Wise as Snakes, Innocent as Doves

It appears I have a lot to learn about city life… a humbling admission from someone proud of having spent 8 formative years in Metro Detroit. To be more specific, I have a lot to learn about how to follow Jesus here in the city.

For many years now I’ve been questioning various assumptions, trying to figure out what it really means to be a Christian. This has been greatly accelerated here at DTS. Nonetheless, I still have these terrible moments where I fall on my face. One particular area is dealing with the needy and being generous.

I’ve been approached at the gas station, at Target, on the bus, outside a concert, all here in Dallas. I don’t recall ever having been approached before. Usually I say no because of all the stories you hear: drug addictions, mental problems (which my money won’t help!), even “homeless” people making more money than I do per year! I’ve heard you shouldn’t even take out your wallet because some people will just grab it and run. On the phone, I let the Texas Fraternal something-or-other bully me into pledging money when I told them at first that I wouldn’t. I said no more. They keep calling and I refuse to hang up on them (but they have no qualms about hanging up on me).

Then last month I managed to make a homeless man in a wheelchair cry. He asked for money on the bus because he was hungry, and I told him I didn’t have any for him. Then an unfortunate set of circumstances revealed that I did have money and he wept. And I had enough pride to remain firm and enough compassion to be haunted ever since.

What does the Bible say about all this? Jesus said to His disciples, “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, therefore be thoughtful [wise, shrewd, cautious] as snakes and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). So I should be wise with my money, right? Make good investments. Don’t waste, don’t be taken in, don’t give to strangers. There’s some truth to this: just look at all the commands in the Bible to be wise with your money.

But then there’s this “innocent as doves” part. The word for “innocent” literally means unmixed or untainted. Don’t let your wisdom produce a crafty, manipulative person in you. Don’t be so smart that you lose something godly in the process.

Is it sinful to turn people down? I think it can be. Consider this passage just 5 chapters earlier in Matthew, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

I’ve given the context here and italicized what I think is key to our discussion. Jesus said to give based on a very shaky criteria, a rather unwise basis: anyone who asks. Do you think He meant to qualify that by saying “make sure he needs it first”? People may not have had drugs back then, but they sure had alcohol. Do you think everyone who asked was innocent, that con artistry is a modern invention? Of course not! And look at the context: the kind of people Jesus is talking about are an evil person, abusive, vindictive, pushy… your enemies.

Now some of you may be thinking that if the disciples really lived this way and their enemies knew about it, it would be a recipe for disaster, that they would be taken advantage of and hung out to dry. Yeah, I think you’re right. What was Jesus thinking? I think He was thinking about being compassionate, about accepting injustice, about not loving the things of this world. It’s a challenging way to think, and an even harder one to live.

But then we go back to chapter 10: I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. Yikes! Did I sign up for this pasture? The wolves will be here, and that’s part of the point. Who do you trust? Be wise with these wolves; don’t get eaten! But don’t sink to their level either.

This post has been brewing for a while, but it took on new urgency on my birthday. Some kids came raising money for school and I was feeling magnanimous since it was my birthday. They seemed nice, eager, clean. And they scammed me. I didn’t give them a whole lot, but I found out (you can learn everything you need to know in the fine print and the Internet) that they were working for an adult, that they did NOT represent a school, and that the magazines I ordered could only be shipped in the US… kind of hard to get them to those soldiers in Iraq that way. Sigh.

Then I reacted strongly, doing everything I could to fix the error I just made. Lies! Evil! (These hard times will bring more and more people like this out to your neighborhood… watch out!) I replayed the scene in my mind over and over, noting all the clues I should have picked up on: nervousness, distracting dialogue, pushiness, not making the check out directly to the school, the misleading prices. Then there were all the slick things they did: complementing me to each other as they walked down the hall, saying their aunt lives here, saying there were other teams from school out that they were racing.

So what would I have done differently:
1) Trust your gut. If something doesn’t add up, take the time to investigate. If someone needs the money, they can be patient. If not, they must not need the money. Ask questions.
2) Know ahead of time what you will do if something does NOT add up. Do you call them on it? Do you stall while you call the police? Do you find a way to be so obnoxious that they leave? Do you share the Gospel with them? In the words of the “Untouchable” Malone: What are you prepared to do?

I think point one requires special attention to wisdom and point two requires special attention to innocence. I think sharing the Gospel should have been my motive as soon as I heard the knock on the door. I think I should have confronted them in love, made it personal to them without attacking them. What do you guys think you’re doing? What do you hope to get out of this? Is this going to be the rest of your life? Who’s putting you up to this? Don’t you know this is wrong? I should have forgiven them for trying. I never had the chance because I was so focused on innocence that I acted unwisely.

