Sunday, June 29, 2008

To be, or not to be...offended.

"Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'" -- Matthew 18:21-22

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus' teaching about forgiveness, specifically with his explanation to Peter that someone wearing Jesus' name should continue to forgive a repentant offender time and again, without keeping count, and without ultimately claiming the well has run dry from overuse.

To answer Peter's question more fully, Jesus gives the example of a servant who is given undeserved, unprecedented grace by his master, only to turn right around and deny a small amount of grace to a fellow servant. The lesson is clear: We are expected to be generous toward others with the forgiveness God has extended to us. In fact, if we fail to do so, we cannot count on God's forgiveness at all (Matthew 18:35).

In addition to these instructions, Jesus lays out the right way to approach someone who has offended us. First, privately, and alone. Second, privately, with a witness or two, and only publicly if the first two approaches fail. Not as much fun as the more-favored approach of telling everyone else but the offender, but it's the only way that comes from God.

So, believers are given the tools they need to resolve conflicts that arise among them.

Needless to say, conflict still oftentimes goes unresolved, as believers oftentimes neglect the tools Jesus left. But, the tools are still there, in perfect working order, for those who choose to pull them out of the shed and use them. Between believers, everything from a dented bumper to a broken heart can be addressed and brought to a peaceful resolution, if the tools Jesus left are used with humility and pure motives.

But, dented bumpers and broken hearts are rare occurrences, aren't they?

What kinds of issues are frequently at the heart of conflict between Christians? Do we reserve getting our dander up only for serious matters of faith and conscience? Or, are we prone to becoming agitated, even angry, over incidents and issues in which the only thing at stake is our convenience, opinion, or pride?

When Jesus gave us the tools of reconciliation, did He envision us having to use them all the time, for all manner of insults and hurts, real and perceived? The same question, in another way: Do you anticipate having to jack up your car and change a flat tire on any kind of regular basis?

Or, is it possible we are expected to grow, mature, and gain the perspective that allows us to avoid taking offense in the first place, whenever possible?

What example did Jesus Himself set? Can you imagine how often the people around Jesus must have failed Him? We are told in Scripture about several instances, but it doesn't seem likely that every disappointment Jesus felt with His followers (and naysayers, for that matter) was recorded for us to read. But, in the Scriptural accounts in which Jesus openly takes issue with other people's words or deeds, what is typically at stake?

From the clearing of the temple, to the woman caught in adultery, to the storm He calmed on the sea, to Peter's attempted rebuke of Jesus as He foretold His death, to Peter's assault on Malchus, Jesus' rebukes involve critical, foundational issues of identity for Him and definition for His mission. He clarified purposes. He exposed hypocrisy. He challenged His followers' faith. He established His place and preeminence. He thwarted attempts to redefine His mission. Nothing here involving fleeting emotions, personal convenience, irritability, stubbornness, or pride. Just a focus on the Father, the mission, and the things that mattered most.

Few would claim to have the kind of perspective Jesus had, but there is hope for us as we strive to reduce unnecessary conflict, and reserve confrontation for things that really matter.

"If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men." -- Romans 12:18

Just how much does depend on you, when it comes to being at peace with your neighbors? Your family? Your spiritual family? It would be interesting to see how far many of us are willing to go in applying this verse to our lives. Just how generously do we tend to interpret this command? Does "as much as depends on you" involve anything beyond simply showing up and making our feelings known? Anything more than a moment's patience before giving in to anger and the feeling that the offender owes us something?

How did Paul himself interpret what he wrote? In another context, Paul discusses the issue of Christians taking one another to court over personal conflicts. Here, he makes clear just how far he assumes a Christian would want to go in order to maintain peace within the body of Christ, and to prevent the church from being discredited before unbelievers:

"Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?" -- I Corinthians 6:7

Paul believes a Christian who values the body of Christ would prefer to be defrauded by a brother, rather than risking the unforeseeable consequences of a public conflict. The mission of the church is of far greater importance to Paul than a personal loss suffered because of a brother's inconsideration, oversight, or outright sin.

