Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Call to Precarious Balance

Photo Credit
Staying balanced is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for the Christ-follower.  After all, extremes are easy: love without truth, truth without love, accept everything, allow everything, or condemn everything. It requires no effort to be carried away by the emotion of the moment, and it requires little effort to just go numb and feel nothing.

But we are called to walk a much more difficult path, and follow the example of our Way, Truth and LIfe. The very ones the religious establishment considered the most sinful, Jesus felt compassion for and became their friends.  They in turn felt his love and were drawn to him. And he did this without ever condoning their sinful activity.  I think Jesus’ response of sadness and compassion is because he knew how harmful and destructive sin is to our most important relationships. He wanted people healed and restored to the intimacy for which they were designed.

Consider lying and dishonesty as an example. A person may try and convince themselves and others that little white lies harm no one. They may even conclude if the lie is not detected, “it’s all fine” and "nothing happened."

That, however, is itself a lie, a deception. Every lie is breach of trust and it undermines the stability of the relationship.  Undetected lies breed more lying. The liar often lives in fear of being discovered, nagged by a sense of guilt, an inner unrest that leaves him or her uneasy. He can no longer interact openly with the other person, and the tension grows, becoming palpable, leaving both the liar and the lied-to feeling unsettled. There is something very ‘not right.’  Instead of transparency there is suspicion, instead of sharing there’s hiding, instead of honesty there are more lies.  Instead of fully giving to one another, there is minimal self-disclosure, and any apparent openness is cautious, guarded and self-protective. All this is a death-knell to intimacy, be it emotional, sexual or spiritual. The relationship begins to die, and it makes no difference if it is between parent and child, worker and boss, husband and wife, or between a person and God. The only thing that puts the relationship back into balance and restores the state of intimacy is a return to the original design—complete honesty, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. And from there, a renewed commitment to honesty and integrity, to rebuild the broken trust and regain shattered intimacy.

Jesus knew all this – after all He created people and designed then for close and intimate relationships.  How could he not feel compassion for people suffering the effects of sin? So Jesus approached people openly, giving them a taste of his love, acceptance, compassion, and tenderness, and when their spirits were awakened to their thirst Jesus pointed them in the way they should go—repentance and faith in him. But always in that order - love, compassion, friendship, then the Word and the double-love command. True love for God is reflected in how we love – with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and then loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Without obedience and submission to God's pattern for relationships we cannot experience the intimacy we both want and need.

And that is the great tragedy of same-sex “marriage” it can never be what God intended marriage to be. People who choose same-sex relationships rather than heterosexual ones, never experience the maximum, most alive intimacy with another person in the way God himself prepared and designed it. God designed two sexes so that when they came together they could experience a metaphysical unity, a physical, sexual and spiritual connection enabled by their diverse physiologies they could never experience apart from one another.  It is a union that is paralleled only in God. The Triune God. The God who is Three and One.

“And the two shall be one flesh.”

This cosmic unity can only fully occur within the context of heterosexual sex, when image of God male unites with image of God female. And this can only be experienced at its maximum capacity, joy and fulfillment in a monogamous marriage, because only in that context does it have the blessing and approval of God. To replace that relationship with a sexual expression not sanctioned by God (homo or hetero) is to forfeit the opportunity to experience the maximum level of intimacy and love available to us - not only with another person but with God himself.  In addition, any sexual expression outside this intended design is going to ultimately damage and harm the participants.

It is like when I grab my wood chisel and use it for a screwdriver. I can make it work – sometimes quite effectively; I can make the screw turn. Let's face it, under certain circumstances it is a whole lot easier to grab the wood chisel. I don't want to invest the time and effort to get the tool I need. Furthermore, I don't want to deny myself the ability to get the job done without further delay.  But something always gets damaged in the process, and in most cases it is both the chisel and the screw.  Eventually, if I persist, I’ll end up doing irreparable damage to both. It’s the inevitable result of ignoring the intended purpose and design.

Now there is certainly excitement, attraction, sexual pleasure, and a certain experience of love, intimacy and commitment outside the context of monogamous, hetero marriage. But that is a result of our being made in the image of God with a capacity for such things. It is a sort of common-grace, something we get despite our behavior, since we don't cease to be image of God, just because we rebel against Him. You can still get the satisfaction of tightening the screw with the wood chisel.  However, such experiences will likely be superficial, and instead of providing long-term satisfaction, will leave a lingering thirst, or a sense that something is missing.  And just as dishonesty in a relationship undermines and smothers deep, true and lasting intimacy, introducing a sexuality not sanctioned by God does the same. It is impossible in that context to experience the relationship as God designed it. Sin of any kind, but especially sexual sin, introduces a sort of virus into the relationship that impedes its development, and sooner or later ends up killing it unless the situation is remedied.  It is not surprising then that so many go from relationship to relationship, from partner to partner (or multiple partners) and their relational thirst, instead of being quenched, becomes more acute.

All the while Jesus, in his perfect balance of tenderness, compassion and truth, still wants intimacy with his creatures, and invites them to savor his love through repentance, forgiveness and communion with Him.  When he sees me with my nicked-up chisel, stripped screw head and skinned knuckles, he doesn’t fly into the room, screaming at me to look at how much damage I'm doing and telling me how stupid I am for tightening a screw with a chisel, carpenter that he is.  Rather, he acknowledges the importance of the screw being tightened, then lovingly and patiently invites me to look at the damage. If I have eyes to see, he then invites me to lay down the chisel and take the time and effort necessary to go get the screwdriver and experience the joys of intended design.  

