Wednesday, September 20, 2023

A Wedding Is a Welding

(I re-post this periodically.) 

Marriage is different, in essence, from co-habiting. Marriage requires more than just living together.

What is marriage?

In Matthew 19:1-9 we see large crowds of people coming to Jesus, and Jesus healing them. After this happens “some Pharisees came to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’”

This was one of the most controversial questions of that time. It refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where we read that a husband can divorce his wife if he finds “something indecent about her.” The debate was – what does “something indecent” mean?

There were two schools of thought about that. The school of the rabbi Shammai said, “something indecent” means "adultery." The school of the rabbi Hillel taught that “something indecent” means anything, even something so trivial as burning your husband’s bagel. “So, what do you think about this,” the Pharisees asked Jesus? Jesus’ response is brilliant. Instead of dealing with Deuteronomy 24 he takes them back to Genesis 1 & 2.

"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." A very cool response by Jesus. Why?

Because Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is about troubleshooting. Genesis 1 & 2 is the heart of the owner’s manual. Yes, there is a time for troubleshooting. But Jesus asks, don’t you remember what "marriage" really is? It’s male and female, united in marriage, becoming one flesh, whom God has “joined together.”

It’s this “joined together” thing that’s especially important. The word means, literally, “welded together.” New Testament scholar R.T. France says, “It would be hard to imagine a more powerful metaphor of permanent attachment.” A wedding is a welding, done by God the Master Welder.

I asked a friend who welds to give me a definition of welding. Welding, he said, is a fabrication process that joins materials, usually metals or thermoplastics, by causing coalescence. “Coalescence” is the process by which two or more droplets of metal form a single droplet and become one continuous solid. No wonder they call it “wedlock!”

Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “Don’t you remember what God said about a husband and wife? God has weld-locked them together. Don’t let any person try to separate them!"

Instead of saying he’s for or against divorce, Jesus lifts up marriage. The Pharisees seem to have thought that the very legislation about divorce, within the law of Moses, meant that Moses was quite happy for it to take place. Since there's a law to tell you how to do it, that must mean it's OK to do. That would be like seeing a sign that says “In case there’s a fire, take this emergency exit,” and then concluding “It must be OK to start a fire in this building.”

Jesus shows the flaw in their thinking by pointing back to God's original intention. Marriage was meant to be a partnership of one man and one woman... for life. Marriage was not meant to be something that could be split up and reassembled whenever one person wanted to end it.

This summer it was 50 years ago that Linda and I got welded, wed-locked, together. The result is that a lot of her has gotten into me and a lot of me has gotten into her. I am deeply influenced by her, and her by me. God fused us together into “one flesh.” What a great idea! You can’t get that by cohabiting.

I remember the bond.

I remember when God welded us together.

My books are:

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

31 Letters to the Church on Discipleship

Deconstructing Progressive Christianity

31 Letters to the Church on Praying

Encounters with the Holy Spirit (Co-edited with Janice Trigg)

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Character Comes Before Ability in Relationships


(On the west side of Michigan, Lake Michigan shoreline)

My physician possesses high character, and great ability. He has both qualities. But if I was forced to choose between a physician of great character, and one of great ability, I'd lean towards ability. Better is a doctor who knows what he is doing. 

But when it comes to relationships, I think differently. Character is more important than ability, when it comes to relationships. In a friendship, or in a marriage, if I have to choose, I'll take someone with high character and low ability before someone with high ability and low character. The latter person will cheat on you, or betray you, or throw you under the bus.

Through the years abilities decrease, but character can keep increasing. As Paul wrote, Though my abilities are wasting away, my character is being transformed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16, Piippo translation)

In After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters., N. T. Wright says, "The central thing that is supposed to happen "after you believe" is the transformation of character." This is the Galatians 4:19 thing - that Christ be formed in you. Or, as Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:12 - "We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." 

This formation, the development of Christ-character in you, is your calling. It happens as you indwell Christ.

The goal of our own character formation into Jesus-likeness is love. Love is "the greatest of the" core virtues. We may disagree with others, but we must never cease loving them. Jesus loved those he disagreed with so much that he died for them. We are to even love our enemies, in spite of our opposing views. Anything less than this and you have left Jesus. (This does not, of course, mean that we affirm everything the other believes. To do that is not love, either.)

