It’s been a rough month.
There are plenty of ways that could be said, but let me just say it that way.
I’ve been out and about some the last few weeks, but without feeling like I could settle down for a cup of coffee anywhere. It’s felt more like looking through frosty windows to the amber glow of warmth, and love, and maybe just plain old holiday cheer.
While I have plenty of words, I’m not sure they’re best shared beyond the nib of my pen right now. But all the same, I’ve missed talking to you all, and listening to you talk to each other. I’ve come to really love and appreciate the exchanges that happen in the comment box here, whether rapier wit banter, or nonsense, or penetrating insight and questions.
He’s hunched over the table across from me, studying for his algebra final. If he passes, his time in eighth grade math counts for high school credit. If he does better than passing, he keeps his A for the quarter.
I have his study packet and recite equations. He scratches numbers and symbols and x and y into empty spaces on lined paper, tight-gripping a dull pencil I wish he’d walk downstairs and sharpen.
We get stumped on one and both try to show our work to come up with what we already know is the right answer. The old test has already been graded. I write the numbers on my tablet, where between math problems I’m working out my own equation.
Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code — don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.
But make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God is putting the finishing touches on the salvation work he began when we first believed. We can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about! (Romans 13:8-14 MSG)
We’ve made quite a mess of the economy — yep, you read right. I said we. Wasn’t just Washington, wasn’t just big corporations and CEOs with big fat wallets, and AIG running off with the taxpayers’ bailout money to nurse their wounds in a spa. While I say “Curses, AIG,” I still have to recognize that you, and I, and that guy down the street — most of us helped them create the disaster it is today. You don’t want to read an economics lesson from me, but I will say this. I think all the way from the CEOs to me, we got pretty greedy. Even so, it seems that the whole fiasco has given me a much needed opportunity to take a look at my own habits and tweak them a bit where it might be sensible. And the uncertainty has perhaps motivated some of us to take a look at what and whom we trust.
I had a chance recently to visit my old church (Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, MN) and was plenty challenged by a sermon that addressed the uncertainties and where our hearts are. During his message, Pastor Dave Johnson referred to an executive at Mars Inc. whose job title is Vice President/Indulgence. I wasn’t honestly sure if he had made this up as a joke or if this was the real deal, so I Googled it. Sure enough, this is a real guy with a real title. Roger Cohen of The New York Times has a fascinating article you can read in its entirety. He tells how M&Ms have been producing a “premium” version that costs about double the original “common folk” M&Ms. And sales are going through the roof.
Cohen says this: “Now, in these times of plunging stock prices and falling sales, you’d think [the Vice President/Indulgence] might be struggling to get people to indulge. It makes sense to drop needless pleasures when cash is short. But this is a recession in which indulgence is thriving, a phenomenon that says much about our world.” This is interesting. At a time when folks could reasonably be expected to cut back on nonessentials, it doesn’t appear that we are. We’re still inclined to run straight for the luxuries, big and small, even though we maybe can’t afford them, we clearly don’t need them, and it’s pretty debatable whether they ultimately add any real value to our lives.
Paul had no idea what a recession was when he wrote to the Roman church.He hadn’t even been through the Great Depression. But yet his counsel is as appropriate for us as it was for them. Don’t forget, the Word was breathed alive by God Himself. Even though Paul didn’t know what might be happening in the U.S. (and global) economy in the year 2008 (I scarcely think Paul even believed there would be a year 2008), God knew. God knew we would be here. God would know how we got here. And God would grieve that we didn’t pay attention to so many important things He’s tried to teach us for generations — and that not just because the economy is messed up.
Right off the bat here in verse 8, Paul says something pretty big: “Don’t run up debts.”
Don’t run up debts. He follows that with “Don’t always be wanting what you don’t have.” A lot of times, that’s why we end up running up the big debts, isn’t it? I know, sometimes it’s to pay basic bills when times are just plain tough. But often, too often, it’s because we got to wanting something we didn’t have (and couldn’t afford) so much that we went ahead and went into debt to get it.
He goes on to warn us about getting so caught up in our stuff that we lose track of God. He tells us of a huge urgency — “Be up and awake to what God is doing! …We can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence…” The urgency to be awake to what God is doing and God is calling us to do gets lost in our indulgence. Cohen explains that indulgence is a thriving business even in the wake of global economic crisis because we have come to believe so deeply within us that we are defined by what we purchase and what we eat. “Tell me how you shop,” he says, “and I’ll tell you who you are.”
