Tag Archives: Confession

Maturity and Personal Responsibility

“What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds ….”
Ezra 9:13a (NIV)

I have a vivid memory from childhood. I was around ten or eleven years old and was embroiled in a competitive neighborhood game of “kick the can.” I don’t know if it’s even played by kids anymore. An empty coffee can was set up in our backyard. One of the neighbor kids was “It” and tasked with protecting the can and tagging anyone “out” who attempted to successfully kick the can before getting tagged. If anyone actually accomplished kicking the can, then all those who had previously been tagged “out” would be free and the game would continue.

I was one of the last chances for all those who had been tagged. I made my approach around the back of the garage and waited for “It” to turn his back. I made my run for the can. I lunged in desperation, executing a feet-first baseball slide to try and avoid the tag. I fell short and was tagged out by my gloating neighbor.

“GOSH DARN IT!” I exclaimed at the top of my lungs.

Only I didn’t say, “Gosh darn it.” I screamed the actual bad phrase, cussing like a sailor in my anger and frustration. Looking up, I saw my father standing on the patio a few feet away coiling the garden hose.

Busted right in front of the judge, jury, and executioner. I was condemned to spend the rest of that glorious summer evening in my room listening to the rest of the neighborhood kids playing outside my window. Desperate, I pleaded the youngest child’s defense.

“But Dad, I’m only repeating what I heard Tim and Terry say! They say it all the time!”

My appeal was summarily denied. There was no mercy for the innocent waif who had been deceived by his elder siblings and led, unknowingly, down the path of sinful exclamations. I trudged up the stairs to my prison cell and an early bedtime like a dead man walking, sure that I had been wronged.

Wendy and I often find ourselves in the fascinating social position of being in a life stage just ahead of many of our friends. As such, we observe our friends parenting children in various stages of personal development from childhood to young adults; stages we’ve already traversed with our girls. I am constantly amazed to watch children develop and go through various stages of maturity.

One of the most critical lessons in personal development is that of taking responsibility for one’s actions. It’s amazing to watch kids in the defensive machinations like my own elder sibling defense (it never works). I have witnessed kids expertly play the excuse, denial, blame, and wrongfully accused strategies with their parents like Grand Master chess players attempting to beat Watson. What’s really interesting to watch is when they finally have to own up to responsibility for their own foolishness, and how they handle it.

In today’s chapter, Ezra and the returning exiles are faced with a social and religious problem. The Hebrews’ faith is unlike any of the local religions practiced by other tribes inhabiting the land. Theirs is a holy, imageless, all-powerful God who seeks obedience, personal responsibility, and moral uprightness. Around them is a plethora of local pagan cults whose worship includes drunkenness, ritual sex and prostitution, child sacrifice, and all sorts of licentious practices. Throughout their history, Hebrew men have intermarried with local women. They soon found themselves participating in the local cults their wives belonged to along with religiously attending to the rituals of their own faith. Eventually, many simply walked away from the faith of their ancestors and assimilated into the local culture

I found Ezra’s prayer of confession and petition is a great example of responsibility. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t point blame. He doesn’t try to minimize. He confesses honestly, takes full responsibility, and places himself at the mercy of the Almighty.

In the quiet this morning I find myself doing a little soul searching. Where in my life am I still playing an adult version of the child-like chess match of excuses, blame, obfuscation, and justification? Where do I need to step up, like Ezra, and confess honestly and forthrightly? What are the areas of life that I need to make a change?

When Obedience Seems Not Such a Wonderful Life

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Jonah 2:1 (NIV)

In the film classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays the leading role of George Bailey. Stewart, with his easy-going manner and “aw, shucks” charm, was the perfect person to play the role. George Bailey is a character referred to as an “everyman” because he’s a basic human archetype to whom every viewer can relate.

Late in the film, as he feels his life unraveling, Bailey stands on a train trestle and talks to God. “I’m not much of a praying man,” he says as he begins to address the Almighty. It’s a great line because it reaches those viewers who are not religious. Religious people know all about prayer and will identify, but for the non-religious viewer, it makes both Bailey’s character and prayer accessible.

In today’s chapter, we find Jonah, the runaway prophet, trapped in the belly of a giant fish. The chapter records the prophet’s distressed prayer from his precarious predicament.

