Archive for January, 2012

The Trouble with Vows

January 30, 2012

When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it.  He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.  Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.  And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?  Much dreaming and many words are meaningless.  Therefore stand in awe of God.  Ecclesiastes 5:4-7.

 

I’m pretty sure this is one of those passages many would rather relegate to the Old Covenant and never think of again.  The reasoning goes, “Jesus revealed God as loving and personal.  How can He also demand such special treatment?”

And right there is the problem with most of our “modern” views of God.

We give the president of the United States more respect than the Creator of the universe far too often.  To treat God as a common being is a mistake, in my opinion; one which the contemporary church in America has perpetuated to its own hurt.  We buy into the “name it, claim it” variety of Christianity forgetting His sovereignty and ignoring all the lessons of those who came before.  We read NT stories like Ananias and Sapphira, recoiling at the thought God would actually punish such an action with death.  Our reasoning is faulty, our conclusions about godliness and righteousness out of step with Jesus and our sense of what true love is based on brokenness few desire to fix.

How do I know this attitude pervades the church?

I own it.

Oh, I admit to fighting it in this public arena, but I struggle to like this part of God’s personality/character.  I don’t want strictness but leeway.  And if we’re all honest with ourselves, in some area of our lives or another we all want the same thing—that is, for God to excuse some trait or sin in our lives so we can keep on doing it or so we don’t have to look at it.  To get even this reconciled to our text has taken me years.

Yet our reaction in the West has much to do with the attitudes which pervaded the East and Europe in times past.  Jesus made God approachable by proclaiming Him personal.  This changed how we see God as a whole for we look at Him through the cross.  However, in contrast to the austere, severe and disinterested God of past centuries (perpetuated by church hierarchy often to secure their own power and position), twentieth century Christianity took it to the other extreme and made approaching Jesus a casual thing.  Now I’m not saying this is everywhere in the church, rather that I’ve experienced these two extremes in an almost schizoid (which means out of touch with reality) dual personality way.  The reality is somewhere in between these two extremes, which makes both of them true, although only a half truth taken by themselves.

In my late twenties I made a vow to God, which I have tried to fulfill to the best of my ability.  Before that I made another vow which I kept for a long time until the pressure to conform took over, so I compromised.  I’m not sure of the ultimate consequences of either, though I know there are some in minor areas for the latter.  However, the vow I kept has resulted in censure from leadership, mild interventions on the part of family or friends and lastly a lack of financial security.

Though I know grace covers all, every act carries natural consequences—and not just the bad deeds have outcomes.  There’s a sarcastic saying which goes, “No good deed will go unpunished” which is snide way of saying doing good often results in loss and ingratitude.  The losses I have endured have been mostly in the relationship arena.  I can’t sustain certain relationships because of how I choose to live.  Some important people in my life keep their distance and avoid any conversation about my work.

You wouldn’t think being dedicated to working for God and working hard to not be a burden on the church would arouse censure, but it does.  Or, may be a better way to say it is the way I interpret the calling on my life definitely does.  This is gist the first vow (which I found recently in a Bible dating from 1987):  “I vow to serve God in whatever capacity I can full time, full tilt, no holds barred.”

The second one dealt with media.  I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and in most circles around that time they frowned on going to movies or watching TV shows except for news.  So I vowed to abstain from all media and keep my head clear of all these distracting voices.  The problem came with my band—they all did both, not being raised the way I was.  One day the leader of the band told me the rest of the folks felt I didn’t want to hang out with them.  We had a long talk about my vow and what it meant.  In his mind I had made a foolish promise that God would look on as silly.  The pressure continued for a couple of weeks.  I know my story probably sounds ridiculous to some of you reading this, but I’d like us to consider the nature of our take on God through my experience.  I eventually folded after much prayer and agonizing over the issue.  Not only was I bucking the conditioning from my heritage but also working against this very text, which I knew well at the time.

For years afterward I feared God would destroy the work of my hands.  In some ways the suspicion is still with me in the dark corners of my psyche that the current state of my music career is due to this broken vow.  Whether or not this is true, I can’t really say.  What I can say is that I came to God humbly aware that for me to reach into people’s lives I couldn’t be a recluse.  Writing songs amounted to some worth for the kingdom but it was in relationships where the real work began.  I realized my vow had isolated me from not only my friends but most people I would reach out to for Jesus.

