Friday, October 28, 2011

Eternity in the Hearts of Men

Would you hold it against me if I were to take a break from the normalcy of my postings and expand on my current musings of the world?

Probably not.

So here goes. Along side The Divine Conspiracy I have been reading much C.S. Lewis. Specifically, I have been going through his Space Trilogy which I never before read. A quick summary of the series would place it beside The Chronicles of Narnia, only the material is much more advanced. Understanding the depths of allegory to which Lewis positions the reader in Narnia via Aslan et al, consider for a moment the same attempt at teaching only aimed at "adult" minds.

I will speak plainly. I would not have understood these books as a child. I would not have understood these books as a college student. Only in my post-collegiate education and journey do I come anywhere close to garnering the philosophical implications of the interplanetary journeys and adventures of Elwin Ransom. Typical to Lewis, very little time is spent on the actual story, while most of the reading leads the reader along a step-by-step understanding of the past, present, and future of the known universe. And beyond.

I've read some literature on Heaven. Randy Alcorn's Heaven is probably the best book to date, but Lewis goes beyond even that. What's more, he does so in the year 1943. It is not until the end of the novel, which I hope not to spoil for you, that we the readers receive a glimpse of the eternal.

The glimpse is such a metaphor, such a beautiful illustration, such a detailed and intricate and remarkable description of what was and is and is to come that I was blown away by what I heard (I prefer listening to Lewis rather than reading him. His writing style welcomes it). I lay down for hours just to ponder what I had heard, just to think on this invitation into Divine Purpose and Providence. It was as though I viewed the mind of God in all His mystery; and like Job I was silent before my maker. And I was satisfied.

Eternity has always been on my heart and mind. Even so, even as an old acquaintance, I do not welcome it for I cannot understand it. No man can. Eternity is infinite, while we are finite. Only pride, arrogance, or greed could make me seek to search the stars and hold them in my gaze. I am but a blip in the cosmos, uniquely created and infinitely desirable to my creator, but not so great as to rise up to His level of understanding. To quote Lewis:

"We do not worship God because He is spirit. We worship Him because He is wise. And good."

Today I realized the sagacity of God. I also realized my smallness as man. My will is not his will. His thoughts are not my thoughts, and they are far superior to mine. Either I accept this, or I spend eternity exerting my will to overtake his as ruler of this universe. I pray always it shall be the former.

Now I think, dear reader, I have spent enough time thinking and writing. Perhaps it is time to go out and be doing. This may be my last posting for quite some time.

Until we meet again, I bid you always good living.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Tales

Only two verse have thus far been discussed in dealing with the kingdom heart. The first deals with anger and the second with contempt. 

Showing that anger and contempt are such serious maters only lays a foundation for the final move in this first contrast that Jesus makes between the kingdom heart and the older teaching about "rightness."

We are instructed not to be angry with our brother and not to deride him with contemptuous remarks such as "Raca", or, in other words, insert expletive "here", I prefer idiot or moron. But Jesus does not stop here.

Now he states a remarkable "therefore" (v.23) that leads us out of mere negations or prohibitions into an astonishing positive regard for our neighbor, whom we are to love as God loves.

But wait, this is not the point in the Bible where Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In fact, this is not the point where Jesus tells us to do anything. A new set of laws would not capture how he wants us to be living our lives. To define the way to live by a set of rules would be to place our individual, free selves in a box, one which we would always be looking to escape. Jesus flattens the box and our excuses in one sweep of his hand. He gives examples, pure illustrations of a good and God heart set in motion in the world.

First, you are with the Temple officials before the altar, about to present your sacrifice to God (Matthew 5:23). It is one of the holiest moments in the ritual life of the faithful. The practice was that nothing should interrupt this ritual except some more important ceremonial matter that required immediate attention.

Suddenly, right in the midst of it all, you remember a brother who is mad at you. Realizing how important it is for his soul to find release, and pained by the break between yourself and him, you stop the ritual. You walk out of it to find him and make up. That illustrates the positive goodness of the kingdom heart.

