Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Practical Jokes and Balcony Patios

From time to time I enjoy a good practical joke. When I was in college I had a friend who lived on the second story of an apartment complex and he had a balcony big enough to place a couple of chairs where you could sit and talk. One particular night, several of us were over at his apartment playing Risk and we had taken a break. I announced that I needed to run to my car to grab something and would be right back. When I left, instead of going to my car, I walked around the building to his patio. I climbed up the side of the building, quietly hefted myself over the railing, and then made a very sudden, very loud entrance through the unlocked patio door. I caused a few mild heart attacks and made someone else spew a drink out of their nose in fright before they realized what had happened. At least for me, it was stinking hilarious. And the entire prank was possible because no one ever thought about locking the patio door. After, all, it was on the second story of the building. No one would be able to get in that way, right? But after that night, I never found the patio door unlocked again.

When we deal with temptation one of the greatest dangers we face is the assumption that we are safe from certain sins, that particular temptations hold no danger for us, and so we don’t guard against them. We leave the door to the balcony unlocked. This tendency is what James was addressing when he wrote, No one undergoing a trial should say, "I am being tempted by God." For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn't tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:13-15, HCSB). Temptation very rarely is a danger because of our outward circumstances. Yes, someone may make us an inappropriate offer. Yes, we may find ourselves in a difficult position where doing something wrong is easier than pushing through and doing the right thing.  But the circumstances in which we find ourselves are not the most important factors in temptation. Our own desires are what trip us up.

When we refuse to acknowledge those hidden desires, those things that linger in the hidden recesses of our hearts, those things no one else knows about, we fail to guard against those particular temptations. After all, what is the point of locking a door nobody can get to? What is the point of reinforcing a foundation that isn’t in danger of fracturing? If we think we are safe, we do nothing to safeguard ourselves. Thus, it is vitally important that we acknowledge those areas where our desires might get us into trouble.

If we yearn for the latest technological gadget but we don’t have the money to spend on it, we might need to avoid Best Buy for a while. If we have trouble controlling lustful thoughts, we might need to avoid being alone with that good-looking co-worker we’ve caught staring recently or even stay away from the internet entirely. But when we refuse to acknowledge our own desires, we end up putting ourselves in positions that are unsafe for us, positions that will eventually see us yield to a temptation we could have guarded against.

Be honest about the desires that lurk within you. Hiding and denying them only sets you up for failure. Acknowledge them and guard against them. Confide in someone who can hold you accountable and help you set up safeguards. Maintaining a pretense of super spirituality is difficult when your temptation sneaks in through your balcony.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Passing the Homeless Alien Test

The classic Sci-Fi television series Farscape was about John Crichton, a human astronaut who got sucked through a wormhole and discovered himself in a distant part of the universe surrounded by strange life-forms. In one particular episode, he encountered a wormhole that allowed him to return to Earth, something he had been searching for since the day he got sucked away from home. He returned through the wormhole and was followed by some of his alien friends. While some people handled the aliens' arrival well, most did not. One of his friends was killed and dissected. The others were all locked in cages until he was forced to escape. Eventually, John noticed that some of the details didn't add up. Apparently, John had never returned to Earth, but an alien species which was looking for a new home had been testing humanity through John's memories to see if they would be accepted. Humanity didn't pass the test, although John did.

Quite often, we encounter tests without realizing that we are being tested. James wrote, "Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials and temptations, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (James 1:2-3, SPT*). While James went on to talking about how our trials can serve to mature us, he takes for granted what we can easily forget: trials and temptations are tests of faith. We tend to do better on tests when we know we are taking them. We often make better decisions when we know people are watching us and grading us on those decisions. Trials and temptations are the same way, but we often fail to recognize them for what they are: a test of faith.

How we handle a trial, how we view the trial, changes when we realize that our faith is being tested. When we realize that the ultimate decision is whether to trust our God or follow our own desires and wisdom, we normally find the trials and temptations easier to navigate than when we simply ask, "How should I handle this?" When we're tempted to provide for ourselves in less than honest ways, recognizing the decision as a test of faith clarifies which course of action we should take. When we face a situation so difficult we are tempted to give up, viewing it as a test of faith helps us discover the resolve to continue.

Whatever trials or temptations you may be facing, remember that they are tests of your faith. Sometimes just remembering that can help you pass the test.

*Stickler's Personal Translation

Friday, February 17, 2017

Being an Angry Tattle-Tale

Something I've noticed since having children is how often kids are eager to run and tattle on someone for doing the very thing they were doing just few minutes before. Children universally have the attitude, "It's ok for me to do it to you but you better not do it to me." The younger children just don't grasp the concept that they do the same thing they are mad at someone else for. The older children come up with reasons to justify their behavior, reasons why it's ok for them to behave badly, reasons they deserve to behave badly. Unfortunately, many of us never grow out of that attitude, especially when it comes to anger.

