Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Sins of the Mind

Anyone who says, "I've never done anything really wrong," should reread Jesus's words from Mt. 5:21-22, 27-28:

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.... You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (NIV).

While feeling the attractions of temptation isn't sinful in itself, we slip into sin the moment we stop to dwell on ideas about how much fun it would be to do something we know is wrong--even if we don't actually follow through physically. We don't even have to go as far as dreaming of personally committing sin; delighting in the idea of someone coming to harm by sheer chance is along the same lines as wishing we dared do the harm ourselves.

Sometimes we hear from secular psychologists that thinking ugly thoughts can't really do any harm, that it may even serve as a catharsis to keep us from actually turning violent. Probably most of the pious, self-righteous people who gave Jesus so much trouble thought along the same lines. The truth is that anger and lust, whether acted out or not, perpetuate themselves. Once we start resenting people and wishing something would happen to get them out of our lives permanently, our fantasies get uglier and uglier until we think nothing of delighting in the prospect of their early deaths. (I'm ashamed to admit I know this from personal experience.) If resentment-turned-hatred remains unchecked, it can easily progress to the point where it spills out, probably not in literal murder, but in hurtful words, backbiting gossip, even physical violence--sometimes directed at the actual subject of our anger, sometimes at innocent scapegoats.

Notice that I said, "probably not in literal murder." There are people who have let things go that far. Jesus's religious enemies did. They were so angry at this upstart preacher who told them they were no better than common sinners, that they wound up bullying the local governor into ordering His execution--and then they taunted Him as He hung on a cross gasping for breath.

If men who went out of their way to follow the letter of Old Testament Law could sink so low, who are we to say that our sinful thoughts don't really matter?

The sins of the hand are quickly condemned,
As they show for the world to see;
But the sins of the mind are a subtler kind,
And are found more abundantly.
You respectful souls who take pride in self,
Know the sins of the hand are fed
By the sins of the mind, as the fruit grows ripe--
So take heed of each thought in your head!

The sins of the eye draw shaking of heads
From the pious within the crowd;
But the sins of the heart are where eye-sins start,
Yet we think that the first are allowed.
But our Lord said all those who dream of sin
Are as guilty within God's sight
As the ones who then actually do the act--
So flee lust like a beast in the night!

The sins of the mind are the seeds that sire
Every sin that the world can see,
And the depths of the heart are where all wrongs start--
So keep all that's inside you free
From the things that lure you to outer sin,
And fill up all your heart and mind
With the Word of the Lord and the Spirit's grace:
Think on things of the purest kind!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

O Master! My Master!

Yesterday, the United States celebrated Presidents' Day; and the preceding Thursday--February 12, 2009--marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln. A "Ripley's Believe It or Not" cartoon published that day noted that "More books have been written" about Lincoln "than any other American."

Lincoln has also been the subject of many poems, one of the most famous being Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!", which mourns the tragedy of the President's assassination and the pall it cast over the joy of the Civil War's end. Even the Abraham Lincolns among us are only human, only mortal. And the pain for those left behind is all the sharper when death takes, with little or no warning, someone who might reasonably have been expected to live many more years. Lincoln was fifty-six when he was shot; and many reading this will remember the shock of hearing that another President, John F. Kennedy, had fallen to an assassin's bullet, in 1963 at age forty-six.

Other unexpected deaths--whether by murder, accident, or sudden illness--send out few large-scale reverberations, but break dozens of hearts nonetheless. I know firsthand the pain of losing someone to a "here today, gone tomorrow" cause. In August 2006, my father died of blood poisoning: total time from first sign of illness to end of life, less than three days; age, sixty-seven. (Having people repeatedly observe, "He wasn't very old, was he?" didn't lessen the heartache any.) Just last Saturday, another member of the family--nonhuman this time, but hardly less loved for that--suffered a near-identical fate as my mother's cat was stricken with a sudden lung infection; he was gone within thirty-six hours, some six weeks short of finishing his thirteenth year on earth (the average life span for a house cat today is fifteen to eighteen years).

