Thursday, September 26, 2013

No More Religiosity

(Edited and reposted from a blog entry in 2009.  Still applicable today, I think.)

M dad didn't like "church" much.  Don't get me wrong, he was a born-again believer in Jesus, served on the board of trustees of several churches he'd attended, taught Bible studies, and believed in God as his creator, savior, and shepherd.

But at many churches, too much attention is given to the "religion" of the church (trying to follow rules and create the right image) when the real truth of "religion" (faith) is in the heart, and with God.

My dad loved God.  He lived his faith, but he didn't like "religion".

And I'm coming more and more to understand his point of view.

I do believe the Bible is the inspired word of God on this earth.  I believe it is the written wisdom that God judged would be sufficient for mankind to see His hand at work, get to know Him, and learn to love and worship Him.  It is the story of God's love for man, and man's search for God. Jesus' death and resurrection is the culmination of the story, and the pinnacle of God's love revealed for us.

I believe that faith in God alone, through Jesus, is what saves a person.  Jesus gave himself a sacrifice for all people, was raised from the dead to prove he was God and was sent from God, and by that sacrifice we can be assured that God will do what Jesus said: forgive our sin, and justify us to Himself for eternity.

With the faith that God gives me as his child, I can say God loves me.  He called me and I responded. I tell others about Him, they hear God call, then they respond, and so on.

That's God's will for us here on earth. Its not complicated.  It's not hard to understand.  It's very simple. Love the Lord God with all your heart, and love one another as yourself.

Its the "how" of loving each other that I think we get tangled up over.

I think we complicate things in our churches.  Jesus said, "they (the world) will know you are my disciples by your love for one another".  That's a very simple concept.  Our love for one another is to the beacon on display to the world.  It should be different from how people in the "world" show love for one another.

We, the body of Christ, are to be patient with one another, gentle, slow to anger, quick to listen, strong in shoulder and long in embrace.  We are to be slow to judge, quick to forgive, and show deep understanding in our consideration for each other.

One way to love one another, perhaps the best way, is to get to know one another.  Walk a mile with each other in each other's shoes.  Share our story with each other, and get to know what makes each other move and breathe. Get into each other's lives and see what each other's lives are all about.  Help one another, serve one another, and truly love one another.

The problem is that most of us don't really seem to want to get to know each other very well.

Most of us don't want to put in the enormous effort to spend time with someone to get to know them. Getting to know someone takes time, patience, and energy most of us would rather expend on something else, like ourselves.  Most of us are, at heart, somewhat selfish people.  (Don't be afraid to admit it, because deep down you know it's true, and to say otherwise is a lie.  I know I am.  Just have someone show me a picture of myself and 5 other people.  Who do I look for first in the photo? Myself, every time.  So do you. It's how we're wired, so don't kick yourself for it, just accept it.)  Selfishness is very easy. Selflessness takes work, that's why Jesus preached so hard on it.  That's why getting to know each other is so important, and why so many of us find it hard to do.

The other reason, and probably the larger one, is that most of us really don't want people to get to now US very well.  We're afraid others might not like what they see, and we'd be embarrassed and ashamed of what our lives are like in the real world.  

In the real world we have blemishes and scars and unseemly behaviors we'd rather not show to our church friends.

Mainly because our churches are pretty judgmental places.

You see, "church" isn't the real world. Church, the gathering together of a congregation on Sunday morning, is often the most phony place you can be on any given day.

Although our churches should be safe havens for all (a place where we can come and be honest about who we are and be accepted and loved most often in spite of who we are), church is, oddly enough, the place where many people put on their phoniest face of the week.

We usually spend one day a week, sometimes two, at church where we dress up nice, we've brushed our teeth, we watch our language, and smile at our fellow churchgoers.

We spend the other five or six days being the "real" us: cursing, yelling at our kids and spouses, being angry with co-workers, impatient and unkind to neighbors, judging the skateboarders and tattooed kids in the park, filling our heads with foul things from television and movies, ..... I could go on but you get the idea.

This is not an indictment of the latter (our "real" life), but of the former (our phony face at church). Why do we do this? Why are we so incredibly dishonest and phony with each other?

I think its because we're afraid.

We're afraid of being judged.

Afraid of being thought "unchristian", or sinful, or dirty, or of being ashamed of who we are, because most of us don't want to be "that" kind of person:  we just are!  Paul talks about this in Romans 7.  We haven't yet figured out how to let God transform us into a "fruit of the spirit" type of person, and we find ourselves being this person we don't want to be. Everyone of us experiences this to some degree or another.

We feel like we're failed Christians in a sea of Christian Titans, thinking everyone else has it right but me, when the truth is, some of the Titans are just as screwed up and confused as anyone at church! They spend their time hiding and faking their way through Sunday after Sunday just like the rest of us. Some of the Titans have simply learned how to play the church game better than others, and this dishonesty hinders honest seekers looking for understanding and encouragement.

This is sad, my friends. Fakery is no way to live.

The church, our local gathering of believers where we fellowship and do life,  should be a safe haven. Church should be a place where our brokenness is repaired, and our weakness is strengthened, where we walk arm in arm together, despite the mud and muck.  Church should be where God shows his undying love to His world through his children.

Church should be a place where fear of honesty is abolished, shame in asking for help should evaporate and embarrassment over our shortcoming should disappear.  Church should be a place where the shocking is not shocking, and the scandalous is not scandalous, and no one looks askance at anyone for who they are, because where honesty exists, shock and scandal do not exist, and askance glances vanish.

If in our own churches we can't love one another with the love of Christ and have patience and compassion toward one another for our "real" lives;  if we don't love each other differently with the radical love Jesus modeled for us, why should the world give a damn about what we preach or what the Bible says?

No one cares what you know until they know that you care. (Not mine, not original, but a good thought.)

Please don't take this as a repudiation of all churches, or even my home church.  This piece is a statement on the condition I see of American Christianity in general.  But if I were a betting man, I'd say there are lots of people who feel this way at every church, including my own.  We're human, and no one is perfect or immune to the human condition.

My heart, however, is buoyed and my soul given joy at the Christians I do know in my own church who make it a point to get to know people, and who love one another in a different way, the way Christ asked his disciples to love one another.  They are the proof of the thesis of God's love, and for them I truly give thanks to my Lord.  They are the salt of the earth and the lights of our congregations, and I pray daily that they'd continue the good work God has given them. They are the folks who will help the rest of us to learn how to love.

As for myself, I have shortcomings in this "get to know each other" department.  I'm not perfect or immune to the things I write about.  I'm hard to get to know, and I have a hard time getting to know people.  I know it to be true, and I'm working on that.  But I do have a passion for loving one another with patience and gentleness, and encouraging each other wherever possible.

My prayer is that we, as a church in general, would be less judgmental and more honest with each other. Yes, its hard work, and it's a labor, but people, we must do this if the world is going to see anything different in our lives. If we don't have compassion for the foibles and imperfections of the brothers and sisters we already know, how will we ever have compassion for the unchurched people we are desperately trying to reach in our community?

Next time you are at church, try giving each other more than a phony "Hello, how are you today?" Take a chance and ask, "How's life really treating you?" and prepare to give a few minutes to listen! Take the time to be an ear, to listen to someone who's lonely, to hug someone who's sad, or laugh with someone who's happy. Then, try it at work! Or at the grocery store! Or even... gulp... at home!

Then, be prepared when someone says to you, "How's life really treating you?" to really tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly, and see how that goes. I pray you'd be surprised.

My prayer is that God would move in our churches generally, and in my home church specifically, spurring us on to real love for each other.

No politics.  No games.  No phoniness and no fear.

1 John 4:6-21 says " God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?  And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters."

After all, perfect love casts our fear. God's love for us casts out our fear of life and living for God. Likewise, a man who is loved, truly loved, by his friends has nothing to fear from those that love him.

Loving God and loving one another. That's what God's will is all about. No great mystery there.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Musing on the Kingdom Mission - to Dispell the Darkness with Love

My head hurts lately.

I've been grumpy and depressed.

