Joy is a mark of holy living.

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University did an online survey of about 1500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things. Like, kick a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free. I guessing not all those respondents are pagans.

(Surely, you’ve heard the old joke about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.”)

Lots of us haven’t managed to master Paul’s advice: “As far as it depends on you, live peaceably” (Romans 12:18).

But you say, “You don’t know what this person did to me. You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts.” But if it all depends on circumstance, we are right back to a works-based religion, the kind Paul said kills spirits. If your acceptance of me depends on me, I’m sunk. I can’t be that good. If your acceptance of me is grounded in what Jesus has done for you, there’s hope.

Because, frankly, you haven’t been that good, either.

This is great news on two fronts: I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; nor do circumstances control my capacity for joy. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Christian Maturity, writes this:

“The real Christian is the most natural person in the world. He has natural joys, natural gaiety, natural laughter, natural culture, natural grace—he is a man reduced to simple naturalness. When one is not living the Christian way all his pleasures have to be induced—induced by entertainment from without, by liquor, by stimulation of various kinds. They have to try to have a good time. I don’t try to have a good time—I just have one, naturally and normally. A simple, bubbling gaiety from within, what Rufus Moseley called “the Divine frisky.” As you get cleaned up and cleaned out within, you develop a hair-trigger laugh—one with which you can laugh at yourself if you cannot laugh at anything else.”

How attractive that is! To be known for the infectiousness of your laugh rather than the accuracy of your tomato-tossing, to have your mood drawn up from deeper wells than whatever has just happened. Wouldn’t it be something to be known for that, rather than the contentiousness and moodiness that too often define our average, proud lives? Don’t you think this is what Jesus was after when he called us to live his commandments, “that my joy may be in you, that your joy may be full” (John 15:11)?

Joy is a mark of holy living.

I’m “convicted,” as they say, by the stunning gap that separates my reality from this vision, but I’m also smitten by this notion of “the Divine frisky.” I’d like to be known for my capacity to find joy in any circumstance, to be at peace whatever the cost to my pride.

I’d like them to say at my funeral, “She had the best laugh!”

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Just how angry are you?

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University conducted an online survey of about 1,500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things like, for instance, kicking a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free.

Would you be among them?

There is no denying it: we have a maddening political climate. We also have anger issues. Anger is not a secular issue; we who follow Jesus are not immune. Just check your Facebook page. In fact, more and more, anger is becoming part of our caricature. Angela, the token Christian on The Office is an angry, tight-lipped, buttoned-up woman. In most cartoons and commentaries, we’re known as the ones who sling condemnation.

So really … are we that angry?

(You’ve heard the old joke– right? — about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.” It is funny only because it is familiar.)

Face it. Christians have something of a reputation and it is only getting worse. I suspect we’re operating out of fear. We’ve pitted our values against a permissive culture and it has left us feeling powerless. In the comparison we’re accused of being angry, condemnation-tossing haters. And to some extent, we deserve the criticism. We who follow Jesus too easily pander to the reputation of being known for what we’re against more than what we’re for.

Wouldn’t it be exciting for Christians to be known more for the infectiousness of their faith than the accuracy of their tomato-tossing?

George Barna is a researcher who does ethnographic research on churches, and one study he did showed that only 4% of adults make their decisions based on the Bible. In his book, Think Like Jesus, he says, “the primary reason that people do not act like Jesus is because they do not think like Jesus … We’re often more concerned with survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.”

Hear that again: We are often more concerned about survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.

“Survival amidst chaos” hits close to home, doesn’t it? These last couple of years have been hard on our country. I hope we are on the healing edge of a long season of chaos, and chaos has not brought out the best in us. We are not thinking like Jesus. We have become so focused on what is in front of us that we’ve forgotten what is beyond the horizon. We’ve engaged emotionally with difficult issues but have failed to speak with integrity, offering emotional responses that are more defensive than intelligent. Our go-to response is more fear than faith.

But you say, “A person can’t sit idly by and let the world roll over them.” Or more personally, “You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts. I can’t lose this war, too.”

To that, Jesus would say, “It doesn’t matter. The ground of our forgiveness is not our circumstances. The ground of our grace is not emotion.” Jesus told a whole story to make this very point (Matthew 18:23-35) saying that grace is a mark of the Kingdom.

