Thursday, May 26, 2022

"We Survived But We're Dead!"

Suggested Reading: Mark 4:35-41

One of the few kid's movies I don't mind watching over and over again (when my children insist) is the cartoon superhero movie, The Incredibles. If you are familiar with the movie, there is a scene where superhero mom, Elastigirl, has taken a jet to figure out what kind of trouble her husband, Mr. Incredible, has gotten himself into. She discovers not long before a pair of missiles take out her jet that two of her super-powered children are on the jet with her. As the missiles destroy the jet, she covers them with her elastic body and then puffs out into a parachute shape so that they can float safely to the surface of the ocean below.

When they have safely landed on the waves, her super-speedy little boy, Dash, begins going hysterical and delivers perhaps my favorite line of the movie. "We're dead! We're dead! We survived but we're dead!" In spite of the fact that all three of them have super-powers and have survived a missile attack on their jet, the boy immediately jumps to the worst case scenario and proclaims their doom.

Believe it or not, there is a very similar scene in the Bible. Jesus has been doing miracle after miracle, healing the sick, casting out demons, and outwitting the schemes of the Pharisees. One day, when he has finished teaching, Jesus and his disciples take a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee and Jesus lays down to take a nap. While Jesus is asleep, a storm blows in, a storm so bad that even these experienced fishermen who are familiar with this particular area and its storms are frightened. The waves are crashing against the boat and the vessel is taking on water and so they run to Jesus and wake him up from his nap, crying out, "Teacher! Don't you care that we're going to die?" (Mark 4:38 HCSB).

Now notice, the disciples didn't come to him and say, "Jesus, we could use your help bailing out the water," or "Jesus, could you pray that the storm lightens up?" or "Jesus, the storm is really bad and we could use your help." They came to Jesus crying out, "We're going to die!" So Jesus, as he is still waking up, rebukes the wind and the waves and calms the storm. Then he turns to the disciples and says, "Why are you fearful? Do you still have no faith?" (Mark 4:40). Now, granted, this had to have been a pretty bad storm to scare the disciples like it did because they were all used to the storms on the Sea of Galilee. But their reaction to the storm was to jump to the worst possible conclusion and panic. "Teacher! Don't you care that we're dying?"

How often, when faced with terrible circumstances, are we guilty of the very same thing? How often when things go wrong do we immediately jump to the worst possible outcome and panic? How often do we cry gloom and doom rather than trusting the God who, even though he might not choose to remove the circumstances, is still capable of saving us? Jesus rebuked the disciples not because they were understandably nervous about a bad storm, but because their doom and gloom reaction demonstrated a lack of faith in God.

What does your reaction to frightening circumstances say about your faith? When trouble strikes, is your tendency to spout doom and gloom? Or do you remain rooted in the faith that God is capable of saving, even in the worst circumstances? Is your standard reaction, "We survived but we're dead!"? Or "My dad's a superhero. What's the worst that could happen?"

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Witnessing With Puppy Love Potions

Suggested Reading: Mark 4:13-29

One of my children's favorite fairytale movies is the recent Snow White movie Mirror, Mirror. In this particular telling of the classic fairy-tale, the Evil Queen decides that she wants to marry the handsome prince and she gives him a love potion in order to bring it about. If you have seen trailers for the movie, you already know that she doesn't just give him a love potion, but accidentally gives him a puppy love potion and he begins barking and scratching and fetching and following her around like a little lost puppy dog. Of course, as in all such fairy-tales, the spell is broken and the prince's true affections for Snow White win out. (I hope I didn't just ruin the movie for anyone, but that is what happens in fairy-tales.)

While the Evil Queen's plan is both funny and sad, her attempt to force the prince to love her is often very similar to how we can approach  witnessing to people. Often we want people to be saved so badly, we are so desperate for someone to give their life to Jesus, that we poke and prod and annoy and interfere and bug people as if we can force them to love Jesus. I once knew a young man who was pondering giving his life to Jesus and we had a number of conversations about what Heaven would be like and what it would mean for Jesus to be Lord in one's life. We had some very positive discussions where he seemed to be moving closer and closer to following Christ. But there was another lady in this young man's life who just kept pushing him and forcing the issue as if she could make him love Jesus by the sheer force of her will. Inevitably, after every conversation that this woman forced on him, he was more resistant to the idea of following Christ.

In Mark 4, Jesus told a very short parable about the kingdom of God. He said, "The kingdom of God is like this. A man scatters seed on the ground; he sleeps and rises--night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows--he doesn't know how. The soil produces a crop by itself--first the blade, then the head, and then the ripe grain on the head. But as soon as the crop is ready, he sends for the sickle because the harvest has come" (Mark 4:26-29, HCSB). At this point, Jesus is in a set of parables where the seed being sown is the Word of God. The seed is sown and, in this case, Jesus points out that it grows all by itself. We can't get down into the soil of someone's life and force the seed to grow, it just does -- all by itself.

We are reminded all throughout scripture about the power of the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (NIV). Isaiah 55:11 reminds us "so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (NIV). God's Word is powerful enough on its own to work and poke and prod people from the inside. Our responsibility is to share God's Word with people, to water that seed as it works in them and produces questions and conflicts that God will use to shape and change them. But we must guard against those instincts and tendencies that make us want to force people to love Jesus. We can't ever force someone to believe or to surrender to God's love.  Love and belief simply don't work that way. But the Word of God is living and active and powerful enough to pull the strings of people's hearts and to persuade people's minds of truth all by itself.

God has called us to sow the seed of his word, to water it and to harvest when the time comes. But God's Word grows in a person's heart all by itself. Let's not harm the seed in someone's life by trying to force it to grow.

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.

"We Survived But We're Dead!"

Suggested Reading: Mark 4:35-41 One of the few kid's movies I don't mind watching over and over again (when my children insist) i...