Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Real" Christians

The Pharisee & The Tax Collector

In a previous piece, I introduced those who read my scribbling to a remarkable place called Renewal Ranch.  As a recap, Renewal Ranch is a haven for men who have tragically found themselves in the throes of substance abuse and/or alcoholism.  The Ranch, however, is not your typical rehab program where the client occupies a bed for a mere 28 days and is then proclaimed to be free of the addiction.  No, the Ranch presents the resident with an intense sixth month submersion into the Word of God, the Bible.  In many ways, the Ranch focuses the man not on the inner man so much as the outer connection with God.  This, then, leads to a more correct introspection where conversion takes place and lives are transformed.

At the Ranch, God is the foundation of all that is good.  Success isn't because of some man-made program; the heart of the Ranch is the love and compassion of a forgiving and nurturing God.  The rules are strict.  The program is demanding.  The lifestyle entered in upon by the resident is usually so opposite of where they have come from that there is really no comparison between the two.

Here, wounded men, injured by their dark descent into the world of addiction, enter a program that fosters the spread of the intoxicating light of Christ.  Here, the dark clouds in their lives are gradually dispelled by the dawn of the light of the Son of God.  And here, many men come who have barely, if ever, heard of a man named Jesus who lived some two thousand years ago so that they might have eternal life, despite their addiction and resulting behavior.

When one visits the Ranch, it has the feel of a new-born nursery.  However, this nursery isn't the place where infants are first brought after being born.  No!  This nursery is one where men have been born into the faith of Jesus Christ.  Through Jesus Christ, they have been reborn into a world ruled by peace and tranquility.  It is a life with Jesus at it's center.  To experience these men, recovering from some of the greatest journeys into darkness that many of us could not possibly imagine, is to witness the power of the Spirit of God in a way that defies description.  It is at once energy, light, and love.  It lifts them up and takes them into the presence of God in a powerful, yet, tender, way that touches their hearts, setting their very beings on fire.

While they are caught up in the Spirit they remain, for the most part, humble before the Lord, always seeking to please Him through their lives.  Yet, they have a clear understanding of just who they are and what they have done.  They freely acknowledge their sinfulness before God and humbly beg His mercy and forgiveness.  They do not pretend to be something special, someone who takes pride in how well they have followed the Christian lifestyle since their acceptance of Christ in their lives.

I have often witnessed men who, toughened by life's unrelenting challenges, weep while giving testimony as to how God has changed their lives as they emerge from the chains of addiction.  They stand in humility in a room before family, friends, and strangers alike, humbly acknowledging that they cannot survive this world or their addictions without God as the center of their lives.

This remarkable display of humility reminds me of one of the more well known parables with which Jesus taught His followers.  It is a story that contrasts worldly pride with divinely inspired humility.  It has come to be known as the Pharisee and the Publican.

Simply put, Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee, a leading member of the Jewish community, one who is greatly admired and respected by the Jewish people, who enters the Temple and begins to pray.  His prayer rather than being an utterance of humility and supplication, becomes a self-congratulatory hymn of praise proclaiming how wonderful he is in the practice of his faith; how grateful he is that he is not like the rest of the sinners that he encounters!

While proclaiming his self-righteousness, He notices a Publican, a tax collector, who has come before the Lord.  Publicans, Jews who the Romans hired to collect taxes, were hated because they inevitably overcharged the Jews to make a tidy prophet off the backs of their own people.  Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector has kept to himself in the shadows of the Temple.  Paying no heed to the man, the Pharisee continues to pray.

"God," the Pharisee prays, "I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get."  (Lk 18: 11-12)

At this point in the story, Jesus directs our focus to the prayer of the Publican.  In contrast to the proclamation of the Pharisee, the Tax Collector's prayer is one of humility, revealing an awareness of just how much in need of God he is. Through Jesus, we hear the simple pleading of the Publican.  We become a party to his humble prayer.  Simple, yet, profound, his humility before God and sorrow for his sins are unmistakable.  Here is a man of true repentance and honesty.  He is not puffed up with pride because of his prayer.  He is brought low through his humble acknowledgement of the greatness of God and his total reliance upon Him.

The tax collector's prayer, unlike that of the Pharisee's, is a simple, humble admission as to he truly is:

"God," he pleads, "be merciful to me, a sinner."  (Lk 18: 13)    

He is a man who has come to know the true nature of God.  He experiences God's loving mercy and compassion.  God's forgiveness is not some vague thing available only to those who are deemed worthy, but to those whose lives have been profoundly and tragically effected by sin.  But, here, too, in this moving private prayer, the tax collector reveals a soul in conversion.  His is a soul that is turning away from his former self and turning to the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

The Pharisee, on the other hand--the one in the story who should have most recognized his need for humility-- missed this entirely.  He is caught up in his own self-righteousness, proclaiming to himself and the world how wonderful it would be if everyone were just as faithful and true to God as he.  This is the absurdity of the sinner.  Sin causes us to become ego-centric.  We become the center of our own lives, the reason God created us.  It is the absurd thinking that somehow he has figured things out.  That he has cornered the market on what it takes to be pleasing and close to God.  Because of this, he is special, set aside from others as a shinning example of what  true believer should be.  

What exactly does this simple parable have to do with Renewal Ranch?  Plenty!  At least from my vantage point.

The men of the Ranch, recovering from the ravages of addiction, have no illusions as to who they are and what they have done.  Their honesty is bold, striking in contrast to so many in society who hold their kind in disdain.  They will tell you of their misdeeds while detailing the sad effect their actions have had on their lives and on the lives of their loved ones.  Their humility overwhelms because their innocent, heart-felt confessions of lives spent in the squalor of sin and darkness are offered in the true spirit of repentance.

They are the tax collector, aware of their transgressions as well as their utter dependence on God.  They are not proud of what they have done, but neither do they hide it.  They come before God humbly asking for forgiveness and giving thanks.  Do some stumble and fall?  Of course!  They are, after all, human.  Yet, because they have become true disciples of Jesus Christ, they follow in His footsteps.  Like Christ Who falls on His way to Golgotha, they struggle to upright themselves and carry on, following the will of God in their lives just as He followed His Father's will on the Cross.

For me, these men and the Ranch are the "real" Christians of our day and age.  Unafraid to tell their tales of sin and darkness because of a real hope for their lives founded upon the assurances of Christ, they lead me to Christ Himself.  Looking in to their eyes it is easy to envision the eyes of Christ looking upon you.  They are the eyes of the suffering Christ, the forgiving Christ, the loving Christ.  They make no false accusations and are eager and ready to proclaim the Kingdom of God to any and all who are willing to listen.  They are not Sunday pew Christians content with Sunday church attendance and little more.  No, they are Sunday through Saturday Christians, living the gospel day in and day out in the reality of their lives.

The humble Renewal Ranch is the incubator for the infant faith of these modern day tax collectors who have come to live within it's protective walls.  The Ranch nurtures, disciplines, guides and points the way to a life in Christ.  In this light, it is my belief that all of us could use a Renewal Ranch in our lives.  We need to look at the Ranch and other places like it for strength and courage to follow the will of God for our lives.  The Ranch, like the tax collector, acknowledges that Jesus Christ is the center of our very being and salvation is only through Him.  The Ranch, then, gives rise to the true Christians of our age.

Jesus Christ: The Alpha & Omega