Loveless Generalizations

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You are bad at most things. We all are. What is something you are absolutely terrible at? Or better yet, what is something terrible that you cannot stop doing? How do you respond to yourself in your failure? It probably depends on your frame of mind. Some days you effusively coddle yourself with emotions, while other days you castigate yourself with proverbial floggings.

I was talking with two of my nieces and my nephew the other day. My nephew Cash is the youngest. His sisters were perpetually lamenting what a bad child he was. His oldest sister Halina was especially frustrated. Some children are probably bad most of the time, but Cash is not one of them. I explained to his sister that he is not a bad child, but simply a child who sometimes behaves badly.

I asked her what was something that she once did badly but now did well. “Swimming,” she answered. I asked her how she became a better swimmer. “My daddy taught me.” And so I asked her if her daddy ever told her what a bad swimmer she was. She explained that he certainly had not but had actually encouraged her along the way, praising her for small improvements. Then I asked her if others referred to her as “Bad Swimmer Halina” back when she did not swim well. Of course they did not. That one particular void of success had not defined her.

So why is it that you expect your brother to behave better when you tell him what a bad child he is all the time?” She began to see my point as well as her young mind could. I was trying to help her to see something that many of us have so much trouble seeing even into adulthood. That is, the human brain likes to generalize because it helps to reconcile our feelings.

It would take a great deal of deep consideration for my niece to understand the many variables leading to her brother’s misbehavior. Among simple human badness would be boredom and a desire for attention, both stemming from his role as a youngest sibling with no brothers. Furthermore, in her momentary frustrations with her little brother, she becomes emotionally too blind to even assert what are his copious redeeming qualities.

She begins with a failure to comprehend her brother’s context and adds to that an emotional filter that prevents her from seeing her brother as anything but the troublemaker he is to her in that moment (or comparable prior moments). In that moment there is that which feels true to her, and her brain, autonomously as it were, creates a typecast generalization of her brother that reconciles that particular reality.

I think we can forgive my niece for not fully having learned this lesson. But what is the excuse for the rest of us?

Love is a discipline that demands immense courage. Love demands courage because it is itself a quest for understanding the nature of its object. My niece absolutely loves to swim, but a swimming pool is deadly if one is not studious regarding its dangers. To master swimming demanded of her a particular humility which undergirded her process of acquiring patient understanding.

She had to not only discover the nature of water, but of gravity, of her own buoyancy, muscular strength, and propensity for experiencing fatigue. In other words, a love of swimming demanded a knowledge of complex relationships amongst body, mind, and matter. It was not enough to keep herself afloat with mere volition. And if such a willpower is possible, it would no doubt demand much more discipline and understanding than doggy paddles or breaststrokes.

This is true of anything we love. Do you love to draw, or sing, or dance, or lift weights, or spin records? What are those things unto which you have subjected yourself? When the endeavor proved itself difficult, was it the discipline that needed adjusting or was it you and your relationship to the discipline?

This is of course true of all relationships. This is why I am nauseated when people seek to humanize their animals. There is something fundamentally grotesque about seeing dogs, genetic wolves, treated like human children. Any good dog trainer will essentially encourage to lead your dog  with the assertive calmness of an alpha wolf. In other words, a good dog trainer will encourage you to patiently pursue an understanding of your pet’s hidden and rudimentary nature.

“A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

Proverbs 12:10 KJV

Furthermore, our love for other human beings demands this steady and humble discipline- this courageous quest to pursue understanding for the benefit of the objects of our love and affection. But this discipline needs not to be one saved for only the people of which we are most fond. This way of thinking ought to become an all-encompassing discipline of the spirit and the mind.

How many of the world’s ailments would be pacified if we sought better understanding of ourselves, of our loved ones, and of all those around us? We are so very quick to dismiss others with blanket generalizations (labeling, name-calling, and so on). We so often do this even to bolster our own conflated sense of self-aggrandizement and piety. But even the densest of us have regard for the plot in which the villain is a multi-dimensional figure. Such stories resonate with us because they are true. Everyone is multi-dimensional. Some are just much more difficult to see beneath the surface.

