Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Scariest Sin of All

On Halloween, children pretend to be someone or something they’re not.  I’ve come to believe that, despite its darker side -- it’s the opportunity to pretend, to role play, to be childlike...which is what actually redeems Halloween in my mind, as well as the opportunity to meet and greet our neighbors.  C. S. Lewis once said, "When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (On Three Ways of Writing for Children, 1952).

What’s not funny or playful…but actually very scary, is when we pretend to be people we’re not during the rest of the year; when we hide behind masks of conceit and self-importance, and keep God at a distance. The scariest sin of all is certainly pride. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind….Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense” (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 8).  That’s because…

Pride is always in competition with others.  At the root of pride is competition….The quickest way to find out how proud you are, says Lewis, is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take notice of me, or patronize me, or show off?" The reason that I dislike it when other people are the life of the party is that I want to be the life of the party. The reason I’m annoyed by that loud mouth up there is that I want to be noticed, I want to be admired, I want to be on center stage. Now let me caution you that pride is not simply wanting to be praised or recognized for a job well done. According to Jesus we should aspire to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25: 23). Pride, on the other hand, is the need to feel that our job was not just well done, but done better than anyone else; and that we ourselves are better and more important because of it. That’s why pride is not simply the desire to be smart, good looking, or rich, but the need to feel smarter, better looking or richer than the next person. My pride is always in competition with your pride.


Jesus told a parable to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (9). That is, he told a story for those who did not see their own sin, who did not see their own faults, who felt that they stood over and above the rest...


‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Some vices bring people together; a crude joke, friendliness at a drunken party, or an illicit affair …but pride always separates us, says Lewis: it is competition & enmity between one man and another, or between peoples and nations….which is why Jesus describes the Pharisee (the proud man in this story) with telling words. He is the one, says Jesus, who is “standing by himself.”  I’m thinking of rock star Courtney Love who grew accustomed to the fame and wealth that came with her marriage to Curt Cobaine of Nirvana. A few years ago, she was dropped off by a black stretch limo in front of the Manhattan Criminal Court building, where she faced charges of disorderly conduct for hitting one of her fans with a microphone stand. When the security guard wouldn’t allow her to bypass the long line for the metal detector, she told a reporter: “The guy wants me to stand in line with everybody else. I'm not everybody else.” Then she added, “It's scary standing in line with everybody else.” The most frightening horror movie is nothing compared with the scariness of admitting that we don’t stand in some special privileged place; that we are just like everyone else; mortal, vulnerable, & accountable to God. Pride is always in competition with others, but that’s not all…

Pride is always in competition with God. That’s because “In God you come up against something which in every respect is immeasurably superior to yourself” writes Lewis. Unless you know God in this way and yourself as nothing by comparison, you really don’t know God at all. A proud person cannot know God because he or she is too busy looking down on things and people to see the One who is above him. That’s why the Pharisee is an impossible contradiction in this story: a man who claims to know God on a first name basis, but who is looking down on everyone else: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income."  Sometimes (surprise!) it’s the people in our own church family that we view as the thieves and tax-collectors. They’re the ones who are in the way of our personal prestige and popularity and power….but the more we compete and look down on others, the more obvious it is that we do not really look up to God. Of course, religious pride is only one way that our eyes can be directed away from God and focused on ourselves....

There is intellectual pride: putting our trust in what the human mind can know and understand…without admitting its limitations. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing science and theology with a professor of astrophysics at a major university in our area, and a member of our church. What most impresses me about him is how deeply he values science and yet how passionately he speaks about its limitations.  He does research at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and yet he seems able not to take himself or his colleagues too seriously.  As a Christian, he has questions science cannot address; questions that only find their resting place in God. That's humility.

There is family pride. Obviously there is nothing wrong with being “proud” (i.e., having admiration for our children) but it can become warped when we become obsessed with their success. From 1982 to 2006, 16,475 college students completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The standard inventory asks for rated responses to such statements as, "If I ruled the world it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person," and "I can live my life the way I want to." The nationwide results were revealing. "We need to stop endlessly repeating, 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already." The study asserts narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors." Evidently it all began with some kids when they were taught an alternate version of "Frère Jacques" in preschool: "I am special, I am special; Look at me, look at me!"

There is generational pride: the assumption that my generation is superior to the generation of my parents, or (as an adult) that my generation is superior to that of my children or grandchildren. One of the devil’s ploys is to cut each generation off from all others. It seems painfully difficult for one generation to honor the next or for the next to honor the former. The desire to be honored, to be understood rather than to understand is devastating for Christ’s mission… because it kills all desire to communicate to the next generation in ways they can understand; or to learn from the wisdom and mistakes of our elders. Pride is always in competition with others, and with God; and though the disease has many symptoms…it has only one antidote…

Pride’s antidote: developing honesty and humility. Researchers have found -- not surprisingly -- that there are several public situations in which we do not act like our true selves: when we enter a fancy hotel; when we enter a new-car showroom and begin talking to the salesperson (I've thought of a few others: when we’re texting, going on a first date, or sitting down for a job interview). But the other place researchers say we don’t act like ourselves is when we take our seat in church [Buffington, Playing Charades, Universal Press Syndicate (9-26-99)]! A church ought to be the one place where we can truly be ourselves, and yet for many of us it’s the place where we feel we must be someone else, where we must convince God & others we are good enough, and spiritual enough to be there.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector,” says Jesus. Oddly enough it was the tax-collector (despised as a Roman collaborator and extortionist), and not the Pharisee, who stood far off  “…would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Clearly, Jesus wants us to follow the example of the tax-collector who admitted he was a sinner; came to God in humble repentance, and rather than justifying himself, asked God for mercy!

