Friday, February 23, 2007

A sad morning in court

This morning my friend Will Dungee and I had to go to court on behalf of one of our friends who was too sick to make his appearance (and we could not get in touch with his lawyer). At one point, Will said, "I wonder what the Lord is preparing us for by having us do things like this for our friend." I don't know the specific reasons yet, but it was an eye opening look into one part of our justice system.

The Assistant DA who was running the courtroom I had to go to (our friend's charges were being dealt with in two separate court rooms at the same time - how does that work?) made no effort to be pleasant. It was simple traffic court, but she made no ability to speak with kindness. It was clear that she wanted to establish that she was in charge and her rules were the only ones that counted. I understand a need for order, but her rules became laws that were immovable. For example, she misread the name of one woman sitting next to me, and so the woman didn't catch it. Realizing that the DA might have said her name but mispronounced it, she asked her if she could pause and repeat it (the DA was two names down the list by then). The DA said she could not and would not, and that the woman would have to wait. She did not say it kindly, and she seemed to enjoy being in charge. Thankfully, a lawyer later helped this woman, finding her case in the pile and giving it to the DA.

No questions were permitted, and people were treated like an annoyance. Will and I received the same treatment upstairs in the DA's office, as we had gone up to see if we could get the case continued without sitting through the docket. Another Assistant DA came out to see us and said, "Who are you?" in a way that made me feel like I was very small. When we explained our situation he told us just to go to the courtroom and listen for Kevin's name, and when we asked what we were to do then, he began walking away and said, "Just go down there." Will was in his courtroom, and said that he was extremely rude, telling people to shut up and asking who gave them permission to speak.

The thing about going to court is that it's not very intuitive for most defendants because they/we don't spend a lot of time in that place and culture, and if you don't know what you are doing, it's hard to play the game. I see why so many people hire lawyers because it's tricky and time-consuming for an average person to navigate the legal system. And unfortnuately, the rules of the courtroom game don't permit you to ask questions without being treated like an annoyance. Sure, the DA lays down some ground rules before calling the calendar (say either "guilty", "not guilty", "continuance", or "attorney" when you hear your name called), but what happens after that is for them to know and you to find out. For example, I said "Continuance" when my friend's name was called, and then they took out the stack of continuances and began to read the names and assign another court date. But there was a small stack of "continuances" whose names were not called, and were just left there. My assumption is that my friend has overextended his continuance graces, but that was never explained or addressed or mentioned, and I dared not ask.

The ADA also treated the room like a group of 5-year-olds, telling people to sit down rather than stand in the back, which is fine, because those are the court rules, but her tone and demeanor was that of a teacher talking to a group of Kindergardeners who had never been to class before. What I sensed from her was fear and control - she drew these really fine and tight lines and there were no exceptions because unless the laws/rules were kept to the letter, who knows what might happen? (sarcasm) People who had the audacity to challenge those by asking a question or not getting them right the first time were shamed. I also felt that she enjoyed being charge, but hated her job and disliked all the people there who were overloading her docket and were probably up to no good anyway (note: she did not say any of this - this is my perception).

Looking around the room, the defendants were 98% black and Hispanic. The people in charge up front were 99% white (I saw one black attorney) and mostly male (the ADA in my court room was a woman and there was one other woman lawyer). The power dynamic was clear - there was a way of talking, a way of operating, and if you didn't know how to talk and operate in that way, you were in trouble. At first I thought of this as a racial divide, but really it was a class divide. Now, race and class are not easily separated here in Greensboro - the have's tend to be white and the have not's tend to be black and Hispanic - but Will helped me clarify that this was primarily a class gap. The ADA was communicating in a way that was not familiar or effective to the class/culture mostly represented in the courtroom, and the defendents' way of communication was not acceptable to her, for the most part.

It made me sad that our legal system has created a dependance on lawyers not to defend
us but to play the game for us because it's too hard to play for ourselves, and to see that the racial makeup of those on trial was overwhelmingly black and Hispanic showed that our society is still slanted along lines of race, class, and power.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

From the mouths of babes 2

If you are a parent of young kids, you will appreciate this. The other night, Eliza asked, "Mommy, does Jesus skidoo into our hearts?"

It's something like that.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

James 1:5-8 - Belief, Doubt, and Prayer

My good friend Alex is studying some in James, and he left a comment recently about James 1:5-8, which says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not he think will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does."

Alex wrote: what did you/your small group do with chapter 1 with the part where God gives genrously to all without finding fault UNLESS you're a doubter, in which case you shouldn't expect to receive anything at all. It seems that's a pretty significant blockage...and I'm having a hard time finding a way around it.

This is indeed a troubling passage when taken at face value. It seems that it's all up to us - God will give generously, but with a condition. But, as Alex knows, we have to use the full counsel of Scripture to interpret passages that are confusing or don't seem to jive with the God we know, and so that is where I started in thinking about this. If this verse were true at face value, then the man whose son was possessed by a demon in Mark 9 was in trouble, because his "prayer request" for healing was followed by, "I believe; help me overcome my unbelief. "Sounds like there is doubt there to me. Yet Jesus healed him, generously.
The NIV Bible Commentary says this, "This father was not oscillating between belief and unbelief. He desired to believe--and even asserted his belief--but because he felt keenly the inadequacy of his faith, he asked for help in believing. He was not facing both directions at the same time like the "double-minded man" of Jas 1:8. In spite of his conscious weakness, he had set his heart to believe. And Christ responded to his faith and healed his son."
There is also the passage where Jesus tells us that if we have a mustard seed faith, we can move mountains, which once led me to despair. If all it took was a mustard seed to move a mountain, I must have incredibly little faith, because I had not moved any mountains. But perhaps Jesus' words were less a commentary on the required amount of faith, but rather on the powerfulness of the faith's object - that God is so mighty that He takes the mustard seed that you give and moves the mountain.

We also have to let verse 5 inform 6 and 7 - God's gives generously without finding fault. We as Christians are in Christ, and we have sonship relationship with the Father. He loves and longs to be generous to us, which Eugene Peterson shows well in his Message translation of these verses:
If you don't know what you're doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get his help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who "worry their prayers" are like wind-whipped waves. Don't think you're going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

My friend Macon came up with this a helpful analogy (or he borrowed it from our favorite theology professor, Gary Deddo) to talk about the role of faith in prayer. Macon asks the question, "How much is enough to get my prayer answered?" So, does God require that I be 100% certain? How about 98%? Or is it just a majority, like 51% sure that tips the scales on my behalf? If I have 49% or less, am I unable to get God to move? Knowing my own heart, there have been few, if any, times that I have had 100% faith when I prayed. On my BEST prayers I've been in 90% range, I think. Yet God has answered. God has moved, using the the faith that I offered. See, Jesus lives in me and He lives for me. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. I no longer pray, but Christ prays in me. And so I offer Jesus my 30% faith and He takes that prayer, perfects it, and offers it to the Father on my behalf as a 100% prayer.

It seems that Scripture is full of doubters and strugglers, men and women who did not have 100% faith, and yet God still moved for and in them. Think about Gideon's fleece, John the Baptist's father, Sarah's laughter. It seems that God is not limited by our faith, or lack thereof, in the way that we think He might be. Yes, faith is important. But God can work with far less than we offer, and He answers feeble prayers just as much as He answers confident ones. Prayer being answered is not about our rubbing the magic lamp just right so that the genie comes out and gives us our wish. It is a recognition of need that we cannot supply, and whether we are 100% certain that God will come through and meet that need as we see fit, we still recognize that we need help and are asking with all the faith that we can muster.

So, all of this gives me a new lens through which I have to read James 1:5-8. One key phrase in this passage that the NIV Bible Commentary points out is, "he is unstable in all he does." The double-minded man is not someone who prays to God and has some doubt that He will answer, or someone who has imperfect faith. Rather all that the double-minded person does is characterized by flip-flopping and indecisiveness in their relationships, their work, their walk with the Lord.

In sum, I think that when I operate as a person under the Law, James is very troubling. The Law view of prayer would say that there is a standard that I have to meet in order to unlock the power of God. But Jesus has met that standard for me, and lives that standard in and through me now that I am in Christ. I am not a double-minded man, because I am in Christ and I have the mind of Christ (Col. 2:16). I am not abandoned to my weak faith, but can in all things depend on Christ, crying, "I believe, Lord help my unbelief."

