Tag Archives: Good

Is “Living Sacrifice” an Oxymoron?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1 (NIV)

To Paul’s readers, the term “living sacrifice” would have seemed an oxymoron. Animal sacrifice was a common part of religion at the time. This was not only true of Judaism, but most all of the Roman cults and religions practiced some sort of animal sacrifice. So whether the followers of Jesus in Rome who were reading Paul’s words had come from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, they would have scratched their heads.

Living sacrifice?” I can hear one say. “But, doesn’t the very notion of ‘sacrifice’ mean that something dies?”

Quite right,” I imagine Paul replying if he were there in person. “You do.”

Excuse me?” the Roman believer asks quizzically.

You are the sacrifice,” Paul says, looking the believer in the eye and offering a warm smile. “In fact dying to yourself is really the heart of your worship. Not the occasional sacrifice of an animal like all these other religions you see around us. Anyone can do that and it costs very little in the long run. Cheap and easy, really. Our Lord Jesus was quite direct in telling us that in order to be His follower we have to take up our own cross. We would have to sacrifice ourselves for others, for Him. Just as He did for us. That’s at the very heart of true worship, and being a true follower.

But how does that work, exactly?” the believer asks. “How exactly do I go about making myself a ‘living sacrifice?‘”

Ah,” Paul says, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m glad you asked.”

The entirety of today’s chapter answers that question. What does it mean to truly worship by offering myself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Ironically, going to church, singing, throwing a buck in the plate, and all the things we normally associate with “worship” are not even mentioned.

Here’s a bulleted and paraphrased list of what Paul goes on to mention in the rest of today’s chapter:

  • Don’t follow the “It’s all about me” behavior and thought patterns of this world.
  • Transform your thinking; Renew your mind with Jesus’ teaching.
  • Don’t think too much of yourself; Maintain an on-going sober self-assessment.
  • Use your gifts and abilities to serve others.
  • Hate evil.
  • Cling to what is good.
  • Devote yourself to loving others.
  • Attach such worth to others that you naturally serve them first.
  • Be zealous in serving others, and keep feeding the zeal.
  • Be joyful in hope for all God can and will do.
  • Be patient when you’re afflicted, there’s a point to the pain.
  • Faithfully maintain an on-going conversation with God.
  • Share what you have with anyone in need.
  • Practice hospitality. Seriously, practice. You need to get better at it.
  • Bless those who persecute you. Do something nice for them and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • If you know someone who got a win, sincerely celebrate with them (don’t envy their success or good fortune).
  • If you know someone who is grieving, be present in their pain.
  • Live in harmony with others; You might not be on the same note, but you can at least blend your differences so as not to be dissonant to everyone around you.
  • Don’t be proud; Every day you encounter people in lower, more humble circumstances than you. Be willing to meet them at their level, even if it means stooping below your comfortable social status.
  • Don’t be conceited. Consider the reality that you just might not that important in the grand scheme of things. Embrace it.
  • Evil that is done to you does not justify revenge. Let it go.
  • Do the right thing for everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, so practice that self-control to live peacefully with everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • Let me repeat, give up your right to revenge. Vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting it hurt someone else.
  • If your enemy is hungry, give her some food.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him some water.
  • Responding to evil with your own evil tactics only escalates the situation and then everybody loses. Respond with goodness. You’ll sleep better.

In order to practice this list on a daily basis,” Paul says to his friend, “it will require some sacrifices on your part: your ego, your time, your pride, your resources, your wants, your comfort, and even your rights. That is how we worship God by being a living sacrifice.”

The Dude Abides

[The man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)

Yesterday, as I was getting ready, I had the Cohen brothers’ classic movie, The Big Lebowski, playing in the background. It’s become one of my all time favorites movies. What most people don’t realize is that The Big Lebowski is basically a classic 1940s film noir detective story set in the early 1980s with an unlikely stoner named The Dude unwittingly placed in the role of the protagonist detective.

I grew up watching a lot classic films and the hard-boiled detective movies (e.g. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade) of the film noir genre were among my favorites. In The Big Lebowski you have all the classic detective movie motifs: the old millionaire, the millionaire’s daughter with whom the protagonist falls in love, blackmail, rabbit trails, crime lords, a secondary detective, and the protagonist detective getting “slipped a Mickey” (drugged with a drink).

