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Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Ephesians 6:10-12.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a whole new set of adversaries within our society.  Lines are being drawn and people are choosing sides.  The Maskers are squaring off against the Anti-Maskers.  The Vaxers are already staking out positions against the Anti-Vaxers, even though a vaccine is at least months in the future.  The Pro-Economy lobby is in full contention with the Pro-Health and Safety lobby.  There are arguments on each side of these issues, despite the fact that both sides sometimes say the other is senseless. 

Mercifully, the Lord Jesus told us exactly what to do with enemies in Matthew 5:43.  We are to love them. 

This season has given us a great opportunity to learn Paul’s lesson from our text above.  There is clearly a war raging.  But those people who disagree with you are not what you are warring against.  The disagreements within our communities are highlighting the real enemy.  It is an ancient enemy and the war is real. 

The war we wage is against the impatience within us that invites us to throw angry words at those with different opinions rather than trying to understand their ideas.  The war that is raging is against the fear that wells up in us when we think we are physically or fiscally unsafe.  The battles we are fighting are against the selfishness we harbor that wants others to submit to our demands of how they are to live. 

Not only is this war entirely winnable, we can lead the charge in it at any moment.  We don’t need our neighbors to allow us or even our families to join us.  The Lord stands ready to hear our confession and accept our repentance.  The strongholds of fear, hatred, anger, selfishness, and impatience crumble when we invite the power of God to cleanse us in humility. 

Why the Lord has placed us in this time and place is too deep a question for this shallow swimmer.  But if it has revealed sin in you, do not let this time go to waste.  Take up the fight with confession, repentance, and love for those whose words and actions have revealed the enemy within you. 

Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.  John 16:25-27

One thing we all have in common is that we would all rather think well of ourselves most of the time.  What is different about us is the reasons we set within ourselves for why that assessment is accurate.  I have known lawyers who based it upon the cases they had won.  I’ve known bankers who based it upon the deals they had closed.  I have known students who based it upon the friends they made and others who based it upon the grades they made.

Unfortunately, sometimes that evidence for our worth runs thin.  In our current environment, some of that evidence has dried up completely.  Court cases are being postponed due to Coronavirus fears in the courtroom.  Deals are being cancelled as the economy shrinks in response to business closures.  Students have been separated from their friends in quarantine, and many found they weren’t nearly as successful in the online education world that was thrust upon them.

Our time has revealed a simple truth that we so often miss in more “normal” times.  Only God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Only His truth stands.  The controlling worldview is His worldview.  That is true for the justice system, the banking industry, and education at all levels.

It is also true for me.  I am not who I think I am.  Whatever I may have succeeded or failed at; whatever I may have earned or lost; I am who God says I am.  Neither more nor less.

As true for me it is true for you.  Know who you are my brothers and sisters.  All of us in Christ are beloved of the Father. Write that in ink at the bottom of the picture you have painted of yourself.  Then, even when the picture becomes scribbled over or erased, you can rest secured in that truth.  Know that you are Beloved of God, and fear no darkness.

When are you going to do something about that plank?

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  Matthew 7:3-5

My grandson has a problem with one of his eyes.  (Not to worry; I’m sure he’s OK.)  It has been red and irritated for a few days.  We think maybe he has something in it.  He fusses with it from time to time while insisting it is fine, because he’s a 4-year old. 

I’ve had spiritual specks in my eye before.  Can you relate?  When you have unaddressed pain in your life, it can effect your vision of the world around you.  I have seen addiction and unrepentant sin do the same thing.  Broken relationships in your past can make you see things in your current relationships that aren’t there.  These kinds of problems can be persistent, hard to address, and major impactors of how we experience life every day. 

These kinds of problems don’t just hurt.  They also make it difficult to function in the world.  They can certainly stand between us and some of the ministry God might have for us.  Why doesn’t someone help us?  Why does it so often feel that we are alone and vulnerable in these situations?

It almost certainly has something to do with the fact that those of us who have specks are supposed to be helping each other but have zero credibility due to our more glaring shortcomings.  How am I supposed to accept your help dealing with my childhood traumas when you are clearly so angry with your father that you can’t even talk about it?  You got yourself a plank in that eye, man.  Conversely, how on earth could you trust me to help you with your own broken relationship experience when I clearly have had unaddressed issues in some of mine for over 50 years?  There’s no shortage of planks in the Body of Christ.

