Sunday, December 09, 2018

Praying to Be Free from Comparison

When we spend time comparing ourselves with other people this often produces the bitter twin fruits of self-obsession, which are: shame and pride. Shame is the feeling that I am no good, worth little or nothing, of no value. Pride is the feeling that I am more valuable than other people.

There is a "healthy pride." C.S. Lewis talks about it in his chapter "The Great Sin" in Mere Christianity. But self-obsessive pride and shame are punishers of the soul, rooted in comparing ourselves with others. Here are some things about comparison, sort of a phenomenology of comparison.

Comparison rank-orders people on an honor-shame hierarchy with its various manifestations (like: good-bad; beautiful-ugly; worthy-worthless; useful-useless; favored-despised). 

There are many kinds of honor-shame hierarchies. Compared to other people you and I are either: 1) better than they are; 2) worse than they are; or 3) the same as they are, in terms of some specific attribute, quality, or talent. You're not as beautiful as some; you are more beautiful than others. A whole lot of people are smarter than you; you are a whole lot smarter than a lot of people. If you can read this, you are ahead of the world's 20% of adults who cannot read. If you scored 50% on the ACT, then half of our nation's teens are smarter than you in terms of the material tested on.

Compared to others, you either measure up or measure down. If you measure up, then you look down; if you measure down, then you are looking up. 

The honor-shame hierarchy creates "haves" and "have nots," relative to a person's position on whatever honor-shame hierarchy we are considering. "Pride" looks down on others; "shame" looks up at others. In my experience many people are "pride-shame" people who are both looking down and looking up. For them, life is a ride on a never-ending roller coaster of emotions that simultaneously please and punish.

Hierarchization is the kingdom-of-darkness norm. For example, while I was in India traveling and speaking I discovered, firsthand, the brutal, hierarchizing caste system. Upper caste people are perceived as better people, having been better in their previous life, deserving greater favor, and promoted upwards on the honor-shame hierarchy in their current life. 

I was in several lower caste villages. One village leader in central India told me, "The government does not think of us." All the people in his village were lower caste. Their low social status was manifested in their impoverished social conditions. Not only were they economically poor, they were socially scorned. This is the double whammy of an honor-shame culture that hierarchizes people. While this may sound primitive, it's alive and well today in America..

We see it in the Bible, in the story of the blind man sitting outside the Temple. Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple area and see him. Jesus' disciples reason that, either he or his parents sinned, the man's blindness being due to someone's sin. 

Here's the double whammy: 1) the man is blind and cannot work but only beg; and 2) the man is morally and religiously unclean - he's a sinner that deserves to be blind. He is low, very low, on the totem pole. He's at the bottom of the pecking order, the deserving recipient of scorn. 

Jesus, in another one of his jaw-dropping a-cultural moments, tells his disciples that neither this man nor his parents are responsible for his blindness. Imagine the blind man hearing Jesus say this. Can it be true? At the moment he's still blind, but the comparative hierarchizing world of pride and shame is dissolving before his ears at the words of Jesus.

I'll never forget entering a village located on the Deccan Plateau in central India. There were 300-400 people in this village. There was no electricity, no running water, and tiny mud-brick houses. The entire village came out to greet me as I arrived in an all-terrain vehicle. They placed garlands of flowers around my neck, two men held umbrellas over my head to shade me from the sun, and I heard the sound of drums coming toward me. Three men slinging drums on their hips led as the parade began, with me as the center of attention. 

We processed to a small building that housed meetings of the local church. The room was packed, with people overflowing out the door and peeking through the windows. I was introduced, then spoke to them. Here was I, the rich white man from America, an "upper caste" person in the midst of lower caste no-name, nothing-people. 

I opened my Bible and read Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." I told them that Jesus came to remove the human-made caste system. They are free from being rank-ordered according to some honor-shame thing. God doesn't compare them with other people. Instead, God came down and rescued them from the hierarchizing world that enchains their hearts. Now, they are free to look only to God, who loves them and has come to make his home in them. (John 14:23)

In comparison with God, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, our knowledge, power, and love are, relatively speaking, nothing. In that regard we are all the same. Comparison with one another is, therefore, logical nonsense. That God loves you and me should cause us to wonder and worship Him, rather than compete and compare with other finite people. 

