Church in Bethesda Blog
Let the Lenten Season Launch!
Well, I can’t say that Lent snuck up on me. I guess I just wasn’t thinking far enough ahead to be prepared or Ash Wednesday this week. Last night when it really hit me that today was the Lenten kickoff, I wasn’t ready with any clear thoughts on fasting or what I may do this season.
Thankfully, as many can tell you, Lent is not just about fasting. It is a season of fasting, but also of repentance, penance, prayer and reflection. We are asked to take a forty day journey of the soul, much as Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days before a face-to-face time of temptation with the Accuser and the beginning of his public ministry. We are asked to look ahead to Easter’s meaning, to Easter’s beginning, and make ourselves ready. A journey is before us.
So what is Easter’s meaning? What might begin in me this year at Easter? What might begin in you? What might begin in us? These are the kind of questions last Lenten fasting, prayer and reflection will deepen in us.
Will I fast from something this Lent? Yes, I will. I can’t help myself. I love the ritual and the call to exercise self-control and mastery over myself. Will I fast perfectly? Probably not. As much as I might enjoy them, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with self-control and mastery of self. But I’ll give it all I have, and believe that God will handle the rest. I will say this… if you choose a Lenten fast, make it something you’ll miss. Make it something that will create a void, a space in your life, and fill that space with your prayers and reflections.
That space we’re creating in our lives is really the point of Lent, not the making of the space. Any fast we undertake is a vehicle, not the destination. So as you consider Lent and a possible fast this year, think of where you want be come Easter morning with that internal journey. With a course set, then prayerfully roll on.
Is setting the course a bit of challenge? Take the day today to reflect and pray. Ask a friend. Make a list. Start your fast tonight or tomorrow morning. It’s not about the legalities of the fast, but about making that space for God’s greater movement in you and then through you into the world.
May your Lenten Season, your internal journey, prayers, reflections and even your fasting be richly blessed as God gives you grace and challenge in the next forty days!
With all peace, Todd
Oh, Be Careful Little Lips What You Say!
“Oh, Be Careful Little Lips What You Say!”
Biblical Foundations for Civility in Discourse
Talking about civil discourse has been an undercurrent at CiB for a couple of years now. Our tagline on the website says, “…followers of Christ, good neighbors in the world…” The idea behind that identifying statement is a focus of seeking God and seeking life through the person of Jesus Christ, and therein becoming the best neighbors anyone could have. We believe that our being Christians should directly benefit our neighbors. In our daily discourse, it means that Christians should be the safest people to talk with, even in moments of disagreement. Though followers of Christ may in fact hold very strong convictions about a range of topics, we are taught to conduct ourselves in ways that will support the dignity of all people around us.
Our scriptures give us very clear instructions on how our discourse is to be shaped. The question that we each face in our own lives is to what extent we are willing to be transformed by the scriptural witness. Too many times we allow our desires for winning arguments and establishing dominant positions within our culture to override the biblical voice. Or maybe it’s a fear that we are somehow changed ourselves when we are not exercising cultural dominance? Whether from fear or for competing desires, we too often use negative tactics in our speech and actions that do not help our message, but render it ineffectual and unheard.
Did you ever sing, “Oh, be careful little lips what you say! Oh, be careful little lips what you say! For our father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little lips what you say!” If you grew up in a church, you probably did. It’s one the great “adult hypocrisies” perpetrated on our children that we instruct them from a very young age that they should not “call people names” and should watch what they say. The hypocrisy is that we are in fact reserving the right of name calling and general verbal naughtiness as an adult pleasure. How do we so completely forget the lessons of our childhood?
If you wonder about some of my wording as I reference passages, I am reading from the New Living Translation, Today’s New International Version, and the New Revised Standard translations as I write.
What I’d like to do in this first section is to explore some passages about our discourse as people of faith: Matthew 5:21-26, Ephesians 4:22-5:5, Colossians 3:1-17.
Matthew 5:21-26. Christ truly sets the bar high with this teaching on discourse. Admittedly, it’s an interesting and sometimes difficult passage to understand, but probably only because we so enjoy calling one another fools. The passage we normally call “The Sermon on the Mount” is challenging in its use of hyperbole and its higher calling to ethical and moral behavior, but we shouldn’t let the message be lost because we wonder sincerely if we can live it! Most of us would agree that murder cannot be condoned. But we do love name calling. Of course we most enjoy the insults when we’re not on the receiving end. When Jesus speaks in a way that places murder, anger and insult on rather equal footing we immediately move to figure out “what Jesus really means.” In other words, we want to keep murder murder, and leave the others in a more accessible position for our use. We really hate to think that we can’t call someone a fool. And we feel far too often justified in offering insults to give up that easily.