What will character formation look like? Because it comes from attachment to Christ, it will look like Christ. Christ forms you, meta-morphs you into one who loves and lives as Christ is.

Wright's example is Sully Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed a disabled passenger jet in the Hudson River and saved 155 lives. The character of a pilot had been formed in him. He no longer needed to wear a wristband that asked, "What Would a Pilot Do?" (WWPD) Rather, "the skills and ability ran right through him, top to toe." 

Wright says "The key to it all is that the Christian vision of character that has become second nature is precisely all about discovering what it means to be human - human in a way that most of us never imagine."

Regarding Sullenberger, "virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become "second nature." Not "first nature," as though they happened naturally. Like an acquired taste, such choices and actions, which started off being practiced with difficulty, ended up being "second nature." (James K. A. Smith and Dallas Willard say the same.)

For Wright, our "first nature" is our subhumanity. The "second nature" Christ wants to form in us is his nature, which is true humanity. God wants to rescue us out of our subhumanity and transform us into true humanity. Some, when they fail, say "I'm only human." They should say, "I'm subhuman." 

Wright's book shows how God metamorphs us from subhumanity into true humanity, how God forms our character into Christlikeness.

What can I do about this? I look at my own self, and focus on my own change. I pray to be transformed into someone who is more like Jesus, and loves their enemies so much they would even die for them. I learn to live an abiding life, which is the place where the character of Jesus flows into me, like a vine resources its branches.

I pray for the character of Christ to be formed in me.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Be Slow to Anger - Three Tools for Communicating When in Conflict

                                                 (Cancun sunrise)

(I re-post this to keep it in play. Linda and I have been helped by these reminders and guidelines.)

We live in the Age of Unrighteous, Unfiltered Anger. Here are some anger resources Linda and I use to help people communicate when in conflict.

1. Care Enough to Confront

David Augsburger bases his book Caring Enough to Confront on Ephesians 4:15, which states: Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

How should we communicate with others, even when we are in conflict with them? Here we see two actions we are to take:

1. Speak truthfully

2. Speak lovingly

Both truth and love are needed. If we only speak truthfully we could hurt people. I could tell you the truth in an unloving way, the result of which could bring harm to you.

If we only speak lovingly we may never address the truth. This leaves issues undealt with. It feels warm and fuzzy for a while, but the bleeding has not been stopped.

Instead, says Paul, we are to speak the truth in love. The formula is: Truth + Love. That sounds like Jesus, right? Jesus always asserted the truth, and he always did so in love.

Practically, says Augsburger, it looks like this.

When Linda and I communicate these are the attitudes we embrace. We were blessed to learn these things from David Augsburger years ago when we were in a married couples group that met at David and Nancy's home. Those times were so important to us as a young married couple! We saw, lived-out before our eyes and ears, how to be loving and truthful even when you don’t like each other at the moment. Even when you feel angry.

Speak the truth in love to one another. That is the way out of what seem like irreconcilable differences.

Work at understanding one another. You will find that often, when understanding has been achieved, "the problem" is not there anymore. ("Understanding" causes a lot of dominos to fall.)

2. Evaluate Your Anger

 I once had a friend tell me, “I never get angry.” My thought was this: here is a person out of touch with what’s going on inside of him. Even God feels anger. Even Jesus felt anger. In every good marriage, in every good friendship, in every church and wherever there are people, feelings of anger happen.

When you feel angry, what can you do?  

1. Recognize your anger. “Anger” is the emotion a person feels when one of their expectations has not been met. For example, if I drive across town expecting every light to turn green when I approach, I am going to be an angry person. Because this expectation will not be met. Therefore...

2. Identify your unmet expectation. Fill in the blank: "I am angry because my expectation that ________ was not met."

3. Evaluate your unmet expectation. Is it either: a) godly, reasonable, good, fair; or 2) ungodly, unreasonable, bad, unfair. In my "driving" example above, my expectation was irrational.

4. Reject ungodly or irrational expectations. If, for example, you expect people to clearly understand every word that comes out of your mouth, you are now free to reject this as an irrational expectation. Or, if you have the expectation that other people should never make mistakes when it comes to you, I now free you from that ungodly, irrational expectation.

