A Lesson in Contrast

In college, my friends and I had a saying:

You cannot begin to change until you know the opposite of what you are.

It was a reminder that the only way to learn and grow was to face the truth about yourself and then understand the way in which God was different from that. Sometime in my mid-thirties I realized that most of what I knew about success and godly character had been learned by example of what not to do or who I did not want to be like. I began to understand experientially what our college saying meant in terms of the power of contrast to teach.

As time, experience, and study have expanded my understanding of the Bible, I begin to see that the bulk of the stories it contains are pictures of God showing us what he is like often by revealing what he is not like. This particular learning tool can prove quite effective with human minds struggling to comprehend a silent and invisible God. But nuance is easily missed under a strictly literal view of the text.

For example, countless sermons have been preached on Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac. Most people, commentaries, preachers, and Christians believe that God was testing Abraham’s faith when he told him to take Isaac up on a mountain and offer his only son as a sacrifice. They believe that God provided a ram for himself that represented God one day sacrificing Jesus to appease his own wrath. But is that really what this story was designed to teach? Does God test peoples’ faith in such horrific ways? Is this same God so offended by sin that he requires a human blood sacrifice to be appeased? Hm, sounds an awful lot like the Canaanite gods to me.

2-5_abraham-sacrifice

Most (if not all) cultures contemporary to Abraham practiced blood sacrifice to appease their gods’ anger. In fact, some sort of blood sacrifice has been practiced for centuries in almost all cultures ever to exist. Here’s a decent site on the history of blood sacrifice around the world (I found the conclusions page fascinating). So when God told Abraham to kill Isaac, he was not telling him anything new. Sacrificing children (even the first-born) to the gods was commonplace in those days. In fact, everyone was doing it. To Abraham it would have been business as usual for God to demand the kind of worship that required the ultimate sacrifice of human blood. While the story began ordinarily enough, the end revealed something radically new. Abraham found a ram caught in a nearby thicket. God showed Abraham how he was unlike the gods of the surrounding nations.

Lesson #1: God does not require human blood to be appeased.

If you believe that the revelation of God’s nature to mankind has been given throughout history progressively, then this little nugget would have rocked the ancients’ overall understanding of deities in general and the God of Israel in particular. But this was just a stepping-stone to a broader understanding of what made the God of Israel different. Fast forward to the establishment of the temple cult under Moses’ leadership. Here God distinguished himself from other gods by commanding one animal sacrifice each year that would suffice for the entire nation.

Lesson #2: God does not require unlimited animal sacrifices.

The last straw can be found in ringing in the voices of the prophets. They called the nation of Israel to put a stop to ritual sacrifices altogether. According to them, the God of Israel had no need for blood at all.

Lesson #3: God does not require blood. God does not need to be appeased.

Despite this final clear message from the prophets at the close of the Old Testament, the Christian church continues to believe and teach that Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice for our sins. They even go so far as to say that God himself put Jesus to death as our substitute. Which brings me to why I am writing this post today.

In 2011 I wrote a blog post called Walking Through the Pieces. It went on to become my second all-time most-read page, clocking in at a whopping 1,622 lifetime views at the time of this writing. Only my Homepage/Archives have received more hits and no other post of mine comes anywhere near these numbers. Looking at the vast amount of interest in this topic has prompted me to keep digging into the story.

I have finally come to the conclusion that Genesis 15 is yet another look at what God is not like.

In the cultures contemporary to Abram, people made agreements this way: they cut animals in two and spread the pieces apart, leaving a path between them. Both parties then walked down the path and stated the terms of the covenant they were making. The pathway between the animals symbolized a vow and a curse in one: I promise to do thus and so, and may this happen to me if I do not keep my end of the bargain. The practice was quite common and would have been second nature to Abram. Problem is, Abram was asleep when the covenant was ‘cut’. He did not walk through the pieces of the animals at all.

Throughout the Old Testament it was God’s practice to reveal himself over and against the surrounding gods and cultures of the day. In Genesis 15 we find a God who does not bargain with mankind. When God says he will do something, he will do it, independent of any belief or behavior on our part. The lesson here is clear: God does what is right without requiring anything in return. He is a God of blessing not cursing, a God of grace not law and burdens. Too bad Sonny did not understand that all he need do was ask.

Today, most Evangelicals will tell you that salvation is part of a covenant with God called the gospel (good news). They say our part of the bargain is to believe that Jesus’ death paid God back for our sins because God requires a blood sacrifice. Whoever refuses to hold up our end of the covenant (believe) will be treated like those slaughtered animals and suffer an eternity in hell (at the hand of God, no less)!