Jesus is perfectly right.  That plank puts you at risk of being a hypocrite if you try to help someone else with their speck.  But certainly He never meant for you to just accept the plank and agree not to help anyone, lest you be hypocritical.  The last sentence of our text for this week reads otherwise.  Get the plank out!  Its not just putting you at risk of hypocrisy.  It is condemning everyone around you to suffering interminably from specks that could be so easily be removed. 

Happy are the Unoffendable

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.  Isaiah 26:3 

We are not strangers to being offended.  You go to a meeting with some new coworkers, looking forward to meeting them and working alongside them as partners, and then, wow!  They ask you to run errands during the meeting (coffee, copies, etc.).  You go to a client meeting with two of your employees, and, uh oh!  One of your own people cuts you off in the middle of your presentation and starts revising your proposal to the client.  It can happen at any time.  Every time a waiter, clerk, or cab driver treats you like you aren’t there, you get a new opportunity to be offended.

Let’s face it, being offended hurts.  These kinds of interactions make us feel unhappy, small, depressed, or even angry.  We react in all kinds of ways, everything from tears to lashing out in retribution.  But that was never Jesus’ way.

Was Jesus ever subjected to demeaning treatment?  Oh my goodness! 

Jesus was the perfect image of the all-holy, omniscient, omnipotent God.  And yet we have Biblical stories of Jesus being questioned, accused, threatened, betrayed, beaten, spat upon, and tortured to death.  No fear, Jesus was treated beneath His status at levels that we could only imagine.  And yet, for all that mistreatment, Jesus was never offended.

Jesus would have faced these insults with eternal peace, unthreatened and unaffected.  Why?  Why was Jesus able to be more mistreated than we will ever be and yet be so unaffected by it? 

Jesus drew His identity from the only true source, His heavenly Father.  His mind was fixed on God alone.  He embraced the humility offered to Him to live beneath His stature.  He didn’t see it as something to be defended.  He saw it as something to be poured out for the good of all humanity.  (See Philippians 2:5-11). 

Let’s make that our model.  Whatever we have, if anything, that might make us worthy of better treatment, let’s check that at the door.  Let’s fix our own minds of serving God and embrace the humility the world will inevitably drop on us.  It turns out, when you have poured out any sense of expectation, you won’t be offended.  You will be blessed. 

Changing the Unpleasant Truth

This week’s devotional is brought to us by my new brother, Jason Palmer, the Dean of Spiritual Life and Chaplain at UMHB.

My submarine was hovering just beneath the waves at periscope depth. More than a week had passed since we had last brought in air from the outside. When conditions were set, I raised the induction mast and ordered “Commence Ventilating.” As soon as the outside air began to enter the boat, sailors started complaining about the humid, fishy, dank smell. The odor was overwhelming. That’s when we remembered the putrid scent we could barely stand was fresh air.

Somehow, we’d become so used to life in a sealed cylinder full of our own stench that we’d normalized the abnormal. How does that even happen? How do well-intentioned, experienced practitioners become so desensitized to the malaise in their midst that they begin to accept it as normal?

Nehemiah found a similar situation when he arrived in Jerusalem. Chapter 2 reveals that Jewish priests, nobles, and officials were already present in Jerusalem when he arrived. But, the city’s spiritual and civic authorities had failed to prioritize the rebuilding of core infrastructure — God’s house and the city’s defenses.  They had grown to accept their disgraceful condition as normal.  After confirming the situation through personal reconnaissance, Nehemiah conducted a key leader engagement with the priests, nobles, and officials of Jerusalem.

So I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned. Come, let’s rebuild Jerusalem’s wall, so that we will no longer be a disgrace.” Nehemiah 2:17

Nehemiah’s example suggests the value of just naming the problem everyone can see but have chosen to overlook.  When you look around your workplace, your home, or your community, what foul condition have you come to accept as normal? 

Of course, any critic can point out obvious failings.  Real change requires going beyond a general acknowledgement of trouble and identifying specific steps forward. If general concern was enough to effect change, you wouldn’t be staring at structural ruin and burnt gates.

The last step in effecting change requires committing the time and other resources to fix the problem. Rebuilding takes a hopeful vision, fortitude, and your life. If you see aspects of your current enterprises in disrepair, let Christ’s story of hope and redemption fuel a call in you and those around you to rebuild. Come, let’s rebuild.