Pesky Pessimism & Rose Tinted Ray-Bans

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
1 Corinthians 9:1-3 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The premise of the article was that while it’s very popular to moan, groan and wax pessimistic about humanity’s rapid descent towards doomsday (a glance at your Facebook feed or a 24 hour news channel should prove this point), a look at actual data shows that life for human beings around the globe are better than they’ve ever been.

I have confessed in previous posts to having a pesky, pessimistic spirit. Ask Wendy and she can give you plenty of examples. It’s very easy for me to slip into doomsday mode with little justification for doing so. I have lived much of my spiritual journey in a form of holy pessimism. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I’ve typically found that my fellow believers eagerly buy-in to the notion that things were spiritually so much better for the apostles and Jesus’ followers in the first century. They saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. They had all these miracles happening everyday. They were living in the socialistic bliss of their local Acts 2:42 commune. In contrast, things seem spiritually worse today than ever. We’re accustomed to hearing this regularly from the pulpit and the media, and it’s a popular mindset. We’re going to hell in a hand basket. So my preacher and the news stations tell me so.

What’s fascinating is that the further I get in my spiritual journey and the more I study God’s Message the more contrarian I find myself becoming in these matters. I think I’ve spent most of my journey looking at the past, even the Bible, with rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

In today’s chapter Paul hints at a conflict that’s been simmering in the leadership ranks of the early church. The term “apostle” was not a title given lightly to the early believers. It generally referred to “the twelve” whom Jesus had chosen, trained and commissioned. There appears to have been some criteria for claiming the title (i.e. having seen the risen Jesus, having been sent by Jesus, performing signs and wonders, and etc.). Paul claimed to be an “apostle” in all of his letters. He begins today’s section of the letter basically citing his resume for being an “apostle” after admitting that some claim that he’s not. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul somewhat sarcastically refers to the other apostles as “super apostles.” He gives a similar sarcastic tone to the term “esteemed apostles” in his letter to the Galatians (before calling Peter out and saying that Peter “stands condemned” for his hypocritical actions).

Something smells rotten in the early church” Shakespeare might have written. I think I gloss over how hard things were for the early believers, how much conflict and strife there was, and how miraculous it is that this fledgling movement even survived.

This morning I’m simply mulling over my own natural pessimism. This past weekend I’ve been thinking long and hard about my penchant for buying into “the past was better, the present is certainly worse and getting worser” line of thinking. I’m not sure the evidence supports that notion. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a glass that’s half-full with my name on it within easy reach.

Trust me. You won’t like it,” my pessimistic spirit whispers to me.

Arrrrrghhh. Happy Monday every one.

 

Honor, Challenge, & Letting it Go

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

Along my faith journey I’ve encountered a whole lot of silliness as it relates to fellow believers’ attitudes and beliefs. I’m reminded this morning of the sweet old woman who was dead-set that the King James version of the Bible was the only true version. “If it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul it’s good enough for me,” she said.

Um…ma’am…oh, never mind.”

We’ve been talking a lot about the word “honor” among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. The word picture that always accompanies that word for me is “to attach worth” to someone or something.

In today’s chapter Paul addresses an issue that was relevant to the followers of Jesus in first century Corinth, but rather a strange notion in the modern world. Corinth in 55 A.D. was a major trade hub for the Roman Empire and there were a lot of travelers from all over the known world passing through. As such, there were a lot of pagan temples in town. When animals were sacrificed to a Greek or Roman god at one of the local temples, the meat was first used to provide food for the priests and priestesses of the temple. Any excess was sold in the local market as a source of revenue.

This raised a hot moral debate within the new Corinthians believers. It it okay to eat meat that got butchered as a sacrifice to Apollo or not? I can imagine at least one person claimed that an Apollo pot roast was “of the devil.”

Paul makes it clear in his letter that there was nothing wrong with eating the meat, but he made one major addendum for mature believers to follow. If you know that a fellow believer in your midst gets the spiritual heebie-jeebies from eating Apollo pot roast and considers it personally reprehensible, then you should honor his/her belief (literally attach worth to what you consider a silly, worthless superstition). Don’t cause a “weaker” fellow believer to go against their own conscience. In essence, it’s not my job to convince someone they are being silly. That’s Holy Spirit’s job. My job is to extend honor, love and respect for a fellow believer’s sincere belief.

