The Boldness to Bless
I am reluctant to offer much from my own life as an exemplar of blessing, but now and then life blends in such a way that a living example seems appropriate. Before we get to that, we need to acknowledge that it is a steep learning curve that we’re on in respect to blessing those who’ve cursed us. But enemies are not the only people who need a blessing. Our families and friends need our kindness and good words as well. Moreover, there is a large assembly of people who fit none of the above categories. They’re not friends. They’re not family. They’re not enemies. The Scriptures call them strangers.
There is quite a lot that the Bible has to say about that, but we’ll just have a look at this one passage: You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.~Deuteronomy 10: 19 This of course is just another variation of the Golden Rule. That one says we’re to treat others as we’d like to be treated. This one says that we’re to treat others as we’ve been treated by God. It is a “pay it forward” theology.
So, back to the story. This morning I dropped by a convenience store to buy a couple of waters for the thirsty day ahead. Ever hopeful of truth in advertising, I purchased two Smart Waters! As I exited the store I heard the plaintive wail of a human being undone by grief. I looked around and sized up the situation. There was an elderly woman trying her best to comfort a young man. There is often a natural shyness involved when we come upon situations like these. Ministry has not inured me of that shyness. I could very well be the preacher in the Good Samaritan Story who scurried past the suffering stranger in the ditch. I started up my truck and was determined to do just that. I didn’t want to get involved. But my truck seemed to will itself to stop at another parking spot. I began to pray, argue and voyeuristically observe the scene through my rearview mirror. My body felt like wet cement. I finally said, “Okay Jesus. You win. Let’s do this.”
I grabbed my chaplain tag from Durango Fire & Rescue and walked over and asked the young man if he was okay. As he began to process this total stranger in his midst, I just held up my arms in an open embrace. Much to my surprise this tall, muscular young man moved in, crushed me in a hug and continued weeping. I asked what had happened. He told me that he and his wife had just received the news that their unborn baby was dead – dead in the womb. She was sitting in the car crying. I asked if I could offer a prayer. The “not to be” grandma and the young man agreed. So, in a convenience store parking lot we prayed. It was a thing of tragic beauty.
As I said my goodbyes, the young man followed me to my truck and said: “My mom just told me that God would send help. She just told me that. I can’t believe you showed up out of nowhere.” I was a little stunned myself.
I don’t always get these things right. A number of times I’ve been so agenda driven that I’ve sped past human tragedy. But not this day. The Lord taught me today to forget the vanity of being thought the fool or a busybody and just wade in. Strangers need blessings too. I hope you’re encouraged to give it a go as well.
I’ve crossed many a doorstep over the years and in so doing have laid my eyes on, and heard of, a number of interesting and amusing welcome mats – to wit: “The Neighbors Have Better Stuff”; “Welcome/Goodbye”; “We Already Have A Personal Relationship With Jesus”; “Hi! My Name Is Mat!”; “Trap Door!”; “I Love My Vacuum Cleaner & I Gave At The Office!”; “Hello From The Other Side”; “Please Deposit Your Literature In The Nearby Recycling Bin”; one with an image of Yoda that says, “Welcome You Are”; and another with just an image of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre guy. Nice.
Why not? A few passive-aggressive tendencies adorning the front of our homes is innocent enough. And for many, it doesn’t end with a doormat. Above the entrance of our home we’ve a wee sign that we picked up in Ireland that says: Céad Mile Fáilte ( A Hundred Thousand Welcomes). We also have an American Flag and a Celtic Cross. A salesman or a missionary can form a fractional profile of what awaits them should we choose to answer the door. I consider it a sacred right notto answer my door if I’m not in the mood, fully clothed or happen to be writing devotionals!
There is a point to all of this. At one time in the storied history of Israel God gave some great advice through his servant Moses in respect to front doors and such. Here’s what was said: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. ~Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Why all of this? The Lord was giving some very practical ways by which to train the mind. We are what we think. Having a small memento on the doorframes and gates reminded the Israelites that they were to take the name of the Lord into the world and to remember to bring him back once they got home. If we roll over and steward our thoughts towards chaos, angst and anger there is high degree of probability that’s what we’ll radiate to all those around us. But if we think God thoughts we’ll give the world what it needs – a blessing.