If we operate with this assumption, that every person originates from a context which is chock-full of complex variables, then we will be much quicker in seeking to understand them. This will create opportunities in which to influence others to become better, but moreover it will drive us to transcending levels of human thought and existence. Love, like all disciplines, shapes us. Like a spindle shapes wood on a lathe.

“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

1 John 4:12-13 NASB

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Expectant for Advent

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What stirs up emotional longing within you? You could be an expectant parent awaiting the arrival of your firstborn. Maybe you are daydreaming about or patiently awaiting a new relationship or job. Perhaps you have not taken time for yourself in an awfully long time, and you are planning some time away. Whatever that longing is, stop right now and eagerly consider what sensations are pouring through your body when that longing is fulfilled.

Are you relaxed? Is your heart racing? Are you filled with purpose?  Do you feel a fire burning on the inside? I know you have had this feeling before, and I know that you have probably spent a great deal of time and mental energy in your life seeking after those feelings.

So many of the fantastic things in life are mundane. The objects of our greatest longing are often common, but our experience with them is new and so makes them feel unusual for a time. I suspect that a great deal of our unhappiness occurs because we take so many things for granted. And so we set our sights constantly on things that are new or different from our norm. It is as if our heart stops due to boredom, and we must be electrocuted every now and again.

Because fantastic things become mundane, we require frequent reminders. Have you ever considered why you celebrate a birthday? The only thing more common than birth is death. Why must we celebrate one’s birth every year? Does it seem odd when you see so many loved ones gathered around an infant simply because it has survived its first twelve months on earth? Many people refuse to celebrate birthdays as they get older, because the celebration has come to mean something different. It becomes a reminder that they are closer to death and thus further from birth. Except for centenarians. I imagine they celebrate every birthday, as it would become a novelty to continue chalking up the years.

The truth is, every year of life ought to be celebrated. Life is the most incredible of all miracles. The newness of an infant’s life reminds us of that. That is why we admire so much those who remain in their old age dignified, but young at heart. That is to say, they have kept the good parts of their youth and parted with the negative. Furthermore, we admire this because we are so accustomed to the inverse. Some of the most insufferable children I have ever known have been adults.

The Christmas season is one which produces in many a deep sense of longing. I suspect that most of this is nostalgia. In a time where tradition is so often subverted, Christmas remains (for now) an almost unanimous vestige of folk tradition. This nostalgia is not always associated with warmth. One may even feel nostalgic for the stressful elements of the season. For many, that is the mark of time with their families.

Although Christmas is a decidedly Christian holy day, it is interesting to consider not only its secular ritualistic roots, but also its secular practice. Like several Christian holy days, Christmas borrows heavily from folk traditions of old. This provides a carry-over into the secular members of modern-day Western society. It provides context for common ground in a sacred context. Because of this, many disagree as to what “Christmas is all about.”

As a sacred tradition, Christmas is a day of remembrance for the incarnation of the Son of God. It is a birthday celebration but an inherently unique one. The Child born that night in Bethlehem would go on to become the very first human in history to conquer death and live forever. Yet we do not celebrate His birth each year out of novelty to tally up the years. There is a sense in which a birthday celebration reminds us of how spectacular is our very existence. Christmas is a birthday celebration that reminds us of something much deeper.

In accordance with Biblical prophecy, the grown-up Jesus would not begin His earthly ministry until a prophet would come to prepare the way for Him. That prophet was His cousin, namely, John the Baptist. We are told that when Mary was expecting Jesus she visited for several months with her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting her son John:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

Luke 1:41-45 NASB

Before he was even born, John the Baptist longed expectantly for the coming of Christ. As both men grew up, John would go on to begin a ministry of baptism, wherein He foretold of the coming of the promised Messiah. In his first recorded [post-natal] encounter with Jesus he shouts:

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 NASB

Even this notion of being excited about a Savior, despite the unparalleled magnificence of salvation, has become mundane to us in the present day. But in John the Baptist’s day, it was felt as something exponentially more profound. For centuries God had spoken to His people through His law and His prophets. Both foreshadowed the coming of a Messiah who would fulfill them both and save mankind from their sins. Then there was silence for some four hundred years. The people of God were desperate for a voice of prophecy to arrive.

