Of Intentions and Idols (Let Us Run)

Chains

I sat with my class in a corner of the sanctuary, music played throughout the building, people sang and prayed and worshiped. I saw children running, only to be stopped by concerned parents and shushed by the present clergy. This was a sacred place, a holy place to encounter the divine.

And on the stage, one might’ve expected to see a pulpit rising above the crowd. But instead, there stood several monolithic statues, faces etched from stone, frozen in time forever, or at least until the years ate away at them, paint faded and crumbling. These were the gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith, impersonal sentinels with stony faces looking toward their devoted worshipers indifferently.

A lot of folks, especially those of my own religion, would compare this scene to that of an ancient city in an ancient world that bears no resemblance to our own. But that is not true. It is a world we live in, and a world we find ourselves entrenched in, even in the Christian faith.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to a Hindu temple in Charlotte. It was an interesting experience, one where I gained much respect for the people, but also came away with a deeper understanding of my own sinfulness.

This particular instance was a more vivid depiction of idolatry than I’d ever seen in my own American dream-ridden life or in the lives of the people around me. It’s a lot less subtle when you watch people literally bowing down to and offering food to statues who will never be able partake of it. But what I saw there was a reflection of my own heart and my own proclivities.

Tim Keller, hearkening back to John Calvin, says that our hearts are idol factories. This means that something about human nature points to the inescapable fact that we are wired for worship. And if God is not the center of our worship, we will surely find something to take his place. I saw people in that temple physically bowing down to idols, participating in what we would call idolatry, but hey! At least they are honest about it.

Myself and so many of those I love fill their lives with a plethora of distractions and luxuries that we like to pretend have no ultimate grip on our lives. And idolatry barely ever starts out as a bad thing…Idolatry, in its simplest form is making good things ultimate things. It is where admiration turns to obsession, where appreciating God’s good gifts becomes focusing more on the gift than on the Giver, where want becomes overwhelming need.

Here’s a good test for whether or not that thing you love is an idol to you: If it were to be taken away, could you go on living? Obviously, I’m not talking about enough food to live or water. But the point is that the problem doesn’t lie in the idols themselves, many of these things are innately good gifts from God. But the problem is somewhere deeper, the problem is inside of us, in our hearts. We are desperate to worship, but not so desperate to be obedient to the thing we worship. Which is why worshiping God seems so difficult, because of what that demands of us.

But the catch is that you cannot worship anything without obeying it, whether you realize it or not. All this makes me thing about that anti-smoking commercial that was floating around a while back. Here it is:

The thing is, whatever you devote all of your time, energy, and devotion to will stop being a good gift to be used and start making the rules for you. You build your life around the thing you idolize. We turn good gifts like sex into porn, prostitution, and nymphomania. We turn food into gluttony or anorexia and bulimia. We make something good sinful and let it reign over our lives. Instead of God.

I have a lot to learn about idolatry, but I see it in my everyday life. My prayer for myself as well as for those who are reading this is that we will return to Christ, worship him as he ought to be worshiped, and place our affections on him, and not on the idols that we hold dear. It is God’s desire for us to seek first the Kingdom, and it is my desire that that would be my desire as well.

“You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run.”-Saint Augustine

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Pursuit and Faithlessness (or, Holy Week and where I find myself.)

“Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.” (John 19:15-16)

easter-cross-daybreak

Since I was a child, I was always as fascinated as I was terrified by the events of what those in my tradition of faith have come to call “Holy Week.”

How could people who revered Jesus at the beginning of the week, even so far as to throw palm branches and their coats on the ground to make way for him and call him Rescuer, their Hosanna, join the chorus for his demise by Friday? And what is so good about Friday, anyway? How could the disciples, who dedicated everything and vowed allegiance to him and walked and talked and lived with him for three years just abandon him in his darkest hour? What kind of disciple would do that?

These were the thoughts that crossed by mind as I was a boy. But as I grew up, those questions gave way to more powerful questions, questions that came from experience and from the fear that comes from having your faith tested. Questions like, if I were in their position would I do the same? Surely I would. Surely I have.

