Thursday, October 30, 2014

Freed from Fear

The last couple of days I've been thinking about fear, learning about fear responses at university and how long-lasting they can be, and hearing about fear and how there are some who believe that unless we (and I heard someone say this so I'm not making it up) are scared of Jesus, we are worshiping the wrong God. 

Say what??

I've been going over how Jesus talked to the people - not to the religious folks because they are a different breed altogether - but the regular folks. And His disciples. 

Know what He said to them? A lot?

"Fear not."  "Don't be afraid." "You are loved." "You are worth more than many sparrows." Want to read them? just start reading the gospels. They are there.

This same theme continues throughout the New Testament. "Don't be anxious [read: fearful] for anything, but in everything ... let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds by Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4:6,7). "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear, for fear expects punishment." (1 Jn. 4:18). 

"Happy Jumping Child" photo courtesy of
chrisroll at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
I think that people are so afraid of believing how great God's grace is because they want to feel like they have control over their own lives. They want to believe that they can affect their own outcomes by what they do. While this is true in some situations of cause-and-effect, it is completely backward from the way of grace. The way of Jesus-AND says, "Repent / live right so that God will be good to you" .... and the way of grace says, "The goodness of God leads you to repentance / live right." 

The love and grace of God is so great!! He made a way through Jesus so that we didn't HAVE to be afraid! 

Let me ask you something. Do you think that the little children were afraid of Jesus? Do you think they cowered in fear away from Him? Of course not!! He was (and is) loving and joyous and fun! He exudes peace! What's not to love? Where He is, fear flees, because HE is that perfect love. It's HIM. HE does it. 

We humans want to think that we can do something to influence or manipulate the way things turn out. That's human thinking. God took the initiative. This is HIS baby, HIS salvation. He gives it to whomever He pleases and He takes responsibility for finding new and unique ways to let us know - on a regular basis - how much He loves us. 

If, that is, we are willing to listen. He loves us whether we realize it or not. He cares for our needs whether we are aware of it or not. He does it because that's who He is. And the more we realize how deeply He loves us, the less fear will have a hold on us. 

How freeing that is!! How freeing it is to know, know, KNOW that He loves us - every moment of every day, and He accepts us fully and freely because of what Jesus did! 

It is not dependent on what we do. The cart (instead of being in front of the horse) is behind the horse! What I mean is that we aren't doing things for Him anymore so that He'll be nice to us, but we realize how much He loves us and has given us forgiveness and freedom ... and we WANT to do things for Him without expecting anything from Him in return because He's already done it all!! 

That's grace-based living. That - in a glorious nutshell - is the gospel. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Frustration Factor

"Ever get frustrated with God?" someone asked. "I bet He gets frustrated with you..." 

Huh. There's a thought.

The definition of frustration is the anger one feels when a desired goal is thwarted. 

So yeah, we get frustrated with God. A LOT. We pray for something to happen; it doesn't. We want something else not to happen and we pray for protection; it happens anyway. Someone is sick and we pray for that person to be healed; they die. It's frustrating when you don't get what you want, when God doesn't act in predictable ways.  [That's a whole other blog post (and then some) in itself!!]

Frustration is a daily companion of those in leadership in the church. They are in a certain place in God (after all, their whole lives are about pursuing that place right? and to do what they do every moment of every day, they have to have some serious Jesus on tap, right?) and they want their parishoners to achieve that place as well, to be more involved in the church, to get out into their communities and make a difference. And yet, that doesn't happen - at least not to the degree that they might like. 

Life happens. Their people hurt. And they hurt each other. Or they become so jaded that they give up trying. It's frustrating for leaders, who might define themselves in terms of how well their flock is doing. And sometimes that frustration comes through in statements that are either openly or covertly designed to produce that change that they want to see in people. "Can't I get an Amen here?" .... "What's the matter with you people? You see that the prayer room is empty; we need revival, let's hop to it and pray!" (Oh don't even get me going on guilt trips.) 