What I found ironic as I read the chapter this morning was the placement of the prayer in the story. Jonah is not a George Bailey, for whom prayer is reserved for life’s foxhole desperation. Jonah was a prophet of God. It was his life. It was his job. Prayer, study, and the proclamation of God’s word was his daily preoccupation. Jonah didn’t pray when God told him to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrian people. He didn’t wrestle with God on the subject or seek guidance, clarification, or the grace to help him understand the command. He simply, and defiantly ran the other direction.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. A generation before Jonah the Assyrians had waged a bloody war against his nation. A generation later they would do the same. The people of Nineveh were Jonah’s enemies and the enemies of his people. Jonah’s struggle was not what God was calling him to do, but those to whom God was calling him to do it.

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the better part of a year studying the Jesus Movement of the first century in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes in the book is the racism that surfaces between different groups of believers. Those of Jesus’ followers who were Jews from Palestine discriminated against those who were from Greece. Those Jews who were from Greece discriminated against believers who were non-Jewish Gentiles. It was a hot mess, but it pointed to a heart issue that is present in Jonah as well.

In asking Jonah to preach to the Assyrians, God is proclaiming that He cares about the Assyrians. He wants the Assyrians to repent of their ways and turn to Him. God is, in fact, demonstrating the very message His Son would preach a few hundred years later:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (MSG)

Jonah now becomes the everyman archetype of his people who loved taking pride in being “the people of God” and “God’s chosen people” but had no interest in sharing the love or favor. Jonah doesn’t want to go to God’s enemies because he wants nothing to do with their repentance. He is like the Prodigal’s dutiful, hard-hearted older brother, only this time the father is asking him to go find his lost brother and see if he’ll come home.

Jonah is so adamant in refusing the call that he’s not even willing to pray and ask a few questions or to try and understand God’s heart in the request. But having barely survived a storm at sea, having been thrown overboard by non-Jewish sailors (who repent and turn to God), and having been swallowed by a giant fish, Jonah finally prays.

This morning I find myself standing in Jonah’s sandals. I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. How willing have I been to show love for those who hate me? Jesus repeatedly points out, in His sermon on the Mount, that He doesn’t want His followers to do the easy thing (like loving the homers who love you) but the hard thing (reaching out to the evil Assyrians of Nineveh). Am I even willing to consider how I might have settled into the former while conveniently ignoring the latter?

Jonah is an everyman, a character with whom we can relate. In the quiet this morning I confess I find myself relating to him more than I care to admit. I am called to love, even those I would much rather ignore.

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

When “Love” is Hard

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight….
Philippians 1:9 (NIV)

Along my journey I have managed individuals who were in the wrong position. They weren’t suited for the tasks they were given, they didn’t enjoy the work, and the fruit of their labor was often rotten.  The fact that we had good person in a bad position was obvious to me as a front-line manager. I have two very vivid memories in which I argued with my boss that an individual needed to be terminated. This was not so much to alleviate the problems felt inside the system (though it would certainly do that) but because the individual needed to be freed to find something for which he or she was better suited. In both cases I was told that the best thing to do was to “show grace and love” by continuing to work with the individual, keep encouraging the individual, to keep overlooking their failures, and to perpetually give them another chance. In neither instance did the this course of “grace and love” succeed.

Love is a simple word, and very often love is a simple concept: a random act of kindness, going out of your way to assist a person in need, an encouraging word, or a thoughtful gift.

As I read the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in the town of Philippi, I was struck that he prayed, not just that the Philippian believers’ love would abound, but that that it would abound in knowledge and depth of insight.

I have found along my life journey that love is often not such a simple concept. In fact, sometimes love is hard:

  • Coming clean, owning my own shit, and getting help.
  • Forgiving, knowing you’ll never forget the injury and/or the perpetrator will never admit, own, or repent of what he or she did.
  • Refusing to rescue a child; Allowing him or her fail as you watch and pray.
  • Choosing to make a child responsible for earning his or her way rather than freely providing all things.
  • Severing relationship with a crazy-maker.
  • Walking away from a toxic relationship.
  • Telling an addict, “No.”
  • Terminating an employee who isn’t a good fit for the job.

Just as Paul wrote that Satan masquerades as an angel of light, I’ve learned that sometimes what looks like love on the surface of a situation is actually not love at all. Quite the opposite. Often, the loving act is misunderstood in the moment. It requires knowledge to realize that it’s actually the best thing for the other. The truly loving act can initially illicit anger, bitterness, and lashing out. Depth of insight is required to see how things will play out in the long run.

