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Man’s Sin Problem 

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

– Romans 7:21-25

We all want to be the hero of our own story.  The hero courageously fights against villains to protect the vulnerable. He stands up for his principles. The hero is always good, his anger always righteous. The hero is consistently honest, diligent, generous, patient, wise, strong and kind. Being a hero is a wonderful thing.

There’s only one problem: none of us is that kind of hero.

The most patient person among us may occasionally snap at his parents, spouse or children. The bravest person among us may occasionally face situations that paralyze her with fear. The most scrupulously honest people may occasionally, in the heat of the moment, exaggerate or leave a misconception uncorrected. And so on. None of us perfectly embody all of the traits that comprise virtue. We all want to do good, we all want to be good, but each and every one of us must face our failure to live up to our own standards.

As far as I can tell, this is a uniquely human problem. My poodle has zero anguish over his failure to sit on command. He feels no regret about eating a fallen piece of fruit even though I told him to leave it alone. Through training, I can shape his desires to fit my lifestyle, but fundamentally he does precisely what he wants to do without agonizing or chagrin, whether it is promptly obeying my command to lay down, utterly ignoring my command to fetch or eagerly sniffing another dog’s hindquarters. Humans are uniquely capable of aspiring to moral standards we don’t meet.

There is a term for this failure to do what we know to be right and this persistence in doing what we know to be wrong: sin. And despite sin’s having become unfashionable, we all know in our heart of hearts that it is part of our lives, that we can’t will ourselves into being the heroes we want to be. Oh, we try to soften the blow by telling ourselves that we aren’t sinful, just human. Or that we aren’t that bad, after all – at least, not as bad as Republicans or Democrats or White supremacists or Islamic terrorists or your bogeyman of choice. We learn mantras and self-affirmations and tell ourselves that fixating on our harmful actions and impure motives is unhealthy. But the reality of sin remains, and the fact that it seems universal and inescapable doesn’t make it any less pathological.

Thankfully, our sin problem has a solution: Christ. Did you know that Christ wants to fix your sin problem? He wants to show you God’s forgiveness for your past sins. Even more, he wants to show you a new, righteous way of living, where compassion, patience, justice, integrity and holiness are as natural as breathing. He wants to welcome you into the revolutionary reality of the Kingdom of Heaven – not in some distant life after death, but now, today. Are you ready?

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A Sneaking Suspicion of My Own Badness

I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and [his stepdaughter turned wife] Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.

The psychic theater of the public condemnation of monsters can be seen as a kind of elaborate misdirection: nothing to see here. I’m no monster. Meanwhile, hey, you might want to take a closer look at that guy over there.

– Claire Dederer, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”, The Paris Review Blog

Who’s Your Daddy?

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

– John 8:42-47

I don’t know the origin of the notion that “we are all children of God.” It doesn’t seem to come from the Jewish tradition, which, as far as I can tell, either rejects the idea of being a “child of God” entirely or reserves it for the Jewish people. It doesn’t seem to be from the Islamic tradition, which I believe would deem the notion presumptuous, in light on the Quranic view that the claim that Jesus is the begotten son of God is not merely incorrect, but blasphemous. Claiming divine parentage, even spiritual parentage, does not seem to square with that perspective. Could the idea be a Christian one? Surely not: Jesus himself says that some people are children of the devil.

I have a hunch that the idea that we are all children of God springs from the intuition that we are all somehow connected to God, that we all have a sense of his will in our hearts and that we are all made for wholeness and for harmony with him.

This is intuition is so true. Our creation in God’s image is proclaimed in Genesis. Christ as the universally present Light, who connects every person to God, is testified to in the Gospel of John. And the whole earth – humans included – groans for freedom and for God.

But it is just as true – as testified by both scripture and experience – that most people regularly ignore the right for the easy and prefer the expedient to the excellent. Children usually resemble their fathers. Does the amoral self-interest and the active pursuit of vice that characterize so many of our lives resemble the character of a holy and righteous God? While Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees shows us that even very high standards of behavior are void without a living and obedient relationship with God, the warmest devotional feelings are meaningless if they don’t bear fruit in our behavior. If we persist in sin, selfishness and callous indifference, we reveal ourselves to be not children of God, but of the devil.

I struggle with this sometimes. While I know that none of my efforts can earn God’s love, I also know that, if I claim to believe in him while living just like the world, I’m lying to myself. A sterile faith that doesn’t bear fruit in our actions is no faith at all. So while virtuous actions aren’t what make me a child of God, failure to live a righteous life would be proof that I’m not one. It is difficult to simultaneously celebrate God’s grace and hold to this hard truth.

