Monthly Archives: October 2010

Decisions, Decisions

George Caleb Bingham, The County Election (1851-52), 35 7/16 x 48 3/4 in., Saint Louis Art Museum

On Tuesday all good citizens will go to the polls to choose new leaders and decide important issues in our communities. Does God care about how we vote? Intuitively, I want to say yes, but how do I decide between a candidate who stands for protecting the unborn and someone who wants to help those already born and living in poverty? One wants to reduce taxes and cut spending (except defense), the other wants to raise taxes and increase spending for education, health care, and unemployment benefits to help those most hurt by the recession. Both have priorities I applaud and abhor. Is it our job to discern which is God’s choice? Or does God give us a brain and a free will to choose what we want? Could there be multiple right choices? All of these questions boil down to one vexing problem: How do we know the will of God?

Fortunately we don’t need to figure out the will of God for most choices, because most choices have no moral or spiritual implications: Which brand of toothpaste do I buy? Do I stop at Wendy’s or McDonald’s for lunch? Do I take my break now or try to get more work done first? Other things are so important God has already given us clear guidance. It’s always right to love God and our neighbor and to live justly. It’s never right to covet, commit adultery, or steal. It’s only those infrequent but important questions for which we have no specific direction from above that cause us stress and send us searching for answers: Do I take the new job in another city or keep the one I have? Whom should I marry? Or, in the case of our oldest daughter Natalie’s current dilemma, Which college should I attend? But even these problems are not as complicated as they seem. When it’s a choice between two or more good options, I believe God lets us exercise our free will and pick the one we like best. If Natalie decides to go to the University of Pennsylvania or the University of Maryland instead of Baylor, I won’t love her any less. God won’t either.

I recently came across a book with a funny title: Just Do Something: How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. I haven’t read it, but I find the title ironic because the author, who is a Christian, seems to disapprove of some methods for determining the divine will that were perfectly acceptable in biblical times. In the Bible, Gideon used a fleece and God’s people often resorted to casting lots. For example, after praying, the disciples cast lots to choose a replacement for the Apostle Judas after he committed suicide (Acts 1:23-26). In the Old Testament, the high priest practiced a form of divination using the Urim and Thummim. Interpreting dreams was another popular method in ancient times among both pagans and Hebrews. Casting lots and interpreting dreams are not methods I personally use, but I think they illustrate the difficulty people face in trying to determine God’s will.

Given the biblical precedents and the hard choices I’ll face on Tuesday, maybe I should try a new method of voting: pray . . . then flip a coin.

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Righteous as a Sinner

Rembrandt, St. Peter in Prison (1631), oil on panel, 59 x 48 cm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 

One of the best ministries I ever had was when I served as the brig chaplain in Camp Lejeune, NC. What the Navy and Marine Corps call a “brig,” the Army calls a “stockade” and everyone else, a jail. The inmates were all marines and sailors. After being arrested, they were stripped not only of their freedom but also of their pride. All of the masks were gone. There was no pretending, no playing games. The prayers I heard in that chapel behind bars were some of the most contrite and humble I have ever heard. Nothing sounds as beautiful as the song of a broken heart. Jesus too listed to prayers of sinners and found them beautiful. He must have done some eavesdropping at the Temple, listening to people pray. In Luke 18:9-14, he used the prayers of the unrighteous and the self-righteous to teach a lesson about the importance of humility. Only Luke records this parable; it is not in the other gospels.

Jesus told this story “unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (9). Most of us think we are righteous, at least when compare to another sort of people. Those people, you know, the ones who . . . fill in the blank. Well, in Jesus’ day the ones with the best reputation for piety were the Pharisees. That was before Jesus turned the word Pharisee into an insult. In the parable, a Pharisee stood at the Temple and thanked God that he “was not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (11). The “publican,” a tax collector, “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven” (13a). Ancient Jews and early Christians usually prayed with outstretched arms and eyes lifted up. This man was not just praying with his head hanging down but he was also beating himself up, literally. As he beat his breast, he begged God, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” (13b). By this point in the story, I imagine Jesus’ hearers shaking their heads and clicking their tongues. In a typically Christ-like Judo flip, Jesus gave them a punch line they were not expecting: “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (14).

Jesus was put off by the self-righteous prayers of the Pharisee but encouraged by the repentant cries of the publican. I wish I could say I’m like Jesus, but I tend to identify more with good, religious people than sinners. And it’s been a long time since I’ve overheard people in church mixing hot tears with their petitions at the altar. But I have heard it before, behind the steal bars of an old military jail where the people in church knew they were sinners and were set free.

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