Thursday, November 01, 2007

Musings On Blame

You're emphatically not at the mercy of those who push your buttons. They
don't have to control how you react; you don't have to give them the power
to determine what you think or do. You must take control of yourself and
your emotions, and learn that blaming others for your own insecurities and
fears is fruitless. -- Gary Smalley (via email from

I am amazed at the things I understand now that I have a little age on me. I always heard that would be true, but, of course, no young man believes that could possibly be so. Years ago, I was very sure of a lot of things I'm not so sure about any more, but other things have a clarity today that wasn't possible back then.

Part of this is coming to understand myself. This will likely be fairly difficult for me to explain, for I don't really want to take the time or the space to write a book on all this, but let me say that one thing I have always tried to do is figure out "me." Figuring out everybody else is easy in comparison, after all, I can exercise all the preconceived notions, prejudices, and lazy assessment I want if we're talking about you. And I could do all that with me, but it would really be a waste, for if I truly want to understand myself, I have to be ruthlessly honest. Not easy, but so worthwhile. I highly recommend this approach to you, but I digress.

In a lot of ways, my life is no different than anybody elses. In other ways, the particulars of my life experiences are unique to me, and not one other person shares them. I've had my share of good things and bad, rewarding things and stuff that cost me plenty. I've paid my dues in a thousand ways, but with some things I'm still in debt. I have experiences that I wouldn't trade away for all the money in the world. Some others I'd pay you to take them.

I think it does every living person good to perform a self-assessment every now and then. Why are you where you are and how did you get here and why? Now, listen carefully, for if you do this the wrong way, you can quickly learn why the baseline topic of this article is "blame." Some of us can only explain ourselves in terms of blame. Of course, this only works when the result has been negative. In other words, if I am facing something hurtful, damaging, uncomfortable, unpleasant, etc., then it's easy for me to blame somebody for the way life has turned out. I can blame people as easily as anybody else. It seldom works in reverse though. I'm not in the habit of "blaming" others when things turn out just dandy.

I will tell you that it's not easy admitting to bad decisions, weak will, ignorance, misplaced trust, lack of ability, or general stupidity. Frankly, I'd rather blame somebody else. But blaming others prevents me from learning, improving, changing, overcoming, and moving on. Blame gets you stuck right where you are. Of course other people do bad things that affect us, and when they do it's their fault. Of course bad circumstances happen that none of us can control, and when those things happen, we can rightly say, "I got that black eye when the door swung shut on me before I could dodge it." It's one thing to correctly assess the situations of one's life and quite another to get stuck putting the fault elsewhere.

My doctor keeps telling me I need to lose weight. "If you would lose some weight, we could probably reduce most if not all these medicines you're on," he says. Whose fault is it that I need to lose weight? My wife's a great cook, so it's her fault. I often have to eat out, on the run, so it's the fault of the fast food places. Sometimes when I come home, I'm just tired and worn out, and I grab anything available and eat fast, so I can blame my schedule. That one's easy isn't it?

The wisdom that has arrived with age, however, forces me to stop blaming anyone, including myself, for blame isn't a very productive kind of thing. Personal responsibility, however, is quite another thing. I'm learning to be personally responsible, and I wish I'd learned it better a long time ago.

I won't bore you with all the details. Some of the things I must wrestle with are just that - boring, and you wouldn't spend time reading about them. Others might just be a tad juicy, though, you might be tempted to drool a while before gossiping to somebody else. A few selected things might actually be helpful, but if there any, I'll share them personally with those I think could benefit. Bottom line, I'm just saying that I think all of us fall prey to the "blame game" occasionally, but we need to do better.

If you're stuck on blaming others for your misfortunes, let me encourage you to develop a wiser approach to dealing with your "stuff." You can't do anything about others, but you can do everything about yourself. Here's hoping you'll join me on this wide-open adventure of self-understanding. I don't always like what I see, but when I don't I get to do something about it. I'm learning that's a far wiser and more productive way to live than the seething boil-over of blame.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Two-Sided Coin Of Biblical Love

While there are other Greek words for "love," two stand out as forms of love that Christians must practice. One is agape/agapao and the other is philia/philadelphia/phileo (just highlighting the noun and verb construction). Like all word studies, it can get technical, and one can dig about as far as they would like into etymology, uses, shades of meaning, etc. Basically, for this discussion, it's enough for us to note the two-sided coin of biblical love.

