Monday, May 23, 2022

Following Jesus Like the Men in Black

Suggested Reading: Mark 8:28-37

A few years ago, Men in Black III came out. Apparently agent J had to go back in time to save the universe. Of course, if you have seen the first one, you know that Will Smith's character was given a choice when he decided to become a man in black. He could join the force, experience wonders he never knew existed, discover alien life-forms and help save the world. But if he did it would mean giving up his life. The person he had been would cease to exist. For the rest of his life, he would exist as an easily forgettable face, have no friends outside the Men in Black, and sever all ties with anyone he previously knew. He would be giving up his old life in order to get a new life.

Jesus actually warned us that following him would be a very similar experience. In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus told those gathered around him, "If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it" (HCSB).  Jesus warned us that in order to follow him we would have to give up our lives and while, sometimes, that means being willing to die, most of the time it means giving up our own plans and desires and expectations for our lives.

Sometimes, we miss out on what it really means to follow Christ because we are too busy hanging on to our own expectations. We are afraid that if we really follow him, we are going to miss out on things that are important to us. We may picture missing out on our dream house because we decide to follow Christ into a low-paying job of service or living life without a spouse because the work we are called to is too dangerous to include a family. We may fear losing friends because we take unpopular stands based on our relationship with God. We may just be scared that we will never achieve our goals because God seems to be leading us everywhere but toward our goals.

But Jesus told us that if we cling too tightly to our lives, to our conceptions of what our life should be, we will lose them anyway. But if we lay them aside for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel, if we decide to embrace the new life that Christ has called us to, even if it is very different from what we think we want, we will discover life in the truest sense of the word. "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it."

Have you been holding out on Jesus, afraid to give him total control because it might mean being somewhere or doing something you don't want? Have your clung to your own expectations for your life and become miserable because God doesn't seem to be leading you where you want him to? Try laying your life aside and embracing the life that Jesus offers in its place. It may not be what you expected but it will ultimately be better than what you wanted for yourself.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

King Jesus, King Arthur, and Family Wannabes

Suggested Reading: Mark 3:20-35

In the BBC series Merlin, Arthur assumed the kingship upon the murder of his father. In the months following, Arthur's uncle offered him advice as he figured out how to manage the kingdom he had inherited.  Very soon, however, it became obvious that Arthur's uncle was not really helping him and it was not much of a spoiler to discover that the uncle was working with the evil Morgana in order to get Arthur killed.  I can only imagine the sense of betrayal that would flow from discovering a trusted relative is trying to undermine and kill you. The story is a reminder that family is about more than biological relations.

Jesus made a similar point in Mark chapter 3, though his relatives were not evil in this case. Jesus had been teaching and his mother and brothers showed up to see him but couldn't reach him because of the crowd. When Jesus was told he responded, "Who are My mother and My brothers?”... Then looking about at those who were sitting in a circle around Him, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! Whoever does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother(Mark 3:34-35, HCSB).

Now, Jesus wasn't bashing his family. We know that he still cared for his mother because, while he was dying, he made the disciple John promise to take care of her. But Jesus was trying to make a point about family. Jesus was trying to let us know what it would take for us to call him brother and to have the same kind of relationship with others. For Jesus, family was just as much about sharing the same goals and working for the same things as it was about blood. Jesus promised us that whoever does the will of God is his brother and sister and mother.

One of the best ways to get to know someone is to get down in the trenches and work with them. Jesus is also telling us this.  If we really want to know him, we must jump into the work with him. We must get our hands dirty together caring for the lost, the poor and the hurting. We must take our lead from the Spirit and follow without hesitation. Only then can we really call Jesus our brother with any certainty.

There is a difference between being a brother or sister and acting like one.  Are we willing to put in the effort and act like Jesus is our family?

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Learning Lessons From the Lorax

Suggested Reading: Proverbs 22:1-12

Not long ago I saw The Lorax, a movie about a world without trees and a boy who goes in search of them to impress a girl. The boy learns the story of the Onceler who started a new business with a promise not to cut down any trees. When demand for his product increased, however, and he received a little push from some money-hungry relatives, the Onceler abandoned his principles for the money that could be made. Only when all the trees were gone, along with his prospects for continuing profits and his reputation, did the Onceler realize it might have been better to keep his word.

While I think the movie built up a straw man to knock down in order to communicate its political point, the movie did an excellent job at portraying a very common human condition: abandoning one's principles in order to get ahead. Commonly, people have the intention of living the right way, of being honest and fair, of telling the truth and selling a solid product, until the chance comes along to make a whole lot of money or finally reach the career milestone we've been reaching for. Then we decide it is okay to fudge things just a little bit because it will be good for our bottom line and no one will notice anyway. We refuse to pay people what they deserve and try to satisfy them with vague promises of a raise in the future because any raise would drop our bottom line and keep us from getting everything we think we deserve. We decide it is okay to go back on our word, hurting someone in order to get ahead. We try to make ourselves feel better by saying, "It's not personal. It's just business." But we know that is just a rationalization. Whether to make money or to get ahead, we slowly begin to soften our resolve and our principles.