Mainly on account of something that is supposed to bring joy, and healing, and peace.

I am having what I think is referred to as a 'crisis of faith'.

Oh, I'm not losing my faith in God, not by any means.  I love God, and have faith in Jesus. God did what only He could do, by coming to this existence as a man, living in love, dying in love, and resurrecting in love to break forever the bonds of death and sin.  Only God could do that.  No crisis of faith there.

No, I guess what I'm having a crisis with isn't God, but the church.

I'm having a crisis with how we do church.
I'm having a crisis with what we teach about Christ and God's love in church.
I'm having a crisis with how we live together (or not, so much it seems) as members of the church.
I'm having a crisis with how we love and  how we express the Kingdom of God on earth through the church.

I have a deep longing in my soul to be a part of a like-minded group who sees the Kingdom of God in the same way I do.  I have yet to find that group, to be honest.

A group who sees the Kingdom Mission as.....
  • a mission to love others without pre-condition.  Every person, everywhere, without condition. Period.  
  • a mission to see every person, everywhere, in every walk and situation in life, as ascribed by God with unsurpassed, immeasurable worth and value. Every person.  Everywhere 
  • a mission not to judge others - ever. 
  • a mission to love our enemies, and pray for them, and actually do good for them - desiring that they experience love as well. Every person. Everywhere
  • a mission to learn and live in the beautiful truth that through Christ all is being made new, all is being reconciled to God, and that God wants to save ALL people and bring them into His Kingdom. Every person. Everywhere.  
  • a mission to partner with God every day, to take up our cross daily in love, to bring about not just our own salvation, but the reconciliation, the justice, the peace and beauty that God wants to bring into this world through his Church. For every person.  Everywhere
  • a mission to outrageously love every person the way Jesus did - sacrificing Himself even all the way to death on a cross.  For every person. Everywhere. 
......because that was Jesus' mission in the world: to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, to release the bonds of death and hell, and to cleanse the world and free it/us from slavery to sin. For every person, everywhere.

Jesus did not come to condemn people to hell.  He did not come to accept some and exlude others.  He did not come to enslave us anew to laws and regulations that trap people all over again in sin and guilt. He did not even come to be a judge!

Jesus came to be the savior of the world.  He came to cleanse us from every sin, and every shame, and to give us a brand new life - His life!  He came to make us right with God, and to invite us to enter boldly into the Father's presence, as accepted children, loved and cherished.  He came to show us how much God loves us, and just how far God was willing to go to save us.  

All the way from the unknowable heights of heaven, to death on a cross. 

But His love didn't stop there.  He arose, victorious over death, having dealt with the Accuser and the accusations against us once and for all.  Because of Calvary, death no longer has any sting.  Death no longer has any power or claim on us, because God has laid claim to every one of us by virtue of His amazing sacrifice. By His grace we are freed from bondage to anything that separates us from God. 

So how do we accomplish this Kingdom Mission? There's as many opinions as there are people on the planet.  Which on is right? Which one is wrong? I think the odd dichotomy of the Kingdom of God is that they are all right, and they are all wrong, all at the same time. It just depends on where you are standing at the moment.

But I do know this: the Kingdom of God is unlike any kingdom on earth.  It does not operate by the rules of any earthly society, and God never leverages the success of His Kingdom on programs or performances. He leverages the success of His Kingdom on prayer, and on faith, and on His people listening to His Holy Spirit.  He leverages the success of His Kingdom on the faithfulness of His people to live radical Kingdom lives, putting God's radical love on display through our lives. Its through our unity and love for one another that the world will know God is love.  There simply is no other way. 

I think the church of Christendom- the Church Militant and Triumphant, the Church that will win back the country for God and whatnot - is dying. 

I think the Church that fuses God and country, and blurs the beautiful, stark lines between the kingdoms of the earth and the Kingdom of God, is dying. 

I think the Church that fights against equality and seeks to enforce their vision of Godliness on the culture around them, is dying.  

I think the Church that seeks to be the Moral Guardians of society, and tries to define sinners and saints, and judges some for their obvious sins but passes others on their hidden sins, is dying.

I think the Church that gets is worth and value from anything other than Jesus Christ and the work done on Calvary which extends to all of creation, is dying.  

I think if the Church does not begin to separate itself out from the culture, and learn anew to follow Jesus into the radical revolution that is God's coming Kingdom, the Church as we know it will die.  

Something else will arise in its place, though.  A new kind of church, no doubt.  God will always have his ekklesia, His congregation or gathering.  The ekklesia will never die, but God will, as He has throughout history, do a work to refine and refocus His people on the mission at hand.

I pray that I can be a part of that refining and refocusing, and that my tribe will be a tribe that lives to make a difference, and lives to enjoy life and while living life to the fullest, reflect the brilliant light of God's love to world shrouded in darkness.  

The Church exists to dispell the darkness.  Let's do that, together.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Thoughts

Today, in the United States of America, is Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is a day when we remember those members of the US military, as well as other branches of government service, that gave their lives in defense of the land and values that we, as citizens of the United States, hold dear.

Values like

We have enshrined in our Declaration of Independence from Britain, "unalienable Rights"and "that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

As a nation, many have defended these Liberties over the years in many and various wars and battles fought not only on our own soil, and against our own kin, but on the soil of foreign nations against foreign peoples. Many individuals - men and women of all races and persuasions, along with men and women of many like-minded nations - have died in the defense of these Liberties, helping to preserve within the borders of the United States of America a civilization and lifestyle treasured by those who live here, and many more who envy, emulate, and covet the very Liberties we enjoy.

As a citizen of the United States of America, I recognize the gravity of every sacrificed life, every dreadful injury, and every damaged and broken family left behind by the ravages of war. I do give honor, my gracious thanks for their service, and grieve for every life taken in the defense of the United States of America.

Among the nations of the Earth, the United States of America has been a great nation, and beacon of hope to many.  It is a nation within the borders of which I am very thankful that I was born, and have been given opportunity to enjoy the freedoms its borders provide.


As a citizen first of the Kingdom of God, with my utmost allegiance given to my God and my rightful King and Lord, Jesus, I am driven by a slightly different sentiment this Memorial Day.

I find that I'm learning that to mourn the death of a soldier is good and right to do, but not just the soldiers of the United States military. I'm finding that, with a view toward my citizenship in the Kingdom of God, which transcends national and tribal boundaries, every death in every conflict is something to be mourned.

I think that every death in every conflict is something that God mourns over, too.

John writes in the well known passage in John 3, that God so loved the entire world.  Not just one nation over another, but the entire world.  Jesus' sacrifice atones for the sins of the whole world, not just one nation over another.  God's plan is to reconcile all of creation to himself, not any one nation over another.

1st John 2:2 says, "He himself (Jesus) is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world."

2nd Peter 3:9 states, "...He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent."

This Memorial Day, instead of praying blessings on our Nation in particular, I am moved to pray for the nations of the Earth in general.

I pray today for every family that has lost family members in war, in every nation of the Earth.

Every soldier is someone's son, daughter, father, mother, sister, brother, or friend.

Every soldier's death is mourned by a son, a daughter, a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, or a friend.

Without regard to border, tribe, religion or creed - every death is a loss.

God mourns every loss, without regard to border, tribe, religion or creed - He wants none to be lost, either to us here on Earth or to Him in eternity.

Memorial Day transcends our borders, in truth.  As a Citizen of the Kingdom first, my Kingdom prayer is that God's will would be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

As a subject of the King, I am to follow His commands:

Love one another.
Love my enemies, bless them, and do good to them.
Forgive those who trespass against me.
Serve those who are less fortunate, and care for the poor and the widows.

And, as my citizenship in the Kingdom transcends earthly borders, so does the mission give to me by my King. My love for another must transcend borders.

So, this Memorial Day, I pray for and mourn all who have been lost in every war, in every nation.  I pray for the day that war will be a distant memory,  and I pray for the day when we beat our swords into plowshares, and live together in peace under the Kingship of Jesus.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It Could Be a Country Song - the Adulterous Woman and Jesus.

