Signs of Change

same old Was talking to someone I love when the conversation turned to a topic about which we disagree: their relationship with a woman whose dossier includes an active pornographic website, multiple social media accounts under fictional identities and a criminal history.

That alone is enough to warrant disapproval from the most generous soul, but that’s not all. This vile person has worked hard to destroy relationships between the one I love and everyone who truly cares about them.

Yet, the one I love would have me overlook all that and embrace this “significant other.” Their argument: “How do you know they haven’t changed? Aren’t Christians supposed to forgive people?”

It sounds so spiritual.

Back-sliding Christians who have decided to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, naive souls who believe in cheap grace, and people who live like the devil all have this in common:

When confronted with their sinful behavior and reckless associations, they are quick to defend with some variation of “Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Judge not’?” or “Shouldn’t Christians forgive?”

Does the Bible really say forgive on-going, unrepented sin?  Does it say ignore reality and not assess what you see?  Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus came to earth to deal with sin head-on.  Reconciling us to God required clarity about our true condition.

  • Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she’d had 5 husbands and the man she was with was not her husband. (John 4:16-18)
  • Jesus told the outwardly pious Pharisees that inwardly they were full of sin, white-washed tombs. (Matthew 23:27-28)

Christians are to “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1), the God who makes a “distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.” (Malachi 3:18)

Sin is like rotting flesh and fecal matter to holy God. God loves us, but He won’t embrace sin. We can understand that. We separate ourselves from excrement and garbage because the filth and stench attracts vermin. We flush toilets. We bag garbage, take it outside and pay people to haul it away.

Jesus came to forgive our sin, to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and to make us acceptable to God. He changes us, if we let Him. That change is not just something we say; it’s something others can see.

Signs of real change?

  • We acknowledge and confess our sins that we may be forgiven. No games. No excuses.
  • We have “godly sorrow” for having sinned. Not sorrow for being caught and punished but sorrow that we have betrayed and offended a holy God.
  • We “repent,” meaning we turn to God and turn away from sin. Repentance is a 180-degree turn. Our lives should be going in the opposite direction of sin.

To judge is to condemn a person as hopeless. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.  (John 3:17) Because His  offer still stands, anyone can change.  Whether we actually have changed is evidenced in how we live.

“For of this you can be sure: no immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph 5:5-6)

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“Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows whose are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” (2 Tim 2:19)

 

Love: Show More Than Tell

There’s nothing like death to give you a fresh perspective on life. And I’m recently returned from a funeral.

Everyone there seemed to know the departed in slightly different ways and even by slightly different names. Some called him by his last name, Bellamy. Others used a nickname, Billy. To me, he was Uncle Monroe, his given name and the one my mother always used.

To some, he was a co-worker. To others, a friend, a fellow church member or a relative. Some knew him on the nightshift in work clothes. Others recognized him in dapper duds at formal dinners. He’d lived for decades in an urban metropolis but his roots were rural and he never forgot.

He was a fixture in my life. My mother’s last sibling and slightly younger brother born on Christmas Eve, he was tall and well-dressed whether in plain clothes or Sunday go-to-meeting suits. Mustachioed and smelling of Aramis cologne, he’d suddenly appear in our driveway for a visit, fresh off the road from his home in Atlanta slightly more than 100 miles away.

He always drove a truck, stick shift until the knee began to bother him, with a camper top and cooler in the back full of drinks. The truck changed by the years, but the greeting was always the same, “Hey, baby!”

My uncle never talked much about himself to me. I knew his son graciously shared him with the nieces. I vaguely knew that he’d served in the Armed Forces, worked at the post office. He was a Baptist when everyone else in the family went to African Methodist Episcopal Church. He didn’t push church. When I worked in Atlanta, he invited me just once that I remember: to hear a singer with a voice fit for the Met who had grown up in the congregation.

At the funeral, I got the full resume. He’d served in the Navy. He was married to the same woman for 68 years. He worked for the post office, 36 years. He was an honorable “Deacon Emeritus” who had mentored several deacons who would mature to become chairmen of the board. He himself had devoted many years to bereavement ministry.

The details of my uncle’s life were long a mystery but his consistent, unmistakable love for me was very clear. I sat at his funeral remembering how he drove his truck from Atlanta to Raleigh nearly 30 years ago to give me away at my wedding. It would have been much easier to buy a plane ticket. The drive was a gesture of love, again. Mom needed a ride, and they enjoyed each other’s company.

I know that I’m partial, but my Uncle really was something special. Most of us Christians are the Titus 1:16 variety: we claim to know God but our actions deny him. We talk too much and live too little. We don’t cultivate real relationships. We’re plastic, chameleons who are so busy doing “church” that we’ve forgotten we are Christ’s ambassadors.

My friend, God is love. God so loved the world that He gave us His Son at great sacrifice for our good.

