Monday, February 8, 2016

Matthew 7:7-12: The Power of the Request

I began by working on the assumption that this passage in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is a continuation from vv. 1-6; indeed, I believe that the entire sermon builds off of one another, and that that is the only way to truly understand it.

That being said, it is now time to answer the question that remained unanswered in Matthew 7:1-6. That question is, How do we help a person with a "speck in their eye?" We saw in the previous post, that one must first learn to see without condemnation; they must remove the log from their eye. This includes not forcing our helpful things on other people. But what then? After we've done all of that our neighbor still needs help, they still have a speck in their eye. How do we help them?

Well, the very first word in Matthew 7:7 provide the answer. We ask. This answer is almost embarrassingly simple, but it's true. Asking is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Even the most hardbitten criminal, in many cases, cannot resist the strength of an ask.

Think of the last time you got french fries on your way home from work, then you began taking the scenic route home, even though there was a straight shot. What are you doing? Well, if you're like me, you are trying to give yourself enough time to finish the fries. Why? Because as soon as you get in the door your children are going to ask. The same is true of dogs, which of us can resist ripping off a piece of our sandwich when our dog is asking with her eyes? It is a force to be reckoned with.

Therefore, Jesus says that we should apply this when were are seeking to be of help to our neighbor. Instead of overpowering, we ask. Instead of condemning, we ask. For in asking we are allowing the other person to exercise their God-given free will. They get to choose which direction their life will take, and it's up to them to invite us to become a part of it.

This is a practice that has long since been forgotten in Christian communities. No longer do we try and embody Paul's words in Galatians 6:1&2, instead we slickly evade the teaching of Jesus by saying something like, "Who am I to judge?" Now, I know what people mean when they say that. They're saying, "It's not my place to pass judgement upon another person." That is true, but it's unnecessary to say. Jesus established that judgement isn't our place in the first 6 verses, so to say Who am I to judge, and then allow your neighbor to continue on with a speck in their eye, is not only doing a disservice to your neighbor, but it is not an act of love.

Interestingly enough, we don't accept this kind of response from anybody else. Imagine going to visit your doctor, and after going through a thorough examination they looked at your chart, noted that they saw some things, then shrugged their shoulders and said, "But who am I to judge?" You would rightly respond, "I'm not asking you to judge me, I'm asking you to help me!" That is the message of this passage. Jesus commands us not to judge, then commends to us the practice of helping.

Therefore, we ask, and we do so with the type of persistence that shows our neighbor that we are really interested in helping them. Not, mind you, by constantly pestering them about their "speck," but by remaining present in their life, by seeking opportunities to help. By your persistent presence, when your neighbor is ready to receive help, they will no doubt think of the one who asked them if their was anything that they can do to help them.

And what of the times when the help needed is beyond our capacity to give? Sure, when our children ask for bread or fish, we are delighted to help. But what of when the help they need is beyond us, what do we do then? Well, Jesus helpfully points out that we have a father in heaven who delights to give good gifts way more than we do. And his capacity to help never outpaces his desire. He is able.

So we don't only ask our neighbor, but we ask God. Indeed, it is wise to include God in all of our endeavors to help because, as I said in a previous post, prayer is a conversation between two people who are working toward the same end. Therefore, it is only appropriate to ask God to help remove the speck, whatever it may be. This includes situations where we can help, and those where we cannot.

Jesus provides a helpful instruction on this teaching near the end of Luke's gospel. You will recall that he was in an upper room with his students, and he turned to Peter and told him that the devil wanted to have each and every one of them. Then, although Jesus had the power to "fix" them, for he could've zapped them with great faith, he instead prayed for them. He went to his father on their behalf, and asked his father to help them.

This is a teachable moment for us. Which of us does not have a loved one that we are constantly in turmoil over? Which of us doesn't have a person in our life that we would "fix" if we could? Let the example of Jesus teach you in this regard. Though he could fix, wisdom told him that prayer to his father was the better approach. Therefore, he shifted his focus to asking, seeking, and knocking at his father's door, on behalf of his friends.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides very helpful words from his book, Life Together. He says,
Only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate them with my love…. Thus this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ and that love of others is wholly dependent upon the truth in Christ.
God is faithful. Therefore ask, seek, and knock.

Listen to the sermon here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Matthew 7:1-6: Do Not Judge

I have written in another place about Jesus' command, "Do not judge." So in this post I would like to write about how one actually obeys that negative commandment. It is obvious that one cannot avoid judging by simply deciding not to do it, that is a certain way to guarantee failure. But one can only become the kind of person who does not judge, by viewing people in a different light, if you will.