Moving beyond Paul's specific context of lawsuits, can we not apply this concept to our daily dealings with our brothers and sisters in Christ? If we truly value peace in the body, in order to have a more effective body, should we not adopt Paul's mindset? Should we not prefer personal loss, in whatever form, over an avoidable conflict that could carry with it consequences we can't foresee or imagine?

It's worth pointing out, however, that the same Paul who wrote these admonitions against unnecessary conflict, was not afraid to initiate conflict himself, as long as the issues at stake warranted it. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells his readers the story of a confrontation he initiated with Peter, over Peter's initial hesitance to publicly fellowship with Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-21). He also admonishes the church in Corinth for their tolerance of open immorality among their members, and reminds them of their duty to confront that sin for the sake of the body (I Corinthians 5).

When Paul reminds us to do all we can to avoid conflict, and to prefer personal loss over discredit to the church, he's not saying a conflict should never happen. He's simply pointing us back to Jesus' standard of what is and is not worthy of conflict among brethren. And, in so doing, he reminds us of how often we create conflict among ourselves over issues that are more about us, and less about Christ.

So, what is the Christian to do? Where can the Christian find practical advice to help sort these matters out?

Some of the best advice can be found back in the Old Testament, in the book of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon, blessed with wisdom beyond any other man, gives today's Christian a pair of seemingly contradictory tools that will get us a long way toward doing "as much as depends on" us to avoid unnecessary conflict in the church.

"Do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others." -- Ecclesiastes 7:21

"Do not curse the king, even in your thought. Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom. For a bird of the air may carry your voice, and a bird in flight may tell the matter." -- Ecclesiastes 10:20

Such an interesting, practical pair of messages here. On the one hand, words are to be kept in perspective, not taken too much to heart. On the other hand, words are of deadly consequence, carrying significant weight. Which is true? Of course, both. And, therein lies a way in which today's Christian can be a peacemaker rather than a fire-starter.

The first passage from Ecclesiastes encourages us to adopt a forgiving, understanding, "cooler head" attitude toward the things other people say. A mindset ready to overlook an offense and extend forgiveness for any offense taken. And, why is such a mindset possible? Because the Christian knows that he is just as guilty as anyone else of saying things that were hurtful or offensive to other people. We want grace for those mistakes, so we should readily extend grace to others who make the same mistakes. We also understand that people often say things without thinking or out of frustration, and we know this because we've done it.

The second passage from Ecclesiastes, however, encourages quite the opposite attitude toward words, but in this case the words we ourselves use, and the things we say about other people. How differently we would speak if we knew everything we said would be repeated to the person we were talking about! Yet, how often do we speak carelessly about one another, despite knowing full well that stray words have a way of reaching the ears of the person we never meant to hurt. The Christian following Solomon's admonition will hold himself to an entirely different standard than that which he applies to everyone else around him. He will be as careful with words as he wishes others would be.

Imagine a church in which every member applied these two passages from Solomon to their everyday words and deeds.
Imagine every member holding himself to the highest standard, but being ready to extend grace when others fail. Imagine Christians truly finding it their glory, whenever possible, to "overlook a transgression" (Proverbs 19:11). Imagine a spiritual family that knows how to use Jesus' tools for confrontation and reconciliation, but that also reserves those tools for matters weighty enough to warrant them. Imagine all of us focused like Jesus on His priorities rather than our own feelings.

Think of someone who frequently annoys, aggravates, or angers you, and imagine choosing not to be offended.

Imagine choosing grace over grievance.

Is it to be, or not to be?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Restore such a one...

I made a late-night Wal-Mart run recently, and, on my way to the register, I had the misfortune of passing by a woman dressed in an outfit that didn't leave a lot to the imagination, and that didn't flatter the woman in any way whatsoever.

She just looked awful, bless her heart.

(Having lived in Texas for 17 years, I've learned that you can say the most derogatory things about a person, but if you follow up your criticism with "bless his/her heart", it's no longer considered harsh, slanderous, malicious, or evil in any way. Once you "bless" someone's "heart", why, anything you say about that person is meant in good faith and should cause no offense to anyone.)

