zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the category “What is God like?”

Journey Post 48: Good neighbor Sam?

Note:  I was set to publish this nearly a month ago.  But the ending was not right.  I trust that it is, now.

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“Who is my neighbor?”  Luke 10:29                                                                                                                                          —Question put to Jesus by a young law expert

Love … It is the big idea … bigger than any good feelings which may come with it.

Genuine love affects how we act toward others in every area of life.  Simply put, love compels.  Love forgets self.  When love is real, it will at times act contrary to feelings, contrary to self.  Love does the right thing.  I am an inconsistent practitioner of this kind of love.

God’s idea of love is seen in the life—and supremely the death—of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:3).  It was this kind of love that St. Paul described in the passage often read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind…

One of the radical ideas that Jesus taught his disciples—and anyone who would listen—is that “love your neighbor” includes “love your enemies.”  It must have seemed new and radical to those who heard him say this in his first major public teaching, “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Yet it was only as new and as radical as God himself.  Little did they suspect that “love your enemy” is a central premise of how God operates and how he desires that we operate in our relationships.  “Impossible,” you say?  Precisely.

There was once a young man who was confronted with this reality about love—and its impossibility.  Jesus met the young man, an expert in the law of God who seemed confident that he knew what God expected of him.  But he came away from his encounter with Jesus having had a truth adjustment.  It’s a pity that we don’t know what the young man finally did with this truth….

For us, the parable Jesus told him, “The Good Samaritan,” has become a cultural moniker for laws that protect us when we try to do the right thing, such as helping an injured person out of a damaged car at the risk of further injury.  It’s nice to have those laws.  They enable us to do something seriously good for another without regard to negative consequences for ourselves.

For Jesus, the parable he told has to do with doing good (love) for others without regard to self.

The story is simple and well known, as is its basic lesson.  Most people are at least familiar with it:  A man is beat up and robbed on an isolated road and left for dead.  A priest and another guy come upon the man but avoid him and keep going.  They were religious types whom you’d expect would have stopped to help.  Another man, a foreigner from Samaria, sees him, stops, cleans his wounds, lifts him onto his donkey, and takes him to an inn where the victim can rest and recover.  The Samaritan pays the inn-keeper to provide whatever the man might need and promises to reimburse any extra expense.

The lesson here is actually much larger than helping a stranger in trouble.  That can easily be missed in a casual read.  We know we’re supposed to “love thy neighbor.”  But the young man took it further, asking, “who is my neighbor?”  Why would he do that?  Wasn’t he the expert?

If you haven’t done so yet, please read the account in Luke 10:25-37.  As you do so, take note of the young man’s two questions.  These provide the context for the parable.  And, they raise an important question that Jesus leaves hanging….

We’ll begin with the people in the parable.  Then we’ll consider the young law expert himself and what he was after with his questions.

The priest who passes by serves at the temple in Jerusalem.  The second man is a Levite whose job it is to help at the temple.  They probably rationalized their non-action (we humans have a built-in propensity for this), which might have run thus: “If I touch him (he might even be dead), I would be ‘unclean’ and would not be able to serve at the temple.”  So they let themselves off the hook with their own importance.  They didn’t just ignore the man: they passed by on the other side of the road so they wouldn’t be defiled.  That way, they likely told themselves, they would remain “clean” to serve God….

Enter the Samaritan.  He was, well, a Samaritan.  He wasn’t just a foreigner, but a very special kind of foreigner.  There could not have been a greater contrast: essential temple workers/despised Samaritan.

Despised?  How do we know that?  Because all Samaritans were … by the Jews back then.

A little background:  Samaria stood between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south of Israel during the time of Jesus.  Long before, Samaria had been the capital of northern Israel.  It had been finally conquered by Assyria in 712 B.C.  The king deported many Israelites (to weaken their state) and brought in Assyrians (Gentiles, non-Jews) to replace them.

Eventually, of course, there was intermarriage, and their seed was considered half-breed and thoroughly unclean.  Samaritans took on many pagan practices.  While they considered themselves worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, they would not go to the Jerusalem temple, but built their own.

Jews assiduously avoided Samaritans.  They despised them so much that they wouldn’t even walk through their land to get to Galilee.  (Jesus made a point of walking right through Samaria, on one occasion stopping to speak with “the [Samaritan] woman at the well,” recorded in John 4.)

Jesus emphasized that all of God’s law was summed up in the word “love.”  While the people were told by their religious leaders to “love your neighbor and hate your enemies,” Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy in this: they would not be any different from pagans, who did the same.  “Be perfect as your Father is perfect,” he told them—like their Father who showers the blessings of his creation upon all.

By using a Samaritan as the one who showed mercy and kindness, Jesus struck a nerve:  This was no theoretical enemy, this was a Samaritan!!  His people had turned their backs on the true worship of Yahweh.  (Jesus had this habit of tossing in unexpected zingers to make his points unmistakable.)

So what about this young law expert?  Jesus certainly put him in his place, right?  Not exactly.  There was something else in play for this young man, though our account doesn’t make it clear just what.

Law experts often appeared as enemies of Jesus, along with their pals, the Pharisees.  Many were, but there is no proof that such was the case here.  The text said that he stood up to “test” Jesus:  the word doesn’t indicate whether he was trying to trip up Jesus or simply trying to find out if he might actually be Messiah.  Jesus never rebukes him.  And while it says that he wanted to “justify himself” (which sounds terribly self-serving) by asking who his neighbor is, Jesus gives him a very straightforward answer—in story form—then sends the young man on his way with a pointed instruction: “Go and do likewise.”

“Likewise”??  This was insult added to injury:  Jesus wasn’t just saying to help people in trouble—which the law expert undoubtedly agreed with—but, in effect, “be perfect, like this Samaritan was perfect,” i.e., it was the despised Samaritan who did what God wanted, not his fellow Jews!

Reading the parable, most, including Christians, focus on the command to love your neighbor.  It feels right, and it is.  But don’t overlook the context.  I did for years, reading past the man’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus, in recognition of the man’s great learning, asks him what the law says, “How do you read it?”  His answer (love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself) elicits this: “You’ve answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.”

Here the young man, “wanting to justify himself,” asks who his neighbor is.  We don’t know his true motive, but Jesus did: no one understood the human heart better than he.  Maybe the man had heard Jesus talking before about loving your enemy; maybe he had self-doubts.  We’re curious.  So was Peter once when he got curious about John: “What about him?” “If I want him to remain … what is that to you?  You, follow me” (John 21:21,22).  Oops….  Anyway, the point is: what is the lesson for us?

You may be wondering why Jesus didn’t tell the young man, “Believe in me and you will be saved”?  His answers, instead, kept coming down to keeping the law more perfectly.  The law expert got the point about the Samaritan … perhaps he even went off determined to love his enemy….

The question that Jesus leaves hanging here is this:  If doing good (i.e., doing God’s moral law, doing his will) is required to “gain eternal life,” what, then, is the role of faith?

Jesus knew that the young man, intent on keeping the law, would eventually run flat up against a wall, frustrated, disillusioned by the law he loved and counted on to make him righteous before God.  No matter how hard he tried.  Just when he thought he was making progress … Did God move the goalpost?

Another story can help us understand the role of faith.  It’s about another young man who came to Jesus and asked the very same thing—and got the same answer—about eternal life.

This second man is known as the “rich young ruler” (e.g., Luke 18: 18-30).  He told Jesus he had kept the commandments since he was a boy.  Jesus said he still lacked one thing:  sell all he had, give to the poor; then he would have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow him.  Jesus loved this man, Mark says.

The rich man became sad; he had so much.  He’d seemed so close: did God just move the goalpost for him, too?  Jesus remarked that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  Those around him were astonished: they assumed the rich had God’s favor.  So who can be saved?  Jesus: “What is impossible for people is not impossible for God.”

Both young men missed the point: no matter how much they loved, or how much they gave up, they could never put God in their debt.  Of course God wants people to do his will, but when the question becomes “What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?” the wrong question is being asked.

The disciples were still missing the point here, too.  Right before the rich ruler, some children were brought and the disciples had tried to turn them away.  Jesus was indignant.  “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these … anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17).  How’s that?

We agree: “let the children come.”  But we also say, as Dorothy did after the Wizard gave tokens of their brains, heart, and courage to her friends: “I don’t think there’s anything in that black bag for me….”

Have you ever considered what is meant by “the faith of a child”?  They are sweet and innocent, right? “Jesus loves the little children….”  But children are not giants of faith.  They are dependent, helpless little people, innocent because their trust has not yet been violated.  Yet we are wired to trust (have faith).  It’s essential for daily life, for every bite of food, every chair in which we sit.  By the time we’re adults, most of us have had our trust violated enough that we no longer give it easily, and we didn’t notice….

We need help to trust.  The question isn’t always, “whom do I trust?” but “how can I trust?” and “is it safe?”  That requires honesty.  In a moment I’ll never forget—on a hospital bed in Vietnam in June, 1969—I faced the question:  Did I really believe?  Was Jesus real?  I didn’t know—how can I?  Questions—and honesty— flooded my mind when I realized that I really almost died the day before….

I suspect that the young law expert had a moment after he left Jesus when he knew he was up against a wall and could never meet such a high standard as Jesus had laid out for him.  And the young rich man?  Jesus “loved him.”  Surprised?  He doesn’t only love the little children.  Irony:  the disciples likely deferred to him, since he was rich.  The disciples didn’t hinder him.  He had his own hindrance.

Leap of Faith

After my own moment of honesty, I slowly began to understand that God wasn’t asking me to take some blind leap of faith.  Nor was he telling me to sit around and wait on the Spirit to zap faith into me.  I was an historian: I knew I needed to follow the evidence, and especially to investigate the resurrection.

Bit by bit, I began to realize I could trust God’s word.  Jesus’ life and death was the fulfillment of promises made long before.  One day, two years after my moment on that hospital bed, I knew that I believed.  I knew I could trust him.  I didn’t know how little faith I had at that time, but it was a start….

Other people come to faith in other ways.  Some quickly, some slowly, some in anguish, some come quietly.  In my case, there was a clanging bell inside my head (a literal noise), followed by silence….

The big thing that keeps us from God is not sin per se, but our lack of trust in someone else’s love.  God’s invitation is out there for all to hear if they will.  “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).  “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The first public words out of Jesus’ mouth were: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3).  There’s no special virtue in being poor: they’re stuck in a place where they have no one to trust but God to provide for their daily needs.  Having that spirit means you have no one to trust but God.  You’d be surprised how he shows up, dresses our wounds, and pays the expense.

I hope those two young men eventually made that discovery.  I’d like to ask them how that happened.

Journey Post 46, What Jesus Taught: The parable of the prodigal son … and other lost things

 

 

 

 

 

Contempt.

