Stripped to the Core

It is a great season to paint.  The weather is warmer.  The birds are singing.  Why not add a fresh coat of satin paint to spruce some areas up.  There are a couple of rooms that we are currently tackling to do just that.  One room that we are planning on painting is our living room.  It currently is two shades of yellow divided by a white chair rail.  We are thinking a dark gray bottom with a very light gray top would look real nice.  We have a few beach pictures that we converted to canvas prints.  They match these colors beautifully.  We are very excited about this change.  Now, as we approach painting, we are simply going to add a fresh coat.  We have no plans to strip down the old paint.  This would be a lot of work.  When I talk to people, I rarely hear of someone stripping the old paint off.  Last year, we painted our bathroom.  Part of the paint was peeling so we had to strip it.  Otherwise, it was going to look choppy with some sections painted over the old paint while other sections stripped to the drywall.  I got the hairdryer out to warm the old paint so that I can strip it.  It was a lot of work.  Yet, if you are going to correctly paint a room, this is how you do it.  Strip it to its core, apply primer then apply a fresh coat.

This week is Easter.  We celebrate the glorious news of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Yes, there are family gatherings.  People celebrate egg hunts.  And, it is common for people to get some time off of work.  Yet, we know this is not the reason we celebrate Easter.  This week is a time to reflect on our Savior’s death for our sins.  Years ago I saw the Passion of the Christ.  When I think of the cross, images from this film flood my mind – the horrific beatings, bloody whippings, and shameful contempt directed at Jesus.  Yet, he endured this pain and suffering so that we might have life and forgiveness.  It was the only way to enjoy a relationship with God.  God’s love for me, a sinner in need of grace, displayed through his pain.

One reason the crucifixion was so ugly was that it required stripping our lives to the core.  It was insufficient to throw an offering on top of our lives in the hope that we would enjoy genuine forgiveness.  We could not simply add a coat of prayer or bible reading and expect to connect to God.  Even our sincerity is insufficient.  I can force my will to search for God however it takes more than brute strength and commitment.  In order to have a genuine relationship with God, it was necessary for all my facades, pretenses, religious behavior, and sin to be stripped to its core.  It was essential that I am vulnerable and naked before God.  In that moment, I stand before His holiness without anything to boast about.  To do the job right, God had to strip our lives down.  This is what happened at the cross.   Every humanistic motive and action fell to the side so that the real problem, our sin nature, could be dealt with completely.  Apart from this we simply are throwing a religious coat on top of the sin.

God doesn’t strip us down simply to embarrass us by saying “look at all that sin.”   He doesn’t remove all of our crutches and self-reliance to point out to us, “See how weak you really are compared to me” as if He needs to point it out.  No, God does this so that He can completely refresh us with His amazing grace.  He loves to extend mercy.  He loves to show love.  Christ died not to spruce us up.  No, he stripped us down so that he can permanently fix us by pouring grace into our broken souls.  In our moment of helplessness, Christ calls us to embrace his forgiveness.  And when this occurs, we experience the abundance and sufficiency of His marvelous grace.

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When we think we know people…

I have noticed a beautiful quality in my daughter over the past few months.  When I share about a frustration with someone she is quick to extend grace towards that person.  She will say, “Well we are not quite sure what Stan is thinking.”  (FYI:  Stan is fictitious so if you are named Stan, don’t get offended).  Or, she will comment that Stan could be having a good day.  At times, she will even say that you are being a bit unfair towards Stan.  I have been convicted by her “disposition of grace towards others.”  She is correct even though it is hard to hear a challenge from one of your children.  Yet, we try to foster that type of relationship in our home.

Are there times I extend grace towards others?  Yes.  However, there are many times that I make presumptions about a person’s character or motive.  Part of the reason is my “having seen this” attitude before.  I have a catalogue of personalities and issues that I have encountered over the years in pastoral ministry.  Therefore, I can be very quick to simply size up a situation based on one of those experiences.  I drop a person in a category and respond emotionally.  Oh, this is so unfair to that person.  Each person is unique and their situation specific to him/her.  I should be quick to extend grace – to give the benefit of the doubt.  Granted, there are times my assumption is correct; however, most of the time it is merely guessing.

I think part of the issue is that we tend to become less gray as we grow older and more black/white.  We tend to “know” what the world is like and therefore what people are like.  We have lived long enough to feel our experiences inform us accurately.  We think in less gray terms and in more absolute terms.  There is some beauty in having these convictions.  However, it also spills over to judgments.  The challenge is maintaining convictions while loving people.  As I consider Christ, I see that he quickly extended love and grace to people while maintaining a standard of truth.  He was not prone to judgments but humbly embraced each person, seeing their situation accurately without presumption.  We are certainly not Christ yet we can strive to be more like him.

