Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Importance of Discernment


Our society seems to live by image. Image is everything. How do you portray yourself? How attractive are you? How good are you at stirring a crowd? How good are you at being cool? What’s hot right now? From politics to the movies, from the media to the church, our nation lives by image.

I mean, certain politicians we wouldn’t want babysitting our children, yet they sound cool, and so we vote for them. Kanye West is still cool, even though he is 54 million in debt. What about Richard Gere and his 5 marriages? Well, he’s got great hair, right? Oh yeah, look at those sounds and lights, and let’s not see if the “worship” is theologically accurate.

Perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but not by much. Why is it that we look only at image, and not at what is underneath? Why are we content with the shallow? Why do we make an idol out of the cool? I think there are several reasons.

First, we have been trained. Western culture has trained us to be image-conscious. Commercial after commercial, movie after movie, book after book, has taught us that character counts for very little, as long as you are “cool.” And how is cool defined anyway? It seems to be whatever is popular at the time. But who decides that? Who has that power?

Second, it is a matter of spiritual blindness. Our flesh tells us to look at what is seen, not what is unseen. Don’t get me wrong. God gave us our senses, and I am glad to have good eyes. But we need other eyes too- eyes of discernment. Eyes that look past any smoke and mirrors that are being put up by those who have things to hide. It is my settled belief that faith is not blind. It is a matter of discernment, and a matter of following the truth at any cost. If we have faith, we will have discernment. It’s not a matter of “It doesn’t matter because God will work it our anyway.” It’s a matter of, “God will work it out, but we are still responsible for what happens on this earth.”

Third, it is much easier to look at the surface. It is easier to see a pretty face than the selfish heart under that face. It is easier to see the powerful speech than the motives and goals of the one who is speaking. It is easier to see “An easy, thousand dollar loan,” than the fact that money has to be paid back. You see? And many people want it that way. How many products (and people) would be sold if we actually looked past the surface? How much temptation and deception could be overcome if we sat down and thought about what we were really being offered?

Yes, it is easier to look at one layer, but is it wise? Is it beneficial? How many men have been caught by beautiful gold-diggers? How many women have been caught by a man’s charm? How many people have been caught in credit-card debt from buying something pretty and unnecessary? How many nations have suffered under leaders that made false promises? History is replete with the broken hearts and dead bodies of such victims.

Even the most godly can fall into this trap. In the Bible, we come to the story of Samuel and David. Israel had already tried tall, dark and handsome. Saul had good looks and a humble demeanor. He had talent, and he had passion. He was also disobedient and willing to live in spiritual blindness, making excuses for his sin and refusing true humility.  Samuel nearly made the mistake a second time. Told to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, he faithfully went. When Jesse’s sons were brought in, the oldest was handsome and strong. Samuel thought he was the one. But God said no.See, God wasn’t looking for someone who looked good. He was looking for someone who was good. He found his man in a young shepherd boy, the youngest of Jesse’s sons. This kid loved God with a purer heart than almost anyone else, and had developed the courage and strength that would make him a great king. But could that be seen just from a casual look? No. No one looked at David twice until he chopped off Goliath’s head.

And that is the point. My roommate has a bad hip. He is sometimes slow to speak and can have a stutter on occasions. He has an overbite. And he is one of the strongest, hardest-working people I have ever met. He is sharp, too. I think I’m smart, but he can use logic to take me apart, and he has the street smarts and discernment to see who is good and bad. He wants to work in special education, and eventually begin his own school. He could be a great person, if he was given a chance. But because most people judge on appearance, he has no chance.

I really, really wish we could get to the place where we looked past the surface to see what was underneath. I especially wish for it in relationships. I’m human. A pretty face catches my eye. However, over the years, I’ve been thankful for God’s protection. Many of the women that I have been attracted to have later shown their true colors. Now, it seems more of my desire is for someone that just loves Christ and will treat me right. I am truly blessed I have this perspective now. It will save me a check-in at the Heartbreak Hotel. After all, “charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” I mean, looks are great, and I admire beauty, but in all reality, that is the icing on the cake. And no one can eat just icing without getting sick.