What do you think?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Overwhelmed for dependence's sake

It's been a hard few weeks since Jacob arrived; of course there is the normal lack of sleep and adjustments to a new child. Then last week Diane was in the hospital for 36 hours receiving a magnesium IV to lower her blood pressure (induced by pregnancy), which meant a couple days of scrambling to get childcare and make sure Eliza and Palter were OK, a night spent sleeping on a couch in the hospital room (watching UNC loseto Va Tech) and another night at home getting up with Jacob to give him his bottle. Needless to say my resources are depleted, to say nothing of my poor wife's energy and resolve, given Jacob's every-two-hours feeding schedule and her time in the hospital.

So today I was reading in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 which says, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead."

There is a rumor that makes its rounds in Christian circles that says God won't put more on a person than they can handle. If that was true, then what happened to Paul? He was under pressure greater than his ability to endure, clearly more than he could handle, and he said that God let that happen in order to create dependence, not relying on himself but on God. (This thinking is actually a mis-application of 1 Corninthians 10:13. which says, "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.")

It seems to me that God constantly gives me more than I can handle. Life is more than I can handle - it was too much when I had no kids, when I had one, when I had two. This week I feel like I am at the end of my patience. I feel like crying sometimes for no reason. I feel distant from my wife as each of us is preoccupied with caring for the little ones. All this is happening that I might not rely on myself, but on God, and until today I was trying everything but, from buying and selling cell phones on ebay, to checking email, to angrily throwing a bowl full of cereal and milk into the sink and storming off the bedroom when Eliza informed me that she didn't want milk on her Cheerios.

If I could handle life, I would not need God at all. I believe that God's ultimate purpose for all people is for us to depend on Him for all things. And so He often gives me more than I can endure, taking me to the limits of my patience, ability to love, time, and energy so that I have to say, Lord, I give up. I need you to live through me. Reconnecting with Him through Scripture and worship has reminded me that relying on Him is life, the only life and hope that I have.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

James Thoughts, Part Three

Context, Context, Context
James 4:2b says, “You do not have because you do not ask God.” This has been pirated by "name it and claim it" folks who use the verse to put the fault/potential on the Believer to get God to do what we want Him to do. You simply must ask, with faith. If you don’t have insert thing here, it’s because you are not asking. But the context for this verse is so important, because the issue that James is addressing is not faith (or lack thereof) but dependence on God. People are trying to meet their own needs by fighting and quarreling, coveting and killing. They don’t have because they are trying to supply their own needs rather than asking God, depending on Him to supply their needs. Their motives of independence and self are revealed in verse 3, when they are called out for spending their blessings on themselves.

Smackdown… Or Is It?
So in 4:4-5, it seems that James is finally letting them have it – now they can feel nice and guilty for being such rotten Christians. Calls them adulterous people who are making the Spirit of God jealous. Go ahead James, land the knockout blow! But then, in verse 6 it says, “But He gives us more grace.” They’ve blown it, raised God’s ire – adulterous people for crying out loud. This is true for all of us. BUT He gives us more grace. If you operate in independence (pride), God opposes you. But if you are dependent (humble), He gives you more grace. Humility and dependence begets grace.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Jacob Pictures

Here are a couple of links: first Jacob's birth , then Jacob's first week. Enjoy!

P.S. In this photo he's thinking, "Did State reallybeat Carolina? The Heels needed more intensity."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

From the mouths of babes

Eliza really enjoys pretending and making up stories with her Belle and Arielle dolls, and the last couple days she has been pretending that they were in heaven talking to Jesus, and that He invited them to stay for a sleep over. Today I overheard her saying, "Well, Jesus died on the cross for your sins," followed by, "OK, God, if you say so - I trust you." It's just that simple, folks. How sweet.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

James Thoughts Continued

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

James 2:12-13 says 12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

I think that it is easy to read this and see only, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged,” but what are we being judged by? By the law that gives freedom. James is showing a new or different standard; there is a judgment without mercy (v. 13), but we are going to be judged by a law that gives freedom. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Love triumphs over evil.

We are to speak and act as people who are judged under mercy and freedom. We give away what we have received from the Lord, and we trust that the way of mercy is the best way. Judgment without mercy is given to those who do not show mercy, but we have been judged with mercy.