Now does this mean that the humble person is filled with self-loathing hatred, intent on apologizing to everyone that he’s alive? No. The humble won’t be recognized by how bad they feel about themselves, denying whatever gifts and abilities they have, but by their genuine interest in you and what you have to say. Lewis reminds us that it’s not as though God wants us to stop being prideful and start obsessing about being humble…how lowly and insignificant we are. True humility, in God’s eyes, is about a change in focus…from an obsession with ourselves (whether it is how great we are or how terrible we are) to a genuine interest in others and a passion for the kingdom of God.

If pride is the scariest sin of all, then the cure is the ability to see how funny, how silly we can be in God's eyes; to admit our foolish pride and, better yet, to be able to laugh at it.  Along these lines, Uncle Screwtape, the senior temper in C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, gives advice to his nephew on how to entangle his "patient" in his own humility.  Here is an exerpt from Letter XIV:

          MY DEAR WORMWOOD,


The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of "grace" for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.


I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, "By jove! I'm being humble", and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, XIV)  
Humility is laughing at your pride…pride even in being humble.  Humility is not saying “I am a poor artist, or a lousy student” when you’re really a very good one; but honoring the artistry and brilliance of those around you.  Humility is not the minimizing of your own abilities; but a genuine interest in the abilities of others. Humility is neither self-loathing, nor self-conceit…but the love of all selves, including your own.  Humility is the ability to stop looking down (on yourself or on others), and to start looking up at the One who made you, and called you to love the people around you. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted!" 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christian Marriage: Gift or Curse?

C. S. Lewis, the author of Mere Christianity, confesses at the beginning of his chapter on marriage that he did not particularly want to write it, in part because he was not married, but also because “the Christian doctrines on this subject are extremely unpopular.” Sixty seven years later, I couldn't agree more!  The Christian perspective on marriage is still unpopular…even among some Christians! I want to talk about the idea of Christian marriage as though I was communicating not to a room full of believers…but to the community beyond the walls of the church who do not quite understand it, and may even be offended by it. My prayer is that by God’s grace I might be able to help explain Christian marriage as Jesus speaks of it… not as a curse to be avoided; but as both a gift to celebrate, and a crucible in which we are tested and changed for the better.

(i) Christian Marriage is the miracle of a total union. The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (Matthew 19: 5). As Lewis reminds us, this Greek phrase (sarka mian) means something like “one body” or “one organism.”  Now there are many types of “marriage” that are being recommended today. There is so-called open marriage where partners have the freedom to have sex with anyone they want. There is polygamous marriage, where one man has several wives; there is disposable marriage, where marriage and divorce and remarriage and divorce is only routine; and there is gay marriage, marriage between people of the same sex.

Now we must be honest: the Bible is not very experimental when it comes to marriage. It’s rather narrowly committed (some would say ignorantly committed) to the model that Moses describes, Jesus commands, and Paul commends. They all seem to think it’s a good model…the best model, and they clearly have their reasons…and if you think the Bible is more than just a good book, you have to take this recommendation rather seriously.  By the way, I don’t think we should be surprised as Christians that there are different marriage models since the world does not universally embrace this Book. I think we can say that fidelity is always better than promiscuity regardless of your model; but that the biblical model has in its favor, over 6000 years of testing behind it.

The biblical view of marriage is based on the assumption that the two halves of the human species must come together in pairs for human life to continue (a biological fact)…and not only must they come together sexually (as when the male and female reproductive cells, each containing half of the 46 human chromosomes are fused in the ampulla of the fallopian tube or in a test tube); but they must come together spiritually, emotionally, and relationally in order for life on earth to continue.  Now the human temptation is to try to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the others and to fixate on it and even deify it…and what Jesus is saying is that you can’t do that without getting hurt and causing great hurt - but that never seems to stop us from trying....

A few months ago on CNN, author and former mistress Holly Hill was arguing that married couples should consider what she calls negotiated infidelity… where couples give permission to each other to have sexual liaisons for the good of the marriage. It was supposed to be a radical new idea…but it was really an old idea. It took a psychologist to bring some common sense to the discussion. “I think what's universal is that no one likes sharing partners -- whether you're male or female.” In other words, when we sin, people get hurt. Last week I read about a girl who bragged that she had slept with 13 guys on her high school’s football team. How does everybody know this? Because she rated their sexual performance by name on her Facebook page; and because of the nature of the internet, it will be part of their permanent online resume. Sobering thought.

When we try to experience sexual union without the emotional, psychological, and spiritual union that biblical marriage provides, there is the risk of hurting ourselves (by making it more difficult to bond with a future mate); hurting others because promiscuity invites us to start comparing, and can create jealousy and insecurity (Women in particular are vulnerable because of the risk of pregnancy); hurting society (because promiscuity encourages the breakdown of families and the spread of devastating diseases); and….hurting God because when we live outside of God’s commands we experience the consequences of a broken relationship with Him. There are precious few of us who do not stand under God’s judgment for sexual sin, for Jesus reminds us that sexual sin begins in the mind and heart. We need to take that judgment on sin seriously…but not more seriously than the good news that God, in his love, sent his Son to restore and heal what has been broken.

(ii) Christian Marriage is the courage to make a lifelong commitment. Jesus is very clear in his response to the Pharisees who question him about divorce. “What God has joined together let no one separate….” (Matthew 19: 6) and later, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” Understand that Jesus said these things to protect women and men equally from the pain of divorce. According to Jewish law, a woman could be accused of adultery against her husband, but a husband could not be accused of adultery against his wife! If a man wanted to discard his wife in order to take up with another woman, he simply gave her a letter of intention to divorce. End of discussion. The Greek attitude toward women was even worse. Demosthenes wrote: “We have courtesans for our pleasure, prostitutes for daily physical use, & wives to bring up legitimate children.” In Rome, divorce was easy & women were repressed. Seneca said that “women dated the years by the names of their husbands.”  Now Jesus turned the tables on this double standard. He warned men who casually divorced their wives to pursue another relationship that they were committing adultery! In fact, says Jesus in Matthew 5: 28, you men are committing adultery if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart.

