Can We Find Peace in These Politically and Socially Tumultuous Times?

What if you could tap into peace, joy and gratitude regardless of your circumstances?

What year in our lifetimes has been more filled with angst and anxiety than 2020? The year, 1968, might be a close rival, politically and socially. Add to the political and social tensions a global pandemic, widespread unemployment and growing economic uncertainty caused by our response to it, and 2020 is easily the most difficult year in my lifetime.

The political anxiety and uncertainty has overflowed into tensions within families, among friends, in communities and even within churches. Collective and personal anxiety is even higher, now, with the Presidential election coming up. Hope is mixed with fear. What if the right person doesn’t get elected?

Everything seems to ride on this election, but there is that nagging doubt that even an election – even if it goes “right” (whatever you happen to believe that means) – will not calm the tensions and bring peace where current circumstances are boiling on the edge of overflowing.

We know in the pit of our stomachs that the “others” will not go down without a fight. A presidential election may shift the leverage (or not), but the fight is going to continue. It isn’t going away. COVID isn’t going away. The economy teeters on brink of failure.

The mantra during the 1960’s – the closest thing to our present circumstances – was peace and love. We don’t even dare hope for peace and love anymore. The hope held out in the ’60’s has been been replaced with anger, condemnation and unkindness. The peace has been replaced with rioting, gun violence and looting.

Not that the 1960’s didn’t see its share of violence and unrest. It’s just that we don’t pretend anymore that peace and love are achievable (or even laudable) goals. We will settle for an authoritarian dictatorship or equality forced by the arm of the law and reparations wrested from the clinging hands of people who inherited privilege.

It’s easy to feel that our generation faces difficulties that are unlike the difficulties faced by others in the past. We may feel that we are alone in these times, facing the anxiety of an uncertain future, but it isn’t so.

The details of our circumstances are unique, but nothing is new under the sun: other generations have faced similar hardships and much worse. Every previous generation shared the experience of angst and anxiety of an uncertain future, just as we do.

Looking back at history in static words written on sterile pages, we may not appreciate the common experience. In the fog of our present struggle, we can’t see as clearly as we do when we look back. Our emotions are in full flight as the noise and chaos happens around us. We don’t have the luxury of viewing the present from a comfortable chair in a quiet library.

On what basis, then, can we hold on to hope? What assurance do we have that peace will prevail?

The predominant view of politics, sociology and culture in academia today is idea of the oppressed ever rising up against their oppressors in an endless cycle of unrest, violence and change. Peace no longer has value. Hope is limited to the immediate future when the currently oppressed can change places – for a time – before the cycle repeats itself.

In the middle of our present angst and unease, I am reminded of a man who wrote about peace that defies that is not dependent on circumstances and hope that lasts beyond the foreseeable future. He wrote of peace that gave him confidence and sustained him in circumstances worse than you or I have ever experienced.

If we compare his circumstances to ours, I think most people would agree they were worse, by far, than anything we have experienced. Yet, he was fed by hope, and he experienced real peace in the midst of those circumstances – despite the circumstances. His story is worth considering.

Continue reading “Can We Find Peace in These Politically and Socially Tumultuous Times?”

God Is Working Out His Purpose, and What He is Doing May Surprise You

Imagine you have walked with Jesus for three years. Everywhere he went, you went with him. You ate with him, slept with him, traveled long, hot hours in the sun with him. You laughed and you cried with hm.

You saw him heal the lame and preach sermons to crowds of thousands. You were there when the Pharisees confronted him, and he left them speechless. You know Jesus better than anyone else on earth. You know where he grew up and his family.

You have watched Jesus in all of those moments. You watched him with the crowds and the one-on-one encounters. You saw him go off into the wilderness to pray for hours on end. He told you things he didn’t tell anyone else.

Imagine walking with Jesus from one town to the next, as you always did, and you are talking on the way. He asks you who the people say he is.

That’s pretty easy, right? You heard the crowds and people talking as he preached. You know what they were saying. Maybe Jesus didn’t hear it, but you did.

“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’  And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’”

Mark 8:27-28

Then Jesus dropped a more difficult question: “‘But who do you say that I am?’” (Mark 8:29a)

THAT was the big question. You had all been talking about it. How could you not!

No one saw all the things Jesus did like the twelve of you. You had a front row seat to the most amazing display of the power of God since the days of Moses!

No one could do all those things if he wasn’t sent from God – if he wasn’t the Messiah, himself! But saying it, was another thing. You were all thinking it, but who was going to say it?

The intrigue and mystery that surrounded Jesus was getting pretty intense. The excitement and hope among the throngs of people were building with each passing day. They couldn’t go anywhere that crowds did not find him. While the opposition from the Pharisees was growing and becoming more severe, Jesus seemed untouchable.

Peter, of course, broke the silence:

“You are the Christ.”

Mark 8:29b

There it was. Peter said it. The anticipation of the twelve at that moment as you wait for the next thing Jesus will say is pregnant with hope, excitement, exhilaration even! This is it isn’t it! You know it is.

But, you should know by now to expect the unexpected, as they say. What Jesus says next is the reason they all hesitated in the first place.

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There Is Now No Condemnation, but Go and Sin No More.

When Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you,” it isn’t the end of the story.

I have been thinking lately about the phrase, “Do not go on sinning.” These were the words Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery after he rescued her from her accusers. We forget about them, perhaps, because of the force of the rest of the story.

The Pharisees brought her to Jesus one day and challenged him: “’Teacher,’ they said to Jesus [with a hint of affected deference, I imagine], ‘this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?’”