John the Baptist enters as the first voice of prophecy in four centuries. He knew of his role as Christ’s forerunner ostensibly before his own birth. I imagine him being nearly overwhelmed with excitement upon seeing Jesus. While his fulness of Spirit and unique role in history may have amplified his excitement, every sinner can look to Christ with the same expectation.

This is the significance of Christmas. God made man. Man became estranged from God through our nature made corrupt by wrong-doing. God prepared a means by which man could know fellowship with God. The birth of Christ is the fulfillment of promise. No matter how typical or insignificant it might feel to us, no matter how much we might take it for granted, we celebrate Christmas to remind us of the kindness and mercy of God toward us.

To know Christ is to remember His work in the past, to seek His work in the present, and to look ahead to His work in the future when He returns. On Christmas we celebrate the fact that He came at all. As we consider Advent, let us ask God to fill us with the expectation of John the Baptist, to be overwhelmed with that sense of longing and excitement. Let us take this season of remembrance as a time to remind us afresh of the magnitude of our gracious God’s profound love for us, His people. He gave His Son to bring hope unto the world!

Invisible Oppressors

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“The scribes… were saying, “[Jesus] is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.” And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.”

Mark 3:22-27

The wisdom of Jesus is remarkable. In this particular exchange He is, on the surface, defending the origin of His power. In doing so, He goes on to say a great deal more. A prominent lesson to be inferred here is that internal divisions disrupt unity and pave the way for inevitable defeat. There is strength in numbers acting in solidarity with one another, but when those numbers are broken off into factions there is vulnerability. Jesus teach us also that it takes the greater strength of one to overcome the great strength of another.

Throughout history, civilizations have always been vulnerable to external and internal forces  which have been represented as foreign governments or rulers, business corporations, and political or religious ideologies. Much is said these days regarding the individual person or group’s perceived experience of “oppression.” The blame for societal oppression is often placed on racial, gender, religious, or economic groups. While injustices do occur within these parameters, it seems to me that the majority of systemic injustices are rooted in issues of class and/or ideology.

The human brain likes shortcuts and will seek to ascribe a familiar face to a threat. It could be said that our greatest enemies are those that are invisible to us in our day-to-day. The class ruler or the ideologue makes use of this tendency of the human brain and so seeks to persuade the members of a society to cast blame unreservedly on their own peers (based on superficial identifiers) in an effort to divide them into factions. Once divided, they are more easily brought unto the heel.

The irony of this, of course, is that the members of a society will waste their time bickering or warring with one another all while unwittingly being subjected to shared injustices. There is strength in numbers, and we take on our enemies by “binding the strong man.” but we are so often weakened by division.

While we can draw these lessons from Christ and apply them to our experience of earthly injustices, Jesus is referring more directly to spiritual tormenters. Every human being is alienated from God because of their sin. This alienation renders us vulnerable to Satan and his kingdom- the enemies of our souls. This sinful nature is what drives humanity to act unjustly  in the first place.

Because our sins alienate us from God, they set us on a course to hell where we will forever remain alienated from Him. There is no earthy life or afterlife to be truly cherished unless the terms of this alienation are rectified. Jesus came to earth to do just that. When He died on the cross, He bore the punishment of our sins. He bore injustice that He might justify us before God. When He resurrected from the dead (for death is a curse for sin for which He was not worthy) He made it possible for us to be made spiritually alive- to be restored to our fellowship with God.

