Saturday, December 29, 2012

Descriptive not Prescriptive

Some believe that the Bible is basically an owner's manual for life.  They see it as a collection of rules, or, in our self-help-oriented culture, as a list of principles to make life better and more fulfilling.  Certainly, the Bible does contain "rules", rules which reflect God's character and how God built us as His creatures, and certainly it does contain principles which can improve quality of life.

But Jesus answered the question about what the Bible is all about once and for all in chapter 5 of John's Gospel.  He sternly rebuked the Pharisees and all their strict religiosity and moralism.  He said that they missed the point of the Bible.  The Bible was really about Him.  It is one giant arrow pointing to Jesus, from Genesis through Revelation.

To broaden the lens on this a bit, this means that the Bible is really not about me and you at all.  It is not about how we can apply principles to make life better.  It is not about how we can make those changes here and those changes there to climb the ladder to spiritual greatness and to the gates of heaven.  It is the story of God's doing, the story of what God has done in relation to mankind.  It is the story of the dance between mankind, with all our rebellion, weakness, stubbornness, blindness, and flaws, and the Living God, Holy and Set Apart from us, yet who works in and among and for us by His grace for our good by His love.

I've had a lot of personal problems, and I've struggled and suffered.  Who hasn't?  I've run to article after article written by Christian authors over the past fourteen years.  I've perused and poured over book after book written by Christian leaders, pastors, counselors, and authors, looking for answers, looking for solutions, looking for something that would make it better.  As such, I know lots of "answers," lot's of information.  I know that if I just "feared God" more, if I just had more faith, if I found God to be more beautiful and if I found Him truly to be all I need, for example, then certain things in life would roll off my back with more ease and less agony.  And it is true.  If A then B.

But here is what I have learned.  All of those books and stories of other people's victory they found in Christ -they are really descriptive, not prescriptive.  They are, in a sense, like a mini version of the Bible.  They are stories of what God did in those people's lives, by His grace and mercy.  To take that story, with all of its wonder, and turn it into a to-do list is completely wrong-headed.  Yet, isn't that what we try to do?  We try to turn something that took another person decades of trials and experiences to get to, by God's grace, into a self-help book or teaching session, a nugget, a principle, that we can just go ahead and apply to our lives, like taking a pill.

Good luck with that.  After all, isn't that our entire problem?  Sure, sometimes we can find help in applying some principles.  But for the big things, do those really help?  Not that I have seen.  Ultimately, isn't our problem much deeper?  We are dull and blind, and we want other things more than God.  We want control, and our faith is small.  Hmm...  And applying a few principles or hearing someone tell us "well , the answer is to fear the Lord more" is going to help with that?  We can all refrain in unison, "Yes, you are right, but that doesn't make it happen."  And the more I try to make it, the more I try to "apply" it, if I am honest, the more frustrated and hopeless I feel.

This, in some sense, gets back to something the Protestant Reformers were so adamant about.  The "Law" (ie. anything that tells you what God expects of you in order to fulfill your humanity) is good, but it is incapable of granting you the power to do what it commands.  In the end, it (by itself) just leaves you in despair because it reminds you -if you truly listen to it- of the fact that you are spiritually still-born and cannot save yourself.  Your problem is much deeper than mere actions.  And that is exactly what it is designed to do -to show you that the only Answer must come from Someone outside of you, from a Savior.  "Law" is not meant to make you feel better.  It is ultimately meant to leave you silenced and stripped of all your hope in your own resources so that you will give up your incredulity toward God and self-sufficiency and look to His grace over and over.

Truly, God can and does use the stories, wisdom, failures and victories of others, even written in articles and books, to inspire, encourage, and give us hope, to show us what the truth looks like with feet on it, helping to illuminate the guide-posts on the journey He is bringing us on, but it is still a journey between us and God -a personal, individual journey.  It is still a Shepherd leading His sheep, not a mere man with his information.  We make poor captains of our own souls -more like prisoners, drunk and tied to the mast watching it all sink.

The reason this is important, I believe, is because it changes our expectations and our perspective.  If we have the expectation that if we just found the "right" formula to apply, the right truths and principles, and then applied it in the "right" way we would be "fixed", then we are in store for a world of hurt, disappointment, and impatience (and perhaps anger) toward God.  Or, we are in store for something worse: a temporary delusion that we are pulling it off followed by a cataclysmic collapse at some point in our future.  But if we take the perspective that the goal is not the solution or "fixing" ourselves but the journey itself and Who that journey is it with, then maybe we will actually enjoy the ride a bit more and (who knows) maybe even get to the destinations God's wants us to get to a bit sooner.

If God wanted us to have a list of rules or principles to self-apply so that we can just "fix" ourselves, then well the Bible would be different than what it is.  But the Bible is about God's actions toward and with and for us. It is His story, His story intertwined into ours.  It is ultimately how God came down into our world, close to us, with us, and gave Himself to us and for us to save us -something we cannot do.  In other words, "fixing" ourselves is a mirage, a farce.  But drawing close to the One who drew close to us, who bore our sins, faults, sorrow, and shame, and who still walks with us, is not.  It is real.  It is life, and it gives life. 

With every change I have gone through, I look back and realize this very thing.  It took a long time.  I made many decisions along the way.  I acted, I sought, I prayed.  I read, I sought counsel and counseled others.  I was certainly not passive.  Yet when I look back, it was not me.  It was God working through those things.  It was the Lord as my Shepherd.  It was not me operating on myself.  It was Him operating on me, using anything He so pleased, even terrible things, to accomplish what He wanted.

If there is a "prescription" in all of this that I have written, that is it.  Stop looking for a formula or a prescription to pop and look to the Person who is there.  Walk with Him, listen to Him, drink in what He has for you, and patiently trust Him to get you there.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Loss is Senseless


What I find funny, in a dark sort of way, is how quick we all are to try to turn loss into something good.  It's like we can't stand that loss just hurts, that loss is just loss.  It is what it is.  We hate the idea.  We always need to find that silver lining.  We always need to make it sound good somehow.  We call black white and white black.  And Christians can be the worst at it.

There is, of course, a grain of truth to it, and I will look at that a little further down.  But first and foremost, loss of a loved one, either through death or divorce or a mind-robbing illness or something like that, is in its barest essence the experience of a void where there once was connection and love.  That person, the way you knew them (however that was), is gone. 

So, we say things to try to comfort ourselves such as, "Loss is a part of life."  Yes.  But it is a part of life in a fallen world -a world that is not as it should be.  Therefore, it is misleading to say it is just a "part of life"... we must qualify that statement to remind ourselves that while true, loss is a reminder that this created order is broken and fragmented away from God, distorted and cursed with the promise of loss because of man's departure from God.  Loss of a loved one should not make us numb to the fact that this world is just wrong.  It should highten our awareness of that fact.

We also say things like, "It will make me stronger." Wonderful -a knock-off from Nietzsche. It can also make you harder and bitter. But, for the sake of argument, let's say we stick with the positive: it can make you stronger. Then by that logic, we should seek to experience as much loss and pain as possible. After all, if it makes me stronger (and stronger must be better) then I should want that, right? Of course not.  That is like saying that burning my hand on the stove makes my skin tougher.  Sure.  I'm sure it does over time as the scar tissue builds up.  But how on earth does that make burning your hand on the stove a good thing?

Why are we so driven to want to ignore the truth?  I think we are afraid that we will lose ourselves.  We will find out how weak we really are.  I think we are afraid that we will become something we don't like.  We will be "weak" in our own eyes, or we will crash under the weight of the sorrow.  We are afraid of ourselves, of what we will truly find, and I think it is partly because we know, deep down, that our sense of control is an illusion.  So, we look for ways to minimize the bad or paint it in a good light.  But does it really work?  How glorious can you really make it?

Take death, for example.  What is glorious about death?  A once living and breathing person you loved is reduced to a mass of organic tissue as they soil their clothes and take their final breath.  There is nothing glorious about that.  And what of you?  Where are all the clever words and sayings?  How do they hold up?  You come face to face with the chilling and unrelenting smite of powerlessness.  Your plans.  Gone.  Your hopes.  Gone.  Your love.  Unmet. 

Life as you know it has permanently changed.  A void has been created, and you were powerless to stop it.  You can, and you probably will, try to fill it with things and people and hobbies and cute little quips from this book here or there.  But it won't work.

At the end, loss leaves you without answers.  You scramble to try to make sense of it.  You look for reasons.  You rehash the past and try to figure out your place in the whole thing.  But there is nothing there to argue with, to reason with.  There is only a headstone.  Your cries, your frustrations, your longings, your questions, your "if only's" pour out of your soul and hit cold, dead stone.  No answer.  Silence.  It is amazing how big and empty the night skies feel.  You feel alone in the universe.

But then there is the cross of Christ.

