on (not) being grumpy: 1 Cor. 16

read 1 Corinthians 16.  How can we go through each day without feeling grumpy?  We know grumpy is bad for our health.  It’s poison for our relationships.  It’s bad for our self-esteem.  It hinders our work.  And yet we can do everything within our control – we can eat healthy food; sleep eight hours; love the best we can; exercise; pray; read our Bibles; share our failings with trustworthy friends who will pray for us – and yet we can still find ourselves suffering from an acute case of grumpy-itis.  What’s up with that? And how can a seemingly “random” chapter like 1 Cor. 16 help?

At first glance, 1 Cor. 16 comes across as just a tidying up of loose ends at the end of a long letter. It seems irrelevant to our daily struggles.  Paul dispenses sound bites of advice on a variety of topics.  And yet if we look at the underlying assumptions beneath Paul’s advice, we find a tension running through the chapter that explains the tension in our own lives and points to the solution.

On the one hand, Paul’s here implies that all humans can be pretty lame.  His advice on collecting and transporting money implies humans are greedy, poor planners, lacking in self-control, adept at making excuses for not being generous, can be outright thieves and are generally untrustworthy.  Next, Paul says to stand up to abusers: “don’t let anyone treat Timothy with contempt.”  The assumption here is that even the so-called Christians WILL treat a fellow believer with contempt, and that others will stand by passively. Next, Paul tells the believers to “submit” to their leaders and to “show appreciation” for them.  Again, the implication is that the believers will shower leaders with criticism, rebellion and forget to be thankful.  Lastly, Paul issues a slew of aphorisms: Be on guard!  Stand firm in the faith!  Be courageous!  Be strong!  Do everything in love!  Paul’s words imply that every human is in danger of not doing these things.  We can all, at any moment, slip away from the faith; slip into degenerate behavior; be cowardly; be weak; and make some choices not out of love but out of hate.

So if believers can be full of greed, sloppiness, stealth, rationalizations, theft,  contempt, weakness, rebellion, thanklessness and hate, why be a believer? What’s the point?  Frankly, we believers can fall into the even WORSE sin of self-righteousness.  We can start to think we’re better than those non-believers just because we know God.  But that kind of superiority complex is based on false pride.  It means we’ve forgotten the basis of our belief.  It means we’ve forgotten what Paul spells out at the end of the letter:

We are all under a curse.

No wonder we’re grumpy.

So what’s the curse?  The curse is that we are born wanting to be “God” ourselves.  We are born without faith.  We are born thinking we can be masters of our own destiny.  We are born not wanting to obey the One who created us.  We want to decide what’s right and wrong for others, and for ourselves, and we think others should treat us better than we treat them.  In other words, we are born doomed to spending eternity without God, because we don’t want to spend even a second of our lifetime submitting to Him.

One day, we can realize our blindness and need of God and cry out to Him.  When that happens, we can become born again.  Jesus died on the cross to forgive and redeem our sins, and by asking for forgiveness we can become believers. Any of us at any moment can do this.  And it changes everything.  The Holy Spirit WILL fill us. The Spirit of God is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.  We experience those things.  They feel supernatural forces, feelings and beings flow through us.  They are supernatural.  They’re the coolest thing we’ve ever felt. We KNOW God is real.  We see Him, taste Him, touch Him and love Him.

But even then, even as believers, we still wake up with part of us thinking we’re still “under” that old curse.  We wake up wanting to please ourselves.  We wake up and wipe only the sleep from our eyes but not the pride from our hearts.  We wake up thinking about what WE want and need and feeling outraged that no one has yet provided it.  We think we’re waking up, but truly we’ve fallen asleep all over again.

For here is the second strain of this chapter, its notes rising up like a song from the other words.  Unlike us, God never steals.  God always plans ahead.  God never treats us with contempt.  God always gives strength.  God always appreciates us.  God always encourages us.  God does everything in love.  God is all the things we are not.  THAT is what a Christian has invited to live inside of herself.  We have the Spirit of God within us, the Holy Spirit.  It’s the antidote to the curse.

That’s when the grumpiness lifts.  It never lifts from our own efforts.  We can do nothing to save ourselves.  No matter how long we’ve believed in God, we’re like babies all over again when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit.  We’re forgetters.  We need fresh outpourings of the Spirit, just as every flower on earth needs constant rain and food.  No matter how hard we TRY to be filled with love all on our own, we will fail.  In fact, we’ll feel worse, because we’ll know we’ve done our best and experienced in a bitter and existential way that our best is never enough.  But the wonderful thing is that the place of our failure is where we can find victory.  There, in the grumpiness itself, we will find our joy.  Take that, grumpiness.  You can have no victory over us.  For our strength, hope and joy lies in Jesus and Him alone.

Our grumpiness, like all our other faults and negative feelings, can be a door.  Paul here talks of God opening a “door of opportunity” for him in Ephesus even though “many oppose” him.

God opens those same doors of opportunity in our faults for us to access His grace.  Our ability to access God’s love is always open, no matter how much opposition is thrown at us from our own weak flesh and from the prince of darkness known as the devil.  Those forces of evil can and will always try to throw grumpiness in our faces.  But when we feel that grumpiness hitting us like a bucketful of cold water, instead of resisting it with rage – WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME WHY DO I FEEL SO ROTTEN I’M SUPPOSED TO BE HAP HAP HAPPY ALL THE TIME SO SOMEONE ELSE MUST BE AT FAULT OR MAYBE IT’S ME AND EITHER WAY I’VE HAD IT –  we can submit to it.  We can melt under the force of it.  We are all the Wicked Witch of the West, and the forces of evil that assault us from within and without, serve only to melt us down to the needy puddles we all are.  As humans, we can cry out to the living God three of the most powerful words known to mankind:

PLEASE HELP ME!

And He will.

Why?  Because God is NEVER grumpy.

Posted on December 12, 2013, a day I woke grumpy for no reason at all, and wrote myself back into joy by remembering all that God is, and all that I’m not.  Amen to that.

hearing from God: 1 Corinthians 14

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read 1 Cor. 14.   We humans have a tendency to over-complicate things.  We can feel overwhelmed.  We can dread things.

But God calls us to take some time out to listen.

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If we do, we’ll hear Him say:  ”Things are a lot easier than you make them out to be.”

God’s Spirit sings to us.  God has a secret language for each of us.  That’s what this chapter on “speaking in tongues” is about.

There’s nothing complicated about faith.  The only thing that complicates our lives is doubt.

The good news is that God knows all about our doubt. That’s why He never stops singing. He knows we need soothing, and He knows exactly what words we each need to hear.

It’s really the same message, over and over.

He loves us.

If we pray in the Spirit and sing in the Spirit, God will strengthen us, comfort us and encourage us.  And if we ask Him to interpret His messages, He’ll give us words we understand.  Our secret thoughts will be exposed.  We’ll fall to our knees and worship, knowing God is truly here among us.  We’ll fall to our knees in thanksgiving, knowing ourselves, knowing Him, and knowing He closed the gap between us forever on the cross.

If we want to sing, we just have to let go.

It’s that impossible.  And it’s that simple.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on November 8, 2014

the loved chapter: 1 Corinthians 13

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read 1 Cor. 13.  One of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible is read at almost every wedding.  Its words strike a chord inside us, and whether we’re Christian, atheist or agnostic, we know beyond a shadow of doubt that if anything is true, these words are true.  We know all our relationships would be better if we read this chapter every day.  Some of us who need it most (me, me, me) have it taped to our fridges.  It defines love, and here is its centerpiece:

“Love endures long and is patient and kind; love never is envious nor boils over with jealousy, is not boastful or vainglorious, does not display itself haughtily.  It is not conceited (arrogant and inflated with pride); it is not rude (unmannerly) and does not act unbecomingly.  Love (God’s love in us) does not insist on its own rights or its own way, for it is not self-seeking; it is not touchy or fretful or resentful; it takes no account of the evil done to it [it pays no attention to a suffered wrong].  It does not rejoice at injustice and unrighteousness, but rejoices when right and truth prevail.  Love bears up under anything and everything that comes, is ever ready to believe the best of every person, its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances, and it endures everything [without weakening].  1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (Amp Bible) (emphasis added).

