Hard Conversations

In many churches and among a number of Christians, there are some hard conversations that go on about standards for doctrine and leadership, about what is truly God’s will, what it means to be inclusive and loving in a culture that demands so much in terms of diversity and individuality, and even whether or not we can or should trust in the authority of God’s Word….
I’ve have been thinking this week about some hard conversations, too, in other contexts. Some of you know that I work with women in addiction assisting them toward life recovery from life-limiting dysfunctions like substance abuse, mental health challenges, complex unresolved grief or trauma-induced distress behavior disorders. Some women who seek treatment get what they need and leave, happier, better adjusted to dealing with life on life’s terms, and coping with the demands of reality in a more healthy and less self-destructive way. Others come, and leave, and come around again later when they relapse in old behavior or sometimes when they encounter something else, something new, never before experienced in life that is problematic for them. They come seeking encouragement, mentoring, and support again.

I recall a person with a chronic issue of alcohol relapse in the face of depression and life not going the way she wanted it to. Addiction professionals, mentors and volunteers in 3 programs had worked with this individual for nearly 10 years. And sadly, she continued to engage the same self-destructive behaviors that her children, who are now approaching their 30’s, said she had always done. There were admittedly some things in her upbringing, including having had an alcoholic father and a mother who died young with her own addictive issues, that seem to have led to this person having a sense of hopelessness in some sense and a willingness to ignore reality and continue in the same behavior over and over again, yet thinking that somehow her life would change and that she herself didn’t have to change.

Eventually it became necessary to have a hard conversation with her and tell her that, for the sake of her children and others who love her, we needed her to write her last will and testament, so that we would all know what she wanted us to do when she dies. It had become clear to many that she was not going to stop the self-destructive behavior that had resulted in two significant life threatening alcohol binges in less than a year that resulted in falls and alcohol poisoning and serious hospitalizations and concerns that she would not survive. She was shocked that people would be so direct with her. But even in the last hospitalization, when doctors told her that her liver damage is irreversible, that her chronic health issues are not going to get better, she persists in believing and telling others that everything is fine. This is a woman who knows the Lord. She is active in her church. She is not an outwardly defiant or belligerent person. But she is stubbornly refusing to deal with a reality that others in similar circumstances will often times accept and begin to change for the sake of survival.

A friend of mine overcame her active alcoholism in her late 30’s after recognizing that it was going to cost her a career as well as valued friendships. Her mother, however, who had also struggled with alcohol addiction all of her adult life had continued in a closet drinking mode for decades and only quit a year ago as she approached her 85th birthday after she nearly died from a fall while inebriated. My friend turned to her faith community for support, exposed her mother’s hidden alcoholism, and took difficult steps to deal with her mother’s risky behavior. It took moving this octogenarian mother into a full time nursing care facility where she got around the clock care and supervision to get her finally free of her active addiction. My friend and her husband are now finding happiness in sober-living with the Mom and her daughter is grateful to have whatever time she has left with her Mother in a happier, more emotionally satisfying and socially enjoyable relationship. A family’s bondage was broken.

All three of these women are Christians and have been active in faith community. But knowing God and being active in faith community alone didn’t change their lives. They had achieved what they would agree was freedom from the penalty of sin, which is eternal death. They have believed that they are going to heaven when they die, a belief that no other person could disavow. But they continued to struggle with not having freedom from the power of temptation and sinful behavior which caused recurring conduct that left them experiencing significantly less than the abundant and joyful lives that God promised and that Christ died to secure for all of us. People can debate whether substance abuse is a physiological disease, a mental illness, or a moral failing, but few would question the reality that excessive drinking to the point of blackout drunkenness, endangering one’s life, loss of relationship with family and friends, and denial of reality is God’s will.

Dealing with such issues sometimes leads to hard conversations.

This week I had another hard conversation with a mother of an almost 4 year old. She is a recovering addict and a single mother. Her child refuses to complete toilet training, just this week even stubbornly and willfully urinating on himself right in front of her in a defiant manner as she was trying to gather the day’s accessories and get out the door to work. His regular insistence that he does not want to use the toilet, has become a contest of wills that she is losing. It has resulted in him being dismissed from one daycare program. I have been helping her with childcare for him while she works on this issue and waits for a resource that has not yet become availalble to her for paying for full time daycare. As I have watched her engagement with him, she is kind and explains things.

