Friday, June 22, 2012

You Don't Know What You're Missing, Part II

"Have you ever eaten at Morton's Steakhouse?"
"Oh!  Well let me tell you, you don't know what you are missing!  It's fantastic!"

Have you ever taken part in a conversation like this one?  Most of us probably have at some point.  We use phrases like "You don't know what you're missing!" to try to convince the person to whom we are talking that they really are missing something great.  It's kind of a funny thing to say if you think about it.  If it is true that they really don't know what they are missing, telling them this doesn't really accomplish much.  The only way to induce them to try Morton's Steakhouse (or whatever the subject at hand may be) is to somehow get them to recognize and appreciate the greatness of which they have been ignorant up to that point.

This, in essence, is the idea we considered in Part I of this post.  The only way that the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day would have called so adamantly for His execution was the fact that they did not recognize or appreciate the truth of which they were ignorant, namely, that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.  All things being equal, this was a truth that the Pharisees could have and should have known.  (I understand and agree completely with the idea that their actions were part of God's bigger plan of redemption and that the crucifixion for which they called was an essential component of God's will for Jesus.  I do not believe, however, that this excludes them from culpability for missing and refusing the Christ.)  The warning sounds out to all believers--Well-meaning and well-studied individuals can miss important truths without even realizing it.  (The warning becomes even more appropriate when you consider the fact that even Jesus' own disciples did not understand the full-scope of His Messianic position until after His earthly sojourn--see Luke 24:13-35.)

As stated in the previous post, the key to avoiding such costly oversights is to honestly and regularly ask the question, "What are we missing and where are we missing it in Christianity?"  (Perhaps it would be even more beneficial to phrase the question in 1st person.)  Either way, it is the starting point in a journey of reflection, evaluation, and discovery which every believer needs to take.

Before beginning that journey, however, I feel strongly that there are two preliminary ideas you must consider:

Your Motive - Questioning and evaluating your own beliefs, the beliefs of your church, or even the beliefs of Christianity at large is a dangerous thing.  At least, that is what many a believer will tell you.  Looking for genuine is often denigrated as simply "rocking the boat," "opening up a can of worms," or "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." (How's that for a trio of metaphors?)  In many circles, questioning established traditions and beliefs is frowned upon (particularly by those in positions of authority) because it often results in reformulation (or even outright rejection) of ideas and traditions long held by the masses.  Change is something of which many people are afraid--particularly in the realm of religious doctrine and practice.

Armed with this understanding of people's nervousness about a questioning spirit, it is critical for you as the questioner to examine and purify your motives.  Don't begin this process with the idea of becoming some rouge iconoclast bent on demolishing anything that even hints of being "traditional" or "old-school thinking."  The point is not to prove that everything we have ever believed or been taught is wrong and must be changed.  This is how many people perceive those of us who raise questions.  Let's do all we can to change that perception.  The purpose in this process is not to act as a proof-reader, armed with a red-pen, bent on finding and highlighting every minute mistake we can find.  Rather, we are trying to serve as investigators or inspectors who honestly evaluate all that "comes down the line"--approving what is good and exposing what is not. (See Ephesians 5:10-11 and I Thessalonians 5:21)  In short, your motive should not be to cause trouble but to find truth.  Personally, I believe that much of what I have been taught is true and correct.  That does not, however, preclude the possibility that I and those around me are missing some key ideas.

Your Weaknesses - If we come back to the story of the Pharisees and the disciples for a moment, we can see it's obvious they did not know what they were missing.  The deeper issue emerges, however, when we ask the question, "Why didn't they know what they were missing?" or "How could they miss something so important (and so obvious, I might add)?"  The fact is, several forces were at work in their lives that were contributing to their ignorance.  A necessary prerequisite to beginning your own journey of evaluation is to determine if and how these same weaknesses may be influencing your ability to see the truth.  Here is a short list of some of the contributing factors to the spiritual and religious miscalculation of the Pharisees.  How many are applicable to you?

1.  Pride - one of the primary reasons the Pharisees never accepted Jesus as Messiah or even considered the possibility that He might be so was their stubborn pride.  Even in the face of clear, conclusive evidence and persuasion (including one of their own--Nicodemus--challenging them to at least give Jesus a chance), the Pharisees' arrogance and foolish stubbornness would not allow them to open their eyes.  Pride blinds and pride hardens.  Very few vices have as negative an impact on the human soul as pride, and very few forms of pride are as hard to unseat as religious pride.

