The compassion we’ve lost

The hands of compassionate women

have boiled their own children;

they become their food

in the destruction of my people.

Lamentations 4:10

 

Where has compassion gone?

As our country divides over three unforgettable issues (COVID-19, racism and a presidential election) in 2020, we have lost our heart. We are destroying ourselves from the inside out.

Right and wrong are irrelevant. We have lost the ability to convince others of our values.

I’ll say it again: Right and wrong are irrelevant.

Without compassion, all of us are wrong.

Compassion, according to the Webster’s dictionary on my bookshelf, is sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Instead, we ignore the distress of others. We not only have no desire to alleviate it, we add to it.

How do we regain compassion – a desire to alleviate distress in other people – in our once-great nation?

COVID-19

We’ve drawn battle lines over wearing a mask. It’s become a political “freedom” issue, not the public health issue that it truly is.

A good friend inhaled a toxic gas while serving in the Army a number of years ago, ruining his lungs. He does not wear a mask because he couldn’t breathe if he did. But he also does not pick fights with businesses that require a mask to enter.

Why is compassion so difficult? People are dying, people are getting sick. It’s a highly contagious disease. Do we want huge numbers before we acknowledge its seriousness? Whatever happened to prevention?

Countries where COVID-19 is no longer a serious threat locked themselves down for eight to 10 weeks, with nearly everyone wearing a mask and social distancing. Countries where residents think of other people – that’s compassion – bit the bullet for a time. Then, as cases waned, those countries gradually and safely opened up.

The United States is a country with 330 million individuals who aren’t willing to do that, even for a short time. Some of us did this spring, but not enough to make it work. As a result, we won’t view much college football on Saturdays this fall, and our education system is a mess trying to figure out how to begin in the next month.

There are consequences for our actions, or lack thereof.

But let’s not get tyrannical about it. If a store requires a mask to enter and you won’t wear one, respect the store’s policy. If you wear a mask and you see others not wearing one, keep your distance. Let’s not scream at each other. That solves nothing.

Racism

When George Floyd was killed this spring in Minneapolis, a firestorm of protest ignited, figuratively and literally. There are extremists on both sides, and often those are the voices we hear.

metro health

Instead, can we learn compassion for each other?

This is a hard one, because the history of racism is long and deep. It’s ingrained. I’m sorry to say that, but it is.

We whites flippantly say, well, slavery ended soon after the Civil War, so get over it. Legally, maybe, but our hearts did not change, and still haven’t in many of us.

Compassion is sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. This starts with listening to each other, to your story and mine. Without anger. Without prejudice. Without judgment.

On both sides.

Do you have friends of other races and ethnicities? Can you work together on the job, and take instruction from each other? Be honest.

If not, do the rest of us a favor and keep silent (including on social media). If you do, let’s show compassion for each other in our leisure activities and our work spaces.

In the words of a song I learned as a child, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”

Presidential election

­Neither side has the full truth.

Democrats are not anti-life. Republicans are not narrow-minded Bible thumpers.

While Democrats support abortion as an option to end life, they do much better than Republicans do in the public arena should that baby be born. Dems know that all of us have immigrant backgrounds, some more recent than others. Guns in rural areas are used for sport or for hunting deer and other animals, generally. Guns in cities are used to kill other people (unless you’re into skeet shooting, or something similar). There are problems with mail-in voting, sure. So, fix them. Don’t throw out the whole system, or ruin the U.S. Postal Service over it.

Black lives do matter. Again, both sides have extremists on this issue. Let’s learn how to share leadership (a huge issue for white people) with respect, not resentment, on all sides.

With compassion.

Scripture clearly opposes same-sex marriage, but be careful how you apply that. Jesus talked with a Samaritan woman at a well who had five husbands and was living with a sixth man. In another scene, Jesus was introduced to a woman caught in adultery. Did he cast the first stone? He did not.

Do these stories mean Jesus supports divorce and adultery?

No. Jesus cares about people, since all of us have issues. By meeting our deepest needs, Jesus helps us understand the difference between right and wrong.

Jesus showed compassion in the face of sin. He told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:11)

That’s compassion.

Where is that standard of righteousness, with forgiveness and empathy, today?

I’ve seen people bash the ethics of either President Trump or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. We’ve been finding fault with our leaders for generations. I’ve often wondered why anyone would even want that job.

Where is empathy?

Compassion has not been a strong suit of Americans for a long time.

Except, perhaps, on the athletic field.

When a player suffers a serious injury during a game, it’s not unusual to see athletes from both teams gather together, kneel and say a prayer for healing. When the athlete is placed on a stretcher and taken off the field, the fans in the stands – whether the player is wearing a home or visitor’s uniform – clap as a sign of respect.

It often takes a tragedy to draw us together.

Sept. 11, 2001, united us as a nation against a common enemy.

COVID-19 should have brought us together in a similar way against a common enemy, even though a coronavirus is unseen. But at some point in recent years, we lost the desire to fight for each other.

When four police officers killed George Floyd, we stopped for a moment and listened. Some of us did, anyway. But we as a nation won’t acknowledge racism as a common enemy, so that’s not a fight we’re prepared to win at the moment. (Respect goes both ways. There are deep, deep issues here.)

And the presidential election has turned into an ugly social media battle.

We must get beyond tweets and memes. We must listen to each other’s distress, then seek to alleviate it. If I do that for you and you do that for me …

We will be showing compassion for each other. And we will be a United States of America again.

Why we should wear a mask

   People who don’t believe that masks make a difference believe so because they CHOOSE not to believe that they do make a difference. No matter how much evidence you present to them proving that their way of thinking is incorrect, they will continue to disregard any and all information that contradicts their chosen mindset.

This is one of those times where SCIENCE, the BIBLE and COMMON SENSE walk hand and hand.

One of my friends posted this comment last week on social media (he gave me permission to use it). I’m discovering the truth in those words.

Those who don’t get it won’t get it.

Despite that, let’s do a little research and check it out. I’ll be preaching to the choir, because anti-maskers are going to leave this post right here.

