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Friday, February 7, 2020

Poor Little Rich People

    Came across yet another Christian pundit scratching his head and trying to explain what went wrong with America. How could a culture so grounded in biblical values do such a u-turn to become one of the most secular communities ever, promoting entertainment and sexual freedom above all else?

    What happened? Where did Christianity fail? As with other pundits, he tries to pinpoint the key decisions and events that took us down the wrong path. If only church leaders had said and done just the right thing at just the right time, all this could have been prevented. If we had only trained up our youth in just the right way, they would all have remained faithful to God.

    Got news for you, guys: This is normal. This is how human beings respond to prosperity. It happens every time. There is no prevention, no cure. Affluence leads to arrogance and the illusion of self-sufficiency and to more time and opportunity to indulge in our lusts. We then abandon God’s ways for what we think will be the much more pleasurable ways of man.

    Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24, emphases added). This concept isn’t just true of individuals; it’s true of nations. Wealthy countries rarely follow God.

    In addition to Jesus’ teaching, we have the Old Testament record. The Israelites went through multiple cycles of being obedient to God, becoming affluent, rebelling against Him, losing their abundance as a result of His judgment, and returning to obedience. In ancient Greece and Rome, prosperity led to abandoning the values that gave them their strength in favor of pleasure and corruption, which triggered the collapse of their cultures. Money also tends to become concentrated in the hands of the few, who neglect or oppress the majority as their greed and pride blind their eyes to other people’s needs. In the end, great riches produce suffering, not utopia.

    Why don’t we as Westerners recognize this fact? Somewhere back in our history, we bought into the ideas that humans are smart enough to solve all the problems in the world and that material abundance is the highest goal, providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We dove wholeheartedly into the project of creating paradise on earth.

    Science was our biggest hope. New discoveries and inventions would cure all our diseases and provide all the physical goods every human being could ever need. I think it was C. S. Lewis who observed that one of the obstacles to preaching the gospel in the early twentieth century was the belief that modern medicine would soon conquer death. Why worry about the next life if this one was going to last forever?

    Even today, most Americans think that more money means a happier, more fulfilling life. Never mind the endless stories of those who have it all and yet feel empty. The alcoholism, the drug addiction, the suicides among the wealthiest. The lack of long-term, meaningful relationships.

     In Proverbs 30:8, Agur prays, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” Americans recognize the obvious—poverty leads to suffering. But we’ve missed the boat in thinking that riches will solve all our problems. Both lead to worse conditions than we experience when we have just enough.

    Making things more complicated, following God faithfully often leads to greater affluence. Under the Old Covenant, this link was made explicit, as many of the promises in that agreement involved material blessings (for example, Deuteronomy 28:2-13). God clearly said, “Obey Me, and I will give you a good life on this earth.”

    He also set up the world so that those who submit to His values will be more likely to succeed. Lying and cheating and stealing might have their temporary advantages, but people who frequently resort to these tactics earn a reputation for not being trustworthy. When others don’t trust you, it’s harder to get ahead.

    Some young people would point out that many actors and musicians succeed because they flaunt God’s standards for sexual purity and sobriety in their lives and their roles and their lyrics. They think anyone can follow this same path and get the same results. But these celebrities are an extremely small percentage of the overall population, who happen to be incredibly talented. They’re the rare exceptions, not the rule.

    In addition, a biblical lifestyle contributes to better physical and emotional health, increasing earnings and reducing expenses. Those who are committed to loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) will avoid drunkenness, addictive drugs, smoking, overeating, sexual immorality, and taking foolish risks just for the thrill of it. They will build strong, loving relationships with each other and support each other through the tough times. They’ll learn to trust God more and more, instead of stressing out over the cares of this world.

    Western wealth is a direct result of our Christian heritage. But self-centered materialism is a result of that wealth. And meaningless lives are a result of that materialism. Just as Israel’s initial faithfulness to God ultimately led to their abandoning Him.

    The decline may be inevitable, but maybe we’re being too critical and too negative. Maybe the behavior of previous leaders and previous generations delayed the process in ways that we don’t recognize. One example: My generation assumed that marijuana would be legalized in this country by the end of the 1970s. Forty years later, it’s just beginning to happen, state by state. Was the unavoidable postponed by the behind-the-scenes prayers and actions of Christians? Can my prayers and actions today have a greater impact than those pessimistic pundits seem to expect?

Friday, January 17, 2020

What am I to Do?