Something in us responds on a very visceral level to these words.  We would love to be always patient, always kind.  It sounds so good.  It IS so good.  These words are beautiful, and yet they burn like a fire.

The problem is that at the very same time that this description of love inspires us, it indicts us.  If this is what love looks like, we have to admit we don’t look like this.  We can all too easily become impatient.  We hear ourselves being unkind.  We can be rude.  We can boil over with jealousy faster than the hot milk on our stoves.  We can be touchy.  We ARE easily angered.  We fret over perceived offenses, and forget to wonder if maybe the person meant something entirely different than we assume.  We find ourselves ever ready to believe the worst of even complete strangers.  We often demand our own way.  We can insist on our rights.

We point out we’re not ALWAYS rude.  We say, “well, no one is perfect.”  But that’s not what the chapter says is love.  It says that love is ALWAYS patient, ALWAYS kind.

The absolute clarity of these words cuts through our rationalizations, denial and selective memory.  Most of the time, we try to fool ourselves into thinking we’re not all that bad.  But the only way we can think that is if we’re not trying hard to be good.  Think about it.  If we all tried to follow the words above for just a day, we’d fail within just a few seconds.  As Tim Keller puts it in his stunning sermon “Sin as Slavery,” if you think you’re good, “it’s only because your moral ambition is too low.”  Saint Paul said that the harder he tried to be good, the more he discovered evil lurking within.  The harder we try to be loving, the more we’ll uncover the opposite power inside of us.

Occasionally we act like this chapter suggests, but it’s more of an overlap, like when the late Lou Reed sings SWEET JANE.  Reed said he liked to sing OUTSIDE the music.  That means that sometimes his singing overlapped with the music – but it’s sort of just an inevitability, a coincidence of timing.  In other words, yes, sure, sometimes we can be patient and kind, but it was easier because we slept well.  Or someone was kind to us that day.  Or our boyfriend just texted us he can’t WAIT to see us, and we’re so happy we smile at the next person we see, even if it’s our crabby neighbor.  Or if our daughter sent us an I LOVE YOU MOMMY text, we might find ourselves thinking of something nice to do for someone else.  Or our promotion seems imminent; we just got into the college of our choice; our bid on the house that “smiles” at us was accepted. In other words, it’s as if the circumstances of our lives act like the music, and our hearts are singing their own lyrics, and every now and then, when the circumstances happen to be good, the two align and magic happens.  Voila – we act loving.  And we say, “hey, that felt great.”

But the lyrics are hearts sing all on their own sound like a diva warming up: ME ME ME ME!!!!

And just overlapping occasionally with love isn’t enough to satisfy us, is it?  Aren’t we made for more than this?  So how do we love in the way this chapter reveals love to be?

The answer lies in the chapter itself.  The very words that indict us provide the key that unlocks the power of God in our lives.  These words can make us weep because at the same time as we meet ourselves here as we really are, we meet God as He really is.  We are not love.  But God is love.  The chapter shows us the character of God.  God is infinitely different than we are.  God IS patient.  God IS kind.  God never frets.  He’s always ready to believe the best of all of us.  He’s never rude.  He never boils over with rage at us.  He’s always longing for us to return to Him.  He’s always hoping, always believing, always loving.  God is perfect.  God is holy.

Love is a person.

That’s why this chapter literally pins us to the cross.  It nails us there by pointing out how unloving we are.  We can’t hide from this chapter.  And yet at the same time, the face of God beams out at us from the same words.  If He is love, the words show His arms reaching out, longing to embrace us with this love.

Our only hope of permanent supernatural joy in this world is to soak up the love of God like sponges.  We need to sit under the rays of God’s love all day long, no matter how crabby, impatient or rude we feel.  We’re to bask in God’s love for us, like sunbathers on a blue sky day with a cooling breeze.  The wash of waves breaking on the shore reminds us that no matter how relentless the evil in us rises, it can and will only break us, over and over, and broken we are crushed into the arms of God, over and over, as He molds us into who He is, in spite of what we are.

In the state of total dependence on God that this chapter brings us, our hope rises up out the ashes of ourselves.  We can never truly have hope if we’re relying only on ourselves or another human for love.  Instead, we discover in the character of love the truth about ourselves and how God loves us in the midst of all our imperfections.  We find in this chapter therefore a freedom beyond the wildest imaginings of our self-righteous, prideful, morally superior, I-will-just-try-harder brittle selves.  We find this single truth.  We’re nothing without love, which is the same as saying we’re nothing without God.  Because God is love.

There’s such freedom there.  Gone are empty rationalizations.  Banished are useless protestations.  Ushered out the door is the lie that we can get there if we just try harder.  In their place is only love – God’s love – for us.  And God’s love IN us.  Because God’s love arrives the moment we ask for it.  Because God, of course, is love.  And love gives love to those who want it.

So when these words about love make our hearts rise up inside us, that just shows us that we’re made in God’s image.  He made us to want this kind of love.  He made us to want Him.

The more deeply this chapter convicts us, the more willing we become to ask God to work through us.  We let go of our pride and make room for Him.  We let go of seeing others as “different” from ourselves and focus instead on how different we all are from God.  We start to take in the power of the cross.  Jesus bridged the gap between God’s love and our hate.  He took the consequences of our hate on Himself, so we can live with love.

Letting ourselves believe, learn and know how much God loves us changes everything.  Because here’s the good news:

LOVED is patient.  LOVED is kind.  LOVED is not rude.  LOVED doesn’t insist on its own rights.  LOVED is ever ready to believe the best of every person.

We are LOVED.  We’re loved, even when our behavior looks nothing like this chapter.  The reason we read this passage at weddings is that our deepest most intimate covenant relationship on this earth – marriage – only hints at the deep, intimate covenant relationship God offers each of us.  Knowing we’re loved as we are enables us to walk onto the wildest side.  We leave behind the things that separate us from each other.  We can trade in our pride and its inevitable way of making us hate others, for the love we know we were made for, can never find in ourselves, and can only find in God.  And when we focus on how much God loves us, instead of on whether the rest of the world is treating us with love and respect, our anger, jealousy, impatience, and unkindness melts down to the nothing it always was.

Amen.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 29, 2013

on giftedness and gifts: 1 Cor. 12

I gave my boyfriend rollerblades for his birthday.  Why?  So I can rollerblade WITH him.  You won’t catch me giving him running shoes or a mountain bike. He already runs and bikes like the wind.  Rollerblades ALMOST level the playing field.  They give me a ghost of a chance of keeping up with him.  It’s rare to give someone a gift that would take them away from us.  We’re much more likely to give people gifts that benefit us, too.

So how do we experience other people’s giftedness?  Do we feel it separates them from us?  Does it somehow take them away from us?  Or is there a way to see other people’s gifts as bringing us all closer together?

For instance, how do we react to their physical gifts?  In this world, we value people’s outward appearance.  Are we all Snow White’s evil stepmother, asking our mirrors  on the wall who’s the fairest of them all … and hoping it’s us? Do we envy people who look like models?  Or do we appreciate them?

And how do we process other people’s talents?  We see people winning Nobel prizes in fields we can barely even spell.  We hear of people like the writer Donna Tart who can allegedly recite vast passages of Shakespeare from memory alone.  Some people are virtuosos on the piano.  Others can move us to tears with their singing.  In New York City, where I live, the sidewalks are so crammed with talent that when the artist Banksy tried to anonymously hawk his wares on the city streets a few weeks ago, he was handed only $60 after an entire day.