That kind of frustration comes from looking at what other people are doing in their lives, not on focusing on what God is doing in my life. Too many of us try to (and I have said this before but it bears repeating) try to BE the Holy Spirit. That is, we try to do His job: convicting people of the error of their ways, convincing other believers to live holy lives. It isn't our place to do that. It's the Holy Spirit's job

As to whether God gets frustrated with us, my Bible tells me that He knows the end from the beginning. He has things all planned out. He can't get frustrated in that sense, because He knows what we're going to do before we do it. He is intimately concerned with our spiritual well-being, yes, but frustrated? Not in the sense that we can be.

Photo "Bible" courtesy of
Arvind Balaraman at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
As I read throughout scripture, I find that there is only one instance in which the word "frustrate" appears that is linked to how God feels, and it has to do with "frustrating the grace of God." (Galatians 2:21) So .... let's think about that for a second. Frustrating the grace of God. Hmmm. So God freely gives us His grace through what Jesus accomplished once for all for us on the cross.  As such, He intends for us to live in that grace, that place of total acceptance in Jesus (not in rules and conditions and regulations) - in a growing intimate relationship with Him, in gratitude and love toward Him, and from that love we will naturally be spilling over into the lives of the people with whom we come in contact. Sound about right? So what happens to frustrate that grace? 

Adding stuff to it (like rules, like conditions, like fear-mongering) frustrates it. (By fear-mongering I mean things like, "God will take away His gift if you don't toe the line...") Adding stuff is what the Galatians tried to do. Galatians 2:21 says, "I do not frustrate the grace of God. For if right standing with God came by obeying the Law, then Christ died for nothing."  

Putting limits on grace frustrates it. Saying, "Yes, but" frustrates grace. Shame frustrates grace. All the things we hear our leaders getting frustrated about ... actually frustrate the grace of God. He wanted - wants - us to live in freedom, not in bondage. Not the kind of freedom that abuses or takes advantage of the One who gave it (because if we do that, then we haven't understood how deep His grace is!!), but in the kind of freedom that realizes how great His love is, and loves Him in return ... and wouldn't DREAM of hurting His great, loving heart. 

I have yet to see anyone who fully understands and has embraced the grace of God for him or her personally, who has walked away in frustration and disgust. I have yet to see anyone who truly grasped for himself or herself all that Jesus did for us to purchase salvation for us, who then stayed in a sinful state and flaunted it, claiming he or she was "under grace." And yet ... I see people all the time who think that there is something they can do to add to or keep what Jesus died to freely give us, who crash and burn in fear and frustration, and they wonder why ... and end up thinking that "they weren't trying hard enough." As if anyone could match what Jesus did for us!  

The way of grace is rest. The way of grace is peace and free of strife. The things we desire are already ours in Jesus; all we need do (if we call that doing) is believe. That's it. It's as simple as that. What is hard (and the Word calls this "labouring to enter into that rest" in Hebrews 4:11) is staying in this good news of believing - because it is so much easier on our heads if we start sorting and putting into baskets, categorizing and religifying everything. Once we start doing that, the life that Jesus died to give us gathers dust. Rather, let's remember that this "hope of the gospel" is what we hold to, not some set of behavioral goals. If we add rules and behavior to it, it might LOOK like the end result, but it will be the cart before the horse. Best to put the horse first, and then the cart will naturally follow ... and I'll wager it will get farther. See what I mean:  "He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach - if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard..." (Col. 1: 22-23)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The arm of flesh

Stand up, stand up for Jesus
  Stand in His strength alone - 
The arm of flesh will fail you, 
  Ye dare not trust your own ...

We have sung about the strength of God until we are blue in the face. We have said with our mouths that we do not trust "the arm of flesh." That we don't trust in our own strength, but in His. 

Until ... until we turn around and we're presented with an opportunity to trust in our own abilities ... or in God's. And what do we do? "Oh well, I'll take it from here, God. Yeah, I got this covered. No, I'll just call You in for the hard stuff." 

Hmm. Really. 

Yeah we believe in spiritual warfare, pulling down unseen strongholds. But what do we do when we feel threatened by something in our society? we write our member of parliament, of course. And we don't even see that what we are doing is depending on "the arm of flesh." It's the WORLD's way of doing business. Squawk, make a fuss, stand up for your rights, sign a petition, join a march, carry a placard. Because after all, God is not able to change anything, right? 

Sure, we say we are all for people growing spiritually. And then when we are speaking or even sharing something on Facebook, we belittle them by saying, 'Can't I even get an Amen?' or 'you should have done ____ instead!' ... and making them feel guilty that their expression of spirituality is not spiritual enough, not what we're looking for, substandard. That kind of behavior is classic codependent manipulation, trying to make ourselves feel better by trying to control the behavior of others. I know ... because I have had it done to me. AND ... I've done it myself. Either way, it's not a nice feeling.

Photo "The Cross And The Hand"
courtesy of njaj at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
And that's not counting all the little instances of everyday assumptions we make that are completely self-serving and self-centered. Things like buying into the world's mindset that we can change our own destinies, that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we are owed certain things and that it is up to US to change our world, to do do do until we drop drop drop. No, that's not the way it works. GOD can change our destinies, we can do all things (by the way that means that we can face being poor AND rich, check out the context in Philippians 4) through HIM, and we owe HIM our lives and our gratitude for all that HE has done to be in relationship with us, to impart His righteousness to us. It is up to GOD to change our world and the only part we play in that is just being enthralled with how wonderful HE is to have made it all possible. He will look after the results, one heart at a time. 

I've said it before. His yoke is easy. The arm of flesh WILL fail; it will fail because it is human. The everlasting Arms are inexhaustible. They will never fail. They alone can hold us up, help us stand, and fight our battles. 

Our only work, then, (and the more we realize how deep His love is for us, the less work it is) is to lean hard on those Arms... the ones that once were flesh so as to redeem our spirits once for all eternity. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Majoring on Minors

There was a lady that used to come to my house when I was growing up; she came ever three months and got my mom to perm her hair. 

I never saw her in church, but she had a lot to say about it. Most often, she would ask a question that (to me) only showed how much she DIDN'T want to believe, how much she was trying to pick a fight. Every visit it would be a different one. Or two. Or three.

They were endless. Who was Cain's wife? Did Adam have a belly button? If God's so loving then why are there tragedies and wars and stuff like that? Is God male or female? What about science and evolution? Isn't God just some idea we created to make each other behave?  ... the list would go on and on. 

We'd patiently try to answer some of her questions but it only made things worse; she was determined not to respond in faith but with more questions, some of which - quite frankly - are unanswerable. 

She was majoring on minors.

Photo "Ring With Stone" courtesy of Boykung at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
I get it that people struggle with belief in God. I get that. I encourage honest questions from people seeking the truth. 

But this was different. This person thrived on confrontation and dissension. This kind of questioning wasn't designed to make it easier for her to understand the truth; this was to confuse, cloud and escape from the real issues: is God real? does He love me? can I trust Him? 

Just in case you were wondering, Yes, God is real; YES, He loves you; and YES you can trust Him. 

About five or six years ago, I met someone who struggled with the idea of a "higher power." She decided that her "higher power" was her "better self" or the person that she was when she wasn't messing things up.  Now ... those of us with faith in God might find that kind of thinking inflammatory, or (at best) sadly uninformed. I wish I could have conveyed to her how badly she was setting her self up for failure, since the very idea of a "higher power" presupposes a power outside of ourselves (since with our very best efforts, there is nothing that we can do to deliver ourselves from whatever addiction - or besetting sin, if you will - that has us in its grip). Believing that "I have it within me" will lead quite quickly to disillusionment and frustration. 

In order for God to be God, He has to be perfect, far above what you or I could imagine, and beyond our human - and puny - resources. If He isn't ... then He's not God. Reducing Him to a concept or a part of ourselves diminishes Him, diminishes His love and His power in ways that I can't begin to describe. Experiencing Him, experiencing His love for ourselves in a personal way is something that can't be argued, can't be refuted, can't be described. It is to be lived.

I believe that God knows where our hearts are, and if a person is truly seeking, He will find a way to reveal Himself to that person in a way that he or she will understand His love. He's not trying to hide. He wants to be found. Or rather - He wants us to understand that He's found US.

Instead of majoring on minors, then, can we not realize for our own selves that God IS real, that He DOES love us (so much that He died for us!!), and that we CAN trust Him. 

That's majoring on the majors. That's the "Good News."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Organisms and Organization

One of the more popular ways to "do" church (oh I could write a whole blog on that one!) is to have small groups. 

