You Can Find Hope

Has something happened in your life that has caused you to feel hopeless? The loss of a loved one? The loss of a job? A habit or an addiction that is controlling your life? Broken relationships that can’t be healed?

When you are depressed, you feel hopeless. When you feel rejected by those you love, you feel hopeless. When you have a medical problem that resists all efforts of cure, you feel hopeless. When you are struggling with an addiction or struggling with a habit you cannot break, when you don’t expect anything good is going to come your way; you feel hopeless.

How can we negotiate life when the road is filled with one pothole after another, blind curves, and dead ends? The answer is not a new life, a new career, or a new spouse. The answer is a new attitude of hope.

In spite of all the uncertainties of life, hope is possible. What is this hope we need and how is it possible? The word “hope” is like the word “love.” It is widely used but rarely understood. The hope of many people are empty wishes waiting to be fulfilled by the gods of Black Friday. We are expressing a desire and wishing it would come true, but we have no guarantee that what we want is what we will get.
Biblical hope is the expectation that something good is going to happen because God keeps his promises. Biblical hope is a confident expectation based on solid certainty – it rests on God’s sure promises. The writer of Hebrews wrote: Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. . . .To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. [Hebrews 10:23, 11:1]

When Jesus was born the Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would live out the dream of the prophets. There had been many who claimed to be Messiah but had been put to death and nothing changed. The people had almost given up hope when Jesus was born.

People in our day find it difficult to hope. Can we hope for justice? Can we hope for the elimination of crime? Is there any hope that we can have a world that is free from disease and warfare? Can we hope that someday we will be free from all the sins and temptations that drag us down?

As we approach Christmas, think about this: Jesus came into the world to bring hope. You can find hope when you find Jesus and no longer be afraid to live in this world. You can find hope when you find Jesus and no longer be afraid to die and go to the next world. The old hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness?” On what is your hope built?

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When is a Lie a Lie?

I find it interesting that when both major political parties send you endless emails, it is the other side that is always lying.  (If that were so, then our country is being governed by liars!) How could it be that the opposite party can lie and your party not? Politicians take the high road and point fingers, claiming their opponents do not have the good ethical and moral standards they have.

Unfortunately, many, if not most, people believe politicians lie and are basically dishonest.  A poll conducted several years ago reported that the general public thought all politicians lied and were dishonest – except their own senators and/or representatives.

It is like the old story about a group of politicians in a 15-passenger van going to a political rally.  They had a head-on collision and accident victims were scattered along the highway.  A farmer heard the commotion and went to the wreck site to see if he could help.

He called 911 on his cell phone and reported a van load of politicians had been in an accident and there were injuries.

“Are any of them alive?” asked the operator.

“Well,” said the farmer, “some of them say they are alive, but you know how politicians lie!”

We are taught from very early on that lying is wrong.  We parents appeal to an eternal, absolute ethical standard that says it is wrong.  Everyone seems to believe there are universal, absolute ethical and moral standards that must not be violated.  Every time we say, “That ‘s not fair!”, we are appealing to some universal standard of right and wrong.

Where are the absolutes we believe in?  Have they been written down?  Are they in the Bible?  Are they embodied in God’s being?  Are they in the Ten Commandments? The sense of right and wrong and knowing what is ethical behavior seems to be part of the human psyche.   We may appeal to authority, but our human limitations make it impossible for us to discover a final authority.  We determine when and how another person is lying to us according to what we believe is right or wrong, and the way we interpret moral standards is somewhat relative to each person.

What is a lie, anyway? A lie is to say, or do, something that is not true in order to deceive. It is motivation that is important.  This is evident in half-truths – lies disguised as data or statistics.  One political advertisement I received contained many footnotes, giving the impression that the claims were true and verified.  When checked, all but one of the footnotes were previously published statements made by the sponsoring organization.  This was a blatant and deliberate attempt to deceive voters.