The grounds for Jesus’ assertion that the marriage relationship should be a lifelong commitment is nothing less than God’s unbreakable commitment to his people.Throughout Scripture, the Lord refers to his relationship with his people as that of a husband pursuing his bride with unbreakable devotion and steadfast love – even when she is unfaithful.... "For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected," says your God. "For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54: 5-8).

The power to live in faithfulness to one’s spouse comes from God’s unbreakable commitment to us. But what about those who know they have not been faithful…whose eyes and hearts and even bodies have wandered…or who have experienced the pain of an abusive and destructive marriage that could not endure without injury to one or both… I want to answer that question in a moment, but first I want to make a third point which is implied in Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 and stated explicitly elsewhere…

(iii) Christian Marriage is the promise to love, not just feel “in love.” We can presume that one of the reasons men in Jesus’ day wanted to divorce their wives was that they had grown bored of their partners…that they no longer felt “in love.” We can also be pretty certain that their wives also felt “out of love” now and then…though they had no legal right to do anything about it. The very fact that Jesus does not consider this change of “feelings” a good reason to end a marriage tells us that he had a very different view of what holds a marriage together…that marriage is a promise to love, not just feel “in love.”

Lewis says, “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling…Love as distinct from ‘being in love’ is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both…receive from God…It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.”

The Greeks had four words for love: Storge, the love of family affection. Phileo, the love of friendship. Eros, the love of physical intimacy and romance; and the highest form of love, Agape, the love of self-giving, the love that says “I’ll hold on to you, no matter what.” There is no greater description of love in this highest sense than the one found in 1 Corinthian 13: “Love is patient. Love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful….Love bears all things, believes all thing, hopes all things, endures all things; love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8). If you are not feeling the feelings any more, if you are not feeling in love, that’s the time to start loving…to start serving her, praying for him, listening, doing the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness, recalling your common purpose, standing side by side, eyes fixed on the horizon of God’s greater purpose.

From Mr. Linz in my Junior High metal shop, I learned that a crucible is a furnace in which metal is subjected to extreme temperatures, removed of impurities, and changed into a more durable substance. Marriage is a crucible in which we are being tested and changed for the better…but sadly many turn away from this test in search of the next easy, romantic fix…instead of developing the love that never ends. One more thing: this kind of love, the highest and best… is not reserved for marriage – how could it be? Family can know this love… dear friends can share this love…and above all we can experience this love with Christ who showed this love for us on the cross (Eph. 5: 27-33).

(iv) Finally, Christian Marriage is a gift….but not the only one. As the disciples listen to Jesus’ teaching on marriage, especially the calling to sacrificial, self-giving love, and the condemnation of casual divorce they say something unexpected: “Perhaps it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19: 10-13). Perhaps, as we began by saying, marriage is really a curse to be avoided.  But Jesus responds, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” Marriage is not to be entered into lightly. It is a gift…but there are other gifts. Jesus refers here to those other gifts in a cryptic reference to “eunuchs from birth, eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and eunuchs who have made themselves eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” (Matthew 19: 11-12). What is he talking about?

In reverse order, there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom; who have chosen the celibate life in order to serve God more freely. The single life is a noble calling (Jesus, let us remember, was single, and he had many close friends who were also single -- like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at whose grave he wept). If nothing else, this is a reminder that singleness is as much a gift as marriage, because our wholenesss is found in Christ…not in any human relationship.

But what about the others that Jesus mentions (somewhat mysteriously) those who were made eunuchs (castrated, wounded) by force or simply born that way. In Acts 8: 26ff. the Holy Spirit sends Philip the Evangelist to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch. It’s an amazing passage as we read that Philip literally runs alongside his chariot to find the Ethiopian reading Isaiah 53.  He learns from Philip that Jesus is the Suffering Servant spoken of by the prophet, the sheep led to the slaughter, the One by whose stripes we are made whole. Isaiah writes in that chapter that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Now what makes this story so powerful is that according to the Mosaic law, this man was excluded from the temple on two counts: he was a gentile, and he was a eunuch -- physically maimed and disfugured (Deut. 23:1; Lev. 21: 16-20)! The good news is that this man who had been formerly excluded from temple worship, was now being welcomed into God’s kingdom in fulfillment of Isaiah 56: 3-5 (read it!)…and friends, that should give every single one of us hope who feel like outcasts, sexually broken, maimed, or even violated.

I'm thinking of Jackie Pullinger who spent decades with the outcasts of society in Hong Kong. She tells the story of a 72 year old woman in her church who was a heroine addict and a prostitute for 60 years. Day after day, she would sit outside the brothel waiting for customers, as she poked in the sewers. She injected her back three times a day because the veins in her arms and legs had collapsed. She had no identity card and did not exist as far as the Hong Kong gov’t was concerned. Through Jackie’s ministry, she gave her life to Christ, received God’s forgiveness, and in one of Jackie’s halfway houses, she began to experience God’s healing. Eventually, she married Little Wa in 1992 who was 75 years old. Jackie called it the Wedding of the Decade. The former prostitute was able to walk down the aisle in white, cleansed and forgiven by Jesus Christ – she had been reborn (from Question of Life by Nicky Gumbel).

Friends, every single one of us has a scar or an invisible wound… some of us were wounded at birth, others received wounds that were self-inflicted, or were caused by others. Some of us feel the sadness or guilt of failed relationships and marriages, some of us have been abused or violated, some feel out of place, outcasts among God’s people because of physical or emotional scars. I pray that regardless of the nature of your scar or your story, that you might hear Christ welcoming you, calling you to turn toward him, from everything you know is wrong, that you might become (like his Bride, the Church) pure and spotless, cleansed, forgiven, and above all loved with the perfect love that is God’s greatest gift.

