Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Right? Or Expedient?

One of my young friends has been struggling with a relationship lately. The heart of the issue is the dilemma over walking the path of integrity which is hard, and succumbing to the comfortable simplicity of "just getting along".

A great example of this dilemma and how easy it is to be seduced is found in thechief priests and Pharisees who were troubled about Christ. For them, the concern wasn't whether He was preaching the truth and obeying God. Had that been the only wrinkle they could have politely turned their heads. Instead it was what He was doing while He was preaching that created the predicament for them.

When Lazarus came to life and walked out of the tomb they asked themselves:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.
- John 11:48

Out of fear for their position, out of desire to not raise the ire of the Romans, they decided to avoid trouble by killing Him. These were just human men. Faced with a rather obvious choice, in retrospect, it's easy to point fingers and hold high the standard. But how often do we neglect, reason out, or explain away parts of God's word because of what might happen to us?

Have you, like I have, ever been afraid to properly emphasize some features of the Word because of how it might be recieved. I've certainly glossed over areas of spirituality and belief out of desire to widen my appeal (or simply not offend!).

In my own life, I've reasoned out and legitimized all sorts of behaviors and choices. In what way am I different from those leaders who ignored the actions of the Christ to save their own lifestyles? A proper fool am I then, that I refuse to trust the one in whom I place my salvation.

Of course, I'm not all awash in fickleness and simplicity. Often times I've steeled myself as should be and left the results to God. The trick then is continuing in that behavior, the strength of which I infrequently partake. As a true servant I must ask first what is right, and only then apply it to my desires. As follower of Christ I should be the least trammeled by what others may think or say or do. As a servant of the Most High it no longer matters whether any one else believes and teaches what I teach or not, or whom it offends or confirms, as long as God said it.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


In downtown Denver there are these free buses that travel up and down the main street. They are a wonderful way to let the crowded downtown area spread out a little without making everyone walk forever to get anywhere. Personally, I enjoy them most at lunch time because it means I can visit restaurants quite a distance from the office with very little effort.

It's been snowing in Denver and very cold. So naturally the buses are a little crowded. The other day I as I was riding the bus I was paying attention to my own behavior as we pulled into a crowded stop. There were a dozen people who wanted on this bus and we were full. As I looked around I thought "Where are they going to fit?" And then right away I felt myself stiffen up. They weren't going to get my space! When they began to push and push I started pushing back. The harder I was pushed, the more effort I put into trying to just stand in my own little space.

Pushing back is natural. It's almost patriotic. The notion that "I've got my space and you can't take it." is fundamental to our culture. In fact, I've heard it referred to as common sense. Just a little preventive measure to ensure that someone doesn't invade your space. Let's face it, you got there first, you should keep your space.

If you consider a while you realize that we carry this behavior with us not just physically but mentally as well. We do it in our families and our jobs and even in our churches. Someone pushes on you, push back.

Of course, that's not how Jesus did it. Zaccheus was in the tree, the crowd was pushing. Instead of pushing him away, Jesus asked to come into his space. The same with the woman at the well, and woman at Simon's dinner party. He invited them into his space and was willing to enter theirs.

The more I've thought about it, the more believe that's one of the reasons people crowded around Jesus so much.  Have you ever met someone who didn't push on you? Who instead said, "Come on in. Share it with me."? Those are the people you want to hang out with. These are the people that don't make you feel guilty, that make you feel accepted.

A good example of how Jesus dealt with boundaries is the story of when Simon had a dinner party. Back then a dinner party was not a closed-door operation. You see, the houses sort of surrounded an open inner patio. They didn’t really use chairs, so they were just lying around on pillows and stretching their feet being comfortable. Because of this openness in the homes of the day, people could walk in, listen to the conversation for a few minutes, and then walk out and continue with their day.

This dinner party is underway and here comes the lady in the story, just wandering in. She kneels down at Jesus' feet, and begins to cry. Then she takes her little vial of perfume, something that many Jewish women carried.  And she pours the whole thing on his feet so that the whole place begins to smell. Then she does one of the most embarrassing and inappropriate things a woman of that culture could do. She pulls the combs out of her hair, and her long hair falls down all over his feet. Finally she begins to wipe her tears and the perfume with her hair.

Okay, so the hair thing doesn't seem like such a big deal to us today, but have to consider it in context. In that day, when a girl got married, she put her hair up, and it never came down again in public. In fact, many married men during that time never saw their wives with their hair down. I'm sure you've heard the expression "Go on, let your hair down!". In those times, it had a richer meaning.

In any case, here this woman is, letting her hair down. Instead of enforcing the boundary and insisting on appropriateness, Jesus allows her into His space. Not only does he allow her into His space, He affirms that she is an important person. The implication is that because she is important to Him, she should be considered the same by everybody at the party.

Jesus broke down the boundaries. We love boundaries. We like boundaries for our property, our space, even with our love. We say, "I can't give my love away. If I give my love away to people like that, it'll run out. I won't have enough for my family or my friends!". The truth is that the more love you give away, the more you've got to give. It always happens that way.

I noticed a funny thing about those buses I ride every day. They are very crowded and you often have to put your hand on the ceiling, because there's not even a strap you can reach. But after you've been riding for a minute or two, you turn your head and notice that in the middle of the train there is plenty of space. Of course, nobody is going to move that way and give up their space.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Aren't We All

Back to Philemon...

Good works can't be forced.  They can't be an obligation or come from pressure.  For it to count as righteousness, it must be an act of personal conscious choice.  This is why Paul relinquishes Onesimus to Philemon.  He does so explaining that this once worthless slave, is no so valued (through salvation) that Paul would have like to keep him on to help with the work of the gospel.

So far, Paul has entreated to his relationship with Philemon, appealed to his sense of responsibility as a believer, and pointed out the change in relationship that now exists between master and slave.  He then goes on to address the more pragmatic aspects of the rift.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.
What clever and direct way to lay out his expectations and cleanly deal with the practical side of this reconciliation.

This letter from Paul summarizes so precisely our relationship with our Savior, so cleanly our position in Salvation, so richly our value even as slaves.  It takes faith to see so clearly, faith to walk so purely.
"For we are all His Onesimi, to my thinking."
-- Martin Luther

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mightily Insidious

In Paul's letter to Philemon there is a lesson in tact and elegance.  He uses great carefulness and wisdom, articulating a diplomacy which is not the same as policy and worldly shrewdness.  Not a human normality, this consideration and sympathy springs from a genuine love. It is important to note that he does not at any other time use flattery, or act with double motives (2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Thess. 1:3-5).  Because his walk was clean, so all the courtesy and skill displayed in this letter are shown to be the sincere and unstudied expression of a heart that is sensitive and wise in love, which is the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow-worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
After setting the stage by reiterating the relationships they shared he further introduces his awareness of their situations, shared struggles, and progress.  He does this in a forward-looking way preparing him for the entreaties which follow.  It has been well said that "We may never go back, but there is a point from which we will never go onward." The non-obvious failure that becomes possible here is mightily insidious because it can leave the heart unaware and complacent. When Paul heard how the gospel had taken hold in a church or in a Christian and was bearing good fruit, he turned to intercession on their behalf right away.  When someone starts making the right steps, you stop praying for them to get moving and start praying that they keep moving.  (Eph. 1:15-19; 3:14-19).
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.
We are previously reminded that Paul could have commanded obedience by virtue of authority, but that would not have the full benefit.  Through these words we see that he is just as concerned with the growth of the master as the life of the slave.

Isn't a small gift better than a large tax?  So much of true affection is the offerings we submit to each other.  When we serve each other from obligation or expectation, it is a sliding slope which leads quickly to resentment.

My own tunnel-vision became apparent here as I realized how far-reaching our vision must be when taking into account the length of forever.  It is one thing to consider your relationships here on earth, but far greater to remember them in perspective to that one day when we gather together to praise Him in the ever-after.

We're not done with Philemon yet...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Severe and Unflinching

My recent quiet time included some study on the book of Philemon.  A short, often overlooked epistle because it's scope appears at first read less volumunious than others.  In reality, it is a mirror reflecting the whole of the Christian walk within a small interaction amongst a few men.

At the heart of the issue driving the letter is that Onesimus, a slave, has run away from his master, Philemon, who is a Christian. Onesimus, the slave, arrives in Rome and there somehow comes into contact with Paul who at the time was a prisoner. Through his contact with Paul he becomes a Believer.  Paul's commentary lays out first and foremost that Onesimus must return to his master.

This straight-forward direction is laden with this meaning and context.  For a slave to be a fugitive was one of the worst offenses possible at the time. It was considered normal and in fact expected that a runaway slaves once caught were to be crucified out of hand.  A simple beating until he was bloody and unconscious would be too light a punishment demanded by the culture and custom.  In light of this, it must be clearly understood that Paul in the writing, Philemon in the reading, and Onesimus in the hearing were all profoundly aware of the specific sacrifices demanded of each.

How can Paul so cleanly apply the gospel to this situation?  How does one deliver such a message?  I'll add more thoughts on this in the next several posts.