It’s a word that reeks: of pride and arrogance, a sentence finalized and delivered by judge and jury to those beneath us.

Most of us have felt contempt, of others and for others.  Good missionary that I was, I remember feeling a mix of paternalism and contempt when we lived among the Manjako people in Senegal.  “They’re certainly fortunate to have us here,” I remember thinking one day.

I was there as God’s emissary to bring them good news!  You may think me arrogant for thinking such a thing.  I certainly was.  By grace I now have been the recipient of untold lessons in humility from the hand of God.  But back then, if the Manjako thought they could see God in my life, the picture they got was certainly distorted….

The religious teachers of Jesus’s day also presented a distorted view of God and who he is.  That’s what we see in Luke 15 and is the reason Jesus tells the parable the way he does.  The religious leaders were supposed to be God’s shepherds to Israel, helping them to know and understand him.  Instead, the people got the message, supposedly reflected from on high: they weren’t worth very much to God.

Is that how God actually looks at people?

Jesus found himself in a situation where that question was hanging in the air.  He decided to tell the onlooking religious leaders what we call “the parable of the prodigal son.”  (Prodigal: “recklessly wasteful.”)

Like “The Sower” and “The Good Samaritan,” the prodigal is among the best known stories of Jesus.  Even if you’ve never cracked open a Bible, you’ve heard it or are aware of its cultural and literary impact in our society, an impact which is—or has been—significant.

Please read the parable before we go on.  You’ll find it in Luke, chapter 15.  There is more to the parable than you may have heard before.  It consists of three vignettes: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and the third about the lost son.  It’s short, only thirty-one verses.

Okay … now that you’ve read it, we’ll continue….

First, the “tax collectors and sinners.”  Tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of Rome.  They kept whatever they collected over what was owed and were, not surprisingly, considered traitors, detested by most.  The disciple Matthew (or Levi) had been a tax collector when Jesus called him.

“Sinners” included a variety of people not generally considered righteous before God, definitely not top tier.  They would have included prostitutes or other ne’er-do-wells.

These people were “all gathering around to hear Jesus;” they were drawn to him and were eating with him.  He welcomed them—and they felt welcomed.  They knew that Jesus was at least a rabbi, maybe more (i.e., Messiah?) yet he welcomed them.  Eating with them showed this because shared meals were traditional times of intimate fellowship, discussion, and enjoyment of others.  Just imagine….

Contrast them with “the Pharisees and teachers of the law,” who were contemptuous of both the people and Jesus.  You can feel the vibe.  The Pharisees prided themselves in strict adherence to all the minutiae of the rules they set up to “help” people keep God’s law.  The teachers of the law (or “scribes”) gave themselves to the laborious hand-copying of the Scriptures.  These two groups had frequent run-ins with Jesus, especially over issues related to Sabbath-keeping.

They enjoyed society’s respect and deference, though they seldom returned it—most assuredly not to those they regarded as beneath them.  But such a group sat before them now….

Jesus was aware of their hard hearts.  While we might want to “do contempt unto others,” Jesus sought to win them by providing an opportunity to understand the father heart of God towards those before them.  He knew most of the leaders would walk away, allowing the birds to snatch the seed; still, he continued to reach out to them.

Watch Jesus closely.  His parable doesn’t start with the father and sons.  He knew that even hard-hearted religious types understand the value of a lost sheep or a lost coin (likely worth an entire day’s wage) and would extend the same effort and be just as joyful as anyone upon finding them.  But, of course, other humans—especially one so thoughtless and contemptable as this recklessly wasteful son—well….

How odd it was that Jesus inserted a statement about more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than a gazillion who don’t need to where he did: in the two vignettes about a lost sheep and lost coin.  It was not lost on the Pharisees and teachers that Jesus was saying explicitly:  “God rejoices greatly when a sinner repents.”  (Don’t be thrown off by the reference to “in heaven” or “in the presence of angels” because that was a common device used by the Jews to not say the sacred Name.)

So, if you’re familiar only with the vignette about the father and his two sons, you may have been missing the punch line of the whole parable. The central point is the joy experienced by God when one single sinner “comes to his senses” like the prodigal did.

Can you picture Jesus’s Father running up the road to welcome that returning child?  You can’t?  Beneath his dignity and majesty?  Not your picture of God?  However you picture it, joy is the point.

You can bet that Jesus’s joy knew no bounds at these “tax collectors and sinners” who wanted to hear.  They had their ears on.  How might they have had their picture of God changed by the presence of Jesus?

Does the “good son” in the story remind you of anyone?  Those religious hypocrites?  Their need to repent was painfully obvious to everyone—but them.  Their blindness is evident all through the Gospels.  Outwardly, they supposedly did the right thing.  But God wanted their hearts.

As to the prodigal himself, we don’t hear any more about him after the father runs up the road, hugs him, orders the best robe, ring, and fattened calf.  But the older son, well, that’s another matter.  He refused to come to the celebration once he heard about it.  He complained bitterly to his dad.  He considered himself perfectly justified in what he thought and said, but his father did not have his heart.

If you are waiting for me to explain the meaning of each part in the story, I won’t.  Some parts are obvious. The father is God, no doubt, and he reminds the older son that his inheritance is still there.  But he has missed something fundamental about the nature of doing the “right thing”:  love and compassion, particularly for those who were lost and now are found.

It was part of Jesus’s overall message that the Father accepts all who come to him, whether “sinners” or Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews): those who understand their true poverty, their need for him, and turn to him (or, come to their senses).

I have my ideas about all this, but it’s worth staying with the main point: how much does God rejoice?  What is the value of a soul to God?  What is your value to him?  What is God really like?

“What comes into your mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.” (A.W. Tozer)  It would be good to know your honest answer—not one you’d tell a Sunday school—but what you think when you’re alone, in the dark.

I hope, through these postings, to give some accurate indication of the answer.  God forbid that any Manjako or anyone else has a picture of God based on the contempt and other un-God-like qualities I once displayed while acting as his representative.  My Father’s grace, mercy, and love didn’t give up on the prideful young man I have been on this long road I call my Zigzag Journey.

Thanks, Father.

Journey Post 44, What Jesus Actually Taught: Those pesky puzzling parables — Jesus may have left the building, but he’s still around

Donkey running

 

 

The Donkey understanding of Christianity, part 4a

“…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.  When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”  (Matthew 13: 45-46, NIV)

pearl-of-great-price1

Jesus told many, many stories during the course of his ministry.  He used allegory extensively, including parables and other figures of speech to communicate his points.  Many of his sayings and parables have become deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of our nation, in its history and traditions.  The good Samaritan.  The prodigal son.  The sower and the seed.  The pearl of great price (above).

If you’re a bit uncertain about what Jesus was getting at in these stories, you’re not alone—whether you’re a devoted Christian or non.  Take the one from Matthew 13 about the pearl.  What do you think he meant?  The pearl:  is it people, God, Jesus, salvation?  The merchant: God, Jesus, a sinner?  Why did he sell everything and buy the pearl?  Is he saying I have to give up everything?  Go to Africa as a missionary?  Give all my money to the church?  Become Mother Teresa II?

There’s a lot of confusion:  Different people have different understandings of this and other parables—even in the same church.  What I want to do here, in this first post about parables, is not to give what I think are all the “correct” interpretations, but to provide some useful tools to help you do that.

Growing up in church, I figured I knew what the parables were about—and wouldn’t let on otherwise.  Even after attending Bible school, I was confused about many of them.  I came away from our training with the remarkable impression that the Gospels weren’t all that relevant for Christian life today.

Why then, bother with the parables?  Because they are important for us to understand.  They tell us a lot about what Jesus actually taught.  About what he was trying to say to us.

About a decade ago, I began to look at the parables again.  That’s when I took time out from any other Bible reading or study and just read the four Gospel accounts over and over.  I found then that most of them yield a simple, obvious explanation, though I’m still uncertain about some of the particulars.

lincoln-telling-storiesJesus was not “A. Lincoln, master tale spinner,” who could entertain (or get votes) in his inimitable style—though I can imagine Jesus sitting around with his disciples sharing a yarn and laughing, heartily.  The stories recounted in Scripture were given to hammer home serious points, vital spiritual truth to help us know God.  They help us know ourselves.

Jesus was a master at using vivid pictures and familiar illustrations in that agricultural society, memorable stories that made the kingdom of God come alive in a way that no preacher today with polished rhetoric could match.

When finishing a story, Jesus often left listeners an exhortation such as: “Those who have ears to hear, hear what the parable is saying….”  He urged them to listen carefully—and mull.  The story form facilitated remembering, and the word pictures communicated so much more than erudite explanation.

jesus-teaching

The crowds didn’t always understand, and even his disciples were stumped sometimes.  The difference between the masses and the disciples (i.e., those who wanted to learn and apply what he taught, like any good apprentice) was that the disciples went and asked what he meant.

“Gee, thanks, Walt,” you say, “Jesus isn’t exactly around to ask.”  But the premise of Christianity is that, yes indeed, Jesus is still very much around.  He rose from the dead and sent his Holy Spirit to help us know God and to understand his mindset.  You may not claim to be a believer, but I’m guessing you might want to know if Jesus is relevant for your life, even if you don’t want to hang around church.prayer

This leads us to another premise of Christianity: i.e., God wants to communicate with his creatures.  He doesn’t hide the meaning of what he says from those who truly want to know and are willing to apply that meaning to their lives.  That’s what Jesus meant when he exhorted “those who have ears to hear….”  Even if you believe that the Bible and Christianity is a complete crock full of superstitious nonsense or deliberate deception, you can understand, too.  You can go to the Source.

Another premise of Christianity is that what God wants us to understand is pretty simple.  Intellectually.  But to truly “learn” it requires a willing heart.  We Americans are so brain centered that we think academic smarts are more important than wisdom.  I know I did.  My “zigzag journey” is really about me getting my “self” out of the way, though sometimes the Lord had to hit this Donkey upside the head to get my attention.  My brain, my faith in my own intellectual ability to build a system wherein God made sense, was generally in the way of finding out what he thinks.

Spiritual truth, if from God, is generally much simpler than we want to think.

God has promised that those who seek him will find him, if they seek with all their heart (Jeremiah 29:13).  He promised his people (in Jeremiah 31) that he would write his law on their hearts.  I’ve never known him to break a promise.  It’s his Spirit who makes what he says (i.e., in the Scriptures) comprehensible and doable.  The brain (intellect, cognitive ability) submitted to him, will know his truth.

In a similar vein, Jesus once said (John 7:17):  “Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own.”

