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The lie behind my “yeah, but” spirituality

What attitude do I bring to the Scriptures when I read them? Is there an attentiveness to what is written? Is there an expectation to hear from God? Is there a readiness to obey?

Obedience is at the heart of faithfulness. If God is King and I’m not, then how can I do other than obey him?

not_so_sure_about_that.jpgBut I see in myself and hear from others a “yeah, but” spirituality, where we agree with God to a point but then put the brakes on our obedience.

I don’t mean that we should read a story like that of Jephthah (Judges 11, particularly 11:29-40) and make rash vows to God that cost the lives of our children. Rather, we ought to read stories like that and make well-considered vows to God that we follow through on as tenaciously as he did. The story is painful as a cautionary tale in its reminder of how good people can make stupid choices. But it is also a reminder of how seriously those who came before us have taken the kingship of God.

Each day, I need to hear the Scriptures and ask questions that lead to obedience.

For instance:

What does it look like for me to honor my father and mother (Ex. 20:12) without qualifying it with a “yeah, but” that keeps me from doing it?

What does it look like for me to love my wife the way Christ loved the church and give myself up for her to make her holy (Eph. 5:25-28) with no “yeah, but she said this and didn’t do that.”

What does it look like for me to hear Col. 3:23-24 as I do my job? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

What does it look like for me to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Then. 5:16-18)? And how do I do this in a culture that teaches me to complain, to reject suffering, to spend time on my iPhone instead of praying, and to always want more for myself? How do I “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4)? I really want to say, “Yeah, but they’re not looking out for my interests!”

I am full of yeah-buts. They take the substance out of my Bible reading and my obedience to Christ. But what’s even worse is I project a “yeah, but” hesitancy on God as well.

Even though the heart of the Gospel is Jesus in the Garden telling his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 2:42), before obediently going to the cross, I have to admit that I often treat God as if he’s holding back, as if he’s holding out on me. Even though the Scriptures are together the story of God’s full attention on redeeming humanity, I treat God as if he’s not generous, not faithful, not intent on blessing me.

Even though “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6), I expect of God: “I would reward him, but …”

I don’t actually say these things to God. But the way I live betrays a belief that God is holding out on me, that each “yeah, but” to him from me is matched my a “yeah, but” from him to me.

I need to live 2 Cor. 1:20 —

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

I need to hear God’s overwhelming YES in Jesus and respond with a full-bodied YES of my own.

When I do so, my obedience will be that of a dearly loved child to his open-hearted Father. It will be the obedience of richly rewarded servant to his generous Master. It will be the obedience of well-taught disciple to his wise Teacher.

There is no hesitancy in God toward me. May there be none in me toward him either.

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Let it be

Let it beWhen Paul McCartney wrote The Beatles’ song “Let It Be,” he may have been thinking of his own mother Mary who died when he was 14 and not the the mother of Jesus, but he nailed the biblical Mary’s spirituality in the song’s title and key phrase: Let it be.

The very last thing said in Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel are these words:

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, ESV).

We’re told the angel left upon hearing them, meaning Gabriel took that statement as both agreement and permission for the pregnancy and birth of Jesus to take place. As such, it is both the most humble and the most audacious thing a person can say to God’s messenger.

First, there’s the humility.

The two-word Latin prayer Fiat mihi comes directly from this verse. Translated as “Let it be to me,” it is the ultimate voicing of submission. It offers no resistance. It sets no conditions. It merely receives. It takes what’s coming.

I wonder how many times the boy Jesus heard his mother tell the story of that angelic encounter and her final response to the astounding request? Because I hear an echo of it in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

The words are different, but the attitude is the same. They both have a posture of openness. They both say, “Yes,” to God.

Mary’s Fiat mihi becomes our most basic prayer as we respond to God. We humbly do what he tells us to do, go where he sends us. As we pray it, like Mary, we define ourselves as the Lord’s servants, not as those who follow our own dreams, not as those who serve our feelings and desires.

Mary’s YES to God isn’t vague. It comes in response to a specific request.

Different translations render Mary’s statement differently, but I prefer the ESV as it follows the KJV here. “Let it be to me according to your word.” As such, it becomes an opening prayer when we read the Scriptures.