Lastly, there are gifts we consider more spiritual.  How do we feel if other people are kinder than Mother Theresa?  More gentle than Florence Nightingale? More joyous than Eloise?  More faith filled than a child on Christmas Eve?  More loving than Mary in Michaelangelo’s Pieta?  More peaceful than a sleeping baby?  More patient than Job? More self-controlled than a Buckingham Palace guard?

How we receive other people’s gifts depends on our mood, doesn’t it?   If we’re in a “good” place, if we’re happy ourselves, we can look out at the vast array of human appearances and view the world like a Benetton catalogue, where everyone is attractive, no matter what their cut.  If we’re engaged in our own work, we don’t feel the need to compare ourselves to others.  If we feel God is using us in the world to bless others, we see people with different spiritual gifts as fellow laborers.

But if we’re feeling down, we look around and see a world full of have’s where we’re the lowly have not.  If we’re in a downward spiral, everyone else’s talent seems like an accusation of our lack.  Jealousy can overwhelm us.  The Bible says envy causes fights.  People punish others out of envy.  They slander them.  They criticize and judge.  They kill.  We know jealousy and envy take us down dark paths, but all too often we find ourselves full of these evil emotions.  What can we do to free ourselves of things we hate?  How can we be free of envy?

Paul seems to start off here in 1 Corinthians 12 with a cheer up, friend, message about the gifts of the Spirit.   It’s a lovely image of giftedness.  We see the gifts of others not as competition, but as given by God for everyone’s benefit.  We share in the gifts of others, instead of being threatened.  We are all knit together in Christ, sharing in the joy of others and weeping with their grief.

How then are we to process Paul’s words at the end of this chapter: “So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts”?  1 Cor. 12:31.  Hold it.  Paul has just finished telling us that we don’t all have the same gifts, and that all gifts come from God.  So why is he now advocating that we desire the “better” gifts?  Is he suggesting we return to the world of envy?  What’s going on?

The resolution to this seeming contradiction, as always, lies in the fact that we tend to look at spiritual gifts the same way we look at human gifts.  But there is a fundamental difference between the gifts of the Spirit and human gifts.  With human gifts, if we find ourselves suffering from a moment of jealousy, we can use it to spur us on to improve ourselves.  If we see someone who looks in good shape and put together, we can get going.  We can work out.  We can eat healthier foods.  We can scour the back of our closets.  We can wear make-up or have our hair darkened or bleached, straightened or curled.  If we have the resources, desire and inclination, we can go under the knife.

Similarly, if we admire the talents of others, we can work harder at our own.  Stephen King in his book ON WRITING says that there are a few people who can’t write at all, and a few who are naturally gifted, but that the vast majority of people can truly learn to write better.  Writing, for the most part, is a craft.  The same is true of most talents, whether piano, physics or singing.

But with these kinds of gifts, there is always a limit.  We can only improve our looks or skills so much.  And no matter how much we improve, we can never account for the role of subjectivity.  Gwyneth Paltrow might be People magazine’s ideal of the most beautiful woman in the world, but others prefer darker skin, a more exuberant personality, a curvier figure or curlier hair.  No one person can be the most gifted in every field and in every pageant.  Humans are too varied for that.  If humans are the judges of gifts, there is no best.

So why does Paul say here we should “earnestly desire the most helpful gifts”?  Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that unlike beauty, talents or achievement, there is no limit to the gifts of the Spirit.  God can give them all to us in unlimited quantities.  The Bible tells us over and over that we should ask God for whatever we want, and that God will give us the desires of our heart.  So perhaps what these passages suggest is that what our heart most desires isn’t to be the most beautiful woman in the world in outward appearance, but rather to be the most beautiful inside.  That sounds trite, but do any of us really know on a day to day basis what it feels like to be beautiful inside?  And if we felt beautiful inside, truly beautiful, would we ever trade it for something perishable and subjective, like muscles, height or the ability to break glass with our high C?  The wonderful news is that God can give us that kind of inner spiritual beauty in unlimited quantities.  He just works in a different way than we expect.  We’re looking in the wrong mirrors.

A person who acts loving to others, even when she doesn’t feel like it, feels beautiful all the time. Or if we have the privilege of healing a sick person because the power of God is flowing through us, we are so filled with the joy of God’s spirit that we barely even notice that God is healing us of our woundedness in the process of our healing others.  We lose our selfish, self-centered, jealous spirits in those moments of service.  But the service has to come from God’s love, not our own desire to look good.

Here is where we walk with our blindfolded human eyes into the realm of the spirit, and it’s a place where our way of looking is irrelevant.  We have walked into the world of God.  It’s a world where God gives all things for the benefit not just of us, but for all.  It’s a world where God delights in giving.  God is not miserly.  He gives because it’s His nature to give.  And if we start to desire the very nature of God, we discover that we, too, delight in giving.  We delight in loving.  We enjoy healing others.  We find we get the things we want by giving them away.

But all too often we forget that’s how God’s world works.  We think we get the things we want by having them.  We have it all backwards.  And honestly, who is free from envy for even a single day – and perhaps even a single hour?

So the reason Paul urges us to “earnestly desire the most helpful gifts” is that God wants us to ask Him for the helpful gifts.  He doesn’t want us to be jealous.  So how do we ask God, and ask with the right motives?  How do we start to want the heart of God more than outward beauty or achievement?  How do we let go of jealousy and envy and seek gifts not for what they bring us but for how they bless others?  How do we value the gift of faith over the gift of bling?  How do we get there?

The answer, I think, lies in our lack.  We can turn envy on its head.  We can use envy as a pathway to show us our emptiness.  The more we want things we can’t have, the more we experience frustration, the more it drives us to fling ourselves on the doorstep of God and hammer until He opens up.  The dread and despair, the self-disgust, bitter envy, the poison of gossip, the small-mindedness, the outrage over petty matters and the self-doubt that beset our days can move us toward hatred of others and self with such violence, that it shocks us.   We beg God for His kind of love.  Who wants to be ugly?  Who wants to be empty?  Who can stand being shallow?  Who wants to look in the mirror and see nothing?

We all hold Snow White’s stepmother’s magic mirror in our hands all day long, and we are enraged by the sight of the beauty of others.  At times, we turn that mirror round and tell ourselves WE are the most beautiful.  But that doesn’t satisfy us for long.  It’s an empty game we’re playing, and we know it’s based on lies.  So one day we look in the mirror and see no reflection at all.  And we suddenly know that that’s how our souls look without God at the center.  So we cry out for God and the next time we look in the mirror, we see Christ.  Peer into Jesus.  Look deeper.  Guess what?  We will see Christ carrying us through our weakest moments, the way Simon of Cyrene carried the cross.  We will see Christ caring for us, the way Mary washed Christ’s feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair.  We see Christ looking at us with love, the way Peter looked at Christ after the cock had crowed, and Peter had wept bitter tears at his denial of Christ, and then one day, a resurrected Christ waited for him on a beach, cooked him fish over an open fire, and restored Peter to the fold and made him greater than ever.  We will see in Jesus the love we always dreamed of.