The realization that the honor-shame hierarchy does not even apply in the kingdom of God releases us from striving to measure up to other people. Personally, this has been, and remains, good news for me.

Look to God.

You are sons and daughters of God.
You are loved because of this relationship, not because of any intrinsic abilities you have, which are nothing in comparison to God.
Be free from spending time comparing yourself to other people.
Set your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of your faith.

Pray to be free from comparison.

My two books are:

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

Preparing for the Invasion - #15 - Miracles Were Performed Through Jesus

Sunset over Lake Michigan

(C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, referred to the Incarnation as "The Great Invasion.")

"For general purposes used here, 
a 'miracle' may be defined as an extraordinary event with an unusual supernatural cause."

I have witnessed miracles. Here's one that happened with us at Redeemer, which Craig Keener records in his book Miracles, and Lee Strobel share in The Case for Miracles

Craig writes:

"In March 2006, after a spiritual retreat in Branson, Missouri, Carl [Cocherell] was checking the oil in his car when he stepped down and felt a sharp crack. Although he was a Vietnam veteran, he says that he had never felt such pain, and he fainted. X-rays in the emergency room in the Branson hospital revealed such a serious break of the ankle that after setting the break the orthopedist ordered him to stay overnight. During that night, though, Carl recounts that he experienced a voice from the Lord assuring him that his foot was not broken. After putting Carl's foot in a cast and warning that he would need months of therapy, the doctor referred him to his family physician.

Carl's wife drove them back to Michigan, and the next day his family doctor sent him to the hospital for some more X-rays. After receiving the X-rays, his doctor called him into the office and explained that there were no breaks, or even tissue indicating where the break had been. "You never had a broken ankle," the doctor explained. 

Carl pointed out the X-rays from Missouri. "That is a broken ankle," the doctor admitted. But now there was no sign that he had even had one, so the doctor removed the cast right away. 

Apart from the ankle being blue for a couple of days, Carl had no problem with it. At church that Sunday, where he used no crutches or other support, he testified how God healed him. Carl provided me with the radiology reports from before and after the healing supporting his claim."
- Keener, Miracles, 440

I'll add that Carl is especially sensitive to his feet, since he is a long-distance runner who has run the Boston Marathon. And, I have the radiology reports sitting next to me in my office at home.

Jesus performed miracles. "Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus's historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 31 percent of the verses in Mark's Gospel involve miracles in some way, or some 40 percent of his narrative! Very few critics would deny the presence of any miracles in the earliest material about Jesus." (Ib., 23-24)

Western culture, influenced by David Hume's arguments and the Enlightenment, dismisses the possibility of miracles. Thomas Jefferson, architect of the "American Jesus," insisted that miracles "were an affront to the demands of reason and the laws of nature, and Jesus had performed not a one." (Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, p. 23). 

One of the innumerable strong points in Keener's book is a thorough debunking of Hume's argument against the possibility of miracles, thus clearing the way for their possibility and, in examples such as mine, their actuality. Miracles were performed through the Real Jesus. They were central, Kingdom-confirming signs and wonders. In my 47+ years as a Jesus-follower I have seen a number of miracles, which I have recorded in my journals, spoken publicly about, and written about.

Today, remember that all things are possible with God, as you connect with Christ. 

My two books are:

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Tolstoy on Victimization and Self-Pity

Sadly, Nortel Lanes burned to the ground this week
- a great loss for our Monroe community.

All of us have been victimized. Someone has done something hurtful to us that we did not bring about or deserve. We've all had that experience, probably more than once. And, surely, we have victimized others. We have punished someone wrongly, with our words and actions.

There are true victims.

There are also people who hold on to their victimization. It becomes a badge of their identity. They are a victim. Call this a spirit of victimization. They don't get over it, and they won't get over it. Victimization has become an illness.