On the other hand, I really, really wish people would just be themselves, good or bad. I’d rather see people in their full colors, telling who they are, then people wearing a mask. I’d rather hear people say, “I’m a hot mess,” than for them to say, “I’m fine,” then find out after their suicide that they were struggling. If someone is angry, I wish they would just admit it. In other words, show who you really are. Be authentic. The world is crying for authentic people.  

Besides, there is a benefit to yourself if you are authentic. Last Sunday, my pastor gave a message on confession and healing. It feels good to share. Your loads are being carried by other people, and a load that is shared is a load that is easier to carry. I know when I have had the courage to bare all my whole day is lifted. And I don’t have to make people guess what is wrong- when I really want them to understand and support me. Why do we do these games, anyway? Is there no one we can trust to be real with? Is all of life a test, to see who we can really lean on? Or is it our pride, our independent spirit that says we should be strong and handle whatever comes our way? I know sometimes for me, it has been both. But in all reality, that type of thinking is very, very damaging, to us and to others. Everyone should have a core group they can trust. If no one else, at least one friend who is “closer than a brother.”



So let’s be discerning, but let’s also be authentic. Let’s look past the surface, but let’s also not hide our true selves. Even the bad can be a benefit to other people. Where would we be if David was only “hallelujah” without the “Lord, how long?”

Ok, I guess I’m beating a dead horse. You get the point. But the question remains- will we practice true discernment, and true authenticity? Or will we continue the status quo?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Death of Reason

The Death of Reason

There is a danger in our world today. More an imbalance that is dangerous. Let me explain by using two of my favorite characters, Spock and Kirk. Spock is reasonable, logical, and always can think ten steps ahead. He is the brain of the pair. Kirk is impulsive, often foolish, depends on luck, and somehow manages to come out ahead. He is the heart of the pair. Both of them worked together, and they were stronger together than apart. They needed each other. Neither were complete without the other.

But in our world today, it is not so. What we have tried to do is get the heart by itself. Do you think I am overstating my case? Book after book, film after film, show after show, talks about "following your heart." Popular ad slogans say, "Do what feels right." In fact, even psychology is leaning toward the power of emotions. The STUDY of the mind has in some ways been taken over by the other side.

Some would say, "What's wrong with that?" The reasons are too numerous to name. But there are several that need to be considered.

First, it makes us vulnerable. Some emotional music, some drama, maybe a slogan or two. This is the power of advertising. Oh yes, Sign and Drive. So easy, so simple. And the payments you are saddled with for the next ten years? Did you consider those, too? Or were you taken in by a cute commercial with snow and presents and a big red bow?

Perhaps that is harmless, unless you get in debt you cannot pay. But the dangers are greater than just losing a little money. What about the news? The news feeds off fear. We see that now. Terrorism turns into xenophobia at the switch of a politician's voice. What about a grudge into the Holocaust? The power in the voice of a man with a mustache turned into death camps and international horror.

Don't pretend you don't know what I am talking about! The danger in turning off your brain cannot be underestimated. How come is it that so many people seem to want us to do just that? How come learning is underestimated and devalued? What CS Lewis talked about in the Abolition of Man is coming true. Truth, knowledge, even values themselves are becoming a matter of taste- even though they are not. And so we are left drifting, susceptible to those with an agenda. Do I call conspiracy? No...unless it is a spiritual one.

Satan is the Father of Lies. Therefore, he has no real facts, no truth. All he has is propaganda. So remember that next time your emotions want to take you somewhere. Take the higher road. Check the facts and be sure of your course. Then, if it is legit, proceed.

Second, it stifles creativity and stops the progress of all civilization. I am a writer. Certainly, my original ideas just seem to pop into my head. But I can't continue that way. Even if I am a seat-of-the-pants writer (and I am), I need at least some sort of idea of where the story is going. I have to THINK about the characters and plot. If I didn't, I wouldn't have a story. I'd have nonsense.

Writing can be extended to other endeavors, too. What about art? What about engineering, architecture, medicine? I used to have a bad ear. I could hardly hear out of my left. Now it is getting better, progressively, by God's hand. But what if I had gone to a doctor and I didn't "feel" what he was telling me? Who's the fool then, if he is a legit doctor? Is it him, or me? 

