

Back when human beings fell into sin, the first thing they did was point accusingly at others (Genesis 3:12-13). Their community with God and others was broken. God’s mission from that time has been to restore our impulse to community and mutual service. The greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Servanthood is love in its work clothes.

God made you for servanthood.

Bible passage to ponder: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Collection of Past Posts from 'Better Living'

Those of you visiting Better Living for the first time might be interested in checking out some blog post series I've written in the past:

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

Prayer: The Essential Conversation
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

Habits of the Heart
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 4

Servanthood is the clearest sign of greatness.

We underestimate the power of servanthood. But imagine the impact on the disciples gathered with Jesus during that fateful Passover meal when He washed their feet. All eyes would have been on Him as He put His robe back on and returned to His place. Hanging on His every word, they heard Him say:

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17).

One of the most interesting characters in history is George Washington. Twice, first at the end of the American Revolution and then at the end of his second term as our first President, Washington walked away from the implicit offer of lifelong executive power. People wanted him to become the king of America. But he refused, setting a precedent for the peaceful transition of political power that has become the tradition of the United States and the model after which every country desiring to establish democracy has patterned itself since. Washington showed restraint and thereby established his greatness as a political leader. He saw that anyone who would achieve great things must be, first and foremost, a servant.

This is especially true for the follower of Jesus Christ. No Christian can ever delude herself into thinking that she’s bigger than the Savior Who died on a cross and rose from the dead to give us new and everlasting life with God. The servants of Christ follow Him into acts of humble service, whether obscure or celebrated. They know that servanthood is the clearest sign of greatness.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Reading Tea Leaves at Althouse

The blog of Ann Althouse interests me in part because of what she writes and how well she writes "on the fly," which is to say like an ideal blogger must write. (I don't think that I'm the ideal blogger, by the way.)

But what also interests me about Althouse's blog is that she has such a large audience that the comments section of each piece she writes is something of a measure of what people care about and how intensely.

As of this writing, Althouse has what I would describe as five major posts today: one dealing with an article from today's New York Times detailing the major revision of a standard Art History college textbook; the death of Dana Reeve; one on the question of whether attention deficit was really a disorder; the presidential prospects of Rudy Giuliani; and the implications of the new South Dakota law for possible changes or reversal of Roe v Wade.

Frankly, I would have expected the tragic and untimely death of Dana Reeve, who so helped her husband, the late Christopher Reeve, only to learn that she had lung cancer within a year of his death, would have elicited the most comments. While I didn't think the Art History post would receive massive attention, in spite of Althouse's interesting spin on the story, I had been intrigued by The Times article myself and figured some folks would find it as worthy of attention as I did.

Conversely, I expected almost no conversation about Giuliani's potential candidacy and as to the abortion issue, I thought that there would be some conversation, but not that much. I sense that most Americans share the attitude of the first President Bush when it comes to abortion, irrespective of their views on the subject. Bush, during his term in office, told an aide briefing him on the latest abortion brush-up, "I hate this issue."

I thought that the piece on attention deficit disorder would elicit a number of comments.

But my projections about what would be the hot-button issues for readers of Althouse's blog turned out to be almost completely inaccurate. Right now, the comments count stands as follows:
Abortion post: 62 comments
Giuliani: 47
ADD: 39
Art book: 7
Dana Reeve: 5
Whether this is an accurate measure of the interests of the American people in these subjects today is one question, of course. But there can be little doubt that among Althouse's readers--and I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to their characteristics, there's a desire for a feisty, respectful discussion about abortion and little impulse to discuss art or the Reeve tragedy. I have no idea what that means, if anything.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 3

[The congregation I serve as pastor is on a Lenten journey to what Christians call servanthood. Our members are going through these daily readings. I hope that readers of Better Living will find them helpful, too. All Scriptural citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.]

Servanthood is an active way of living.

Pastor John Maxwell tells the story of a man moved by the preaching he heard during worship one Sunday. He stood up and called out to God, “Oh, Lord, use me! Use me!” And then, thinking of the implications of his offer, he added a proviso: “In an advisory capacity.”

We’ve said that God’s prime goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus and that what this means above all, is that you become a servant. That may seem fine, even laudable, in the abstract. But, we need to ask the same question that five-centuries of Lutheran Catechism students have been taught to ask when confronting the basics of our faith in Christ: “What does this mean?” The answer may determine whether we really want to be used by God or not.

On the night He was to be arrested, Jesus gathered with His twelve closest followers to celebrate the Jewish Passover. But before they prayed or ate, Jesus did a strange thing.