Harnessing the Power of Desire

Last night Lisa and I went out for Mexican food, and I have to confess. I did it again. I ordered a chili relleno, among other things. In fact, I grade Mexican restaurants by the quality of their chili rellenos. Now there is nothing wrong with indulging my desire for chili rellenos, but if I ate ten of them a day; and began neglecting my family so that I could spend more time collecting pictures of chile rellenos, and making youtube videos of myself eating chili rellenos. That would be a sign that something was very wrong with Pastor Steve. Obviously, our appetite for food (or sex) is a God given desire, and one to be grateful for, but unchecked it can become a self-destructive obsession. God’s word does not tell us to deny our desires, but to discipline and redirect them. There are at least four distorted ideas about desire in our contemporary culture that hinder the fulfillment of our deepest longings.

Distortion #1: Putting limitations on our desires is harmful. It was Freud who suggested that the frustration of desire is the cause of psychological ill health; and the idea that “All desires can and must be fulfilled,” is a central theme of our commercial culture; but the reality is that desire is the only aspect of the human being that is limitless. It was Dallas Willard who helped me understand that desire can never be totally satisfied! Thus, we have to set limits on and redirect our desires…or be destroyed by them. The desire for food or sex or rest or thrills is natural…but too much food, hooking up with multiple partners, too much rest and not enough physical activity, or the thrill of a crystal meth high can kill us. The word of God tells us that putting limitations on our desires is not harmful…it’s essential.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 6:12-13 “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions…but present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” What Paul is saying is that we were never meant to be enslaved by our desires; and that we can experience a new capacity to rule over our bodies instead of being ruled by them. We no longer have to live by the mantra, “I can’t help myself!” but can know in Christ a new power to choose and use our bodies as instruments of righteousness.  As a secular man I have two people to please.  It's either myself or someone else. When I get up in the morning, when I’m thinking about what to put on, when I’m choosing my words at the office or at school, when I see a woman walk down the street, when I’m tempted to break a promise or to be untruthful -- I make each decision based upon what feels right to me or what I think other people want… but as a man or woman of God my options become three dimensional. I have a third option. What would Christ have me do here? How will I dress, or speak, or treat that person in light of his love for them and for me? I no longer have to submit to what others think is acceptable or what feels inevitable. I no longer have to do what my instincts demand. My spirit is in control, and I choose a different path!

Distortion #2: Controlling our desires is impossible. Some will object that controlling our desires is impossible…but the truth is that controlling our desires perfectly is impossible. There is this idea that if you can’t do something perfectly then there is no point in trying. Imagine how many classes you would have failed in school if you had that attitude. I can’t answer every question on this test…so why bother? I don’t understand this subject as well as my professor so why try? I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to win every game if I go out for this sport, so what’s the point?  The point is that the act of trying is valuable in itself; for in the act of trying God is training in us habits of the soul that are even more important.

The fact that we will engage in these spiritual practices with God’s help is why Paul can make an astounding promise, namely that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6: 14). Paul doesn’t say “sin will have no place in your life”…but that it will not have first place – the dominant place. Don’t worry about trying to be perfect… I don’t believe anyone has given you that assignment. Your job is to keep trying and trusting right along with the rest of us (you’re not alone); and allow him to do the transforming work. Now the Christian virtue that we are trying for is a big one – in Lewis’ words: “either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner or else total abstinence.” It’s a high moral standard…because it is not simply a standard measured by our actions, but by the attitude of our hearts….

There is nothing that eats away at the integrity of a man’s faithfulness in marriage or in singleness like pornography. American spending on porn has jumped from $10 million in 1973 to 13 billion in 2006. I’m told there are 4.2 million porn sites today and counting. Psychologists at Stanford say “This is a hidden public health hazard exploding, in part, because very few are recognizing it as such or taking it seriously” (Journal of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity / March 2000). How do we face this crisis? For men it will mean understanding that porn is a cheat; that it offers nothing but loneliness and isolation; that it cuts us off from the very thing we need most – relationship. Take no prisoners, destroy illicit material, find friends who care enough to hold you accountable…and don’t delay. For women, it will mean being so very thoughtful about what you are communicating through your dress. As Christians, we need to recover the value of modesty in clothing; and not buy into the female stereotypes seen on the magazine stand and TV that objectify the female body.  Finally, take comfort in the promise of our Lord that with God all things are possible.

Distortion #3: Negative attitudes about sexuality, the body, and pleasure are Biblical. The church is often assumed to be “the enemy of sex.” How it got this reputation is both understandable and unfortunate. Augustine, the great 4th century theologian is a good example. Augustine was converted out of paganism, and in trying to put his past behind him, he began to connect the transmission of sin with sexual intimacy. He said that sex for any reason other than procreation was a sin. St. Francis was said to have plunged himself into icy water in order to purge “the flames of sensual pleasure,” and St. Benedict, we are told, tried to drive out the temptation of lust by rolling around naked in a nettle patch! Ouch! With the Protestant Reformation came a shift in attitudes towards sexual intimacy. Luther criticized the medieval church’s condemnation of marital relations for the sake of pleasure. He left his life as a celibate monk in order to marry; convinced that the Bible spoke very positively about the body and our sexuality.

Scripture asserts that it is God who created our sexuality when he made us in his image, “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27) and commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply.” The Bible also celebrates romance; and devotes an entire book to the subject. Just read the love poetry in the Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs, 7:10). It’s been said that God could have arranged for two people to procreate by mixing their ear wax on the head of a Q-tip but he didn’t. We can presume that God is not embarrassed by sex; nor is God surprised by it. He invented it. Lewis has this to say: “I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure, were bad in themselves. But they were wrong. Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body – which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a human body, and that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in Heaven” (Mere Christianity Book III. ch. 5). “No one ever hates his own body,” writes Paul, “but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church” (Ephesians 5:29). In a day in which we are obsessed with body image, and afraid of not fitting in, these are healing words. Love your body, it is a gift from God.

