Monday, May 20, 2019

Helping Lex Luthor Send His Dad to Prison

Suggested Reading: 2 Kings 5

In the television series Smallville, before Lex Luthor became a full-fledged villain, he tried to take down his dad for murder. Clark Kent had witnessed some things that would help convict the elder Luthor but Lex was worried he would not appear to testify because Lex and Clark had gotten into a fight. When Clark showed up to testify, Lex tried to thank him but Clark rebuffed his gratitude saying, "I didn't do this for you." The implication was clear: Clark testified because putting Lionel Luthor in jail for murder was the right thing to do, not because Lex deserved his help.

In 2 Kings 5, the prophet Elisha helped to heal an Aramean soldier named Naaman. The soldier was immensely grateful and wanted to give Elisha a gift but the prophet refused to accept anything. As Naaman and his entourage left, Elisha's servant Gehazi watched them go without understanding the exchange. Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, the man of God, said to himself, “My master should not have let this Aramean get away without accepting any of his gifts. As surely as the Lord lives, I will chase after him and get something from him" (2 Kings 5:20, NLT). While Elisha was concerned with what accepting the gifts would say about God and his miracles, Gehazi was concerned about whether Naaman deserved to be healed without paying (and with getting something for himself).  The focus of each man was different and Gehazi simply didn't understand Elisha's mindset.

Quite often, we simply don't understand why in the world people do what they do. Why does he let her get away with that? Why doesn't she speak up for herself? Why won't he call her on her crap? Why won't she leave him? Every day we encounter people who act in ways that make no sense to us. Sometimes we are Elisha wondering rightfully how Gehazi could be so selfish but sometimes we are Gehazi, so wrapped up in our own desires and so focused on the wrong things that we miss motivations that should be obvious. Lex should have known Clark would show up because it was the right thing to do. And Gehazi should have known Elisha would never accept a gift for performing a miracle of God.

When we just don't get why people are acting the way they are, there is probably an angle we haven't considered. Before we go off about how unreasonable or unrealistic someone is, we should first consider our own mindset to make sure we're not acting like a Gehazi.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Secret Popularity Contests and Worthless Conversations

Suggested Reading: 2 Timothy 2

I once served as a substitute teacher for first grade. One of the required supplies for the class was a handheld whiteboard that the kids could use to do scratch work and play with when all of their assignments were finished. While I was helping guide some of the students through an assignment, I noticed another student sneaking around with his whiteboard. When I went to investigate, I discovered the names of two students had been written down and there were hash marks beside each name. The student had been taking a secret vote to see which of his fellow students was the most well liked. I immediately erased the board and told the sneaky surveyor that voting just to see which student was more popular was only going to hurt somebody's feelings. A sheepish grin from the student told me that the student understood perfectly and it might have even been the intent.

As adults, and especially as Christian adults, we like to think we have grown beyond petty exercises which serve only to hurt people but the truth is that often we have only become less honest and more sophisticated about it. The self-proclaimed "theologians" among us tend to be the worst but almost all of us are guilty of it. We begin a "discussion" on a controversial topic just to get a rise out of people. We post our "enlightened" opinion on Facebook hoping someone will disagree with us so that we can feel superior and have a chance to "teach." We bring up something terrible another person has done, knowing (and probably hoping) it will lead to everyone badmouthing someone we should have forgiven long ago. We fight over "theological" tenets that hold little, if any, practical value and end up taking sides and dividing our groups, churches, and denominations over them.

The Apostle Paul understood this very human tendency when he was advising Timothy on his pastoral ministry. In 2 Timothy chapter 2, Paul advised Timothy three different times not to engage in such discussions and to steer his people away from them and their dire consequences. In verse 14, Paul wrote, Remind everyone about these things, and command them in God’s presence to stop fighting over words. Such arguments are useless, and they can ruin those who hear them. Two verses later, he wrote,  Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. Then seven verses later Paul added, Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights (2 Timothy 2:14, 16, 23, NLT). 

When we engage in potentially dangerous conversations, we must ask ourselves two very important questions: 1) Why do I want to have this discussion? And 2) What will the likely consequences of this discussion be? If we only want to feel good about ourselves in comparison to someone else, to get an ego boost or put someone down, we should never even begin. If the conversation is more likely to lead to division and hurt feelings than to actually accomplish any good, we should never even begin. Some conversations never have happy endings. Some conversations only serve to benefit us at everyone else's expense. Those are the conversations we should avoid at all costs.Some difficult conversations must happen, but they should always be approached with wisdom and with love.

What conversation are you thinking of starting? Before you open your mouth, consider your motives and the consequences. Once the words are out, you likely won't get another chance.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Stopping Exploding Ferries of Wickedness

Suggested Reading: Proverbs 28:4-10

In The Dark Knight, there is an incredibly powerful scene involving a couple of ferries. The Joker has stranded two ferries out in the middle of the water and given the passengers of each ferry a detonator to blow up the other ferry, promising to blow them both up if no one has pushed the button by midnight. The Joker wants to prove that people are selfish and self centered but he also wants to use the ferries to distract Batman from coming after him and to throw the city into turmoil. Batman ignores the ferries, believing the people on those boats will choose to do the right thing, and focuses on taking down the Joker. The people on those boats do choose to do the right thing or, at least, not to do the wrong thing, and were a part of beating Joker at his own game.

