Category Archives: Religion in the Culture

The Need is not the Call

I receive a daily newsletter from Michael Hyatt. I’m not an executive of anything, but I think anybody can learn from leaders. Those of us who simply want to be more intentional when we write or speak are actually leading when we refuse to follow. So I mine his daily newsletter for guidance and inspiration.

Today’s topic could easily have led me to skip the newsletter. I’m glad I didn’t. The topic is coaching for pastors. I’m not a pastor, and I can’t afford coaching. I read the newsletter anyway. For the same reason I always read it. I never know what little gem will be embedded in there somewhere.

Today’s gem is this: the need is not the call. In an interview with Michael Hyatt, Dick Savidge gave an example of the value of coaching for a pastor, explaining how one pastor improved his work and his life after learning this important principle. I do believe that every Christian could benefit by learning this truth.

Among the many problems every person faces in our busy 21st century lives is the pressure to do good. We all are solicited by NGOs, by our churches and by our neighbors with causes to do good things. The television bombards us with requests for money for the hungry, the abused, and the enslaved. Our children need us. Our communities need us. There are so many needs.

The need is not the call.

You might think that a pastor would easily distinguish among the many needs that knock on his door and readily discern which ones God wanted him to give priority to. It isn’t easy even for pastors. And it isn’t easy for you and me. But we need to learn how to do it. None of us can effectively do what God created us to do unless we know how to discern what he is actually calling us to do.

Jesus gave us a terrific example of the right way to solve this problem in the gospel of Mark. After being tempted by Satan, and after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee and began preaching. He called the first four disciples as he was traveling around, and he went to Capernaum where Peter and Andrew lived. In the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus was invited to speak, and we know what his message was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14) He was interrupted by a needy man. The demon who possessed the man shouted and interrupted the teaching and distracted the listeners from the wonderful message. Jesus loved the tormented man. He cast the demon out, thereby setting the man free. He met a need that people understood, and they were in awe.

The Bible tells us that the rest of the day was filled up with needy people. If Mary, the sister of Martha, had been there, she would no doubt have run up to Jesus after he got to Peter’s house and said, “Master, tell us more. Tell us about the kingdom of God.” But there is no record that anybody asked him that question. They were all caught up in the spectacle of the exorcism in the synagogue, and the excitement only increased when news got out that he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, too. By the time Sabbath was over, the house was surrounded by needy people – the sick, the crippled, and the demon-possessed.

According to Mark, Jesus gently took care of all those needs. He helped people, because he loved people. The next morning, when another crowd began to gather, there were more needy people. Jesus, however, was nowhere to be found. When Peter and Andrew did find him, he was all alone somewhere praying. Praying. When all these people needed him. And when Peter and Andrew told Jesus that everyone was looking for him, Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38) It must have shocked these two who were very new disciples that Jesus was going to ignore all these needy people.

Jesus knew that the need was not the call. Jesus, however, had been out there in that lonely place, wherever it was, praying. It is not hard to guess what he was praying about. He had spent the previous evening taking care of needs. Starting at sunset, and going into the night, he had healed and helped many people. After what must have been a short night, Jesus had left the house before sunrise in order to pray. He had found an isolated spot and there he spent time in prayer. Because he turned to his father for guidance, he was able to finally discern that the need was not the call. By the time his disciples found him, he was confirmed through prayer in the central focus of his call. His call was to take his real message to many more people. Healing a few people and casting out a few demons was not going to transform the world.

There is a bigger question here, of course, than simply discerning the call. A lot of people will ask in an accusing tone, “Well then, what is God going to do for all those needy people? Are we just supposed to leave them in their need?” They might even feel so bold as to say that to Jesus. The disciples almost certainly asked that question, although their tone was probably more respectful. If I have an opportunity to help needy people and I pass it up because I am focused on the work God is calling me to do, I am subject to be asked the same questions. A pastor will absolutely be judged and criticized when he delegates any need to another staff member or to some other agency altogether. The world is watching us. The watchers will pounce on us when we say that somebody’s need is not our call.

