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.

Waiting for the rocks

One of my two favorite stories in the Gospels is the story of the woman caught in adultery.

We were discussing that story over breakfast. (A lot of times, posts on my blogs come from discussions I've had with people.) We'd been talking about how people form a relationship with Jesus. 

As many do, I suspect that this woman was a known adulteress, and that several of the Pharisees had availed themselves of her "services" before. They saw her as an object, a great way to relieve some tension before going home to critical, demanding wives (don't get me started). But in her they began to see a great way to set a trap for Jesus - and their "valuing" of her turned to betrayal. (How do I know this? because the Law said that both the woman and the man should be stoned; where was the guy???

They dragged her, naked, through the streets. They thrust her down in front of Jesus. "Rabbi! [don't you love how they toss that term around when they mean anything but that?] This woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The law of Moses says that such as these should be stoned. What do YOU say?"  (Read the story in John 8.)

The question was asked; the trap was set. 

And Jesus said nothing. 

The woman was crouched in the fetal position, sobbing, trying to escape as much public humiliation as possible. She fully expected the stones (big, heavy projectiles, not little pebbles!) to start flying any minute; she'd seen stonings before. Everyone had. 

He squatted on the ground beside her; He wrote things in the dust. What He wrote, we are not told. When pressed for an answer to their cleverly-designed question, He said simply (and this is how it appears in the Greek) "Whoever among you is without this sin, let him be the first to throw a stone." 

The Bible tells us that they dropped their rocks and split. Okay, it says that they left one at a time, beginning with the older ones, until all of them were gone.

Let's use our sanctified imaginations at this juncture. Here is the scene: A ring of robed men with big rocks in their hands, Jesus and the woman in the middle. Jesus is squatting and writing on the ground. The woman is sobbing in the fetal position with her head in her hands (as I've described) fully expecting the arrival of the first rock. 

She hears a rock hit the ground. She thinks it missed her. Her breath catches. 

One by one, the rocks fall to the ground as the Sanhedrin members realize their trap wasn't quite so clever after all, and they leave, convicted by their own consciences (possibly helped along by what Jesus was writing on the ground?)  And the crowd that gathered around them hushes. 

Jesus turns to the woman. "Where are your accusers? doesn't ANYONE condemn you?" 

And she looks around in wonder at the circle of rocks where the robed ones once stood. "No-one, Sir." 

The love in His voice was unmistakable. "Neither do I." 

Freeze frame right there. Before He says, "Go and sin no more," stop and think about what "I don't condemn you," means. 

Had she sinned? Oh yes.  Did she deserve death? According to the law of Moses, yes. Her lifestyle was totally exposed for all to see who were there. 

But He didn't condemn her. 

Photo "Stone And Sand Background" courtesy of
gubgib at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
She was waiting for the rocks to hit her. She'd been hit by hundreds of rocks before - all the dirty looks people gave her every day on the street felt like rocks hitting her soul. The way mothers shielded their children's eyes as they walked by the street-corner, the way men would leer at her, the contempt she saw when she passed by the scribes and priests in the outer court of the temple, all felt like sharp projectiles striking her, judging her, wounding her. 

I've felt those sharp rocks, those disapproving looks, those judgments from other people. I've felt the hot sting of shame for things over which I felt I had no control: my family, my socio-economic class, my (former and current) lifestyle, my parenting choices, and the list goes on. Each is an emotional stone - and does damage to the one it hits. The emotional rocks make the inner prison walls stronger, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness more intense. There is no escape.

Each of those sharp emotional rocks had made their mark on her ... every bit as real as the "real" rocks ... and now there was this day. This day she was sure she was going to feel the physical rocks hit her body. This is the day her life would end. She knew it.

And yet ... there they all are. The rocks are on the ground. She looks around and tries to grasp the idea that the Man before her actually saved her life - and restored her dignity. She looks up and sees the love and compassion in His eyes. For her

It rescues her. It sets her free. 

"I don't condemn you." Those words of forgiveness make her into a new person, one who doesn't want to live that lifestyle of shame anymore. He took her shame away, and gave her a clean slate.

Now. NOW, doesn't "Go, and sin no more" sound more like, "Here, let Me take off those chains. You're FREE!" than it does "Go study the rulebook and get your life straightened up"??

It sure does to me.

Monday, September 29, 2014

He. Is. Here.

The words to a little chorus we learned a few years ago are running through my head:

He is here, Hallelujah!
 He is here, Amen!
He is here, holy holy;
 I will bless His name again...
He is here, listen closely,
 Hear Him calling out your name; 
He is here; you can touch Him!
 You will never be the same.  - Kirk Talley (c) 2006

He is here. Such simple little words, but meditate on them with me for a few minutes.

He is here when we are all together worshiping. There's nothing like corporate worship to lift Him up and let us realize the truth of His presence together. I'm not talking about just singing songs; I'm talking about when hearts (not just hands or voices) are lifted in praise and gratitude and God seems to bend low to catch every word, every whisper, every tear shed. For some a mountaintop, for others a valley of weeping, He hears each heart's cry and He. Is. Here.

He is here when it's dark, when we can't see anything that is coming, when we feel at the mercy of our circumstances, and when sadness and discouragement roll over us like ocean billows. When there doesn't seem to be any hope, when there doesn't seem to be any answer, He. Is. Here. 

He is here when we think we have it covered. He is the One holding us, keeping us safe, even if we don't realize it and think that it's all our doing. He doesn't have anything to prove; He's already got it covered (He did that at the Cross) and the sooner we understand that, the sooner we will relax and not be so obsessed with getting it right. He. Is. Here.