When we judge, what we are really doing is standing above another person and claiming to by God. This is why Jesus calls such a person a "hypocrite." For a hypocrite in Jesus day was simply an actor. It was one who stood behind a mask and took on the persona of another person – a king, a pauper, a slave, and in the case of judgement, God.

So to judge (condemn) is not merely to have opinions of people, but when we make judgements about people based off of information that we couldn't possibly have, what we are really doing is saying, "I am God." Meanwhile Jesus says, "you hypocrite!"

So how do we avoid being judgmental? How do we avoid playing the hypocrite and standing in the place of God? The answer to that question is found in the questions Jesus poses to us:

Well? Why does one do that? The only way to answer that question is by understanding what the log is. Many believe that the log in the eye is sin, that Jesus is saying, "Since you're all sinners, none of you has room to judge." But can this really be what he is saying? If that were the case, one would have to admit that it is possible to remove sin from one's life here on earth. For Jesus says, "first take the log out of your own eye." But I think it is safe to say that Jesus isn't advocating for complete sinlessness before helping another person. So what is he suggesting the log is?

I think that Dallas Willard is correct when he suggests that the log in the eye is itself condemnation. Just as to a hammer all things are nails, so the one with condemnation (might we call them 'fault finding lenses'?) in their eye will see everything as worthy to be condemned. And to such a person Jesus says, "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye."

But how does one do that? How does one obey the negative command, "Do not judge?" The answer is found in Matthew 6 where Jesus taught us to live in view of God and God alone. That involved giving, it involved praying, it involved fasting, it involved investing our treasures, it involved not worrying, but trusting God, and now it also involves the way we see one another.

See, it's only when one endeavors to live in the light of God, when a person looks through a different lens, if you will, that one will see all things by the illumination of that light. Seeing things in this light will free one to simply be who they are, allow God to be who he is, and let their neighbor live in responsibility to God. That is how to obey the command, "Do not judge." It is by living and seeing all things in the light of God.

But the problem of the speck remains, doesn't it? Our neighbor still has a speck in their eye. And Jesus says that removing the log from one's eye will enable one to see clearly and help remove the speck from the eye of a neighbor.

So now we have taken out our condemnation glasses. We no longer feel the need to play the condemning game. How does one go about helping their neighbor? Well, what shouldn't be done is anything forceful. We shouldn't give our holy things to dogs, or cast our pearls before pigs.

What does that mean?

Is he saying that some people are just so unworthy that one shouldn't waste time on them? You wouldn't believe it, but several commentaries think that Jesus is saying that. They think that Jesus, after telling us not to condemn other people, would himself turn around and say, “Some people are just not worth your time, they're just dogs.”

Such a message goes against the teaching of Jesus, he certainly wouldn't say something like that. Indeed, he isn't referring to the worth of the other person at all, but he refers to the help we come to bring. 

See, by throwing your holy things to a dog, you are assuming that the holy item, maybe a bible, is what the dog needs. But dogs can’t be nourished on bibles, right? And if a pig is hungry, a pearl does nothing for it. Therefore, when we assume that something we have will help another person, and we force it on them, that is just another way of judging them. It’s just another way of us standing over them in condemnation.

Think of it like sticking your finger in someone's eye because you see a small speck. If they didn't give you permission, your helpfulness will seem like an affront, and like dogs with holy things, and pigs with pearls, the person who is having your helpfulness forced upon them will soon turn and tear you to shreds. In other words, they will soon assume that you are the problem, and not the thing you were helping them with.

So how do we get it out? How do we help our neighbor get the speck out? We'll see next time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What it Means to Know the Lord

I wonder what the results would be if we went about asking the question, What does it mean to know the Lord? People would surely talk about faith and prayer, bible reading and church attendance, and all those things are part of knowledge. But I am always struck by what the bible says is it means to know God. Take, for example, this passage I stumbled across in Jeremiah:
13 How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption
and his upper chambers with injustice,
working his countrymen for nothing,
refusing to give them their wages.
14 He says, "I’ll build myself a grand palace,
with huge upper chambers,
ornate windows,
cedar paneling,
and rich red decor."
15 Is this what makes you a king,
having more cedar than anyone else?
Didn’t your father eat and drink
and still do what was just and right?
Then it went well for him!
16 He defended the rights of the poor and needy;
then it went well.
Isn’t that what it means to know me?
declares the Lord.
17 But you set your eyes and heart
on nothing but unjust gain;
you spill the blood of the innocent;
you practice cruelty;
you oppress your subjects.
- Jeremiah 22 -
Knowledge of God, as represented in scripture, translates in one doing the things that makes God happy. What a word for a country that is founded on Judeo-Christian principles. What a word for a nation that boasts its Christian heritage, while also leading the league in many areas related to poverty. What a word for us as we seek to elect a new leader. What a word for the almost innumerable number of churches that boast a knowledge of God. What a word for CEO's, bosses, fathers, mothers, pastors, teachers, politicians, litigators, people with means, educated people, uneducated people.