The only way to make that decision is the way Jesus did it. He went to God in prayer. We don’t know how long before sunrise Jesus left the house for this purpose, but it was considerably after sunrise, after the crowd had started to gather, after the house had been searched and the neighbors had looked here and there, after people had had time to engage in all sorts of speculation that Peter and Andrew finally ranged far enough afield to find Jesus. There was a good deal of time for Jesus to pray through his conflicting demands and come to the conclusion that all these needs were not his call. His call was to take his message throughout Galilee, the message that would transform many people and eventually take him to the cross.

I don’t equate myself with Jesus. I don’t even equate myself with anyone called to be a pastor. But I have a calling. In order to fulfill my call, there are things I cannot do. I cannot do all the good things that need to be done. I cannot help every good cause. Because if I did, I would never be able to fulfill the purpose for which God called me. This work would go undone. Like Jesus in Capernaum, I need to pray daily for wisdom and discernment, because I am certainly not more wise than Jesus. I absolutely must pray in order to have any certainty that I am choosing to do the work God actually wants me to do. I struggle constantly with the fear that I am wasting my time, anyway, and that feeling certainly undercuts my willingness to assert that any particular need is not my call. That concern takes a lot of prayer. I don’t even know that I have it right yet.

Still I am comforted to be reminded that the need is not the call. It is important to remember that God did create me for a reason. I am not an accident. He has important and fulfilling work for me to do. It is quite worthwhile for me to spend the time it takes to discern between needs and calls. I thank God for his call to me, and I pray to be a faithful servant to complete the call I have received.

 

The War Against Evil

The Harry Potter novels chronicle a fantastic parallel universe in which the crusade against evil is fought in the person of a young man who unknowingly carries an element of his adversary within. That war culminates in a final battle worthy of a James Bond movie. In that story, the kingdom of evil ends with a bang. The confrontations with evil that most of us recognize are much less dramatic. Our gospel for today points us to a sure strategy to experience victory in those battles whether they end with bangs or whimpers.

Mark’s gospel, the one that led the way for many others, is quite concise. The reading today is a brief but dense telling of a powerful story. Its subject might seem a bit quaint to modern readers who do not believe in demon-possession. It is included in the book for an important reason: We need to know how Satan feels about us, and we need to know what to do when we see him at work.

Describing the beginning of Christ’s ministry, a few short verses before today’s story, Mark introduces the message of the ministry. He says, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15) Before the story we read today, Jesus called some of his disciples, so we have reason to believe that Peter, Andrew, James and John, and possibly others, were with Jesus on the day he first preached in Capernaum. On that day they were introduced to the warfare that would be the central feature of the rest of their lives.

The story of this day is extremely important. Jesus’ message of the kingdom and repentance and good news was not good news to Satan. Satan had already tried to appeal to Jesus’ human nature in numerous temptations that would have put a stop to this message. Satan tried to turn Jesus into a traveling medicine show that would have been great entertainment without changing lives or freeing people from Satan’s grip. Even though Satan had lost the day, he never gave up, and today’s story is only one of many episodes in which he continued to attempt to take Jesus off message. He would have loved to see Jesus explode in rage or fly out of control like Moses at the waters of Meribah, and he never stopped trying. To this day, Satan never stops trying to squelch Christ’s message. He never wants to hear the words  “the kingdom of God has come near.”          

When Jesus strolled into Capernaum, Satan was ready and waiting. Jesus went to synagogue on the Sabbath, as anyone who knew him would expect. Because word had gotten around that he was a teacher, he was invited to teach that morning, just as any other wandering rabbi might have been invited to do. We already know the substance of his message. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” People were quite impressed and began to talk among themselves about this unique message and this unique teacher. Why, he taught as if he knew what he was talking about. He didn’t waste any time quoting old rabbis. He taught with authority.

