zigzag journey

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

Archive for the tag “God as Father”

Journey Post 49: While You Were Away…

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Matthew 21:28-46

Jesus was challenged a number of times by the religious establishment about his authority for doing and saying the things he did.  Ordinary people simply recognized his authority.  Jesus was no threat to the “little people”; they were not at risk of losing their power, as the leaders were.  The “Sermon on the Mount,” for example, left people amazed because Jesus did not cite esteemed rabbis as other teachers did.  He said, “You have heard it said…but I tell you….”

To set us up for the parable, picture the scene:  Jesus has just entered Jerusalem on a donkey amid the shouts and praises of the people.  The city is abuzz with excitement because many wondered if he might be their long-awaited Messiah.   He drives the money-changers and dove sellers out of the Temple, then heals many blind and lame.  The angry leaders complain to Jesus about children shouting and praising “the Son of David” (a messianic title).

Then the priests and elders demand to know, “By whose authority do you do these things?”  Jesus answers: “If you will tell me by whose authority John baptized, I will tell you.”  At this, the leaders balk, whispering among themselves: “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he will ask why we didn’t believe him.  But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.”  So they say, “We don’t know.”

Things are now coming to a head between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem: five days later, they will succeed in getting rid of their nemesis—or, so they think.

In Matthew 21, Jesus tells two parables.[1]  The point of the first one is not obvious to the leaders—until Jesus ties it to their rejection of John the Baptist.  The second one hits home right away.

Why is Jesus increasingly angry and condemnatory of these leaders?  After all, in America when some preacher or church is phony or false or just plain weird, we can go to a thousand others.  Not so in Israel.  It’s important to get this point, and to know God’s expectations.  Otherwise, we may read the story only as confirmation of how hypocritical, self-centered, and self-protective the religious leaders were.  Yes, they were false teachers: Could not people just ignore them and walk away?

No.  There were no others.  The religious leaders held positions invested with the authority of Moses himself.  They had been given a charge by God to be stewards of his people, to be “good shepherds” who would feed them spiritually and protect them from spiritual charlatans and wolves.  Instead, as Jesus told them, they loaded impossibly heavy burdens onto the people.

Think about the teachers you’ve had in school, church, military, in all of life—including parents, anyone who has held a certain amount of authority over you.  Some were good, some bad, most were a mix.  We consciously imitate the good ones—but they’ve all left their mark deep within our psyche.

Jesus came for many reasons: to die for our sins, to live a life in front of us that was pleasing to God, to teach us about his Father, and other things.  The apostle John, who was a teen when he became a disciple and an old man when he penned the Gospel that bears his name, left us some vivid imagery about who Jesus is and what he came to do.  One of the most vivid is that Jesus came as “the light of the world.”  Light is reflected and so we see.  In Jesus’s case, he reflected God.

His life was a picture of God far different from the one presented by those who occupied a position of stewardship in behalf of God.

The picture of God they reflected was a distortion, an insidious caricature of a God more interested in people’s external compliance with what they could do or not do, for example, on a Sabbath day, or how they could keep the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.  Their God was a judge never satisfied, a punisher of imperfect rule keeping.

The God Jesus reflects is a loving wise Father who wants to be known intimately and who intends that his people share his same perspective and values in dependence upon him, a Father who loves self-sacrificially and delights in his children like an ideal earthly father.  His law is intended to instill his values, two above all else:  loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else comes from these two.  Obedience to this God is a given, but the motive to obey gets tangled up with avoiding hell rather than wanting to please a father who delights in you unimaginably:

“We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Jesus explained to the teachers and Pharisees in no uncertain terms what their hypocrisy was really about: “You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).  They were saddling the people with heavy burdens while themselves living hypocritical lifestyles, seeking to maintain their own power and honor.  They were self-righteous, supposing they were keeping the law and deserved cred for that from God himself.  In reality, they despised those they thought beneath them.  They did not value people as God does.  Any value they acknowledged stemmed from compliance to rules, not the intrinsic value God gave the creatures he made in his own image.  Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah to them: “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

Knowing this, you can see there is little mystery about the parable of the wicked tenants.  Even the leaders got the point real fast.  They somehow knew that Jesus was right about them.  And they would see him die for it.

Read the parable of the two sons and then the one about the tenants, Matthew 21:28-46.

Just a few notes are in order here.