Of course – for reasons I’ve already stated about the nature of desire – the Bible does call us to a disciplined sexuality. And I want to affirm again the goodness of the call of God in the Law of Moses, the command of Jesus, and the letters of Paul – where it challenges men and women to come together in lifelong covenant partnerships, to be fruitful and to multiply; to become loving fathers and mothers, as well as to acknowledge how far short we have fallen…the high rate of divorce, and the casual way our culture sees our most sacred relationships. 

At this point it would be unwise to ignore those who say they cannot live within a traditional marriage as defined in Scripture. Considering recent news stories about the bullying of gay youth and several suicides, I want to briefly say this as an evangelical Christian. Regardless of whether our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors know Christ or not, they need and deserve nothing less than Jesus from usnot violence, not bullying.  Let's recall that the Nazis were notorious for sending not only Jews, but the disabled, gypsies, and homosexuals to the gas chambers.  Jesus taught us to sacrificially love, pray for, and witness to our neighbors -- regardless of who they are. This community is no exception. Futhermore, we in the evangelical Christian community need to get our own house in order – by modeling the kind of purity, integrity, and covenant faithfulness in our own marriages and relationships which we want for others and for our society; but having said that I want to end by exposing one more distortion, that…

Distortion #4: At the center of the human being is our sexual identity and desires. It is certainly the assumption of secular culture that our sexual desires and preferences occupy the very center of the human being. Many would have us believe that our sexual desires are the most significant fact about us; as though our god was quite literally, below the belt. Now certainly these physical desires and longings are an important aspect of our embodied human personality… but they are NOT the center or the most important thing about us. Christianity raises the center of the human being 12 inches to the human heart; because the center of the human being, what must truly define us, is not our sexual identity or desires; but our identity as children of God…who belong to him body and soul.  So Paul reminds us that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…There is no longer Jew or Greek there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 26-28).

Jesus never tells us to deny our desires, but to refocus that energy for the sake of God’s kingdom: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6: 33). It’s when we focus our desires on what we long for most -- God’s kingdom -- that all the other desires and passions and longings begin to take their proper place and relationship to one another…like spokes around a bicycle wheel. Spokes support the hub, but they can never be the hub. Only the hub can do that, and only God’s rule and reign can bring order to the competing desires and passions of our life.

This morning we’ve been talking about the power of our desires; and how it is God’s plan not for us to deny them or be dominated by them; but to harness them for his glory. Lewis wrote a fascinating story about “a fantastic bus ride from hell to heaven – a round trip for some but not for others.” In the story Lewis dreams of a group of ghostly travelers who have arrived in heaven -- from the infinite gray town below that we know to be hell -- where they are greeted by angelic visitors. In a series of brief scenes we’re invited to observe the choices they make and the consequences which follow…leading them either back to the bus, or toward the foothills of heaven. (By the way, this fiction is not meant to be a theology of second chances after death, but a timeless picture of how our choices lead us either toward or away from God for all eternity.)  

In one of my favorite scenes in this book, the narrator notices one of the passengers, an oily grey ghost who has decided to leave and is headed back to the bus. Sitting on his shoulder is a little red lizard, twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. The ghost turns his head to the reptile and snarls, "Shut up, I tell you!" Just then one of Heaven's radiant angels -- with burning hands -- sees the ghostly man. "Off so soon?" he calls.

"Well, yes," says the ghost. "I'd stay, you know, if it weren't for him," indicating the lizard. "I told him he'd have to be quiet if he came. His kind of stuff won't do here. But he won't stop. So I'll just have to go home."

"Would you like me to make him quiet?" asks the Burning One.

"Of course I would", says the oily ghost.

"Then I will kill him," says the flaming angel, stepping forward.

The man panics at the thought of permanently losing the lizard and the sweet fantasies the creature whispers in his ear. But he is tired of carrying him around. He dithers back and forth between the two choices and comes up with a variety of excuses. He doesn’t want to bother the angel with killing it.... Besides, it isn’t presently bothering him because it went to sleep.... He assures the angel that he’ll be able to get it under control himself through a gradual process.... and anyways, he doesn’t feel well enough to go through with “the operation” .... for surely killing the lizard will kill him....Instead, he'll go and get his doctor’s opinion (back in hell), and return later.  Finally, he asks why the angel hasn’t killed the lizard yet.  Solemnly, the angel reminds him he cannot kill the lizard without his consent. And yes, it will be painful for the ghostly man; the angel refuses to soften the truth. Finally, in anguish, the oily ghost gives his consent, "God help me!" he cries; and then screams in agony as the angel's burning hands close around the lizard and crushes it.

"Ow! That's done for me," gasps the ghost of a man, reeling back.

But then, gradually but unmistakably, the oily ghost begins to be transformed...becoming solider and solider until -- bright and strong -- he is transformed into the shape of an immense man, not much smaller than the angel. And even more surprisingly, something is happening to the lizard, too.  Though at first seemingly dead, it too begins to grow, rippling with swells of flesh and muscle, until standing beside the man is a great white stallion with mane and tail of gold, causing the ground to shake with each stamping of its hooves.

The new man turns from the horse, flings himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraces them. When he rises, his face shines with tears. Then in joyous haste the young man leaps upon the horse's back. Turning in his seat he waves a farewell. And then they are off across the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Like a star, they wind up, scaling what seem to be impossible steeps, till near the dim brow of the landscape, they vanish, bright themselves, into the rose brightness of that everlasting morning (abridged from C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

There are a thousand excuses we can make as we struggle alone with our sin and shame…it isn’t bothering me, I can get it under control myself, I’ll die without it, but in the end there is only one way out, one way to victory. “God help me!” That prayer, sincerely spoken, will always be answered…

Father, thank you for the encouragement that all is not lost however much we may feel tempted or troubled by our own desires; that we are human beings…not angels; and that we are truly sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  In that knowledge, we pray today for strength to meet each new challenge and every trial; for fresh power to rule over our bodies, rather than be enslaved by them; to know that our needs and desires can serve us rather than master us. Even as we find power in deep friendships or lifelong marriage; may we find our truest identity in the fact that you have called us your beloved children and sealed us with the Holy Spirit.  Forgive us Father where we have failed, grant us healing and comfort in our distress; and raise us up in the power of your risen Son, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Should We Behave?

