Avoiding Holiday Dysfunction

Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments (Psalm 119:5-6, ESV).

The holiday season is one of the worst for depression. The contrast between the joyful facades that are supposed to accompany the season and the painful realities we feel increases our sadness. Then there are the obligatory, but awkward, family gatherings that often highlight the dysfunctions of our relatives (or, sometimes, ourselves). We genuinely love them but recognize that their drug, alcohol, relational, or financial struggles are ultimately the product of their own decisions. It is difficult to sympathize while holding our tongues so that we are not perceived as being judgmental. To avoid these subjects, the conversation turns to football, the entertainment turns to new movies opening on Christmas Day (that connection is not coincidental), and the parties turn to alcohol.

Despite our best efforts we cannot eliminate the dysfunctions of our families. At best we can merely minimize our own dysfunctions. Although he dealt with problems of his own, King David recognized the best method for avoiding them — fixing our eyes on God’s commandments and keeping them (see Ps. 119:5-6, emphasis added).

This was the same recipe that the Lord gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel,
“Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47,ESV, emphasis added).

After Moses died and Joshua assumed the leadership position, the Lord told him the same thing, “[be] careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:7-8, ESV, emphasis added).

Not surprisingly, Jesus said the same thing in His first public address, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27, ESV, emphasis added).

This list of significant Bible characters could go on and on, but the point is made. Reading, thinking about, and obeying the Word of God is the key to avoiding a dysfunctional life. Many Christians try to read the Bible cover to cover each year, but (sadly) far more have never read it even once. Whether you purpose to read the whole of the Scripture each year is not the point. Immersing yourself each day in some part of it with the purpose of obeying it will go a long way toward keeping your family members from being embarrassed by your struggles next Christmas.

The Transformed Heart

But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

The key idea of these two verses is the contrast between the unbeliever and the believer. Paul uses the phrase, “the called,” to identify the believer, whether he is Jewish or not. Increasingly in this Twenty-first Century, though, American churches are being populated by people who don’t understand the power of the transformed heart.

In Paul’s day, of course, to be a Christian meant that a person had to take a stand for Jesus; their baptisms were not inside the safety of a church’s baptistry, but out in the open, in a stream or a pond, where everyone could see. Christianity was not yet the State religion, the worship of Caesar was, and at various times and places in the First Century a public stand for Jesus would lead to persecution. In those times and places, the believer had to rely upon the power and wisdom of Christ within him.

When Christ transformed my heart many years ago the Holy Spirit made it clear that I couldn’t live by my wits or on the strength of someone else’s faith. I had to turn to Jesus – the the wisdom of His Word, applied to my life by the Holy Spirit – to deal with the issues in my life. As a young man back then those issues were not as complex as they would be if I were to meet Jesus today, but they were just as real. Thankfully as I continued to read and ponder the Scriptures, the entanglements of sin didn’t get as strong of a hold on me. But I noticed that many of those around me either couldn’t get past some aspect of their perception of Christianity (they “stumbled”) or they just considered my faith to be foolishness. Usually those who “stumbled” had some previous exposure to the Church (even if they weren’t ethnically Jewish) while those with very little or even no exposure just considered the Christian faith to be laughable.

But in our day the need for a transformed heart is not proclaimed with quite the urgency as in earlier generations of the Church. Since “sin” has become a “four letter word” in many circles, forgiveness is not proclaimed either. The proclamation has become “Christianity light” – all the flavor of Christianity with nothing that will offend. And in much the same way that people can get used to diet beverages (alcoholic or not), this generation has gotten used to the “light Church.”

The antidote to the “light Church” is the proclamation of “Christ crucified,” leading to the truly transformed heart. Along with Paul, we must let the chips fall where they may. If people stumble over this message or consider it foolishness, let them – because they are lost. And before they can be found (“called” in Paul’s vocabulary), they must realize they are lost.

Truth for our Day

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:21).

That men choose to turn from God is a foundational principle in the mind of the Apostle Paul. We are – to use the theologian’s term – “totally depraved.” This doesn’t mean we are as bad as we could be, but that, given a choice, men naturally turn away from God to their own selfish ends. What men call “wisdom” does not lead us to Him. Just look at the highest rated academic institutions. Many of them began with an evangelical foundation, but have long since left it.

So instead of “wisdom” being our salvation, this verse says that we are saved through “believing.” Paul does not disdain education or human reason in this passage; he merely acknowledges the inadequacy of human wisdom to save us. We need something more – revealed Truth.

Truth gets a bad rap in a post-modern world. “Experience” is what we are looking for; objective Truth doesn’t exist. We can’t even trust the meanings of words any more. One author I read recently observed that in our world, word meanings were “inspirational” rather than “referential.” In other words, rather than “referring” to a mutually accepted meaning, words today “inspire” our thoughts regardless of what the author of what we were reading might have intended.

Somehow the Church needs to return to the Truth. With a united voice we need to become again heralds that proclaim the Truth. It won’t be easy because increasingly the points of reference in an experience-driven society are diminishing. But happily where it is happening the God that satisfied the emptiness in our souls with the Truth is revealing that Truth to those gripped by the philosophy of this age as well. Ultimately, their experience has not brought fulfillment because the high they enjoy has to be repeated. But Truth remains constant. May we resolve to proclaim it effectively and with authority wherever the opportunity comes.

Fools in High Places

There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler:  Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones (Eccl 10:5-6).

 One of the important characteristics of the Hebrew language (from which this passage is translated) is “parallelism.” Rather than rhyming words such as we use in English, Hebrew poetry uses similar or opposite thoughts to draw out the meaning of the phrase. In this passage, then, the noun “rich” is to be seen as being antithetical or the opposite of the word “fools.” It is not a customary usage of the Hebrew term, but the meaning is pretty clear. The “rich” in this case are rich in wisdom.

 I happened to read this while our United States Congress was embroiled in the battle over raising the debt ceiling for our government. (Note I said, “government,” not “country.”) I concur with Solomon, “Fools are put in many high positions…” I always hesitate to criticize in this way because I know that there are many good and decent men and women who are trying to do the right and responsible thing to keep our country solvent, but they are out voted by the “fools” who simply want to buy their votes to win reelection. This was not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. (Incidentally, while I am being critical here, I also regularly pray for them.)

 It is not rocket science to understand that we cannot spend more than we take in perpetually. It is also not rocket science to understand that we already take in ENOUGH. However, bringing money back home is one of the main considerations when a politician is seeking reelection.

This is why a Balanced Budget Amendment makes sense – it’s what we must do as a family, what our church must do and what every business must do as well. Even “lower” governments – municipalities and states – must balance their budgets or lose services totally. That’s a choice some communities have opted for over exorbitant taxation.

 Since, as some say, “reelection is the principle job of any politician,” perhaps we are at the point where we need to establish term limits for the House and the Senate. After all, the Presidency has a limitation of two terms. By limiting them to a certain number of elected terms in office, perhaps it will be an incentive for them to serve the people rather than perpetuate their reelection.

I also think that someone other than these elected officials should establish their salaries. Perhaps this could be the annual, collective job of the Lieutenant Governors of each state (In our technologically rich era, this could be done quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively through a Conference Call). Perhaps they could use the same standard for Congressional raises that is used to determine cost of living increases for Social Security recipients. Or, since these people represent their respective states, take their salaries from the coffers of the individual states to remind them who they are really serving.

 Solomon had it correct that the people in low positions (we would call them “grassroots”) often are rich in wisdom. The question in each generation is, “Will we be heard?”