Here’s the thing: If it all depends on circumstance, we are right to be desperate. Circumstances can seem hopeless but circumstances do not control my capacity for joy. We who know the end of the story should be responding to life and news and “rumors of wars” with a faith that proclaims something greater than our immediate circumstances. In other words, I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; I can live there now, by faith.

What I am responsible for is the character of my responses to life, and what those responses reveal about the character of Christ in me.

Brothers and sisters, whatever the current circumstance, we know how the story ends. We know what is beyond the horizon.

Let’s live and speak as if Jesus is who he says he is.

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Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo …

Choices shape futures.

We can blame this current hard choice of a new president on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 on our Israelite ancestors who created this mess millennia ago. Before the Israelites had kings, they were led (not governed, but led) by judges who submitted directly to God. It wasn’t a perfect system because they weren’t perfect people, but it was a God-centered system. Samuel’s sons delivered that system to its corrupt end by taking bribes, perverting justice and destroying the people’s trust (read the story here).

Call it a case of “king envy.” After seeing what his sons were capable of the people demanded that Samuel appoint a king like all the other nations had. Samuel warned them they’d be sorry. A system of kings, he said, would mean a loss of freedom. A king will draft your sons into the army and misuse the military for his own purposes. Your taxes will go up and your property will be over-regulated.

These were the desperate warnings of a prophet-judge to his people proving yet again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ignoring Samuel’s ominous warnings, the Israelites chose to hand all their freedoms over to a king who would then set government above God. Why? The story tells us they were looking for someone to fight their battles for them.

Let that sink in. The Israelites defaulted to a system of kings so they wouldn’t have to fight their own battles.

I suspect our worst choices still arise out of that motivation. In our desire to check out of the battle, we allow ourselves to listen to voices that promise all manner of happiness or relief, at the cost of our most prized freedoms. We want someone else to fix it/ legislate it/ outlaw it, so we won’t have to step up to the plate ourselves. Nowhere in scripture is that strategy promoted. To the contrary, the prescription for good lives and communities always begins with personal responsibility translated into better choices — those that look beyond systems to the God over them.

The story of the Israelites reminds us that nothing got better with a new system of kings; it only got worse. The Old Testament is riddled with stories of all sorts of kings who came and went, often punctuated by a line that sounded something like: “King so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord … and slept with his ancestors.” Some of those evil kings lived for decades, only to have their legacy boil down to a few words summing up a career of inadequacies and evils.

“He did evil in the sight of the Lord … and slept with his ancestors.”

This line reminds us that as harsh as this season has seemed, kings have come and gone for millennia with little effect. While they may have wreaked havoc for a generation, their infamy was fleeting. At the end of their reign, God was still God. His purposes were still in effect — sometimes because of them, sometimes in spite of them.

And the same is true today. Whatever happens this week, God is still God.

Our most constructive response to that truth is to cultivate a better brand of choice for ourselves, one that is less political, more prophetic. Micah 6:8 gives some good bones for building a better brand of choice. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This, in fact, may be the best litmus test for a godly vote on November 8th. A solid vote begins at the intersection of justice, kindness and humility.

Think prophetically, not politically.
Justice requires context. Justice doesn’t always mean doing the obvious thing and it almost never means doing the easy thing. Justice always bears the fruit of dignity in other lives. Fences and abortion and human sexuality and the answer for national debt … for me to vote justice into those issues, I need the cross of Christ, the voice of the Holy Spirit and the heart of the Father.

Kindness requires both companionship and conflict.
In this political season the kindness (or mercy) we most lack is the capacity to honor those with whom we disagree. I cannot love people I demonize. Steve Johnson says, “The first thing you need to come to grips with is that the call to go and make disciples is greater than any political opinion you hold. And if you find yourself labeling, demonizing, or looking down on people who have different political views than you, then you have the problem. The problem isn’t that they have misguided political views. The problem is your heart.”

Humility is the antidote to pride. 
Humility manifests as self-acceptance, which is the opposite of self-centeredness. It is the primary character trait of Jesus’ own personality. Those who practice humility know how to listen well, with one ear to the world and one ear to the Holy Spirit. This is how Christians fight our battles. We don’t leave them to a political system or party, or to our kings and rulers. We take part in welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God by acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly.

Take courage on November 8th. Ours is not a perfect system because we aren’t perfect people, but we can participate in making our system better by building a better brand of choice rooted in mercy, justice and humility. We may yet return to a God-honoring culture but make no mistake: it won’t happen at the ballot box. It will happen in our hearts.

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