no pointing fingers: Acts 25

Acts 25.  In “Silver Linings Playbook” every character is delighted to use the insanity of Bradley Cooper’s character to make themselves look better.  “Okay, sure, I may be a little, shall we say, OFF sometimes,” each character implies.  “But am I BIPOLAR?  Hardly.  Am I CRAZY?  I think NOT.  Have I ever tried to MURDER someone?  Nope.”

Each person in the movie wants to put herself in a position of moral superiority.  But the movie implies that when we do that, we’ve become blind to the point of craziness ourselves.  Instead, we are nudged to ask: how can we love other people – and by extension ourselves — without judging?

It’s a good question.  How can we?  All too often we echo St. Paul’s indignation in this chapter of Acts at being unfairly accused.  “I am not guilty!!!!”  Acts 25:10.

The only way we can get indignant about our innocence, however, is when we are very, very selective about which of our actions we choose to look at.  We’re geniuses at this kind of selective morality.  We hone in with laser-like focus on those few areas where we have even a chance of claiming perfection.  Like sharpening our pencils, for instance.  We’re pretty good at that.  Or are we?  I came across ten unsharpened pencils this morning and had to stuff them in a drawer.  Okay, so maybe that’s not a great example.  Perhaps we can say we are terrific at walking out the door without forgetting our keys – whoops.  Scratch that one, too.  When it comes down to it, the list of what we do perfectly is miniscule.  But that doesn’t stop us from revisiting it like a favorite song.  Even worse, we find ourselves engaged in the unattractive task of turning around and judging others for not having a sparkly (short) list that looks exactly like ours.

Why?  Why do we care?  Why do we want to look so good anyway?  What’s our problem?

I’m not sure we know.  I mean, I know we can come up with reasons.  We can count on all our fingers the list of why.  We want to earn love, respect, promotions, honors, degrees, acclaim and admiration.  Fine.  But why do we want all that?  Let’s go deeper.  Why do we even WANT the moral high ground over anyone?  Why this drive for perfection at the expense of others?

The Biblical answer is that we all want to be like God.  Sound familiar?  It’s the refrain the serpent used to trap Eve: if you eat from that apple, you’ll be like God.  But why did Eve fall for that?  Why didn’t she say: “who cares?  I don’t WANT to be like God.  God is God.  I’m good with being Eve.”  Or better yet, why didn’t Eve say: “God loves me.  God walks with me and my man in the garden in the cool of the day.  I’m already made in His image. And that’s good enough for me.”

I don’t know.  But she didn’t.  And neither do we.  We DO want to be like God – or at least to be like what we think He is like.  We do want to be perfect – according to our own definition of perfect.  We want to walk to heaven on our own two feet – or roll our wheelchairs – or hop on one foot.  Whatever.   “I can do it by myself,” is one of the first things we say as toddlers, and we’ve been saying it ever since.  We spend our lives pushing away the helping hand that we all too often need.

It’s a lot of work pretending to be perfect.  It’s exhausting pretending we don’t need  any help.  It’s also doomed.  So we resort to a few other tricks.  We point fingers at others to try to distract everyone from our own faults.  We rarely fool others when we do this, and we certainly don’t fool God:  “You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing your misdoings?”  Romans 2:3 (the Message).   Well, we did actually.  But if God really is the all-seeing all-knowing one, it’s not the best strategy.

God longs to help each of us.  God is love, and love by definition is a verb of giving. But God makes it very clear that a condition for His help is that we have to stop pointing our finger at other people.  Isaiah 58:1. Why?  Why is it so important to stop pointing out that we’re not bipolar, psychotic, sex-addicted or a jailbird?  And if we are any of those things, why do we find ourselves coming up with another list of Nots?

The answer is that those it’s irrelevant.

The ground at the foot of the cross is level.  If we humble ourselves there, we find God lifts us up and sets us on our feet.  God let the fingers point at Him on the cross, so He could extend to us instead the hand of forgiveness.

All we have to do is accept it with thankfulness.  And when we can’t do that, or don’t want to, and find ourselves judging others with vile abandon — God’s hand is still there.  His hand is always waiting.  We can feel the press of His fingers all day long.  God’s fingers nudge us in the direction of giving up the moral high ground and taking instead the mantle of grace.  It’s the only playbook worth reading from.  Because it’s only when we’re standing on level ground that we find our true balance.

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

is anyone really open-minded? Acts 17

read Acts 17.  We all like to think of ourselves as being open-minded.  In today’s Western world to call someone close-minded is tantamount to calling them a bigot.  But how many of us are truly open-minded?  How many of us are really willing to listen to new ideas that challenge everything we know, feel and think about the world?  We THINK we are.  But are we?  What if the person challenging us is abrasive?  Can we listen then?  And if we passed that test, here’s another even ouchier one:  are we all that open-minded when people criticize us?  Or would we secretly rather all be like General Petraeus – having our biographies written by someone favorably disposed toward us – preferably someone we’ve been courting?

As usual, the Bible’s stance on being open-minded is nuanced.  God wants us to be open-minded to His message of love.  He begs us to open our ears to hear how much He loves us.  He is grieved when we are so hard hearted we can’t listen to His message of mercy.  We sadden Him when we are sure we know best, or hell-bent on being bitter and pessimistic.  “Cynics look high and low for wisdom – and never find it; the open-minded find it right on their doorstep!”  Proverbs 14:6 (The Message).

