Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fortune Cookie of Doom

I'm sure someone meant well...

Prepare yourself for natural disasters, displays of Denzel-like awesomeness (by me), and not being able to outrun the person chasing you. 

Good night. Sleep tight. 

Thank you for the fortune. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sermon on the Mount: Dealing With Enemies

43 "You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. - Matthew 5
It is plainly known that there are few people who will make it through life without an enemy. Some of those enemies just wish our harm, while others actually plot it; they are both enemies. Now that we know we have them, what are we to do with them? In Jesus' final illustrative contrast between the old righteousness and kingdom righteousness he answers this very question.

The old righteousness was simply another application of lex talionis—an eye for an eye. This was the standard treatment of one's enemies, and if you were to be righteous you would do this. Not so for one with the kingdom heart. Jesus says that our response to an enemy should be agape love and prayer. In other words, we should will the good of our enemies and ask God to bring goodness upon them. 

Once, upon being asked why he was did not deal harshly with the southern combatants, Abraham Lincoln responded, "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends? This is an illustration of how a kingdom heart would "retaliate." Not with violence, but with benevolence.

This is, after all, how God responds. He gives sunlight and rain (good things) to evil and good people, without respect for who they are. But beyond rain, and sunlight, the apostle if we are to be like our father we will do the same. This kind of love surpasses the old righteousness precisely because it extends itself to those who are not loving. Any Philistine, or gangster, can love those who love them, but only a citizen of the kingdom can love perfectly like the Father of the kingdom.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Failing to Notice

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
- R.D. Laing

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sermon on the Mount: Responding to Personal Injury

38 "You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. - Matthew 5

The fifth contrast of the two righteousnesses concerns retaliation for harm done. Willard reminds us that the harm being done is personal injury, not institutional or social evils. This is evident from the parts of the law referred to in the passage. So, as before, Jesus is dealing with the individual life and soul of a person.

The old righteousness was simply that those who injure should be injured in the same exact way; lex talionis (the law of retaliation) is what its called. This law suggested that "reciprocity would be achieved through equalization." In other words, someone breaks your arm, their arm must be broken for justice to be done. But, as we all learned on the playground growing up, this rarely ever creates reconciliation, but further hostility.

Another approach is needed. How would the kingdom heart respond to personal injury? Before answering it is helpful to recall the point about the order of the sermon: "we have already heard and received the word of the kingdom, and that anger, contempt, and absorbing desire have been dealt with so that our lives are not being run by them." We are no longer controlled by them, and we are able to choose good and avoid evil.

With this established when we are personally injured we will not allow that injury to magnify into our main life-problem because we will see our lives from the view of God. We will also see our oppressor as a human being created in the image of God, who is simply in error. We can, as Willard says, pray with Jesus: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." And they really don't know. Because they are operating off the false knowledge of an unreality.

In order to show how the kingdom person responds to injury Jesus provides 4 illustrations (and we must remember that they are illustrations). 

  1. "They will turn the other cheek" (Matt. 5:39). In other words they will remain vulnerable rather than responding in violence or anger. They will regard the other persons humanity and, in love, seek reconciliation.
  2. "Let him have your shirt" (Matt. 5:40). They will help, as appropriate, those who have won a legal case against them in court. They will display a heart that is more interested in the needs of the person, and be prepared to help this person as much as possible.
  3. "Go with him two miles" (Matt. 5:41). If an official exercises a right that requires assistance, they will help gladly, and even more than required by law, because (as above) they are interested in the well-being of the official and want to make sure they have what they need to get their job done.
  4. "Give to him who asks of you" (Matt. 5:42). They will have no qualms with giving to people who ask of them, especially those who have no prior claim on them. But since they regard humans from God's sight they will happily extend generosity, as appropriate. 
Now remember, these are not laws, nor are they righteousnesses. "They are illustrations of what a certain kind of person, the kingdom person, will characteristically do in such situations." By making them laws, and focusing solely on the behavior, we leave the heart totally unaffected and, like the Pharisees, work out ways to fulfill the letter while destroying the spirit. 

Therefore we will not force our benevolence upon people, "because Jesus said so." Rather, with love and wisdom, we will seek to serve others. This means there may actually be occasions where we cannot "go the extra mile" or "give our shirts." But even in circumstances where we do not do those things, our decision will be driven by responsible kingdom hearts.