This is the difficult yet engaging balance that characterizes the very heart of Jesus. So how can we who have already tasted of His love, offer any less to those who have never experienced it? It's possible to accept and love the person without approving of their behavior - after all we do this with our kids all the time. And people know when we truly love them and care for them, even when we don't agree.  It's the reason my wife and I got invited to the same-sex marriage of a dear friend, and It's the reason we've chosen to attend. We love her deeply, and we care about her and what's important to her -- and so does Jesus.  It's the precarious balance Love calls us to walk. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Nothing Outside A Person Can Defile Him" - says Jesus

False teachers prohibit foods - wolf sheep clothing
"Beware of false prophets ..." -- Jesus
The words of Jesus are unmistakable and striking. The audacity of false teachers is stunning. How do they get away with it for decades, even centuries?

·      How is it that Mormon leaders prohibit coffee and tea?
·      On what basis to Seventh-day Adventists prohibit the eating of pork and other foods?
·      By what authority do Jehovah's Witnesses prohibit blood transfusions?

Jesus' words in Mark 7 could not be more clear: “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him"

Jesus elaborates on this further to his disciples in private who were likely shocked by this sweeping statement. "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”

And, as if this were not enough, we have the Gospel writer Mark's inspired commentary (which Mark likely got from Peter) that immediately follows it -- "Thus he declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19).

Trumping Jesus?
Is there any person who has the authority to trump the clear teaching of Jesus?  Prohibitions on externals that are tied to what makes us acceptable to God should be recognized as man-made additions that arrogantly set aside the ultimate authority of Jesus. They are best rejected, as should be the person who teaches them. This is further reinforced by other New Testament teaching like Peter's vision of the sheet with "unclean" animals in it (Acts 10:15), and Paul's teaching that 'food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do" (1 Cor. 8:8).
In addition, Paul's teaching in Colossians 2:16-18, 23, is especially applicable to the movements founded by Joseph Smith and Ellen White which claim a visionary basis for the external restrictions and commandments they impose on their followers:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind „, these indeed have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism

Pride if you succeed -- false guilt if you fail
The saddest part is perhaps the damage done to those who attempt to follow such false teachers. If they succeed to some degree in holding to these externals, they are proud of their accomplishments and often look in disdain or contempt on those who cannot or will not comply. If they fail to completely adhere, or simply give up after trying for so long, they then are made to feel guilty, defiled and unworthy of God's love and acceptance.

Meanwhile, Jesus stands with arms open wide saying "I've already earned perfection for you, come take it from me. Trade your true moral guilt, the stuff that comes out of you - your pride, envy, hate, coveting, lying, murder and adultery - trade your sin for my righteousness, for only my perfection taken as a gift in faith, will make you acceptable before God the Father." (See Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 2:13-14; Titus 13-7; I Peter 2:24).

Any movement, religion, teacher, or self-claimed apostle or prophet that ties our acceptance before God to external prohibitions related to food, drink, religious observance or medical practices has, either in ignorance or intentionally, set aside the clear teaching of Jesus and his apostles. In doing so, they show themselves to be a spiritual charlatan that will cheat us out of authentic, intimate relationship with the God who created us to enjoy Him both now and forever.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Three Reasons Why I Love Cuba

4 More Reasons I Love and Miss Cuba
It's been over a year now since I was in Cuba - my longest span since I started making 1-2 trips per year to this island nation about six years ago - and I miss her.  Or better said, I miss her people.  The good news is things are opening up.  More and more of my students and friends are showing up on Facebook, in my newsfeed or with a private message to ask how things are doing and when am I coming back.  All this has helped me understand some of the reasons why I love Cuba and her people.

1) Relational ties are valued - highly.  When you don't have a lot of "stuff" you tend to value relationships and the time spent together more. So the time spent over a couple of cafe helados from Cafe Escorial' at the Plaza Vieja is a treasure, a mutual investment of talking honestly about life and family and ministry. My Cuban friends remember details about me and my life, and ask me about them frequently, and because I've shared in the brokenness and struggles of their lives those relational ties only get stronger as time goes on. And let's face it, of all the stuff we invest in here, the only thing we take with us into eternity are people.

2) Their joy is contagious.  A friend recently messaged me about a Christian concert he attended on the island. Hundreds of people gathered to rejoice, worship and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in the open air.  He was thrilled at just having been there, and as we wrote back and forth, I found myself rejoicing with him and being grateful that he, and so many of my cubano brothers and sisters, had this opportunity.  For many of us a Christian concert by a virtually unknown local band is hardly something to rave about on FB, but for him it was a joyous highlight of his week and that joy rubbed off on me.

3) Their worship is authentic.  Over and over my Cuban hermanos have shown me their faith in God is strong in the midst of and to a large degree because of adverse circumstances. For them God is always God and always worthy of worship - regardless of what we may not have or what we may be going through. Several years ago I was talking to a pastor friend about the then potential opening up of Cuban-US relationships. At that point there were only small hints of what now is quickly becoming reality.  His primary concern was that greater openness would lead to greater affluence and ease of life and that believers would be sucked into the vortex of materialism and creature comforts and lose their passion for God. That's a legitimate concern and it would be heartbreaking for me should the bride of Christ in Cuba begin to lose the authentic, heart-felt, committed worship that she now has for her coming King and Bridegroom.

It's inspired me to pray for the people and the nation as a whole, and hopefully their worship, joy and value of relationships that has so filled my life will spill over from me into the lives of others.