When we face those decisions, Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, "A good name is to be chosen over great wealth; favor is better than silver and gold" (HCSB). The author of Proverbs knew that not only is it essential that we maintain our integrity, but that it is also crucial that we preserve our reputation. Sooner or later everything translates into reputation, good or bad. If you don't treat or pay your employees fairly, they won't want to work hard for you. If you go back on your word to customers or vendors, they won't want to trade with you because they can't trust you. If you cut corners in order make a cheaper product, people will eventually start buying a better product. Eventually, all those things we convinced ourselves weren't that bad erode our integrity and we become an empty shell. We might have money or position, but nobody wants to work either with us or for us.

Every day we face a choice: do the right thing and guard our reputation or focus on the bottom line regardless of the collateral damage. Will you try to get everything you can as quickly as you can? Or will you preserve your reputation? Think twice before you answer; your good name is too important.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Caught in the Crossfire of Christian Firing Squads

Suggested Reading: Mark 3:13-19

In the romantic comedy You've Got Mail, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play characters whose personal and political philosophies are diametrically opposed at nearly every point. Their differences are exemplified by the stores they each own and operate. She owns a mom and pop bookstore while he is the corporate CEO of a massive bookstore chain. Her business ends up failing because his succeeds. From a business perspective and a personal perspective they have every reason to hate each other. But the two eventually strike up a friendship and then fall in love.

I have often wondered why Christians have such a hard time doing the same thing. I grew up in an "Independent, King James only, Bible believing, New Testament Baptist Church" and then went to college and seminary in what is considered, among Southern Baptists at least, as one of those "liberal" schools which happened to have a lot of "conservative" students as well. Much more often than I wanted, I wound up in the crossfire of Christians on both sides attacking each other. They would argue over theology. They would argue over politics. And if it went on long enough, the "debates" would digress to people calling each other names and questioning the faith of the other group. Most of the time there was evidence to support both groups' opinions, both in the political realm and from scripture, but neither side wanted to give the other an inch. At times, it almost seemed like they hated each other.

In Mark chapter 3, we are given an example of two disciples who could easily have fallen into a similar situation. Jesus went up on a mountain and called to him those men who would eventually become the apostles. In verse 18, two of the men listed are Matthew, the tax-collector, and a man known as Simon the Zealot. Matthew was a man who not only accepted Rome's rule over Israel but had chosen to make his living by helping them to enforce their rule. Simon, as a member of the Zealot party, was vehemently opposed to Roman rule and had committed his life to removing Rome from its position over his homeland, even if it required violence.

According to the customs of the day, these men would probably have hated each other. But we are never given any indication that they were at each other's throats. I'm sure there would have naturally been some initial distrust and probably even some debates along the way. But these men followed Jesus together and, together, they helped turn the world upside down. So what made them different than us? My guess is that they allowed their mutual devotion to Jesus to override their differences.

We don't have to agree with every political and theological stance that another believer takes. But we do need to allow for the fact that Jesus calls people from every walk of life and from every political ideology. We need to remember that everybody's opinions are going to start out a little different until Jesus brings us closer and closer to his own in the end. We must be willing to allow our mutual devotion to Jesus to be stronger than our political differences and trust that Jesus will eventually straighten out our theological differences if we are all following Him.

Jesus said people would know we were his disciples because of how we love each other. Are we really loving each other or are we too busy fighting over our own opinions?

Monday, May 16, 2022

Using The Hunger Games to Measure Ourselves

Suggested Reading: Titus 1:5-16

Not long ago, I read The Hunger Games novels because I was curious what all the fuss was about. I won't spoil the books, but I will offer one observation. Because of the kind of life she had lived and because of the circumstances in which the main character, Katniss, finds herself, she has a hard time trusting people. She lives in a cynical world and sees everything through a veil of skepticism and mistrust. Because of this, Katniss doesn't recognize true kindness when she sees it, at least in the beginning. She is always expecting an ulterior motive.

Katniss's blindness reminded me of a passage where Paul was writing to Titus about human nature. Paul wrote, "To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted" (Titus 1:15, HCSB). Paul's point here is that what we see in the world actually says more about us than it does about the world. If a person looks at the world and only sees calculation and manipulation, that observation says more about the experiences and mindset of the individual than it says about the reality of the world.

I know men who are so full of themselves that they see obvious acts of discouragement from women as invitations. I have also known women who feel so badly about themselves that it is impossible for them to look in the mirror and see beauty even if the rest of the world is blown away by them. What we see in the world around us is often much more instrumental in giving us a glimpse of ourselves than it is in helping us analyze the world. What is the old saying? "if everybody has a problem with you, everybody is probably not the problem"?

When we look at the people around us and everyone looks cynical, we are probably expecting cynicism because we are cynical ourselves. If we look around us and we feel like everyone is pretending, we are probably doing some pretending ourselves. On the other hand, if we are always seeing people being kind and considerate, that also says something about us.