For many people, “morality” (the idea that there are standards of right and wrong behavior) stands for everything that gets in the way of freedom.  It represents all that interferes and keeps us from having fun. In truth, morality (at least from the Christian perspective) is not what prevents us from playing and having fun, it’s what makes it possible to play at all -- much as a football game is not much fun if players have no teams, no field goals or boundary lines, and no referees to call the game. To be more precise, Christ reveals three essential reasons why behavior matters….There is a need for harmony between us, harmony within us, and harmony with the One who made us.

My oldest daughter plays in the orchestra at her middle school. Now before she could start playing in the orchestra or even receive an instrument, she needed to be willing and ready to play with others, secondly, she needed to practice and have her own instrument in tune, and thirdly, she and her other classmates needed to all be playing the same sheet of music as they followed the teacher’s lead.  As C. S. Lewis points out in "The Three Parts of Morality (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 1) when it comes to morality, most everyone agrees on the need to get along with others (harmony between people), they begin to disagree on what it means to have your own instrument in tune (harmony within), and disagree even more on the need to follow a director (have harmony with the Power who made us) – which is why I’m going to begin with what most everyone agrees on….

(i) The need for harmony between us (to be ready & willing to play w/ others). The first thing to get clear when Christians talk about the need for harmony between people and nations is that Jesus did not come to preach a brand new morality. Consider the Golden Rule: “In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 7:12; Mark 12:33; Lev. 19:18).  Jesus’ Golden Rule has been echoed by many wise teachers over the centuries. Jesus himself says he is simply summing up the law and the prophets. Confucius says, “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you." Babylonian text reads: “Speak kindness…show good will.” The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote: “Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good” (see the Appendix in C. S. Lewis' classic, The Abolition of Man). This is important…because if good behavior is what it claims to be, good…then it should be good in every time and place: e.g., acting wisely, with self-control, justly, courageously and sacrificially.

The second thing to understand when Christians talk of a harmonious moral society is that Jesus did not come to establish a political party or movement. On this eve of the November elections, it’s important to remember that no party or political agenda can fully express Christ’s message and ministry.  Gov’t uses law and the power of the sword to restrain evil, but it is powerless to transform the human heart; and that is Jesus’ main interest. “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” wrote John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other” (1978). When Christians are at their best, their recognition of human fallibility will not allow them to place any human institution or ruler above God in their hearts. “Render to Caesar what is Caesars” Jesus said, “And to God what is God’s.”

A Christian society is described in the New Testament, however…and so we have a pretty good idea what it would look like….•It warns us not to be lazy, but to work hard (in every level of society) as though for God, not people. •It calls us to show respect to authority (from the home, to the workplace, to the gov’t); and to be worthy of respect: to treat others as we would want to be treated. •It calls us to practice compassion toward those in need. •It urges us to keep the sacred commitments we have made; •It warns us not to make final judgments …but only because each of us will stand before the final Judge. •to speak the truth in love, •and to pray for and love our enemies. •It challenges greed and acquisition, while calling us to actively invest our resources, our time, and our abilities so that God’s kingdom is advanced.

I want to say that before we Christians talk too much about a “Christian society” we need to model a Christian society. It’s been said that “the church is the only army that shoots its wounded.” Lewis was actually wounded by friendly fire in WWI and lapsed into a depression: he experienced that pain…but like the English medics who came to his aid, I think we are also learning how to bandage up the ones that we’ve hurt. Recently, I was part of three mediations in which some members of  my own church laid down their arms and tried to do some bandaging instead. Ultimately, though, we need more than a bandage for there to be harmony between us…we need to be healed deeply; we need harmony within us…

(ii) The need for harmony within us (to have our own instrument in tune). It is one thing to have harmony between us…but what does that mean when there is disharmony within our own souls? You cannot create good people by laws alone; and without good people you can’t have a good society. This harmony within us begins with the knowledge of our own inner disharmony, our own capacity to do evil given the right circumstances.

David finally gained this knowledge in one of the most stunning confrontations in Scripture; when the prophet Nathan accused him of committing adultery with Bathsheba, and then arranging for her husband’s murder to hide the fact that she had become pregnant. As Nathan recounts how God raised David up to be king; and lavished him with countless blessings…he asks David a question: “Why? Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?” Then David, in one of the great understatements in Scripture, says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Later, he confesses in Psalm 51, “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). I get it now. I understand now my frightening capacity to do evil, given the right conditions. Nathan shined the light of God’s holiness on the blackness of David’s heart; because real transformation, real change can’t happen until we see the truth.

Three years ago, I did something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time; I rowed in an eight man rowing shell again in Marina Del Rey. I was a little nervous. I hadn’t done this in quite a while; but when I got into the boat…I was amazed that I was able to row as well as I did. I was catching and releasing well, and I was feeling fit, and pretty good about myself. But as we paused in the water after one piece…the coach drove up in her boat and was giving pointers to different rowers; and then she asked a question, “Steve, how long has it been since you’ve rowed?” “Oh, about 20 years!” A collective roar went up in the boat! She actually was very nice. “I remember rowing with wooden oars too, she said…the oars have gotten a lot lighter, and you’re pulling a little too deep in the water.” Now in the sport of rowing, it is literally impossible to pull together, to have harmony between your fellow rowers if your own technique is not right on. I recall a guy in college who was literally ejected from our boat when he failed to release quickly enough…the oar was sucked under the water as it accelerated toward his chest…catapulting all 190 lbs of him out of the boat.