I also believe that margin is becoming increasingly squeezed out of our lives.  We have no time.  We run around from situation to situation.  We reflect less and react more.  As a result, we simply don’t have or wish to make time to listen to people.  I mean truly hear them.  We don’t sit back and try to understand what situation or emotion is arising in their life.  Categorizing takes no time; listening takes a lot of time.  So, we jump to conclusions because it is simply easier.  It reminds me that loving people requires time – time to listen and time to extend grace.  Giving the benefit of the doubt can’t occur in a sound bite.  Again, Jesus was masterful.  He not only listened to the person’s words, he listened to their life – their emotions, pain, reactions, and sin.  He then extended grace and truth to their situation.  Oh, to be more like Jesus.  The reality is that it is possible if only we would allow it.

Medical Blessings

I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.  It is a fascinating book about misfits and underdogs.  In essence, he chronicles how individuals with limitations overcome.   In fact, he proposes that it is these limitations that enable them to be successful.  By learning to deal with adversity, they learn powerful skills that propel them ahead in life.  I agree with him on many things however at other times I think he makes some illogical leaps.  One particular section that grabbed my attention was his unpacking the life and career of Emil Freireich.  Emil lost his father at an early age, hated his mother, barely survived medical school, and was fired seven times.  However, he eventually rose to prominence by taking extraordinary risks in the area of leukemia treatment (now you see why it grabbed my attention).  At the time, acute leukemia was a death sentence.  He witnessed seventy children die his first year while he was working in the cancer ward.  It is this bleak reality that prompted Freireich to develop a “whatever is necessary” mentality to treating this cancer.  He began to work on various medical treatments towards platelets and chemotherapy.  Each time he was scorned by the medical community.  They thought he was crazy.  Yet, he didn’t care.  He felt there was hope for this disease.   In the end, his pioneering treatment was a game-changer for leukemia treatment resulting in a 90% survival rate.

Several thoughts rattle in my mind as I think about this story.  First, we should be very thankful for modern medicine.  If I had been diagnosed with leukemia fifty years ago, I would have had very little hope of survival.  Yet, I can be thankful today simply because of God’s providence in allowing me to be born in 1971 rather than 1931.  I oftentimes hear disdain towards the health community.  I think it is partly fueled by the skyrocketing cost of health care and the numerous political opinions on healthcare reform.  I also think that we have an entitled mentality when it comes to life.  If something does not go exactly our way we get annoyed and frustrated.  We play the victim.  Some of the likely targets are hospitals, doctors, and nurses.  It seems recently they are being scorned with increased frequency.  Yet, they serve to provide the best medical treatment possible (under conditions where there is little room for error).  Like Freireich, they are passionate about alleviating the suffering of those they care for.  People like my oncologist who takes time to answer my every question simply to calm my fears.  I am thankful when he turns to my son and asks him, “Do you have any questions about leukemia?”  I was not expecting that.  Yet, he cares for me and my family.  Yet, so often many like him are not appreciated.

Second, I am thankful for the pioneers who risk their reputation and sacrifice their time to discover medical breakthroughs.   I’ll be honest I oftentimes live in the now.  I am thinking primarily about what treatment is available in 2015.  What do the current statistics say for those undergoing chemotherapy currently?  When I hear a new drug trial on the news related to cancer my ears pop up.  Why?  Because it is relevant to me now.  However, the pioneers are also relevant to me now because modern treatment stands on the shoulders of those who went before them.  Yet, until I read this book, I never gave thanks for those of the previous generation who dared to do something extraordinary.  Yes, I had passing thoughts however never a deep appreciation.  Sadly, I am definitely influenced as a member of the “now generation.”

1 Thessalonians 5:18 encourages us to “in everything give thanks.”  This includes not simply the present circumstances but everything surrounding it including history figures.  I’m thinking that if I took time to appreciate those that laid the foundation for me in so many areas, I might be less prone to grumble when something doesn’t go quite right today.

A Life Built on Image

I am currently preaching through a series titled “Brokenness.”  I wanted to cover topics that would resonate with our human condition as frail, weak people.  I thought it would be a good Lent series, deep and reflective.  So, I have talked about God’s grace in the midst of financial difficulties, emotional despair, and most recently social rejection.  After worship service, someone was talking to me about honesty.  They indicated to me that they appreciate my transparency in front of the church.  It is interesting because I oftentimes feel guarded in the pulpit.  I responded to this person that people sometimes get nervous when the pastor is an open book.  “No,” she explained.  “That is what is encouraging to us.  You are a real person.  When you share from your weakness, it lifts me up.”  I appreciated the comments; however, I still feel somewhat guarded.

Yet, in reality, I think this is true for most people.  We walk through life guarded even with people whom we would consider close.  A close friend asks us how we are doing and we respond, “Good.”  Maybe in a moment of sheer desperation we might say, “It has been tough lately.”  However, even in these moments, we don’t really let someone in.  We share around the fringes.  We open up just enough to be courteous yet remain guarded so as to feel safe.  We rarely say, “Life sucks right now.”  Those deep struggles of insecurity and weakness are kept locked away lest someone think less of us.  Honestly, this protective mentality probably occurs frequently in marriages.  We want to appear strong and put together, even with those who love us the most.