I was driving to work today, listening to the country music station, bobbing my head to a song about trucks and dirt roads and girls and bonfires and dancing and probably beer, when I swear I heard the Holy Spirit ask me to change the radio station.

Not because God doesn't like country music.  Trust me, I think He does, just like I think He likes a lot of other music you'd probably be surprised at.  Like Baroque and those tin-sounding tunes played on harpsichords.

I mean, He created music, after all.

No, the Spirit asked me to tune the radio to KFIA, our local Christian AM radio station that plays a lot of sermons from local churches during the morning commute.  I occasionally listen to that station in the morning, but only occasionally, since I can only listen to so many sermons before they begin to blur into one long narrative in my brain.

(We sang a song in church this past Sunday about Jesus, saying, "all I wanna do when I wake up is spend my day with you", which is true enough, but it doesn't mean I want to listen to sermons all day. Maybe I could take him fishing with me, or to a ball game. Or, maybe he'd like to chill with me while we watch a movie, or the latest episode of Revolution. Maybe he'd help me clean my garage. I think Jesus would dig that.)

Anyway, I switched the radio over to KFIA.  Lo' and behold the preacher, I don't know who, was finishing up his sermon by reading a passage where Jesus is telling his followers not to judge others.

Thank you, Lord.  I needed to hear that today.  I'm sure others listening to the radio did too.

Part of my personal journey of learning to follow Jesus the best I can (trying to understand better and apply the understanding to my life in a better way), has been to confront this issue of "judging others", something we Christians seem to be really, really good at.

We're good at judging others, that is, not confronting the issue. We're really good at judging, not so good at the "don't judge" thing.

It seems to me that most Christians I know believe that there just has to be some moral boundary, or moral limit or edge or cliff over which love can't extend.  Someplace that we have to say "sin is just sin!"

Sin, I've heard said, has to be named as sin, for the good of the world, so that people will know they are sinful and need a savior. The Church must set standards and boundaries for people based on the word of God that need to be upheld as sacred. These boundaries are sacrosanct, inviolable and "biblical".

Which is true. For the most part,  I agree with that. The Church stands for something important in society.  It is a beacon of light set high on a hill, exposing the darkness, and beckoning those who see it to come and live in the light of grace, and truth, and love.

But as we in The Church beckon people to come, we must remember that those we are calling to are not just issues to be confronted or rebuked.  They are not "gay people" or "fornicators" or "thieves" or "adulterers" or any other label to be categorized.  

They are, each and every one, a person.  A real person.  With hopes, fears, feelings, thoughts, desires, ideas, dreams, insecurities, biases, emotions and needs, just like every other person.  They are not political stances, or pawns to be used to prove a dogmatic point of theology.

They are real, living, breathing, feeling, hurting, rejoicing, happy, sad, angry, upset, confused, ticked-off, overjoyed people just like everyone else.

In Matthew 7:1, Jesus says,
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged."
The Church has to stand for certain things, this much is true. In the big picture, on points of policy and politics and theology and issues, The Church has a responsibility to guard and keep safe the sacred truths and values that have been passed down through generations.

For my own part, though, I've decided to adopt what I see as Jesus' example of how he dealt with the big issues of doctrine, policy, right and wrong, and the way he applied those principals to an individual person with a beating heart. After all, I think Jesus meant it when he said, "don't judge....."

In John 8, we're told that one day while Jesus was teaching to a crowd in the Temple,
"... the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd."
Before we move forward, take a moment and grab onto that - they caught her in the act of adultery and they dragged her out and put her in front of a crowd. 

Nevermind the fact they didn't drag the man out with her.

Just get your heart around the fact that these men broke into a room.  They grabbed this woman probably in the act of sexual intercourse.  They dragged her out in all her shame and nakedness, crying and probably in hysterical fear for her life because she knows the law, too.  They  parade her across town, crying and struggling to get free, down several streets to the Temple, of all places  (where she's not even allowed to go, much less go naked!), and throw her out in front of a crowd.

Naked. Alone. Frightened. Angry. Ashamed. Probably pretty pissed off.

But ultimately, powerless.

Are you feeling the inhumanity here?  Are you feeling the degradation here?  Do you feel the injustice in this effort to serve justice?  Good.  We need to feel the inhumanity, because it's into this inhumanity that Jesus speaks some humanity, grace, and love.

So the Pharisees tossed the woman out and stated their issue, their creed, their stance on culture and law:
"Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
To the Pharisees and teachers of the law assembled in the Temple courtyard, this woman was not a person, she was a symbol.  She was a pawn to be moved about on the chessboard of politics and society to try to prove their point about how correct they were in their efforts to control and direct culture, and to define the boundaries of what is right and wrong, good and bad, holy and unholy.  She was a symbol used to try to prove that they were correct on the issue. 

(Sound at all familiar in the Church today?  You know it does.)

Interestingly, on the issue - on the topic or talking point of adultery - they were exactly right.  The law indeed did say that she deserved to be stoned to death.  They were correct on the moral stance of the issue, but dead wrong on the application and the purpose for the law.  

The purpose of The Law was to keep us out of trouble, to guide us and protect us from ourselves.  The point of the law against adultery wasn't to punish adulterers, but to warn people of the terrible consequences of adultery, in order to make it something to be avoided at all costs. Punishment was the last resort. The Law is a warning sign for our own good; a flashing red light, saying "don't go past here, danger lies ahead".

So, into this charged climate of right and wrong, morality and doctrine, fear and demands for justice and deep, deep shame, Jesus looked at the woman standing before him.  In his great wisdom and compassion he saw a woman, a person, not an issue or a talking point or a dogma or a creed.  He saw a quivering, crying, ashamed and utterly powerless woman with no recourse but to throw herself on the mercy of the Teacher.

All the while the Pharisees were demanding an answer.  "What do you say, teacher?"

" ...(Jesus) stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”  Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust."
I imagine there was a stunned silence in the crowd for a moment after that, punctuated only by the occasional sobs from the lone, naked, frightened woman on the ground in front of them.

Jesus acknowledged the "correctness" of their stance regarding the Law of adultery.  The woman, Jesus affirmed, did indeed deserve to die by stoning, as the Law said.  But he changed the focus from the accused to the accusers.

From the judged to the judges.
From punishment to compassion.
From justice to grace.
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged."
So as the silence fell, and the weight of the Teacher's words began to set in,
".....(the accusers) slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman."

Beginning with the oldest.  The wisest.  The most experienced.  Or perhaps those with the most weight of sin on their shoulders from having lived the longest.  Perhaps because each one of them knew that every single person there was imperfect, had sinned in some way, and as such were unqualified to judge anyone in the way Jesus demanded.  The one who dared to cast a stone would be a liar, and everyone knew it.

Or perhaps they suddenly realized their own issues and sins were somehow more personal, more immediate, more intimate than an issue, a stance, or a theological point.  Perhaps their hearts sped up a beat or two, and they saw the possibility of their own judgment at the hands of some other angry crowd.

Whatever the change, the accusers decided the religious stance or the talking point or being right on the theological issue and pointing out sin was no longer a detached philosophical point.  It had become very personal. So one by one, they left.
"Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Jesus demonstrated outrageous grace to a frightened, ashamed, scared and utterly powerless woman. Jesus, the only one who could rightly throw a stone at her because he was indeed sinless, refused to condemn her. He saw past the issue, past the stance, to the person at the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the person in front of him.

Let me be clear here for those who might misunderstand. Jesus was not telling the woman "you did no wrong". She clearly understood her sin, and the gravity of her situation.  The men accusing her of adultery were absolutely correct on the points of law and punishment.  Jesus did not say adultery is OK.

But what Jesus did was demonstrate that the law should never be used as a tool to coerce or control the actions of others.  The law is a signboard to all, not a bludgeon to be used by the few to control the many.

Which brings me to today, and the issues the Church confronts in culture, in much the same way the Pharisees confronted Jesus with the adulterous woman.