Uttering that as a simple prayer before even opening the pages of our Bibles establishes a posture of attentiveness and obedience before the reading begins. “Let it be to me according to your Word.” Let these Scriptures speak to me and let me obey them.

It’s a gutsy, dangerous prayer, setting us in motion before we even know where we’re heading. It’s a trusting, beautiful prayer, setting our hearts at rest in the unfailing love of our God, knowing he is always good, always faithful.

187558_the-annunciation-gabriel-appears_lg.gifBeyond their humility, these same words of Mary are also bold words of permission. In their YES, they express an ability to say NO.

The angel leaves after Mary speaks these words. He’s dismissed by them. Before hearing them, he hasn’t received the permission necessary for the conception of Jesus to take place. Theologians have suggested that Mary became pregnant the moment she uttered her Fiat mihi.

It boggles the mind to think that Mary could have derailed the Incarnation by her refusal. But this we know about our God: He is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on anyone.

God rapes no one. Mary gets pregnant with Jesus only by giving her consent.

This is a great mystery that we all take part in. The great God of the universe allows each one of us to accept or reject him. And Mary shows the best way to respond.

Fiat mihi.

(In the painting accompanying this post — L’ Annonciation painted in 1644 by Philippe de Champaigne — Mary has a book in front of her, already showing her willingness to hear and obey God through the Scriptures.)

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The humbling path of growing old

As I watch my parents in their twilight years, I think about the inevitability of my own impending elder age. At 50, I’m still in fairly good shape physically, but I know the decline is coming.

But even when I was 30, one comment by Jesus stuck out to me and has continued to bounce around inside of me for the past two decades. Jesus was speaking to another Peter at the time and, in typical Jesus fashion, he answered Peter the man instead of answering Peter’s words. (I absolutely love when Jesus sees through people’s questions and answers the person rather than the question … except when it’s me asking the question.)

Jesus tells Peter:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

When my Mom was 60, she had a massive stroke which has left her severely handicapped for almost 28 years now. And several years ago, another setback forced her to finally be wheelchair bound after 84 years of persistent independence. So, she now lives out the words Jesus spoke to Peter and I remind her of them from time to time.

But ever time I remind her, I’m reminding myself. Jesus spoke these words to a different Peter, but they are still words I can’t help but hear being addressed to me.

At some point in my life, someone else will dress me and I will be led where I do not want to go. The humbling this life has doled out to me isn’t finished. There is much of meekness for me still to learn.

Part of the care I have offered my Mom for the past several years is centered around bathroom and clothing rituals in mornings and evenings. I take her to the bathroom, get her pants down, get her on the commode, deal with everything associated with that, and get her dressed for the rest of the day or get her into bed.

I do for my Mom something akin to what she did for me when I was a baby.  But when I was a baby, I knew nothing else. My Mom endures the humiliation of having her son see her unclothed with a graciousness and acceptance that amazes me.

My daughter has begun to do a lot of care for my Mom as well, since my parents’ caregiver can’t do as many evenings as she did before. I’m so impressed by both my Mom and my daughter, with this embrace of humility and compassion.

I have a hunch that this life is God’s big unselfing program. We start out as center-of-the-universe kids who are all about “Me do it.” As we grow older, we develop friendships and learn to share. Then we get married and have to learn a truly shared life if marriage is to succeed. But after the mutuality of marriage, kids are born and all they do is take. (Sure, parents get something out of raising our kids, but it’s generally not what our kids intentionally offer us.) But then something horrible happens to some: We retire and turn the focus back on ourselves. But if we do this right, we continue to be more and more selfless, focusing on grandkids and on what we’ll leave behind, rather than on ourselves and what we can keep gathering. And finally, we enter this last stage of unselfing, the humiliation of being cared for by others as our bodies and minds fall apart.

onewhoserves.gif
There will be no picture of my Mom sitting on the commode to accompany this post. It’s not something you’d want to see or something she or I would want to share. But it’s almost sacramental for us, because it’s an event where grace is exchanged. My Mom confers blessings on whichever one of us is assisting her. And we in turn offer the grace of service, doing the equivalent of taking up basin and towel as Jesus did to show the full extent of his love.