The cross of Christ beckons us to come down to earth and walk in the real world.  It beckons us to avoid the temptation to call black white and white black.  Before we even talk of the wonderful effects of Christ's death, we need to look at the cross for what it is, first.  What happened on the cross?  Ignoring our desire to theologize and peer up into the heavens and make statements about something that must have happened up there, what do we really see if we look at the cross and the man who hung on it?  We see a man, the Son of God, God come down to us in human flesh, hanging, bleeding, broken, likely soiling Himself.  Could there be anything less glorious?  No answer.  Just a man, a man his closest friends were finally beginning to hang their hopes on, dead.  Lifeless.  Stuck in the side like a piece of meat.  There is nothing heavenly about that.  It is, if anything, both grizzly and ordinary, hauntingly non-special.

At the end, that is all this life, this created order, this system, has for us.  Despite the presence of good in the world and a lot of temporal blessing, it ends the same way.  There is no ladder up and out of it.  No self-improvement scheme will break it. No amount of pulling up our bootstraps will change it. It is a literal dead end.  You live, you experience loss, and then you die a very ordinary death -ordinary only because, in this age, decay and violence and disease are just part of things.  In the end, the curse stands -even the Son of God did not escape it.  It swallowed Him whole.  The wage of sin leaves its mark on all of us, leaving us all helpless, powerless, stricken with loss, until it finally claims us in a blanket of futility.

But... after His ordinary, futile, unglorious, senseless death, something happened.  On the third day, He rose from the grave.  He rose to newness of life, being, as the Bible states, the "firstborn of a new creation."  A new age began on that day.  Something new was created.  The old had to die.  This new thing is not a fixed-up version of the old.  A bleak, ordinary, senseless death happened first.  And then a new light dawned, the first dawn of the new creation where God will ultimately be with His people and sin and loss and brokeness will be no more.

Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)

Why spend all this time explaining this?  It isn't new.  It is important to hear this because Jesus is not just some kind of life preserver or way to minimize the blows of this life.  He is not here to help you climb your ladder to heaven.  His death shows us there is no ladder, just a dead end.  The only way through the bad is to die.  Redemption is no patch-job of this age.  God doesn't work that way.  There is death followed by resurrection.  To be part of it, you must die and be born anew into the new creation, the new age.

How does this figure into loss?  When you see this, I think, at least for me, I become slightly more and more able to accept loss -not because it is good, not because there is a silver lining, not because I can call black white, and not because I'll somehow try to turn it into some kind of elixir for stronger living.  I am able to accept loss more because I realize that I am dead and belong to something new, something that is growing like an infant in a mother's womb even right now.  I am able to accept loss more because I can face it head on, looking it in the eye, embracing the loss as loss, powerlessness as powerlessness, calling it what it is rather than trying to water it down or turn it into something else.  I can begin to approach living in reality rather than just telling myself something that temporarily makes me feel better. 

The truth is that there is no hope in avoiding and minimizing and Christian-sugar-coating what is painfully part of reality (our preferred way) -it is a lie, but there is hope in facing loss head on because beyond the senseless futility, beyond the very necessary death of our sense of control, -and only beyond it- is resurrection (God's way).

And then, and only then, can I see the beauty of how God creates something new out of death.  That is how there is a "silver lining," if we should call it that.  That is how the bad is used for good.  God is not one who helps us patch ourselves up, and the Christian life is not a self-improvement ladder.  It is a life of getting used to dying and walking in newness of life.  It is a life of getting used to the fact that our old self was nailed to the cross with Christ and now, in Him, we are new in God's sight -blameless because He took our place.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

In Sorrow

Loss and grief have a way of making life feel so bleak and lonely.  There is an irony in that, for everyone suffers and experiences loss -one would think that those experiences would be part of what makes us feel like we belong, like we aren't alone.  But such is not the case.

In Propagandhi's song Without Love, we are given a bleak and painfully lonely picture of loss:
All in nature ends in tragedy and I was the first to finally fade away from my grandfather’s memories. How long ’til the day my memories of him finally fade away? Dissolving into gray. Is breathing just the ticking of an unwinding clock? Just counting down the time it takes for you to comprehend the sheer magnitude of every single precious breath you’ve ever wasted? I did everything I could. I bargained with the universe to take my life instead of hers. But no amount of money, drugs or tears could keep her here. What purpose did her suffering serve? Is breathing just the ticking of an unwinding clock? Just counting down the time it takes for you to comprehend the sheer magnitude of every single precious breath you’ve ever wasted? So much misery. So much indifference to so much suffering that we can become tempted by appeals to hatred. But this world ain’t nothing more than what we make of it. Revenge ain’t no solution to the inevitable pain that every single one of us must face in losing the kindred spirits in our lives. Lives so brief, so disappointing, so confusing. As Cronie slipped away I held her in my arms, reduced to “Please don’t leave me. What will I do?” But this cosmic sadness is just here to remind you that without Love, breathing is just the ticking of…
Loss makes us feel... helpless.  Powerless.  We try to "bargain with the universe."  We are reduced to helpless cries -"Please don't leave me.  What will I do?"- and an emptiness that gnaws away at us from inside.

Questions flood in.  "Why, God?!"  "How long will this continue?"  "Why do I cry out to You for so long and it seems my cries go off into nowhere?"  And there is no answer.  With every breath, with every cry out from bottom, our pit feels deeper, the light seems further away, and the gulf between us and God (and us and others) feels bigger and bigger.  Our demand for an explanation or a reprieve leaves us feeling only more desolate and empty as our eyes become engorged with the loss before us.

But what if the "answer" is not in getting answers to those questions?  Of course we want the pain to end.  Who wouldn't?!  But if that does not or cannot happen, what if the answer is not in escaping loss but in finding something or Someone else within that loss, within that pain?  Isn't that what it is all about?  When we mainly speak of loss, we mean loss of fellowship and love and relationship and a bond we once shared with someone.  That is what that song above ends with, rhetorically asking us, "Without love..." what is there?  Even from the author's bleak and athetistic perspective, he still recognizes that the only thing that makes life "life" is love, is having an "other" with us. 

Could it be that God -the God who, Himself, exists eternally as a love-harmony of Three Persons... Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- built us that way?

What if the paradox is in finding that there is love and fellowship in the pain, the loneliness of loss?  There are others with us in our pain.  And, though we would not expect to find Him there, God is there, as well.  This is what makes the True God, the God of Christianity, different from all other conceptions of "god" out there.  God became flesh and dwelt among us (cf. John 1:1,14).  His name is Jesus.  God came down to us, to meet us, to suffer for us and with us, to bring us back to Himself. 

And as He hung upon the cross, He remembered the words of a song, too...
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest..." (Psalm 22)
As author Tullian Tchividjian points out in his book, Glorious Ruin, maybe our temptation in suffering is to ask the wrong question.  Maybe instead of asking things like "Why" or "When" we ought to be asking, "Who?"  Or, since I prefer to avoid phrasing things as "ought to's" with such a sensitive topic as personal suffering, maybe the answer is in recognizing Who is there, right there with us, right there beside us, walking next to us hang-in-hand or at least offering to.

There is always One who is there.  Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheren pastor and theologian, was a part of the German resistance during WWII and was involved in the plot to assasinate Hitler.  He was captured and kept in prison by the Nazi's before he was eventually hanged.  He discovered who he called the "Suffering God".  It was not an idea or a theological concept.  It was a He.  Jesus is the Suffering God.  Bonhoeffer lived his days in communion and fellowship with Him -even and especially during the most bleak and despairing of his final days.

The paradox is that as we experience loss, as we see loved ones consumed by physical death or other forms of death (addiction, mental illness, sin, selfishness), we are plunged into an abyss of loneliness.  "Please don't leave me.  What can I do?"  But it is there, at the bottom, that we find that there is One who walks in those shadows and has walked in them before.  He walked in the deepest and darkest of shadows so that we would never be left alone.

Without Love...

Monday, December 03, 2012

Communion Thoughts

When things get really bad, I sit out on the porch and think about life and reality.  What is real?  What does it mean to be real?  Sometimes it feels like it is all a dream.  Yet, existence is as real as we know anything is real.  I wake up, I work, I eat.  I hug my daughters.  I drive them to school and pick them up.  I sleep.  I get up, and I do it all again.

But when life falls apart, it feels like the fabric of what is real is unraveling.  You don't want what is real to be real.  You want it to be a dream.  You become exhausted.  Let me mow 1,000 lawns and build 100 sheds, and I will be physically tired but happy and content.  Break my heart, burden, and oppress me in my spirit, and the burden will drain my soul of its strength to the point of splintering, walking around like a zombie who merely goes through the motions of life.

Is God real?  Why all this trouble?  Why all this exhaustion?  Why does it seem like there is no relief for my soul?  Why do my prayers seem to flutter off into the ether, off to nowhere?

Yesterday was communion.  I took the body and blood of Jesus.  It was only bread from a store.  It was only juice from a bottle, packaged in some factory somewhere.  But in that moment, it became much more.  It was God showing up through the material, the tangible.  It was treasure in an earthen vessel, just as Jesus Himself is as He came down and walked this earth. 