Unfortunately, even churches get caught up in what a friend of mine calls “cognitive discipleship.”  It’s the path of least resistance: learn enough Bible verses to build a correct doctrinal system and you’ll be okay.

jesus-confronting-phariseesThe Pharisees and other religious leaders had the intellectual part down.  But they didn’t truly “get” the point of God’s law, which is why they kept having run-ins with Jesus.  They practiced legalistic minutia, but missed the “weightier matters of the law,” things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23).

A good Jewish boy growing up in Jesus’s day should have known that God’s law could be summed up by two commandments:  love God with all your being (heart, soul, mind, and strength) and love your neighbor as yourself.  The problem was that their teachers’ minutia kept getting in the way of God’s simpler will.

Here’s a couple simple things to keep in mind so as not to get lost in the minutia of a parable.

whats-the-main-ideaFirst simple thing:  Remember your English teacher asking, what’s the main point?  the big idea?  This is the critical question about any parable, because it’s so tempting to try figuring out each little part.  There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s hard to avoid, really.  But focusing on every detail makes it easy to miss the main thing.  It’s missing the forest for the trees.

capital-kThe second simple thing is this: always consider the context (Kontext with a capital “K”).  I’ll never tire of saying this.  And I hope you listened in English class.  Context simply is what comes before and after in a sentence, paragraph, story, or a book in the Bible or the whole Bible itself.

Two very familiar parables illustrate the importance of context.  One is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  The other is the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10.

prodigal-son-iThe prodigal son is a favorite story, a nice, heartwarming read or tell.  The younger son asks for his inheritance and goes away, wasting it on wine, women, and song in a relatively short time.  He’s reduced to slopping pigs, yearning to eat their same delicious repast.  (Pigs are unclean for Jews.)  He comes to his senses, repents, and goes home.  The father, who has been watching for him, sees him coming up the road and runs to meet him, (so much for the dignity of the dad).  He prodigal-son-iithrows a great feast to celebrate—though the older brother refuses to come.

We’re rightly touched by the story.  You may stumble around looking at the parts to figure out what’s what.  Is the father God?  What did the older brother represent, the religious leaders?  Is each piece important?  The larger context is important:  The first verse in Luke 15 tells us about the Pharisees and teachers complaining that Jesus eats with and welcomes “sinners.”  In answer, Jesus tells a parable, composed of three parts, about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then the lost son.  Looking at context will put you on firmer ground to think about the possibilities.  We’ll come back to this parable at a later time…. 😊

Another example is “the good Samaritan,” Luke 10:25-37.  The story seems unconnected to any surrounding context.  Is that so?  The story illustrates what it means to “love your neighbor,” and by extension, what it means to love God.  The man to whom Jesus told the story was an expert in God’s law.  The man, whose motives are suspect, asks “and who is my neighbor?”

good-samaritan-neighborJesus’s answer packs a double whammy:  being merciful to a neighbor means getting involved with a beaten-up stranger.  Two men pass by, one a priest, the other a Levite, who should’ve stopped.  The generously merciful one who stops is a Samaritan, a member of the race regarded by Jews as half-breeds and enemies.

There are at least two points that Jesus is making in the parable: how to love is only one point.  Remember the expert’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The answer to that is an important part of the story.  Jesus threw the question back at the man, telling him he had “answered correctly….  Do this and you will live.”

Wait … what?  “Walt, Christians say the Bible teaches that eternal life comes by faith, not doing good works.”  That’s right, it does.  “Well then, is Jesus saying that we gain eternal life by living ‘correctly’?”  No, he is not.  It’s important to know the larger context (bigger “K”) of the Bible: what did Jesus and others say elsewhere?

If our eternal destiny depends entirely on how well we live … well …. the Bible states explicitly that no one can live rightly enough to earn a place in heaven.  It states very clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” i.e., they cannot, on their own, attain to a place in God’s glorious presence, (Romans 3:23).

Scripture makes abundantly clear that no one can live up to God’s standards.  The law expert seemed satisfied that he was doing okay, and Jesus almost lets him think that.  There’s enough in the story to tell us that the man wasn’t really interested in loving his neighbor the way Jesus described it.  The parable picture Jesus used would—hopefully—haunt the man until he asked more honestly.  We don’t know if he did.

A more complete answer would have included reference to the idea that no person can be righteous in the sight of God without depending on his merciful and gracious heart.  Being truly righteous is beyond the reach of human effort.  That’s part of the bigger story (i.e., the context) in the Gospel accounts and the rest of the Bible.

If you were to ask why Jesus came, the stock answer is that he came to die on the cross to pay for our sins.  It might include the idea that if you believe this, you will have eternal life.  But believing can be tricky: it includes both mental assent to facts and trusting God that he will keep his promises.  You cannot trust someone you do not know.  So God sent Jesus to display to his creatures who he is and what he is like, to correct the errors foisted on the people by their religious leaders, so that those who follow Jesus can know the Father, can know he is trustworthy.

Please join me as we explore what Jesus actually taught through his parables.  We won’t look at all of them, and I’m not sure yet where we will end.  We will begin next time with the parable of the sower and the seed.

If you have ears, hear what the parable says.  And don’t forget to ask.  Jesus may have gone to heaven, but he’s still very much around….

Journey Post 43: Judging, discerning the narrow road, and building a house: What Jesus actually taught

The Donkey Understanding of Christianity, Part 3c, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapter 7) 

 

narrow-path-2

 

Matthew 7:1-2  “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.…”  (NIV)

These are words to make the steadiest heart hiccup, Christian or non.  One can read them slowly, dreadfully, or pass speedily by, the mind only half-engaged.  Surely Jesus can’t possibly mean what those words seem to say … I’m doomed if they do….

One can maybe latch on to the first reasonable explanation that lets them off the hook.  Our initial Bible training, for example, left me with the impression that much in the Gospel accounts was not highly relevant for Christian life, so this probably didn’t apply to me, right?  Or, did it?

Chapter seven is the final one in the Sermon on the Mount.  (The chapter and verse divisions were added later to help us find stuff.)  By way of summary, here’s what Jesus said:  He warns those who judge someone by the “speck” in their eye of their need to remove their own “log.”  He speaks of “not casting your pearls before swine.”  Then he encourages people to ask their Father to meet their needs because he will give them good gifts, just like an earthly father gives his children.

Here he states the “Golden Rule,” and then warns people to follow the “narrow road” rather than the broad one that leads to destruction.  Only the narrow one leads to life and “few there be that find it.…”  Doing that requires discernment.  He teaches how to recognize false prophets: by their fruits.  He says only those who do the will of his Father will inherit the kingdom, and he will turn away even some who call him “Lord” saying, “I never knew you.”  The conclusion is similar to other messages Jesus has given:  if you hear, you’ll be like the wise one who builds his house on the rock, you will withstand the storms.

Reading this chapter used to leave me pondering:  Had I missed the true understanding of the gospel?  My donkey brain couldn’t reconcile the words here with my understanding of God’s grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness.  Especially troubling was the part about “the measure you use … will be measured to you,” a sort of Golden Rule in reverse:  You will be treated the way you treated others.  And the remainder of the chapter gives even less comfort.  Am I actually on the “broad way” instead of the “narrow way”?  Am I self-deceived?  What was Jesus actually teaching, anyway?

A caveat before going on:  I have studied the Scriptures most of my adult life.  This fact doesn’t mean that I understand them perfectly, but I have devoted a lot of mature reflection to what I’m about to say.

It’s important to bear in mind a few things as we look at Jesus’s statements.  First, remember that it’s part of a context.  I hear people quote the first verse (“judge not”) as a defense against disapproval: that may fit the politically correct context of America today, but it isn’t what Jesus had in mind.

The part about being judged with the same measure we use is related to other principles mentioned throughout Scripture, e.g.:  “You will reap what you sow”; the Golden Rule; and the statement that “God shows no favoritism….”  The common thread here is equality of treatment.  This reflects the justice of God.

Gold scales of justice on brown background

Equality (not of ability but of being and worth) is incorporated in American values, as when Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal….”  I was alluding to this, as well, in my last blog essay, about my classmate David: no matter your conviction, all people are created in the image of God and thereby entitled to equal treatment and justice.

You may rightly ask: “If that’s true, then why does God let Christians off the hook by forgiving them?  Just because they say they ‘believe’….  Doesn’t the Bible also say, ‘the demons believe—and tremble’?”  Yes indeed it does.  You’ll say, “Aren’t Christians sinners like everyone else?”  Yes.  “Aren’t they even worse sinners when they’re hypocrites, trying to foist their rules on us?”  Valid point again.

We’ll touch on the answers to these questions only indirectly.  I hope that what I have to say here will provide insight on the answers.  But this is not a Q & A.

Scripture does say that all humans are judged equally before God.  That’s scary.  That we all reap what we sow should give us all pause.  (Note that Paul repeated this when writing to Christians.)  It sounds all very mechanical, like a vending machine: do bad, get bad, do good, get good rewards; garbage in, garbage out.  However, God is not a vending machine constructed by humans.  Jesus is not mechanical, neither is the Father he came to put on display in human history.

Jesus’s comments about the Law in Matthew 5 will help us better understand how God operates: “You have heard it said …, but I tell you…”  His statements might make your jaw drop—and some of your assumptions along with it:  Anger and contempt for other humans is the same as murder in the sight of God, and lust is the same as adultery.  Jesus also addressed the principle often referred to as the lex talionis (Latin: the law of retaliation), for example, “an eye for an eye.”  He said, rather, turn the other cheek to insults, go the second mile, give to those who ask, love your enemies.

It’s easy to apply what Jesus said to people like the Pharisees—I’m sure some got the point and were doing a slow burn by the time Jesus was done.  But don’t dismiss what he said as only for Pharisees or legalistic, hypocritical Christians.  The Sermon on the Mount sets forth general principles applicable to all people everywhere, and we do well to ponder that.

One lesson is that God knows our hearts and values honesty in the heart.  Because he knows the complex motivations of all, he can exercise love and grace and mercy and forgiveness where we would not.  But we need to be careful not to think that his love trumps his justice.  If that were the case, God would have no integrity, and there would be no basis for us to trust him.  He would be a capricious god.

His absolute justice is the very reason the cross is central to Christianity.  The cross demonstrates that God loves his creation enough to find a way to forgive even the worst sinners without compromising his justice or holiness.  The way was that he paid for our sins himself.  The cross reconciled love, justice, and holiness.  The cross enabled God to exercise his grace and to reveal his father-heart.

the-justice-of-the-cross

That being said, let’s think more specifically about what Jesus says in chapter seven:

“Judge not,” verses 1-5.  We humans judge continually.  Jesus was referring here to condemning, a self-exalting flawed judgement.  “Judgment” can also refer to clear-eyed discernment: that requires wisdom and an unhindered view.  All of history, our own lives, shows the results of flawed judgment.  Even if you don’t believe in the Fall, you’ll agree that there is evil in this world, closer to home than we like to admit.