As we get older, we get better and better at coming up with ways to justify our anger. What that person did was wrong, I have the right to lose my temper. I've had a really hard day at work and I don't deserve to be harassed as soon as I walk in the door. And my personal downfall, I had to yell because it's the only way to get you to listen. We each have our own excuses and justifications for mishandling our anger. And we each tend to believe we are justified, even while we judge someone else for the same thing. Jesus's brother James, however, had this to say, Know this, my beloved brothers:let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20, ESV).

Anger itself is not a sin. But anger tends to retard our judgment, cloud our reasoning, and blind us to rational thought and, as a result, very often leads us into sin. Quite often, we are justified in our anger and have legitimate reasons to be upset with someone. But acting in our anger does not produce the righteousness of God. Anger can be a wonderful motivator for correcting injustices, but only when we have allowed the heat of our anger to die down so that our good judgment can reassert itself.

You may be dealing with anger today. Perhaps someone has hurt you or someone you love. Perhaps you have been confronted with an injustice that leaves you seething. You are allowed to be angry, even furious. But you must remain quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. You never know when you have misunderstood the situation or when acting in your anger will only make things worse. So before you do anything, take a breather, listen, and think. Allow the heat of the moment to dissipate. You might just save yourself from doing something you'll regret

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Following Jesus Like Fear-Mongering Ghosts

Merlin, the BBC's late series about King Arthur and the famous sorcerer, had a five year run. In one episode leading up to the series finale, Arthur, who had instituted reforms based on equality and merit rather than on the accident of being born into a noble family or not, was visited by the ghost of his very displeased father. Arthur's father pleaded with Arthur to undo his reforms, arguing that the people would never fear him otherwise. Arthur responded that he desired respect rather than fear but the ghost of his father didn't believe Arthur would receive either. Arthur believed people would follow him if they respected him but his father believed that fear was the only motivation powerful enough to maintain order.

Arthur's father would have fit right in with the Israelites in Exodus 20. Moses had led them to Mount Sinai where God was going to meet with them and deliver the law. Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:18-19, ESV). When the Israelites arrived and saw the mountain where God was going to meet with them, they were terrorized with fear and gave God a great deal of respect as a result. But their respect extended only as far as their fear. When they became used to the clouds and lightning and thunder, they soon lost their respect and began disobeying the commands they received in fear.

I have often wondered what motivates us as followers of Christ. Are we motivated by love and respect, cherishing Jesus and the Father, and obeying them out of that love? Or are we motivated by fear? Do we obey out of fear that we will face hell or that God will punish us if we mess up? Do we strive to live godly lives because we want to please God or because we want to avoid God's wrath? Don't get me wrong, we should have a healthy fear of the Creator of the universe who does have the power to punish or send us to hell, but if God just wanted our fear he never would have sent Jesus to die in our place. God sent his Son because God loves us.

If your walk with God is motivated by fear, you will fall away as soon as the fear fades. God wants your primary motivation for obedience to be love flowing from a grateful heart. If all you have is fear, you've missed the point of Jesus coming to earth.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sneak Attacks and Assumptions

My son has a game he plays sometimes where he likes to sneak up behind me and attack me. Sometimes he has a play sword. Sometimes he tries to jump on my back. Sometimes he likes to try a hit-and-run where he pops my rear end and then runs off. When he starts this game, he is in a playful mood and tends to believe everyone else is as well. Sometimes I am and I turn around and play back. At other times, he catches me in the middle of something or when playing isn’t an option and so I either make a subdued response or laugh and tell him that we will play when I am finished. Regardless of my verbal response, my son almost always comes at me again, thinking my response is just the way I am playing the game. Because he is in a playful mood and is thinking that way, he expects me to think that way, too, whether I really do or not. So, even when I specifically tell him I can’t play right this second, he thinks my response is a playful one because his would be.

At another end of the spectrum, Joseph experienced the same kind of mindset from his own brothers in Genesis chapter 50. Several chapters and years before, Joseph had reconciled himself to his brothers. He had revealed himself as the Prime Minister of Egypt, telling them that he held nothing against them for selling him into slavery as a child because God had used that experience to provide for hundreds of thousands of people during a time of intense famine. As far as he was concerned, God had set the whole thing up, so he forgave them. He then took in their families and their flocks, providing for all of them, and reassuring them of his good intentions toward them. But when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did to him?” (Genesis 50:15). Because they would hold a grudge and pretend to be civil in front of their father (they had already done that) they assumed Joseph would as well, even though he had gone out of his way to reassure them and demonstrate that he had forgiven them.