What the open-minded find on their doorsteps, according to the Bible, is joy and peace.  In the 17th chapter of Acts we are told that the people of Berea were “more open-minded” than those of Thessalonica.  So they “listened eagerly” to Paul’s message.  They “searched the Scriptures day after day to see if” Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.  And “as a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men.”  Acts 17:11-12 (emphasis added).  The claim is astounding.  The chapter suggests that a mind that is willing to listen “eagerly” and daily “search” the Bible WILL find him or herself believing in Jesus.  Why?  As one of my friends says who tried every kind of spirituality with a small s before becoming a Christian – only Jesus works.  God, unlike most of the rest of us, loves wisdom seekers.  He knows that if they’re truly open-minded they will end up with the love they’ve always wanted – through a relationship with Him.

But the same chapter also points out that people can be so open-minded they’re closed to truth.  They can make a “god” out of having an open mind.  Their absolute truth becomes that only a “new” idea should be believed.  Paul says the first century Athenians spent “all their time discussing the latest ideas.”  Acts 17:21.  The problem with this attitude is that if your “god” is listening to the latest ideas, you’re going to miss it when one of those ideas hits the mark.  So one must be open-minded but to a point.  There has to be a “there” there.  Somewhere there IS truth.  For no matter how trendy it is to mock absolute truth, absolute truth is unavoidable.  In trying to assert there IS no absolute truth, even the mockers have made an absolute truth claim without realizing it.

The chapter also points out the danger to truth seekers of making excuses.  We become close-minded when we worry that an idea will cause us to betray one of our current beliefs.  Why?  Because we build our identity on our beliefs, so that if someone challenges one we feel as if our very selves will crumble – so we reject the new belief, even if our current one was never based on many facts or much thought in the first place.  The chapter suggests, however, that refusing to listen to an idea because just listening might “betray” something such as Caesar – is really an excuse.  Sometimes such a refusal stems purely from jealousy.

So how do we retain the balance between listening to new ideas but honing in on the right ones?  How do we reach a place where our identity isn’t predicated on our beliefs, so that if someone challenges them we can listen with humility?  How do we make an absolute value out of humility – which is, as far as I can tell, the only way to truly be open-minded?

It turns out that General Betrayus was onto something.  There is a way to be so humble we are willing to listen with respect to everyone we meet.  The solution is to realize that we CAN have our biographies written by someone who adores us.  The good news is that we don’t need to betray anyone to do it.

Here’s what I mean.  Our biographies unplugged would reveal our every flaw. Our biographies would be full of not just our light, but also our darkness, our mistakes, our selfishness, our pride and our moments of downright evil.  Our unvarnished biographies would make us each want to crawl under a rock with shame – forever.  The prospect of having an unvarnished biography published would be enough to tempt many of us to court our biographers.

But Jesus came down to rewrite our storyline by courting us.  He came down to have a love affair with each of us.  He offers to us the gift of exchanging His biography for our own.  If we accept that we need Jesus’ help, God sees Jesus’ story when He looks at us.  God sees Jesus’ perfection.  Our biographies become as white-washed as General Petraus’. They are white-washed with Christ’s love.  All we have to do is humble ourselves enough to accept we need white-washing.  It’s really that simple – and that impossible.

Because somehow to get true humility we need to be humble.  How do we become open-minded enough to hear we need God’s help?  The secret lies in accepting that God loves us.  When others criticize us they usually do so without love.  Unloving criticism is hard, if not impossible, to hear.  When someone attacks us in a harsh, hard and jarring voice, we somehow sense the person they’re really attacking is themselves.  But when someone lovingly points out our flaws without pretending to be perfect themselves we can hear it.  We stay open-minded to that kind of humble truth.  So the more we begin to realize God ADORES us, the more willing we are to hear what He has to say about our poor choices.

And that’s when the magic happens.  The moment we accept we’re imperfect people in need of the cross – God sees us as perfect.  That’s the good news of Jesus Christ.  It’s our news become good.

Here’s another way to look at it: when Jesus Christ was carrying the cross toward His death, He might have been tempted to give up.  But as He stumbled, He thought.  “No!  I have to keep going.  Caroline needs me.”  He shouldered His burden once more and kept going.

He did the same for you.

On that walk to His death, Jesus stayed true to His course because He remembered every one of us.

After all, Jesus is God.  He is the light of the world.  Jesus is the One who entered our world when the Spirit brooded over the face of the deep and God cried out in a loud triumphant voice: LET THERE BE LIGHT.  Let there be Jesus.  Jesus has been here giving light to our world since its foundation.  He knows us each by name.  And He died for each of us to open heaven to us.  That’s the truth that humbles us, enriches us and enlivens us.  It’s the truth that allows us to remain open-minded to everyone we meet, and listen to them with respect – knowing they’re just as flawed as we are, just as in need of God’s saving love, and just as loved.

It’s the truth that allows us to be humble and yet lifted up to all of Christ’s glory – if only we can be open-minded enough to believe God actually really truly loves us.

posted by Caroline Coleman in on November 30, 2012 in “A Chapter a Day”