Third, it dulls us. Thrill-seeking is good sometimes. Taking risks is not bad. But you can't live only on an emotional high. That dulls us, and makes us bored. I am glad I read books more often as a kid than I watched TV. TV is excitement, images, emotion. Yes, books can be that, too, but in reading, you have to engage your imagination. You still have to think. TV has little of that (more on rare exceptions). You are simply absorbing. And like a lake with no outlet, eventually you begin to die.

Even educational programs and news, good as they are, don't offset this completely. See, TV has time limits. Even the best segment can only have so much. You are not doing the picking and selecting, but absorbing what people have already selected, and their biases to go with it. Far better to actually read, and read as much as you can about everything that interests you or is important. (As an example, the Middle East is the subject of a lifetime. An hour of soundbites, with a dressing of bias, will barely begin to scratch the surface. So a news program should always be only the starting point!)

With all that said, there is nothing wrong with having emotions. In fact, I would say that emotions are part of what make us human. Any computer can have logic. The rules of logic have been well-established, enough to use in machines with no soul. But a machine cannot feel, cannot sorrow, cannot love.

And emotions serve a very important purpose. As pleasure and pain are indicators in our physical body, emotions are indicators in our soul, if you believe we have a soul. Too much grief is a sign our soul is crumbling. Excessive exuberance is also bad, a sign that something is not quite right. In other words, emotions are the lights on the dashboard of our soul. Normal emotions are just that, normal. We need joy and anger, love and disgust, even fear.

Some Christians look at some of these and say no. But I say yes. Certain things are unjust, and need to be challenged. Anger serves a role then. Fear keeps us from running out in front of traffic. Disgust keeps us from eating garbage. Yes, excess of these are bad, but these, in and of themselves, are not bad. We must not be Buddhists. They say to give up desires. Christians, on the other hand, are about transforming them.

And, of course, it is possible to be unbalanced in favor of logic. I feared my emotions, and hid them. For me, I have to understand the importance of feeling. Sometimes, "vibes" are important. How many policeman, soldiers, security guards, and other people in dangerous careers have been saved because something didn't feel right? Even those of us who don't face death every day could benefit from having a sixth sense. I am not speaking mystically, but practically. Deal with something long enough, and you get a feel for it, beyond the logic of the subject or career. This is God's gift to us.

So if we have an unbalance in our lives and culture (and I believe we do), what can we do? There is only one thing to do- learn to think. I believe a course in logic should be required for every high school student. Then I think the analysis of books, movies and TV should be required for at least one semester in college. I don't say that lightly. I say that so that we can all have a foundation.  

"But we can read other people's analyses." Yes, but there is nothing like studying for yourself. And, since I believe strongly in individuality, different perspectives can be brought out and creativity can flourish. One thing I fear is that through our emotions, people will teach us only one perspective. And that cannot be.  

"And you Christians..." Don't even start. I have no tolerance for fools. Any fair reading of Paul's letters shows a sharp, analytical mind. Proverbs shows an insight into life that has rarely been matched, logical for the wisest man who ever lived. The gospels are cogent and well-organized. Even the Mosaic law, for some of its harshness, is simple, brief, and to the point. So believe what you want, but don't pretend the Bible doesn't have logic.

Certainly, Christians have been illogical, and sometimes have relied more on emotion than common sense. Many of us have been reactionary, but that is in spite of orthodox teaching, not because of it.

So let's learn to think. Really think. Not, "follow your heart." At least, not alone. Not, "do what feels right." Not without dealing with the consequences, also. Not, "heart over head." Not now, not ever, not at all.

"But my temperament." Yes. Some of more "feeling." Some are more "thinking." But in whatever proportion you have them, you need both. No temperament or personality is completely "feeling" or "thinking." So that is also a bad excuse.

"But I am not smart." Everyone is smart in something. I heard there was something like 8 types of intelligence. Being book smart is but one. Whatever you are smart in, be smart in that. If you can read, study and absorb all you can. If you are a kinetic learner, dance and play until your body is lean and mean. If you are spacial, be an architect or designer.  You get the point, and I won't belabor it.