Can any of us successfully remove the “log” from our own eye?  Perhaps.  But the awareness of the log in our own eye is essential.  That awareness enables us to see that other’s problems are only a “speck” compared to our own “log.”  The Pharisees, of course, weren’t even aware.  Ultimately, there really is only one who has a completely clear-eyed view that enables perfect judgment.

judge-not-unless-you-can

“Don’t throw your pearls to pigs” (“cast your pearls before swine”), verse 6.  I’m not sure of Jesus’s precise meaning, though it certainly includes needing proper judgment so as not to give what is valuable to those who can’t appreciate it.  Some say this refers to the gospel message.  Perhaps it’s a subtle swipe at the Pharisees and other religious leaders, those whose hard hearts and rejection of Jesus as Messiah pushed the early church to take their inclusive message of God’s love to the Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews).

“How much more will your Father give good gifts,” verses 7-12.  Many understand these verses to show the need for persistence in prayer.  The bottom line is not about driving God nuts to get results, but about depending on God as Father: like a good earthly father (though “evil”) he gives only good gifts to his children.  This significant statement about the nature of God tells how he relates to those who trust him.

Discerning the road, the prophets, and the apprentices of Jesus, verses 13-23.  The verses about the narrow and broad roads are just plain scary—if you take them on their own (out of context).  They are scary because Jesus doesn’t say here how to know which is which.  Many Bibles with explanatory notes generally say simply that those who follow Jesus are on the narrow road.

I think the key is likely in the verses (21-23) which speak of true and false disciples (apprentices).  There, Jesus says explicitly: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  Faith (and trust) is shown not by what you say but what you do, and the ‘do’ is the will of God.

So, what is the will of God?  Many will say that it is “obeying God.”  But any good legalist is good at obedience to their own version of what God wants.  Legalistic prophets have destroyed the lives of countless people who followed such blind guides.  But those who do the will of God, whether prophet or peon, will be evident.  I spent my life on a performance treadmill, seeking approval and acceptance with God and let myself be led by some blind leaders.  My actions were good, but my heart was shrouded in a fog of fear, out of touch with God’s will.  The fear was that I might hear Jesus say, “I never knew you!”

I am now learning the will of my Father by following Jesus as his disciple (student, apprentice), watching and listening and doing because I know it’s safe to trust him.  I learned to step off my performance treadmill about ten years ago.  I’m learning to ask directions and humbly wait for them.

Last month, at David’s memorial service, I was asking directions (i.e., wisdom): How do I, who have certain convictions based on Scripture, display the heart of my Father and love a fellow human being who is gay?  I have much need of clear-eyed discernment.  I lost the opportunity once with my classmate: I reaped what I sowed by distancing myself from him most of our school years and did not seek to change even when I had the chance before he died.  Perhaps the Lord will yet give me another opportunity.

“The wise man built his house upon the rock,” verses 24-27.  I learned this song in a kindergarten Sunday school class.  All I ever needed to learn, I could have learned back then, but….  Jesus is the rock, of course.  To all the hearers of his messages, Jesus said, “Listen, if you have ears to hear.”  If you honestly listen (or read) these things, and seek to learn from him, you will discover that his “yoke” is a partnership–not a moralistic slave chain– in which he teaches you the will of God encapsulated in this simple summary of all God’s Law:  “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

sum-of-the-law

Journey Post 42, The Relevance of Jesus and the secret reward: what do you value, whom do you trust?

(The Donkey view of Christianity, part 3b, Matthew chapter 6)

 

think-like-god

 

Could you imagine a world in which the people think like God?

Depending on what you think God is like, that might be incredibly bad or incredibly good … or insane … or boring.

The closest I’ve come to imagining such a world is by observing and listening to Jesus.  No, I didn’t live 2,000 years ago, but repeated reading of the Gospels put me into a sort of time machine that took me back there to be with him and his disciples.

His closest followers spent two or three years in his company, and even they didn’t understand it all, at least until the resurrection revealed their little faith.  (One never did understand, of course.)  Their privilege was great.  They were apprenticed to a master from whom they learned not only to say and do what he did, but, like an apprentice in a trade today, they were learning to think like him and so to be like him.

jesus-teaching-disciples

We live out how we think.  That is such an obvious truth that we don’t give it much thought.

It was obvious to Jesus that the religious leaders of his day neither thought highly of God nor trusted him.  Their picture of the God they claimed to represent must have been something akin to an ogre, one whose judgment would fall on those who didn’t keep all the rules as they understood them.

Herein is a key to understanding much of Jesus’s teaching:  He came not only to die on a cross but to live as a son.  I’ve purposely written “son” in lower case.  I firmly believe in his divine nature, but I’ve taken a lesson from the fact that his ministry was not about proving that to people.  Jesus relied, instead, on his Father to open eyes to see him as he is.

I’ve written “son” to emphasize that Jesus lived out his life on earth to put God on display, to show and tell us what he is really like, to model the kind of life that the Creator intended for us human beings created in his image.  That is the reason his teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount (and everywhere else) contrasts sharply with the kinds of things the Pharisees were saying.

jesus-on-the-cross

Those who had hearts ready to listen (as Jesus challenged those who heard his parable about the sower) were drawn to Jesus; those who understood him wanted to live as he did—because his very life drew people to God.

Whether or not you agree that Jesus is the Son of God, you should agree with the premise of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament that Jesus spent the years before the cross teaching his followers to see life and people from the perspective of his heavenly Father, the one he taught he followers to call “Abba.”

To recast that first line more concretely:  Could you imagine a world in which people think like Jesus?  That might look like people living out the values in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus never promised that could be easy; it’s frankly impossible without an ongoing dependence upon God.  Even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised his followers just before he went to the cross, there is nothing easy about living the Christian life, not if you’re honest.  Any “improvement” (i.e., living more like Jesus) does not come instantaneously.  It’s a process.  In my case, a long zigzag journey.

The Bible doesn’t hide the warts that remain in the people who follow God.  The disciples, for example, were close to understanding who Jesus is, yet they still fled when the soldiers came to the garden and Peter still denied even knowing him.  Most people who become Christians experience a long process of difficult change, filled with struggle and heartache.  I don’t know any genuine Christian who think that life is spent in a thorn-free rose garden.

As we get into what Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 6, stay mindful of the religious leaders.  The Beatitudes may have seemed innocuous enough to the Pharisees, but when Jesus began to say, “you’ve heard it said … but I tell you…,” he was directly challenging their authority.  They may have missed what else Jesus was saying, but they got the challenge, and they began a long, slow burn that would lead them to demand the crucifixion.  Jesus taught with an authority they didn’t have: the Pharisees and other rabbis would cite learned rabbinical authorities to back up what they told people to do.

jesus-teaching

The part they missed was that Jesus was displaying to them what God is really like and how he thinks.  Chapter 6 is about two closely related topics:  what you treasure, or value, and whom you trust.

Jesus starts with a warning not to do good works (“righteousness”) in order to be seen by others—to get their kudos.  What religious legalists didn’t get was that any reward for what they did had already been received in those kudos.

You might find it hard to believe that anyone would actually use a trumpet to call attention to their giving, but rich people then commonly did such things.  We may be a bit more subtle today, but have you noticed the pervasiveness of donor plaques? They’re ubiquitous.  They aren’t wrong, necessarily. But God looks at the motive; he knows the heart (and doesn’t need the plaque).

What Jesus says in regard to this is one of the most important statements in the entire sermon:  “…and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”  We want our kudos now: God has other ideas.

There are so many things we do to call attention to ourselves, to get credit and admiration.  And it’s not even necessary that others know exactly what we’ve done.  We just sometimes like to think that we’re better than others because we’ve done something they didn’t.  I’ve been there, done that, even envied a plaque or two.

We don’t hear much about fasting today, except perhaps when someone is dieting. However, there are churches that invite their people to fast for particular reasons.  Fasting in Scripture was generally done as an indication (to God) of earnestness and desire that he work in some way.  I fear that some commit to fasting simply because they want their name seen on the list (i.e., the plaque).

If you grew up in church, you’ve likely sat in a prayer meeting where some saint droned on and on, invoking a mini theological tome of titles and attributes of God while praying a laundry list of spiritual and physical needs for every imaginable person in the congregation.  It’s so easy to judge/condemn such people.  But we can’t know that person’s heart: God, who does know, may be listening in with the biggest smile ever … even taking notes!

I can’t tell you, however, how often I’ve prayed in public, making sure to sound very humble so you would know how spiritual I am (Michelle would have other ideas, of course).

lords-prayer-niv

What we call “The Lord’s Prayer” was an example prayer that Jesus gave his apprentices, one which I’m sure he never intended to be recited without thought as part of a weekly liturgy.   This is not to say that a memorized prayer cannot constitute communion with God.  He looks at the heart.

I grew up saying the prayer every Sunday, having no idea that “Father” was not just the mandatory way to start.  Jesus taught his disciples to approach God as “Father,” which went against generally accepted practice.  “Father” expresses intimate relationship—a rather radical idea.  “Father”—think of it in its ideal sense—expresses trust and value,  at least it’s supposed to.  Can you imagine little John-John calling out to JFK: “O, Mr. President, O Leader of the Free World, hear my prayer”?  No, a simple “daddy!” suffices.

I want to call your attention to the prayer’s content, to think about what each line is really expressing.  “Name” expresses nature and reputation.  “Kingdom come”?  “The kingdom is at hand!” said Jesus, and he will return one day.  The will of God:  What might it be like for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven?  And, “daily bread”:  Despite poverty, Americans are incredibly rich.  Maybe we could be the answer to that prayer.

“Forgive as we forgive”?  There is a close relationship between mercy and forgiveness.  That line in the prayer assumes that we do give mercy—and recognize that we are in great need of it ourselves—all the time.  Mercy comes before forgiveness.  The whole prayer is an acknowledgement of our dependence on God, like those who are “poor in spirit.”

“Deliver us from evil.”  You may or may not believe in a personal devil.  But there is enough temptation in this world designed to fit any particular character flaw.  The self that inhabits our psyche is not simply a “flaw”—it’s the very essence of what’s referred to as the “sin nature.”  One of the chief outlets for this nature is not forgiving those who have wronged us (an undoubted evil).  Jesus said that if we don’t forgive, neither will God forgive us.  I don’t have a neatly boxed answer to the question that raises, but if we are not forgiving, it’s likely we don’t know what it is to be forgiven in the first place.

What is “treasure in heaven”?  What we treasure is where our heart will be, a major theme of the sermon.  What we treasure can be “money”—or whatever we chase after in life—any personal idol.  An idol traces back to our own self (which we promote and protect).  If our treasure is in God, then we can afford to be generous. This is what’s behind Jesus’s use of the “eye” as the “lamp of the body.”  The eye, as with the heart, reveals the health of the inner life.  A good eye is pure and giving to others.