But, I digress.

I have to admit that somewhere inside, I cringed as I passed by this woman at Wal-Mart. Her appearance alone was not the best, and the outfit really made me wonder what on earth she was thinking.

But, as much as I cringed inside at the sight of this shopper, I had to cringe even more at what happened next.

At the very moment this woman passed me on the left and disappeared behind me, another shopper appeared on my right, a few yards ahead of me, coming out from a side aisle. This shopper was a young man, maybe 18 - 20 years old. He was with a small group of friends his age. It was obvious this young man had noticed the same woman, and his reaction was instant. With a contorted facial expression, he loudly blurted out, "Oh, my God, that's disGUSTing!" As he and his group walked away, this young man continued to groan loudly and comment to his friends as he looked back over his shoulder at the woman in the aisle.

I hoped that somehow, mercifully, the woman had not heard the young man's reaction to her appearance. But, that's not likely. Odds are, she heard it, and will carry it with her long after the young man has forgotten all about it.

As obviously inappropriate as the woman's clothing was, she didn't deserve that. Even without a spiritual perspective, it is easy to see how out of line the young man was in publicly mocking a complete stranger whose story he did not know.

I didn't know the woman's story, either, but I got to wondering.

Maybe she was extremely naive, innocently oblivious to her impropriety.

Maybe she was painfully aware of how she looked, but for whatever reason, wore the outfit anyway, despite the shame.

Maybe she was truly a rebel, daring the world to see if she gave a rip what anyone thought.

Maybe she was deluded enough to think she actually looked good.

Maybe she was a prostitute past her prime. (Yes, the outfit was really that bad...)

Who knows? I didn't. Neither did the young man who belittled her. If any of these possibilities were true, or if the truth were something else altogether, in which situation would this young man's reaction have been appropriate?

Obviously, none. There's no scenario in which this reaction would be godly. And, it's easy to see that in this case. But, what about cases in which it's not so easy to see? What about cases in which the offender is not a stranger? Or, when the offense is not as clearly defined? Or, perhaps, when the offense is much more serious and personal than a stranger's attire in a public place?

Do we as Christians know how God expects us to respond when our brothers and sisters make mistakes?

According to Galatians 6:1, "Brethren, if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted."

Think of all that has to come into play in order for the Christian to put into practice the teaching of this passage:

*Gentleness: the patience to be kind, even tender, toward a person whose conduct may have stepped on your
last nerve, or may have seriously offended or hurt you.

*Humility: the ability to see that the offender's mistake is not something to which you are magically immune.

*Restoration: the commitment to rebuild something when you might just as soon burn it to the ground.

*Maturity: this admonition is given to "you who are spiritual"; if you can't deal with this command and put it into
practice, you're not spiritual; you're worldly, still a child.

Compare these qualities, and the response God wants, to the response the young man in Wal-Mart gave to the woman dressed inappropriately in public. Instead of being marked by gentleness, it was very harsh. Instead of coming from a humble heart, the young man's comment came from pride, not considering his own weaknesses, which were just as evident as the woman's were. Instead of showing a desire to rebuild or restore, the young man's comment was destructive and served no positive purpose at all. Instead of being guided by a mature spirit, the young man showed tremendous immaturity in his careless and hurtful response.

But, it's easy to tear down this young man; in fact, just as easy as it was for him to tear down the woman as he did.

What matters is what can be learned from the moment. The challenge lies in the conduct of the Christian toward others when they fall short. The truth lies in the realization that Christians, who profess to be spiritual, may actually be no different from the young man in Wal-Mart.

How often have you seen Christians react to the mistakes and sins of others? How many times have you been the one reacting? And, how many times have you been the one who made the mistake others reacted to?

Do we consistently follow Paul's admonition to restore such a one with a spirit of gentleness? Do we remember that we should also consider ourselves, and how easily tempted we are, when restoring someone who has sinned?