Several years ago, a pro-life advocate accused a prominent religious leader of approving abortion on demand.  The proof?  The man had made this statement: “Free choice is a wonderful thing.”  Had he made the statement?  Yes, he had.  Was the statement about abortion?  No, it wasn’t.  His comment came in an essay about salvation, as understood by evangelicals.  Salvation is a free choice for every person.  It is a wonderful thing, because it is not coercive.  Unfortunately, the man was fired because of this deliberate attempt to deceive his supporters.

It is important to remember that we can say something we believe is true, but is not true because we lack complete information.  Politicians have this habit of talking “off the cuff” and using hyperbole.  Is what they say a deliberate attempt to deceive, or speaking to the crowd without full knowledge?

We can also have an opinion without any objective reason.  It is just the way we feel about an issue.  We may feel and believe it with heated passion, but have no valid reason for believing it.  I may believe and proclaim that the world is flat in spite of data to the contrary, but is this deception?

Often deception is used for national security concerns, which is a case of choosing the lesser of two wrongs. Is it better to lie in order to defend our nation, or be truthful and have many thousands of people deprived of life and property?

There are some universals that most people agree upon.  Deceptiveness for one’s personal gain is never right for anyone anywhere.  Deception to hide wrong doing is never acceptable.  Deception is treating others as if they are things to manipulate and not persons made in God’s image. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that the individual is more moral than his or her institutions.  That is possibly true, but we deceive ourselves if we think we are paragons of moral perfection. The problem is, we may use deception but be unaware of it.  We deceive ourselves.

By the way, this is all in the Ten Commandments.  Maybe we should read them and try to follow them, but that is a difficult task.  It is easier to put a sign in the yard or on a school room wall to exhort others to obey the Commandments!

Moral of the story: think before accusing someone of lying!

 

While Waiting for the President

Several weeks ago, President Trump made a stop in Springfield, MO for a political rally. Since we live only 28 miles away, Kathy wanted to go see the President. She was able to get tickets and I said I would go with her.

The crowd was huge, and when we got in line the entrance was three blocks away. We had to stand for a little over four hours and were about the last people allowed in. The arena seated around 8,000 and that many more probably could not go in.
While waiting, we had a problem with crowd cutters. They wanted us to let them in so they would not need to stand so far back in line. I, and he men in front of me, and confronted these people on the unfairness of their behavior. We were able to hustle one man farther back in the line, but failed with the others.

Why am I writing about this? It is because everyone we challenged gave the same response. When we asked “Don’t you know cutting in line because you are late is unfair and makes it more difficult for those farther back in the line to move closer?,” the universal response was, “I don’t care!”
“I don’t care.” All I want is what I want, and I am not really concerned with anyone else. I was reminded of the response of Adam and Eve. They knew there would be consequences for their behavior, and they said, “We don’t care – we will risk it anyway.” It is the response of millions of people today.

“Don’t you know smoking can cause breathing problems, embolism, and cancer?” “I don’t care.”

“Don’t you know heroin is perhaps is a powerful, addictive drug that couldruin your life?” “I don’t care.”

“Don’t you know unprotected sex can result in venereal disease, HIV, or unwanted pregnancy?” “I don’t care.”

And on and on.

I think part of our problem is that we have lost sight of a sovereign, creator God. If there is a God, then I have a responsibility to relate somehow to that God. If there is no God, I have a responsibility only to myself. Like Frank Sinatra‘s song, “I did it my way.”

Sounds inviting perhaps, but there are elements in the universe over which we have no control – they are unconditioned. For example, we may choose when and how we die, but no one escapes dying; it is unconditioned. We might wish for a different DNA, but what we have is what we have. We might wish for different biological parents, but that is not going to happen. We might desire any number of things that are unconditioned and we have to live with them.

I suspect many who says, “I don’t care” about cutting in line would care very much if their personal space or personhood were violated. In Scott Peck’s book, “Makers of the Lie,” he states that whatever is not done in love is evil. By love, he means New Testament agape love – love that is not interested in reward for doing what is right. Jesus had a few things to say about evil in Matthew’s gospel: 7:11-17,9:4, 12:34, et al.

