zigzag journey

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

Archive for the tag “Jesus”

Journey Post 48: Good neighbor Sam?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leap of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey Post 45, What Jesus Actually Taught: The parable of the sower

Painting by Malcolm Guite

The Key to Understanding the Kingdom of God:  “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”  (Jesus)


NOTE:  The parable of the sower is recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8.  I’m focusing here on the account in Matthew 13:1-23.  I suggest reading it first.  You can Google the reference on another browser page.

First, a parable about windows.

I grew up in a house (built in the 1920s) with wood windows and sashes.  If you ever lived with those kinds of windows, you’ve experienced what I’m about to say:

Those windows stick … anytime, anywhere … when you least expect it … it just happens.  Why?  Maybe lack of use, maybe someone painted over the dirt, maybe the earth shifted or some other mysterious force of the universe was at work….

How you went about raising these windows was critical.  The least bit of uneven lifting made them refuse to go anywhere but crooked!  Those windows never would do what you wanted.  If you ask me, I think they had free will … or were possessed!

Such windows are a part of American lore: they show up in old movies, really old TV shows.  I’m mentioning them because those windows are me.  I am the Donkey, the epitome of stubborn.

You can draw your own conclusions about the causes for a stubborn window (i.e., stubborn heart).  I still can’t explain some of my own stubbornness.  It just was … is.

I never figured out how to fix such windows.  I didn’t want to, anyway.  I knew it would be hard work.

Fixing the stubborn heart is simple, but it’s hard.  The hard part is the willing: “whoever has ears, let them hear.”  What Jesus was saying was that, if you truly listen, consider and honestly seek to apply what you hear, there is a great payoff: you will understand the Kingdom of God and its secrets.

I’ll not get into theological arguments here about how to be willing, or whether you can even be willing if God doesn’t do something first.  I am here dealing with what is:  if you are willing.

The parable of the sower is a story about listening.

That is evident, since Jesus concludes by saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”  He quotes from the prophet Isaiah about those who never hear and never see.  Actual hearing and seeing depends on the condition of the soil (the heart).

I’d like to clear up some confusion that many, both Christian and non, seem to have.  This parable is fairly straightforward, but there are statements here that can lead one to conclude, as I once did, that either they’re stupid or else God has made them blind.

God wants to communicate.  He wants you to understand his ways, and this parable provides hope that we can understand spiritual truth, what Jesus calls the “secrets of the Kingdom.”

I learned an important lesson as a middle school teacher about how to learn.  I was teaching young people with learning disabilities how to read.  It was often a disheartening battle.  At that age, you may remember, many/most students weren’t exactly focused on learning.

Yes, there were always a few who were determined to learn.  But by the time they came to my classroom in 7th or 8th grade, many were already convinced they couldn’t learn.  They thought themselves stupid.  Some teachers even wrote them off as such.  They had stopped listening to the cheerleaders who said, “You can do it!” and ignored the exhorters who said, “Try harder!”

I wanted to find a way to give them hope, to motivate them.  I discovered that the only way for that to happen was for them to see that they could achieve some success, however small.  That would be something to build on, something to rekindle long-quenched hope and lead to more success.

My objective here is limited.  I won’t explain everything in the parable passage.  That would only be giving you predigested learning.  It’s more important to encourage those who feel like they don’t really “get it” to know that there is, indeed, a way to get it, and it’s within their reach.

I’ve realized that, in this parable, Jesus is not simply giving an apt illustration of how different people hear his message.  He is also providing an assurance—even a promise—that those who are honestly willing to listen, can understand the things of God and learn what he actually taught.

In previous posts, I sought to provide some useful and simple tools for “getting” Scripture.  Remember the question:  “What’s the main idea?”  If you look for this first, you’ll spare yourself thinking too much about the little stuff.  Also, always remember to think about context (with a capital “K”).  Considering context is important at every level.  As the saying goes, “You can prove anything from the Bible”—if you simply take it out of context.

These guidelines don’t sound especially spiritual, you might think.  Anyone can, after all, learn them in school.  But don’t forget: God uses human language to communicate with us.  Perhaps you’re wondering, what about the Spirit?  Isn’t the Spirit essential for understanding?  God indeed gave his Spirit to help his people understand and apply his word: he promised to write it in our hearts (see, e.g., Ezekiel 36:26,27).  And even if you’re a non-Christian, his basic message is there for you to hear, and, if you are willing, God can make it real in a way you’ve never imagined.

Jesus constantly faced large crowds, most of whom, he knew, would be ever hearing yet never understanding.  That’s a disheartening prospect.  But he knew there would also be some who genuinely wanted to understand.  And that is why he said what he did at the end of the parable: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”

That phrase is more important here than you might think at first glance.  It is more than a rhetorical flourish used to get them to pay attention.  It was like a code phrase, a reminder of what prophets had consistently said to warn the people about the consequences of not paying attention to what God wanted to tell them.  If they kept that up, their hearts would eventually become “calloused,” and they would be taken into exile as judgment.  That is why Jesus quoted Isaiah.  (After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the people were scattered in the Jewish Dispersion.)

Along with the warning there was hope.  There’s this little word “otherwise.”  If they did listen, Isaiah was saying, “they might see … and hear, understand with their hearts and turn,” i.e., they would recognize their need of God and turn to him for deliverance, “and I would heal them.”  (Mark’s account uses the word “forgive” instead of “heal.”)

The parables were not meant to confuse people.  They were a sign that God was doing something wonderful (see 13:34, 35).  God was now doing something that had been hidden even from righteous people: namely, the Messiah was here!

Parables were also designed to promote understanding.  A parable is an analogy in story form.  The story form makes it easier to remember, and analogy is one of the most effective means of communicating in any language.  Analogies are word pictures that say more than any lengthy, explicit exposition on the same topic; they are packed with an incredible amount of detail simply because the pictures were based on familiar things in their culture.

Jesus’s stories were vivid, pungent, memorable—and short, mostly.  Even if you know little about agriculture, for example, you can understand most parables without knowing all the cultural cues.

Let me address a part that has confused many, including me.

When you read Jesus telling his disciples the “knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not to them,” you might conclude that only the inner circle elite (or elect) can get this.

But the point is that understanding spiritual truth (the secrets of the Kingdom) is not generally held back from those who genuinely want it.  As I’ve written before, God wants to communicate; spiritual truth is mostly pretty simple; but it takes a willing heart to “get it.”  The key to understanding is the willing heart, the listening heart that hangs on to what it hears, considers it, and seeks to put it to practice.

The seed is Jesus’s message of the Kingdom.  The soil is the human heart (soul, inner being, what we really hear or see with).  When someone pays no real attention and so does not understand, what little they have is taken away by the evil one.  The one who has no root is not allowing the word to penetrate—they may be joyful at first, but trouble causes them to abandon it in a relatively short time.

The ground with thorns represents the heart whose own agenda squeezes out God’s.  The good soil, of course, receives, understands, and produces fruit.  The fruit they produce is not the same for everyone.  Some produce just a little, some much more.

If you are just now beginning to understand some truth, take heart.  You may understand only a tiny bit, and produce just a little bit, but this will set you up to understand more.  Jesus often mentioned this basic principle of learning:  “Those who have will be given more….  Those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (13:12).

Think about this:  The first thing that Jesus did, after his temptation and baptism, was to begin preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.  When he said, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” here was another sort of code, announcing that the one the Jews had been expecting, the Messiah (Christ), was arriving.  This was the first “secret of the Kingdom.”  Even Judas understood that.  But his expectation of what the Messiah came to do was wrong (others thought the same thing).  He thought Jesus would throw out the Romans.  When he finally realized that Jesus would never meet his expectation, his heart was open to Satan—so even what he had was taken away.

Take heart, my friend.  “If you have ears to hear, listen!”  Take it in, mull it over, ask for understanding, hang onto it, seek to put it to practice.

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

Donkey running

 

 

The Donkey understanding of Christianity, part 4a

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

pearl-of-great-price1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jesus-teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

narrow-path-2

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold scales of justice on brown background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the-justice-of-the-cross

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

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

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

judge-not-unless-you-can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sum-of-the-law

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

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

 

think-like-god

 

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

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

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

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

jesus-teaching-disciples

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

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

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

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

jesus-on-the-cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

jesus-teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lords-prayer-niv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dallas-willard

Dallas Willard

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

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

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

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

the-gospels

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

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

jesus-teaching-disciples

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sermon on the Mount

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

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

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

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

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

The Beatitudes

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

the-beatitudes

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

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

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

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

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

the-tough-sayings-of-jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

new-testament

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

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

kids-singing

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

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

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

trust-the-father

Trusting the father heart of God?

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

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

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

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

jesus-teaching-disciples

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

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

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

My Red Dot

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

red-dot

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

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

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

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

disciples-love-one-another

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

take_up_cross_small_color

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

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

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

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

jfk-and-chidren

Here’s some quick statements about other stuff:

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

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

jesus-the-lamb-of-god

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

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

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

Preliminaries

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

donkey standing

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

How I came to write this series of essays:

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

tapestry backside

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

donkey tapestry

Above:  an unfinished tapestry….

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

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

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

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

hope international bible fellowship

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

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

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

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

Abundant Life

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

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

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

Missing something

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

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

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

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

father delights in son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

journey post 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?

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