I checked the dictionary to make sure I knew what I was talking about when I used the word indulgence. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say to me, as Inigo would say to Vizzini, “I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Here’s what I found:
1. an inability to resist the gratification of whims and desires
3. the act of indulging or gratifying a desire
4. foolish or senseless behavior [syn: folly]
Any one of those speaks directly to our seemingly endless ability to pursue the delight of ourselves into our absolute ruin. We can scorn guys like the VP of Indulgence, but the truth is that if we weren’t buying it, he wouldn’t be selling it. M&Ms would only pursue a ripe market. We ask to be treated this way by continuing to respond favorably to their advances.
As he usually does, Paul gives us an alternative. We don’t have to die pleasing ourselves. We don’t have to pursue self indulgence. We don’t have to rack up outrageous debt pleasing ourselves. We don’t have to go wanting all kinds of stuff we don’t have and don’t need.
He tells us to go ahead and run up one debt. And one debt alone: “the huge debt of love you owe each other.” This is a debt he’s good with. Because this is a debt not created by our inability to resist gratifying our own whims and desires. This is a debt created by our love for God and our love for one another.
Why be defined by what we buy and what we eat?
Why not be defined by how we love one another?
This would allow us the freedom to pursue the missing definition above.
2. a disposition to yield to the wishes of someone
We could devote ourselves to yielding to others, submitting to others, loving others. Paul says that kind of debt, and that kind of indulgence, is a much better way.
indulgence. Dictionary.com. WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/indulgence (accessed: December 04, 2008).
The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.” Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” (John 11:36-37)
Claims folks like me love to tell you that there isn’t much we haven’t heard. We’re great to have at social gatherings because we have some of the best stories. We start to really believe we’ve heard it all.
We haven’t. There’s always tomorrow.
But one of the things that just doesn’t surprise us much is how vastly divergent perspectives different people may have on the very same incident. On any number of days in the process of investigating an accident we might have conversations like the following:
Me: Well, Mrs. Smith, why don’t you go ahead and describe the accident for me.
Mrs. Smith: Ok. First, you have to know I’m an excellent driver. I’ve been driving for over 60 years and I’ve never had a ticket.
Me: That’s terrific, Mrs. Smith. Now, let’s talk about how the accident happened.
Mrs. Smith: Right. Well, I was driving down the road, Burlington Boulevard, I think, but I can’t be sure because they keep changing the street names. I was in the right lane and traveling 24 miles per hour because the signs say the speed limit is 25 miles per hour and I don’t ever speed. It was about 4:45 in the afternoon, which I know because I was on my way home from water aerobics and it always gets done at 4:30. I was going eastbound, right into the sun. It was really bright. I remember that because I was having a hard time seeing because, well, you know how the sun can sometimes blind you when it’s setting and it reflects so terribly. So I was driving home, and thinking about that delicious roast that was in the oven and I was just hoping it wasn’t overdone because Mr. Smith just doesn’t like that at all. I came up to an intersection and I had a green light. I know it was green because the cars in the other lane were going through too, the ones that were driving on my left side. Well, you know, I had the green light, so I just went on through. That’s what you’re supposed to do at a green light, go through you know. So I did. And wouldn’t you know it, I just don’t know where the other car came from, but, BAM! He just hit me. Just like that. And my car spun around and I think I hit something else. A light post maybe. Or maybe it was another car. I just don’t know. It just shocked me, you know. I was pretty shook up. And he hit me in the front, on the right side. I’m pretty sure he was talking on his cellular phone like all those young kids do. And eating a hamburger. And his music was really loud. They just shouldn’t let people do that in their cars, you know?
:: :: ::
Me: Thanks for speaking to me today, Mr. Johnson. Could you describe for me what happened in the accident?
Mr. Johnson: Sure. Last Tuesday, around 4:30, maybe 5:00, I was on my way home from work. I was on 57th where it crosses Burlington. Are you from around here? It’s kind of a crazy intersection, really busy at that time of day. I was going eastbound, 57th runs east to west. I work in the city, and I always drive 57th home to my place east of the metro. The sun was starting to drop a little, and I remember trying to adjust my rear view mirror because it kept kind of hitting me right in the eye when I’d glance back. Well, anyway, I’m coming up to the intersection, and the light turned green when I was about, oh, I’d say six or eight car lengths back. I kind of slowed up a bit anyway, just to make sure the intersection was clear, but I figured I was good to go since there was another car ahead of me that was already going through. So I kept going, and when I was a little more than half way across, this lady, she just smacked right into me on the back right side of my car. She was going north on Burlington, I’m pretty sure in the left lane, and she must have been flooring it because when she hit me my car spun all the way around and I hit her again on the back part. There were cars on the right side of her that were stopped and backed up for half a block because of the red light. I don’t know what she was doing. So I got out, and another guy stopped to help us, and I borrowed his cell phone to call 911 because I ran out of minutes on mine last month so I haven’t been using it.
