how to win by losing: 1 Corinthians 6


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

when we feel lost: Luke 15















read Luke 15.  What does it mean when we say we feel lost?  It means we have lost our bearings – either literally or metaphorically.  Being lost doesn’t exist as an isolated state.  It implies that we have lost some thing, place, person or sense of purpose.  Being lost means that we have lost something to which we belong.

We all love belonging – as long as it doesn’t smother us.  But most things in life to which we belong are transient.  Life involves a constant leaving.  We are always on the move, always leaving people, places and things.  Sometimes we choose to leave.  Other times the choice is forced upon us.  Some losses are good and right. Children are supposed to leave home.  Adults are supposed to leave their parents when they marry.  Some losses are tragic.  Children are not supposed to die before their parents.  Marriages are supposed to last.  Limbs are supposed to stay attached to our bodies.  Other losses are annoying.  Hair is supposed to keep growing on top of our heads.  Our skin is supposed to stay smooth and clear.  Jobs are meant to be kept.  A sense of purpose is supposed to accompany our days.  But it doesn’t, not always, and not forever.  The things to which we feel we belong – the groups, organizations, and associations – are always changing, always shape shifting, always evaporating just as we reach out to grasp them.

All change, even change for the better, involves loss.  Life on this planet, therefore, involves daily, weekly, monthly and yearly losses.  Tiny and tremendous griefs punctuate our days.  It’s no wonder that we all feel a little lost.  The miracle is that we don’t feel completely lost, all the time.

In addition to all of our definable losses, we also have a vague sense of feeling lost for no discernible reason – a feeling that dogs us each day.  We will have just a momentary pang – a “who am I, and why am I here” kind of a feeling.  This sense of being lost can be fleeting, or it can linger, depending on our circumstances.  We can hide from the feeling.  We can bury it in work or play.  But a certain wistfulness creeps up on all of us and just makes us stop and wonder.

While we think being lost like this is a bad thing, it may not be.  There’s nothing wrong with anything that causes us to stop and wonder.  Knowing that everyone feels this way helps, too.  Sometimes, we are lost.  We have lost our way, like the prodigal son in Luke 15, who spends his entire inheritance in wild living.  We can lose our family, so engrossed in our own pursuits we have made no time for the less “exciting” but none the less real people to whom we’re related.  We can lose touch with reality, so high on our own achievements, goals and dreams, that we start to slip into the delusional thinking that we’re more important than other people.  We can lose our love for other people, like the religious leaders to whom Jesus tells these stories – so trapped in their self-righteousness they are furious Jesus eats with sinners.  It strikes me that the religious leaders’ anger stems from the fact that they know Jesus is right, and yet they feel completely unable to do anything about their self-righteousness.

And so when Jesus tells these angry people three stories of loss, it is heartening to know that in all three stories, the thing that was lost was found.  The shepherd found the lost sheep.  The woman found her lost coin.  And the prodigal son found himself – and in so doing, was able to go home.  So how do these three stories help us with all of our daily losses – both known and unknown?  Did someone lose us?  Or did we lose someone?  And how do we get found?

As always with Jesus’ parables, the characters that pepper his stories are human.  What kind of a shepherd loses his sheep, anyway?  A bad shepherd.  What kind of a woman loses a coin?  An improvident woman.  And what kind of a father would give his son half his estate?  A codependent father, one more intent on gaining his son’s approval than on being a good father.

Likewise, both sons in the parable of the prodigal son display their faults – some of which are their own responsibility, and others of which are the result of imperfect parenting.  Who can blame the younger son for wasting at least some of his inheritance – his father never should have given it to him in the first place.  And who can blame the older son for feeling slighted?  No one even bothers to tell him about the party.  He hears the music and dancing and has to ask one of the servants what is happening.

But imperfect parenting doesn’t account for all of the sons’ poor choices.  The younger son spent everything his father gave him.  He saved nothing.  He doesn’t seem to have stored up anything for his future.  The older son betrays years of pent-up anger.  Any marriage counselor worth their salt will tell you not to use the words “always” and “never” – because those words are just not true.  The older brother’s words to his father are peppered with “always” and “never”.  The older brother says he has “slaved” for his father “all these years”.  He says he has “never once” refused to do “a single thing” you told me to.  He says that in “all that time”  you “never” gave me even one young goat for a feast.  Has the older brother really “never” refused his father?  He seems pretty good at it here – he’s refusing to go into the party.  The older brother continues his exaggeration by saying that his younger brother has wasted his money on “prostitutes”.  But prostitutes are never mentioned.  The younger brother wasted his money in “wild living”.  The older brother jumped to the conclusion that his younger brother visited prostitutes, but he might not have.  The older brother is exaggerating to try to get his father to see how he has favored a brother who didn’t deserve it.  Exaggerating never helps us – it distracts our listener from hearing the truth – but we resort to it when we feel insecure; we exaggerate when we think the truth isn’t good enough.

What’s the truth?  The truth is that the father seems to have favored one son, and that the favored son is spoiled.  The truth is that the older son was slighted.  The truth is…. that we live in a world where fathers are imperfect and were sons are improvident or bitter. So why does Jesus tell this story?

Jesus tells a story of humans because that’s the only kind of behavior we humans can understand.  And yet in this parable about flawed human beings, the incarnation happens – God breaks through.  How?

God is nowhere and everywhere in this parable.  First, each of these three humans displays aspects of God.  The amazing humbling thing is that our perfect God works through broken imperfect people. The father mirrors God in his forgiveness. The prodigal son demonstrates salvation – we can “come to our senses” because we realize that abandoning God has put us on the path to starvation, loneliness and isolation.  The older son teaches us of the mercy of God: the older son reminds us that even when we choose to stay with God, we will still fall – we will grow resentful and exaggerate, nursing our wounds, and forgetting that we, too, are sinners saved by grace alone.  But just because we sin doesn’t change the fact that we are living in God’s house, and no one can take that away.

Second, insofar as the parables are about humans, they reveal God’s character through contrast.  The human father gave half his estate through the need for approval; God gave us all on the cross, not because He needed anything from us, but because giving is in His very nature.  The inheritance God gives us is everlasting and can never be wasted; it can never be taken away from us.  If we “spend” God’s love on other people – God will always fill us back up.  God’s arms are always open and available to us the moment we run home.  God never piles on, like the older brother.  He always forgives and always rejoices when we return.  Unlike the older brother, Jesus always did His father’s will.  Jesus had every right to resent us for being God’s children, but instead, He rejoices along with God when we repent and turn to God.

God’s character shines through the interstices of this story, revealing His love for each and every one of us – even though we are as clueless as sheep, as predictable as a rolling coin, and as pig-headed as a child who thinks he can make it out in the big bad world all by himself.  These are stories where God cracks open earth and lets us peer into heaven.  There are flashes of godliness sparking out of humanity, so that we, in our humanity, can get a glimpse of what godliness looks like.  We can see a human man, named Jesus, and through Him – unrobed and unmasked and lost on the cross – see God.  On the cross, Jesus Christ was lost so that we would never have to be.

The message under all the parables, the groundnote of God’s message to us is: I know you, and I love you anyway.  I know your heart. I know how you work.  I know your greed, your inordinate loves, your stubborness, your cheating habits, your selfishness, your inability to see any viewpoint but your own.  And yet despite our flaws, God can shine through – as light shines through cracks in jars of clay.  Because we have it backwards.  The parables shock us because we expect stories of people made perfect by God, but we get stories of imperfect people loved by a perfect God.  The stories move us to the place of tears, where we cry out to God – how can you?  How can you love me?

God’s answer is that He loves us because we belong to Him.  We may feel lost, but we never are.  We are all, as my friend Laddie recently put it, “just a phone call away from heartbreak,” and yet, we are also, all just a single cry away from healing.  A shepherd may lose his sheep.  A woman may lose her coin.  A son may lose his family.  But God never loses us.  He is always with us, always.  He loves us.  We belong to Him.  He belongs to us.  We are a family.  And unlike our earthly families, filled with imperfect parents and imperfect children, all the wounds in our heavenly family have been healed.  Jesus Christ took the punishment we deserve on the cross.  And so everything lost has been found.

So when we feel lost, or stuck in our pride, self-righteousness or anger – all we have to do is remember this: we have already been found, just as we are, and in the finding, we are found not wanting but having.  We have everything through the love of God.  Everything bad has been made untrue in Him.  We can trust Him with all the bad things in our lives, even if we don’t understand them.  He will restore our sense of self.  He will restore our sense of home.  He will restore our sense of purpose.  He will restore our ability to love others, even when they least deserve it – because He will remind us that that is the kind of love He has for us.

And by the way, the picture at the start of this blog was given to me by Tory Baker and hangs in my bedroom – because I love it.

posted by Caroline Coleman in on February 1, 2012