2.  Cultural Conditioning - I use the term "culture" here in a very broad sense.  Your "culture" can refer to everything from the region in which you live to the type of church you attend to the family in which you were born and reared.  All of these (and more) strongly influence the way we think.  In the case of the Pharisees and the disciples, Jesus' failed to fit in the box into which the prevailing culture of the day taught them the Messiah would fit.  Jesus didn't meet their expectations as Messiah--plain and simple.  Rather than reevaluate their inherited belief system (as I am suggesting we do), they simply dismissed Jesus as a fake.  Cultural conditioning is very hard to detect and even harder to eliminate, but we must do both when the truth breaks the mold by which we have been formed.

3.  Inaccurate Interpretation of Scripture - I fully believe that many Pharisees in those days could have given you scriptural reasons for rejecting Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah.  (One of them would very likely have been the fact that He was Jesus of Nazareth.)  The religious Jews were students of the Word, but the problem was that their approach to and conclusions about the Word were often flawed.  As much as we hate to admit it, Biblical Hermeneutics (interpretation) is an inaccurate art subject to the foibles of human depravity.  We can and we must regularly evaluate our interpretations of Scripture to be as accurate as possible.  (Part of doing that is being willing to consider the interpretations and ideas of those who have reached different conclusions than we.)

4.  The Fallen Human Condition - We all naturally have our "own way."  We all naturally gravitate toward untruth and error.  We all tend to live unexamined lives.  We all tend to be subject to inertia--both literal and figurative.  Simply put, the Pharisees and disciples were subject to the Fall of Man (just as we are) and, as such, they had the current of human depravity working against them (just as we do).  The good news is that God is in the business of redeeming humanity, and He has provided us with everything we need to know Him, to love Him, and to obtain and live His truth.

Building upon these foundational ideas, I believe that every Christian can and should embark on their own journey of evaluation and discovery.  Every Christian can embrace the spirit of the believers at Berea (Acts 17:10-12).  Every follower of Jesus should be on their own mission to find the genuine.

What are you waiting for?

(By the way, if you have never been to Morton's Steakhouse, you don't know what you're missing!  It is really, really good!)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

You Don't Know What You're Missing, Part I

The following post is a summary of the introductory lesson I taught for a series I am presenting to a Young Marrieds Sunday School class this summer.  Hopefully I will articulate my ideas more clearly here than I did in the classroom.

I am a big fan of dramatic irony in literature and film.  Whether it's Peyton Farquhar from "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" or Henry Bemis from a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, I relish the ironic twist ending.

Perhaps this is one reason why I find the story recorded in Luke 23 (and the other Gospels) so compelling.  This passage recounts the familiar story of Pilate's interaction with the crowd on the day of Jesus' crucifixion:
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him.  Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.  I will therefore punish and release him.” But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas!”  Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.”  But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed.
If ever there was a sterling example of dramatic irony, this is it.  The key to recognizing it is to remember that the people demanding the execution of Jesus were not God-hating, Satan-worshipping pagans with a desire to plunge the world into a cesspool of debauchery and unspeakable evil.  On the contrary, the people shouting at Pilate that day were God-fearing, God-loving, and (ostensibly) God-pleasing religious devotees who desired more than anything to see God's name made great in the world.  The were the obsessively religious Jews that we refer to most generally as Pharisees, and the irony of the moment was that they were rejecting the very Messiah for whom they were all looking so earnestly.

How sad!  How tragic!  How...ironic!  These well-meaning folks made one of the most infamous mistakes in history, and the truly ironic part is that it could have been very easily avoided.  To say it tritely--they should have know better.  Of all the people living during the time of Christ, the Pharisees should have been first in line to recognize and honor Jesus as the Christ.  This is the one thing they should not have missed.  Perhaps some readers would come to their defense and say, "Well, it's easy for you to judge them because you have the advantage of looking back on their story.  Hindsight is always 20/20."  To that, I respond, "Yes, but they had the advantage of being thoroughly trained in the Old Testament prophecies.  They had the advantage of seeing the sign miracles in person.  They had the advantage of hearing Jesus brilliantly defend His Messiahship first hand." (See John 5 and Luke 11 for examples)  Disagree if you will, but I am convinced that these religious experts had more than sufficient evidence before them to prove the legitimacy of Jesus as the Christ. They could have and should have believed.  But...they didn't.  They dismissed Jesus as a fraud and a rabble-rouser.  Quite literally, they missed the very "finger of God" when it was right under their noses. (Luke 11:20)