However, it has begun to appear that she is parenting somewhat out of guilt for her absences in the past and for the child’s father’s substantial absence and lack of support in his life because of his own substance abuse issues. When the child pitched a fit this week during our morning handoff, she tried to placate him and wound up being late for work. I told her to go, that he would be fine. Within 30 seconds of her leaving he calmed down and did not give me any more problems for the day. No cajoling or bribery required. No threats, no paddling, no yelling. Just firm determination that he was going to buckle into his car seat and him knowing that I would not respond to him the same way she had. I told her that and she said, “What am I doing wrong?” I told her that attempting to rationalize with a child who is not yet capable of the level of reasoning she’s trying to use is undermining her. She has to summon the will to be firm with him and discipline him, risking his anger and dislike of her. Dr. Dobson and other authorities on raising boys and coping with strong-willed children are now on her suggested reading list.

Life is difficult. Sometimes we don’t like to hear the counsel we receive. No one can make us change. Even God will not make us change our way of thinking or our behavior.

Job is the held up for our consideration as the epitome of patience. He endured great hardships without abandoning his belief in God. I’m going to ask you some questions today. I’ll give you hint about the answers. All the answers are “YES!”
Did Job suffer? Yes.
Did he question God? Yes.
Did he express distress, at times? Yes.
Did he also listen to God when God explained the fact that Job did not have the benefit of all knowledge and that God’s sovereignty also includes God’s goodness? Yes.
Did he accept God’s authority and refuse to curse God? Yes.
Did Job stand by his commitment to God? Yes.
I have heard people express difficulty in reading Job. It’s not a fun book. It challenges us on many levels. How do we convince friends who suggest that we are the cause of our own misery that we have done nothing wrong? How do we get answers we want from a God whose action or apparent inaction sometimes seems so mysterious and incomprehensible?
I am going to read two short selections from the book of Job:    Job 1:1; 2:1-10

1 Once there was a man from Uz by the name of Job. He was a very good man—his character spotless, his integrity unquestioned. In fact, he so believed in God that he sought to honor Him in all things. He deliberately avoided evil in all of his affairs.
Job 2:1-10 The Voice (VOICE)
2 Now one day, it was time for the sons of God, God’s heavenly messengers, to present themselves to the Eternal One to give reports and receive instructions. The Accuser was with them there again, also ready to present himself to Him.
Eternal One (to the Accuser): 2 Where have you been?
The Accuser: Oh, roaming here and there, running about the earth and observing its inhabitants.
Eternal One: 3 Well, have you looked into the man, Job, My servant? He is unlike any other person on the whole earth—a very good man—his character spotless, his integrity unquestioned. In fact, he so believes in Me that he seeks, in all things, to honor Me and deliberately avoids evil in all of his affairs. And I have found him to be unswervingly committed, despite the fact that you provoked Me to wreck him for no particular reason, to take away My protection and his prosperity.
The Accuser: 4 Well, as they say, “Skin for skin!” It is easy to be so pious in the face of such health. Surely a man will give what he has for the sake of his own life, 5 so now extend Your hand! Afflict him, both bone and body, and he will curse You, right to Your face.
Eternal One: 6 Well then, this is how it will be: he is now in your hand. One thing, though: you will not take his life. Job must not be killed.
7 With that, the Accuser left the court and the Eternal’s presence, and he infected Job with a painful skin disease. From the soles of his feet to the crown of his head, his body was covered with boils. 8 Job took a broken piece of pottery to scrape his wounds, and while he sat in the ashes just outside of town, 9 his wife found him.
Job’s Wife: Will you still not swerve in your commitments? Curse God and die!
Job: 10 You’re speaking nonsense like some depraved woman. Are we to accept the good that comes from God, but not accept the bad?    Throughout all of this, Job did not sin with his mouth; he would not curse God as the Accuser predicted.

This selection from Job was the OT reading for today in the lectionary reading used by many pastors in churches across the globe. All of today’s readings- our responsive reading from Hebrews, this Job reading, and the Gospel reading from Mark, as well as the day’s reading from the Psalms- point to the mysteries of God’s ways in dealing with his people and the difficulty we have in trying to tease out how to respond to life based on the teachings of the Bible . The selection from the Gospels in Mark 10:2-15 for today is as puzzling and difficult to hear as the reading from Job.