But Satan was ready. Satan did not want people to hear the good news. He did not want them to repent of self-worship. He did not want them to enter into the kingdom of God. He had placed someone in the crowd to put a stop to this nonsense. Right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching, this man interrupted with scornful words. “What are you doing here?” he shouted.” Who do you think you are? I know who you are, you Holy One of God.” Spoken in this tone of voice, those words sounded like an accusation of fraud and deception. Spoken at this particular time, those words were intended to divert people from thinking about Jesus and distract them to think about this demented man. Satan wanted them to turn away from Christ’s message that had inspired them. He preferred them to look at this wild man whose behavior might be entertaining. Satan wanted the people turned away from the message of Christ. He also hoped that this interruption would take Christ off his message.

Satan failed. Jesus did not get angry about the intrusion, and he did not speak scornfully to the man whose state of mind might have earned him a rebuke from most scribes or rabbis. Jesus loved the man and hated the demon. Instead of rebuking the man, he rebuked the demon. The rebuke itself reinforced the message that the kingdom of God had drawn near. Jesus said to the demon, “Muzzle yourself!” It was the same command he would use later to calm the Sea of Galilee in a storm. It emphasized to the demon that the words of Christ were the words of God, the words that nourish the hearts of men and terrify demons. Christ ejected the demon from the man and from the situation. He took back control of the circumstances. He modeled for the assembled worshipers the message he brought to them.

When Christ healed a man possessed of a demon, he showed everyone what repentance could do. He said very clearly, if you turn away from evil, you, too, can be healed like this man. When he sent the demon packing, he showed the people that he actually had the authority he seemed to have when he was teaching. He was the real thing. They could rely on his words. Look what his words could do. When he acted with love toward the man while exerting his authority against the evil that had imprisoned him, Jesus showed them what it took to face down evil. The old saying about hating sin and loving sinners is so very true, and Jesus demonstrated in Capernaum exactly what that looks like. When we say that we want to be Christlike in our daily lives, this example is quite important. We meet evil every day of our lives in the words and deeds of people around us. Many people serve the cause of evil and work for Satan’s goals without even knowing it. It is not for us to malign the people and belittle them or even for us to shout at them in righteous rage. Our call is to love them, just as Jesus loved the demon-possessed man used by Satan that day in Capernaum as an emissary of the kingdom of hell. Yet even as we love people enslaved by evil, we must not allow the evil to succeed.

We are called to confront evil every day. Satan’s emissaries are everywhere. They may be intentional servants, who delight in saying they worship Satan, but those are few in number. A lot more of Satan’s emissaries claim humanist values and decry religion of any kind because of the failings of people of faith. A number larger than we might like to acknowledge are fellow believers whose weak faith and weaker resolve are overridden by Satan’s relentless onslaught. Regardless, we will encounter a lot of evil in our lives. When it happens, we need to remember this story. However, we are not likely to be asked or even expected to perform exorcisms. We must trust the One with the power and authority to do that work. We must follow Christ’s example and demonstrate that the kingdom of God is near.

When God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we are emissaries of the kingdom of God wherever we go. When we face evil, our mission is to be like Christ. We must demonstrate the fruits of his work in our hearts — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and trust him to eject the demons. We stand firm in word and deed against evil and its whole agenda. We love the people and hate the evil.

We can never vanquish evil by resorting to its attitudes and behaviors. Evil shows itself in greed, lust, aggression, vengeance, hatred and destruction. Christ shows himself when we act like him. When Christ faced the victim of evil, he loved the victim and vanquished the evil.

Satan never rests. In the time/space universe where we live, he roams free. He still wants to put a stop to Christ’s message. He still does not want anyone to hear that the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

We see him at work in individuals and nations, in disease, in fractured families, in economic crises and personal despair. He uses any weapon that comes to hand in his attempts to make us doubt God and turn away from the kingdom. Christ shows us in today’s gospel that he has the authority and the power to defeat Satan if we trust ourselves and our warfare to him.

Temptation — You Can’t Win By Yourself

In her novel, The Gathering author Anne Enright’s central character muses over her practice of drinking a bottle of wine every night, just before dawn. The character says, “I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass.” That statement sums up the battle against temptation for most of us.

It doesn’t matter what the temptation is.

