Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Pastor and the Church

As the self-declared spokesman for all of Christendom (at least for the next few minutes), I find the text of Pastor Hagee’s apology to Roman Catholics one of the most equivocal, off-point, and self-preserving that I have read recently. On the other hand, unfortunately, it is also pretty much standard.

According to the AP, a portion of the two-page apology reads like this:

"Out of a desire to advance a greater unity among Catholics and evangelicals in promoting the common good, I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful."

Now I know that there may be considerably more self-deprecating narrative in the remaining text. Be that as it may, at least in this place it is apparent that Pastor Hagee isn’t sorry that he said anything, only that someone may have taken offense at what he has said.

That my friends, simply doesn’t wash. It is not Christian to make millions of dollars calling a group of people "The Great Whore” or “The Apostate Church” at the top of your lungs, and then only apologize that they may be too sensitive to get over it.

No, an appropriate apology would have read something like:

“I apologize for the ungracious and un-Christian things I have called the Roman Catholic Church, and I ask your forgiveness for decades of advancing myself and my organization at your expense. Today, I repent of my belligerent attitude, my sharp tongue, and my cynical view of a church that does great things for the work of God around the world. I intend from this day forward to ensure that my teaching and my preaching make distinct separations between the state of the Christian church in general in the early centuries – and whatever ills they may have had, and the modern manifestations of that church and the good that it does. I recognize that all Christian faith communities arise from a common history and we must therefore all accept as our own histories that which is our common heritage of the first few centuries. I am truly sorry for not living up to the example set by our Lord.”

But maybe that’s too far for our good pastor to go.

You may now all have your corners of Christendom back.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Words, Sticks, and Stones

“”Words can hurt…but only if you let them. They called you bad names. Were you changed into the things they called you?”

“No,” I replied.

“You cannot forget what they said any more than you cannot feel the wind when it blows. But if you learn to let the wind blow through you, you will take away its power to blow you down. If you let the words pass through you, without letting them catch on your anger or pride, you will not feel them.””

--Joseph M. Marshall III, 2001, The Lakota Way

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

--A common schoolyard retort

The truth is though, that words can hurt very deeply – and more than one child has experienced just how painful angry and barbed comments can be. Not only do they hurt in the moment when they pierce our hearts and seemingly sear into our psyches, but their pain can live for hours or weeks in the lives of school kids. If we hear enough of them, or hear them from the right people, they can impact our lives forever by providing a form and shape to which we conform our own identities and our expectations of relationships.

How many people live their lives as though they have received their identities, their place in significant relationships from the expectations or valuations of others? We often refer to these ideas of self and others as baggage, or life stories, or scripts that provide ready-made views into which we place others’ and our own behaviors and words. Many times we think we know the intent of someone else’s behaviors, their thoughts behind their interactions with us. Shaped by the words and behaviors of other people, and seemingly reconfirmed by our experiences that seem to reinforce those judgments, our interpretations and meanings assigned to other’s behaviors cause us considerable anxiety and upset for the rest of our lives.

The quote above from Marshall’s book provides valuable insight into how best to view those words thrown at us. While children may lack the natural responsive ability to distinguish themselves from what others call them, we can be trained by those more wise than ourselves or through our own experiences and readings that we need not let others’ views of us shape and define our beings. Words do hurt – excruciatingly so at times, but we need not let them shape the way we see ourselves or even how we see those who sling them at us.

Notice that we are not to let the things people say and do to us get hooked on our anger and pride. This is perhaps the key element in the above quote. Only when we perceive a threat, perceive that someone is “out to get us,” do we let the circumstances raise our anger or hurt our pride. Anger is a natural, although often undisciplined response to hurt. Anger and pride are powerful aspects of human beings and the more we let them influence our reactions to others, the stronger they become as elements of our behaviors and attitudes. It is often in these moments that our self-stories and stories of others get formed and anchored in our beings. Can we learn to simply let the insults and conniving pass without getting stuck in our beings? Can we let other people make mistakes, call us names, and take advantage of us without having to own in ourselves their behavior? Can we refuse to let them and their immature prejudices define who we are and how we live?

In refusing to let the wind knock us down, we can maintain healthy beliefs about ourselves and even others. Do we want to live lives dictated by others, or would we rather live lives that match our values, our desires; lives that allow us to be valuable, competent, lovable, and loving people? We cannot control others’ responses to us any more than we can control the wind. We can however simply let the wind blow – even if it is at times blustery, bone-chilling, or gale-force. The wind will buffet us; it might even knock us over once in a while. We need not though, let it keep us down.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Knowing…Doing…Being

In class this morning we were studying Matthew 18. There are at least four pericopes in this chapter which seem to form a coherent whole. These four cast in practical terms the answer to an age-long problem: how to get people to let go of themselves? From arguments over who is the greatest, to parables about searching for lost sheep, to indebted servants beating on their debtors, we are led along a revelation of the sort of measure God uses when dealing with us – what sorts of expectations he might have of us.

Do we want to be first? Why? What's the point? Do we not know that the shepherd himself leaves the flock and searches in desert places for one sheep who is missing.? Rather than simply writing that one off, the shepherd seeks earnestly for it. That sheep – and everyone like it – means a lot to that shepherd. Does he remain around those that are where they are supposed to be; those that have followed his voice recently? No, he leaves them there and searches for the one that is having trouble following his voice, which isn't where she is supposed to be. That one is precious. We are not called to comfortable right-hand seats but to work in spite of ourselves and our pride. Do we expect that God would treat us better if we sat at His right hand? Likely not if we treated others in ways that we would not want to be treated; not if the goodness of His grace did not register in our hearts.

Tucked among these three pericopes is the famous Matthew 18 church discipline text. Let's see, how do I gain satisfaction from my brother who has wronged me? Let's see….I have to first go to him, and then I take two witnesses, then I get to defend myself in front of the whole church against this offense I have suffered. If I don't get satisfaction from the church, I can have the church avoid him like the plague!

And so we please ourselves that we know Scripture…we know that this passage exists, and we can learn the steps in "church discipline." So far so good. We are a People of the Book. We can quote long passages with ease and on top of that, we can guide others to pertinent texts.

But then we must do something about it. Many times we Christians don't really want to use Scripture when it might slow us down; delay our getting our justification. Many times we simply accuse – in the halls, on the phone, in whispered conversation with the elders – those we have a complaint against. That Matthew 18 process simply is too cumbersome when we are feeling hurt.

But what's the point of knowing Scripture if we aren't going to use it? If we aren't going to do what it says? Most of us can't abide the embarrassment of being caught not "doing what the Bible says" at least where church and church relationships are concerned. And so we eventually either forget about the hurt, or if we simply can't, we invoke Matthew 18 to set the record straight. And so we go to our brother to accuse him of what he has done and that we demand satisfaction. Predictably, he ignores us, and we pick two of our friends (after telling about twenty) to confront him with us. Our antagonist, feeling somewhat ganged-up on, rebuffs all of us and so we feel compelled to tell the tale to the whole church (which we likely have already done in small group discussions or one-on-one) or the elders (I'm sure there's a reason for this non-Biblical substitution, but I don't know that it is consistent with Scripture). At this point, our nemesis is pretty much fed up with our stalking and creating a larger and larger spectacle that he simple stops coming to church. Finally, we can show to all that his character and faith have surely been suspect for some time since he can so easily backslide!

And we are proud that we have finally done what Scripture demands.

The problem of course, is that this section of Scripture isn't a legal text. While it seems to progress as one, its purpose is far from legal. In fact, its purpose isn't really to provide satisfaction to harmed parties. Oh, it may well do so if understood properly, but that isn't its primary import. Falling where it does, this text is informed by the texts that surround it and their points deal with humility – not justice. No, the purpose of Matthew 18 is not to guide church trials and recompense hurts. Its purpose for the steps is the reconciliation of relationships, and the realignment of brothers in their walking the faith. It may well be hard to see that purpose when we are feeling hurt and looking for justification in others' eyes. After all our pride takes umbrage at such turns of events and we apparently have every basis to demand those who hurt us come to judgment.

