read 1 Cor. 9. I was once nitpicking an old boyfriend on a variety of petty matters. Appropriately, we were in the kitchen, because the poor man was getting kitchen sinked. He listened quietly. Then he thumped his chest and said: “What you see is what you get. It’s not a la carte.”
I laughed and high fived him. Everyone laughs when they hear the a la carte metaphor. Why? Because we generally appreciate being put back on track. When we harp on minor issues, we veer into hyper-critical. Being hyper-critical is based on the lie that we alone are perfect. We would all prefer to live in the beautiful place called grace. Grace isn’t a la carte. God takes us just as we are, and He begs us to do the same to others.
But when a major issue came up, and that boyfriend said there was no issue, that was that. And guess what? He sulked for a little, marched off, thumped that manly chest, changed his ways, cleaned up his act and found someone new who appreciated him. I’m thrilled. Because it’s not about who we “get” in this life. It’s not about controlling other people, or even about reaping the rewards of our right choices. It’s about living in the lovely place where we trust God to meet our needs. It strikes me it was part of God’s plan for that person to make some changes without me involved. He gets to own his journey. He gets to own his progress. He gets to own the fact that God adores Him, too, and that God loves Him enough to chastise Him and help Him grow. When we live in that place of grace, sometimes even the right person can be with us at the wrong time – which makes them the wrong person.
“Arguing with you is like trying to push overcooked pasta,” that same ex-boyfriend once told me. That’s not what we want to be like. We need to have a there there. We don’t want passive or aggressive. Instead, we want assertive. We want to find that place where we ask for what we want and respect the other person’s right to say no. Assertiveness is based on assumptions of respect. Anger and rage can flare up in us when others don’t do what we want — only when we’ve bought into the lie that we’re responsible for other people’s lives. Anger also stems from not trusting God to help people in His timing, not ours. Bottom line? Rage stems from a God complex.
So how do we strike the magic balance between not nitpicking, and yet standing up to evil? We want people to be adaptable on minor things, and yet we don’t want them to be obsequious. We want people to be flexible and yet have backbone. We want people to go along with our good ideas and stand up to our stinky ones. How do we do this in the land of the Lord? How do we find the way to behave when we try to follow a God who told us to turn the other cheek? Where is our backbone? In our hearts? In our backs? In our little pinky? When do we say no? How do we say no? By enumerating the other person’s crimes in a cutting cruel voice? Do we rejoice when we make other people cry by pointing out how awful they’ve been? Do we just walk away and vote with our feet? As usual with the Bible, the only road map is not a set of rules for us to follow blindly on our own, but instead a journey into the fiery core at the center of our being.
Paul launches into the thicket in this chapter on two issues. First, he points out that under both human reason and God’s law, a person in ministry has a right to be paid. 1 Cor. 9:1-14. Once he’s driven home the point, he says – guess what? – that he’s thrilled he doesn’t get paid. He says he has the right to be paid, but he relinquishes the right. He says he will “endure everything” rather than put a stumbling block in the way of the spread of the good news. He adds, almost with a shrug, that he HAS to spread the good news. He says he’s “compelled” to tell all about Jesus. 1 Cor. 9:16.
So what is it called when we have a right but we give it up? Sometimes we call it strength. When a man with a black belt in judo is told that his mother wears army boots, walking away is strength. It’s the kind of strength Jackie Robinson is portrayed as having in the movie 42. He had every right to stand up to abuse. But he took the higher path. Seeing that kind of strength makes us cry. Why? Because we know that sometimes God calls us all to act in a way that isn’t fair. We know that sometimes when we want to boil over in indignation and demand our rights, He whispers to us to let it be. Drop it, He says. Trust me to fight this battle, my love. Walk away, and hold your head high. I’ve got your back, and it’s 42 for you, too.
We know God means it when He says this, because He was the ultimate 42. Unlike Jackie Robinson, who was human, Jesus was perfect. He deserved to be worshipped. And yet he remained silent in the face of false accusation. Like a lamb to the slaughter, as Scripture put it. He shut his mouth so that we could sing. Don’t you know, He told Peter after Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant who’d come to arrest Jesus, that I could call my Father and He would send twelve legions of angels to my rescue? Matthew 26:53. Eighty thousand angels is strength. Yet Jesus healed the ear instead.
Sometimes strength is to have the power and yet choose not to use it. Sometimes strength is to have the power to fight back and use it to heal instead. Why? Because if we want grace, it puts us under the “compulsion” of grace. God’s mercy to us requires us to offer grace to others. It’s the best kind of compulsion. God never forces us. He doesn’t control us. We’re never robots. It’s just that if we want something, we have to give it away. After we go around the mountain one too many times, and we do it our way, we discover that yelling, demanding, insisting, insulting and manipulating just don’t work. Even when we get our way, we don’t win. We’re miserable. Okay, fine, we finally start to say. We’ll do it your way, Lord. That’s the good news that Paul is compelled to share. What compels Him is the joy that follows surrender. Surrender hurts. But the resulting peace we get from being flooded with God’s presence is so sweet, we wonder why we would ever do anything to get in its way. The peace comes whether we get our way or we don’t. The peace comes from trusting God to reward us with what we really want – love.
