The WORST person in the world!

Keith Olbermann has now taken his nightly rant, Countdown, to Current TV.  (Any similarity to thoughtful public discourse is purely accidental.)  Somewhere during this diatribe, he gives a mock award to the “worst person in the world”. Keith invariably finds a political and/or religious conservative to dub the “worst person in the world”, proving that sometimes the best evidence of a person’s good character is who their enemies are.  (I wonder if Keith is aware that, in the minds of many, he himself might be on the short list for his own award.)

But his rant does raise an interesting question.  Who really is the worst person in the world?  Who would you nominate?

Before you vote, let’s get one rule straight.  The person must be alive. Adolph Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, both leading vote-getters in the recent past, are no longer acceptable choices. Charles Manson or Bernie Madoff, on the other hand, are permissible.  (In the unlikely event that you want to nominate Elvis Presley as the worst person in the world, I have no choice but to permit it since his status is apparently incapable of conclusive resolution.)

To turn serious without any adequate segue, about 2000 years ago, the Apostle Paul had a startling answer to this question.  He said it was him.  When writing to his young disciple, Timothy, he said: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  (1 Tim. 1:15).

The temptation is to think that Paul was being falsely modest, but he makes the case against himself in all seriousness.  He describes himself, before receiving God’s mercy and grace, as a “blasphemer, persecutor and insolent opponent” of God and his people. (v. 14).  I think he meant it when he identified himself as the foremost of sinners.

I think we would do well to follow Paul’s example.  We need our own sin to be large in our own eyes.  We also need to remember to do what Paul did.  He evaluated himself based on who he was apart from the grace of God.  He did not make the mistake of thinking what was noble or pure or praiseworthy in himself originated with him.  He knew who he was without God and that it was not pretty.  So when we are tempted to focus on someone else’s sin, (Keith Olbermann’s, for example), and to discount our own, let us remember that an excellent case can be made that we are the “worst person in the world.”

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The genuine article

 

“Let love be genuine.”  Romans 12:9

I am from an older generation, so blogging is still new to me.  Still, I get that it helps to be pithy.  For those of you who don’t watch the O’Reilly Factor (shame on both of you), a pithy communication is one that is brief, yet packed with force and meaning. Technically, it means to be full of pith.  (I remember a few years ago a guy told me that I was full of pith, but then, how much weight can you give to the opinion of someone who says his name is Thteve?)

The apostle Paul was generally known for being the opposite of pithy.  His letters were often convoluted and, in the words of his contemporary, Peter, “hard to understand.” (Thank you Peter! I thought it was just me!).

But Paul could be super pithy at times.  Think about these four words in Romans 12:9: “Let love be genuine.”  That is so short and seemingly innocent, the tendency is to basically ignore it.  My first reaction is, “Duh!  What other kind of love is there?”  But that is the point, isn’t it?  The implication is that there is a brand of “love” that is artificial.

When you really think about it,  the world is filled with fake love.  Love that is for show.  Love that is for public consumption.  Love that has the external appearance of being authentic love, but is really about me.  How rare is the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus admonished us to have.  The kind that is willing to do what it does in a closet, if necessary, because it is the genuine article.

And here is the honest truth.  Most often, my love is not the genuine article.  My thoughts are usually on how something affects me and how it makes me look.  I think about what is in it for me.  And if I do good, I want others to see so that I can be honored.

Seeing this reality does not make me despair.  This is what the cross is for.  But it does make me more humble.  It also makes me more aware of the unfathomably pure love that God has expressed to us and that makes me want to grow in my own capacity for a love that is genuine.  May it be so!

I can see!

“The man replied, ‘I don’t know if he is a sinner or not. All I know is that I used to be blind, but now I can see!”  John 9:24-26

To be honest, most people who know me think I am like Mary Poppins — practically perfect in every way.  However, I have one flaw that is not that easily discerned.  I am virtually blind as a bat.  I only know that the first letter on the eye chart is an E because  it always is.  Only contact lenses have enabled me to continue to perpetuate for all these years the illusion that Poppins and I are nearly perfect.

To borrow from Lady Gaga (something I hope to never do again), I was born this way.  However, my poor vision was not discovered until I was learning to read in the first grade. I was riding in the car with my parents and anxious to show off what I had learned., so my parents started pointing out signs for me to read.  When I couldn’t even tell it was a Holiday Inn, let alone if there was any vacancy, I was shipped to the eye doctor.

