Enduring Ethics – Mirror, Mirror…

MirrorRick always had a way of delivering a one liner – humble but honest, seasoned with reality.  One day he looked at me and said “with just a little work, we could be the Pharisees of the 21st century.”  The “we” was our church, our denomination… us.

He was reminding me, and others in leadership, that its seldom as simple as “them”.  Sometimes its “us”.  The old spiritual put it this way “It’s me, it’s me O Lord, standin in the need of prayer...”

In Snow White, the evil queen was focused only on herself, repeatedly asking the mirror who was the fairest in the land?  We are usually focused on ourselves as well, but seldom have the courage to ask who is the most Pharisaical in the land?  We assume it’s never us.

Around the mid second century BC a group arose named the “separated ones”.  Their hearts may have been in the right place.  They wanted to stay their country from falling away from God, His instruction, and His protection.  But like some organizations, their charter to preserve degenerated into to lifeless categories of prohibition.  The big idea was lost in a growing mountain of minutiae.

Jesus’ strongest words were reserved for these folk – the Pharisees.  During his last week of ministry, after being followed, hounded, criticized and nitpicked to death by these religious legalists, Jesus unloaded in broad daylight.  Seven times he pronounced a “woe” upon them.  Seven times they suffered direct hits to their system, ego, and reputation.  Seven times the Son of God called them what they were:  hypocrites, sons of hell, blind guides, blind men, blind Pharisees, snakes, and brood of vipers.  There was no good news.

Why?  Because they…

  1. shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces, making it impossible for them to enter.  Their rules were legion, their regulations irrelevant and divorced from God’s law.  Their teaching was critically obtuse, holding no good news at all.
  2. travelled over land and sea to make a single convert that contributed to their disease.  Their missionary work wasn’t to spread the sacrificial love of God through Christ, but rather to extend their complex web of legalities and minutiae.  It took a lot of travel to produce one convert.  And it wasn’t the kind of convert that made anyone’s life better.
  3. took oaths in front of people that sounded good, but excused themselves from actual follow through by careful parsing of the oath language.  Like a multi-national firm seeking tax evasion, these folk wanted public praise without any personal cost.
  4. tithed herbs while neglecting the weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy and faithfulness.  The point of tithing was to teach dependence on God and continually enrich the relationship with God.  That they could tithe on their mint leaves and walk by injustice meant they had no relationship with God in the first place.  Jesus called it “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel”
  5. cleaned the outside of the cup and dish, while ignoring the greed and self-indulgence inside.  They were meticulous about their garments, homes and utensils, but didn’t give a second thought regarding how they secured their wealth from which they feasted.  They cleaned the wrong things.
  6. were like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.  They appeared to people as “alive” but on the inside they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness.  They put whitewash on a tomb.  We call it putting lipstick on a pig.  They were dead inside.
  7. they built tombs for the prophets their forefathers killed, while treating the prophets of their own day exactly as their forefathers did.  They thought making monuments for history validated ignoring the prophetic voice in their own day.

The summary is this – they loved titles and honor from people while they made life harder for people while they did nothing to help people.  Vain, legalistic, and unhelpful.  Fail.

The scary part is this: these folks considered themselves experts in the word of God.  They thought they knew him best.  But the fact was they didn’t recognize him when he was standing right in front of them.

How good are you at recognizing Him?  How good are you at hearing his words?  How good are you at seeing your own reflection clearly?  See any likeness to these folks?

While I hope not, it’s good to get a second opinion, to linger, to consider…  “Mirror, mirror?”  Now be honest.

-Anthony

Enduring Ethics – Babylon Woe

babylon imageWho is this woman?  Riding on a seven headed beast covered with blasphemies, holding a golden cup full of adulteries, and drunk with the blood of the faithful.

Who is this woman?  Enticing the kings of the earth, making merchants rich, sharing her maddening wine that leads all those partaking into sharing her limitless unfaithfulness.

Who is this woman?  The Queen Mother… the ultimate harlot… the ageless “woe-man”… Babylon.

Hurtful cheating women have been the topic of pop music for decades, but none ever hurt like this one; none ever played the prostitute with as many for as long as this one.

