#RESIST

I don’t care what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says, “gift” is not a verb. When I hear someone talk about gifting something, I want nothing more than to make them a gift of The Elements of Style and smack them upside the head with it.

I recently discovered that while I have been defending the world against the scourge of nouns-as-verbs, they have quietly made their way into the dictionary. I refuse to acknowledge or acquiesce to such barbarism. In the spirit of the times, I am declaring:

#NotMyDictionary  #Resist

I vow to preach the gospel of #neveraverb as long as I have breath. In the words of Martin Luther, patron saint of resisters, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

At the heart of my resistance — of all resistance — is the belief that I know better than The Authority I’m resisting. My defiance denies the authority’s moral, legal, academic or spiritual legitimacy in favor of my own. Now, resistance can be a principled, brave opposition to an obvious wrong. (Think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce or Martin Luther KIng, Jr.) It can also be petulant, obstinate and self-aggrandizing, like my linguistic jihad against verbified nouns.

If it were only a matter of grammar, I could chalk it up to a charming quirk. But I fear this rebellious streak goes far beyond the Word Wars.

If resistance is substituting my own judgment for an authority’s then I am guilty of resisting God. You probably are, too. It’s OK, we come by it honestly. We inherited it from Adam and Eve.

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:6)

In other words, God said “No”, but I know better.

She knows God has prohibited it; she says as much to the serpent. But she rationalizes her rebellion. It looks good, it probably tastes good. It will make me wise, and what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t a loving God want me to have it?” (By the way, I think this last is one of the most dangerous questions we can ask. For one thing, it assumes that if God loves us, He will give us our every desire, even if that contradicts His will and His word. For another, it often precedes an argument that ends in “I know that’s what He said, but He didn’t mean it that way.”)

Eve and Adam’s rebellion — and ours — is rooted in the desire to be the judge of what is good and what is not. Their desire has convinced them that they can ask God to scooch over so they can share His throne.

This is why our resistance hero Martin Luther famously wrote that the root of all sin is idolatry. We never break any commandment without having first broken the first: “You shall have no other gods before me.” After all, once that is abrogated, then the absolute moral authority that undergirds the rest of the commandments becomes just another voice in the din of relativism. And all the while we pile up one rationalization after another for why this is all perfectly fine and God is cool with it.

From that day in the garden to this day at my desk, people have struggled with the radical claim on our hearts and our heads of that first commandment.

1. There is one God, and it’s not me.
2. God alone has claim to all authority and truth.
3. When God’s word is clear, but I think I know better, see #1

When it comes to words, I cling to the notion that I know better than the dictionary. I suppose there is no real harm to this, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of one of my tirades.

But when it comes to God, my resistance reveals a dangerous idolatry.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus asks a haunting question:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”    (Luke 6:46)

Why indeed.

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True and False Fasting

My inspiration for this Lent’s spiritual practice came from Twitter. There, among the streams of the sublime and the ridiculous, came this challenge from Lynne Hybels:

“Years ago a friend said that if I read Isaiah 58 for 30 days in a row, it would turn my life upside-down. I did. She was right. Try it.”

This seemed particularly appropriate for Lent, a time devoted to self-examination, penitence and fasting. Lenten fasting isn’t only about fasting from food, although that can be an important discipline. Fasting can be any intentional abstinence — from television, from gossiping, from social media. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Fasting reveals what controls us.” I have certainly found this to be true. It is not until you try to do without something that you realize the hold it has on you and what deeper needs it masks. I never thought of myself as particularly tethered to my phone until I decided to abstain from electronic communication on the Sabbath. Talk about Fear of Missing Out!

But fasting isn’t only about what we give up; it is about what we can gain. Throughout Scripture, fasting is a way to draw near to God, to hear his voice, to know his will. Isaiah 58 will be my perfect companion this Lent. It challenges me to see the kind of fasting God honors. It shows me the true path to God’s blessing. It brings me to the headwaters of holiness.

I’m going to read Isaiah 58 every day this Lent and see where it leads me. Will you join me?