SCIENCE

In an editorial published (July 14) in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), CDC reviewed the latest science and affirms that cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities. There is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” said CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Masks work best when “used universally within communities.” Those of you who say masks don’t work are a self-fulfilling prophesy – you are the reason that masks aren’t working as well as they should.

Here’s a case study that proves masks work:

Among 139 clients exposed (in May) to two symptomatic hair stylists (in Springfield, Missouri) with confirmed COVID-19 while both the stylists and the clients wore face masks, no symptomatic secondary cases were reported; among 67 clients tested for SARS-CoV-2, all test results were negative. Adherence to the community’s and company’s face-covering policy likely mitigated spread of SARS-CoV-2.

A study led by a Texas A&M professor, reported June 12 in Science Daily, found that using a face mask reduced the number of infections by more than 78,000 in Italy from April 6-May 9 and by over 66,000 in New York City from April 17-May 9 …

“We conclude that wearing a face mask in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent inter-human transmission,” wrote Renyi Zhang, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M.

“This inexpensive practice, in conjunction with social distancing and other procedures, is the most likely opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work also highlights that sound science is essential in decision-making for the current and future public health pandemics …”

Zhang said the results should send a clear message to people worldwide — wearing a face mask is essential in fighting the virus.

The BIBLE

Jesus silenced some Pharisees and Herodians with this admonition: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

The apostle Paul agreed with Jesus when he wrote, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities … (Romans 13:1)

The question regarding masks and governing authorities gets tricky, because we as Americans received (and still receive) conflicting advice from our political leaders.

In Ohio, ironically, the conflicting advice came from two Republicans. Which to believe? That is the source of our political divide over this issue.

Gov. Mike DeWine hired a medical doctor, Dr. Amy Acton, as his public health director. During the early days and weeks of the COVID pandemic, DeWine, leaning on Acton’s reports, was one of the first leaders nationwide to recognize its severity. He was first in the nation to close public schools, for example.

DeWine and Acton held daily press conferences to explain their motives and decisions. Dr. Acton, especially, emphasized wearing a mask – over and over and over, she pleaded with us to wear a mask in public. She and the governor offered charts, graphics, statistics and case studies to prove their point.

(I randomly picked a press conference from May 11 if you’d like to see what those conferences looked like.)

In contrast, President Donald Trump offered no such press conferences, and no such advice. I have nothing to show you here because he didn’t offer anything. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly disagreed with his own medical director, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The latest clash came today, Aug. 2. According to Market Watch:

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for three decades (and) who worked on the front lines of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 to 2016 and the anthrax attacks two decades ago, testified before Congress last week that the U.S. should have taken speedier and more comprehensive action to close businesses when coronavirus first appeared in the U.S. earlier this year.

On Twitter, Trump on Aug. 1, which Market Watch quoted, wrote this:

Wrong! We have more cases because we have tested far more than any other country, 60,000,000. If we tested less, there would be less cases. How did Italy, France & Spain do? Now Europe sadly has flare ups. Most of our governors worked hard & smart. We will come back STRONG!

CBS News responded:

Dr. Fauci explains (in a posted video) why the U.S. has continued to see a surge in cases while European countries have seen a sharp decrease. He says most European countries shut their economy by 95%, while functionally the U.S. only shut its economy down by 50%.

Did Europe’s economy collapse? No, because the 95 percent shutdown didn’t last long – thanks to widespread use of masks and social distancing. We in the United States still haven’t opened back up fully, because we won’t comply on a widespread basis.

What does this have to do with the Bible? Truth. Accountability. Loving other people. Serving other people.

That’s the point of wearing a mask – to protect other people as well as ourselves, which is a Biblical principle. Our Republican governor understands this; our Republican president does not.

COMMON SENSE

The COVID-19 pandemic is worldwide. It’s not a hoax perpetrated by Democrats to oust President Trump. The United States ranks eighth in the world in COVID deaths per million population, even though our actual numbers are higher than any other nation now. As of July 31, the U.S. has nearly 152,000 deaths from COVID, and is averaging 1,339 deaths per day. Closest on the chart in actual numbers to us is Brazil, with 91,000 cases and 1,129 deaths per day – with about two-thirds the population of the United States.

COVID is highly contagious and spreads quickly. It’s skyrocketing throughout the South and West, and disproportionately affects Hispanics and Blacks in this country.

Despite that, fewer people proportionally are dying from COVID, but Americans keep not only testing positive for it, but are suffering from the illness – sometimes for months.

The long-term effects of COVID, of course, aren’t known yet. But they are, and will be, very real.

Unlike many other nations around the world, we continue to suffer the consequences of not taking this virus seriously. It eventually will peak and we will return to “normal,” but at what cost?

The fact that we are an individual-rights country instead of a team-player nation is costing us dearly.

We just don’t care, do we?

Photo: Protesters sit in Father Duffy Square in Times Square on July 28 as New York City enters Phase 4 of reopening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus. The fourth phase allows outdoor arts and entertainment, sporting events without fans, and media production. (The Associated Press)

Acting out our faith

A quick run through the New Testament, featuring the book of Acts:

The Holy Spirit

  • The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus first, because the Holy Spirit and Jesus both are God. This is beyond our ability to understand – but it’s true anyway. Our God is that big; in some ways, we cannot understand Him. But because He was as human as He was divine, there are plenty of things we can understand about Him.
  • Living in the Spirit is moment-by-moment fellowship with Jesus. We can pray deep prayers in scheduled “quiet times,” and we also can hold a conversation with Him as the day rolls on.
  • The same Spirit who lived in the apostles lives in you and me today. Which means we have the same power and authority that the apostles did.
  • The same Spirit in Christ lives in me. Since the Spirit is God, and Christ is God, therefore Christ – the same Christ who died on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago – lives in me.

Deception, trials, sin

  • The apostles had no idea Judas would betray Jesus. They asked: Is it I, Lord? Judas, without the Spirit, deceived them. (Later, Ananias and Saphira tried to deceive over material possessions, and were found out – Acts 5).
  • Simon (Acts 8) wanted Jesus and his own magic at the same time. God and … doesn’t work.
  • Trials are like taking our faith to the gym. That’s how we grow. The flood meant Noah and his family could never return to their old life.

