Wednesday, June 25, 2014

You Say You're Sarcastic? Oh, what a surprise...

Dear Friends,

Those in my life, both those who love me dearly and those who barely tolerate me, will positively and confidently affirm my gift of sarcasm. For those of you who do not flow in this gift, let me explain that we translate Proverbs 25:11 a little differently than the rest of you. We tend to read this as “..a word snarkily spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” For those of you who are clueless and pitifully out of touch with all that's relevant in today's culture, the word “snark” is the combination of “snide” and “remark” and refers to cutting sarcasm that's typically meant to be humorous. (I say the above not to offend but to give an example of what snarky sarcasm sounds like) And sarcasm is too often only humorous in the mind of the person speaking it. We delight in our sharp-edged verbal opportunities  to show off our clever and witty side without realizing that our sarcasm, more often than not, reveals our mean, spiteful side and unveils our “holier than thou” attitude for the world to see.

The word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek word SARKAZEIN that means literally to tear the flesh like a biting dog. Mean-spirited sarcasm flows out of a bitter heart and reveals our passive aggressive side – meaning that we are nice on the surface to a person but our bitterness towards them is revealed in our snide remarks. Sarcastic words spoken to loved ones are like dripping acid that slowly eats away their love and trust. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that the power of life and death are in the tongue. We can speak encouraging, edifying words that bring life or we can speak forth words that bring hurt and pain. Rude gestures like eye rolling and our verbal snide, sarcastic remarks figuratively tear flesh and leave our loved one bleeding and wounded. We may see it as harmless bantering, but if our loved ones were honest with us, they may tell us that it feels more like verbal battering.

Sarcasm is often used to convey a different meaning than what is literally said. She sees him in his rumbled, food-stained tee shirt and says, “Well..don't you look nice today..”  He looks at her and says, “Aren't you supposed to be losing weight on your new diet?” In 2 Samuel 6:20, King David's wife Michal despised him for dancing at the return of the ark and sarcastically refers to his behavior as “glorious.” We often use our “gift” of snide sarcasm as a mask so that we can convey what we really mean without actually saying it.

We can find many examples of sarcasm in the Bible.  I'm sure that after being told about Jesus of Nazareth, snarky Nathanael thought he was being witty and humorous when he asked, “..can anything good come out of (that backwater, good-for-nothing town) Nazareth?” (John 1:46) And, Paul occasionally used sarcasm not as a verbal weapon but as a literary device to make a point. Referring to those who claimed that the Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be Christian, Paul expresses his desire that those Judaizers should then prove their own Pharisutical holiness by going all the way and cutting theirs off entirely! (Galatians 5:12 NIV) 

Paul has shown how a gentle, even chiding, use of humor can be used effectively to make a point. Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins sang, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” and our humor can be the honey that smooths the sharp edges of a truthful admonishment and allows it to be more easily accepted.

But, unlike Paul, our own snarky and sarcastic comments are too often more hurtful than humorous – more evil then edifying. Our unchecked sarcasms can belittle and tear down a person and Jesus warns us about the danger in using harsh and unloving words. (Matthew 5:22) Paul sternly admonishes that snarky, hurtful sarcasm (coarse jesting) is a sin that will separate us from the kingdom of God (Ephesians 5:4-5) and Paul reminds us to speak words of truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

Do you ever think back with regret over something you said? Humor that backfired or was misunderstood? Words that unintentionally hurt others? If so, you may also have the “gift” of sarcasm. Sarcastic words drip like poison into relationships but our Christ-like words that comfort, edify and encourage will speak life. Amen?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is Divorce Ever Permissible?

Dear Friends,

While shopping one day, I saw a woman who had gone to a church that I had also once attended. I remembered that she and her three kids had been very involved in the church ministries and then she suddenly left and we never saw her family again. I asked why. She told me that she and her husband had gone to the associate pastor for counseling. It came out during the sessions that her husband was physically abusing her. He had injured her several times to the degree that she had to go to the emergency room and tell them that she had “fallen.” 

The associate pastor, who had a degree in counseling, read Ephesians 5:22 to her and her husband. “Wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The pastor said that the lack of her submission in the marriage was the problem. If she would be more submittive to her husband, she could avoid his anger and the subsequent abuse. Furious that this pastor had made her the "cause" of her husband's violent and abusive behavior, she went in protest to the senior pastor. He told her she needed to submit to her husband and quoted Ephesians 5:22. I believed her account of what the pastors had said to her because that was the doctrine of this church. She told me she hated the Foursquare church, hated its pastors and had just filed a restraining order against her now former husband. She asked me how I was doing and I was too ashamed to tell her I'd recently become a Foursquare pastor.

God made monogamous marriage between a man and a woman and intended for that to be a Covenant (formal, binding agreement) with Him that would last. But, God’s law, recorded by Moses, permitted divorce and remarriage, while at the same time, “God hates divorce.” Malachi 2:16 

Today it seems that many churches hate divorce even more than God does. Some pastors and denominations declare that divorce is never permitted under any circumstance. If divorce does occur, even the innocent party is painted with the brush of condemnation and told that they too will suffer under God’s judgement. Have we placed so much emphasis on the sanctity of marriage that we’ve forgotten how to love the victims of it?