5. If the unmet expectation is godly/fair, then ask: Have I communicated this to the person I am angry with? If not, then communicate it. For example, my expectation that persons should take off their shoes before entering our living room may be both rational and of God. But if I have not communicated this to others, my anger at the unfulfilled expectation is still real. My expectation that people should know such a thing without being told is unfair.

6. If you have communicated it clearly to the person you are angry with, then communicate your anger this way: Say “I feel angry because my unmet expectation is __________________.

Begin your sentences with "I" rather than "You." Say, e.g., "I feel angry, rather than "You make me feel angry" (which is the language of a victim). Doing it this way asserts without aggressing. For the person who hears this, it does not feel attacking.

Get rid of irrational or ungodly expectations. As you do this, you'll find yourself less angry.

Remember that, from the Christian POV, “anger” is not sin. Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin.” We are not told to never feel anger. There is a righteous anger that is not only appropriate but necessary. But when we feel the emotion of anger we are never to sin. We are never to be harsh, demeaning, vindictive, or abusive. Remember that  in every close relationship there is anger. The anger-free relationship is a myth, and probably is a sign of unhealth when claimed.

Finally, Ephesians 4:26 says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Which means: deal with anger quickly, and in a loving and truthful way. The goal is always restoration of relationship and reconciliation.

I am thankful that only it’s only been a few times in our almost forty-six years of marriage that have Linda I fallen asleep angry with each other. The reason for this is not that we’re some special, exceptionally compatible couple. We were taught to do this by godly people who spoke into our lives. We were warned about the cancerous bitterness that arises when anger is “swept under the carpet.” We don’t want satan to gain even a toehold in our hearts. We have asked God to help us with this, and he has!

If you have allowed the enemy entrance into your heart because, in your anger, you have sinned, confess this to God.

Then, receive God’s forgiveness and give him thanks. 1 John 1:9 says: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 

Acknowledge, before God, that you are a new creation in Christ.

Ask God to help you, and trust that He is now doing so. 

3. Seven Rules for a Good, Clean Fight
Before I married Linda one of my pastors gave me Charlie Shedd's book Letters to PhilipOn How to Treat a Woman. I read it. A few years later, I read it again. 

Shedd's little book gave me some relationship tools I have never forgotten. For example, here are his "7 Rules for a Good, Clean Fight." 

  1.  Before we begin we must both agree that the time is right. 
  2.  We will remember that our only battle aim is a deeper understanding of each other. 
  3. We will check our weapons often to be sure they're not deadly. 
  4. We will lower our voices instead of raising them.
  5. We will never quarrel in public nor reveal private matters.
  6. We will discuss an armistice whenever either of us calls "halt."
  7. When we have come to terms we will put it away until we both agree it needs more discussing.
AND... never threaten. It's powerless to effect change, and always makes things worse.

View People as Persons, Not as Problems

Image result for john piippo people
(In Eldoret, Kenya)

Pastors have their own problems. I know I do. I am so grateful for people in my church family who show me grace and love in spite of myself.

Some of my inner struggles have been healed. Gone! As regards those infirmities, I am free. 

Some of my shortcomings have gotten better, but I'm not all the way there yet.

I am unaware, oblivious, to other, perhaps many, of my faults. God, in his mercy, has not shown them all to me at once, since I would fall apart and be undone.

Before I went to India I talked with a friend who had been there several times. I told him the name of the airline I would be taking on the flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad. He said, "They hold those planes together with baling wire."

What holds me together is the love, mercy, and grace of God. God loves me, his mercies are new every morning, and his grace is abundant and overflowing. I am God's child. God views me, not as a problem, but as a person made in his image.

View people as persons, not as problems

Sympathize with, not criticize, their weaknesses. 

Under-stand them. Stand below, not above, them.

Love them, show mercy to them, be gracious unto them.

Help them, as you have been helped.

Forgive them, as you have been forgiven.

Set boundaries as needed.

See the "weight of glory" upon them. 

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Faith and Grace


The person stood in my office, looked at all the books on my shelf, and said, "I live by faith, not by knowledge."

I responded, "The opposite of faith is not knowledge. It's "living by sight.""

Another person, in another time and place, said, "I live by grace, not by effort."

I responded, "The opposite of grace is not effort. It's "earning.""

Dallas Willard writes,

"To put these ideas together, then, we make an effort to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” but in grace “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). It’s right that we are to make the effort to “get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5, 7), yet it is by grace that “the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (2:6)."