Even after this fellowship is restored Christians are still affected by the evil nature of these bodies in which we dwell. With God’s help we fight against this sinful nature all of our lives. The sin has influence in our lives, but it no longer has power to subdue us and to formally separate us from God. Because of that, it removes the power of Satan in our lives. Jesus Christ is greater than the “strong man,” and He gives us authority in Himself to oppose our (invisible) spiritual enemies and to subdue them. Our individual fellowship with God must emerge into corporate fellowship with other believers. God invites us into His kingdom and calls on us to spread His Gospel that others all the world over might know such freedom.

 

Evangelism is Not an Elective

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“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you….”

Matthew 28:19-20a NASB

As He ascended into Heaven, Christ parted with words that would set the tone for the entire future of Christendom. His disciples would go on to obey this edict and take the Gospel to the the whole of the known world. The Church of Jesus Christ continues to pursue this mission to this day. Some of them do, anyway.

In my last post I recalled a recent experience in which I totally disregarded an opportunity to evangelize a stranger. This experience was disappointing for me, despite the fact that I’ve not recently had a tendency to evangelize, probably due to distraction and self-centeredness.

In the preceding weeks, God had begun to stir up a passion in my heart toward these matters. This is always the origin of Christian evangelism. As the late Keith Green said, “You put this love in my heart.” Evangelism arrises from an overflow of love and gratitude for our Savior. It is mercifully driven by His work in us.

“…[The religious authorities] commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:18b-20 NASB

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When confronted by opposing religious authorities, Peter and John expressed an INABILITY to stop preaching the Gospel. They were so wrapped up in their love for and thankfulness toward Christ that they couldn’t help but tell all about it to others. Their love for and fellowship with Christ led to a compassion for others, to see them become believers of His Gospel.

The day after my aforementioned experience, I had an experience of another sort. I work at a homeless shelter and have recently gotten to know a man who is staying there. Before I left for the day I struck up a conversation with him. He told me that he was moving out soon. As I was about to leave, I felt a compulsion to share Christ with Him. I almost ignored it entirely, but I was constrained by the Holy Spirit.

I began conversing with him, prayerfully seeking an opportunity to mention Christ. Finally he made mention of a local Christian ministry at which he had attended some services and performed some court-ordered community service hours. I abruptly asked him, “Are you a Christian?”

He pinched his fingers together as he informed me that he believed in the power of prayer and that he felt like he was “almost there”- almost ready to commit himself to God. I sat down and talked with him for a while, and he began to tell me his life story. He kept stopping and saying, “I’ve never told anyone this stuff before. I don’t know why I’m telling you.” I answered some questions he had and persistently shared the Gospel.

As we wrapped up, I asked if I could pray for him. He eagerly gave me his hands, and we prayed. As I left he kept remarking on how amazing it was that this conversation had occurred, as he has been on the fence with these matters. I gave him my number and went on my way, assuring him that I only spoke with him because I felt God leading me to do so.

Although circumstances like this have been normative in my life in times past, this entire episode was a unique experience for my life in recent years. My hope is that, through God’s help and courage, I begin to seek out evangelistic opportunities elsewhere. It has been natural for me and so many Christians to disregard this critical piece of Christian living.

We are not only called to lead righteous and holy lives, but to love God and to love one another. Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that if we “love Him, [we] will keep His commandments.” Therefore, if we love Him, we will obey the call to share the Gospel persistently with others.

Might I challenge you, as I am being challenged, to pursue a pure fellowship with Christ through the Spirit of God? Will you make specific requests of Him that He will surround you with His Spirit and keep you in His steps? That He will give you a love and a passion for Him that overflows into a deep love for others? That you will be granted wisdom, opportunity, and courage to share His Gospel to those you meet? He commands it! Evangelism is not an elective for the child of Jesus Christ!

 

Judge, But Don’t

Every skeptic has the same favorite Bible verse. “Judge not, lest you be judged also. (Mat 7:1)” It’s weaponized and wielded as a means to shut down dissenting opinions of believers when they are, apparently, being too harsh. Is there legitimacy to it?