Without making any new laws or dismissing the old ones, Christ has suddenly both freed us from the law and elevated the heart above what used to appear as the most holy, most important feature in all religion. More important than singing hymns or saying prayers or giving tithes or doing good deeds, God cares how our hearts respond to our brothers and sisters on this earth. So important are they in his eyes, that all the ritualistic and glorious deeds we do cannot cover up a heart that is hard and unloving towards them.

This, I think, is what sparked Martin Luther to write what he did and oppose the regime of his day in such an adamant way. This is also what sparked Paul to write that, "Though you can speak in the tongues of angels and move mountains by your faith, yet if you have not love, it is worthless." (1 Corinthians 13) It is also what caused Jesus himself to later say, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'"(Matthew 9:9)

The aim of this illustration - and it is an illustration - is to bring us to terms with what is in our hearts and, simultaneously, to show us the rightness of the kingdom heart.

Willard has caught on to the anti-legalism that Jesus brings to the table. If you have ever wondered why Jesus is always harping on the Pharisees, who are the most religious persons of his day (think pastors, seminary professors, televangelists), is because they so deeply missed the point of what God desires and wants from us in this world. Says Jesus, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." To the extent of the heart, the dikaiosune, we all fall into the second category.

This can be seen in the second illustration Jesus gives, when he tells us to settle matters quickly with an adversary who is taking us to court. Understand that he gives this example precisely after he has told us not to be anger or contemptuous with others. If this is the case, then what have we to gain by a legal battle that may be settled outside of court through a loving heart and genuine care for the other individual?

Jesus here gives us a second illustration of how the kingdom heart will respond. He does not tell us what to do, but how to do it. Indeed, go to court or not - as makes sense in the circumstance. But do whatever you do without hostility, bitterness, and the merciless drive to win. And keep a joyous confidence in God regardless of what happens.

We live unique lives, in a different time and place than anyone else who has existed before us or will exist after us. The beauty of Jesus' words is that they last for all time. They deal with our hearts, and nothing has changed about the human heart in the last two thousand years.

If you find yourself desperately desiring to know God and his will, and if your heart is precisely aligned to love your neighbors and not yourself, then I firmly believe you will cease to find all those "moral dilemmas" through which some saying in the Bible confuses or confounds what you should or shouldn't do in a present situation.

Of course, there is plenty more to living the eternal kind of life now, but that's why we have the other half of this book still to get through. Still, where we are is a great place to start, and even these small steps can drastically change someone's life. As always, Willard summarizes it best:

We do not control outcomes and are not responsible for them, but only for our contribution to them. Does our heart long for reconciliation? Have we done what we can? Honestly? Do we refuse to substitute ritual behaviors for genuine acts of love? If so, we are beyond "the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees" and immersed in God's ways. We can certainly find an appropriate way to act from such a heart without being given a list of things to do.

Monday, October 24, 2011

You Fools

Again I tell you, whoever says 'Raca' to his brother shall stand condemned before the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the land. (Matthew 5:22)

 Today's topic: Contempt for your fellow man.

Contempt is a greater evil than anger and so is deserving of greater condemnation. Unlike innocent anger, it is a kind of studied degradation of another, and it also is more pervasive in life than anger. In anger I want to hurt you. In contempt, I don't care whether you are hurt or not. We can be angry at someone without denying their worth. But contempt makes it easier for us to hurt them or see them further degraded.

I'm sure that this topic arises much in our thoughts today. When we think of serious contempt we drift to racism or bigotry or sexism. These people, we think, truly look down on their fellow man. They look on such others with contempt and speak of them with degradation.

Certainly this is an obvious form of contempt, and we realize it is despicable in most cases. I think, however, that contempt arises more commonly in our society among socio-economic classes or educational background. Jesus spoke of calling people "fools." We would probably throw in a substitute word depending on our background.

"You're so stupid!"

"You're such an idot!"

"Ah, that jerk! He cut me off!"

Our derogatory language stems from contempt, which often sparks originally from anger. We spoke last week of anger and Jesus' instruction to rid our hearts of it. Without anger, contempt can be curtailed before it starts. If we do not indulge anger, we have no need to become contemptuous of individuals in order to express our anger.