 The temptation could be adultery. Somewhere between sensing the attraction and making a move there is a moment when the decision hangs in the balance. The image of your spouse recedes as you tell yourself that this feeling isn’t what it purely is, and you tilt your head just so before you say, “Do you always sneak up on people that way?” For a moment, you see where the threads of your life are woven into the fabric of your marriage, but as you turn to examine them, something – light, darkness, glare, or sand in your eye – obscures the image and you turn away. Your momentum shifts, and the decision is no longer possible, because the first teasing word has already been already spoken.

The temptation could be a few potato chips with a sandwich. You know you don’t need potato chips. Your sandwich is fine without them. You promised yourself yesterday that you would take action to reduce unnecessary fat in order to maintain your weight after working so hard to lose ten pounds before your birthday. But the birthday was yesterday. Today the chips are right there on the counter, and there aren’t many left in the bag anyway and you just want a taste. As you lift the first one to your lips, you remember that “nobody can eat just one.” And then they are gone.

Satan lives and dwells in the interim between choosing and not choosing. Eve had a moment like that. Satan, that snake, whispered, “Did God say …?” She paused, stating the obvious. Then Satan said, “God lies.” Caught by the attractive prospect that she could dismiss God and judge his motives and do anything she darn well pleased, she contemplated the choice, and forgot to choose at all, and took a bite of the forbidden fruit.

That is the way it usually feels. Most of us don’t really recall the decision to do what we know we ought not to do. We remember our good intentions, but we simply cannot recall when we took the first step forward. We even comfort ourselves by saying that we do not recall making this choice. It just happened.

Nothing just happens. We do make choices, even when we refuse to watch ourselves doing it. Satan is so good at whispering the words we want to hear that we simply tune out the other words. It feels so good to say, “I deserve this one little taste.” In fact, Satan is pretty good at taking God’s own teachings and reshaping them to serve ourselves. He likes to quote the Golden Rule. He can whisssssper in your heart, “Remember, God said to love your neighbor AS YOURSELF. Don’t you deserve some of the good stuff?” SSsssoooon what was just a passing thought – “Nobody will ever know if I simply borrow $50 from petty cash” — becomes “What’s $50 to this rich tycoon? I’ll put it back on payday.” At first you are steering through the muddy swamp of regret, but soon you find the path of self-justification. There was a moment when you might have chosen otherwise, but you no longer remember that moment.

The apostle Paul documented this experience in Romans 7, when he wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) This is how we feel. Paul described his battle as something that happened over and over. He could never vanquish temptation and put it behind him.

I remember trying to do that very thing – stop sinning. I had a good reason for trying. I had heard a sermon in which the pastor said that there is no need to ask God for help in overcoming sin if you aren’t serious about it. In those days, I thought pastors did not make mistakes, so I was completely undone by that statement. I wanted to ask God for help with my problems, but since I continued to have more and more problems and to fail more and more miserably to overcome them, I felt that God would not want to hear from me. I had to improve my track record. Satan used that simple statement to completely steal the joy of my salvation from me.

Thank goodness the day came that I understood the truth. God wasn’t trying to put me through some marathon test. Jesus died so I could run to God for help every single time I needed it. And when I failed, because I forgot to notice the moment when I made the wrong choice, I could go to God and ask forgiveness, all because Jesus died for me. No conditions. No limit. No test. The memory of that moment is quite vivid in my mind. We were all holding hands during prayer. The pastor prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for forgiving us all our sins, not because we deserve forgiveness, but entirely for Jesus’ sake, because he died in our place.” I burst into tears as the truth came clear to me. I have never been the same since. Every time I get lost in the minefield of temptation, I know I have a safe haven to run to. God isn’t going to ask me for the final, final, final time to get my act straight. Instead, the Slaughtered Lamb will be standing beside the throne of my Heavenly Father, speaking my name and saying, “This is one of Mine.”

 

 

When is Truth not Absolute?

One of the confusing aspects of life for me is the discovery that some people believe that truth is not an absolute. I really have a problem with this attitude. I experience the problem in two specific realms: politics and religion.

In politics, the issue arises most often around the Constitution.

In religion, it arises around the Bible.