And in the security of Jesus’ love, sometimes, every now and then, just for a moment, we will find ways to be the eyes, ears, mouth and hands of God, just as Simon, Mary and Peter did.  We see in God’s mirror a love for us so astounding that He offers us each a gift that took Him away from us completely.  Jesus left heaven to come to earth; he left earth to go to hell.  He suffered the punishment we all deserve for our selfishness, envy and hatred, so that ultimately He could restore us to Himself.  His gift of the cross gives us each the beauty of His holiness; he covers our flaws with His perfection.  He offers us each gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  His Spirit can come and live inside each of us, no matter who we are, what we look like or what we’ve done.  God’s gifts are as limitless as the sky, as boundless as the ocean – do you hear how those cliches cry out to be fresh again?   It’s because an infinite God created the sky and ocean, and He created us.  His love and come as quickly and mysteriously as the wind.  They’re ours for the asking, ours for the taking, ours for the giving.  The secret is to realize that everything we have is a gift.  When our hearts become grateful, we will forget about envy, because there’s no room for it.  We have to fill up on the gift of love.  We need to almost “envy” love.  We need to desire it, crave it and seek it.  God’s love for us will make us all the most beautiful, talented and best.  Because it enables us to love others, and ourselves, in all of our weaknesses and lack.

by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 22, 2013

human effort accomplishes nothing??!!: 1 Corinthians 11

read 1 Cor. 11.  When people annoy us, how do we make them stop?  We want to DO something.  So what are we to do with these words of Jesus:  ”The Spirit alone gives eternal life.  Human effort accomplishes nothing.”  John 6:63.

It’s supposed to be good news, but it strikes us  with the force of a slap.  It suggests that if we have a friend who’s hating on us, we can’t talk them into love.  If we see someone who’s exhibiting all our own worst behavior, we can’t make them see sense.  If we have a son who claims God is a figment of our imagination?  Word – we can’t talk ANYONE into faith.  As Paul put it once: one person plants a seed.  Another person waters it.  But only God makes faith grow.

So if we can’t make people believe in God or behave lovingly or find the kind of life we all thirst and long for, why is that good news?  Shouldn’t it make us feel like failures?  Wouldn’t it make us feel helpless?  Won’t it reduce us to vulnerable needy weak dependents?

Absolutely.  So let’s walk through this process together, and see why it’s good news.  Ready?

Let’s say we see someone we love taking offense at everything we say.  We can see THEIR problems as clearly as the nose on their face.  We try to point out they’re wrong.  This inflames them.  They take more offense.  We can easily see how selfish their twisted viewpoint is.  It’s obvious to us that they can only see their point of view.  We point this out, too.  They attack us harder.  They condemn us.  They belittle us.  They say our feelings, wants and needs are imaginary and irrelevant.  BOOM.  Now WE get mad.  We lose our tempers.

But now the problems get worse.  We don’t like the way losing our temper feels.  Not only that, now we can’t sit on our high horses and judge them.  We can’t say we’re better than they are.  And we wonder if the reason we’re mad might be that they’re behaving the way we do sometimes.   We don’t like seeing how easily they take offense.  It reminds us how easily WE take offense.

So what do we do?  Joyce Meyer’s advice is: “don’t take offense, even when people are offensive.”  She’s not saying don’t have boundaries.  She says don’t take offense.  God’s way works like this: we’re supposed to forgive offenses instantly.  Instead of making us pincushions, forgiveness gives us clarity.  We can see what’s truly objectionable about other people’s behavior and then decide upon an appropriate consequence.  But taking offense makes us rant.  It causes us to overreact.  We want revenge.  We become selfish.  Self-pity fills us the way flood waters rise in a house. We hear ourselves rehearsing how wronged we are to every hapless person we run into.  We become bores to ourselves.  We become ugly to ourselves.  Feeling bad about ourselves is a downward spiral. Oh, no… glug…..

Okay, great.  We reach the point where we want a better way.  Someone is offensive, and we agree we shouldn’t take offense.  But how do we DO that?  What makes us take offense?  I’ve thought long and hard about this, and stumbled on the truth yesterday.  It wasn’t pretty.  But maybe my journey can spare you the bumps.

The problem I think is pride.  Pride takes offense at EVERYTHING.  Pride leads us astray.   It takes us by the ear and drags us down the garden path of taking offense at every passing stranger who squints at us funny.

Okay, fine.  So we start to guess we have a pride problem.  How do we solve it?  What’s the opposite of pride?  The opposite of pride must be humility, right?  So how do we make ourselves humble?  How do we make ourselves stop taking offense?

Good luck.  The problem is, it’s impossible.

That’s where the starting verse comes back to help us.  The Spirit alone gives life.  Human effort accomplishes nothing.  We realize our own effort to kill our own pride, and the pride of others is doomed.  The good news is that the Spirit can blow new life into the very hearts we’ve given up on – ours and others.  So we cry out to God: HELP ME!  We’re starting to see how pride is sucking the joy out of our lives.  It keeps us up late at night stewing over perceived offenses while the perps sleep like babies.  Pride separates the closest of friends.  We all have pride, and none of us can kill it dead on our own.  We can’t even see it.  Pride has the insidious quality of making us blame others for everything.  Pride is a finger pointer.

So we cry out for help, and the process of healing begins.  Suddenly it strikes us that maybe we’re lucky to have friends, even if they can be pains in the you know what sometimes.  We start to remember that even when our children are being less than their sweetest, we’re blessed to have children.  We remember we’re lucky to have family.  And if our mate is driving us crazy, we remember those lonely nights.  Why, we’re lucky to have a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend.  Frankly, we’re lucky to be alive.

So feeling thankful is a good start.   It helps us be kinder to others.  It helps us start to overlook offenses, at least the small ones.  It helps us obey the command that we overlook the weaknesses of others, because they have to overlook ours. It’s the beginning of an antidote to taking offense easily.  But then someone does the same old something – it doesn’t matter what, it’s that THING that gets us every time – and boom.   We’re stewing all over again.  What is our problem?  Why can’t we stop getting annoyed?

That’s where we really ask for help.  That’s where we cling to the life Jesus promises like the divine ark it is.  We’re realizing human effort accomplishes nothing.  And as the tailspin into self-hatred starts, we look up.  We wonder if maybe, just maybe, God really does give us life.  Can He really do that?  Does He have the power?  Is He who He says He is?  Could He give US life?  Could He give life to the people who’ve offended us?  Could He show them how to be loving in His own time and His own way?  Can we trust Him with this situation?  Do we have a choice?  Okay, so maybe we trust you, Lord.  (Trust me, even if you’ve been a Christian for like forever, we all still go through these forgettings; we forget how good God is and how much He loves us, and how we can trust Him with every situation, every person and all we’re supposed to do is forgive and ask for His help and, and and….)

That’s where somewhere, somehow, it’s as if God swoops down and pulls a big divine SWITCH, and we actually love others.

Love?

We realize like a divine revelation we’ve never had before that the opposite of pride isn’t really humility. It’s love.  We just forgot what love felt like. Pride robbed us.  That’s why love is the opposite of pride.

That’s the journey.  It’s a journey we take over and over, but we never take it alone and it’s different every time.  There’s no one way set of rules.  It’s a living dynamic, because it’s about our relationship with our Lord.

So what does all this have to do with Paul’s long explanations here in 1 Corinthians 11 of how women should cover their heads in worship but men shouldn’t?  Is this the kind of “custom” that can change over time?  What about how Paul says men are the head of women, although neither are independent of each other?  And what about how  the Corinthians shouldn’t be elbowing each other out of the way to guzzle the Communion wine?  How is all that related to this journey of offense?

These are all issues that can be flash points for us.  What? we think.  Submit to a man?  Ha!  Well, maybe if he’s reallllyyyy nice and let’s me be in charge.  But what if he’s a bossy boots?  Never.  Pride can’t submit to anyone.  The Christian submits to authority. The Christian may be hungry or thirsty when she rocks up at a meal, but she has discovered greed carries its own punishment.  The Christian looks forward to the moment of self-examination provided by Communion, instead of rushing through the motions, because she’s learned that repentance leads to new life.  The Christian has tried all the other ways and found them deader than doorknobs. The Christians sighs when she or he meet these passages about submission or coverings and says, fine, Lord.  Whatever you want.  You know best.  I may not understand all this yet, but I will read, study and pray, and I know you’ll show me what you mean.  