(In Willard, Hearing God Through the Year, p. 297)

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Does My Life Have Meaning?

(Sunset, Monroe County Community College)

Does my life have meaning?

Let's look at the meaning of "meaning." (See this, for some linguistic fun.)

I define "meaning" as: fitness in a coherent context. For example, I understand what a certain joke means if I understand the socio-linguistic context. And, that context must be coherent and narratival. 

I understand the meaning of a pawn in the coherent, narratival context of the game of chess. But a chess pawn standing on a tennis court is meaningless, because it has no "fitness" there. The pawn has no fit in the narrative of tennis. For there to be meaning, there must be fitness within a coherent context.

The movie Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a land called "Wasteland." Max sums up the meaning of his life with these words: "My world is fire and blood" where everything "is reduced to a single instinct: survive." The movie longs for redemption as a woman named Inperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) smuggles five women out of Wasteland, hoping to take them to a destination called "the green place." Context affects meaning; meaning changes relative to context. If there is no coherent context in which we fit, then life is meaningless, and nihilism prevails. "Mad Max is about a road that goes nowhere but exists only for itself. It's meaningless mayhem." ("Mad Max: Fury Road - Finding a forgotten Eden in the midst of post-apocalyptic anarchy") 

The film ends with these words, as a epigram:

Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland,
in search of our better selves.

Where can we go to find the meaning of our lives? The options are:

1. An incoherent context where nothing fits.
2. A coherent context where I do not fit.
3. A coherent context where I fit.

Option 1 is atheism and nihilism, ultimately and logically.

Option 2 is the kingdoms of this world which, as a Jesus-follower, I was not made for. I don't really belong, I don't really fit in, to the form and pattern of this world.

Option 3 is the kingdom of God, which, as Jesus said, is "not of this world."

In the pre-modern, existentialist biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher weighs the meaning-options and finds them all wanting. Except for one. 

He looks for the meaning to life in nature (Eccl. 1:5-9). But nature is a closed system of cause and effect, an endless circling of sunshine, wind, and rain. The answer, the key, is not in Nature. 

He looks for the key to life's meaning in mankind (1:3-4), and humanity's efforts and accomplishments. But this yields only an endless seeking for happiness through this and that, but to no avail.

He looks for an answer in human wisdom (1:12-17; 2:13-17). But even the most brilliant are only learned ignoramuses (cf. Jose Ortega y Gasset), who fail to make sense of it all.

He looks for the meaning of life in pleasure and sensual delight (2:1-11), but finds the same reality: it's all nothing but "vanity and striving after the wind. (Here it feels like Bertrand Russell's atheism has borrowed from Ecclesiastes - see Russell's "A Free Man's Worship.")

The answer? Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 concludes:

Now all has been heard;

    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

To answer the question of life's meaning we must first answer these two questions:

Who, or what, made me?

What was I made for?

The answers to these questions will lead you to either Option 1, Option 2, or Option 3.

I've opted for 3. By experience, and by reason. My life's meaning and purpose are found in these words of Jesus:

You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
And you shall
love your neighbor as yourself.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

The Trouble with People Who are Not Like Me

(My back yard)

In the days of my greater immaturity I sang in a college choir. I am a baritone, and I can hold a tune. I can stay on pitch. But X, who sang in the baritone section next to me, could not.
I grew to despise him for this. 

Not only was X tone deaf, he could sing louder than anyone in the choir. X's tone deafness overwhelmed the rest of us. He was an eighth of a tone flat, all the time. Just slightly off pitch. To be slightly off pitch in a choir, and loudly so, is a great sin, for it works to drag everyone else down to its atonal level.

To make matters worse, X always had a smile on his face. I can see his broad smile now, fifty years later. X was upbeat, chipper, as he miserably bellowed. This angered me even more. 
X did not see how this was affecting me. My only relief was to share my grief with others, to spread my pain far and wide. I was everyone, and everyone talked about X. "X is ruining our choir." "X can't sing." "Just what does X think he is doing?" "X makes my life miserable."

"My life would be better if X were not in my life."

But that last statement, of course, is false. And immature. My trouble with X brought out my trouble with me. I, not X (or Y or Z or...), am my greatest problem. Unless I come to see the truth of that, I will be forever miserable.