But supposing we do become angry, and this does progress into a vulgar or crude degradation of our fellow man. In this case, we have hit them harder than if we'd simply stuck to simple anger.

To belong is a vital need based in the spiritual nature of the human being. Contempt spits on this pathetically deep need. Just by being what it is, it is withering to the human soul. But when expressed, it stabs the soul to its core and deflates its powers of life. It can hurt so badly and destroy so deeply that murder would almost be a mercy. 

When we speak with contempt towards others, we lower them from their status as human beings. We place them at a lower level, one deserving of our contempt, and then we can happily write off their error as pertaining to their lower status or perhaps mental capabilities.

"Of course he messed up, he is a moron after all."

I need not expand on why or how this leads to destruction. Jesus speaks of a person speaking to another human with contempt as one who is in the dangers of the fire of hell. Consider for a moment the pro-Nazi propaganda that allowed our European ancestors to exterminate entire groups of people, simply because they no longer thought of them as people. Or perhaps they did think of them as people. Normal people. While they were advancing the super-race, which somehow rose a level above the humanity of yore.

Jesus knew what he was talking about when he condemned contempt, anger, and derogatory language.

Jesus is giving us a revelation of the preciousness of human beings. He means to reveal the value of persons. Obviously merely not killing others cannot begin to do justice to that. By no means is he simply giving here three more things not to do, three more points on a "list" of things to be avoided. Certainly we are not to do them, but that is not the point. 

Jesus points these things out to call attention to the hearts that produce such things. Think about it, a heart that is filled with contempt for fellow man cannot be at that time filled with love for him. So we must stop the contempt of our hearts. But do not cease there. Simply not harboring contempt will not solve the problem. Filling one's heart with love, on the other hand, will.

When I treasure those around me and see them as God's creatures designed for his eternal purposes, I do not make an additional point of not hating them or calling them twerps or fools. "He that loves has fulfilled the law." (Romans 13:8)

Again, we find in Jesus' sermon the overarching theme of possessing the Kingdom Heart. A loving heart does not break the law, simply because to love means NOT breaking the law. 

For all their necessity, goodness, and beauty, laws that deal only with actions, such as the Ten Commandments, simply cannot reach the human heart, the source of actions. "If a law had been given capable of bringing people to life, then righteousness would have come from the law." (Galatians 3:21) But law, for all its magnificence, cannot do that. Graceful relationship sustained with the masterful Christ can.

If you have been reading these posts the past few weeks, you will see how everything has come together under one unified message. Even in this simple statement of "do not call a brother 'Raca'," Jesus is laying down the foundation for true living of an eternal life.

You thought it was just a list of things not to do, didn't you? That is part of the Divine Conspiracy.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Anger and the Wounded Ego

Anger and the wounded ego: a close encounter with human kind.

I spoke yesterday on anger as a natural, though not necessary, emotion. Today, we discuss anger indulged.

Anger first arises spontaneously. But we can actively receive it and decide to indulge it, and we usually do. We may even become an angry person, and any incident can evoke from us a torrent of rage that is kept in constant readiness.

We have all known this anger at some point in our lives. Anger that, when accepted, takes away our will to act as rational or even emotional beings. Such anger takes away our humanity, for our decisions are no longer our own. We seek retaliation; we seek justice.

Anger indulged, instead of simply waved off, always has in it an element of self-righteousness and vanity. Find a person who has embraced anger, and you will find a person with a wounded ego.

Such an elevation of self causes this type of anger to become the new ideal worshiped within us. Our lives can no longer be about serving God or serving others, for anger pushes all of that aside in an effort to exact the price it demands. Indeed, many go so far as to believe that if their anger is not satiated, the world cannot continue working as it has. We think to ourselves, "How, in such an unjust and perverse world, can we possibly survive?" And therefore we give in to anger.

All our mental and emotional resources are marshaled to nurture and tend the anger, and our body throbs with it. Energy is dedicated to keeping the anger alive: we constantly remind ourselves of how wrongly we have been treated. And when it is allowed to govern our actions, its evil quickly multiplies in heartrending consequences and in the replication of anger and rage in the hearts and bodies of everyone it touches.