And then we obey (sometimes, reluctantly) and BOOM.  We’re finding ourselves looking for people to bless.  We don’t have time to take offense at some bossy man, because we’re too busy talking to a stranger on the subway about the markings on his arm, and he tells us, “they’re cheetah tatts, of course, because WOMEN get leopard tattoos, but men get cheetahs.  You know, like there’s lions and lionesses?”  Right.  Who knew?  And we smile like we’re best friends, which we are now, and when someone bumps into us on the way out, we smile at them, too.

Or we do as Paul says and eat at home before we go out, like Scarlett O’Hara, and boom.  We find ourselves actually looking at the people around us at dinner, instead of hating on them because we haven’t eaten a French fry in 11 years (a la Freaky Friday).

This is the Way.  It’s hard.  It’s wonderful.  It’s lovely.  It’s the only way that works.  We’re all alike, we humans.  We’re made in the image of our wonderful God.  He adores us.  And we forget that all the time.

But when we forget, the good news is we feel bad.  And feeling bad makes us start the painful process of swallowing our pride, starting to love, and tentatively trying things God’s way.  We eat the bread He gives us.  We drink the wine He provides.  He is the Bread of life.  He alone gives Life.  He gives so that we can all eat and be satisfied, just as He did when he fed the five thousand.  Messing up is good news, because it can lead us away from wandering down the garden path and into the real garden.  Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemene so WE can be a garden, watered with His love.  When our pride hurts too much, we can hand it over to Him.  In its place, He’ll give us love.  Love is the kind of thing that blooms inside us and helps us see others the way God does.  We don’t take offense at others.  How could we?  We love them.

And then the next time we fall off the wagon, and start taking offense at the smallest of things, we can get back to that helpless feeling a little faster, and find ourselves back on the wagon  flat on our backs looking up at the stars, and wondering where the journey across the uncharted plains will take us….

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on Columbus Day

on that “forever empty”: 1 Corinthians 10.

read 1 Cor. 10.  Why do many of us find ourselves talking about the same issues, over and over? Don’t we have anything else to talk about than that person who slighted us, or how we didn’t get into that stupid college twenty years ago, or how that annoying person dumped us, or how our genius child should have started instead of warmed the bench, or how that gorgeous though aging celebrity sneezed in our direction two weeks ago and actually wiped their nose on our sleeve?  Are we THAT boring? Do we have some kind of collective Terrets?

Maybe.  But there’s several reasons for the way we keep scratching the same itches, the way a mangy dog goes wild trying to catch the same wily flea.

First of all, if this shoe fits you, Cinderella, there’s good news.  Apparently Vincent van Gogh called the phenomenon of revisiting the same ground repetition.  Van Gogh painted the same scenery and people over and over again.  Each time he focused on a different aspect.  He used different mediums, techniques and kinds of paper.   In some he used a flurry of strokes, suggesting he painted outdoors.  In others, he gave the same scene a more refined, perhaps less immediate, feel probably because he did it from memory.  Sometimes he even copied his own work.  Some think he even traced his own work.  An ear appears in one portrait of a postman, whereas it disappears in other portraits – and we’ve all heard of poor van Gogh’s fixation on ears.  He makes some props pale and other times paints them in dramatic dark black to make them pop.  The differences are subtle but real.  Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker, NY Times.

Why would Van Gogh do this?  Was it just a crisis of imagination, as some critics say?  Or is this how the creative process has to work?  Is TENDER IS THE NIGHT just a more unwieldy scene study for the elements Fitzgerald worked out to perfection in THE GREAT GATSBY?  As someone who thinks THE GREAT GATSBY is the perfect American novel… yes!   We humans work through our creative ideas, concepts, pasts and dreams, over and over, trying to refine them until we get them right.

Sometimes we’re the ones who have to be ‘gotten right’.  We might have a dream, but we might not yet have the character to carry it out.  As Joyce Meyer said in her TV show today, when God is preparing us to fulfill our dreams, He often waits to make us sweeter.  He perfumes us with His qualities.  He gives us His humility and His kindness.  See “Have a Dream for Your Life: Part 2“.

Because a successful person who is hard-hearted is a danger.  A synonym for hard-heartedness  is being insensitive: “callously indifferent (blinded, hardened, and made insensible).” Romans 11:7 (Amp. Bible).  Insensitivity can strike any of us at any time.  One of the problems of being insensitive is that we can see it in others but not ourselves.  We become insensitive to our insensitivity.  So how do we escape its subtle chains?  One way is to learn its side effects; to track its symptoms like clues.  The comedian Louis C.K. said recently on Conan O’Brian that he hates cellphones.  Here’s why.  He says children try out different behaviors, and that it’s good for them to experience the consequences of their bad behaviors. “Kids are mean,” Louis C.K. said.  ”They say, ‘oh, you’re fat.’  Then they see your face scrunch up and they feel bad.  They think: ‘Oh, I don’t like how it feels when I do that.’” Louis C.K. went on to say that we shouldn’t let kids text because they miss out on seeing people’s reactions.  He added that we shouldn’t text, either, because we should sit in our own emptiness.  Here is how he put it:  ”Underneath everything in your life, there’s that thing.  That forever empty.  You know what I’m talking about?  The knowledge that it’s all for nothing, and you’re alone…. The knowledge starts to visit on you.  Life is tremendously sad.”  See: Louis C.K. on Conan.  He asked Conan if he felt the forever empty, too, and Conan nodded.

Haven’t we all felt the forever empty?  And don’t we feel it curl in on us when we hate?  Somehow the forever empty is tied up with evil.  That’s strange, if we think about it, because we associate emptiness with nothingness.  But somehow evil, including hate, discrimination, disdain, and sneering, lead us straight down the path to a horribly empty feeling.

For instance, when we start feeling cold toward someone, it feels really bad.  Coldness is terrifying.  It makes us feel inhuman.  It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us.  Why can’t we be more loving?  But instead of escaping our inner coldness by distracting ourselves or instead of spiraling into self-hatred, we can use a coldness in our hearts as a clue.  Somewhere, we’ve gone wrong.  We’ve slipped into hard-heartedness.  The Bible would tell us that our coldness suggests pride has crept in and taken us captive while we were looking the other way.

Luckily, there’s an antidote to a hard heart.  It’s called truth.  And truth, luckily for us, is a person named Jesus.  Jesus came to soften every heart, even our own.  Jesus’ tender love for each of us teaches the truth about love.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is rich in mercy and slow to anger.  Love is willing to sacrifice everything it has for the one it loves.

Therefore the only reason we can feel hard hearted toward a fellow human is that we’ve forgotten grace.  We’ve slipped out of God’s safe arms, like a toddler wriggling away near a busy highway.  Like a child, we race out into the middle of the road and – SLAM.  A case of hard-heartedness takes us over.  Just like that.  We forget we’re saved by God’s mercy alone.  We forget we can do “nothing” to earn our salvation. See e.g. Romans 11.  We start to believe the lie that we’re superior because we can manage to do a small number of things on a small list we’ve made up for ourselves – and we even forget that we can’t even live up to our own small standards most of the time.  We’ve taken our eyes off of true holiness – God – and fixed them on our own navels.   But if we look up for just a moment, even a mountain can remind us how enormously great God’s standards are.  If we crack open the Hebrew Scriptures, we’ll be reminded we can’t covet, we can’t lust, we can’t have a moment’s greed, we can’t have even a whiff of a mixed motive – or boom – we’re excluded from a perfect and holy heaven.

