Are you Somebody?

“Do you know who I am?”

The question is usually asked by someone who isn’t getting what they expect and consider themselves entitled. After all, they are Somebody: a person of status, position, social standing and/or means who expects to be treated accordingly.

Somebodies don’t follow protocol. They don’t stand in lines. They don’t wait.  And if they do, there is hell to pay.

If you are the impatient type, as I am, perhaps you’ve been tempted to be Somebody.

Happened to me when I went for a dental cleaning. The practice has been sold and most of the people are new. I, however, am a long-term patient, accustomed to prompt and skilled service. Things have changed. First, they called last minute to ask if I could arrive early to an appointment scheduled six months earlier. That would be a No. I rescheduled.

I waited nearly 15 minutes to be called back. As I waited, my husband sent a text saying I should consider the visit a “test.” He reminded me that I’d be representing Christ while there and should keep my behavior in check no matter what happened.

I needed the reminder.

I waited 45 minutes before a hygienist touched my teeth. Bitewing films were taken by someone who needed help turning on the machine. When the hygienist arrived, without apology for the delay, she promptly dropped an instrument with a loud clank.

She then kicked it aside, joking that I needn’t worry. She had plenty and would not need that one again.

If I could have spoken, I might have dropped a verbal bomb on this woman who apparently didn’t realize she should suction as she worked.

Instead, I sat there battling the urge to ask “Do you know I am”

  • a paying customer
  • a longtime patient
  • a witness to the first dropped instrument in decades at a dental office

It came to me that the more important question is whether I know who I am: Nobody special, just another human being whose faults, frailties and outright sins Someone died for. I should take my cue from Christ who “made himself nothing” (Phil 2:7) even though He was Lord of all. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of enduring death on a cross.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name (Phil 2:9)

A real Somebody is willing to become Nothing. They are not provoked, remaining calm under pressure. Christians are called to be Christ-like even in unreasonable circumstances.

For a moment, I considered that my inexperienced hygienist – whose framed degree revealed that she’d graduated less than a year ago – might have had a string of late appointments before me and I had walked into the perfect storm. Maybe she was doing the best she could and I should just relax and show some mercy. (Luke 6:36)

I took a deep breath and let her finish without a word of criticism and managed to leave the office without making a scene. Test passed.

Next time I’m tempted to pull the Somebody card, I hope I choose to be merciful instead. To quote Shakespeare:

 The quality of mercy is not strain‘d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest… It is an attribute to God himself. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)

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Your Jesus still in the manger?

It’s Advent, a time of Christian preparation for the coming of Christ. We’re fixated on the crèche: baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, haloed and lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds.

Babies are cute, cuddly, harmless, helpless, adorable. But babies grow up.

Despite Hollywood and Christmas card depictions, the wise men most likely missed the manger; Bible scholars say they arrived about two years later, where Scripture teaches they came into a house to greet Jesus as a young child.

Full story: Jesus kept right on growing into the God-man who died on a Roman cross to save sinners; He became a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, a Suffering Servant. He got up from the grave with all power in heaven and in earth in His hands. This same Jesus will one day come again — not as a baby, but as a conquering King.

Are you living like Jesus is still in the manger?

I get it. A grown up Jesus can be scary, awakening the kind of uneasiness sometimes associated with developmentally disabled children as they mature. Full grown, they aren’t so non-threatening; their non-conformity draws attention that can make us uncomfortable.

A baby can be soothed, silenced, ignored. A mature Jesus is not so easily managed.

Don’t be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy: Jesus has left the manger.

It’s time we who say we believe allowed Him to grow up or, to put it another way, to be “formed in” us. Strong’s describes the Greek word used for “form” to mean: a life and mind formed in us that is in complete harmony with the mind and life of Christ. Gal 4:19 

This, beloved, is what Christmas is about.

Jesus at the manger points us beyond Christmas to Easter and on to Pentecost, to the God who supplies supernatural power to His people to deal with daily life in real time, where we’re confronted with spiritual wickedness in high places.

This is not Jesus lying in manager, not Jesus suffering on the Cross or wrapped in grave clothes in the Tomb. This is Jesus moving by His Spirit in the Book of Acts.

Risen from the dead and preparing to get back to heaven, Jesus told His core followers to wait at Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, who would guide them in truth, empower them to live as Christians and to do the work of ministry.

Folks, the manger was only Act One. History, some say His Story, has kept moving.

Baby Jesus was on a mission: born to die to save us and to rise from the dead, His Spirit enabling us to be His witnesses and become mature men and women of God who reflect His image in the Earth.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Could be we all simply need to fully unwrap the priceless gift we already have: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

~ Merry Christmas.