The Gospel

  • The resurrection is fact, not emotion. This means our faith is based on fact, not hearsay or feelings.
  • The most hated truth in the Bible is hell. This is what we are saved from.
  • We cannot save ourselves. And the world cannot save us, either. Only Jesus can.
  • We are to share our faith, not consume it. We are not sponges; we need to be wrung out.
  • Christianity is more than doctrine or beliefs. It’s a way of living. Who are you, Lord? – is the most important question we can ask.
  • Salvation requires no action on our part – only to believe. It’s 100 percent a God thing. It’s inward, not outward.
  • Jesus is the message. The apostle Paul, a scholar, claimed to know nothing except Jesus and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
  • Jesus rose to live forever – not like Lazarus, who rose on Earth for a short time.
  • Christianity is not behavior modification. A changed heart is the result.
  • Why do some people discount the Gospel? For several reasons: We don’t want to face our sins or be held accountable; we want to do something for it; and/or resurrection is not logical.

Living the Christian lifestyle

  • Jesus said rivers of living water will flow from believers’ hearts (John 7:37-39). Living water, by definition, gives life, comforts and soothes. It moves. It quenches thirst, permanently.
  • The first believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (about Jesus), fellowship (sharing life), the breaking of bread (communion) and prayer (Christ-centered). This modeled unprecedented unity, which Jesus prayed for in John 17.
  • No one in Acts prayed for safety or good health – only for courage to share the Gospel boldly.
  • God can use anything – peace or trials. With trials, passion and purpose will come into sharp focus.
  • “Rights” are not for me, but for others, to promote the Gospel (1 Corinthians 8-9).
  • We are to keep ourselves unstained from the world (James 1:27). We are to live in the world, but not be consumed by its values.
  • If my heart is right, my words and actions will come out naturally. I don’t have to “practice” evangelism. I need to know the basics and how Jesus has changed my life. I need to live that way, and talk that way too.
  • Sin distorts the message of the Gospel. We must acknowledge this and seek forgiveness – first from God, then from others. Not just once, but repeatedly.
  • God’s will benefits everyone. Sin is not God’s will. He allows sin so that we can accept forgiveness, then change our lifestyles.
  • We do not follow people who point to Christ; we follow Christ Himself.

Servants of God

  • Abraham and Moses’ ministries began when they were old. God takes the long view.
  • Stephen did not defend himself, but defended Jesus and His crucifixion and resurrection. Unlike the religious leaders of his day, Stephen did not worship the temple itself, but the living God.
  • Stephen had no fear of death – he was already dead to sin and alive in Christ.
  • Stephen personified all of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
  • Cornelius, a non-Jew, and Peter both had lessons to learn (Acts 10), even though Peter was an early church leader.
  • Peter escapes from prison but the apostle James, one of Jesus’ inner three, is killed (Acts 12). The believers undoubtedly were praying for both, with different “answers” from God. We can’t understand all of God’s answers to prayer.
  • Paul valued serving God over his own safety.
  • God allowed Paul to remain in prison (Acts 25) for several reasons: he was safe there (many people wanted him dead), he wrote epistles there, and his friends were allowed to care for him there.
  • The people of Malta judged Paul twice after he was bitten by a viper (Acts 28:1-10). He was a murderer, the gods were bringing justice; then, when nothing happened, they worshipped him as a god. Both judgments were wrong.

Hope

  • Jesus is preparing a place for us in heaven.
  • We could lose our wealth or health overnight. Hope in God is not like that; once Jesus changes our hearts, we are sealed for heaven forever.
  • Hope is confident expectation, not wishful thinking.

Who God is

  • The law shows our need. Jesus meets our need.
  • The church fails, people fail, things fail, but the word of God never fails.
  • God sits on a throne of grace (forgiving us for our sins), not wrath (Heb. 4:14-5:10).

Faith

  • Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11). It’s outlandish: Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, his promised son, on faith that God would keep His promise of many descendants. Abraham obeyed, and God honored that (by stopping the sacrifice before it actually happened).
  • The Bereans tested Paul’s words with Scripture (Acts 17), then believed Paul when they discovered his words matched what they read about the living God.
  • Faith requires some belief.
  • Faith is not knowledge – even the demons know who Jesus is (James 1-2). Faith is living by knowledge.

WWJD is not a cliche

If Jesus Christ was to visit the United States in the flesh today, where would he go? What would he do? Who would he spend his time with?

I’ve been pondering this question for many years, and try to pattern my life after the answer. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Jesus spent a fair amount of time in the synagogue, the church of his day. He preached, taught and argued there. He healed people there (despite the over-abundance of rules of the Pharisees and Sadducees). He toppled money tables in there.

Jesus was out there

But as I read the gospels – which is where we learn what Jesus did on Earth – I see that he spent most of his time on the road, outside the walls of the church. He met in homes, including those of Mary and Martha, and Matthew. He taught the masses on hillsides. He healed a demoniac near his own home (a cave). He spent time on the Sea of Galilee, preaching from a boat, walking on water and calming a storm.

He walked. He talked. He prayed, alone at night on mountains and in gardens. He poured into his 12 disciples, especially to his three leaders – Peter, James and John.

He healed people. Lots of people. Gave sight to the blind, and healthy limbs to the lame. Raised one or two from the dead.

He met people where they were. A Samaritan woman at a well outside her village, a place no self-respecting Jew would dare go. Nicodemus at night. Family and friends at a wedding.

Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went to them, spoke to their deepest needs, then told them, “Follow me.” Some did, many didn’t. Jesus did not chase after those who walked away. He let them go, and headed to the next town.

Truth, not judgment

But everyone who met Jesus was forced to choose. Will I follow him, or will I walk away? A rich young man turned away when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, since the young man had made his wealth his god. Did the young man ever repent and turn to Jesus later? The Bible doesn’t say.

Jesus didn’t judge. He put himself out there, claiming to be God, and let us choose.

And got himself killed for it.

What would Jesus do in 2020? He would follow a similar pattern that he followed when he walked around Israel and neighboring areas, I’m sure.

