Saturday, November 28, 2015

Confessing our Thankfulness--by Linden Malki

Thankfulness is a state of mind, not that far from confession. In both, we are looking back analytically, but there are several ways we do this. For example, we can look at the Pharisee in Jesus's parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee was thanking God for his success in life, which he saw as his just due for his own goodness, fueled by pride in his own efforts.
We see no appreciation for God's having had any part in this. He comes across as one of those who can be generous on his own terms, assuming that he knows best what everybody, God included, ought to want. We remember the Old Testament prophets who told the people that what God really wants is not the rituals and lip service that people actually offer in place of humility and justice. He's definitely at the point of "I'm OK and you're Not."

On the other hand, the tax collector is Not OK. He has the advantage, however, of knowing it. When he looks at his life he knows that it is not right, and he knows that he cannot fix it himself. This is what I've come to realize is the core of Jesus' message. It's not hard to find out what's OK. What's hard is admitting that we cannot do it on our own. The world is literally full of folks who think they're OK, that whatever they want to do is OK. Some of them think that their "feelings" are the guide; if it "feels right" they're good with it. Some of them think that as long as they define the rules and subordinate everything to their interpretation of that, they're OK and anyone who is not on their track is doomed. Sometimes they are just waiting for God to zap everyone and see the bad stuff that happens to people as God's judgment. We've all heard "God's gonna get you for that!" as if God is just waiting for us to slip off the rails. Sometimes they will go a step beyond it and supply the doom, and expect God to reward them for having picked up this ball and run with it.

To get back to the tax collector, Jesus sees him not only recognizing that he's fallen short of God's mark, but that what is OK is to ask for mercy. This is what God is waiting for--He can't fix us if we don't admit we're broken. This is what sends us home right with God. And this is what we should be thanking God for--the blessings that we don't deserve, the times He picks us up when we fall, the times that He pulls us out of the quicksand. We don't even know all the times that He goes before us. He does allow things to happen that we don't like, but my experience is that we do get help--but not usually what we expect or want, but what is the correct piece for the puzzle we're in. The best people to share Thanksgiving with are those who have seen God work in their lives, who can appreciate where God has taken us so far, and look forward to what He has next.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Humblest Man in the World--by Linden Malki

Moses was described as the most humble--the "meekest" man alive (Numbers 12:3).  This did not mean that he was weak, or wimpy, and he did have a few major problems with anger. After his blowup with the Egyptian overseer and forced exile, God spent 40 years making him into the man He needed.  From the hotshot at the Palace, he became a desert shepherd whose reaction to God's calling was to say he couldn't do it--but he did it anyway.   Later, when he came down from the mountain to find the people out of control, his first reaction was anger and frustration.  When God mirrored Moses' anger, Moses sobered up really fast, and did what I think God really wanted him to do--start thinking  rather than just throwing things.   There was nothing weak about Moses--the key is that he was willing to listen to God.

Moses' greatest legacy is what became called The Law of Moses.  Moses, however, never claimed credit for any more than listening to God and being His messenger.  The idea of Law wasn't new; there were already law codes in use by early civilizations at the time. One of the amazing things about this legal tradition is that it wasn't the work of a king or politician.  In fact, the ideal is that it had the capability to develop a community that didn't require a human king as long as the people took it seriously.  Of course, what happened is that the community that received it didn't live up to its potential, and finally asked for a king.  But even the Kings of Israel were held liable for following it themselves as well as leading the people in its way.

Jesus lived in a country under two sets of authorities: Roman law and the Jewish law.  He dealt with Jewish law by offering a way to live with it--with humility, recognizing human inability to follow it on their own, and offering mercy and forgiveness to those who want to do the right thing enough to turn over their self-will to God's will. He is not asking us to be weak--He is offering the strength to live up to God's calling for us. Jesus said surprisingly little about the politics of His world; paid his taxes as required, and at one time answered a challenge by recommending giving Caesar what he was owed, and God what He is owed. (There is, of course, the underlying understanding that that the land promised to Abraham actually belonged to God, as does the whole world.) Jesus refused to get drawn into politics beyond dealing politely with honest politicians and scathing with those who played the letter of the law into earthly status for themselves. 