I have a distinct memory of the first time I put on my new glasses.  I was standing in our kitchen.  The first thing I laid my eyes on was a Rainbow Bread sack.  Presumably because of its name, Rainbow Bread came wrapped in a white sack dotted with bright red, blue and yellow circles.  I will never forget looking at that sack. What had before been merely a fuzzy blur was suddenly transformed.  Now what I saw was sharp and vivid.  Each brightly colored circle snapped into clear focus.  Those glasses literally changed everything for me.

That is really not a bad metaphor for what it is like to come to faith in Christ.  Before, everything is a blur.  Nothing really seems to make sense.  We are like a blind man.  We stumble and fumble in the dark, trying to discern where things are – where we are.  Then someone turns on the lights.  What was all discombobulated before becomes sharp and focused.  Like me that day in the kitchen, our joyful exclamation is, “I can see!”

A Better Plan?

“Preach the word!”  2 Tim. 4:2

It looks as though we are about to witness another impasse between those that want to tax the rich to give to the poor and those that think the rich are being taxed enough.  My own perspective is that perhaps we have been putting our hope in the wrong social institution for many years now.  I am thinking that trusting in the government to be the chief catalyst for social change has been extremely naive.  Facing problems like disintegrating marriages and families, child neglect and abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, exploding school dropout rates, and the rest of the diverse social ills that plague us, we seem to have no better plan than a government program.  If we are lucky, these governmental social programs only consume a large share of our financial resources and are singularly ineffective.  Alas, they often actually worsen the very  problem they were designed to solve.

I would prefer to put my trust in a different institution.  To be very precise, the institution to which I would like to turn is the pulpit.  Here is my conception of how it works.  From the pulpit, the word of God is preached – hopefully with sincerity, passion and conviction.  The word is like seed.  It is scattered by the preacher and lands in various kinds of soils.  Some of it, like any other seed, never sprouts at all or, if it does sprout, it does not last.  But some of it produces a bountiful harvest– thirty, sixty or even a hundredfold.  When the seed takes root, it accomplishes a metamorphosis–the very kind of change that the government program hopes to produce.

First, the person in whom the seed has taken root has a changed mind.  He knows his purpose and it is an inspiring and encouraging one.  Having been delivered from thinking he is the center of everything and that he should grab everything he can while he can, his prior despair and emptiness is replaced with a fountain of hope.  He finds himself not only willing, but even desiring to serve rather than to be served.

He also has a changed heart.  Having been made aware not only of his sinfulness, but also of the unfathomable compassion that has been shown to him by a God who has no sin whatsoever, he is undone.  He is humbled.  Strangely though, he is not only humbled, he is also exalted.  The price paid by God for him unmistakably confirms his worth.  He wants to sing and dance and shout because he was dead, but has now been raised to new life in Christ.  He is a new creation.

As the seed of the word planted in him spreads its roots, he builds families–functional ones.  He loves his wife, his children and his neighbor.  He lives sacrificially.  He gives.  He is dependable and reliable.  He works hard and obeys the law.  He faces life with faith and courage.  He is the kind of person upon which healthy societies are built.

He is one more thing.  He is the fruit of the word and the key distinctive of fruit is that it has seeds within itself.  He passes on not only to his neighbors but to the next generation what he has received.  Having been produced by the sowing of seed, he becomes a sower of more seed.

Fear and Comfort

Having recently been persuaded by my daughter that I should join the world of blogging, I had to come up with a title.  Having thought about it for at least thirty seconds, I chose “fear and comfort” because that is what I keep experiencing the more I study the scriptures.  The glorious promises console me, while the sharp warnings alarm me.

When I think about it, there is more than one paradox in this.  First, the one of whom we are (or should be) afraid is the very same person that we must turn to for comfort.  The one from whom we must be protected is the one who is our shelter and refuge.  Our sole defense against the wrath of God is the mercy of God.

Secondly, in some sense, our fear is our comfort.  If we do fear God, that is a sign that we have good reason to be comforted.  The Bible repeatedly treats “the fear of the Lord” not as a disease, but a characteristic earmark of those who are approved by God.

So walking in both the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, seeking our refuge in the one from whom we are fleeing, seems to be the lot of a true believer.  This odd tension is well described in Psalm 2:11-12:

“Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son lest he  be angry and you be destroyed in your way,  for his wrath can flare up in a moment.  Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

P.S.  This picture is supposed to illustrate the dichotomy of fear and comfort.  You see the lightning is supposed to be kind of scary but the field is supposed to be kind of comforting.  Oh, well.