We must make the effort. Yes, the Lord will empower us but we need to get moving. When Jesus is talking about another of his favorite subjects, i.e. righteousness, he says that those who hunger and thirst for it will be rewarded. He uses two of our most visceral needs – hunger and thirst – to dramatize the point. All of us have known hunger and thirst. Few of us have cried out for righteousness with the same enthusiasm whereby we bust open the refrigerator. It is the distance between those desires that underscores both how far we have to go and how much effort is involved.
And so it goes with this subject of forgiving our enemies. He has said it. We’re to do it. No argument there. But the doing of it is as painful as the process of healing is with a burn victim. Everything comes clamoring to the forefront: pride, justice, defensiveness, honor, logic. All of these get hammered by the attempt. And we find, once we’ve made the effort, it is not as easy as just saying the words of blessing or offering forgiveness. Our brains are wired in such a way that trauma sticks. We end up having a catalogue of offenses that together form a nifty case of forgiveness post-traumatic stress disorder.
What are we to do? First of all we’re to offer ourselves up to the mercies that are new…every morning. God wakes us up and greets us as if every stumble of yesterday is not only old news, but more radically, completely erased from the hard drive. We’re not to presume to labor over our failures if He has chosen not to. That is called grace. That is called mercy. As believers we are invited to avail ourselves of its vast, oceanic supply. If we’ve asked forgiveness then we’ve been forgiven. End of story. He is teaching us something about how to do it by how He does it.
So with this comes a calming down. Yes, we failed. So what? It was expected. How could we not? Do we wish to not fail again, or to be taught how to succeed? If the answer is yes, the lesson has been learned. So we awake the next day with two things going for us. Heaven offers mercy. We offer our “want to.” Heaven will always work with our want-to.
The Authenticating Mark
In some translations of the Bible we come across headings that have been inserted to help us know what the upcoming section is about. They’re “extra-biblical” and not at all necessary, but I don’t mind them in the least. The encapsulation sort of helps guide the reading.
We’ve been lingering recently over the opening verses of Romans 12. If we drop down a bit, the NIV gives us one of those brief overview headings which says this: Love in Action. So, let’s hear what Paul has to say about love in action: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.~Romans 12:9-13 We can break those down into one word, bite-size instructions. Love must be: sincere, good, devoted, honoring, fervent, joyful, hopeful, patient, faithful, prayerful and hospitable. This section is not unlike Paul’s famous words in I Corinthians 13, often referred to as the Love Chapter.
It seems fairly evident that what Paul has been referring to, for the most part, is how Christians are to behave toward other Christians. And the above list is enough to keep most of us hopping for quite some time. But it is the very next verse that ties it all together and brings us right back to the subject that has captured our attention for the past few weeks: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. ~Romans 12:14
We can’t escape this command that Jesus taught. We find it throughout the balance of the New Testament. It is not an outlier teaching of our faith. It is central to our faith. It is not enough to merely love fellow Christians – although many times that in itself can be a precipitous challenge! And along those lines you might recall that bit when Jesus said that it was no grand spiritual triumph to love those who love us back. He mentioned that even those scurrilous Romans could manage reciprocal love. No, for our love portfolio to be complete, we’re given this assignment as well – we are to bless those who persecute us. It was the authenticating mark of Jesus and for the church that would follow.
Everyone Needs An Island
John Donne, the 17thcentury English poet, managed in one short poem to pen two iconic lines that we still hear today: to wit; “No man is an island entire of itself…” and, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” ~MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne. It is a beautiful and thoughtful poem showing the ultimate connectivity of humankind.
Now, the part about no man being an island – that is mostly true. We need other people to get through life and to discover our way and our why. The self-made man is a bit of a conceit. Even a self-made man had nothing to do with his own conception, birth, changing of diapers and so forth. However, while no man is an island, I would say we each have need of an island. There must remain a part of us that is untouched by the push and pull and noise of the congested metropolis of ideas. Our minds need an island, an oasis, a place of rest where we can renew our thoughts to the eternal view of things. You won’t get that from the 24/7 news cycle. There your worst fears and hidden prejudices will be exploited and both the desire and ability to bless others will become anemic – even to the point of death.
So, Paul tells us: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. We each have that responsibility – to not conform but to transform – to find that little island called the mind and nourish it no matter the cost. I can’t do it for you. You can’t do it for me. And Paul continues with the “why” of it: “…so that you may prove to yourself what is the good, pleasant, and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:2b If we’re being played, if our thoughts are being crafted by an angry world – the perfect will of God will seem naïve and even offensive. We’re to fight! We’re to resist! We’re to label! We’re to fear! We’re to mock! The will of God will only makes sense and becomes good, pleasant and perfect for those who choose to share their island with him.