Now, the point in making that point is simple--I believe there is a latent but solemn warning for us in the story of the Pharisees.  I personally believe that one of the reasons why the Pharisees appear so often in the story of the Gospel is because they are we...or we are they. (However you want to put it.)  That is--Pharisaism is not something that only first-century Jews were faced with.  It's not a Jewish problem.  It's a human problem.  Pharisaism is the default setting of the fallen human heart.  If that is true, then the irony of the Jews' case of mistaken identity with Jesus should not be lost on us.  If they could be so sincere and so well-meaning and yet miss something so critical, where does that leave us?  Well-meaning though we may be, the possibility of us missing key doctrines or ideas in our own time is very, very high.

The purpose of this post, the next post, and the Sunday School series I am currently teaching is two-fold--1) To learn what we can from the mistakes of the Pharisees so as not to repeat them, and 2) To open a dialogue in which we confront ourselves with this question, "What are we missing and where are we missing it as followers of Jesus?"  You see, the real problem for the Pharisees was that they didn't know what they were missing.  They had no idea that they were calling for the crucifixion of the real Messiah!  If they had realized the truth they were missing they would no doubt have reacted differently.  Unfortunately for them, however, they didn't realize it.  They were completely blind to their own misinformation and bad doctrine.  The problem with not knowing what you are missing is that you have no motivation to correct the situation.  Who goes looking for their keys, their purse, or the remote control before they realize these items are lost?  Nobody!  Only when the reality that you have misplaced one of these things dawns on your mind do you begin looking for them.  That reality will only dawn on your mind when you open your eyes, look around you, and recognize that something is missing.

So...that is what I am attempting to do in this two-part post, in my Sunday School class, in this blog, and in my life.  It is something that needs to be a regular exercise in Christianity on both a personal and corporate level.  We need to open our eyes, look around us, and ask ourselves, "Have we misplaced our keys?"

I will share with you how to start that process in the next segment...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Prisoner's Dilemma

One of the things that I find most interesting about teaching is the way that I can be teaching a lesson with my mouth while having a concurrent yet distinct line of thinking running in my brain.  Maybe other public speakers don't experience this, but I often find that my mind wanders during my lectures.  (I'll bet my students would say the same!)

Earlier today, I was taking a group of 8th graders through the story recorded in Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 11, verses 2-6 - Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.  The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 

I have taught this particular story as a part of my 8th grade Bible class for the last 7 years.  As I was making my usual comments about it today, however, I began to think...really think about the details of the story and their implications.  I was struck in a new way by the absurdity of John's question and the austerity of Jesus' response.  I found the entire episode to by intriguing and challenging in a manner I hadn't experienced before.  This really is a rather revealing and thought-provoking story that Matthew is sharing.  Below, I have included some of my questions and ideas as they have been whirling in my head throughout the day.

1.  In most cases, there is much more going on in the lives of those with whom we interact each day than what we can see.  To do a topical study of the Gospels on the life of John the Baptist is to study a man who appears to be rock-solid in his commitment to God.  Time and time again, John responds correctly when faced with the opportunity to take glory or prestige for himself.  Time and time again, John gives unshakable witness to the true character of Jesus of Nazareth.  From casual observation, it's easy for us to conclude that John had his life and his heart in perfect order before Jehovah.  After all, this is the man who stood at the river's edge and shamelessly proclaimed, "This is the Lamb of God!"  To conclude this about John is a gross miscalculation.  Even a man of such spiritual stature as this was, at times, held captive as a prisoner of his own doubts and questions.  Granted, his stumble came after nearly a year and a half of unwarranted imprisonment at the hands of an immoral dictator.  I think, however, the point should be well taken.  Everyone, and I mean everyone has their demons.  Everyone has their moments of darkness--including those whom we hold in highest esteem as spiritual leaders.  Perhaps some will find this to be a bit of a jaded or cynical observation.  Some, perhaps, are resistant to the idea of frank honesty among Christians about our weaknesses.  I don't agree.  I believe honesty and transparency to be needful, healthy, and biblical (see James 5:16).  I don't think we ought to become cynical at all.  I do think, however, that we should bear firmly in mind as individuals cross our path each day that many, maybe most, (should I say all?) of those we meet are facing battles that we may never see or know about.  Casting Crowns begins their song "Stained Glass Masquerade" with the question, "Is there anyone that fails?  Is there anyone that falls?"  The answer is--Yes!