What if that interpretation of the gospel story is incorrect? What if the church is as wrong about God as ol’ Sonny was? What if Jesus’ death is a picture of what God is not like? What if Rome (not God) sacrificed Jesus on the altar of their power because his message of spiritual freedom was a threat to them and the religious order they supported? What if the story of Jesus’ life and death is a picture of how we were made to live – spiritually free from guilt and shame – and not what will happen to us after we die?

What if the story of Jesus dying on a cross was never about salvation, because we don’t need salvation, because the prophets told true: GOD DOES NOT REQUIRE BLOOD OR NEED TO BE APPEASED?

The literal interpretation of the Bible has served for hundreds of years to perpetuate division, hatred, and war – our modern forms of ritual sacrifice – all in the name of religion. It is time for the world to be turned upside down again. It is time to challenge the powers that be with the nuance of a Biblical narrative that reveals a God more loving and full of grace than any of us have ever dared to imagine or hope for. A God who blesses no matter what, loves no matter what, and requires nothing in return – not even belief that he exists. A God who needs no blood to be appeased but stands in opposition to the angry gods invented by violent men to control people ruled by fear, guilt, and shame.

True change could begin to happen once we know the opposite of what we are. God grant that we be given the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the courage to face the truth.

The Narrow Way

NarrowStairs       I have heard it said that the narrow way can be defined as the unique spiritual journey each of us must walk, and that to be on that path is to refuse to conform to the demands of those around us (to walk their path, or the one most people walk), but, instead, boldly trod the path meant specifically for us.

In light of that idea, tonight I had the privilege of taking a walk with a friend who let me share a part of the incredible journey I have been on since we were last really together, some thirty-six years ago. I was reminded that a lot can happen in thirty-six years. (Ya think?!?)

As a result of our conversation, I am making a list of the books (and the people who wrote them) that have had the most influence on my life, both in terms of my beliefs and my spiritual journey. I will list them in order of importance/influence (to me), however, what was important/influential to me may not be for you, understandably. So, eat the meat, spit out the bones, and take from this list what you need (if anything). As a general rule, people will appear first, with their works listed below; book titles will be underlined, other items italicized, and so forth.

NOTE: This list is not meant to be exhaustive by any means. Each of these teachers has written and spoken much more than what I have listed here, however, these are the ones I have actually read and been changed by. Also, I doubt this represents even half of the things I have read or heard that have worked to shape me and my beliefs today; these are simply the ones that stand out in my mind.

If you have questions or would like any further explanation regarding any of these people or their works, please note them in the comments and I will do my best to either answer you, or direct you to a site that can answer better than I.

  • Baxter Kruger – Theologian, Author, Maker of Lures, Founder of Perichoresis Inc.
  1. Jesus and the Undoing of Adam (in my mind, the most important book a modern, Western Christian can read)
  2. The Shack Revisited (reviewed here on my blog)
  • Peter Hiett – Pastor, Author (where the shift in my journey really began)
  1. http://www.tsdowntown.com/images/EDITED_All_things_New_and_a_place_we_call_Hell_edited_12_12_13_blk_1.pdf
  2. http://www.tsdowntown.com/a-theology-of-relentless-love/intro
  • Rob Bell – Author, Speaker, Theologian, Innovator
  1. Love Wins
  2. Everything is Spiritual (video teaching)
  3. Jesus Wants to Save Christians
  4. Here is a great article regarding the firestorm created by John Piper’s Tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell”, and this is something I wrote during that time.
  • Anthony De Mello – Catholic Priest, Author, Speaker
  1. Awareness (the teaching in this little book can be found on You Tube in several short messages as well)
  2. The Way to Love
  • Michael Hardin – Theologian, Author
  1. Stricken by God? (a compilation of many author’s works regarding the atonement – you can find some stuff around my blog about this book, especially here)
  2. http://www.preachingpeace.org for his blog and lots of information about this amazing author
  • Brad Jersak – Theologian, Author
  1. A More Christlike God (I recently reviewed this book here)
  2. Stricken By God? contributor

Good books on the topic of hell in the Bible:

What does the Bible Really Say About Hell? by Randy Klassen

Razing Hell by Sharon Baker

Evangelical Universalist by George MacDonald

Well, that should get you started. 🙂 I’ll end with one of my favorite theological illustrations:

God bless you as you seek and walk the narrow path laid out just for you!

The Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell, And What It Says About The State Of Modern Christianity

john pavlovitz


RobBell

It’s often been said that we Christians eat our own.

This unsettling expression is all-too true, and apparently Rob Bell is on the menu yet again.

For a people whose go-to ideas are love for God and love for others, we Jesus folk are often pretty horrible toward one another, especially to those of us who attain any sort of position in the larger culture.

Oh sure, we’ll root like crazy for them to reach the masses on their way up, but once they do, we’ll as willingly and passionately go about the work of ripping them from their lofty positions; discrediting them, ridiculing them, shaming and shunning them in the process.