It’s as if we’re standing on the outside of Gramercy Park in New York City with our noses pressed between the spaces in its wrought iron fence.  We’re looking at the flowers in its gardens, but we’re not even able to get close enough to smell them.  That’s the way of the world.  It’s where you have to earn your own salvation by living according to a set of rules – and it’s a harsh way.  It’s an impossible way.  It’s a way without forgiveness.  It’s a way that excludes constant beauty joy and meaning.

Which brings us to the second, and less good, reason we repeat the same stuff over and over.  We keep trying to force our own way into heaven.  We want to break down the iron gates with a crowbar.  We don’t want to have to give up our bad habits or do anything that might cause us discomfort.  How do we know?  Because right here in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul tells us: “the temptations in your life are no different from what others experience.”  1 Corinthians 10:13.  When other people do bad stuff, we can’t pretend we haven’t thought of doing the same thing.  Scripture reveals to us our hearts.  This chapter implores us, for instance, not to crave evil things; not to put anything ahead of God in our hearts; not to be sexually immoral; not to put God to the test; and, lest we imagine we’re safe from anything of those, not to GRUMBLE.

And even if we delude ourselves into thinking we’re not grumblers — by forgetting whatever it was we just complained about under the guise of ‘solving’ a problem –, Paul adds that if we think we can stand, we should be careful.  The same temptations beset us all.

The only way to get inside Gramercy Park in New York City is by buying one of the adjoining apartments.  The old owner will hand the key to the new one.  But what if we have no money?  What if we can’t afford the price?

Luckily the owner of all earth wants to let us in.  ”The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  1 Cor. 10:26.  The owner is holding out to each of us the key to the most beautiful garden of all.  Jesus is the key.  The only way we can get into the garden is if God Himself comes and lifts us up and brings us in.  That’s what the cross was for.  He wants to carry us in.

All too often, we feel like God shouldn’t do that.  We think we don’t belong.  No, no, we say, when we see ourselves as if from a distance, enjoying the lush lawn, the pink roses, the cherry blossoms and the flowing fountain.  We don’t belong there.

And God says: I know you don’t.  But I want you there anyway because I adore you.  So that’s why I took the punishment for you, so I can bring you into my garden and enjoy it through your eyes.  So stop resisting me.  Don’t fight me off.  Stop having trouble believing that I actually love you.  Accept my love.  Let me in.  Let me take you where I want to take you, because only I know the way.

God’s way is very similar to the creative process, as God is the Creator.  He gives us a vision for our lives.  He gives us a deep knowing that we want to be loved, that we want beauty, that we want unity and peace.  He also gives us an inner restlessness to drive us away from the safe and boring toward Him.  He gives us the desire to be sweeter, and then He wants us to let Him sweeten us.  He asks us to keep going, keep painting, keep processing, until we let go of all our hurts, fears, bitterness, envy and rage, and let Him paint the poems of our lives.

God is turning His ear in heaven, listening for the sound of us sighing for Him. How do we know?  Listen to these verses from the Hebrew Scriptures:

“The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am!’” to a people that did not call on my name. Isaiah 65:1.

If we can hear the emptiness at the core of our lives the way we can hear the sea in a seashell, why wouldn’t we do the simple thing?  Why wouldn’t we ask the maker of the seas to fill us?  What’s stopping us except perhaps something we probably shouldn’t trust – our hard-heartedness?  So maybe we should use even our disbelief in a creative way.  We can turn it over and over, and ask the question of God in new ways every day: help me!  Show me yourself!  Help me find you!  Show me your glory!  I’m empty and I want You.

If we hold out our hands, who knows what the Creator will put in them….

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 9, 2013.

 

on impatience and gentleness: 1 Cor. 8

summer 09 226

read 1 Cor. 8.  For some reason, it’s easy to be harsh with other people’s mistakes.  We lose our tempers.  We scold them.  We can be impatient.  Why?

The quick answer is that we forget our own faults.  We have our own personal Alzheimers when it comes to our own mistakes.  But there’s another reason, that causes our personal blindness in the first place.  It’s that we’re deeply impatient not just with other people but with ourselves.  We want perfection, and we want it now.  As we’re not perfect, our stopgap solution is to deny our faults.  We go blank.  We block them out.  We think this will solve the problem, but of course all it does it create a case of mass projection.  We become divided selves, because we have a lie at our core.  It causes us to be harsh, hard, sharp and angry with other people, because deep down we’re feeling harsh, hard, sharp and angry with ourselves.

Tolstoy in his CONFESSIONS describes how when he was a teenager someone announced in school the “discovery” that there was no God.  He and his brothers  embraced this new “progressive” idea.  He said that looking back at that time, he realizes that his god became perfection.  He had a sense of perfect – he didn’t then wonder where that sense came from – and he tried to achieve it in every area of his life.  He studied hard.  He tried all sorts of athletics, trying to get as fit as he could.  He worked at being ethical, although he didn’t stop to wonder where his ethical laws came from.

He’s not alone.  We all have a standard of perfect that we secretly – or overtly – aspire to.  The standard comes from our perfect God.  The disconnect comes when we think WE can achieve perfection.  We have it backwards.  We can find the perfection we seek only in God.  He is holy.  We are not.  Recognizing that, and taking in that the perfect God loves us in the midst of our imperfection; that the cross fills in the gap between who we want to be, and who we are; and that if we accept the truth God Himself will dwell within us; enables us to be real.  We can be honest, finally, about our flaws, because we feel safe.  We know it’s okay we mess up.  We know we’re loved.  We start to experience the loving way God corrects us.  God doesn’t mock, shame or belittle us, the way humans so often do.  He speaks the truth in love.

It is in this spirit that the following letter FATHER FORGETS, by W. Livingston Larned, reprinted in Dale Carnegie’s HOW TO WIN FRIENDS & INFLUENCE PEOPLE, melts our hearts.  If you’ve never read this letter, beware.  You’ll need a box of tissues handy:

“Listen, son: I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen into your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.

There are things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face merely a dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.

At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”

Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road, I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before you boyfriends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive – and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!

Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped.

You said nothing, but ran across in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.

Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding – this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.

And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night. Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed!

It is a feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy – a little boy!”

I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.”

Why does this poem move us so?  First, because we’ve all been guilty of the same impatience with others.  Second, because we are all, in a sense, that little boy.  We measure ourselves by the wrong yardstick.  God doesn’t do that, and neither should we.  As Jesus said, only God is good. God celebrates our victories.  He doesn’t pile on about our mistakes.  We’re the ones who do that.

Pauls sums it up like this:  ”mere knowledge causes people to be puffed up (to bear themselves loftily and be proud), but love (affection and goodwill and benevolence) edifies and builds up and encourages one to grow [to his full stature]. If anyone imagines that he has come to know and understand much [of divine things, without love], he does not yet perceive and recognize and understand as strongly and clearly, nor has he become as intimately acquainted with anything as he ought, or as is necessary.  1 Cor. 8:1-2 (Amplified Bible).  We all fall prey to becoming puffed up with knowledge.  But love builds up and encourages.

Paul’s example in this chapter is that even if someone is wrong about something, we shouldn’t do anything that will lead them to betray their own weak conscience.  For instance, since idols aren’t real, a believing Christian can eat food that has been sacrificed to an idol.  But if someone with a “weak conscience” doesn’t understand this, and thinks that food in a temple is somehow tainted, Paul says the person who understands should NOT eat the temple food.  Otherwise, the “weak” believer might be emboldened to violate their own scruples, and perhaps eventually be “ruined”.  1 Cor. 8.

So how DO we grow in having this kind of patience with others?  How do we become gentle with others — even when they’re wrong?  How do we become kind to ourselves, even when we’re wrong?  How do we reach the place where we can be truthful and kind about all faults?