This morning I’ve been taking stock of my own track record on honoring fellow believers who have a very different conscience than mine. On the whole, I’d like to think that I am, and have been, an honoring person. That being said, I realize in the quiet this morning that along they way I’ve sometimes made distinctions between those Paul would call a “weaker” brother or sister in his/her immaturity, and a brother or sister who should have matured and needs to be challenged to grow up. I’m not convinced my discernment between the two has always been correct.

And then there’s the old lady whose convinced that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians in the Medieval English of King James.

Sometimes it’s best to just let it go.

The Mess of Relationships

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)

My friend Matthew is a marriage and family therapist here in our small Iowa town. This is a great little community founded in 1847 by a Dutch pastor and his devout group of Jesus’ followers. After 170 years our community retains a strong culture of Christian values, and I would daresay that a majority of our town’s citizens would claim to be believers. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed over the years that my friend Matthew never ceases to be booked solid with clients. My quiet observation is that even among those who sincerely seek to follow Jesus, relationships are a never-ending challenge.

Today’s chapter reads like a modified bullet list from Dear Abby as Paul advises those who are married, those who are single wishing to be married, those who are widowed, those who are separated from their spouses, and those who are married to unbelievers. He weaves in and out of stating what he knows from Jewish laws and tradition, and what he believes in his own opinion as the first century believers struggle to determine what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in a rapidly developing faith tradition. Based on what he has already established earlier in his letter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of Jesus’ followers from diverse cultural traditions living in what is primarily a pagan Greek town in the first century Roman Empire. Most of what the Corinthian believers knew of Jesus’ words and teaching was transmitted orally by the Apostles. It is likely that none of the Gospels had even been written when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.

I’m an amateur student of history, I’ve come to accept that every generation of believers in every culture have struggled with all of these relational and marital issues. Courtship, sex before marriage, marriage, sex within marriage, infidelity, separation, divorce, widowhood, sex outside of marriage and remarriage have always been challenging issues. They have always spurred intense debate and emotional turmoil for individuals, families, churches, communities, and nations. I believe they always will this side of eternity.

As I read through today’s chapter and couldn’t help thinking of real people I know in very real and very unique life situations. It spurs questions of “Yeah, but what about….” God’s Message through Paul provides a general  guide for believers, but it certainly isn’t  exhaustive and it doesn’t come close to addressing countless specific situations. Being a divorced and remarried follower of Jesus, I have grappled with my very own relational struggles and failures. I have received (both solicited and unsolicited) diverse opinions from other sincere believers ranging from grace and forgiveness to judgment and condemnation. [sigh] Life gets messy on this earthly journey.

This morning I find myself grappling with my own past. I have continuously journeyed through and studied the Bible for almost 40 years. I have sought to increasingly live as a sincere believer of Jesus, though I regularly fall short. The failure of my first marriage and all the personal shortcomings that led to it are right up there at the top of my failure list.  Yet, there are a few things Holy Spirit continually whispers to my soul when my shame rolls in like the tide:

  • First, nowhere in God’s Message does the failure of a marriage exclude a person from God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.
  • Second, God has a long track record of redeeming and using broken people with personal failings for His good purposes.

The good news for my friend Matthew and his colleagues is that they will have job security as long as imperfect human beings date, get married, and seek to successfully live together in this fallen world.