Charged issues like homosexuality, same-sex marriage, drug use, smoking, drinking , living together before marriage - go ahead, name your sin and its prohibition - get used by the Church all the time, in much the same way the Pharisees used the issue of adultery.

We metaphorically drag people we see as sinners through the town square of discussion and opinion and gossip and innuendo, accusing them as effectively, as callously, and as inhumanly as the Pharisees did.  We cast sinners in the town square of opinion accusing them of sin, but tend to forget that Jesus is the true judge, and he tells us....

....don't do that.  Don't cast people down.  Don't judge them. He reminds us,
 "The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged."
I love and agree with the Church universal that stands for certain societal values, because the Bible demonstrates that, for the most part, they are good for society and mankind.  God's decrees are not random or capricious and sin is named as sin because its almost always harmful or denigrating or dehumanizing is some fashion or another.

Jesus point, I think, is to remember that as we, the Church, defend and protect the sacred teachings and tenets of Christianity, we don't lose sight of the individuals that those sacred teachings and tenets are reaching out to.

People lost 'in sin" in the eyes of the church do not need the church dragging them to the town square and accusing them of their sin.  They know what the "Pharisees" think already.  You did too, before you became a Christian.

Jesus wants us to be a beacon of love, of grace, of compassion and reconciliation in a world that sees far too little love, grace, and compassion.  The woman accused of adultery knew she was guilty.  She didn't need anyone telling her that she was guilty.  That just added to her shame.  Jesus reached through the shame to touch the heart of a real live person, and extended radical grace.

Church, that's our job.

Name sin when there is sin. That's right to do. God the Father does it in the Old Testament, and Jesus does it in the New. .

But when it comes to dealing with the personal, the individual, the heart of someone that can be crushed or renewed - we must always extend love, grace, compassion, and reconciliation, even at the expense of our pride and "rightness" in our sacred teachings - because Jesus showed us that a restored heart is far more important than being right on an issue.

After all, people are the real issue.  Lives are the real issue. Let's try to be right on that issue as often as possible.

John 12:46-47  "I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it,"

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

California Dreamin'

Lately I've been trying to be aware of instances in culture where culture either directly or subtly contradicts or co-opts things or idea from the Kingdom, and twists them into worldly icons or ideas.

The latest, most blatant one I noticed comes to us from the California Lottery and their campaign to introduce PowerBall to Californians.

As I was driving to work this morning, I heard an ad on the radio, playing the haunting riffs of "California Dreamin' ",  and an announcer saying at the end of the ad, "believe in something bigger".

I think the ad campaign is ingenious.  It taps into an already existent desire in all people to "believe in something bigger".  Most people equate this kind of talk with transcendent, spiritual ideas like God and faith, but the California Lottery wants you to place your faith in a little..... red...... ball.

In my "spiritual warfare" view of life, I can't help but see it as a subtle and ingenious tactic of the Prince of This World to convince people that God isn't the source of help.  Neither, in that case, are you able to help yourself, but that little red ball can solve all of your problems if you pursue it, and are lucky enough to have it land it your favor.

It's a sharp ad campaign.  The little red ball can give you everything you need, it says.

Only thing is, it can't.  It offers the promise of peace and solved problems, without actually delivering on it.

Jesus spoke to this in Matthew 6:
“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
“And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
“So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today."

I'll stick with the real lottery, in which everyone who plays can win.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

When Everything is "Biblical", "Biblical" Tends to Get Lost in Translation

Ever notice how we Christians tend to attach the phrase "Biblical" to just about everything?

"Biblical manhood", "biblical womanhood", "biblical child-rearing", "biblical discipline", "biblical dating", "biblical education", "biblical diets", "biblical world view"...... you get the idea. Biblical everything, by which we tend to mean "the way God's wants (wanted, originally intended, planned, ordained, or created) things to be".

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the "biblical" version of reality we think the Bible describes usually happens to coincide with what we think about the way God originally intended things to be. When we are the one's putting "biblical" before the noun to describe a certain way of thinking, that way of thinking almost always mirrors what we think about that noun. Other interpretations, offered by equally well meaning people,  seem to fall short in our eyes, even though those equally well-meaning other people use the very same scriptures we use to come to their obviously flawed conclusions.

I recently read a book by Rachel Held Evans called "A Year of Biblical Womanhood" (which I thoroughly enjoyed),  in which the author investigated what it is evangelical Christians typically mean when we say "Biblical Womanhood", or, indeed, "Biblical" anything.  She discovered there really is no consensus on exactly what is "biblical", but that instead we should focus not on describing things and insisting on certain realities, but should work to love God with all our hearts, and love one another as Jesus loved us.  Do that, she summarizes, and you'll do 'biblical life' just fine, in whatever stream of life you swim.

So, with the US Supreme Court taking arguments this week on California's Proposition 8, and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, I began seeing a few Facebook memes in support of "Biblical Marriage".  An example:

To which I have to ask: exactly which Biblical Definition of Marriage are you referring to?

I could post dozens of other memes that point out the apparent inconsistency of the "biblical" stance on marriage.  Do a Bing or Google search on "biblical marriage meme" and you'll find far more mockery than support or clarification of "biblical marriage".  The phrase unfortunately has become a caricature of the truth and meaning of a covenant relationship between a man and a woman that Jesus described in Matthew 19 and elsewhere.

And I think it's our own fault.  Christians.  Us.

Because I don't think God ever asked His people to be the moral guardians of society, or to defend Him or His statutes before Caesar (or the US Supreme Court). I do believe God is more than able to defend Himself to the world.  Jesus never took Rome to task for their abusive tax structure, or punitive penal system, or even their ideas on marriage and sexuality.  Jesus remained mostly silent on those issues of culture at large.

Instead, Jesus talked to His own people.

Jesus told his people to be a light to world.
He told his people to reflect his love to people they considered to be their enemies.
He told his people to be salt to a world in desperate need of preservation and saving.
He told his people to live lives in contrast to how the world at large lives.
He told his people, give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, but be certain to fully give to God that which belongs to God.
He told his people to live as revolutionaries, as counter-cultural insurgents, to sacrifice and give of ourselves in harmony and unity for a single purpose:

That His people would demonstrate His love to the world in such a way that the world would see Jesus through the love of His people. 

Jesus never asked his followers to try to control the world with laws and statutes, or to demand obedience to God or a certain moral code.  He told his followers, as we are transformed by God's grace, to live graceful, transformed lives that beautifully display our own obedience to God.

Its the love and the spirit of God that transforms lives, not the sword of Caesar, or the laws of the United States of America.

Which brings me back to "biblical marriage".  I don't think anyone has a perfect definition of just what "biblical marriage" is,  but a lot of people seem to know exactly what it is not, which makes it difficult to defend in the culture at large, which leads me to suggest.....

Stop defending it.  Stop trying to force others to adhere to "biblical marriage"- especially when far too many of us that try to enforce "biblical marriage" do a poor job of living it ourselves.

Instead, let's extend grace.

"Marriage" is an example of the covenant, the promise or agreement, that God has given to love His people.  It is a life-picture of how God loves us, and as such, we should reflect that love in our marriage covenants as well.  Its about relationships.

So stop defending it.

Stop trying to force others to live by our definition.

Stop judging (yes, I think Jesus was serious when he said that).

Let's instead extend grace.  Abundant grace, just as God extended to each of us.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

So as we await decisions from the US Supreme Court, which I think will follow the trend in culture and lean toward affirming same-sex marriages, let us in the church remember we are not just talking about stances and ideologies and defending "biblical marriage" - we are talking about real lives, and real people, that need grace and God's love in their lives - just like all of us did before we availed ourselves of God's wonderful grace.

That's our job. That's our mission, our Great Commission.

Not to judge or condemn, but to love and extend the hand of grace to all, so that all may come to a saving knowledge of our loving Lord.

God is the only judge, and we can trust him to judge rightly and lovingly.  Let's leave that in His capable hands.

I think that's a better way of "biblical" living.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

No Blueprints - Just Love

I need to push back today against some of the traditional thoughts that I've grown up with about God and "providence" or "sovereignty", and what those words mean when we use them in regards to describing God.