Finally, "What about faith?" True. Faith, for a Christian, is the foundation, for we serve a God that is much higher than we are, and that cannot be fully understood. Mystery and awe are important for us, and should never stop being important. But faith is not free-floating. It has an object that it is attached to, and God has given us enough that we can know who he is and what he has done. Not everything, but enough to know him. But isn't that true too on an earthly plane? No one knows everything about me. I don't even know everything about me. But I can give enough that those around me can know me pretty well. Whether I want to is another question, one that has nothing to do with intelligence. So the argument of "faith" is also an excuse.

There is no excuse for not using your mind. Many times, these excuses are a cover for something else-laziness. Every gift uses the mind, and in these days of apathy and violence, we dare not use everything we have. So don't check your brains at the door. Use them until you die.







Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Brokeness

Everyone feels broken sometimes, shattered, despairing, and just plain old worthless. And what do you do when those times come?

I have spoken about feeling alienated from God and the fact that the only way to real peace is to know him. But that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about being a Christian, but feeling like you have a broken leg and are hobbling after the Shepherd.

A few months ago, I was talking to a friend, catching up after a long period of not talking at all. I told her I don’t always sleep well, and she was giving some suggestions on how to sleep better. She asked me if I had asked God for healing from my past. I shrugged and said no. True, God has done a work in me, but that was not through me asking. That was simply God keeping his promise to conform me into the likeness of his Son.

So, curious, I asked. I asked God to heal every wound I might have. Since then, it hasn’t felt like healing. All sorts of old temptations and sins have come up, things I thought I had dealt with long ago. My dreams may be better, but I think about my past more than I ever have before. In other words, I feel lots of pain, pain from things I have done and things that have happened to me. So...does that mean God isn’t working? No. I guess God is. Maybe through this, he is building my faith, restoring my foundations. I trust that he is, and I am determined to go through this time with patience.  

The patience, though, is stretched by current stress. It sometimes gets to the point that I am ready to give up on the world and just go home. I haven't had so much stress, financially, emotionally, and physically, since I got out of high school, and that was ten years ago.

Maybe, also, there is more honesty. I have gotten tired of “being strong.” I tend to attract broken people. Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to pray with them. To know that God works through me is thrilling. To know that people I have prayed for have gone on to grow and thrive is a joy like nothing else. And me? I think I remain the same.

I am not saying I am ungrateful, or see people as a burden. I am merely stating that even the strongest of us will sometimes limp. Some of us have been limping for a long time. When we do, what can we do?

The one thing we must not do is give up. Some of us have the heart of warriors, but even the "weakest" of us have an instinct to survive. When we give our lives to Christ, he changes that to perseverance. I don't think I could give up my faith even if every demon came after me. God adds to our own strength the strength not to lose our confession of hope.

Also, we must realize God's character. God will refine us through such times, and he will do it with love. If he seems distant, it does not mean he has left. Faith and character is the goal he has for us, and that goal is for our ultimate good. It may hurt, but there is a harvest from that shattered husk, that painful place. Even in the physical realm, a broken bone becomes stronger after it heals. Not that God "breaks our bones" just to see what we are made of. He is no sadist, nor does he lack any knowledge of us. No, he lets our "bones be broken" to show us who we are, the good and the bad. That way, the bad can go and the good can become better.

I close with something that has been an anchor through the years. When I was thirteen, I suffered an almost unimaginable tragedy. I lost a parent. I was in a sort of boarding school at the time, and one of the upperclassmen had taken it upon herself to guide and shelter me. I will never forget what she said after that tragedy. (Heather, I hope you have rewards in heaven for what you said!) She said, "When you can't see God's hand, trust his heart." That meant a lot to me, because I could not see God's hand at the time.

I pass that on to you. Sometimes, it will seem that God is distant, or even that he hates you. It may appear so, but we must remember, God's love never fails. He died for you. He will preserve you now.

Even when the house looks like a tornado zone.

Even when you face the same sin for the seventieeth time that day.

Even when you can't tell up from down.

Even when you feel like you are less holy than when you were a pagan.

Even when you are still trying to fulfill promises you made years ago.

