Faith and Wit

“But she knelt before Him and said, ‘Lord, help me.’”
Mathew 15:25 (Common English Bible)
     From images in children’s Bibles to the great paintings of masters the world has had fashioned for us a singular picture of Jesus – one who is gentle to children, merciful to the sinner and helpful to all in urgent need. The figure of Jesus stands in sharp contrast to a harsh and indifferent world that takes little notice of the poor, hurting and marginalized. God has noticed a desperate world and responded with a gentle lamb in which there is no hatred or deceit. That is the Savior we want, that is the Savior we get. At least, that is what most depictions of Jesus convey.
     Then the careful reader of Matthew’s Gospel stumbles upon this passage. It is like hitting an unnoticed speed bump and the effect is the same; it is jarring. A woman comes to Jesus with an appeal. She uses simple speech, simple words that every one of us knows: “Help me.” They are the words that spring to the lips of anyone in deep trouble and have exhausted all normal resources for help. “Help me.” That is all she has to say. And we nod in agreement that it is enough. What does Jesus answer? He flings to her harsh words, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” It is as though some malevolent person broke into our Bibles in the cover of the night and sought to tarnish the reputation of our Lord.
     The woman is not defeated by His words. She does not shrivel-up in embarrassment and hurt and retreat. Quick as a flash she matches His rebuke with her own sharp barb, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” In one singular comment the woman does two things: she acknowledges that Jesus is also her Lord and Master and that, if she be nothing more than a dog in Jesus’ eyes even dogs receive something. As the wonderful preacher, David H. C. Reed once commented, the woman has more than faith. She has wit. Jesus has met His match.

     Jesus surrenders, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” Ah, here is the Lord that we want! So why did Jesus initially refuse the woman? The strongest clue is found in how this Gospel ends: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19 Common English Bible) The woman is a Canaanite. She is a non-Jew. More, the Jewish people despised the Canaanites. And they had no intention of sharing anything with them, including their God and God’s blessings. Jesus’ refusal to the woman produced what the Jews needed to hear; Jesus has not come for only the nation of Israel. Jesus has come for the world. That day, Jesus invited – by His refusal to her – a woman into the pulpit to declare God’s truth.          

What to Do With Failure

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us,
since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.”
Hebrews 12:1 (Common English Bible)
    The best treatment of failure I have ever read is Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success by John Maxwell. It may be one of the most important books I have read in my twenty-seven years of ministry. I am familiar with failure. In fact, my first course of study for ministry – New Testament Greek – ended in failure. I gave considerable effort to my studies, studying late into the night several times a week and memorizing hundreds of Greek words. But with all the effort I could summon, I simply could not master the language. I did eventually pass this course requirement after working with a tutor and four years later I completed my theology degree. A glance at my academic transcript will show that I did well with my graduate studies – except for one letter grade of “F” that can never be removed.
     It is very likely that you have fallen short somewhere in your life. Failure may be one of the most shared experiences that bind us together. Celebrities on the screen and the stage, larger than life athletes and political leaders speak to the common experience of failure. Watch any Olympic Games and every success by one athlete is tempered with the devastating failure of another. Abraham Lincoln lost nearly every political race he entered until he won the presidency of the United States. There seems to be no shortage of failure.
     What are we to do with failure? According to John Maxwell, the difference between average people and those who achieve great success is their perception of and response to failure. Either we are utterly defeated by failure or we gather the pieces of our disappointment and look carefully at them to learn how to move forward. I have found Maxwell’s advice to sustain me through many professional and personal challenges and disappointments.
     The Apostle Paul also has a word for failure – stay in the race! Life is strenuous and the course laid-out before us can be difficult. Most of us will fall down. Yet, Paul inspires every one of us to get back in the race by pointing to those who have gone before us, have completed the course and now cheer us on. The “great cloud of witnesses” Paul speaks of are more than people who can give applause, they are people who offer their own lives as evidence that the course can be completed. Their lives serve as a template for how to prepare for the race, how to spiritually care for ourselves and maintain strength during the race and inspiration to complete the journey well. Failure may be a common experience but our response to failure can be an uncommon determination to join those who have gone before us.

Becoming a Confident Witness

“So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate.”
Ephesians 6:14 (Common English Bible)
     There are some people who never take a stand. I am thinking of a cartoon of a pastor sitting with his church board. Prominent in the board room is a chart that shows a steady decline in worship attendance over several months. The room is filled with discouragement, no one more discouraged than the pastor. One board member speaks: “Perhaps, pastor, it would help if you stopped concluding each sermon with the comment, ‘But then, what do I know?’”  Many are those who live each day by loose opinions rather than fixed convictions. But the pastor should not be one of them!
     Here, the Apostle Paul is speaking of considerable forces and powers that seek to diminish Christ’s witness and work in the world. Rather than dodging the difficulties they present, Paul urges a magnificent facing of those powers: “So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate.” The spiritual forces of evil are to be resisted as a soldier stands before an enemy, employing all means to stop their advance. The church is engaged in a cosmic conflict and the armor for battle can be nothing short of God’s truth and justice.
     It is important to understand that when Paul wrote these words soldiers wore a belt around the waist to hold loose garments tight to the body and to allow quick movement. Our “belt” in this spiritual conflict is “truth.” Paul speaks of the truth that is God’s Word, not some sentiment or emotion. Neither sentiment nor emotion has the capacity of strength necessary to face the church’s enemy. Each of us must face the opponent with “the belt of truth around our waist.”
     The difficulty is that no one can stand in the power of God’s truth when little time has been given to become acquainted with this truth. There is simply no substitute for the regular and disciplined study of the Bible. As a solider must properly prepare for battle, if victory is to be achieved the Christian must prepare by learning and applying God’s Word each day. As God’s Word takes-up residence in our lives the “belt of truth” is fastened around our waist, our character is forged and we become an unbridled force for the cause of Christ.

Don\’t You Know Me?

“Don’t you know Me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time?”
John 14:9 (common English Bible)
     Philip asks Jesus for a glimpse of God. We are not told why Philip wants to see God but we can certainly imagine. There is present in Philip’s day, as in our day, difficulties, pain and brokenness that challenge the notion of a loving God. Philip’s mood ceases to be his alone and becomes ours. If we could only catch a glimpse of God then, perhaps, we may have some clarity about why the world is in such a state. We want to know something about God – to be assured that we have not been left alone in a world that daily seems to be coming apart.
     Perhaps our difficulty arises from the fact that we have never ceased to create God in our own image. Each of us has certain notions of how God should be God. We fashion in our minds the ideal image of God – how God behaves and works – and expect God to conform. When God fails our expectations, we question God’s goodness or God’s existence at all.
     This makes us no different than the folks who celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with palm branches. Palm branches were used by the Romans as symbols of victory in warfare and athletics. The palm branches that were placed before Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem may well have demonstrated the people’s expectation that Jesus would overthrow the Roman government. He did not. And when God fails our expectations, we become not only disappointed, we become angry. There exist little wonder why only days later the people now celebrated Jesus’ crucifixion.
     What appears to distress Jesus most was that Philip failed to see God’s character and purposes as it is embodied in Jesus’ own life. Philip has been given more than a glimpse of God. He has experienced the character of God through daily contact with Jesus. Many today become impatient, as Philip seems to have done, because they fail to grasp that in Jesus Christ God discloses Himself. “Don’t you know Me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time?”
     Perhaps what is necessary for us today is that we spend less time fashioning the God we would like to have and more time in the Bible learning of the God we get. That God is discovered in the person of Jesus. It shall then be that we see God more and more through homes and people and friendships that pay attention to Jesus and seek to live in Jesus-like ways.