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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Unhealthy Comparisons

Job’s three friends looked at Job in his wretched condition and considered it in terms of their retributive theology. They see their own health. None of the three seems sick in any way. So, they stand by him in his agony, and they judge him. They compare themselves to him. They aren’t sick, so they must right in God’s eyes. Job has suffered sickness and devastating lost. He must be wrong in God’s eyes. It’s that simple.

Comparison is a damnable thing. There are ways comparisons can lead to seeing a situation clearly. Comparison by way of analogy can lead to understanding. But, I don’t like comparing people. I do it. I shamefully join and even initiate comparisons of different people. “She’s nicer than him.” “He’s not as educated as her.” I play that game, but I shouldn’t.

Comparison is damaging because God has things in mind for me. God’s plans for others are not God’s plans for me. If I start comparing, then I am drawn away from the best life I could lead – the life God envisions for me. I start trying to lead someone else’s life. It’s silly and stupid and frustrating.

When I was brand new pastor, I read Rick Warren’s book and Bill Hybel’s book. I saw how those guys were preaching to 100’s and 1000’s by their early to mid 30’s. I was envious and frustrated. I was leading a church of about 70 and the attendance was sinking. We were averaging right around 50 when I left 9 years later. I started comparing myself to those famous pastors and I was missing the plan God had for me. God didn’t set Rick Warren’s life before Rob Tennant. So, why was I trying to be him? Comparison!

I needed Job’s certainty. He was committed to the truth and the truth was, he believed in his innocence. He rejected wholeheartedly the evidence of the three friends as well as young Elihu. They presented their prosperity and his woe as evidence that he had sinned. The comparison led them to self-righteously judge him. But, Job would have none of it. He was living his own story and he believed God had taken his story – hijacked it. His only recourse was to bring response to God.

By the, way, I thought of all this earlier today. I went for a jog; 1 mile; down hill. I walked back up the hill to get home. So, I jogged and I was sore. I had not gone for a run in well over a month. My leg muscles in full revolt shouted at me, “What the heck is going on? We didn’t think you were serious about this!”

So, as I walked back up the hill toward home, a guy jogged by me. He was jogging up the hill faster than I had jogged down it. He was a couple of inches taller than me with a full head of hair. He was lean. His jogging stride was confident and smooth, not the labored, pavement-slapping tortuous effort I go through.

Now, you see what I did in that last paragraph. As that guy ran past me, I started comparing myself to him, and I starting feeling bad. It’s the same thing I used to do when I compared my church of 50 with Saddleback’s 25,000.

I am not in competition with that jogger. There is absolutely no reason for me to feel bad about putting the ice scoop down and going out and doing 1 mile roadwork. Maybe I can do this 3 or 4 times this week, and next week it will be 1.3 miles. I might run up a hill – a small hill with a gradual slope. In a month, I may try the 2 miles; or, I may try the same mile, but maybe faster. Who am I racing? The ice cream scoop, my gut, 40 (next February). What do I get if I win? I get to run more! I get healthier heart. I get more energy when I am chasing my kids around.

I am sorry if this has turned into a Richard Simmons testimonial. The point is I haven’t compared myself to Rick Warren for several years now. I am past that point of my life as a pastor. I celebrate what God has done at Saddleback and at Willow Creek and in the little churches where I pastor. I don’t do the comparisons in that way, but it is still a temptation for me. I compare myself with the other jogger on the road (not much of a comparison, I’m afraid). I compare my kids with other kids.

Part of my growth in Christ has to be daily victory over the sin of comparison. I have to reject the (non)wisdom of Job’s windbag friends. I have to lay claim to the story God is writing for my life with the same intensity and commitment Job made to lay claim to his innocence. God is writing out a pretty cool script. I am at my best when I follow it.

So, tomorrow afternoon, I hope to go running, much to the disappointment and dismay of my leg muscles. As the grandmas and the high school students and the studs go jogging past me I’ll smile and wave. And I hope the next time I am tempted to an unhealthy comparison, I am ready to push myself to be who God is leading me to become and not worry about anyone else except to help them be who God is leading them to become.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The book of Job and God's heart for Needy People

A key component of God’s vision for God’s people is that we show his love to the needy. This is a major theme throughout scripture. But not in the book of Job! Oh yes, read Job 31. Job is not a book about heeding God’s call to justice and mercy. Those topics are the fare of the prophets (especially Micah, Amos, and Hosea). And yet … read Job 31.

