Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Narrow Victory

I've been a Los Angeles Lakers fan my entire life. Well, maybe from age 7 or 8 or so.

My earliest Laker memory was overhearing my dad tell my mom that the Lakers were going to be good again, "because they've got Magic back." This would have been sometime in '81, whenever Magic Johnson returned from the knee injury that sidelined him for most of that season. I was confused by my dad's comment, not understanding who or what he was talking about. He told me who Magic was, and explained the nickname: "He plays so good, it's like magic." A love began that would last a lifetime.

I don't remember the Lakers' championship in '80, but I do remember the one in '82, and every one thereafter. I also recall some bitter defeats and disappointments along the way.

Then, there was the dry spell from '88 - '00, a twelve-year drought in which the Lakers did not win a title. In fact, they weren't always very good at all.

Fortunes turned, and the Lakers rose again. From 2000 - 2002, the Lakers won three consecutive NBA titles, led by the tandem of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

During this period, I found myself comparing this team to the Lakers' teams that won five titles in the '80s, led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My memories of the earlier squad were much more favorable, their period of dominance being a happy time in my mind, marked by consistent play and team harmony. The more recent championship run, as exciting as it was, was not nearly as happy. This team was marked by inconsistency, up-and-down play, and periodic dissension between the stars of the team. It just wasn't as fun to be a fan.

The main difference, however, came in the nature of the victories of these teams.

The earlier Lakers' teams consistently played to their ability. It took a worthy opponent to test them, and it took a superior opponent to take them down. I remember many lopsided victories over teams that just couldn't keep up, and some epic battles against teams that could. Not often did a lowly team play beyond their ability to challenge these Lakers.

The more recent team, however, was a different story. I can't back this up with any data, but I just don't remember many blowout wins by this team. Sure, there was the time in the spring of 2001, when they demolished San Antonio in a playoff series, but I don't recall many victories like that. I don't remember many 20-point wins. I do remember a lot of 1-point nailbiters and needless overtimes. I remember opponents that should not have been able to challenge these Lakers taking them deep into the late rounds. I was there in person one night in Dallas in 2000, to see the flat-footed Lakers succumb to Shawn Bradley draining endless 20-footers, leading the Mavericks to victory, late in a season in which the Lakers would actually win the title. Why?

It was so frustrating to see a team that should have dominated, never quite giving their opponents what they might have given them. To be sure, much credit is due to the level of talent on opposing teams. It's quite possible that there just wasn't the gap in ability between these Lakers and their opponents, as there was between the '80s Lakers and their opponents. But, watching it as it happened, it just seemed that the effort and focus were not always there, and that that could have made a difference. These Lakers were the masters of the narrow victory, which made for some exciting finishes, but also much needless heartache and heartburn.

I was not alone. The Lakers' General Manager at the time was Jerry West, himself a legendary Laker star. West was seen several times over this three-year period leaving the arena during the late minutes of a game, finding himself unable to watch as these Lakers barely held a slim lead, or tried to regain the lead in the waning minutes. He shared the frustration of many fans who, while appreciative of any victory, wondered if it really had to be so hard.

In the world of sports, a win is a win, and when it comes right down to it, players and fans alike will take a win over a loss any day, regardless of the margin of victory.

However, the margin of victory is important in other areas.

A political candidate who wins an election will be told his mandate to act in the new leadership role is closely tied to the margin of victory he enjoyed on election day. A diligent student will not be happy with simply passing a test, but will hope for a dominating performance. And, a person of faith needs to know that the source of life to which he looks is not merely capable of meeting his needs, but is far and away the best choice available.

God created man. He gave man the free will to love God or not. He redeemed man through His Son Jesus Christ. He lives in His children through His Holy Spirit. The Christian's victory is already won, by a loving God who is merciful toward man, but will have no mercy for Satan on the last day.

Our God is not the God of the narrow victory.

His victory over Satan is total and final. It was never close. Now, it's just a matter of time, and all Satan can do is hurt as many of God's children as he can before he runs out of time. It's a pathetic, last-ditch effort by a bitter, defeated enemy. Yes, potentially lethal to his victims, but hopeless against the power of God.

Have you put your faith in the God who has already won your battle? Or, are you struggling against yourself, trying to eke out a slim, ever-shifting lead against your temptations and shortcomings?

Are you allowing God to dominate sin in your life? Or, is an unworthy opponent needlessly pushing you to your limit?

It really doesn't have to be that hard.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Do not quarrel on the journey."

Such a great line.

Joseph, who answers only to Pharoah in Egypt, has revealed himself to his long-lost brothers, who sold him into slavery so many years before. He is gracious and kind to them, not taking the opportunity to repay them for their cruelty, but instead seeing God's hand working through the entire story, placing Joseph in Egypt just for the purpose of saving lives when famine struck. All of his struggles now make sense and serve a purpose.

Joseph, holding all the cards in this new relationship, sends his brothers back home to Canaan to bring their father, Jacob, down to Egypt.

As he sees them off, he gives them this parting word: "Do not quarrel on the journey." (Gen. 45:24)

Even after all the years of separation from them, Joseph must have known his brothers well. Unbeknownst to him, they had squabbled over their initial plan to do away with him, and we can only imagine the heated arguments that must have taken place among them in the years of Joseph's absence, as the brothers hid the truth and allowed their father to believe the lie that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Besides that particular family history, most of us have experienced the correlation between long road trips and short tempers. Put a few brothers together in close quarters for a few hours on the road, and the chemistry will produce equal parts camaraderie and hostility. Some great laughs, and some even greater fights.

Joseph knew his brothers would be even more likely than ever to stoop to infighting now that their world had been turned upside-down by Joseph's reappearance. He knew the larger purpose had already been fulfilled, namely, saving the family through his position of power in Egypt. He knew the blessing the family was about to receive was too important to mar with petty squabbles over who said what, who did what, and who was right or wrong. In fact, if anyone had some quarreling to do, it would have been Joseph. But, he's the first one to realize maintaining the peace at this pivotal point in family history is more important than hashing out every disagreement.

How many of us have been thrown down into a pit by family? Sold into slavery by siblings? Thought dead by our parents? Bought and put to work as a slave? Been lured sexually by the spouse of our owner? Resisted that temptation, only to be rewarded for it with a trip to prison? Helped fellow inmates, only to be forgotten by them upon their release?

Joseph had every opportunity to have a serious chip on his shoulder. He had been dealt unfairness and injustice. And, it all started with his brothers. Yes, he had risen to prominence in Egypt, and was treated with honor, but the worldly mind would still have held a grudge against his brothers for everything they had done and caused. The worldly mind would have taken advantage of the opportunity to pay the brothers back for the pain they had inflicted.

But, Joseph does not have the worldly mind. Through all these experiences, he has been molded by God for His purposes. He understands the glory of overlooking a transgression. (Proverbs 19:11) He understands that there are times when God develops His children through hardship for greater purposes and more challenging tasks. He understands why he is where he is, and why he had to travel the road that got him there. Rather than feeling anger toward his brothers, he pleads with them not to feel anger toward themselves (Gen. 45:5). His mercy toward them gives him the credibility to tell them not to quarrel.

What about us?

What offenses prompt us to quarrel with our neighbors, our families, our brothers and sisters in Christ? Does it take something serious to upset us enough to quarrel? Or, does it take something surprisingly small, even petty, to motivate us to risk a relationship?

Joseph was willing to let go of far more serious offenses than you and I are likely to have to endure, because the big picture was more important. The famine was overcome. The family was saved. Petty differences just didn't deserve a place at the table.

Are we willing to put the big picture ahead of personal offenses? Satan is overcome. Salvation is here. Do petty differences have a place at our table?

Will we quarrel on the journey to heaven?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Righteous, But Not Salty

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men." -- Matthew 5:13

Influence is an amazing thing. The word in English is derived from a Latin root, in the verb form meaning literally, "to flow in". The spring air that flows in through a window influences the whole house. Of course, we understand the word to have much deeper meaning than simply entering a place. Whatever influences us not only flows in, but changes everything it touches, for good or bad.

The teen whose heart is touched by the gospel as he hears it preached is influenced.

The same teen may also be influenced when he sees porn on a convenience store shelf.

The teen whose heart is touched by the gospel may very well influence another teen to be open to the same message.

The teen who delves into porn will almost certainly influence others to corrupt their minds as well.

Of course, it's not just teens who are subject to influence. It's everyone. Influence is powerful, and carries with it eternal consequences.

The story of Lot is a story of influence. Influence felt, influence squandered, and far-reaching results no one could have foreseen.