Dealing with anxiety generally comes down to a question of what or whom you trust.  Notice how Jesus answers the question of worry.  He isn’t saying that God will pour pennies from heaven or Amazon boxes full of stuff.  He never says we don’t need to work hard or provide for our families.  His answer is to make us think about how much we are valued by the Father—who made us in his own image.

god-the-fathers-hand-holds-the-childs-hand

Knowing that we are valued by him is knowing that we are loved by him.  Knowing his love, knowing how valued I am by him, changed the direction of my our heart, from chasing after my own need for love and value to chasing after him to know him more.  So, what does it mean to seek his kingdom?  God is interested in us, values us, and sees our hearts.  So the kingdom is not a matter of doing x-amount of good deeds, or not doing certain x-rated things, or being in constant attendance at church, or anything else that is often associated with what Christians do or not do.

If you were to sit down and write a summary or the main points of Jesus’s teaching in the sermon, you just might find yourself describing what it means to love in a way that is not centered on self.  When you know you are loved, you love in return; in this case, you love the Father and seek after what he wants.  And if your prayer is that God’s will be done on earth, you’ll begin to have some idea of what that looks like.  This is not being a religious freak or fanatic.  This is being what we were intended to be from the beginning.

Journey Post 41, Missing the Relevance of Jesus: “You have heard it said … but I tell you …”

The Donkey Understanding of Christianity, Part 3a, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapter 5)  REVISED

NOTE:  I have eliminated the short paragraphs at the end that referenced content from  Matthew 6. The paragraphs appearing after the picture that says, “Things I wish Jesus never said” have been substantially rewritten.

“If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, do you know what he actually taught?”

I remember hearing that question for the first time.  It was posed by Dallas Willard.  I struggled for an answer.  It didn’t come.  And I’d been a Christian for some thirty-five years….

dallas-willard

Dallas Willard

I was familiar with Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, but right then I would have been hard pressed to produce any coherent summary (the main points) of what Jesus taught.  Willard also mentioned that Christians in different denominations “wore out their Bibles in different places,” i.e., they tended to focus on certain sections of Scripture to the neglect of others.  I knew this to be true, to my regret.

Michelle and I were year-old believers when we started Bible school.  We studied the life of Jesus, but we were taught that the important Christian doctrines were based on what Paul and others wrote to the early churches.  Those letters were most essential for Christian life.  No one said so, but my donkey brain takeaway was that the Gospels weren’t relevant today.  So, Jesus did not get worn out in my Bible.  Paul did.

The result was that, whenever I did read Jesus, some of his teaching seemed confusing or impossibly hard.  But, if it wasn’t relevant, then, so what?

I’m telling you this because, I’ve discovered over the years, I’m not the only donkey in the church.  My skewed view of God (which left me running on a performance treadmill), my non-understanding of my status as a son, my ignorance regarding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus (taking him on his terms) are, unfortunately, all quite common.  I missed the very things that could have corrected that thinking.

the-gospels

Willard didn’t stop with that question.  He also gave hope for an answer: take time to read the Gospels seriously, over and over.  Don’t rely on study helps, just read, keeping your eyes on Jesus and your heart asking God for understanding by his Spirit.  I was eager to take up his challenge.  It was 2008-09, and I was beginning to understand my adoption and to see God’s father heart.  At last confident of his love, I was ready for another step, this time to know what Jesus was about.  I’ll never regret taking it up.

It was like becoming a disciple (or apprentice) all over again.  After a couple times reading through each Gospel, my historical imagination plopped me down next to the others, listening, seeking wisdom, asking, “What is it you want us to understand?”  And it began to come….

jesus-teaching-disciples

One of the chief insights I gained was that, while Jesus came foremost to die for our sins, what he said and did was not simply preliminary to the cross. He had an agenda that was all about what it meant to really live, what “abundant life” was about.  As I read, I realized he was confirming my renewed understanding of the father heart of God.

I was seeing what had been there all the time: Jesus demonstrating the kindness and love of the Father and his desire to spend eternity with us … with me.  Jesus put his Father on display as no one had ever done, supremely on the cross of course, but also in everything he taught, said, and did.  His teaching was not platitudes of propositional truth designed to fill space until the betrayal.  Jesus’s teaching was an apprenticeship on how to live life in the way God had intended from the beginning.

Another insight:  It was dawning on me just how cognitive and academic had been my understanding of Christianity and Christian life.  In my case, it was a defense against the very thing that Jesus spent much of his time teaching and showing: what love means in real life.  Whenever I had seen it, Jesus’s underlying theme of genuine, self-giving love had been so threatening, so not safe.

This, after all, is the nature of discipleship/apprenticeship.  An apprenticeship brings people along so that they think and act like the master.  Jesus’s discipleship was no different.  The point of it was to get God’s perspective: on life, on relationship, knowing and living the other-centered and self-sacrificial love of the Father shown in the life of the Son.  It was this love that fired my own desire to see as he sees.

Jesus’s teaching was in many ways corrective.  It had to be.  The religious teachers, the Pharisees and priests and others, were not doing the job God gave them as stewards of the Scriptures and shepherds to his people.  They seemed to have no clue who God really is.  They did not know him or his love, mercy, or grace.  So they could only fall back on their ability to keep the letter of the Law, an external obedience making them proud and self-righteous.  They were false teachers giving a false view of God and laying heavy burdens on people’s heads.  Jesus’s most excoriating language was reserved for them.

Israel’s whole history had demonstrated God’s faithful love and kindness to his people.  Those who saw that love responded with love, love that issues in freely devoted obedience.  No Pharisee could have taught the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon is Jesus’s first recorded extended public teaching and reflects much of his core message.  He had already begun proclaiming the Kingdom as “at hand,” telling people to prepare their hearts (repent).  As an itinerant teacher, he would say many of these same things in different ways.

jesus-teaching-the-sermon-on-the-mount

The sermon, as recorded in Matthew 5-7, contains some of the best-known and oft-quoted sayings in the Bible, and has traditionally held an important spot in American popular understanding of Christianity.   Jesus begins the sermon with the “Beatitudes” and concludes with an analogy about applying what he taught, captured in the song I learned so long ago, “the wise man builds his house upon the rock.…”

The people he spoke to were wondering if he might be the promised Messiah (or, Christ) whom they expected would deliver them from Roman oppression and establish his kingdom.  What he actually taught surprised and disappointed many (including Judas).  If you read through the sermon, thinking how practical love is the underlying theme, you’ll begin to understand what Jesus was about.

I suggest reading Matthew, chapter 5 before continuing to read the rest of this essay.  As a teacher, I’m a great fan of asking “What’s the main idea?”  Keep context in mind: many read the trees in the Bible and miss the forest.  It’s the forest that makes sense of the trees.  God intends to communicate, not hide.  Jesus said: “listen if you have ears….”

The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes, with their repeated phrase “Blessed are the …,“ speak of internal character qualities that God favors, the kind of person God says will inherit his kingdom.  (The kingdom is wherever God reigns in the hearts of his people, both now and when God is eternally present with his children.)  His listeners found Jesus’s statements amazing—and refreshing: he wasn’t shoveling legalism.  The listeners were mostly poor and generally quick to acknowledge their need for God to get through life.

the-beatitudes

What was this kind of person?  Being “poor in spirit” contrasts them with the rich—typically proud—in spirit.  One who “mourns” does so because of death and all the pain that evil and sin have brought about—in their own life and in our world.  The “meek” is the gentle person who doesn’t insist on their own way, their own agenda.  One who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” is conscious of their own need for personal righteousness and of the great need for justice in the world.  The “pure in heart” contrasts with one who is satisfied with external purity (as Pharisees seemed to be).  A peacemaker works for “shalom”: i.e., that everything be as it should be.  Such a person will inherit the kingdom, see God, be counted among his children.  It would be clear later that this description did not fit the religious leaders.

Jesus taught his disciples they were the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.”  They were not to hide the light, so their lives would bring credit to God and draw people to him, not drive them away.

Jesus’s take on the commandments: “You’ve hear it said, but I tell you….”

Many thought that Messiah would do away with the Law, (perhaps the externals), but Jesus said he came to fulfill its purpose and show what God truly intended by it.  What he said seemed to raise the Law’s demands: “If your righteousness isn’t better than the teachers, you won’t enter the Kingdom.”

The diligent legalist could point with pride to keeping its externals: they never murdered, or slept with a neighbor’s wife.  “…But I tell you”: rage or contempt made one as guilty as those who took a life; intentional lust would be judged the same as adultery.  The Law and the Prophets (i.e., all Scripture) called for love for all—since all people were made in the image of God.  Jesus’s remedy for lust sounds exteme: to “gouge out” an eye would leave most men blind.  Men lust in their minds, anyway.  Jesus liked hyperbole: his point was that sin (“disordered love,” one calls it) needs radical solution.

the-tough-sayings-of-jesus

Jesus concludes this portion of the Sermon with some astounding statements, things that seem impossible to keep.

Our society allows for divorce much more freely than did the Jewish culture of Jesus’s day.  Jesus’s statement about divorce seems incredibly harsh.  He indicates that, unless a woman had already committed  immorality, a husband divorcing his wife makes her into an adulteress.  A divorced woman in that age could not remain unattached: she would have to remarry.  Marriage was one of the first things God mentioned in Scripture (Genesis 2:23) where it speaks of the man leaving his parents and the woman leaving her home and the two of them being united into one, a union much greater than sex, a union of all that they are.

A common way to ensure that statements are true, such as in court, would be to have the person take an oath.  But Jesus told them not to take vows, since no one can guarantee the outcome of anything (except God).

His final statements, also based on the command to love, must have left his listeners thinking he might have a screw loose: Don’t insist on taking an eye for an eye; turn the other cheek to an insult; and don’t turn away from those who ask you for things.  Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.  In this way, you’ll be “sons” of your Father (i.e., like him) who gives rain and sun to all.

“Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  “Perfect” means “complete” or “mature;” i.e., like God.  But any way you put it, to love like God loves has to be impossible, right?

Was Jesus a radical, a revolutionary?  He could be considered that in some ways, especially if people actually lived in the way he was talking about here.  But keep in mind that much of his teaching was more about getting back to God’s original intent for all people.  Realistically, how can anyone hope to pull that off?  We’ll look at that in future posts.

 

Journey Post 40: The Donkey Understanding of Christianity and the Christian Life, Part 2. Where the red dot grows. Or, everything I ever needed to know, I should have learned in Kindergarten.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”            —A.W. Tozer

To a kid in the early 1950s, it seemed that everyone went to church on Sunday.  It was an important part of the culture.   “We live in a Christian nation,” people said.  We didn’t go to church, but some friends of my mom and dad took me and my brother.  Eventually, my parents followed.  I was five or six.