These are events the world around us knows little of. There’s nothing sexy about it. Nothing lucrative. Nothing powerful. Nothing exotic. Nothing adventurous or thrilling.

Recently, a patient in the hospital said to me, “It doesn’t matter how rich or powerful you were in life, we all end up in small rooms with someone wiping our butts. The real question is: What kind of person were you on the way to that room?”

I hope the quality of my life is one where when the days come during which I reach out my hands and someone dresses me and takes me where I don’t want to go, I will be able to be dressed and taken with grace, for I will already be well-accustomed to the path of humility. For it’s the path I’ve watched my Mom and my Jesus walk ahead of me.

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Captain America & the problem of power

When the first Avengers movie hit the theaters, some pointed out that the devastation depicted in it to New York City was worse than that of 9/11. The good guys did more damage than terrorists.

It was a valid point. When does the cure become worse than the illness? When do heroes become villains in the pursuit of justice?

(This struggle is being played out in America in the killing of unarmed black men by police officers, where those who have dedicated their lives “to protect and to serve” end up shooting the innocent. This misuse of power is matched with a need for police protection, especially as our cities continue to grow, leaving us with our tense and racially charged conundrum.)

The recent follow-up movie Captain America: Civil War attempts to address this topic of well-intentioned power gone awry head-on. It pulls scenes from the previous Marvel movies, highlighting the destruction their superheroes left in their wake, while they headed home victorious and never looked back to see who might have suffered for the salvation they brought. In several scenes, the movie gets personal, telling the stories of suffering families.

When faced with this suffering, the superheroes hang their heads in sadness and something akin to shame. They were in the business of stopping bad guys and had somehow become baddies themselves in the process. (By the way, that brilliant Pixar movie The Incredibles used this theme as its launch point years ago. This is a continuing struggle.)

So, what do we do with all of this concentrated power? How do we make sure it gets used for good and not for evil?

While Civil War begins the conversation toward an answer, it doesn’t actually give one. Instead, it offers two possible answers and leans toward one while not committing to it.

The two answers the movie offers are: government regulation and personal self-regulation.

Government regulation boils down to bureaucracy and psychology and various forms of incarceration. Personal self-regulation boils down to hunches and relational feelings. Gee, Marvel, thanks for those two options!

Actually, Marvel does do us a service by pointing out that neither of those solutions are actually solutions. We are not wise enough or informed enough to regulate ourselves — heck, I have a hard enough time not eating food that’s bad for me and I’m pretty well informed about that — so we are not our own solutions. And human systems have a way of degenerating into forms of oppression, especially while maintaining a facade of scientific reason, so government is no real solution.

To control power, there must be something outside of us, since we fail to adequate regulate ourselves. But there also must be something beyond-human involved, since we humans are the very problem in self-regulation.

What is this beyond-human? Some super computer system? We love the idea of science, but so much of science fiction recently has pushed back against the idea of control by computer. There is a recognition that the very soullessness of technology disqualifies it from dealing with and controlling the power of humans. Technology is beyond objective. It’s sterile. Souls must be dealt with my soul, not machine. (The Avengers: Age of Ultron kinda dealt with the machine control thing.)

There’s a very old solution. Ancient, actually. It’s locating ethics and the control of power in God.

This is the central element in Jesus’ preaching: the kingdom of God. God is King and I’m not. Whatever power I have serves him and his purposes in the world, operating by his ethics, done in his ways.

When the powerful bend the knee before God, that humility begins the process of bringing power under control. And when they locate their ethics outside of themselves and their personal perspectives, then there’s a shared understanding among people of what is right and wrong; it’s not up to the whims and limited perspectives of individuals.

This, however, is something we’ve rejected in our post-Christian pluralistic culture. Not only have we set aside Christian faith and the Christian God, but we’ve embraced the ethical relativism of pluralism. “You do you and I’ll do me” sounds like a good idea until the you you do and the me I do end up clashing not just with preferences, but with significant moral-ethical issues.

As long as each of us are independent moral agents, determining our own ethics, we will have no real way of regulating power in the world. It’s only by having a shared moral-ethical system that we submit to that we can live in something approximating harmony. And for my money, I’m betting not on technology or government, but on God.