 

What God Wants

 

Been thinking about some situations in which I find myself. Let’s call them relational difficulties that never seem to quite resolve themselves. Perennial problems that present me with immediate issues that must be faced and deep wells for future contemplation.

Most people have no problem articulating what they want. When I want something different, it’s easy to tell them where they’re wrong. In the midst of these tangled discourses, we seldom stop to ask: “What does God want?”

 

Does He want me to go along to get along, to keep the peace at any cost? If questioning is viewed as contrary, do I not ask questions that ought to be asked just so the other person isn’t made to feel uncomfortable?

It can be easy to say nothing. It’s possible to bully another person into silence. But can there be any real relationship if people can’t openly talk to each other about the hard stuff? If there is repeated disagreement over the same, unavoidable stuff maybe there needs to be a deeper conversation. Maybe a counselor would help.

Sadly, many of us avoid biblical counseling out of pride and self-sufficiency: “I don’t need that!” We’re quick to make a dental appointment if we have an unrelenting toothache. But we’ll suffer for years in a broken relationship refusing to seek help. Doesn’t a painful relationship warrant as much attention as an aching tooth?

It is possible to please – or placate – another human being. They get what they want – agreement, silence, control, whatever – but you are left to answer to God for a violation of conscience, for failing to do what you knew to be right simply because you were pressed by another human being. Have you ever been in that place: where someone is repeatedly behaving in a way or asking you to do something that is clearly wrong to you, but they won’t listen or they insist that your lack of cooperation is un-Christian? You want to talk but they keep saying you want to fight because you disagree?

In relational conflict between Christian believers, disagreements don’t usually involve black-and-white matters about which the Bible is clear. The issues tend to be more nuanced, where you have to apply biblical principle while taking into account our human tendency to do what is comfortable and to avoid dealing with our “stuff.” We are good at justifying ourselves; at conveniently excusing our personal issues while magnifying the other guys’ struggles.

So what does God require of His followers, of those of us who are learning to walk with Him in a world soaked in sin?

Micah 6:8 sums it up very simply:

 

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

 

Justice. Mercy. Humility.

God wants me to do the just thing. Not the expedient thing or the selfish thing. Show mercy. Where would we Christians be if God gave each of us what we deserve? Mercy is not deserved; I’m guilty, but mercy gives probation instead of jail time. Even though I committed a capital crime mercy commutes the death sentence to life imprisonment. Pride and self-assertion is our natural, carnal state. It always leads to a fall. The devil’s own rebellion began with a declaration of “I will…” God asks me to lay pride aside and to humble myself.

Being in relationship with people, Christian or not, tests my willingness to do what God requires. I struggle with it.

Doing justly may mean denying myself. I love mercy for me, but not necessarily for someone who hurts me. Once upon a time, before I really cared much about what God required, I went three years without speaking to a relative who wounded me deeply. I wanted them to feel my pain. God wasn’t in that, but I thought it was right. Humility doesn’t come easy, but it is rewarded. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And I need a lot of grace.

If you struggle in relationships as I do, join me in refocusing on what God requires. People will pull us in many directions. We all need to keep our eyes on Jesus. His word to every believer is the same one He gave to the early disciples who entered into relationship with Him: “Follow me.”

 

 

Kiss Ishmael Goodbye!

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

You know Ishmael. You probably have one yourself.

Ishmael is my attempt to get what I want on my schedule because I’m not willing to wait for God to act. Practically speaking, Ishmael is a manifestation of my own self-will, impatience and unbelief. Ishmael is me saying, “Okay, God. Since you won’t, I will.”

Historically, of course, Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s solution to a problem created by God. The Book of Genesis introduces this childless couple, past the age of childbearing, with no heir in a culture where male offspring meant something. God, of His own volition, promised Abraham a son. Independent of anything Abraham would do, God said here is what I will do.

But God did not say when. And waiting is always the hardest part.

As years passed, in the minds of Abraham and Sarah, time was running out. They began to write their own script.

Scene 1: Sarah gives Abe her handmaid Hagar; who gets pregnant and gets an attitude. Sarah gets offended, takes her hurt out on Hagar, who runs away. Fast forward, Hagar returns, gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham has a son!  And so begins the resulting family drama.

Scene 2: Eventually, Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham, age 100, has two sons. Ishmael: the son of Abraham and Sarah’s presumption. Isaac: the son of God promised. Abraham is on cloud nine, but not for long. Their improvised solution now presents an unavoidable problem. Ishmael and Isaac cannot coexist, no matter what the bumper sticker says.

Abraham’s story is my story, our story.