A spirit of victimization exudes self-pity. Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilych, describes the sickness of self-pity in exquisite detail: 

"What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result… The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odor) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position… [W]hat most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied. At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted."” (Emphasis mine.)

In Luke 9:23 Jesus tells us, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Self-denial is necessary to take up the cross and follow Jesus. It needs to be happening every day.

Self-denial involves deconstruction of negative aspects of the self. These are things like self-love, self-hatred, and self-pity. All are forms of self-obsession. The more self-obsession, the less following of Jesus there will be. Following Jesus is in inverse proportion to self-obsession.

Self-pity is one of the more punishing forms of self-obsession. Self-pity cannot coexist with spiritual renewal and transformation. 

In one of my seminary classes I was talking about holding “pity parties,” when a pastor named Samuel from Ghana asked, “What do you mean by “pity party?”” I said, “Samuel, the next time I host one for myself I’ll invite you.” Unfortunately, I could write an essay on How To Host Your Next Pity Party.

To be self-pitying is to live life as a victim. While it’s true that sometimes we are victims, there is a spirit of victimization (self-deprivation) that is to be distinguished from the real thing. It looks like this: "Poor me! They are not treating me right - and after all I've done for them!" Such is the self-pitying, angry person. 

In this regard Henri Nouwen asks, "What else is anger but the response to the sense of being deprived? Much of my own anger comes from the fact that my self feels deprived."

When one chooses to express this anger by hosting a pity party, the self-obsession has begun.

Preparing for the Invasion - #15 - Jesus Mentored 12 Disciples

(C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, called the Incarnation "The Great Invasion.")

Anyone remember the game "Trivial Pursuit?" Christians came out with their own version, called "Bible Trivia." I played both these games. I was not good at either. For at least two reasons. 

First, I tend to be slow. When asked a question, I often ruminate on it. The dial in my brain gets set to 'slow cook', and my chin tilts slightly downward while being held in my hand. I am....    thinking....  about this....  question.

Secondly, I am not very good at remembering and memorizing Bible facts. Like:

Q: "Which of the two dreamers in prison with Joseph was executed?"

A: The "chief baker." (Gen. 40:22)

Fortunately, my status as a child of God does not depend on answering these kind of questions.

I've had difficulties naming Jesus' 12 disciples. I never took the time to memorize them. I do know that Jesus called twelve to follow him, told them to leave everything for the sake of his kingdom mission, and that none of them had graduate degrees.

I also know - and this is what really interests me - that Jesus "discipled" them, mentored them, to do the things he was doing. This is more important to understand than what their names were. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham explains:

"By accompanying Jesus at all times, they were to learn from him how to continue his own mission: to heal and to exorcize, to bring the good news of the kingdom to the destitute and the outcasts." (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 51)

(Pastors - instead of trying to attract people and grow a big church, mentor some disciples. Twelve would be enough.)

These twelve no-name Jesus-followers began to do what Jesus did. Jesus equipped them and gave them authority. He taught them to testify, proclaim, and demonstrate. He taught them to tell and show, show and tell.

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, 
he gave them power and authority 
to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 
and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God 
and to heal the sick... 
So they set out and went from village to village, 
proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. 
(Luke 9:1-2, 6) 

I may not remember the names of "the Twelve." I do remember what Jesus mentored them to do. This so impressed me that at Redeemer we changed our mission statement to read:


Jesus and his followers came to proclaim the good news, drive out demons, and heal people everywhere.

My two books are:

Friday, December 07, 2018

ARISE AND THRIVE! Women's Conference @ Redeemer - March 14-16, 2019

Churches Drunk on Earthly Power

Wildflower by our kitchen window.

 Richard Foster wrote a book called The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex, and Power. Tim Keller wrote Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. John Piper wrote Living in the Light: Money, Sex, and PowerThe Big Three temptations in life are, arguably, money, sex, and power.

To quest after money, sex, and power is to desire the "world," as understood in Romans 12:1-2. Church leaders have done this, led their churches to follow, and in so doing have lost their way. Hence, the Consumer Church. The Entertainment Church. The Metricized Church. People-pleasing. Happy. The worship of Numbers.