C.S. Lewis, in a beautiful little piece called "The Trouble with X," wrote:

"Even if you became a millionaire, your husband would still be a bully, or your wife would still nag, or your son would still drink, or you'd still have to have your mother-in-law live with you.

It is a great step forward to realize that this is so; to face up to the fact that even if all external things went right, real happiness would still depend on the character of the people you have to live with--and that you can't alter their characters. And now comes the point. When you have seen this you have, for the first time, had a glimpse of what it must be like for God. For of course, this is (in one way) just what God Himself is up against. He has provided a rich, beautiful world for people to live in. He has given them intelligence to show them how it ought to be used. He has contrived that the things they need for their biological life (food, drink, rest, sleep, exercise) should be positively delightful to them. And, having done all this, He then sees all His plans spoiled--just as our little plans are spoiled--by the crookedness of the people themselves. All the things He has given them to be happy with they turn into occasions for quarreling and jealousy, and excess and hoarding, and tomfoolery..." (C.S. Lewis, "The Trouble with X")

But God's view is different from my view, or from your view. "He sees one more person of the same kind--the one you never do see. I mean, of course, yourself. That is the next great step in wisdom--to realize that you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs."

God sees me. To God, I am X. And surely, I am X to some people. "It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives others the same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. And it is almost certainly something you don't know about."

There is a second way God is different from me. I don't love X, but God does. God "loves the people in spite of their faults. He goes on loving. He does not let go. Don't say, "It's all very well for Him. He hasn't got to live with them." He has. He is inside them as well as outside them. He is with them far more intimately and closely and incessantly that we can ever be. Every vile thought within their minds (and ours), every moment of spite, envy, arrogance, greed, and self-conceit comes right up against His patient and longing love, and grieves His Spirit more than it grieves ours."

Today, when I think of my attitude towards X, I am saddened. Surely X knew I couldn't stand him. The thought of X knowing that, and still smiling as he sang with all his off-tuned heart, sickens me. Who am I, before God, to treat anyone that way? And who are you to do the same? Lewis writes:

"Be sure that there is something inside you which, unless it is altered, will put it out of God's power to prevent your being eternally miserable. While that something remains, there can be no Heaven for you, just as there can be no sweet smells for a man with a cold in the nose, and no music for a man who is deaf. It's not a question of God "sending" us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. The matter is serious: let us put ourselves in His hands at once--this very day, this hour."

My books are...

Sunday, September 10, 2023

What Forgiveness Is Not


(Breakfast with Levi)

If Linda and I are asked what makes for a strong marriage, we usually answer: Practice confession and forgiveness.

Over our 50 years of marriage we have confessed and forgiven each other many times.

When we confess, we do so specifically. Such as, "Please forgive for saying those words (________) to you. They hurt you. I am sorry."

When we forgive, we cancel the debt. "I forgive you for saying those words." To cancel the debt means, I won't punish you for what you said, or did, or did not say or do to me.

Confession and forgiveness are, to us, beautiful gifts from God, and keys to healthy relationships!

We also understand there are some things forgiveness is not.

To forgive is not to trust. I may forgive you. I won't make you pay for what you did to me. But that doesn't mean, in certain circumstances, that I therefore trust you. Someone has said that trust takes a lifetime to acquire, and just a moment to lose. We have seen this happen in many relationships.

I can forgive you, perhaps immediately. But trust is built on doing the right thing, consistently, over time. In this sense trust has a fragility to it that forgiveness does not. You can truly forgive someone and still not trust them. In some cases, you should not trust them

To forgive does not mean you stop hurting. I can choose to forgive, but I cannot choose to stop feeling any pain your words or actions have inflicted on me.

You can forgive someone and still be suffering. This is why to forgive is not necessarily to forget. To remember elicits pain. (If your relationship is healthy, you will just forget most of what your friend has done to you. Linda knows that, over the years, I have confessed to her several times. As she has done, with me. But we now remember nothing about the majority of those interactions.)

To remember what trust is not can help me, if I wound you, to acknowledge, and attend to, two things. 1) I realize you may not trust me to not hurt you again. I have compassion for you. I do not force you to trust me. I don't say things like, "Aren't you over this yet." 2) I am sensitive to the reality that you may hurt for awhile because of what I have done. When I realize that, I may again express my sadness for hurting you such that you still ache.