Every now and then, it is good to step back and characterize the world so that we know where our own mind has been. If the whole world has a problem with us, there is a chance that the world is not the problem.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Seeing the Messiah Through "The Mist"

Suggested Reading: Matthew 16:13-28

Rick Riordan has written a series of novels for teens called Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The premise of the books is that all of the Greek gods from mythology are real, as well as all of the monsters and half-human offspring of the gods. These beings are all supposedly still active in the modern world. The reason normal people don't notice all of these creatures from mythology and these explosive events happening all around them is that mortals' minds are blinded by "the mist." It is a force which causes human beings only to see what they think they should see and prevents them from seeing things that don't fit their preconceived notion of reality, like Cyclopes or centaurs or giant manticores. Obviously, this idea that human beings tend not to see anything beyond what fits their preconceived notion of the world is integral to the books.

Part of what allows the reader to suspend disbelief and accept "the mist" as believable is that we know human beings act like this all the time. Every day we encounter people (and sometimes are people) who miss the obvious because it doesn't fit with our notions of reality. We can even see this tendency in Jesus' disciples. In Matthew 16 Jesus begins to describe to his disciples what is going to happen to him in the days leading up to his crucifixion, that he "must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day" (Matthew 16:21, HCSB). But then Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to set Jesus straight. "Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to you!" (verse 22, HSCB).

For Peter and the other disciples who had finally come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the idea that Jesus would suffer and die was inconceivable. In general, the Jews of the day had come to believe that the Messiah would be a conquering king who would sweep the Romans out of Jerusalem and then out of Judea and would restore Israel to its rightful place as the dominant power in the world.  Suffering and dying did not fit their idea of the Messiah and so they refused to believe it. Can you imagine, walking up to the man that you have just acknowledged to be the son of God (Matthew 16:16) and telling him that he is wrong?!  But Peter did exactly that because what Jesus had in store did not fit his preconceived ideas of what the Messiah was supposed to be.

How often do we do the very same thing? How often do we miss out on what God has in store for us because we are so full of our own ideas of how things are supposed to work that we miss the obvious? Sometimes, we get it in our heads that God only works a certain way, even when, like Peter, Jesus is stating in fairly clear terms that something else is going on. We decide that a particular person is a lost cause when Jesus is saying, "That man will draw the world to me." God allows us to go through difficulty in order to stretch us and teach us but we are so convinced of our own maturity that we miss the lesson entirely.

Today, instead of walking around, making assumptions about how the world works or about the ways God "always" does things, step back and try not to take anything for granted. Try to remember that our expectations can sometimes be way off and let God do what God wants to do. Let's learn from Peter's mistake and try not to convince God that God's plans are wrong.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Turning the World Upside Down with Doubters

Suggested Reading: Matthew 28:1-20

Sometimes, looking at what the apostles accomplished in the years after Jesus rose back into heaven, it is easy to compare ourselves to them and wish we had as much faith as they did. I mean, these were the people who, according to Acts 17:6, were accused of turning "the whole world upside down" (HCSB). These were men who performed miracles and cast out demons. These people preached great sermons that led thousands upon thousands of people to faith in Jesus. It's easy to look at the apostles and decide that we simply don't have the kind of faith to do things like that.

But then we read a passage like Matthew 28. Jesus has not only risen, but he has appeared to the disciples. Jesus has shown himself to the women who came to the tomb to treat his body. The disciples have gone to Galilee like Jesus instructed them and they have met on a mountain where Jesus has promised to meet them. Matthew 28:17 tells us, "When they saw him, they worshipped him--but some of them still doubted!" (NLT).

Hold on, that can't be right. They are standing in front of Jesus, speaking with him and interacting with him after he died and came back to life and some of them still doubted? But these were the men who taught thousands of people. These were the men who healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead. These were the giants of the faith. And they doubted? Where does that leave us?

With an awful lot of hope.

If these men, the men who had walked with Jesus on a daily basis for three years, who had seen the miracles he performed, who had heard him predict his own death and resurrection, who were now standing in front of Jesus, looking at him and hearing his voice, if these men still doubted, then there is definitely hope for us. These men show us that we don't have to have everything perfect. We don't have to have everything together and be paragons of faith and virtue before God can do anything with us. If God can use these men who had been witness to so many of Jesus' miracles, who had heard Jesus' own predictions about his death and resurrection, who were now standing in front of the risen Christ and yet were still doubting, if God can use these men, then God can certainly do something with us.

In John 20:29, Jesus told his disciples, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (NIV). If the disciples had trouble believing even in the midst of all they had seen, Jesus reminds us that the more blessed  faith is the kind that all of us have today, who have believed but have never seen with our physical eyes. If God could work miracles through these men who doubted even as they stood before the risen Christ, God can use us.

Following Jesus Like the Men in Black

Suggested Reading: Mark 8:28-37 A few years ago,  Men in Black III came out. Apparently agent J had to go back in time to save the univer...