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Psalm 131 — from ambition to contentment

I am an ambitious person, with hopes and dreams for myself. I am a true American, pursuing my own happiness. My heart isn’t quiet. It’s in turmoil, boiling with my ambitions. Unsettled by my striving, disturbed with dreams of more and bigger and better. So, when I come to pray Psalm 131, the three-verse poem jolts me.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.

 

This is not me. I may be years past being weaned, but I lack the contentment the psalm describes. A weaned child has moved on from the thinner nourishment of milk to the thicker meal of meat, which stays with you for hours, nourishing for a long time and satisfying the stomach.

No crying. Satisfaction.

When my hope is in the Lord, I stop basing my future on self-dreams. I take part in God-dreams.

Echoing the psalm, I find myself praying: Calm my ambitious heart, Lord. Help me be satisfied. Help me to transfer my dreams from myself that I might put my hope in you and you alone. There is too much of me in me. May I be filled with you. Your passions. Your purposes. Your presence. Your power. Your glory and not my own.

What is so great about this little psalm is that the psalmist, David, doesn’t disappear. He’s still very much there.

He references himself throughout the psalm: “my heart,” “my eyes,” “I don’t … myself,” “too wonderful for me,” “I have calmed,” “my ambitions,” “I am like,” “I am counted.” He continually refers to himself, but only twice does he reference the Lord.

The psalm writer doesn’t disappear and yet the Lord is the one who bookends the psalm. All of the Me is contained, constrained by God.

And, yes, David was ambitious. We know the story. After he was anointed by Samuel, he pursued the kingship with focused attention. When we set aside Sunday school lenses and reread 1-2 Samuel, we see David for the political animal he was. He didn’t consider it too much for him. He wasn’t content. He reached. He yearned. He longed. His story is very much in contrast to the words of the psalm.

He reached for the kingship and took it. He reached for Bathsheba and took her. And yet, when it was all accounted for, his reaching left him wounded and broken.

So, when did he quiet himself? When did he become content? When did God alone become his hope? Or was this an aspirational prayer, written during his young sheep herding days and always with him, reminding him and helping him transfer his hope to God?

That is my guess. This psalm is prayed not out of success, but out of failure. And that is how I pray it.

Perhaps each morning, after sleeping through the first eight hours of the new day, David wakes up and remembers that God had been working while David himself had been sleeping. And so, he pulls from his pocket this brief prayer, written on a slope in Judah while sheep lazed in shade of carob and sycamore trees, and prays it freshly and with sincere intent.

I imagine the prayer staying with him through the first few hours of the morning but then fading as he exerts himself relationally and politically as the day presses its requirements upon him. And then, as he prepares to sleep again as dusk thickens into night, he finds the prayer again. In some ways, it accuses him of his over-sized ego. But in other ways, it soothes him to sleep, reminding him that he needn’t worry about all that was left undone. God will sort out all of the odds and ends, tying up the loose ends. His hope is in the Lord, not in a completed checklist.

And each day, as he cycles through humility and ego, the psalm imprints itself more deeply into him, until he has become a content and satisfied man.

That is how I imagine this prayer working not just in David’s life, but in my own as well.

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Some civility, please!

Last night, my daughter showed me a meme comparing Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler. On one hand, it was a pointed critique of some truly disturbing rhetoric by him. On the other hand, it was ugly slander.

I’ve watched the same Nazi comparisons leveled against Barack Obama and other political leaders. And in each case, I’ve come away shaking my head.

One of the rules of internet discourse is Godwin’s Law. It basically states that the longer a debate goes on, the more likely someone is to resort to calling another person a Nazi. A corollary of the law is the first person to mention the Nazis loses the argument.

I especially like that last part.

Playing the Hitler card is a conversation stopper and a relationship killer.

When someone accuses another person of being a Nazi or acting like Hitler, we’ve moved from any reasoned conversation to name-calling and accusation. And as John Gottman has shown, this is the number one relationship killer we’ve got in our arsenal.

When we move into this kind of language, we are no longer listening. All we’re doing is trying to win, while hurting someone else in the process.

