Friday, July 24, 2009

Perception & Reception

An essential lesson that most parents learn - and one they hope their children learn, too - is that while we may correct or restrain our children from doing something dangerous, unethical, selfish, or harmful, those very corrections and restraints aren't received by our children as "love." Their reactions inform parents of their displeasure: temper tantrums, sulking, throwing toys, stomping, door slamming, sibling fights, and the like. As adults, we know the consequences that our children do not. We perceive correction, restraint and discipline as intrinsic to loving our children. We don't want them to harm themselves, others, or suffer the consequences of their bad actions. We want them to consider their actions well before they act. (As they age, the actions assume greater significance, involve more serious consequences, and attain life-changing proportions.) Parentally-imposed consequences of correction, restraint, and disciplinary action when children continue to act destructively, harmfully, selfishly, or carelessly, therefore, are essential to appropriate parental love. The Biblical definition of Love incorporates all of this. God's Love includes truth, justice, consequences, mercy, and the promotion of just actions. (The biblical definition of Love is distinguished here from the folk-religious understanding of love by the use of capital "L".)

The folk-religious, popular and facile definition of love relates love to feelings (e.g., "happiness"), emotions, and self-centered perception. Even the delivery of factual information regarding the inevitable results of one's choices, words and actions, is considered to be "unloving" and "judgmental." Consequentially, any correction, discipline and restraint are out of bounds between adults (even within voluntary organizations such as churches, or in corporations). Correction, restraint and discipline are also increasingly considered inappropriate, even unlawful, between parents and children in many areas.

It is certain that humans would prefer never to be informed that our actions are harmful to ourselves or others,
never to be corrected, and never, ever to receive consequences for any act we commit, omit, or any errors we make. Thus, we misuse our reasoning abilities in order to externalize all the results we experience; i.e., we blame other people, circumstances, generalities, and Godself for the natural results of our choices, actions and words.

Pearl Mary-Teresa Richards Craigie (writing as John O. Hobbes): "Men heap together the 'mistakes' of their lives and create a monster they call, 'Destiny'." [NB: the quotation marks around 'mistakes' are mine, and reflect my understanding that many actions we retrospectively call, "mistakes", were intentionally committed at the time.]

The transformation we hope to see in our children, while continuing to parent appropriately and carefully, is the transformation in reception. Children growing into teenagers, and then into adults without this transformation will always tend to misperceive Parental Love. This Love includes boundary-setting, information, reality-checks, and then correction, discipline, consequences and encouragement to exhibit behavioral changes. Children receive that Love in a lump as Judgment. In actuality, judgment is not found in Loving (or even unloving!) discernment of error and warning of consequences. Judgment is realized consequences, whether good or bad. The Hindus name this result, Karma. "What goes around comes around." "You reap what you sow." Christians should not depose God as Judge by becoming judges ourselves, imposing consequences for one's situation, unless we're exercising godly authority in an appropriate position and setting, and being Spirit-led. (cf. James 2:1-7) In fact, without God, we may naturally misread another person's situation itself to be a verdict and judgment, when it's not that at all. (cf. John 9:1-5, or the Hindu caste system, or classism, or racism)

The transformation parents long for is in the reception: "can't you see that I discipline, correct, and restrain you because I love you?" We want our children to be re-wired to receive us as "loving" not as unloving Judges. In the parental role, we should impose just consequences on childish and selfish behaviors. Yet, we need to be judges within the context of Love, and we need to contextualize, interpret, and apply the reality of consequences to their level of understanding. We realize that our children need to grasp that there are good/bad bodily, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual consequences to every action, reaction, word, harbored thought, behavior, and habit. A friend who worked in an inner city high school for troubled youth once told me that all he did, day in and day out, was try to teach teenagers that there are consequences for every action. The older we get, the more baggage we accumulate, the stronger we resist correction, the harder it is to experience the transformation in reception.

There comes a time in each of our lives, though, when the "safer" and limited consequences that healthy parents impose are laid aside because they're overtaken by the harsher consequences that outsiders will carry out or that we receive in ourselves and our families. These consequences occur because we refuse correction in the name of a "happiness" which is marked by a presence of pleasure, with an avoidance of discomfort, responsibilities and self-discipline. Schools and teachers may impose disciplinary procedures upon children. Children may bully, ostracize, and physically hurt others because they don't know appropriate boundaries. Police, courts and prisons may get involved as children become disorderly, uncorrectable young adults. More unwise and untransformed adults form families. Dysfunctional marriages and maltreatment of spouses and children may result, creating a whole new generation of unreceptive, untransformed, unloving people. These people are not only unable to receive or offer Love, they simply cannot even perceive Love. Because of this inability to face themselves internally and assess the real consequences of their own choices, they externalize the blame - they "create a monster they call, 'Destiny'."