Lot was the nephew of Abram (later called Abraham), and his story can be found in Genesis, chapters 13-14 and 18-19. Lot's father, Haran, had already died when Abram was called by God in Genesis 12 to leave his country and move to a land God would show him. Lot accompanied Abram and Sarai on this journey, and remained with them until the time came, in Genesis 13, when Abram and Lot agreed to separate for the sake of their large flocks and herds, which had become so difficult to manage close together that the herdsmen were beginning to squabble with each other. Abram gave Lot the first choice of which direction to go, and Lot chose the best-looking land, the plain of the Jordan, and set the course for the rest of his family's life.

Lot's choice sets in motion a progression of influence that mirrors Psalm 1, which describes first "walking in the counsel of the wicked", then "standing in the way of sinners", then "sitting in the seat of mockers". This is the progression of someone who first finds himself in casual company with the ungodly, then spending more time with them and becoming more accustomed to their ways, before finally becoming one of them.

Genesis 13:12, 14:12, and 19:1, read in succession, reveal the same gradually increasing comfort level in Lot's life concerning his adopted hometown, the infamous Sodom. He first "pitched his tents near Sodom", then is found to be "living in Sodom", and finally is found to be "sitting in the gateway of the city". The final statement indicates some level of prominence in the community, as Lot has apparently become something of an important person in a city God will soon destroy.

When God's angels appear in Sodom to determine whether to destroy the city, Lot greets them at the city gates, and invites them to stay at his house. The "men" initially decline Lot's offer, stating they intend to spend the night in the open square. Lot strongly insists they not do that, but instead come into his house. Finally, the visitors accept Lot's offer and go to his house. Unfortunately, this is Lot's strongest display of will during his time in Sodom.

At nightfall, a bizarre and disturbing scene unfolds, as all the men of Sodom, "young and old", surround Lot's house and demand that he send his two visitors outside, "that we may have sex with them". Lot steps out to plead with his neighbors, saying, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing." Lot continues his plea, "Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man." (We later find out they are both engaged to be married.) "Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But, don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof." The men of Sodom totally disregard Lot's plea, and scornfully label him an "alien", assuring Lot he will not be their judge, but will instead be treated worse than his visitors.

Interesting: "I'm going to do whatever I want, and how dare anyone judge me for it?" Does this philosophy sound familiar?

It is also interesting to notice how none of the accommodations Lot had made for the evil people around him were returned in kind. While Lot might have been thinking he would blend in and later on be able to influence his friends, his friends' sole assumption was that Lot approved of them, just the way they were. They were indignant when Lot tried to change that relationship. Despite all the room Lot had made for them in his life, there was no room in their lives for someone trying to please God. Lot proves what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Bad company corrupts good character."

A few questions for Lot:

1. Why are these men your "friends"?

2. Why is it you have no credibility with these men? After all, don't you sit at the city gates? Is this the first time they have
heard you speak out about the conduct your city becomes the name for?

3. Where do you find it within yourself to offer up your daughters to this mob? Surely not even the value of hospitality would
demand this of you. Why must these men be pleased?

4. And, why were you so insistent that the visitors come to your house, even after they declined? Was it just hospitality? Or,
was it that you knew what would happen to them in the open square? You didn't tell them it wasn't safe. You just insisted
they come to your house. Were you trying to hide the true nature of your city?

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Lot offered up his daughters to be raped and murdered by a crowd of maniacs he called friends. By living in Sodom, investing himself in that community, and agreeing to let his daughters marry men from Sodom, he had given them over already, without so much as a fight for their souls.

The story does not end well.

The angelic visitors warn Lot to get his family out of Sodom, as God is about to destroy it. it is then that Lot's lack of influence catches up to him. Lot cannot convince his soon-to-be sons-in-law to heed the warning: They "thought he was joking" (19:14). He cannot ensure that his entire family follows the angels' instructions about fleeing the city: His wife looks back at the carnage, and "became a pillar of salt" (19:26). Lot finally makes it to a cave with his daughters, who secretly concoct a perverted scheme to "preserve our family line" (19:32). On two consecutive nights, the girls get Lot into a drunken stupor and proceed to have sex with him, getting themselves pregnant by their father. The babies born are both boys, whose descendants become great pagan nations at odds with God's people: the Moabites and the Ammonites.

The Genesis account leads the reader to believe that Lot was a man of slim convictions and little courage. In reality, it may be that only the latter is true. A different side of Lot is portrayed in 2 Peter 2:7. In this passage, Lot is described as a "righteous man", who was "distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men"; and "that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard". This is an interesting take on the life of Lot, especially in the light of his failures so clearly seen in Genesis.

The question is: What good did Lot's righteousness do? What good did it do for his wife? His children? His community? His descendants? Who was influenced by his righteousness?

