Monday, March 20, 2017

Ambassadors of Reconciliation - Duty Calls

Years ago, after beholding the wrath of a nation in conflict due to an unpopular verdict that found LA Police officers not guilty of the use of excessive force, citizen Rodney King asked his fellow Americans with tears, “Can we all get along?” Currently, our national community continues to be tested by persistent division, increasing intolerance and violence from all sides that present this question with renewed intensity.  We continue to witness shocking displays of hateful words, harmful actions and divisive declarations.  In spite of a history rich with calls for unity and pleas for togetherness, our society continues to struggle in everyday terms with the concept of being one nation indivisible.  Even the Church struggles with oneness in Christ, as Sunday Worship Services stubbornly remain representative of not only racial segregation, but political and social separateness as well.

Nevertheless, in spite of the painful realities of persistent divisiveness, the call remains for Christians to spread the Good News across all barriers and to live as ambassadors of consistent and unrelenting reconciliation.  As Christ followers we must remember the directives that are spelled out in the Scriptures for us and not be distracted by the traditions of our earthbound perspectives. The admonitions from God’s Word are numerous:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

“Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling[c] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

To be effective ambassadors for racial reconciliation, we must rivet ourselves to the unchanging truth that reconciliation begins conceptually with God, requires inward transformation by God and calls for demonstrative action empowered by the Spirit of God.  For many years in the United Sates, we Christians have neglected to apply that truth and have instead sought to bring about change in our own strength and wisdom.  We have depended on the government or various movements to accomplish reconciliation for us. We have implemented numerous strategies to bring our people together across all types of dividing lines.  We have had it written into our founding documents.  We fought a Civil War to enforce it.  We wrote new laws when the War and the Constitution failed to bring about the degree of unity we sought.  We applied new educational emphases to help bring about togetherness, and spent a couple of decades teaching the world to sing about perfect harmony, and changing our own lives through peace, love and rock and roll.  Each of these actions accomplished some degree of change, but somehow, some way, flare ups of division, hatred and racial tension have found a way to dominate our national psyche, and sometimes they have infiltrated our churches and severely dampened our sense of hope and our resolve to be a reconciling people.  

With such painful setbacks in the face of significant yet uneven gains, should we continue the pursuit of peace, love and racial harmony? Absolutely.  But those of us who follow Christ must always remember Jesus’ directive, that if we are to bear His fruit, we must abide in Him.  Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  We do not see the impact we desire to see in the area of racial unity, because we do not recognize it as a problem of the heart, with an ultimate spiritual solution.  We must acknowledge that our sinfulness and self-absorption prevents us as Christians from loving our brothers and sisters as we should, let alone our neighbors.  If we can’t model unity in our local churches with those whom the Bible says we are bound by “… one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” how can we preach unity to others? If we who are one by the power of the Holy Spirit and the victory of Jesus, cannot express that oneness in our community of faith in real life and real time, how can we expect the rest of the nation to experience it?  

We, those who love Jesus, must lead the way of reconciliation by living up to our calling as ambassadors, even though the process is challenging and the path, difficult.  We must “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and…run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” Just as Jesus endured the pain and suffering of the Cross, we must endure the inconveniences that often accompany our efforts of reaching out to brothers, sisters and neighbors who are different.  We must risk the pain of misunderstanding and being misunderstood, while clothing ourselves with a humility that opens doors for second chances, forgiveness, and the building of trust. We must unflinchingly pursue the gains of reconciliation that come from a loving commitment to the pursuit of friendship no matter how rough the seas of relationship might be.  

We who follow Jesus must carry out the ministry of reconciliation by basing our every move on the transformation brought about by the Lord Who has saved us.  We must demonstrate our transformation by our example, and by our example, hold out the hope of transformation for others.  We must do this as individuals, as local churches and whole communities.  As ambassadors of Heaven, our true country, we must represent the One who sent us, not seeking to be comfortable, but seeking to be conformed to His image, committed to His purpose, engaged in the work of breaking down barriers of hatred and division by building bridges of love and unity in Jesus’ Name! Let those of us who belong to the household of God open the doors, step out in faith, reach out and apply ourselves to the worthy work of reconciliation.  Let us love our friends, love our enemies and make the love of Jesus’ known by sharing the wisdom of love wherever and whenever the foolishness of hate presents itself.  Let us commit ourselves to demonstrating the reality of Jesus being our peace by speaking words of peace and living lives of peace in a deeply troubled era.  Let us love boldly as peacemakers – the children of God - to walk the walk so that others may see what we do, and give God the glory by doing likewise! There is no other way!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

