My First Inclination

I must admit that what first came to mind for writing this morning was very short, and had I shared it as the temptation was nudging, it would have been less than helpful. Although, now that I’ve taken a moment to think through why I would’ve written it so crisply, I’m prepared to go ahead and share it, anyway, followed, of course, by an explanation.

My first inclination this morning was to write something akin to:

   Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

   That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

   There.

   I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

   A blessed Lent to you.

See what I mean? Without some context, that probably would’ve had some of you wondering if perhaps there was a medication I’d forgotten to take this morning.

Admittedly, last week was a rough one—enough to leave me short-of-breath for the one just beginning. Just to give you an idea, one of the week’s easier moments involved sitting through a phone call with someone I’d never met before in my life screaming profanities at me so loudly that his voice became distorted and I found myself needing to pull my ear away from the receiver. Again, this was one of the easier moments the week brought to my doorstep. What really made the week so rough were the conflicts that seemed to erupt between Christian people I know—a handful of them occurring within our own community.

For the most part, each instance seemed to be nothing more than people seizing the opportunity to be mean.

It seems it’s becoming far easier for folks—even Christians—to verbally lunge at one another, to think the worst of a brother or sister in Christ, and then to go for the jugular without any concern for context, responsibility, relationship, history, authority, and a whole host of other factors that play into the lives that comprise a community of faith.

Maybe it’s different for you, but I certainly don’t wake up in the morning wondering how I can tick people off. And yet, I think sometimes people believe I do.

How does such an assumption get any traction among God’s people?

Another example: When an invitation is extended to come back to church, and then the recipient lashes out as though the invite were an unjust accusation or attack on his or her character, how does such a thing—a genuinely kind nudge to be with Jesus—become an affronting word to be received as spiritual assault and battery?

I just don’t get it.

Well, actually I do. I know how it can become this. And you do, too. I assure you that the deeper we go into Lent, the more we’re going to be confronted by the cause, the more we’re going to journey to its borders.

Sin is being unmasked handily in Lent.

The spotlight of Lent is allowing Sin’s inescapable domain to be seen for what it is—a wasteland steeped in terrible desolation. Nothing good grows within its borders. Its seeds planted by the devil hold the pitch black and oily venom of death. They produce the same. Sunday after Wednesday after Sunday after Wednesday we’re being shown the vile crop it produces in thought, word, and deed. We’re being led out into the open to see its field, actually seeing what’s at stake in the war for our salvation. We’re beholding how our sin-nature—which is the deepest, and so often the most influential part of ourselves—has the easy inclination for spitting in a rage at anyone or anything that would put Jesus at the forefront as the solution for setting everything right.

We’re also realizing that the Christian community, for as pristine as we’d hoped it would be, isn’t immune to the curse. Certainly, we can know to expect a filth-laden tirade from an unbelieving stranger—a child and servant of the world. But even as we, the believers, have been saved from the same world, we’re not unaffected by it. We’ll need to expect it from one another on occasion, too. It’s got us—all of us. As long as this world continues to spin, the sinner-saint bout will continue.

Lent is offering to Christians the clarion call to remember these things, to not avoid them, but instead to embrace the Gospel that not only has what it takes to work repentance, faith, and the amending of the sinful life, but the power to view the world and one another rightly so that we know how and what to do to actually fight against it as a community.

When we find ourselves at odds, we know by God’s Word we play a huge role in bringing it to a peaceful conclusion—and not because we feel we have to, but because we know the Holy Spirit at work within each of us desires it.

Lent is about a lot of these things, which is one more reason why as a religious system (which a clergy-friend recently used this terminology in passing to refer to such things), the season has been considered incredibly important to the Church since very early on. Sure, you could set Lent aside as one of optional import, but that would be to remove oneself from the fuller collegium of Christians from across the centuries and globe who thought otherwise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that much of myself. I try to take care not to think I know better than the thousands of years of faithful Christianity that came before me.

So, having unpacked the motivation behind what would have been a much shorter and more frustrated-sounding note resulting from an exhausting week, take a look at that first note one more time, except now through the better lens of the Gospel’s care.  You’re likely to be far less startled by its brevity.

Once again…

Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

There.

I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

A blessed Lent to you.

Tearing Down the Tower of Self-Interest

We’ve experienced a handful of very busy weeks here at Our Savior. And while I’ll admit they have unquestionably resulted in accomplishments about which we can all smile with Godly pride, the labor leading up to them is still being felt. We’re all pretty tired. It takes a lot of work to pull together three major events—an all-day conference of national newsmakers, a banquet with the same, and a debate between two tier-one thinkers—all in a single weekend. But by God’s grace, we did it.

Along the way, I joked multiple times with Georgine, the office administrator and right hand in all things around here, that if we actually live through what we’re trying to do, then little else would be impossible for this congregation to achieve. Although, each time I said those words, I immediately recanted by saying we ought not for one second be partners in thought, word, or deed with the architects of the Tower of Babel, believing that we can somehow be and do whatever we determine apart from God’s holy will. This is God’s work. All of it. We’re tools in His hands. When it becomes about our own achievements, we will be toppled and dispersed. And deservingly so.

There’s an important image revealed by this conversation. It tells of the tragic conflict of loyalties in the human heart, and you’d be fooling yourself if you think it’s not there. In fact, I’ve witnessed it a handful of times here at Our Savior even within the last few weeks alone—people upset with one another over some pretty trivial things, and then by way of that anger, falling prey to the human tendency to be loyal to the self rather than God.

In the midst of this, a tower is discovered, one built by self-interest, even though as Christians, all of us should already know the Bible teaches that God targets such edifices for destruction.

I blame much of the current contention on the seeds of fear that COVID-19 and its many disciples continue to sow in our world. It certainly has been a handy instrument in the devil’s symphony of dread. Even in Christian communities, the people are on edge, and with that, the slightest discomforting nudge appears to be all that’s required for sending a person to one side or another of any innocuous issue, ultimately seeing them careening into combat with another human being who’s trying just as hard as the first to endure.

So what do we do?

Well, I suppose the first thing we need to do is to thank God that by His holy Law, He has not hidden our propensities from us. We can know to confess our intimate roles in the fellowship of human wickedness. We can enter into every situation knowing we are by no means innocent of the worldwide curse of Sin. And then, even as we confess our innate dreadfulness, as Christians, we do it cognizant that the Lord has already reached to us by the Gospel to make us into someone new. That’s how we were able to confess our sinfulness in the first place, because we understand the contention between our inner loyalties much better now than before faith. We know the grappling of the sinner/saint relationship. And so Saint Paul makes sense when he urges us by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The second thing we can do is to realize the richness of such a good Word of God. In particular, we can walk away from it admitting that human vanity—loyalty to the old self—can play some pretty serious tricks on how we interpret (or even remember) situations in which we found ourselves in conflict with others. Admit it. During the time of reflection that immediately follows conflict, after the dust has settled and you’ve stormed off, often it is you’ll discover that the only way to comfort yourself is with egoistic self-coddling—by reminding yourself over and over again that you’re the good guy, that you’re not trying to cause problems, that in all circumstances you are the victim and the other person is the real offender. One of my favorite poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke to this when he wrote, “And the devil did grin, for his darling sin, is pride that apes humility” (The Devil’s Thoughts, 1799).

In the situations I’m describing, this goes nowhere. Well, actually, let me rephrase that. It does go somewhere. It adds unsteady blocks to self’s flimsy tower, building upward, higher and higher, until God comes along and topples it. And He warns us that He’s aiming to do this: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled…” (Matthew 23:12). Sometimes, because we know ourselves to be sinners, this word of warning resonates and we’re able to get out of the building, sparing the relationships we’ve jeopardized and salvaging our reputations, all before it crashes to the ground. But it’s also not beyond us sometimes to let our allegiance remain with what we’ve built, and then we discover we’re still inside the structure when it falls. In those circumstances, human relationships and standings are shredded by the tumbling debris, and there is nothing but devastation to be had.

But it’s our own fault. We knew better. We knew to put on the new self and work to fix the problem, knowing that God had already promised to bless our efforts toward faithfulness (Luke 11:28). And what were we arguing about anyway? Did it have anything to do with Christological things? Doctrinal things? Life and death things? Heaven and hell things? No? Then that’s even more concerning. If you’re balancing the stability of your place in the Christian community and throwing relationships into the trash because you prefer purple carpeting in the fellowship hall while your opponent prefers green, then you have a serious personality problem. Even worse, if now no matter what that opponent says or does, he can only irritate you and you begrudgingly despise him every time you see him, then you have a serious personality problem. You’re the kind of person who can harbor hatred. That kind of person beholds commandments four through ten—all the ones that steer us toward loving our neighbor—as lining up to be broken. You only need the opportunities to present themselves.

That’s not putting on the new self. That’s dressing up the old self and going out for a night on the town.

But again, what do we do?

Well, the answer remains the same. Repent and receive the Lord’s world-altering forgiveness. From there, know that a Christian will now be found operating very differently in the world around him.

There’s another important piece to what Saint Paul wrote in the text I mentioned from Ephesians 4. He wrote:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (vv.26-27).

In other words, no matter what is at the heart of the conflict between two Christians, don’t slow-boil yourself in anger by refusing to sort things out. That’s another sign that you might be holed up in your wobbly tower. Get to work solving it. The longer you wait, the easier it is for the devil to stir your vanity and make you comfortable in your insubstantial pride.

And by the way, Ephesians 4:26-27 is not a difficult bit of Scripture to understand. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the easier ones in holy writ to grasp.

I suppose lastly, recognize that every Christian community is comprised of multiple personalities. God makes it that way for a reason. He places some among us who are more patient than others. Some are more imposing than others. Some are meant to be helpers, others are destined to be leaders. But no matter who’s laboring side by side, when all are firing in time as people of faith serving toward the same goal of being in alignment with God’s will, then all will be bearing their proper place in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the only tower to be toppled will be the one the devil is trying to build in the middle of it all. In that beautiful scene, God will be found continually tearing down that demonic rascal’s houses. And if we’re going to be wearing our hard hats and laboring in a demolition zone, then that’s the one we want to be in.