DESERVE?

Reading through the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy last week, a couple of Moses’ comments to the children of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land struck me.

The first was in 7:7 and 8 where he said, “The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you.” Two chapters later, in looking forward to their entering the land, Moses cautioned them, “After the LORD your God has done this for you, don’t say in your hearts, ’The LORD has given us this land because we are such good people!’ It is not because you are so good” (9:4 and 5).

Even though the word deserve isn’t used by Moses, I was reminded of a memorable exchange between the Sheriff Little Bill and Will Munny in the movie “Unforgiven.” As Munny gets ready to shoot him, Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this . . . to die like this. I was building a house.” To which Munny responds, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Obviously it isn’t always the case, but Munny’s comment “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” is true with regard to a lot of both the good and bad in life.

Intrigued by the word deserve, I looked up its usage in the Bible and was surprised by the number of times it occurs.

In Ecclesiastes 8:14 the teacher makes a similar observation to what Will Munny said: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve.” Those familiar with the book of Job know he certainly would agree with that.

Both Mathew’s Gospel as well as Luke’s report the account of a Centurion asking Jesus to heal his sick servant. Matthew 8:9 reports the centurion telling Jesus, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof” (and his faith is strong enough to affirm Jesus can heal his servant without doing so). Luke 7:4 and 5 tells about the same incident and how some of the elders of the Jews pleaded with Jesus, “This man [the centurion] deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

In our own experiences, and contrary to Will Munny’s take on it, I think we all would agree that sometimes – but not all the time — deserve does have something to do with it.

One of the two thieves crucified with Jesus seemed to get the most important point about Jesus’ death on the cross without fully understanding what he was saying. Speaking to the other thief who had insulted Jesus, he affirmed, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

One of the best known verses, as well as one we are most grateful for, is Psalm 103:10 where David tells us God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” And the reason God is able to do that is because of what Jesus did for us. It’s called grace.

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DOUBLE STANDARDS

While exiting the freeway recently a driver on the road I was entering ignored the yield sign and almost hit me.  I wasn’t happy, but to my credit I did not honk my horn or glare at the other driver. As I moved into my lane behind him it occurred to me that on previous occasions I have done the exact same thing. I had to call myself on what was clearly a double standard. If he should have yielded to me (and he should have), then I also should have yielded at other times when the roles were reversed.

What reminded me of my inconsistency was a line in Gordon Smith’s short new book Teach Us to Pray, “it is so easy to spend our energy frustrated with others and wishing that others would change” (p. 15). His point is that we think about how others need to change, while we give ourselves a pass on the very same things. That’s what is called a double standard; and I confess I’m guilty. (By the way, if you are interested, Smith has an excellent chapter on “The Prayer of Confession” in the book.)

The greatest and most creative teaching about a double standard is given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:3 and 4): “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?” Again, I am guilty.

In the next chapter in his book Smith further convicted me with an unintended paraphrase of Jesus’ words, “We are so easily aware of the shortcomings of others rather than our own faults” (p. 22). Wouldn’t you agree that is pretty much what Jesus said?

For me, the most stinging part of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:5 is the designation of the person with one standard for self and another for others a “hypocrite.” I think we can agree that Smith too is describing a hypocrite.

I do not believe either Jesus or Gordon Smith are suggesting we ignore the shortcomings or faults of others. The call is not to judge others while giving ourselves a pass. That’s a double standard and it isn’t appropriate.

Does my confession, Smith’s observations, and Jesus’ teaching say anything to you?

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LOOKING AT WHOM?

In a post a few weeks ago I suggested that Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to interpret and understand. I still think that is true, but now as I come to the conclusion of a class I have been leading on the New Testament letter of Hebrews I’m thinking it is probably the second most difficult book in the New Testament.

As challenging as our study has been, we have gained a lot of knowledge as well as received much challenge and encouragement. I think challenge and encouragement for readers was the two primary goals of the author. And while parts of the letter are not easy to understand, other parts are crystal clear.

Today I’m thinking about Hebrews 12:1-3 and the writer’s image of the Christian life as running a race while keeping one’s eyes fixed on Jesus. We can get discouraged, question our faith, and get into all kinds of trouble when we take our eyes off Jesus. And often when we take our eyes off Jesus it is because we fix our eyes on someone else – usually a pastor or leader whom we look up to and admire.

The problem with fixing our eyes on another Christian is that no Christian measures up to Jesus. In spite of the highest motives and deepest faith, every Christian leader still has feet of clay. As committed to the Lord and their calling as they are, there are no perfect pastors.

This has always been the case, but in the recent months and weeks there seems to have been more cases and accusations of failures among Christian leaders than usual. Of course it grieves us, but it does not destroy our faith. Our faith is in Jesus and we are to keep our eyes on him.

The reality of the imperfection of pastors does not mean we shouldn’t respect, honor, and look up to our leaders. We should. Hebrews 13 gives two notes of instruction about how we are to view leaders.