In that chapter, Job is declaring his own innocence as he has throughout. This time though, he goes to great depths to show that he understands sin.. He does so by repeatedly saying, “If I have …” and then he names some sin. Obviously, he makes two assertions. (1) The behaviors he cites are a sinful acts. (2) He is not guilty of those sins. By recounting what Job lists, we can ascertain his worldview. We can know what was generally assumed by society the basics of right and wrong.

Here are some of the sins Job recites: denying justice to the slave class (v.13); denying the desires of the poor (v. 16); neglecting the widow (v.16); failing to share bread (v.17); failing to aid a needy man by providing him new clothes (v.19); using political power to exploit young people whose fathers had died (v.21); trusting in money and rejoicing in wealth (v.24-25); rejoicing over the enemy’s misfortune (v.29); and, neglecting the foreigner (v.32).

Look closely at all that is mentioned in Job 31. It was understood by Job, by his friends, and by the original readers of Job that everything mentioned in the previous paragraph goes directly against the ways of God. It’s a catalogue of sins related to poverty, hunger, and social justice.

So, while we wouldn’t turn to the book of Job as a textbook on social justice and compassionate love of neighbor, it sure is a good secondary text. Job’s speech in chapter 31 is absolutely a fine support text one can read after one reads the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel of Luke and the book of James and the three fiery prophets mentioned earlier. All this reading makes it clear that God loves people, and those who truly want to worship God and follow God must likewise love people, and make it a life mission to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Who's in control here, anyway?

I am a pastor. Every Sunday, I preach sermons. When you do you that every single week – some are better than others.

This morning, I got up to preach, and I started talking. I said my opening words, looked down at my manuscript, and kind of got lost. I kept talking. You have to – everyone is watching, waiting for you to say something. Of course I knew the general theme of the message, I had worked on it all week; but the more I talked the most lost and discombobulated I felt.

I finally recovered around the bottom of the page. Every time I looked at the crowd – really looked people in the eye – I could tell they were listening intently. I felt like the whole sermon, I came across as disorganized. As I got the last page of the manuscript, I was thinking, “Man, I am glad this is over.” In my mind, I was already making commitments to work extra hard in the upcoming week so I wouldn’t subject my folks to another exercise in unprepared rambling. I have two more weeks in a 5-part series in Judges, which is very hard to preach. So I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Then, afterward, two of the people who are typically very attentive listeners were talking. I entered their conversation not thinking the sermon would be mentioned. But, one of the women said she was getting a lot out of the sermons on Judges – especially today! The other woman agreed. ‘Really?’ I asked, astounded!

Who’s in control here anyway? Not me!

Once I got home, I asked the woman who is my harshest critic, my wife, what she thought. (By the way, because she is my harshest critic, she’s also the best, bar none). Before the two friends at church had said what they said, I had planned on avoiding the topic of the sermon in hopes that my wife wouldn’t bring it up. Because of their encouragement, I asked her for her reaction.

Expecting to have my worst fears confirmed, I waited. She said it was one of the best sermons I had ever given. Flabbergasted! I could not believe it. I felt awful about the whole thing and three of the people whose views I really trust affirmed me.

Who’s in control here anyway? Not me!

God guides how words are spoken and how they are heard. In the book of Job, many of the words spoken by his three friends are good words. They are good words spoken at the wrong time. They are good words spoken by people who did not have the right to speak them; the friends were especially out of line in saying what they did to Job. They forwarded a theology that God rewards righteous people and punishes wicked people.

Job’s suffering must have come from God. God would only send such awful woes on one who was wicked. Ergo, Job was wicked and things would go better for him as soon as he repented. The lengthy speeches of Job’s friends were poetic, quite beautiful and compelling at times. But, they did not adequately reflect the reality of Job’s situation.

God condemned good words, well-spoken words, by Job’s friends. And, not that God needs vindication from anyone, but, an ethicist would find God in the right. In the book of Job, God comes out OK.

This morning, God ordained words poorly spoken by me. Four different people were blessed by what they heard. It’s a good thing God is in control here. I would pity the world if it relied on me for eloquence or Job’s friends for truth spoken appropriately. We human beings try our best, and all the while pray and trust that God is guiding the way.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

6AM Pit Bull in the Fog

Is everything that happens in my life set? I am sitting here typing. Was it foreordained that I would be doing this at this time on this day?