How many times have I abandoned Christ for something much less fulfilling? How many times have I praised him in one breath only to curse him in the next? How many times have I accepted the title of disciple in the light but abandoned it in the dark, or when it demanded too much of me?

What is loyalty to Christ, and do I myself have it?  Do you? Do any of us, for that matter?

As we reflect on Easter, on the glorious resurrection of Jesus, who paid for all of our sin and shame on the cross, it is my prayer that we would not lose sight of the fact that it was our transgressions that put him there.

The story isn’t simply one we read of characters in a book. No, the story of Scripture is more revealing and powerful than that. We are invited into the story, recalling that though our sins and betrayal are great, a debt we can never pay, what held Jesus on the cross was his love for all of us.

Though our sins are as scarlet, he has washed them white as snow.

And though we are forgiven, we can’t forget what it cost. We cannot withold forgiveness from those who don’t deserve it, because that isn’t what our Hosanna did.

We cannot cling to past sins that try to chain us to shame.

We can’t cling to present sins that keep our world shrouded in dark.

We can’t forget that our identities are tethered not to who we have been, or who we have been believed to be, but to whom we belong.

That the Cross is as relevant today as it ever was.

As a kid, I always wanted to blame people trapped in a book, because Jesus was the hero, and the people who betrayed him, who denied him, whipped him, and killed him were the bad guys and I was angry at them for what they did.

But that was before I realized that their story is my story, I am just as capable for that treachery and just as culpable for it.

When asked by Pilate if Jesus was their king, the chief priests answered that they had no king but Caesar, but maybe even that was a lie.

In my own experience, I have lived as king of my own heart and life, and I suspect the same was true of them.

I have lived in pursuit of holiness, grasping and rules and regulations to handcuff my heart to something that slightly resembled God, but left me wanting.

I have lived in pursuit of everything but holiness, indulging in everything I could to fill the emptiness inside me, but all it did was leave me broken and handcuffed to pain.

And I have, in those elusive moments of honest clarity, pursued Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior. He rescues me time and time again. And I deny him like Peter. And I sell him like Judas. And I just run away like the others.
Abandoment. In the face of such a wondrous love, I spat.

What God is this who loves me still?
Who seeks my heart and my devotion,
even when I am blithe to his pursuit, going about my merry way and pretending the lover of my soul doesn’t exist?

Friends, as we think about Easter, I pray we remember what it cost. I pray we share the life giving Gospel again and again. I pray we never turn it into a self help manual, but as a key to unlock doors and let the light pour in.

God is faithful, even when we are faithless.

Happy Easter week.
Honor Christ.
Keep it holy.

ΑΩ

Struggling with Sin (and the masks we think we hide behind)

I remember sitting in my older Sister’s youth class once as a kid. I don’t remember why, but I remember that I was there. Larry, the youth minister, was clutching a piece of tin foil in his hand and talking about how we so often hide behind masks, and then he pushed it into his face and made a cast of his face from it, to illustrate his point.

Being a kid who obviously didn’t belong in a class full of 15-18 year olds, I didn’t really have a good grasp of what was going on, so I started laughing at the awkwardness of the situation and everyone stared at me. Years later, my sense of humor hasn’t changed much, but I did one day learn to understand exactly what it was he was talking about.

It took me a while to truly understand “the sin that so easily entangles.” To really “get” why we would have any desire to hide.

But, like all children, I grew up, and now, more aware of all my frailties, I stand as a man in desperate need of the grace I so vehemently preach.

And, thank God, I am not alone:

 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)

Paul grasped the struggle of sin better than countless theologians since could ever hope to know. He lived it. He didn’t describe it in the polished, pretty way we so often describe our battle with sin. He didn’t try to make himself look good, and he was one of the foremost leaders in the church at the time!

What’s more, he didn’t simply speak of his sin in the past tense. We know Paul had a long rap sheet before he came to Christ, but Paul’s struggle is one that he refused to gloss over and pretend didn’t exist.