Holding those things in my hand was Jesus saying to me... "I am real.  I am as real as the bread and juice you hold in your hand, as real as the taste in your mouth, as real as the chair you sit in while you eat.  I am with you.  I know what it is to be broken, and I am with you."

There is a continuity in the Lord's Supper, in what we call "communion."  Jesus told his disciples to do it in remembrance of Him.  It has been celebrated ever since, in a line of continuity from that singular point in time, that one night when Jesus ate with His disciples and then was betrayed.  That continuity speaks to me, as well, reminding me that this is not all a dream, not something made up.  Real people were involved in all of this, in all of the events of Jesus, and real people with real stories, real lives, real pain, real brokenness, real blessings and joy, and real hope have been ever since.  And it will continue on long after I'm gone.

Tangible, real, historical, true, actual, flesh and blood, imminent, with me, beside me, in me...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jesus among other gods


It is not as though there is anything wrong with wanting good and great things -the love of a spouse that will never go away, the love and allegiance and happiness of our children, our dream job, wealth, health, etc.  It is that even the very best of things can and eventually will fail you or come to an end.  They will tarnish, they will wax and wane. They can be threatened in a myriad of ways, and even if they endure it all death will still rip them from our grasp.

There is only One thing that can never be taken from us and will never leave us.  His name is Jesus.  He is not a thing.  He is a Person.  He is a Person who came down into your place and gave Himself up for you, orbitting around you so that you would orbit around Him.  And the way He did this for you makes Him an even better fit for the central Figure in your life.  He gave Himself up for you by suffering in this world.

Imagine an animal suffering, say a cat.  Horrible to see and hear.  But when you see a human suffering, can we agree that the suffering is deeper and more complex, perhaps a few levels higher?  Now consider what it was for the God-man to suffer.

He is the One who will never leave you nor forsake you, the One who understands your condition, the One who suffered for you and suffers with you, the One who is able to be that central Foundation for you and will not break under the weight of your longing and need.  He will not take being used as a means to an end, however.  He is the end.  Having His presence is the prize.  Anything and anyone else will not only disappoint you if you hold it in that place in your life -It will devastate you, and you will self-destruct when you lose it.  Refusing to face the pain and loss, you will eat yourself alive in a frenzy of perpetual suicide.

They were not mean to take His place.  Jesus is not merely about some distant hope of "getting to heaven some day."  He is about reconnecting us with the One who made us right now, re-establishing the Kingdom of God within us by His Spirit, by His presence.  It isn't about some far off time in some far off ethereal place where we get to see our dead relatives.  It is about getting to have Him now, growing from degree to degree, intensity to intensity.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Essays on Christianity - 1. Not Religious

If one takes a cursory look at the Gospel accounts in the New Testament, one thing will be abundantly clear:  Jesus did not get along with the established religious folks of His day.  It wasn't that they had some disagreements over doctrine.  It was that they belong to two totally different and opposing spheres.

The Pharisees, the Jewish religious elite in the day of Jesus, were highly revered and knowledgeable about all of the religious and moral in-and-outs of their religion.  They strode through their society like religious celebrities.  But to be fair, trying to paint them all as scoundrels wouldn't be right.  Suffice it to say that they were devout.  They were known for taking their religious beliefs very seriously.

You might think that Jesus would appreciate that.  But He didn't, and they didn't appreciate Him either.  The religious people were actually the ones who had Jesus killed. 

What was the problem, in a nutshell?  The Pharisees represented the "religious" tendency of mankind.  They represented mankind's unswerving, committed inertia toward creating a reality that they control, established firmly upon a "ladder" of the moral or the ethical or the intellectual or the financial or whatever.  This tendency need not be theistic, so I am using the term "religious" loosely, since people do this this by "transcendentalizing" anything... their civic involvement, the "state", their intellect, their self-sufficiency, their moral convictions, their "progressiveness", their "tolerance", etc.  But in the case of the Pharisees what made matters worse was that they were supposed to be the people who directed themselves and others toward God, something they were failing miserably to do on their blind march off the cliff of religious moralism.  Their eyes were utterly fixed on what rung of the moral and spiritual ladder they were on and how much higher they were than those filthy prostitutes and tax collectors.

Yet who did Jesus choose to hang out with?  Prostitutes and tax collectors.  Jesus stood outside of the ladder system, the "religious" system of mankind and of the culture He lived in, that system which loudly and brazenly exalts those who are on the "good list" and condemns and oppresses and ostracizes those who are on the "bad list," whatever that list may be comprised of.  He stood outside of that system and condemned it, calling it what it is, pointing His finger at it.  This really irked the Pharisees.  He challenged their illusion of control and power over people and their illusion of moral and spiritual superiority.  He challenged, in short, their usage of good and true things (such as the revelation that God had given through in His dealing with Israel over the centuries) as a means to exalt themselves, convince themselves that they had some share in the market of God's favor because of their alleged spiritual awesomeness, and look down their noses at the "dogs" who were not of their elite class.

Jesus made a mockery of it all from the outside, by refusing to play this game on their terms, if not with His words then with His open actions.  He, a rabbi, ate with those the religious elite loathed and assumed must be terrible sinners -the sick, the treacherous, the hated, the marginalized of society.  He did "work" with his disciples on the Sabbath, by taking the time to care for and heal someone who was disabled and sick.  He taught the crowds by pointing out that even looking at someone with lust was the same, at heart, as committing adultery, thus knocking even the religious elite down off their moral high horse and showing us how we're all in the same shipwrecked boat -no exceptions.

Did Jesus believe that the prostitutes were not morally corrupt?  Did He believe that they were less corrupt than the Pharisees?  Did He pretend that sin didn't matter?  Nope.  But see, these people knew they were morally and spiritually bankrupt.  They had ears to hear it.  They were not deaf from the sound of their own voice rattlling off the reasons why they are "good enough" or "better than those people" or why they "deserve" this or that from God.  They were not blinded by their own spiritual or moral pedigree, nor where they bitterly stuck on how God somehow shortchanged them and failed to give them the good they deserved.  They were broken and they knew it.  There was no denial.  And this drew them to Jesus and Jesus to them.

There is a clear disinction found in the mix of all of this.  This distinction is brought out explicitly in a number of Jesus' recorded sayings, such as when Jesus said that He "came to seek and to save the lost" and that, "It is not those who are well who need a Physician but those who are sick." (Luke 5:31)  But to me, one of the most haunting places where Jesus brings this to light is in His parable known commonly as the "parable of the prodigal son" found in Luke 15.  In the story, there is a father who is a wealthy landowner, and there are two sons -an older and a younger.  The younger son typifies the common "sinner", like the prostitutes and tax collectors Jesus hung out with and ate with.  As the story goes, this younger son asked for his portion of the father's inheritance before the father was even dead, and if that wasn't insulting enough he squandered every penny frivolously on wild and openly repugnant living, only to return to his father's house in shame, hoping that his father would at least let him work with the hired workers on the plantation.  The elder son, however, always did what the father asked and knew it.  So, when the father saw the younger son return and happily reinstated the young man as an heir purely by his love and mercy, requiring nothing of him, and even throwing an expensive party for him, the older brother became bitterly angry and felt that the father owed him something for all of his obedience.  The truth came out...the older brother worked so hard not because he loved his father but because he thought it earned him something.  He thought it gave him control.  He, it turns out, really just wanted his father's things, just like his younger brother.  And the parable ends with the older brother, though he was invited, wallowing in his own bitterness outside the party -a common metaphor used for "heaven" or the kingdom of God restored to earth.  This parable is much more than a touching story about the father's forgiveness.  It is a warning to those of us who are pridefully like the older brother:  unless we see that we, too, are selfish and alienated from God, wanting God's things more than God Himself, we will find ourselves outside the party... not in spite of our alleged "goodness" but because of it.

Our common problem is that we all want to put self on the throne of our lives and live, in God's universe, as though there is no God.  And to the degree that we have "God" in our lives, we still seek to remain on the throne, determining what we deserve and why, what others deserve, what is right and wrong, and what God is or should be like -a god of our own liking and making.  God made us in His image, but we are heartily intent on returning the favor and trying to remake Him into ours.  We are blind to the seriousness of our problem, and we only want God for a Santa Claus or for a little "help" when our plans start to crumble to the ground.

Now, although not all of us are Hitler and not all of us are axe murdered and child molestors (thank God), the world is not divided in God's eyes between "good" and "bad" - the religious versus the pagan, or the progressive versus the old-fashioned and bigoted, democrat versus replublican, Red Sox versus Yankees.  Those are our ways.  The world, according to Jesus, is made up of a race that is bent toward self and away from God, and it is basically divided into those who know this and seek God's mercy and those who are blind to it and like staying that way.  The world is divided into those who are humbled and broken by the reality of their own spiritual bankruptcy and their need for God to cover their sins purely as a gift, by His mercy, just like the father did with the younger brother, and those who are blind to the reality of the place they are in, by their ardent and foolish belief in their own goodness and just desserts.