I'm now reading The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus' Path of Power in a Church that has Abandoned It, by Jamin Coggin and Kyle Strobel. As the title indicates, their focus is on churches that have succumbed to earthly power, and how to walk in the power of Jesus.

When I began to read I found this book was delivering more than I expected. For example:

"In a culture drunk on power and in need of an intervention, the church has too often become an enabler. In many places, churches openly affirm the way from below. Instead of being told how desperately I am in need of God, I am repeatedly told how much God needs me. Instead of being exhorted to pick up my cross and follow Christ, I am told that Jesus wants to be my partner in the plan I have to rid my life of all struggles and challenges. We hear gospels of moralism, centering on my power to become a better person, and we hear sermons offering up God as merely another resource along my journey for successful and happy living. Sermons become pep talks amid a quest for power and significance. Instead of worship being an invitation to come before God in humble awe and reverence, worship becomes an experience meant to lift us above the travails of everyday life and give us a sense of transcendence. Instead of hearing God’s vision of redeeming all things in Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit, we hear of the pastor’s vision to grow an even bigger church that does bigger things so that he can be powerful and we can be powerful with him."  (pp. 14-15)

My two books are:

Preparing for the Invasion - #14 - The Method of Jesus

Playing backgammon in Jerusalem

(In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis referred to the Incarnation as "The Great Invasion.")

Several years ago, at Redeemer, we preached through the four Gospels chronologically. This took almost seven years! Then, we preached through the Pauline Epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, the book of James, Hebrews, and (for over one year) the book of Revelation.  

Verse by verse, bit by bit, brick by brick, we have been laying a foundation for our people, building a Jesus-literate house to live and move in.

Whenever I preach I expect God to do something. It wasn't always this way for me. I wasn't taught this. Now I expect the proclamation of God's Word to be accompanied by demonstrations of his love and power. 

Proclaim and demonstrate.  

If Jesus had a method, that was it. Jesus' words had authority. Jesus' actions validated that authority. (I do believe that God's Spirit does things in the hearts and minds of people as his Word is simply proclaimed. But it is instructive to note that, as Jesus' words had illocutionary power, Jesus also acted in demonstrations of power. Kind of like "tell and show.")

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes: 

Jesus "saw the kingdom arriving in the sorts of things he was doing: bringing God’s healing and forgiveness into the lives of people he met, reaching out to those who were pushed to the margins of God’s people, gathering a community in which service would replace status. These are the sorts of things that happen when God rules."  (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 38. Emphasis mine. This is a beautiful little book on the Real Jesus. Tolle lege!!!)

George Ladd writes: 

“Jesus’s ministry and announcement of the Good News of the Kingdom were characterized by healing, and most notably by the casting out of demons. He proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and He demonstrated the Good News of the Kingdom of God by delivering men from the bondage of Satan.” (Ladd, Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God47. Emphasis mine.)

Pick up your Bible and read. Expect Jesus to demonstrate his love and power in your life today. 

See also Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study.

My two books are:

Thursday, December 06, 2018

God Power-Shares and Love-Shares with Us

Image may contain: ocean, sky, twilight, cloud, outdoor, water and nature
Image may contain: ocean, sky, twilight, cloud, outdoor, water and nature
South Haven, Michigan

A.W. Tozer writes:

“The power of God, then, is not something God has; 
it is something God is.”

Tozer, Born After Midnight, p. 27

I have many things. I have a pair of glasses. But I am not the glasses. The glasses are external to my being.

God doesn't have power, as if power were something he does not have in his being, but could acquire. God's power is not acquired power. It is power in esse. Which is to say, God's power is his very being; thus, God is power. This means that God cannot not be power. 

In the same way, God is love. God cannot not-love. Because God's love is in esse, his being, all that God thinks and says and does is love. 

What this means for us is this: God power-shares and love-shares with us. God invites us into his being (John 14-17). We are to connect with him, as a branch abides in a vine. The resources of the vine, what the vine is in its essence, flow into the branch. 