Resorting to calling someone a Nazi is hate language.

In the modern Western world, there is no group so universally despised as the Nazis. They embody evil.

To call someone a Hitler or a Nazi is to dismiss that person entirely. He has no value as a human being. She is the devil incarnate and should be resisted in every way possible.

I’d even go so far as to say that use this kind of amped-up language is to wish for the other person’s defeat and death.

In our conversations online and on political matters, it is essential to retain the humanity and dignity of the people we’re talking with or about. Any kind of name-calling kills this and should be avoided.

At the same time, if we’re interested in truth, we need to resist unfair comparisons, which are themselves logical fallacies. Nothing Obama or Trump have done has come anywhere near what the Nazis achieved with the Holocaust, so to compare them is ludicrous.

Instead of name-calling, we need curiosity. And humility.

However small it may be, where is the truth in what this person is claiming? How can I preserve that truth while resisting what is false in what is being put forward? And when I resist what is false, how can I convey truth and justice myself in a way that is considerate and winsome?

[Oh, and if you’re interested in rational discourse, you might want to avoid simplistic memes.]

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Psalm 113 — The greatness of God is made greater in his humble generosity

Reading Psalm 113 surprised me. There seemed to be an abrupt shift from its beginning — where it talks about the magnificence of God — and its end.

Here’s the psalm in its entirety:

1 Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord, you his servants;
    praise the name of the Lord.
Let the name of the Lord be praised,
    both now and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.

The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
    his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
    as a happy mother of children.

Praise the Lord.

It begins and ends with the same Hallelujah burst — “Praise the Lord!” And the first six verses follow form. If anyone is worthy of praise, it’s our God. He is above all nations. In fact, he is above the heavens themselves. He is the great King. In every place where we see the sun rises and sets, our God’s name should be lifted up and loved.

But then we get the shift.

In verse 6, we see the Magnificent One bend down and look at the heavens and the earth, the work of his hand. But for one so lofty, what we see him doing in verses 7-9 is shocking.

Does the Mighty One rub shoulders with the mighty among us? Does the Great King only spend time with our kings? Does the Maker of stars share his luminescence only with our superstars? Does the Celebrated One attend only to our celebrities?

Our Lord only attends to two kinds of people in this psalm. Obviously, this is not a complete list of those our God cares for. But the psalmist is making a point.

The poorest of the poor get God’s attention first. The unwashed. The dirt poor. Those who dwell on the edges of the garbage dump. Those who have fallen to the most low place of humanity. These are the ones who get God’s attention. And what does he do?

The Most High lifts them up. The Exalted One exalts them.

What is strikingly missing when compared with the way we humans tend to do anything similar is any form of judgment. The Lord just helps. There is no explanation why. There is no guess at how he feels about this. There is no knowing look that communicates, “I’m helping you out this time, but it’s your fault that you got into this predicament and I don’t intend to keep doing this if you keep doing that.” There is just action.

And that action is all God-initiated. We see elsewhere in the Scriptures that the poor and needy and vulnerable cry out to God in our distress and he answers. But here, all we see if God on the move, God lifting up those who have fallen into the dust.

This action is also God-inconveniencing. Well, he doesn’t seem to take it as an inconvenience, but we do see him bending down. Without acting condescending, he descends to be with us in order to take us in his arms and lift us up.

And where he lifts the lowest is to the place of the highest. There we are seated, presumably on thrones (since we are seated with princes) or at least at table.

The King has made us kingly.

And then there is the second and final action of God in this psalm: He fills the womb of the barren woman with children.

This may seem like a painful mockery for the childless couple who have prayed for years and have never conceived. As hard as this may be now, our modern struggles with infertility bring a fraction of the pain they brought to the generations of ancient Hebrew hearers of this psalm. The Scriptures are filled with stories of infertility. The woe of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 is palpable.

It seems to be God’s joy to bring fertility to barren wombs, barren lands, barren souls.

Only when we know ourselves to be truly empty do we really come to the Source and ask to be filled. Only when we know ourselves to be truly broken, do we come to the Healer to be made whole.