    Sitting down to plan my lessons for the next week. Tuesday’s the big day, the day my supervisor will observe me during fourth hour. Better prepare a good presentation. She can be very difficult to please, and her evaluation could affect my entire career.

    Spending hours crafting the perfect lesson for that period. No energy left to think too deeply about the one that follows. Instead, scribbling a note in my Plan Book to do an informal activity that allows the children to make more independent choices. I rarely do that with this group because they don’t handle freedom very well.

    Tuesday rolls around, fourth period begins. I give a great performance. But my supervisor doesn’t show up.

    This isn’t the first time this has happened. I assume she’ll call me after school is out to reschedule, as she’s always done before. But no. I’m gathering the materials for fifth period when she walks in.

    I know the informal activity will challenge my kids’ self-control. And I know that the awareness that they’re being watched will make it even worse. I can’t do it. They would lose it, and I would pay the price.

    Unlike many of my fellow teachers, I’m not good at improvising. But I’ve had a lesson brewing in my mind for the last few weeks. A unique way to teach a basic concept that should work well with this particular group. Taking a deep breath and gritting my teeth, I plunge in, making it up off the top of my head. Tense, anxious, nervous, angry with my supervisor, it’s not one of my best presentations. But it’s okay. It’s got some real strong points.

    The children leave. My supervisor sits down with me to review my performance. And tears me to shreds. She picks up on my legitimate weaknesses, but that’s only the beginning. She warps my words. She takes them out of context. She reads them back to me in a sarcastic tone of voice.

    I’d once heard that in a situation like this it’s not a good idea to nod your head or murmur m-hm, as I would normally do just to show her that I’m listening. It’s better to say, “I hear you,” than to appear to be agreeing with her.

    For fifteen minutes, until my next group of students walks in, my supervisor lobs one inaccurate accusation after another. I try to keep the anger and rebellion from showing in my eyes. People who openly disagree with her have been known to either resign suddenly or be subjected to ongoing torment. As calmly as I can, I repeat, “I hear you.”

    The school day ends with my head on my desk, sobs shaking my body, tears cascading down my face. The following weeks are spent in overwhelming apathy. My assignment for next fall will leave me under the same supervisor while separating me from the most supportive teachers that I know. I don’t think I could handle it. I turn in my resignation as I walk out the door at the end of the year.

    This all happened decades ago, and I think I made the right decision in leaving that position. As far as I could tell, I was following God’s leading. But lately I’ve wondered: When I’m in a difficult situation like this job, should I take the opposition as a sign that it’s God’s will for me to leave, or as an indication that Satan is trying to lure me away from the place where God wants me to be?

    We Americans are so saturated with the prosperity gospel, it’s easy for even the most dedicated, most biblical Christians to assume that God wants us to be happy. When circumstances become too disagreeable, we often take that as His hint that we should be looking for a way out.

    Sometimes He’s used an irritating environment to wake me up as I’m cruising along on autopilot. Sometimes I’ve stayed in a job or a ministry or a church longer than He intended because it’s comfortable, because it’s familiar, because I don’t like change. The only way the Lord has gotten my attention and pointed me in a new direction is by disturbing my peace, by introducing problems that get me thinking about other options.

    But I have this tendency to think that suffering is always a sign that I’m not in God’s will. Do I detect a toxic atmosphere at work, at church, in any other organization that I’m involved with? Must be time to head out. Am I being asked to do something unpleasant, something beyond my obvious strengths? God must not want me here anymore.

    Is it really time to leave? Or is it time to minister to those who are causing the difficulties? Time to love those who hate me (Matthew 5:44). Time to return good for evil (Romans 12:17). Maybe even time to be used by God to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

    What kind of difference would it make in our divided nation if we as Christians turned from the assumption that God wants us to be happy to the possibility that He wants us to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)? How countercultural could I be if I endured the toxic environment, praying for, and extending grace to, those difficult people who desperately need it?

    It would take a certain spiritual maturity. I suspect that one reason why God led me out from under my supervisor’s thumb was because I didn’t have the spiritual strength to handle her personality wisely and well. Have I developed that strength in the intervening years?

    As I’ve grown in my walk with Christ, my sensitivity to His leading has improved. But this is one area where I can find myself floundering. My will, my inclination, my desire is to avoid suffering. If it hurts, God wants me to leave. Doesn’t He? But maybe, just maybe, that pain is the best indication that I’m right where God wants me to be, and Satan is the one who wants me to go.