Photo "Eagle In Flight" provided by
Jeff Ratcliff at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
He is here when we fail, when we fall. And sooner or later we will; we are human. He is still here, no matter what! His love will come up underneath us like a father eagle swoops down and catches a falling eaglet, too little to fly, on His back. He. Is. Here.

He is here when nobody else is. We long for the support of our loved ones, but the uncomfortable truth is that depending on other humans is a risky thing. Eventually, there comes a time when nobody else is in our corner. We can be alone. He. Is. Here. 

He is here when we call out to Him. Any time, anywhere, for any reason, He is delighted when we turn to Him, ask His guidance, include Him in our every day. He is waiting. Always. He. Is. Here.

He is here when we don't feel worthy. He believes in us, sees us as perfect in His sight, lifts us up and puts His stamp of approval on us. Because of the once-for-all sacrifice He made, He is enough for us when we feel "less than" - because He is "more than." And He makes us "more than" - because He. Is. Here.

He is here when we wonder where He's gone. Probably the most annoying thing about being human is that we can't see what's ahead, and we don't know what He has in store for us. Our inability to see beyond "what is" can make us uncomfortable with waiting until He opens doors for us. We spend a lot of time trying to force the lock. All the while He is preparing the way ahead of us. At such times, we can trust His love for us, trust His desire to grow inside of us what is best for us. Even when we can't figure Him out, He. Is. Here. 

He is here when we are afraid. Life can be overwhelming at times. Faced with realities like sickness, danger, even the cruelty of others, we can rely on His faithful presence. We can count on Him to be there to listen, to love, to help. We can lean on Him. He has already carried us when He carried the weight of the world on His back. He has defeated sin, death and the grave. He is the Master of the Universe. And He. Is. Here.

He is here when we step outside our comfort zones. He births the desire for something more in us, opens the door of opportunity for us and when we get ready to step through, knees can knock together! We can trust that if He brought us here, He will stay with us even if whatever it is, is hard. He can see the end from the beginning. He's got this. He's right in the middle of our situation, walking it with us, believing in us, and cheering us on. He. Is. Here.

His presence is everywhere. Like air, like life's blood, He is here. 

Listen closely; He listens to you.
Hear Him calling out your name; He's been doing it for a long time.
He is here, close as the breath you breathe.
You can touch Him; He's given His all for you; He loves you.
You will never be the same.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Un-punishable

Through the cross, Jesus introduced something into the world that we still don’t understand. He has made each and every one of us un-punishable. We are un-punishable.
~Danny Silk, Culture of Honor, p.80

Someone shared the above quote on Facebook today.

What Mr. Silk was talking about was grace. Pure and simple, grace goes beyond the acronym, "God's Riches At Christ's Expense" that we learned in Sunday school. 

I have searched for words to describe this concept, and when I saw the word "un-punishable" ... it reminded me of an experience we had in 1996, nearly 20 years ago (now THAT's hard to believe. It still feels a LOT more recent than that.) 

We went bankrupt. We'd made an effort in running a business and the debts piled up so much that we were six figures in debt (not counting the mortgage) and with no way out. 

For months, we robbed Peter to pay Paul - paid one credit card off with the other - or with a line of credit that kept growing more and more. When we borrowed money from a finance company for the second time in three months to buy groceries, we knew we couldn't dig ourselves out. 

It was time to say quit. 

Graphic "Tree Debt" courtesy
of jesadaphorn at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
The decision wasn't an easy one; it was wrenching, made even more so by the reactions of fellow-Christians into whose theology bankruptcy didn't fit. 

We felt alone, felt like failures professionally and personally, and felt completely, utterly overwhelmed. Trite, pat answers from well-meaning people just made things worse. This wasn't some financial crunch where there wasn't enough month at the end of the money; it was way beyond that. We'd already refinanced the house once, so selling wasn't an option. We were completely stuck. There was no way out.

So on the advice of the office of the Orderly Payment of Debt (yes, we tried going to them first and they knew that it was too much for us) we both declared personal bankruptcy. If only one of us did, the creditors would go after the other of us. So, we did it together. 

On September 30, 1996, we sat in front of a bankruptcy trustee. The definition of "trustee" is "a person whom someone trusts." I can tell you that we had major misgivings and that the trust we placed in this man was done out of desperation, nothing more. There was no way we could pay our debts. None. And this guy, with one simple signature, could fix that. 

We did everything that was required by law. We outlined every debt. We wrote down all our monthly expenses. Every. Single. One. He worked out a monthly budget with us as if the debt (excluding the mortgage, we would still have to pay that) did not exist.

And then he got us to sign some papers. And when he signed beneath them, he turned to us and said words I will never forget: 

"Your debt is gone. It has been written off, wiped clean. From this moment onward, under Canadian law, your creditors do not have the right to ever again demand payment from you for the debts that are on this paper. If they ever do, you send them to me.

In spite of the stigma we felt for having to do this, it was like a great 10-ton weight dropped off our backs. The debt that was crushing us was absolutely and in every way, un-punishable. 

It was gone. And the trustee's job was to protect us from the creditors. 

That is the most precise worldly picture of divine grace that I could describe to you. There is NO condemnation. NONE. 

Except with Jesus, He wrote off ALL the debt. Every last sin, for every last second of the whole of our lives, past, present and future. The whole shooting match! And even if we mess up, even if we do it wrong, He is there to protect us from the attacks of the enemy, from the "you're not doing enough" demands for payment - accusations that somehow what Jesus did wasn't sufficient to pay our way and that it is somehow our responsibility to help Him out. 

NO. 

His grace is enough. He has made us un-punishable. Forever. 

Forever.