If you were asked what made the teachers, the Pharisees, etc., so bad, you might think first of their hypocritical legalism and their rejection of Jesus as Messiah.  Jesus certainly excoriated them for those faults.  But the worst fault might be captured in the term “false teachers.”  They did not truly know the God whom they claimed to represent: If you’ve ever encountered a person who claimed to know someone personally and obviously didn’t—you can imagine the problem.  These men were charged with interpreting and teaching the Scriptures, all the more important because most people did not have direct access to the Bible and were dependent on these teachers to be the voice of God.

Jesus had this to say about them to the people: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:2-4).

By contrast, Jesus had this to say about himself: “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).

Jesus claimed to know the Father in a way that no one else could.  That might lead you to think he was some sort of cult leader.  (I hope, in some future series of essays, to write about the implications of what he taught about the Father, about who God is and what right Jesus had to claim such knowledge.)

A couple comments about the meaning of the figures Jesus uses are in order.  Why was the story set in a vineyard with the owner being away and sending his messengers, including his son, to collect?

The owner, of course, is God.  The tenants are the religious leaders, teachers and priests, allowed by the owner to work his vineyard.  “Vineyard” is an important figure in Scripture, representing God’s people (Israel, during that time).  When he sent representatives (prophets) to collect the “rent” (the portion of fruit the owner was entitled to receive), they beat some and killed some.  The tenants, of course, were refusing to be held accountable, rejecting the owner and keeping the fruit for themselves, for their own gain.  The “fruit” God was intending to see produced was the fruit of the two great commands.  Like the fig tree, the false teachers proudly displayed their “leaves,” but bore no real fruit.

The tenants’ actions showed they didn’t grasp that their stewardship of the vineyard was only at the pleasure of the owner: it was his, after all.  They did not value the owner, nor his servants, nor his son.  Nor did they value the vineyard—i.e., those they were supposed to shepherd and steward–except as it was a benefit to them.

When Jesus asked what the owner should do, they knew: kill the wicked tenants and rent the vineyard to others who would produce the proper fruit.

If you’re involved in a church, you hear about false teachers from time to time.  Unfortunately, such warnings are oftentimes couched in terms of doctrinal (teaching) differences that have little to do with the major teachings of the historic Christian faith.  I saw this firsthand at a Bible school in Quebec years ago: one faction believed that Jesus carried his literal blood to the altar of God.  So they split.  Denominations do occasionally split over significant issues, but the details are often esoteric.

I would submit that Christian churches need to let the main thing be the main thing.  The “main thing” is what I referred to above: the two great commandments, i.e., to love God with all that we are and to love others as ourselves.  “There is no greater commandment than these,” said Jesus.  It all starts from these.  Love—genuine, self-giving and, yes, sacrificial—is a one-word summary of all God’s law.

If these two are in place, the rest will sort itself out…whether God is present or away.

[1] Jesus cursed a fig tree, full of leaves but bearing no fruit (21:18-22).  This was likely a demonstration for the sake of the disciples, a parabolic reference to the hypocritical leaders, though Jesus seemed to turn it into a lesson on faith.

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 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).

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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 16: A Son’s Heart Set Free

(Part III-a , on The grammar school of freedom)

“If the Son sets you free, then you will be really free”  (John 8:36).

freedom

The first time I remember reading those words was 1970 or ‘71.  I had this little paperback New Testament, a new, contemporary English version that I was reading so much it was falling apart.

But the verse puzzled me.  Free?  Close by was another verse that people quote a lot:  “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Jesus didn’t seem to be talking about being free from hell.

Freedom was on everyone’s lips in the 60s.  It was the time when our nation, free from the Nazi menace, was getting schooled in what we thought freedom meant, nationally, racially, personally.  Having “survived” Vietnam, I felt very alive and free.  But I would soon be stepping into a religious world beset by legalism, and would not recognize it because I did know how legalistic and performance-minded I already was.  The speed of the performance treadmill in my new world would be considerably faster.  It took 35 years for me to finally get off the treadmill and understand Jesus’ words, “really free.”

Pharisee (Quinn)

I had been confused by all the personal freedom that people were claiming for themselves in the 60s.  I thought there was something wrong with it, but I was unsure why.  Back then, it was likely due to my legalistic sense of self-righteousness:  I was okay, they were not.  They were just selfish and sinful.  I was to be reinforced in that condemnatory view by the new religious milieu into which I was about to enter.

But there was more to  that view than selfishness, which most would agree is wrong.  The 60s thinking went something like this:  “I am free when I am free from all hindrances and obstacles to do what I want.”  The idea wasn’t new by any means; what was new was its wide acceptance.  Within a few years, it would become the unconscious working assumption of the shapers and movers of our nation:  parents, teachers, lawyers, business people, politicians, et al.