I’ve observed that most people watch films in a vacuum, as though each film sort of stands alone. The reality is that all good stories and films borrow themes and motifs from one another. All of my favorite epics, for examples, have the overarching theme of good versus evil. Usually an epic story is about an ancient struggle coming to a climax. There’s always a prophecy woven into the storyline, as well. In Harry Potter there is the prophecy Harry retrieves from the Ministry of Magic. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is the prophecy and deep magic of the stone table. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is led to take the Paths of the Dead because of the “words of Malbeth the Seer.

I say it fairly regularly: “All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.” Our stories reflect our own humanity. Deeper still, I believe that human history is a Great Story being told across the ages. I believe that evil exists and there is a very real struggle between good versus evil. I believe in the prophetic.

Along my life journey I’ve experienced the prophetic. I have found it to be both mysterious and messy and therefore quickly dismissed by many. I have come to believe that tragedy lies on either side of the tension between two possible errors: Dismissing the prophetic altogether or drowning too deeply in the mystery. I’ve always tried to hold the tension between the two.

In the early years of the Jesus movement there were many prophecies given concerning where the plot line of the Great Story was going. This led to many arguments and mistaken assumptions.  In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing some mistaken assumptions  in today’s chapter. Without drowning too deeply in the specifics, I find myself being reminded of two things.

First, there is evil, and evil opposes good. Jesus was very aware of the evil opposing Him. He knew that His coming was prophesied (He proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic word in His first sermon). He cast out demons throughout His ministry. He knew He was being tempted by the evil one to abandon His sacrificial mission. We don’t like to think too much about the reality of evil, but it exists.

Second, evil cannot create but, instead, it always counterfeits. Tolkien clearly picked up this theme in his epic stories. Orcs were counterfeits made in opposition to elves. Trolls were counterfeits made in opposition to ents. Paul says there is prophesied a counterfeit messiah to come whom he calls the Man of Lawlessness. The Greek term he uses is anthropos (man, mankind, humanity; as in anthropology the study of humanity) anamos (opposition, lawless, wicked; from which we get the English word animosity). Paul explains that it has been prophesied that this counterfeit messiah will come before Jesus’ return in a climax to this Great Story.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering all of these mysteries. I don’t want to get lost in them, but neither do I want to dismiss them. Again, I find myself trying to hold the tension. I believe my life journey is part of the Great Story. How it fits and weaves into the larger plot lines is a mystery to me. I’m just trying to stick to the path appointed for me, to follow the steps I’m led, to do the good God calls me to do, and to be shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove, aware of both the evil and the good around me.

Or, as Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: “The Dude Abides.”

Abide well today, my friend.

Overturning the Scales on the Spiritual Economy

There is, however, some good in you.
2 Chronicles 19:3 (NIV)

In the past few months my past has resurfaced. It happens once in a while. My many failures are a matter of public record. I have spoken openly about them. For certain individuals my record makes me questionable, and every so often the questions come around again.

I find spiritual economics to be a fascinating thing; The way in which we determine, quantify, and respond to the “good” and “bad” (or “righteousness” and “sin”) within ourselves and others. The way we use key indicators within our spiritual economy to determine our view of everyone and everything around us.

The Chronicler and his ancient world had a very ordered system. He dictates for us whether Kings were winners and losers in the spiritual economy. The good and bad are spelled out in black and white terms. In the previous chapter Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, so in today’s chapter the Seer Jehu calls him out for his “bad,” but then declares “There is, however, some good in you.” The rest of the chapter goes on to describe Jehoshaphat’s exemplary efforts to promote and improve domestic justice in his kingdom. We the readers feel the scales on the spiritual economy tipping back and forth.

It’s no wonder that to this day we perpetuate variations on this system of weighing and judging people on our personal, spiritual economic scales. It’s a very human thing to do. Yet, one of the radical things that Jesus brought to the table was a radically new spiritual economy. He turned the system upside down. In Jesus’ spiritual economy there was no one who measured up on their own. No personal righteousness was enough to tip the scales to the “good.” Every person was in need of grace and mercy. As James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” So the “righteous” religious people who were “good” in the standard spiritual economic system incurred Jesus’ wrath, while He made a habit of hanging out and showing kindness, love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy to the “bad,” the sinful, the marginal, and the questionable.

This morning I’m once again looking back across my journey. I don’t think I would have fared particularly well in the Chronicler’s spiritual economic scale. I don’t fare particularly well in the spiritual economic scales of some of my fellow believers.