Friday, December 27, 2019

My Favorite Prophet

    Everyone in the Bible messes up. Absolutely everyone (except Jesus, of course). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Peter, John, Paul. That’s one reason I love this book so much. I can relate to these people. They lie. They cheat. They argue with God. And yet He loves them and He uses them to do mighty things.

    One of those mighty things happened when Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings chapter 18. Israel was following the lead of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and his wife, in worshipping an idol called Baal. Jezebel had killed many of God’s prophets. Ahab considered Elijah his enemy because Elijah confronted him with the truth.

    In hopes of turning Israel back to the Lord, Elijah proposed a contest. All the people were invited to watch. Each side (Elijah versus the 450 prophets of Baal) would prepare a sacrifice, then ask their god to prove his existence and his power by sending down fire from heaven to consume it.

    Baal’s prophets went first. They begged and pleaded, they shouted and danced and slashed themselves with swords and spears. Hours passed. “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

    Elijah’s turn came. He prepared his sacrifice, then drenched it with water. After a simple prayer, “The fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” Quite the victory. The people believed. But Ahab and his wife remained as firmly opposed to God and Elijah as ever.

    In chapter 19, when Jezebel threatened to kill him within 24 hours, Elijah was understandably frightened. She’d murdered many other prophets. Besides, this wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d just demonstrated the reality of the God of Israel and the helplessness of Baal. How could the most powerful people in the country continue to defy the Lord?

    Maybe it was the realization of the depth of the evil residing in Ahab and Jezebel that scared Elijah so much. He ran for his life. And he showed many of the symptoms of depression: anxiety, isolating himself, giving up, longing to die, self-pity.

    I can relate to this. I’ve never experienced the same kind of spectacular public victory as Elijah witnessed at the top of Mount Carmel. But I’ve been with him in the pits of depression. Anxious. Alone. Apathetic. Suicidal. Feeling sorry for myself. Wallowing in guilt and shame. Unable to face a righteous and perfect God.

    How could He ever want me, love me, welcome me into His arms? Surely He must be so disappointed and disgusted with me that He’d walk away and leave me to face my demons alone.

    But how did God respond to Elijah’s depression? With judgment? With condemnation? Did He give up on him and choose someone more worthy to take his place?

    No. He sent an angel to feed him, satisfying his hunger and giving him strength. Twice.

    After Elijah had traveled for an additional 40 days, God asked him what he was doing. Elijah expressed his self-pity, his loneliness, his fear. Pretty bad. God’s followers aren’t supposed to act this way. Where was his faith? The Lord had done wonders in defeating Baal. Had Elijah already forgotten that? Shouldn’t God be good and mad at this point?

    Maybe He should have been, but He wasn’t. Instead of abandoning a struggling servant, He provided a personal encounter. First there was a wind so powerful it shattered rocks. Second, an earthquake. Third, a fire. These are all symbols associated with judgment in the Bible. But God wasn’t in any of them. He wasn’t judging Elijah.

    Last came a "gentle whisper.” Elijah knew that this whisper was from the Lord. He was emotionally exhausted, questioning God, and doubting himself. The Lord knew that what he needed more than anything else was compassionate understanding and encouragement. A gentle whisper, not a roaring flame.

    This was how He responded to Elijah in his depressed state. This was how He responded to me when I was suffering from depression. No literal gentle whisper, but a vivid reassurance of His presence and His love.

    God again asked Elijah what he was doing. Did he say, “I get it now. I’ve had this incredible encounter with You. Thanks for setting me straight”? No. Astonishingly, he repeated the exact same words that he’d used earlier to express his self-pity, loneliness, and fear. Just as I often turned back from a moment of experiencing His joy and peace to the relentless darkness of depression. Surely God would give up on him at this point.

    But He didn’t. Instead, He entrusted Elijah with three tasks: anointing Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as his own successor. Sometimes, when someone is depressed, having something constructive to do can help. But the timing has to be right. God had just given Elijah a taste of His compassion. That had to come first. Now His prophet had the spiritual strength to get back into the world of people and be more active again.

    His words also reassured Elijah in several ways. The Lord made it clear that He is in control of all that exists, even the rulers of other nations. He reminded Elijah that evil King Ahab was mortal and would not always reign over Israel. He indicated that He would soon fulfill Elijah’s desire to be free of the burden of his role as a prophet. And He informed him that he was not alone—the Lord had thousands of faithful followers. With this encounter, Elijah was ready to go back to work.

    Maybe it’s not so much that Elijah is my favorite prophet, but that God’s interaction with Elijah is my favorite biblical illustration of His response to depression. God did for Elijah all the things that helped me so much when I was depressed. No judgment. No rebuke. Instead, great tenderness and understanding and patience and encouragement.