Small groups are more intimate. People get to know one another. They can pray for each other. In principle, that is. 

The early church thrived and spread on the back of small groups.

However, I really don't think that they had people sign up for them based on interest, or age, or socioeconomic status, or education level, or whatever other kind of pigeon-hole one might slot people into. 

No, their small groups grew. They were organisms. They were alive.

There was no "structure." People got together - as often as they could - because they wanted to share how wonderful Jesus was in their lives. They were bubbling up inside with His love and they loved talking about it with people who understood! They were full of stories about how God used them since the last time they met (usually the previous day or the day before that) to spread the Good News, and they were eager to share what God was teaching them about how wonderful He was and how much He loved them. Songs would spring up spontaneously. There was no "order of service," no "topic." They'd share a meal together - nothing fancy - not trying to outdo each other (like I've seen happen in some places.) The point wasn't the food; the point was Jesus!

The groups didn't get "established" or "assigned." There was one group, and if the group got too big and risked attracting attention by the religious authorities (there's another blog post... but not now...) God already had it set up because there was usually a group within the group that just gravitated toward each other (something like a baby growing inside the mother's womb). It would split off (naturally, not by argument!) and another small group was born. Each one was called a church. Paul often closed his letters by sending his greetings to this or that one, "and the church that is in his house." 

What happened? Where did these alive, vibrant organisms go? 

Photo "Center Of Church" courtesy
of Keerati at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
Around 300 AD, the emperor Constantine "converted" to Christianity. Suddenly this new sect of Judaism was 'in vogue' and had the backing of the money and power of Rome. 

Abraham Lincoln said something like, "Nearly every man can stand adversity, but if you want to test his character, give him power." THAT - in my opinion - is what happened to these beautiful, tender, alive communities. Groups now could get bigger. The intimacy was lost. People started thinking in the mind-set of the world: "we have to get organized." "Someone should look after the children." "Someone should lead the singing." "We should set a time to take up a collection." "We should get Mr. X to speak - I wonder what he'll talk on this time?" The Holy Spirit - instead of being the orchestrator of the gatherings, quietly said, "I guess you feel you don't need My anointing anymore. So I'll just go somewhere that does." 

Without the anointing of the Spirit, without the connection with other people and the excitement of sharing how good God was with each other, the church just became another compartment of people's lives, and it changed from being an organism and became an organization.

That's the thing about organizing an organism. When you start cutting off parts and reorganizing them so they'll "fit" ... the organism bleeds to death.

And on and on it has gone for centuries. 

And the church has slowly gotten the idea - just in the last little while - that small groups are the way to go. But it's so stuck in the organization mentality that it feels it has to legislate love, regiment relationship, and elicit edification. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Small groups exist and they have for quite a while; we just don't call them churches or small groups. I've had such wonderful times of true Christian fellowship with one or two other believers over coffee at a doughnut shop or even in chats over Facebook that I (and my companions) have felt built up and energized spiritually: wonderfully so! 

What am I saying? Not that this way or that way is right or wrong - just that perhaps ... PERHAPS we are trying too hard. Perhaps we just need to let it happen naturally, let it live and breathe; don't smother it with trappings and structure and "should" statements. Let it flow naturally from our relationship with God, out of His love and care for us.

This week, perhaps it might be worth your while, my while, to look for opportunities to connect with people in a meaningful way and share what God is talking to us about, not theoretical or esoteric things but rubber-meets-the-road stuff, useful, thoughtful and caring things that speak to the heart and build each other up. 

Who knows? Church just might happen where you least expect it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

What it's .... er, He's all about

One of the ladies in the worship team with me was kicking back with me after practice one day, and we were talking about upbeat songs. She suggested the hokey pokey. "Well, it's upbeat right?" 

I thought I'd have a little fun. "What if the hokey pokey really IS what it's all about?" ... of course she laughed. And before I knew it, she was saying that knowing Jesus is really what it's all about.

What followed was some rather bad rhyming and free-association (by me, I must say). 

Afterward, I got to thinking and realized that the word "about" is one of the words that can cause a lot of confusion amongst believers. A misplaced "about" is - in my opinion - the difference between religion (which is humans trying to get God not to be mad at them or take away His blessing from them, maybe even to be nice to them) and relationship with God (which is His initiative, Him reaching out to us to show us that we are accepted in His sight!)