Yesterday, a woman was shot and killed in an apartment complex in North Highlands.  A man that was with her was also shot, and he's in the hospital. The shooter, apparently, walked up to them, fired several shots, and got into a waiting car that pulled up, then split from the scene at high speed.

One moment, the woman was walking along talking to other people.  The next moment, she was shot.  She crumpled to the ground, and after several more probably excruciatingly painful moments, died.

Sheriff's deputies rushed to the scene, did their very best to contain the crime scene and render aid, but before the fire department and paramedics could arrive, the woman had already breathed her last.  Her injuries were too great.

One moment alive - the next gunned down.

Flip a switch.  On - off.

I've worked for the Sacramento Sheriff's Department for almost 23 years now.  I've answered 911 calls for literally thousands of emergencies, and dispatched Sheriff's deputies to the scene of thousands of crimes. Literally hundreds of people have died in crimes that occurred while I was working.  I've talked on the phone  to people who were with a dead or dying loved one, or over the radio to deputies as they and paramedics struggled ever so valiantly to save a life that was literally draining away as they worked.

This particular incident is almost no different from many other shootings I've worked on, to be honest.  People die in violent crimes all the time. More than you probably realize, if you don't work in law enforcement or maybe a hospital.

Most of the time, I shrug it off.

"Meh. Another one bites the dust."  Its amazing how jaded one can get in this business.

Truly, this particular incident - the way it occurred, the outcome for the victims, the actions of the suspect - is almost identical to hundreds of other incidents. Shooter (walks up, runs up, drives by) the victim, shoots the victim, victim falls, shooter (runs, bikes, drives) away (often with the help of an accomplice), and the the victim (dies, goes to the hospital).

The names of the people involved and location of the crimes change, but the rest is disturbingly all too common.

But this incident, for some reason, got to me.

After the initial chaos of the incident had subsided, I reviewed the information in our dispatch log.  I noticed an update stating the victim had died.  I also noticed the time the update was entered.

The time.

I could almost put an exact time on the woman's death.  As I was working, doing my job, and others were doing their's, and hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of other people on earth were doing their thing - working, eating, sleeping, laughing, crying, playing, reading, walking, fighting, loving - at a particular moment in all of that, this woman died.

Flip a switch.  Off, this time.

I remember saying a prayer for the woman's family, and the man who was shot and survived.  I prayed for the workers on the scene.  I prayed for the shooter - yes, even for him or her.  I can't remember exactly what I prayed, I just remember closing my eyes and asking God to ...... do whatever He does in these situations.

Help.  Or not.  Whatever.  Just be there.

And here's my pushback, and my problem.

As I left work, I began running this incident through my theological brain and immediately the gears began to seize up.  I began to hear the things we say when these kinds of things happen.

"Everything happens for a reason." 
"Nothing happens without God allowing it to happen."
"There must be a greater good in this someplace."
"God has His reasons for calling her home. It was just her time."
"God is in control.  We just have to trust him." 
These are the things we say to comfort ourselves and each other in times like these.  These thoughts went through my head as a matter of instinct and habit.  That's when the gears seized up and I said to myself, "No.  that's not right."

Did God intend for this woman to die? 
Did God have complete control of this situation, causing it to happen the way He wanted?
Was this tragic death all a part of God's mysterious plan? 
Did God ordain that this tragedy happen so that He could bring about some greater good?
Was this moment - the exact time of this woman's death - known and predestined by God from the foundations of time?

I have to say no.
Never ever.

I cannot, will not now or ever again, accept the concept that God ordained, planned, caused or otherwise had a hand in bringing about, this tragedy or any other tragedy like it. I will not now, or ever, love a God that has ordained, planned, caused, or otherwise had any hand in causing or bringing about horrors in this world, such as this shooting.

I do not believe God ordained this shooting.  He did not look forward from the depths of history and make meticulous plans that caused the events of yesterday to unfold the way they did.  He did not plan from the foundations of time the exact moment this woman would be shot and the exact moment her heart would stop, for some some mysterious purpose of bringing about a greater good or glory for Himself.

Someone being shot and killed is a good, loving way to bring about a greater good or glory to God? Seriously?

There is no way that I can believe God caused this evil occurrence, this shooting and death, for any purpose that would benefit Himself or anyone else, ever. No way. 

(Don't quote Genesis 50:20 to me, either. That verse is taken out of context far to often.)

Here's where the rails came off the tracks, and the gears seized up for me.

If God indeed planned this incident from the beginning of time, as the 'blueprint' or Calvinist view of God describes (which, even though a lot of churches don't explicitly teach this view anymore, it's still very prevalent in our thinking), then God would have to be the one who planned and ordained all the bad choices, evil desires, selfishness and greed that occurred to cause an incident like this shooting, in which a woman died. He'd have to plan it, and made it happen, right?

If that's true, people were just doing what they were 'predestined' to do.

There is, then, no free will, and no way to oppose God's will, if people are just doing what we're predestined to do.

God gets everything He wants, exactly the way He wants it.  

Which would mean God wanted this woman shot. For a reason that He knows. A good reason, because God's plan is always good, right?

I heard someone say once, "God has no plan B.  Everything is His plan A, from the beginning."


Therefore, God must be to blame.  For everything.

To be sure, God gets the credit for every good thing in life, but if we think this way, God also has to be given the credit for every bad thing that happens.  So we pray "Lord help me, save me!", but what are we asking God to save us from?

"Lord, please save me from..... you?"

So God saves us, but God also causes the evil that we need to be saved from? God is good, but also causes  all the bad? By inference, God is the cause of sin, but also the judge for that very sin?

Really?  Does that actually make any sense?

You can love a God like that?

I can't.

And the whole time, I believe Satan chuckles to himself, basking in his own brilliance.

With his lies and deceptions, Satan has managed to introduce a toxic view of what 'God's love" means, and without us even realizing it, has turned many people against God, and convinced even more people to  actually blame God for the very chaos Satan has caused!

Where we should distrust and be wary of Satan, the Great Deceiver, we are instead forced to be wary and distrust God himself, while at the same time trying to figure out how to love a God we don't trust!

Absolutely brilliant strategy! Too bad we fell for it.

No, I believe God is a better, greater, grander, more loving God than that.  I believe in a God that is not challenged by the free-will and the chaos caused by His created beings.  I believe in a God that is so wise, so brilliant, so omnipotent and sovereign over His creation that He doesn't need complete control to bring about His good.

Love, after all, never controls.  Love beckons, never coerces. Love calls and offers, never forces itself.

The God I believe in has no need to plan everything from the beginning in order to get what He wants.  Only a weak, uncertain God would have to plan everything from A to Z in order to get His way.  No, the God I love is so very wise, so infinitely smart and brilliant, so omnipotently able that He can both honor the true, real free-will granted to us, and work out His plans to reconcile all creation to Himself, without having to meticulously control anyone.

So, where was God in the shooting yesterday?  Right there, in the middle of it, as He always is.

The Deceiver, the Roaring Lion seeking who he may devour, was in the middle of it, too.  He was creating chaos in the hearts of the shooter and his accomplices, whispering to them that a gun can somehow solve their problem.  He was creating chaos and whispering fear into the hearts of witnesses too afraid to come forward.  He was sewing seeds of hatred and discontent in the hearts of the survivors and neighbors, urging them to take revenge in their own hands, to try to further the cycle of violence.

But God was there, too.  He was in the hearts of witnesses who called 911, trying desperately to call aid to the scene.  He was in the hearts of witnesses who came forward, whispering to them that compassion and justice should rule their hearts.  He was in the response of the deputies and firemen and paramedics who risked their own lives to rush into a dangerous scene to render aid and attempt to bring justice to a chaotic incident.  He was in my heart as I prayed (and I'm sure others out there prayed, too), just wishing the entire incident had never happened, and that God would pick up the pieces and put people back together.

