zigzag journey

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

Archive for the tag “father heart of God”

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 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 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 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.

The Lake Avenue Essays, # 1: The Missing Picture … Who I Am

There is never a good time for a father to die.  I was thirteen when my dad died.  That was in 1961; he was forty-eight.  It was my dad, and it was the absolute worst time.

My brother had joined the Navy two months earlier, right out of high school.  He had always been my dad’s favorite.  Now, I thought, I would have my dad to myself.  But I didn’t, and wouldn’t … of course.

The previous fall, I had started junior high—you know, that time when boys wonder about being a man and are confused about girls.  I’d always had a crush on some girl, but now….  The guys would snicker, “Have you noticed Sue P.?”  My dad and I would never have those conversations.

The school tried to encourage the special closeness of fathers and sons by sponsoring a breakfast that was coming up soon.  All the guys would be there with their dads.  I couldn’t go, even when my mom suggested I ask my Uncle Bud.  I just wanted to hide, and there would be no escaping the shame.

Life moves on.  But deep hurts don’t often move on.  They’re just there, like some background dirge accompanying the good moments and happy times, like a void that refuses to be filled.

I became conscious of the void when I was six or seven, when I discovered the family pictures in a big drawer in the old secretary by the front door.  The drawer was so heavy that I had to ask my mom to take it out for me.  The pictures were mostly loose, mostly black and white, though some were sepia-toned.  There was a painted high school graduation photograph of my Aunt Dee.  She was beautiful.  There were pictures of family and friends.  What most caught my attention were those of my brother.

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One picture had him standing by a coffee table with a huge birthday cake and one big candle.  In another, he was perhaps a year-and-a-half, sitting on my dad’s lap, pecking away for all the world as though intent on writing a composition.  My dad’s face was beaming, obviously proud.

But one picture was missing.  I remember more than once going back to look for it in that big drawer, but I never found it.  I never asked about it.  I was afraid of the answer.  The missing picture was the one I was sure had to be there, somewhere—the picture of just me and my dad.

The years moved on.  My life became a question whose answer was self-interpreted.  I began to conclude what a boy without guidance must:  I didn’t matter to my dad.  So, who am I?

1968 came.  Hope was assassinated and I got a letter from the president:  “Greeting….”  I knew where I was going (Vietnam), and I did.  Would I be a man?  When you don’t know who you are, such tests of manhood prove nothing.  I stood my ground, fought back, got wounded, came home.  The question was still there.

Life went tumbling on.  In the deep inner workings that seek to justify existence, I told myself I was better than my brother.  Everything proved it:  Michelle and I got married in 1970, we became Christians, went to Bible school and became missionaries, had three kids.  I was a teacher.  I was a church leader and counselor.  I was looked up to.  Yet, something was unsettling me.  As I counseled guys, I found them confused, struggling with a private picture of God as judge, never smiling, always demanding, never satisfied.  Their struggle was familiar, for I saw that same God.  I recalled what A.W. Tozer wrote, that what comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you….  So how could I help people trust God when I saw him like they did?  I was playing church with these peoples’ lives.  Like them, I was spending my life on a performance treadmill, chasing the smile of God.

I reasoned that God loves me, right?  He always did what’s best.  I’m going to heaven—he promised.  But did God even like me, or just put up with me?  Did I really matter to him?  Did he value me at all?

In a moment of desperation, I got honest with God.  It was 2006 or 2007—I’m certain of the moment if not the date.  I sat at my desk and I cried out, “What do you really think of me, Lord?  I have to know!”

God’s timing is not often early—and never late.  With the words barely out of my mouth, a verse came to mind I had thought of only when doing church discipline:  “My son, despise not the Lord’s discipline.…  The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11,12).

Something was different.  What was that last part?  Delights?  “Lord, you delight in me?”  If ever in my life I received a “word from God,” this was it.  My Father delights in me!  Delight made love concrete.

How…?  God for me had seemed distant, not much involved in my life, just up there, always watching, probably tired of my failures.  I googled, “What does God think of his children?”  I kept seeing the word “adoption,” a term Paul used to describe God taking people into his family.  Adoption had meant little to me in Bible school.  But now I knew:  It’s not just a process, but a father’s perspective.  No wonder Jesus taught his followers to call God “Abba.”  Like a perfect earthly father, he had passionately anticipated the day he would adopt me.  (The “pleasure” he felt in Ephesians 1:5).  God wants to be with me!