In the Church, as in so many other spheres of life, we love to love you when your star is rising, and few in modern times have risen faster or higher.

A decade ago, Rob Bell was a flat-out Christian Rock Star.

He was

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Goodness or Power

Occasionally I see something on a TV show that makes me think. That happened to me tonight about midway through an episode of Once Upon a Time.

That’s Snow White (Mary Catherine) and Prince Charming (David) up there arguing with Regina (Snow White’s evil stepmother). Mary Catherine is holding the dagger that can control Rumplestilskin (or kill him, giving the murderer his power). Cora, (Regina’s mother, not shown in the photo), supposedly wants nothing more than for her daughter to be queen. The truth is, Cora wants nothing less than ultimate power. She will do anything to get it.

Further along in the scene, Regina holds the heart of one of Mary Catherine’s childhood servants in her hand, threatening to kill her if Snow refuses to give up the knife. David tells her to give them the knife to save her servant (now friend), and that they will find another way to defeat Regina and Cora. Cora mocks Mary Catherine and her determination to choose the good (always choosing to do what is good) at any cost. In the midst of the argument Regina venomously spits at Snow White:

goodness doesn’t win, power does.

Snow White’s goodness won out and she gave up the dagger in order to save her servant/friend, only to watch Cora push her through the clock tower window to her death. In that one small encounter, power won out over goodness, and Mary Catherine knew it. That got Snow White to thinking… it got me to thinking too.

Struggling with what just happened, Mary Catherine tells David that being good has not been worth the cost. She wonders if expecting evil to change to good was naive and that maybe all along she has been the one who needed to change. She is ready for their happy ending to come, even if through evil means. She determines to suffer no more losses at the hands of those who embrace evil. Thus begins her plan to murder Cora.

I turned 49 yesterday and perhaps staring 50 hard in the face is making me do a bit of thinking about life and death. Some questions have been wandering through my brain as a result. Why does a serial killer escape while a friend’s 9-yr. old daughter is having surgery on a brain tumor? Why do gang leaders ensnare a hurting, lonely youth while a mother of 6 is killed in a highway collision? Why do the stars of Hollywood bask in their imagined fame while a sinkhole steals away a man’s brother as he climbs into bed at the end of a long day? Why does a mother lose 2 sons and a husband while a woman in her 20’s finds out she has breast cancer? Why does one evil leader get called to task while another nation performs ethnic cleansing unchallenged? The list goes on and on and on.

My conclusion in the face of these quandaries? A resounding, “I DON’T GET IT.” Yeah, that was my answer: no clue. It just doesn’t make any sense. Some of you may be thinking that this sounds like Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? or some such question of why evil exists. But that’s not really it. I get that we live in a fallen world, I get that sin has touched everything from nature to our genetic code. I guess my problem is the lack of rhyme or reason to it all. It just doesn’t make any sense. Kind of like Snow White wanting her pursuit of goodness to produce the happy ending she expects; that evil continues to thrive and wantonly take the ‘good’ (not ‘good’ in the sense of moral uprightness, but ‘good’ in the sense of life, love, and justice) out of the world isn’t making any sense to her right now. Me either.

Power should not win over goodness.

Yet more often than not, it does. Having been steeped in 30+ years of Evangelical thought, it’s difficult for me to think about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, power and weakness without some reference to the Christian God. And I cannot think of God without thinking of the church. I begin to hear whispered memories of Christian friends of mine supporting America’s assertion of power around the globe, as if God sanctions war when America wages it (against the ‘lost’ or the Muslim or the evil dictator). I can hear preachers talking about God torturing the wicked in a never-ending fire … warnings (or encouragement) to parents that what they teach (or fail to teach) their children will come to fruition ‘one day’ … gloom and doom prophecies of a coming apocalypse through a world power called ‘Antichrist’ … a painting of Jesus riding a white horse through storm clouds while a flaming sword of death and judgment issues from his mouth.

But, is that how God wins over evil … through ultimate power? Does God win because His power trumps everything? Really? Apparently that is what one preacher I heard recently believes. To him it all boiled down to God’s holiness – defined as the perfection of God that destroys (or at least severely punishes) imperfection. He would tell you to fear God because He’s holy and His holiness makes Him more powerful than anything else, somehow giving Him the right to punish those of His children who fail Him in some way. In that paradigm, fear gives you the ability to obey, and thus avoid the otherwise inevitable consequences of your sins.

Huh. Really? I don’t know. I don’t think Regina and Cora are right. I don’t think that power wins. Something deep inside me and something fundamentally communicated through Jesus’ death have convinced me that it’s not about raw power. At least not power as we understand it. Not the power to conquer through fear and torment. Not the power to rule over others by the strong trumping the weak. Not the power resulting from one’s ability to take life. That is the power of the tormentor, the abuser, truly the power of evil itself.