He’d visit our churches. He’d listen to what we were teaching about him. If we’d let him, Jesus would preach about himself to us. He’d shock us with his radical message. Yes, even though we have access to the Scriptures, we’d be shocked not only at what Jesus said, but the way he said it. He spoke with authority, after all. He’d get our attention.

We’d plot against him, because he likely would say things that anger us as church leaders. We are caught up in our own egos and power surges, just like the scribes and Pharisees were.

Jesus would teach, and equip

Therefore, Jesus would hit the streets.

He would visit our houses and apartments, teaching us in small groups. He’d show up in public parks and preach in fields and on hillsides. He might even do an evangelistic crusade in a big football stadium (once COVID-19 passes on, of course).

He’d challenge us, as his followers, to feed his sheep. He’d equip us to do his work, then send us out.

He would not judge our hypocrisy – unless we know better. Then, he’d let us have it.

He might heal some physical infirmities, but probably not do a lot of that. We’re too good at explaining that away. Instead, he’d reach for our hearts – our lost, broken, sinful, searching, damaged hearts. That’s where Jesus would do his greatest work.

And where he’d challenge us, his followers, to obey his commands.

A deep connection

Jesus would visit inner cities. Lots of people there, plenty of searching souls there. He’d stop in rural places too, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I used to live. He’d get there, eventually. Jesus understood farming and growing plants, common activities in the days when he did walk the Earth.

He’d adapt to modern technology. He’d drive a car, maybe fly in an airplane to meet people in airports and in the skies.

Would he avail himself of social media? I wrestle with that one. Jesus is much more personal than that. He never preached to masses from a living room – he preached face to face. He wanted to see our reactions. No mumbling under our breath out of sight. No scrolling. No hiding behind memes. Jesus wants our hearts, and he knows how to reach them.

In the United States, Jesus would meet us where we are. In our workplaces. In our theaters and sports arenas. In the grocery store.

Again, he’s not judging any of our choices – of entertainment, food or anything else. He’s seeking our hearts.

When we encounter Jesus, we know intuitively what he would do. We know right away what good and bad choices are. We can judge these things for ourselves. The decision is yours and mine. Will we follow Jesus, or not?

Our challenge

This is what Jesus would do if he were here in the flesh today. He’d draw us to himself, and to his father, the living God. He’d give us the Holy Spirit so we could understand these things.

As his followers, he’d challenge us to draw our friends, family and other people we meet to himself, and to his father. If we explain the Holy Spirit to someone, Jesus is right there to give it – that is, to give himself.

That’s why Jesus is not here right now, actually. If Jesus was everywhere, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t be necessary. But Jesus was a man. Men (and women) can be in only one place at a time. That’s why he sends his followers out, so God can be everywhere at once.

But because we haven’t seen him in the flesh for about 2,000 years, we’ve grown complacent. We’ve misrepresented him. Even in our churches. Especially in our churches.

When Jesus walked the Earth, he was all compassion for people outside the church. He gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. He didn’t compromise his theology, but he explained it and showed it in ways that made it attractive.

Our shortcomings

To believers who knew the Scriptures, Jesus wasn’t so patient. He explained to them how the Scriptures were being fulfilled in their hearing, in his very presence. They didn’t buy it. Instead, they eventually crucified him.

If Jesus visited the United States in the flesh today, we’d crucify him again. I have no doubt. We think we know better.

This is why I never have been, and never will be, an ordained pastor or employed church worker. Bless you if you are; you have a wonderful calling. But Jesus spent most of his time outside the church, and so must I.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, inside the church and outside. We have the same message today that Jesus presented in the four gospels. Let’s take it out there, share it – and live it.

Let’s make it attractive.

Jesus is not very attractive these days. That’s our fault, as followers. Jesus isn’t here in the flesh to right our ship. He has already given us the blueprint. Let’s open our eyes and ears, listen and follow.

There is no Plan B.

The greatest miracle

When Jesus comes back – and he will, he promised – it will be too late for many of us.

Heart change is not instantaneous; that’s not how God works despite today’s instant-gratification society. We need to be different. A good different. Attractive. Appealing.

I won’t change your mind about anything. That’s God’s job. All I can do is show you God, in my sinful, pathetic way.

And yet, that’s often good enough.

When Christians talk of miracles, that’s the biggest one, right there. Jesus uses fallen, sinful people to share his message – and if you are paying attention, you’ll understand. You’ll see it. You’ll get it.

This is the Jesus we worship, the Jesus we live and die for.

If Jesus visited your town today, would you welcome him?

‘I wish I’d known then what I know now’

A few thoughts and observations as I try to make sense of these unusual times:

 

Selflessness is something that you’re in control of. Unity is not. It requires other people. You can be selfless, but you can’t force people to be unified. What people have to see is why it’s good for them to be unified.

sunset 1

Bill Bradley, former NBA player and U.S. senator, in “AARP Bulletin” July/August 2020, p. 39

 

***

 

Two elementary-age boys I was watching enjoyed time together on swings at a local playground. I sat on a nearby bench, keeping an eye on them and daydreaming.

After a few minutes another family came to the playground – three children, about 8, 5, and 3, I’d guess, with their mom. Speaking Spanish. Girl-boy-girl. After some time climbing and ringing the bell, the boy came up to me and gave me a hug. I’ve never seen this family before; they have no idea who I am, what my name is, what my background is.

A little later, the youngest girl ran up and also hugged me. Their mom, on another side of the playground, called out, “Sorry.” In English. “They’re fine,” I responded.

Jesus said we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Another time, He scolded His disciples for preventing children from coming to Him. These Puerto Rican children showed me what Jesus was talking about. Unconditional love. Who I was didn’t matter to them. They hugged me anyway.

Even in these social distancing COVID-19 times. They hugged me anyway.

 

***

downtown 7

Very few (black people) had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging

lorain4screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

Toni Morrison of Lorain, Ohio, in “Beloved,” a Nobel Prize-winning novel, page 234

 

***

mural 2

As I said about the other attributes of the Deity, mercy is not something God has but something God is. If mercy was something God had, conceivably God might mislay it or use it up. It might become less or more. But since it is something that God is, then we must remember that it is uncreated. The mercy of God did not come into being. The mercy of God always was in being, for mercy is what God is, and God is eternal. And God is infinite.