2 Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. 3 And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. 7 For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, 8 and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
10 In the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. 11 And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.”

Ouch! Jesus has not pulled any punches with his direct and hard conversation with his disciples. This is the letter of the law from the ancient Hebrew texts. However, Jesus acknowledged that Moses, in his role as the judge and administrator over all of the nation during their Exodus years had been forced by the hardness of hearts of people to render decisions that became part of the larger administrative law for the people that would allow divorce in some circumstances. What other option was there in the face of people’s unwillingness to be faithful to one another, to forgive one another and live together in peaceful marital relationships but to make a way to dissolve a marriage in which such differences could not be reconciled?

Did you know that marriage in ancient Rome was a strictly monogamous institution: a Roman citizen by law could have only one spouse at a time. The practice of monogamy distinguished the Greeks and Romans from other ancient pagan civilizations, in which males, particularly those with status and wealth, typically had multiple wives. Greco-Roman monogamy may have arisen within values of democratic and republican political systems of the city-states. It is one aspect of ancient Roman culture that was consistent with early Christianity, which in turn led to monogamy as an ideal in later Western culture.

Divorce for most of Roman history was a private matter. It did not involve either religion or the state. It was a family matter. Both the wife and the husband could initiate a divorce, either verbally or in writing. They could divorce for essentially any reason, or they could be ordered to divorce by family or the state to improve political or financial alliances. Religious differences could also drive a divorce. Though marriage was honorable, it was not sacred. It was not “holy” matrimony in the Christian sense. Divorce still had important consequences. Marriage was a contract involving property and expectations of inheritance, which divorce disrupted. If a husband caught his wife in adultery, he not only had to divorce her, he had to prosecute her within sixty days. If he did not, the husband could be prosecuted as well. Divorced women were further penalized if they did not remarry within two years.

Throughout his teaching Jesus references the OT law: “You have heard it said…….” Or “It is written…..”. Jesus knows and teaches the letter of the Law. And in virtually every case, he not only cites the law, but he adds an additional measure of the spirit of the Law to it which always points toward love and mercy toward others.

In looking at this text from Mark, we tend to focus narrowly on Jesus being asked if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Period. No conditions are noted. This question of when and how a divorce can proceed appears to have been a long-running debate between the Pharisees and Jesus. We have several places in the Bible in which the same question arises. In Matthew 19 we read that the Pharisees asked Jesus, ““Is it awful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” There were two schools of thought and teaching among the Pharisees of Jesus’ time- either that of Hillel or that of Shammai. The Pharisees were about as political as any group of religious leaders could be and they had their political “parties” following one or the other of these thought leaders. Some commentators believe that the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to disclose his loyalty to one or the other. The dominant Hillel group may have been trying to get Jesus to side with the more conservative Shammai group so that they could discredit Him with the majority of the people, who were presumably favoring the more lenient position of divorce that had become popular, that a woman could be sent away for essentially any reason desired by her husband, not just on the grounds of adultery, as had been originally specified.

It appears that over and over again throughout his ministry, Jesus’s critics tried to pin him down. But Jesus was well aware of what was in their hearts and he knew what the outcome of all the political maneuvering would eventually be.
When referring to adultery he said in Matthew 5:27-28 (NASB)

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus just ramped up the standard…. From the letter of the Law and physical adultery to the spirit of the Law and emotional and spiritual adultery against one’s wife and one’s own moral character.
He did a similar thing in talking about another commandment and personal relationships when he said in Matthew 5:21-22:
21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

Jesus is getting more than a little personal with people and exercising some harsh judgement here. And he is applying a standard of the spirit of the Law as being so far above the letter of the Law that we may all find it hard to swallow. And yet, when some speak of the law of love, as Jesus taught it, this is the standard of law that we see.
What is his point? That we are all guilty of thoughts, words, and deeds that are as wrong as murder. Well, yes. That we are all going to hell? Not exactly. But certainly if each of us was judged strictly against such an exacting standard as Jesus’s teaching on the spirit of the law here, we certainly would likely be judged guilty. And what court is responsible for adjudicating one’s anger or slander against a brother against whom no assault, much less murder has occurred?