The second way Paul addresses how to find a pathway between being a pushover and a bully is in this lovely quasi-poem about being all things to all people. To the Jews, I became a Jew. To those under the law, I am under the law. To those outside the law, I am outside the law. To the weak, I am weak. To the over-scrupulous of conscience, I am over-scrupulous. Not that I disobey the law, but I am keeping the law of Christ. I have become all things to all people so as to bring as many as possible to an understanding of the good news. 1 Cor. 9:19-23.
Hold it. So are we supposed to down martinis, smoke crack, and rock up at strip joints? Should we curse and spit and stomp our cowboy boots? Do we march into church, stumble on a few “religious” types who stand around the coffee hour criticizing, condemning and judging and join in? Can we pile on, too? Can we puff up our all too wimpy chests with a little schadenfreude? Can we make ourselves feel better about ourselves by remembering that there’s some poor crumb of a person out there, who’s never darkened the door of a church – HA! OF COURSE NOT! – who’s even worse off than we are?
Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Paul means. He makes that clear himself when he hastily adds, “not that I break the law.”
So what does he mean? What’s he talking about with this become all things to all people stuff? Why does he call himself a “slave” to all – isn’t a slave a pushover?
First of all, it’s clear Paul is talking about being relatable. He’s calling upon our honesty in order to find “common ground” with everyone. 1 Cor. 9:22. For instance, if someone confesses they have trouble believing in God, or that they’ve been unfaithful to their spouse, or that they are consumed with thoughts of killing themselves, are those times to talk about our faith, strength, fidelity and health? Or are they times to listen, empathize, and say we know how they feel, and that if we were them, we would feel the same way, and ask how we can help? As Henri Nouwen puts it so beautifully in THE WOUNDED HEALER, we’re all called to minister to others not by showing off our strengths but by sharing our weaknesses. We’re not to talk about our failings in a braggy way, but in a quiet compassionate way, when appropriate.
That’s the beginning of what Paul’s talking about, but I can’t help sensing that there’s something bigger and deeper here than just being a good listener. The clue is the last part of this chapter, where Paul invokes the metaphor of athlete. He asks us that don’t we know that while all runners compete, “only one can win the prize”? And so we are to discipline ourselves like an athlete in order to win the race set before us.
Hold it. That doesn’t make sense. How can Paul end this chapter by claiming that only ONE PERSON can win the prize? Christianity isn’t just for one person. Jesus died for all. His grace is available to ANYONE who calls on His name. Jesus died for all ages, all races, all sexes, all religions. He offers salvation freely. It’s ours for the asking. Jesus did all the work. All we have to do is repent and receive. It’s the “easiest” faith there is, in that all we have to lay down is our illusion of self-sufficiency. So what’s this one person stuff? Is Paul saying that he Paul is preaching to all, but that he hopes no one listens so he alone can win the prize? That doesn’t make sense, either.
It’s enough to make our heads hurt. But I know this. The sentence that makes the least sense probably holds the key to unlock all the mysteries of grace. Because grace doesn’t make sense. So how can Paul state the truth that only one person can win a race, and yet in the same breath claim he’s giving good news.
Maybe it’s because the only person who won the race was Jesus.
Jesus was the only perfect person. And yet He chose to relinquish His right to the crown of glory, so that He can offer a perfect and holy heaven to all of us imperfect unholy people. Jesus was the ultimate wounded healer. He can empathize with all our flaws because he was tempted. But He found a way to resist temptation, and He offers His way to us.
So what is that way? Well, it’s not criticizing, condemning and blaming. It’s not cussing and cheating. It’s making a daily choice to invite God to be the Lord of our hearts. It’s going into the fiery core at our centers, stumbling over the evil lurking there, shivering, and crying out for God’s help. It’s a daily journey in which we lay down our right to insist on our own way to run our lives, and instead ask for God’s quiet peace to rule instead. It’s the sense that the law of Christ that rules our inmost being begins and ends with grace. It begins with the knowledge of our sins, and ends with the knowledge that our sins are washed away. The river runs through our heart, and though our sins are as scarlet God makes them white as snow.
When we experience grace, we can listen quietly to grace. Grace can mean staying silent if we feel God is whispering that now isn’t the time. It can mean charging in and grabbing the keys of a friend about to get behind the wheel drunk. It means dancing into a land of utter dependence on Love. It means that I can’t tell you where the line is between wimpiness and strength, because it’s a journey we each have to take for ourselves. We go into our own hearts, choosing as guide the one who knows our hearts best because He made them. We follow the lead of the one who was a bruised reed and yet not broken. We come to Him weary and burdened, and He gives us rest. From the place of rest, we find strength that carries us through all circumstances. And when we find ourselves trusting Him, we discover He makes us His hands, feet and voice. We just need to find the flexibility to allow His strength to flow through us, despite us.
posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 3, 2013