Keep in mind, you do not have to be an outwardly angry person to be tragically affected by anger. The most devastating anger is the anger that is bottled up inside for years, slowly tearing away at relationship after relationship, never letting healing begin, never being dealt with for lack of an obvious target.

Such anger is anger of the heart. It is to this that Jesus speaks, I believe. Our grudges. Our resentments. Our "woe is me". When we give in to anger, when we indulge it, we break the first commandment by placing ourselves on the throne to be worshiped instead of God. And we drop immediately out of living an eternal kind of life.

In the United States there are around 25,000 murders each year. Most of the murders occur after long periods of open rage and threats, and many involve multiple murders of innocent bystanders. None of them, or only a negligible number, would have occurred but for an anger that the killers chose to embrace and indulge.

We live in a society that tends to think most anger is justified.

"He harmed you!"
"She totally went behind your back!"
"You got there first, what were they thinking!"
"You can't let them get away with that!"

Always we are asked to call upon our sense of self-righteousness and justice in an attempt to free this world of such unbearable wrongs as these. Emotion is used to fuel the fire and drive us on to the finished product of gleeful vengeance. And often this is exactly what happens.

Initially it begins on the playground with getting even. Eventually it ends in law courts around the countries. Broken families. Crippled companies. Burned villages. Anger causes it all. And still we cling to it as though it is some life blood of our existence.

But there is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it. The answer is to right the wrong in persistent love, not to harbor anger. To retain anger and to cultivate it is, by contrast, "to give the devil a chance." He will take the chance, and there will be hell to pay. Anger always comes at a high price.

You might wonder at the possibility of such an existence. I tell you again, as I have before, that living a life where you do not indulge anger in your heart is impossible. That is to say, impossible without God working inside of your heart to change it from the corrupt nature it has come to possess. Begin living with a Kingdom Heart, and you will find yourself blessing those who persecute you. You will answer violence with peace. You will seek to love your enemy.

Jesus starts here. If you desire to possess his Kingdom Heart, begin by ridding your heart of all the anger that currently blocks him out. No more grudges, no more winning, and no more life being all about you. You'll be amazed at the difference it can make.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In the Caldron of Anger and Contempt

God must be using this blog in his own way. What originated as a means for me to express my thoughts on this life changing piece of literature has turned into an enjoyable read for a few people. To date, 300 readers have stopped by to visit. Thank you for your readership. I hope it has impacted your life in a positive way.

And now for something completely different.

Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and caldron bubble.


Recall from our previous discussion that we are looking at the Kingdom Heart or the dikaiosune of an individual. Today we begin with Jesus' first example of what that looks like in a person's life.

The first illustration of kingdom dikaiosune is drawn from cases in which we are displeased with our "brother" and may allow ourselves to treat him with anger or contempt. 

You may wonder why Jesus chooses anger as his first topic of the application of his sermon, or you may think it a perfect fit. I have often seen pride as the most corrupt version of the human heart, and perhaps anger is the result of pride, at least the anger and contempt that Jesus speaks of. Either way, it is a good beginning.

When we trace wrongdoing back to its roots in the human heart, we find that in the overwhelming number of cases it involves some form of anger. Close beside anger you will find its twin brother, contempt. Jesus' understanding of them and their role in life becomes the basis of his strategy for establishing kingdom goodness. It is the elimination of anger and contempt that he presents as the first and fundamental step toward rightness of the kingdom heart.

Eliminate anger? Is that even possible? Contempt, perhaps yes, but is not anger a natural and unchangeable response of human emotion? Is it not like asking me to stop sneezing or cease from crying? Perhaps it is. We, as a culture, or at least males as a gender, have been trained and conditioned not to shed tears. We as a Christian culture have been trained not to let anger show. This is not to say we've stopped anger in our hearts any more than it is to say we've stopped sadness because we cannot see the tears.

Pointing to the moral inadequacy of the commandment not to kill as a guide to relationships with others who anger us, Jesus goes deeper into the texture of human personality: "But what I say is that anyone who becomes intensely angry [orgizomenos] with those around them shall stand condemned before the law." (Matthew 5:22). He uses the same phrase as the old teaching applied to murder.