In 1993, the Lord put upon my heart an obligation to pray for the Supreme Court of the US. I didn’t understand why. What would my prayers accomplish in so large an arena that was so far from my sphere of influence? Nevertheless, I did as I felt compelled to do. And I continued to do so for over 10 years. I watched the court’s activities and prayed for the individuals, their staff, the influences that touched their lives, the cases coming before them. Eventually, I was released from that burden for prayer, never really knowing what the purpose had been.

In the last couple of years as part of the discipleship work that I do with individuals I have been teaching moral development and the functioning of the conscience. At one point as I studied and prayed I had a sudden insight. The Holy Spirit within us is God’s guide to show us how to think and respond to life and make decisions about right and wrong. There are moral principles that have been given by God through his people throughout the history of our faith and by which we are to make reasoned decisions. There are also civil laws under which we must live, as well. Generally, the two support and reinforce one another. However, sometimes they are in apparent conflict with one another to some degree or another. Other times an individual acts purely out of personal desire or emotional reaction and finds herself at odds with one or the other or both. When we find ourselves in such situations, we have a decision to make. Does one continue to act out of personal self-desire or self-interest and disregard moral or civil law? Does one stand by principles in which she believes religiously or civilly or put herself at risk of being in violation of one or the other? Where do we look for answers? If we are Christians, if we are sincerely attempting to live according to the example of Christ and if we are earnestly striving to listen to the Holy Spirit within us, we have the “court” within us. That was my sudden aha one day as I reflected on these issues. The supreme court for each of us, ultimately is God’s presence within us, seeking his heart, mind, and will in matters of decision making. And Jesus gives us some clear guidelines for what the consequences will be for choosing poorly. In the end, if we take upon ourselves to judge others, calling another person unwise, wrong, or a fool, and usurping God’s authority in deciding the motive and actions of others, we will ourselves be guilty of the sin that will warrant our own condemnation to hell. That’s a sobering thought. How often have we looked at another person and thought how foolish they are? How far afield their choices and judgements are from our own….. and dismissed them as idiots? That is not our prerogative, according to Jesus. That very act of judging another person’s motives and actions will put us at risk of guiltworthiness. But, because of God’s great mercy and his grace in providing a means of forgiveness through faith in Christ, we can avoid hell even when we engage in rash and judgemental thoughts and conduct. Our responsive reading from Hebrews today reminds us that Jesus died for what we most need….. God’s merciful reprieve from the guiltworthiness that we ourselves cannot avoid. We must allow the supreme court of the Holy Spirit to call us out in such moments of arrogant judgement against others. With The Holy Spirit’s supreme court within us we can trust God to remind us that we are not perfect and cannot know the hearts and minds of others any more than we can know the heart and mind of God himself. Leave such matters to God. Remain humble and trust God to do the work in others that he is also desiring to do in us. And we can trust that he will show us what we are to do, even if he never shows us why he has allowed something to come our way.

All those years of praying for the supreme court of the US, I think God was preparing me for a hard look at myself. I was actually praying for myself. That my discernment, the ability to know evil from good, would become more accurately truth-based, objective and merciful toward others…. That I would become less personally subjective and judgmental toward others and that I would trust the internal supreme court, the guiding work of the Holy Spirit within me that knows and understands far more than I myself ever can.
What guide are we using to make decisions about our opinions of others? Are we stepping into guiltworthiness by making judgments of others that a re beyond our authority? Are we willing to acknowledge and repent of such conduct before God? Are the hard conversations we need to have sometimes with ourselves?

When we need to have a hard conversation with ourselves, based on the convicting work of the Holy Spirit in us, we can look to the Psalmist’s regular disclosures of his own failings and need for the Lord’s merciful lovingkindness. In Psalm 25 we read these words.

Remember, O Lord, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses,
For they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
According to Your lovingkindness remember me, For Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.
Good and upright is the Lord; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in justice, And He teaches the humble His way.
All the paths of the Lord are lovingkindness and truth
To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies.
For Your name’s sake, O Lord, Pardon my iniquity, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way he should choose.
The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him, And He will make them know His covenant.
Look upon my affliction and my trouble, And forgive all my sins.
Guard my soul and deliver me; Do not let me be ashamed, for I take refuge in You.
Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,
For I wait for You.


Lectionary References:
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Psalm 26 or Psalm 25 (UMH 756)
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

(Sermon given at Carillon Beach Community Chapel 10-7-18 by CBByrd)