Friday, January 23, 2009

Classic Quote

I hope I never forget something a student said to me today.

This poor girl was upset over a rumor another girl started about her. She was adamant the rumor was false, that she would never do what this other girl had said she had done, and that the whole matter was an affront to her faith. In fact, she was so indignant about the insult that she had nearly set her faith aside, barely resisting the temptation to make the conflict physical.

But, she really said it better than I did.

Try to imagine a rapid-fire delivery, accented by an index finger in the air, and shoulders bobbing up and down in an alternating pattern:

"Ooooh, Mr. Dominguez, I cannot buh-LEEEVE she said that about me! I'm a Christian; I just went to church last night!" (Friend in background: "Yeah, that's right; Bible study!")

Now, for the kicker:

"You know, I almost said, 'Jesus, go back home to the house, and I'll meet you there after school,' but I didn't."

And, it's a good thing you didn't, young believer.

Sending Jesus back home for awhile. Or, perhaps, leaving Him there in the first place. Stepping away from Him so He won't hear. Turning the corner quickly so He won't see. Awkwardly neglecting to introduce Him to a friend. Pretending He isn't there. Giving Him the silent treatment, in hopes He'll give up and leave.

Good thing only kids think like that.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What I Want to Hear

A movie from several years back climaxes in a dramatic court scene in which the following exchange takes place:

"I want the truth!"

"You can't handle the truth!"

Most of us would agree that when we are engaged in conversation, regardless of when, where, with whom, and on what topic, we would generally state that we want to be told the truth.

We would also agree that we have not always told the truth to others, despite the safe assumption that they want the truth from us as much as we want it from them.

We also know that we don't always like what people tell us when they are being honest.

So, what is it we really want?

An obscure story from I Kings 22 gives an insight into human interaction, and probably an example that could have come from just about anyone's daily life.

Ahab, the evil king of Israel, is paid a visit by Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. In the course of their visit, Ahab laments the fact that the border city of Ramoth-Gilead is still under the control of Aram, the kingdom to the northeast, three years after hostilities had ended. (Can't blame him; how would the average American, let alone the President, feel if Mexico took control of El Paso, and three years had gone by without resolution?)

Ahab decides to take action, and asks Jehoshaphat for support, which he gladly gives, but with the proviso that they first consult the prophets of God to find out whether or not to go to war with Aram over Ramoth-Gilead. Ahab doesn't hesitate to bring in a troop of "prophets" who spout the hoped-for line: "Go up, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!"

This clearly would have been enough for Ahab, who wouldn't have been likely to seek God's will anyway, but it wasn't enough for Jehoshaphat, who asks if there are still any other prophets to inquire of before proceeding. There's no indication of what Jehoshaphat's reason was for asking this. Was he distrustful of what the first round of prophets said? Did their word sound too automatic to him? Was he simply seeking additional assurance? Was he prompted by God to ask this?

We don't know, but for whatever reason, Jehoshaphat opened the door for a view into Ahab's nature, and the answer to the question of what many people really want.

Ahab concedes that there is another prophet in Israel, but it's not a man he wants to see. In fact, Ahab says, "I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah, son of Imlah."

Jehoshaphat admonishes Ahab for speaking this way about God's prophet, and Ahab sends for Micaiah. While they await Micaiah's arrival, Ahab and Jehoshaphat are treated to even more assurance from the prophets who have already spoken, including one who uses an iron horn to predict that King Ahab will gore Aram to death.

The messenger who fetches Micaiah also pressures him to repeat the message of assurance given by the previous prophets, but Micaiah tells the messenger he'll do no such thing, that he will simply say what God tells him to say.

And the stage is set for a strange, but dramatic confrontation, as Ahab asks Micaiah the question of the day.

Interestingly enough, Micaiah doesn't do what he told the messenger he would do, but instead does what the messenger asked, and just repeats the party line: "Attack and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king's hand." No reason is given for Micaiah's reversal. Why would Micaiah boldly tell the messenger he would have no part of lying to the king, but then turn right around and lie to the king? Did he simply get scared, and decide not to make waves? Did he decide that Ahab was a goner anyway, and conclude it wasn't worth the trouble of offending him? What did God think of what Micaiah did? We're not told.

Ahab was evil, but not all of his instincts were wrong. He senses something is amiss in Micaiah's prophecy, and he doesn't trust it. He knows Micaiah has only prophesied doom against him in the past, and he is not prepared to accept this sudden show of support from the prophet.

His ironic rebuke of Micaiah almost sounds like it comes from a parent to a child: "How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?"

How many times do I have to tell you? I want the truth!

Really, Ahab? Is that truly what you want? We'll see.

Micaiah gives in, and goes ahead and tells Ahab the truth, accurately conveying God's message of failure and death regarding Ahab's idea of attacking Aram.

And Ahab responds according to his nature, becoming angry with Micaiah, telling Jehoshaphat, "See, I told you about this guy!", and ordering Micaiah thrown into prison until Ahab's safe return from battle.

For the record, Ahab's attack on Aram results in his death, as he is killed by an enemy arrow fired at random into the crowd.