 "After what I've been through, God would be a @#$ to judge me."

"I don't want to be like those people.  They are hypocrites."

"I'll never worship a God who lets all these bad things happen."

"I'm a good person, at least compared to others.  Look at what I do.  If there is a God, of course He would accept me into heaven some day."

I spent the majority of my life thinking I was a "good person" and that God would obviously let me into "heaven", if there was a god and if there was a heaven... because I didn't sleep around, I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, I didn't do drugs, I wasn't a liar, and I tried to treat people well.  I was, in my mind, somewhere on the higher rungs of the ladder.  I wasn't like those annoying "religious people," and I rejected organized religion because that was "fake".  But then when I realized that Jesus died for me on the cross, and that He had to die for me in order for me to be made right with God and secured in a place with Him, it became clear to me that my goodness, my self-sufficiency, my comparisons to others... it was all a sham, an illusion, a lie, something I told myself because I wanted to believe it.  There was no ladder.  It was my own personal god delusion.

Our connection and relationship with God is either all by His mercy and grace, as a free gift, or it is not at all.  God is no debtor to any of us.  As God Himself said in the Old Testament, "All your righteousness is like filthy rags."  There is no ladder, and there is no place for those who think they can, and should, have some kind of entitlement because of the list or resume they carry around in their pockets.  Why does this matter?  Well, first, I hope it shows you that Jesus and real "Christianity" are just as against oppression and moralistic religiosity as you may be.  But in the bigger scheme this truth is important because it strips us of all our pride-filled religious and secular pretense and levels humanity.  It means that God can and wants to be known personally, as a Friend, as a "Father," as a "Husband," and as any of the other metaphors in the Bible depict it, rather than as a debtor or boss.  God is not interested in your trinkets and your resume.  That attitude reflects what is wrong with the world, what is wrong with us as people.  He wants to have you, not your things, not your claims, and not your demands.

Jesus is not a friend of religiosity, in any of its many, many forms.  We can see those things in personal life as well as on the news all the time.  He came and died to put an end to that very thing.  Jesus is a friend of those who wake up to the realization that they fall under the same spiritual sickness as the rest of the world and need not just a little help but a full-on rescue.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Let Go of the Evil Person

Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "Indeed, evil can do only one thing to you, namely, make you also become evil. If it does, then it wins."

Some evils in this world are nameless and faceless.  People suffer with the calamities of life -death,disease, accidents, etc.  But sometimes the evil we suffer is at the hands of another.  Sometimes, we are oppressed by a person full of fear, full of venom, full of bitterness, full of wounds too numerous for even them to number.  They seek to punish us, to make us pay for ever crossing them; they seek to control us, to intimidate us, and often they are so good at doing it that they hide it under the denial of a smile and words that appear kind and genuine. 

How does one live in this situation?  When they've got you in a corner and there really isn't much of anything you can do about it, when they have taken everything from you and yet they still won't leave you alone -they still seek to control your every move, demand accounting for every action as if they own you and will make you pay for ever inch you move in a direction they do not like, what do you do?  The temptation is to hate them, to hate them with blinding fury.  The temptation is to call for God's justice to rain fire down upon them and to sit in ashes until (and if) that happens.

But Bonhoeffer is right.  If that is the final word in you, the evil has won.  Their venom has ignited only venom in you.  Their hate has resulted in hate.  Their desire to punish and control has only wrought in you a desire to punish and control in return.  For what is it that you demand from God and why do you demand it?  You demand God do it your way.  You want that control.  You have become like them.

This does not mean you should not stand up for justice when God calls you to.  But there is a vast difference between seeking to stand up for what is right and demanding to stop and control an evil person.  The former is about the activity of standing up for what is right because it is right; it is about the motivation, the desire to please God and leave the results in His hands.  The latter is about you, about your control, about your demand for justice, about you getting the outcomes and ends that you demand.  If you find yourself saying, "I angrily and bitterly refuse to happily live in a world where this person is free to live so wickedly," then you know you are being overcome with the very evil they perpetrate against you.

Only when you let go of control of them, when you give up the ends and outcomes to God, when you hand them over to God -then and only then- can you begin to see them in a different light.  Only then can you see them as the tortured souls they are, as ones for whom Christ died, as ones in grip of selfishness and evil.

You say, "But I can't.  God must stop them!"  Can you see?  This is now between you and God.  It has created enmity between you and Him.  You demand control of a soul that only God has a right over.  "But what of what they are doing and have done to me?"  This does not mean that their evil is no longer evil.  It means that you free yourself, that you shield yourself with good, and that you make room for God's wrath.

This is how you stand on the outside of evil -something Jesus was very adept at doing.  At Jesus' trial, for example, though He was in the midst of their kangaroo court and their false accusations He in essence stood outside of their little world, their little game, defiantly refusing to join in and play by the rules of the world.  The evil person wants you to come into their little bubble where there is contention and retribution and violence and control and manipulation and hatred.

As it says in Romans 12:

"17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When the Painful Demand for Justice Strangles You

People do terrible things to each other.  People can be very destructive, and that destructiveness fuels behavior that is abusive, seductive, deceptive, betraying, confusing, and cruel.  The most painful part of it all is that very seldom does the person truly see the depths of the pain or loss they have caused you.  There is often minimization, denial, mocking, blame-shifting, or simple indifference as they move on, leaving you in a heap.  They may play the victim.  They may focus on exaggerating your flaws or offenses as a justification for doing what they have done and walking away.  They may even deny your love.  After all, if you utterly hate them they can feel ok with doing hateful things to you and then walking away.

The bottom line is that very seldom is there a sense of justice.  Vindication, validation of pain and wrongs, making amends, admission, absolution, reconciliation -these things are rare.  And because of that, the demand for some kind of justice, for some kind of vindication, or even for the offender to admit to reality and return to you, can burn painfully within.

But when you refuse to let go of what they have done to you, when you refuse to let go of your painful demand for justice, there are consequences... painful and difficult consequences...

Every seeming success and stroke of happiness they encounter becomes unrealistically magnified and even more painful.  Suddenly, it feels like they are taking over the world and you are being punished.

Every minimization of the pain and loss the other person caused you, by the offender or by someone else, fuels a bitter anger that thrusts the dagger into your own gut.

Every person who loves them, supports them, takes their side of things, or celebrates their good qualities (real or feigned) becomes another arrow in the quiver of arrows you shoot into your own heart, another shot of poison onto the flower of your future, another bar in your own prison of self-punishment and aloneness.

And that justice never comes -at least not by this route.  No validation, no vindication, no admission, no absolution and reconciliation, no restoration, no peace to it.  The painful truth is that we have zero control over obtaining any of these things, and the more we demand to have that kind of control the more we will suffer.  Not them.  Just us.  They are not imprisoned until the time when we feel justice is served -we are, and that thirst for justice will keep us in prison for a very, very, very long time.  We become our own captor.

In the 80's movie, Throw Momma From the Train, Billy Crystal plays a struggling writer and bitter ex-husband to a woman who not only cheated on him but stole his book and published it under her own name.  Every time he saw her on television, celebrating her success, receiving accolades and praise for "her" work in the best-selling book, Larry would have a melt-down.  His bitterness was destroying him and his personal life.  It was like an infection, rotting away at his role as a teacher for an adult writing class and poisoning any potential relationship with another woman.

Although in his mind he was strangling this person who very clearly betrayed him and was unjustly enjoying the fruit of his labor, he was the only one being strangled.  He was strangling himself.  He was choking his own life.  His refusal to let go of the past, to let go of his claim for justice, was like a mill-stone around his neck.  He was drowning.  His ex was not suffering.  She was living the life, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Let go of the past.  It doesn't mean that what they did was ok.  It doesn't mean that the denial or minimization of it is right.  It means you accept that you cannot control that.  It means that you are ready to let go of your anger, your pain, and let it fall into the past.  It means you are ready to be free, yourself.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Do Not Repay Evil with Evil

"Do not raise your hand to strike. Do not open your mouth in anger, but remain still. How can the one who wants to do evil things against you hurt you? It does not hurt you: it hurts the other person. Suffering injustice does not hurt the Christian, but doing injustice does. Indeed, evil can do only one thing to you, namely, make you also become evil. If it does, then it wins. Therefore, do not repay evil with evil. If you do, you will not hurt the other person; you will hurt yourself. You are not in danger when evil happens to you, but the person who does you wrong is in danger and will suffer from it, if you do not offer help. Therefore, for the sake of the other person and your responsibility for that person -do not repay evil with evil...