2.  The moment when God transgresses the boundaries of our expectations and beliefs is a critical moment in the journey of faith.  Of course, I am referring here to those times when God exceeds our expectations in a way that we perceive as negative, wrong, or unjust.  I read John's question in these verses, and I am taken aback at the absurdity of it.  "Are you the One?"  How could John even ask such a thing after all he had seen and heard and said?  It's almost offensive that he would even wonder!  Of all people, John the Baptist ought to have known with certainty that Jesus was the One!  I pose the question to my students each year--What caused John to doubt?  Although the Bible does not specifically give us the answer, I think we can safely conclude.  Jesus' ministry was, in some way, failing to meet John's expectations.  Maybe John thought that Jesus would take a more aggressive approach in ushering in the Kingdom or that Jesus would have been more politically active in opposition to the Romans or maybe even that Jesus would break him out of prison.  Whatever his expectations were, it seems obvious that they weren't being met.  As he sat alone in the darkness of his prison cell, John faced an unsettling dilemma--Will I continue in my belief that Jesus is the Christ even though things aren't unfolding the way I thought they would?  This was indeed a critical moment for John.  The fact is, we all have self-made boxes into which we put God and His dealings with us.  We expect Him to do or not do certain things based on our devotion to Him.  The plethora of Christian literature and other Christian media available today serves mostly to feed these pre-conceived yet often unbiblical notions about our Creator.  How unsettling it is, then, for us to discover that the gulf between our perceptions of God and the reality of God is deep and wide.  The Apostle Peter told us not to be surprised when faced with trials, suffering, and persecution.  All believers will, at some point, face their own prisoner's dilemma.  God is much bigger and, in a way, much scarier than we often give Him credit for.  What we do when faced with the reality of God is of utmost importance in our pilgrimage.  Speaking of that, here is my final observation...

3.  We must allow our understanding of God to be molded by the reality He presents us.  John and Jesus were cousins.  I've always imagined them to be close friends--even before either one of them became famous.  They had a unique relationship, I believe.  This wasn't just anyone asking the question, it was John.  Bearing this in mind, it is a bit surprising to read the terseness of Jesus' response.  He simply pointed to the fact this His ministry was indeed a fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.  He closed with a mild rebuke, "Blessed is the one who does not stumble over me." (That's my paraphrase.)  That's it.  There's nothing more.  No personal touch.  No apparent effort on Jesus part to soothe the fears or calm the doubts of His friend and fellow-servant.  He left John with the decision as to whether or not he would believe in spite of the darkness around his soul.  I think the lesson here is clear--those who come to God must do so by faith (Hebrews 11:6).  This faith, however, must conform to reality as God presents it.  He does not conform reality to meet the requirements of our faith.  Despite what the books and movies portray, things don't always get better.  Bodies and minds aren't always healed.  Miracles don't always occur at the last moment.  Good doesn't always win.  (At least, in the short term!)  When we are left reeling with confusion and doubt, God stands firm, confident, and unchanging, "Blessed is the one who does not stumble over me."  What a concept to think that we can stumble over God!  This can and does happen, however, when we are unwilling to relinquish the idols we have created in the name of Jehovah.  This austere perspective of God may be repugnant to you.  You may not like the image of Him that I'm painting in these lines.  This, my friend, is exactly my point.  These truths are just as much a part of God as are His love and grace.  God is a complex and multifaceted being.  We have to take Him for what He is, not just for what we want Him to be.  No one relishes the suffering.  No one enjoys the darkness of doubt and pain.  Yet, as Jon Foreman, in his song "The Cure for Pain", so aptly puts it, "It would be a lie to run away."

What choice did John make in the face of such a dilemma?  We are not given a direct answer.  Yet, based on Jesus' statements about John in the following verses (see Matthew 11:7-15), I believe that John chose correctly.  He chose to believe in spite of everything.  This was not blind faith, but genuine faith.  Faith that persisted in spite of the emotion of the moment.  This is the kind of faith each one of us must beg God  to build in our hearts so as to prepare us for our own moment in prison.