In Sunday school, we sang songs, heard Bible stories.  A very kind woman named Janet led my class.  She told us stories about Jesus from the New Testament.  Since every reference in my world back then revolved around “The War” (WW2), I remember thinking that this “new” testament must’ve been written since the war.  An early assumption.  I knew nothing.  Janet’s legacy was inscribed to me inside a small New Testament she gave me, a legacy of love and the importance she placed in this little book.

new-testament

A favorite song: “The wise man built his house upon the rock.”  I didn’t know it was the analogy Jesus used to conclude the Sermon on the Mount.  It was a happy song, filled with motions, repetitions, and loud noise.  “The rains came down and the floods came up” (three times), “but the house on the rock stood firm.” We’d stand straight, planted stern and firm like Superman.  Then: “The foolish man built his house upon the sand.”  When the rains and floods came, his house went SPLAT! and we’d all fall down.

The point of the song was to “build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  I didn’t have a clue what it meant: I was puzzled, but I never asked.  I didn’t want to let on that I didn’t know.  I grew up thinking I’m supposed to know the answers, or figure them out.  I don’t remember my parents telling me different.

kids-singing

That song is still popular with kids.  It has played in the background of my life like a haunting melodic theme: be wise, build your life on Jesus, and your life will stand strong in the storm.  It seemed simple enough, but I was unaware I was missing something.  Whenever I’d fail or felt unsure, I’d run faster and harder, read the Bible more, serve more, love more, be like Jesus more … right?

When I recognized my friend’s view of God, I realized it was a reflection of my own underlying assumption about the way God is: not what I would say I believed, but what was there, deep inside.  It was a bolt from the blue.  God to me was that same dark, ugly, never-satisfied father who would one day tell me what a disappointment I’d been.  No!  He just couldn’t be like that, else this whole Christian thing was a crock.  I was suddenly determined to find the truth, like that day on a hospital bed in Vietnam.  I had to know: no more BS!

Proverbs 3:12 spotlighted the word “delight.” God delights—delights—in me … a glimpse into the father heart of God.  I googled my question about how God sees believers.  The word “adoption” popped up.  I knew adoption: it was like “saved” or “forgiven”… or so I assumed.  God had obligated himself to it.  He promised.  It was like a contract: you believe, God takes you to heaven—whether he wants to or not.

trust-the-father

Trusting the father heart of God?

But Paul’s writings presented a different picture: adoption was a personal, intimate relationship with God as a father who showers an inheritance on his children.  He gives his Spirit to make it real by helping us recognize we belong to him, not in a “shut up and do as I say” way.  Rather, it was “live as my son.”

Paul said God planned our adoption.  It gave him great pleasure: he was passionate about bringing people into his family to be with them forever.

I would shortly discover that Jesus taught this same thing—and modeled it—with his disciples.

One day, I listened to a talk on discipleship.  The speaker asked: If you claim to be Jesus’s follower, do you know what he actually taught?  My “knowledge” had been filtered through conflicting systems of theological thinking.  So I began to read the Gospels over and over, praying to hear Jesus unfiltered!

jesus-teaching-disciples

I’ve never regretted that investment of time, thought, study and prayer.  I read in large chunks, chapters at a time, looking at context and patterns and concepts.  I read different Bible versions.  I began to lose my interpretive straightjacket and felt as though I were right there with Peter and the others, listening for the first time, watching him: entranced, curious, sometimes confused, praying for clarity.

This was no “Jesus lite.”  I began to understand why my high school pastor called him “the man’s man.”  Calling God “Father” scandalized the religious authorities.  Do you know the prayer?  “Our Father who art in heaven…”  Jesus taught the disciples to call God “Abba,” (like papa or daddy), an intimate term.  The greatest privilege the Christian has is to know God as father.  It’s not a title.  It’s a relationship.

I’ve now come full circle back to Janet’s Kindergarten Sunday school.  I know, now, I am building my house upon the rock, knowing I’m a “donkey” freed from donkeyness by the patient love of a Father.

My Red Dot

The red dot is that place on a locator map which says, “You are here.”  Here’s where I’m at:

red-dot

My core beliefs are no different from Christians in most any evangelical church.  What has changed since 2007 is the way I understand God as my Father and myself as a son and follower of Jesus.  I’m still getting to know my adoptive dad intimately.  It is a personal relationship, with room for growth.  I know Jesus better.  Jesus’s agenda was not just the cross, to die as a sacrifice for our sin.  It included showing us what God is truly like, how he thinks, and what he wants.  Jesus summed it up in the word “love.”

Is Jesus really deity?  Many don’t believe that, but I do.  He didn’t deny it, but he didn’t campaign to convince people.  He let his Father open the eyes.  Besides the cross, his main agenda was focused on showing people who the Father is, living life as the son, loving people, how to worship him in truth.  His name is “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us”.  The resurrection declared him to be “the Son of God.”

There are strange beliefs about the Holy Spirit; many hesitate to talk of him as though they were afraid.  But Jesus called him “the helper” whom he promised to send so we’d recognize God as Father and ourselves as his children and to teach us wisdom—i.e., to know his will in our hearts.  He brings new birth to believers, and he make believers more like Jesus: to think and live like him, to flourish as part of his family.

My core identity: I am my Father’s son.  Adoption changed my status to that of a son (non-gender specific).  I am “holy” in God’s sight, a word which means much more than moral purity.  It means that I belong to him; I am his, he is mine.  This is true of all his people.  I am also a follower, a disciple, an apprentice of Jesus.  “Apprentice” still communicates what it was a rabbi did with disciples in Jesus’s day.  An apprentice observes, listens, follows instructions, seeks to imitate, and, so the theory goes, becomes more and more like the master.  There are no journeymen and only one master.

disciples-love-one-another

Here’s a clue how to recognize genuine disciples:  Jesus told his disciples, “People will know you are my disciples if you ….”  Or, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow …,” i.e., learning from me means: be ready to die to your own agenda.

take_up_cross_small_color

I keep saying that God is like the perfect or good father.  A theological list doesn’t communicate how the originator of mothers and fathers is himself the perfect parent.  We understand (even if uncomfortable with) that humans are relational beings, creative and imaginative and loving—as God is.  “Knowing God” is not about knowing a list of attributes: it’s about knowing him.  That’s what Jesus said eternal life is.  Understanding God as a relational, loving, and trustworthy father makes the Scriptures come alive and helps eliminate the temptation to “proof-text” verses about this or that attribute.

Humans have a great capacity to trust—it’s built in by God, but it gets crapped on in our society, shattered by abuse, apathy, and self-centeredness.  We do respond to someone we trust, and if that person is God, we begin to understand that faith is not some mysterious force that he zaps into people.  It’s the very normal response to recognizing his trustworthiness.  God is continually shining a light on himself for the very reason of drawing out faith:  in creation, in Jesus, other believers, the Scriptures, in the message we refer to as the “gospel.”  Even when our faith is small, it can grow to be great, just as Jesus said when he spoke of a mustard seed.

My early faith was largely cognitive: Jesus rose, therefore I knew the rest was true.  But it was love that got me off the performance treadmill.  It was love (delight) that made me see I’m no longer afraid of him.  I fear him, but I trust him.  His love is changing me, and in response, I love him and aim to do what Jesus did—display God in my life.

To think of God as a perfect and good father makes a lot of sense: he invented the concept of parenthood, after all.  Doing so does not eliminate the majestic or sovereign aspects of who he is.  Rather it enhances them.  Have you ever thought what it would be like to the son or daughter of the President of the United States?

jfk-and-chidren

Here’s some quick statements about other stuff:

The “s” word (sin) makes people uncomfortable, makes them think they’re being judged.  Let me use another analogy to give some clarity on what I believe God thinks:  What things would be harmful to your child?  What would keep their lives from thriving, from living out their potential, from knowing they are loved or from loving others?  We invest a lot in them because we love them.  We train, encourage, and seek to guide a positive strong will—vs. training out a destructive self-will.  We teach them love and respect and some humility by loving and respecting them.  God does the same.

God will judge one day, and it won’t be pleasant for those who don’t want anything to do with him.  Judgment is another part of parenthood.  God is the only one who judges with absolute accuracy and fairness.  He is just: that is the baseline reason that Jesus had to go to the cross.  The cross was part of God’s plan to adopt children into his family.  Since he is absolute holiness, he had to find a way to bring us into his presence for time and eternity without compromising.  So Jesus redeemed us by being the “lamb of God,” a sacrifice to pay our penalty of separation from God.  We accept that by faith.

jesus-the-lamb-of-god

I love the Bible.  It’s the only authority for what I believe and how I live.  It reflects God’s desire to communicate, and reflects him and his character.  It contains everything he wanted us to know—for now.  His Spirit helps us understand it, yet anyone can read it and get the main idea.  The Spirit guided those who wrote it down, but it wasn’t dictated.  I don’t believe there’s any contradiction with true science.  The creation account?  The point is that God did it.  Nothing comes from nothing on its own.

The Father sent Jesus as Christ (Israel’s Messiah) to reconcile people and offer forgiveness so that we might live as free sons.  Jesus announced this good news and initiated his Father’s kingdom.  Then he took upon himself the consequences of our rejection.  Who doesn’t want to know they are truly loved?

Journey Post 39: The donkey understanding of Christianity and the Christian life, part 1: The parable of the 2×4

Preliminaries

I was once told this story of a farmer and his donkey:  One day a farmer needed to go to town.  So he hitched his donkey to the wagon.  Then the farmer and his friend climbed up into the seat.  The farmer flicked the reins, clicked his tongue, and said, “Giddup!”  But the donkey didn’t move.  He just sat down on his haunches.  The farmer flicked again, said “Giddup!” again, but still, no movement.  The farmer calmly climbed down, went to the back of the wagon, picked up a 2×4, and walked to the front: THWACK! upside the head went the 2×4.  The farmer calmly climbed back into the wagon and set down the 2×4.  The farmer flicked the reins and the donkey started on down the road. “What’d you do that for?” said his friend.  Came the reply, “Well, first you have to get his attention.”

donkey standing

“Donkey” is the family name given to me by the son of a Manjako chief in 1981 when we moved into his village in Senegal and began to learn his language.  “If you’re going to live with us,” he said, “you must have a Manjako name.”  The Manjako spelling of the name is different; nevertheless, it sounds nearly identical to our English ears.   I never learned the origin of the family name, but its meaning is not related to our English word.  And, for the past thirty-five years, “Donkey” has served as a sometime humorous reminder from God of how stubborn I am and slow to learn wisdom and other important stuff.  And the 2×4?  For now, let’s just say it represents measures taken by God to get my attention….