The theology of Job’s 3 friends who judged him instead of praying with him and for him suggests a world in which the rules are fixed. Furthermore, it suggests that all that we know about God is set and there is nothing new to know. God doesn’t change. God’s plan for the way the world will turn out is already set and is unalterable. Men and women cannot change it.

Here’s what got me thinking about this. My 2-year-old son Henry wakes up before 5:00AM often. This morning, the lazy rascal slept until 5:35. Usually, I take him for a walk in the stroller. He’s pretty happy and talkative at that time. He smiles before 6:00AM more than most people do all day. I need to get him out of the house, so my wife and our 7-year-old don’t wake up. They’re not as chipper in the pre-dawn AM.

So, I am pushing the stroller through the morning fog. It’s dark. The fog is thick. My sleepy mind is on autopilot. I am running this scenario in my mind about how the Detroit Tigers can win the World Series. I can see it all. I might as well be sleep-walking. As we come around the curvy sidewalk along an isolated part of the road, I am rudely jolted to reality by the sound of a snarling pit-bull, furiously barking his head off.

I jump right into the air and it is amazing at how many thoughts run through your mind in a nanosecond. “I am going to land in the road. It’s a main road with heavy traffic often moving at 55MPH. No cars coming – it’s barely past 6:00AM. O my God, I let go of the stroller! What’s that pit-bull going to do to Henry?”

It all shot through my mind. I am not sure how I composed my self to step out of the road and continue pushing stroller. The pit bull stopped at the driveway entrance and just barked. He never noticed Henry! And Henry thought it was cute that a doggie was saying ‘hello.’

I don’t know why that dog didn’t grab onto my leg or Henry’s arm. I have no idea. For a few seconds I was blanketed with the shame that in an instinctual effort to save my own skin I jumped and left my boy to the pit bull. But, I recovered and realized before I could know what was happening the canine had broken off his charge and commenced barking as we walked away.

And here’s the thought that went through my mind. Did that dog not bite me because it’s not my time or Henry’s time to die today? Are our deaths fixed? Is every thing in life pre-set?

As I have read Job, I have thought over and over that the theology of Job’s friends sounds a lot like Calvinism to me. I am more of a free-will guy than a predestination guy. But, do those two thought-systems have to be mutually exclusive? I remember a wise pastor I knew in Arlington, VA. He told me the two theologies (reformed and Armenian) are both equally attested in scripture. The word of God forwards both ideas.

I am going to read about Armenian theology and Calvinism toward the end of this year or early into next year. I have 3 or 4 books on the subject. The divide between the two thought systems can be wide, schismatic. Since I land on the side of free-will, I find myself recoiling when someone advocates for reformed theology. Inside me, a defensive reaction begins as if I and all I believe are under attack.

That has to stop. I have to come to grips with what I actually believe. And I have to appreciation, respect, love, and peace with my friends who love Jesus and believe in reformed theology. Some of the most missional committed, evangelistic Christians I know are hard-core Calvinists. And, that’s OK.

I don’t if Henry and I came out of our close encounter with a pit bull unscarred because that was plan all along. I don’t know if we are OK because God intervened at that moment. Or maybe, that’s just a dog that barks a lot and then curls his toes when you rub his tummy. I don’t know. I know the incident makes me thankful my son is well. And the incident reminds me to give love and grace to Job’s friends, Calvinists, and myself.

Monday, September 14, 2009

In Favor of the Lament Prayer

The professor of Old Testament I studied under while in seminary, Sam Ballentine, wrote a book called Prayer in the Hebrew Bible. One of the forms of prayer he discusses is lament. It’s probably very unfamiliar to American readers. We praise. We confess. We ask for God’s help (in healing, in times of need, in times of duress). We seek God’s leadership and guidance. But, I believe lament is wholly unknown to the vast majority of American Christians.

Ballentine make a case for the importance of offering lamentations. Some of the books of the Bible where laments are heard most poignantly and pointedly are Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Habakkuk. However, lament is not restricted to these books. Even the Psalms, maybe the most beloved of OT readings for evangelicals, contains this form of prayer. In fact, there are more lament Psalms than praise Psalms.