Jesus always looks at the inside. He always scans the heart. In his eyes, it is not enough that we hold back our anger as we might hold back tears. If we bottle it up, if we possess it for our own, then our heart is not his, and we are just as guilty against our fellow human as though we had gunned him down in cold blood.

I do not think he is referencing here the simple reaction of anger that often spawns unsummoned inside our minds.

In its simplest form, anger is a spontaneous response that has a vital function in life. As such, it is not wrong. It is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life. The primary function of anger in life is to alert me to an obstruction to my will, and immediately raise alarm and resistance, before I even have time to think about it.

That makes sense. God created us and made in us the feeling of anger. Jesus himself felt it at certain times. Of course, his anger was in resistance and obstruction to God's will, something we are far too likely not to notice trapped as we are in our own little bubbles of life.

If that were all there was to anger, all would be well. Anger in this sense is no sin, even though it is still better avoided where possible. Headaches are no sin, but do we really need them? But the anger that is among us is much more than this and quickly turns into something that is inherently evil.

This is the bubbling cauldron to which the title of this post references. This is the intense anger, the purposeful anger, to which Jesus references. This is anger at its deadliest and most sinful. This is anger dwelt upon and anger unleashed.

It spontaneously arises in us when our will is obstructed, but as a response toward those who interfere with us, it includes a will to harm them, or the beginnings thereof. Some degree of malice is contained in every degree of anger. That is why it always hurts us when someone is angry at us. 

I feel I must halt here for the day, for to give this subject its proper attention would require much more writing than the average attention span has time for. I shall conclude my studies anger tomorrow. Be warned, the caldron is about to bubble.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Engines at the Full

Welcome back, dear reader, to a conclusion of this past week's theme. We have been studying Jesus' focus on the inner self, or perhaps more precisely, on an inner state of being. Originally dubbed "dikaiosune" [die-kah-yo-soo-nay] by Plato, it was thought to be a desirable quality or state of being. We have heard this termed as "righteousness" in the modern language. I am sure we have little idea what it means.

Jesus' account of dikaiosune, or of being a really good person, is given in Matt. 5:20-48. We need to stop for a comment on this special term that plays such a large part in the thought world of classical and Hellenistic Greek culture, as well as in the language of the Bible and in the early form of Christianity.

Aristotle, his pupil, changed the focus to "arete", in our language this becomes virtue.

Of course no contemporary ethical expert would be caught dead discussing "righteousness," though virtue has recently experienced something of a revival in the field.

Dikaiosune speaks to a way of living. In it, we find an answer to the age old question, "What is the good life?" What is it that must be done to feel satisfied with the quality of our lives or the way we have lived.

The human need to know how to live is perennial. It has never been more desperate than it is today. 

While quite true, this still averts the actual question of what is dikaiosune? What does it mean to be righteous or to have righteousness? Is this not the very thing Jesus promises to give? Is this not the very thing God seeks in us? "You shall be made righteous," we are told, but I warrant we have very little understanding what this means.

The best translation of dikaiosune would be a paraphrase: something like "what that is about a person that makes him or her really right or good." 

I suppose we could picture it as the carat of a diamond or the weight of gold. The dikaiosune of a person is his measure against the heavens; it is how he marks up to the Almighty Himself. Interesting then, that not only does God require this from us, but he also grants it to us. In Genesis we find Abraham (formerly Abram) interacting with God on a personal level. What is more surprising than this, is that God does not treat him an estranged being full of sin, as he does with Adam prior to his expulsion from the garden. God speaks to and of Abraham as one who has met the requirements of communing with the Creator of the world.

"And Abram believed God, and it was counted to him for dikaiosune."

Righteousness. God is a righteous God, and he desires children who follow after him in this way. Oddly enough, faith in and a desiring of God provides this righteousness. Abraham had it. Jesus promised to give it. We are asked to seek it.

Later we are told in Hebrews that by faith in God, Abraham obtained his dikaiosune, his righteousness. It was not about a confession of belief or a system of actions, but an inner mindset of trust in and desiring after the One who made him.