But God isn't overly concerned about our being recognized as being hurt or receiving recompense at others' expense. God would much rather we acknowledge, grasp, own, the great debt that we have been forgiven, learn humility from that, and extend the same mercy to others. We must approach Matthew 18 as the chapter presents itself to us. We are not at liberty to take this short passage, extract it from its supporting rationale, and then apply it to those with whom we have a beef so that we gain some advantage. Divine humility, living in our bodies, does not allow that. It is hard to argue for justification from a God who's Son died for us; a God who seeing our fault, does not drag us in front of tribunals but rather offers more of Himself for our transformation. We must come to own the Divine mercy, the steadfastness of love, the humble failure to demand justice for ourselves, if we hope to live as God would have us live – with Him, even in this life.

Knowing Scripture, and doing what it says can be laudable for Christians. But neither of those will suffice if we do not become the example we read of in Scripture. If we do not use the word to transform us into the likeness of the Word, we chase after a knowledge and accomplishments that are worth nothing. We are called, and we must pursue, to be Scripture not just know it, not just doing it. We must spend our lives being Scripture.


...At Least I Didn't Kill Them

He has achieved something most private citizens never achieve. In fact, he has elevated himself, almost single-handedly to heights rarely achieved even by heads of state or military officers. While he has prepared for this day for more than twenty years, he has rocketed to recognition in less than a week. This is normally the pattern, most world-take-notice achievements do not actually occur overnight. No, most world news worthy events only happen after intentional and decades-long preparation.

It is not a medal he has won, he has not achieved great political success, he has not almost single-handedly brought medical and emotional healing to millions. No, he is no hero, no beloved leader, he is certainly no Mother Theresa. The notoriety he has achieved ranks not with saints, but with devils. He has made himself equal to Pol Pot, Heinrich Himmler, or Stalin. This is the reason his name does not appear in this entry. If you have read or heard the news over the past week or so, you know his name. You do not need me to tell you.

When his daughter was about 17 years old he locked her in a hidden underground dungeon, and for the next twenty-four years he kept her and some of the children he fathered by her (three of them he and his wife adopted after his captive daughter “abandoned them on their doorstep,” and one died in the dungeon, apparently incinerated by him.

It is reasonable that the horrified and shocked public would call him names like “monster,” “tyrant,” and “evil.” It is this last epithet that has gotten his attention. He has protested that label, insisting that he isn’t evil. His defense against that heinous appellation? He can’t be evil he argues, because he didn’t kill them, after all. He didn’t kill them! For this act of restraint and mercy he argues that he isn’t evil. Never mind imprisoning his children in a dungeon for twenty-plus years. Never mind raping his own daughter to produce those children. Never mind providing such insufficient care that one child died, its body incinerated and a nineteen year old who remains in a hospital-induced coma because of the poorness of her health in the dungeon.

Yes, at least he didn’t kill them.

What else could he muster as evidence to prove his non-evilness? He fed them, didn’t he? Provided electricity, running water, beds on which to sleep, and clothing. It is interesting that someone had attempted to make the dungeon look a bit like a home. Tiles around wet areas, a bit of color here and there, some funny looking stickers or designs in a couple places. Certainly, in addition to not killing them, there are these bits of evidence to his humaneness. I suppose that if his family were poor and allowed to run around in the open air as free persons, these bits would indeed indicate some paternal care for his offspring. His paternity though hadn’t seen sunlight or smelled fresh air in a decade or more. These bits of care – almost insulting in their meagerness – do not assuage his guilt, but make it more stark.

But there’s the rub. If we aren’t careful, we will fail to see that we practice the same sort of self-deceit that he does. Oh, most of us don’t hold people captive for years, fathering our own children from our own children. But most of us use relative comparisons to justify or dismiss the things we do. “Oh, it’s just a couple bucks,” or perhaps even “They deserved it. If they hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have punched them,” or my favorite “That’s just the way I am; you’ll just have to accept it.” We can use any number of justifications for taking advantage of people, for being rude, for ignoring someone in need, for doing things we ought not do. Our father-in-the-dungeon rationalizes almost exactly like we do. He looks for the good in himself just as we look for – and assume – the good in ourselves. We use his same line of argument.

Are we rude to the store clerk? Do we steal from the office? Do we take payment for work we didn’t do? Do we parade at church and then wallow in the gutter at home? Do we dishonor our spouses and mistreat our children? Do we deny others the things that might please them so that we can spend our time on ourselves?

We do all those things and more. And then we rationalize why we aren’t quite so bad as our brother in Austria – or maybe even the neighbor across the street.

After all, at least we didn’t kill them.

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