Two things come to mind as I mull these things over in my heart.

One is a passage I memorized long ago. I like how The Message puts it:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.
Ephesians 2:7-10

The other is these lyrics from Bob Dylan:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there.
Other times it’s only me.
I’m hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow fallen.
Like every grain of sand.

For the Good of the Whole

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done….'”
Numbers 5:5-7 (NIV)

Many of the client offices in which I’ve worked over the years are cramped quarters. Numerous people work in confined spaces with little barrier between desks. During the winter months it is quite common to hear stories of entire departments decimated by the flu or other viruses that spread quickly with little or no warning. Over the years when I’ve found myself with a nasty bug I have felt compelled to call clients and explain, “You don’t want me visiting you right now.” I can’t remember a single client who wasn’t grateful for me being considerate of their operation and team members.

When reading through the ancient marching orders for the Hebrew nation in the book of Numbers it’s easy to for me to find myself perplexed in the simple reading of the text. It is so easy to read it from a 21st century American perspective and scratch my head. There is little connection between me (the modern, western technological age reader) and a nomadic nation of semitic people in Arabia around 3500 years ago.

Stepping back and looking at today’s chapter as a whole, the rules prescribed through Moses had to do with things that were threats to their community, starting with that which was physical and easy to see and ending with that which was relational and much harder to judge.

It begins with that which was physical and quite easy to diagnose. In that time period infectious disease could wipe out an entire people in little or no time. While my cold virus might wreak havoc on my client’s workforce and productivity, in the days of Moses a nasty virus could bring death and plague to the entire nation. So, those who showed clear physical sign of what might be a disease were to be quarantined outside the camp. Next came the broad category of “wronging” another member of the community. I think of this as the type of neighborly disputes that might end up in small claims court at my local courthouse. Finally, the bulk of the chapter deals with the most intimate and difficult things to know or to judge: marital infidelity.

It’s easy as a modern reader to get mired in the struggle to understand rules made for an ancient, middle-eastern culture. Wendy and I had a fascinating discussion over coffee last week about the historical and cultural contexts of these rules. Still, I walk away from today’s chapter reminded that all cultures need laws, rules, and regulations that protect the good of the community.  Infectious disease, personal disputes, and the breakdown of marriage all have consequences that  radiate throughout the community. God through Moses prescribed very specific ways to determine and deal with them for the good of the whole.

This morning I’m thankful to live in a community with a strong system of law that protects our community, state, and nation as a whole. I’m also reminded this morning of my individual responsibility to be considerate of my community as a whole. In fact, I report for jury duty in two weeks.

Walking Humbly

The Lord Almighty planned it,
    to bring down her pride in all her splendor
    and to humble all who are renowned on the earth.
Isaiah 23:9 (NIV)

The autumn season it a busy time for my business. We begin looking the coming year, preparing proposals for clients, and forecasting what the coming year will look like for us. Over a quarter century I have experienced both the highs and lows of business. For a long time it seemed that our company’s business would continue to grow at a fast pace. I can remember a number of years of continuous expansion when it seemed nothing could stop us.

I’ve learned, however, that things can change in a hurry. It’s amazing how quickly a person can go from dreaming big to scrambling to make ends meet. It’s a humbling experience.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah turns his prophetic eye on the city of Tyre which was a powerful port of trade on the Mediterranean. The trading ships of Tyre did a lot of business, and they had been on a good run for a long period of time. Isaiah prophetically warned them to get ready for a devastating change in the business forecast.

Isaiah points out that the coming devastation was intended by God to teach humility. It was another one of the ancient prophets, Micah, who said that what God really requires of us is to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.” I like the image of walking humbly. Humility is not momentary. It’s not like a coat we put on for a chilly day. It’s an everyday mindset for every stretch of life’s journey, both the  bears and the bulls, the peaks and the valleys, the good times and the bad.

This morning I’m thinking again of our nation. Some are feeling smug and assured in victory. Some are feeling devastated in the sting of defeat. Days like these bring out the absolute worst that pride produces in us, both in triumph and tragedy. I am thinking about Tyre in its booming heyday, and impending decline. I am remembering my own pride when I believed nothing could go wrong, and the painful days when it actually did. I am reminded this morning of walking humbly every step of this journey.