How does that happen? Not by our giving nourishment to the other person's evil, hate to the other person's hate, but by letting evil strike out into empty space and find nothing that can inflame it. How can we overcome evil? By our forgiving it endlessly. How does that happen? By our seeing enemies as they really are: as people for whom Christ died, as people Christ loves."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Monday, September 03, 2012

Life is Short

Life is short.  Too short.  I realize it may sound like "worldly" philosophy to say that, but it is true.  Even from a Christian standpoint, we are exhorted toward what is profitable and good and useful and constructive in this life.  We do not want to "waste" our life, as John Piper would say.  Thus, Christians and the rest of the world would all agree on this one point:  life is too short to punish ourselves for how we feel about bad things that have happened to us.  How do we punish ourselves for it?  We ruminate, we obsess about it, we agonize and think and think about it, we bitterly dwell on the person who committed such a horrible offense, and we dream about their downfall, as if it does anything to them whatsoever.  We hold them in a mini torture chamber in our minds, but behind the illusion of their captivity in our own minds lies the reality of our own self-imposed captivity.  And we fret and frantically grasp for some kind of control, which only makes things worse because in no time at all we realize how prone we are to get hurt again, and again, and again. 

When our anger or sorrow about an offense gets to the point where we are holding ourselves captive, imprisoning and punishing ourselves with fear, worry, anguish, anger, and bitterness, we have gone beyond grief and into the realm of pointless, needless, useless, fruitless, self-imposed self-destruction.  We aren't stopping them from being selfish.  We aren't even changing the situation by our endless agonizing and ruminating.  We aren't holding them back by holding on.  We are holding ourselves back.  We are punishing ourselves.  We are stopping ourselves.  And the world, the offender, and life, moves on without us.

It happened.
You can't go back and make it go away.
You might not even be able to make it go away now.
But punishing yourself will do nothing.
Life is too short.

Don't waste your short life with this.  It is too short to not let go.  It doesn't matter how big the offense.  It may be something utterly unfair and terrible.  But your life is not over.  You can acknowledge how unfair it was and feel the pain and grief without punishing yourself over it.  The two do not have to go hand-in-hand.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Being Giving Without Being a Dope

How can you be a kind, giving person without being taken advantage of?

There are three thoughts I have on this, based on observations of how Jesus dealt with people in the Gospels.

1. Learn to differentiate between people who are in need and people who are needy, demanding, or manipulative.  There are people who are genuinely in need.  Jesus helped those people.  But then there are people who are users.  There are people who enjoy getting their way and getting others to give-in.  And there are some people who are manipulative and don't even know it -self-absorbed and adept at denial, blame-shifting, and finding people to affirm them and tell them how wonderful they are that.

2. Learn to identify what the real need is.  The real need is not always what the other person advertises for.  Even in the case of a needy or demanding or manipulative person, their real need is obviously not that you acquiesce to their whims.  It may be that you say "No" to them while still showing them kindness and respect.

3. Pick your battles.  While it is certainly right to stand up to people who want to take advantage of you, sometimes it isn't a battle worth fighting and placating them is the quickest way to get away from them, which is what you really want.  This is hard for people who make being taken advantage of a matter of their own ego, but if you can pick your battles with wisdom and accept that some people are just going to take a bite out of you (and that the effort of trying to stop them or seek justice may not be worth it), you will be freer.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is it wrong to think you're right?

A major faux pas today is to insist that your religious beliefs are exclusively right and true.  It can even be considered "extreme" or "cultic" to some, even to some very dear friends and family members.  As soon as they find out that I believe in something that strongly, they immediately avoid the subject at all costs and probably think I'm a little weird.

But there are a few problems with this.  First, the faux pas implies a belief itself, a belief concerning religious and moral truth.  That belief is essentially: it is wrong, even dangerous, to think that you have the exclusive truth on God and things of that sort.  But this belief is just that... a religious belief, even if it doesn't have a name like "Christian".  And it is a belief that the person believes is true, with things in contradiction to it by definition being false.  Otherwise, they would not look at a Mormon or a Christian and say, "They go too far when they think they alone have the truth."  In other words, this person is guilty of the same thing they accuse the Mormons and Christians of -having a belief concerning religious truth which they claim and believe is ultimately true.  Let's call this belief-set "religious pluralism."

I realize these folks don't mean it this way, but it is at least slightly hypocritical -to be guilty of the same thing you accuse others of doing and being wrong for.  But it gets a little worse.  Many people who believe this way also do not like having religious people "push their beliefs on them."  Granted, if one is discussing religious matters with another person, there is obviously a point where you need to give it up when you see they aren't interested or don't want to hear it.  But one cannot get around the fact that people will be "spreading" and "imposing" their religious beliefs, moral beliefs, and worldview on others regularly.  These folks do it, for example, every time they tell a religious person that they are wrong for spreading their beliefs around.  While folks like this don't show up at my doorstep uninvited to tell me about their beliefs, they can at times be just as "imposing" as the religious people, sometimes worse (for example, the mass secularization of public schools is simply the imposition of different beliefs, not the removal of belief).

Next, two things should be stated that are common sense when you think about it.  Truth claims are exclusive.  It doesn't mean a body of claimed truths cannot have things in common with a different body of claimed truths.  But it does mean that if you take one truth claim it will by definition mean that, if true, other truth claims that contradict are false.  Four plus four is eight, and that means it isn't three.  The other thing is that a belief necessarily implies that you actually believe it -otherwise it wouldn't be a belief.  Common sense, no?  So, to claim that it is strange to believe something and believe that thing is true is ridiculous.  If you didn't believe it was true, you wouldn't "believe" it.  The point here is that you cannot get away from people having beliefs (truth claims), having those beliefs be exclusive of other beliefs, and having those beliefs be believed to be really true by that person.  That is just reality for everyone, unless you are a stump or a rock or a frog.

Lastly, as mentioned above, the statement "it is wrong, extreme, or cultic to believe that your religious beliefs are right and others wrong" reflects a religious belief, one that the person believes is right and one they believe others ought to hold to.  It is part of a belief-set, as there are other beliefs that often go along with this belief.  Here are a few:

-Religion should be a completely private thing, often compartmentalized from the rest of life.
-Life is basically existentially individualistic.  This means that truth and reality and meaning are what I make of them in my individual existence.
-If there is a God, he doesn't care about what I believe or why.  He only cares that I try to live my life generally as a good person.  I define what that means and what I think God is like or should be like.
-Religious truth, especially, is a matter of personal preference and utility.  What matters is how it helps my life and how it makes me feel.


I'm not even going to take the time to answer these beliefs or disprove them.  That is not the point of this article.  The point is to dispel the myth that folks who believe in these ways are any different from anyone else.  They have a set of beliefs, they believe them to the exclusion of differing beliefs, and they think it is right or best for others to believe as they do (or for people who disagree with them to leave them alone).

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Rejection

Some of us live our lives to avoid rejection.  We dread it.  We live lives of unrest and torment and rumination and anxiety because we want to control all the outcomes to avoid it.  What can be said for rejection?  Here are some things God reminded me of this morning.

Rejection is unfortunately a part of this world.  It is a rejecting world.  It will happen sooner or later -in big or small ways.  Therefore, it is necessary that you learn to accept rejection as part of even your life.  Not everyone will like you, and not everyone will think you are "good enough" for what they want -it is not possible.  Even the Son of Man, the King of Kings, experienced rejection in this world, and He was and is perfect!  The sooner you accept rejection as part of life, rather than desperately trying to clamp down and control and avoid it, the better.

Like with many things in life, the more you try to control it the more you will be torturing yourself.  You will find yourself avoiding the pain and neurotically milling over things, comparing yourself to your "replacement" or anticipating how this person will feel when they find a replacement, and living in constant, anxious anticipation of it.  And all of it for nothing but to punish you.  All of it because of some illusion of control which keeps you imprisoned in your juices rather than grieving the loss and moving on.

Rejection hurts.  Of course it does.  It marks the end of a bond.  It marks a death, a real loss.  It marks the death of a relationship.  It marks the death of a position and status you familiarly held in someone's life -perhaps the position of being the other person's "one and only," the one they chose above all others.  It marks the death of dreams and the death of your vision for potential with another person.  It casts a monochromatic shadow over the past -things you enjoyed, times you shared.  It can make all your long efforts feel for naught -like the only reason you tried so hard for so long was because you hoped resolution and newness and goodness were just right around the corner waiting for you.  It can highlight your mistakes, making you feel foolish even for entering the relationship to begin with.

But rejection offers you an opportunity.  Though it hurts, though there is grief, it offers you the potential for newness.  It offers you a time to regroup, to soberly look at things you want to change in yourself and in your life.  It offers you a chance for something new.  After all, as painful as it is you cannot change how that other person thinks or feels, so why would you want to be with someone who doesn't want you, who thinks they can find better (or maybe thinks they already have)?  Would that not be torture in itself?  You cannot find a better relationship while you hold onto the dead one.  Death must pass before there is resurrection.