Bad things happen.  People do bad things. People choose to oppose goodness and accelerate evil all the time, and when they do, almost 100% of the time, they think they are choosing 'good' for themselves.  It's the great lie, the great deceit that Satan has foisted upon mankind and, for the most part, we've swallowed the lie.

No, the God I love is LOVE, in all caps, bold print, italic and underlined! He is the author and perfecter of faith, and the author of hope.  He is the one who, by his own sovereign choice, decided to humble Himself, and go from the highest heights of honor in the highest reaches of heaven, to the deepest depths of human suffering and misery, all the way to the plummeting depths of death. He put on display by His resurrection the outrageous, infinite, indescribable hope He offers, and the love He has for all mankind, and indeed all of creation.......

......even for the woman who died at that particular moment yesterday, while the rest of us went about our lives.  I have to believe God was there in that moment.  Perhaps He sadly acknowledging the events of her death and yet joyfully welcomed her into eternity with Him.  Perhaps He sadly and with infinite sorrow allowed  her soul to slip away into eternity without Him, grieving that she never sought Him or found Him.

I don't know what actually happened.  That's between the two of them.  I trust God to judge rightly and lovingly, and to always do the right thing.  But I know God was there. I have to believe that He was there, loving people, drawing people, working through people, even in the chaos......

......and I love that.  Even in the midst of all that chaos, God is working to maximize good, and minimize evil, even when we do all we can to act against him.

No blueprints. Just love. At least I can make some sense of that.

(See an older, related post What I Believe (Today) for a further exploration of how I think it all works)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Standing On a Promise On Sinking Sand

If you use Facebook, I'm fairly certain you've seen the explosion of hundreds and hundreds of memes making the rounds on your newsfeed nowadays.  In fact, it seems Facebook has been taken over by the meme phenomenon - layering pithy sayings on top of a photograph to create a snippet of philosophy or humor. A great many of these memes are philosophical or religious quotations designed to support a particular point of view.   Many are funny, more are innocuous, most offering some sort of encouragement. The religious ones usually trod the middle of the theological road without stepping on too many toes, but occasionally one of them catches my eye and I just have to shake my head and wonder what people are thinking.

This one, for instance.

Think about it a moment.

John 1:16 says, " From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another."

Now, this is true, of course.  God lavishes his blessing on all His children.

Luck, though, has a connotation of "something fortuitous or especially in my favor".  Something especially good.  Something better, or more favorable, than whatever the next guy got.  A windfall, over and above the norm.  That's why, when someone gets something seemingly extra good, like a great hand in a game of poker, we exlaim, "lucky!!"

So when good things happen to me, when I am fortuitous beyond the norm, and the winds of fortune are propping me up with wealth and health - when I'm "lucky"-  its because I have God's favor?

There is danger in thinking this way about God's blessings because we don't always see the blessings: sometimes life just plain sucks and hurts and is miserable.  How is that a blessing?

As Christians, we stub our toes, we get fired from jobs, we get flat tires, the toilets over-flow, and our kids get sick.  We get in wrecks, our children get in a wrecks, our houses burn down, we break our legs, our homes get foreclosed, and our brothers and sisters and moms and dads and children get sick and die far too young.

I could go on and on, as you well know. Things that all of us have experienced at one point or another.  All these things we'd consider to be 'bad luck'.

When they happen, does God cause these things? Are we being denied "God's favor"?  Does God not  favor us today?  Is God's promise of "one gracious blessing after another" somehow null and void?  Because I'm not 'lucky' am I out of God's favor?

Or, what about  that evil, good for nothing neighbor down the street who always plays his music way too loud, drives way too fast up and down the street in his way too noisy hot-rod or on his bored-out Harley you can hearing coming from a mile away? What do we say when he hits the lottery, or finds out his long lost auntie died and left him two million dollars, or we see his wife walk out on him one week, only to see him three weeks later on the arm of an even younger, hotter, more beautiful woman who actually adores him (not that we say we care about such things, but we all know that we do)?

Or what about when your crappy co-worker who is always gossiping and stirring up chaos, gets a promotion where the boss tells everyone that she is "an exemplary employee! I wish we had more like her!"?

Do we consider them lucky? Is God bestowing them with 'one gracious blessing after another" that He promises in John?  Have they found 'favor' with God, even though they don't even believe in Him?  The answer, if we believe John 1:16, and I think we should, is yes.

God is blessing the heathen and the crappy co-worker.

I got a stubbed toe. My car got repossessed because I lost my job and couldn't make the payments.

According to the meme, though, this promise of God's blessings is for us, his children, right?  It's written to Christians who trust Jesus, not the heathen down the street! What happened to the promise? Why are they getting good blessings, but we're just getting trials?

Is it luck, or is it God's favor? What is God's favor, anyway? Hmmmmm......

Or what about when I pray fervently, asking for God to please allow Mitt Romney to become president - because I know in my heart that Mitt will do good for the country; then a good friend of mine who is also a Christian prays fervently for Barack Obama to be re-elected President - because he knows in his heart that Barack will do good for the country.

Lo and behold, Barack Obama wins.  My guy looses.

Now, we both love God and seek His heart and favor.  Why would God have more favor on my friend than me, if God lavishes his abundant blessing on all of us?  Why did he bless my buddy and not me? Does God love him more? Did he somehow please God better than I did?

Or what about when we pray with all our hearts for our kids to get healed, and they don't.  Sometimes they might even die. Does God not favor us anymore?  Is the promise void?

We play a dangerous 'religious' game when we say our good fortune is because God looks favorably on us - Christians -  and not on the other guy.  We run the risk of blaming God when our fortune runs bad.  God is never to blame for bad things that happen in our lives. We live in a spiritual war-zone, and the battle rages on.  We often get caught in the crossfire.

God is indeed the source of all good things, but we must realize He sends His good things out all over the world in character with His great love for us.  He sends his rain on the good and the evil, alike.  His sun shines on the good and evil, alike. His blessing are designed, in His perfect wisdom, to point to His grace and mercy in life.

It's not windfall grace.  It's not "I got something good, so God must look favorably upon me".  Its complete grace, offered to everyone, all the time.

I think to truly stand on the promise of John 1:16 is to say "whatever happens to me, I will view it through the framework of a God that loves me, as displayed by the outrageous act of love at Calvary. God wants the best for me, and His magnificent wisdom can weave all things together to bring about His good in my life if I will trust that God is abundantly blessing me, even when I can't see it."

John 1:16 indeed says, "From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another".  But we mustn't forget the following verse, which expands and explains the blessings.

The blessings are not always material or financial or healthful or emotional.  In fact Jesus promises his followers much trial and tribulation, and death is not an uncommon demise for Christians in this world, so to claim any "windfall" as God's favor is sort of counter to spirit of the promise.

Verse 17 explains the true nature of the abundant blessings: "For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ."

God is always abundant and gracious  Jesus is the ultimate display of that abundance and grace. Its in Jesus that the promises are fulfilled, and we can live lives of grace and abundance, even through trial and tribulation.

The hope of eternal life, the promise of abundant life, and the promise of freedom in Christ.  Those are the real, abundant, overflowing blessing God is pouring out on us, all the time.

That is a promise I can stand on!

Friday, March 08, 2013

Which God to Love?

Recently I've been doing a lot of thinking about my faith, and trying to figure out what exactly is it that I believe in.

I find myself being pulled in a direction away from some of the basic concepts and tenets of faith that I thought I was certain of.  I've discovered that I've been finding security and faith more in how correct I am about what I believe about Jesus, than in having faith in Jesus himself.

The first way of faith leads to closed minded assertions of correctness, and an exclusion of those who don't think the same way I do.

The other leads to a more open mind to consider new ideas and explore my growing understanding, and a willingness to include others who also search, but may have some different ideas.

One of the things I've been forced to examine is my mental image, the picture I frame in my mind, and the emotions and feelings I have in my heart, when I think about "God".

I'm not alone when I assert - the most important, most fundamental thing that will shape our attitudes and how we behave in all of life, whether one considers themselves to be religious or not, is how we think and what we believe about "God".

Which leads me to a passage in a book I'm re-reading, by Rob Bell, called "Love Wins".  (I know some good fundamental evangelicals consider this book to be close to heresy, but I think most who would say that have not read the book.)

Bell writes this passage from the viewpoint of  people everywhere who have trouble with their image, their imaginings, their understanding of God.  As I re-read this passage, it touched me in a very deep, real way.  I've read this same concept in the writings of many contemporary pastors and theologians, and I think it hits the nail squarely on the head:

"Millions of people in our world were told that God so loved the world, that God sent his Son to save the world, and that if they accept and believe in Jesus, then they'll be able to have a relationship with God. 


But there's more. Millions have been taught that if they don't believe, if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, viscous tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future agony. 

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. 
If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.

Loving one moment, viscous the next.  
Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.  

Does God become someone totally different the moment you die?

That kind of God is simply devastating. 
Psychologically crushing. 
We can't bear it. 
No one can. 

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. 
That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.  

And so there are conferences about how churches can be more 'relevant' and 'missional' and 'welcoming', and there are vast resources, many, many books and films, for those who want to 'reach out' and 'connect' and 'build relationships' with people who aren't part of the church. And all that can be helpful.  But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of a God is behind all this?

Because if something is wrong with your God, 
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, 
if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years, 
no amount of clever marketing, 
or compelling language, 
or good music, 
or great coffee, 
will be able to disguise 
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable  awful reality.   

Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust if often rooted in a distorted view of God.  Sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting 'the gospel' is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn't safe, loving, or good.  It doesn't make sense, it can't be reconciled, and so they say no.  They don't want anything to do with Jesus, because they don't want anything to do with that God."

This passage summarizes a feeling, and a truth, that has been haunting me for some time.

The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.  But how do you love someone, let alone God, that you don't know very well, don't understand, and perhaps have some really bad misconceptions about?

We're told in our churches that God first loved us, so that we can love Him in return.  We're told that God is worthy of praise and worship simply because of who He is.  These are facts that are true, but how does one translate them into life?

How do you love a God  who seems means and arbitrary, if that is how you know God to be?
How do you love a God who seems distant and aloof, if that is how you know God to be?

You can't, that's how.

Any effort to conjure up feelings of love or devotion to a God that you don't know or understand is simply impossible.

This is the reality I've been struggling with as I try to define and get a grasp on what it is I really believe, deep in my heart.

I have been  a Christian since I was a teenager.  When I learned that I was a guilty sinner, that Jesus died for my sins, and if I didn't accept Jesus as my savior and Lord, then when I died I'd be going to hell forever, you're damned right I accepted Jesus, whatever the heck that meant at the time.

I didn't care about following Jesus, I just didn't want to go to hell.  That kind of 'salvation' produced exactly zero life transformation or spiritual growth.  Looking back I wasn't 'born-again'.  The only thing that kind of 'salvation' did produce a lot of guilt and shame.  Tons of it.

I didn't love God or Jesus - I didn't know them! I just didn't want to get burned up in hell by a God who has 'perfect judgement', who can't stand sin and is compelled to destroy everything evil.

That's the God I learned about as a youth.  As an adult, I walked away from that God.  No way I was gonna be a follower of that God forever and ever. I didn't love that God one bit. I tried, but I just couldn't do it.

But Jesus was on my mind on and off through the years.  The loving image of Jesus, purposely giving himself for me,  kept drawing me gently, softly, back.  One day I took a chance and came back to church, and as an adult it was as if I saw Jesus for the first time.

He is the King, the eternal embodied God who doesn't act like I'd think a God would.


I'm learning the way for me to learn to love God is to get to know Jesus Christ better.  Jesus is the complete revelation of God - the active Word of God become flesh through which everything was created, all things hold together, and all things are reconciled - and from Jesus we can learn the character and loving heart of God.

I can learn to know God and, by discovering who He is as revealed to me through Jesus, I can learn to love Him.

Jesus said, when we know the truth, the truth will set us free.  Jesus is truth.

I'm convinced that, as we disciple one another, we must teach each other about the beautiful love we see revealed in Christ.  It's the only real way to get to know God and learn to love Him.

Strict obedience may look good, but its empty and void if obedience is not generated, motivated, and powered by a loving desire to obey.

One type of obedience is compliance with rules or law to avoid getting into trouble with the Master.

The other is a desire to please and enhance a relationship with the King.

One is a contract, the other is a covenant.

To love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength is the goal.  From this all of life flows, and a life lived with a God I can love is as big and wide as the whole universe.

It is the answer to the questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Oh, For the Love of God! No... Seriously, For the Love of God.

There's a teachable moment occurring at my church this week.  I pray that we can use it wisely.

Last Monday, someone broke a window to get into our church worship center - the main sanctuary area - and stole a high-hat and cymbal from the drum kit on the main stage.  

Now, everyone knows that a theft or burglary leaves the victims feeling violated, and rightfully so.  The crime is a violation.  It's a violation of our trust, of our security, and our personal (or corporate) property.  Something has been taken, by force, and deep down in our gut we know we've been wronged in a real, tangible way.  
Naturally we want justice.  We want the perpetrator caught. Not only do we want the perpetrator caught, we usually want them punished.  We want them taught a lesson - in a big way. Our sensibilities scream out, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!"  We feel that justice needs to occur.  A wrong needs to be made right. This is our natural leaning, our natural inclination.  It's something that just feels right.

We want them to feel what we felt when we were violated.  As citizens of the Kingdom of God, though, I'm convinced this ought not be.

To start with, why are we feeling violated?

Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be."
We get upset when someone steals our treasure, but the things that are stolen should not be our treasures. We feel violated because our hearts are invested in the things that are stolen. 


But consider what Jesus says about "things" just a few minutes later:
Matthew 6:24-33  “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn't life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren't you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
"And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need."
(What shall we eat, what shall we wear, how shall we play music on Sunday? You feel me?)

He will give us Everything we need.
Including drum kits for churches, if the Good Lord sees fit.
Or not.
Either way, the drum kit, indeed the church building and all the property it sits on, is not our treasure.

Neither is our safety, our security, our rights, our privileges, or our needs.

Our treasure is the eternal life God has for us, hidden with Christ in heaven. That treasure can never be stolen!
Colossians 3:1-4  "Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life (your real treasure) is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory."
But this past week, during conversations about the burglary, I heard good meaning people say things like......
  • Let me have some time alone with those guys, I'll teach 'em to steal!
  • How dare they break into a church! I hope God strikes them down!
  • I wish I'd have been here when they broke in.  I'd have stopped the theft and taught them a real lesson!
  • We should have a watchman outside at night with a gun, to make sure people don't break in any more.
  • Those kids need a good beat-down, and I know just the person to give it to them. 
  • Shoot first, ask questions later......
...... and more. 

My heart breaks at this, and I am sad, friends.  

People claiming to be citizens in the Kingdom of God, who claim to be disciples of Jesus, followers of the Christ who lovingly went to Calvary and gave his life for each and every person on Earth, including the drum kit thieves  should - no, must -  look at things very differently.  We must think about things differently, and live differently. 

The Kingdom of God is not foremost about believing the right things, but about living a transformed life
Matthew 5:38-41: 38You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles."\
"You have heard".... "But I say".

Take a moment and think about that.  Really think about it in the context of, say, a high-hat and cymbals being stolen from a church drum-kit.  Or a car being broken into.  Or a house being burglarized.
Matthew 5:43-48 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."
Again, "you have heard"....."but I say".

Take a moment and really think about what Jesus is saying here, in the context of our feelings about a church break in, where things were stolen.

What are some of the suggestions/commands Jesus gives us when confronted with things like this?

  • If someone slaps you, willingly turn the other cheek, so that they might see the love of Jesus in you. 
  • If someone takes your coat, willingly give them your shirt, too, so that they might see the love of Jesus in you.  
  • If you are forced to walk one mile, willingly walk another mile, so that they might see the love of Jesus in you. 
  • If someone takes your drum-kit high-hat, willingly beat them down and get it back, and make them hurt for taking our stuff so they'll never do it again, so that they might see the love of Jesus in you.  
Oh, wait..... that last one doesn't quite fit, does it?  Hmmmm.....  gonna have to re-think that.

