Thursday, April 24, 2014

The more important task

This week my daughter spent the bulk of her week working on state standardized tests. These tests are a big deal in our schools with teachers stressing over them as much if not more than the children. As a result, many, many hours have been spent in preparation for test day. It's not just third graders who take tests. Much of our lives are spent taking exams. There's all those tests in school, entrance exams, exit exams, licensing exams, etc. Like I said, there are a lot of tests in life. For every test we take there are even more hours spent preparing for those tests.

It's understandable that many Christians approach the Christian life as if it is one big exercise in test preparation. They spend countless hours and endless effort trying to figure out all the right doctrinal  answers to every conceivable theological question. Because this is the preparation period, they often compare notes. The stress must be high, because when two of them disagree on an answer, they can get very upset with each other. Friendships have been severed, churches have been split, and wars have begun over two people, both committed Christians, arriving at different answers to some theological question.

Now, thinking right thoughts about God is important, but from what I can tell, there's no extensive entrance exam (or exit! depending on your perspective) when we finish this life other than whether or not we have acknowledged Christ as Lord. While lots of the topics we discuss and disagree over are important, they pale in comparison to God's chief concern for our lives: that we love one another.

Take for instance Paul's discussion in Romans 14-15 concerning the issue of whether or not Christians should be able to eat certain foods or not. This was a big issue in Paul's day. Paul had a strong opinion about that topic. He believed that there were no dietary restrictions for any Christians. And yet, in these chapters, Paul recognizes that there were Christians who held a different position than he did. Remarkably, Paul didn't spill much ink attempting to convince these Christians to think like he thought. Instead, he writes to the people who already shared his opinion challenging them to show deference to those who held a different opinion!

At least in the example provided in Romans 14-15, at the end of the day what mattered most wasn't one's answer to the test question, but whether or not one had practiced love towards your neighbor. That's a far cry from the way so many of us approach theological questions or even the Christian life as a whole.

What difference would it make in our lives if we thought of the Christian life primarily as the practice of loving one another instead of a life spent practicing for some final, cosmic exam? 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: The man in the ditch

In John’s gospel, Maundy Thursday begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. When Jesus gets to Peter, Peter refuses. It’s remarkable how difficult it is for good, religious people to receive help and care from other people. They are used to being in the position of being the helper not the helped. Whether we like to admit it or not, being the helper is a position of power. It’s a good kind of power, mind you, but it’s power nonetheless. Being the one who is being helped places us in the position of being powerless. Most of us hate being powerless.

I was reminded of this recently during a conversation with a group of preachers. We were talking about all the different ways we preach the parable of the Good Samaritan. Usually, when we preach that passage, we preach it from the perspective of those who either give or refuse to give help. We preachers are always calling people to be like the Good Samaritan, to be the kind of people who help their neighbors. While these are good sermons, they are ultimately sermons about using our power for good.

While that is an important and essential point of the lesson, one of my preacher friends suggested that the passage could also be preached from the perspective of the man in the ditch. This is a sermon about being powerless. This is a sermon about receiving help, even from unlikely sources. The man in the ditch was likely a Jewish person. What did he think about being helped by a Samaritan? He may have been so near death that it didn’t matter that it was an enemy who offered him help. On the other hand, the ethnicity of his helper may have tormented him more than the beating. The text doesn’t say. I know plenty of people who are willing to help people they don’t actually like but would be beside themselves if they had to receive help from those same people. Remember, the helper is the one with the power. All of us have people to whom we’d rather not grant the power of service.

Peter didn’t want to cede power to a God who was willing to make a fool of himself in front of others. I confess that I’m the same. I want a God who keeps to protocol. I want a God who avoids embarrassing me in front of other people. What I get is a God who doesn’t care about such things. He is a God who cares about me, though. The question is will I receive his help? What if his help comes from a source that embarrasses me? What if his help comes from someone I consider an enemy?

Maundy Thursday reminds us that to be a part of Christ, we must be willing to receive not just the help we want from God but also all the help he wants to give: even when his help embarrasses us; even when it exposes the worst parts of us; even when it reveals the parts of us that we keep hidden from everybody else like our preference for power over powerlessness. Especially then. To be a part of Christ requires that we yield all of our lives to him, even the ugly parts. So today, on this Maundy Thursday, before you get to Christ’s commandment to love one another, first you have to be willing to take off your shoes and let him wash your feet. 

So, where in your life do you still need to receive the Savior’s love? From whom might you need to receive it?

Peter said, “You shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me”- John 13:8.