This morning I’m thinking about the two individuals I referenced at the beginning of this post. I’ve learned that they moved on, found a better vocational fit, and appear to be successful in their chosen fields. I’m happy for them. They taught me an invaluable lesson. Showing “grace and love” sometimes means making the difficult, uncomfortable, even unpopular decision with the knowledge and insight that it’s actually the most loving thing to do.

 

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

Becoming the Evil from Which I’ve Been Delivered

So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.
Jeremiah 34:10-11 (NIV)

I found today’s chapter in the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s messages particularly fascinating. It is a series of messages given during the very time that Jerusalem, the capital city of the ancient nation of Judah, was besieged by the armies of Babylon. Judah’s King Zedekiah had issued a proclamation that all Hebrew slaves (in other words, the people of Judah had enslaved their own people) should be emancipated. After initially abiding by King Z’s emancipation proclamation, the slave owners reversed course, rounded up their former slaves, and returned the slaves to their chains.

In his book exploring the nature of evil, M. Scott Peck describes evil people as “pathologically attached to the status quo of their personalities” while “unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” I thought of those descriptors this morning as I read about the Hebrew slave owners who initially choose to appear obedient and upright in following the King’s edict, but then quickly put their own slaves back in shackles and maintained the status quo of the evil of slavery. The Hebrew people, whose ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt, had in effect become their Egyptian masters. While maintaining the appearance of being “God’s people” they were unable to see that they had become the very evil from which their own people had been delivered.

This morning in the quiet I’ve been doing a bit of my own gut-check. Somehow I’m sensing that it’s too easy to wag my self-righteous, 21st century fingers at the ancient Hebrew slave owners. Where in my own life do I make effort to keep up appearances of goodness while simultaneously maintaining a destructive status quo in my behaviors and relationships? Ugh.

I may be able to look back and see that have made spiritual progress on this life journey, but I can still look inside, then look ahead, and see how far I have to go. And with that, my spirit whispers an ancient prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Note to my readers:  As much I’d like to think that slavery has been outlawed and eradicated by our enlightened society, reading a few stories from groups such as International Justice Mission (an organization Wendy and I support) are a reminder that the evil of slavery addressed in Jeremiah’s ancient message is very much alive in the world we live in today. One practical way to make a tangible difference for good is to make a donation to IJM’s efforts or any one of many similar organizations. Peace.

Pre-Scribed Events and Reimagined Narratives

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.
2 Kings 5:11 (NIV)

I’ve always had a rather active imagination. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the land of make-believe. I can remember many scenes of war and espionage played out in my back yard and neighborhood. There were all sort of athletic miracles and Rudy-like moments that took place on the neighbor’s basketball court. I can even remember drawing colorful geometric shapes on notebook paper, taping them to the wall in a line and transforming my room in to the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. The final frontier alive and well in the limited space of my bedroom. I was that kid.

As I’ve continued on in my life journey, I’ve come to the realization that my active imagination has some unintended consequences. Because I have this unconscious ability to make up a narrative in my head, I sometimes find myself applying my imagination to real life. I just read the other day how, according to the author of the article, eye-witness testimony has become one of the least reliable forms of evidence in today’s justice system. People testify to what they honestly imagined they saw. I get that. Wendy sometimes corrects my retelling of events as my imagination makes changes and embellishments to the facts over time.

I have also found that I like the stories I tell myself. In fact, if I’m honest, I often like my own imaginative narratives better than the one God seems to be dictating in my current “real life” and present circumstances.

So it was that I found myself uncomfortably identifying with Namaan in today’s chapter. The worldly rich and power leper came to the prophet Elisha for healing. He also came with an imaginative narrative already written in his head how the events of his healing would unfold. Perhaps he’d heard others’ stories, or perhaps someone planted ideas in his head of what Elisha would experience (here I go again, imagining what might have happened). What we do read in this morning’s chapter is that when circumstances didn’t live up to the imagined narrative Namaan had prescribed for himself he became disappointed, frustrated, angry, and finally was utterly dismissive of the instructions Elisha prescribed for healing.

Namaan almost missed out on being healed of his leprosy because it didn’t match the events as he’d imagined them and pre-scribed (think of the word pre-scribed, literally: “scripted ahead of time“) them in his head!

In the quiet of this beautiful summer morning I’m glancing back into the past and honestly taking stock of ways that I have attempted to pre-scribe life along my own journey. I’m also doing my best to genuinely search for ways I may have imaginatively reimagined past events to place myself in a better role, give myself better lines, and alter others’ perceptions of events to place myself in a more favorable light within the scene.

I confess that I do these things more than I’d like to imagine.

[sigh]

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.