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Epic fail

Posted by Mike Heady on January 23, 2017 with No Commentsas , , , , , , , , , , , ,

When I was in seminary I played on a church softball team.  In one game I was playing second base and the other team had a runner on first.  The batter hit the ball to shallow center field.  I went to second to take the throw for an easy force out.  Now this was a league of rural churches.  We didn’t always have the best fields and equipment.   In this game, second base wasn’t a bag; it was a piece of carpet – not big, thick shag carpet – thin, flat carpet.  I couldn’t feel it with my foot.  The runner was safe because I didn’t get my foot on the base.  My teammates responded – you would have thought I just lost the 7th game of the World Series!  Everybody stayed on my case the rest of the game, even though we won by about 18 – 2.  Epic fail!

I’ve failed a lot worse than that, of course.  We all have.  What does failure do to us?  It gives us a sense of being unacceptable, rejected, condemned.  We live with regret, if-only, and trying to do better or just giving up and pretending I’m okay.

The need to be accepted begins early.  It starts in the family – as a child you need desperately to know both parents accept you unconditionally.  It continues through life.  We put in a lot of work, spend a lot of money, and put on a lot of performances trying to make ourselves acceptable.

There’s a level in our personalities where acceptance makes it possible to accept ourselves and to handle all the other levels of acceptance and rejection.  That level is where we experience unconditional acceptance.   See it in action in John 8:2-11.

Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,  they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”  They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.  But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.  Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

No one really finds total acceptance until they experience what this woman did.  This is a real life drama with a surprising and powerful ending.  We’ll stand at the edge and watch the drama unfold.  Occasionally we’ll move in for a close-up view and we’ll step back to look at ourselves.

Early one morning during the Feast of Tabernacles when the city was overflowing with religious pilgrims, Jesus comes into Jerusalem and goes to the Temple.  Soon a crowd gathers around him and he begins to teach.  He’s interrupted when a committee makes its appearance: the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.  These guys are genuine spiritual snobs.  They carry their noses so high they would catch on power lines.  They are holy and they know it.  They have God and people all figured out.  Have all the answers.  This is the official Sinner Stoning Committee, and they’re ready to fulfill their assignment.

Two of the biggest men drag in a young woman.  She may have been an unmarried teenager or a married adult.  They throw her to the ground in front of Jesus and everyone else.  The committee chairman calls the meeting to order and loudly announces: “This woman was caught in the act of adultery!”  He looks around the crowd like an arrogant prosecuting attorney with an air-tight case and fixes his stare on Jesus: “The Law says she must be stoned.  What do you say?”

The Law – yeah, right.  What they’re really after is to catch Jesus doing something they can use to accuse and condemn him.  To do it, they’re willing to step on this woman and grind her into the dirt.

But let’s be honest.  The Committee is right.  The woman has been caught in the act; she’s guilty and legally deserves death by stoning.  She knows it.  She’s not denying her guilt.  She’s not blaming someone else for her actions.  She’s not making excuses or claiming she’s misunderstood.  She’s been caught.  Epic fail.

So, there the Committee stands, killing stones in their hands and satisfied smirks on their faces.  Each one is thinking “We’ve got him now.”  If Jesus says, “Yes, stone her,” the people he’s teaching will lose confidence in his message of love and forgiveness.  If he says, “No, don’t stone her,” he’ll be seriously violating the Law of Moses and condoning adultery, so they’ll arrest him.

But Jesus doesn’t say anything just yet.  Instead, mysteriously he bends down and writes something in the dirt with his finger.  I don’t know why he did that or what he wrote.  Maybe he’s getting his anger under control.  Maybe he’s taking some time to work this out.  He’s dealing with 3 kinds of people: the teachable crowd, the self-righteous Sinner Stoning Committee, and, most crucially, the woman, embarrassed and trembling in fear.ea

He writes in the dust a few moments then stands. 

He looks into the eyes and soul of each Committee member and makes one short statement: “The one who has no sin can throw first.”  He stoops again and writes some more in the dirt.  This is all he has to say.

The Committee is dumbfounded.  They drop their rocks and their jaws.  Not even they, as righteous as they think they are, have the audacity to claim to be sinless.  The members look to the chairman: “what now, boss?”  Beginning with the oldest, they tuck their tails and run home to mama.  You can hear chuckles ripple through the crowd.

But the woman is still there.  Still right out there in front of everybody – everybody knows!  And she’s slowly suffocating in her shame.  Even though the Committee is gone, she’s still guilty, still unacceptable.   Nothing has really changed about her.  Her epic fail hasn’t been undone.

Then Jesus straightens up and faces her.  He acts surprised: “Where’d they go?  Doesn’t anyone condemn you?  Didn’t anyone throw a stone?”  She answers, “No one.”  There’s no one left to condemn her.  No one to reject her.  No one to stone her.  No one has the right.  Well, wait, there is one.  The one who is without sin.  Jesus.  He can condemn her.  He can reject her.  He can stone her.  And Jesus picks up one of the rocks and throws it – away.  Maybe he didn’t do that, but I have no doubt that Jesus put his arm around her shoulder when he said, “I don’t condemn you either.”  He doesn’t condone her adultery at all.  He tells her, “Leave your life of sin.”  She has failed.  But he doesn’t condemn.  He doesn’t punish.  He doesn’t kick her while she’s down.  He gives her mercy.  He gives her unconditional acceptance and a chance to start over.

I’ve been where that woman was.  I’ve felt the scorn, as painful as rocks, from the self-righteous when I made mistakes.  Jesus never joined them.  I’ve been where that woman was: epic fail.  Guilty, ashamed.  Jesus never stoned me.  Never condemned me.  Never threw me out.  Never gave up on me.  Always accepts me and picks me up to start over.