Look again at that letter from the father to the son.  What melted the father’s heart?  He grew remorseful after his son ran across the room to hug him, even when the father was in the middle of scolding the son, and asking WHAT DO YOU WANT?  Why?  It’s the prodigal son story in reverse.  While the prodigal son was still a long way off, the father came running out to meet and embrace him.

It’s love that melts our hearts.  It’s the open arms that greet us in the midst of our imperfection that makes us weep.  It’s the love that we never have to earn that makes our faces shine.  It’s God’s sacrificial incredible love for each of us that fills our hearts to overflowing and makes us start to become gentle with others.

And even when we’re not, even when we mess up and get impatient with the tiniest flaws of others, God still loves us.  He’s like that little boy that comes running across the room and leaps into our arms.

Is it hard to see God like that?   Of course.  But think about it.  God really was a little boy once.  He really did come leaping into our world from heaven —  just so that He can embrace us all even when we’re in the midst of scolding and saying WHAT DO YOU WANT?

He wants us just as we are.  He loves us just as we are.  He sees us the way a parent sees a sleeping child – innocent, sweet, lovable and to be cherished.  Because here’s the secret miracle we forget: Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross means God DOES see us as perfect.  Our sins are covered by the cross.

Hallelujah.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on September 23, 2013

on finding joy and hope in dating, marriage and divorce: 1 Cor 7 (and 6:13-20)

1 Cor. 6:15-7:40.  If you’re perfect, please don’t read this post.  It will tempt you to judge the rest of us.  But if you fall into the category of people who mess up relationships … take heart.

The first good news is that every marriage is over at “I do.”  The fat lady sings at every wedding.  Why?  Because two selfish people are agreeing to think of the other person first.  They’ll always fail.  So why is that good news?  Because we all have the same problem, and lots of marriages work, so there IS an answer.  So let’s look at some of the solutions for human frailty.  Ready?  Hold onto your hat (or chastity belt) because this chapter (and the end of the one before it) hits on EVERYTHING.

First, apparently there’s something especially hurtful about prostitution.  1 Cor. 6:13-20.   Paul invokes the language of marriage to say what happens when you sleep with a prostitute.  He’s implying that ALL sex involves an intimacy far deeper than most of us realize.  He implies that to sleep with someone you’re not married to is a kind of marriage.  So doing it actually rips our identities apart.  We’re supposed to honor God with our bodies.

What if we haven’t?  What if we don’t think we ever can?

The biblical answer to prostitution is to just stop.  Run.  Flee.  But the key here is to not HATE ourselves.  That’s probably what leads us down the wrong path in the first place.  We’re supposed to believe God forgives.  Pride can’t ask for help.  So we need to swallow our pride.  We can go out and learn how to have healthy relationships.

What about two people who are in love and can’t keep their hands off each other?  Paul says they should get married.  (“because of the temptation to impurity and to avoid immorality, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband.”  1 Cor. 7:2).  Paul thinks being single is a fabulous thing, and can give us space to serve God and get to know Him better.  But Paul recognizes that most of us get lonely.   For anyone who’s been in the dating scene long enough, and has yet to experience that urban myth of The One Night Stand that Became a Marriage, the idea of living in an 18th century world where men call women up, ask them out in advance, discuss their dreams, reveal their characters, demonstrate their communication skills, and prove that they’re willing to work with us so we can learn how to love each other better — and then drop to one knee and promise undying love, sounds awfully refreshing.

If we can’t seem to find the right person to marry, we should never give up.  If we’re a woman, we can take care of ourselves, look and act the best we can, get out there, and believe that if a man doesn’t want us, he’s not the right one.  If we’re a man, we can keep asking women out.  God is a matchmaker.  He made Eve for Adam.  He found Rebecca for Isaac.  He gave Boaz to Ruth.  Jesus turned water into wine for a WEDDING.  But we have to have hope.  Otherwise we’ll cling to the wrong relationships and try to MAKE them work.  All we’ll do is make ourselves miserable.  We need to let the wrong doors gently close, and trust God to open the right ones.

So what if we’re dating someone and we just don’t want to marry them?  What if we went into dating them with the best of intentions, but we find a disquietude in our hearts?  Paul says don’t tie the knot.  He says if you WANT to marry them, go ahead.  But if you don’t, you can break it off.  God gives us room to change our minds.  1 Cor. 7:36.  Dating is just dating.  We shouldn’t guilt ourselves into committing to someone.  God calls us to peace.  If we don’t have peace about something, we can’t do it.

Paul’s sex advice to the married is simple: have it.  He says it’s actually wrong to withhold sex from your spouse.  I can’t tell you the number of married people I hear complain to the world at large that their spouse won’t sleep with them. They announce it at parties, lunches, in crowded rooms, and at dinners.  Why do they expose their spouse like that? It’s because deep down they KNOW they’re being wronged.  They have an existential despair that won’t stay quiet.

So WHY do married people withhold sex from each other?  It’s generally not because of a low sex drive, but for a whole host of other reasons including: addictions; porn; obsession (with work, art, self, free time, children or any other thing we humans make idols of); rage; anxiety; depression; perfectionism; medications; blame; guilt; childhood abuse; a failure to separate from parents; hurt feelings that haven’t been discussed, apologized for and forgiven; an inability to know or articulate our needs; passivity; aggression; anger at parents; soul wounds; bitterness; holding grudges; being quick to take offense; a lack of empathy; a stubborn inability to consider another person’s viewpoint; and inappropriate boundaries with other people, male or female.

The world is full of hurting people.  And hurting people hurt people.

Jesus, the master of economy, sums up the problems in marriage with one phrase.  He said that Moses allowed divorce “because your hearts are hard.”  We humans get hard hearts toward each other, and it causes us to feel like we don’t “love” them.  It causes us to cut them off, sexually and emotionally.

So what’s the solution?  How do we prop up our marriages?  How do we similarly  strengthen intimacy and communication in all our relationships?

The first thing to recognize is that we can never MAKE someone love us.  We can’t make them be well.  We can’t control anyone else.

If we’re dating them and they don’t want to be with us, we let them go.  We don’t stalk.  We don’t harangue.  We don’t beg, plead, or devise schemes of walking past their desk or front door.  We don’t become best friends with their mothers.  We leave them alone and trust God to bring us someone better.

If we’re married to someone who doesn’t seem to love us, we can ask God to help us.  We ask him to help us keep loving them.  We can pray for them and trust God to bring good out of even the worst situations.  We can ask Him to give us a soft heart, even to someone who has a hard heart to us.

It’s in this spirit of not being able to control other people, I think, that Paul says here if our non-believing spouse wants to leave, we let them go.  If they want to stay, wonderful.  God will help us.  But if they want to go, there’s NOTHING we can do about it.  We let them go and cling to Jesus instead.   We’re to pour out our heart instead to God.  He is the Truth.  He will show us if we’ve been abandoned.  Denial is a useful short term coping mechanism, but God wants us to open our eyes.  If our spouse is outta there — even if he or she is a coward and lies and says they’re there for us, baby — we’re free.  And when we hear other people are getting divorced, we’re supposed to hug them, never condemn.

Having said that, if we’re the one with the hard heart toward our spouse — if we’re the ones who are dying to be alone or wish we could marry someone else —  there’s a cure.  There’s a heart softener.   If we hate the person we’re married to; if the very sight of them makes our skin crawl; if they put on their finest clothes and all we can think is that they’re ugly; it’s not over.  God knows how to make the unwanted wanted.  He’s in the business of softening hearts.  He can show us what we’re REALLY mad at, and I can promise you it has nothing to do with our spouse’s haircut.  It’s perhaps that they’ve hurt our feelings, legitimately or not, and we or they haven’t acknowledged it.  We haven’t felt listened to in a way that feels loving.  They’ve hurt us, and so we want to hurt them back.  One of the ways we humans do that is by despising the other person in our heart.