Just like the words translated “sin,” the word for evil has an ethical dimension of relationship between humans and humans, and between humans and God. One last thought: what things should we NOT care about? Let’s give pause and think before we say, “I don’t care!”

Do We Have a Dark Side?

When the first Star Wars movie came out, I stood in line to see it (or, stood in queue since I was in London), with my wife and two kids.  This movie, and its sequels, have plots pitting good guys against The Dark Side.  Those on The Dark Side are consumed by anger, hatred, cruelty, selfish ambition, and a lack of love for others.

To the general public, the idea of a dark side of human personality may be relegated to the imagination of science fiction writers and not real life.  People go to costume parties dressed as Darth Vader, with no serious thought about what Vader represents.  The British rock band, Muse, released an album in September 2018 with a song titled The Dark Side, the idea taken from the movies.   The theme of the words is simple:  I am in pain and depressed, set me free.  Taken seriously, the dark side of Star Wars is an enslaving power of evil and not something entertaining or transitory.

Do we have a dark side, or is it just sci-f?  A recent edition of Scientific American has an article about the work of three European scientists. They have discovered a common core of nine dark traits they call the Dark Factor of Personality.  This is ethically, morally and socially questionable behavior and attitudes, accompanied by beliefs that justify the behavior and attitudes.  The traits are egoism, Machiavellianism, moral disengagement, narcissism, psychological entitlement, psychopathy, sadism, self-interest, and spitefulness. They have also developed a self-assessed Dark Care Scale that can be used to discover the degree to which a person is influenced by the dark side of their personality.

The idea of dark traits is nothing new for the Christian.  The Judeo-Christian tradition has always recognized the dark side of human nature starting with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The potential for human freedom is always threatened by the potential for evil.  We desire complete liberty of thought and behavior without regard for anything and/or anyone else.  Like Adam and Eve, we want to become like God.  History and literature give us many examples of people who lost this battle with the dark side as did Adam and Eve.  In biblical literature, Samson, Saul, and David immediately come to mind. Literary examples come to mind, such as Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet as well as Stevenson’s story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote about the shadow side of personality a hundred years ago. For him, the shadow is the dark side of personality, everything we have rejected, despised, denied, or never knew was there.  The fact that we are unaware of our shadow is the problem, for it is involved in everything we say or do.  Because of our desires, we wrestle against an unknown entity, our shadow. The Bible calls this iniquity, meaning crooked thinking: putting high value on the least valuable and struggling to know the difference.

In his book, Makers of the Lie, psychiatrist Scott Peck gives patient anecdotes of behavior that on the surface would seem to be good, but the results are evil.  In one case, a family was in therapy.  The son had been designated as the one who would be the scape goat to bear the guilt and suffer the punishment for the misdeeds of the rest of the family.  The boy was suffering intense emotional and physical pain as a result of his assigned role in the family.  The parents were convinced their treatment of the son was loving and for the benefit of the son, so the family was resisting treatment. Peck called this parental attitude and behavior the making of a lie – not recognizing and admitting behaviors done in the name of family love were destructive.  Peck calls this behavior “evil.”  Anything not done in love for the benefit of others is to be controlled by the dark side and results in evil.

Mental health professionals talk to patients and clients about personality integration as a way to be rescued from control by the shadow.  This means admitting their unconscious shadow exists and recognizing in what ways evil thoughts and behaviors are initiated from the shadow.  The goal is to bring the shadow part of personality into everyday consciousness and learning to deal with it positively.  I think this is valid as far as it goes.

I believe the Christian gospel aids in the integration of personality. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that all people have an ultimate concern, but unless the content of that concern is God, it is not ultimate.  The dark side pushes our concerns toward things that are selfish, transitory, and not ultimate.  I believe our personalities can become fully integrated only when we relate to God as our ultimate concern through faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Let’s not go over over to The Dark Side!