How I came to write this series of essays:

Our word “preliminary” is from French, or maybe from Latin.  Latin: prae, ‘before’ + limen, ‘threshold.’  Right this moment, we’re standing on a threshold, peering into a room where a tapestry hangs—the tapestry of my life.  The tapestry is incomplete, a design in progress, the patient, loving work of my adoptive father.  I’ve been a Christian since 1971, but I’ve had little appreciation for the nature of the love with which he has crafted that tapestry.  Most of my life has been lived on the backside among the confusing tangles of thread, zigging and zagging hither and thither.

tapestry backside

Occasionally, my father showed me a glimpse of the front side.  Sometimes it took one of the 2x4s to get my attention long enough to look—and once in a while to actually see—what was going on.  There is something of great beauty happening, but I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t yet know the rest of the story.

donkey tapestry

Above:  an unfinished tapestry….

I have shared parts of this story before.  So please forgive me if some of it is repetitious to you: it won’t be to all my readers.  The story is critical to understanding why I’m compelled to write what appears in the next five posts.

For much of my Christian life, my view of God was distorted, one which saw him primarily as judge, the father figure who was never satisfied with my best efforts to please him.  I did not realize that’s what I really thought, so I couldn’t have told you.   This view is actually quite common, even among Christians and ministers.  It may not fit what we think we believe, but it’s often behind how we live.  I call it our “functional theology.”

I would have not realized that’s how I actually saw God had I not seen the same view full blown in a young friend, had I not seen it destroying his marriage, his ministry, his life.  It was a dramatic attention-getter (another 2×4) which would lead to my eventually knowing God’s father heart and knowing, too, what I meant to him.  It didn’t change everything all at once, but it brought a revolution in my life–and the life of Michelle–that is still unfolding….

Several things were coming together about the same period of time (2007 and after) that brought this revolution.  Michelle and I were involved in a church plant in Hollywood.  There, I was brought face to face with how loads and loads of people didn’t like Christians.  I’d been aware of it before, of course.  But when I heard how many considered us hypocrites, self-righteous, judgmental, etc., etc., I figured they were making an excuse for walking away from God.  I’ve had to reexamine that assumption.

hope international bible fellowship

Above:  Hope International Bible Fellowship in Hollywood where we first met to plant a church

Actually, I’ve found that there’s still a search going on across our land.  People are trying to understand spirituality, looking for some larger purpose.  Most still believe in God; they’re just not sure that those who claim to represent him know what they’re talking about.  I’ve quoted Gandhi and even many Christian leaders who recognize that the greatest hindrance to becoming Christian has been other Christians.

But, to paraphrase the Sara Lee jingle, “nobody doesn’t like Jesus.”  That isn’t strictly true, of course.  Most people seem to see Jesus as a great moral teacher, though they’re puzzled over the miracles and the deity thing.  Too many have come to see Christians as people they don’t want to be around.  A friend told me once that Christians are the only ones who shoot their wounded.  I have known that truth for myself.  And most people around us are wounded in some way.

About the same time as the church plant, I was coming face to face with the fact that my so-called Christian life wasn’t working so very well.  I’d been a missionary, a church leader, a Sunday school teacher, a counselor.  But I was questioning my faith and pondering the fact that God kept bringing me to the edge of failure in ministry, work, and marriage.

Abundant Life

If you’d asked me, as a new Christian, what I expected my life to be like in thirty years, I would have answered: “An abundant, free life, filled with quiet joy as we walk with God and await our call home (i.e., to heaven).”  It hasn’t quite unfolded like that.

We’ve had a tumultuous marriage (mostly behind the scenes).  My dreams of being a great missionary and Bible translator foundered on the shoals of my self-protective life, and I resented that Michelle always seemed to know anything better than  I.  Our kids were seeing the hypocrisy, legalism, and even immorality at our mission school base.  Our oldest son was in near-open rebellion at this.  I struggled with my own suppressed rage over fear of exposure as a bad father, yet sensing a growing admiration for our son whose honesty and courage could no longer abide leaders who expected submission from kids while ignoring adult dirty laundry hanging in plain sight.

We left Africa in 1989 with me thinking God had pulled the rug out from under me.  Sacrilegious?  Yes.  But it reflected the reality of my still unrecognized view that God was distant, uninterested in me, uncaring and never-satisfied.  I couldn’t see just how insidious was my thinking:  I figured the problem was me, not God.  Only while counseling my young friend years later could I see how his distorted view of an unsatisfied and ever-demanding God was leading him in the paths of destruction.  He knew exactly how he saw God and could articulate it.  In his articulation I saw my own functional understanding, like looking in a mirror.  It scared me.  Had I missed something?

Missing something

It was in shear desperation that I went home and cried out, “What do you really think of me, Lord?  I have to know!”  I just couldn’t play church any longer.  I’d felt the same way after my appointment with a mortar round in Vietnam.  But God really did hear my cry, and I now realized how he’d waited on me to pay attention so I could see he’d been there all the time.

If ever there was a “word from God,” I heard it that day.  The word was: “delight.”  His whisper told me to look at Proverbs 3:12, a verse I generally understood as, “Hey, pay attention to the 2×4, stupid!”  Instead, as I looked, my eyes traveled to the qualifying phrase after the statement that the Lord disciplines those he loves.  It said: “as a father the son in whom he delights.”  Wait … What?  Delights?  You delight in me, Lord?

I had never put that word in close proximity with God—or my dad, for that matter.  Even though I felt I didn’t ever matter to my own dad, I understood what a father was supposed to be like.  To hear that word “delight” made me feel like I’d died and gone to heaven. My performance treadmill life had been about seeking to please God and everybody.  But now, the finger of God pushed the stop button and told me it was time to get off.  To know a father’s delight removes the fear of the unsatisfied eye.  He had known all the worst about me and delighted in me, his child whom he was eager to adopt.

Eager?  Adopt?  We’ll look at that in due course.  You’ll just have to wait….

father delights in son

There is something about knowing you are truly deeply loved that is inexplicable.  It doesn’t yield to convenient analysis, and you can’t help but respond to it.  We love when we’re first loved.  Love is not something we do because we’re supposed to.  We learn it by the experience of being loved in relationship.  I’ve been learning to love because I now know I am loved.

This is what actually compels me to write these essays.  I wrote about love last post, about my captain in Vietnam and how he had given his life so that we might live that day.  His life and death was an illustration of that quality of genuine, self-giving love that is the essence of Christianity.  I didn’t get the point at the time—back then, I only knew I couldn’t do what he had done—but when I really saw the love of God, I connected the dots….

Christians talk about love all the time and non-Christians don’t put much stock in it.  They look at us and say, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.”  That’s why I want to focus on Jesus, what he taught, what he had to say about the Father, and how he put God on display by his life .

My plan for this series of essays is fairly straightforward, and much of it is already in draft form.  I may change some things, as per usual, but here is what I have in mind:

Part 2:  My personal understanding of Jesus, what Christianity is about, and what it means to live the Christian life.  This will give a quick overview and let Christian readers know I’m no raging heretic.

Part 3:  What Jesus actually taught: A summary look at the sermon on the mount

Part 4:  What Jesus actually taught: Looking at those troublesome parables

Part 5:  What Jesus actually taught: A look at other teachings, mostly from the Gospel of John

Part 6:  In Conclusion:  Additional notes and what it means to live as a disciple (apprentice) to Jesus

I think you’ll find that my beliefs are pretty standard Christian fare (orthodox with a small “o,” if you will).  I don’t like certain stereotypical terms used to classify Christians (“fundamentalist” and “evangelical”), and I don’t like to be pigeonholed.  I call myself a Christian, a believer, a follower of Jesus, a disciple.  Even “disciple” conveys weird things to some people, so I like the word “apprentice,” which still carries the same basic idea as what it meant to be a disciple in Jesus’s day.  More on that later.

In speaking about Christianity, I stress the word “relationship,” because what the disciples learned from Jesus was about how to live life in relationship to God and other people.  Being a Christian is not primarily about going to church, nor becoming a “better” person–though hopefully, that’s a result.  It’s not about going to heaven when you die, though that’s part of it.  Jesus said (John 17:3) that eternal life is knowing God.  The great privilege of the Christian is to know God as Father.

I hope you will find what I have to say to be informative, perhaps surprisingly enjoyable, and be challenged to really think.

Journey Post 37: The Mundane God and the Words We Use to Describe Him

Mundane

Mundane.  It’s a vanilla-flavored word (read: common or ordinary).  God mundane?  I’ll wait while you catch a breath.  “That’s an audacious statement! … Is this a trick? … Is this … blasphemy?”

If you’re looking, you’ll find two basic definitions, depending on the dictionary.  One definition deals with the common or ordinary things of life in this world.   A second speaks to things dull, unimaginative, banal, uninteresting; this one (no surprise) is often used as a dismissive put-down.

mundane definition

But God?  Mundane?  If you believe in him at all, you know that he is the very definition of imagination. To say that he is common, ordinary, this worldly—it doesn’t fit.  He’s up there on his majestic throne, after all, surrounded by angels and all his … glory, right?  Not mundane.

I wanted to provoke you into some serious thinking about what God is like.  We’ll get back to the word “mundane” and why I’m using it.  Believe me, I mean it in a good way.  There is something very important about God that is mundane, but not on the conscious radar of most.

First, I want to help you think through your own idea of God.  I often quote this, from A.W. Tozer: “What comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.”   That statement is true for all, bar none.  It’s as true for the religious, the non-religious, the atheist, the agnostic.  What you think of him is important because it’s a statement about ultimate reality and power in the universe, how you relate to that power, how you live out your life in light of it.

Tozer, what comes into our minds

This is not an essay about how you should think of God, but how you do think of him.  Your response to Tozer’s statement may initially be something like mine was ten or more years ago:  I would have recited—with no little pride—the Westminster Catechism statement that I memorized when I was thirteen: “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power … etc.”

The problem with statements like that is not that they aren’t true, but that they have little to do with how most of us—even the most religious—live daily life.  So, whatever you might say in a Sunday school class or on some test, or even what you might tell your kids, is not what we’re looking for here.  We’re concerned with your “functional theology.”  “Functional,” because it’s what you really think inside—in the recesses of your mind—and how you live it out (i.e., function).  You may be a devoted church-goer, but your functional theology will undoubtedly look much different from the church’s doctrine statement.

Our initial idea of God (or not-God) is formed in the context of our relationship with parents, our first God-figure.  This is intuitively correct; it’s even born out by social research.  Some peoples’ actual idea of God lie very close to the surface; these might hate him or have little use for him.  Some dread him; many of these fill the pews.  Consciously or not, we are all influenced by parents, and they (especially fathers) are models to us, the lifetime filter through which we process information about God.  Even if not abusive, parents are often uninvolved or not accepting and caring in the way we long for.