Of course, some "unexpected" deaths are ones we should have seen coming--and refused to. It's common knowledge that the normal "first step" in grieving is denial; often, we practice it in earnest long before and up to the actual death. On some level, most of us want to believe that we are too careful, too exceptional, too favored by God to ever experience real tragedy; many of us clutch this idea to the point where God Himself could tell us face to face that heartbreak is coming and we would directly contradict Him, "No, it's not." Don't believe any Christian could be so foolish? The original apostles were. More than once, Jesus told His disciples flat out that His ministry would end in humiliation and death; they continued to cling to the idea that earthly glory was in the near future for Him and them. Peter even tried to argue with Him: "Never, Lord!... This shall never happen to you" (Mt. 16:22, NIV). When it did, Peter and everyone else were as shocked as if they had never been told it was coming.

Apparently they hadn't been listening, either, to the rest of their Master's prediction. Even after the first part of it--that He would suffer and be killed--came true, they didn't trust that the follow-up prophecy--that He would return alive after three days--would be fulfilled as well. For two nights they mourned, seeing no hope ahead; those who went to the tomb on the third day did it not to meet their risen Lord, but to pay their respects to the dead; when He did, in fact, greet those first visitors alive and they reported back, the others "did not believe... because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Lk. 24:11); and when Jesus finally showed Himself directly to the majority, most of them "were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost" (Lk. 24:37). At least one disciple was so stubbornly reluctant to believe anyone could come back from the dead that even in the face of a dozen witnesses, he insisted on seeing for himself before he was convinced (John 20:24-29).

People today still refuse to believe in the Resurrection. Many respect Jesus as a person, but consider it a tragedy that He died in His thirties and had so few years to do good. Unwilling to look beyond His moral teachings and compassionate life to the full implications of His claims for Himself, they fail to see that His sacrificial death was the real point of His coming. In a way, we as Christians make the same mistake whenever we dwell on the "senselessness" of a death that catches us off guard, as though we were insisting to God that He was thoughtless or insensitive to allow it, or that His perfect control over everything must have slipped this time.

Lent begins next week. Traditionally, Christians give up something for the season; quite a few of us need to give up--permanently--our insistence that God should always act in ways we consider logical.

O Master! My Master! I thought You all our hope,
The Leader of our glorious cause, to break the tyrant's rope;
A King to sit upon a throne and wear a golden crown--
And now, beneath a darkening sky, I see our dreams cut down.

A cross holds my Master;
It's thorns that crown His head;
One final cry--my Master hangs
Limp and cold and dead.

O Master! My Master! We laid You in the tomb;
My heart is breaking from the grief; my soul is lost in gloom;
All yesterday we sat and wept; we'll see Your face no more;
The dawn is black--what is that knock I hear upon the door?

"The Master is risen!"--
A cry cuts through my dread--
"The stone is gone!" "He spoke to me!"
"He lives! He is not dead!"

O Master! My Master! What joy to see Your face,
To hear Your voice, to feel again the warmth of Your embrace!
I now can see the greater Cause that guided all You've done--
Far grander than an earthly gift, our freedom You have won!

Exult, O hearts! And sing, O souls!
And I, with low-bowed head,
Kneel as here my Master stands,
Risen from the dead.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

True Rest for Souls

The past November-to-February has treated Houston to some of the most erratic and frequent temperature changes I can remember; we've hardly had four straight days within that time period which were all within ten Fahrenheit degrees of each other. Small wonder, with our bodies exposed to such constant adjustments and readjustments, that there seem to be more viruses than usual going around. I'm fighting a less-than-triumphant battle right now against my third illness of the season--or maybe, considering how long it seems to be dragging on, this is a fourth virus that came on the tail of the third.

Illness is a curse to the "mature" adult. When we were children, being sick had certain compensations: we didn't have to go to school; we didn't have to do chores; we got constant pampering; and even after we felt better, we frequently had an extra day off to make sure we were completely recovered. Not so after we're grown up; once we have "real" jobs, the principle changes from "Better safe than sorry" to "If you're strong enough to get out of bed, you're strong enough to do a full day's work." Well, what seems logical in theory doesn't always pan out in practice, as I found out last week when I literally collapsed (luckily into bed and not to the floor) after forcing my coughing, fatigued, nauseated body through a day of business-as-usual. After that, I gave up the fight and spent most (most) of the next few days resting.