    That’s why I’m alive. That’s why I’m still here. That’s why I didn’t become just another statistic. Just another young suicide.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Christmas Joy

    Jesus suffered. He was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He went through intense pain on the cross. He was forsaken by God as He hung there, bearing the full weight of all the sins of the entire world. (Matthew 26:36-46, 27:46; Psalm 22:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:21) I get that.

    But I tend to minimize any other difficulties in His life up to that point. I know that He wept when Lazarus died (John 11:35). It hurt. Jesus felt it and He showed it. Was this the only time that He cried in front of others? My inclination is to think that it was a unique event. But why do I assume that? Maybe there were other examples of His expressing Himself in tears that aren’t recorded in the Bible.

    I imagine that the rejection Jesus experienced in His life on this earth also caused Him some anguish, although I tend to minimize that, too. He’s God. People have been rebelling against Him ever since Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Doesn’t He get used to it? Doesn’t He have a thick enough skin by now?

    On the rare occasions when I really think about it, I have to admit that that’s probably not the case. God describes His relationship with His people as a marriage, in both the Old and New Testaments. He offers and desires an intimate connection with His creatures. If He didn’t have some kind of emotional investment in us, if it didn’t hurt Him to be rejected, wouldn’t He use a different, less personal, analogy?

    So I’ve looked at Jesus as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 and appreciated His pain to some extent. But as Christmas approaches, I’ve been thinking about the daily distress He must have experienced simply by becoming human.

    There He was in heaven from eternity past. No unmet needs. Total freedom. Living in glory. Being worshipped by the angels. In perfect fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Joy beyond my imagination. Inexpressible peace.

    Then suddenly, in one irreversible moment, conceived as a human being in the womb of the virgin Mary. Susceptible to heat and cold, and restricted to a confined area. Unable (or unwilling) to exert control over His own environment.

    The first Christmas arrived, and Jesus entered this world as a baby boy. Born in a stable amid the stench of the animals, lying on a bed of scratchy hay. He experienced the sensations of hunger and thirst and dirty diapers. His actions were constrained by time and space and by a body that had to learn how to walk and talk and feed Himself. He most likely suffered from the usual forms of illness and injury.

    He was probably teased by the other children, since everyone in the neighborhood knew that His parents hadn’t been married yet when He was conceived. He was hampered by all the human limitations and hardships, but with a major difference—He knew what it was like to live without them in the perfection of heaven.

    Most of our religious Christmas displays glamorize His birth. Everything was calm and peaceful. Mary and Joseph were relaxed and smiling. The animals stood around quietly, gazing at the baby in wonder. I enjoy the idealized imagery that I’ve come to associate with Jesus’ first days as much as anyone. But doesn’t this miss the whole point?

    The point is that the Son “being in very nature God, . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7, italics added). This was a greater sacrifice than I will ever be able to understand. Simply being human involved ongoing suffering every minute of every day, compared to the glories of heaven.

    In Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, two young boys, one the heir to the throne, the other extremely poor, discover that they look a lot alike. Just for fun, they exchange clothes. But at that moment, the prince’s servant walks into the room and kicks the child dressed in rags out into the street. Much of the book is spent showing how difficult it would be for one living in royal luxury to adjust to sudden poverty and disgrace.

    Sort of a taste of what Jesus went through.

    Twain’s prince had a tough time adapting. He wanted to assert his control over everyone he met. He expected them to bow down to their future king. He grew angry when they didn’t believe his story. Unlike Jesus, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” but “humbled himself and became obedient” (Philippians 2:6, 8).

    Descending from heaven voluntarily, Jesus’ life on this earth was one continual living sacrifice, thirty years of ceaseless suffering. Just because He did it with grace and peace and joy and compassion and contentment doesn’t mean it was easy or pain-free. But He did it to demonstrate the unfathomable depth of God’s love for His creatures. He did it as the necessary prelude to His ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

    That’s what makes the Christmas season one of joy. Not the sentimental glamorizing of the birth of an adorable little baby. Not the wonder Mary and Joseph felt in becoming new parents. Not the appearance of the angels and the wise men.