You may not be surprised to learn what surveys show: two-thirds to three-quarters of people (including Christians and other religious people) have an essentially negative view of God.  This was true of me as well.  That negative view sees him primarily as judge, the one who is never satisfied with our efforts, and anyway, has more important concerns than me.  For Christians, this often comes out as: “Jesus is my savior and friend.  God is my judge.”

Jesus is my friend

God on the throne

Contrast:  Jesus and God

Most religion is based on fear.  That may be easy to see in others’ systems of belief.  Since my experience is mostly with Christians, (who profess that God is love, that he is gracious and merciful, that we are made right with him by faith and not by our own good works), let me run this by you:  Suppose you know that God is waiting out in the hall right now and wants to see you.  Your first thought is probably not that he is waiting out there with a big smile and open arms.

Until a few years ago, I—like many of you—would have first peered out the door to try and get a sense of what I might be in for, to make sure that it was safe.  I’ve recounted before how this changed for me, how I had a crisis of understanding about what God really thought of me, and I came to realize that he delights in me, not because I was so good, but simply because I was his child.  This change did not happen all at once.  As I sought a way to verify that I was truly safe with God, I was challenged to immerse myself in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

I read the Gospels over and over.  As I did, various assumptions and the encrusted interpretations of thirty-five years of teaching and study went to background, and I was left focused on Jesus: who he is, how he thought, what he wanted me to know.  I realized was that his main agenda was not to prove himself messiah (though he did) or deity (though it shows throughout).  Asked why Jesus came, we often say he came to die for our sins (true), to live a perfect life and fulfill the law (true), or to confront and correct the legalistic conformity of the Pharisees (true).  Somehow, we’ve lost sight of the fact that he also came—perhaps most importantly—to show us what God is really like, to put his Father on display.

Jesus on the cross

I can’t explain the Trinity, though I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last couple months.  But I do know that to know the Son is to know the Father.  They are not divided.  It can never be true that one is my friend while the other is my judge.  I’m learning (by faith) to say this as well of the Spirit.

In the beginning, God created the mundane.  As marvelous and beautiful as the earth is (still, in spite of how poorly we’ve performed our stewardship), the earth is, by definition, mundane.  The plants, animals, and people are mundane.  The mundane is who we are and is our habitat.

When John wrote his Gospel account, he spoke of “the word” and how the word was in the beginning with God and was God.   Then he states that the word “became flesh and dwelt among us.”  A poetic way to say that God became incarnate.  Another way to say this is that God took on the mundane, and lived among the mundane.  He loves the mundane.  He created it and even, so Scripture says, created a portion of the mundane in his image and likeness—that is, all human beings.  He plans to spend eternity with the mundane.  He wants that and likes that.

ordinary people

One last thing.  Why mundane?  Let me answer that by what I believe to be right from Scripture, from getting to know God, from life experience.  One of the best ways humans learn is by analogy, from  something we already know.  If we ever only think of God as sovereign majesty seated upon a glorious throne and use only religious God-words to describe him, there is little likelihood that we’ll ever get to know him in the way he intends.  After all, we have no personal experience of the heavenly.  We do know mundane.  When God chose to show us himself, he chose to send Jesus.  We get Jesus because we get mundane.  Jesus told his disciple Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  God gets the mundane, not only because he created it, but because he walked in our mundane shoes.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so threatening, after all, to venture out into the hall….

Journey Post 36, Memorializing God: Oh Captain! My Relational Captain!

NOTE:  Some time ago, I promised a friend I’d write an essay explaining something of my understanding of Christianity and the Christian life.  This is that.  It’s not systematic nor exhaustive, but reflects where I am right now, particularly in light of our recent trip to Colorado….

Time, Is God Dead

In 1967, the year that Time published a cover story asking, “Is God dead?”  I was a young college student more concerned about getting my draft notice and going to Vietnam than about what might be happening with God.  My mind was on the “real” world, or so I thought.

A couple years later, my “real” world had an encounter with the God world in a dry rice field in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam.  While pondering and puzzling over my own mortality and God, a visitor to my hospital bed brought news that my C.O., Captain David Walsh, had been killed about the same time that I was wounded.  He had given his life for his men by seeking to flush out and kill some snipers who were targeting our perimeter.  Rather than send someone else, he led a few men out to find and eliminate the threat.  Capt. Walsh, after single-handedly charging in and killing two of the snipers, was finally brought down by a third.

Cpt Walsh by Kraft--caught

Above:  Captain David Walsh             (Photo by Bob Kraft)

My captain left me that day with a legacy of love and an idea about what it means to value others above yourself.  His legacy was a seed in me that struggled most of my life even as it sprouted: the soil of my heart was hard, stubbornly so, a heart seeking at the same time freedom and self-protection, two goals so contradictory that one must suppress the other.  The safe route wins almost every time.  Left to itself, such a heart could never be set free.  Yet, for nearly fifty years, that seed has sprouted and grown, often imperceptibly—a still tender plant.  (You see, I really am a donkey.)

Two years after the rice field, I became a convinced Christian, a committed follower of Jesus Christ.  Like Peter, I was convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, the only one who “has the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two things had pushed me to acknowledge that God was still very much alive:  one was the changed life of a friend who displayed Jesus’ life to me in very real and relevant ways; the second was the resurrection.  Jesus really did rise from the dead: applying the tools and mindset of the historian to Jesus’ life took me down a path to confirm the central fact of all history.

I call my life—and this blog—a “zigzag journey.”  Some zigs and zags got more pronounced as Jesus’ life and teaching pushed against the boundaries of my self-protected soul.  My faith was real, but my following was incredibly hesitant.  If I ever resembled Peter, it was when he sat only feet from Jesus on trial and pulled back to safety.  I’m the guy in the Simon and Garfunkel world: I am a rock and I am an island, I have my books and my theology to protect me.  My fears made me wonder if I were real….

I’ve seen God’s hand evident in my life since I was little.  That day in the rice field, the hand held a 2×4 and it was banging on my steel pot, yelling “Walt!  Wake up!  Pay attention!”  He put my feet on the road to see he is alive.  It was also the narrow road to freedom, though I often preferred side trails….

Some thirty-five years after Nam, another 2×4 made me see, at the same time, the Father heart of God and how evil my own assumptions about him had been.  Gone was the idea that he was “out to get me” and didn’t care.  Like most, my view of God had been mostly determined by my relationship with my parents.   My folks were social, but not truly relational.  When my dad died, I had felt left alone and abandoned.  When I got to know my adoptive Father, I discovered that he wants to be with his children, that he values and wants to be with me.  I now knew my identity: I am a son of my Father.

In the nine years since, I’ve seen that his love—which I once routinely described in duty-bound terms as “doing the best” for me out of his wisdom and grace—is other-centered and self-sacrificial.  And that love is completely trustworthy.  We Christians speak often of faith, belief, and trust.  Trust can never be simply cognitive.  My initial faith in Christ had been very cerebral.  Trust grows in relationship.

We Christians also talk about being free.  Not only free from the condemnation of sin, but free to love in the way we were designed to within human relationship and community.  Knowing God’s love is steadily dissolving my self-protective impulse and freeing me to truly love him and others.

Other-centered love is risky and not safe.  I now understand the answer to Lucy’s question about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:  “Is he—quite safe?” “…‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.”

CS Lewis Lucy and Aslan

Above:  Lucy and Aslan

“God is relational.”  I was deeply struck by the thought after our teacher in Colorado, Dr. Larry Crabb, voiced it.  I suppose most Christians would not disagree, though the term seems too touchy-feely to use regarding the majestic sovereign of the universe.  But that is precisely what it means that “God is love.”

Love is another word we Christians throw around with little thought.  Other-centered and self-sacrificial love is the kind that Jesus displayed on the cross; it’s the kind that exists within the Godhead among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Captain David Walsh’s legacy is an indelible picture in my brain and heart of what it means to value others.  And this gets to the point of the whole essay.

altruism--Capt David Walsh

His legacy did not arise from that one sacrificial act of valor alone; that was the culminating act consistent with the way he cared for us, his men.  It showed up often in the six months I spent there.  He would not put us in harm’s way unless necessary, nor use us as stepping stones to his own advancement, as some “leaders” do.  I didn’t appreciate it much at the time; I think of him often, now.

The point is that other-centered self-sacrificial love is not a one-time act.  Jesus’ love for and value of others was on display every day.  He is this way because this is how God is.  God intends for it to be a routine part of daily human life in relationship.  And we can’t pretend it is not difficult.

Please don’t think me presumptuous in saying what God intends.  A couple statements that Jesus made go to the very heart of what Christianity is all about.

The first says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, NIV).  A “disciple” or apprentice is one who learns from someone to be like them.  The disciples were not learning what to preach to others—had this been Jesus’ intention, he could’ve opened a seminary.  The disciples were learning to live life as the Father intended, and what that looked like in everyday relationships.  The preaching would come out of that—i.e., from their relationship with Jesus.

The second is also about being a disciple:  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, NIV).

When Jesus speaks of “denying self,” he’s not talking “self-denial,” like going without chocolate; he’s referring to denying the “self,” i.e., our own self-centered agendas and desires apart from God.  When he speaks of “taking up the cross,” he’s not talking principally about physical death:  it’s a stronger way to say “deny yourself.”  The natural out-flow of denying self is other-centered love on a daily basis.

Christians are not called on to live out “churchianity” or impose a system of morality; Christians are called upon to live life within the community of mankind in the way that God intended and, thereby, put on display what God is really like.  Jesus called it being “salt and light.”

The two statements of Jesus above should give you some idea of what he intended being a Christian to look like.  Loving others without regard to self lets others see God for who he is.  It puts the spotlight on him instead of me.  Love that is other-centered enables people to be genuinely relational (which I struggle with greatly); it attracts others to Christ and his community.  This lack of love and relationality has cost Christians their credibility and is the greatest hindrance to the spread of the gospel message.

Shortly before leaving his disciples, Jesus promised to send “another helper,” the Holy Spirit, to enable their life and service to him.  God had promised to send his Spirit in the Old Testament prophets.  There doesn’t seem much evidence for him in this world.  I wonder if we’ve substituted something else?

Oh Captain My Captain

“Oh Captain! My Captain!” is a poem written by Walt Whitman about the death of Abraham Lincoln.  One line reads: “From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;…” Whitman’s captain was dead, but the ship was safe.  I would love to tell my captain, David Walsh, that his men were safe.

Scripture refers to Jesus as “the captain of our salvation” (Hebrews 2:10, KJV).  He died, conquered death, and lives.  And I live.  Perhaps not always “safe” but now truly free.

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