So who’s your daddy? The Lamb or the Adversary? Here are some questions that I am using for reflection as I “work out my salvation with fear and trembling“:

  • In the past month, how much money did I spend eating out – including at the office cafeteria? How much did I give to charitable causes? Is the first number larger than the second?
  • Who is the last person I made a negative comment about? When is the last time I prayed for that person?
  • Do I give to everyone who asks, without deliberately avoiding those who may ask for help?
  • Do I enjoy hearing or repeating disparaging stories about others? Do I give silent approval to gossip?
  • Do my eating, exercise, sexual and recreational habits build relationship and virtuous habits of the heart? Or do they encourage isolation, self-indulgence, violence or vulgarity?
  • Am I open to ideas that challenge my view of myself? In conflict, do I resort to insults and withdrawal? Or do I seek understanding and dialogue?
  • Am I proactive about seeking and offering forgiveness? Or do I prefer the corrosive thrill of wounded self-righteousness?
  • Do I actively seek out injustice and consider how I participate in that injustice and how I might act to change it? Or do I indulge in apathy, resistance to change or cheap talk?

Quakers have historically maintained that God saves us from our sins, not in our sins. Let us be humble and honest in seeking to manifest the character of a holy and loving God.

The Judgment of a Loving God

Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind; therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.

– Jeremiah 19:3-8

When faced with the promises of judgment regularly uttered by the God of the Old Testament, many modern readers, including Christians, recoil. “That’s not my God,” they say. “My God is a God of love, not judgment!” That used to be me, actually. I would skim over passages of punishment and breathe a sigh of relief that, for whatever reason, Christ had inaugurated a new covenant with a transformed God who had put away his smiting stick.

After spending a recent weekend at Powell House reflecting on prophetic ministry with Jonathan Vogel-Borne and Debbie Humphries – an experience I was blessed to share with some friends from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship – I now understand two huge reasons that this view is hopelessly wrongheaded: the testimony of Jesus and the intimate connection between judgment, justice and goodness.

One of the key elements of following Jesus is trusting his judgment. I can’t claim to “take up my cross and follow him” while simultaneously disagreeing on where we are going. Faith in him may sometimes take a bit of prodding, but it isn’t optional. Jesus treasured his relationship with a God he described as tender, loving and patient. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, it would have been ridiculous to distinguish between a wrathful Old Testament God and a merciful New Testament God: the New Testament hadn’t been written yet! So if I perceive a difference in God’s fundamental character between the Hebrew scripture and the Christian one, either I’m wrong or Jesus is. I know whose perspective I trust more!

In any event, pitting love against judgment is a false dichotomy. Consider the recent events in St. Louis, for example. A police officer said of Black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith – on tape – “I’m going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it,” then proceeded to pursue the motorist in his car for a while before indeed fatally shooting Smith and, from all indications, planting a weapon in his car. Though the officer explicitly stated his intention to take Smith’s life and took his life without apparent justification – the standard for first degree murder – and did it all on tape, he was acquitted by a judge. Rather than experience the weight of judgment for what had every appearance of a serious crime, he was given a pass to continue in wrongdoing. Is that what love looks like?

It is not – especially since the officer made no confession of guilt and no commitment to treating those he has promised to serve and protect differently in the future. It is not – because officers in St. Louis are literally bragging about slaughtering Anthony Smith, even as they brutalize and intimidate the men, women and children who dare to protest. It is not – because, without repentance, the false judge and the corrupt official have no place in the kingdom of heaven.

If you believe this is how God acts – if you believe that the comforts of faith rightfully belong to those who revel in evildoing, if you believe in a God who saves us in our sins by confirming wickedness rather than saving us from our sins by teaching us a righteous way of living – then please consider the possibility that maybe you are the one worshiping a monstrous God, not the ancient Hebrews.

None of this makes those promises of judgment – including those uttered by Jesus himself – easy to read. Thinking about the pain and suffering of our fellow man should never be easy. But the alternative – a God who does not care whether we try to do right or celebrate doing wrong, who does not distinguish between the man who suffers for the sake of righteousness and the one who cheerfully inflicts suffering – is too terrible to contemplate.

Keeping the Lamps Lit

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

– Matthew 25:1-13

I recently watched a little video on Facebook. It was a short clip from 2015 of Keith Ellison, a Muslim congressman, encouraging Democrats to mobilize because otherwise the country might face a Trump presidency. The television hosts, two well-known political commentators with decades of experience between them, laughed smugly, then the clip ended. He could never be president, they thought – the people would never accept that. Of course, they were wrong – the Trump presidency began in eight months ago, though it seems like longer.

Regardless of what one thinks about our president, the fact that he, a billionaire known for belligerence and self-centered callousness, a man with no experience in public service in any capacity, a man with a history of philandering and sexualizing his children, is the President of the United States should indicate that we are in uncharted territory. Nationalism is back in vogue worldwide in ways unseen for the better part of a century. Racial divisions are growing deeper in the United States as White supremacy migrates from the periphery of our political discourse to the mainstream with the euphemistically named “alt-right.” Political aggression and hostility are alternately winked at and actively encouraged by the man who occupies the Oval Office. When we turn on the news, we often see terrorist attacks and decapitations on the other side of the world and brutal suppression of protest here at home. These are troubled times. Violence is in the air.

