Thursday, March 21, 2013

An Alternative to Anger

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Matt. 5:22).

For the rest of his life he would remember that moment; he would play it in his mind again and again hoping that at the critical juncture something else might happen and the story would unfold differently. It never did. No matter how deeply we reach into our memory we can never grasp a moment and change it.

Were Moses here to tell us the story he might explain to us that he simply ‘lost it.’ The quarreling and complaining had become too much. This time it was the lack of water that provoked grumbling and accusation from among the people. Moses handled the situation wisely. He laid the matter before God, and there at the tent of meeting God assured Moses and Aaron that he would provide water for the people, and he told them what to do.

But even after his prayer session, Moses was wound tight, edgy and seething. God had told Moses to speak to the rock and the water would flow. But Moses gave vent to his anger. He raised his staff and swung it twice against the rock with a sharp slap. And from the rock grace flowed, gushing wet and abundant for the people to drink.

As the water made mud on the dry earth and people cupped their hands beneath the impossible fountain, something inside Moses dried up, shriveled and twisted. That’s what anger does to us. What should have been an act of obedience had become a loss of self-control.

All of us have had moments when we lost it. We’ve done or said something we wish we’d thought about before we did it or said it. This story tells us that venting our anger can have destructive consequences. Sometimes the one my anger kills is me.

Jesus drew a straight line from the angry heart to the murderous hand. In both, the self has become so inflated that there is no room for God. This helps us understand God’s instruction not to take revenge on someone else. God says that “vengeance is mine. I will repay” (Romans 12:19). When we strike out in revenge, venting our anger or taking a life, we have usurped God’s rightful place.

The story of what happened to Moses is not simply a story about punishment. This story is a story about trust. What God says to Moses is “you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites” (Nu. 20:12). At root, the alternative to venting our anger is trusting God. Self –control asks “Can I stay out of the way long enough for God to act in this situation . . . Can I hold my tongue, can I get a grip on my anger?” When we say “yes” in that moment we honor God as holy.

In what area of your life are you most often tempted to ‘lose it’? Is it at home with the kids, at work with your colleagues? What will it mean for you to trust God with that part of your life today?

Gracious God, I want my life to show that you are worthy of trust; I want to live every detail of this day knowing that you really have everything under your control. Knowing that your control is sure, my self-control is then possible. Help me to live this way today, I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Soul's Doppler Radar

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Matt. 5:22).

Saturday here in the Atlanta area was a taunt. More cold air rolled in last night.

Those of us who live here are craving spring. The same is probably true of much of the country. The good people of Minneapolis feel no sorrow for us, laughing at our impatience with morning lows in the 30s or 40s. But this is Georgia, after all, and some kind of internal barometer tells us that frosty mornings should be a thing of the past.

The harbingers of springtime in Atlanta are beautiful: mild warm days, blooming azaleas, the gentle music that plays in the background of those commercials for the Master’s Tournament in Augusta.

And then there are the storms. The beauty around here is often coupled with a beast, and this beast made its presence felt last night as the cold air changed its mind about making an exit.

I had managed to get home before things got too intense. Local news stations were all over it. I marvel at the technology that allows us to track storms, to identify where lightning is striking, to discern rotating wind patterns that suggest the formation of a tornado, to predict when the heaviest rains and winds will be arriving in specific communities that are in the path of a storm.

It seems fitting that the most intense areas of the storm are shaded red – the color of rage and anger. In the relatively safe confines of my home I watched a red slice of turbulence move in from the west. I could tell how close it was likely to be to where I live. Radar allowed me to see it coming. Radar told me it would soon pass.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could track the rage within ourselves as effectively as we do the storms that rumble in the air above us?

Jesus said that our anger is one of the most common ways that we violate God’s command not to murder. This troubles us. Most of us can easily congratulate ourselves at having never broken this commandment. If a job application asks “Have you murdered anyone?” we can check the ‘no’ box with a clean conscience.

But Jesus won’t let us bow to our own applause without looking deeper: The anger that explodes, the rage that builds and erupts, the outburst that shouts ‘raca’ or ‘fool’ at someone else – these are the means by which we kill.