How he does this, I don’t know? Does he always fill the wombs of all woman who long for children? I’m afraid not, and I wish I had an easy answer for why he doesn’t. He does with some. What I do know is that with others, he widens their view of family and they adopt others into their hearts if not into their homes.

In both images — the lowly lifted to the table with the princely and the barren being given a family — we see the Church as it ought to be. All at the table together and all become one wild and wonderful family.

Prayer: Glorious God, I am amazing by your majesty and by your humility. To have the two so fully expressed at the same time is so rare and so beautiful. You use your wealth to make us poor ones to be rich. You use your strength to make us weak ones to be strong. You use your wisdom to make us foolish ones to be wise. You are praiseworthy in your glory. And somehow you are even more praiseworthy in your humble generosity. Make us to be like you, humbly generous with all the good things you have graced us. Through Jesus our Lord, who has shown us this majestic humility so well. Amen.

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What do you do when you're an arrogant arse?

I have the ability to be a self-righteous, pompous jerk. I am accomplished at treating other as if they are less intelligent than I am.

This is no pleasant thing to think about. So, I tend to forget that I know this about myself. Thankfully, I have honest people around me who remind me to cut it out when I’m acting this way.

Recently, I got this direct messaged to me on Facebook: “I feel like you talk down to me…it pisses me off to be honest.”

It’s not the first time I’ve been told that. Or something similar.

I wish that wasn’t me. I wish that I could say that I’m just so brilliant that people find me intimidating.

So, what do I do about this? Act dumb? Let people get away with shoddy thinking? Smile, stay silent, and mind my own business?

No. None of those are options. But as I reflect on this character flaw, I find that there are some things that can help out.

1. Listen to my honest friends and family members. It’s so great that I have a wife and kids and friends who are willing to tell me when I’m being an arse. It doesn’t always feel great, but I do rely on it. (If I’ve talked down to you, just let me know. And please do accept my apology.)

2. Remember that I’m not God. This should be easy. (Right. As if we humans didn’t have a self-idolatry issue …) Where this applies here is: I don’t know everything and never will. In fact, the best arguments that I have are full of holes. My mind is not my best attribute, my finest feature. I do think well and can articulate those thoughts well, but when I come before God with my thoughts, I see them for the folly they are.

3. Embrace my hypocrisy. I’m a sinner and I know it. I put on a front that I think will look good to others (and I know it). When I own it, I can step out from it.

All of these add up to humility. And that’s what I really need.

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Is my God really just my dog?

I love my dog.

Ebony comes when I call her. She goes to her bed when I tell her to. She’s always excited to see me. She does tricks when I offer her a treat and runs through as many of them as I want when I’m ready to feed her breakfast or dinner. In fact, she’s so excited to please that she’ll try to guess which trick I want her to do next.

Too often, I treat God that way, like a dog. And I’m not alone in this. It’s disturbing.

Think about how you interact with your God.

Do you want your God to always be happy with you?

Do you want your God to answer quickly when you call out?

Do you want your God to do all sorts of complicated tricks to make things work out well for you, even though you probably don’t deserve for things to work out well because of what you’ve done?

Do you expect to get something from your God when you’ve given him something (fed him)?

Do you expect your God to be there at the snap of your fingers and not bother you the rest of the time?

Do you go on walks with your God? (That one was kinda meant to be a joke.)

It’s kinda scary, isn’t it? Most of us want a dog, not a God.

The biblical story of Uzzah helps us resist this attempt to domesticate God into a dog.

Uzzah was a priest in Israel at the time that King David came into his throne. Where King Saul had neglected the worship of the Lord, calling on him when he wanted but letting the ark of the covenant languish in storage. (The ark was a gold-leafed box with two cherubim on its lid, representing the throne of the Lord — Yahweh is often referred to as enthroned between the cherubim.) Saul seemed more interested in securing his own throne than the Lord’s throne.

When David became king, he quickly arranged for the ark to be brought to Jerusalem, the new capitol city. (See 2 Samuel 6 for the story.) But something happened along the way. The cart the ark was being carried on hit a big bump on the uneven road to Jerusalem and was about to fall to the ground when Uzzah reacted with the speed of a short stop and kept it from falling.