  • If someone takes your drum-kit high-hat, willingly give them your snare drum too, so that they might see the love of Jesus in you. 
Well.....why not?

Why would Jesus ask his followers to respond in such a counter-cultural manner? 

Because our love, our distinct Christ-like love displayed by the way we live, in unity with Christ and with God, is the way the world knows Jesus is sent from God.  
John 17:20-21 “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message (that's us). I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
If we don't love our neighbor, we are not displaying any unity with God through Christ.
If we don't love our enemies, and bless them as Jesus does, then we are not displaying any oneness with God through Christ.

But our unity, our Christ-like love displayed not just by our actions but by our hearts and minds, is the very conduit by which Jesus says "the world will believe (the Father) sent me". 

Our testimony, our choices, our frame of mind, and our love....... its that important to the Kingdom.

Jesus set a very high bar for us to aspire to.  But he promised it can be done, which also means he expects us to accomplish it.

In Matthew 19:26, Jesus was speaking of how hard it would be for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of Heaven (remember, we're talking about our treasure, here), when he said,
"Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”
But we can also apply that to the question: How do I love my enemy? How do I find it in my heart to love someone I don't like?

Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.

This is the sort of thing that Paul talks about in Philippians 4:13, where he says, 
"For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength."
Everything is possible.
I can do everything.
With God.

The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated is a kingdom of selfless love.  It's a kingdom of service and of sacrifice for a pointed purpose: to point every person we meet toward Jesus Christ.

Its a kingdom where every thing we do, and every thought we think - be it at home, at work, at church, driving, eating, watching TV, jogging, reading, playing volleyball or baseball or football, paying our taxes, raising our children, going to the dentist, feeding the dog (you get the idea) - needs to begin to mirror the heart and soul of God revealed to us through Jesus, who willingly died on the cross for you, and for me, and for every person who has ever lived.

The is the heart of missions, and the heart of evangelism. If we live this way, we can't help but do both, without even knowing it.

When we love our enemies, bless them (which is hoping good things for them), Jesus says then will we be "true children of your Father in heaven".

Jesus asks us to enter into the unity, the joy, and the love he shares with the Father.  We share the love with each other and the world so that the world will know Jesus was sent from the Father to save the world.

And just so we're clear, I don't think Jesus was talking about doing good, but still harboring hatred in your heart.  I don't think Jesus meant for us to just make happy faces while we're angry in our hearts.  Its not about making nice with people I'm unhappy with, just to keep the peace.  It's not about looking good for the sake of the Kingdom.

Its about actually being good - with a pure heart and true motives -  like our Father in heaven, for the sake of the Kingdom.

Its about actually loving each other, and our enemies, just like our Father in Heaven, for the sake of His Kingdom, and the sake of each person that God loves.

Which is everyone. Everywhere. 

Paul says in Romans 12:9, 14-15,
"Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.
"Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep."
Don't just pretend - really love - enemies and friends.
Be happy with those who are happy - enemies and friends.
Weep with those who weep - enemies and friends.
Then you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.

Jesus says,
But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.

Its a high bar, and a tall order.  But Jesus says if we love him, we will obey his commands.
Out of love.
Everything we do, let's do out of love.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What Should My Reaction Be?

Working in the law enforcement community as I do, the manhunt and eventual death of Christopher Dorner this past week has naturally been a topic of conversation and consideration.

It is my understanding from news accounts that the final death toll from this tragic week included two police officers, the daughter of an LAPD Police captain and her fiance, and Christopher Dorner himself.  Five people died, and at least 4 others were injured including two more police officers, and two civilians who were driving trucks mistakenly thought to be Christopher Dorner's truck that were shot up by Torrance and LA police during the manhunt.

The toll in human life, injury, fear, chaos, and confusion is staggering.  The scope of those touched is enormous: there are the families of the victims and those who lived in fear; frightened and nervous police officers on patrol; EMTs and firemen that responded to the incidents; hospital staff who treated the wounded; counselors who talked to the affected to help try to make sense of it all.  There was a family who's house burned, a couple who were tied up, and several who had their cars stolen. A nation watched on television.

Let's not forget Dorner's family, too.

The scope of those touched is immense.  

This all brought on by one man's anger and unbalanced reaction to being fired by the LAPD, or so we're told. Accusations of lying and malfeasance, of favors and favoritism and racism are rampant.  Chaos reigns still in the aftermath, trying to piece together why a scenario like this would occur.

I got to wondering though, as a follower of Jesus, working in law enforcement, honestly hoping that Christopher Dorner would be caught and brought in, what should my reaction be? What should the inclination of my heart be when I think about this week? 

I know that the apostle Paul touches on a little bit of the government's God given responsibility to keep the peace in Romans 13, where he says, among other things:
"The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience."
I think we can all agree that, no matter what Christopher Dorner's beef was with the LAPD, killing to make his point was wrong. The authorities were well within their scope of responsibility to apprehend him and bring an end to the killing.

But as I was watching and experiencing the saga unfold, I couldn't help but think, as a follower of Jesus and one who prays for God's will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven", what a heart-breaking tragedy the whole affair really was.

For everyone.  Even Christopher Dorner.

Its heart-breaking to me, too, because I'm told to love even my enemies, and pray for them.

Loving Christopher Dorner, to me, meant praying that he'd be caught, or turn himself in, without further bloodshed on his hands.  It meant praying that he might have a change of heart, of mind, or soul, and turn himself in, and stop the fear and chaos he'd caused.  It meant praying that God would change his heart, that he might see God and repent and seek forgiveness, and seek mercy.  

I believe this whole thing was heart-breaking to God for exactly the same reasons.

I believe God is a God who so loved the world that He gave His only son - not to condemn us but to save us.

I believe God is a God who asks us to "love one another" - even our enemies - just as he loves us.  He loves our enemies just as much as he loves us. 

I believe God is a God who says "do unto others as you'd have them do unto you" just as He did for us through the outrageous love shown by Jesus dying on the cross.

I believe God is a God said to forgive not just seven times but seventy-times-seven times , just as he forgives each of us as far as the east is from the west.

I believe God is a God who gave his own life to redeem every person who ever lived, including the slain police officers, civilians, and even Christopher Dornan, and all who make choices like him. God extends his mercy and grace and beseeches each of us to turn to Him.

I  believe God is a God who desperately loves all of his creation, and every person in it, no matter who they are, what their station in life, their social tendencies, or their criminal history.

Psalms 145 says:
"The Lord is merciful and compassionate,slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. The Lord is good to everyone.He showers compassion on all his creation. All of your works will thank you, Lord, and your faithful followers will praise you."
2 Peter 3 says:
"The Lord isn't really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent." 
1 Timothy 2 says:
 "I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth."
I believe God is a God who's very nature is compassion and love.  He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but asks us (followers of Jesus) to pray for all people.  Why? Because God loves all people.

God does not want anyone to perish or be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent,  to understand, and to be saved.

In fact, there is joy in heaven over one person being saved! Luke 15 says:
"In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!"
So, the God I believe in loves the whole world, everyone in it, gave his life for us all, loves us with all his heart, does good to us, forgives us, is compassionate, patient, and wants everyone to be saved and know the truth of God's love.

If there is joy in Heaven when even one person repents, I would imagine, then, that there is grief when even one person is lost.

As followers of Jesus, I think the only rational way to view sagas like this is with sadness and grief.  Justice in the world has been done, but I dare say the will of God, as it's done in Heaven, has not.  People have died, hearts have been broken, lives have been shattered.

But God can turn all things to useful good if we trust him to wisely do so.

As followers of Jesus, lets pray for healing, for hope, for peace, and most especially, for God's Kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven. Only then will there be true peace on earth. Then we will see what is written in Revelation 21:
"I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever."
Thy Kingdom come, Lord.  Thy will be done.

That's my prayer.

I hope it's your's, too.