So the aim is not simply to "do what Jesus said." But, "in every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not 'Did I do the specific things in Jesus' illustrations?' but 'Am I being the kind of person Jesus' illustrations are illustrations of?'"

One will quickly discover that when a kingdom heart responds to injury in an unexpected way, it usually has a radical effect upon the injurer. As MLK Jr. said and experienced, 

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sermon on the Mount: Plain Speech

33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be "Yes, Yes' or "No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. - Matthew 5

As Jesus continues his comparison of the old righteousness to kingdom righteousness he moves into the realm of oaths and swearing. He is not speaking specifically about profanity (although that can be included), but he refers to words used to bolster something a person says, and convince another person, either way. The old righteousness allowed for people to swear to anything under the sun (and even things beyond) as long as they fulfilled their oaths to the Lord.

It is curious to find this topic next in the flow of Jesus’ sermon; it doesn't seem to fit with anger and lust because on the surface it doesn't seem as if anything wrong is happening. After all, it is encouraged to “carry out the vows you have made.” But remember, in this sermon Jesus isn't operating on the surface; that is where the scribes and Pharisees operate. He is aiming at the heart. And if we look their with him we will understand what is motivating a person when they use language to reinforce and persuade people, one way or another, to get their way.

So what is so wrong with swearing and oath making if you follow through? 

Jesus would have answered this question by suggesting that the use of impressive language is to essentially get people to do what we want. It is manipulation; a method of getting our way. “So [people] say, ‘By God!’ or ‘God knows!’ to lend weight to their words and presence.”

The problem with swearing or making oaths, therefore, is not simply that it takes God’s name in vain, but the main problem is how the “swearer” regards other human beings. The oath maker or swearer is essentially trying to override the will of a human made in God’s image by manipulating them with precisely spoken words that make our yeses more attractive, or the noes more emphatic.

“This,” says Willard, “is wrong. It is unlike God. And just making sure you perform on any promises you made to God… does not make it right.” Think of how God is in relation to humans. He speaks plainly and allows people to make a choice. He does not try and override a persons will, but simply speaks and allows choice.

This would be a great occasion to discuss what theologians call The Hiddenness of God, but that will have to be another post. Suffice it to say that God is hidden in order to allow human character to develop as it wills. He respects, loves, and cares for the souls of human beings, and so instead of overwhelming he simply speaks softly and plainly.

The same is true of Jesus. The same Jesus who was on about declaring the availability of the kingdom. We would have thought Jesus would perhaps say, “I swear to God, the kingdom is available to you!” Maybe some people would have been convinced by his emphasis. But by doing so he would have been devaluing the souls of those he came to save.

Therefore he says, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’ Anything more than this “comes from the evil one”—the evil is the intent to get one’s way by verbal manipulation of the thoughts and choices of others.

So speak plainly, and love thy neighbor.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon on the Mount: Lust and Divorce

27 "You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 "It was also said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  - Matthew 5

After dealing with issues of anger and contempt Jesus moves on to the problem of fantasized desires in the human heart. As with murder, Jesus takes an absolute prohibition to begin his discourse; “You shall not commit adultery.” On the level, this simply means that a married person should not have sex with anyone other than their spouse. 

Jesus, however, is not simply operating “on the level.” Says Willard, “The mere fact that you do not commit adultery with a certain man or woman does not mean that your relation to that person in the domain of sexuality is as it should be or that you yourself are what you ought to be with reference to your sexuality.”

As in our day, 1st century people were prone to think they were “good” because they didn't commit the act of adultery. These are the same who thought they were right because they didn't kill their neighbor when they were angry. But Jesus is going to the heart for his discussion, not the behavior. Changes to the behavior alone, while helpful in some ways, do little to nothing to change the center of a person.

While a person may say, “I only looked.” It is this very “look” that betrays the rottenness of the heart. Those who “look upon a woman for the purpose of lusting for her—using her visual presence as a means of savoring the fantasized act—have thereby committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28)”

The destructive force of cultivated lusting is revealed in the way a person regards the object of their lusting. While looking to lust one does not care for, but uses, the other person. “The person subjected to the fantasy, as well as others alongside, is deeply affected by such lusting. And it nearly always produces some degree of inappropriate action, including all of the behavior now classified as sexual harassment.”