In our early years, life stretches before us, a blank canvas. As years pass, we don’t always like the scene we’ve painted; our hopes and dreams aren’t realized. We wrote The Great American novel, twice, and no one will publish it. We married Prince Charming and are now living with Homer Simpson. We got an MBA and still got passed over for promotion.  The prodigal we’ve prayed for is at home in the Far Country with no plans to move.

Ishmaels are conceived at this intersection of disappointment and disillusionment:

  • a cross country move for a “dream job” that uproots the family and almost destroys a marriage
  •  an ill-timed and under-financed business venture;
  • divorce and/or marriage to a trophy spouse or newly discovered “soul mate”
  • etc., etc., etc.

Ever birthed any Ishmaels? I have. Unwilling to wait, I’ve struck out on my own. When God finally did what He said He would do – as He always does – I couldn’t enjoy His blessing the way I might have if I’d waited. Ishmael complicates things. Ishmael, as Abraham’s history reveals, is a complication for my children and their children for generations to come. That’s why he has to go.

It’s not easy to send him packing. Ishmael is my baby, a part of me. Abraham invested 14 years in Ishmael, pouring himself into that relationship, before Isaac came along. But that didn’t change God’s perspective. Ishmael was Abraham’s idea, not God’s.  And God will not abandon His plan to sanctify the result of my carnality. He won’t kill Ishmael either. I have to deal with the monster I created.

God gives us the choice. Ishmael or Isaac? Your plan or mine; what’s it going to be?

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

When the tears dry and the dust settles, I expect to find what Joshua found after the battles beyond the Jordan. God will have kept His  promise, in His time.

“Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.” Joshua 21:45

Virgins in a world of eros defiled

  TLC’s “Virgin Diaries” premiers tomorrow. It’s a peek into the lives of adults who have saved themselves for marriage.

For all the creators’ insistence that the show is meant to “celebrate celibacy,” something about the trailer makes the show look more like a feature about these awkward oddballs who have grown into adulthood without hooking up.

In American culture, virginity is seen as an anomaly. Healthy, happy, well-adjusted people are portrayed as having sex on the regular.  No marriage required.

The idea is promoted in popular music, magazine ads, TV sitcoms and in commercials for everything from beer to automobiles. Even the fashion industry is on board producing ever tighter, more transparent garments with plunging necklines or high midriffs. It’s nearly impossible to find young girls’ clothing that doesn’t wreak with “sexy.”

No wonder many young people, Christians included, think there’s something wrong with them if they haven’t “lost their virginity” by middle school – as though it were a thing to be discarded!

When you’re young and itching to have sex, it’s easy to see God as a killjoy, a spoiler of all things fun. Christianity, with its objections to sex outside marriage, seems hopelessly outdated. Not even priests are celibate these days. Can God really be serious?

When I was growing up, adults harped on the danger of becoming pregnant outside wedlock. The ensuing scandal seemed more important than the morality of being sexually active. Multiple family members walked that road, and they were not celebrated. No baby showers. No strolling through the mall with a big belly and no wedding band. Consigned to the back church pew.

No more.  The stigma is reserved for those who are not out there getting their freak on.

Worries about unwanted pregnancy are all but forgotten in the New Age of booming infertility and accessible abortion. Even the dreaded VD (venereal diseases) of my day have morphed into STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) that are infinitely more treatable. Today, even HIV-positive people are told they can engage in “safe sex.” Full-blown AIDS, considered a virtual death sentence in the 1980s, can be treated if not cured.

One thing has not changed. Neither pregnancy nor disease are the worst things that can happen to a sexually-active young woman. (No sexism. Women are usually the ones who get hurt in these things.) The loss of innocence can never be regained. And we learn too late that stepping outside God’s established boundaries for sex triggers “The Law of Unintended Consequences.”

Consequence 1:

Sex becomes cheap and vulgar – When I listen to pop music or watch YouTube, I am struck by how easily this generation throws around the f-word, which we all know is a crude reference to sexual intercourse. I’m no prude – I have teenagers remember – but it saddens me that the more young people are exposed to sex, the less they know of real intimacy.

I am reminded of a lunch I had at the home of a friend, a former nun, and her husband. They had paid an immense price to be together in the way of husbands and wives. He brought her a cup of tea while we chatted; their glance was literally moving. Something holy and intimate passed between them that made me feel an intruder in the room. I’ve never experienced such a moment.

In contrast, many young people casually enjoy “Friends With Benefits” with barely a thought. What should be sacred has become something sordid and empty. Being with that special someone once left them tingling with passion. Now they are left staring at the ceiling wondering “Why did I do this again?”