Mercy Leads Us to “Do”

James 2:22-23 is a call to be do-ers of the Word, not just hear-ers. A worthy call. I think that we as Christians should be authentic, living what we say we believe (I believe that Steven Curtis Chapman said it best with, “It’s got to be true, I gotta’ be living’ what I say I believe, even if nobody but Jesus is watchin’ me. G-O-T T-O-B T-R-U.”). However, there is a lens of law and a lens of grace. Law says, “Do it because I said so, and if you don’t you don’t measure up.” On first glance, that is what James is saying. But grace says, “I have given you all you need to ‘do’; I have loved you first; therefore ‘do’.”

James 2:25 gives that grace motivation. If you look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom (there's that concept again!), and continues to do this, he will be blessed in what he does. There is a correct order – look into the law that gives freedom, and then be a do-er of the Word. If you “do” from the position of freedom, there is blessing.

I wonder if James, who addresses his letter to the 12 tribes scatterd, is writing to a Jewish-Christian audience, and so he uses the law a lot, knowing their tendency to depend on the law for right-standing with God. Could it be that he is revealing the inability of the law to bring righteousness, calling them to depend on mercy and grace.

Coming up next: Context, Context, Context! and Smackdown... Or is It?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

New Eyes For the Book of James

James is About Grace!
When I was in college, I read the book of James. I knew very little about grace (i.e. I had not experienced grace on deep levels), and so when I read it, I felt very guilty, as though I were not doing enough. After all, there were lots of admonitions in there about doing things, showing faith by works, being nice to the poor, not saying bad things and controlling the tongue. The book made me feel like I was REALLY not measuring up, and I had done a pretty good job of that myself as it was.

Recently James popped up in my Bible reading schedule that my small group and I are going through, and I remembered how much I had avoided James (except for the times when I referenced the passages about the treating the poor well). I also had been struggling (again) with feeling helpless to help the homeless in Greensboro and knew what James had to say about loving the poor, so I asked God to help me read this and receive conviction when He had it in mind without guilt. And what I discovered is that James is a book about grace, mercy, love, dependence on God and humility. Who knew? Sooo, I am going to try and download some of what I found in there. I have not checked this against a commentary (Eugene Peterson would be scolding me from the pages of Eat This Book – I promise, Mr. Peterson, I am taking in what you are telling me), so there is a chance that I could be off, but just figured I would put it out there and my legions of blog-reading fans could correct me when they want to. I don’t usually use this blog to post teaching stuff, leaving that to my esteemed colleague Alex Kirk and his blog “Piebald Life.” But what the heck!
Note: OK, at the end of this I did check a commentary, and got some good stuff from it!

Laws That Give Freedom?
So, the first verses that really jumped out to me were 1:25 and 2:12; each of them referred to a law that gives freedom, which has never seemed like a concept that makes sense. Laws don’t give freedom (I thought) – they bring bondage (when you break them); they restrict (when you keep them), and even when you keep them you can fall into the temptation of pride in how well you keep the law on your own.

As James spoke of a law that gives freedom, he was already shaking my understanding of what he is teaching of us. This perfect law that gives freedom is the law of love. It is not an enslaving legalistic system, but a law that gives freedom and the Believer is enabled to keep it by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Here is further info on this (all commentary comments are from the NIV Bible Commentary) - James's term "the perfect law of liberty" (literal translation) deserves special attention. The word "law" (GK G3795) reveals his Jewish orientation and that of his readers. But he qualifies this word to make sure that his readers do not misunderstand, describing it as "perfect" (GK G5455) and as characterized by "freedom" (GK G1800). It is not merely the OT law, nor is it the Mosaic law perverted to become a legalistic system for earning salvation by good works. When James calls it the "perfect law," he has in mind the sum total of God's revealed truth--not merely the preliminary portion found in the OT, but also the final revelation made through Christ and his apostles that was soon to be inscripturated in the NT. Thus it is complete, in contrast to that which is preliminary and preparatory. Furthermore, it is a law that does not enslave. Instead, it is freely accepted and fulfilled with glad devotion under the enablement of the Spirit of God (Gal 5:22-23; see Jas 2:8, 12 for more on this concept of law).

So, this may not be groundbreaking to many of you. But for me, to find that there is a law that gives freedom, a law of love, and to know that God gives us the love that He asks us to extend to others, is good news. More to come on God’s grace leading the way.

Coming next: Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment and Leads Us to “Do”