An Officer and a Barbarian

As of the writing of this article, a scandal has emerged in the United States Marine Corps exposing sexual misconduct towards women in the ranks.  This is not unique to the Corps.  A simple Google search of the term “Military Officer’s Sexual Misconduct” or a derivative thereof will generate a massive list containing the names of those who have fallen from favor by virtue of their own misdeeds from every branch of military service.  When these issues are discussed in the public view, the list of excuses offered in the defense of such indefensible conduct is equally long.  A very close friend and West Point classmate, Kris Fuhr lamented in response on social media, “If I read one more article comment where a man excuses men's behavior because ‘they have hormones/urges and can't help themselves’ or says ‘what do you expect when you throw men and women together’ then I am going to vomit...”  I am equally sickened. 

I am a man and understand the power of male “urges.”  As a preteen, youth and young man I wrestled mightily with the impulses that plague every male from puberty onward. My hormones raged as my testosterone levels increased and it seemed whether I liked it or not, every other thought seemed to somehow gravitate towards sexuality even though I had absolutely no experience in the matter.  I became a devout follower of Jesus before this hormonal explosion, and learned very quickly that, biblically speaking, there was an expected code of conduct regarding what was considered righteous and what was considered unholy sexual conduct regardless of one’s hormonal state. I also learned very quickly that many people who also considered themselves devout, overlooked this code in a variety of circumstances and offered plentiful excuses for why they did.

From my observations during my growing up years, the acceptability of this unholiness was bred in the incubator of the out-of-sight banter that occurs in the discussions of men and boys.  Women and girls were often discussed in terms of how they might satisfy someone’s urges or fantasies, rather than how interesting it might be to get to know them as people.  Sexual escapades – real and imagined – were discussed as if they were athletic contests, not as an expression of intimacy between two caring, committed people. As these types of conversations progressed over the years, it was clear that a main goal of much of the recreational activities for men was gaining an opportunity to “deal with one’s urges.”  The episodes of “release” that I most often heard discussed in the open were not usually reflections on beautiful moments of emotional connection, but rather testimonials of conquests and acquiescence.

This behavior is not new and it is addressed in the Bible. A passage that may speak to this issue more powerfully than we have typically taken time to consider is Proverbs 31. The identities of those mentioned in this passage is telling, once understood. The first few verses of the passage identify the writer as King Lemuel, who is said to be recording wisdom shared by his mother.  The Rabbinic tradition and many Christian scholars as well, believe that “King Lemuel” is a pseudonym for King Solomon.   King Lemuel directly attributes his writings as a transcription that came directly from the lips of his mother.  Again, by his own words, the wisdom he shares is not his own, but that of his own mother. 
Marinate on that information for a moment.  The words of Proverbs 31 were spoken by a woman; not just any woman, but royalty – the mother of a king.  She was not just any king’s mother, but by deduction we can surmise that if Lemuel was Solomon, the woman was Solomon’s mother. Pause and consider the question, who was King Solomon’s mother?  That’s right!  Bathsheba was – yes, THAT Bathsheba!  Understanding that a woman was the source of the instruction dispensed in the lines of that Proverb, and being aware that the woman was Bathsheba gives it a very different perspective to consider!  The probability that the woman who gave the advice was Bathsheba, gives the message a depth and power even more impacting than what might be gleaned if the passage is only viewed on a more casual level.

Looking more deeply at the implications of Bathsheba’s contribution to this amazing passage, she was someone who understood the ways of powerful men.  Her first husband, Uriah, was a commander of warriors.  Certainly, Bathsheba’s physical beauty had captured his attention, though his deeper virtue was later seen when he was invited by King David to satisfy “his urges” to hide David’s act of coercion against Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.  Amazingly, Uriah was a fiercely duty-driven soldier and refused the “comforts of home” as his unit faced the perils of war.  He refused the King’s invitation, telling him, “The ark, Israel, and Judah are dwelling in tents, and my master Joab and his soldiers are camping in the open field. How can I enter my house to eat and drink and sleep with my wife? As surely as you live and by your life, I will not do this!” 