With some people, you just can't win. They want it both ways. "Tell me the truth, but make sure I like what you tell me."

Just in this short story alone, we see examples of:

*A grudge held against someone for his commitment to speak the truth.

*Pressure to lie.

*A bold commitment to speak the truth, followed by a convenient lie.

*A demand for the truth, regardless of content, followed by anger over the content of the truth.

*Disregard for the truth in favor of a lie.

Human nature hasn't changed much since Old Testament times.

So, again, what is it we really want? Do we want the truth? Can we handle the truth? Are we prepared for what the truth might mean in our lives? Do we know where to find it? Are we committed to finding it, even when it's most challenging to our own ideas?

Or, have we already decided what we want to hear?

Much more than our human lives are at stake in our answers to these questions.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Little Knowledge

My 7th grade History teacher assigned the class an unusual project.

He gave us a little background about a man we had never heard of, named Rube Goldberg. He explained how Mr. Goldberg was known for inventing ridiculously complicated machines to perform simple tasks, and then revealed what our project would be: Each one of us would design and actually construct a device along the lines of what Rube Goldberg might have designed. We were to create a Rube Goldberg machine.

Thanks in large part to my dad, I managed to complete the project, and demonstrated my contraption for the class: a golf ball rolled through a tube, setting off a series of movements, eventually resulting in an egg being cracked over a frying pan.

Neat stuff, but not the point.

It so happened that, during the period of time I was working on this project, my family had dinner with a couple we didn't see very often. We were enjoying getting caught up, and the husband asked me how school was going. I told him it was fine, and thought I would let him in on my project.

But just as I began my story, in a split-second, I reasoned that our family friend, a man in his forties, surely would not be familiar with the name "Rube Goldberg". After all, I had never heard of Rube Goldberg until my teacher brought him up. So, in an effort to spare this poor man the embarrassment of having his ignorance exposed, I launched off into a Rube Goldberg-style explanation of my project, but without actually naming Mr. Goldberg's name. I explained that I was working on a project where I had to create a complicated machine to do a simple job, and so on, and so forth.

Imagine my shock at the man's response:

"Oh, so it's kind of a 'Rube Goldberg' type of thing, eh?"

What?!? How on earth did he know that?

Simple answer: He had lived on planet Earth a lot longer than I had, and he knew a lot of things I knew, and a lot of things I didn't know. Despite my perception, I was, in fact, not in possession of a rare secret with my newfound but shallow knowledge of Rube Goldberg.

Oh, what a little knowledge can do. A measure of knowledge, mixed with pride rather than humility and perspective, can be a dangerous recipe.

About six years later, during my freshman year in college, I had the misfortune of seeing the ugliest form of the arrogance of knowledge. This time, I was on the receiving end.

I was working my job at the circulation desk in the library, when a graduate student approached to check out some books. (Gasp in awe...) What I assumed would be a routine transaction turned out to be a bizarre encounter. The student accepted my greeting, passed over his books and his ID card as usual, but proceeded to say, without any prompt whatsoever, "I was up here earlier, and heard you and that other guy talking, and I want you to know that neither one of you said anything intelligent."

Yes, that's really what he said. Honestly, I don't remember what "that other guy" and I had been talking about, but apparently this man had overheard us, and was not impressed. Why he chose to say what he said, I'll never know.

He may have been right. It's possible my co-worker and I were making no sense at all, especially as judged by the "superior intellect". But what kind of arrogance does it take to say what this guy said to me?

Possibly just a more complete version of the attitude I had toward my friend, when I assumed he wouldn't know something just because it was new to me?

Just as Rube Goldberg wasn't new to my friend, the arrogance of knowledge isn't a new issue in the family of God.

"We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know." -- I Corinthians 8:1-2

"Because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" -- I Corinthians 8:11

These passages are taken from Paul's discussion of a divisive issue facing the early church in Corinth: Whether or not a Christian could, with a clear conscience, acquire and eat meat that had been previously used in idol worship.

This issue might seem foreign to a Christian living in western culture today, but there are still many lessons to learn.

Paul makes clear in his letter that idols are nothing, and whether or not a Christian eats the meat in question is immaterial. But the interesting thing about Paul's discussion is that he focuses less attention on this question than he gives to the attitude of the people asking it. His primary focus is not on those who don't understand the meat issue; his focus is on those who do.

It's safe to assume that Paul's first choice would have been for everyone to have a perfect understanding of the issue. But short of that, it seems clear that Paul would prefer to see a sincere Christian live with the limited understanding that would lead him to think the meat in question was sinful, rather than to see the same Christian grasp this issue and become scornful of those who didn't.

The worst outcome Paul can see is not for a Christian to live with imperfect understanding; the worst thing would be for the Christian with the greater understanding to offend or alienate the one with less. Or worse yet, to embolden that Christian to violate his conscience.

Many a schoolteacher has quoted the mantra: "Knowledge is power". And there is ample truth to that statement. Knowledge is better than ignorance any day. But there is much more than mere knowledge to a Christ-like spirit and a Godly life.

We will learn much in this new year. Let us pray for the humility and perspective that will allow our knowledge to be a blessing rather than a curse.