I know my uncle loved God, because he loved me all my life.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

What God Wants

 

Been thinking about some situations in which I find myself. Let’s call them relational difficulties that never seem to quite resolve themselves. Perennial problems that present me with immediate issues that must be faced and deep wells for future contemplation.

Most people have no problem articulating what they want. When I want something different, it’s easy to tell them where they’re wrong. In the midst of these tangled discourses, we seldom stop to ask: “What does God want?”

 

Does He want me to go along to get along, to keep the peace at any cost? If questioning is viewed as contrary, do I not ask questions that ought to be asked just so the other person isn’t made to feel uncomfortable?

It can be easy to say nothing. It’s possible to bully another person into silence. But can there be any real relationship if people can’t openly talk to each other about the hard stuff? If there is repeated disagreement over the same, unavoidable stuff maybe there needs to be a deeper conversation. Maybe a counselor would help.

Sadly, many of us avoid biblical counseling out of pride and self-sufficiency: “I don’t need that!” We’re quick to make a dental appointment if we have an unrelenting toothache. But we’ll suffer for years in a broken relationship refusing to seek help. Doesn’t a painful relationship warrant as much attention as an aching tooth?

It is possible to please – or placate – another human being. They get what they want – agreement, silence, control, whatever – but you are left to answer to God for a violation of conscience, for failing to do what you knew to be right simply because you were pressed by another human being. Have you ever been in that place: where someone is repeatedly behaving in a way or asking you to do something that is clearly wrong to you, but they won’t listen or they insist that your lack of cooperation is un-Christian? You want to talk but they keep saying you want to fight because you disagree?

In relational conflict between Christian believers, disagreements don’t usually involve black-and-white matters about which the Bible is clear. The issues tend to be more nuanced, where you have to apply biblical principle while taking into account our human tendency to do what is comfortable and to avoid dealing with our “stuff.” We are good at justifying ourselves; at conveniently excusing our personal issues while magnifying the other guys’ struggles.

So what does God require of His followers, of those of us who are learning to walk with Him in a world soaked in sin?

Micah 6:8 sums it up very simply:

 

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

 

Justice. Mercy. Humility.

God wants me to do the just thing. Not the expedient thing or the selfish thing. Show mercy. Where would we Christians be if God gave each of us what we deserve? Mercy is not deserved; I’m guilty, but mercy gives probation instead of jail time. Even though I committed a capital crime mercy commutes the death sentence to life imprisonment. Pride and self-assertion is our natural, carnal state. It always leads to a fall. The devil’s own rebellion began with a declaration of “I will…” God asks me to lay pride aside and to humble myself.

Being in relationship with people, Christian or not, tests my willingness to do what God requires. I struggle with it.

Doing justly may mean denying myself. I love mercy for me, but not necessarily for someone who hurts me. Once upon a time, before I really cared much about what God required, I went three years without speaking to a relative who wounded me deeply. I wanted them to feel my pain. God wasn’t in that, but I thought it was right. Humility doesn’t come easy, but it is rewarded. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And I need a lot of grace.

If you struggle in relationships as I do, join me in refocusing on what God requires. People will pull us in many directions. We all need to keep our eyes on Jesus. His word to every believer is the same one He gave to the early disciples who entered into relationship with Him: “Follow me.”

 

 

Honor Where It’s Due

   My son asked me the other day why someone we know routinely mispronounces the word “sword,” opening with the sound of the Nike symbol “swish.” The guy has an earned PhD and still doesn’t know that the “w” in sword is silent?

My guess is he learned to say “sword” as a child by repeating the way someone close to him said it, maybe a parent or grandparent. As a full-grown, well-educated man that pronunciation has stuck with him as part of his family fabric. His wife, who also holds a doctorate, is probably the only one close enough to him to correct him. She probably won’t, out of love and respect for him.

Then I told my son a story from my own childhood.

When I was growing up my Mom would come home from the beauty shop or grocery store and mention that she saw someone we knew, only she didn’t use the word “saw.” Typically, she’d say “I seed” so-and-so. As long as I can remember this was Mom’s way of expressing the past tense of “see.”

Mom was an intelligent and resourceful lady with beautiful handwriting and a love of newspapers, magazines and Paul Harvey. She’d left the South before graduating high school to go north for better opportunities and returned years later to work long hours in a textile mill.

In spite of all that (or maybe because of it), Mom valued and encouraged education. To her credit, all the girls who grew up in her home graduated from college and went on to earn advanced degrees. We never scrubbed toilets, did laundry or kept house for anyone but ourselves.

I’ll tell you something else we never did. We never corrected her when she said she “seed” someone.

I learned the English language well enough to earn a living as a writer, but I knew better than to tell my Mom how to speak. Some things are sacrosanct. My relationship with my Mom was one of them. What I am today, I owe in large part to the foundation she laid. Out of respect, I understood that it was not my place to correct her.