Is this something we stress in today's Christian world? Is this something we teach? We so often want children to say they believe in Jesus or adults to serve the poor and the needy. How often do we want humans, of any age, to harbor an inward desire to be as God is. To love mercy and kindness, to seek justice and truth. Not that the other things are not profitable to the individual soul, but surely we must recognize these as a biproduct of God's inner nature.

Dikaiosune is Jesus living in our hearts. It is a fire that fuels the engine of our Christian spirit. A raging furnace, a roaring river, a churning volcano of spiritual energy inside of us, ready to power any act that God might call us to. This is not mysticism, this the reality Jesus preached from Genesis to Revelations. Those who live in God's kingdom, possess the kingdom heart, the dikaiosune of a redeemed individual.

Without the righteousness of Christ inside of us, we will find it very difficult to handle the situations of the everyday in an eternal and eternally good manner. With it, we will rise above what is thought to be humanly possible. Jesus gives six examples where this can and should happen.

1. Irritation with one's associates
2. Sexual attraction
3. Unhappiness with marriage partner
4. Wanting someone to believe something
5. Being personally injured
6. Having an enemy

The next focus of this chapter will be to examine each of these in light of how the world understood them, how a follower of the law understood them, and how Jesus, as a living member of the Kingdom of God, understood them in light of the reality of that Kingdom. Put on the Kingdom Heart, seek true dikaiosune of character, and follow me as we explore that Kingdom in the coming days.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Full Bloom

This chapter deals with the Kingdom Heart. It deals with the importance of the inside as opposed to the outside. Yesterday we talked about the foolhardy approach most people use in attempting to do good without actually trying to be good. I would say a good many of us fall into this category. At the same time, we know that simply wanting to do good is not enough. Eventually people will want to see good in our lives or they will question where the life-changing power of God is to be found.

The question is, How can one keep the law? Jesus knew the answer, and that is why he told those who wanted to know how to work the works of God to put their confidence in the one God had sent. (John 6:29) 

Is it starting to make sense? In order to keep the law, we have to start with Jesus. We cannot do it on our own. We need him. 

He knew that we cannot keep the law by trying to keep the law. One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow. The apple tree naturally and easily produces apples because of its inner nature.

Jesus has the astounding effect of changing the inner nature of the people he has contact with. The people remain the same, but their insides are refreshed and renewed, thus causing their outsides to eventually produce new works as well. They remain who they were, but now their lives are working toward good. 

This is the most crucial thing to remember if we would understand Jesus' picture of the kingdom heart given in the Sermon on the Mount.  

First, our aims must be to become the kind of people from whom good naturally flows. We must not seek to do good for the sake of looking good or seeming good (as I have so often been guilty of in the past). No, we must desire to want the good to be the outcomes in our lives. We must push past our natural, selfish, greedy, adulterous, lustful, raging, angry, contemptuous, judgmental selves and replace such feelings with God's agape love.

Sound easy? It's impossible. That is to say, it is impossible without the aid of the very one God decided to send to us. Jesus enables us to change the inside. He enables us to be good, holy, and perfect.

But only if we allow him to.

In the words of C.S. Lewis, "He can never ravish; he can only woo." Christ will not force himself into our lives in order to change them. Not unless we ask him to. Not unless we seek after him. Not unless we choose to desire to be good. Only then will he enable us to be that which we desire, and again, only if we ask.

Actions do not emerge from nothing. They faithfully reveal what is in the heart. It is the inner soul that we must aim to transform, and then behavior will naturally and easily follow.

This is the amazing message of Jesus' Gospel. He comes to bring us life, eternal life, life to the full, and he does so by changing the very nature we rely on that clings to the lifeless existence we currently inhabit.

Our roots our dead, and we need to be replanted. Our motherboard is fried, and it needs to be replaced. Our insides are all messed up, and we need a surgeon. Jesus is that farmer, surgeon, and repairman to our spiritual lives. Always, it comes from the inside. Always, it requires a change of heart, a conscience and willful decision on our part in order to effect the change we seek to effect.

This change of heart is termed in the Greek Dikaiosune (prounced dik-ah-yos-oo'-nay), and it shall be the focus of our discussion tomorrow. Until then, dear readers...