Tuesday’s Truth – You Better Find Somebody to Love

Hello again! I know, I’m a day late with this one. It’s not even very long, so that’s not my excuse. Mostly, I was letting an idea marinate, to see if it was what was really supposed to go up this week. And I think that it is. Today I want to share with you something that seems so simple, but yet is often so difficult for Christians to put into practice. It’s one of the central features of Jesus’ life, and yet probably the one we least like to imitate. What is it? Simply put, it is loving sinners. I’m not interested in discussing specific lifestyles, actions, or choices that you or I believe are sinful. That’s not what’s at issue here. The sin isn’t the issue; our action is. Let’s use a bare-bones definition of a sinner – anyone who has not believed in salvation from sin through the death of Jesus. That’s who we’re talking about this week.

 

We like to say that we love sinners and want to bring them into God’s family. But many of us (I’ve been guilty of this too) only love people “outside the fold” in an abstract sort of way. We don’t go outside of the church and love them (socialize with them, care for them in times of need, encourage them, etc.); we hope that they will “get saved” so that they can be like us and then we can really love them.

 

Why do we do this? I think there are lots of different reasons. Sometimes we are afraid that if we associate with people who don’t follow all the same rules as us (this can even apply to other Christians sometimes, sadly) we will become “less saved” and fall into sin. If we associate with someone who uses profane language, we’ll start using it too. If we socialize with someone who drinks too much, we’ll become alcoholics as well. If we befriend someone who’s living with their boyfriend or girlfriend, we’ll become sexually immoral. While we certainly need to be on our guard to not be sucked into sin or worldliness, we are promised that we have not been given “a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” (2 Timothy 1:7) God doesn’t save us and then allow us to be weak and fragile in the face of sin. If that were true, wouldn’t He just transport each person to heaven as soon as they believed, because they would be too delicate to remain in the world? We need to have more faith in the spirit God has placed within us. If we are loving the lost in the way that God has called us to, we don’t have to worry about being dragged away from Him.

 

Sometimes we avoid people we see as sinners because we just don’t know how to interact with them. We may have been sheltered by our parents during childhood, and by our church during adulthood, that we feel that we have nothing in common with those outside the church. They don’t understand our “holy-speak” and we don’t understand the things that they enjoy or that they are upset by. This is a legitimate obstacle, but one that must be overcome if we want to claim that we really love the lost. How do we do it? A little bit at a time, I think. Look for ways to find common ground with the unsaved around you. If you were homeschooled, went to a Christian college, and then worked in a parachurch organization, you probably don’t want to start out trying to connect with a biker gang. Baby steps, folks. What about the neighbors who have kids the same age as your kids? Or maybe fellow athletes on a community team? Start by finding the things that are the same about you, and hopefully they’ll see the differences between you in a positive light that turns them towards Jesus. (Which means that you’ll have to be careful to make those differences positive!)

 

Finally, I think a huge reason we neglect to actively, tangibly love sinners around us is arrogance and pride. We have our list of the really bad sins, and people in our lives who commit one of those sins are just too “dirty” for us. We can’t be friends with that guy at work, because it might expose our children to the evil in the world if they found out how he lives. We can’t let our daughter invite the neighbor girl over to play because her mommy doesn’t have good enough morals. We see ourselves as “good” and “pure” and these others as “bad” or “corrupted” and we’re afraid that they will rub off on us, or somehow diminish our goodness. We think that it is a case of oil and water, and that mixing is simply  impossible.

 

Friends, that’s not how it works, for so many reasons. First off, you are not so great. Before you were saved, you were, in the eyes of God, just as lost as the most sinful person you can think of. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) In His mercy God saved you, and in His mercy He can save others. There is no award for being saved, because you didn’t earn it or accomplish it. If God can love and have grace and mercy for the lost, surely you should be able to. If you are not a slave to sin, it is because Jesus paid for your freedom, and not because you were inherently strong or good.

 

Second, the sin of others can’t just “rub off” on us. It’s not like the flu – it doesn’t just spread, I promise. I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of people with all the different brands of sin, and I haven’t become ensnared by any of them. But don’t ask me, ask Jesus. He spent more time with the lost than most of us ever will, and yet he remained without sin. Jesus loved a fraudulent tax collector (Zacchaeus – Luke 19:1-10), an adulterous woman (the Samaritan at the well – John 4:1-26),  and so many others that he and his disciples were infamous for their associations with the moral and religious outcasts (Matthew 9:10-11, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:29-30, Luke 7:34).  Jesus didn’t see his righteousness and purity as something to be jealously guarded and protected, but as something to be shared. He knew the importance having faithful friends who loved and worshipped God and set that example for us in his choosing of the disciples. We all need a community of people who share our faith and can encourage us. But Jesus also showed us how important it is for us to let the love we receive from our relationship with the Father spill over into the world around us, particularly to those who have not yet experienced the love of God. Jesus didn’t come so that good, moral Christians would have something in common; he came so that the sinful, the lost, the broken could be saved, healed, and restored (Matthew 9:12) And that is the job he left to us when he returned to the Father (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).