 

A.W. Tozer, in “The Attributes of God, Volume 1,” page 77

 

***

 

I went for a jog this morning. Too hot. Got a little light-headed. I walked more than usual. It’s happened before, so I wasn’t worried. Said “hi” to everyone I passed on the path, as always. A few dog walkers, a couple of bicyclists, many other walkers of all ages.

A few wore masks; most of us didn’t. We social-distanced. I jog/walk alone. Prefer it that way. Go my own pace. Just me and God. Don’t have to keep up with anyone else.

 

***

 

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 7:15-25

 

lighthouse 062020 - 1

***

 

This couldn’t be happening. I had studied for this. I had put in the hours. I was paying my dues and was absolutely certain the Lord had steered me toward doing this for a career, for a livelihood. Obviously, then, I had either heard Him wrong, or He had set me up to fail. What does a singer and broadcast professional do when nothing she feels called to is working out? I was barely in my twenties. And already feeling washed up.

I wish I’d known then what I know now.

Priscilla Shirer, in “Life Interrupted,” page 3

Hope rising from the pain

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Galatians 6:7-8

 

If we sow violence, we reap violence. If we sow finger-pointing, we reap finger-pointing. If we sow anger, that’s what we reap. If we sow peace, we receive peace (in the Spirit, if not in practice).

We don’t get this. If we raise a Bible outside (or inside) a church, we think God is automatically on our side. If we defend every lifestyle under the sun, we think that defines love.

If we actually opened our Bibles and tried to understand its meaning, we’d see that both sides have missed the point.

All is not lost, however. Many of us do get it.

Especially in the past week or so. As George Floyd is laid to rest, we as a nation are taking a collective breath.

Perhaps for the first time since the Civil Rights Act was passed after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, we are learning to listen to each other. Equality, justice and mutual respect are gaining traction, but we still have a long way to go. A very long way.

We see violence on cell phone and store camera videos, but racism goes much deeper than that. An offhand comment here. A derogatory word there. A promotion not received. Educational disparities. Housing discrimination. A look in a donut shop or grocery store.

listening 5

I attended a listening event last week in my city, where I heard about two dozen people share stories, many stories, including young people facing racism from peers, teachers and administrators at school; parents who did not receive justice in the courthouse next door; people who suffered silently from random events around town …

I’ve heard stories from friends with a different skin color than mine, people who are successful in life, people full of caring hearts and kind words. Even they have stories. I had no idea.

Recent stories. Current stories.

We have such a long way to go.

We focus on institutional changes, and those need to happen. Accountability in our police departments. Changes to our educational systems. Prosecution of looters and vandals – and how to prevent those people from showing up at future demonstrations and riots. Hires and promotions earned regardless of skin color.

These are big-picture, long-term issues that our nation must address.

We reap what we sow.

And yet … we cannot legislate morality. Changing laws will do only so much.

 

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!

2 Corinthians 5:16-17

 

Even more than new (or better) laws, we need new (or better) hearts.

The human point of view is selfish, me first, I’m right and know what’s best. This goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Every human, man and woman, who has ever lived understands this. Myself included. Every time I run a red (or pink) light I’m saying that my values and purpose are more important than society’s values, that the light has to turn green for someone else and I have to stop and wait while other drivers pass through the intersection.

I roll my eyes, get impatient. Especially when traffic clears and the light stays red.

Selfishness is that easy. I need a heart change.

Time to breathe.

Society does not revolve around me. I have to keep reminding myself of that, and still I don’t learn.

We wave the Bible in public, making a mockery of God’s written word because we won’t open the pages and actually read what’s inside it.

Those who condemn our president’s recent Bible-toting photo op in front of a Washington, D.C., church often aren’t modeling Christian values either.

There’s plenty of anger and finger-pointing on both sides. The anger and, yes, hatred on both sides have simmered for years; George Floyd’s horrific death was the lightning rod that triggered our hearts to act on our anger.

Righteous anger? Yes, far too often.

As a white man, it’s not up to me to analyze what’s going on and decide how to fix it.

White men have run this country since it was formed. Let’s be honest. In all other societies throughout history, the only way a minority group takes power is by force – figuring out how to overthrow the ruling oppressors.

We in the United States are working to share leadership, power and authority. It’s not natural, and it’s certainly not coming easily.

It requires a heart change. We can’t legislate morality. We can write in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal …” but until we actually treat each other that way, such statements are nothing more than pipe dreams.

This requires humility. The willingness to listen. To let others lead. To respect opinions and decisions different than ours.

None of that happens without a heart change.

I am encouraged. In the midst of police brutality and destruction of small businesses despite our not-quite-over-yet isolation from COVID-19, I see many people listening. I see police chiefs and officers marching with protesters, not against them. I see many people helping clean up broken windows and stores. I see blacks, whites, Asians and others talking, listening, meeting together, seeking to find similarities instead of differences.

In the midst of struggle and pain, I see hope.

We have such a long way to go.

But we have to start somewhere.

Will history look back at this moment as a turning point in our country?

This is my prayer.  Let’s make it happen.

Who is God, anyway?

“We try to promote religion, forgetting that it rests upon the character of God. If I have a low concept of God, my religion can only be a cheap, watery affair. But if my concept of God is worthy of God then it can be noble and dignified; it can be reverent, profound, beautiful. This is what I want to see once more among men. Pray that way, won’t you?”

The Attributes of God, volume 1, by A.W. Tozer, p. 195

 

So, what is the character of God?

According to Tozer, it’s infinity and immensity, grace and mercy, justice and goodness, everywhere and inside us, holy and perfect.

All of those things together, beyond measure, full and complete, the very definition of each of those attributes.

How can we comprehend that?

We can’t. Not with our finite minds.

This should be our concept of God.

God is …

God is not measured by time or space. He cannot be measured by anything at all. He is outside of space. God is as intimate with the farthest galaxy as he is with you and me, and our deepest thoughts, here on Earth.

