zigzag journey

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

Archive for the tag “God’s father heart”

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

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

 

think-like-god

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jesus-on-the-cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

jesus-teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lords-prayer-niv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey Post 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.

Journey Post 34: Completing the Trinity—Reflections on stepping out from behind the door

“Donkey” is my African name.  It’s a good Manjak (Senegal) family name—spelled differently but sounding much the same as this English word.  “I knew it all the time, Walt….  It fits!”  Okay, okay, but don’t laugh too much.  The son of the village chief gave me his family name to signify that the Manjak welcomed our becoming part of their people; we wanted to live with them and learn their language and their ways and tell them about God.

Getting the name was an unexpected honor.  Yet, the irony was not lost on me—a sort of private joke between me and God—a Christian missionary, slow to learn, stubborn, proud.

donkey image

That was thirty-six years ago …  but the name still fits.  I own it.  It’s a reminder of who I am and my need to listen to God, I mean: really.  If you know the story of how I became a Christian, you may recall that I speak of my time in Vietnam and my appointment with a mortar round on June 10, 1969 as a 2×4 upside the head from God—a precursor to getting the Donkey name….  Up to that day, I had assumed I was a Christian.  I had gone to church most of my life, but now, I didn’t know what I believed….

It took two years from the day that mortar round exploded right next to me until I discovered that the resurrection of Jesus had actually occurred in history.  That changed everything.  I knew, then, that it was all true:  God is there (here), the Bible was his word, Jesus was God’s Son—not some cosmic Santa Claus; his teaching was more than good philosophy, and something called the “Holy Spirit”—or “Holy Ghost”—operated in the world, so that I was now saved, born again … or some such thing.

If you’ve read some of my blog posts, you’ll know that I like to refer to being adopted, though I was born and raised by my natural parents.  I am a son of my Father; I am adopted.  That’s how Paul referred to God making believers a part of his family—a son, a co-heir with Jesus.  I learned that shortly after I became a believer.  I knew that Jesus gave himself for my sin on the cross.  But somehow, God in heaven had some kind of dark side in my thinking.  He was distant, watching every step I made.  He just couldn’t be very pleased.  He took care of me and would take me to heaven one day—where I’d sit in the back with all the screw-ups and the children who never quite measured up to his expectations.

Jesus had said that eternal life was “knowing God.”  I figured that “knowing” must be a synonym for being saved, a sort of transaction where, in return for believing in Jesus, God promised me heaven.

From 1971 until 2007, that was my operating or functional assumption (theology).  I’d often puzzled over a statement by A.W. Tozer: “What comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.”  I began to see that truth when two different friends told me how they viewed God.

One told me how his life and jobs kept falling apart: “Walt, I’m convinced that God is out to get me.”  Another friend, who had been a closeted homosexual, related to me his view of God and his all-seeing eye that never smiled: both friends had fathers who were displeased or distant.  Another 2×4:  this time, times two.  God, what are you trying to tell me?  I was seeing a familiar pattern: my dad was distant, I was uncertain of his love, and he died when I was thirteen.  My life since had been spent on a performance treadmill, always looking over my shoulder for the smile of ___, but my paltry efforts to please him surely brought disappointment. Now I felt like I was playing church with people’s lives.  I cried out:  “Lord, what do you really think of me?  I have to know!”  In a moment, a verse came to mind from Proverbs, chapter three: “My son, despise not the discipline of the Lord.”  Now I was reading:  “for whom the Lord loves he disciplines, as a father the son in whom he delights.”  “Lord, you delight in me?”  I was dumbfounded.

It was like being born again—again.  I was getting to know God as my Father and his father heart.  Delight?  In me?  Yes!  Seeing his heart took nothing from his righteousness, or holiness, or majesty—it magnified it.  It was like my dad was President of the United States, and I was John-John playing under his desk.  You’ve seen those pictures, right?  Have you seen/read Ben-Hur?  A Jewish slave saves a Roman general, who makes him his son and heir.  It’s a picture of our adoption.  I have today a totally different view of God my Father—he’s the one Jesus taught his followers to call “Abba, Father,” (an intimate term similar to Papa or Daddy).  Remember the Lord’s Prayer?  To call God “Father” was radical.  New light, huh?  “Father” is not a title but a relationship.

John Jr. under the deskBen Hur slave

Above:  JFK and John-John (JFK Jr.)                                                                                                                                                                         Below:  The slave, Judah Ben-Hur, soon to be adopted son of Quintus Arrius

I am a son of my Father.  That is my identity, who I am.  And he told me something that my soul had longed to hear from my earthly dad before he died, but never did.  My Father said, in a way similar to what he announced to the world about Jesus: “This is my beloved son; and I delight in him.”  He loves my soul.

So, now I know Jesus the Son, my savior, who self-sacrificially gave himself for my sin.  I know my Father, who self-sacrificially gave his Son in order to secure a relationship with me.  And now … what do I say of the Spirit?  I think I have all the correct “doctrine” concerning him.  But these last days have been, perhaps, another 2×4 upside the head of the Donkey—this time, with a 2×4 made of nerf board.

Michelle and I spent a week in a Colorado retreat center a couple weeks ago.  I was wrestling with several things:  the implications of God being “relational,” (I’m more social than genuinely relational.  My still present instinct is to fear letting you into my real life, to let you know me, to peer out from behind the door until I know it is safe to stand in front of it).  We were thinking about the Trinity and the relationship of love that exists in that divine community, knowing that, somehow, Christians share in that—but it doesn’t always seem real.  What does it mean to truly listen to the Spirit?  How can I hear his direction, how can I help others who want to draw near to God do the same?  I can’t really tell you what last week was all about, but, it will come out, as the witch said to Dorothy, “All in good time, my little pretty … all in good time.”

fearful man behind door

I didn’t hear anything “new” during the week, and yet everything was new: one of those uncomfortable paradigm shifts.  We weren’t seeking some method for generating or conjuring up a mystical Spirit.  No one controls God.

My doctrine of the Holy Spirit is very orthodox.  But there is something very much not real about my relationship with God the Spirit.  I don’t have far to look for reasons behind this.  My Father is teaching me to be honestly relational, starting with Michelle and a few others.  But most of my Christian involvement has been with churches peering from behind the door at the Spirit, churches I’ve heard characterized as holding to a “new evangelical Trinity” of Father, Son, and Holy Scripture.  God certainly speaks through his book—but he is not the book.

God promised Israel that he would send his Spirit to live in their hearts (the New Covenant, or New Testament).  In sending this Spirit, he would write his law in their hearts.  Jesus further elaborated when he spoke of a divine “comforter” or “counselor” (Greek paraclete) who had been “with” believers  and now would be “in” them as well.  It was he, the Spirit, who would empower us, ensure our fellowship and communion with the godhead, remind us who and whose we are, testifying with our own spirit that God is our “Abba, Father” that we might show God to the world.

A “close encounter” in Vietnam brought me to know that Jesus was real, not a crock.  Recognizing my evil view of God brought me to know the delighted love of my Father, not some intellectual construct (i.e., a crock).  Now, again, he has awakened my heart to find reality, to courageously pursue him where I’ve been afraid to, not inside the door but in community, to understand and live out the kind of deep genuine relationship I’ve missed in my human relationships.  Not to hear voices in the head, but to actually live by faith.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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 27–Reality and the Resurrection … The starting point and why it matters

Evangelical Christianity has taken quite a beating in the past half-century, some of it self-inflicted.  Hypocritical, legalistic, self-righteous, judgmental, irrelevant.…  Such are the adjectives representative of common criticisms.

I’m not here to deny the criticisms: unfortunately, they are more valid than we Christians would like to think.  Yet, while Christians are drawing an abundance of flak, Jesus seems to be doing alright with the people.  Surveys indicate that Jesus remains one of the most popular people ever.  One recent querie among Americans placed him and Abraham Lincoln at the top.  (I don’t think it was the beard.)  One of the most telling censures on Christians is one I’ve quoted before, offered up by Mohandas Gandhi.  Gandhi was deeply interested in Jesus and studied him and his teachings closely, and that fact has much to do with the non-violent strategy he applied to the fight for the liberation of India.  He spent much time with Christians in England while studying to be a lawyer in the 1880s and 90s.  He observed them closely.  What he said captures the essence of any critique of those who claim to follow Jesus:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  Things haven’t changed much….

Gandhi older

Whether you like or dislike Christians, the issue in Christianity is actually not the people. The issue is and always will be one thing, one person:  Jesus himself.  But, how do we know that he is who he said he is?

Looking at his followers doesn’t seem to give us much help on this.  True, Jesus told his followers to be salt and light.  True, he told them that others would know that they were his disciples (i.e., apprentices who actually learned from him and lived it out) if they loved one another as he loved.  And, true, they haven’t done this.  So then: do we walk away, saying, “A pox on both your houses”?  Many have walked away, bitter and frustrated at the legalistic and impossible demands of those they once looked up to.

There is a way to discover the truth.  When I returned from Vietnam in 1969 with more questions than answers, it didn’t take long to realize that there was only one question that really begged … SCREAMED … for an answer.  It was not the question of myth: whether Jesus actually lived or not.  I was surprised to learn that even most atheists or skeptics don’t deny that he was an actual person.  Nor do most deny his claim to be the Messiah (Christ), nor that he was a great teacher—nor that he was crucified.

The central question was and always is the resurrection.  Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Resurrection--empty tomb

The resurrection was the message that the apostles preached, the validation of who Jesus is and what he died for.  The empty tomb is the sine qua non of Christianity.  Without it, Christianity is a deluded religion, foisted upon deluded people by a well-meaning but deluded leader—or a charlatan—people who are left with no forgiveness, left with no hope.  C. S. Lewis forced me to ponder whether he was a liar, or a lunatic, or just who he said he was—those are, pretty much, the available options.

donkey image

I began this blog, lo these many months ago, seeking to recount my zigzag journey.  I wanted to work up from those first questions, proceed through my search, and come up with the evidence for the resurrection, and go on from there.  Presto!  But as I reflected on my own journey, I remembered that one of my primary reasons for doing this gig was to help others avoid some of the same pitfalls and zigzags that this Donkey failed to see.  Much of what I did not see was because my own assumptions (read that: pride) left me thinking I could do this on my own—not a very healthy way of approaching God, after all.  It took some 35 years for me go from the empty tomb to recognizing a big problem in my life: that I lived on a performance treadmill.  I lived on that contraption because my functional theology was operating from a fundamentally wrong view of God, a God who seemed more interested in making me know my place than in enjoying my company.  This is the reason I zigzagged from my initial idea and spent time writing and thinking about the conscience God gave us, what it means that God is a father who delights in his children—and allows evil in this world.

If I could lead you to the door of the empty tomb itself, you might still question why it matters at all.  If you’re one of those (most people) who see God primarily as judge (or worse), waiting to highlight your every flaw for all the universe to see, why in the world would you want to get to know such a being and spend your life trying to live up to his impossible expectations—much less spend eternity in his presence?  But, just perhaps, the reality and your thinking don’t quite match up?  If you’d like to find out, the door of the tomb is a good place to start.  Ready?

resurrection--door of tomb

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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