 

To wrap this all up, I’m not sure exactly why this is what I felt compelled to write about this week. Perhaps it will be a timely challenge and reminder to some of you. Maybe it will convict someone. I know it has challenged me just thinking about it, evaluating how I live in relation to the lost around me. Do I judge, or do I love? So often Christians feel that we have the right, the responsibility even, to judge the sinners around us. But we don’t. Of all the commands and instructions and responsibilities that God gives us after we are saved, judging is not one of them. Not the unsaved, not the saved. He kept that job all for Himself. I get so frustrated by people who claim to be Christians, but then make Christianity so unattractive by loudly and obnoxiously judging and denouncing sinners. Yes, sin is a problem. It’s a huge problem. It’s the problem. But we don’t win people to Christ by telling them how terrible they are and how they are ruining society. We don’t make Christ attractive by proclaiming our own goodness and righteousness. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of their sin, and it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance, not our bashing or our boasting. (Romans 2:4)

 

Loving the lost is a risky proposition. It opens your eyes to see people the way that God does. It allows for the possibility that you will care about someone who refuses to answer the call to salvation. You may see those you love lost for eternity. God calls us to love the way that He does, and that kind of love opens the door to all sorts of pain. God’s heart aches continually for the lost who refuse His loving advances. And yet the rewards are just as infinite. When you see the lost saved, broken lives made new, sick souls healed, and people transformed by the power of Christ, there is nothing more amazing. You get to be a witness to something that causes all the angels to rejoice. I don’t know how God is calling you to love those around you. But I do know that He is calling you to it. Please seek Him this week, and don’t just wait for an answer – get out there and start loving some sinners!

 

Peace!

 

 

 

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Tuesday’s Truth – It’s Tradition!

Welcome to another week. Today’s topic is something that we’re all familiar with – traditions. We all have them, whether we like them or not. We learn them, adjust them, abandon and create them throughout life. If you’re at all like me,  you grew up with two sets of traditions for things like holidays, birthdays, and family gatherings. And then, if you married someone like my husband, you added in two more sets of traditions that were not only completely different from each other, but also completely different from the two you grew up with. They can be based on your ethnic background, religious beliefs, regional differences, and personal preferences. They can be mainstream or extreme, but either way, they are the main rules of “how we do things in this family”. And then, if you grew up in church, any church (or mosque, synagogue, or temple), you have a set of religious traditions that you carry around as well. Some of you have a very limited set, others (like myself) have a more “confused” bag of church traditions. For example, I was raised in a variety of evangelical churches, but I had family members who were Catholic, I attended a Baptist college, but then spent several years teaching at an Episcopal school. So I’ve had the full range of worship from pew kneelers to hand-raisers, environments from school gyms to stained glass, and sermon series based on popular movies as well as morning worship guided by the Book of Common Prayer. Eclectic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

 

Traditions are a crucial part of human culture and psychology. Our brains thrive on having a predictable framework for life. This is true at work, in the family, and in religion. Even those who reject what they see as “organized religion” still form their own traditions, rituals, and beliefs. Traditions help us connect with others, and help us bridge gaps in time and space. Traditions help the transmission of history and wisdom. Many traditions are enjoyable or comforting.

 

Traditions can have a negative side as well. They can be restrictive. They can be burdensome. They may be irrational, obsolete, or irrelevant. Traditions can keep people at a distance and create confusion. Some traditions may cause people to completely dismiss God or the church because they are too difficult to understand, too hard to follow, or too uncomfortable.

 

The thing about traditions is that they are only a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Too often, we become attached to a tradition, and force ourselves and others to “follow the rules” because it is tradition, rather than holding to a tradition because it is inherently valuable. An extreme example of this would be the extended segregation that was practiced in the southern United States even after the Civil Rights Act was passed, long after the myths about African Americans being sub-human or diseased or violent had been dispelled. White people didn’t want to associate with black people, but they couldn’t give a good reason why, they just knew that it wasn’t done: their grandparents and parents had avoided contact, and so should they. It was just the way things had always been, so it was they way they should be. That’s the biggest trap of traditions. Somehow we fall into a belief that tradition is more important than truth; that traditions should be followed because they are traditions, not because they serve a purpose or have sacred importance. We fear changing or discarding any traditional practice or position because we have so strongly linked “the way it has always be done” with “the way God wants us to do it”.