The stolen fruit that was so sweet has left a bitter taste in their mouth. To quote BB King, “The thrill is gone.” Sadly, they believe the lie that this is what sex is and, in doing so, are robbed of its fullness.

Consequence 2:

Unholy soul ties – Sex is not only physical but also spiritual. The Bible says when we lie with someone the “two become one. “ (Ephesians 5:31) Obviously, the two don’t morph into one person because they get up, put on their clothing and go their separate ways.

Even so,  having sex binds people to one another in a kind of spiritual union, forming a connection that God intended to be lasting. That’s why He reserved sex for the marriage bed, which the Bible declares is “undefiled” or pure.

Outside marriage, this sexual gluing becomes bondage. That initial sexual encounter can turn into an addiction we love to hate. The jokes that used to be funny become irritating, the attentiveness becomes stifling or maybe we just get bored. The sex isn’t even that great, yet we just can’t get that person out of  our system. We are attached even when we don’t want to be.

This, beloved, is what sexual boundaries are intended to spare us. God is no prude. No matter what pious Christian tries to say otherwise, God intentionally designed people with sexual union in mind. He purposely made sex possible and pleasurable… not just for utilitarian pro-creation as the Puritans once taught. The joy of sex was His idea, but make no mistake. God made sex for a specific setting: marriage.

Oh, I know the mess we’ve made of marriage. Christian divorce rates are no better than the general population. Still, ideally, marriage is to be the one place where people are committed to one another for life, come what may. In that setting, they are free both to fully know and to be fully known. Naked and unashamed. Able to fully enjoy one another with God’s blessing.

Sex outside marriage is no blessing. Just ask someone who was young once, did not learn to exercise self control, and is transparent enough to be honest.  While the marriage bed is blessed, “Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” (Hebrews 13:4)

The urge to merge is God-given. He doesn’t mock us. He created us with desires that He intends to fulfill at the proper time in the proper way.

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

Believers can trust that. While it’s true that losing one’s virginity is not the end of the world, some gifts can be given only once. Yes, we can always begin again and “reclaim” our virginity. God forgives if we repent, but we are not promised no complications.

“We have become accustomed to happy endings, but life is not always like that,” to borrow a phrase from The Huffington Post‘s Black Voices.

Life in the Waiting Room

Ever get tired of waiting? Waiting to see a hit movie only to have it land in Redbox before you can get to a theater. Waiting like a taxi at an office, a mall, a carpool line?  Waiting for someone to notice all the little sacrifices and maybe say ‘thank you’ just once?

Welcome to my world… where the waits are endless.

Frankly, I get irritated with waiting. When you have lived a few decades, you start to notice how much time is passing while you wait. I identify with Moses’ frustration after 40 years of wandering around the desert with people who continually murmured against him and were ready to stone him whenever something went wrong.

When these troublesome folk got thirsty, they complained to Moses. God told Moses what to do: speak to the rock and water would flow. But Moses was fed up. He gave the “rebels” a piece of his mind, then struck the rock not once, but twice. That display of temper cost him dearly. Moses would see the promised land but he would not enter it.

The people were ungrateful whiners, but God still expected Moses to follow His clear instructions for satisfying their thirst. Moses’ momentary self-indulgence, despite years of obedience, prevented him from enjoying the very place he long sought to reach.

My take-away? I’m convinced that other people really aren’t my problem. It’s my response to them that makes all the difference to God. I’m pretty sure he even engineers the irritating circumstances that prompt all my waiting, and He doesn’t do it to frustrate me (even though it is frustrating).

Consider the former slaves Moses was leading. They were not ready to take on formidable armies. They saw  themselves as grasshoppers up against giants. Forty years in the desert got their minds right.  Even after they entered the land, God did not allow them to conquer their enemies at once, but “little by little.” The delay gave them time to increase in number so they could populate the land and  prevent its being overrun by wild animals.

This makes sense in hindsight, but these people had to take it on faith that God still was working all this for their good. It can be hard to keep faith when you are continually disappointed. I struggle with being self-centered, focused squarely on one thing: how something affects me negatively. It is a continual discipline to stay focused on the good God seeks to accomplish and to work through the irritants without becoming bitter.

In my more lucid moments, I recognize that all this waiting is not pointless. Daily life is part of the process of sanctification. God is making us holy, not comfortable. We Christians are headed somewhere just like those Israelites who gave Moses such a headache. When we get there, we’ll be a prepared people for a prepared place.

All the waiting is something like hanging out in the green room of a theater company. We’re not needed on Heaven’s stage just yet, but we’re being prepared to go on at a moment’s notice.