Of course, no person's righteousness can guarantee anything. But, we are called to be an influence. To be salt. To be light. To change our surroundings, not to allow our surroundings to change us. Lot's story is one that should cause every Christian to consider his influence. Lot is what Jesus spoke of, the salt that lost its saltiness. Despite everything he believed, in the end, no one in his life was influenced by his righteousness, though they could have been, had Lot been willing to make it a priority.

Consider Lot, and be salt.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

What Jesus is Not Ashamed Of

Have you ever been embarrassed by someone's conduct? Has your conduct ever embarrassed someone else?

This is a common experience, most often related to some breach of etiquette or common courtesy.

But, on a more serious level, is there anyone in your life you wish you didn't even know? Someone you hope your friends don't find out you know? Someone whose conduct or character is so disreputable that you feel tarnished by the association? Maybe even someone in your own family?

Perhaps it's a person you really do love, but simply can't afford to admit you're close to. Wasn't this the case with Peter when he denied even knowing Jesus?

Whatever the circumstances, fair or unfair, there are times when people find certain relationships too problematic to own publicly.

And, as is so often the case, a good, long look in the mirror is a healthy remedy.

In the second chapter of Hebrews, the writer makes the case that Jesus Christ is uniquely qualified to pay the price for the sins of humanity, because he became one of us and knows what it's like to live here. Jesus was made to undergo suffering in the flesh, and through that process was made complete to fill the role of Redeemer for all the world.

"For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of all people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." Hebrews 2:17-18

While reading this passage, we naturally focus on Jesus understanding us and being merciful. But, there is a word here that must not be overlooked: "brothers".

Going back to 2:11, "Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers."

Of all who would have a right to be ashamed of anyone, Jesus would have a right to be ashamed of me, for my sin and failure to appreciate His gift. Who would not say the same? Yet, he's not ashamed, but instead calls me family. What does this mean for my attitudes toward others?

In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells a story illustrating the need for forgiveness. In the story, a king forgives a servant of a debt so large the servant never could have repaid it in his lifetime. The servant then turns right around and refuses to forgive a fellow servant of a much smaller debt, resulting in the king's anger and reinstatement of the original debt.

The obvious moral of this story is that one child of God has no right to withhold forgiveness from another, when God has already forgiven all his children, cancelling debts so large none of us could have ever repaid them.

The same idea applies to the lesson learned in Hebrews. If Jesus is not ashamed to call me his brother, what right do I have to ostracize or alienate anyone else in his family?

What right does anyone in Jesus's family have to isolate themselves from one another?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Not Our Place

"Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; Lest the Lord see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him." Proverbs 24:17-18

Something about our hearts is revealed in how we react to news of bad things happening to people we don't like.

Maybe it's a co-worker we can't stand, or a neighbor we wish would move away. Or perhaps someone from long ago who wronged us somehow. Whoever it might be, we are tempted to respond to their hardship with satisfaction, vindication, even glee. We've decided that person deserves it. He had it coming, and we are glad to have a front row seat.

Is this the heart God wants us to have? Is this a sign of His Spirit within us?

Your former spouse who left you for someone else has now been left by that person.

Your obnoxious neighbor loses his home to foreclosure.

Your former business partner who cheated you has filed for bankruptcy.

Your dishonest boss is found out and terminated by the company.

The inmate who murdered your loved one is himself murdered in prison.

These are imaginary scenarios for most of us, but they are all too real for more people than we know. In each case, doesn't the offender get what he deserves? We are tempted to say, "Of course!"

May we always be cautious in prescribing what other people deserve. The fact is, there is only one thing every human being deserves, and that is the wrath of God. But by the grace of God, we have the opportunity to be spared that wrath, and instead receive His eternal love.

When will we be called upon to practice mercy toward the undeserving, even if it is only in our thoughts? By the same token, when might I be the one receiving "poetic justice", to the delight of someone who thinks I deserve it?

Looking back at Proverbs 24:17-18, the passage ends with a warning that, if we celebrate the downfall of our enemy, God might turn away His wrath from that enemy. This implies that the calamity befalling our enemy might very well be deserved. The passage is not arguing that offenders should not receive what they deserve. The argument is only that a child of God should not take delight in it when it happens.

It all comes down to knowing your place.

A schoolteacher does not walk into the principal's office and make changes to the staff newsletter.

A worker on a construction site does not make changes to the blueprint.

The clay does not say to the potter, "Don't make me this way."

The child of God does not celebrate when bad things happen to people, even if we believe the person had it coming.