 

We seem particularly prone to this in religious and moral matters. We sometimes put more importance on the way our culture, church, or family has done things than on what God actually says (or doesn’t say) about many issues. (Please note, I am not saying that all moral positions are just traditions; I believe in moral absolutes, but only where God has made it clear that something is an absolute. Many of the things we hold tightly to are really interpretations and traditions, and we need to extend grace to each other, not judgment.) I witnessed an amusing example of this several years ago. My husband and I were still be living in the town where we attended college (a relatively conservative Baptist school). The college had very strict rules against any type of drinking, smoking, or other substance use, and most of the students had grown up in homes and churches that likewise took a very dim view of such things. However, at that moment, there happened to be a conference of Episcopal bishops and clergy meeting at the Episcopal school I taught in. Episcopalians have no tradition that frowns upon drinking or smoking in moderation. I had become used to this in my time working at the school, but many of the students attending my alma matter did not have the benefit of that experience. One evening during the bishops’ conference, we were enjoying dinner at a local pub and coffee shop, which was very popular with students (and which happened to be run by the rector of the local Episcopal church). The bishops and clergy had all decided to meet there as well. One of the men, with his purple shirt, clerical collar, and large cross, stepped outside for a smoke. At the table next to us, a young man, obviously from the Baptist college, was talking with his friend, and they could not reconcile in their minds how someone who was obviously a Christian minister could also be an unashamed smoker. Now, I’m not saying smoking is a good idea. We know that it is a serious health risk. However, it’s not expressly addressed in the scriptures, and so I can’t say that the smoking bishop was any less of a Christian, any less obedient to God, just because he smoked a cigarette and I did not. We must be cautious about letting our traditions  cloud our views of other sincere, God-fearing, people.

 

We fall into this trap in missions and evangelism too. We think that part of converting people to faith in Christ is making them like us. This was clearly the case in the early years of world missions, when missionaries from England and America would go to Africa and Asia and not only preach the Gospel, but also try to change the clothing, language, and the social and family structure of the people they had been sent to, as if making them Christians also meant making them English-speaking Westerners. At this point in history, we have gotten much better about being culturally sensitive, but the belief that changed hearts necessarily mean changed traditions still holds on. If we want to continue reaching people, both at home and abroad, we need to be more conscientious about to what extent we are asking people to obey God, and to what extent we are asking them to follow our own traditions. We need to not be afraid to confront and change tradition where it is no longer serving its intended purpose, and is instead serving to keep people farther from God.

 

I found a wonderful quote about this very thing in my leisure reading this week. I had just begun re-reading Charlotte Bronte’s classic, Jane Eyre, one of my very favorite books. I always have appreciated the philosophy and theology that Bronte weaves throughout her works, but I found this gem in her preface to the novel. She says, speaking of tradition,

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines for the world-redeeming creed of Christ.”

 

We are not the only ones to struggle with this balance between tradition and truth. The Jewish community in Jesus’ day had a very strong culture of traditions. Some where merely cultural, while many of them were based on the laws and regulations that God had given to Moses and the Israelites. In the end, however, they did not serve to help people cultivate their relationship with God, but to keep people from having that close, loving relationship with Him. Jesus himself chastised the religious leaders of the day, saying “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46) Jesus often disregarded Jewish custom, tradition, and regulation when it served his purpose of drawing people to himself. He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-3, Luke 13:9-11), and allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-3). When confronted by the religious leaders of the day, he rhetorically asked them whether it was better to do good or evil on the Sabbath (Luke6:9), basically turning the question of what observing the Sabbath meant back on their own heads. In Matthew 15, Jesus took part in a debate with the religious leaders about the value of traditions. He summed up his indictment of the religion of the day by saying, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:6b) To Jesus, the one person who perfectly fulfilled all of God’s law, the point was not the act of observing a ritual or of maintaining a tradition, but of living with one’s heart tuned to God.

 

Early church leaders also cautioned against those who professed to be Christians but insisted on new believers following the old Jewish customs in order to be saved or to be a part of the church.  This is what he had to say: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In Acts 15, Paul, James, Peter and other leaders of the early church determined that there was no point in making new believers (especially those from outside the Jewish culture) follow the traditions of Judaism, but to instruct them to obey the core of God’s law. Peter pointed out that the old traditions and rules had been too much even for centuries of faithful Jews. (Acts 15:10) In his letter to the Philippians, Paul warned the church not to be led astray by those who would seek to enforce Jewish customs in the name of salvation in Christ, because we are not saved by outward acts, but by inward belief. (Philippians 3:1-3) Disagreements about traditions often threatened to tear the early church apart, but the Apostles wisely intervened and taught their followers to put their focus on honoring God, rather than honoring man’s traditions.

 

Traditions can be useful and enjoyable, but they do not tell us much about how we really must live as children of God. Fortunately, the Bible is very clear on what really matters. The prophet Micah gave a clear description of a life lived rightly when he wrote, “No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Jesus summed up all of God’s laws in two simple (yet still not easy) requirements: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39) Outwith those few things, the rest is just window dressing. The design of your church, the order of service, the style of worship music, the fashion of your clothes, the way you celebrate holidays, the rituals you do or don’t observe – they may help you personally in your relationship with God, but they must not ever take the place of that relationship.

 

Be Blessed!

 

How do you feel about traditions, especially within Christianity? Are there any you find particularly valuable in your walk with God?