Is it possible to see these storms coming? Is there something in us that tells us that a deep red wedge of anger is moving in on the soul?

One such source of ‘radar’ for the soul might be the simple act of coming into God’s presence. Jesus suggests that it is there that we become aware that something isn’t right.

Where do you sense a storm brewing within yourself today? What do you need to do to take precautions?

Merciful God, guard me from the sudden storms of anger that often are unleashed at others around me. Help me to see these storms as they approach. Make me honest about my anger. Don’t let it wreak havoc in my heart or my home. Cover me with your grace, I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Concealed Weapon

With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God (James 3:9).

Recently the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that small knives will be allowed on airplanes beginning April 25th.

There are some specific criteria as to what constitutes a ‘small’ knife. Acceptable knives will have a blade no longer than 2.36 inches and less than 1 inch wide. The blade must be retractable and cannot lock into place. Razorblades and box cutters are still banned.

The announcement has not been celebrated by many insiders in the airline industry. Notably, Delta CEO Richard Anderson has criticized the decision, observing that the changed rule will present added risks while doing little to impact customer experience at airport security check points. The Flight Attendants Union Coalition is actively working to reverse the TSA’s decision.

When does a small knife become a weapon? Is it possible to regard a sharp blade as harmless or conclude that it presents no appreciable risk to staff and passengers? These are some questions behind the debate. The TSA seems willing to recognize that a person may have a blade, but the blade itself is not a threat. Given certain parameters, it will not be regarded as a weapon.

As we think about God’s prohibition against bearing false witness, some similar questions can be asked of the human tongue and the words it forms. The human tongue is about 4 inches long. The average weight is somewhere between 60-70 grams. It is not a big muscle, but it is very strong – and capable of doing great harm. As the apostle James wrote, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire” (James 3:5).

Of course – like a small knife – the tongue need not always be regarded as dangerous. James acknowledges that with our tongue we bless our Lord and Father. The tongue makes it possible for us to give praise to God. And yet, with that same tongue we can curse another person made in God’s image. When does the tongue become a weapon? How is it that we bless with one sentence and then curse someone else in the next?

In our reflections on the commandment against bearing false witness we have included a broad variety of falsehoods. There are plenty of ways that we use words and language to cloud the truth. But let’s remember that the commandment speaks specifically of what we do with words that are aimed at another person. The act of false witness that God addresses is a false witness “against a neighbor” - words used as weapons to harm someone else.

When does the tongue become a weapon? That depends on what you do with it and how you use it.

James reminds us that we have the capacity to bless and to curse. Perhaps the prohibition against bearing false witness needs to be balanced with a word of positive instruction. Use your tongue to bless others. Let your words and your speech be a means by which God’s grace is poured into someone’s life. When you bless the person made in God’s image, God is glorified as well.

Be specific and intentional about doing this today. Whom will you bless with your words and how will you do so?

Gracious God, use my words today as a means of blessing someone around me. Move my heart and mouth to praise you and let every word I speak be an expression of that praise. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Our Fears and Falsehoods

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh” (Genesis 18:15).

Why do people lie?

Of the many things that God could have spoken in giving guidance and instruction to his people, why did God choose to tell the Hebrews (and us) not to bear false witness against a neighbor?

We rarely ask this question. Perhaps we live in such a deceit-ridden culture that we simply assume that people lie and thus the need for God’s command is obvious. But what motives lurk behind the lies? What gives rise to rumors and gossip, to misrepresentations and accusations?

Maybe our falsehoods are driven by ambition. We distort the truth to get ahead, to close the deal, to make ourselves look better than we are. Sometimes we have to admit that our falsehoods are driven by animosity to another person. We simply don’t like someone or some group of people; we relish hearing their faults and feigning concern as we turn around and repeat them to others.

But if we’ll peel back the thick rind of both our ambitions and our animosities what we will likely find at the core is fear. At some level all of our falsehoods are rooted in the shared soil of fear.