What this is all about is grace from Jesus the King.  Here in the shadow of the Temple, the center and power of the Law-controlled way of life, Jesus shows that the power of the new life he’s bringing is grace.  His Kingdom is powered by grace.  People who fail are not treated with a sweet, marshmallowy softness, to be sure.  But they are not rejected and condemned because of their failure.  No one has to desperately try to make themselves good enough and acceptable.  No one has to make sure they never do something wrong.  No one has to live in shame and fear.  With Jesus as King, nobody gets stoned.

What’s happening with this woman caught in the act?  What’s happening when Jesus says to her, “I don’t condemn you; leave your life of sin”?  Jesus is changing her with grace.

People don’t leave their lives of sin when they’re condemned; they keep on sinning.  People don’t change when they’re stoned; they die.  People don’t start living differently when someone points out how wrong they are and demands they do better; they find something to cover up their guilt.  People change when they have unconditional acceptance from Christ.

One day when I worked in a residential treatment center, one of our girls was throwing a tantrum in school.  She was in a rage.  She kicked a garbage can over and pushed books and papers onto the floor.  She overturned a folding table.  She screamed and cussed the staff.  Finally she squatted and stared at the floor, still seething with anger.  I walked over and stood to her side.  I said her name and held my hand to her, palm down.  Many seconds passed then she reached up.  She didn’t take my hand, just brushed her fingers over mine.  She relaxed and stood up and asked if she could take a walk with one of the staff.  But before she did, she cleaned up the room she had trashed.

Grace changes people.  Christ’s grace takes people with epic fails, unconditionally accepts them, and starts them on a new way of living.

 

 

Reading the Bible for all it’s worth

Posted by Mike Heady on January 19, 2017 with No Commentsas , , , , , , ,

At the close of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus said: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

It makes a difference whether a person is paying attention to God speaking.  It’s the difference between success and failure.  While the Bible is not all that God says to us (Jesus himself is the ultimate Word and the Holy Spirit communicates to our spirits), it is the core, the essence, the primary message to us.  I think most Christians adhere to the belief that reading and studying the Bible is really important.

It is dangerously easy to presume what God has in mind when reading the Bible.  We naturally tend to pick up on a Scripture verse or two and go with it, believing it sums up pretty much everything God is doing.  That leads us to a distorted understanding of his message every time.  With this method of hearing the Word we can become very fearful and condemning or we can become overly confident and indulgent.  We can believe God is out to get us or that he likes everything we do.  We can miss what God is actually saying.

The number 1 procedure that causes you to miss the meaning is focusing on those one or two verses without seeing them in context.  I think the way our Bibles are constructed with chapters and verses contributes to this.  They weren’t in the original writings. Chapter and verse divisions are helpful, of course, but you need to ignore them when you are reading/studying. They can make it look like there is a series of unrelated statements and/or events.  It’s very easy, then, to pick out sayings and think they mean something that they don’t.  I’ll give a couple of examples.

First, the passage I quoted to begin – Jesus telling how important it is to hear and do his words.  What is Jesus referring to with the picture of rain and floods and winds hitting the two houses?  I have usually heard it taught and I’ve taught it myself that he is giving us advice for when we have various troubles – disease, accidents, death, financial ruin, persecution, etc. – the storms of life.  But Jesus was not teaching about any of those things in the Sermon he was concluding (except his point that those who are persecuted will be blessed).  The primary point of his sermon is what it takes to enter the Kingdom of God. He said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).  He goes on to give several examples.  Then he said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21).  So the story of the two houses means you need to hear, believe, and act on his words in the sermon to enter the kingdom.

Example 2 comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3, verse 13 (actually only the last phrase in the verse): forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…”  This statement gets used a lot at the beginning of a new year, so it’s been on my radar recently.  Some use it to inspire us to leave the old year behind and move forward in the new with confidence and freedom.  It’s also used by some to encourage us to let go of past struggles, burdens, and failures so we can make the most of life, including God’s best for us, of course.  But Paul wasn’t writing about any of that.  The context of this little phrase is the entire chapter 3.  You can read it and see he never mentions a new-year kind of mentality or a decision to lay aside personal baggage.  In fact, what he’s talking about forgetting were his great accomplishments as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (verses 4-6).  Just the opposite of failures or disappointments. He was a wildly successful Pharisee.  That meant personal prestige, self-satisfaction, power and even profit on top of a confidence that he was right with God.  That’s what he was forgetting.  In fact he said he was looking at all his greatness as just “dung.”  His reason was not so he would feel confident and get the most out of life but so he could “gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (verses 8-11).

See how easy it is to miss the actual meaning of God’s Word?

The Bible is not just a series of inspirational sayings.

We need to read the Bible for all it’s worth.  We need to hear all of the message.  Something that has helped me with this issue is reading longer chunks of Scripture, especially in the four Gospels, and basically ignoring the chapter and verse divisions and looking for themes and connections through the texts.  It is surprising how much more there is to hear when you stop thinking the Gospels are made up of a series of biographical events.  The Spirit has given us more than an interesting (or not) “life of Christ.”  It is much deeper and more profound than that.  I encourage you to try this.  Read/study with your mind open and searching for connections and meanings that run through large sections.

 

Here’s an experiment I’d like you to try.  I’ll give you a passage of Scripture to read.  The last verse has been taken to have a certain meaning.  Read the entire passage as a whole, including that last verse.  When you read it, see what that last verse really means in contrast to what you may have heard it means.  You can leave comments by clicking above.  The passage is Matthew 18:15-20.