But Jesus makes it hard to dismiss his injunction against our verbal abuses. He goes further by placing reconciliation with another person above obligations of worship and even places the burden of reconciliation completely on our own shoulders when a problem is perceived: you go quickly and make amends.
So, what happens to make us so comfortable with sharing insulting and demeaning slander? How does online gossip and slander come to be shared and forwarded by Christians every day? Yes, I’m talking about mean-spirited gossipy emails and demeaning pictures on Facebook. (Really, who doesn't know by now that Snopes.com will let you know that the email and picture is fake?) What raises our comfort level for calling someone a fool? Is it a feeling of righteous indignation? If so, then we allow our feelings of righteous indignation to cause us to act in unrighteous ways. When we allow ourselves to begin issuing insults and indulging in name calling, we break with the will of Christ for our behavior.
Ephesians 4:22-5:5. We are taught that Christ is a mitigating presence and influence in our daily lives. Because of what Christ has done and shared with us, a “new self” is created which operates in new ways. This passage is beautiful in it’s way of not just pointing out behaviors which are to change but it also points to deeper things in us that should be rejected.
Behaviors that should change are things like stealing, lying (speaking falsely), and an emphasis should be placed on dealing with anger (instead of just simmering) and sharing with those need. But at the root of our behaviors are the interior things that we remove as listed in verse 29: bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander and malice. We live not to grieve God’s Spirit; we live to fulfill Christ-like kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
No where in such a passage is there a place for the “Angry Christian” who lashes out at a neighbor, insults and demeans a political opponent, or speaks to destroy instead of building up. Paul gives us an expectation of those things being left behind as the “old way of life.” And this Christian is definitely not giving up something of the vital essence of being a Christian! Their own thoughts, beliefs, and convictions are very much intact. It is that very mitigating presence of Christ which gives us the ability to speak and act so differently, so positively and constructively.
Colossians 3:1-17. This is one of my favorite New Testament passages. I love the continued imagery of new life, or a “raised life” in this specific instance. This raised life is one that would “rise above” darker movements of the human soul: anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying. In the place of these things we are to choose a better set of internal movements: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love.
Once again we are presented with a clear picture of a person who leaves behind the darker negativity to live in brighter world of positive drives and goals. And look at the way the last verses of this passage present a picture of how the Christian message spreads: Christ’s peace ruling your heart + Christ’s message dwelling in you = teaching and admonishing with thankfulness!
What a beautiful way to imagine our participation with God in this world! And it must be the only way that we can continually speak and act in the name of the Lord in all things with an abiding thankfulness as expressed in verse 17. Once a desire for insulting and degrading another person is given power in our life we break with the idea of a “ruling peace” and an “indwelling message.” That kind of peace and message are incompatible with the anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying of the previous verses.
Too often I have heard Christians retaliate in harsh and insulting language when they feel attacked or demeaned in some way, or when they just don’t like what someone says. It’s very human to want to retaliate or “fight fire with fire” as we sometimes say. I can’t help but think of Bugs Bunny drawling, “Of course you know, this means war!”
Next come some passages about suffering as a Christian. While I honestly don’t think any of us in America are “suffering” anything for our faith as others have in the past or as some of our sisters and brothers around the world are at this moment, it’s still a good exercise to review them: Luke 6:27-31, 1 Peter 3:8-17, 1 Peter 4:12-19.
Luke 6:27-31. I wonder what Jesus would think of Western Christianity’s lack of seriousness to deal with this passage. I fear we’ve basically followed the lead of popular culture and allowed the “turning of the other cheek” to be little more than a standing joke. We’ve allowed it to mean only meekness in the event of a physical attack upon our person, and we’ve rejected the teaching in daily practice. Do we really think that Jesus isn’t serious about his followers being a group of people who do not respond in hatred, even to attackers? Jesus was speaking to an audience in a politically charged time. That audience knew exactly who the enemy was: Rome. And if Romans weren’t handy that day, there were other still other enemies to fight, there always are. Jesus stands up and declares love for the enemy and a repudiation of revenge. Gutsy.