The Latest 02-05-2018

It’s been a while since I’ve updated family and friends on the latest happenings with Wendy, me and the crew. Here’s the latest…

The best Christmas gift 2018: Milo James Vander Well!
  • Our grandson, Milo, is doing really well. Arriving five weeks early and weighing in an ounce over five pounds, he’s now over eight pounds and growing. Taylor and Clayton are still adjusting to life on a three-hour sleep cycle and all of the regular challenges of a newborn. We, of course, don’t get nearly enough of him but an extended visit to grandpa and grandma’s house is coming up and we’re excited.
Sharing the message in the Auditorium services at Third Church.
  • January 1, 2018 meant two transitions for me. First, I was named CEO of C Wenger Group (CWG) the company I’ve worked for since 1994. My transition into leadership has been long planned, but the exact timing has not. A few months ago my business partner and I agreed that the timing was right, so I’ve not had long to prepare. Functionally, things won’t change much in the near term other than taking on entirely new layer of administrative work and responsibilities while I set the course for our company’s future. Second, I have accepted a slightly larger role in the auditorium services at Third Church. This means preaching a little more often [FYI: you can find messages on the TRC channel on YouTube or through the TRC website] and consistently taking the leadership role in Sunday services.

  • Wendy and I officially stepped down from leadership in Union Street Players, our local community theatre, after 12/13 years of service on the Board of Directors. We didn’t exactly know the other transitions were coming, but felt that it was time and now we feel the synchronicity of it. We will still volunteer and support USP and be in shows when the timing is right.

  • Wendy continues to work for CWG and her administrative gifts have already become invaluable in helping me with my new realities. She’s been volunteering some of her time at the Pella Opera House in recent weeks.

  • We’re headed on a Caribbean cruise in a few weeks, and can’t wait for 7 days away from the Iowa winter.
Madison with Grandma Jeanne.
  • Madison continues to work for Laura Geller New York from her home in South Carolina. She’s doing great and has settled into community there.
  • My folks are doing well in their retirement community and continue to reside in independent living. Dad continues oral chemo for his Multiple Myeloma and cares for mom with love and fidelity. Mom is her doctor’s oldest surviving Auto-Immune Hepatitis patient and continues to battle Alzheimer’s as best she can.

  • Taylor and Clayton are in Des Moines focused on little Milo. Clayton is doing a short research project for the UN in February which is a great feather in his cap. Taylor is on maternity leave for a few more weeks and then will return to her job at ThinkDigital.
Celebrating Suzanna’s birthday this past fall.
  • Wendy’s sister, Suzanna, has started a successful career with a bonding company in Des Moines and is living in the Des Moines area.
So thankful for the family and friends who fill our lives with so much love!

Freedom to Do What I Ought

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.
1 Corinthians 6:12 (NIV)

When you’re a child growing up in the United States you learn the phrase “the land of the free.” Without a doubt, I am free to do whatever I want (within the law), to go where I want to go, and to be or become what I desire. A a child I was taught the positive aspects of this freedom: I can succeed at whatever I focus my heart and mind towards. I can become a doctor, a fire fighter, an astronaut, or President of the United States.

As I continued in my life journey I became aware that freedom has a corollary truth. I am also free to be a jerk, an addict, an idiot, a bully, a cheat, or a cad. I am just as free to be a drain on society as I am to be a productive member of it.

In today’s chapter, Paul addresses how the believers in ancient Corinth should conduct themselves with regard to sexuality. He quotes a phrase that some within the Corinthian congregation were repeating: “I have the right to do anything.” Presumably, some believers were making regular trips to the local Temple of Aphrodite to have sex with one of the priestess prostitutes and then showing up for worship to claim that there was nothing wrong with their behavior and claiming their “right” to behave as they wanted because Jesus’ unlimited grace and forgiveness was essentially a spiritual “get out of jail free” card.

Paul goes on to explain that as followers of Jesus there is a greater spiritual truth at work here. Sex isn’t just a recreational physical act. When people have sex there are layers of spiritual, emotional, and relational connection that shouldn’t be ignored. Many, if not most, of the “priestess” prostitutes were slaves who had been “given” to the temple cult and forced into the service of prostitution. This was not just a simple case of “freedom” to do what one wanted. There were issues of spiritual health and social justice involved, and a person who claims to follow Jesus can’t ignore them.

I have a right to do anything,” one might say, but so did Jesus. Jesus had the right not to come to live among us, yet He yielded this right in order to become one of us that He might be One with us. Jesus claimed He had the right to call down an army of angels to rescue Him from dying on the cross. Once again, He yielded that right for my benefit. His example was to yield His rights for the spiritual and relational good of all. He sacrificed His rights to bring about Life and goodness. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to follow this example. Jesus said any who would follow after Him must, “deny themselves and take up their own cross.” This means yielding my freedom to “do whatever I want” for the spiritual, emotional, and relational health of myself, others, and the good of all.