Quite often, we assume things about how people will respond to certain situations or conversations because we know how we would respond. But those kinds of assumptions normally just get us into trouble. No two people are exactly alike and no two people have the same thought processes, no matter how similar they may be. How can we possibly know how people are going to respond to situations or conversations? The fact that we tend to dwell on a particular event doesn’t mean others do too. And the fact that we have let go of the past doesn’t mean everyone else necessarily has.

Before we make assumptions about what other people are going to do or think, let’s give them a chance to respond. What scares you to death may not bother anyone else a bit and what we take for granted other people may have not yet worked through. Give people a chance to respond. Don’t assume you know how they will react. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Entertaining Enchantresses and Strangers

The first animated movie nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award was well worth it just for the incredibly beautiful opening sequence. Disney's Beauty and the Beast begins with the gorgeous, sweeping view of a forest in full bloom and zooms in on a castle in the background. The narration begins, "There once was a prince who lived in a charming castle..." Then stain glass windows tell us the story of this prince who was visited by an old woman begging for a place to stay the night in exchange for a single rose. The prince, in his callousness, turned the old woman away, only to discover that she was a beautiful enchantress who had disguised herself to test him.  The scene makes a wonderful beginning for a fairytale, but the scenario is not so far-fetched as we might imagine. Hebrews 13:2 warns us," Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (ESV). 

As I read this verse recently I thought about its context, having been written in a day and age when people routinely traveled from city to city, never knowing if there would be an inn or a hotel, with most people needing to rely on the hospitality of strangers. American society really isn't set up that way. We have hotels and motels in every major city and nearly all of the small ones. We have cars and bus stops and truck stops. People can find shelter if they really want to, so this doesn't really apply to us anymore, right?

But hospitality isn't simply about providing a roof over someone's head. Hospitality is about caring for people and giving of ourselves to make people feel welcome and secure. Hospitality is about providing warmth and friendship to those without any close at hand. And all of those things apply today.

The author of Hebrews, though, warns us specifically not to neglect hospitality to strangers. We are to provide warmth and friendship, welcome and security to people we don't know, to strangers, and he doesn't give us any wiggle room to provide hospitality only when it isn't potentially dangerous. We are to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16), but we don't get to overlook someone's need because we are uncomfortable or we have unfounded skepticism about the reality of their need. As believers, we are expected to show hospitality to strangers, to invite them into our homes and offer them welcome and friendship.

As uncomfortable as we might feel welcoming strangers into our homes, we never know when God might be testing our maturity. Who knows? We might even get the chance to entertain angels.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Are You Showing Up?

I've recently decided that the Apostle Peter has gotten a bad rap. Yes, Peter was a loudmouth and started taking sometimes before his brain or filter kicked in. Yes, Peter was brash and impulsive, chopping off ears that Jesus had to reattach. Yes, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus, going so far as to swear at one point. And even later, yes, Peter acted like something of a hypocrite when, after being the one who announced that even the Gentiles could be saved, started withdrawing from them to stay in favour with the legalistic Jewish Christians and had to be called out by Paul. But I've decided Peter has gotten a bad rap, especially about denying Jesus.

In Matthew 26, when Jesus warned Peter that he would deny him, Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same (Matthew 26:35, ESV). Notice that Peter wasn't the only one to proclaim loudly that he would die with Jesus before denying him. But when Judas came with the temple guards and Jesus was arrested, all the disciples fled. And when the story picks up again, Peter and John are the only ones who've come back. John was allowed into the place where Jesus was because the priests recognized him but Peter watched from a distance. None of the other disciples even showed up at the trial. Peter denied Jesus. But Peter was the only disciple who put himself somewhere it might have happened. The priests recognized John and the other disciples fled and stayed away. Peter was the only disciple who ended up in a position where he could either take a stand for Jesus or deny him. He failed the test but he at least showed up.

Sometimes I wonder how much showing up we do. We hang out in our Christian groups, run in our Christian circles, shop in Christian bookstores and patronize shops with Christian fish on their signs. If we can afford to, we put our kids in Christian private schools or home school them. When we are really adventurous, we invite unbelievers to come to church with us, bringing them into our safe place in order to share the Gospel with them. What would happen if we instead started going out, putting ourselves in uncomfortable places where people might look at us funny and say, "Are you with that Jesus fellow?" How many of us would chicken out? How many of us would find an excuse not to say anything or to make a quick exit?

Peter showed up and failed. But when the day of Pentecost came and the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the Gospel in the languages of the world, it wasn't those disciples who didn't deny Jesus who got to stand up and lead five thousand men to faith in Christ. That privilege went to the guy who had failed but who had actually shown up, to the guy who had been tested in the fires of failure and knew how much he needed to brace himself against his own fear.

Failure for Christ is not final. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14, ESV). But we do have to show up. We have to put ourselves in a position where success or failure are even options. Otherwise, not denying Christ doesn't mean we're faithful, just that we haven't even tried.