It is Hard to Say “Forgive me.”

To say “Forgive me” is difficult because we do not want to admit we have done something wrong or done something that is offensive to someone else. That is a basic trait of all humankind.  It began with the story of Adam and Eve in Eden: we want to be autonomous and run life the way we want to.

I can think of many examples where parents ask their child to apologize to someone for saying or doing something offensive, but the effort was far from being sincere.  We go through life saying “I’m sorry” without meaning it and  without thinking about why we should ask for forgiveness.

Asking for forgiveness is not asking someone to forget our offense.  Sometimes we hear people say, “Forget about it” or “Suck it up.” We don’t forget wrongs and carry them with us as excess baggage.

To say, “Forgive me,” is not asking the another person to excuse our behavior.  We are not asking for our offensive behavior to be tolerated.  We need to seek his or her forgiveness because what was said or done has not been excused or tolerated by them.

To say, “Forgive me,” is asking for reconciliation with another person.  It may not be possible for the other person to accept us.  It may not be possible for us to be friends or colleagues again.  Reconciliation may not happen, but we still need to ask for forgiveness for our sake.  We need to be assured that we have done everything possible for reconciliation to take place.

The biblical word  for “forgiveness” means “to dismiss” or “to let go.” This is what God does in his forgiveness of us.  As an example, we read in the newspaper of a judge who dismisses a charge against a defendant.  That person is then forgiven of any wrongdoing.  His or her record is clean.  When we ask God for his forgiveness, we  are asking for our record with him be made clean.  We are asking another person to give  us a  clean record with them and a fresh start in our relationship.

In his book “What’s so Amazing About Grace,” Philip Yancey tells a story about a man and wife who one night had an argument about how supper was cooked. It was so heated that night they slept in separate rooms. Neither has approached the other to say “I’m sorry” or to offer forgiveness, and they have remained in separate rooms years after the argument.  Each night they go to bed hoping that the other will approach them with an apology and forgiveness, but neither goes to the other.

Here are two people who desperately want reconciliation but cannot exercise the will necessary to bring it about.  One of them has to admit his or her part in the estrangement and ask for forgiveness.  When we ask for forgiveness we admit that we are wrong about something.  It might be a wrong belief, wrong attitude, or wrong behavior.

What if you think there is nothing about your relationship with God or another person that requires you to ask for forgiveness?  Once I had a very heated disagreement with a colleague and we were alienated.  I did not feel good about the distance the argument put between us, but I could not ask forgiveness for my position in the argument.  In thinking about it, I discovered I could ask forgiveness for saying something offensive, or for demonstrating a bad attitude toward him, without giving up what I thought was true.

My view was a deep conviction and I could not ask forgiveness for a basic principle of my life.   However, I asked forgiveness for anything I had said or done that caused him hurt or embarrassment.  I did not want our disagreement about an idea to break our friendship.  Unfortunately,  he wanted me to apologize for what I firmly believed to be true.

Sometimes asking forgiveness of another person is not effective.  However, asking God for his forgiveness is always effective.  In fact, when Jesus died on the cross, God gave forgiveness to all of humanity for all time.  We are forgiven, but we have to admit that God is right: we are all like sheep that have gone astray.  All of us have fallen short God’s being.  We are creatures and not the Creator.  We are fellow creatures with the rest of humanity in spite of our personal feelings of superiority.  Let’s admit our humanity and say, ”Please, forgive me!”

Is Paying Taxes a Theological Issue?

In my home state of Missouri, voters will get the opportunity in November to decide whether to increase the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to help pay for road and bridge repairs and to fund the Missouri Highway Patrol. The tax would increase by two-and-a-half cents each year for four years.  Already there are individuals protesting this tax, and at least one protest group has been organized and filed a lawsuit to keep the proposal off the ballot.