:: :: ::
Me: Mr. Bork, I understand you may have witnessed this accident that happened last week on 57th and Burlington. Could you spare a few minutes to tell me what you saw?
Mr. Bork: Oh, sure. I’d love to. Always glad to help out. Now, let’s see. I was standing on the corner waiting for the light so I could cross Burlington. I was on the, hmm, the northwest corner. No, wait, it was the northeast. Yeah, northeast. Right next to that Starbucks there. I go there for coffee every day. Now they say they’re closing. Don’t know what I’m going to do. Probably will have to start going to McDonalds down the street. Anyway, I’m standing there waiting, kind of feeling like I want to get going fast, because it looked like it was going to rain anytime. It was cloudy and starting to get real dark, you know? It just didn’t feel right. So while I’m standing there waiting for the light to turn green so I can go west across Burlington, this lady pulls up going north. She pulls into the left turn lane there – there’s two lanes you can go straight in, and one you can turn in. She whipped right into the turn lane, and there wasn’t nobody coming the other way, so she went ahead and turned. Well, just as she did that, this other guy, I don’t know what he was thinking, he just came south on Burlington at a high rate of speed, and when he saw her, he slammed on his brakes and he went into a skid, and he starting spinning around, you know, just like you see in the movies. It was really something! He just couldn’t get himself together and he kind of clipped her in the back corner part, by the light. And then she went flying off out of control and up the curb. Never seen nothin’ like it. I was really scared.
:: :: ::
The conversations I just had with Mrs. Smith, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Bork all relate to the exact same accident. I do have these kinds of conversations some days, where I have to shake my head and wonder. How can people not see the same accident the same way? They were all there. Yet they don’t all agree on what directions people were going, what the weather conditions were, what color the light was or even which direction the sun sets. Occasionally I find myself asking the person the date and location of the accident again, just to make sure that we’re really talking about the same event. Only once has the person ever thought a little and said, “Oh, wait. Yeah, that was that one on Thursday. You’re talking about the accident on Wednesday, right?” Most of the time I find that people were describing the very same accident. But they recounted the events as they saw them and as they earnestly believed they happened, but all from their own vantage point. And sometimes from where they stood, the facts vary wildly from what the next guy will tell you. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The folks who were there when Jesus brought Lazarus out from the tomb each had their own vantage point as well. If we were to have interviewed them following these events, they would each have their own version of the facts, and their own reaction. Reading John’s account of the event, we see some of those mixed reactions up close and personal. Look with me over the next couple of days at the various points of view amongst those who witnessed or heard about Lazarus’ miraculous resurrection.
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, Martha met Him outside the gate. Meanwhile, Mary stayed in their home, surrounded by many of the Jews who had come to mourn with her and Martha. These mourners stayed close to Mary, and when she left the house to go meet Jesus, they followed her. So they were there to see Jesus when He was so emotionally impacted before He restored Lazarus to life. Amongst these folks who had assembled to mourn with Lazarus’ family we see the first instance of these mixed reactions, the different vantage points.
Some of them watched Jesus as He wept, and they said, “Look how deeply He loved him.” The romantics in the crowd saw Jesus’ tears, saw Him break down emotionally, and they saw Jesus’ profound love for His friend. They sensed His pain and His grief. A man who loved his friend so much would weep at this moment. To them, it could only mean that Jesus loved Lazarus so very deeply. So they watched and they marveled that He could love him so much.
But there were pragmatists among them as well. They saw the same Jesus weeping in the same way over the same death of the same Lazarus. But for them there was nothing romantic about it. There was nothing touching about it. These were the guys who had no time for the process. No time to just experience. No time to just feel what they were feeling. Got a problem? Well, let’s work out a solution. To these guys, the whole scenario just made no sense. These were the guys who saw Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ tomb and said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” Good grief, they said, this guy can work miracles. He can restore sight. Surely He could have healed Lazarus. What was He thinking? Why didn’t He do something? He had a chance to heal him and He didn’t. The solution was right in front of Him. He did nothing. He had His chance, and now He’s standing there crying. What good will that do now?
Two kinds of people. Two kinds of reactions. Both saw something in Jesus. One saw His capacity to love, to grieve, to feel. The other saw His ability to restore, to heal, to repair. And seeing what they saw, they responded differently. One marveled at Jesus. The other was annoyed at Him. One saw love as deep as the ocean. The other saw one big missed opportunity. One saw the real deal. One saw a fraud.