There is a kind of death and resurrection in rejection, if we will let it, if we will let others have the freedom to reject us and leave us, and if we will let ourselves grieve through the death.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Real Relationship

What is a real relationship?  There are many kinds of relationships.  In a strict sense, it could be argued that I had a relationship, a "relating", with a waitress at Applebees when she greeted me, took my order, gave me my food, and then I paid her.  But what makes a close relationship, a close emotional relationship?  How can we define it?

I believe a good definition is that a true and close emotional relationship involves two people being truly and fully themselves to the other person in alliance and communion.  Each comes truly forward, as their true core selves, to meet with the other, to ally for the good of the other, and to remain and dwell in that communion.  This is what God has had with Himself since eternity past in the Trinity -Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And this is what Jesus came to initiate with us as He came into this world as one of us, to live and die and rise from the grave for us.  Granted, real life isn't perfect, but I should hope we can agree that this is the goal of a close emotional relationship.

Then why is it that so many relationships that are supposed to be close emotional relationships, or which we call close relationships, are more like "arrangements"?  Arrangements are action-based.  You act in this way, and I will guarantee this response.  You act in that way, and I will guarantee that response.  The response may be good and healthy.  The may response may be abusive or destructive.

Some people live for years in "close" relationships that amount, in many ways, to an arrangement in which they live to do what the other person wants so that the other perosn will not hurt them, reject them, or abandon them.  "If I do well enough, they will love me," is how it goes.  They may be in abusive relationships, but even if not for whatever reason they prefer to hide behind a wall, believing they are protecting themselves, while they lob gifts of good deeds and actions over the wall, hoping they placate the other person.  Perhaps they were hurt badly or perhaps they just learned by observation and assume that this is what a relationship actually is.

Many people relate to God like this, not realizing how they are sabotaging a real relationship with Him.  Again, maybe they have been in abusive or abandoning relationships in the past, and therefore they have decided to never be hurt like that again.  Their solution has been to wall themselves off in a coffin of sorts while they try to control whoever comes close to them, being preoccupied with their performance and if it is good enough for God or whoever.

Has it never dawned on us that God chose to save us by grace, removing our "good deeds" from the picture?  Religious people don't understand this.  It seems foreign to them.  But I see that God chose to send Jesus to die for our sins, to cover for them, and to bring us back into relationship with Him by grace because that is really the only way.  Otherwise, we would be preoccupied with our "good works" and if we were doing enough to keep Him happy (and many Christians *do* live like that!).  But that sabotages the whole thing.

But there are others live for years in "close" relationships that amount, in many ways, to an arrangement in which they expect all their fantasies and wishes and desires be met by the other person, and when the other person fails to meet those "needs" they punish them in a litany of ways.  They, like many of the other people, are living behind a wall and may have erroneously learned that this is what a relationship actually is.  They consciously or unconsciously believe that having control by force and abuse, rather than by withdrawal and performance, is the name of the game.

This is what I think can be so destructive about "need-based" counseling for marriages.  It promotes the idea that relationships amount essentially to a collection of actions with another person that either gives me what I want or does not give me what I want (or conversely, that a relationship is about me keeping the other person by performing the right actions in the right ways).  But the real issue isn't how these "needs" are met or not met.  The real issue is about the closeness.  If the closeness is there, the rest can be learned or where it cannot be learned perfectly there will still be love and acceptance because actions and performance do not rule the day -closeness does

And you know... ostensibly, some people can and do live in relationships where the actions of the other person are good enough for them, but that doesn't mean they have a real close relationship.

Are your close relationships more like arrangements or true close relationships?



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

God as Omnipotent and Omniscient

So the argument goes...

"An omnipotent god can create a being that performs an act known only to itself.

An omniscient god cannot do this.

It would appear, then, that no god can be both omnipotent and omniscient."

 
Hmmm... It sounds pretty good, doesn't it?  Once you get over the shock-factor, though, it is nothing new. 

To me, this is a repackaging of the old "If god is really omnipotent (all-powerful), can he create a rock too big for him to move?"  The philosophical argument challenges what theologians call the "immutable attributes" of God, hence trying to show that they are illogical or mutually exclusive or ridiculous (and therefore that the conception of a 'god' is also ridiculous and illogical).  The argument above seeks to find an intersection of incompatability between God's omnipotence and omniscience, His all-powerful and all-knowing aspects of His nature.
 
But let me be the first to admit some things...
 
God cannot lie...
 
God cannot choose to no longer be God...
 
God cannot do or be anything inconsistent with who He is.
 
That is basically what the argument in question is asking God to do -to create something He cannot know, to do something that is impossible.  The implication is that "omnipotence" is defined as "God can do anything -everything is possible for God, even the impossible."  I do not, however, believe that this is what "omnipotence" means, and I don't know of any thinking Christians who believe it does.  I believe it means that God can do whatever He pleases, which is always things consistent with His vast nature.  He cannot and will not do things inconsistent with His nature.
 
As C. S. Lewis wrote:
"His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense."

Or as Augustine wrote in City of God:
"For He is called omnipotent on account of His doing what He wills, not on account of His suffering what He wills not; for if that should befall Him, He would by no means be omnipotent. Wherefore, He cannot do some things for the very reason that He is omnipotent."
 
Is this just ignorance on the part of the atheist, or is it a straw-man argument -setting up a false representation of what the theist believes that is easy to tear down?
 
God knows... *wink*

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Blessed Helplessness

This morning I went, like I do many mornings, up to the woods for a short walk and time of prayer.  Sometimes I just sit in the car, but this morning was pretty cool and the parking lot was almost empty, so I took a short stroll on the path to get my thoughts out and pray.

It was a lot of the usual... telling God what was on my mind, the things I was concerned about, but then asking Him things like, "Please have this happen," or "Please don't let this happen."  I felt the tension inside me, as it always is when I think too much about things and about the outcomes, and then I took a deep breath, looked up, and it hit me:  Just be with Him.

Suddenly, I had a different perspective.  Suddenly, it wasn't all about trying to control outcomes and getting God to help me do it.  That wouldn't really be laying my concerns at His feet.  That is more like I'm still holding onto them and asking Him to help me make it turn out how I say.  I saw a moment of peace where I laid those concerns before Him and simply enjoyed His company, walking in the woods together, reminiscent of how God walked with man in the Garden in the very beginning.

"Daddy, this world can suck.  You know how it is, don't you.  But you are there."

And to Jesus, "Jesus, my Brother, my King... if anyone knows the craziness of this world and how things an go wrong -if anyone knows the suffering of this world, it is you."

A true Ally, a Companion, a Brother... who knows me, who gets it, who feels it, who I can just rest in for a few moments.

There is a blessedness to finding helplessness.  There are many ways in which we are not helpless and shouldn't consider ourselves as such.  There are many things we can do in this life, and there are many things we should do -both for ourselves and for the welfare of others.  Situations call for action and for responsible caring.  Relationships call for real involvement and love.  But, there is a limit out there that we have a hard time with.  It is the glass ceiling of outcomes.  We want to manage the outcomes.  We are like flies that keep banging into the glass, not realizing there is a boundary there, a window, keeping us constrained.  We would rather bang out heads against the ceiling, living with the added tension and frustration, than accept our helplessness.  We would rather be like a tangled up extension cord that only gets tighter and tighter, knotting itself with ever-increasing complexity, the more the ends are pulled.

But when we do accept this blessed limitation, we find that we can actually enjoy the company of our Maker.  Instead of always trying to get something from Him, we can just enjoy Him.  We can know that we are known and that Christ understands -not in some theoretical way, not as an observer, but as someone who walked in our shoes right beside us.  We can know the God who suffers under the weight of the world with us and beside us and for us, to make us His own.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Engage Life

It is easy, so easy, to not want to engage life. In fact, it is so easy that we do it all the time without any thought or effort. When life gets tough, or even for no external reason at all, we seem to effortlessly drift down the path of retreat. How so? I'll give you three main ways that I have seen. The first is the path of purposeless preoccupation. Maybe we are obsessed with Facebook or some other useless website or meaningless activity. Maybe we sit and overthink certain situations or relationships, endlessly pining and ruminating away. The second is the path of powerlessness and passivity. This often goes hand-in-hand with purposeless preoccupation. We take a limp, dead, helpless, "I can't do it," position, moping around, laying around pitying and condemning ourselves like we are helpless cripples. The third way is by numbing ourselves through indulgence in temporary pleasures... sex, alcohol, drugs, the "thrill" of the next relationship (that ends in an inevitable collapse), etc. We run the path of the fool, going after the next fun or exciting or sexy thing that makes us feel good for two seconds, running away from ourselves and from life. We're running, endlessly running from life and, mainly, from the pain and anger and other emotions and things inside. But it never gets us anywhere. I'm inspired by how men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not run from life. They engaged life, and they found it worth it -worth the fight, worth the pain, worth the suffering, worth the energy, worth the heartache, and worth the apparent pointlessness of it all at times. May I not torture myself by avoiding life, but may I full engage it. May I stop looking for a quick pleasure to numb myself out, a new preoccupation to retreat to, or another opportunity to sulk helplessly as a cripple on my bed of self-abuse.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Faithful

There are two things that I have become acutely aware of lately, with all that has been going on in my life.