Cultivated lust ruins the subject, the object, and those who never ever get looked upon lustfully. In a strange way this last category (shall we call them the “unlustables?") is probably seen as worst among the list by many today. Since they are not “sexy” they do not receive the favors that the sexy receive. 

How many young ladies aspire to be something but will never receive the opportunity because they are not “lust-worthy” (what a ridiculous combination of words). Since they do not have "the look" they do not receive "the look." Check out the popular television shows; are we really to believe that all detectives, doctors, and lawyers are drop dead gorgeous late 20 to early 30 year olds? No, but this is the ideal, and those who do not approach this mold usually suffer, albeit silently, lest their “unattractiveness” be made public and their pile of shame grow higher. 

So we see the powerful and destructive effect the cultivation of lust has in our world. Without even engaging in the physical act it leaves a trail of ruined and destroyed lives. There are some people who say, “If you think it you might as well do it.” I don’t know if they are serious; they can't be. While the lustful look is destructive, the physical act is worse; you may as well add napalm to the thought. It is simply wrong and should be avoided at all costs.

It is important to note that Jesus is not saying that it's wrong when a person looks and desires or lusts. Sexual desire, like anger, is not wrong. When it functions as an uncultivated response, it serves as a vital function for human life. It is a good and proper thing.

“Moreover, when we only think of sex with someone we see… that is not wrong, and certainly is not what Jesus calls, ‘adultery in the heart.’” To be tempted is no sin; indeed, Jesus would have been tempted in a similar way. It is when we cultivate, or look with the intent of lusting, that we enter into the realms of adultery in the heart. 

When we add intent to the look, when we look to lust, we no longer really desire the person, we are actually desiring desire. We are intending on using the person as a means to an end, and then discarding them. It is sex that is actually being desired in this second view, not the person. This is adultery in the heart; this is what needs to be avoided.

But is Jesus simply suggesting that we just avoid adultery in the heart? Clearly not. For having a heart that does not adulterate is not the same thing as having a heart founded in love. In this discourse he is illustrating to us what the kingdom heart is like, not what it is not like. So those who would simply move away from women or something they lust over (there have been several in church history who took such an approach) to obey Jesus are not getting the point. (There are, of course, occasions when running away is the wisest approach.)

In fact, Jesus goes on to show the absurdity of this line of thinking. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

This clearly ridiculous approach treats the eye as the cause of sin. Jesus knows this cannot be so, on several occasions he locates evil in the heart; he is making fun to illustrate his point. If one becomes blind they clearly could not “look to lust,” and so they would not be able to commit the wrong action. Such a person would be in the right, yes? Well, if their goal was behavior modification, yes. But if their goal is character transformation that would root out the adultery in the heart, they are emphatically wrong.

“The deeper question always concerns who you are, not what you did do or can do… The goodness of the kingdom heart is the positive love of God and of those around us that fills it and crowds out the many forms of evil. From that goodness come deeds of respect and purity that characterize a sexuality as it was meant by God to be.” This is the goal of Jesus teaching. It is to help people become the kind of people who are right in the heart, not simply avoid bad behavior.

Now remember that this sermon is meant to be understood as a whole. They are not disconnected wisdom sayings. Jesus begins by pronouncing the “losers” as blessed in the kingdom of heaven. In other words he makes a claim that all humans can enter into blessedness, because God sees them as valuable.

After laying the foundation of every human being as valuable he moves on to deal with anger and contempt in the heart. If one has already accepted the view that humans are worthy, it is a small step to realize that treating with contempt what God regards as priceless is not wise. We would see that rather than cultivating anger, we should respond in love and seek reconciliation with people. This is for the good of the angry person, and our own good.

Once the foundation of life without anger and contempt has been added to that of every human being worthy, we can move seamlessly into lust and divorce.

Now ask yourself this question: If you were to view people as worthy humans created in God’s image and respond to them with love and reconciliation, where would adultery in the heart take root? 

Answer: It would find little place to grow. 

Think of how this would radically transform marriages. I wonder how many divorces would be avoided if the spouses viewed one another as worthy rather than contemptible, and sought reconciliation over separation?

Surely there would be some divorces, but even those would have a flavor of love, where each party would go through the painful separation while maintaining a loving view of the other.