What is heartbreaking is that King David, a man after God’s own heart, while courageous in the face of giants, could not conquer the giant appetites of his own soul.  Having already abused his power by coercing a rendezvous with Bathsheba, David attempts to hide his evil by playing on what he assumes are the common passions of men.  The problem was, Uriah was no common man.  Instead of indulging his appetites, driven by duty and honor, Uriah refuses to act on his own “urges” even after David introduces alcohol into the equation to lower his clarity of thought.  Singe-minded in doing his duty, even when inebriated, Uriah sleeps outside of his own home content to come as close as he can to sharing the hardships of those he commands.  This true devotion destroys the foundation of David’s pretense.   Consumed by his own passions, David’s devotion to righteousness is overcome by ambition and selfishness.  He orders Uriah to a certain death, adding murder to the sin of adultery.  The rest is history.

This history shaped a tragic chapter of Bathsheba’s life.  Through this tragedy, she grew, matured and gained wisdom and insight that she passed on to her son, Solomon.  While Solomon stayed the course of her teaching for a time he wandered into the desert of his father’s pursuit of sensory pleasure for a season as well.  When he came to himself and was able to reflect, he counted his pursuit of pleasure as “worthless” in the book of Ecclesiastes and reflected on the wisdom of his mother, recounted in Proverbs 31.  Bathsheba’s words come from observing the carnage that selfish pursuits of selfish fulfillment bring. Within the first five verses, Bathsheba’s warns against the unrestrained pursuit of sexual conquests and alcoholic indulgence, often bound together in a powerful, destructive alliance that dulls senses, impairs judgement, lowers inhibitions and creates an environment that sets the stage for a predator/prey scenario and seldom ends without planting the seeds for eventual regret. 

Bathsheba asks her son to instead spend his energy on matters that protect the vulnerable, comfort the afflicted and support the needy.  I remember during seminary, when the hormones were raging like crazy, my very wise spiritual mentor dispatching me to carry out every demanding physical job he could find for me and then challenging me to set up a personal physical regimen that either kept me in the gym or had me training someone else. I busted concrete, moved furniture, cut down trees, painted houses, delivered groceries, and ran in every 10K he could find within a hundred miles.  His theory, “A body too tired to sin, is less likely to sin!”  I stayed tired! Bathsheba called her son to “stay tired” in the pursuit of righteousness so that his strength would be devoted to only what was good.
Having a beautiful external appearance, Bathsheba understood the superficiality that can plague the life of an attractive person.  She spends the rest of her advisement focusing on the traits that truly lend themselves to greatness – industry, creativity, compassion, strength, virtue, honor and discipline – and challenges her son to see the value in character and closeness to God as opposed to the superficiality of externals and false charm.

If only Solomon had heeded.  He could only reflect on the truth of this wisdom after indulging himself in an unrestrained and literal orgy of concubinage and pleasure seeking – indulgences that left him compromised in his faith and impotent as a leader.   Solomon’s life serves as the ultimate example of why we cannot allow our sons to entertain even a hint of the “boys will be boys” mentality. Men must teach their sons to not merely desire virtue in “the one” they want for themselves, but to live the virtue they expect in someone else.  A man can call himself progressive, march in a hundred marches and speak with the greatest of political correctness in formal settings, but it is one’s behavior in the locker room, one’s words around the campfire and one’s actions in the shadows that truly defines just how progressive you are.  What good is an updated chassis of 21st century politics, when it houses an engine of prehistoric barbarism? 

The Apostle Paul provides solid instruction for we who are men to enlighten our hidden living to match our public talking – “do NOTHING from selfish ambition or empty deceit, but esteem others better than yourselves…[exercise] self-control…[Remember] Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish.”  Let’s get rid of the excuses, especially for those called to lead.  Let us learn from the ancients and hear the pain of our sisters who have been so thoroughly betrayed.  Let us establish ourselves as true gentlemen – not in appearance or for show, but rather in spirit and in truth, seeing our sisters as partners, colleagues and teammates worthy of respect, support, opportunities and justice.  To do anything less is not just ungentlemanly, it is evil.