I began watching TV and going to movies with the band.  Not a lot, but enough to show friendship.  To this day I limit how much I take in, not as part of the vow but for the sake of focus.  At this point in my life I can safely say I’m not a conservative or liberal in my thinking about these things.  In other words I don’t buy into either ethic as sacrosanct or the final word on righteousness.  My purpose here is different than you might imagine.

Our mistaken perspectives push us into all sorts of vows, arbitrary rules and foolish “spiritual” takes on very ordinary things.  As I grow in a knowledge of Christ, I realize more and more how very broken we all are and in our efforts to staunch the hemorrhaging in our spirits we create elaborate rules and erect formidable walls of doctrine to limit our baser passions.

All for nothing.

Jesus made something clear,  “Of yourselves you can do nothing.”

Anyone—and I mean Anyone!—who believes we change our own natures by personal effort misses the point of the cross.  Later Paul chimed in on this subject by stating emphatically, I can do all things through (Christ) who gives me strength!  Do you see the difference?

My vow had to do with my own efforts to be remain pure and untainted by the world—a godly goal.  The only problem was it didn’t work to keep me pure.  My thoughts were no less sinless than anybody else; my actions no less arrogant spiritually or more in tune with God’s Spirit.  What I find is that we fail as believers to strike a balance between what is and what should be.  To be blunt, I doubt most people really have a good (or even fair) grasp of what “should be” over anyone else.  Legalism is based on human efforts to improve ourselves so that we can approach God.  Since no one can approach God except through Christ, our efforts and rules are wasted.

What brought me to my senses about vows came in the form of a small story in the book of Judges (10:6 to 12:7) where Jephthah made a vow to God to sacrifice whatever came out of his front door first for a winning edge in the war he was about to fight.  His vow came from a lack of faith, first off, and in the second place, he forgot or didn’t know the law concerning sacrifices.  The first one to greet him on his return wasn’t a dog or goat or lamb but his only daughter.  I don’t know what he expected when he made the vow but the wisdom of it seemed to escape him.  He sacrificed her to the Lord as he promised.

Unnecessarily.

The law clearly prohibits human sacrifice.  Look it up and study what God said through Moses about such things.  Jephthah’s ignorance set him up for heartache.  His God (as opposed to gods of the nations around him) considered such a sacrifice abhorrent and abominable.  The sad truth is his daughter died for a foolish vow.

Ananias and Sapphira, on the other hand, made a similar promise to pay the entire proceeds of the sale from a piece of property then lied to renege.  Peter’s question to Ananias was paraphrased, “You could’ve given any portion to God you chose because the land belonged to you.  If you hadn’t wanted to give it all, God would not have had a problem with that.  But instead you promised all then held some of it back, which made your promise a lie.”  The vow turned out badly for both he and his wife.

Solomon’s assertion that we need to be reverent and differential when approaching God, however, still applies.  Yes!  He is interested in us.  Yes!  He loves us with a passion we can barely comprehend.  Yes!  He longs for us with an aching heart we cannot begin to fathom.  Yes!  He is personal.  Yet in all of this He is still wholly other and set apart (the meaning for the words “holy” and “sacred”) for specific reverence, respect and communication.  Jesus came to show us how personal God is in contrast to what the law seemed to imply (which it didn’t, we just interpreted it this way), at the same time, never do we see Him suggesting God as common.

My conclusion?  Instead of grabbing onto a specific view of God and running with it we need to add it to our list of characteristics.  If a human being is both good and evil, happy and sad, successful and failing—and the list could go on—all at the same time, then God created multidimensional creatures capable of being many things at once.  If this is true of His creation, then what does it say about the Creator?

As to vows, I say we should stay away from them until we have some inkling as to what we are doing.  Much heartache and unneeded stress comes from ignorant promises.  A vow—any vow—before God is never to be taken lightly or left unfulfilled.

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Approaching God

January 20, 2012

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.  Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.  God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.  As a dream comes when there are man cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.  Ecclesiastes 5:1-3.

 

We humans talk too much.  I know plenty of people who talk wa-a-a-ay less than me, of course, because I’m a wordy fellow, yet I also know that when it comes to prayer silence is not as popular as pouring out our hearts.  This is pretty natural since we don’t dialogue with God very much at all.  Still, though we live in a new dispensation and paradigm, listening is always better than talking.

Confession time:

I talk to God all day long.  I’m always telling Him things I am thinking or discussing the next move at work.  I know it might sound silly to some of you, but I can’t stop the flow (at least at this stage) because words are how I connect.  Oddly enough, I know I listen—even through all the profuse one-sided conversations we seem to have.  How I know I listen is that when thoughts squeeze their way in between the cracks of my profundity, I stop to chew.

I have a long way to go before I’ll be able to use my ears and mouth in proportion.  Thank God for grace to grow!

Yet the point of Solomon’s exhortation isn’t lost even on a person like me.  The main issue is to gain an understanding God’s place in the universe as well as our hearts.  He’s big, bigger than anything or anyone, yet able to inhabit my heart.  The phenomenon of a God who holds all of creation in the palm of His hand being in my heart—or even interested in my life—is amazing enough.  Yet size only matters to those who use it as a means of power over others (or get their value from it.

We talk about God running and sustaining everything yet sometimes just don’t recognize what that means.  Sure He takes care of all the big stuff like planets, nation building and certain people’s careers, but these things are the more obvious things.  Where it really gets interesting for me is that each cell has a power pack inside it that scientists are still trying to unravel.  Why do these amazing organisms continue to operate sometimes long after their host dies?  What supplies them with the life force necessary to keep performing their function?

I believe God’s life force permeates everything and everyone.  This same power emanates from a being who is not only sentient but intimately personal.  He created one of the most person acts we humans experience then compared it to His own relationship with the Godhead and us.  I know a lot of people who are weird-ed out by God’s claim to be spiritually “sexual” with us, but their problem stems from their lack of understanding not the act itself.  Sex is intimacy not just pleasure; it’s pleasure not just intimacy.  The two go together on purpose for God illustrates through this one act what is in His heart for us.  Now we, on the other hand, have so many issues around sex and intimacy that some (probably many) experience real difficulty when this subject comes up.  The problem isn’t with God, it’s with us.

We pervert the works of God then blame Him for the outcomes.  We twist our natures around pleasure, power, wealth and selfish ambition then resent Him for being bigger than all of us.  All of us struggle to look at pretty much every faucet of life without the cataracts of sin.  It isn’t God’s fault that we’ve perverted intimacy into something narcissistic.  So why can’t we grasp His goals for personal contact with us?  Our twisted POV prevents us from being healthy enough to experience the fullness of God.

Can you picture God’s presence as both overwhelmingly awe-inspiring as well as pleasurable?  The orgasm becomes a mere simile for experiencing God.  The more I know God in His purity, and thus realize my own perversity, the more I know everything within His context is clean, clear, beyond my imagination to experience and full of deep spiritual meaning.  We must get beyond our perverted twists on God’s creation; for if we don’t, we end up with nothing more than Victorianism disguised as piety or going after something for merely the pleasure of it.  Human rules will never prevent the sinful nature from expressing itself nor will we ever find satisfaction in just pleasure.

Jesus changed all the rules of coming to God when He became human.  It’s weird that at first we’re told to be careful when we approach God, then have Him call us friends.  “I have called you friends…I no longer call you servants because a servant doesn’t know his master’s business.  Instead I have called you friends.”  Why?  Because He let us in on God’s mind and plans, that why!  He shared the heart of God rather than just the rules of a boss or king.  Jesus got intimate with humanity to demonstrate the desire of God’s heart—a reconciled friendship with us.

Why did He do this?  Because He wants to be intimate with us!  He shared His very soul in coming to earth by being born, living and breathing as a human.  He experienced everything a man can experience besides marriage.  That should tell us something about the nature of God in relation to humanity.  It should enlighten our dark understanding of the divine and set us on a course for greater pleasure in the presence of the Source of pleasure.  We use the word “joy” to replace happiness because we fear God isn’t concerned with our happiness; yet it was He who created our ability to be happy.  We wouldn’t know the word or emotion if He hadn’t invented it.  We need to get over our perverse self-denial so that we can practice it in the context of heaven’s gift in Christ.

Does it strike you as weird that God invented pleasure?  Then chew on this:  He created foods of all stripes then gave humans taste buds in order to enjoy them.  He created flowers, scented plants and animals then gave humans olfactory glands to appreciate them.  He created colors with so many hues we cannot invent enough combinations to encompass them all, then gave us eyes with brains encoded to be overwhelmed by a sunset or whatever.  He gave us a reproduction apparatus then made it a pleasure to procreate.  He gave us ears and made voices sing, birds warble, lions roar and mountains rumble.

Our God “dwells” in unapproachable light, yet loves us so much in a purely intimate way He sent His own to be one of us.  Yes, we need to be in awe.  Yes, we should be reverent.  Yes, we should be overwhelmed.  Yes we ought to seek intimacy and be pleasured by His presence.

That is just utterly amazing.

New Cow Syndrome

January 12, 2012

Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning.  The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom.  I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor.  There was no end to all the people who were before them.  But those who came later were not pleased with the successor.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  Ecclesiastes 4:13-16.

 

At first glance much of the subjects Solomon brings up seem to be redundant, mostly because he keeps repeating the thought:  meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  However, every time he brings up a new example of his point we see how far reaching this problem of chasing after the wind has grown.  It’s not that he’s just bitter and whining about how things are pointless, but that life really has no purpose without eternity in the mix.  A person can be the most talented being since the world began yet once he or she dies, all their work will be forgotten in a generation or two—if that long—and so come to nothing.  It almost seems like wasted effort.

Yet Solomon isn’t telling us our accomplishments are completely wasted effort merely that when we do so in order to replace someone else or make a name for ourselves we need to consider whether or not it’s worth it.

I watched a movie years ago that made a joke out of men’s inability to commit and called it the “new cow syndrome”—quoting the example of bulls preferring a new cow to mate with once they were finished with the current one.  The whole point is that the reason men get bored with their current girlfriend or wife is because they have already had them and so want something new.  Solomon uses something similar in his example of the young man becoming king.

In our political system here in America we see much the same problem.  Currently Barak Obama is president of the United States.  He was such a popular candidate because he was 1) mixed race but looked black, 2)  a democrat with socialism leanings (not communism), 3) had grown up in a single parent household 4) became wealthy through hard work and dedication.  There is much to admire about him, though I disagree with some of his politics and policies.  From what can be ascertained he seems like a pretty decent dude and cares for people genuinely.  What’s ironic is that many who supported him because he was the first black candidate with a chance to win now want someone else, proving Solomon’s point.

The human race is looking for a replacement god.  For a time it was the new king, duke or earl, mayor or local elder, now it’s celebrities and politicians.  Unfortunately, the bad taste after the initial couple of bites has begun to sour our perspective and ruin our appetite.  I don’t know what we were expecting but celebrities and politicians are merely human beings who have made it into the spotlight.  They are no more capable of handling fame and fortune than anyone else—though some might have grown up in with these things.  The human tendency to seek pleasure even when it means censure if caught remains true in this arena as much has it does in back alley.

It starts at birth pretty much.  We see it after birthdays and special holidays like Christmas where kids get a present they’re excited about for 40 seconds then a week later it’s left outside in the rain and they could care less.  When we’re older it’s getting our license or being able to drink, when that gets old it becomes whatever’s next, marriage, jobs, houses, cars, and the list could go on and on.  But we’re never happy with any of it for long.  It’s no wonder Solomon exclaimed,  All things are full of weariness…

I once read an “Archie Comics” evangelistic booklet where Archie said to Jughead,  “Money doesn’t buy happiness, Jughead!”  “No,” came the reply, “but it make misery a lot more fun!”

It’s true as far as it goes.  We might not be happy, but at least we’re having fun, and for most of us that’s as close as it gets.  I think Paul said it best, Godliness with contentment is great gain.  The strangest thing imaginable to me is the fact that we get toys we’re not content to own—and I’m talking about adults here as well.  A guy gets a fishing boat but sees a “better” one than he has and just has to work, save or go in debt to get it.  All the while the boat he has is quite sufficient for his needs.

At the same time it’s not a sin or even faithless to want certain things.  Some people need a new car cuz the one they have is causing them no end of trouble.  Others, like me, want a few things that would add to the mix of their goals but are not necessarily vital.  For instance, I’d love to own or rent a Marshall JCM 800 50/100 watt amp with a 4 x 12 cab to record some of my guitar parts.  I can’t afford it and don’t plan on going into debt to get it, so I’ll be content with the Fender Hot Rod DeVille 4 x 10 I have that’s fully paid for and works fine.  Sure it doesn’t get the crunch I want for certain songs, but I can work with its sound to make it happen.  And if you’re honest, there are things you want but don’t necessarily need to make your hobbies or jobs work.

All this to say:  the best we can do is to learn the principle of content and teach our children to practice it as well.  The local politician, celebrity, social group, spouse, children or whatever can wear us down, so take a break and enjoy them for a time instead of working at them.  I don’t believe we need to be satisfied with everything, unless it meets our goals.  But I do believe that in Christ we must learn to be content with what is “out loud” so that our children as well as those who watch our lives see a testimony of what the presence of Christ does for those who believe.  Without this contentment our witness is spitting into the wind and chasing rainbows for gold instead of life.

Two Are Better than One

January 10, 2012

Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:  There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother.  There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.  “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”  This too is meaningless—a miserable business!

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:  If one falls down, his friend can help him up.  But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.  Ecclesiastes 4:7-10.

 

Living alone by having it thrust on us through circumstances versus choosing to be so are two different things.  Some choose it out of a desire for spiritual focus, some have problems being in close contact with other people, and others just because they don’t want to be bothered by anyone interfering with their routine.  .  To one degree or another, these choices are all based on narcissistic attitudes, if we take that word to mean what makes me feel good as opposed to being in community.  Others chose community in one form or another but ended up alone through the choices of someone else

The man in Solomon’s illustration works hard to gain wealth for himself thinking that he’ll be satisfied at the end of the day.  When he accomplishes his dream he’s left feeling empty because there’s no one to share it with and he’s alone.  Our resident wise man claims this is a case of chasing after the wind and totally void of anything meaningful.

Why?

For the simple reason that all of us need relationships in one form or another.

We were built, designed and set up for community.  The first thing God did was create a community of two.  It wasn’t an accident of evolution or a case of artistic flair but a programmed characteristic which defines the human psyche.  Those who think they can survive without community should just see the roster of counseling appointments treating the social networking woes of thousands of people.  It’s not hard to see how many of us get closed down because community hurts more often than it heals, but that further emphasizes our need for Jesus, in my estimation.

The teachings of Christ were not principally meant for political outcomes or religious piety but to restore relationships.  The song the angels sang at His birth wasn’t concerned about the latest doctrinal stance or treasure trove of things God required, instead their focus was, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men…”  Good will is all about relationship building, which has something to do with the boundaries of love, though very little to do with the minutiae of human laws.  Because we can’t seem to conform to love, we make laws to regulate human behavior—a reason why the laws of most countries are becoming more and more complicated.

Fallen human nature angles for the loopholes on such a regular basis that we begin to think laws and punishment are the only way to curb it.  We’re dead wrong, of course, yet humanity as a whole steadfastly doesn’t want God completely in charge; tending instead to invest in anything but Him.  It’s a failed experiment, this endeavor to find self-actualization and godlike status without the Creator to guide us and temper our pride.  The most anyone can be like God is by imitation; other than that we have no option but entropy and death.

The first time I read this passage it validated marriage for me, since that’s where my focus was at the time.  As I’ve grown in my walk with God it now validates every aspect of human relationships.  We need family, friends and social circles to thrive.  As I said before, no business can succeed without a community to support them.  No painter, musician or actor can continue publishing their art, songs or stories if no one sees or listens to them.  So it validates our relationships in all their glory no matter what the ties that bind.

The world is violent place, pretending it’s not causes no end of heartache and trouble.  What’s the quote, “Evil men succeed when good men do nothing” or something to that effect.  We miss the point when we figure love should conquer all.  It does, but sometimes we have to use the stick of love instead of the helping hand.  There are people out there who are not damaged, abused or neglected but selfish to the core and uncaring about who they hurt as long as they get theirs.  Denying these people exist will only hurt all the more when they run us over.  Every macro culture and micro culture will contain a selection all types of people.  Hopefully, there are more of the type who construct and sustain than those who destroy or drain it.

My point being, no matter how we slice it, we still need to continue in community with one another.  All the wealth in the world and toys it brings will not replace solid loving relationships.  The man or woman who works hard and is successful will feel more so when there’s someone else to share it with and appreciate his or her efforts.  Loneliness sucks, folks.  In contrast, however, the person who cannot seem to get it off the ground no matter how hard they work will also feel better about life when they share it with someone who cares for them and for whom they care.