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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Sunday Follow-up: What to do with my Swagger?

Joan Rivers, here at her 140th birthday party,
is impervious to pain.
I have a pick-up basketball game I play in most Thursday evenings. If playing well, I'll stay for an hour or more; if I'm playing poorly, I'll stay for 30-45 minutes and talk about how much I miss my kids who probably want a father to put them to bed. But seriously, while I am only in my thirties, I am jeered as the old guy at these games (there is one guy who is older, but he's so much older he's impervious to jokes about his age -- much like Joan Rivers). Anywho, my best hoop years are behind me but once in a while I can bring the thunder...or at least mild rain shower. Such was the case this past Thursday. I had a good groove going: steals, cold-blooded jump shots and...I barely had to play defense. A perfect trifecta.

I had an old feeling arise at this moment. It was convinced it wasn't temptation. In fact, it felt pretty pure. It was the desire to stick out my chest, strut my 'stuff', show a little swagger (and not the Old Spice Deodorant & Body Wash that goes by the same name...that stuff smells like rubbing alcohol). After making a jump shot, I felt like thumping my chest (see below) or giving the "ok" sign around my right eye, which says to your opponent:  "I don't know if you realize this, but I just made a 3-pointer right in your eye..." (see below).

 Let me back up for a minute. It was an awesome privilege this past Sunday to preach about God's glorious grace and how He uses it to help both individual persons and churches grows. But for some, as it was for those attending the synagogue in Nazareth listening to Jesus' ignaugural address in Luke 4: 16-30, grace can become a bitter pill to swallow. One of the reasons is that we start to trust in self and own ability to do good and, even while we give God credit still for all the BIG stuff, we hold one to little shreds    of "I did good" (a.k.a. self-righteousness) for ourselves. In doing so, we begin to erect a separate (lower) tier of Christians for those who don't follow rules quite as well as we do.

But even as I preached this and even told myself: "Every single good thing comes from Jesus not from you, Ryan...stay humble...,"  I was haunted by the occasional desire to swagger, to boast as evidenced just a few days earlier in this basketball game. I think if you are of the male gender and reading this you might relate to this desire especially. On Sunday Night, during a really cool worship event I attended, God's Spirit led me to a passage in Galatians and not only did it help me with this boasting issue but with another one as well, which is this:

The God of the Bible does not mean to neuter desires, only re-direct them.

I spoke recently on Easter Sunday about this same concept, but at that time specifically with regard to pleasures. Our problem isn't a failure to deny ourselves of pleasure, it's that our ultimate pleasures are too low, too base when we have God who means for us to re-direct our quest for pleasure to find a far higher and more lasting pleasure in Him. As the David prayed in the Psalter, "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11).

But I think we often get stuck believing in a caricature of God who engages in the never-ending quest to neuter all these desires (and sometimes, for those of us who are married, it seems our spouse is trying to do the same thing!).

Let's work through Galatians 6: 13-16. I'll try and let it speak sufficiently.

"For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they 
desire to have circumcised that they may boast in your flesh" (v.13)

 Okay, so first, we see this natural desire to boast, here directed toward self. These false teachers are folks who are not content with salvation and inclusion into a church by faith alone but by faith plus additional rules (in this case, getting circumcised). By adding rules and people to join with them in that mission, they create a two-tier system of community and are able to safely distinguish themselves from that lower tier. They will boast in themselves and continue to gain bragging rights when others come to their senses and join them. All by just adding a simple extra condition or moral rule as a requirement to be a more genuine Christian. Such diminishment of pure grace is why the brilliant G.K. Chesterton once remarked: "If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals."

"But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, 
by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (v.14).

Like Paul, I was created to boast and the kind of boasting he describes is, indeed, worth thumping one's chest about. First of all, to so boast and "lose oneself" in the cross of Christ that it results in being dead to the world's pullings, schemes, marketing ploys, assumed 'everyone at least does this' indulgences, is an absolutely radically audacious statement. In fact, it reminds me a bit of what 20th cent. French philosopher Albert Camus tried to hint at but could only do so philosophically: "The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very act of existence becomes an act of rebellion."
Such is how Paul seemed to live because he struts and swaggers and sticks out his chest about the cross -- and it got under people's skin. 

Simultaneously, Paul can sit it is by this cross that he has died to the world -- who cannot possibly any longer perceive Paul as a typical, "unfree" next door neighbor, but as a radically free and audacious messenger of the Christ, who, for some, will be good news.

"For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but a new 
creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, 
and upon the Israel of God" (vv.15-16).

Okay, here's where things get really interesting. First, we're back to rules. But Paul says there is only one good rule when it comes to salvation & inclusion into God's community -- radically new persons who are changed by faith. Second, and here's where it gets really cool and God shows He's not in our lives to spay & neuter us, we see another desire re-directed. For all the rule-followers out there, the Lord isn't looking to quench or neuter your desire either but rather re-direct it. Become passionate, stick to, be insistent about a rule (but just this one): A criteria of a Christian is a person who changes on the inside because of their faith in Jesus. Rule-followers tend to be passionate and have convictions (your description of yourself if you are one) or stubborn, unyielding, and a pain in the rump (if you have a close friend or family member who is one). Rule-following is a God-exalting desire when one's passions, convictions, stubbornness are re-directed to this one thing: People trusting Christ, which leads to a change on the inside.

Praise be to God, who is so gracious in His dealings with us and so wise in His judgments -- even His decision to keep those desires within us burning strong.

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