What is the role of the Christian in Babylon? What can we do when the virtuous are condemned as guilty and the guilty are lauded as virtuous? What can we do when those who claim holiness live like the world and those who claim  righteousness are mute before evil? When our trusted leaders in media are like jabbering monkeys, spouting nonsense at ever-increasing volumes? When our senses and sensibilities are so overstimulated that our drowsy eyes only focus when the sensuality of the whore rides the violence of the beast? Do we roll up our sleeves and “fight the power” in the streets? Do we withdraw to the hermit’s cave and await the day of the Lord?

Followers of Jesus must stand boldly in the gap between passive acceptance and violent resistance, refusing to fight, but also refusing to back down. We must choose between letting ourselves and our brothers be helpless victims of a deadly system and inviting aggression by our very stand for righteousness. We must climb the cross with Christ daily, and we must prepare our hearts for the martyr’s crown. I don’t have a grand plan for Christian resistance to Empire, but I do know that it involves being ready to heed the call of Christ – even unto ridicule, even unto poverty, even unto death.

Friends, this isn’t something we can do alone: “Though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” We all need to find the community of disciples that will help us become fit to enlist in the army of the Lamb. For me, that community is the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, which regularly challenges me to serve more, love more and give more than I ever thought I could. Your community may be different, but we all need brothers and sisters in arms to help us to draw closer to Christ, who gives courage to the timid, restraint to the foolhardy, passion to the reserved and wisdom to the hot blooded. We need to be vigilant because we may be called on at any moment to witness to the sovereignty of God. 

Will we be ready?

Integrity and the Lie of “Authenticity”

When you’re not living faithfully to your authentic self, you find yourself feeling incomplete, as if there is a hole in your soul. You may have found that it’s easier to fill the roles your family and friends expect of you, rather than becoming who you really want to be. Living this way drains you of the critical life energy you need to pursue the things you truly value. When you live a life that has you ignoring your true gifts and talents while performing assigned or inherited roles instead, you are living as your fictional self.

– Dr. Phil, Defining Your Authentic Self

True confession: I still use printed dictionaries. The Internet is all well and good for a quick check, but when accuracy matters, I pull out my trusty Thorndike Barnhart Advanced Dictionary. And it matters. Take “integrity” for example, a venerable Quaker value that seems to be undergoing covert transformation.  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines integrity as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values :  incorruptibility.” The print dictionary’s definition is “honesty or sincerity; uprightness.”

Did you catch that difference? The online dictionary’s definition of integrity is adherence to any code of moral or artistic values. It’s a do-it-yourself thing. Whatever code of values you have, if you stick to it, you can be said to have integrity. By contrast, under the print dictionary’s definition, integrity has an intrinsic content. If you lack honesty and uprightness, it is irrelevant what other moral characteristics you may possess: you don’t have integrity.

This is key because part of what integrity used to mean was standing by your commitments even in the face of changing circumstances. Now the word seems to be shading into what I call “authenticity”  – action as a performance of identity rather than as an embodiment of core values. So if you “discover” that you are an artist and the only way to be the artist you want to be is to live in a free-love nudist colony, “old-fashioned” integrity would say that you do not have the right to abandon your spouse and children to pursue that dream due to your obligations to them, while “integrity as authenticity” may well excuse such an action as “following your bliss” – despite the fact that it entails abandoning some of life’s greatest commitments. The slippage between these concepts is such that “integrity” now either means “standing by your commitments, come what may,” or “subordinating your commitments to your desires.” One type of integrity leads to self-control, patience and devotion to others, while the other form of “integrity” can easily lead to impulsive behavior, unreliability and self-centeredness.

Some may think that this means that old-fashioned integrity and authenticity are inconsistent, and for some, this may be true. However, I affirm that for Christians, there is no tension between integrity and authenticity, properly understood. That is because our true self, our authentic identity, is who we are in Christ. In him we are given a new nature. No longer slaves to our desires and weaknesses, we are children of the Most High, a royal priesthood, the new Israel. God, who is always faithful to his promises, seeks a holy people who will be faithful to their promises. He seeks a bold and valiant people unswayed by external pressures but doggedly determined to do his will and to follow his law, which is written on our hearts.

It’s hard to shake the habit of inconsistency – especially when we are overtired, overworked, over-scheduled and overwhelmed. It’s something that I struggle with daily – and fail at often! But I believe that a promise-keeping God wants a promise-keeping people, not people who, confusing their desires with their true self, make those desires into idols.

How do you understand integrity and authenticity? Have you struggled with becoming more faithful in the different parts of your life?

Looking for the Worst in Others

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity