Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Taking Off the Veil, Part 2

Last week I wrote about our need to have the spiritual veil covering our eyes removed, by
surrendering our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ, as Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3:16: "whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away." When we see everything in the light of Christ, we no longer try to get justified before God on our own, but trust completely in what Jesus has done. When we're resting in Christ, we can be sure he accepts us, and be filled with his love, to the point we can overflow with it and pass it on to others.  That's what Paul means as he continues in verse 18, "all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord."

But sometimes the physical and emotional drives from our old selves interfere with our rest in Christ, and we aren't a very good example of Jesus' glory. In a time like that, we might react out of selfishness, spend our days in anxiety instead of peace, or speak from anger or self-defense instead of love. But we all want to "reflect the Lord's glory," and not leave other people confused about Christ, or hurt by our human reactions. So how can we see and root out the parts of our lives that don't reflect Jesus?

I'm glad you asked! That's actually one of the purposes of spiritual disciplines. When we halt our normal activities to have focused time with God, we get to shut off the normal background noise of chores, electronic interruptions and sometimes even our own physical needs like food and drink. With practice, we can learn to stop our minds whizzing around so fast, and hear God more clearly. We can learn spiritual practices that help us to review and reflect on our thoughts, giving us a more accurate picture of our true motivations. Through these tools and processes, we grow a step at a time in being able truly to reflect Jesus.

But what happens when we find parts of ourselves that don't measure up to Christ?  Instead of despairing, we throw ourselves once again on his infinite mercy and his absolute love! He showed us that love at the Last Supper: "He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end" (John 13:1). God loves us so much that he sent his Son, who not only died for us, but who served us in a very humble way by washing our dirty feet. How could we doubt such love? So then, why should we be afraid to admit to him what he knows anyway -- that we are still weak and need his help? That surrender of repentance, admitting our helplessness, is the final step in letting go of those old ways of the flesh. As Paul concludes the earlier verse, "And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image." Can we agree to take up the tools of spiritual formation and let the Lord change us?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Taking off the Veil

Spiritual vision involves seeing the way God sees, not the way we humans see (1 Sam. 16:7).  I know several people with
cataracts in one or both eyes. They see the world like they are looking through a veil -- it's indistinct, dark and dangerous. Spiritually, if we can't see clearly, we stumble around, without making spiritual progress. How can we see as God sees? How would that change us?

Perhaps an example will help. In Luke 5, Jesus is calling his 12 disciples out of their own lives to follow him. One of them, Matthew Levi, is a (insert 1st-century epithet) tax collector, assumed to be getting rich by robbing his own people while selling them out to the (epithet) Roman occupiers. Matthew surprises everyone by leaving it all behind to follow Jesus, then invites his friends (some of them are probably epithets too) to a banquet with Jesus, and the Pharisees pitch a fit. Why? Because they thought their job was living by the law and making others do it too, so the nation would be righteous. Jesus took a different approach. He described his mission as extending grace to (epithet) sinners (verses 31 and 32), which he knew the Pharisees wouldn't understand (verses 36-39).

2 Cor. 3:14-18 describes a 'veil' that darkens the spiritual vision of people who, like the Pharisees, see only the way of performance and so do not understand the truth. Only when "someone turns to the Lord" (v. 18) is that blindness removed. "Truth" is defined here as freedom in Christ under that "new way which makes us right with God" (verses 8-11). That's grace, not behavior, and that's how God thinks even if we don't get it.

I remember, 18 years ago this month, when I finally surrendered the survival instinct that told me I had to "do something," admitting that I couldn't save myself from anything, even by my earnest attempts to obey. "All of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord" Paul says in verse 18, and that night I finally began to see the glory of God. I'm still learning to reflect that glory -- that's a journey of seeing the ways I still don't reflect him, and surrendering those also. "The Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him" as we surrender more of ourselves to him. 

Proper behavior is not the path to life with God.  Life with God is the path to proper behavior. In fact, the way of performance is "worldliness" just like the Pharisees' thinking. If you don't see that, I beg you, with all I have, to turn to Jesus in complete surrender and ask him to remove that veil. If you have seen it, then spend some extra time and effort today listening to Jesus and then following him.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lent 101

Like me, you may have heard the practice of Lent criticized, either by calling it "lint" (there's
no connection) or rejecting it out of hand as a mistaken way of working one's way to God. We are rightly careful not to create requirements where the Bible doesn't have them, even as we are free to examine and accept practices that will help us in the process of being formed into the image of Christ. Lent can be one of those.

Lent is not based on superstition, nor is it a way to save ourselves. It arose soon after the first century, from a practice of teaching new converts the basics of the faith for 40 days, helping them reject the demonic roots of their former pagan practices, then baptizing them just before Easter. Then came the concept of fasting for 40 days, as Moses did before God at Sinai and as Jesus did in the wilderness before defeating Satan. Rather than fasting from all food and water for 40 days, the Lenten fast was conceived as a time of solemn repentance before God, including extra times of prayer, and the challenge to give up a physical practice we enjoy. The cravings that resulted from giving up those things are reminders to ourselves that we really do need rescue! (It's interesting that in my denomination's tradition from 20 years ago or more, many tried to "prepare for the Passover" with practices that were at least as intense as this.)

As Michael Horton writes in an article on Lent in Christianity Today (find the article here) the society in which we find ourselves today is at least as tempting, demonic, and destructive as that surrounding the early church. So, once in awhile -- perhaps once a year at the very least least -- it is good to remind ourselves of temptation and our need for rescue. At the same time, we can go overboard by putting too much emphasis on the tool -- in this case, Lent -- and not enough on the actuality of our connection with the Lord. So while I recommend the discipline of time set aside for reflection, self-examination and self-denial, let's recall that Jesus is with us at all times, and our disciplines are no more than tools to help us pay attention. 

Today is "Ash Wednesday" on the calendar of liturgical churches, and many congregants will attend a solemn service in which someone will put a dab of ash on their forehead symbolizing repentance, mourning and humility (see Gen. 18:27, Esther 4:1, Job 42:6, Daniel 9:3, or Matt. 11:21). Let's thank God that people are being reminded, in whatever practice we use, of who we are and what he has rescued us from.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Are We There Yet?" Christian Life Is a Journey

I used to think the word "grace" was just a wimpy way of thinking about following Jesus -- so that people who couldn't obey
him well would hope to get grace instead. I thought that, on the rare occasions I didn't obey right, I could grovel before God and ask for grace 'just this once.' I was taught was that the whole idea of Christian life was to obey more, get sin out of my life (mostly by my own effort), and wean myself off the Lord's forgiveness as fast as possible until I didn't need grace at all. After all, Christ had gone to a lot of trouble at the cross to forgive me, and I didn't want to wear out my welcome by asking for grace all the time.

Finally, I began to understand that grace is how God relates to us all the time, out of his love for us, not because we can't obey perfectly but because we can't obey at all. (Even if we go through the motions of obedience, our motives are still impure.) Then, I began to enjoy receiving grace, but the problem was, I didn't realize that I wasn't giving grace to other people in my life. I was still the same selfish person who demanded performance from others while being glad God had already covered my lack of performance through Jesus. You might say I was just a teeny bit disconnected from reality.

The Lord finally started straightening out my messed-up ideas, through some very difficult situations in my life, and giving me some mature and loving Christians who mentored me and lovingly pointed out my hypocrisy. It has taken years but I'm happy to say I am beginning to see opportunities to give grace to others. At least some of the time.

All of this brings up the point that Christian life, becoming spiritually formed in the image of Jesus Christ, is a journey and not an event. We don't suddenly stop sinning by receiving the Holy Spirit, we don't instantly cast away every temptation after baptism, and a person doesn't mature instantly any more than a fine wine or cheese does. A journey means, among other things, being patient with the process, with ourselves, and with others as we journey together. 

No, we're not there yet. But the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the ongoing fellowship of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (2 Cor. 13:14) will carry us there. We'll enjoy the ride a lot more if we relax, ask the Lord how the journey works, and help others enjoy it too.

May the Lord give you peace as you walk with him!