She’s the un-church, the antithesis of the woman of faithfulness described in Revelation 12.  She’s the opposite of all that God has defined as faithful behavior for those who follow Him.  She’s the spirit and value system that can be had for a buck, is always willing to compromise, and remains unsatisfied until others have not only given in to her unfaithfulness and self-gratification, but spread her toxic virus to as many as they can.

She has lived in every age and in every country.  She’s not Rome, Babylon, London, Berlin, Beijing, or New York per se, though her influence has been felt in each of those.  She’s as much a part of every aspect of global culture as the church has been.

There’s always faithfulness and faithlessness.  On the later, this Babylon, the woes of Revelation are pronounced.  Here are her sins.  Over the ages she has…

  • made the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries
  • gave lodging to every evil spirit
  • infected the earth with adulterous virus
  • acquired excessive luxuries
  • boasted of immunity to judgment and suffering
  • used her magic spell to lead all nations astray
  • been responsible for the blood of prophets, saints and of all who have been killed on the earth

No judge from men can prosecute her.  No policeman can arrest her.  Her damage is felt from century to century.  But there will come a time when her sensual, destructive, bloodthirsty rampage through history will be stopped.  Cold.

At that time, in one day, in a single hour, this perennial prostitute will be brought to ruin, left naked, have her flesh eaten, burned with fire, made to drink a double portion of her own cup, overtaken with plagues, taken in death, mourning and famine, consumed by fire, thrown down by violence, and become a smoking monument to God’s judgment forever and ever

But that is not today.  Today, she carries on.  But not you.  You are to “Come out of her my people so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues…” (18:14)  Meaning what?

Simply this.

While she breeds adultery in every corner of our culture, you stand for faithfulness in every relationship, promise, commitment and value.  While she promotes nameless spiritualism that reeks of the garlic of self gratification, you practice and promote the presence of the Holy Spirit Who has a name – the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  When she glories in her excessive luxuries at the expense of others and in the name of opportunity, you break her maddening spell with a stand for moderation, contentment and a demonstration of “enough”.  When she promotes arrogance and aggression disguised as “living life to the fullest”, you magnify the day in light of a vast universe and a great God who alone knows what the future holds, pointing out that choice itself is a privilege.  When she takes the life of a saint or fellow believer anywhere on the planet you stand and let your voice be heard – that was your family member.

You do that.  Don’t let the harlot seduce you.  Stand.  Speak. Believe.  Her day will come.

-Anthony

Enduring Ethics – A Tale of Three Cities

Choice Street PreacherYou’ll not find them on any list of “The most desirable places to live”.  You’ve probably only even heard of one of them.  You’d likely be wrong in guessing why two of the three came to their obscure place in history.

Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.  Three cities.

Not exactly vacation hotspots.  But Jesus had harsh words for them.  These are the cities that He pronounced “Woes” upon.  These places heard a prognosis from the Son of God that would have frightened any real estate investor.

Tyre and Sidon, perennial bad boys of the “Old Testament Urban League” have greater reason for optimism on the coming day of Judgment than Chorazin and Bethsaida.  The former were the focus of numerous prophetic warnings because of the godlessness of their cultures.  But they are still around today.  People live there.  The latter?  Chorazin is a place of ruins and Bethsaida is not even on the map – can’t find it.

Sodom, the incumbent number one of the annual “Worst Places Ever” list, has greater reason for optimism on the coming day of Judgment than Capernaum.  The former was sister city to Gomorrah, home to the worst ethics violations in the early Old Testament.  Things were so bad that God himself visited to check out the reports.  It is no more.  God rained burning sulfur on the city and destroyed every living person save Lot and his daughters.  The latter is no more either- a place of ruins and irrelevance.  No fire and brimstone, but also no legacy.

What did they do?  What were these three cities guilty of that catapulted them to the poll position of bad news on Judgment Day?

Simply this:  they did not repent, despite the fact that most of Jesus miracles were performed there.

Did you catch that?  Do you understand what that means?  Let me break it down for you in case you didn’t.

First, most of Jesus miracles occurred in cities that we essentially have no record of in the New Testament.  That means that the miracles we do have record of represent the minority.  This aligns with John’s statement regarding “the many other things that Jesus did” which are not recorded in the Bible.

Second, this suggests that the New Testament is more of a record of man’s response to God’s activity than it is a simple record of God’s activity.  The Holy Spirit could have focused biblical writers on wonders and miracles that residents of these towns witnessed but did not respond to.  But that would have benefitted us nothing.  Instead, we are told of a lonely woman by a well, a blind man wanting to see, and rich man climbing into a tree – all people like us, trying to find our way, needing God to show up and help us a bit.