We intuitively see God like our own parents, particularly our fathers.  My picture of God was my dad!  But God is not my dad.  God’s discipline, all the troubles and disappointments are simply the proof of his delight in me, a message the Spirit brought to my mind as surely as the sun rises to a new day.

In a moment, God lifted the veil that had kept his true face hidden, and I heard him:  “You saw only that missing picture.  But you are my son.  You are the man I delight in.  And you will always be in the picture with me.”

journey post 26—Honest to God, part 4: The terrible corollary to freedom

is God good--the problem of evil

Understanding why the world created by God is filled with evil requires that we first know—or have some idea of—what God is truly like.  It’s easy to misinterpret what people do when we don’t know their heart motivation.  It is the same with God.  This is why I’ve invested time in these posts seeking to introduce you to the father heart of God.

Humans have done a fair job of mucking up the image of God, thereby hiding what he is really like.  The resulting dysfunctional theology pictures him primarily as judge, waiting to throw most of our mortal souls upon the scrap heap of eternity and light a match.  We long for a “better place” to go to, but the prospect seems dim.  We grow up in dysfunctional families and environments with an image of God suspiciously like our parents; we are told to believe in Jesus so he will take us to that better place, but the prospect of facing the judge leaves unease because we know he knows what we’re really like….

Honest to God angry God

When Jesus came to his own, he found them struggling under heavy burdens placed upon them by those who were charged with shepherding them and teaching them the ways of God:  these were instead leading Israel further from God and making him appear a hard task-master—a situation not unlike today.  Jesus excoriated the teachers who “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces,” who work diligently to make a single convert and then “make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”  God intended Israel to be a light to the world.  But Israel’s teachers clouded the light.

Honest to god Jesus rebukes pharisees

Above:  Jesus rebukes the teachers of Israel

Jesus came into a world that finally rejected him.  He came as the light to reveal God.  He came to his own people, “but his own received him not.”  They “preferred darkness rather than light,” says John, the apostle of love; they preferred evil and ran from the light and then tried to snuff it out.

Far be it from me to assume that I know all the ways of God.  I do know this, however:  he is my Father and I am his adopted son.  This is the perspective from which Jesus taught his disciples to view God.  Seeing him as Father does not mean that his sovereignty, holiness, or righteousness aren’t important.  It does mean that we shouldn’t lose sight of the heart behind the majesty—his father heart; it is that heart that enables us to understand the Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave …”

Today, many have missed what Jesus actually did before he went to the cross: he reintroduced his people to God.  He came with a message of good news (or, “gospel”) that God his Father (“Abba”) was establishing his kingdom, sending his Messiah to announce it and secure it in the only way possible:  to die for the people as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, as ransom and redeemer.  His own people didn’t receive him.  But to those who did, (the outsiders, the outcasts, and those who didn’t share the bloodline of Abraham): to those who believed in his name, “he gave the right to become the children of God.” (See John 1.)

Honest to God--Jesus teaching the 12

Jesus taught the disciples to see God as their father (“Abba”)

This was so counterintuitive that one of his close followers, Judas—when he realized that Jesus was not the king he expected and that he was not going to lead a great army and overthrow the Roman oppressors any time soon—sold Jesus out.  When Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross, some of his other followers were still envisioning great honor for themselves, and they cowered as their dreams collapsed.

Jesus not only reintroduced God by his teaching (“blessed are the poor in spirit,” “love your enemy,” “the first shall be last,” etc.): he came to show them God, he came to live out, in the only way that humans might finally get it, the heart of his Father.  “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

Knowing his father heart helps us realize why he is not the puppet master God or the powerless God, nor is he the one who delights in raining down fire and brimstone.  Neither is he one who can overlook evil:  he’s hardly ready to give Hitler a pass.  No, he is not what human imagination or logic dictates.  He is who he is.