Along this life journey I’ve learned (the hard way in many cases, I might add) that as a follower of Jesus I am called to embrace freedom to do what I ought, not do what I want.

Immorality and Inquisition

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.
1 Corinthians 5:9-10 (NIV)

This spring our local Christian high school is producing Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible. I would daresay that any individual who loves theatre has a personal list of shows and roles that they dream of doing one day. The Crucible is one of those shows for me.

The Crucible is not a light-weight play. It’s a retelling of the infamous witch trials which began in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. A group of teenage girls go into hysterics claiming that they have seen individuals within the community “with the devil.” The community is thrown into religiously-motivated chaos as community members are investigated, tried and eventually hanged.

Along my life journey I have met a number of people who have shared with me painful stories of how they were personally and publicly shamed by a church. These individuals who come to mind are beautiful, sincere persons who, despite their past mistakes, are following Jesus and living increasingly transformed lives marked by love, grace, mercy, honor and transformation. They were rebellious teenagers, individuals wrestling with addiction to various appetites, and hurting individuals who willfully acted out their pain. Instead of coming alongside the hurting individuals with love-motivated accountability, their local churches launched “witch hunts,” broadcast their sins, called them in front of the church to shame them. In some cases the church threw them out.

Let’s be real. When it comes to handling issues of morality and human foibles, the church has a long and sordid history of epic failures. We all know the stories from the Salem witch trials to the Spanish Inquisition. We can point to horrors of religiously motivated prejudice, persecution, violence, and genocide. Of course, I believe that there are also countless examples throughout history of religiously motivated grace, love and forgiveness which don’t get nearly enough press, but that’s a blog post for a different day.

In today’s chapter, we find Paul grappling with a sticky wicket within the community of Corinthian believers. There was a particular instance of a man who was involved in an incestuous relationship with his own mother, which is certainly not a great thing. There was, however, also a larger issue going on. One of the struggles the early believers had was the argument that many were making: “If Jesus offers me grace and forgives all my sins, then I’m free to do whatever I want and I’ll be forgiven. In fact, the more I sin the more grace is afforded me. So let’s go sin and produce more grace!”

Twice in Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth he quotes “everything is permissible” which was obviously what some within the company of Jesus followers were arguing. “I have a right to do anything I want and act in any way I choose because Jesus’ forgiveness provides me moral carte blanche.” The implication is that the man who was having sex with his mother was among the “everything is permissible” faction, and it was having destructive spiritual effect within the community. Paul argues that those propagating this destructive teaching needed to leave the fellowship.

Paul goes on to make a clear distinction that Jesus’ followers have no right to be judgmental towards those who aren’t Jesus’ followers. Those who follow Jesus, however, must adhere to Jesus’ teaching which never condones the “everything is permissible” doctrine. The community of believers had a responsibility to deal with those within the church who were advancing this spiritually destructive teaching.

Of course, over time many religious movements and churches have taken Paul’s word to the believers in Corinth and twisted it. We have wrongfully believed we have carte blanche to investigate, weed out, and shame any persons who fail our moral benchmarks. We judge anyone who doesn’t meet our moral litmus tests (both inside and outside the walls of our churches, I might add). We have taken Paul’s directive about a destructive school of thought (which led to increasing, unchecked, immoral behavior) and used it to justify moral inquisitions of all kinds. The Salem witch trials stand as an example.

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that I’m a follower of Jesus. I seek to follow Jesus’ example in my life, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. Jesus was incredibly gracious to those who were struggling morally and simply trying to find their way to the Kingdom of God. He wanted people to leave the destructive behaviors that were harming themselves and others. Those persons Jesus judged most harshly were the religious people who looked down their noses on others and used religion as tool to empower themselves at others expense.

I’ve come to believe that destructive teaching needs to be called out for what it is and rejected. This includes the notion that “everything is permissible” whether that notion condones immorality or inquisition.

featured photo courtesy of bossdoss1 via Flickr