The raw honesty in Romans 7 shows us in and out of leadership what is required. A realistic look at who we are, and and intimate understanding of what can save us from this “body of death.” (Spoiler alert: It isn’t in or of ourselves.)

This puts me in the mind of Peter Parker in the Spiderman comics. More specifically, with Venom.

You are probably familiar with the story. Alien symbiote bonds with Spidey and takes over completely, turning him into this ravaging monster. He grapples with the fear of losing the power the alien gives him and the fear that it will take him prisoner completely.

It is a strong example of what sin does to us. However, the difference is, Venom comes from outside of Peter Parker. In our own struggle with the sin that so easily wraps itself around us, it comes from within. But like Peter, or like Frodo and the ring, we do not want to let it go.

Christian culture can be divided into two camps: Those who know full well that, apart from Christ, they are messed up sinners without hope, and the people who live their entire lives trying to convince themselves and everybody else that they aren’t.

Because if you know you are a sinner and embrace that Jesus is the source of all the good in you, your life will be lived not to please everyone around you. Not to keep worrying over whether or not you’re on God’s “nice list” and fear the proverbial lump of coal in your stocking, but knowing that because of what Jesus has done, your sins have been thrown into the ocean, never to resurface.

Yet we still struggle. Paul’s words are as much a source of comfort as they are of conviction. He identifies with the human condition.

He is a church leader, an apostle, a man who regardless of his sins in the past, saw Christ and was changed forever, who isn’t afraid to say “I am a mess.”

Isn’t that a source of hope for people like you and me? That we aren’t alone in our struggles.

The only one who can rescue us is Jesus, and Paul’s letter to the church at Rome assures us of this, even before chapter 7.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:9-11)

Reconciliation meaning that which was severed, is now put back together. Meaning the estranged are received as wayward children embraced by the love of a Father who never gave up on them. Reconciliation, meaning that the rift between God and those engaged in battle with their own sinful desires is healed, and that wound will never be reopened. Forgiveness. You aren’t immune to sins pull, but you are exonerated.

I read a story in the beginning of a book by Michael John Cusick called  Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle.

In it, he tells of a teacher whose student is struggling with lustful thoughts. It grieves the student (much like it grieved Paul) that he continued to do what he didn’t want to do, what he knew he shouldn’t do. And the teacher spoke a story to him.

There once was a beautiful skylark who flew high above the sky. One day, the lark saw a merchant pushing a cart full of huge, delicious worms down the road. The bird flew down and asked how much the man was selling them for, and replied, two worms for one feather.

“Well, it’s just one feather, it won’t hurt anything.” the bird said.

He immediately plucked a feather and gulped down the worms. They were incredible.

So he returned day after day to the peddler. And day after day, he continued to pluck them until one day, the bird discovered he could no longer fly. He was crushed, he had squandered all of his feathers and lost his purpose, what he was made to do.

The bird had an idea. He went to work plucking worms from the ground and gathered enough to give to the man and get his feathers back. So he went. And the old peddler laughed and said “I deal in feathers for worms, not worms for feathers, and with that he disappeared.”

The teacher stopped the story and the student sat, dumbfounded. “It breaks the heart of the Father when we trade our feathers for worms,” the teacher said, “but moreso, it breaks the heart of the Father when we think we can buy them back.”

We cannot ever buy those back.

Those were bought back for us, long before we even sold them.

While we were sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

So today, I pray that you have come face to face with the Cross. The beauty of that symbol is that what was an instrument of death became our redemption. The body of death, or more clearly, the day to day struggle with our sin that never seems to have an end, has been overcome by the death of Jesus, who in his glory and grace, refused to stay dead, showing his power over the death we deserved and offering us a life free from shame forever.

What we could never buy back for ourselves, that which we lost in sin, it was bought for us.  And to think it’s our responsibility to do it ourselves is an insult to the grace of God. 

The struggle with sin is real, it is strong, overwhelming, persistent. But the love and grace of God is also real, it is strong, overwhelming, persistent. It is with us even when we try to hide behind platitudes and tin foil masks. When we don’t want the world to see us, God sees us. And because of Christ, he loves us just the same.