Verse 13 tells readers to “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” My sense is that these leaders are primarily the ones who first presented the gospel to them and welcomed them to faith in Christ.

Verse 17 challenges readers to “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” The leaders in this verse seem to be the ones who are currently overseeing things.

I think all pastors and church leaders should echo the words of the Apostle Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). And we can more easily do that if we make sure we fix our eyes on Jesus and never take them off him.

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PRETENDING

Living close to and being involved with my two grandsons (ages 4 and 8) almost every day gives me the opportunity to do a lot of pretending. In recent weeks I’ve played the parts of Superheroes as well as a variety of “bad guys.” And it usually is a lot of fun.

Yesterday I read an interesting blog by Lance Witt entitled Image Management that sounds a lot like pretending to me. The difference, however, is that Image Management is neither a game nor fun. Witt’s primary intended audience is pastors and ministry leaders, but what he says is applicable to all Christians.

Those familiar with the New Testament no doubt are aware that Jesus’ primary issue with the Pharisees was what he called hypocrisy. They managed their images by pretending to be something they were not. What they projected to be on the outside by their actions did not match what they actually were on the inside.

Whether we are Christians or not, most of us know that pharisaism is not dead. As a matter of fact, chances are there is a little Pharisee inside all of us. To manage our images we sometimes struggle to let people know we really are not as good or as far along in our spiritual maturity as they think we are. Image management is not really management but deception.

By raising this subject I’m not suggesting that the thing for us to do is to become totally transparent with anyone and everyone in all our interactions with others. To refrain from pretending that we are better than we are, or that we have no problems, does not require us to publically “air our dirty laundry”.

I think what I am trying to say about this issue of image management or pretending is that we really need to work at being authentic. But again, to be authentic is not a call to total transparency.

When we give up pretending and become authentic we realize we have a new freedom. And that freedom opens the door and paves the way for us to actually make progress in what we want to become.

At the conclusion of his article Witt relates the honest words of a veteran Christian leader in his upper sixties: “The older I get the less concern I have with what I have or have not done and the more concern I have for what I have or have not become.” I’m in my late sixties and those are a couple of things I too would like to have less concern and more concern about.

By the way, pretending is not a bad thing — especially with grandchildren — as long everyone knows that we are just pretending.

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“BECOMING A FRIEND OF GOD”

I don’t know when I have been more impacted by a book than I have been by Jack Deere’s memoir Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life. After the opening chapters, which are very short, it was difficult to put it down. I know reading his personal story touched me in a variety of ways, but I’m not sure how to describe my feelings. I’m surprised, sad, challenged, affirmed, convicted, and encouraged all at the same time.

I knew of John Deere through news stories and his books (that’s why I bought the book), but I had no idea of the ups and downs he has experienced. He calls this first book of his in almost 20 years “the unsanitized version of me becoming a friend of God.” That description compliments the book’s sub-title “A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life.”

What I have written so far may not sound like it, but I’m not necessarily recommending you read his story. He is a good writer, but Even in Our Darkness is not an easy read. It is real and raw, and as I read I was impressed with his transparency.

The darkness he writes about includes alcoholism, physical abuse, immorality, drug addiction, sexual abuse, attempted suicide, suicide, betrayal, and more. But as the book’s title suggests, this is a story of beauty even in the darkness of a broken life.

Let me share a few selected quotes that stimulated my thinking and will give you a taste of Deere’s account.

Following his dad’s funeral after he committed suicide: “We had neither church nor church friends to comfort us” (p. 34).

Commenting on some seminary faculty: “They traded blessed are the meek for blessed are the learned, and blessed are the poor in spirit for blessed are the pure in doctrine” (p. 120).

Speaking about his wife: “She tried to tell me how unhappy she was, I couldn’t hear her” (p. 136).

Assessing his spiritual state at one point: “The pursuit of knowledge had supplanted the pursuit of love, and a love of pleasure had replaced my hunger for the eternal things that can’t be seen” (p. 156).

His take on a congregation he served, “I tried to sympathize with their tiny frozen hearts” (p. 195).

This got my attention: “When the devil wants to send a message, he can always find a religious person to deliver it with perfect timing” (p228).

This is worth considering: “Anger circulates in our bodies as negative energy until we discharge it. We can carry it for years, punishing people we love, never understanding why” (p. 257).

His reflection on his life: “Almost nothing in my life has worked out like I thought it should. I thought as I grew older, I would grow more deserving of God’s love, not less” (pp. 269-70).

Thinking about his three children: “I had them too soon. I was too preoccupied with building my kingdom. I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have” (p. 274).

Another reflection on his life: “When I lusted after material wealth, he turned my gaze toward eternity. When I sought large crowds, he brought me humility. When I tried to change my wife, he taught me how to love and understand her” (p. 278)

I read in order to learn, to be challenged, and to be encouraged as well as for other reasons. I won’t be ready for another book along the lines of this one for a while, but I am glad I read Deere’s gripping story of his life so far.

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