Third, a demonstration of God’s power doesn’t mean people will respond.  He did a lot in these three cities, but people were generally unimpressed – you know, “people to see, places to go, things to do…”  In the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man, when he found himself in Hell, asked for someone to go back and tell his brothers about the reality of Hell, to warn them.  Abraham’s response?  “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Translated – if you’re not listening you won’t hear; if you’re not looking you won’t see.  That’s what these three cities did.  They were shown wonders and didn’t see them.  They were told amazing truths and didn’t hear anything.

Hershel Hobbs wrote…

“…citizens of these cities who rejected Christ will receive a greater judgment than will the citizens of Old Testament cities who never knew Him.  Why will this be so?  Because they sinned against the greater privilege.  They were indifferent to their opportunity.  It is a great privilege to be confronted with Christ.  But it is also a great responsibility.”

So which is worse – committing a heinous sin or rejecting the great sacrifice of heaven for the heinous sin committed?

These three cities learned too late that it’s likely the latter.

Have you?  Are you seeing today?  Are you listening today?  Or are you just too busy to be bothered with privilege?

-Anthony

Enduring Ethics – Here Come the Judge

judge eastwoodHere come the judge!” is a popular phrase captured in our music and pop culture.  It can be good news if he’s coming to take down the bad guy.  But if, when he gets closer, he looks more problematic than the bad guy, some ancient words from God to Habakkuk become important.

Habakkuk’s struggle was… “do I tolerate the injustice and idolatry I see rampant in my own country or do I invite God’s judgment, which ultimately means an invading army more godless and wicked than the place I live in?

His dilemma could be ours.  Culture can need correction, but that often involves trauma.  Which do you prefer?  Cultural decay or corrective trauma?  The later often involves the strong man; the judge.  Politics and church revivals don’t always get it done.

So Habakkuk took his struggle to God.  And God responded in typical fashion:

  • God did not answer Habakkuk with an exhaustive ethical justification for what He was about to do
  • God did answer Habakkuk with a call to faith – to trust in His appropriate timing and judgment on those needing correction and those doing the correcting

Ultimately, behind the strong man or judge, is God.  And He had these things to say to Habakkuk (and to us) regarding His view of the strong man and what his end would be – every time.

How does this help us today?

Justice, whether personal, civic or international is seldom a choice between Sunday School and Serial Murder.  There are shades and nuances, ebbs and flows.  So it’s comforting to know there is One who follows it all and will ultimately hold each instrument of judgment accountable.

It’s also important to realize that breaking news is often premature.  What’s news today is often not the full story.  There is a day coming when the full impact of all strong men will be revealed.  Their role in history will be fully understood.  But that day is not today.

We are given a survival tool; a kind of Swiss army knife by which to read international and economic news:  faith.  This multi-functional tool allows us to proceed in peace when all is crashing down around us.  It allows us to move with confidence when culture is rotten and the corrective action coming seems even more so.

The strong man God used to correct Habakkuk’s culture did indeed come – Babylonia.  But even in its strength, there were those living by faith who sent the strong man a message:  “I’m not gonna bow to you!”.  This is a message we sometimes need to send in our own day.  And the day did indeed arrive when the One True Judge came.  And the strong man fell in a single night.

Justice and justice.  Here comes the Judge – the Big One!  Live by it.

-Anthony

Enduring Ethics – Woe and Whoa!

woe 1Woe!  Is there any ethical wiggle room in that word?  Don’t think so.

I would say the word means “bad news” about 100% of the time.  Revisionists have their way with many genres of literature.  History, for example, can be rewritten based upon the perspectives of those pushing today’s academic pens.  And Biblical interpretation is certainly not exempt.  The church finds itself in the midst of ethical conversations that were unthinkable 50 years ago.

But here’s where I kind of like “woe” – it doesn’t allow for much of that.  Woe means woe – it means something’s wrong on a major scale in God’s view.  And odds are if it was wrong then, it’s likely wrong now.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of 6 major ethical misses that earned God’s “woe” (an “F” in heavenly ethics class).  These were the things that brought down a nation – not just any nation, but the one of God’s own making.  Now if these ethical evils brought down the nation God made, how disastrous might they be for our time, our nation, and our city?

Here’s the list, straight from Isaiah 5:8-30.  God says “Woe to you who are…

  • Property Grabbers (“Woe to you who add house to house…”) – those who enrich themselves by disregarding the sacred right of land inheritance (Lev. 25:14-17, Micah 2:1-2).  Because of them there is no room left for people of ordinary means to own a house and land.
  • Party Animals (“Woe to those who rise early for drinking…”) – those who have become alcoholics, shown by their need for “beer” early in the morning.  They party through the day and into the night until they’re totally hammered, showing no time for God’s deeds and no regard for his work.
  • Parading Shamelessly (“Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit...”) – those who are openly proud and brazen over that which they should be ashamed of, openly defying the Lord with parade floats of sin so heavy that they have to use cart ropes to drag them along.
  • Repeal Morality (“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil…”) – those who reverse moral distinctions.  These are folks who have become so seared in their depravity that they consider sin to be perfectly normal and good to be the evil.  These are the sophists of any age, who have found a clever word game for proving black is white and white is black.
  • Pump Themselves Up (“Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes…”) – those who put their own ideas on a pedestal and now imagine they know more than past wisdom, being highly enlightened above God’s revelation, his prophet’s warnings and his promised judgment.
  • Prostitute Justice (“Woe to those who acquit the guilty…”) – those who have sold their responsibilities in social leadership to buy that which feeds their base habits.  This is the judge or policeman who has an addiction and takes a bribe to support it.  Justice goes hungry while social leaders feed their cravings.

Seen any of that stuff around today?

One writer described Israel in the 6th century BC as “a false, government-aided prosperity encouraging a corrupt luxury accompanied by oppression of the poor and a sensual, immoral, heathenish religion”  Now that does sound familiar.

When crime, sensuality, and greed are ascendant, it’s hard to imagine justice ever being done.

Imagine.

Justice did come to the nation that God told “woe” – big time.  Consider Amos 4:1-2 in light of the bas-relief from Nineveh showing the conquest of Lachish.  In it captive Jews are being led before King Sennacherib of Assyria by ropes attached to giant fish hooks put through their jaws.

Before God says “woe” on our time, we need to cry “whoa!” to any part we play in such.

-Anthony

God Calling… Family and Fleece

The best measure of a spiritual life is not its ecstasies but its obedience.”  (Oswald Chambers)

I think there’s a common misconception about following God (or “doing the right thing” in common parlance):  it’s easy and the bleachers are full of supporters.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The path of faith, ethics, and change is lonely.

And what’s most surprising is who is not in the bleachers when you take your first step.

In the story of Gideon, hard on the heels of his inspirational interview with an angel of God, he was instructed to tear down the altar of worship to a false God (Baal).  The one of which his own family was assigned the role of caretaker on behalf of their village.

That meant embarrassing Dad.  That meant stirring up the anger of the whole town. That meant difficulty.  That meant taking the first step alone.  So Gideon made two critical decisions:

  • first, he decided to obey God.  The angel told him to take the first step toward realizing his full role as “mighty warrior” that very night.  There was no time allowed for consideration.  No time to meditate, no time to take a poll of wise elders, no time to consider life markers, no time to check with the family to see how everyone felt about being “most hated” in their community the next day.
  • second, he decided to do his work at night.  Why?  Because he was afraid.  It’s been said that courage is the assessment that something is more important than fear.  Gideon showed courage but he also showed a little fear.  And that is something you and I can relate to.

Day two of Gideon’s obedience dawns, the deed is done, and the town is ticked off.  They show up ready to kill him.  Then something amazing happens:  the Father Gideon has placed in a most awkward situation stepped out to defend his son’s actions…

“If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar!”

Makes sense.  The town people thought so too.  And so Gideon got a cool nicknameJerub-Baal, or “Baal Fighter”.  In our day is would be something like “Idol Smasher”.

This first step of obedience is not unusual in the Bible.  Those God calls often have to take the first steps alone and in the face of family disagreement.  Those closest to you are not always God’s advisors.  Be careful.

As Oswald Chambers also once suggested, when God gives us an assignment, the worst thing we can do is consult with another person.  Moses would agree.  So would Noah and Daniel.  And so would Jesus, who not only modeled obedience over family, but redefined true family by obedience (Matthew 10:37-39, Matthew 8:21-22, Matthew 12:46-50).

Very difficult.  But it changes the world.

Guys like Phinehas (Numbers 25:1-13) are special because only one thing matters to them – God.  And while others are consulting or politicking, folks like Phinehas act decisively.  And a nation is saved.

This story tends to gain everyone’s attention because of a couple of nights when Baal Fighter laid out the fleece looking for confirmation.  But Gideon didn’t do that because he was deciding whether or not to be obedient.  He did it because he’d already started.

Have you started… to obey?  Or are you still laying out fleeces?

-Anthony

Inconceivable

That’s what Vizzini repeatedly exclaimed as the Dread Pirate Roberts advanced on his well-oiled kidnapping of the lovely Buttercup (The Princess Bride).  After the apparent incongruence of the word’s repetition and the obvious closing of the gap that existed between the two parties settled in, Inigo Montoya (the Spaniard Swordsman) finally responded – “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I think the same could be said for leadership.  There’s often an apparent gap between popular or “successful” leaders and good ones.  It can be frustrating to know who to follow; who to believe.

The residual questions remain… How do you influence others?  How do you guide through an ethical dilemma?  How do you urge redemptive progress in a deep canyon of unmovable circumstance?  How do you build reliable superstructure on the quicksand of poor decision making?

These are issues leaders constantly face (you may face them).  Some appear better than others.

Some seem to lead with a chainsaw (see Al Dunlap, ex-CEO of Sunbeam).  Others appear to lead with victory and diversion (see Lance Armstrong, ex-7 time winner of the Tour de France).  The fact of the matter is this – it’s often hard to tell a good leadership “engine” from a bad one until it’s got a lot of miles on it, and you have a chance to “pop the hood” and learn how it really works.

Time will tell.  Maybe we should be slower to emulate until we have time to extrapolate.

The Apostle Paul ranks pretty high on the historical leadership chart.  His “engine” acquired a lot of miles.  With the hood closed, you’d tend to see him as harsh, judgmental, and unforgiving… an emotional IQ of “0”.  If you like his level of success, it’d be easy to make that approach your own, thinking to yourself “if I’m the same way, I can get things done, move people, and change the world!”

Read Philemon first.

In it we find clues as to how the engine of Paul’s leadership really worked.  He found himself in between a run-away slave, an angry owner, the bizarre ethics of slavery as an accepted culture in the ancient Roman world, and a freshly minted follower of Christ in Onesimus – wondering if change mattered.

This letter ‘pops the hood’ and lets you see beneath the appearance of how Paul led to how he actually led.  You might be surprised at the differences.

Specifically, that he led with relationship – the letter is laced with the request of one man toward another based on partnership, friendship, fellowship, and gratitude.  Philemon wasn’t merely an employee or church member to Paul.  He was known by Paul.  And on that basis Paul requested cooperation and forgiveness on behalf of another.  Paul didn’t just know Philemon.  He had served Philemon.

So, who are you trying to lead?  Answer this first… Who are you presently serving?

He also led with product – the heart of the letter concerns a run-away slave who’d been changed in a way most of us need to be changed: from “how can I escape?” to “how can I do what’s right?” Nothing helps a matter more than actual product.  Superior to marketing, diversion, and political pressure, true product influences.  Content is king.  Paul didn’t change the world with religious sleight-of-hand.  He changed it with reformed men.  His “product” wasn’t preaching.  His product was embedded in his message – the power of Christ to change lives from the inside out and alter character.  He could’ve tried to change the system.  Instead he focused on people who make and unmake the system.

So, who are you trying to lead?  Answer this first… What are you relying on to create change?

And he led others with trust – Paul sends a transformed slave home to face the unknown; and it could have gone badly.  He sends him home with trust.  He extends confidence to a man who had a choice.  But he does so with trust that his request will be honored because of the relationship and the product.  He had confidence Philemon would do what he asked and more.  And I think he did just that.

So, who are you trying to lead?  Answer this first… What level of trust are you offering?

I’m thinking about the last picture above.  Could be you or me.  There are a lot of leaders out there; lots of models to choose from.  Choose wisely and change your world.  But some of the best leadership happens “under the hood” or behind the scenes.  So lead on… where it counts.

-Anthony