When the apostles wrote in the New Testament that they were living in the last hour (1 John 2:18), they weren’t exaggerating. We are living in the last hour too. So were Adam and Eve. Time, from beginning to end, is a blip on God’s radar screen. A thousand years are like a day to God, the Psalmist says (Psalm 90:4).

God is grace. God is mercy. God is justice. All the time. God has never been more full of grace than He is now, and He will never have more grace in the future than He does now. He does not have more grace now than he did when He created Adam and Eve.

book A

To say God is full of grace is to miss the point. “Full” is a measurement; it assumes that at one point, God was not full. Which isn’t true. That’s why God is grace. He’s never not been full of grace.

Or mercy. Or justice. Or holiness. Or perfection.

We are sinners, which is why grace, mercy and justice are needed. God has done the work to provide them to us. If we accept His gift (Jesus’ death and resurrection), we are forgiven and can look forward to an eternal home in heaven. If we reject His gift, God honors that too. With a home in hell.

If you reject God, you wouldn’t be happy in heaven living in God’s presence all the time, would you? So you won’t be.

Unless you change your mind.

We cannot attain the attributes of God on our own. Not the way God has them, or is them.

We are …

In contrast, God gives us Solomon as an example. We Americans could learn a lot from him, by reading the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.

Solomon, considered by many to be the wisest man who ever lived, wrote this as his life’s goal: I said to myself: “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. (Ecclesiastes 1:16-17)

If Solomon had been satisfied with wisdom, he’d have been all right, I think, in his pursuit of God. But he also wanted to know madness and folly.

monopoly A

God granted him both wishes. He had great wealth, wives and slaves, great cities under his control, any pleasure he wanted … and none of it satisfied him.

 

Is this not what the United States is all about? Life, liberty and the pursuit of (my) happiness – exactly the things Solomon sought. Wisdom and madness.

We pursue a fast-food hamburger that leaves us hungry a short time later and miss the rainbow that reveals God’s timeless beauty and love.

At the end of his life, Solomon had a revelation: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

All his life, Solomon took his eyes off of the great, eternal God, and focused on cheap, imitation earthly things. That’s why he was never satisfied. He kept searching for what was with him all the time: God’s presence. And he missed it.

God does …

While God is outside of time and space, He also is intimately involved with us. He knows our every thought and deed, whether good or evil. He even knows how many hairs are on our heads (Luke 12:7).

God is not three parts. He is one, in different forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I can try to explain this, but I can’t do it. Neither could Tozer.

God knew before he created Adam and Eve that we all would need redemption. Jesus didn’t come to this earth kicking and screaming like an angry parent scolding a wayward child. He came because He wanted to redeem us, to draw us into fellowship with Him. He came because He loves us, with an unconditional love that we cannot understand.

Why does God love us like that? There’s no point even asking that question, Tozer writes. We cannot know. God’s love for us is beyond our comprehension. Why the God of the universe, who has always existed outside of time and who lives outside of space, wants to invite us into His realm is unfathomable.

But He does.

And God did the work to do that when He entered a woman’s body, then lived, died and was resurrected to pay the price for my sins, which otherwise would leave me guilty when God judges the world.

To what end?

Not just salvation. If salvation was the end goal, each redeemed sinner would immediately get transported to heaven.

We do …

No, we are to live redeemed lives, that others may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.

We are to pursue God. We are to become more like Him, take on His character traits – goodness, mercy, grace, justice.

Holiness and perfection we cannot ever attain.

We can, to a limited degree, understand goodness, mercy, grace and justice – not as God understands them, but in a now-we-see-in-a-mirror-dimly kind of way.

God holds many mysteries, traits we will never understand about Him. That’s a good thing. His justice, for example, is not clouded by our version of truth, but by the whole truth – which only He knows. As a human, I can hide my motives from you, prevent you from ever seeing my secret heart. But the living God sees it. And judges accordingly, rightly, as only He can.

Which is why grace is so powerful, and so beyond our ability to comprehend.

This is the character of God.

 

“Oh God, send us out not only to make converts, but to glorify the Father and to hold up the beauty of Jesus Christ to men.”

The Attributes of God, volume 1, by A.W. Tozer, p. 196

 

Easter, every day

Christians proclaim “He is risen” one day a year. The tomb is empty. Sins are forgiven. Good Friday is defeated. Jesus lives forever.

So what?

I’m serious. If Easter is a one-day celebration, what’s the big deal?

Here’s a reminder: Easter is a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year event. We should post these “He is risen” memes every day.

The effects of that Easter morning about 2,000 years ago reverberate into the 21st century. It’s far from a one-time event.

All in

For some, “religion” is a once-a-week thing. Show up for an hour, give an offering, I’m good for the week.

risen 5Nothing in the Bible, which explains Easter in detail, allows for that. Jesus is an all-or-nothing relationship. Jesus gave his life for us. He didn’t have to, but he cares for us that much.

 

The Bible demands we do the same. Follow in Jesus’ footsteps, if you will. Give to those less fortunate, time and money. Serve widows and orphans (those groups are mentioned by name more than once.)

With our schedules turned upside down by the novel coronavirus, how are we doing?

There’s a high school junior near here who plays the bagpipes each evening for his neighbors. Many of us call or text people we haven’t connected with in awhile – I’ve received a few of those calls too. We donate to food banks. We make masks for hospitals and other first responders. We buy groceries for our elderly neighbors.

Many people are serving orphans, widows and others very well during this time of need. It’s heart-warming to see.

Just the beginning

What will happen when stay-in-place orders are lifted? Will we continue serving our neighbors? I hope so.

Or will we go back to our old habits? Traditionally we go from crisis to crisis, forgetting any lessons learned as we make our living, feed our families and hope we get some free time on the weekend.

risen 2

Easter has come and gone, and we don’t talk about it anymore. We should. Every day.

Jesus had 12 disciples in his inner circle, men who left their families and professions to follow him and learn from him. After the resurrection, their lives were transformed.

They couldn’t stop talking about it. They faced opposition, torture and even death. Didn’t matter. They kept talking and living their new lives, because now they had a purpose that transcended themselves.

Easter was not the final word. Easter was just the beginning of their story.