First, I'm aware that people do make a direct connection between my actions and my faith in Christ.  I've been convicted about this on a few occasions.  One time was when I was out one night and had probably too much to drink.  I explained to this other person that I only began drinking about 2 years ago.  They assumed that I must be a Christian (even though my reasons for not drinking had nothing to do with being a Christian, since my decision to not be a drinker preceded my conversion to Christ by about a decade -in fact, my faith in Christ has led me to drop the rule and be more open to occasional social drinking in moderation).  Anyway, I confirmed that I was as Christian, and later I heard them make a comment about me being a "True follower of Jesus." 

I can't be sure, but I don't think it was a positive comment.  In either case, it stung a bit -convicting.  While they may think that being a Christian is all about "being good," which is a woeful misunderstanding of it all, it still stung because I again realized that I am a representative of Jesus, the King of Kings.  When people know that I am a Christian, an association is made.  Granted, people are unfair and misjudge all the time (Christian or not), and Jesus even warned that we would be judged unfairly and have trouble just for being His, but I don't want to be that guy.  I want to honor Him with my life, if I can help it.

Second, I'm aware that my actions are connected to where I am with Jesus, to my faith.  In other words, while outsiders may have no clue about what it means to belong to Jesus, and while they may mistakenly conclude that it is all about "trying to be good," so that they can mock and point their finger when you screw up or fail to live up to some standard they think you should be living up to, they aren't 100% wrong in assuming that there is a connection between our actions and our faith.  In fact, I've seen in sparkling and sometimes ugly clarity how our actions really do reveal whether we believe God or not.  I'm not talking about believing in God but about believing Him.

Disney's animated adaptation of the Exodus story, The Prince of Egypt, was on television yesterday.  I absolutely love this movie, but it was aired at an important time this time.  I was reminded of the Exodus story as a whole, including God's gracious deliverance of the Israelites and their path out of slavery and oppression and into the promised land.  The thing that struck me the most was everything that followed where The Prince of Egypt ends, namely the fickle, faithless wandering of the redeemed people of God.

But I really identify them.  I lose faith, the "sight" of what God has done and where He is taking me.  I forget how I was redeemed.  I look at the circumstances at hand, at the long journey in the desert that I am on, and I doubt God.  I doubt His intentions.  I doubt His goodness toward me.  I doubt that He really cares or really will do anything to help me when I need Him.  And after a while, I start to doubt if He is really even there.  Maybe I'm just talking to nobody?

And that doubt changes things.  When you start to believe you are just going to be left to die in anguish in the desert, you live differently.  You follow that temptation.  You start to not give a crap.  You harden your heart.  You get tired of waiting and take matters into your own hands, looking to temporary and often destructive things to fill you up and numb your pain.  You indulge in things you should not, scarring yourself and displaying to the world that God is not really worth believing and following.
 
Make no mistake.  This is a journey in the desert.  And if we believe God, if we hold on and believe Him, believing that the end is in sight and that He is with us and will bring us there, we will remain faithful and reap our reward.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Is Anybody Out There?

We have a fundamental longing to be heard and known and understood.  In pain and trial, we feel trapped and alone, aching for someone to come into our cave, someone to hear our cries.  In joy and celebration, the joy is less full when there aren't others to share in it with us.

These words, from the song "Calling" by Strung Out, jumped out at me today:

"I sold my voice to pay for my security
now I write my sentence on its walls

I'm calling, is anybody out there?
Is anybody tuning in?"

In this age, where there is brokenness and loss, where we are not enjoying communion with God in the way that we will in the age to come, where we are not enjoying communion with other people in the way we will in the age to come, where relationships are strained, where people sit in silent desperation and longing behind the smiles of their Facebook status, what can one do but call out inside.  Yet who will hear it?  It is written on our walls, on our face perhaps, but we press on, don't we?

So here I am, today.  And you know, there are many things in my life to be thankful for.  But I am broken and longing inside.  This isn't how I wanted things to be.  (the rest has been hidden)

More good tuneage


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why do the Wicked Prosper?

"Why do the wicked prosper?"  They do.  Sometimes you see "karma" come back to bite someone, but so often it seems like good people get shafted and bad people go on their merry way with a bombed out shell in their rear-view mirror.

The Christian response is usually to say, "Hey, don't call people wicked.  We're all wicked."  That is true.  We are.  When we forget this, we become self-righteous and easily embittered.  But I see that there are two senses in which the Bible speaks of "righteous/wicked."  In the ultimate sense, nobody is good.  None are righteous.  All fall short of God's glory.  No one seeks after God.  That is pretty standard and pretty essential Christian doctrine.  After all, it speaks of our universal need for salvation.  Accordingly, there are really only two kinds of people in the world: those who know they need to be saved and those who don't.

But I believe the Bible also speaks of the whole "righteous/wicked" contrast in more horizontal -perhaps we could call them "civil" -terms.  The "righteous" are those who seek to do good, for example.  The "wicked" are those who do things like oppress the poor and take advantage of the fatherless and widows.  The "righteous" are not assumed to be perfect or sinless or any such thing, but they are distinguished.  It can be argued that the term is used to denote the faithful, those who love and worship the true God.  It is clear that the faithful are not sinless, by any stretch (look at the examples we are given, such as King David), but they are still distinguished.

And I think the distinction is important.  It is not important for the sake of saying "I'm better than those bad people over there."  In the vertical sense, we have already established the universality of man's depravity and moral and spiritual need.  Yet, when we disregard the horizontal or "civil" sense we lose something significant.  We lose our voice.  Suddenly, no one has any room to cry out or plead to God.  Suddenly, the Biblical cry, "Why do the wicked prosper?" is meaningless.  After all, what right do I have to say that someone else is "wicked" when I am also "wicked?"  It is like saying that since I do bad things, too, then that cancels it all out and I lose the right to be wounded or cry for justice.  But the cry, which is a very real cry, implies that I am (or someone is) a victim or that I am not in the same group as the offender.  It implies that I try to live right and love God, though I sin, yet others who follow their own appetites not only do so without inhibition but seem to be rewarded for it by the bounty and success and ease of this life.  They "get away" with it, in a sense.  They destroy, and then walk away, leaving wreckage behind them, going about their merry way to bigger and bigger and better and better.

This is usually not a general cry, either.  We can look at the news and throw up our hands, saying, "How terrible!  Why do the wicked prosper?!"  But for many people, this is a very personal matter.  Betrayal, deception, destruction, loss, etc.  And the destroyer moves on, leaving you in a heap of wreckage and rubble.  You know you have your sins and failures, but really?  How is this fair?  How can life be like this?  Why, God, do you let it happen?  Why?

And must I try to humanize them?  Must I do all of those things that Christian books tell you to do, such as try to identify with them?  Can't I just hate them for the destruction they have caused and how their desertion and non-chalant motions to "move on" leave so much unanswered for and so much hurt and pain left throbbing and burning in my hands, gnawing through your flesh and into my soul?  Must I sit back and believe that God will sort everything out in the end?  Must I trust that He will be just?  What if He isn't?  He has sat by for so long doing nothing, and that seems so unjust, so what guarantee do I have that He will see things my way?  What if He decides the wrong wasn't that bad, and that I am just as wrong as they were?  Will not even God understand my pain and take it seriously?

Lot's of people, Christians especially, say "Oh, it's ok.  Things will work out in the end.  Their destructiveness will come back upon them?"  But the fear remains... what if it doesn't?  What if I am alone in feeling this suffering?  What if not even God, the One who really sees things objectively and fully, will understand my suffering and do what is right?  What if there is no vindication?  Or what if He just "forgives" them and there is nothing to address the pain and brokenness that has been dropped in my lap?

On a side note, this is what is so depressing about atheism.  Our pain is meaningless and will never be validated or vindicated in any true or lasting sense -not unless we become vigilantes and decide to take matters into our own hands.  But even then, the question still remains:  "What makes what happened 'wrong' to begin with, and upon what basis does my pain mean anything if right and wrong is only a preference or social convention?  All of those expectations for anything 'good' or 'right' were subjective and meaningless from the outset."

Anyway, when I read Psalm 73, I am drawn in.  The author even admits to being "envious" of them, the "arrogant."  Why?  Because they basically do what they do and nothing really happens to them.  They continue on with relative ease.  He goes on and on, describing this problem, and then concludes that even trying to understand how this can be is a "wearisome task."

But the Psalm does not end there.  Something changes in the Psalmists demeanor.  He felt all of these very wearisome and distressing things "until" he went into the sanctuary of God.  It was there that he "discerned their end."  The Psalmist realizes something -God does see what goes on.  He even confesses his tendency to look at what is seen and to doubt God's justice, to become "brutish" and embittered by the sight of it all.  But then he realizes... God will address all things.  As it says in Mark's Gospel, "For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light."  God says, "I will avenge," and He will "wipe away every tear."  The Psalmist realizes that all of their ease and comfort is just a temporary phantom, a vapor.  The ease of their life right now, in other words, only gives the false appearance that they are getting away with anything.