I realize I’ve packed a lot in here, but I really think it’s important. I want you to think about this and re-evaluate. I want you to tell me why I should not accept strangers at my door. I want you to tell me why I should not risk my security for some guy on the street. One thing’s for sure, I can’t lie to them again; I won’t. Where is justice? In court? In your hands? Where is mercy? Nailed to a cross? Or written on your heart?

Christmas Musings

Merry Christmas!!!

I’ve missed you! I’ve missed writing! I’m sure if I didn’t spend 2 hours on every post we would both be happier, but such is the case. I have so much to say—and I’m sure I won’t remember all of it. Today finds me with my love at work and my work on break, so I’ve decided to spend the day with you.

Let me start with the Christmas message. It’s funny; I know I’m not great with people, so I frequently doubt my future as anything like a pastor. But man can I get fired up to preach! And what better topic than Christmas?

One of the things I learned this past semester (which, by the way, is a tease for a future post) is the role of observation in gaining wisdom. In Proverbs 24:32, Solomon is in the middle of telling a story and reveals what I think must be a key tool in gaining wisdom, if not THE tool. He says, “When I saw, I reflected upon it; I looked and received instruction.” In other words, I saw something and I didn’t just let it pass me by. I thought about it. My mind immediately goes to Weird Al in the movie UHF, where he’s gazing intently at a volcano of mashed potatoes on his plate and says, “This means something. This is important.” It’s kind of like that mindset.

So what have you observed this Christmas? Have you gained anything from another year of its passing, or has it merely been another day, celebrated or not?

One of the things that often bugs me about Hotmail is that when you sign out, it kicks you over to MSN. (Doesn’t that sound a little needy to you?) It combined news with tabloids to create some horrid mutant found all too frequently across the Internet. Anyway, sometimes I admit I find some interesting things, and today they had pictures of Christmas trees around the world. What struck me about them is that Christmas is celebrated all over the world, and people make a big deal out of it. They have some of their own traditions and ideas, but there is so much similarity. And I have to wonder: which Christmas are they celebrating?

Are they celebrating peace on the earth and goodwill toward men? Celebrating gift exchanges? Family? Are they celebrating a day off of work? Or are they celebrating God becoming man?

You know the next question: which are you celebrating?

I’m sitting in front of a computer (you are too, fancy that!) and we don’t have a Christmas tree. My family isn’t here, but I do have the day off of work—not that I had planned that. And I happen to know (thanks to Greek) that peace on earth and goodwill toward men is contingent upon God’s favor resting upon them. Kind of ruins the universal groove, huh?

But I am dwelling on the incarnation, just not in the usual ways. I’m reflecting on pain. You see, I haven’t lived a very painful life, and I’m grateful for that. But this past week I’ve had a lot of tooth and jaw pain; it turned out that I had to have a filling redone. Of course, at its worst I do what many of us do: I start bargaining with God. I become reflective and look for that key that will unlock God’s mercy and bring the healing a desire. (I also tell Him that’s not why I’m doing it—in reality, I’m not sure that I know.) And even though I’m getting better, I still hurt.

Why do I hurt? Well, it’s a signal that something’s wrong. It’s kind of my fault for ignoring the warning signs, but I didn’t consciously choose to be in pain. It’s just part of life, right? Well, what if it wasn’t. What if you could go your entire life without pain… and not just the feeling, but the causes, too. What if you never got hurt? (I hear Heroes fans across the net working a rebuttal. Fine.) Claire Bennet’s sentiments aside, what if that were NORMAL for you? What if pain was like the Andromeda Galaxy–people tell you it exists, and you believe them, but it’s not really part of your life?

Not being in pain was normal for Jesus for a very long time. Theologically, we call this eternity past; it doesn’t make much sense, but you get what they’re going for. I wonder if God even feels emotional pain. I’d have to do some research. Anyway, we celebrate today because God CHOSE pain. He chose to be weak, He chose to hurt, He chose to be incapable and lowly, and all for the first time in history. He chose to feel what you feel. Who is this person? Even more, He chose to feel what most of us have never and, Lord willing, will never feel: the torture of crucifixion. What could man mean to Him that He should do this?

I’ve heard that the holidays bring out desperation and depression more so than any time of the year, and I imagine it’s worse with the economy the way it is. Maybe you’re hurting, or maybe your neighbor is. What better time to recognize and tell of the time God left ultimate power to be with you, to feel and heal the pains in your life? I know God isn’t going to miraculously take away the pain in my jaw as I type, and that’s okay. But I know it won’t last. I know that in its depths I can call out to Him, and He hears me. I know that He has purchased my freedom from this and every other pain so that I can spend eternity in heaven with Him. What’s a little toothache when you have all this?

