Monday, June 2, 2014

Feeling Redeemed

You've got to be careful when commenting on Facebook. When someone says their dog died, you don't want to click the “Like” button. That much I know. But I recently blundered into a situation is which I did not perceive the depth of feeling that underlay what seemed like a rather commonplace occurrence. A female friend, who evidently is currently working a Geek Squad type of job at a computer center, wrote that a man had walked into the store and despite the fact that she was nearest the door, had walked up to her male colleague. She tagged it #sexism. I made a joke. Knowing she was wearing a cast on one foot, I wrote that maybe the guy was looking for a dance partner. Another female poster took me to task for making light of a real problem. And I made the mistake of defending myself, pointing out that on the basis on the status alone, one could not read the man's mind and know why he chose one of 2 people at the desk. A firestorm erupted. The women all felt I did not apparently know that sexism existed and was something they encountered all the time. I was called names, told I was a bad pastor and Christian for not taking my friend at her word that this was indeed sexism. I had unknowingly touched on a sore point and had not gauged the intensity of feeling this problem generated.

On the other hand, when I, in my feeble defense, raised the point that I understood discrimination because I had been bullied for being a geek, that experience was ridiculed as not nearly as serious as sexism. Despite the fact that in my case I was actually beaten up by bigger boys. My accusers, for their part, did not take seriously the depth of my feeling about what was not only an emotional but a physical assault. They were as blind to my feelings as I was to theirs. (BTW I and my friend, the original poster, who did not take part in the abuse showered on me, worked things out via private messaging.)

We human beings are supposed to be empathetic. Toddlers will sometimes try to comfort a person crying by offering that person one of their toys. But they might also say, “Look at that man with the big nose!” so loudly everyone in the place can hear. We need to teach our children how to show and to refine one's empathy. We don't always do a good job, often because of our own limitations. We each see the world from our own viewpoint, colored by our own experiences. So we may to sensitive to the slights suffered by us or people we know and care about. We can communicate those to our kids. But the prejudices that others deal with may never even occur to us. I know what it's like to be called “foureyes” and “brainiac” and to be treated badly because of that. I don't know what it is like to not be taken seriously because you are a woman. Or to be seen as dangerous because you are a black man. Or to be assumed to be a pedophile because you are gay. Or to be considered lazy because you are unemployed. You really have to listen to someone else to know what being different from others in any specific way feels like.

Not only do we not always know what others are feeling, we sometimes don't know what we ourselves are feeling. Complex emotions, such as those elicited by dysfunctional family members, can elude us. Do you love or hate or pity an abusive parent or all 3? When they die do you feel grief or relief or both? All too often one of the main reasons people drink or do drugs is to avoid unpleasant emotions. People in recovery programs are often given a cheat sheet with variations of smiley and frowny faces to help them identify all the emotions they are feeling now that they are sober.

Emotions enrich our lives. They can also cloud our thinking. Fear, anger or love can make us do truly stupid things. Strong feelings for or against a person can keep us from seeing the truth of a situation. And yet, science tells us, being truly unemotional can hamper our judgment as well.

Our sermon suggestion slip reads, “How has the death of Christ brought us redemption, when no one feels redeemed?” Before we tackle the second part of this sentence, let's make sure we know what the first part means.

In the Old Testament redemption referred to buying back property or ransoming someone from bondage. A person in severe debt might sell himself into slavery to pay off what he owed. He could however be redeemed by a kinsman. Indeed it was the kinsman's duty to do so. And the prophets used this image from the culture to illustrate God's role in saving his people. The Hebrew word for “redeemer” appears 18 times in the Old Testament and 13 of those times it is used in Isaiah. God is seen as the Redeemer of Israel primarily in his bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt but also in later bringing them out of exile in Babylon.

In the New Testament, Jesus gives himself as a “ransom for many.” His death on the cross is the cost of delivering us from sin and death. That's the redemption he offers us: freedom from the penalty of sin.

And I have met people who did not feel that. They still felt the guilt for what they had done. I had a patient in a nursing home who had stopped eating because he felt he had sinned against God. Knowing him to be a Christian I asked him if he had confessed his sin to God. He said he had. I then quoted 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I told the man that he could stop punishing himself because Jesus took the punishment for us. He starting eating again.

