Saturday, April 25, 2015

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

“Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. – Genesis 41:33
It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. – Thomas Sowell
Someone once suggested that the hardest decisions are not ones where we must decide between good and bad, or right and wrong. Instead it’s when we must choose between two goods or two rights. Maybe!

When I was in my teens an older man told me that big decisions tend to take care of themselves. It’s the smaller ones that are harder. Lots of truth there.

It seems to me that both these ideas are rather on the positive side of things. There is at least the suggestion that life will be filled with a whole lot of goods and rights to choose from, or that faced with some big choices, I shouldn’t worry because the big things will pretty much take care of themselves. I’ll just have to deal with some small stuff.

I find the worst times, the hardest decisions, the toughest circumstances, and the most painful consequences are all found in that wonderfully awful spot located “between a rock and a hard place.”

On the one hand, things look bleak. On the other hand, things look not so good. When I’m between a rock and hard place my choices often seem to be between two bads or wrongs, and regardless of the “size” of the decision I must make, nothing will take care of itself. I have to choose, and there is no good choice, and when it’s all done, I’ll have to bear the consequences.

If you’ve not been in that detestable spot before, I applaud you, but I fear it’s just a matter of time. I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist, and the truth is that your turn will come. I hope you’re prepared for it.

It would be so nice if life presented us with nothing but clear choices. Years ago, a man who was the President of a local bank came to see me. The economy wasn’t good and he was looking at some choices. He could stay where he was and ride out the hard times. He could move to a bigger bank in a larger city, but he would be a small fish in a big tank there. He’d thought about funding a small business for his wife that might turn an easy profit and help out the family. The reason he came to see me was he wanted to know which one to choose so that he would “be doing the Lord’s will.”

We talked about the situation and I told him I was afraid I couldn’t help; not because God had no will for his life, but because I thought he had the wrong idea about God’s will. His thought was that one, and only one, of the possibilities he had considered was God’s will. In his mind he had to choose the one, and only one, to please the Lord.

I reminded him of the TV show, “Let’s Make A Deal” where contestants tried to make deals that brought them good prizes and not white elephants. I told him that occasionally, behind all three of the curtains on the stage were pretty decent prizes. All you had to do was pick one and go with it.

I suggested that he just decide on one of his potential solutions, and then be God’s man in whichever one he chose. He left, not totally happy with our talk.

The next Sunday, I saw him at church, and he had this huge smile. I asked him if he’d made a decision. He said, “I have, but I got to thinking about those curtains with prizes behind them, and I got to thinking that this is really my game, so I picked two curtains! I’m going to stay with the bank, but I’m also going to put my wife in business.” That move turned out well for him.

I tell you this because we often think we’re between a rock and a hard place. If that happens, trust God, and do your best. Be God’s man or woman whatever you choose.

A Lesson From Pachomius

A man named Pachomius, an Egyptian soldier, became a Christian after his release from the military. He soon became a follower of another man named Palamon who was an ascetic, whose idea of the Christian life was self-denial and a solitary existence.

But Pachomius began to question the idea of such solitude as an effective way to develop real spirituality. His questions were honest, practical, and down to earth:
How can you learn to love if no one else is around?
How can you learn humility living alone?
How can you learn kindness or gentleness or goodness in isolation?
How can you learn patience unless someone puts yours to the test?

 He said, "To save souls, you must bring them together."

I think Pachomius was brilliant. He resisted the lean toward the solitary life so popular during his time. While certainly different from what we see today, there is a growing tendency among modern Christians to something akin to “individual” faith. It’s behind the statements people make about not attending church. “Well, I just think I can be as close to God alone in the forest, or at the lake, than I can be with him in church!” What they’re saying is that they don’t need anybody else. God and themselves is plenty.

We see similar attitudes in young people today. They simply do not see the need for “church.” They are bailing out by the droves. They are not the only ones, just the latest wave. We’re actually well into a generation or more of people who don’t see the value of gathering together at church. They think they can do just fine, thank-you-very-much, without having to show up for meetings.

The ascetic has long believed that the deepest spirituality was developed alone with God. Thus they hid away in caves, wandered the deserts, or lived in remote places where they could enjoy a very private, intense kind of faith. At least that’s what they thought.

Pachomius, however, saw the flaws in this thinking. His questions are right on target, and they are still on target for us today.

The Bible teaches that we should love one another. But without somebody around to love, it’s impossible to develop a loving spirit.

Humility? Impossible living alone or separated from other people.

Kindness and gentleness, by the very definition of the words, requires some other person to be the recipient of our actions.

One of my favorites is patience. Yes, you actually need a few people who drive you up the wall for patience to become real in your life.

But we’re still not good with these things. Too many run away and hide, or at best, surround themselves only with those who create no tension at all. Those who do this remain in an immature faith.