There is a need for harmony between us, but it is useless if we are not addressing the disharmony inside us. “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want” (Gal. 5: 17). Now rest assured you will never experience a complete end to this inner conflict this side of heaven. Uncle Screwtape once said of human beings that “Their nearest approach to constancy… is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks…. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be….He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles” (The Screwtape Letters, ch. VIII). The law of undulation is real…but we can begin to reign in our spirits and walk with him…remembering that he is pleased even with our stumbles!

(iii) The need for harmony with the Power that made us. There is a popular idea today that says, “As long as I don’t hurt anyone else, I should be able to do what I want.” Lewis uses the illustration of a ship in a convoy to illustrate the problem with this point of view.  Why should it matter what I do on my ship, as long as I’m not running into the other ships around me? The answer is: It shouldn’t matter one bit…unless the ship is not my property. On the other hand, if the ship belongs to another owner or landlord, what I do with that ship now takes on a whole new meaning.  Why should it matter what I do with my body, my mouth, my hands, or my eyes as long as I’m not hurting anyone else? It shouldn’t matter…unless Paul is right when he says, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). It should make no difference what you do with your mind and body unless it is true that you were designed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12: 29-30).

Let’s face it, sometimes, it is more convenient not to believe in a God who cares about right & wrong than to believe in One who does. In his book Ends and Means, Aldous Huxley admits, “For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was…an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality…I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none" (cited in Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God).  In an odd coincidence, Lewis and Huxley died on the same day (Nov. 22, 1963)…but how differently they viewed death and their destination. Because we believe that there is One with whom we are accountable, One who wants us to love him and each other as he has loved us (1 John 4:16ff.).

 Why should we behave? We’ve talked about the need for harmony between us, harmony within us, and  harmony with the Power who made us; but this third reason…the need for harmony with the One who made us is the most important of all, because it means our existence is not meaningless and neither are our choices. As Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, there are no ordinary people:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption….Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden!” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

In the end…morality is not about living a bland, uninteresting, and ordinary life…it’s about living an extra-ordinary life…It’s about wanting to add your instrument to the symphony of God’s people, it’s about being in tune, ready to play, and it’s about following the Conductor, by grace alone, wherever he leads ...to Him be the kingdom, the power and the glory -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The Perfect Penitent

In C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, he speaks of what he calls “a frightening alternative.” Either this man Jesus was and is God, come in the flesh…or else he was a lunatic, or something worse…an egomaniacal, manipulative liar. Jesus didn’t seem to fit the description of a madman nor a fiendish liar; and it is hard to believe his own followers would have willingly died to claim that a liar and a fake was the Author of Life and risen from the dead (Acts 3:15).  So Lewis came to this conclusion: “However strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.” But why, and for what purpose? His first followers are unanimous in telling us that Christ came to reclaim this world from the grip of evil, that we are Enemy-occupied territory as Lewis puts it; and that he came to restore our relationship with God (Rom. 5:1) through his incredible life…and, most surprising of all, his terrible death.

(i) How has Christ’s death helped us? It’s a fair question: How could the death of one man 2000 years ago be in any way relevant to us here and now?  What Paul says, very simply, is that “God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In other words, that somehow God himself was working in and through Christ’s death on our behalf.  Put another way…Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Our relationship with God has been fragmented by pride and stubbornness, by our willful desire to set off on our own, and to turn from the God who made us. Now the only way that relationship can be healed is if we turn back in repentance.

But here is the problem…to turn back to God means a kind of death, the death of our selfish agendas, the death of our sinful nature, the death of our old life, so that we might begin a new life. But that kind of death is not something we can do very easily. In fact, the more hardened we are by sin, the more we need to turn back and the more difficult it is to do it! As it turns out, it really takes a good man to repent, but it’s the bad man who needs it. As Lewis says, “The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person, and he would not need it.”

At this point, some may complain: Why does God need me to grovel at his feet and say “I’m sorry!” before he’ll take me back. Why doesn’t he just do it?” Remember that repentance is not something God requires to take us back…it is simply what turning back to God looks like. To say that we want to turn back to God without repentance is like saying that we want God to take us back without going back; that we want to be free of our sins without being free of them; that we want to love God without really loving him.

The point is, there is no getting around this turning back, this repentance, this death of ourselves. We need to do it…but because of our sin, because of our hardened hearts, we can’t do it. As Paul says, “I can will what is right but I cannot do it” (Romans 7: 18). We need God’s help…but is there help from God? We should be encouraged by the fact that God is helping us all the time. We can think…only because God has put a little of his reason into us. We can love (John says) only because he first loved us, and puts some of his love in us. But now we need God to help us die to ourselves, and turn back to him! How can God help us do that? God doesn’t need to repent (his goodness is perfect) and God can’t die (God is eternal)! But what if God entered our human nature and did for us what we had no desire to do…what if God went to the lowest place, the darkest place and gave himself for us even when we did not know him or love him?

Father Maximilian Kolbe
On July 31st 1941 the Auschwitz sirens announced an escaped prisoner. As a punishment, ten of his fellow prisoners would die in the starvation bunker. As the ten were randomly selected they pointed to one man, Francis Gajowniczek, who cried out, “My poor wife and children.” At that moment, one man stepped forward. “What does this Polish pig want?” asked the commandant. “I am a Catholic priest, I want to die for that man. I am old, he has a wife and children…I have no one” said Father Maximilian Kolbe. “Accepted,” retorted the commandant. That night, Kolbe was put into a starvation bunker…He survived for two weeks as he and the others prayed and sang hymns together, and was eventually put to death by lethal injection. An Auschwitz survivor said about this mighty act of love “It was an enormous shock to the whole camp….Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him….Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. To say that Father Kolbe died for us or for that person’s family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands…We were stunned by his act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp.”  Paul says, God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…a mighty explosion of light in a darkened world.