As I said at the beginning, feelings can't always be relied on. When you hit a significant birthday, people always ask you if you feel older. And you probably don't feel any older than the day before. I've seen people disturbed when they don't feel grief for someone they just lost. Sometimes shock or numbness keeps you from having an emotional reaction until later. Feelings don't validate facts however much we think they do.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, all the slaves in the South were free. They didn't feel it then, of course. But even after the Civil War was over, a lot of former slaves did not feel free to leave the plantations and determine their own future. Many settled for working for the same folks who had owned them but for small wages which were often eaten up by the room and board they were now charged. Technically they were free. But they didn't feel like it and they didn't act it. And this could be why some people don't feel that Jesus has redeemed them.

If someone gave you a ticket to Disney World or a cruise and you never redeemed it, your life would be the same as if you had never received such gifts. If we do not use the redemption given us by Christ, we will not feel any different.

Our salvation is spoken of in 3 verb tenses in scripture. We are told in some verses that we have been saved, in some others that we are being saved and in still others that we will be saved. How can that be? By what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we have been, as I said, freed from the penalty for our sins. God does not hold anything against us. We are saved by his grace and all we have to do is trust him for it to become a reality for us.

By virtue of what the Spirit is doing in our lives, if we let him, we are being freed from the power of sin. This is process in which we are engaged during our earthly life. Relying on God's Spirit within us, we should be seeing victories in our lives over some of the sins that have enslaved us. This doesn't happen magically. We need to cooperate with the Spirit in the same way one cooperates with the physical therapist after major surgery. If you don't listen to her and do as she says, you won't get any benefit from what the doctor did for you and won't feel any better. It's the same with living in the Spirit. If we don't work with the Spirit, we will not see God at work in our lives. As it says in Philippians 2:12, “ out your salvation with fear and trembling”--which, C.S. Lewis points out, makes it sound like it all depends on you--“for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”--which makes it sound like it all depends on God. We can't do it on our own and God will not do it without us.

Finally, when Jesus returns and establishes the Kingdom of God on earth, we will be freed from the presence of sin. Healed from our penchant for thoughts, words and acts that are destructive to ourselves and others, we will not have to worry about others harming, cheating, slandering, harassing, or taking advantage of us nor will we have to worry about ourselves deliberately or thoughtlessly doing the same to others. As it says in 1 John 3:2, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him...” We shall be like Christ—morally and spiritually. We shall be totally reconciled with God and thus in harmony with him and with each other.

Because what Jesus did for us on the cross is in the past, and because it frees us from the penalty of sin, we may not feel redeemed in this sense. Unless, like my patient, we are acutely aware of our sins and then the relief and gratitude that comes from the fact that we need not torture ourselves over them will be palpable.

That fact that one day we will be freed from the very presence of sin may not help us feel redeemed precisely because it has not happened yet. And that leads to the main reason a person may not feel redeemed: the present tense of redemption, freedom from the power of sin. This is an ongoing process and it requires our active engagement. Like the course of physical rehabilitation, we have our good days and our bad days. Sometimes we find victory over a persistent temptation of ours and feel invincible. Other times we succumb to the same temptation that has snared us in the past—a outburst of bad temper, a moment of hubris, time spent stewing in envy, costly procrastination, a binge of gluttony, degrading lust, or a wallow in greed—and we feel unredeemed and irredeemable. We feel that Christianity doesn't work; it's a joke. Or it's a pie in the sky dream and not a practical program. We ask, “Why, God, do I keep failing? Why am I still so weak?”

This requires a virtue that we rarely talk about these days: diligence. In this day of instant fixes and instant results, instant service and instant gratification, we have lost our patience with persistence. We don't realize that even those apps and services that make things so easy are the result of countless hours of people thinking them up, refining them, testing them, and reworking them. Edison tried 100 different elements before he found the best one to use for the filament of his light bulb. Scientists have determined that it take 10,000 hours of practice to master anything—a sport, a job, a musical instrument, computer coding and programming. No one, no matter how talented, masters their field without putting in 10,000 hours just doing it. It takes perseverance. Why should becoming a strong Christian be the exception?

To be diligent at something you must make a commitment. You must decide to keep at it, rain or shine, day in and day out, like an athlete training for the Olympics or a musician rehearsing for an audition for a conservatory. Anything worth achieving requires diligence. Which requires a commitment. Which necessitates prayer. You must pray without ceasing, showing that you are serious about your desire to see the power of sin diminish in your life. Like a wise parent God doesn't grant every whim that pops into our head. He wants to see if we really want it.

Feelings are great but they are often like the chocolate sprinkles on an sundae. They add to it but are not essential. We don't always feel different even when we have a major event in our lives. We don't always know how we feel. And though we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, we may not always feel the emotional impact of all he has done, is doing and will do for us. But it is all real. And some days we just have to take it on faith.      

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