Training For Death
Socrates once said, “All of philosophy is training for death.” ~Excerpt of Phaedo This comes from the man who is credited with the founding of moral philosophy and the study of ethics. Many Christian theologians down through the years considered him a pagan prophet almost on par with the Old Testament prophets of old. The Socratic method, where one systematically questions the premise of another’s stated belief, remains as a necessary and valuable tool to get at truth. Questions such as: “What do you believe about that? Why do you believe it? How did you come by that belief?” and so forth quickly peel the onion down to the core. We often find through such questioning a mass of unoriginal, conflicting and subjective ideas that have been collected like lint from snatches of cultural buzz. There is no core but rather a scratchy recording of something read or heard somewhere and sometime by someone.
The Apostle Paul knew all of this. He once employed a bit of the Socratic method to a gathering of bearded philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens. Luke faithfully records the scene in Acts 17. It’s a good read. And Paul, having been steeped in Greek philosophy, Rabbinical method, and now the spirit-filled Christian faith spent his life dismantling weak thinking. He knew that the thoughts of the world would eventually hollow out the soul and inevitably alienate man from man, and man from God. It would not, in the words of Socrates, train the soul for death.
And so, Paul says, Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. ~Romans 12:2 The word for transformed is: μεταμορφόω (me-tä-mor-fo’-ō). It is the word used to describe the process whereby a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It is also the same word that was employed to describe Christ’s transfiguration in front of Peter, James and John: After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfiguredbefore them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. ~Mark 9:2-4
Paul tells us that this transfiguration, this metamorphosis, takes place as we renew our minds. It is not a one and done. It is a deliberate and lifelong process. Real change has to be embraced. Some new moral muscles will get a work-out. And, as with all new exercise regimes…it will hurt!
Feasting on Rage
In the passage we looked at yesterday Paul told us not to conform to the patterns of this world. The word conform carries within it a sense of the wannabe. A conformist wants to fit in and in so doing spends his or her days studying the norms and the nomenclature from whatever group they desire acceptance. Since most of us pride ourselves on our independence and originality of thought, we might think that this advice has nothing to do with us. We couldn’t be more wrong. Oftentimes when I think the sermon is for someone else, I’m quickly disabused of that conceit. And this one in particular – being a conformist – is one that we all need to hear. And now more than ever.
When I was growing up the rabbit ears on our black and white TV brought in three or four stations. The evening news was just that – a report on what had taken place on that particular day and with very little commentary, opinion or spin. The major newspapers had their political preferences, no doubt, but much of that was confined to the opinion page. In other words, news didn’t really define us so much as inform us. In my town, people of differing political parties actually liked each other, sat in church together and joined the Rotary Club together.
All that has changed. The effort to rent space in our brains is now a 24/7 enterprise driven by people who seem to have no unfiltered or unpublished thought. Hyperbole and vitriol dominate and poison nearly every form of communication and we’ll all expected to take a side. Conformity is the goal. We’re no longer being encouraged to think, we’re being told whatto think.
In our present culture, Paul’s words become more important than ever, and especially so in light of our desire to become a people of God who practice blessing and praying for others. It is an impossible task to carry out if we’re feasting on the rage that is the current pattern of this world. In order to pull off this great command of Jesus, we must know peace at a very deep place in our souls. So Paul continues…Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Not conformed, but transformed. We’ll pick up there tomorrow.
The Apostle Paul was a multiculturalist long before it became a hip and trendy thing. He had been raised in the Jewish faith but also instructed in the ways of Greek thought. He was the perfect choice to become an Apostle to the Gentile world. He understood the various philosophies that were both ancient and current. He paved the way for Christian scholarship by finding the footprints of God scattered throughout pagan cultures and making connections back to the Christian faith.
While appreciative of good thinking that originated outside of the faith, he also knew the danger of allowing his mind to marinate too long in that eclectic stew of thought. As he wrote to the church at Rome, in that most soaring of his Apostolic epistles, he shared this bit of counsel: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. ~Romans 12:2a
The good Apostle knew that conformity was the wide path, the easy road, the safe bet. The word in the Greek is: συσχηματίζω(sü-skhā-mä-tē’-zō). It means to pattern yourself after another,or to try and copy the thoughts and mannerisms of another. The greatest fear amongst those who conform to the world is that of being rejected. They spend their days leaching and echoing the thoughts of others hoping to find acceptance. That makes a conformist the least original thinker on the planet.