Jesus' aim in this sermon is not behavior modification. That is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. His aim is to make new people. People who do not simply avoid doing things, but people who are guided by a force of love that is rooted in God.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sermon on the Mount: Anger and Contempt

21 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder'; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. - Matthew 5

Anger, in its base form, is “a spontaneous response that has a vital function in life… It is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life.”

Is anger wrong? In its base form it is not wrong. It is simply a feeling, a reaction, that arises when the conditions are “right.” It is helpful in that it alerts a person to the idea that their will is being obstructed, and gives them the opportunity to act. 

If this was all there was to anger it would be well and good. It would serve its purpose in alerting us to what is happening, and then it would fade away, like a tornado siren, and we would be left to act accordingly.

Unfortunately the anger that dominates society is not as simple as the above definition. Connected with it is the impulse to do something, or become someone, that is unhelpful—at best, and wicked—at worst. For with the alert that our will is being obstructed comes the determination to do something to the one responsible for the obstruction. And usually that something is harmful.

But if embracing anger tends toward harm why do we not simply wave it off? Why do we not simply thank it for alerting us to what is happening, and then, as the apostle Paul said “Lay [it] aside” (Col. 3:8)? 

The answer, says Willard is that, “anger indulged, instead of simply waved off, always has in it an element of self-righteousness and vanity. Find a person who has embraced anger, and you find a person with a wounded ego.”

In other words, when a person has an improperly heightened view of the self, they will use anger to rectify, and retaliate against attacks done to it whether real or imagined. The traffic incident that turns into a murder, the fired employee that returns with a weapon, and the student who unleashes a barrage of curse words due to being “left out,” are all examples of anger being used to defend the ego, and attack the other.

But still anger is often encouraged by influential people today. Anger, some will say, is necessary to oppose social evils. Can they really not see how to oppose social ills without being controlled by anger? Is it not better to respond to social ills with persistent love, rather than cultivating anger?

What of contempt? “Unlike innocent anger… it is a kind of studied degradation of another, and it is also more pervasive in life that anger. It is never justifiable or good.” It is contempt that Jesus referred to in the scriptures above when he talked about insulting a person, or calling them “Fool.”

These words do not have the same force today as they did then. Think of words people use to diminish, disregard, exclude or devalue another person. These word are all expressions of contempt.

Even hearing or reading contemptible language causes a shock in our system. You are walking down the street and you hear someone shout at another, “Get the hell out of here you stupid f—ing jerk!” Excuse the language, but analyze the reaction you may have had to it. What is being said of the person who is the object of such words? Is it not an attack on their self worth and humanity? Must we find someone contemptible in order to assert our own self?

Another great example of contempt can be observed every two years as politicians attack and degrade the character of their opponent. Could they not simply agree to simply discuss the terms, and let the people decide? Why must they degrade the other person to make their own platform look more appealing?

What is most shocking is how acceptable this behavior is; it is almost an expectation. Our last two presidents (Obama and Bush) used the language of "shock and awe" or “degrading and destroying” Americas enemies. News anchors called it “strong language” that “sends a forceful message.” 

It's really called contempt.

These examples, and many more, are illustrations of how we use anger and contempt to manage life and enforce our will over and against that of another. Nietzsche once said, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” The same is true with anger and contempt. By involving ourselves in them and using them for our advantage, we find our souls being crushed and deformed by them. We become the monsters we are trying to battle.

Jesus offers an alternative way in his Sermon on the Mount. He begins by describing the worthiness of the human soul, especially amongst those whom society views as unworthy. “Blessed,” is what he calls them.

Then he moves towards dealing with anger and contempt properly. Now, unless a person sees others as valuable in the kingdom they will not be able to go “beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” in relation to their treatment of anger. For what they do is simply try to manage and justify anger. Jesus is describing a life that can be free from it.

So he gives two illustrations; one involves a sacred ritual (5:23-24), and the other involves a lawsuit (5:25-26). In both cases the person who is right in their heart will regard the soul of the other person, realize the affects that anger may have on them and others around them, and seek reconciliation with them.

The kingdom heart values the soul of other human beings above rituals and ceremonies, because it understands that God does, also.

Note, these are not new laws or commands; they are illustrations of the righteousness of the kingdom heart. This type of heart may recognize the presence of anger, but instead of using it, it simply sets it aside and seeks reconciliation with the other. Instead of regarding the other with contempt and devaluing them, the kingdom heart sees them as worthy human beings; it loves, cherishes, and honors them as humans made in the image of God.