(ii) How is Christ’s life spread to us? The way physical life was given to us can be explained physiologically but the end product is no less awe-inspiring to anyone who has held a newborn baby. Each of us is made of 100 trillion cells (more cells than stars in our galaxy) 23 chromosome pairs in every cell, and 20-25,000 genes in each chromosome. But even the Director of the Human Genome Project (Francis Collins), doesn’t think that genes fully explain the human being; he says it is Jesus, not just genes, that define him. The Bible says there are three ways that the life of Christ is spread to us, and though we can describe them, it makes them no less mysterious or miraculous.

The first is simply Believing in Christ.  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Believing… which is a topic we will discuss more in the future…is not about what we can achieve for God, but a trusting in what God has achieved for us through Christ. When as a child you flung yourself down from a tree into your father or mother’s arms, or ate the food that they placed before you at the table, you were believing and trusting in your parent’s love for you. When we say that we believe in Christ…we are coming to God like children, simply trusting that in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection…the Father has expressed his will and his love for us. But even that belief is a miracle…for Jesus said, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Even our belief is a gift from God.

The second way his life is spread to us is through Copying Christ.  "No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness…but present your members to God as instruments of righteousness,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 5: 3-5; 6:13). If we want to play basketball like Michael Jordan, we have to do more than wear his jersey and his brand of shoes, we have to present our members, our eyes and ears, legs and arms, our entire bodies to physical conditioning, daily drills, passing, shooting, learning defensive and offensive strategies and, in general, copy the things that he does. Copying Christ, or the imitation of Christ (read the famous book by Thomas a' Kempis) is no different. To grow in Christ-likeness, we must practice. We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the development of new habits, directing our bodies toward the things that Jesus himself would do if he were us: things like worship, prayer, knowing and living God’s word, helping others, working for what is just and good. But again, even the power to do this…is a gift, a miracle of his grace. Therefore, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” says Paul, “for God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2: 12-13).

The third way that his life is spread to us is by Uniting with Christ in Baptism and Holy Communion. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). The Sacraments remind us and in a special way communicate the Spiritual presence of Christ. They are important because we can’t do them for ourselves, they are done to us. Just as a baby cannot wash or feed herself, so we do not baptize ourselves or prepare the meal at the Lord’s Table. It’s a sign of the cleansing power of God that only he can do. Lewis has a beautiful illustration of this cleansing work…but before I share it with you, I need to address one final question.

(iii) How will you respond to Christ? Some will no doubt object to the idea of having to respond to Christ at all…by virtue of the fact that it is so narrow and exclusive an idea of truth. After all, isn’t it arrogant to say as Jesus does in John 14:6 that, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? Or consider the words of Peter who declares of Jesus, that“there is no other name under heaven by which people must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Lewis was annoyed by this before he became a Christian as well, and says this: “Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”  I think Lewis' point is that, though Scripture tells us that "the wages of sin is death" (Roman 6:23) you and I do not possess perfect knowledge about the final destiny of any human being.  God alone sits in the judgment seat (Matthew 7:1).  When it comes to those who have died without knowledge of Christ...we can be confident that God is infinitely more righteous and just than we could ever be. In the mean time, “the most unreasonable thing for us to do,” as Lewis points out, would be to stay outside ourselves. For Christians not only receive Christ’s Body spiritually by believing in him, copying him, and uniting with him in the Sacraments…we are Christ's Body, and as we begin to follow him, we add another cell to that ever-expanding Body through which Christ is transforming the world. For “Every addition to that body enables Him to do more…”

We've been talking about the meaning of Christ’s death and how he spreads his life into us, beginning the process of our healing. Lewis has a beautiful and powerful way of illustrating the beginning of that healing process in his book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader... 

Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a precocious and obnoxious nine year old who has boarded the Dawn Treader with Prince Caspian, and the other four Pevensie children on a quest that will take them to Aslan’s far country, at the end of the world.  At one point, they are marooned on Dragon Island, where they must make repairs to the damaged ship. Eustace wanders off, trying to avoid the hard work ahead…and stumbles upon a dragon’s cave, where he finds a pile of golden treasure. Falling asleep on the pile of gold, with a gold bracelet on his arm, and thinking all kinds of greedy dragonish thoughts, Eustace turns into a dragon himself….which is probably the best thing that could have happened to him, because now he is forced to look at himself, in all his dragonish ugliness. When he returns to his friends as a dragon, they are able to figure out that it is Eustace, but they are powerless to help.
Six days later, in the morning, a lone figure approaches the camp. It is Eustace, but transformed again into a boy. How did it happen? Eustace tells the story of how a huge lion appears to him, leading him to a well of pure water where he is invited to undress and bathe himself.  Eustace  assumes that the lion wants him to peel off his dragon scales. ..but is unable to do so after three attempts.  Each time he tries to scratch the scales off, another skin appears beneath.  Finally, the lion says to Eustace, "You will have to let me undress you."  Eustace meekly obeys, laying flat down on his back as the lion make a tear so deep...that it feels as if it goes straight into his heart.  The pain of the skin coming off is fierce, but nothing compared to the joy of having it removed.  Eustace is un-draggoned, and in human form once again!  The lion grabs hold of him and throws him into the well where the water stings at first, but then wonderfully soothes and heals him.  "It would be nice and fairly nearly true to say that 'from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.'  To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy.  He had relapses.  There were still many days when he could be very tiresome.  But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chapter 7, "How the Adventure Ended"). 

Christ is our High Priest whose atoning death has inspired unbelievable acts of sacrificial love...like that of Father Kolbe.  He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, who comes to bring life and joy to those who are deadened by sin; and his promise is that as you trust in his matchless life and atoning death...the cure can begin and continue in you as well. 

For further reading:
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book II, Chapters, 4-5
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 7
Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines