Sunday, February 26, 2023

More than we can bear?

    There was woman whom Cathy and I knew from attending soccer games of a team one of our kids was playing on. The soccer mom, whom I’ll call Anna, was in her late thirties with three children. A few months after the end of the season, we learned that Anna had just been terminated from her job. Shortly afterward, her husband filed for divorce. It turned out he had been seeing another woman for more than a year. We relayed this sad news to someone we knew a few days later. This friend replied, “That’s terrible news. But remember, God does not place on us more than we can bear.”

I have to confess that I find that statement deeply troubling. It presumes, I think, God somehow is the direct cause of tragedy in our lives and that we are all really just human ten pins who sometimes get flattened by the divine bowling ball. But don’t worry, you can handle it because God would not have laid your divorce, or illness, or bankruptcy, or other misfortune on you if you could not bear it.

But the Bible never says that. “God does not place on you more than you can bear” is nowhere in the Bible. Nothing like it is in the Bible. The saying is sometimes attributed to Mother Teresa. But she neither said it nor wrote it.

In fact, the apostle Paul says flatly in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 that he and his missionary companions “were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life... .”

But Paul never blamed God for that. Rather, he did understand that there was only one way out: “… indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God … on whom we have set our hope.”

Probably, the idea that God won’t lay life’s exceptional misfortunes or tragedies won’t happen to someone unless they can “handle” it is a misquote of First Corinthians 10, verse 13, which says,

You suffer no temptation but that which is common to everyone. God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. When you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can endure it.

It is temptations to cease discipleship, even if only for a moment, that Paul is talking about, not being struck by a personal difficulty. Note that Paul does not blame God for temptation. After all, the apostle James wrote, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…” (James 1.13). No temptations come from God, but we have God as partner when temptations come.

What does it mean, though, that God “will not let” us be tempted beyond what we can bear? Does that mean that God is hand picking and choosing which temptations he will let come through and inflict us? Does he stand aside for some but block others? Frankly, if God is actively selecting the temptations that strike me, then I don’t even want to imagine the ones he blocks. The ones that get through are bad enough. Besides, if God wants me not to sin, why would he let any temptations through at all? If he can block some, he can block them all.

The way I understand Paul’s teaching is that no temptation is possible that is more than we can bear, God being our helper. I do not think that God is carefully selecting which temptations hit us; no, they all get through. But no temptation is stronger than the Christ's ability to defeat it. Therefore, no temptation is more than we can bear, Christ being our strength.

This doesn’t mean it is easy. It does mean that God is faithful and is always at our side, even when we want to sin.

I knew a man in his late thirties, a member of our Sunday School class in Virginia before I entered the ministry. Though happily married, he became attracted to another woman who was also married. He knew this was wrong and he successfully suppressed every urge to act on his attraction, but it was a struggle even though he prayed about it. He read one day Hebrews 2.18, which says of Jesus,

… he had to be … fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

So in prayer this fellow asked Jesus bluntly whether he, Jesus, had ever been tempted to commit sins of the flesh. The answer was not what he expected. He wanted a simple yes or no but instead the Lord’s answer was, “You may trust that the Scriptures are true.” The man realized that the specific temptations Jesus may have faced were not what mattered. The truth that counts is that “he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

For this reason, no temptation is more than we can bear, but only if we know that it is not ourselves who win the fight, but the risen Christ who suffered when he was tempted and therefore is our certain strength when we are tempted.

Martin Luther put this truth in verse. Let’s look at verse two of his hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God:

Did we in our own strength confide

our striving would be losing, 

were not the right man on our side, 

the man of God's own choosing. 

Dost ask who that may be? 

Christ Jesus, it is he; 

Lord Sabaoth, his name, 

from age to age the same, 

and he must win the battle.

Here are four things about temptations that may help us defeat them:

1.     The devil does not tempt Christian people to bring us back to damnation but to remove us from service to God. Once we belong to Christ, the devil has no control over our eternity. But recurring sinfulness blunts our discipleship and hinders others from seeing Christ in us or knowing Christ through us. In tempting us to renounce allegiance to God, which is what sin is, the devil is not trying to reclaim our souls but to keep a claim on the souls of people who do not know Jesus but who might be led to Christ by us – were it not for our sin. Yielding to temptation, therefore, makes us allies of Satan. This should disillusion us of the idea that there is such a thing as harmless sin.

2.     Temptation presents a choice, not a destiny. It may be that comic Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine like to announce, “The devil made me do it,” but the devil cannot make us do anything. James says, “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” There is no temptation that cannot be defeated by a combination of human faith and divine power.

3.  There is no temptation that makes anyone unworthy of discipleship. Being tempted is not a sin, no matter how severe the temptation or how serious the action would be. Jesus was tempted to deny God altogether and worship Satan instead. He didn’t. Hebrews explains that Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are yet was without sin” (4:15). To be tempted is neither sinful nor shameful. (But it’s nothing to brag about, either!)

    However, being human we will not be able to resist every temptation. This is a riddle: if any particular temptation can be defeated why cannot every temptation be turned back without fail? This question vexed even Paul. He wrote in his letter to the church in Rome,

“I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want to do, I do what I hate to do. So I know that sin lives within me. There is nothing good in my sinful nature because I cannot carry out my own desire to do the good. I keep on doing bad things, even though I want to do good. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. Even though in my heart I love God, I also love ungodly things and I feel trapped by this struggle. What a wretched man I am!” (Rom 7:15-24a, paraphrased).

     Nonetheless, our progress toward a sanctified, holy life is still achievable. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things?” asked Paul, for after all, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The answer is no one who can finally or ultimately prevail. So what to do when temptation strikes?

First, pray, and simply commit that temptation over to Jesus’ hands.

Second, try to identify what appetite the temptation is appealing to, because temptations almost always find a way to exploit natural needs or desires. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus was hungry and so the devil tempted him to misuse his divine power for selfish ends by turning stones to bread. Our natural needs and desires are supposed to serve us, but we sin when we wind up serving them. There are limits to what we may justly desire. Instead, we should redirect that appetite to serving the cause of Christ. 

Third, never let temptations, even successful ones, think you are unworthy to serve God. That would be like Patrick Mahomes thinking that when he gets intercepted, he should hang up his jersey. When we yield to temptation, as inevitably we all will, we should confess, repent, learn from it to be stronger next time, and recommit to serving the Lord, especially to being one through whom others may know Christ. I can’t think of anything that will anger the devil so much, and I’d much rather have the devil mad at me than happy with me.

I’ll leave the last word to Paul, who in his first epistle to Timothy advised handling temptation this way, “…shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”

Let us remember both who we are and whose we are, for we are called to holiness. “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. When you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can endure it.”

We may trust that the Scriptures are true.


Friday, February 24, 2023

On the table: Reparations to "descendants of enslaved people"

Shelby County, Tenn., is where Memphis is located, and that is the city Tyre Nichols lived in until he lost his life at the hands and feet) of four Memphis police officers. 

NBC News reports that the county commission has voted to spend $5 million to study whether reparations should be paid to - the wording is important - "descendants of enslaved people." 

Officials in Tennessee’s largest county, which includes Memphis, voted Wednesday to study reparations for descendants of enslaved people, adding to a growing list of local and state governments that are considering or are launching similar programs.

Similar proposals are being considered in many places across the country. I have no doubt that the framers of the proposal, and of the possible mandate, use "descendants of enslaved people" to mean black Americans today who are descended from slaves in the United States prior to ratification of the 13th Amendment.

 But they had better be careful in their wording. There are enormous problems with such a classification. As an illustration, consider this headline in yesterday's Daily Mail: "Black Panther communist Angela Davis - who teaches that U.S. was built by racist colonizers - faces calls to pay reparations after genealogy show reveals her white puritan ancestor arrived in America on the Mayflower."

Angela Davis, 79, was flabbergasted to discover both sides of her family were white, and that her mom's ancestors were slave owners, on PBS show Finding Your Roots.

Stephen Darden, Davis's fourth great grandfather, moved to Georgia after the Revolutionary War and records indicate he owned four slaves. Hence, Angela Davis is descended from both slaves and slaveowners. 

So, should she contribute to the cost of reparations, or should she receive them? 

If the statute is written to pay "descendants of enslaved people," will it also specify whether applicants will have to show proof they are so descended? And if so, will an "obviously" white man who can prove it be entitled to reparations? Which leads to the question: what is the nature of such proof, if proof will be required? 

The simplest of course would be tracing ancestry through birth records - except that birth records for slaves can be quite difficult to obtain. Consider the opening of a US National Archives document entitled, "Federal Records that Help Identify Former Enslaved People and Slave Holders," by Claire Kluskens:

Researching African American ancestors who lived before the American Civil War (1861–1865) poses unique challenges. Enslaved individuals rarely had surnames and created few records themselves. Successful research usually requires positively identifying the slave holder(s) who may have created records that mentioned slaves. In addition, Southern states lost records due to the Civil War and other courthouse fires, and often didn’t begin recording births, marriages, or deaths until after 1900. Even African Americans whose ancestors were free before 1865 may find research challenging if their ancestors moved frequently, worked for others, and owned no land.

Back to the Davis problem, because it is extremely unlikely that there are no other or only a few such persons in her situation. Considering only Mayflower descendance, there are as many as 30 million descendants today of Mayflower settlers. (I am one.) Probably a high percentage of the 30 million have both African and European history, especially those who live in the east and the southeast. Then add the number of Africans who were brought here after 1620 to the number of Euros who came here, and the odds are sky high that anyone whose American ancestry on either parent's side reaches back to 1800 or so has dual-race ancestry.

Years ago, I read a Census Bureau report that said that Southerners whose ancestors on one side have lived in the South since 1800 have a 90 percent chance of having both black and white ancestry. I have not been able to find that report, but Forbes reported in 2021 that 33.8 million Americans identify themselves as descendants of two or more races. That is one in 10 of all Americans.

My own Mayflower ancestry is on my paternal grandmother's side from Thomas Matthew Rogers, who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 and signed the Mayflower Compact. My paternal grandfather's (and hence my) descendance is from one Jakob Sensing, who immigrated to North Carolina from Germany in the 1730s. Yes, Sensing is a German name, and I have corresponded with Sensings in Germany, though I never met one while I lived there was 1983-1986. 

Despite the Census Bureau's report, it is highly unlikely that I am descended from American slaves  because my grandmother's family lived in the North since the Mayflower, moving to Tennessee only after the Civil War. And no Sensings ever owned a slave. 

But I specify American slaves because my brother had a DNA analysis done which showed he (and hence I) have a small percentage of Brazilian ancestry. That almost certainly indicates non-Euro ancestry for me. Brazil was the number one slave state in the entire New World until 1888, when it was outlawed there. In fact, of the 12 million Africans brought to the New World to enslavement, almost half went to Brazil! The Portuguese also enslaved indigenous people. (And the various indigenous tribes were all enslaving one another for centuries before the first Euro set foot there.) 

Angela Davis has to cope not only with the fact that she has deep-rooted white ancestors, but also that at least one of them was a slaveowner. Maybe this should compel her - and the rest of us - to reconsider what obligations, if any, we owe to one another based on what our ancestors did. Because no one's ancestors are innocent of sins against others, and no one's ancestors are free of being sinned against.

So again: what is the standard for reparations in Memphis? Admittedly, they have not worked that out. But if, for discussion, I lived there and the DNA test showed not Brazilian ancestry but African, could I receive payment? Why? For that matter, why not? 

Also, by specifying reparations only for "descendants of enslaved people," Memphis is automatically excluding black people whose ancestors moved here after the Civil War. Over the many decades after the war, though immigration of blacks (and Asians) to America was highly regulated, the number of immigrants from Africa was quite substantial and is continuing. In fact, "African immigration is now driving the growth of the Black population in New York City."

It would appear, then, that Shelby County's commissioners want to study reparations to be paid to the county's black residents - but not all of them, just some. (And also paid to apparently lily-white people who happen to be descendants of just one enslaved person.) They might want to consider that a poll conducted by Black Voices some years ago found that 75 percent of black Americans favor reparations, but more than half said that reparations would negatively affect race relations because payment would cause resentment by whites and other minorities - and now in Memphis at least, resentment by other black residents. I don't think they have thought this through very well. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Life and dust and promise

 As a pastor, I have a particular dread every Ash Wednesday that none of the members shared. It arose from the fact that I imposed ashes upon the foreheads not only of the congregation. In years past I placed ashes on the foreheads of my wife and children and said to them, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I really would rather not have said that to my own blood.

Ash Wednesday is the one day of the Christian year that is supposed to fill us with dread. Dread that God is just, dread that God will judge, dread that we might be judged in justice rather than in love. If wearing ashes on our foreheads should do anything for us, it should confront us with the fact that for all of us, there is an end coming one day. Before the most holy God, all the things we value will be as ashes. 

The American dream is that we can have it all. Therefore, we often seem not to understand that Christian discipleship is a zero-sum game: if we are to grow in discipleship, we must shrink in something else. If we are to add holiness to our lives, we must give up ungodliness. In his book I Surrender, Patrick Morley writes that the church’s main misconception is “that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin.” We think we can change what we believe without changing what we do. We want revival without reformation, we want rebirth without repentance. 

To repent means more than to regret. Originally a nautical term, it meant to change course, to go in a new direction. Repentance means to change, to be different. That’s the real reason why people are supposed to “give up something” for Lent. How often do we give up something trivial, like desserts or going to movies? It’s no repentance to give up something that we can easily do without and then, once Lent is over, resume. It’s no repentance to pretend we are turning away from actions instead of sins. Repentance is to pull out our deepest sins by the roots, and that will hurt! 

Fasting for Lent means to repent, not merely to do without food for part or all of a day. Fasting means to be focused on repentance so intently that we give up the ungodliness that pervades our lives. It is to be a holy man or holy woman for forty days. We express that turn toward holiness by symbolically wearing ashes to signify our awareness of our mortality, and to turn to ashes the parts of our lives, the parts of our character, that separate us from fullness of grace. 

Yet there is a danger in Lent as well as opportunity. Repentance is necessary, but repentance does not save us. We are saved by what God has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Repentance springs from understanding that we have no hope apart from Christ. The danger in Lent is that we will emphasize repentance of our sins to the exclusion of their cure. Our works are part of our faith, but we are justified before God by our works in faith not because of what we do but because of what God has already done. From the ashes of repentance, in grace, God can build anew. 

Peter Perry, a pastor in Texas, told of the time his neighbor’s house burned to the ground. “The trees all around were scorched,” he wrote. “The grass was brown."

A few blackened timbers stood near the back of the house, and the remains of the cast iron plumbing system rose out of the ashes. The day after the fire, as I walked to school with a friend, we saw the woman who had lived there, standing in the midst of what had once been her home, weeping and wondering aloud what would become of her and her family. As she gazed at the ruins of her life, she despaired. But her husband was comforting her. “We can rebuild,” he said. And they did. One year later, a beautiful new home graced that lot. And the home they built was built around the old home’s massive, stone fireplace. But I wonder . . . Did the woman and her husband and their children sit around that fireplace on winter nights, look at the dancing flames on the logs they were burning, and remember the ashes?

We do remember the ashes of our past, do we not? Old hurts, ancient wrongs. Writer Hazel Farris told of her childhood’s fiery temper. 

One day, after an argument had sent one of my playmates home in tears, my father told me that for each thoughtless, mean thing I did he would drive a nail into our gatepost. Each time I did a kindness or a good deed, one nail would be withdrawn. Months passed. Each time I entered our gate, I was reminded of the reasons for those ever‑increasing nails, until finally, getting them out became a challenge. At last the long‑awaited day arrived – only one more nail! As my father withdrew it I danced around proudly exclaiming, ‘See, Daddy, the nails are all gone.’ Father gazed intently at the post as he thoughtfully replied, ‘Yes, the nails are gone—but the scars remain.’

Scars do remain, and we wear them. We’ve made them, too. Sometimes we count our scars and relive the hurt and anger and pain of each one. Sometimes we love to inflame the passions of righteous indignation. But God does not do that. God forgives our sins and God forgets those sins. God does not carry grudges. In our repentance and humility before God, we can see that God’s ways are not our ways. God forgives, God forgets. Our sins were nailed to a cross on Calvary. In Christ’s triumph over the powers of sin and death, our sins have become like ashes, blown away in the wind. 

So, the call to repent must not be ignored. We must respond to God’s initiative. “If there are a thousand steps between us and God,” said Max Lucado, “God will take all but one. God will leave the final one for us. The choice is ours.” 

We are dust and to dust we shall return. The urgency of Lent is that we turn to God now, for later may never come. Dr. George Sweeting told of a visit to Niagara Falls. 

It was spring, and ice was rushing down the river,” he wrote. “As I viewed the large blocks of ice flowing toward the falls, I could see dead fish embedded in the ice. Gulls by the score were riding the ice down the river, feeding on the fish. As they neared the falls, their wings would go out, and they would escape from the falls.

I watched one gull which seemed to delay and wondered when it would leave. It was engrossed in the carcass of a fish, and when it finally came to the brink of the falls, out went its powerful wings. The bird flapped and flapped and even lifted the ice out of the water, and I thought it would escape. But it had delayed too long so that its claws had frozen into the ice. The weight of the ice was too great, and the gull plunged into the abyss.

The moment to turn back to God is this moment.

When we receive the ashes on our foreheads, there first stroke usually is a vertical one with the ashes on our forehead. Think of it as an “I.” The “I” is the egoistic part of each one of us that is the sinful self, the rebellious self, the self that wants to walk alone instead of with God. But right after the “I” we receive a horizontal line, and the “I” will be crossed out. Crossed out. As Bass Mitchell explained,  “The ashes made in the form of a cross remind us of the cross of Christ by which our sins and the sins of the whole world are canceled out!” 

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we come from a world of death and sin, but that we do not have to stay there. “We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Let us repent and believe in the Gospel!”

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...