Here's the misplaced "about" that I mean, the one that starts when we are children and we go to kids' church or Sunday school or whatever you want to call your children's program. 

Question (asked by the teacher): "Why do we go to church?"

Answer (shouted by all the kids): "To know about God!"

See? it's a misplaced "about". It doesn't need to be there.

The answer is, "To know God!" 

No about.

Of course the question is a little suspect too (do we REALLY have to go to church to know God?), but that is another blog post for another time.

The "about" doesn't stop there, however. As we grow, as we become adults, knowing "about" God translates into trying to figure out what He wants so that our world makes sense.  So that we get our prayers answered. So that ... basically ... He'll give us what we want. 

And then when He doesn't do what we expect, when He does or allows something that we can't understand, that doesn't fit with our preconceived notions of what we know "about" Him, we wonder if He really cares about us. After all, we've done what He wanted; He should do what WE ask. Every time. Without question. Right? 

Photo "Interior With White Cubes"
courtesy of sumetho at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
Excuse me, but that's not a relationship. That's religion - that's the classic "God-in-a-box" that's comfortable, predictable, and ... and powerless. 

And that's not the real God, by the way. That's a vending machine.

Listen. The real God is an intense, passionate, and powerful Person. He designed us for relationship, specifically relationship with HIM ... and in spite of our inability to make it happen, HE made it possible - through Jesus, through His sacrifice on the cross and all that means (including forgiveness from ALL of our mess-ups: past, present and future!!) - to be in an intense, passionate, and powerful relationship with Him. One that is life-changing. One that fills us up so full that we overflow into the lives of those around us. One that shows how much He loves and accepts us.

And that's what HE's all about.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The serpent in the pew

Recently I was at a gathering where a list of 'ungodly' behaviors was read out. Among them were such things as gossip and slander and witchcraft, among others. The person reading the list said, "Of course we know there's no witchcraft in the church..." and went on to discuss the idea that there are no little sins and big sins to God. They're all sins. 

Hmm. Yes, yes all sin is sin in God's eyes. There is no difference. Gossip and murder are on a par. Lying and idolatry are all the same to Him.

But dismissing a particular sin because it's not obvious or doesn't fit the current definition of what the world thinks something is? 

I received a teaching on this particular practice (of witchcraft) a few years back. Basically the teaching went back to the original root words that make up the term for witchcraft. It is a compound word meaning control, manipulation and intimidation. WELL then! I believe we have a serpent in the pew, because I can't count the number of times I (and others in the church) have used manipulation and intimidation to control other people in the same family ... the family of God. 

It starts with the word "should." (Oh how I HATE that word!) We SHOULD be living holy lives. Our lives (i.e., the end product of our lives) SHOULD be this or that way (we do this with everything, even things like what folks should eat, wear, listen to, etc.) 

Photo "Blue Butterfly" by
dan at
www.freedigitalimages.net
And then it morphs. Our own pet beliefs (which have nothing to do with the Gospel) start infringing on it, and we start thinking that they are part and parcel of "the whole counsel of God." This particular person SHOULD be letting me do what I feel I am called to do, and I SHOULD have the right to influence this or that person's behavior because it's obviously flawed (because it's not the way I would do it). 

It's like this. The desire to control other people comes from an inborn need to feel safe and comfortable. The problem arises when we think we can do something to cause that change - enter manipulation (for example, guilt trips). And intimidation (for example, [adult] temper tantrums). The end result of this is that we get to thinking that it's our responsibility to change others. So we use those tools (er, weapons) and try to do the job that only the Holy Spirit is qualified to do. 

That's witchcraft.  That's the serpent.

Knowing that there is such a thing can help us identify it in ourselves and agree with God that it is not something we want in our lives. Not because we need to "toe the party line" but because Jesus has given it all for us, and through His death God declares us NOT GUILTY. That (and that alone) kills the serpent. We are transformed.

We are made free.

Through gratitude, then, we offer our lives up to Him to do with as He wills, to worship and adore Him in spite of our own perception of our failings. Others' failings will not matter. Our focus is Him. And no matter what the problem is, HE is the answer. Even if it's the serpent in the pew.