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When the Tree Is Dry

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Like many, I’ve been devoting a lot of thought recently to the Ahmaud Arbery shooting.  I suppose it’s possible that exculpatory evidence might emerge from somewhere, but the video (recorded by a friend of the shooters, incidentally) appears damning.  Based on what we know right now, it seems that an innocent man was murdered because he was black.

Is this where we are, in the year of our Lord 2020?  20 years ago, I would have told you that racism was on its way out in the United States.  As soon as the last of the old segregationist coots died, it would rightly be consigned to history’s trash heap.  That’s not the way that things have gone.  Instead, American society seems to be becoming more tribal with each day, with the members of each race growing increasingly suspicious and afraid of each other.

Tragically, for the past decade, all of this has played out against a backdrop of steadily increasing prosperity.  For the past 10 years, crime has been way, way down from the levels of previous decades.  Unemployment has been way, way down.  And yet, even in the midst of peace and plenty, far too many ears have been open to the divisive whispers of Satan. 

No, I don’t think that most white Americans, and certainly not most white Christians, would do what the McMichaels did.  However, you don’t have to spend too much time reading comments on self-defense forums and YouTube videos before you run across some that are subtly, snidely racist.  Honest question for those who concealed-carry:  when you think about the unthinkable, when you imagine a situation in which you have to use your weapon to defend yourself, in your mind’s eye, is your assailant black?

I don’t know what the answer is for you, but I know what the answer is for many because of what they’ve said online.  Note again that this fear has arisen in a time of prosperity and low crime rates.

In Luke 23, as Jesus is carrying His cross to Golgotha, He stops to converse with a group of women who are weeping at His impending death.  He tells them that they should be weeping for themselves, not Him, because of the tragedy that is coming upon Jerusalem.  In v. 31, He wraps up His discourse with a rhetorical question:  “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (CSB)

Various translations are all over the map about how to render this text, but the point appears to be this:  If the Romans are willing to do this to an innocent man now, what will they be willing to do in a time of rebellion and lawlessness?  Forty years later, during the Great Jewish Revolt, the Romans answered the question.  Crucify Jews on the hills around Jerusalem until they ran out of wood, that’s what.

Times have been good.  They are not likely to be good in future, and recessions are hard for everybody.  Lots of folks out of work.  Alcohol and drug problems way up.  Crime rates through the roof.  Politicians with extreme solutions suddenly getting a serious hearing.

If Ahmaud Arbery happens when the tree is green, what is going to happen when it is dry? 

None of us can change the course of our country by ourselves, but we can change our own course.  We can honestly examine our own hearts for ugliness and hatred aimed at somebody who was created in the image of God.  We can be real with ourselves about the suspicion and fear we nurture, whoever we are, whomever we fear.  We can be people who show the love of Christ to everybody, because Christ loves everybody.

The days may be growing increasingly dark, but that’s when Christians are supposed to shine brightest.

The Root of Bitterness

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Most of us have had experience, invariably bad, with bitter people.  Something has happened to them that they have continued to resent for years or decades, and they often take out their resentment on those who are closest to them.  Frequently, we turn to Hebrews 12:15 for a Biblical condemnation of such behavior. 

Because Hebrews 12:14 emphasizes the importance of pursuing peace with others, I think this is a correct reading of the text.  It makes sense in context.  However, the Hebrews writer is saying more here than we commonly credit. 

The concept of a root of bitterness does not appear for the first time in Hebrews.  Instead, the writer is paraphrasing Deuteronomy 29:18, which warns against those who are roots that bear poisonous and bitter fruit.  However, in the context of Deuteronomy, such people aren’t quarrelsome and resentful.  Instead, they are idolaters.  They cause widespread trouble because they lead others away into idolatry.

At first glance, it appears that the Hebrews writer has missed the point of the quotation from Deuteronomy 29.  However, given the great skill with which the writer (to say nothing of the Holy Spirit!) uses the Old Testament through the rest of the book, this is extremely unlikely.  Instead, he has left an additional lesson for those who are familiar with the Law of Moses too.

He wants us, in fact, to recognize that bitterness is a form of idolatry.  After all, the New Testament frequently reminds us that idolatry does not necessarily involve worshiping a golden statue.  In Colossians 3:3, Paul notes that greed is a form of idolatry.  People who care about money and stuff more than anything else are bowing down to Mammon, whether they recognize it or not.

However, we can take the analysis one step further even than that.  When we are greedy, it’s not really the money and the stuff that we value.  It’s the way that they make us feel, and we prize that feeling so much that we are willing to abandon God and do evil in order to experience it.  When it comes to covetousness, the idol we are worshiping is the self.

The same is true for bitterness.  People who can’t move past a wrong that they have suffered are resentful because it is a wrong that they have suffered.  Somebody has hurt them, or hurt somebody close to them, and that’s the unforgivable sin, because it is a wrong that has touched their precious, invaluable self.  This is so great a violation of the way that they think things ought to be that they feel justified in mistreating the wrongdoer, or even in mistreating an innocent third party. 

As a result, they repeatedly express the outrage they feel at their own injury by injuring others, often until the end of their lives.  Even if people like this faithfully attend worship services, Jesus is not and cannot be the Lord of their hearts.  He cannot be most important to them, because nothing is more important to them than they are. 

They are their own miserable, spiteful idols.

When Jesus exhorts us to be merciful and forgiving, then, He does not merely do so because mercy and forgiveness are good.  Instead, it is because being merciful and forgiving is a necessary part of subjecting ourselves to Him.  When we place so much importance on ourselves that we refuse to forgive, we reveal that we have been defiled by the idol of selfishness in our hearts. 

Jesus' Preferred Companions

Friday, April 24, 2020

OK.  It’s meme-check time again.  I encountered the above on Facebook a few days ago.  It plays off of two common beliefs:  first, that Jesus preferred the company of sinners and primarily associated with them, and second, that Christians are a bunch of stuck-up modern-day Pharisees who prefer the company of their own kind.

I think the first belief reveals a lack of familiarity with Jesus’ actual ministry rather than the pop-culture conception of that ministry.  Yes, Jesus was the friend of tax collectors and sinners, but those weren’t the people He associated with above anybody else.  Instead, He spent the most time with His disciples. 

The disciples are around when Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners (as in Mark 2:15).  They’re around when He is debating with Pharisees, chief priests, and what have you (Mark 7:2; Matthew 23:1).  They’re around when He is teaching the multitudes (Matthew 13:1, 10). 

However, there are also several occasions during which Jesus separates Himself (or at least tries to do so) from everybody but His disciples.  John 11:54 is only one example of this kind of conduct.  In short, when we ask the question, “With whom did Jesus spend most of His time?”, the answer is unequivocally, “His disciples.”

When we consider the class of disciples, several characteristics emerge.  They abandoned their previous lives to follow Jesus.  They often suffered great personal and financial loss as a result of having done so.  They were more interested in His teaching than anyone else was.  The best of them continued to follow Him even when they found Him hard to understand. 

Are you trying to tell me that modern Christians wouldn’t accept with open arms people who had those characteristics?  Come, now!

However, even granting that Jesus spent “most of His time” with sinners and the poor (though I think that the gospels have more to say about His interactions with the crowds and even the Pharisees), I don’t think it’s true that “most Christians” don’t want those people in their church either.

For instance, across the street from the Jackson Heights church building is the Columbia Inn.  It’s one of the lowest, if not the lowest, motels in the city.  Lots of folks on the down-and-out stay there with government assistance.  With great frequency, they show up at services Sunday morning asking for money.

In two and a half years, I’ve never seen the brethren treat these people badly.  They are uniformly welcomed, treated kindly, offered a visitor’s packet, and conducted to a seat.  Commonly, kind-hearted individuals give them money.  They’re offered the chance to study the Bible and are even baptized if they want to be.  At the end of the service, they’re invited back.

To be blunt, this is not a ministry that bears much fruit.  I’ve neither seen nor heard of someone from the Columbia Inn sticking it out as a Christian for more than a couple months.  And yet, the Jackson Heights church has been welcoming these people into their assembly for decades, for no other reason than Matthew 22:39.

I don’t know whether “most Christians” would want sinners and the poor to join their congregation.  I do know that the Jackson Heights church does, and the same has been true everywhere I’ve been a member. 

When others paint Christians as self-righteous hypocrites, it becomes much easier to dismiss them and the gospel they proclaim.  However, before we rely on such a portrait, we ought to make sure it’s not a caricature.  Otherwise, we will make the same self-righteousness we condemn in others plainly evident in ourselves.

Don't Make Government Your God!

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The recent pandemic has had many negative consequences, but on the positive side of the ledger, it has at least crippled, if not killed, the American myth of self-reliance.  For decades, the gospel in this country has been battling the delusion that I’m Just Fine On My Own.  Don’t need God, don’t need nobody, don’t need help for nuthin’!

Well, no.  The downfall of the most self-reliant person on the planet is never more than a catastrophe away.  Sometimes, the catastrophes are personal; at others, they involve the whole nation.  In the U.S., we’ve largely been spared the first-tier national kind since probably the Great Depression, which is more than long enough for the experience to fade from our collective memory.  As a result, millions have been allowed to indulge the fantasy that they can handle whatever comes their way.

No more.  You can nurture your small business for decades, guiding it through every foreseeable challenge with wisdom and skill, but when the governor shuts your doors for two months, it’s game over.  You can eat right, exercise, have yearly physicals, and confidently expect to get your four-score years due to strength, but if the wrong person coughs on you these days. . .