To know God, is to bring God's reality to bear upon our unreality. Seek to know God today.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Matthew 6:16-24: On Fasting and Lasting

The one word I would use to describe what Jesus is teaching in the beginning of Matthew 6, I would use the word "Focus." When we focus on something we are doing at least two things, 1) we are choosing to give our attention to a particular thing. 2) We are choosing to not allow other things to have our attention.

Jesus is saying that our focus, in all our acts of piety, should be squarely on God. When we give we learn to focus on God through the discipline of secrecy. When we pray we focus on God by paying attention to what God is doing in the world, and approaching him on the basis of his acceptance of us.

So it is actually possible for two people to do the same thing, but if their focus is on different things, their results will be different. Not, mind you, the external results primarily, but the internal results will be drastically different. One will become the cup that is clean on the outside only, the other will become the cup who cleansing begins on the inside. It all starts with our focus in giving, in prayer, and now we will see how it is in fasting.

Fasting, as we all know, is when a person abstains from all or some food or drink for a select period of time. Biblical fasting includes this standard definition, it is abstinence from food and/or drink, but it is more. Biblical fasting is a way of learning how to not have my own way, so that I might learn how to live in the Way of God. Therefore, to fast in the manner of Jesus is to learn how to say no to my self, that I might focus on what God wants, and say yes to him.

The hypocrites referenced in Matthew 6:16 fasted in such a way that they denied themselves what they wanted (food) in order that they might get something else they wanted (a good reputation). Therefore, in their fasting their focus remained squarely on themselves! They wanted people to think a certain way, the people thought it, and thats the reward they got. Big deal!

That way of fasting amounts to little. But there is a way of fasting that leads to life. It is fasting in the manner of Jesus. He introduces this way of fasting by contrasting the look of gloom that the hypocrites painted on their faces with a different look. "But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face..." Now, is Jesus just giving another external action for us to do? I don't think so, for our wily hearts would simply have another way of letting other sees how righteous we are. Is he simply telling us to "act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face" as the Message translation says? Well, yes, but he is saying much more.

If we remember that the primary audience of Matthew was a Jewish community, that would lead us to consider which words or phrases would have extra meaning to them. I think the mentioning of oil on the head would've caused his listeners ears to pique. For oil was poured on the head of priests in order to consecrate them and prepare them to serve God in his temple (Leviticus 8:12; Exodus 29:7). But the more famous example emerges from Psalm 23, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows."

So oil on the head, for the Jewish listeners, means time spent before the Lord God Almighty. Therefore fasting, according to Jesus, is not simply a time of not receiving physical nutrition, but it is a time of receiving your sustenance directly from God. Fasting is a time when we learn to say with Jesus, "Humans don't live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." It was the discipline of fasting and self-denial that enabled Jesus to say on one occasion, "Not my will, but thy will be done."

And if we would make God the focus of our fasting, we will slowly but surely become the kind of people who have a shift occur in our lives, whereby we now see the values of God's kingdom being more important than the values of the kingdom of this world. We will truly begin to want what God wants, more than wanting what our "self" wants.

Through the discipline of kingdom fasting, a person will slowly begin to realize that the true place that upholds their life is not the physical, but the eternal. It’s the spirit of God. And as the kingdom of God becomes more of a reality, we will begin to desire the things of the kingdom, more than the shiny objects that moth and rust destroy.

This leads to the remainder of the passage. Here it is in summary:

When we learn to focus on God in all of our activities, we will begin to experience a divine reversal in the way they we see and live our life. 1) We will see that it makes more sense to store treasures in heaven, by investing our time and talents in what God is doing, rather than the things that we want.

2) If we learn to focus on God in all things we will begin to see things in the light of God. Our eyes, as it were, will become healthy and full of light. We will be like the song that says, “turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things on earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace."

And finally number 3) We will no longer serve money. The desire for earthly wealth will no longer be the driving force of our life. Rather, we will come to see that God is our master, and instead of being subservient to the almighty dollar, we will happily be subservient to the Almighty God, and use money to bring glory and honor to him.

What a grand vision of life that is. I hope that you are catching that vision. If you are they keep focusing on Jesus so that it can become clearer. If you are not catching it, then focus on Jesus so you can begin to see it. Whatever you do, do not feel guilty for not living the kind of life Jesus describes, because guilt is simply another way of turning the focus back on "me." So don't feel guilty, simply look to Jesus. Keep your eyes on him. Let him be the focus of your attention in all of your activities.

Listen to the sermon.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Matthew 6:7-15: The Lord's Prayer

I recently read an article written by a former employee of Dropbox, a company known for provided "space" for us to save any electronic file that we want. The author worked at Dropbox when they were relatively unknown, and remained during the enormous growth that they experienced. After a while she began to feel as if she was losing herself, so she made the difficult decision of leaving her position in order to recalibrate, if you will. Here is what she said:
“I think that a tricky thing happens when a business grows incredibly fast. Any growth that isn’t slow and organic, but rather abrupt and hyperactive– it can make for a creeping separation between a company’s employees. There’s no time for casual small talk in the cafe anymore. There’s no banter, no down time, and no way to keep up with all the new faces coming in every day. Suddenly, it became acceptable to not have time for people. There was no time to care about their life outside of the office, much less their life outside of the meeting you’re in with them. This became normal behavior in my environment. The people I was supposed to be building things with were too busy to care… and so was I... 
I realized that I have to care about the person on the other side of the conference table in order to do great work with them.”
That final statement is more meaningful than one might think at first glance. Indeed, within it one might just discover the keys to success in many areas of life. Those words came to mind as I was thinking about Jesus' lesson on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15. Because prayer, if you will allow me to use a simple definition, is a conversation between two people who are working on the same project. Or, as Eugene Peterson says, it is "our way of getting involved with the work God is doing in this world."

If that is an adequate definition, how much more weight does the above quote hold? How much more important is it to care about the person on the other side of the conference table in order to do great work with them, when that other person is God?

I believe that this is the lesson Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than having a detached and needy approach to prayer (like many staff meetings), Jesus is trying to help us see that the basis of our prayer should be our love, care, concern, and benevolence for the one we are praying to. Not like the Gentiles and hypocrites, their prayers are all about themselves. They grant applications more than conversations between individuals who care for one another. For they are worried about dotting the i's and crossing the t's. They want to make sure they look right, speak correctly, and have all the externals in order, so that the deity receiving their "application" might find them acceptable.

Sadly we still find this external focus within Christianity. There are still those who are focused on the externals. You have to end your prayer with, 'in Jesus' name...' You have to fold your hands and bow your head. You must only use a prayer book. You must never you written prayers. On and on it goes.

And even though those are important conversations, when we make them primary it only shows that we are fundamentally misunderstanding what prayer is. When we believe that the thrust of prayer resides in the form that the prayer takes, we miss the point that we are talking to a God who is desiring a relationship with us. And so Jesus of people like that, "Do not be like them."

Note: He says do not be like them. It is ontology that he is concerned with here, not methodology primarily. But if we should not be like them, who should we be like? Now here is where I depart from some people who are smarter than me, and you are free to disagree if you want to. I think that Jesus is telling us how we should be by showing us the way a person would pray who is the way they should be.

In other words, I think Jesus gives us the Lord's Prayer so that we might ask the question, "What manner of person would pray in this way?" And as we exegete the prayer we will see that the kind of person that prays in this way is a person who is extremely interested in the work God is doing in the world. This person wants the name of the Father to be known as holy in the universe. This person realizes that if God reigns the entire cosmos would be in a better place. In other words, this person doesn't just come to prayer with a "here's what I need approach," but they come interested in the success of the person across of conference table–namely, God.

We do this naturally in our families, don't we? Spouses root for one another, parents cheer their kids on, and kids, even though they don't always say it as the grow up, never lose that desire of wanting mom and dad be the best at everything that they do. There is a mutual benevolence that comes before my needs.

And Jesus says that we should be like that towards God. And from that caring place it is only right and proper to look at how God's success in his cosmic project will impact my life. Then we can confidently ask for our daily bread, for forgiveness as we are forgiving, for deliverance, etc...

In other words, as we are interested in God's gigantic redemption project, it is only appropriate to talk about what that project will mean for our lives. In this manner of being, our asking comes from the realization that when God is successful (again, just like a healthy family) we will reap the benefits of that success. Therefore we pray for his help in that regard.

That is how we should be in prayer.

Many of us aren't even close to being there. We are still beginners in the school of prayer, but that's okay as long as you are enrolled. Allow me to suggestion something that might help you become different in your prayer life. I want you to simply dwell on the two words Jesus began with, "Our Father." Don't go beyond those words, but let the fact that the creator of the universe stoops to have a relationship with you settle down in your soul.

The words of Paul Tillich are wonderfully appropriate here. In a sermon on accepting the grace of God he makes this powerful statement to those who are struggling.
"You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"
As you seek to enter into a life of prayer, begin there. Let the fact that God accepts you transform the way you come to him in prayer. And then let Jesus continue to teach you how to be in life what you are in prayer, so that you can be in prayer what you are in life.

Link to audio sermon

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Girl Scout Cookie Season

So my chief padawan is selling Girl Scout cookies. She has joined the ranks of those young hustlers that guilt you into buying cookies on your way out of the grocery store. But now we are global, the internet is the grocery store, and this blog post is the exit door. Prepare to be harangued.

Would you buy some Girl Scout cookies and help Charlee achieve maximum girl-scoutery?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Matthew 6:1-6: The Secret is Secrecy

In an earlier post that can be found here, I referenced an apocryphal tale in which Jesus teaches his disciples a very valuable lesson regarding the motivation behind their deeds. One of the chief criticisms of religion which comes from the O.T. Prophets and the likes of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and several other critics, is that people use religion as a means to some other personal (often oppressive) end. This can be seen in the practices used to crush the poor, while empowering the rich. It can also be seen in the individual who does good deeds, in order to receive a prize for themselves (see the older brother in Luke 15). If we are not careful, our religious deeds (giving, praying, fasting, serving, etc), rather than leading us further up and into the heart of God, might just drag us further out and away from his presence.

Henri Nouwen once said, "Nothing conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ." In this quote he points to the danger that can befall a person whose good deeds are done from a heart that is not in the right place. This is a danger for each and everyone of us, and I think, if we all search our hearts and lives, we can all locate occasions where we served the Lord out of impure motives. We preached a sermon in a particular way so that people would like us, or you served only because you wanted the recognition, or perhaps you gave, but only when they offered to name the room after your family. Yes, we all at times are like the hypocrites referred to in Matthew 6:1-6. We do our pious acts,  "in order to be seen by [people]."

Jesus says that when we behave in this way, we get the thing that we were seeking. That is, the people we were performing for look at us and say, "Meshach sure is generous. He sure does pray and read his bible a lot. He sure does have a heart for the poor." That's it. That's the reward we wanted, and it's the only reward we will receive. But far from being a reward, actions such as these have a devastating effect on us. For all deeds flow from a persons heart, and when we are doing things in order that others might notice (reputation management), what we are revealing is that we have a heart that is motivated, not by love or compassion, but by impressing others. Therefore, on the outside we will appear to be just, holy, generous, and benevolent, but on the inside we will self-serving, manipulative, and shriveling. We will be like the scribes and Pharisees of whom Jesus says, "you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." What good is a cup that is only clean on the outside? It is only useful for one thing, observation. But in all other manners it is utterly useless, and actually harmful.

So what is the corrective? How do we ensure that our actions are flowing from a proper source, and helping us become what we are portraying? Well, to finish off Jesus' statement about the cup, we "clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean" (Matthew 23:26). That is, we shift our focus away from the external action, and towards the place from where those actions originate–the heart. Because when you clean the inside of a dirty cup, the natural result is that the outside of the cup will become clean. For the water on the inside will spill over to the outside. And in regards to our pious deeds, the way Jesus recommends that we approach "cleaning" them is by doing them in secret.
When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
By doing our deeds in secret, we are placing ourselves in a position where we cannot manage our reputation. Therefore we shift the management responsibilities to the Lord; we trust that he will let people know when they need to know. We also starve the part of us that thrives off of recognition; the part that wants to blow a trumpet so that people will see us doing good, and instead, we nurture the side of us that lives unto the Lord. We become the kind of people who want to do things that please the Lord. And eventually, once we have lived in the secret place for sometime, we will notice that even our public acts will be done "in secret." We will be able to live in full view of people, but we will take no thought of what they think, or feel about us.

I once took a course on public speaking, and on one occasion the professor was asked what the largest number of people was that he ever addressed. His response is instructive. “Well, I’ve spoken in places where 10,000 people were present, but I always only give my speech to 3 people, my wife, my mom, and my dad.” He went on to explain that when he began practicing his speeches he would always practice in the presence of his mother, father, and wife. So when it came time for him to stand in front of 10,000 people, he just stood up and delivered the speech in the same way he did to his family. The number present didn't have any impact on him.

When we start by living in the secret place, and doing our deeds "as unto the Lord." Soon we will be able to live our entire lives only for the glory of God. We will be like the Puritans who lived as if they stood before "an audience of One."