Even when you feel like a wrung out dishrag.

Even when....

His love never fails.

His love never fails.

Just hold on until he comes. That's all we have to do. Hold on until he comes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Sins Like Skeletons

It's been a while, hasn't it!  Time flies, but I want to share some thoughts on my heart.  I am far from perfect in this area, but there are some things I think I have learned, and so, today, I will be a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.

Authenticity is a word we often use. A buzz word of sorts, but the question remains. How authentic are we really?  

I'm often on Facebook. I see a lot on there, from the banal to the serious, from the logical to the outrageous. But one thing I rarely see is authenticity. A real genuine openness, even with those we call our "Facebook friends." I thought a friend was someone we trusted- but it appears we don't trust people online. To be fair, of course, the internet is a dangerous place, but...if you also know that person in real life, there shouldn't be a hiding of your true thoughts and feelings, even if you are communicating by private messages.

Then there is the "I'm fine" syndrome. I've done it. My friends have done it. I don't know anyone who has not. I do it even with my own roommate, who has helped me through so much. And he is no fool. He knows me pretty well. He knows when my depression, my anger, and my feelings of inadequacy begin to show.  

Is it that I don't trust him? Far from it. I do. What I tell him, he has never divulged. He likes to tease, but when I am serious ("I guess I am just a screwup after all") he is quick to comfort. It's just...well, I think there are many reasons why I and so many others play that game. The game of hiding. The game of not telling the truth about ourselves.  

First, of course, is pride. We think we are above weakness. "I'm strong enough." "I'm better than anyone else." "I'm not so bad." We've all said it, or at least thought it. The world, and the devil that rules it, has convinced us that if we are not actually gods, we are one step below that. To admit weakness would mean we are not really that strong. But we have to remember- we are not. None of us are perfect. None of us know all. None of us are immune from the batterings we have been given.  

This one is tough for me. I've tried, over and over, to prove to others I need no help. Even if I was bruised and battered, or if my own sins were eating me alive, I tried to say that I was tough. I didn't want or need help, because my own brains and knowledge serve for me. Or so I thought. God continued to take things away- and he used my own foolishness to do it- until I had to admit I needed help. Even better, until I admitted those things came from him, and that God had given friends to give me aid in the things I did not know.  

Second is fear. We've all been let down. Gossip, deceit, and abuse have ripped through all our lives. Why should we trust? Why should we give our hearts to anyone? Our deepest darkest secrets are our own. Even the Bible says the heart has its own sadness, right? Yes. But a cord of two strands is not easily broken. Its not enough to admit who we are to ourselves. We also need to admit who we are to others.

I mean, I'm intelligent, kind, loyal and soft-hearted. I'm also proud, stubborn, have a weakness for the opposite sex, and sometimes have the attitude that people should just get over their problems, already. I also have the tendency to run and hide from what I can't control. 

Sure, I don't say that lightly. I don't like to admit these things. But they are true and always will be. I need help. I have problems.  

But it is not enough to confess our own problems. We also must have the trust of others- that they can confess to us. Hiding from others just makes others want to hide from us. Trust must flow both ways. We must truly get over the fear that people will reject us. They will not. In fact, it is my settled conviction that when people realize we won't reject them, they will open up their own hearts and not reject us, either.

I have a confession. I am more or less a country boy. Though I have visited cities, I have never lived in one. Moving to New Mexico was a culture shock in itself, but moving to Albuquerque was worse. And one thing about cities is the abundance of tattoos. I don't think it is wrong to have tattoos, necessarily, but I saw them everywhere, and I had long associated tats with the gang life. Though part of my assumption is true, not all who have tats are violent. In fact, I later found out that even many gangsters are scared, and find in gangs a substitute family.  

What's my point? Simply this. We can't judge by appearances. And we definitely can't live by stereotypes. To do so is to substitute an image for the real thing- and we need to know people as they really are. If they have problems, at least we know that we know them, not just an image about them. If they know us, they know who we are, too, not just an image about us.  