And ours.

New priorities

risen 6

They lived differently. They shared their possessions with each other. Not because a virus forced them to, but because their faith in the risen Savior encouraged them to share.

They did so without even thinking about it. Their priorities had changed that dramatically. They held on to their own possessions loosely. They supported themselves and their families, and shared their surplus with widows and orphans, and others.

They did something else, too. They talked about their new-found faith with everyone they could. Some believed; many did not. That’s the way it goes.

The power of Easter

I just finished a lengthy study of the book of Acts, where those first disciples (and many others) received God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which helped them understand what Jesus had done.

One of the stars of Acts is Paul, an intellectual religious figure who knew the Scriptures and persecuted these new “Christians” because they weren’t behaving appropriately. Paul, however, had a dramatic encounter with the resurrected Jesus that changed his life overnight.

Some Christians today have a similar experience. For others, faith is a gradual process. God knows our hearts and what it will take for each of us to find him. He’s patient, and creative. But he won’t force you (or anyone else) to follow him.

risen 4

If your eyes get opened like those first apostles’ eyes did at Pentecost, look out! Your life will change. Forever.

That’s the power of Easter.

The apostle Paul was given a very clear mission: “… for (Paul) is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)

Paul did that for the rest of his life. He was imprisoned for his faith. He was beaten. He was kicked out of town. He was shipwrecked.

Through it all, he kept his eyes on Jesus.

And he preached. That was his mission.

What did he preach? The resurrection of Jesus. Over and over and over. In synagogues, in city halls, in the streets, in private homes, on an island, in prison … he kept preaching.

 

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 2:2

 

Paul, if he lived today, probably would have graduated from Harvard. Very smart, very intellectual. For a man like that to say he would proclaim only the resurrection of Jesus – everything else was a waste of time (“I count it all as loss”) – was astounding.

This is what the empty tomb does.

Paul did not throw away his intellect or intelligence. His focus changed, that’s all. No longer did he spend his time trying to follow all the rules and regulations of his religion, which was an impossible task anyway. Now, he followed Jesus – and talked about the cross and the empty tomb.

Paul used the gifts and talents that God gave him to worship God and live for him. We as believers today do that too. Every single day, not just on Easter.

He is risen. He is risen today. And every day.

That tomb will never contain Jesus’ body again.

Go ahead and look. You won’t find it.

Instead, you will find Jesus alive – in a different form, as the Holy Spirit – in your heart. Jesus the Son of God has returned to heaven, where he holds a place at his father’s right hand (Acts 7:55, Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20 and other places).

This is why Christians worship the living God today. The tomb is empty.

Easter has just begun.

The ACTS of Jesus, and us

Adoration

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 22:14-16

 

Lord Jesus, You were in control of Your life, even as You prepared to die. You are all-knowing, all-powerful, with wisdom beyond our feeble understanding.

You listened to Your Father, who wrote the plan for Your life – and for mine. You are creator, Lord, of the Earth and everything in it, including us. Your desire was not for anyone to suffer, and yet when suffering entered this world, you embraced it – for Your glory.

Your Father created a perfect kingdom, then invited us weak, sinful human beings to enter it. All we have to do is accept Your invitation.

Jesus, You are our savior. You entered our world and became one of us. You offer us meaning and purpose in this life, and the promise of a glorious, never-ending day of joy once we leave this earth.

For all of this, we give You praise.

Confession

When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.” … The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:55-57, 61-62

 

Jesus, how weak we are. It’s so easy to look at Peter and judge his lack of faith, his fear in the moments before You died. But would I have acted any differently? No, I would not.

I give Peter credit for even being there, for hanging around a death scene. Like the other apostles, I very likely would have fled long before then. Not seeing the big picture. Not understanding why You had to die, or comprehending the resurrection You talked about.

No, Lord, I am a sinner, in need of forgiveness. I think of myself far too often. My own “needs.” My emotional roller-coaster ride. I deserve nothing from You. In the daily battles, it’s easy to leave You behind. To forget that You are supposed to be my Lord as well as my Savior.

Does everyone I meet know that I know You? I’m sure they don’t, Lord. Some do, but many don’t.

How often I have denied You.

Unlike Peter, I have yet to weep bitterly over this. Perhaps that is my greatest sin.

Thanksgiving

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.

Luke 23:26

 

Lord, Simon of Cyrene was there to help You in Your darkest hour. Something about him drew the Roman soldiers to pick him out of the crowd, to carry Jesus’ cross.

Thank You, Father, for Simon. For his availability. For his strength to carry the heavy wooden cross – he was physically able to do that, or he wouldn’t have been chosen.

Simon of Cyrene entered Jesus’ story in His time of greatest need. None of His disciples were there. None of His most high-profile followers. Simon was a man in a crowd, just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, along the road to Golgotha, the place of the cross. But You, Father, picked him out of the crowd. The soldiers thought they chose him, but it was You, Father, who put Simon of Cyrene there, in the right place at the right time.

You do that with me as well, Father. Thank You for choosing me, for picking me out of a crowd – not because I did anything to be noticed, but just because I was there. Available. That’s all You ask.

Jesus, I can’t say I’m strong enough to carry Your cross. But in a way, that’s what You ask each of Your followers to do. We carry Your cross to those who need You.

Jesus fell, weak and abused. I wonder if Simon fell too. I certainly fall, repeatedly.

Thank You, Jesus, for the courage to get up and continue on.

Supplication

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph … and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Luke 23:50-52

 

Jesus, I wait expectantly for Your second coming. Your first coming gave us life; Your second coming will give us eternal life with You and Your Father. Please come quickly, Lord. These days are hard. The hope of Your coming is a shining light in a very dark world.

Father, please open the hearts of friends and family who don’t know You personally. Father, as we celebrate Your Son’s death and resurrection this week, I pray that many of us would understand the meaning behind these events, perhaps for the first time, or perhaps in a deeper way than we ever have before.

This Joseph kept his faith hidden because he feared reprisals. But when he saw You die, he forgot about his fears and stepped forward to ask for Your body, so he could give You a proper burial.