What is it that prompts us to present an image towards other?  What compels us to be embarrassed of our frailty?  What keeps that guilt and shame alive only to gradually eat away our soul?

I imagine there are many reasons.  It is risky to be vulnerable.  If people see our struggles they might reject us or scorn us.  The possibility of such a reaction even amongst close friends is not worth the vulnerability.  So, we remain shielded.  Or, it might be that we thrive on the image.  We like to feel put together in front of people.  We strut a perfect life, sadly enjoying the esteem it brings.  Eventually, it catches up to us because we honestly know the truth about ourselves.  Sometimes, the image is misdirection for some deep struggle we are having in our life.  We know what is truly in our mind.  Horrified that someone will find out, we project perfection in that very area to avoid being discovered.  In other cases, we can simply blame conditioning.  We are told from an early age to put our best foot forward.  Rarely does a person go to their boss and say “I am really faking this part of my job.”  Uncertainty over what that person might say causes us to shake our heads and keep up the facade.

There are many reasonable reasons we keep an image up to people.  Yet, the sad reality is that this disconnection drains our life of joy.  Pretending takes a lot of work.  It is exhausting.  Even being guarded takes discipline so as to not slip as to how we are really doing.  Henry Thoreau stated, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  This is sad but true.  It is the end result of a life spent building an image.

Jesus understood this.  He desired freedom in people.  This is why he intentionally pointed out the very issue that people were running from and brought it to the surface.  Whether it was the woman looking for love in a sexual relationship, a man finding security in financial stability, or the religious leaders looking for validation by bossing others around, Jesus put his finger on it and said “let’s get honest.”  He wasn’t trying to be cruel.  He did not get kicks out of shaming people.  Rather, he knew that true joy could only be found by tearing down the image and living honestly before God and other people.  Yeah, we know it is true.  Living it is another story.

A Lesson from ISIS

The question has been posed in the news nearly every night the past week.  What would prompt three teenage girls from an upper class neighborhood of Scotland to leave their homes on a whim and join ISIS?  The news media seems to be perplexed by this startling turn of events.  Recently, the news profiled the upbringing of one of the girls.  She went to the best school in Glasgow.  She enjoyed pop culture, listening to specific music stars.  She enjoyed going out with her friends.  Her family was healthy, supportive, and well-off.  Yet, in a moment, she changed.  She began to wear a head scarf and espouse radical ideology.  Then, she woke up one day a week ago and traveled to Turkey before continuing on to Syria to join ISIS.  It is a nightmare scenario for any parent.  What would prompt such a decision?

It is impossible for anyone to know the specific motivational factors on the part of these three girls.  It is possible they felt socially estranged and therefore found connection with this particular religious community.  Or, they could have had some negative experiences with western culture that led them to be attracted to ISIS.  And maybe they simply wanted adventure.  These are quite possible.  However, I also think it is very likely that one reason they were drawn to ISIS (and this has been speculated by the news) is a desire to be associated with something that had a clearly-defined purpose.  In other words, they wanted to believe in something and ISIS provided it for them.  Interesting.

In our culture of tolerance and relativism, it does not surprise me that there is an attraction towards a religious group that displays passion and convictions.  (For the record, I in no way endorse radical religion in any form.  It is absolutely despicable, horrifying, and destructive).  Yet, here is my point.  There is something in us that wants to matter.  As humans, we desperately long for purpose.  We want to make a dent in this world, to leave a mark, a legacy.  In our hearts, there is a stirring to live with passion and conviction.  We admire people who know what they want and go for it.  People who float through life without any purpose aren’t inspiring.  Yes, there is a side of us that wants to dream of winning the lottery, retire early, and settle in a beach home in Jamaica.  But, in our heart of hearts, this is not really what we want.  We want to have a rich obituary with meaningful substance – to have it said that we impacted people.  This is what I want in life.  And when I talk to others, it is what they desire.  It is probably what compelled those three teenage girls.

As a pastor, I think about this.  Unfortunately, I think the church in general has watered down convictions too much.  Expectations have been lowered.  Passion for life has given way to a survival mentality; e.g., how do I just get through this week?  So, we kind of exist rather than live; we get by rather than make a difference for God.  This type of faith doesn’t inspire.  It is nice for awhile but ultimately becomes boring.  But, what if we promoted a passionate life?  Or better yet, what if we ourselves lived a passionate life?  What if we offered to the next generation convictions of joy, love, and forgiveness as shown to us on the cross?  What if we embraced that hope that can change the world for the better rather than lash out at it?  Oh, that would be a life worth living.