By the way, I submit that we have rejected this in daily practice because it seems Western Christians are indistinguishable from any other group in our country vying for their own rights and retaliating against any perceived insult, slight or even genuine attack. We show too little out of the ordinary in our behavior when insulted or slapped; we go on the war path. I often hear Christians bemoaning the idea that Christianity is the only religion open to attack and insult in America. They feel that all other religions are defended while insults and attacks on our own are condoned. In the case of such perceived imbalance and unfairness they feel justified to “fight back.” But fighting back is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is directing us toward. The truth might be that Christianity is tailor made to be the only religion it’s ok to attack, because our Lord has taught us not to retaliate. Tough luck, huh?
So, what if we didn’t retaliate? What if we turned a cheek, offered a coat, and demanded nothing back when we feel someone has taken advantage of us? If you read a few verses on in Luke 6 you will see that we would actually fall into a promise of reward from God. In other words, not having earned or defended what we value and own, we make a space for God to do bigger and greater things for us.
We are invited and called into an opportunity to break the cycle of only love for love and hate for hate. Repaying hate with love introduces the seed of transformation in ourselves and the world.
1 Peter 3:8-17. I bet you think I’m going to jump immediately on verse 9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”While this is a nice verse that speaks directly to issue at hand, I rather prefer verse 11, “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Verse 11 seems to present a foundational idea: we are about peace in this life. Such a thought may not always be compatible with competing ideas of a contemporary “culture war” and its messages of conflict, combat and triumph.
And yet this passage from Peter so completely supports an active understanding and application of the teaching of Jesus in Luke 6. What if we refuse to repay evil for evil and insult for insult? We become inheritors of a blessing. According to the latter half of verse 9 we open the door for God’s work in us and God’s blessing of our lives. Maybe if we stopped fighting for what we believe we need or are entitled to receive, we’ll actually allow God the space needed to bless us with what we really do need. Seems worth a shot to me.
1 Peter 4:12-19. Whoa. It’s almost like Peter must have hung out with Jesus. Oh, wait…. that’s right. He did. And so Peter has an amazing perspective to share with us on the question of suffering, having witnessed what Christ voluntarily submitted himself to experience and then sharing the trials of the earliest followers. Out of all that experience he counsels Christ followers to commit themselves to God and keep on doing good. That’s the plan, and we’ve seen that it’s a plan with a promise attached to it as well, an inherited blessing of God.
One of my favorite things to say about today’s highly publicized “culture war” is that there isn’t a war if we choose not to fight. To combative Christians who are charged up to fight for what’s theirs and regularly defame, insult and attack their enemies to achieve that goal, this sounds like defeat. It sounds like surrender. But I contend that to the ears of a person watching for the promised blessing of God, having devoted themselves to doing good and pursuing peace as called for in 1 Peter 3, it can sound like a beautiful submission to the ruling peace and indwelling message of Colossians 3. It all seems to fit together. We are called to repudiate the shameful tactics of hatred, slander and malice, and we are called to embrace a stance of kindness, concern, love and forgiveness, even in times of persecution, opposition and disagreement.
At times like this, when thinking about the fact that I have not only have committed myself to answer the call of Christ personally, but I have also given myself vocationally and professionally to the call of Christ as a pastor and spiritual friend, I can only echo the prayer of the earliest followers, “Lord, increase my faith!” I don’t know how well I will live up to this call. I know I have failed many times. But I want it. I need it.
Summing It Up
Finally, there is the entire chapter of Romans 12. I’ll end on this passage, even though it could have been included in either of the two sections above. We’ve really only scratched the surface of these passages. Romans12 is a great treatise on empathy and redirection. We are taught in Romans 12 to put aside insincerity and falseness to better position ourselves to be what another person needs us to be. Thank about that in light of the ministry, life and death of Christ. Can we live our lives in such a way that we are what others need us to be? We could mourn with the mourning, share with those in need, shun the ways of evil and embrace the harmony, forgive and feed. What a vision of life! What a great alternative to fighting a “culture war.”
Oh, but wait! There’s the whole “burning coals” part! Man, we like that! And it is true that having an enemy come to your help in a moment of need can be like having hot coals poured over your head. But since we are reminded in an earlier verse that we are to love sincerely, we obviously cannot take joy in the discomfort of our enemies, and it’s not Paul’s intent to make us laugh at their discomfort. Another person’s discomfort is not the goal.
We are pursuers of peace. We are called to embrace a scriptural concept of “overcoming evil with good.” And that will look appreciably different than the Angry Western Christian who “fights fire with fire,” and who believes that an insult match can be won in righteousness.
With all peace, Todd
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