What I Saw – Luke 6:39-49

I met Tuesday morning with a group of pastors, as usual.  Our reading came from the Moravian Daily Text.  It was Luke 6:39-40.

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At first glance, this seems like a collection of disparate teachings.  The leader of our group suggested that this was a rabbinical style “string of pearls” teaching technique (apparently the rabbis wouldn’t teach for too long on one subject but would move from one to another to keep the people engaged).  Nonetheless, I saw a similar idea in most if not all of the teachings.  I saw several other ideas as well, which I recorded in my journal.

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The big thing I heard here is that most teachings have behind them the idea of a “good” or “fully trained” man.  This in turn lead to the question, “Am I good/fully trained?”  For me, this is a difficult question, one I’ve struggled with all my life.  I “feel” and/or believe the answer to be, “No.”  For that reason, I felt very challenged by these teachings.  I felt eliminated by them, in fact, as if they disqualify me or reveal my disqualification from the community of Christ.

As I continued to contemplate these things, I realized there is actually invitation here.  I think it comes when Jesus says “The student is above his teacher”.  With that, Jesus is eliminating all need for competition and comparison.  He is telling me that there is only so far I can go in this goodness/training, that I’m certainly not going to go further than or supersede Him (the teacher in question).  That being the case, I am free to pursue goodness and training without needing to wonder how much I and/or how much more I am than anybody else.  I took this to be an encouragement.  I saw, then, that Jesus was not eliminating me here (establishing that I am not good/fully trained) but encouraging me (asking me to pursue goodness/training).

One of the pastors in the group further suggested that this is not something we can do on our own, that goodness comes into us only from God.  I think this is suggested by the “foundation” idea Jesus ends the message on.  That foundation is obviously God/the teachings of God.  The man builds on it, puts some effort into setting himself upon it.  But that effort is only effective because God is there to begin with.

The main idea I took from this reading, then, is that God is an encourager, encouraging me to growth/training in His Kingdom.  The subsequent action I took from this reading was a need to ask God to make me good, to remove the evil stirred up in my heart/the plank in my eye/my blindness so that I can be good and fully trained as He is encouraging me to be.

And that’s what I saw in Luke 6:39-49.

Money, Sex, God

I hit the couch to take my Saturday afternoon nap.  I like background noise while I nap, so I turned on the TV.  My wife had left the TV on the Hallmark Channel, which was showing some movie about yet another beautiful-yet-inexplicably-single woman who unknowingly begins a romantic relationship with the prince of some obscure European country.  I couldn’t nap to that, so I switched channels.  When I did, I came across a movie called Big Game.  I had never heard of it before, but it turned about to be an action/thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson as the president of the U.S. who gets jettisoned out of Air Force 1 during a terrorist attack and lands in the wilderness of Finland (I think).

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The movie was actually decent, and it kept me from napping for awhile.  What eventually caught my attention, though, was not the action or the characters.  It was this line, which a CIA analyst (or some such thing) says after being asked how terrorists could have penetrated security by turning a Secret Service agent:

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Now I don’t have much comment on the money or sex part of that equation.  I do have a comment about the God part.  Clearly the analyst was referring to notion that someone’s God or god inspires them to do terrible things.  It is not an uncommon suggestion.  It is not entirely untruthful, either; we know for a fact that some people’s understanding of God/god has inspired them to do terrible things.

it is not the whole story, though.  While it is true that some people’s understanding of God/god has inspired them to do terrible things, it is equally true that some people’s understanding of God/god has inspired them to do wonderful things.