There is a Proverb that speaks to that scene. Proverbs 28:4 says, To reject the law is to praise the wicked; to obey the law is to fight them (NLT). By simply doing the right thing, the people on those ferries were fighting back against the Joker, but that same dynamic can be seen throughout life. When people set up prejudicial rules that penalize people for existing, we can fight them by doing the right thing and refusing to treat people differently. When people seek to change the moral fabric of society by redefining right and wrong and painting those who disagree as bigots, we can fight them by living moral lives and loving those who would smear us. When people try to provoke us by stealing from us, cheating us, or lying about us, we can fight them and prove them wrong by refusing to stoop to their level and continuing to live lives of faith and righteousness.

When the wicked seem to win, it can be tempting to "fight fire with fire," but the nature of the fight means we can't win that way. Just as darkness can only be banished by turning on the light, wickedness can only be fought with righteous living. If someone has been attacking you or your family, don't give in to the temptation to fight them back on the same terms. Do the right thing. Fighting like the wicked only validates them, but righteous living will ultimately defeat them.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Christmas Hams and Farcical Worship

Suggested Reading: Mark 7:1-13

The story goes of a mom who was cooking a Christmas ham with her daughter. The daughter watched patiently as the mom prepared the ham and as she chopped of the front of the ham before putting it in the baking pan and placing it in the oven. The little girl asked her mom why she chopped off the front of the ham and mom admitted she wasn't sure but that grandma had always done that when she was a little girl. So mom called grandma to ask why you were supposed to chop off the front of the ham. Upon hearing the question grandma cracked up laughing and explained, "I chopped off the front of the ham because my baking pan was too small for the whole ham!" Mom had mistaken the way her mother did things for the way things had to be done.

In Mark chapter 7, we find another group of people who had gotten things a little mixed up. A group of scribes and Pharisees came down to see Jesus to examine him and determine whether or not they should support him. Their initial criticism of Jesus, however, had nothing to do with his teachings being wrong or with accusations that he was mistreating the poor or neglecting the widow or fatherless child. Their initial criticism was a question of why Jesus' disciples didn't follow the traditions of the elders and wash their hands before eating!

Now, I think we can all agree that washing your hands is a good thing to do but Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God' (Mark 7:6-7, NLT). While washing one's hands is certainly a good thing to do there is no command in scripture to wash your hands before you eat. That was a human idea - a good one to be sure, but still human - and these people were judging Jesus' disciples on it as if it were a command of God.

As followers of Jesus, we must make an effort to distinguish between our own ideas and those that come from scripture. Ideas like "drinking is a sin," or "God helps those who help themselves" are ideas that may have logical human reasons behind them but they can't be found anywhere in scripture and may in fact be contrary to scripture. We must have enough respect for God's Word to actually know God's Word -- to understand the difference between what it does say and what it doesn't say. When we start confusing the two and teaching or practicing our own ideas as God's word, our worship becomes a farce.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Dying Tigers, Red Skies and Miraculous Signs

Suggested Reading: Matthew 15:29-16:4

A while ago, my family and I went to see We Bought a Zoo at the theater. The movie is inspired by the true story of a journalist whose wife had died, leaving him to struggle to grieve and connect with his kids. Trying to start somewhere fresh, they buy a house that happens to come with a zoo attached. Through the course of the movie, Dad deals with an aging, dying tiger who, by all accounts needs to be put down but Dad doesn't want to accept it. So he keeps looking for other things, other explanations, anything to prevent him from putting the tiger to sleep. All along he knows what has to happen but simply chooses not to believe it. He doesn't want it to be true so he refuses to accept it, regardless of the evidence, at least for a time.

That dad would have found a kindred spirit in some of the Pharisees and scribes during Jesus's ministry. In Matthew 15, Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick and feeds four thousand people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. But in Matthew 16, immediately after the feeding, the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus and demand that he give them a sign. If I were Jesus, I would have said something like, "What do you think I've been doing? Do people heal the sick and feed thousands with next to nothing every day?" But Jesus answered them: “When evening comes you say, ‘It will be good weather because the sky is red. ’ And in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy because the sky is red and threatening. ’ You know how to read the appearance of the sky, but you can’t read the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then He left them and went away (Matthew 16:2-4, HCSB).

Now, God doesn't seem to have a problem with people asking for confirmation. He allowed Gideon to put out fleeces as a test to confirm God's instructions. In some places in scripture, God demands that people ask for a sign because he wants to confirm His word. So what is Jesus upset about? Well, any person who wanted to look honestly could have seen all the miracles Jesus was doing as the very signs they were looking for. But the Pharisees weren't interested in actually believing in Jesus. They asked for more evidence because they refused to believe the evidence in front of them.