Or, have there been occasions when the response has been harsh, prideful, destructive, and immature? Are there believers in this world, separated from the church for no other reason than the wounds they received at the hands of Christians responding to their mistakes? We need not even ponder the whole world for this question to be relevant. Are there such believers in your own community? Perhaps even from your own congregation?

Of course, every soul is accountable to God, and no one, not even the most unfairly wounded soul, should allow the insensitivity of others to keep him or her away from Christ. They shouldn't. But, we know it happens. May we never be the unwitting instrument of another soul's departure from fellowship with the body of Christ.

There is, however, another extreme to avoid.

If we are to follow the model of Galatians 6:1, and restore a sinning soul with a spirit of gentleness, it is clearly implied that we must also avoid the alternative of not dealing with sin when it occurs. An easy short-term way of avoiding offense is to avoid the confrontation or intervention altogether. "A brother in sin? Leave him alone! We're sure not to offend him that way." May it never be.

In fact, the same Paul who wrote Galatians 6:1 also upbraided the church in Corinth (I Corinthians 5) for tolerating immorality among their members, and even went so far as to say that they should cut themselves off from a so-called believer who would not give up an immoral way of life. He warned them about the nature of leaven, and how dangerous it would be for them to allow the presence of unrepentant sin in their fellowship.

So, clearly, the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy is not the model for how the church should deal with sin. When we know of sin in the life of a brother or sister, just letting the matter go in order to keep the peace is not an option.

It comes down to a conversation, a prayerful response.

When a brother or sister is found to be in sin, loving brothers and sisters must intervene to help the struggling soul get things right again. All the while, the ones intervening must be gentle, humble, and mature if they are to have a chance at rebuilding.

And, they are not the only ones bearing responsibility for the outcome of this conversation.

The sinning Christian must also be responsible for how he or she reacts to the reaction of his concerned spiritual family. It's always a possibility, and ever more likely in today's culture, that he or she will react with indignation: "How dare you judge me?" "What right do you have to tell me......." "I don't have to put up with this..." It's always possible he or she will leave the fellowship in anger, even if the attempted intervention was as loving and kind as possible. In that case, to use current lingo, "It's on him." He has revealed who really owns his heart.

But, even with this possibility, the conversation must happen.

Christians must never assume that a soul struggling with sin is doing so pridefully, stubbornly, or even with full awareness of the danger. The heart beneath the behavior may be ready to repent, just waiting for the right opportunity to do so.

May our response to a sinning soul never be, "Oh my God! That's disGUSTing!"

Instead, let us respond, "Dear God, please use me to help. And, help me not to fall myself."

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"You will have your chance..."

"Pharoah sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharoah." -- Genesis 41:14

Cars is a special movie in our household. It's an entertaining story with a good message about humility and true friendship.

One of our favorite characters in Cars is Guido, the feisty little forklift, faithful employee of Luigi's Casa Della Tires, whose ultimate dream is to administer a "Peet Stop" to a real race car in a real race. Toward the end of the movie, Guido's dream comes true, as he joins Lightning McQueen's surprise pit crew for the championship race.

A significant moment occurs during this sequence of events. The race begins, and Guido is in high spirits as he arranges his equipment in preparation for Lightning's eventual pit stop. Just then, the pit crew from a rival race car makes fun of Guido, setting off his anger, which he expresses in a barrage of Italian threats and comebacks. Fortunately, Guido's boss, Luigi, intervenes and calms Guido down with the wise words, "You will have your chance, Guido. You will have... your... chance."

Later, Guido does indeed have his chance, and pulls off a miracle four-tire change that keeps McQueen in the race when all appeared lost.

What is significant about this forklift who toiled in obscurity for years, dreaming of something bigger?

Obviously, he kept his dream alive and didn't give up on it. But, that's not especially remarkable. Many people hold onto many dreams for many years.

What sets Guido apart from many other dreamers is the fact that he was ready when his moment arrived, and he responded with his best effort at that pivotal moment. There was no hesitation. Fear was overcome by courage. There was no resentment over how long he had had to wait, how many times he had been overlooked, or how unfairly he had been judged by others who never thought he had it in him. He didn't question whether those depending upon him deserved his help. He simply stepped up and delivered what the moment required, what he had been preparing himself to do, and what he had always dreamed of doing. His service was critical to the cause, and fulfilling for him, the perfect blend of personal achievement and team success.