I could make a list of such people (William Wilberforce would probably top that list, followed by thousands of others), but I really don’t have to do so.  Instead of offering such a list to prove my point, I can offer myself.  What I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that my understanding of God (that is, the God of the Bible, the Father of Jesus Christ as revealed by Jesus Christ) has inspired me to do wonderful things and continues to inspire me to do wonderful things.  In fact, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it would be my lack of belief in (and/or concern about) God that would inspire or at least allow me to do terrible things.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that apart from my belief in God I would be like this guy:

That’s right.  I’d kill everyone who looked at me cockeyed.  Or I’d at least give them a dirty look, a harsh word, or a little passive aggression.  I’d be a terrible person apart from God.  Not only so, I see no reason not to be a terrible person apart from God.  If there is no God (which is what these arguments are really about; when we’re in this neighborhood, which not talking, “Which God?” but “God or not?”, in which case there are only two alternatives: either there is some spiritual side of life or there is nothing but physical matter), there is no reason to treat people decently.  After all, if “no God” is the reality, then all people are just accidents of random chance, each no more important than algae or weeds or rats or any other vermin I eliminate without mercy when they annoy me.

I don’t treat people that way, though.  I’m not that man.  And I do not/am not because of my belief in God and my consequent belief that all people are created in the image of God and my even more consequent belief that how I treat people matters, that is, that I can treat people in the righteous way God/Jesus did (understand here my motivation is not that God will punish me in some way if I mistreat people but that God has invited me to be like Him in my treatment of people).  The fact of the matter is that I am a far better and superior person by any standard because of my belief in God.  People can offer all the quips they want.  They can hit me with all the sarcasm they want.  They can lay out all the counterarguments they like.  But they can’t deny this one truth which I know far better than them: God has made me a better person.  Period.

At the very least, then, belief in God is a mixed bag as far as actions go.  Has it led some people to do terrible things.  Sure.  Those people most definitely had a wrong understanding of God, of course, but it is nonetheless true that their belief led them to horrendous action.  It is also and equally true, though, (and perhaps more true, as there are certainly more people who have loved their neighbor because of God than there are those who have blown up their neighbor because of God) that it has led me and millions like me to do wonderful things.  So belief in God at the least produces both things.  And since it does, since it undeniably produces wonderful things as well as bad, it can’t be completely dismissed by a little dig in a movie or any other, similar attack.

BTW: Big Game continued to play as I wrote this post.  Yes, I didn’t get the nap I wanted; I wrote instead.  As I wrote, I heard the same CIA analyst say this:

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So I guess it wasn’t God after all.

The Foundational Question Part 2.5

I thought I was done with this one for awhile, but it looks like I’m not.  Earlier today, Ebay reminded me that an auction I was watching was almost over.  The auction was for a collection of 80s music videos.  Music videos are about the last medium from my childhood I haven’t managed to collect (I’ve got all the music, movies, books, video games comic books, and quite a few of the toys from that era), and I was looking into doing that.  I ultimately decided I would be better served to just watch a playlist on YouTube, of which there are many.

When Ebay reminded me of the auction, though, I suddenly found myself wondering, “I wonder if that video is on the DVD.”  That video was this video:

I’m not sure if I saw this video/heard this song in the 80s.  If I did, it could only have been once or twice as I have nearly no clear memory of it (I have only a vague feeling that I have encountered it before, a feeling that is far too vague to be reliable).  I actually found this one on a “classic” music video show just a few years ago.  I like the tune, to be honest; it really gets in my heard.  The lyrics, though, are a completely different matter. These lyrics give us another example of the “I don’t believe in God because I don’t like Him” paradox I mentioned in the previous post, and as such is completely illogical and self-defeating.  This one, in fact, is even more self-defeating as the lead singer seems to insinuate that he knows God exists but still refuses to believe in Him because He blames Him for the plight of the poor (“Dear God…I won’t believe in You”; how self-defeating can you get?).

When I first remembered this, I initially thought it would have been a great insert for the previous post, and I wished I had put it in.  After I thought about it some more, though, I saw that it was somewhat different.  Not completely different; not a truly different animal, perhaps.  But at least a slight variation.  Most of the times I have encountered that “I don’t believe in God because I don’t like Him” paradox, people have been referring either to past actions of God (the punishments or judgments He passed out in the Old Testament) or future actions of God (the final punishment or judgment He will pass out at the end of time).  These actions were either completed or not yet started.  In either case, they were finished or finite.  We can see the whole of them.

This example of that paradox, though, is referring to the present actions of God, to what God is or isn’t doing now.  It is the same error (an anticipation of the answer), and it expresses itself in the same way (a refusal to work the equation), but it gets to that point in a different way.

That being the case, it can be likewise be derailed in a different way, a way specific to itself.  Apologeticists often attempt to derail those critiquing the past and/or the future actions of God by justifying those actions, showing that those actions are really right even though they seem to us to be wrong (or harsh or cruel or whatever).  This one, though, can be derailed with the much simpler and straightforward fact that these situations, the “bad” situations which results in this refusal to work the equation/believe in God, are not finished situations.  They are not complete yet.  We don’t know how they will turn out.  They are works in progress.

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It is quite likely, in fact, that they are necessary steps in a work in progress, that they ultimately fit into and contribute perfectly to that work even though they are presently problematic to us.

Why would I say that?  Because I know that difficulties or hardships are always part of a work in progress.  They are always part of a movie, which is a work in progress, a two-hour development of a (fictional) person.  Every movie has a part where the success of the protagonist’s quest is severely threatened and even seems impossible, a part where the protagonist doesn’t have what he needs and seemingly won’t get it, a part where the protagonist is greatly troubled and unhappy.  I’ve heard some writers refer to this as “putting the hero up a tree and then throwing rocks at him.”  Screenwriter Blake Snyder calls it “Bad Guys Close In” or “Ordeal”, as you can see below.

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Can you imagine what mistakes we’d make if we judged a movie at that point in the story?  What if we walked out of a film at that stage of the progression?  What if we said, “George Lucas cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand; I can’t believe in a writer who would do something like that?” or anything similar.  It would be ludicrous.  I think we all know that.

We are making the same mistake when we walk out on God’s progressions, the character arcs He is putting us and everyone around us through, at such a point.  It is easier to do that in real life; real life character arcs are much longer/more prolonged than movie ones.  But they are the same thing.  It is quite possible that the things the singer of the above song faults God for are not the end of that person’s story but merely the “Bad Guys Close In” part.  He might never be aware of that; we rarely get to watch an entire life the way we watch an infinitely shorter and more accessible film.  But that could be what these things are.  The poverty these people are in could very well end and give way to provision.  The rejection they experience could turn into acceptance.  It is hard to tell what could happen to these situations and the people in them.  They aren’t done yet. What is easy to tell, though, is that the disbelief based on these situations is completely debunked if they do turn.  And that puts that disbelief on very shaky ground.  Judging God based on something that isn’t done yet, refusing to believe in God because of a situation that is in progress and far from being resolved, walking out on God’s character arcs at the “Bad Guys Close In” part, just isn’t as wise as the song makes it seem.  It is incredibly unwise.

Of course, this error can be solved with the same truth the other could be: an acknowledgement of the goodness of God.  I think that is the better way to solve it, in fact.  But it also can be solved in this way: an acknowledgement that the things we don’t like aren’t done yet, and could turn out far differently than we think, an acknowledgement that we are refusing belief a little prematurely.

The Foundational Question

Our congregation had a few visitors this Easter Sunday.  One of these was a single guy.  I noticed him as I was delivering the message.  After services, I came up to say hi.

“I just don’t know where my faith is right now,” he said.

That’s how he responded to me.  I said, “Hi,” and he said, “I just don’t know where my faith is.”  That’s what we pastors call an “opening”.  You might even call it a “softball”.

“I can help you with that,” I responded.

So we met a couple days later at a local Starbucks.  A couple minutes into our conversation, he started telling me about some of the injustices he experienced in his life.  As he did so, he referenced the 1983 movie The Dead Zone, which was based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.  He said there is a part in the movie in which the protagonist (who can see the future) is told that he has a gift only to respond that what he has is a curse.

Now I think I saw The Dead Zone, but I don’t remember that part.  I did manage to find a bit of it in the trailer, and I found the dialogue in the script.

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There are no character names for the dialogue here, but you should be able to get the gist of it.