What about you? What has God been trying to say to you that you are still "praying" about? Is there something you know God has called you to and you are seeking confirmation but you already know, deep down, exactly what God wants you to do? When we do that, when we know exactly what God is saying and refuse to believe, when we keep asking for confirmation or continued prayers for guidance about something God has already made clear to us, Jesus calls us a wicked and adulterous generation. Don't pretend a lack of understanding in order to avoid what God is saying to you. Stop stalling and obey God now. It will be a lot easier on you in the long run.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Stinky Trash Juice Principle

Suggested Reading: Matthew 15:10-20

I had a car once that I used to take trash to the dump. Behind the second row of seats was a carpeted storage area like you might find in an SUV or a station wagon. On one particular trip to the dump, one of the trash bags leaked some nasty smelling juice that soaked into the carpet and made the car stink to high heaven. I tried air fresheners and Febreeze but the stench always returned until the day I actually cleaned the carpet and got the last vestiges of that nasty trash juice removed. Only once the source of the smell was dealt with did the stench disappear.

In Matthew 15, Jesus responded to a group of Pharisees who were concerned about the washing habits of his disciples by calling a crowd together and telling the people that they were defiled by the things that came out of their mouths and not by what went into them. The concept was a foreign concept, even to Jesus's disciples, who were so confused by the statement they asked Jesus to explain the "parable." Jesus answered, “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you" (NLT, Matthew 15:17-20).

What Jesus was communicating was the Stinky Trash Juice Principle. When your life has a stench that comes out in the form of sinful behaviors and words, you can't eliminate the stench by trying to cover it up with rules and regulations that will make you more acceptable. Rather, those words and behaviors indicate that you have a heart problem and that stench (and those behaviors and words) will keep returning until the heart is cleaned out. If you have sinful habits, you can't change them with superficial behaviors; you have to eliminate the source of the habit: the stain on your heart. Whether you love the wrong things, you fear the wrong things, you trust the wrong things or you have unforgiveness toward someone who hurt you, those heart conditions must be dealt with.

If you find yourself repeating the same sins over and over again, creating a new set of rules for yourself isn't going to help the problem. Creating rules is like hanging up an air freshener but never cleaning the carpet. Rather, search your heart. Determine where the behavior is coming from and seek God's guidance is fixing your heart problem. Don't cover up the stench in your life. Remove its source.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Batman, the Righteous Prostitute

Suggested Reading: Genesis 38

One of the compelling elements of superhero stories is the contradiction inherent in a person who illegally acts as a vigilante in order to fight crime and seek justice. Batman is a great example. Often chased by the police for his vigilante activity, Batman is also the only means of defeating many of the super-villains who attack Gotham City. In some tellings, Batman works with the police but it is often a secret relationship because Batman's work is technically illegal. Technically, Batman is breaking the law but he is trying to do the best he can in a desperate world.

In Genesis 38, Judah, one of the twelve sons of Israel, has three sons. His oldest marries a woman named Tamar but then dies. In accordance with the Old Testament laws of levirite marriage, Judah's second son also marries Tamar. But when the second son dies, Judah puts off giving his youngest son to Tamar, afraid the woman is a jinx. When Tamar realizes Judah is not going to follow through with his obligations of providing his youngest son as her husband, she dresses up as a prostitute and positions herself where she knows Judah will pass. Judah encounters her, propositions her, seals the deal, and then goes on his way, never realizing that he slept with his daughter-in-law. When Tamar shows up pregnant, Judah is furious and wants to have her executed for adultery. But when she provides evidence that she is pregnant with Judah's child, he changes his tone. He proclaims, "She is more righteous than I am, because I didn't arrange for her to marry my son Shelah" (Genesis 38:26, NLT).

At times, we see people in their sin and we want to pass judgment on them. A man leaves his wife and we want to judge him for infidelity or for giving up on his marriage. We see a young woman get pregnant out of wedlock and we want to label her as easy or promiscuous. Our child comes home from school with a note about the disturbance they created in P.E. and we want to jump all over them for being a problem child. And while the things these people have done are wrong, we rarely know when they are only doing something wrong because they don't know how to make a bad situation any better otherwise. Maybe that man is leaving because his wife is abusive (I've known a few). Maybe that young woman was trying to avoid losing the only man who ever showed her any positive attention. Maybe that child was defending himself from kids who know how to strike when the teacher isn't looking. Maybe they're all just being selfish. But maybe they have reasons.

The point is that we never know why people make the decisions they do. We never know if we would do the same thing - or something worse - if we were put in their place. So we should avoid judging people just because they do something wrong. Maybe they are just making bad choices. But maybe they are just desperate and need our help and prayers more than our condemnation. Their reasons never make the actions right but we should take a look at their circumstances before we start bringing the hammer down on people who mess up. After all, we can all wind up desperate.

Helping Lex Luthor Send His Dad to Prison

Suggested Reading: 2 Kings 5 In the television series Smallville, before Lex Luthor became a full-fledged villain, he tried to take down...