Very often, I feel as if all the foundations of life as I know it have been shaken and shattered and moved the way an earthquake shattered San Francisco in 1906. People try to tell me that the language of the Constitution does not mean what the plain sense of the words mean. Pastors try to tell me that the Bible does not necessarily mean what the plain sense of the words mean, either. In this regard, political and religious leaders tell me that what they call “truth” is evolving. The Constitution is a “living” document the meaning of which must evolve with social change. The Bible is a “living” document, and in thirty years, things we think are “sin” today won’t be sin any more.

I won’t try to address the concept of biological evolution here, but I will point out that the idea of such a thing is so appealing that the word has taken over the discussion of ideas. Some day I will have nothing better to do than count how many times the word “evolution” and its variants appear in conversation and writing in a single day, but for now I will content myself with observing that I hear this word constantly. The idea that anything and everything evolves is quite handy.

In politics, an evolving Constitution solves two problems:

  1. 1.      You need not struggle with the language of a new amendment, because an evolving Constitution allows you to appropriate any words you like and identify how their meanings have evolved as a result of cultural changes.
  2. 2.      You need not wait for the process of approval and ratification to start reaping the benefits of rights and services and powers that don’t seem to be evident in the “old” language of the Constitution.

 

In the world of religion things work out in a very similar fashion. The Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages nobody speaks any more. (People speak descendant languages, but let’s face it, French is a descendant of Latin, which does not mean that French speakers are fluent in conversational Latin.) The Bible asserts rules and regulations that nobody obeys. Furthermore, churches are shrinking as people increasingly declare the Bible and everything related to it irrelevant to modern life. If God meant the Bible to be our holy book for all ages, many ask if it doesn’t make sense that its language be reinterpreted in the light of our evolved understanding. A lot of things called “sin” in the Bible don’t look like sin to us, so surely God meant the Bible to evolve right along with us. To say that allows us to invite people to come back and hear messages that won’t grate on their nerves as much as the one about putting God above everything else.

Don’t think that I equate the Bible and the US Constitution. I don’t. The Bible is inspired and preserved by God himself. The US Constitution is the work of human beings. Most of those individuals lived in relationship with God and felt that God guided their work, but nothing about the Constitution is God’s revelation. Nevertheless, the Constitution shapes our nation the way the Bible shapes my faith.

The best way to describe how I feel is to say that I feel homeless. If my personal dwelling had been razed by an earthquake, I couldn’t feel more thoroughly homeless. I don’t know about everyone else, but I need some certainties. For example, I like being able to rely on gravity. I like knowing that what goes up must come down. I like knowing that even if I travel to Mars or leave the solar system, gravity will still work the same way, and the changes I see in the behavior of things is mandated by the fact that gravity is still working the way it always did.

Some things really are absolute. Some truth should not be changed, just because it comes to seem inconvenient. History reveals that the issues in the Bible and the Constitution that people keep trying to declare changed by evolution are the same issues that were problems in ancient times and during the Constitutional Convention. There is one extremely certain absolute: people in all times are the same. The most ancient documents ever found record that people are people no matter when you encounter them.

One of the problems with evolving truth is its impact on never-changing human realities. For example, human beings have always had problems coping with life and death. Since the beginning of time, humans have tried to usurp God’s sovereignty over life and death, because they want to control life and death for their own benefit. In human eyes, some lives need to be extended, while others are inconvenient and not cost-effective. Likewise, every human wants to be king, and history from the beginning of time records all the ways that desire can be perverted. People like Napoleon Bonaparte or Fidel Castro put on the act of helping others, but unless some power prevents it, they become destructive autocrats. The Bible is a repository of absolute truth about the meaning of life and death. The US Constitution is a guide for one of the most successful methods of protecting every person’s liberty while assuring order in society. To tinker with the meaning of the words of either the Bible or the Constitution is like punching holes in the bottom of a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you doubt that, ask the captain of the Costa Concordia. I am pretty sure that he wishes that a certain rock had not been in its absolute location last week. He would, no doubt, have preferred to be able to redefine that rock after the collision and thereby undo what was personally undesirable about its location. The wreck of the Costa Concordia is an example of what happens when wishful thinking collides with absolute truth.