In those days, whenever guests came for dinner, the head of the household saw to it that their feet were washed. There were no paved roads in those days. Most travel was done by foot. And because of the hot Judean sun, everybody wore sandals. Footwashing was a soothing and practical act of hospitality. But it was also work delegated to the lowest of slaves. (John 13:1-11)

Yet, Jesus grabbed a pitcher of water, poured it into a basin, and grabbing a towel, set out to wash the twenty-four dusty feet of the apostles. At first, Peter tried to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. Writer Richard Foster says that Peter wasn’t being humble. Instead, his demurral “was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed Jesus’ feet!” Jesus though, dared to put servanthood into action.

Servanthood is more than an attitude. Servanthood is an active way of living.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet...” (John 13:5)

Monday, March 06, 2006

More on the Chieftains

Some may have read this post in which I mentioned the Chieftains. Today, the practitioners of traditional Celtic music appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a brief portion of which I caught. I was at least correct when I spoke with my friends that they are an Irish ensemble. But of course, the Proclaimers are the group who gave us I'm Gonna Be 500 Miles. That twosome is from Scotland.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 2

[The congregation I serve as pastor is on a Lenten journey to what Christians call servanthood. Our members are going through these daily readings throughout Lent. I hope that readers of Better Living will find them helpful. All Scriptural citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.]

Above all, God means for you to be a servant.

Yesterday, we established that God’s goal for you is that you become like Jesus. But when He came to the world, what was Jesus like?

Paul tackled this question in a letter that appears in our New Testament. There, the apostle urges the members of the first-century church in the city of Philippi to think and act like Jesus in their life together:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).

You see, Jesus had nothing to prove. He was God. So, when a crowd, impressed that He had filled their bellies with food, chased after Him to force Him into becoming the sort of king they wanted, He refused them (John 6:22-40). When the crowds who welcomed Him on the first Palm Sunday pressed Him to throw the Roman conquerors out of Jerusalem, Jesus again refused. He would be a King on His own terms, a Servant King. Jesus served in small ways--turning water into wine at a Judean wedding (John 2:1-12)--and in the very biggest way of all, giving His life on a cross. But, confident of Who He was, He had no need to “throw His weight around,” coercing people into following Him. He lovingly served others and as a result, many wanted to follow Him.

Because of your confidence in the risen Jesus, you can dare to live like Him. Above all, God means for you to be a servant.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself...he took on the status of a slave...” (Philippians 2:5-11, The Message)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Serving in the Wilderness

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on March 4 and 5, 2006.]

Mark 1:9-15

Today, I want to look at two verses in our Bible lesson, verses 12 and 13. The Gospel of Mark, from which our lesson is taken, leaves out alot of the things that two other Gospels, Mathew and Luke, tell us about Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. In spite of that, he also includes things in these two verses that aren’t in those two other books. Let’s just read those two verses together out loud:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
As this verse begins, Jesus must have suffered from a kind of whiplash. One moment, He’s being baptized by John when the voice of the Father tells Him, “You are My Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased.” Then, immediately, He finds Himself in the wilderness being tempted by Satan and surrounded by wild beasts. Things went from wonderful to frightening in a matter of seconds. That’s sort of like life, isn’t it?

One Fourth of July weekend, we were entertaining my extended family at our place in northwestern Ohio. One afternoon during that weekend, most of the gang had gone off exploring as my dad and I stayed behind at the house to let the little ones take naps. We were having a great time. Then the phone rang. It was my wife’s step sister, sobbing, with shocking news: My wife's father had just been diagnosed with cancer; he probably wouldn’t live another six weeks. Whiplash.

From Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation, we see that the same sort of thing happened in Jesus’ life. If it happened in the life of God-in-the-flesh, then you know we aren’t exempt from the whiplash of events either. When it happens, we must learn to rely on the same Father on Whom Jesus relied while He was in the wilderness.

It’s interesting to see the way Mark describes Jesus’ going into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke use two different words that mean “led.” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, they say. But Mark says that Jesus was driven into the wilderness. In fact, the word translated as driven in our Bible renders the Greek word, ekballo. It's a compound word: Ballo, from which we get our word ball, means to throw and ek means out. Literally, Jesus was thrown out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God!

Have you ever felt as though you were thrown out into the wilderness?

Did you ever think that it was God Who did the throwing?

I got fired from a job once. It happened about a year before I started seminary. After that, I went to another job and things were going okay there, though I was far from happy.

It was at about this time that I fell in love with Jesus, was appointed to our congregation's Church Council, and I began to sense God calling me to become a pastor. But that concerned me. One night, after a council meeting, I spoke with our pastor. I told him that I thought that maybe I was being called to pastoral ministry. “Uh-huh,” he said. “But...” I muttered. “But, what?” he asked me. “But I got fired from my last job and I’m not really excited about this one,” I told him. “Yeah?” “I don’t want to be going to seminary if there’s even the slightest chance that I’d be doing it just to run away from jobs I don’t like.” My pastor fixed me with a stare and then asked me this: “Have you ever thought that your getting fired from one job and landing in another one you didn’t like was God’s way of saying, ‘Quit messing around and start doing what I want you to do?’”