Opposition to taxes is nothing new. There will always be taxes as long as we have government. There will always be attempts to modify or to eliminate taxes.  What is a Christian response to taxation?  Should we pay taxes that support programs and individuals with whom we disagree? . I have no easy answer.  In the past, Baptists in England protested having their tax money fund the Church of England

Some would advocate the actions of a man who was called Judas the Galilean.  He was a man who started an anti-tax campaign in the Roman province of Judea.  Most people have never heard of him, but he made quite an impression  back in his day.  The Romans had instituted a new tax policy in 6 BCE that required a census to implement.  This policy was something new.  Previously taxes were paid to whatever official (such as Herod and his sons) that the Romans placed in leadership over the Jews.  Caesar Augustus switched to direct rule by a Roman prefect who organized a census to prepare the mechanism for processing the new direct taxation.  The author of Luke uses the memory of this census as the reason for getting Joseph and Mary down to Bethlehem in chapter 2.

The tax was, as are taxes anywhere, widely unpopular, and taxation was  a constant point of contention between Rome and the Jews.  Judas the Galilean took his protest to a whole new level.  Proclaiming himself as the Messiah, he turned the question of paying taxes to a pagan emperor into a theological issue.  Judas further tried to leverage his call for “no new taxes” into a political and military coup to unseat the Romans.  But as Josephus tells us, this effort was swiftly and brutally suppressed by the Romans.  Judas’ idea survived him and would remain in circulation in the province for some sixty years until the fall of Jerusalem  in 70 CE.  Judas’ followers were called Zealots and one of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Zealot.  Some scholars think Pilate may have associated Jesus with Judas the Galilean, or even thought Jesus was Judas.

This brings to mind a question Jesus was asked as reported in Matthew 22:15-22.In chapter 21 and the beginning of chapter 22, representatives from a number of Jewish leadership groups come to Jesus with questions: questions about his authority (21:23-27); questions about the resurrection (22:23-33); and questions about the Law (22:34-40). The question in Matthew 22:17 is brought by disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. If the Herodians represent the interests of Herod and the other clients of Rome within his circle, this is an unlikely group of partisans. Yet, representatives of both groups come in order to “trap” Jesus.

First, they use flattery by speaking of Jesus’ integrity, commitment to truth and equity, and lack of concern for the opinions of others (22:16). Then, according to Matthew, they laid a political trap for Jesus by asking him how he felt about tax policy: was it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor (v. 17)?  As the introduction of the matter demonstrates, they are trying to get Jesus to come down on one side of the issue or the other.  Either he will have to side with the emperor against the people and look like a collaborator, or side with the people against the government and look like Judas the Galilean.  Either way, no good options.

Jesus, however, was aware of their evil plan, and so he said, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin for paying the tax!”

They brought him the coin,  and he asked them, “Whose face and name are these?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered.  So, Jesus said to them, “Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:18-21).

The Pharisees avoided Roman coins, for they bear the blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaims him divine.[1] Yet, when Jesus asks for a Roman coin, they readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image!

Apodidomi, the word translated here as “pay,” has the idea of giving back to someone what is properly their own.  Their money was always Caesar’s.  His rule created it, maintained it, and secured and regulated the marketplace in which it was utilized.  People who had a denarius may have thought it was theirs, but as Jesus reminds them, the stamp of Caesar shows that not to be the case.

As  with many of Jesus’ sayings, it is not clear exactly the point he was trying to make. Whatever Jesus is getting at here, he is not describing a compromise that divides human loyalties neatly between YHWH and the emperor.

I think He is asking an unspoken question: whose image do you bear? What is your greatest loyalty?  The coin of our country bears the image of dead presidents, but each of us bears the image of God. We may divide our budget, but we must never divide our loyalty.  We must never forget to give God what is His: ourselves.

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[1] The inscription on the coin required for the tax reads: Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”).  Boring, Eugene, “Matthew – Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 420.

 

We Need to Redefine Sin

The word “sin” has been part of the English vocabulary for over one thousand years.  Our word form today comes from the Middle English word sinne, which is itself from the Old English word syn.” There is some probability that “sin” can be traced by to the Latin word sont, which means “guilty.”  The original meanings of “sin” were concerned mainly with religious matters, such as “an offense against religious or moral law,” or “breaking God’s laws,” or “a state of human nature that is estranged from God.”