So if every other man/woman on the planet looks more attractive than our spouse, it doesn’t mean we need a divorce.  It’s just a clue.  It’s a sign to get going.  We can sign up for that couples counseling.  We can crack open our bibles.  We can watch the movie FIREPROOF.  We can read THE LOVE DARE.  We can watch Joyce Meyer every day on TV.  We can read Emerson Eggerich’s LOVE AND RESPECT.  We can ask our spouse out, and act as if we’re on a first date.  We can ask ourselves how we would talk to our spouse if we just met them, and do it.  We can remember our manners.   We can always say please and thank you.  We can focus on the good.  We can assume the best about their actions, every time.  We can ask why they do certain things, without rancor, and listen to their answers.  We can do all those chores they asked us to do.  We can stop stonewalling them.  We don’t wait for them to change first.  We take responsibility for the part WE can control.  As it says in the LOVE DARE, why do we think God gives us such incredible insights into our spouse’s faults?  It’s NOT so we can crunch them under our stilettos.  It’s so we can PRAY for them.  We can trust that God is the God of miracles.  He may or may not change our spouse.  But if we get on our knees and beg God to help us love our spouse again – watch out.  The heart he changes will be our own.

When I have relationship problems, I don’t ask my single friends for advice.  I’m worried they’ll say: CUT HIM LOOSE!!!  Instead, I ask my friends who have made their marriages work over 20+ years.  They always say the same thing, no matter which one I ask.  They tell me to be patient.  They empathize — with me AND the man I’m dating.  They remind me men can have trouble expressing their emotions.  They say that you get through the daily bumps by focusing on what you’re building together.  And they say again, be patient.  I sigh.  I know they’re right.  But I’m not so good at patient.

Which brings me to my last point.  For those of us who’ve messed up every single one of these helpful boundaries and guidelines provided for male female relationships, there’s the best news of all:

The cross.

There was one perfect person in human history.  He was God.  And He died because He KNOWS we mess up.  He just wants us to say we’re sorry and turn to His open arms.  God is the lover who never disappoints, no matter how often we do.  And if we let Him start to help us, we can celebrate our lives no matter what’s going on.  God always rejoices in our progress – even if it’s the smallest of baby steps.  Like sighing right now and asking for His help.

with love from Caroline, a fellow sinner who is as adored by God as you are.

how to win by losing: 1 Corinthians 6

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Thank you, President Putin.  We the American people appreciate that you’ve reminded us to follow the rule of law.   We agree that sometimes governments in power can set up their opposition.  We value your reminder to use diplomacy first.  We agree that the shedding of innocent blood must be avoided at all costs.  We look forward to working together to try to help the Syrian people resolve their own internal conflict.  We say Amen to your admonition that God created us all equal.  Finally, we’re so glad that you recognize the positive power of freedom of the press, a freedom that enabled you to write a letter to us in today’s New York Times.   “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” by Vladimir V. Putin

President Putin’s letter to the American people reeks so strongly of hypocrisy that I nearly gagged from the fumes seeping in under my apartment door when I woke up this morning.  And yet the above is how I imagine Dale Carnegie might recommend responding to President Putin.  Why?  Because Carnegie knows that responding with humility accomplishes far more than lashing back in pride.  He knows the value of losing a battle in order win the war.

BBC World News posed the question this morning: do the American people WANT the Russian President telling us what to do?  It’s the wrong question.  Why?  Because in the battle of good against evil, we need to keep our eye on the prize.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Paul makes the stunning claim that it is better to be cheated than for a Christian to sue a fellow believer in a civil matter.  Read 1 Cor. 6.  It’s the kind of claim that sends shivers up our litigious American spines.  Seriously?  You mean if a Christian sister steals your money, you’re not supposed to sue her in a secular court?  Yes, that’s exactly what Saint Paul says.  He’s not against all legal action.  In Acts 22 and 25 he appealed to the Roman courts for his rights.  So why this advice here?  His reasoning is that when Jesus comes back, the Christians will judge even the angels.  So Paul asks: is there not even one Christian person who can fairly judge between Christians?  Why would a Christian assert their rights before someone who doesn’t respect or submit to the laws of God?  Paul says Christians should try to work these matters out amongst themselves, and to find an honest Christian arbiter, and if that’s not possible, it’s better to be cheated. God is the ultimate judge of wrongdoers, and Paul provides a long broad list of behaviors God rejects unless they’re covered by the cross.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus making the same kind of stunning claims as Saint Paul.  Turn the other cheek.  If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.  Give to anyone who asks.  When things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.  Luke 6:27-30.  These claims come bang up against our pride.  But our pride is based on the lie of our perfection. As Paul says, the reason we should let things drop if we have to, is that we’ve cheated other people, too.  The truth is that we’ve all hurt other people and taken things from them unjustly.  Sometimes we take their boyfriends and girlfriends, or even their spouses.  Sometimes we take their reputations.  Sometimes we take their belongings.  Sometimes we take their self-esteem.  We rob them of their dreams, dash their hopes and yell at them for being too sensitive when they protest.  When we realize we’ve done these things, we fling ourselves on God’s favor, mercy and goodness to release us from guilt.  We rely on the cross alone.  If we’re honest, we can never rely on our perfection.  And so we, in turn, would be fools not to offer that kind of forgiveness to others.  Who wants to live in a world of pure justice?  None of us would survive.  We need a world of grace.

Grace leads us even deeper into the heart of the matter.  The reason we can follow this off-putting advice about allowing ourselves to be cheated in certain circumstances, is that God’s grace proves to us we can trust God.  We grow to trust God more and more, the more we take in how kind He is.   We start to rely on God to rescue us.  And if God says we’re not to sue a fellow believer, and that we’re instead to try to get a Christian to judge between us, we’re to trust Him to bring good out of that situation.

Which brings us back to President Putin.  What’s our goal in Syria?   Is it a zero sum game, where either the Russians or the Americans win?  Or is the goal truly to help minimize evil in the world by using our influence to persuade governments to not kill their own citizens, and especially to never use chemical weapons?  If so, the kind of forgiving nature God calls us to counsels that we get off our high horse in the interest of achieving the greater good.  In this conflict the Russians have to date stymied our ability to work within the UN Security Council.  The fact that President Obama’s red line in the sand means there now seems room to maneuver within the diplomatic channels means that the most powerful thing President Obama can do right now is agree with the Russians.  Of course, everything Putin says is pure hypocrisy, but who cares?  ”What a GREAT idea!” our President can say to the Russian President.  ”I’m so glad you appealed to God and the law.”  And together, they can try to wipe out chemical weapons from the face of the planet, as difficult as that may be in practical terms.

Why do we Americans want to help the world?  Here is where we get to the worst thing President Putin said.  Putin is right to say that all are equal before God.  But he’s wrong to say that therefore none can claim to be exceptional.  It’s the other way around.  God sees us each as exceptional.  As Paul says, our body is as exceptional as God’s body.  We are all exceptionally loved by God.  How do we know?  Because God loved us so much, that even though we weren’t obeying His laws, God chose to be unjustly tortured and killed to set us free from the consequences of our sins.

That’s why the letter God wants us to worry about isn’t a letter written by any human hands.  We should pay no heed to those letters that point fingers and tell us what we’ve done wrong.  God wants us to tear up those letters of the law.  Instead, God asks us to look at His hands.  His liberating love for each of us is engraved there. His love letter to us is the one our hearts cry out for every day, in every way, in every hurt, injustice, crime and poison.  It’s the only letter worth reading, and if we keep our eyes fixed on the message of love there, we will find ourselves responding with humility instead of pride because our hearts have been melted down into rivers flowing with tears of repentance and gratitude.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day, my blog on Scripture, literature, life and love… and sometimes war