Honest to God Puppet Master

So why didn’t God reveal himself completely as Father from the start?  I’m not sure, but he reminds me of good teachers in their first weeks of class:  absolutely hard-nosed in order to “put the fear of God” into the students so they can then be free to show how much they really care.  Otherwise, their hands and time are filled with discipline problems.  This same kind of problem resulted from the teachings of some in the 19th century who tried to portray God’s “loving” fatherly side (if not his father heart), and so lulled hearers into thinking that sin did not matter to him.  The cross says otherwise.

honest to God Jesus on coss

I wrote earlier about the conscience: humans are hard-wired to be aware of God’s expectations, and this leaves us filled with dread that the creator will hold us accountable.  We half expect the dread judge to break loose all hell upon our misdeeds and lack of action in the face of evil.  We suspect him of working our downfall, pulling out our supports, and sending bad guys, horrific disasters and ravaging disease.

Instead, he sent Jesus.  This is the real mystery of God.

Jesus is called the “light of the world” because he reveals who God is and what his perspective is.  What Jesus did and what he taught are revealed in the pages of Scripture (especially the Gospels).  Immersing myself in those books has changed how I view a lot of things, including the old debate about freedom vs. determinism in the universe, and how to think about God and evil.  Great philosophers and theologians have waxed eloquent in thick, erudite tomes written on this subject, examining every conceivable angle in the debate, yet many of them have missed the insights that come from knowing the father heart of God.  Their writings can add confusion about what God is up to and why he would allow evil in our lives.

Honest to God theologians

You might scratch your head, wondering how theologians—many of whom are good, godly people sincerely seeking solutions—would come up with such contradictory answers working from the same Bible.   Much of that is due to differing presuppositions about God and humankind.  Some see God’s sovereignty as the single most important factor in all of existence, so we humans can do nothing on our own or without his permission.  Others see man’s free will as the key to all this.  Some exalt God in such a way that it makes man unimportant, and some exalt man, created in God’s image.  From such presuppositions come the various interpretations of Scripture that clash so greatly.

Honest to God theologians Peanuts

Here’s my take.

We must look at pain, suffering, and evil with God’s heart in mind.  Doing so is like considering a good parent.  Just as any good parent would not force their children to love them or trust them, even if they could, so the Father does not force people to love him, or trust him, or do the good that he would want.  This is not a question of God’s power to stop evil: he could but he won’t.  This is why I call it the “terrible corollary to freedom.”  If he were to do that, then love could never be genuine love and trust could not be genuine trust.  We love him because we respond to him loving us.  We trust him because we find him trustworthy.  You can see the same thing in the first disciples.  Easter morning removed the doubts and demonstrated for them his complete trustworthiness.  They changed the world.

Honest to God  We love him 1 John 4

The “terrible corollary” is this:  if God leaves us free to love, to trust, or want the good, then we are also free to not love, to not trust, and not to want the good.  We are free to do our own agenda.  Evil is the result.

Evil is incomprehensible, but the terrible corollary to God not making us love, trust, or do good, is that evil must exist.  Otherwise, there could be no real love or good.  If you were God, what would you choose?

journey post 24–Honest to God, part 2, Discovering the good father who is there

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”                                                                                                                                     —Thoreau

The voice in my head was a not-so-gentle urging:  “Take another look, Donkey….”  Donkey: my African name.  A good Manjako family name.  And a private joke between me and God.

“I don’t need to look at it—I know what the verse says, ‘My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.’”  I was ready for the woodshed because I had dared to dust off my doubts about God’s love and goodness.  I knew the woodshed well.  A 2×4 upside the head from God was standard-issue in my zigzag journey.

God the good father to the woodshed

But this was no longer a joke.  I had been watching good people go through great pain and suffering—it just never seemed to stop.  One Christian friend had candidly shared: “God is out to get me.”

In the dark recesses of my own soul was a long-suppressed, haunting, but familiar question about evil, a question that wouldn’t go away.  Why this suffering?  So much pain … Can God truly be good and loving?  A similar question arose when leaving Africa:  did God dangle dreams in front of me just to take them away and show me my unworthiness?

is God good--the problem of evil

Most of the time, like most people, I could find other things to think about. But now it wouldn’t stop:  Did he care?  About these people?  About me?  He seemed distant, like my own dad.  “What do you really think of me, Lord?  Do you really love me?  I have to know!  I can’t go on like this!”