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Purposes and Implosions of Evil

“I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian—
    brother will fight against brother,
    neighbor against neighbor,
    city against city,
    kingdom against kingdom.”
Isaiah 19:2 (NIV)

‘Yes, they quarreled, seemingly,’ said Sam. ‘There must have been a couple of hundred of the dirty creatures in this place. A bit of a tall order for Sam Gamgee, as you might say. But they’ve done all the killing of themselves.’
The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, Chapter 1

Evil falls prey to its own nature. That’s one of the themes that Tolkien threaded through his epic stories. Left to its own devices, evil implodes from its self-seeking appetites:

  • Several characters relented from killing Gollum and Gandalf even believed that Gollum had a part to play in the fate of the ring. Gollum’s insatiable lust for the One Ring was what ultimately saved Frodo and everyone else, while destroying both the Ring and himself.
  • In the Tower of Cirith Ungol Sam is able to find Frodo and rescue him because all of the orcs fought and destroyed each other. (see quoted passage above)
  • The orcs who took Merry and Pippin quarrel over their captives and their quarrel is leveraged by the hobbits to plot their escape.
  • Gandalf refuses to kill either Saruman or Wormtongue. In the end, Wormtongue finishes Saruman off himself.

I thought about this theme in Tolkien’s stories, and its caused me to think about my responses and reactions to evil that I encounter around me and in others. As a young man I was far more given to the notion of swift and final justice of any perpetrator of evil. The further I get in my journey the more I’ve come to appreciate that life is not always as simply black and white.

Even God, through the word of the prophets, makes it clear that sometimes the agents of evil unwittingly serve the greater design of the Great Story. In Isaiah’s prophetic messages to the nations in the past few chapters there has been a recurring theme of Israel’s enemies accomplishing God’s larger purposes. And, sometimes  implodes and devours itself.

Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement,” Gandalf says to Frodo regarding Gollum’s deserving justice. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

This morning I’m thinking about grand themes of good and evil, of mercy and justice. I would love for things to always be simple in the story telling and to avoid the messiness of the mystery. I would especially appreciate it as I apply these themes to my own life and relationships. Yet, my life journey has taught me that things are rarely that simple. The truth is that I would have quickly dispatched Gollum and considered it a just end, but then how would the larger epic have ended?

I’m left, as I am so often am, praying for wisdom and discernment. I’m trying harder than ever to suppress my natural eagerness to deal out judgement. I’m trying harder than ever to increase love in tangible ways.

 

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(Not) Missing the Point

“…[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit….”
Titus 3:5 (NIV)

There is a fascinating and utterly critical matter lying beneath the structure of Paul’s letter to Titus in today’s chapter. It is essential to understanding God’s Message.

Our chapter begins with Paul instructing Titus to remind the followers of Jesus to be obedient and to do good:

  • Be subject to rulers
  • Be subject to authority
  • Be ready to do whatever is good
  • Slander no one
  • Be peaceable
  • Be considerate
  • Always be gentle

Here is a do-gooders laundry list. “Surely this is what God expects,” I can hear a heart whisper, “There’s no way. I’ve done too many awful things. I’m such a wretch. There’s no use trying. I could never be what God wants me to be.”

But we can’t stop with the list. The very next thing Paul does is remind Titus of what both of them were, in the past tense:

  • Foolish
  • Disobedient
  • Deceived
  • Enslaved to passions
  • Enslave to pleasures
  • Malicious
  • Envious
  • Hated by others
  • Hating others back

What a contrasting list. Here is a description most of us can identify with. We know the struggle against our own selves, our selfishness, foolishness, and out of control appetites. We know the shame of our own failures.

So, how do we get to the former list when our lives are described by the latter? Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s next words to Titus this way:

But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life!

Here is the crux of Jesus’ teaching, and what I believe is the most amazing piece of it. Gods acceptance isn’t the result of being a do-gooder and earning some kind of spiritual merit badge. We are accepted by God amidst of our ever present laundry list of failures simply by His mercy. We don’t become do gooders to earn God’s mercy. God’s mercy is poured out over us, because of what Jesus did on the cross and because of the empty tomb, so that our lives might be transformed. The transformation is not our doing; It’s God’s work in  and through us after simply accepting this amazing, gracious gift.

Today, I’m reminded that goodness is not a prerequisite of God saving me, but the result of God saving me. If I miss this truth, than I miss the entirety of Jesus’ teaching.

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