This is God's esse, coursing through me. This is why Jesus can say, 

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me 
will do the works I have been doing, 
and they will do even greater things than these, 
because I am going to the Father.

Preparing for the Invasion - #13 - Jesus is King

Ancient tomb in Israel

(C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, referred t the Incarnation as "The Great Invasion.")

When you read the four Gospels you discover that Jesus thinks and acts like he is a king. N.T. Wright says that “throughout his short public career Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge.” (Wright, Simply Jesus, K292)  Jesus “behaved suspiciously like someone trying to start a political party or a revolutionary movement.”  (Ib., K296) For example:

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups 
on the green grass. 
- Mark 6:39

This verse is about Jesus feeding the 5,000. To understand what's going on here we need to realize that this is a highly politicized situation. It’s volatile in Galilee under Roman rule. Imagine a country under the rule of a foreign government. The people are oppressed. Four Jewish political groups are offering their various suggestions. There’s an undercurrent of Zealot sympathies.

Their immediate ruler is Herod Antipas. He calls himself "king," but he’s not actually a king. Yet, he really wants to be king and have that power. Antipas is an adulterer, a child pornographer, a drunken party-guy who mostly sits in his palace far to the south of the sea of Galilee where he spends part of his time cutting off the heads of prophets.

Enter Jesus. He sees the oppressed people living in their own land like it is a foreign land. Jesus views them as “sheep without a shepherd.” Can you see why? The four Jewish political groups didn’t have a solution. And then there’s Herod Antipas…

Jesus views the people as leaderless, “kingless people.” He has compassion on them, not simply because they are hungry.

So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.

- Mark 6:40

Jesus instructs the disciples to organize the crowds into groups, to get ready for the meal. They were eating in prasia – literally, “garden plots,” or “flower beds.” New Testament scholar R.T. France says this is “a remarkably visual impression of the scene, with men lined up in groups like plots of vegetables on the green grass... The vivid description suggests the eyewitness account of someone who was present at this extraordinary picnic.” (France, Gospel of Mark, 267)

Jesus has the people sit down in ranks, in groups of 50s and 100s. He formally organizes them. They look like military troops. N. T. Wright says, “Anybody watching this might be asking, “Who does this man think he is?”"

This explains John 6:14-15:

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, 
they began to say, 
"Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." 
Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

R.T. France sums this up: a strong case can be made for a political, and indeed military, character to the outcome.

When Jesus feeds the 5,000, what he does is a kingly, militaristic act. The people pick up on this, and try to force Jesus to be their king.
Which he is. 

Jesus is King. But not the kind of king they were looking for.
"Who is this king of glory
Who consumes me with His love?"
- Third Day

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Indifference Comes Before Discernment and Wisdom

Maumee Bay Stae Park, Ohio

There is a pine tree in a forest preserve outside Lansing, Michigan, that I used to pray in. The branches formed a natural ladder. I would climb thirty feet up, sit on a branch, feel the wind swaying the tree, and pray.

I had made a leather wristband, and burned these words on it: "a holy indifference." By this I meant: indifferent to everything except what God wants for me and says to me.

Ruth Haley Barton writes: 

"Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a model of what it means to be indifferent. Her prayer “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) is will  a wonderful expression of the kind of indifference we are talking about here." (Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, p. 202)

If we don't have a holy indifference we should not expect to hear much from God. Without indifference "the discernment process becomes little more than a rigged election!" (Ib.) This is because our agendas compete with the voice of God, which rarely matches our agendas.

"Indifference is an important prerequisite to the prayer for wisdom, because the wisdom of God is often the foolishness of this world; indifference to matters of our own ego, in particular, prepares us to receive this gift." (Ib., 203)

I tied the leather wristband around a limb in 1985. thirty-three years ago! I was learning holy indifference. On occasion I thought of going back and trying to find that tree. Perhaps it is no longer standing. If so, I'm sure the wristband has become the tree. Perhaps a holy indifference has become me.

My two books are:

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God