I was determined to be honest with myself and with God, and not stop until I had an answer.  I was back on that hospital bed in Vietnam.  This time, it was not about the existence of God or Jesus, but about God’s character.  My own self-esteem was mixed in somehow, but, fundamentally, at the heart of my question was, Who is this God?  Is he really good?  Was “Donkey” a joke between us or was it on me?

I had asked, but this verse about love and discipline was all I got.  I opened the Bible, Proverbs 3:11, and read every word:  “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”

God the good father Father delights holding son

I did a double-take: that last part, about fathers delighting in their sons….  My dad died when I was 13.  I needed him more than tears could say.  He left … or, God took him.  Thinking of God as my “father” was irrelevant.  I’m sure my dad loved me, in his own way, but he was never there for me.  Love?

That last clause: God “as a father… delights.”  Aside from the discipline part, the verse was saying that God, like any good father, seeks to do what’s best for his children simply because he delights in them: that’s the norm.  God is, after all, the inventor of fatherhood and motherhood, and God is not like my dad.  That’s not a slam on my dad: I needed to make that distinction explicit so I could see how I had become so locked into a dysfunctional understanding of God in his role as Father.  The word “delight” gave substance to the nearly vacant meaning of “love.”  “Delight” is a very human word, and it made “love” throb and glow with life and passion.  I was literally dumbfounded: “Lord, you delight in me?”

“As a father delights ….”  God delights in me.  I, as a son, am the object of his delight….

I had expected the woodshed 2×4 reinforcing my donkeyness.  God came instead in grace, gently opening my eyes so I could see that there was something I had missed ever so long.

God the good father Father delights

I’ve written before about this “bookend” to my zigzag journey, the day I discovered the delight of God in—dare I say it?—the Donkey.  I rediscovered adoption and the key to seeing the heart of God.  You’re thinking, “I know this … Walt’s rehashing an old story.”  That is precisely not so, because that day I began to understand God’s father heart, which became the key to unlocking an answer to our question.

I discovered how little I knew this one I routinely called “Father”:  that was just a title.  I could cite chapter and verse for all the things I knew about him.  But the point was not to reconcile facts on file about God with the painful reality of a world filled with evil.  My desperation led to determination to know him as completely as possible.  I had  to see his heart and know his character.  But how?  Looking back at how that unfolded made me realize that there now has to be a Part Three to this.

Knowing anyone, especially their character, involves a relationship over time.  The Scriptures tell us about God’s character, but knowing him requires time and the Spirit to make it real.  We know our parents not because of a book on “parentology,” but because we lived with them and watched them and so we know them and their heart.  Knowing our friends involved a similar process.

It’s the same with God.  Someone may come to saving faith, get their ticket to heaven, their fire insurance paid up against the judgment day.  But knowing him doesn’t come in one moment.  Eternal life is given, as Jesus prayed (John 17), “that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ.”

God the good father Knowing God and be known

I have several theology books.  They reflect developed, logical, scholarly, even elegantly-constructed systems produced by humble men.  The systems differ widely, though based on the same Bible and are therefore “biblical.”  Each is written by men who see all through the filter of human fallibility.  And not one of them addresses the role of God as Father.  They are like those multiple frag wounds I received in Vietnam: they don’t penetrate the vital organ, the father heart of God.  Yet Jesus spoke of little else.

Jesus taught those who would be his apprentices to live their lives each day as him living it, to see life from the Father’s perspective, and so to live it with his agenda in view.  He portrayed God as analogous to an earthly father and mother who take care of, provide for, who teach, train, and protect a family.  He taught them to give up their “small ambitions” and trust their “Abba,” a term akin to English “Papa.”

I don’t know everything about God; I can say that I know him–because he answered my call, Donkey that I am. The name was no joke on me, after all.  Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem on his way to the cross.  Every Gospel account reminds me:  he chose to enter on a donkey….

God the good father Jesus enters on a donkey

Next:  Part 3:  Knowing his Father heart answers the quandary of a good God and an evil world.  And just how  is that?

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