One thing that is not addressed, however, is the case in which the offender is a believer or, at some point, becomes a believer and repents.  What then?  Even if they are really His, I do not think we can guarantee that they will change in this life or even come to fully see and fully admit it.  One could hope, but that still does not guarantee that that which was lost will ever be replaced in its same form.  That is the tragedy of loss in this life.  Even with the reality of forgiveness, that which was lost is never regained.  Something new can serve as a restoration, yet the original thing is gone.  But eventually, I believe there will be some kind of reconciliation or restoration, even if they come to you and say in His Kingdom, "I see now what I could not see back then.  I wish I could have, and I just want you to know that I love you."  That would not be "justice" or recompense, but it would be restoration and validation -which is what our broken hearts really long for.

In either case, God promises validation and restoration.  It won't be on our time, but it will come.  May this truth give us ease and help us to let go of our painful burdens of brokenness so that we may get back up off the ground.

And the Psalmist finishes the Psalm by reminding himself of something else.  He isn't alone.  We aren't alone.  God does see and know and hear, on the most personal level.  He is with us -a statement of God's intimate involvement with His people but also a foreshadowing of His imminence consummated in Jesus Christ and in Him taking up residence within us by His Holy Spirit.  And that is significant, for what we ultimately long for is someone who will take our pain seriously and not leave us in the quagmire of insignificance and disillusionment.  We want someone who will be on our side rather than someone who waffles and tries to stay "neutral" and uninvolved, like so many people do for fear of pissing someone off.

Can you imagine if what you feared -being ultimately alone in your loss and pain, never understood, always minimized, always with someone silently doubting you in the back of their mind, thinking, "Yeah, but is this all in your head?  What did you do to deserve it?"- actually came true?  All of that indignation and pain would have nowhere to go but directly back upon me in a "living death" of self-destruction.  It is ugly and deadly.  This is another reason why we need not only God but each other, true friendship.  We need Someone who will take us seriously and not abandon us.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Push-Pull Christianity

I've met far too many disillusioned Christians.  And I've met far too many Christians that seem to live in a happy little bubble with their marriage retreats, Love and Respect home groups (or whatever next fad book there is), and testimonies of God's faithfulness in giving them a happy life.  At this point in my life, I definitely find myself in the disillusioned category... even the cynical category.  I never thought I would find myself there.  After all, I had the theology to back it all up.  I knew better.  I had the right doctrine.

But something happened to every disillusioned Christian out there.  Chaos and crisis hit.  Tragedy struck.  And they looked at their life and all their efforts to walk the line and do the right thing, and they thought to themselves, "What is it all for?!  Why do the wicked prosper and I keep getting the shaft?  Why do selfish, destructive people seem to get everything they want, often at my expense or at the expense of someone else's destruction, and my years of praying and trying to obey God have just landed me here... lying in the proverbial ditch wondering what the hell happened?  And can anyone blame that I wish, for the first time, that I had simply said 'screw it' to all the rules and enjoyed myself just for me?"

And usually these disillusioned Christians go off the deepend, sometimes never to return.  They actually do say "screw it" to the "rules" and do whatever they want, slowly (or quickly) destroying themselves with all kinds of things they never would have done before.  And sometimes, they lose their faith -or at least severely question it.  After all, if God is really there, then why is there never an answer to my prayers and why does it seem like all the good I do means nothing?

The unwritten, unspoken assumption behind all of this, which even the Christians in the happy little bubble live by, is that "If I try really hard to be a good person and a good Christian, God will bless me and make my life happy and easy."  And some churches and teachers actually teach this -citing certain passages from the Old Testament in particular.

There are a few very glaring problems with this, though.  First of all, it becomes an absolute breeding ground for a very self-centered, results-oriented view of life, eventually leading to disillusionment and a crisis of faith when all my good doesn't yield the good I hoped.  In a subtle way, it creates a sense that God "owes" me, but worse... it gives the very mistaken impression that God has abandoned me when life falls apart.  And with that, anger and resentment toward God fester.  See, when you assume that your good efforst should have good results, and that God's favor is shown in getting those good results, then you must conclude that God has left you when those good results leave.  And that is exactly what happens -we think, "Ok, God... if you aren't going to care about me and what I like, and you're going to leave me like this, then I'm not going to care about you and what you like any more, and I'm leaving you -at least until you show up and start showing me that you care."

I think this tendency is not to be solely blamed on our culture, though I think that Western culture and American Christianity does promote this attitude.  The reason I say this is because of places in Scripture like Romans chapter eight or the epistle to the Hebrews.  Both of those were written to believers who were living through terrible things.  And you can see how in both cases it is implied that these believers were struggling with similar questions.  God, why is this happenening to us?  Have you abandoned us?  Why?  Taking Romans 8 and Hebrews 10-11 as examples, the authors sought to comfort these strained believers by reminding them that God has not abandoned them one bit but that His rewards are ensured to them, to those who persevere and don't abandon Him.

But secondly, this belief forgets the simple fact that our Master did everything right.  He didn't just do some things right.  He didn't just try really hard.  He did everything right.  The Father was "well-pleased" with Him, by His own goodness and righteousness and works alone.  And where did it land Him?  How did His life work out?  Did Jesus get an easy, cushy, happy life that fit right into the grooves of the American, suburban, Christian family dream?  Not even close.  He was rejected by His own people, misunderstood by His own family, hated, mocked, slandered, handed over to enemies, beaten, humiliated, and killed as a criminal for the jeers and spits of all who walked by, if they still could stomach to look at him at that point.

Hmmm.  Something is wrong with this formula.  Could it be that this life doesn't work like a machine, where you pull this lever and push this button in the right way and get life to be how you want?  Could it be that there is no formula, no secret to making everything happen the way you want?  Could it be that there are no guarantees in this life, save only the promises of God?  Could it be that we are not above our Master, and therefore we should expect trouble, just as Jesus told us to?

But all of this begs the question:  "Why be good at all?"  I think many Christians never ask this question.  It's just what you are supposed to do, or it is what you will do if you want God to bless your life.  But if there is no guarantee at all that God will take the bad out of your life, then why obey at all?

1. God's commands are for our good.  Obeying them does not ensure a good, trouble-free life one bit.  But obeying them does spare us from a lot of unnecessary heartache and chaos on top of the trouble and chaos that we already will face just from living in this broken world.  For example, God forbids sex outside of marriage.  There are many very good reasons for that -one of which being how sex creates an unseen bond with the person that can blind us to major red-flags and reasons why being with that person is not good for us.  Sin is destructive, period.

2. We leave an inheritance for those who come after us.  If we ever have children, for example, we are leaving an inheritance to them -an inheritance of our character.  It isn't something can is seen or measured or carried in a box.  But it is something they will be handed, even if they don't ask for it!  We hand to them our character, including all of the good things but also all of the baggage and destructiveness.

3. We devalue God if we claim to love God yet live in such a way that says, "God's will isn't for me."  When people, especially people who do not know Jesus, look at our lives and see how we flagrantly do things that God forbids and have no real problem continuing in it, it shows them that God isn't very special.  It shows them that the people who claim to love God don't really care or respect Him, so therefore God must not be all that great.

4. We will receive our reward in the future.  We will receive our crown for persevering and remaining faithful (and that has primarily to do with our attitude more than our outward acts) -our crown just isn't here and now.  I realize that people from Western culture are spoiled and have a very hard time with delayed gratification, but this is how God works and how are promises are delivered to us.  Even if God does grant deliverance and restoration in this life, which He may or may not do, it is often a delayed deliverance.  The idea is faithfulness in spite of circumstances.  We hold on, we do not give up hope and trust when things go bad, we keep moving.  That is what perseverance means.  God does not promise us a cushy life for being good and trying really hard.  He promises us restoration and eventual deliverance to those who persevere.  And in order for us to persevere, there must be something for us to persevere through.  It isn't as though God doesn't know life can suck.

5. I believe the ultimate reason to obey God is gratitude and love.  When you truly grasp that God owes you absolutely nothing and that you, like everyone else, live under God's curse and fail to live up to your humanity every single day, but that God pursued you still and sent His Son to die for you, to make you His, and rose from the grave to be the progenitor of a new creation for us, to give us everything, to give us Himself and an inheritance with Him forever... to the degree you truly grasp the magnitude of this gift, you cannot live the same way.  You will want to honor Him and not dishonor His gift to you.  But I have found that believing that God has abandoned you when life falls apart is corrosive and in direct opposition to this truth, for this truth says the exact opposite.  It says that God is for us, as it says in Romans 8.  This truth, the Gospel, says that God doesn't walk away from us, reasoning that if God gave so much to have us then He would not abandon us for less.