They've missed the message of God's holy and holistic Love: "Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature." -- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

We grasp the despair of God lamenting over his children when we lament over untransformed, unreceptive and unwelcoming people around us: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.'" (Matt. 23:37-39)

Let us welcome Love, today!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Warring YouTube Videos

These videos should remind us how important reconciliation is. The status quo is not acceptable. Alienation in all its manifestations is not "peace." Alienation manifests as passive division, active divisiveness, injustice, lies, slander, gossip, divorce, barriers, walls, and wars.

Ephesians 2

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it."

Israeli cell phone advertisement

Palestinian response

Monday, July 13, 2009

How Narrow the Gate

There seems to be a common thread in pastoral conversation with folks in crisis. "But, what will I do if this or that happens?" This is a very difficult question for a pastor to answer because it involves things we cannot know in advance about circumstances, specific situations, or even more problematically, people's choices, reactions, and emotions. As I was pondering the responses I've felt led to give to those seeking my advice for handling a crisis, Jesus' words about the narrow gate struck me afresh.

If a gate is very narrow, consider how difficult it is to see it until you're right smack dab in front of it. In other words, we simply cannot see that gate through which we walk until we're within a few steps of that gate. For we who are naturally planners and controllers of life, the very idea of not knowing where the gate lies to navigate through a situation, a relational crisis or earthquake, an obstacle or conniving person in our professional path, etc., makes us absolutely nuts! "What do you mean, I won't know until I'm there how to handle it? But, you won't be with me in that moment to coach me through the crisis (or the conversation, or the conflict)! I need you to tell me what to do, what to say, and when and where to say it!"

Jesus seems to be saying we cannot know ahead of time; however, we know now that the Holy Spirit is there with us in that moment, at that gate, and ready to guide us, BUT…

Let's look at the context surrounding Matthew 7:13-14 to understand how the Lord wants us to prepare and proceed, and also, let's consider what this narrow gate means to ourselves.

In the immediate context, we prepare ahead by focusing on God: asking, seeking, and knocking at God's door – we may sit quietly, wait patiently, lament with psalms, or request humbly, "please, Lord, help me handle this crisis well!"

We prepare also by focusing on the concerns of the other person, and God's call to love our neighbor as ourselves. With even more impossible a degree of human difficulty, we're called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44): this is the summation of the commandments and the Prophets – Jesus said, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you."

Gulp! Now, we're at the narrow gate. We quickly discover, however, that the gate is far too small for us!!! There is no human way we can squeeze through that door. The Greek word, stenos, which is translated "narrow" also carries connotations of being distressed, cramped and confined.

The response I gave to one person who was agonizing over what to do IF and WHEN further crises arose in the grave, life-changing conflict that faced them is indicative of what we need to do when faced with that narrow, impossible to squeeze through gate. I felt led to put my hand on their shoulder, stand next to them and point into middle distance before us: "do you see Jesus' back, there? Follow him!"

We are called to humble ourselves, deny ourselves, die to ourselves, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Faced with God at the narrow gate, we need to be small enough, humble enough, faithful enough, trusting enough, and willing to die to our selfish interests to get through it. We believe in the God who resurrects new life out of that self-reducing, self-emptying death we must face to love the other, to love the enemy we're facing – even if that enemy is the very one who "promised," "vowed" and is "supposed to" love us forever. (Read the lead-up situations in Matthew 5, prior to Jesus' call to "love our enemies"; the enemies listed which are the most difficult to handle faithfully may be part of our families, workplaces, and communities.)

That narrow gate seems impossible in our minds and to our selfish desires. We want another gate. That "other" gate is in front of us, too. Look, it has another shepherd who appears gentle and innocuous, much less threatening to our instincts for self-preservation! That shepherd makes us feel happy about ourselves and our choices. We feel great relief that we don't have to do the impossible; so, we don't enter that narrow gate.

And so, we begin to journey on that broad and easy road of self-deception when we choose to turn away from the narrow gate that evidences how impossible it is for us to love one another as God loves us.

May we follow Christ, and today be "doers of the Word" – acting on the impossible by allowing God to humble us in the face of our own self-serving and other-denying ways so that we may be "fit" through that narrow gate. May we build upon the rock, trust the invisible God who will show us the way to walk if we've the courage to die to ourselves, our ambitions, and our ideas of how to achieve "happiness."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jesus as Hood Ornament

So, how many times have we heard the name (i.e., the power) of Jesus invoked and approval of Jesus claimed by people who don't/won't live according to his ways?

I was driving my car and thought of this metaphor. If Jesus is just my hood ornament then the destination of my car is irrelevant to him and the way I drive is, too.

However, if Jesus is Lord and God, then my destination and my methods of getting there are to be found within his precepts and purposes. My feelings, thoughts, ideas, choices and actions are subject to God Almighty. Otherwise, the claim to worship God is an empty claim of vacuous words and vain "faith."

Jesus isn't even "my co-pilot" in this metaphor. The Holy Spirit indwells me and I drive where and according to the guidance of Godself. If I'm in the office, I "drive" my relating to others, my ethics and my work performance by, for and to God. If I'm at home, I "drive" my relationships with my spouse, children, neighbors and community knowing the love of God as my primary goal, focus and strength.