    What makes Christmas a time of joy is the incredible depth of God’s love for fallen mankind, as seen in the Son’s willingness to take on decades of suffering for our sake. The beautiful scenes of Christmas morning will pass. The baby will grow up. The shepherds will go back to their sheep. Jesus’ family will return to the daily grind in Nazareth. But the sacrificial love of God, as proclaimed and demonstrated on this one glorious night, will endure forever.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Responding

    “I have nothing to be thankful for.” Those were the words in the letter to the editor of our local newspaper sometime in November, 2001, expressing the writer’s sense of loss following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

    My initial response was one of judgment. How could anyone claim to have absolutely nothing to be thankful for? Did she have even one friend? Probably. Did she have enough education and intelligence to read and write? Obviously. Was there any food at all in her kitchen? I imagined so, or she most likely would have been trying to make ends meet rather than reading the newspaper and writing to the editor. I mentally lifted my nose in the air, peered down on her condescendingly, and gave her a lecture on how blessed she is to live in a land of such abundance.

    Later (I don’t remember how much later, but definitely too long), my heart began to break for her. Here was a woman who was hurting so badly that she couldn’t even appreciate the little pleasures and joys that come to all of us. Maybe her letter was a cry for help. Did anyone answer that cry? Had her normal shock and grief turned into ongoing depression?

    Whatever her mental condition, the woman was obviously suffering. And she was responding to that suffering by feeling hopeless and bitter. She needed my understanding and prayers, not my judgment.

    Several years later, I read a story in a magazine about a first responder who had been at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was so traumatized by the destruction and death that had surrounded him on that day that he was abusing alcohol to ease the pain. His marriage was in trouble, he was unemployed, and he was seriously depressed.

    One day he was out in his front yard with his young daughter. A stranger walked by, said hello, and smiled at the toddler. In an instant, the first responder’s life started turning around as his perspective shifted. If a total stranger could show a little kindness to a child, then maybe there was some good in the world after all.

    Here were two different people responding to the same situation—a frightening terrorist attack on American soil resulting in the deaths of approximately three thousand people. Who could blame the woman for retreating into anger and bitterness? But where did she go from there? I’ll never know.

    The man had witnessed the horror firsthand. He had risked his life to save others. He was a hero. And yet he, too, was overwhelmed by the cruelty behind it. Self-medicating his PTSD, he descended into alcoholism. It took time—not just days, but years—for him to reach the point where his heart could be touched and his life could be restored.

    Suffering hurts. It damages our minds and our emotions. It dampens our spirits. It leads to a desire for escape, a crying out for relief. It’s easy enough to advise people to count their blessings, to have an attitude of gratitude, but can we realistically expect that response when the pain cuts so deep?

    Maybe. I think there are a few rare people who can see the good in their lives, and be genuinely thankful for it, even in the midst of the blackest night. But we evangelicals have a tendency to claim that we’re giving it all to God, to believe that we’re being truly thankful, to speak of hope and peace and joy, when in reality we’re simply using a more acceptable form of escape than alcohol or drug abuse: denial of the misery inside.

    I’ve had my share of stresses in the last few decades. (Actually, it feels like more than my fair share. I have to occasionally remind myself that others have been through worse situations.) I’ve followed my own advice in taking all my feelings to God, being totally honest with Him, begging Him for relief. Venting has released the anger and fear and hopelessness. It’s brought me back to a place where I can genuinely thank God for all the good in my life.

    But occasionally I’ve found myself wallowing in the pain. Obsessing over my circumstances. Making no progress in working through the distress, especially in cases where I can’t take any action, where all I can do is wait and see what the outcome will be. Stuck. Like the woman who wrote the letter to the editor.

    At those times, praising God in spite of the difficulties, finding things to be grateful for even when I don’t feel like giving thanks, seeing the good in little everyday events (like the first responder) helps to lift my heart and my soul out of the pit. It’s not an artificial denial of what I’m really thinking and feeling. I’ve brought it to God, hoping and praying for the strength to endure. I haven’t found the relief that I’m seeking, but I know that I need to move on.

    The Holy Spirit has led me to a better understanding of spiritual warfare through all of this. There can be a fine line between an honest expression of the ache inside and a repetitious cycle of despair and self-absorption. When I cross that line, Satan is winning. He’s got me right where he wants me. He tells me that I’m simply pouring out my heart to God in a healthy way. That’s a good thing. Why not continue to vent?

    But when I deliberately turn from brooding to thanksgiving, I’m resisting that liar. I’m standing up in my own little way against the evil one. Breaking his power over my thoughts. Giving God the glory that He deserves and that Satan wants for himself. I’m depending on God to remind me of His blessings and to make me truly thankful even in the toughest times. It brings me closer to Him and out of the clutches of the enemy. Therefore, I give thanks.