You Were Not Created to Maintain an Organizer

I know. I know. Everybody needs an organizer. Every family needs a calendar. Even third-graders need organizers. We are all busy, busy, busy. There is not enough time in a day. Too many people get too little sleep trying to get around to the day’s obligations. With all this organizing, you would think we are the most efficient, productive, happy people in the history of the world.

Not!

I don’t know anyone who has made peace with time. When I call people to visit, I ask how they are. Way too many answer, “I’m hangin’ in there.” That is no kind of answer for a human being. That is a horrible answer to hear from person after person. Maybe one person is under so much pressure that he rightly feels he is barely hanging on, but everyone? I don’t believe it.

What I believe is this: too many people feel obligated to accomplish too many goals set for them by other people or by some unreasoning expectation in their own psyches. This is not the way God meant for us to live. God did not create us for misery; he created us for joy. He created us to know him and to know one another in loving relationships. He created us to achieve fulfillment doing all sorts of wonderful things. He did not create us to keep 3-ring binders neatly annotated for the efficient use of every second.

The organizer is the ultimate weapon of the doctrine of scarcity. The organizer says that there is not nearly enough time for everything, and the only hope of a successful life is to be so well-organized that you can explain any failures by showing that you sincerely tried to make it all work. The organizer says it is okay for a person to be overwhelmed by all the obligations he must meet, and suggests that it is both possible and necessary for him live this way.

I was in high school when my mother announced one evening that that four people in our family had nine places to be, and we would not be going to any of them. She was normally a stickler for people’s commitments and obligations. This behavior was out of character for her. That says something for the level of frustration she experienced. I remember it precisely because it wasn’t the way we normally lived. In today’s language we would say that my mother needed, and took, a timeout.

Unfortunately, the timeout did not prove much. It didn’t really change our lives, except for that night. I actually found that the missed events simply piled up in the following days, which were already overloaded. In those days, and for many years thereafter, I bought into the notion that we are all obligated to do more things than the time allows, and we should shut up about it and quietly put up with it. I accepted the doctrine of scarcity of time.

I don’t accept that doctrine any more. I still need to improve my usage of time, but not because there isn’t enough. I need to learn what it is I am here for. Am I here to have a house that could be a museum of contemporary design, or am I here to help my child grow up knowing I love her? Am I called to wear myself out trying to do a job I hate in order to earn more money than I earn doing a job I love? Did God create me for a purpose, or am I a tool of other people’s definition of life?

Of course, you may reply that you have to take the job you can get, so maybe you don’t get to do a job you like? I have been there. I have done that. And that is why I can tell you that doing the job you took for the right reasons, even though it seemed like the wrong job can be a calling in itself. The job you took in order to meet your obligations to your family and your creditors can be God’s gateway to discovering things about yourself that you would never otherwise have learned. That sort of obligation is not set by someone else; you make that choice, because you have a commitment to principle, and God is with you through such an experience. It can still be the answer to the question, Did God create me for a purpose? Am I doing this for God’s reasons or for somebody else’s reasons?

That is the question we all need to ask ourselves about the way we use time. Unlike God’s other gifts to us, we cannot bank time. I always loved the song, “Time in a Bottle” just for its title. It was such a great image – the idea that time could be hoarded until we were able to use it the way we want. But time doesn’t work that way. Every minute we throw away in misery and frustration is a minute we will never use in fulfilling accomplishment. So we ought always to be asking ourselves, Am I doing what I am doing because God brought me to this place at this time, or did somebody else put me here?

Think about your dreams. Think about your vision of yourself. Where does your mind go when you let it go? Did you always want to write or teach or make people well? Are you doing something else instead? Why? Did God bring you to this place at this time, or did you follow somebody else’s path?

God is the God of abundance. He makes plenty of time for everything you were created to accomplish on this earth. Look at the way he made the universe. Stars in profusion. Flowers in thousands of variations. Children of all colors. He doesn’t do anything stingy. He isn’t stingy with you. You are created with gifts—talents, dreams, a calling. Do what you are created to do, and let everything else fall away. You will be a lot happier, and you will discover that you have all the time you need.