Here, I offer some of Ballentine’s comments toward the conclusion section of his book. I hope you find Ballentine’s words edifying and challenging. I hope what he has to say will drive you to read Job and the other books I mentioned.

“God’s presence is witness to divine intention to reward faithful obedience, as the prophets proclaimed, but fidelity does not guarantee God’s presence. This is the hard lesson of the book of Job. God’s hiddenness does confirm the indissoluble linkage between sin and punishment. On this truth the entire Biblical witness is unequivocal. But the pain and hurt that sunders the soul claims as its victims the just as well as the unjust. This too is the hard lesson of the book of Job. The present God is the hidden God and the hidden God is still God.” (Sam Ballentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p.287).

“When the church practices the ministry of lament, it proclaims the Biblical truth that life is finally open-ended, not settled or closed or bound. Even east of Eden, where limitations and impossibilities seem status quo, change, new beginnings, and surprise are possible. Questions are harbingers of change. In the practice of lament the church engages most daringly in the ministry of questioning. Whatever the reality of the institutions, the cultural forms, or the sacred dogmas that define life in the present, accurately placed questions can shatter their claim on people. Questions dare to imagine that things can change, that nothing, not even God, is locked into static, unalterable sacredness. In this sense questions always call for re-calculation, refiguring, rethinking, imagining that one has more than one way to comprehend to cope. For victims of grief and despair, the license to question is the key to hope that something different and better is still possible.” (Ballentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p.289)

“It is the stuff of lament to address God with hard and accusing questions. The Biblical witness is that God does not resist such speech; indeed, God takes it seriously, and it is effective. But the Biblical record is equally clear that God seldom answers questions, at least not in the way they are asked. Often the dialogue between God and humanity is painfully one-sided. God is expected to hear, believed to be receptive, but when questions end, faith must bear the burden of the silence that follows. … Are we willing to rethink God’s power, God’s compassion, God’s justice? Let us not stop short of ultimate questions – Are we willing to rethink the very reality of God? … We must admit that to engage in such questioning is to risk losing one’s faith. When one loses faith, where can one turn? Perhaps the greatest irony of the Biblical witness and perhaps also its most impenetrable legacy of prayer is that when one loses faith in God, it is precisely to God that one turns.” (Ballentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p.292, 294).

Friday, September 11, 2009

When Good Things Happen to Bad People

Do you know anyone who is really mean or exceedingly unethical, and also is rich and seemingly happy with life? It’s the age-old question re-worded. Why do good things happen to bad people? One of the wealthiest people in the world is Kim Jong-il, the dictator in North Korea. The people of that nation are cut-off from the rest of the world. They have experienced starvation. They have no religious freedoms. The media is run by the state. Why is their leader allowed to live a life of ease while such a high percentage of the citizenry wallows in poverty, often unable to even have enough food to eat?

Job asserts that good things happen to bad people all the time! He refers to them as “the wicked.” He who has lost everything (Job 1:13-19; 2:7-8) looks at the wicked and sees family wholeness and security in the home (Job 21:8-9, 11). The have success in farming (21:10). And in general, they rejoice because their lives are so good (21:12-13).

Job’s miserable experience has led him to believe that God is against him but is indifferent toward the wicked. And the wicked return the indifference. Job has the wicked ask, “What is the Almighty that we should serve Him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?”

Job is not asking that question, but he says the wealthy wicked ask it because their lives are so blessed. What do they need God for? They have everything.

It would be a neat exercise to through these questions out to faithful believers today. What is the Almighty that we should serve Him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him? Why do we need God? I say it would be a neat exercise because I am convinced that disciples who earnestly follow Jesus would be able to answer these questions in a variety of creative and thoughtful ways. And I think those answers would be edifying to other Christians.

Answers to these questions he never intended to be answered would not necessarily help Job or anyone who suffers understand the cause of their plight. But, hearing the testimony of the faithful as they pour out their reasons for worshipping God and following Jesus would remind the sufferer who sees the world only through pain-tinted lenses that suffering is not all there is. Joy exists too and we can ask God to lead us to joy and to give us joy.

The joy of God will never come as we imagine it. It is from God and Job’s friends are right. We cannot fathom the depths of God’s existence. But, we can trust. The joy of God does come. Even in bad times, we can trust that God is good. Even when the Kim Jon-ils of the world prosper while millions ache in poverty that was imposed upon them, we can believe that God has a plan. God has a plan that involves deep, intimate, unending relationship with those who turn to Him and eternal alienation from and damnation on those who disregard God, like dictators who live fat and happy while their people have nothing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Resurrection Dream

The dialogues between Job and his three friends have a confrontational, increasingly acrimonious tone. Job sounds hopeless because he lives with a distinctive worldview. He believes God rewards righteous persons with family, prosperity, and wealth. God punishes sinners, evil doers, with loneliness, complete lack of offspring, poverty, and physical pain. Job’s friends share this theological perspective.

Job’s dilemma is he is sure he has not sinned. Yet, all his children died. His property has been destroyed and wealth thoroughly plundered by raiding hoards. And, his health is gone. A shell of a man, Job brings pointed, desperate complaint to God. Whether God caused his misfortune or failed to protect Job, Job lays the cause of his unjust suffering in God’s lap. His theology of righteousness yielding shalom (peace, fullness of life, wellbeing) is upended.

Job’s friends won’t accept his claims of innocence. They see the calamity that has rested on him and assume sin. They verbally assail him. Obviously, they say, these woes indicate you have done evil in the sight of the Lord. Repent, and it will go well with you. Job is indefatigable in his self-defense. The exchanges with his friends become more and more heated. Chapters 3-37 of the book of Job seem an unending cycle of repetitive debate.

However, in the middle of it, Job asks an unexpected question. “If mortals die, will they live again? All these days of my service I would wait until my release should come” (14:14). Not much is said about resurrection in the Old Testament. The idea develops relatively late. This is startling. All along, Job has longed for death. The reader this is so because Job wants to escape the unbearable pain that is his life. Is it possible he dares to hope there is more than simply unending rest in his ancestral burial place?

“I know that my redeemer lives and that at last he will stand on the earth; and after my sin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (19:25-26). In the midst of his pathetic lamentations, Job finds deep within his soul a spring of hope. It’s just a trickle trying to find voice amid a torrent of despairing tears. Still, this hope makes its way, ever so briefly, to the surface and is heard.

Thus it is twice that Job topples conventional understanding. First, he claims he is innocent and his suffering is not due to his own sin. He blames God. That is unheard of by his contemporaries and instead of meeting him in his pain; they blame him for it and lecture him for his theological error.

Second, Job dares to look beyond the grave. He dares believe that the story of himself and God can extend beyond this present pain. There was no prevailing idea about life after death in ancient Judaism. But, Job was through being constricted by the winds of convention. He needed more, and in spite of all the verbal attacks he made, he believed God would give more. He believed somehow he would be made right with God.

Preposterous? We who worship Jesus Christ have no hesitation in speaking of eternal life in Heaven. It is central in our belief system. It is assumed even by people who have little to do with Jesus. In western, 21st century thought, the true atheist is rare. Most people hope for heaven. We absolutely count on resurrection.

What theological convictions do we hold that might be worth a second look? I don’t propose giving credence to every new idea that comes along. I don’t accept the claims of Mormonism. I reject the notion of reincarnation. I do not believe Mohammed was a prophet of God. Many new ideas directly contradict what we find in scripture. However, many new ideas are in scripture, but have been ignored because we are shaped by the world around us.

Prior to the 1960’s a lot of Christians accepted the same theological presuppositions that governed Job’s thought. Wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, and poverty and suffering are indications one is in God’s good favor. Liberation theologians pointed out that the overwhelming Biblical witness testifies that God is on the side of the poor. God is not against wealthy people, but God is always an advocate for those who suffer unjustly.

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, evangelical Christians have emphasized that the duty of Christ-followers is to “get people saved.” That is, the Christian’s primary work is to lead nonbelievers to confess faith in Jesus. However, minority voices have called this singular focus into question. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and more recently Dallas Willard and even John Ortberg suggest that the most crucial Christian work is to live a disciple and be like Jesus. Conversion-evangelism comes discipleship as does advocacy for the poor, commitment to prayer, holy living, and Spirit-filled living. Each are equally important.

Among the many thoughts raised by Job, I wonder if Job prods us to re-evaluate what we thought we always knew? Job and resurrection – did you see that one coming? God can and will do great things. We must be ever watchful, seeking God, expecting the unexpected. He makes all things new.