Instead of the ark falling, Uzzah himself fell dead.

David was mad at the Lord because of it. In fact, he canceled the intended celebration and sent the ark back into storage, leaving it at Obed-Edom’s house for the next six months.

Think about that for a moment. Uzzah died for trying to do the right thing, for trying to protect the ark, the throne of the Lord. What could be wrong with that?

A few things.

1. Who is supposed to be doing the obeying here? Is Uzzah supposed to obey the Lord or is the Lord supposed to obey Uzzah?

When Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady the ark, he is disobeying a direct command of the Lord that no one is ever to touch it. By reaching out his hand, Uzzah not only disobeys, but he acts in a way to control. He is the man in charge.

There’s a reason why the word hand is related to the word manipulate. By handling the ark, Uzzah was manipulating God. And that is something our Lord will not put up with.

2. Is God’s throne really in danger here? Remember, the ark isn’t the actual throne of the Lord. It’s a representation. As a representation, it has significance, because it symbolizes God’s rule. And yet it’s not the real thing. There is no physical throne for our non-physical God.

Our Lord’s rule is not threatened by the possible denting of a symbolic throne being dropped. His rule is threatened by disobedience and manipulation.

When we get the direction of obedience backward, we are in danger of having our God reduced to our dog.

But how many pastors handle holy things in far more cavalier ways that Uzzah?

How many church musicians crank through worship tunes as if they were a set in a concert?

How many preachers are more interested in writing sermons than in reading the Bible?

How many theologians are more interested in the response of the academy to their papers and books than our Lord’s response?

Our God is no dog, but his treatment of Uzzah should be viewed like the warning bite of a dog who’s had her tailed pulled a few too many times by pesky punks. Hands off! There is a power here that is amazingly and lovingly controlled but which should not be treated with contempt.

We’re the ones who need to go to obedience school. Not God.

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When it's time to stop — President Obama, Bob Marley, and the gift of Sabbath keeping 

“People who are trying to make this world worse are not taking the day off. Why should I?” — President Obama quoting Bob Marley

It sounds like a great argument — not taking a day off because the forces of making the world worse aren’t taking a day off — but it’s terribly wrong for several reasons. 

1. We don’t take our cues from the bad guys.  It’s always bad practice to mimic the bad guys. We can learn from them, but we have to be careful when we do. Because it’s possible that by copying the bad guys we may become bad guys ourselves. In fact, that’s what usually happens. There is something in their practices which seems so great but makes them so bad. And not stopping is one of them. 

2. A refusal to take time off is narcissistic. When we think that we are indispensable, we are always wrong. Always. Every job I’ve left replaced me, even when I thought I was essential. I’ve even watched TV shows that replaced main characters I thought were essential — without missing a beat and even becoming better in the process. Every President is replaceable, too. So, taking time off is actually essential to keep me from thinking too highly about myself and my importance. I need the perspective that only time off can give. 

3. We weren’t built to keep on going without breaks. Neither our bodies or our minds were built to keep on going. Without adequate rest, we not only become inefficient, we become dangerous. One of my favorite documentaries is called Hands On A Hard Body which focuses on a competition/publicity stunt hosted my a Toyota dealer in Texas. A group of people compete to win a Toyota Hard Body truck. The winner is the person who can keep their hand in the truck the longest. In other words, no sleeping. It’s a fascinating exploration of how fragile our bodies and minds are and how necessary rest is. That’s just how we are made. I think the Creator knew what he was doing when he made us this way. 

4. When we don’t stop, we become tyrants, forcing others to keep going. When we refuse to stop or feel that we can’t or shouldn’t stop, we become slaves. And in the process, we begin to think of others in the same way. If I can’t take a break, then you can’t either. And since I’m able to push myself so hard, you should be able to as well. 

The Sabbath is a gift. By protecting us from those things in us and around us that would enslave is, it frees us to live life as a gift and not as a chore. By showing us how unnecessary we really are, we become less frantic, more humble, and now enjoyable. By giving us time off from work, it opens us space for relationships. Besides, without free time, you can’t really enjoy the beautiful things of this world, like a leisurely walk, a meal with friends, or the music of Bob Marley.