Now, there is no argument that those phrases define the Christian view of sin theologically, for sin is primarily a theological term.  However, what do those phrases say to people in a post-Christian world?  Not much, I am afraid. Most people we know are decent people.  They love their children, they are employed, they do not commit murder, and all the other heinous things that we say is wrong.  They are good people, and surely their good lives and deeds should ensure them a place in God’s heaven.  The idea of being offensive to God because of wrong doing is far from contemporary minds.

What does the Bible call sin?  In the Old Testament we have three main words, two of which have the same root:

  • Chata’ah – an offense and its punishment
  • Chata – miss the mark
  • Ashma – guilty of doing wrong

The New Testament has five major words:

  • Hamartia – missing the target – failure to be what we might have been.
  • Parabasis – stepping across – crossing the line from good to bad.
  • Paraptoma – slipping across – slipping on ice – not as deliberate as parabas; “wrong words slip out.”
  • Anomia – lawlessness – the human instinct to do what we please and defy both human laws and God’s laws.
  • Opheilema – failure to pay what’s due – a failure in duty – this word used in the Model Prayer: failure to perfectly fulfill our duty to our fellow humans.

None of the words define a behavior; they define thought and attitude. We err in thinking of sin as primarily a behavior. There is behavioral sin, but before we behave we think and feel.  Sin starts within us in our thinking and feeling selves.  This is from the New Testament Letter of James:

But we are tempted when we are drawn away and trapped by our own evil desires.  Then our evil desires conceive and give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15).

We think with what I call Mind-Talk. This is our inner conversation, the voice we hear when we think.  It is where our emotions start and grow.  Our Mind-Talk shapes our attitudes, our feelings, and our beliefs. Our Mind-Talk shapes the way we behave toward others.  Whether we have anger, hurt, depression, guilt, worry, happiness, well-being, or contentment, etc., they are homegrown in our Mind-Talk. Our feelings start in our minds, and they grow in our minds. Then, as James notes, our thoughts give birth to behavior that is either good or bad.

The most frequent word in both Testaments that is translated as “sin” is the one that means “missing the mark.”  It is the picture of shooting at a target with bow and arrow and missing the target. We miss the target when we fail to live up to our own moral code, when we love things and use people, when we fail to love and support family.  For most of us, our Mind-Talk keeps reminding us that we are failures in so many ways. We feel estranged from other people, estranged from God, and even estranged from myself.  Have you ever thought, “I just don’t feel like myself today.”?

Not everyone has behaviors that the Church has listed as “sinful.”  Yet, these folk will feel at times they have failed morally or ethically.  They have not been responsible when they were to have been responsible.  Our failures have eternal consequences for we influence our families, our neighbors, our nation, our world.

If sin begins with our Mind-Talk, then an element of salvation (which can also mean healing) is to change our Mind-Talk.  In his letter to the church at Phillip’, the apostle Paul wrote: “The attitude [i.e. mindset] you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: . .” (2:5). Then in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote:

Your hearts and minds must be made completely new, and you must put on the new self, which is created in God’s likeness and reveals itself in the true life that is upright and holy (Ephesians 4:23-24).

What would happen if we began to define sin in terms of personal failure, whether morally, ethically, or professionally?  What would it say about a personal relationship with God through the Christ?  What would happen if we could change our Mind-Talk and think of ourselves as flawed people whom God loves?  What would we be able to tell others about knowing the Christ.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews gives a long list of people of faith that includes a prostitute, a cheat, a murderer, and an adulterer, among others.  At the end of the list, the writer says, “And so God is not ashamed for them to call him their God, because he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16b).  This is a list of flawed people who trusted God and saw themselves as accepted by God, though they knew they were unacceptable.  That is the Mind-Talk we all need.