The New Testament writers in general recommended going along with the local governments as far as was consistent with their calling to spread the Gospel, and not get hung up on the traditional law that did not lead to humility and service.  The classic opposite to this is Islam, which teaches that any law outside of God's law (as given to Muhammad) is blasphemous and idolatrous, and religious law cannot be altered or updated. What happens is confrontation between varying interpretations and traditions, most of which see the others as illegitimate. I don't forget a Lebanese friend some years ago pointing out that under Islamic law, Muslims can only legitimately be ruled by Muslims;  that non-Muslims have no rights or privileges under a Muslim government except as  granted them by Muslims, and land that has ever been ruled by Muslims is rightfully theirs forever.

We live in a country based on a respect for God's law but respect for individual  conscience  as well. This has always led to tensions, hopefully handled with humility. We need to remember that human governments make lousy churches, and churches make poor governments.  We need, as Jesus said, to be as "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16) 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Our Dangerous World--by Linden Malki

Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris were reminders that we live in a very troubled world.  They followed  major  attacks in Beirut and Baghdad earlier this week. We've become too used to the news out of the Middle East,  but when it hits the West, it gets our attention.  There were also similar attacks in Turkey last month, and Egypt a few months ago.  There is evidence that the recent crash of  a Russian aircraft in the Sinai desert was not an accident.

There are also the ongoing massacres and displacement of Christians and other minorities, and also rival sectarian communities.  And it's not the first time.  My father-in-law  fled Turkey as his people were slaughtered along with the Armenians before, during and after the First World War. All of these pale in comparison with the Holocaust of the 1930's and 1940's when not only six million Jews but also about the same number of Christians were  systemically killed.  And too many more, in too many different places, by too many perpetrators.

There was one posting from Paris that asks people NOT to pray for Paris. The claim is made that "religion" is the cause of it all.  I've heard claims like this for years, especially having been around the Middle Eastern cultures.  It is easy to say,  but my own observation is that too often, "religion" is a code word for tribe. It has always been a way that people distinguish "us" from "them, "  often with little attention paid to the actual content of the beliefs.  And too often, the teachings are "cherry-picked" for quotations (often out of context) that reinforce one's own prejudices and goals.

The whole existence of violence and injustice in this world does not have easy answers.  We hear things that are easy to say, but lead places that are not so easy to live with.  Scripturally, there is more support for protection and help to victims than self-protection.  Yes we should seek peace, but we do need to recognize that it is not necessarily valued by everyone, especially those who with a tradition of revenge--and they can be found in many places.

One of the side-effects of the horrors we ae seeing is that while there are people who use radical answers for their own ends, there are also those who are having their eyes opened to  dangerous realities, and are standing against evil.  

One thing we can do is to seriously pray against evil, and for those who are victims, and especially for those who are in strategic positions to influence events, on small scales and large.

This we do know: "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33  NIV)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Power of Spiritual Poverty--by Linden Malki

"Blessed are the poor in spirit.." seems like an odd kind of blessing!

The truth of  this statement has to do with the desires of the heart. We usually do not want to be poor! But one of the paradoxes of the Gospel is we need to have a spirit that is not obsessed with what the world values . "For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What them, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life?" (Matthew 16:25-26)

The most influential people in the history of the Church have been ones who gave up the world for a life of worldly poverty but spiritual service. The first ones that comes to mind are the first followers of Jesus, who walked out of their previous lives to tell of what they experienced and learned about Jesus.

There have been many since who have recognized the power of the spirit of God, accepted earthly poverty and brought God's riches to our needy world. We see people like St Francis of Assisi, who walked away from family wealth and spent his life serving, teaching and discipling others to a life of radical service.

There is George Muller, the subject of a new book "Delighted with God", which tells the story of a man who demonstrated the power of faith. Starting in Bristol, England, in the 1830's, he established 117 schools and cared for over 10,000 orphans--without ever asking anyone for money but depending totally on God to provide the finances necessary.

In our own times, Mother Teresa was moved by the plight of the poor and homeless of India, and later in other parts of the world, and not only ministered personally to those in need but trained and discipled others to follow. In fact, we find in most stories of radically selfless followers of Jesus, they not only served hands-on themselves but also  developed followers who worked with them and carried on the work.

Not all of us are called to totally drop out of our lives in this way, but we are all called to recognize our own spiritual poverty and learn to live through God's spiritual strength wherever He calls us.

Where is your treasure?