Tripped up again

 

My first ministry assignment out of seminary was a medium-sized church in a small town in Nebraska. Coming from the sprawling metropolis of Dallas-Ft Worth composed of millions of people to the somewhat more modest Lexington with a mere ten thousand souls was quite a culture shock. Going from the land of malls and movies, of shopping and spending, of busy schedules and out-of-control lives to the relative quiet of the country was refreshing, but it was clear that we “weren’t from around here”. I remember the comment (or complaint) made about how far the Wal-Mart was from town. It took almost 10 minutes to get there. Really…in Dallas it takes 10 minutes to get out of your neighborhood. But after living in Lexington for a year, we were already immersed in the culture. I found myself complaining about the drive to Wal-Mart. My wife had even learned to “put up corn”. And after 3 years we moved back to Dallas – an even bigger culture shock from Midwest small town life. But once again we’ve adjusted to life in the city. I’ve learned that I’m adaptable. It may take me awhile, but I can and eventually do conform to the culture around me. And being adaptable is a good thing, right?

James 4. The gloves come off. Up to this point, James has admonished; and he’s corrected. Now he’s going for the jugular. What’s the source of conflicts and struggles? It’s your selfishly motivated lusts that drive you. The same ones that drive me. And when those two collide, there’s quite an explosion. Imagine two two-year-olds throwing a tantrum over the toy they both want times a hundred. Far from loving our neighbor, we are in danger of murdering them to get our own way. Instead of seeing others from God’s perspective as those who are uniquely created in His image and purchased with Christ’s blood, we look at them from a worldly perspective as means to further our own selfish ends – to be used or discarded as dictated by our whims.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve two masters; you will either hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and money.” James simply says, “You can’t be a friend of both God and the world.” You have to choose one. Trying to serve both is adultery. Wow…very strong language.

James writes to the Jewish diaspora…Jewish believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Not just a single church. It’s not a singular problem. It’s a universal problem. You see, we’re all adaptable. And living in this world, it tends to mold us. It shapes our way of thinking and of interacting with those around us. It takes a very strong opposite thrust to resist the centrifical force of this world’s pull.

But God doesn’t want to leave us in this miserable state of being conformed to this world. He is jealous for us. His desire is that we grow to maturity, that, far from being conformed to this world, we become conformed to the image of His Son. James’ solution: back to the basics – submit to God, resist the devil, cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, humble yourself, control your tongue…only possible as we receive the Word implanted, as we become doers of the Word and not hearers only, as we ask God for wisdom to interpret our circumstances from His perspective.

Being adaptable can be a very good thing, especially when it is informed by the truth of God’s Word. Until next time…stay salty.

 

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What happened to community?

 

I was at our local Starbucks the other day with my son and one of his friends. I overheard the barista talking to another customer about the store closing and relocating across the street. No doubt there were other factors involved in management’s decision to change locations, but the one that the barista cited as the reason for the move: more space for a drive-thru window.

As I began to think about it more, it seemed pretty ironic. I mean what does Starbucks sell? Coffee? I can get coffee a lot of places for a lot less. No. Starbucks sells an experience…an experience of community. That was the idea. Coffee was just the excuse to get folks together. Like the small town coffee shop. A place where old men could catch up on gossip, folks could conduct business, and friends could reconnect. Like Cheers, it was a place “where everyone knows your name”. And it has been incredibly successful. (At last count there were at least 4 stores within a 2 mile radius of my house.) While the drive-thru will make it easier to grab Starbucks on the go on my way into the office, it screams of isolation, privacy, individuality, convenience…all those things that are antithetical to community.

True community is hard to grasp. It requires a great deal of self-sacrifice and self-denial. It forces us to consider others as much as we consider ourselves. It means we have to love really well. Thinking back to the end of James 3 where James contrasts worldly wisdom with God’s wisdom, this sentiment certainly applies. The wisdom of the world is all about self-promotion – those things that put me on top (and consequently you on bottom), that result in my success, that bring me the greatest amount of glory (building my own tower). But God’s wisdom is described as pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. It is a wisdom that promotes true community.

I don’t know if the drive-thru will be the new tread, but if so, it marks the end of a great idea – the Starbucks ethos – no longer do they sell an experience of community, they sell coffee. Just like McDonald’s, Duncan Donuts and a hundred other also rans. But who can blame them. True community is hard. It’s messy. It’s inconvenient. And it doesn’t always promote the bottom line.

Until next time…stay salty.

 

Tongue twister

Have you ever gotten in trouble for something you said? Maybe you meant to say something else, you had good intentions, but in the heat of the moment you said something really stupid and the fall out was pretty bad? My son and I had one of the those conversations the other day, and finally I had to tell him to stop talking because every time he tried to explain his actions, the hole he was digging for himself got deeper. I wish I could say it’s a problem of youth that you will one day outgrow, but unfortunately it’s not an age-related problem. It’s one of maturity.

James picks up this very topic in chapter 3. He begins with a warning to teachers. In a time when the written Word was not readily available to parishioners, apostolic succession was extremely important. You wanted to know that the guy who was teaching you was taught by a guy who was somehow connected to an apostle. You wanted to know that he was teaching the truth. So teachers then (and now) are held to a higher standard because their word is often received as truth. Don’t blow it.

Then James hits us, all of us. Even though the tongue is a very small part of our body, like the flaps on an airplane, the steering wheel in your car, or the spark that starts a forest fire, it is arguably the most  powerful part of our body. With it we can do great good, and with it we can also do unspeakable evil. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is dead wrong. Words do hurt. A lot.

James says that the ability to control our tongues is a mark of maturity. In fact, the person who is able to control his tongue is said to be able to control his whole body as well.  Why is that? Because out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. And this side of resurrection, there is still a lot of garbage in our hearts. It’s easier to say the right things and respond in a kind way when life is cruising along and the expected happens. But when the wheels come off (remember the backdrop to the letter: Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials…), and they will come off, then we react and some very unkind things are said. We generally don’t respond well to the unexpected. James doesn’t just challenge us to respond well when the good times roll, he challenges us to respond just as well when the good times come crashing down. If our response is different based on circumstance then we are unstable, double-minded, the source of two very divergent streams of water.

Maturity comes as we seek wisdom in the midst of the trial to see it from God’s perspective, then we begin to understand that the testing of our faith is producing endurance that leads to maturity and the ability to control our tongue because the overflow of our heart will be love – for God and for our neighbor. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a life-long process of being smelted and refined in the Fuller’s fire to make us more like Jesus.

Until next time…stay salty.

A Question of Perspective

It was early morning. Two men stood on the wall of the city looking out over the enormous army amassed against them. For months now, one of these men has been sending warnings to the king of the land about the traps set by these marauding invaders. The king of Aram has had enough of his plans being foiled. He sends his warriors en masse to capture the prophet Elisha. And now here they are, surrounding the city.

Elisha’s servant is terrified, and rightfully so. The citizens of the city are unlikely to fight to defend the two men. And he asks the question that any of us would ask, “What are we to do?” Elisha responds, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he prays. He prays that his servant’s eyes might be opened. God answers his prayer, and Elisha’s servant sees “the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elijah.”

Two people. Two totally different perspectives. James tackles this issue of perspective in chapter 2 as he challenges his readers about the way they view those around them. His audience was apparently guilty of showing favoritism to the rich in their assembly. The wealthy were given places of honor, while the poor where relegated to the “cheap seats” and treated with at least mild contempt. Any such judgment based on outward appearance is wrong. For God has created us all in His image, and although that image was marred in the fall, it is still there. That is the basis of the command to love our neighbor as ourself which James calls the “royal law”. And when we focus on the externals, we fail to see the infinite value that each person has in the eyes of God.

When I, when we, make judgments about others from an earthly perspective (wealth, beauty, status, brains, etc.), we are looking only at the temporary, earthly things…the things that are destined for destruction. We are like Elisha’s servant who could only see his circumstances – what was are right in front of him – and he missed the deeper truth that God was right there with him all the time. We too miss the deeper spiritual realities, that are every bit as true, all around us…such as the people that God has given us to love. And a failure to love is a failure to keep any of the commandments, because love is the foundation of them all. James is continually calling us to see life from God’s perspective. And if we can’t, he admonishes us to pray for the wisdom to be able to do so.

I pray that God would give you the ability to see your world – your circumstances, yourself and others around you – through His eyes.

Until next time, stay salty.