Father, take away my fear too. Help me to step out in faith, in public, and serve You, as Joseph did.

Joseph didn’t understand the coming resurrection; no one truly did at that moment. But he served You anyway. Father, may my faith be like that.

Answered prayer

… Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you. … Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.” … While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Luke 24:36, 39, 41-42

 

Father, changed lives are the proof of Your Son’s resurrection. Changed for the better. Not change for the sake of change, but now we have meaning in life.

The disciples were stunned, shocked, filled with disbelieving joy and wonder. Could this be? For real? The miracle of miracles? Is this what He meant?

Then You proved it, Lord, by eating a piece of fish. Ghosts don’t eat solid food. Dead people don’t eat solid food, either.

Jesus, You are alive!

All we ask or seek in Your name, it’s true!

This is why we celebrate Easter Sunday, Lord. You overcame the last, most vicious of Satan’s weapons: death. We don’t have to face that anymore. Our earthly death is nothing more than a transition to a glorious life with You.

We adore You, Father. Thank You for allowing us to see and know Jesus, and because of that to know You. The day is coming when we will know You completely.

May that day come soon. Very soon.

We often break the wrong rules

As a driver, I roll through stops signs all the time.

I look both ways of course, and if there’s no traffic, why stop? It wastes the brakes and gasoline. I slow down; I don’t speed through stop signs. With no traffic, I roll.

But I won’t speed through a neighborhood, ever. Other drivers frequently come up to my bumper when I’m going 20-25 mph. I raised three sons in a neighborhood. I’ve seen young children cross the street. I’ve seen basketballs and Frisbees sail past driveway boundaries. I’ve caused that myself. I see kids riding bicycles in the street. I see dog-walkers all the time. I occasionally see kids playing hockey in the street.

I will not speed through a neighborhood, mine or any other. Period.

I’ve been called out for rolling through stop signs. And impatient drivers wish I would kick it into gear when I’m driving past your house.

In this country, we frequently break the wrong rules.

“Must” and “should”

Last weekend I was challenge master for Region 16 (northeast Ohio) of the Fine Arts challenge of Destination Imagination, an international after-school creative problem-solving program I’ve been involved with for many years. I love “DI,” as it’s called.

DI

One thing I appreciate about DI is its willingness to stretch boundaries. The Fine Arts challenge this year centers around an “existing, publicly available photograph.” In the explanation of what that could be, the writers of the challenge sometimes used “must” and other times used the word “should.”

“Must” and “should” are not synonyms.

If the bullet point says “must,” that’s non-negotiable. Each team (of two to seven young people) must do that particular requirement as it’s written.

If the bullet point says “should,” then the team members can think outside the box. They don’t have to follow that rule exactly. There are limits, but the rule is not hard and fast.

How far can the team go? How creative can they get? That’s the fun part of the challenge.

We’re teaching our young people that some rules cannot be broken, and others are open to interpretation. In the written challenge, we tell them which is which.

If only life was that way.

Non-negotiable vs. interpretation

I claim a deep faith in God, in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I’ve written or alluded to my faith in this blog many times. I believe the Bible is God’s inspired word. The living God wants the best for us, and He describes for us, in detail, the best way to live. He created us, so He gets to do that, right?

When a contractor builds a house, he knows the purpose of each room, so he builds it for that purpose. God does the same with us.

We like to stretch or break God’s rules, don’t we? (Good thing contractors don’t do that.)

As a journalist by trade, I’m an out-of-the-box thinker. I’m not going to do what you say just because you say so. Show me why. I might know a better way.

God understands me.

The Bible actually has very few hard-and-fast rules. Our pastor this week told us that Jesus gave his disciples about 60 commands in the three years He spent with them. That’s a lot, actually. He’s going to preach on them for the next couple of weeks, so this will be interesting.

How many of those commands are open to interpretation? When Jesus commanded us to “love one another,” for example, what exactly does that mean? We have to read and understand all of who Jesus is and what He did to answer that question. The interpretation isn’t as wide-open as we often think it should be.

Let’s pick one example that’s relevant to today’s America: homosexuality.

The Bible calls it sin (a crime against God, basically) in multiple places. For example:

 

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Romans 1:26-27

 

But those are the apostle Paul’s words, you say. Jesus Himself never talked about homosexuality, so it must be acceptable, right? I’ve heard some of you make that argument.

Bible

Jesus did talk about marriage and divorce, however – and raised the bar for both. In response to a question from the Pharisees (religious leaders who tried to justify themselves), Jesus quoted the book of Genesis, where God said that “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

 

Jesus took that to another level. He added:

 

“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19:6

 

Jesus assumes marriage is between a man and a woman, because that’s the way God designed it from the beginning.

Marriage was a big deal in Jesus’ day, and followed a lengthy process. Joseph and Mary were “betrothed” during Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. For all intents and purposes, they were already married, even though they didn’t live together yet and hadn’t had the ceremony. That’s why Joseph planned to quietly “divorce” her even though they weren’t officially married yet.

A homosexual relationship is one of those rules that is not meant to be broken.

But, as with many of His commands, Jesus takes sexual sin to another level. All sex outside of marriage, including heterosexual sex (the Bible calls that fornication), is forbidden. We tend to focus on homosexuality because that takes the focus off most of the rest of us, who are just as sinful in our sex lives. Jesus called lust adultery (Matthew 5:27-28).

Gulp.

Worship styles? There’s plenty of leeway for that. Serving the poor and needy? That’s a command, but there’s many ways to do it.

Churches and denominations have split over worship styles and other non-essential issues. White American worship is not, by any stretch, the “right” way to do church. Despite what some would have you believe.

“Discernment”

stop 2

We hold fast the wrong rules.

And we break the wrong rules.

So, which rules are the non-negotiables, and which ones are open to interpretation? The Bible has a word to help us with that: “discernment.” It’s a fancy word that means understanding what truth really is, what right and wrong truly are, and which issues are mere shades of gray. It’s something God gives to people who try to understand Him.

Discernment is not a bad trait to have in secular society, either. Is rolling through a stop sign at a deserted intersection the same as speeding through a neighborhood where children might be playing?

I’ll let you answer that one.