Friday, February 11, 2011
The First Thing
In Chapter One of Romans Paul makes it abundantly clear that God loves us and uses his power in our lives, not to destroy, but to love, and reclaim and rescue. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
There is the good news! But then Paul continues and in the paragraphs that follow outlines in horrific detail, the failings of humanity. Its pretty ugly! Those paragraphs (1:18-32) are for mature audiences only. There is no mistaking his basic message. We all mess up…. Really mess up. Let’s listen to Paul’s words again.
“Furthermore, since we do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave us over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. We have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. We are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. WE are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; We invent ways of doing evil! We disobey our parents; We are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
OK, most of us aren’t that bad. But still, we have our issues. What is the problem? Paul framed the issues this way. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for……”
Now let stop there for a second. We don’t normally get into what we usually think of as idols…. Little statues of animals, or mythic God’s or things like that…But we do exchange the glory of God for other things. In psychology we talk about internal and external solutions. Internal solutions are “what’s in here” Internal solutions involve going inward, and finding the what you need to be in balance, at peace, to be a person of love and joy.
This is so much where Paul was at. Paul wrote 13 letters. In those letters he uses the expressions “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” and “in him” 164 times. This concept is indispensable to an understanding of the Gospel. To be “in Christ” does not mean to be inside Christ, as tools are in a box or our clothes in a closet, but to be organically united to Christ, as a limb is to the body or a branch is in the tree. It is this personal relationship with Christ that is the distinctive mark of his people. Or to put it another way, Christ is “in us”. He is in us as part of us. And if we turn inside, we find Christ, and all his power and love and resources there.
But if we don’t, if we go the other direction. If we go outside and see solutions outside ourselves, then we have created the glory of the immortal God for what is not God… what we might call idols. What are the idols? Anything that has power over us. More, anything that we give power over us. Anything we think will bring us peace, hope, love, security, joy. Anything we rely on for the things that only God can truly give.
These powers can be a lot of things. People. Those we know. Those whose words we read. Those who pontificate from the screen of our TV’s. Those we want to please. Those we fear. Who are the people in your life who have too much power? Who in your life has the kind of influence only God should have. Then there are “things” – mostly things we desire. Money, popularity, personal appearance, a BMW, our job. What things demand our attention, our allegiance? Where is our attention, our time focused?
What do we rely on? What do we focus on? Where do we put out time energy and focus, thinking that the object of our affection (so to speak) will give us what we need? That is our idol.
But as I think about this it occurs to me that it is not so much a matter of making the wrong choices, as it is about not making the key choice. The problem is not that we make the choices we make about the things around us, as it is that we haven’t made the choice, FIRST, to turn inside and become connected to the sacred, the power of God, the Christ in us.
Those things we connect to out there? They aren’t all that dangerous. In some cases not all that bad, IF, and this is a big IF… IF we FIRST have turned inside and connected with the Christ in us… or to say it the other way, if we are “in Christ”. When we aren’t connected? We are vulnerable. Why are we vulnerable? Because we haven’t allowed the Christ in us to live and breathe. We haven’t given God room to move and work. And thus we are essentially empty, and dissatisfied – at least spiritually.
Wayne Muller, in his book Sabbath suggests that the strategies of the advertising agencies expose our emptiness in a powerful way. In one of the chapters he starts by describing a scene presented in an ad. In the scene we find a group of young sophisticated women and men lounging about in natural cotton clothing, loose and soft on their sculpted bodies. It seems to be late afternoon and they are gathered in this incredible patio area, in the shadow of a wonderful Victorian House. Over in one corner a golden retriever sleeps. It is a picture of perfect happiness. You can taste the drink in their hand, smell the flowers on the breeze. The job is miles away, they seem to be inviting us to join them, to become a part of their lives. They seem to say – This is how you were meant to be…
What they offer is the happiness of being young, rich, at ease, perfect. Order this blouse, this cologne, this table setting, this coffee maker and YOU will enter this picture. Troubles will dissolve, and life will be sweet. In the end they are saying this and always this: Buy what we have and you will be happy. But beneath that text is the real message. Until and unless you buy what we are selling, you will never be happy. “See these people? We know you are not that happy!” A thousand times a time the ads send this message to us. You are not enough. You do not have enough. You are not happy. You need more, you need to do more, you need to be more….”
But when we do that…. When we fail to turn to Christ first…. well then everything falls apart….These external things don’t really work. We can buy them and enjoy them all we want, and it doesn’t work. The descriptions of Paul are pretty graphic. But we don’t need the descriptions of Paul to understand the emptiness, the twisted nature of such solutions. We know about this, we feel this!
Paul is clearly trying to establish the basic reason for the crisis that we as humanity are facing.
The reason for polarized politics. For people with guns walking up to others and shooting them (did you notice there were at least two multiple victim shootings last Sunday afternoon –indeed all week we have had shooting after shooting). Paul is trying to establish the basic reason for fear, hatred, for greed.. for all the wounds, all the hurts of humankind….The reason that all our primary relationships are fractured. .
Paul essentially talks about three fractured relationships in this chapter. There is our fractured relationship with God, when we choose “no God’s” or aikons, or idols. There is our fractured relationship with our self. When we do not turn to God we lose our sense of who we really are. And there are our fractured relationships with others. As we treat them and interact with them in ways that are not healthy or good, and allow them to treat us in ways that are not healthy and good. In short, we use them, and they use us!
But Paul does not point this out to drive us down. He point this out to point us to the answer. To help us understand, unmistakably, that when we have the sacred at the center…. It is so different. That when we turn to God first, we are not empty, and this we are not functioning from need but from fullness…And therefore we have a unique capacity to deal with what life sends us
Without having to rush to external solutions. . .
When we are full of Christ it changes our relationship with our possessions, our relationship with other people, our relationship to those powerful and weird “life commandments” that run our lives. So if we start with Christ, if we take the journey inward first, and ground ourselves in “the center”. Then we can move back out -- Into our world, into our jobs, Into our relationships in a new, transformed way…a way that does not involve us being enslave, given over, to thoughts, desire, priorities, behaviors, that destroy.
Lets look at that list Paul gives us of what happens when we fail to be connect and commit to the Christ in us… in short fail to accept God’s acceptance. Fail to accept what we already have -- “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless”
Compare that description with the description he offers in Galatians 5 of people who are “in Christ” and have let the Spirit, the power of God, loose. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
Wow! What a difference! When we turn first to the Center, everything is changed. I like the words of Camus who once said…”The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very act of existence becomes an act of rebellion.”
Our lives can be, if God is at the Center, an act of rebellion against of world of hate, and fear, and polarization. We can be people who experience true life, and more share true life, with a hurting world. God, help us put you, at the Center of our lives….