The changing times have left lots of folks feeling more than a little bit uneasy.  They recognize for the first time that they can’t make it on their own, that the struggle before them surely will overwhelm them.  For the first time, they find themselves turning to a higher power to protect their lives from harm.

I refer, of course, to the government.

It is striking how the news for the past couple of months has been dominated by the government.  It has been responsible for the first-order (“The virus is coming!  Shut everything down!”) and the second-order (“Everything’s shut down!  Throw lots of money at the problem!”) reactions to the pandemic.  Partisan bickering, though not silenced by the crisis (that would have been too much to hope for), has at least been focused on it.  Both parties are promising that if we do it their way, we’ll get through this thing with nothing more than a metaphorical hangnail.

However, trusting in the government, regardless of who is at the helm, doesn’t make any more sense than trusting in oneself.  The problem with self-reliance is that we all are fallible humans, but the government is made up of fallible humans, and it tends to magnify the frailties of those in power.  No matter who wins the next election, their response to the present distress will be expensive, short-sighted, poorly coordinated, and bedeviled by unintended consequences.  I’m no prophet, and neither was Dad, but you can take that one to the bank.

In short, don’t put your trust in princes.  Don’t set your hope on the government.  It will not protect you.  It will not make all right with your life or with the country.  It will not do for you what only God can do.  Indeed, history teaches us that the higher the aims of a government, the more catastrophic its failures will be.

The Christians of the first century were well familiar with crisis.  They faced persecution, disease, famine, natural disasters, civil war, and, as the crowning glory of the century, the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of the Jewish nation.   They had no illusions about the government fixing things and making them better.  As 1 Timothy 2:2 reveals, their highest aspiration for the government was that it would leave them alone so they could worship.

Instead, they trusted in God and were not disappointed.  Through all of the above trials, they were more than conquerors through Him who loved them.   Government promises, but God performs.  If, in these troubled times, we want a kingdom that cannot be shaken, there’s only one place we can look.

Coronavirus and Human Limitations

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Even as the epidemic continues to ravage the United States, the blame game is already ramping up.  It’s the fault of the Chinese.  It’s President Trump’s fault.  It’s the fault of the CDC.  It’s the fault of those moronic Gen-Z spring-breakers.  And so on.  COVID-19 will have run its course in a year or two, but I would imagine the culpability debate will outlive me.

There’s a sense in which all of this is quite reasonable.  We are faced with a generational tragedy, and already it has become apparent that not all the decision-makers involved have done everything exactly right.  It’s fairly easy to indict any of the above people or groups for what they did or didn’t do. 

However, foolishness and poor judgment has been par for the course for the human race since the beginning.  As a history enthusiast, I’ve read countless books that show how the failures of some leader led to catastrophe.  The story of the Civil War (the period of history I know best) is a story of if-onlys.  If only McClellan had been willing to launch a final assault during the battle of Antietam!  If only Lee had declined battle at Gettysburg and sought a better opportunity through maneuver!  Nearly every battle in the war is defined by someone’s consequential mistake.

In short, the flawed people and organizations of today have plenty of company.  Theoretically, all of them could have done better than they did.  Practically, humankind never does do better. 

Our power exceeds our wisdom.  Our ability to predict the future is not nearly as good as we think it is.  We think of ourselves as rational actors, but when we most need to think clearly, our judgment instead is clouded by our desires and fears. 

However, we find these truths about ourselves difficult to face.  It’s easier to play the blame game, to pretend that with the right leaders and policies, we would have gotten it right, and indeed that once we put the right leaders and policies in place, from now on, everything will be right.  It’s easier to pretend that we are imperfect but capable of perfection.

Rather than calling us to better performance, though, these tragedies should remind us of our inherent fallibility.  In reality, the new policies and leaders will fail somewhere like the old policies and leaders did.  There will be new catastrophes and new disasters, every one of them avoidable--in retrospect.  Our striving for perfection is a doomed struggle.

Instead, we should strive for humility and grace.  It is not only the powerful who have failed and always will fail.  It is our families, our friends, our co-workers, our brethren, and ourselves.  We shouldn’t think that we will get it right, nor should we expect others to.  Failure is part of the human condition.

Above all, we should learn to rely on God, precisely because He is not like us.  We don’t know what we’re doing, but He does.  The future is hidden from us, but He sees the end from the beginning.  We continually fail, but His word continually accomplishes His will. 

Rather than pretending that we’ve got it figured out, or even that we have the capacity to figure it out, we need to follow and trust Him.  This is true when His will makes sense to us but especially when it doesn’t.  Regardless of how it seems to us, we never will put a foot wrong when we walk in His footsteps.

Throughout this crisis, then, seek God.  Continue to seek Him when it is over.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

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