So what could have been wrong with that?  Did we not experience a “new birth of freedom,” becoming more tolerant, more accepting and encouraging to people pursuing their individual dreams?  Yes, we did.  But the idea of individualistic freedom is not wrong just because it is selfish.  It is wrong, I now realize, because it does not take account of the complex nature and contradictory desires of the human heart.  (More on this in the next post.)

If there is one thing I have learned in forty-odd years as a Christian, it is that the important things of life come from the heart.  From the heart comes the “ask not what your country can do for you,” the sacrifices on Normandy Beach, the countless acts of charity and love, the routine kindness of friends; and from it also comes cheating on tests, fathers walking away from families, Auschwitz and My Lai.  We puzzle over evil in our world, but in our hearts, we know the answer because we sense what our own conscience says is our inability to consistently do the right.  History is a mirror that we ignore at our peril, a mirror which tells us not to trust in the “basic goodness” of mankind.  Individualistic freedom has become so important that we are unable to evaluate the larger society around us and understand just what is being sucked away from us.  It is being sucked away from our hearts, and we are blind to it.

I was as blind as anyone as long as I was on that treadmill.  Scripture says we cannot evaluate and help someone else as long as we have a log in our own eye (Matthew 7).  In my case, the log was a treadmill….

Here now is a foretaste of the freedom that was to come into my life at the end of the zigzag….

By 2006, I had not solved the underlying problem of what made me a people-pleaser or performance minded.  I was just becoming aware of my thinking, how wrong it was, how self-destructive.  Our church put a premium on pursuing personal holiness such that those who failed were suspect—which set some to running even faster on the treadmill without prospect of being acceptable.

I finally got honest with myself the same as I did on a hospital bed in Vietnam long ago.  I admitted that I did not know if God cared about me at all.  So I asked him:  “Lord, what do you really think of me?  I must know.  I can’t go on like this!”  Sitting in my despair, a verse from Proverbs came to mind, (3:12), that I’d only ever heard when our church disciplined errant members:  “…the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”  Delights?  “Lord,” I said, “you delight in me??”  It was one of those moments when the dawning light changes everything.  Delight?  How could it be?

I Googled my question, and was shocked but intrigued to see links referencing the teaching we had once received in Bible school about our spiritual adoption, that God the Father has adopted those who trust in Jesus as his children.  Back then, it had bounced off my emotional baggage.  I remembered something my friend Andy told me when they adopted a son.  I asked him (this was 1973), “Are you going to tell him he’s adopted?”  “Of course,” came the reply.  “I want him to know just how special he is.”

I began in earnest, exploring “adoption” in Scripture, reading everything I could get my hands on in theology books (not much there) and the personal experiences of various other Christians.  (My reflection and research eventually led to a thesis that I called, “God is out to get you.”)  What did it mean that God is my “Father.”  Wasn’t it merely a title used in prayer?

Long story short, my thinking was getting revised by what I was learning.  I began to focus my Bible reading on the Gospel accounts to find out if Jesus said anything about it.  I read the Gospels so much I began to feel as though I were one of those disciples walking around with Jesus, spending time with him, watching and listening, learning from him to think like him, to know his agenda and what was important to God.  What I was learning was all about what it meant to be an adopted son of the Father.  Jesus didn’t use the word “adoption,” but his teaching was all about a relationship with God and what the Father is like.  Jesus’ confrontations with the leaders were about their legalism  and their distorted view of God:  Christian writer A.W. Tozer once commented, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”*  I began to see how distorted my own picture of God truly was so I set out to get to know him as I had never before.  Jesus taught his disciples to call God their “Abba,” a familiar, intimate name like “Papa.”  He taught them that the Father (Abba) is like the perfect earthly father who always loves, always gives, always protects and provides, who loves unconditionally and never pulls away.  He showed them God by his life: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”  Much fell into place for me as I read Jesus, learned all over again to be his disciple, an “apprentice.”

adoption

On the day at that writer’s conference that I realized I would never be in the picture with my earthly dad, I also found something greater:  the identity and the key to the freedom I had searched for all my life.  I am my Father’s son.  I am adopted.  This is my identity.  I am loved and delighted in simply because I now belong to him.  Being a son was the key to my freedom.  And I still almost hear the quiet voice of my Father in heaven saying to me, “My son, you will always be in the picture with me.”

Free at last.

_____

* The Knowledge of the Holy, The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1961), 1.

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