They were trying to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus was not shaken or disturbed by the dilemma they posed him. He stooped to write in the dust with his finger.

The awkward silence was broken finally by a demand for an answer. Jesus obliged,

“Alright, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”

John 8:7

Significantly, Jesus didn’t deny what the Law says. His answer implied agreement with the judgment of the Law, but his answer turned the table on the accusers and focused attention on them.

His answer is reminiscent of apportion of the prayer that Jesus taught his followers to pray and of a segment of the Sermon on the Mount:

“And forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Matt. 6:12

“[I]n the same way you judge others, you will be judged….”

Matt. 7:2

The pregnant silence continued again, as Jesus returned to writing in the dust with this finger. This time, the demands for an answer slipped away with the accusers, one by one, leaving alone with the accused woman.

The focus of the encounter had shifted dramatically from the adulterous woman to her accusers. Their self-righteous smugness turned to bitter disappointment and shame as Jesus put them in their place.

Now alone with the woman, Jesus asked her, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”; “No, Lord,” she replied. “Then, “Neither do I,” Jesus said.

This seems to be the perfect way for Jesus to end the story. The accusers of the adulterous woman were sinners too. When Jesus said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”, none of them could do it. They knew they would be condemning themselves. What Jesus wrote in the sand must have hit home with them.

The story would be perfect if it ended there, right? Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the world, says he doesn’t condemn the adulteress woman either!

But that isn’t the end of the story. The story ends with Jesus adding, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Those words hang there now for me, as I imagine they did for the woman.

What wisdom and command of the situation Jesus had shown! The pompous self-righteousness of the religious leaders who used this poor woman as a ploy to back Jesus into a corner was deflated. The public humiliation and shame she must have felt was heaped back on her accusers in divine vindication. The gentleness with which he treated her and affirmed her value is beautiful.

But, when the men had left, and she was alone with Jesus, he left her with the instruction, “Go and sin no more.”

Jesus didn’t condemn her, but Jesus didn’t release her to go back to the lifestyle and choices she had made to that point. Why not?

The words, “go and sin no more”, haunt me as I think about myself and how easily I fall into sinful attitudes and stumble. It would so much easier if Jesus hadn’t tagged those five words on to the end of this story!

Continue reading “There Is Now No Condemnation, but Go and Sin No More.”

The Living Water Is a Gift from God to All Who Ask

I was reading in the Gospel of John the story of the encounter with Jesus by the Pharisee, Nicodemus, followed story of the encounter with Jesus by the “woman at the well”. (John 3 & 4). The two stories are classic examples of the ubiquitous use of figurative (non-literal) language in the Bible.

There are literal meanings, and there are figurative meanings, and there are many layers of meanings throughout Scripture. Just as we cannot perceive figurative meanings while limiting ourselves to literal interpretations, we cannot perceive spiritual things while limiting ourselves to natural, physical explanations.

In the story of Nicodemus, Jesus stretches the Pharisee’s imagination with the statement, “[U]nless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) which I explored in a previous post, Don’t Wonder at the Saying, “You Must Be Born Again”. In very next chapter in the Gospel of John, Jesus stretches the imagination of a Samaritan woman at a well, when he says,

“[W]hoever drinks of the water that I … give … will never be thirsty again… [becoming] … a spring of water welling up to eternal life”

John 4:14

These are two completely different statements that get at the same reality – a spiritual reality that Jesus offers to those who believe him and receive what he has to offer. Before we go a little deeper, though, first we need to consider the context.

In John 4, after the encounter with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night (likely because he didn’t want to to be seen by his fellow Pharisees), Jesus left Judea (where he had been Baptizing people) because the Pharisees had gotten wind of what he was doing.

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Don’t Wonder at the Saying, “You Must Be Born Again”

Being born of the Spirit is being awakened to a reality that is greater than the physical reality we presently know

A couple of stories in the Gospel of John illustrate the dichotomy of the natural world and the spiritual world. These are two of the most iconic stories in the New Testament, and they happened in close proximity in time to each other: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and the story of Nicodemus.

In this blog post, I want to focus on the encounter of Jesus with and Nicodemus, the Pharisee. Nicodemus was a religious leader of some prominence in the community. Many religious leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus, but not Nicodemus.

He sought Jesus out to ask him some questions, going to Jesus at night, which suggests that his visit might not have been viewed favorably by his fellow Pharisees. He acknowledged the “credentials” Jesus demonstrated, the miracles that he had done, indicating an openness to what Jesus would say. Without waiting for a question, Jesus initiated the following dialogue:

“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?'”

(John 3:1‭-‬4 ESV)

I think was an honest question. The context suggests that Nicodemus wasn’t challenging what Jesus said. He just wasn’t following.

We see by his approach to Jesus that he was open, but he didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at. “What was Jesus trying to say?”

It’s ironic, perhaps, that some Christians who say they take the Bible literally, don’t recognize the ubiquitous use of figurative (non-literal) language and ideas in the Bible. We can’t approach Scripture in a wooden way and hope to understand the depth of it.

If you have wondered what it means to be born again, let’s take a look at what Jesus said to Nicodemus and how Paul applies those concepts after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But first, Jesus continued:

“[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'”

John 3:5-6

Jesus obviously didn’t mean that a man must re-enter his mother’s womb and be physically born again. He also doesn’t literally mean that man must be born of water, like out of a lake or something. He does seem to be saying literally, though, that man must be born (again) of Spirit or he cannot enter the kingdom of God, so let’s dig into it and try to flesh out what he means.

Continue reading “Don’t Wonder at the Saying, “You Must Be Born Again””