And this guy who visited my congregation was asking this same question.  He could see that the injustices he suffered may have some benefit, but he couldn’t see what that benefit was at the present time, so he was asking, “Has God cursed me or has God blessed me?”  That’s why he didn’t know where his faith was.  He didn’t know that because he didn’t know what God was doing in his life.

I didn’t know what to say to that.  I don’t know what to say about most problems people have, theological or otherwise.  The Spirit helps, though, and I believe the Spirit led me to say this to him:

“That’s not the right question to be asking, though, is it?”

That’s what I said to him after he made this Dead Zone reference.  And it was entirely correct.  The question he was asking was the most pressing question at the moment, but it wasn’t the most pertinent one.

No, the question he was asking was a more advanced question, one which built upon another, more elementary yet more important question.  That is the question of whether or not God is good.  I suppose there is another question beneath that one: the question of whether or not God exists.  But those of us who already believe He exists, who take His existence to be the self-evident truth Paul says it is (Romans 1:20), we can effectively start at this question: is God good and is He doing good to me/for me?

That question is the foundational question.  The answer to that question is the foundation of everything that comes after.  It is impossible to answer these other questions, impossible to interpret life, without first having the answer to this question.  To use a different analogy, this is the part of the equation which must be worked first.  I know very little about math, but I do know that you can’t just start a mathematical equation wherever you want to.  You can’t if you want the correct answer, anyway.  You have to start in the right place, have to start with the right calculations at the beginning to get the right calculation at the end.  Or, to use yet another analogy, if you put the first button of your shirt in the wrong hold, every following button will likewise be in the wrong hole.  Start wrong, and the whole thing goes wrong.

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So it is with the question this man was asking.  He was trying to build several floors high without having the foundation laid first.  He was trying to button his shirt in the middle.  He was doing the equation in the wrong order.  There is an answer to the question of why he has suffered the injustices he has.  I don’t know what that answer is.  It might be something like Joseph’s being sold into slavery (which God used to save a bunch of people) or it might be like Satan’s asking to sift Peter like wheat (just something the enemy does to destroy).  I don’t know.  But I know he’ll never get a satisfactory answer starting where he is starting.  I know he’ll never be able to interpret his life without doing some foundational work.

And this is that foundational work.  Is God good?  You answer that question, and the answers to all the other questions become easier.  Answer that question, and many of the wrong answers to the following questions get eliminated.  Answer that question and you can interpret life (and the universe and everything, as well).

And the answer, by the way, is yes.

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Forget Not All His Goodness

Pastor Beny of the Indonesian church brought a great message at our joint New Year’s Eve service.  The message was taken from Psalm 103, which you probably know (even if you don’t know you know).  The first verse of Psalm 103 says this:

Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Again, you probably know verse.  I think it is the basis for this song:

The second verse of Psalm 103 says this:

Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—

That’s what it says in the NIV, anyway.  That’s the version I knew.  And I always questioned it.  I always questioned that word benefits.  To me, benefit refers to a financial kind of arrangement, to something you get for doing something you don’t want to do.  It reminds me of something an HR lady said at one of the part-time jobs I worked during Bible college.  She said, “This job isn’t great, but before you quit, remember the benefits!”  You see that financial give-and-take idea right there: the job is not great, but you keep it because you want the benefits.  It also reminds me of the climatic line of the song from the movie Music and Lyrics:

(Come on; you know that this is about; you saw it with your wife the same as I did.)

That’s what benefits always said to me.  We were negotiating for things we wanted.  God wasn’t that great but we stuck around because He dropped us a bone every once in awhile.

What Pastor Beny said, though, was that in the Indonesian version it is translated “forget not all His goodness“.  I don’t know if this is a viable translation or not; I don’t know the Hebrew here.  But I do see similar ideas in some English translations.

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Notice the NLT.  There were a few translations lower down which translated the phrase the same way.

And I think that is what the psalmist was telling us here.  He was not telling us we get benefits from God.  He was telling us God is good to us.  He was (and still is) telling us God is good to us.  And that is something to remember.  That is something to never forget.  That is something that will change your life.