I’m convinced that God drove me into the wilderness so that I could learn to rely on Him and learn to do His will. If you feel that you’re in the wilderness today, God may very well be the One Who drove you there for His purposes.

Mark says that Jesus was thrown out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Think about that for a second: The Spirit of God drove Jesus to a place where He would be tempted to sin by Satan. Did the Holy Spirit want Jesus to sin? No. Only the death of a human being completely unblemished by sin could pay the price for the debt we all owe for our sin. The Spirit had a different reason for driving Jesus to His confrontation with Satan.

Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out that “when teachers...give tests, [they’re] not trying to flunk [their students], but to help discover what they know.” If every student in a class flunks a test, a good teacher knows that it’s time to do more teaching.

Stoffregen goes on to say, “I believe that this is God’s purpose in times of testing [us].” So, even when Satan is tempting us to walk away from God, as He tempted Jesus in the wilderness, God is using that same event to teach us, strengthen our characters, and shore up our faith. Just like Jesus, you and I have missions. Just like Jesus, we’re called to be servants of God. And if we’re to fulfill our missions of servanthood, we will need to undergo and pass the tests that life sends our ways.

There’s one last thing I want to point out about our lesson. It ends by saying, “The angels waited on Him.” The word translated as waited literally means served. The angels served Jesus, the One Who said that He came not to be served but to serve all of us; the One Who washed the feet of His disciples on the night of His arrest; the One Who died on a cross for all of us.

Here’s the point: Whenever we go through the wilderness times of our lives, God sends servants to help us through. And He sends all of us who follow Christ to be those servants who help others in their wilderness times.

True story: Joe had just learned he had cancer. Joe’s wife called the pastor and after chatting for a time called the husband to the phone to talk. They spoke briefly, but the pastor knew his empathy only went so far. So, after putting down the phone, he called Bill, a cancer survivor in the congregation. The Pastor knew that Joe would need his listening ear and the prayers of the congregation to help him face whatever loomed ahead. But he was also wise enough to know the limits of his own competence. He asked Bill to reach out to Joe. Bill was the servant who helped Joe make it through the wilderness.

Another true story before, one I’ve told before: A man in my former parish died. While I visited his widow, several other people visited too. People from the church and the community were dropping off food to help the family during a period when nobody felt like preparing dinners. Between her tears, the widow dabbed her eyes, smiled at me, and said, “There’s a lot of love in that refrigerator.”

We respond to the amazing and undeserved love of Jesus Christ, a love that gives new life to all who dare to turn from sin and turn in trust to Him, by offering up lives of servanthood to God and others. Over the next forty days, this will be our emphasis, our call, and our passion. In just a few moments, I’m going to ask you to come forward now. Sign the pledge indicating your continuing commitment to the mission of Friendship, your intention to read the daily readings on servanthood twice a day for the next forty days, and to get involved in your own ministry of servanthood.

In the wilderness:
  • Our call is to rely on God.
  • When we do, we’ll also be called to resist the temptation to walk away from God and pass the tests of character God sets before us to shape us for our missions in life.
  • And, just as God serves us and cares for us as we make our ways through life, we’re called to be servants of God who bring His care and comfort to others.
Let’s be absolutely committed to pursuing the journey of servanthood these forty days and all our lives!

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 1

[Today, the congregation I serve as pastor begins a Lenten journey to what Christians call servanthood. Our members will be going through these daily readings for the next forty days. I hope that readers of Better Living will find them helpful. All Scriptural citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.]

God’s goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus.

God has set apart every person He’s called to follow Jesus Christ “to become like his Son, so that the Son would be the first among many brothers” (Romans 8:29, Good News Bible).

Impossible? Outrageous? Presumptuous? Maybe. After all, Jesus was (and is) not just a human being, but God. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible...all things have been created through him and for Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell...” (Colossians 1:15-19).

But I’m not making this up. God means for you to become like Jesus.

Jesus is the prototype of a new human race. This is what the apostle Paul was talking about in First Corinthians 15 when he effectively designated Jesus the new “Adam.” “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (First Corinthians 15:22). Sin infected the human family when Adam rebelled against God. Because human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation, the only one of God’s creatures to bear “the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-28), all of creation bears the burden and the signs of our rebellion against God.

But God means to give fresh starts to all who turn from sin and surrender to Jesus Christ (Second Corinthians 5:17). Jesus is the new Adam, the resurrected first example and the pioneer of the new human race of which God invites all people to be a part.

In Christ, we are born anew (John 3:3). But just as our physical births are only the beginnings of our lives, so our spiritual births only begin our lives in Christ.

God’s goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.” (Romans 8:29, The Message)