Over the next couple of days I’ll have more to say on this brief excerpt from Paul. But for now, I just want us to reach back to another brilliant mind – the old Brit, G.K. Chesterton – and allow our thoughts to take in a bit of his wit and wisdom. Each of these help make our point…
“The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.”by G. K. Chesterton A Defense of Humilities, The Defendant, 1901
“Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”by G.K. Chesterton What’s Wrong With The World, 1910
“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
by G. K. Chesterton ILN, 4/19/30
Teach Us to Number Our Days
Becoming the blessing we wish to bestow….that’s what’s before us. How do we get there? The answer is relatively simple but the application is demanding. It mostly has to do with how we master or fail to master our churning thought-life. And boy does it churn.
Our mind is like the wild west. There are nefarious, unkempt characters around every corner. When we add to that an image that is marred by the fall and a misguided quest for self-worth, we are an easy target for the machinations of hell. We fancy ourselves original thinkers, but a few well thought-out questions is usually enough to expose a rickety structure of group-think. CS Lewis once said that God was the only being with an original thought. And I find that to be sadly true. What rattles out of most people’s mouths is nothing more than the spotty recitation of something they’ve heard somewhere from someone. Moreover, because the thinkers behind group-think toss out new permutations and mutations of what we’re to think, on almost a daily basis, we end up with a mare’s nest of conflicting ideas in our brain. Often those thoughts bang into each other. If it happens enough we become hollowed out – unsure of what we’re to believe or what we’re to say in the presence of the various groups with whom we socialize.
Unless we get this sorted out, we’ve no internal well from which to draw to bless people. We will at once be worried about the latest trend and rightly suspicious – and even repulsed – by our own clash of thoughts. Psychologists tell us that this is a recipe for depression. And the United States, wealthy though we are, consumes more anti-depressants than the rest of the world. We lead the pack with 110 per 1000 of population. That is startling. Absolutely startling.
And why? The Christian response is that we’ve not centered our life, our thoughts on what is true. In the quest to fit into this world we’ve abandoned the next world. And the Christian faith is all about living out this life with that end and that eternal beginning in view. In the one Psalm credited to Moses, Psalm 90, he said this: So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Psalm 90:12 Do you see the connection between thinking about our mortality, eternity, and what we put in our minds, i.e. wisdom? It is a prevalent theme of Scripture and the very pathway that leads us to becoming the blessing we wish to bestow.
Back To It
We’ve had a look at a couple of exceptions to the rule – the rule being that we as Christians have signed up for blessing and praying for our enemies. It is a steep climb and one that will keep us scrambling until the day we die. Enemies abound but so does taking offense. We need not classify someone with the notorious title of enemy for them to be the target of our bad will. They can be almostan enemy. I’ve known plenty of families whose various members have not spoken to one another in years. Yes, even Christian families. Enemies, or almostenemies can come from any direction and at any time. We must be vigilant of our heart towards all.
One more word about the exceptions to the rule. Jesus soundly rebuked those in the crowd who credited a miracle to the devil. Because those lads were religious leaders making wild accusations in a public setting and within earshot of vulnerable hearts, Jesus acted. Those situations, while not all that common, do happen from time to time. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve called out such shenanigans only a handful of times. The other sort I mentioned were those who were involved in some sort of universally agreed upon self-destructive or other-destructive behavior. We used as an example a local drug-dealer. We could have mentioned the local pimp or child-trafficker or any other number of vile professions. The point being is that those people are still in need of a blessing but not the sort where we pray that God would bless everything they put their hands to! No, we pray for them a prayer with the long view in mind – mostly that they would knock it off and have a “come to Jesus” moment. When that happens it will feel like a curse on their end, but we knowthat it is indeed a blessing.
Now that we’ve covered the exceptions, it is time to return to the hard command. That is the one that will consume most of our days on this earth. So, back to it.
In order to consistently practice blessing others we must first be blessed. Absent that, we will be firing blessing blanks. A heart that is full of rage, insecurities, petty jealousies, and trendy meme addictions will have a hard time putting a life of blessing into play. Wretched people tend to speak wretched things. To get to the good stuff requires effort. To get there requires a lot of unwinding from the life we’ve known. To get there requires learning to train our minds in new ways. And at each step I can absolutely guarantee a number of stumbles. But that’s okay. God knows us better than we know ourselves and he has factored our failures into the plan for becoming the blessing we wish to bestow.