Sort of. 

Before we decipher, it’s important to first see what Jesus is not saying. Later in the same chapter Jesus tells His listeners that they will know someone “by their fruits.” In other words, one can judge someone’s content by the product of their behavior, similar to how one would determine a tree by its fruit. So He is not saying, categorically, to not judge.

What this seems to mean is that there is legitimacy in judging a person’s actions. Where one gets into trouble is when he judges an individual or that person’s intents. I have full license to judge what a person does, but I ought to exercise restraint in judging them or their motives.

I’ve personally discovered another element that complicates matters, and this complication helps to reveal why judging others turns into self-judgement. Really there are two elements that tie together. 

The first is that human beings have a tendency to project. We spend a lot of time with ourselves and become accustomed with our flaws and insecurities- whether we realize it or not. This develops into an acute awareness (or imaginary projection) of character flaws or intentions in others that we actually (perhaps unknowingly) observe in ourselves. Also, we may make assumptions about others that are informed by insecurities wrought in us through prior experiences. In both cases, we are projecting onto someone else a version of themselves that has been created in or informed by our own subconscious.

Secondly, God conveys throughout Scripture the notion of cosmic fairness. If we do not forgive others, He says that He will not forgive us. By what standards we judge others, we will be judged also. Our judgement is obscured. Only God is licensed and able to fairly judge a person or their intentions.

Do not judge, because when you condemn others you are actually condemning yourself (via both psychological projection and the cosmic fairness principal) and also because you are not omniscient or innocent. Only God is both fully morally upright and omniscient. Only He is qualified to judge.

But you have every right to judge a person’s actions, and when someone is made uncomfortable by that, they don’t prove that you are judgemental. They only prove that they condemn themselves with their own actions. Whenever one scornfully wields Scripture as a weapon, they wield it against themselves.

Pain and Reward

Everything would be easier with a magic wand, or at least a genie. Then again, magic is too complicated. Even if one could remove all the darkness from black magic it’d still be undesirable. It’s too much discipline. Sure there are perks to utilizing spells to mimic your reality, but there are always stipulations and consequences. A genie is easier- ask and you receive. There are stipulations, but there’s nothing in the way of discipline. Discipline is painful. All gain and no pain- it’d literally be magical.

Imagine uploading foreign language or martial arts abilities into your brain, like Neo in the Matrix. Imagine suddenly gaining the ability to shred on the guitar or write a symphony. I once read about a guy who got struck by lightening and suddenly became a musical savant. Even he had to work at it- it just came more easily to him. Imagine that you could suddenly transform your messy house into a clean one, your broken car into a fixed one, your diseased body into a healthy one. Imagine that you could sculpt your muscles and get stronger just by thinking about it. It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?

Most of us are lazy, and we only remain productive because of random bursts of inspiration or motivation. Everything comes and goes in fits and starts. Somehow we manage to be productive. But sometimes it feels like you’re driving uphill with a busted radiator. The car overheats every fifteen minutes, and you have to stop to douse the engine. It’s impossible not to think wishfully sometimes.

But it’s all wrong. The real excitement or joy of an accomplishment or reward is that it was gained through discipline. Discipline is really painful at times. Harrowing life experiences that force you to bail out or become brave are painful. Goals drive us, but processes shape us. Sometimes our goal is to learn a skill or become healthier or more fit. Sometimes our goal is just to make it out in one piece. Whatever the goal may be, the discipline required to remain focused and active toward that goal has a transcendent sort of quality.

So next time you are dreading the hard work you must put in or you are ruing  the emotional distress you’re about to endure, take heart and remember that the process both shapes you and makes your reward truly rewarding. Don’t let laziness make all the hard work seem like a drag. Remember that life is process, and desires [for goals] are put inside us to drive us. Without that, our existence would be pretty unfulfilling and depressing. Be thankful for the pain, because a magic wand would just make it all more difficult.