I don’t think either one of them saw the resurrection coming.
But here’s what I do think. I think that the one who recognized Jesus’ deep love for His friend was closer to the Kingdom than the one who believed that Jesus blew the moment. Here’s why. Jesus performed a lot of miraculous signs during His walk on earth. And while the miracles drew people to Him, sometimes in hoards, it was often those that came to Him for the miracles that were the first to go when the going got rough. They didn’t commit to Him because it’s tough to commit if it’s just to the signs.
There were those who were touched personally by Jesus’ power — not just bystanders who were amazed. These were the ones who were healed of debilitating illness, who were lame and made to walk, who were blind and made to see, who had loved ones restored to health or life. They experienced Jesus’ power, yes. But they first experienced His love. They first recognized that He saw them, that He loved them, that He wanted to touch them. They experienced His power through His love.
I won’t discount the significance of Jesus’ power and of the miracles. And I won’t devise a pecking order for the attributes of God. But I am convinced that those who experienced Jesus’ love were closer to the Kingdom than those who only recognized His power.
That’s the difference between these two people standing outside the tomb, mourning the death of Lazarus and observing Jesus as He wept. One could recognize the depth of Jesus’ love. The other saw only His power, and His failure to use it.
So when I see Jesus act, or not act, what do I see?
How do I let my priorities, my experience, my opinions and my preferences affect my perspective on what God is doing?
Is the light red or green? Were you going north or south? Does the sun set in the east or the west?
What’s my vantage point?
So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” (John 11:3)
There is this one thing that underlies the whole account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. It’s there at the beginning, when He learns of Lazarus’ illness. It’s there when He calls him out of the tomb. It’s there when He doesn’t rush to Lazarus’ side but delays His visit. And it’s there when He first meets up with the man’s sisters after his death.
This one thing is how much Jesus loved Lazarus. And his sisters, Mary and Martha.
Jesus really loved them. As friends.
I know, Jesus loves everyone. And I’m not going to dive into some sort of untenable debate about whether or not God has favorites. But we know from watching Him with His disciples that Jesus was closer to some of them than others. And it’s difficult to read the account of Lazarus and not believe that Jesus has a special closeness to His friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
They were more than followers. They were more than disciples. They were more than the people who flocked to see Him wherever He went.
They were His good friends.
When the sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus, the message was almost cryptic. “The one you love is sick.” Why didn’t they call him by name? They didn’t have to. The message wasn’t cryptic to Jesus. Jesus would know who they meant. Jesus would know who was sick. Jesus would know they were talking about His good friend Lazarus. He wouldn’t be confused about which “one” He loved was ill.
Throughout chapter 11, John makes it remarkably clear that Jesus shared a very special relationship with Lazarus and his sisters. In verse 5, in case the rest of the text did make it too cryptic, John spells it out very directly: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” When He sees the grief of the sisters over the loss of their brother, Jesus is moved. He is moved to tears. His response to Mary and Martha, His mourning over the loss, causes some of those who had come to mourn with Mary and Martha to exclaim, “See how He loved him!”
One of the things you’ve likely realized is that I frequently have to stop and marvel when the capacity of the Father and the Son to experience what we do is demonstrated. I am struck when God’s personal nature is revealed. To see His love not just for His people but here for His friends, such that it moves Him to grieve with them, is something that simply compels me to fall more in love with Him.
Jesus had friends. Friends that He loved deeply.
He was God, and He had friends.
“The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:14-15)
You might be one of those folks who really doesn’t get what a degree in political science ever did for me. Today, you get to find out. It makes me fascinated by Cold War doctrines like Mutually Assured Destruction. I probably even wrote a paper or two on it for Dr. Eastby in Modern Political Thought.
I’ll squelch the yearning to give you a full scale review, and just give you the condensed version here. Mutually Assured Destruction is a theory of nuclear deterrence that assumes that two global powers (in this case, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union) each has sufficient nuclear arsenals that an attack by one would provoke massive retaliation by the other. It would ultimately lead to an escalation of sorts that would result in the “assured destruction” of both.
In order to avoid complete nuclear annihilation, both sides will refrain from a “first strike” on the other.
Now, Paul was a very sharp and perceptive guy. He often had things to say that are so relevant for our time that I’m often amazed at the remarkable insight he had into days he would never see. Clearly it comes of having God breathe his writing.