This gift is for you, too. It’s not mine to give, but it’s yours to have. That’s what we celebrate this Christmas: not the death of pain, but the pain of God. What a miracle! What a sacrifice! What a Savior.

If you know it, share it with joy. If you don’t, just do the Christmas thing and accept a gift.

Saul & the Evil Spirit

This morning I found myself in 1 Samuel 16. I started reading through the whole Bible cover-to-cover for my devotions an embarrassingly long time ago, (5 years?), but I always find it interesting that what I read connects so well with what’s going on in my life at the time. I assume this is more a testament to the applicability and relevance of the Bible than Providential approval of slacking off.

God’s been working in my heart a lot since the move, and one thing that was weighing heavily on me is a desire to be more loving to my neighbors, more outgoing and encouraging to those around me. There seems to be a different dynamic to city life than back home; or maybe a change in perspective has simply uncovered this problem in me. The Christians I’ve met here are really outgoing people… even ones I would term introverts. (A lot of them are or plan to be missionaries… hmm…)

I had spent some time praying about this, about knowing how I could be more loving, and then I read the second half of the passage I mentioned.

Saul had just been rejected by God. He was given the throne before there was a throne to be had, and the power went to his head. He began listening to the people, doing what was best for himself, and he even built himself a monument! He only sought God’s will as a last resort, and when Samuel confronted him, he repeatedly lied to Samuel’s face. The result? Since you have rejected the Lord, He has rejected you as king.

Then we find a controversial passage of Scripture: God removes His Spirit from Saul and sends an evil spirit to torment him. Why would God bring evil into Saul’s life? And not just a circumstance but demonic presence? Can God do that and still be holy and good? At the surface, this passage doesn’t really bother me. God is sovereign, He always has a plan, and He has given me his Holy Spirit. I don’t have to walk in fear.

It was at that point that the first conviction hit: no, you don’t, Josh… but your neighbors do. Maybe they aren’t all harassed by demons, but they all have pain in their lives. Granted, some more than others, but they do have reason to fear. Meanwhile, Josh has been looking out for #1.

So I read on. Saul’s advisers, who may or may not have been spiritually-tuned guys, seem to think the solution is obvious. They don’t go to a priest, a psychologist, a medicine man… they don’t send him to a day spa to relax or encourage him to find himself in a hobby. They turn to music. Could music soothe more than just the savage beast? Could it really ward off this evil spirit? They seemed to think this was logical, so I have to think there was some evidence somewhere to lead them to this conclusion.

The great irony here is that the best harpist around happens to be the guy that Samuel just secretly anointed as king to replace Saul. His name is David, and he doesn’t seem too concerned with the fact that he’s in this potentially awkward middle phase of knowing God’s will and not being there yet. He agrees to come serve Saul, with no hint of jealousy or animosity… nothing smug in his demeanor. He would end up waiting a long time to actually take Saul’s crown.

Sure enough, when David would play his harp for Saul, the evil spirit would go away, and Saul would find peace again. And this is when the second conviction hit me: God has blessed me with this gift of music and so often I keep it to myself. The only times I share are when I have a stage and attention. If I do play in an unstructured setting, my thoughts are about me. (It gives me no pleasure to admit it, but I believe it is true.) What do they think of my song? I bet they’ll be impressed if they hear this. To my shame, I cannot think of a single time that I picked up a guitar and sat in the corner thinking about how I could bless someone, how they could benefit.

David had this ability to give relief to someone in pain through a gift of God that had no doubt given him much joy as well. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is [at least partly] why God sent that evil spirit in the first place: so that David could come and minister to Saul.

I have often wondered what it would have been like to hear Jesus and his disciples sing that last hymn together at the Last Supper. To hear these simple, devoted men sing WITH God for the last time before the world was turned on its ear… the significance and meaning takes my breath away. To a lesser extent, I wish I could hear what David played for Saul. Did he sing? Were they songs about God? Or was it just the music itself? I wonder how David must have felt as he watched Saul’s composure change and know he had a hand in that. I wonder if these intimate moments would play a part in David’s refusal to do Saul any harm when Saul later devoted his life to killing him.

So by now you can probably guess where I’m going with this: if I would just let go of my pride and fear and share this gift of music to bless others and not myself, it could be one simple way of answering that prayer. Maybe instead of practicing for the stage, I should start practicing for the corner. Maybe instead of being concerned with presence, I should be attuned to absence.

There are no doubt many ways that I can be more loving to others, but this was the one God showed me this morning. And for my part, I’m thankful for Saul and the evil spirit, and even more so for humble David and his music.

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