I mean, the whole idea of stereotypes goes both ways. If I say I am a Christian, there are certain images of what a Christian looks like. None of those images probably include a nerd that likes to travel, likes to take risks, and likes to have a cold one every once in a while. Or someone who likes mosh pits and classic rock. Or someone who is more easy-going and not a rabid evangelist. I don't like to stand on boxes in the middle of city streets. Too dangerous.  

I mean, God knows us absolutely. Nothing can be hidden from him. Maybe its time our skeletons came out around other people, too. Why should people have to figure us out? Why should we test them? True, we shouldn't just trust anyone. This world is full of evil people who want to take advantage, yes. Discernment is invaluable in the world we live in. But there is a difference between discernment and paranoia. There is also a difference between discernment and bitterness. We cannot allow our own bad experiences to keep us from trusting those who have our best interests at heart.  

And what about the box? The box that says, "You must conform." We always say there is no box, but we live as though there is. There are certain...expectations put on us. I'll be honest. When Eowyn says, "I am no man," I like it not just because she proves her quality, but also because she defies expectations. I hate the fact that so many people are pushed down into a box. It makes them afraid. I was afraid. I wanted to be different as a kid. I was. Boys play sports. I spent my time in the library, not on the field. Christians sing hymns. I sang the Beatles. High schoolers have cliques. I had none. I had friends from every clique. You're supposed to go to college right out of high school, especially if you have a SAT of 2200. I didn't.

I'm not tooting my own horn here, or trying to prove I am something special. I'm not. Like I said, I was afraid to stand out. Nails get pushed down. But I refused to let anyone tell me who I was supposed to be. I am me. I listened to God- when we were on speaking terms. But not many others. I still listen to God, but I still have a hard time listening to other people.  

However, all that was external. Inside, I was terrified. I was depressed. I had night terrors. Everyone said I was always tired, and I had good reasons for that - besides laziness. I was bullied. My childhood wasn't fun. High school was better. Developing my faith helped a lot, but I was still afraid. My non-conformity was a mask, and I wore it well, while refusing to talk about what was going on inside. The mask came off eventually, out of desperation. Then, slowly, I learned to trust. I am still different, but I can be open about my differences- the things that make me unique and that God can use. Why should I be afraid of what God gave me? The point is- don't be afraid to be different. And don't be afraid to celebrate your differences, because God knew what he was doing when he gave you them.  

Finally, be strong in Christ. I've talked about different things- sins, struggles, and differences. We aren't perfect, but we are forgiven. I think that is the greatest factor of all- knowing the great love of God. Men may not understand, and may not forgive, but God always does. He loves us with a love different than any other. His love is a warm blanket, a security.

When I was younger, and sometimes even today, I had sinus problems. My health has always been good, but for them. A hot blanket, and a cup of tea, would help a lot. Chicken soup was even better, and it was not long before the warmth would drive away the chill. That is really what God's love is like. It is a security that is perfect, that never lets go even when everything else is chaos and cold. I've never regretted accepting the forgiveness God offers, and I think that acceptance changes some of our own beliefs.  

For example, I think knowing God understands us helps us to accept our uniqueness. Christianity is the only faith that really celebrates the individual. All other faiths (or lack of) strive for conformity. But since God made us all unique, all of us matter, no matter how strange we seem. God used a left-hander, a bastard (using the technical meaning), a shepherd boy, and a fisherman. I'm talking about Ehud, Jephthah, David, and Peter. Moses stuttered, and Aaron was afraid of confrontation. And let's not forget Cyrus, a Persian king with almost no knowledge of the One True God. No, I think God delights in using oddballs.  

And what about our sins and our weaknesses? David had a weakness for women, and Solomon a weakness for gold. (600 talents a year? Really?) Moses had a temper that never really disappeared. Peter was impetuous, and it can be argued that Philip had more common sense than faith. Solomon's searching for the good life led to Ecclesiastes, a sober view of riches and worldly thinking. David's adultery gave a model confession for so many people with "special friends." Moses' temper allowed him to stand up to Pharaoh, and Peter's big mouth eventually brought 3,000 people into the early church.  

Point? God will use all we have to do all we can for his kingdom, weak and stumbling sheep as we are. All we have to do is throw ourselves at his mercy, and he will take what we have and turn it into something extraordinary.  

Selah