The biblical stories around Abraham and Sarah give us a picture of two people who sought to follow God, and yet were deeply flawed. Thankfully, these stories teach us that the following and the flaws are not mutually exclusive. One glaring flaw that both of them shared was their willingness to play fast and loose with the truth.

When famine forced Abraham (Abram) to live in Egypt, he feared that the Egyptians would be so taken by Sarai’s (Sarah’s) beauty that they would kill him in order to have her. In his fear he planned a deception. “Say that you are my sister . . . so that my life will be spared because of you.” Later on he repeated the same lie to Abimelech. Both times, fear is behind the falsehood.

When Sarah overhears from visiting strangers that God will give her a baby within the year, she laughs at this word of promise. The Lord responds: “Why did Sarah laugh?” And then we are told, “Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh’.” Again, a fear-driven lie.

And what about us? What fears drive our deceptions?

When our false witness is a misrepresentation of who we are, we may be driven by a fear of not measuring up. We may fear that the truth of who we are is not enough to win respect or acceptance or approval of others. When our false witness is aimed at someone else we may feel threatened – perhaps fearful that someone else will receive the approval we yearn for.

What’s the strategy to counter this? Many of us tend to fear the wrong things. We fear other people. We fear events that are beyond our control. The Bible, however, urges us to fear the Lord. It has been said that those who fear the Lord won’t need to fear anything else. Those who do not fear the Lord will fear everything else.

What other connections do you see between fear and falsehood?

Grant us grace, O God, that is greater than all our fears. Cause our hearts to so reverence you that we are free to live truthfully. Make us truthful about and with ourselves; make us truthful about and with others. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Things We Want (and what we'll do to get them)

You shall not steal . . . you shall not covet (Exodus 20: 15, 17)

In 2001 actress Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting in a Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue. Some crimes garner public attention because they are unusually bold or cruel. This act of theft, amounting to about $5,000 in swanky clothes, was simply baffling. Why would a Hollywood actress steal clothes?

Ryder hardly needed what she took. Given the nature of her profession and the success she had enjoyed at that time, she either owned or had access to plenty of clothes. Need won’t explain the deed. And Ryder was perfectly capable of paying for what she took – or at least most of it. If she truly wanted those items her desires could have been satisfied the old fashioned way: buy them.

When Ryder was convicted in 2002, Time did an article to explore what might have been behind this act of thievery. The article provided a helpful statistical summary of the economic impact that shoplifting has on retailers. It also asked questions about Ryder’s state of mind when she committed the crime, trying to identify the characteristic behaviors and thought patterns that are associated with kleptomania.

The article was helpful and informative, but not adequate. What the article failed to address is the fundamental reality of human sin. Something in us is broken. Our deepest problems are not economic or psychological. At our core we are alienated from our creator. Sometimes in our efforts to repair what we sense is broken, we accumulate stiff. For some, accumulation means taking.

This week we will turn our attention to two commandments that deal with the ‘stuff’ we own or wish we owned. One commandment addresses the means by which we acquire things. As we walk God’s path we are told not to steal. The other commandment looks beneath the act of acquiring to the heart that craves. Not only are we not to steal, we are not to covet what see others have.

Let’s begin with some definitions. First, stealing. God’s intent at creation was that people would work and thus benefit from the fruit of their labor. Theft is a refusal to accept this; theft diminishes the humanity of both the thief and the victim. The thief refuses to work. The victim is deprived of the fruit of his or her work.

Coveting: Eugene Peterson rightly observes that “to covet is to fantasize a life other than what is given to me.” Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas add this insight: “Our problem as humans is not that we are full of desire, aflame with unfulfillment. Our problem is that we long for that which is unfulfilling. We attempt to be content with that which can never satisfy.”

We are baffled by Winona Ryder’s failed heist. But let’s not flatter ourselves too easily; we are like her. We have a love affair with ‘stuff’ in this culture. It shows itself in different ways and in the days ahead we will try to understand our shared condition.

By your grace, O God, work deep in our heart and change us. Grant to us the gift of a contented heart, free of a gnawing desire for things that cannot make us whole or fix our lives. Teach us to rest in your care and provision, this day and always, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.