Out of Focus

I try not to bring current events into my writings on prayer.  That said, I feel compelled to discuss some recent events in light of a growing trend–instant and polarizing reactions to small events, petty arguments, and even non-events.

Recently, a celebrity–one whose entire career has been predicated on her whining, hateful, politically incorrect rhetoric–was fired and her TV show cancelled over a single “tweet” she sent making fun of a former White House employee.  The TV show in question was a regurgitation of her popular sitcom from 30 years ago; a show that was controversial then because of its irreverence and foul language.  The new show quickly invited controversy by seeming to support the current president– also known for making offensive and cringe-worthy tweets.

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There is more than enough finger-pointing, blame-sharing, and shaming in the wake of this incident–but there is even more hypocrisy.  The people who are celebrating in the wake of this comedienne’s downfall are the very ones who were supporting her three decades ago– then she was “bold” and “brave” and “real.”  These same people were likely watching the new version of the TV show just last week.  Now she is “racist” and “abhorrent” (I guess the word “hateful” is suffering from overuse, and needs a stand-in– it was used in at least two of the tweets from her boss and colleagues) and “unacceptable”.  The people who are defending her now were the ones calling for boycotts of her show in the late ’80s for its flippant tone and dysfunctional family morals.  They are calling for more shows to be cancelled– shows they still watch; shows they discuss freely on social media; or maybe shows they don’t watch, because their friends tell them how they should react to what they’ve missed.

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My point is that controversies and “outrages” like this are becoming more common, more polarizing, and more hypocritical every week.  In the rush to judgment, we are losing our focus and missing the bigger picture.  What this comedienne said was offensive– it was juvenile, personal, hurtful.  It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t appropriate, and it wasn’t fair.  But it also wasn’t shocking.  The reprisal was swift and harsh, but that wasn’t really shocking, either, except in the context of the show’s success (it was the highest rated show of the season).  In the days and weeks that follow, some will regret that this action left dozens of other actors and staff without jobs, and others will cry foul at those who continue to “get away” with bad behavior and hurtful language.  But few of us will turn the spotlight on our own faults, our own use of social media or hateful language, or our own contributions to the cut-throat culture that surrounds us.

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Before I cheer or protest or react to this recent event, I want to ask forgiveness–for losing my focus.  I invited that TV show into my living room, along with those characters and their skewed values.  I watched video clips of interviews and failed attempts at the National Anthem and other scandals, and I chuckled.  I clicked on the news stories about the sitcom “reboot”, and considered watching it because it would be controversial– something to talk about, yell about, or laugh at.  And I clicked on the “news” of this comedienne’s downfall, consuming it like popcorn, and being entertained by the fallout.

Forgive me, Father, and restore my focus.  Create a clean heart in me, and be my pure vision.  Help me to stop pointing fingers at others and point others to you.

Hebrews 12:1-2 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

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Forgiveness is Free: It Isn’t a Free Pass

Yesterday, I posted about praying for our enemies– those who have hurt us.  We are commanded to forgive those who have wronged us, to do good to them, and to pray for them.  But I want to make sure I don’t give the wrong impression about offering forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to excuse the inexcusable, or trust the untrustworthy.  Forgiveness is trusting that God, in His wisdom, His Holiness, and His timing, will bring justice, healing, and peace, when nothing else can.  This is important to remember, both as someone who asks for forgiveness, and as someone who gives it.

Jesus offers forgiveness–full, and free, and perfect– he died to make that offer.  He gave it to whoever believes on His Name.  But here’s the catch…he didn’t make that offer so you can temporarily wipe the slate clean and go on sinning without consequence.

Oscar Wilde wrote a chilling novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Dorian Gray/Wikipedia    in which the title character finds a way to trap his soul, with all its ugliness, hatred, anger, and sin, inside a portrait.  No matter what Dorian does, no matter how twisted or evil, he continues to look fresh, young, innocent, and handsome.  The effects of his dissipated lifestyle–drug addiction, sleepless nights, years of hard living, even murder–are all trapped in the portrait.  Over the years, the portrait haunts Dorian with its monstrous transformation from young man to gnarled wraith.  In desperation, he “kills” the portrait– and himself– in disgust and anguish.

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We live in an age of appearances– if all appears well on the surface, we ignore the deeper, long-term consequences of our sin.  If we “get away with” small sins, we run the risk of sinking deeper into a sham lifestyle.  We go through the motions of asking forgiveness, when what we really seek is escape from the consequences of our own actions.  We begin to see sin as a valid alternative to obedience–I can obey God if it is convenient, but when it’s not, I can just ask forgiveness.  This is a road strewn with lies, excuses, evasions, and it ends in death.  It is a lifestyle that makes a mockery of God, of his Holiness, His Sacrifice on the cross, and His loving offer of restoration.

God doesn’t just want to transfer your ugliness and rebellion into a painting to hide it away.  He wants to remove it “as far as the east is from the west.”  We don’t become perfect in an instant, but our past is expunged so that we can be free to choose obedience and live more abundantly in fellowship with a Holy God.  When we are truly sorry for our sins and seek true forgiveness, we want to make better decisions, we want to right wrongs– we want to redeem the past rather than merely escape from it.

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When we, as imperfect people, offer forgiveness to someone else, we are not able to do what God does.  Our forgiveness is imperfect; like love, or discipline, or a new habit, it needs to develop and grow.  Forgiveness is not about freeing the offender, or wiping the slate clean for the other person.  It’s about freeing yourself to heal, to move away from slavery to the pain of the past, and to learn to trust God to bring justice.