Referring to marriage, Jesus said, “Therefore what God has joined together let not man separate.” Matt 19:6. And then the messiness of life happens.

And when the messiness breaks the Marriage Covenant, there are times when it’s permissible, even advisable, to leave a marriage. Jesus said that sexual immorality was a permissible reason. And we need to understand that the Marriage Covenant does not end when a divorce is finalized by a court. The Covenant is ended when the marriage vows are broken. 

Domestic abuse breaks the Marriage Covenant. The vows to love, honor and cherish are broken in repeated and unrepentant physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse.

We also take a vow in our Covenant with God to stay together until, “death do us part.” When one person decides they no longer want to be married and they abandon their spouse, the Covenant – those sacred vows – are broken as he or she crosses the threshold to walk out the door.

Adultery, abuse and abandonment are the three situations that break the Marriage Covenant and may permissibly end a marriage. But Christians need to exercise integrity and not spin these in an effort to give themselves an “out.” Adultery is not when he looks at the attractive neighbor, abuse is not when she’s cranky and hurts his feelings and abandonment is not when he goes golfing on Saturday. But when issues become damaging to a relationship, a pastor or Christian counselor may be able to help a couple restore their marriage or prayerfully hold their hand through the ending of it. 

And we always need to be careful that we don’t use the “God hates divorce” or an out-of-context scripture as a weapon against the victim in an abusive relationship and add to their anguish. There can be no doubt that God grieves over the heartache and loss in a fragmented family as the marriage vows disintegrate in a divorce. But God is also a God of mercy and grace and is in the business of bringing healing and restoration to broken lives. No believer is out of His redemptive reach.  Amen?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Most Powerful Tool for Evangelism

Dear Friends,

I knew an evangelist who often spoke of how many “souls he had won for Jesus” and I was somewhat envious. He told me that he had a near 100% success rate and if he started a conversation at a Starbucks (his favorite place) it was almost guaranteed that they would pray the prayer with him to accept Jesus. We were out having coffee one day and he said, “Watch how I do this.” He walked up to a young, slightly-built guy in the parking lot. Told him he was a pastor, engaged him in conversation, found out what some of the guy’s life problems were and then offered to pray for him. Like most people, the young man agreed. 

The evangelist took both of the guy's hands in his and began to pray. Then I saw the secret to the evangelist’s success! When he was through praying, he didn’t let go of the guy’s hands. As the man was struggling to pull away, the evangelist gripped his hands even more tightly. Then he asked the guy if he wanted to accept Jesus into his life.  

Imagine that was you. There’s a large, rough-looking man, standing very close to you. He's holding tightly onto your hands and you can't get away. You feel more than a little claustrophobic standing this close to a stranger and you may be getting anxious – perhaps even a little frightened. And at this point, even if you’re a committed atheist, you're going to pray that prayer to accept Jesus just to get away! My evangelist friend later told me that the secret to “soul winning” is that you never let go of their hands until they've accepted Jesus!

Here’s the good news about sharing the Good News. You don’t have to put people into a holy headlock and strong-arm them into the Kingdom. You don’t need to manipulate them by sweetening the deal with promises of divine health and wealth if they accept Christ. You don't need to carry a sign and preach in a park. And, as I wrote last week, you don’t need to seduce someone into salvation! If you are a Christian (defined as one who follows Jesus) you are already living the Gospel message and that means that His story has been interwoven with your story. And God has now given you the most powerful evangelism tool that you could possibly ever have. Your story.

We are captivated by a good story. Stories shape the way we think when they convey values and solutions. The essence of story is the most powerful communication tool we have. Too many times we want to preach doctrine and become frustrated when we find ourselves engaged in arguing over politics, personal beliefs and doctrinal differences that distract us from the love and grace of Jesus. 

Years ago where I worked, our division secretary was a life-long, committed Jehovah’s Witness. I couldn’t debate doctrine with her. J.W.’s are highly skilled at countering any arguments. But when I would tell her the story of what God was doing in my life, she’d just shake her head in amazement and say, “That doesn’t happen with a Witness!” She could argue all day long with my biblical interpretation, but you can’t debate another person’s experience. She eventually left the J.W.’s and today she’s an Evangelical Christian. She couldn’t dismiss or deny the visible evidence that God was making changes in my life. And, it was not through any skill or cleverness on my part that opened her eyes to the truth of the Gospel. It was nothing I’d learned in Bible college. It was simply my story.

Weaving God’s story into your story points away from Christianity as a belief system and towards the practical reality of lives changed through the grace of God. Your friends and loved ones are not seeking a brilliant theological dissertation on the Christian religion. They’re seeking answers to life and trying to make sense out of an increasingly confusing and dysfunctional world. At a personal level they’re just trying to figure out how to make life work for them. And for many who identify as “spiritual but not religious” they may be trying to fill their “God-shaped void” with other religious beliefs or spiritual substitutes. But the void remains because only God will fit into and completely fill that God-shaped void in their lives. And it’s only when we truly live our lives in the presence of God through Jesus Christ that we can be changed. You and I know that. That’s our story. And your story is the most powerful and effective tool for evangelism that God ever invented. Amen?