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Mirrors and Windows

Fake news has been making a lot of real news lately. These lurid fabrications have been feeding people’s sense of grievance and igniting outrage like a a string of firecrackers at a Fourth of July picnic.

Some claim that “fake news” swayed voters and affected the outcome of the 2016 election. For all that is wrong with fake news — and there’s plenty — this is an argument I just don’t buy. I find it hard to believe that a Hillary supporter would change allegiance because he believed the “news” that she operated a child sex ring out of a pizzeria.

I thought that rather than swaying votes, the election’s fake news was a classic case of confirmation bias. It didn’t change minds; it just confirmed and legitimized what we already believed. Recent research supports this view. (Hmmm. Is that why I believe it?)

By the way, real news can do this, too, if we limit our exposure to voices that we already agree with. This is equally dangerous. Listening only to what is pleasant and affirming — whether it’s real news or fake — makes us thin-skinned and intolerant. That’s the last thing the world needs right now.

Living in this echo chamber of “confirmation bias” news can spill over into our spiritual life, too.

We can just as easily treat Scripture like any other source of information: picking and choosing so that we only hear what conforms with what we already believe. Easy, but wrong.

It is wrong because the Bible’s purpose isn’t information, it’s transformation.

Scripture asks us to conform to it, not the other way around. It offers an alternate reality in which we are most assuredly not the ones calling the shots, where our lives have meaning far beyond what this world can offer. It invites us into a world where we are challenged and equipped to live radically countercultural lives

to forgive and not retaliate
to bless those who persecute us and pray for our enemies
to love extravagantly
to submit our will and our discernment to a King

To do this, we first have to lay down our desire to have our own ideas affirmed and confirmed by Scripture. We need to leave behind the prerogative to choose what we will allow into our bubble. Instead, Scripture demands we listen to all of it — the beautiful promises of God, the words of judgment, the puzzling incongruities, the violence, the mercy, the unimaginable love. Scripture asks us to risk being uncomfortable, uneasy and occasionally unsettled.

Despite all our efforts to domesticate it, use it to support our political views, or make excuses for why parts we dislike should not apply to us today, the Word of God remains gloriously untamed.

Scripture defies attempts to reduce it to a sweet bedtime story full of meadows and puppies and instead confronts us with some hard truths.

Sometimes our desires and God’s desires for us are not the same and no amount of rationalizing will change that.

There are some things that we have to chalk up to mystery, as much as that offends our rational, 21st century minds.

There will be times when we crave certainty and it offers nuance, and other times when we want wiggle room and it offers none.

So, read it. All of it. Ask the Spirit of God to pull up a chair next to you and guide your mind and heart into all truth. Read the icky parts that talk about judgement and the parts that make you weep with gratitude. Wrestle with it as Jacob wrestled with God, and let it bless you as God blessed him.

I love what William Willimon has to say about how to read Scripture:

“We trust the Bible because it keeps making sense of, as well as disrupting, the world in which we live. The Bible does not just “make sense” in the sense that the Bible is congruent with our present experiences of and definitions of reality. We must read the Bible in a way that is more careful and respectful than simply going to the Bible, rummaging about, picking and choosing on the basis of what we consider to be possible and permissible within our present context … The temptation is to discard that which makes us uncomfortable or that which does not easily fit into our present conceptual scheme of things.

 

Therefore, an appropriate hermeneutical question is not simply, What does this text mean? but rather, How is this text asking me to change?” (from Pastor: the Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry)

Unlike every other information source in our lives, let’s not construct a Bible that reassures us that we are right and just fine as we are.

We don’t need a mirror to tell us we’re the fairest of them all.

We need a window to show a reality of God’s making, not our own.

It is a reality in which we might be asked to do the unthinkable — to surrender our certainties and have the courage to be formed by God’s word.

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Speak, Lord

A plain cross lies on a Bible, at the beginning of the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, describing the birth of Jesus.

“The right scripture at the right time, every time.”

That’s what a little Bible reference book in my library promises. Want to know about repentance? Take off your hair shirt and turn to page 106. Pondering forgiveness? Stop plotting revenge and flip to page 134. Struggling with lust? Go to page 178, and quick.