Which brings me to the point I want you to hang on to. Why should we invite people to church, invite them to become involved with us, invite them to settle in and become part of our church family?  Because they need us and we need them. Neither of us can grow like we should without the other.

Churches can get comfortable. We begin to feel safe and we’re grateful that we achieve a peaceful and settled atmosphere. But this is the mindset of the hermit. We need to be constantly stirred by fresh faces and new lives among us. It’s in the sharing of life and its constantly changing face that we become what God desires us to be. Invite some folks to church!

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Coming Back To Corinth

1 Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -- 1 Corinthians 1:1–3 (NASB95)
You could find every kind of philosophy in Corinth. And, you could find every kind of immorality in Corinth. The church at Corinth lived in the midst of an alien culture - both geographically and spiritually. -- Dr. Paul M. Elliot
To add to Paul Elliot's comment, I think it would be fair to say that one might find all those philosophies and immoralities in the church at Corinth. It was a troubled church. Perhaps we might say that the church at Corinth had more problems, more serious problems, than any other church in the New Testament, including the seven churches of Asia addressed in the book of Revelation.

And yet.  The Christians in Corinth were still a church. Paul wrote to them, addressing them as the "church of God which is at Corinth", as "those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus", "saints by calling", and along with Christians elsewhere, they were people who "call(ed) on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ". That's a pretty impressive list of terms for a people with so many troubles.

Today's church isn't much different. Christians have just gotten better at covering our tracks. Some churches will hire PR consultants and spin-meisters to frame communications with the public, especially when there is the possibility of some negative news leaking out that might embarrass the church.

I've known Christians who took the position that they no longer committed any sin. One of the reasons they did that was to look better to outsiders. But that warps reality. The truth is that Christians as individuals, and Christians as a collective (a church), sin, get things wrong, misbehave, struggle knowing what to do, and sometimes have the same or more problems as any non-Christian around. You won't find a lot of Christians comfortable with that statement or admitting to it.

This creates at least two problems (there are more) that spell trouble for the church. Let me explain what I see.

First, this faulty idea that churches are pretty near perfect, is trouble for outsiders. How do you preach the gospel of Jesus to sinners, tell them that God will forgive their sins and make them better people, then turn around and deny that God needs to do anything about the sins still present in believers? Outsiders see through this fakey faith. They hear us say one thing but live another. If they are really after a solution to their sin problem, they won't look for it among people who can't own up to reality. I think outsiders would rather see people struggle honestly with sin and find forgiveness from a merciful and gracious God than to see supposed believer act as if they didn't really need a Savior in the first place.

Second, this same faulty idea creates trouble for insiders. One of the plagues on today's church is that many Christians keep looking for the perfect church. They too see the reality of sin, problems, lack of maturity and spirituality, etc. But instead of acting like the family of God we're supposed to be, a great number of people engage in church hopping. I've heard it too many times. "I've decided I'm going to church "B" because ________ (fill in the blank with some problem, sin, or disappointment). The thinking is that church "B" doesn't have these problems. Really?

I've always wondered why Paul didn't write to the church at Corinth and tell the faithful to get out of there and start another church. There isn't anything resembling how we modern Christians treat one another remotely suggested in the Bible. There are some honest new church plants, but everybody knows that a great many churches begin because disaffected people just wanted to leave a troubled church.

Don't assume I'm writing from some lofty, I've-never-thought-this-way point of view. No, I've had exactly the same temptations. But I keep coming back to Corinth. If the Corinthian church was across town, nobody would want to have much to do with it. And if we (you and me) belonged to that church, we would probably be working behind the scenes to gather a subversive group together to go plant our own church and get out of that mess.

But here's my problem (thought it might not be yours). I keep coming back to Corinth, and I keep reading Paul's words. "church of God", "sanctified in Christ", "saints by calling", and just like Christians in every other place, call(ing) on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ".

What term will I then wear that makes me a better Christian than those at Corinth? Is it not a spirit of legalism that suggests I do something better than they, therefore I am in better standing with God? Isn't it to miss that if either of us is right with God, it's not because we're better than the other, but because of God's grace and mercy found in Jesus? How else could Paul call that bunch of sinful, divided, philosophically and spiritually misguided people "the church of God", "sanctified in Christ Jesus", and "saints by calling"?

There are no perfect Christians, and when you lump us together we don't make perfect churches.  Most of us are a bit messy, and the rest of us are more so. Perhaps it's time for us to learn how to live our faith, love our brethren, and learn how to help one another grow to be more like Jesus. We say we don't want to be like the church at Corinth. Fine. But you need to know that some of the problems there were spiritual pride, philosophical arrogance, and division. If we're not careful, the very same problems will infect us, but we'll just ignore them, pretending we're not like that church.

We need to come back to Corinth occasionally. Especially when we think we see imperfections in our brothers and sisters. We might be looking at ourselves.