One side is primarily a love of the mind. Agape/agapao is that love. It is a love of choice, of will, of intention. By exercising this love, one can love even when he/she doesn't "feel" like it. For this reason some have thought of agape/agapao as a "higher" kind of love. I'm not sure that is entirely true, but there is something about this kind of love that overrides and overcomes the limitations of other forms of love. This is the love that can be commanded, as Jesus did to his disciples. This is the love by which one positively engages his enemies for their good, despite the fact the enemies may be trying to destroy the person doing the loving.

The other side of the coin is the philia/philadelphia/phileo love. This love is close kinship, bonded friendship, emotional connection. It is the inclusion of the emotions that makes this love so very different from the first, and gives it the potential for limitations that are often hard to overcome. Emotions may cause us to hurt, to fear, to experience hatred, sadness, depression, and more. Emotions are often negative, not just positive, but when they are positive, they are among the strongest experiences of human life.

The problem is that we're very much like the proverbial coin. Flip a coin, let it bounce on the ground and it will come to rest with one side or the other up. The other side will be down. Human love is the same. Life flips us up, we tumble a bit, bounce around, and if we manage love at all, it is often one or the other. We struggle to balance the two kinds of love.

It is important that we love people by simply choosing to do so. At times, it is vital to exercise our will and love people despite the circumstances, the behaviors, the words, and more. This is the love that keeps marriage secure. Every husband and wife has awakened to the reality that the thrill of youthful emotion was left somewhere in the past, at least on any given day. It doesn't mean it can't be rekindled, or that those high emotions are necessarily lost forever. It means what married partners understand. Sometimes, you have to choose to love, for one or the other has lost their grip on the emotional bonds. Choosing to love is what moves us past our emotional limits. Deciding to love enables us to engage people who irritate our prejudices and our morals, and who aggravate and insult us.

It is also important for people to thrill to the highly emotional love of friendship and brotherhood. This is the love that ties us with bonds stronger than decisions or even will. When we are emotionally bonded to others, we are capable of loving with a strength, an energy, and a vitality that can shame the love of mind and will. This is the love that endures, reaches across distances and time, and links the hearts of people. Little wonder that the New Testament urges both kinds of love, for both are important to the life of God's people.

As I write this, I am forced to think of the people who fit the categories that require one kind of love or another from me. There are people who demand agape/agapao from me, for the only emotions that connect me to them are negative, not positive. Still, God would have me love even an enemy, do good to them, help them, and never do harm. That's a tall order for me when I put specific names to the test. But, there is another group, far larger, thankfully, for whom I have no trouble loving at all. These people fit the philia/philadelphia/phileo kind of love, and for me, it is exciting, positive, down-right good to love and be loved by those people.

Real discipleship takes both kind. Do not be afraid to love, with either side of the coin. Each calls for different abilities and produce different actions, but together they involve the two most important elements of a person's inner life: the head and the heart. People who love solely by the head often miss out on the sweetest experiences of all. People who live solely by the heart, also miss out on some wonderfully powerful experiences. Love with both your head and your heart.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Thoughts On Unity

Just about the time I think I've got the time to write for this blog, I prove that I don't. No more claims about being back on the blogging scene. I'll write when I have time.

I've been thinking some about unity. After all, those of us whose religious heritage rises from the American Restoration Movement have been immersed in thoughts, talk, and behaviors relating to unity. We are (were) a unity movement. At least we were a unity movement in the beginning. Somewhere along the way, unity began to slip away from us. Doctrine came to be more important. Differences and distinctions in doctrine began to identify how dislike we were from others. We narrowed our doctrinal focus. Our movement woke up one day and we were standing over here, with everybody else scattered over there, and the only way to solve anything was if all those other folks moved toward us. OK, I have greatly over-simplified some really complex issues, but you get the idea.

As many others have noted, the American Restoration Movement has produced numerous divisions, and every one of them over some point of doctrine. It appears to me that the effort to unify on the basis of common doctrine has limited possibility. It's not that doctrine is unimportant. It's that unity based on doctrine demands more than human beings seem to be able to manage. Unless, of course, everyone is willing to see everything my way, for that would solve all the problems.

I was reading from the book of Ephesians, chapter four and first few verses. Here's what it says:
1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called,2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love,3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Eph 4:1-3 (NASB)

Here's what struck me. It is definitely a passage calling us to unity, but it is not a passage that sounds like a call to rally around the doctrine flag. Instead, it's a passage that calls for a response of the heart: humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and love. You could call each of those doctrine, for they are surely taught in scripture, but they aren't the issues that normally carry the doctrine flag. These are heart issues, attitudes, the building blocks of emotional bonds. Here are the tools of unity.

If we would step back for a moment and think about the people with whom we feel the closest, most secure unity, I think we would immediately recognize those building blocks. I am unified with people with whom I share a mutual humility. Let one of us become haughty and overbearing and unity begins to fade. I am most unified with people with whom I am gentle and who are gentle with me. Let one of us become harsh and mean-spirited and unity begins to ebb. I am most unified with people with whom I am patient, and who are patient with me. Let one of us disallow the other our shortcomings and misunderstandings, or our lack of insight or effort, and unity dims. I am most unified with people with whom I am tolerant, and who tolerate me. Let one of us become irritated beyond reason and unity weakens. I am most unified with people I love and who love me. Love enables us to put up with a lot, and unity requires that ability. Lose love and unity is a dead hope.

Perhaps we've got it backwards. The approach of the past has been to demand doctrinal uniformity before unity could exist. Maybe we need to unify on the basis of humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance and love, and then it would be easier for us to resolve our doctrinal differences. I know this: I can have more worthwhile and productive discussions about doctrine with people with whom I enjoy a mutual spirit of humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance and love. Get rid of any one of those elements, and you've upped the difficulty of even talking about doctrinal differences. Get rid of two or more, and unity is impossible and so is doctrinal agreement.

As the Psalmist would say, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!" (Ps 133:1).

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Recognizing Traditions And Customs

Old stories can still do the job of illustrating the point. I was thinking today of the mother teaching her daughter how to bake a ham. As she prepared to cook it, she took a kitchen knife, cut off the end, then put it in the roasting pan. The little girl said, "Mama, why did you cut off the end of the ham?" The mother replied, "Because that's the way my mother taught me how to cook it, so I always cut off the end." "But why?" pressed the daughter. They decided to give grandma a call to clear up the issue. "Grandma, why do you cut off the end of the ham before you cook it?" asked the girl. Grandma said, "Oh, honey, when I first married, I didn't have a pan big enough to put the ham in, so I always cut off the end to make it fit. I guess it just became a habit."

One generation had a good reason to do what they did, and succeeding generations followed suit, but they did not have the same reasons. What for one was merely an expedient to baking a ham became for the next, "The way it's done."

I wonder if that's true when it comes to things like worship traditions, or other activities associated with "church." Whenever I have suggested that today's Christians practice things that are little more than traditions or customs, it always seems to bother some who hear it said. It's as if the idea that every single, minute thing we do isn't totally biblical is a savage heresy. Yet, the truth is that our assemblies are driven by social norms, architecture, personal likes and dislikes, and more. That does not make them good or bad, it's just a fact. Some of these things are very good, and others less so. The fact that something is a tradition or custom does not make it automatically wrong. It doesn't make it automatically right either.

I think the ability to acknowledge our traditions and customs is liberating. A lot of people seem to operate under stress and guilt because they know they can't qualify everything they do, nor the way they do it, from clear biblical teaching. If we could just acknowledge that some of our practices are traditions, it would relieve us from a defensive posture we can't support.

Let me give you an example of traditions that I believe to be moved more by social norms and architecture than by anything particularly biblical. Several years ago, my family and I were part of a congregation that met in house churches on Sunday nights. It was an absolutely great arrangement, but we discovered that we had a problem.

One Sunday evening, the fellow, whose house we met in, asked if anyone would like to take the Lord's supper. There were two or three who did. He turned to one of our ladies who was sitting in a chair in front of the stereo system, on which sat the plate with the bread and the tray with the cups of grape juice. He said, "Brenda, would you pass the plate to so-and-so?" Brenda did just that, and then repeated the action with the juice.

The next week it was all over church that we had women serving communion! My first reaction was something like, "What?!" Then it hit me. We certainly did. We had one woman who served the bread and the juice to the two or three people taking the Lord's supper. Guilty as charged.

Then I was hit again, "Wait a minute! This is a problem of architecture and social custom." At the church building, in our "official" auditorium with the table down front, behind which four to six guys would line up to pass the trays, this was viewed as a "leadership" function. Thus, we wouldn't dare to give the job to the women. But sitting around a living room, the most natural thing in the world was for the person sitting in front of the stereo to reach around behind herself, pick up the trays and pass them to those taking the supper. In fact, her action was not different at all from the way she participated every Sunday in that church auditorium. There she just didn't make the first pass. It seems to me the problem here is largely social custom and architecture that determines our practice.

I've heard people say that women don't serve the Lord's supper because it's the job of men to lead. Let's assume, for a moment, the male leadership argument is correct. Somebody still must explain how serving bread and fruit of the vine becomes something other that just that: serving. And, if it is serving, then how does it become a forbidden activity to women?

Lest you think I'm saying that we ought to put the women up in front and let them serve communion, you've missed the point at least slightly. Perhaps we shouldn't have a problem with women doing that at all. However, remember that I started all this by saying we need to acknowledge how traditions and customs determine our actions? It's not always wise nor profitable to dump traditions on the spot for different ones. Traditions and customs, by definition, do not come to be overnight. It takes time. And, one of the ways traditions change is by first recognizing exactly what we're dealing with.

If you want to continue cutting off the end of the ham before you put it into the pan to cook, you wouldn't be wrong to do so. But, neither would you be wrong to leave the end alone. It would probably be easier to change behaviors by first understanding why it was done the way it was done to start with, and then determine whether the same reasons still exist.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Would Jesus Have Done With Her?

News programs earlier this week provided more than ample information about the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Smith had become famous, not just for her striptease act in Houston, TX but for marrying at the age of 26 and oil tycoon who was 88 or 89 years old. When he died a short time later, the court battle between Smith and the tycoon’s other relatives over millions of dollars of estate money kept the headlines hot.

I believe she had a TV show a few years ago that was supposed to be one of those “reality” programs. Her lifestyle, her weight gain and then the amazing weight loss, and the continued star-fashion media that surrounded her kept her in the news and constantly characterized her as a dizzy blonde bombshell, drug user, and sex icon.

Well, no more. She’s dead. The last news reports failed to provide solid information as to the cause. It appears there was no physical trauma to her body, which leaves questions about drug overdose, suicide, or perhaps even murder as possibilities. The public will have to wait until the investigations are over.

Why should Christians care about any of this? For one reason only. Anna Nicole Smith is today’s Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery of John 8, or any number of other biblical characters. I suspect attitudes toward Anna Nicole were the same ones held about those ancient women. “She’s immoral.” She’s a junkie.” “She’s a golddigger.” And, I’m using the kind words. I have no doubt but that those harsh, common, 4-letter kind of words were used frequently to describe her. It is understandable; after all she flaunted her sexuality, and demonstrated her immoral lifestyle for profit. Regardless of her true motivations, she lived by an ethic that few of us would want for our daughters or sisters.

We still need to ask, “What would Jesus have done with her?”

What did Jesus do with the woman at the well? What did he do with the woman in John 8, caught in the very act of adultery and legally due a death sentence? Perhaps we need to sift through all the surrounding discussions and get to two vital points that tell us what Jesus would have done with Anna Nicole Smith.

First, he never condoned the sins of either the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery. Their sins were real, and their sins separated them from God, and if you’re thinking that somehow Jesus overlooked their sins, you’d be wrong. Whatever we do with Anna Nicole Smith, and thousands of people like her, we need to know that sin is wrong, and we need to acknowledge it.

But second, Jesus offered forgiveness. Without excusing sin, Jesus refused to condemn sexually immoral women. Instead, he provided a way out of sin. This is the forgotten and neglected issue. It is what Christians often allow to slip away unnoticed. I wonder if Anna Nicole Smith heard the first point, but not the second?

In one of the news clips I saw the other day, showing the now dead Smith at earlier times in her life, I noticed that she wore an interesting necklace. It was a fashionable cross. Now I don’t know why people wear crosses as jewelry. I have written before on this subject, and have said that it is surprising who wears crosses and where they wear them. It’s interesting that people would wear the symbol of Christian faith while living out a life that is anything but Christian. So, I can’t tell you what Anna Nicole Smith’s motive was for wearing that piece.

Neither do I know that she had an ounce of faith in Jesus Christ, or that she understood much, if anything, about the call of the gospel and how it changes true believers. But I do wonder if a single ray of hope in an otherwise dark life.

Personally, the whole of Smith’s life is unpleasant. I heard two talk-show hosts mention her death the other day, then one of them said, “You know what, I just don’t care.” The other replied, “I don’t either.” And that was the end of the discussion on their show. Perhaps that was best – no more mention of it, but I was sorry for their attitude. Anna Nicole Smith was a human being. Regardless of her lifestyle, her irreverent behavior, her blatant disregard for God, I know one thing about her that doesn’t get much press: she was loved by God. In fact, God loved Anna Nicole Smith so much he sent his Son to die for her.

Perhaps Smith’s death can encourage some young person to avoid drugs. Maybe her early demise can move another young person away from the whole sex business. It’s possible that her sad life will motivate another person to try a different road. Then again, maybe Anna Nicole Smith will remind Christians about who God loves, and who Jesus died for. Just maybe we’ll get the point that Jesus didn’t die for all the good guys but for sinners. He didn’t die to mock their sins, he died to forgive their sins.

We still need to ask, “What would Jesus have done with her?”

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Back On The Blogging Scene

I have discovered that I am a busy guy! You would think I already knew that, but sometimes life just gets in a whirl and it takes me a while to realize just how busy I am.

Now that the excuses are out of the way, I want to say (for anyone who might care) that I am back on the blogging scene and will do my utmost to post much more frequently and on a regular schedule. Exactly what that is I do not know at the moment, but it will certainly be better than the past several months.

I also decided not to post more CrossTies Devotional Articles as blogs. No need to do that. First, it's overkill with the articles since they are readily available elsewhere, and second, it's too easy to use them instead of writing blogs as I originally intended.

I will also try to do a better job of promoting the blogs. That hasn't been done at all. So! Here we go.

Today, I want to comment on some things I've been reading in other people's blogs. I am impressed with what I'm reading. Hopefully, that is because I am rather selective in what I read (re: my earlier comment about being busy). Without naming names or blogs, let me list a few things I'm noticing.
  • Writers are evidencing a serious spirituality. There is less concern with appearances, patterns, and shallow thinking. I'm reading people who are wrestling with serious subjects with deeper thinking.
  • Writers are showing more concern with scripture, its meaning, and its application to modern life than to traditions and custom. Surely, this is good for it is the very thing we have always urged others to do.
  • Writers are more concerned with the weighty subjects and less concerned with minor things. Again, this is one of those things we have demanded of others, but we haven't always done this ourselves. Good for those will challenge us this way.
  • Writers are demonstrating an awareness that we do not exist in a vacuum, but instead, we live in communities of people. We can't stand outside the community and expect to reach the community. We must engage people where they are.
This is all positive news for people who are seriously interested in following Jesus and not just "doing church." So, thanks, guys (& gals!) for what you're doing.