My place was to honor her. Not because she was perfect. Not because she was always right. She was neither of these things, but she was my mother. The position alone afforded her a respect that was inviolate.

 

The Bible says (and yes, I still believe the Bible is right):

 

“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3

 

To honor someone is to recognize their value. We may have many friends, many mentors. Parents stand alone. We ought to appreciate them, to hold them in high regard.

Do I even need to say that biblical honor is all but dead?

Children routinely return from college to shove their “enlightenment” in their parents’ faces, rejecting and ridiculing everything their parents’ hold dear and everything they were taught to respect. The children feel smug in being liberated from their parents’ so-called ignorance and antiquated ways.

These “smart” young people are ignorant of a truth I learned early in my marriage: To honor your parents is to bless yourself.

I learned this after my husband took me to task for my being rude and disdainful toward my father. I justified my behavior by rehearsing how he was biologically my father, but never had assumed a father’s role in my daily life. So what did I owe him? My husband bluntly reminded me that wasn’t the point.

As a Christian, out of love and respect for God, he said, I had an obligation to honor my father for the position he held in my life. He was my father, period. Simple, but very hard to accept. I understood that my mother should be respected. She’d raised me. My father never had been a real father to me but was my “father” nevertheless. God’s clear command was to honor him for that alone. I could not escape that.

A lifetime’s bad habit is not easily broken. But I repented; and I worked at it .

Before my father died of lung cancer, less than a decade ago, I had the privilege of spending the better part of day with him at his home in the Bronx. We poured over pictures from his youth, his service photos, and neighborhood snapshots. I listened to his stories. It was awkward, but worth the effort. When he died, I had far fewer regrets than I might have.

Honor belongs to parents, but the blessing goes to children: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

As we approach Mother’s Day on May 11 and Father’s Day in June, consider that parents have a short shelf life. Both mine are gone. Honor yours while you can, even if they haven’t been what you might have hoped. Without them, there would be no “you.”

In an age of easy abortion, that your parents gave you life is blessing enough. If they loved and cherished you, were real parents despite their frailties, you are blessed indeed!

Happily Ever After?

“This better work into a happily ever after.  I’ve put a lot of work into this son of a bitch.”

Now that’s some statement on which to build a life.

I overheard it while working out the other night. Two twenty-something girls were chatting obliviously beside me as I pounded the treadmill. The black-headed one was eager to share with the blonde the details of a lusty encounter with Mr. Right, who apparently was living with someone else.

She explained that he was “so sweet.”  He’d said how much he cared, how he’d been thinking about her all day. He  was not sleeping with this other female; they weren’t intimate, he insisted. He said it was “complicated.” He needed time. She believed him.

“He is such a nice guy” they agreed. He wouldn’t lie. Miss Black Head said she trusted him, and she was willing to wait.

While she apparently was willing to wait for Mr. Right to move out, move in, marry her or whatever, she hadn’t been willing to wait on the sex.

In an eager whisper, she described to Miss Blonde on the treadmill beside me how she’d ripped off her clothes in a moment of abandon and the two had gone at it. When he called later and “emotionally vomited” all over her, she’d thought: “You gotta be kidding. It was just sex.”

She wondered aloud: maybe she should have waited at least another day for them to get together? Clearly, he had  not been ready.

Miss Blonde, the confidant, was sympathetic. Ponytail swinging as she picked up the pace, she acknowledged that “the only thing that’s  kept me is my religion.”

Miss Black Head giggled at that, congratulating her friend on her self-control and adding that she had none.  “I just go for it!”

Pausing briefly, she motioned toward a boy across the room. “Isn’t he cute?! He has a nice butt.”

I did not make this up. Actually happened within ear shot,  actually within reach-out-and-touch distance of me,  a complete stranger.

No shame. No worries. No morals.

It made me sad. These women are nobody’s marriage material. Clueless pawns of culture, they probably consider themselves liberated feminists, free to have sex with whomever they choose, “just like men.”  Naive and nauseating.

Marriage and family were God’s idea, but few people have any regard for marriage’s sacredness any more. Girls routinely “hook up” and still don a white dress on their wedding day, a fashion statement rather than a symbol of any purity. Increasingly, marriage is shunned altogether in favor of cohabitation. The Spring 2014  issue of Duke magazine quotes sociology professor Christina Gibson-Davis as saying:

The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape. Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.

I soon will have been married 27 years and can testify that marriage is tough even with God in the mix. No self-control, no sensitivity to the emotional consequences of intimacy or concern for the other person beyond getting your own needs met is not a recipe for a happy marriage.

Without God, these young women may get a man to the altar, but they will never have a real marriage no matter how hard they work at it.

“Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Psalm 127:1