Forgiveness isn’t natural or easy.  No one deserves forgiveness– that’s what makes it a miracle that God offers it to anyone who asks.  But God doesn’t undo our sin.  He doesn’t erase our actions, or clean up the messes we have made.  If I commit murder, God can forgive me, wash away the guilt of what I’ve done, and give me the power to live a life that seeks to do good, rather than evil.  But he’s not going to bring my victim back to life, or cause a judge and jury and the family of my victim to say, “Aw, that’s alright– you’ve probably learned your lesson.  No hard feelings.”  He can (and has) caused amazing healing to happen in such situations, but that’s the exception, not the expectation.

Similarly, if you have been hurt and you offer forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that the other person is no longer responsible for his/her actions.  It doesn’t mean that you were never hurt or betrayed, and it doesn’t mean that you trust them immediately and without reservation. It is not hateful, intolerant, or unforgiving to allow justice to catch up with someone who has hurt you– it IS unforgiving to seek beyond justice to vengeance and self-defined retribution.

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This is particularly important in cases of abuse.  If someone has abused you, physically, emotionally, or mentally, they are likely to make you feel the guilt they don’t want to deal with.  “You drove me to it.”  “You are the only one who understands my anger.”  Forgiving this person does not mean– it NEVER means– that you agree with their tactics and false accusations, or that you are giving them a pass.  But it DOES mean that you are giving them, and the damage they caused, over to the God of all justice.  Your case is closed; your final judgment is in his hands, and you are free to begin again– begin to heal, begin to see how God can bring something important and good and eternal out of something broken.  Forgiveness is impossible, but God will give you the power to do it– it may take several attempts, and several years, but when it comes, it will be the miracle of God working through you to glory!

Sowing the Wind

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  Hosea 8:7

Hosea was a prophet who foretold the destruction (and eventual restoration) of his people.  God was pouring out his judgment against an unfaithful nation, and he used the tragic family life of Hosea as a living example of his dealings with Israel.  Hosea married a prostitute; an unfaithful and unloving spouse who chased after men with ready money and cheap gifts.  But when her activities resulted in slavery, shame, and despair, Hosea redeemed her and restored her as his wife.  In the same way, God had made a promise to the people of Israel, but they had broken their covenant and followed their own rules, chasing after the surrounding cultures, with their foreign gods and their hedonistic rituals, including human sacrifice, temple prostitutes, and divination.  There are many metaphors used throughout this book, but one that often stands out is the short phrase found in chapter eight.  In it, God is talking about the unfaithful priests and leaders of Israel, who have not only betrayed God in their rebellion and idolatry, but have led others astray.  God says of them that they have sown the wind, and are reaping/will reap the whirlwind.

How does this relate to us today in our pursuit of prayer?

I believe that many of us are sowing the wind– we do it in our careless words, gossip, rumor-mongering, complaining, babbling, prattling, and yes, in our half-hearted obedience, and our tepid prayers.  We often come to God, not eager to commune with him, or to hear his voice, not in humble adoration and open confession, but to complain, wheedle, and boast.  We pay lip service to his Holiness, while refusing to give up that bad habit that “isn’t really all that bad.”  We thank him for his Grace, but harbor resentment against a neighbor or family member who slighted us.  We ask for him to bring us success in our plans and ventures without really making sure if they line up with his will.  We excuse our lack of attendance at church, and our failure to spend time in God’s word.  We make rash promises to do “better” if God just gets us through this week.  We ask for his blessing, and thank him for the riches he has bestowed on us, but we turn our noses at those in our backyard who are in need.  We are bold about posting “Christian” sayings on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram–almost as bold as posting about our favorite new Brew Pub or Spa trip or “almost inappropriate” joke, or latest political rant.  Except that our “Christian” posts are less entertaining and more critical of others.  (They’re usually really pretty, though– pictures of flowers or mountain streams or desert sunsets–it’s really easy to “like” and “share” a sunset!.)  We cheapen the Gospel, we cheapen the Christian walk, we cheapen prayer, when we pursue it as a hobby or a social habit.  It is not something we do only because (or only when)  it makes us feel “good” or “better”– it is something we pursue because it brings us life and peace for eternity, and it brings glory and joy to the King of Kings.

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  There is a price for this shallow, careless pursuit of something that looks and feels vaguely like Godliness.  It is the whirlwind…being tossed about by “every wind of doctrine” as Paul warns against in Ephesians 4.  It is being caught up in doubts and half-truths, compromises, hypocrisy, division, scandal, and shame.  It is having to face the onslaught of detractors and persecution that come as a result of so many of us abusing and misrepresenting the very Gospel of the one whose name we carry.   “Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear; All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”  The words of that old hymn are no less true today– when we trifle with prayer, carrying only our selfish needs, our petty complaints, and our flimsy agendas to God in prayer, we pay a huge price.

There is another metaphor, this one in the Gospel of John, that I think helps us combat this tendency to “sow the wind”–  Jesus says of himself in John 15 that he is the vine, and we are the branches.  If we are faithful, we remain in him– we draw our life and strength from him– and we are fruitful.  Remaining in him, we are grounded– he provides the roots that keep us from blowing every which way.  And he provides the nourishment, and strength to grow and produce more fruit.

I say “we” because I too am guilty of having sown the wind.  The great news, in Hosea and in the Gospel of John, is that God is eager to restore us– to graft us in–to welcome us home after our storm-tossed wanderings.  Let’s get serious about abiding in God, instead of scattering the latest “feel-good” religious spam.  God, forgive me for the times I have cheapened your precious gift of prayer.  Help me to abide in you, and refrain from careless words to you, about you, and about others.

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