General acceptance of working when sick is probably just one more manifestation of American workaholism. Taking an extra day off is considered lazy and shameful; sneaking a nap at lunch hour is looked on with extreme suspicion. Never mind that six-week vacations are the norm in many countries with high GNPs and that scientific research has found that people who rest frequently actually accomplish more; our society sees value only in constant movement. Someone even wrote a book called When I Relax I Feel Guilty.

I suspect, though, that what really kills most workaholics isn't the busyness of their bodies so much as the busyness of their minds and emotions--not their work loads per se so much as the tendency to be constantly thinking about everything that still needs to be done. I've been there--to a large extent I'm still there. Have you ever started a day with your body too weak to rise from bed but your mind screaming like an insane drill sergeant, "You must get up and work--you must finish the To Do list you've already made--you made commitments--you need money!"? It's not something I'd wish on anyone.

Forcing the body to rest is relatively easy compared to trying to force the mind to rest. No doubt the latter constituted a good bit of what Jesus had in mind when He said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30, NIV, emphasis added).

How often do we say, "I'd give anything for a little peace of mind"? Usually the one thing we need to give is the one thing we're refusing to give; we think the answer is getting our lives under control, when in fact we need to hand control over to the One Whose wisdom is as far above ours as the heavens above the earth (cf. Is. 55:8-9).

Once we get in tune with His mind, it becomes easier to figure out when we need to work and when we need to rest.

True rest for souls is never found
In merely stopping to sit down,
Nor skipping work, nor time away
In a vacation for the day,
Nor even in a week or two
To take a trip and thus renew.

No, to achieve the purest rest
That strengthens us to meet each test
And fortifies for life's hard blows--
The only soul that truly knows
A peace within for every day,
Is that which ever seeks God's way.

True peace of mind, which stands its ground
While storms of stress are beating down,
Is fortified through Scripture, prayer,
And through the faith that God is there.
There is no peace in thing or place,
But only in eternal Grace.

Come to the Lord; receive His rest,
Admit His way is always best,
And trade your "should"s which never cease
For His light load of joy and peace:
And He will give His rest to you;
And His own strength will fill you through.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Expanding Circle

How often do you do good things for others?

Most of us would have to say, "Not often enough!" The person who consistently puts others' needs above his own interests and preferences is a rare soul. A person who gives freely out of pure love, with no concern over whether her efforts are repaid or even appreciated, is even harder to find. The vast majority of humanity feels entitled to something in return, if only a verbal thank-you, for any favor done for another--and is quick to complain of others' ingratitude and to sever relationships with "all take and no give" people.

But much as we may wish otherwise, God isn't satisfied to see His people being only as good as the majority of humanity. As Jesus said, "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?... When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous" (Mt. 5:46-47; Lk. 14:12-14, NIV). Why? "That you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Mt. 5:45). If God turned off the sun and rain to punish people for taking Him for granted, nearly all of us would suffer from regular dark days and dried-out lawns.

But even more than that, giving only to people whom we expect will give back keeps generosity trapped within a rather narrow circle. Toss a stone onto thick ice and it may make a few cracks at best. Toss a stone into liquid water and the ripples expand on and on.

Who knows where a few random acts of kindness may lead?

A kindness returned is a wonderful thing
When it's done from a warm, grateful heart,
But a kindness passed on is a greater thing still,
For the power of the good it can start.
For a kindness returned, though it bring a great joy,
Will remain in a closed loop of two,
But a kindness passed on makes the circle expand,
And its ripples may reach the world through.

To help out a friend is a wonderful thing,
When a heart acts in love that is true,
But a greater thing still is to help out those souls
Who may never give equal to you.
For to help out the ones who will quickly pay back
Is a thing most will do if they can,
But a heart that can give with no thought of return
Spreads the love of our Lord through the land.