This handy-dandy book is part of the Bible as Instruction Manual genre. It’s an appealing idea on the surface — let’s face it, we all want easy answers to difficult questions. When we can’t get our new Smart TV to connect to Netflix, we’re happy to have step-by-step instructions to follow. With any luck, the manual is clearly written, and we can be binge-watching House Hunters in no time.

But our lives aren’t electronics and God isn’t some techie writing FAQs.

The Bible isn’t a static reference work offering one right answer to any question. It is a conversation and conversations, especially with the Creator of the Universe, aren’t neat, predictable, or free of nuance.

Unlike an instruction manual, the God who reveals Himself through written words asks as many questions of us as we ask of Him. To really know how Scripture informs any given situation, its Author is going to want to know more. I may ask, “How should I handle this conflict?” The Author will ask “Why does this situation make you so angry?” I may ask, “Do I need to reconcile with this person who has hurt me?”  The Author asks, “What would reconciliation look like?” I might wonder, “Does scripture support what I think is right?” The Author asks, “What would bring shalom — wholeness and peace — to this situation?”

Case in point: the email that made my blood boil.

Not long ago, I got an email that hurled an accusation at me, in a snarky and condescending tone. The church-y words it contained — “I’m praying for you” and signed ”Peace” — only made me madder.

My first instinct was to proclaim my innocence, so skillfully, with such stinging eloquence that my correspondent’s maladroit missive would be put to shame. I would expose his calumny and his bad writing in one fell swoop. And, for good measure, I would point that, really, this was all his fault. Perfect.

I didn’t send it right away. As I sat with my counterpunch coiled and ready to deliver a devastating blow in the name of all that is Good and True, I wondered: what would scripture say about this contretemps, especially given that it was in the context of Christian community? What did God want to see happen here? 

The Truth as a (Blunt) Weapon

The first thing that came to mind was God’s prophets, who were given the thankless task of proclaiming Truth to people who didn’t want to hear it.  God respects and honors the truth, I told myself.  In fact,  Psalm 15 says this is a condition for coming into God’s presence.

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
(Psalm 15: 1-3)

I liked the sound of this. It gave me Holy permission to defend myself by speaking the truth.  Unfortunately, the next verse says otherwise . . .

whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbor,
    and casts no slur on others;

Hmmmm. Speaking truth isn’t the only measure of righteousness. We are reminded that we must not cast “slur on others.” My counterpunch felt good, but it suddenly didn’t feel right.

Turn the Other Cheek?

Perhaps  Matthew 5:39 should be my lodestar: 
 

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Maybe I should just let it go. Maybe I should shrug my shoulders and chalk it up to “You can’t fix stupid.”

I live with this possibility for a day. Ignore it, shake the dust off my feet, move on. When Jesus suggests this response, it comes from a place of bravery and confidence: “The Lord is my stronghold, whom shall I fear?  For me in this situation, letting it go feels like cowardice and fear. It didn’t feel good and it didn’t feel right.  

Truth, Tempered

While I’m in Matthew, I read on:

“If your brother signs against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

                                                                   Mathew 8:15

What if I responded — honestly, but without rancor? Could I confront with charity? Was it possible to defend myself without attacking him?  Was it possible to respond in a way that honored the truth while holding out hope of shalom?   And so I wrote a response, direct, but minus the venom and self-righteousness.  This felt right.  Much to my surprise, my correspondent apologized, which NEVER would have happened had I sent my first email.

The thing is, each of these “answers” to my question could have been appropriate. I can imagine other circumstances when God might want me to be a latter-day John the Baptist, speaking Truth, no matter the consequences. I can imagine a situation in which God would want me to hold my tongue, and walk away, confident in God’s vindication of me.  

But I can’t be trusted know which is which without the Holy Spirit to “guide me into all truth.”

I keep this prayer in the front pocket of my Bible to remind me of what I am holding in my hands.   It tells me that I need to read reverently, listen carefully and allow the Author to ask me questions before answering any of mine.

Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.
Grant me ears to hear,
Eyes to see
Will to obey
Heart to love
Than declare what you will,
Reveal what you wiIl
Demand what you will.

                                     (Christina Rosetti)


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