Still, I don’t know that even Paul imagined total nuclear annihilation. And yet he speaks in Galatians 5 of what looks a lot like a corollary to Mutually Assured Destruction. The history books will tell you the first reference to this type of strategy was in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. But perhaps Paul’s letter to the Galatian church was in fact the first recorded appearance of this school of thought.
I wonder if the Pentagon had seen this when they debated deterrence strategy.
Understand that Paul’s instruction doesn’t comes in the context of global powers and military strategy. Rather, it’s in the context of relationships between everyday believers in the local church.
Paul understood the destructive force of the weapons we pack and the depth of our arsenals. Maybe you’ve seen first hand what it looks like when there’s massive retaliation to a first strike in a church family.
And so maybe you know what nuclear winter really is.
Before you change the channel to C-Span for some real political thought, here’s what I’m saying. Paul tells us to watch out. If we keep on biting and devouring each other, we’ll be destroyed by each other.
He doesn’t say, “watch out, you’ll hurt somebody.”
He says, “watch out, you’ll be destroyed by each other.”
If I attack — if I bite and devour — if I criticize and gossip and name call and backbite and wound with harsh words — I’m going to be bitten back. And a cycle will ensue that guarantees our mutual destruction.
Paul says there’s a better way. It’s the same way Moses said in Leviticus 18. And it’s the same way that Jesus quoted in the gospels. Paul says it again here. And even James said it. If Moses, Paul, James and Jesus all said it, pay attention.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Mutually Assured Destruction is about preventing attack. Preventing all out annihilation by having enough destructive force of your own to scare your enemy into not using his.
But Paul’s word to us here is about preventing total destruction by being proactive, about doing the right thing in the first place for the right reasons.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Build one another up.
Don’t just satisfy yourself, but look to the needs of your brother.
Between global powers with more weapons than is good for anybody to have, maybe doctrines like Mutually Assured Destruction are necessary evils. But not for us. Not for the body of Christ. We operate on completely different principles.
We love our neighbor as ourself.
I don’t know what Dr. Eastby would think if I’d have written a paper on Mutually Assured Edification for his class instead.
But I think the Apostle Paul would’ve given the theory an A.
“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
Remember the Super Friends? It’s a classic Saturday morning cartoon with the famous super heroes from the League of Justice – Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Batman and Robin. Unbelievable power at their disposal.
I was reading a Wikipedia article on super powers. (Amazing the sort of research you have to do to write a piece like this.) It was long. Pages long, with lists of all manner of powers in the possession of a myriad of super heroes I’d never even heard of.
Everything from accelerated healing and acid generation to wall walking and water breathing.
The Super Friends actually had a couple of super heroes in training. Marvin and Wendy, and their pal Wonder Dog. Part of the formula of the show had the grown up super heroes rescuing Marvin and Wendy after they managed to get themselves into some kind of predicament while they learned the super hero craft.
Paul tells us here we were called to be free. But our freedom is a funny thing. We have it, and we’re absolutely to use it.
But sometimes we’re more like the super heroes in training. We have to be taught and reminded to use our powers for good, not for evil.
We just got done in Romans 15, looking at how we’re not to please ourselves but to please our neighbor, to build up our neighbor for his or her good, not ours. It seems to be a recurring theme.
Now, here in Galatians, we’re told that despite the boundless freedom we have in Christ, we’re not to use that for our own advantage, but to use it as a foundation from which to serve others in love.
My freedom would enable me to totally indulge me and me alone.
It’s that free.
But I am instructed – commanded – to use that freedom for the good of another.
Think about it. Sin is always to satisfy me somehow. Well, my sin is anyway. Your sin is to satisfy you. To fill some need or want we have or think we have. How better to refrain from indulging the sinful nature, satisfying me, than to turn around when tempted and immediately consider how I might serve another.
It seems that to stop sinning, I have to have an alternative. Something to do instead. Otherwise I’m right back at it.
Paul shows us this in Ephesians 4. Put off falsehood and speak truthfully. Quit stealing and start working and sharing with the poor. Stop saying unwholesome things and only say things that are helpful for building up others. Get rid of bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, and be kind and compassionate and forgive each other.
So instead of using my freedom to fill up and indulge me, I can choose to use my freedom to serve and love another. It gives me that alternative I need to turn away from sin.
My freedom requires that I do that, at the very same time it enables me to do it.
God didn’t give me super powers to be able to generate acid and breathe water. And that’s good, because I’m not so sure how I’d have use for them. But he did give me lots and lots of freedom. And He wants me to use it the way He designed it.
Marvin, Wendy, Wonder Dog and me.
Back at the Hall of Justice, we’re still learning to use our powers for good.