Guido stands out from the crowd of dreamers because he was ready, and because he delivered.

So does Joseph.

Joseph's moment came without warning on a random day. He was over two years into an unjust prison term, and must have wondered how on earth his life had come to this. Within the space of a few years, he had gone from being his father's favored son, to being a slave sold into Potiphar's house; from bravely resisting the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife, to being falsely accused of sexual assault by the same woman; from accurately interpreting the dreams of fellow inmates, to being totally forgotten by the royal cupbearer, whose release from prison Joseph had predicted. None of this was deserved, but none of it was wasted, either. God was working on Joseph the entire time, molding his character and preparing him for his moment.

Joseph had long dreamed of great things. He had earned his brothers' scorn by sharing with them his dreams of being their leader, of a time that would come in which they would pay homage to him. It's likely that Joseph misunderstood these dreams as much as his brothers did. By the time Joseph actually became a leader, it was no longer in his character to enjoy the thrill of power for power's sake. His heart had been molded into that of a compassionate servant. His power was used for the good of those in need, not for Joseph's glory. It was used to preserve God's people, not to avenge Joseph's wounds. As Joseph said of all his trials, "God meant it for good." (Genesis 50:20).

But, none of this could have come about if not for Joseph's moment. The moment when Joseph had his chance to be God's instrument for good. The moment when Joseph stepped up and delivered.

Unbeknownst to Joseph the inmate, Pharaoh is troubled over two dreams he has had. None of his magicians or wise men can interpret the dreams, and suddenly the royal cupbearer remembers a man he knew in prison, a man who interpreted dreams, and whose interpretations proved to be true. The cupbearer finally does the favor Joseph asked him to do over two years before, and tells Pharaoh about Joseph. And, then, Joseph finally has his chance...

"Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh." -- Genesis 41:14

The rest is history. Joseph's immediate, accurate interpretations of Pharaoh's dreams, coupled with his recommendations of how to prepare for the coming famine, earn Joseph the lofty position of second-in-command over all Egypt, and the stage is set for the salvation of Joseph's family.

But, there are telling details to be found in Joseph's moment. Especially notable are the things that are absent. There is no hesitation. There is no resentment over how long he had had to wait. There is no self-defense or statement of innocence. There is no question of whether those in need of his help really deserve it. There is no thought of deliberately misleading Pharoah in a selfish act of vengeance. In fact, there is no assurance that he isn't going right back to prison after doing this favor for a Pharaoh who doesn't even worship Jehovah. There is no attempt to pass off this power of interpretation as his own; before he even begins, Joseph gives the disclaimer that this power is not his own, but comes only from God. When Joseph is elevated by Pharaoh, there is no hint of any grudge held over the injustice dealt to Joseph. There are no demands for any type of recompense, or even an apology. Joseph simply accepts the honor and goes to work.

Absent is every possible feeling, thought, word, or deed that would have made Joseph the center of the moment. This moment is about God, and only about Him, and Joseph recognizes that he is only God's instrument in the moment. It is this realization that allows Joseph to step up and deliver as he does.

What about the Christian today?

Are you willing to accept the role God has in mind for you? Are you allowing yourself to be molded by God, and prepared for service? Perhaps even service you cannot imagine right now?

Are you alert to moments that could possibly be more than just moments? It could be nothing more than a Bible class that needs a teacher, or a hurting person who needs encouragement. It could be a chance to share faith with a stranger, or a family in need of food or clothing.

It could indeed be an opportunity of great magnitude. A job in another city. An old, wounded relationship restored and begun anew. The abandonment of a habit that used to damage your credibility as a Christian. The long overdue forgiveness extended to someone who hurt you.

Whatever the will of God for your life, there will be a moment. You will have your chance.

Are you prepared to be God's instrument in that moment?

Or, will you squander the opportunity for the sake of smaller things?