In many ways isn’t this the image of God the Christian church has painted for us for millennia: a conquering King who is going to force everyone who has ever lived to bow the knee to Him through fear and torment? Oh, sure, He offers pardon through some sort of belief in His Son, but even that is coercion borne of fear. Sounds more like a ‘benevolent’ dictator to me than a Creator-God of love.

The same pastor who believed the only pertinent part of God’s character we need consider was His holiness (moral perfection) also stated, and I quote:

Love doesn’t win, God wins.

Wow. Sounds an awful lot like Regina telling Mary Catherine that good doesn’t win, power does. Hm. It’s a good thing I was listening to this man over the internet instead of in person. I would have been carried out by the church leaders when I stood up and shouted:

GOD IS LOVE!!

I fear the church has forgotten what real power, Biblical power looks like. So focused on recognition, visibility, numbers in attendance, financial prosperity, moral agendas, self-protection and even vengeance … I find it hard to tell the church from any run-of-the-mill modern-day corporation. Where are the characteristics of humility and meekness Jesus spoke about in Matthew 5? Who is issuing the corporate call to lay down our lives in love for those around us? Who is reminding anyone in the churches today that the Kingdom we are building is not of this world, and neither are the weapons we use?

You know, I hear the argument a lot that Jesus came the first time to save, He will come the second time to judge. Really? Last I checked God does not change. Throughout history God the Father has been dismantling man’s idea of power and success. He continually chose the marginalized, the outcast, the weak of the world to carry out His plan and purpose. His Son submitted to death at the hand of His very creation to live out His example to us of what true power looks like. If you think He’s going to suddenly change into that mean-spirited, angry, judgmental, punishing God you’ve heard about all your life, you are sadly mistaken.

I hope Snow White comes to her senses. I hope she listens to Prince Charming again and realizes that good always trumps evil. It’s hard to see it in the midst of the struggle, but that’s what the message of resurrection is all about. Just when we think it’s really the end, just when we think evil has won, just when we decide the body has started to decay … that’s when Love says, “arise!” Evil cannot win against a God who IS love. Not on your life. Not on HIS life.

I hope the church comes to her senses. I hope she starts listening to Jesus and realizes that God is good, God is love, and His love never fails. Unbeknownst to us, love is the greatest power in the universe. And I’m here to tell you (over and over again if I have to) …

Evil doesn’t win, Love does!

What’s Your Story?

Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention? The world isn’t just the way it is, it is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story? … You want words that reflect reality? ‘Yes.’ Words that do not contradict reality.  ‘Exactly.’ … 

I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you, that will confirm what you already know, that won’t make you see higher, or further, or differently. You want a flat story, an immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.

Excerpt from The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I just finished listening to the audio book, The Life of Pi. In it, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel tells his remarkable survival story. Everyone has a survival story. In fact, everyone tells themselves a story in order to survive. Our story helps us cope. It is a way of interpreting the events of our lives, of making sense of those events, ourselves, and the people around us. It’s kind of like another way of seeing something I’ve always known was true: people interpret life’s events, others’ words, even their own actions through a belief system I call a grid. Grids are the human way of understanding the world, and we all have one – one major worldview that helps us make sense of our lives.

We begin to construct our grids at a very young age using a combination of what we are taught and how we react to the world as a result of our own individual personalities. We live in a broken, messed up world and have to learn quickly how to cope. Perhaps the person who takes his own life does so because he or she no longer possesses the tools to interpret his life in a way that makes sense.

This happened to a dear relative of mine a few years ago. He completely lost touch with reality for a couple of years. Those around him who were trying to help had many different speculations as to what was happening: a chemical imbalance in the brain, schizophrenia, mis-prescribed medications, and others. I think he just lost his ability to explain the world around him and the world inside him.

That’s the other piece I took from the book: there’s an entire universe inside each of us. Dreams, ideas, and inventions, thoughts we cannot control, habits we cannot break, feelings we cannot find a cause or an outlet for, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Despite our desire for connection, our propensity for community, we are still alone in the end. Who can begin to understand my story? So much chaos whirling around inside these little heads of ours. Add to that our attempts to understand the words, actions, and emotions of others and you have the definition of OVERWHELMED.

I think that’s why we compartmentalize. Our grid serves as a way to sort through the various aspects of our world into separate compartments that we find manageable. Probably the number one way we in the West understand the world around us is dualistically. The Life of Pi ‘preached’ against dualism more than any of other philosophy. From Piscine’s determination to find God through three contradictory religions (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam), to his almost symbiotic relationship with a deadly Bengal tiger aboard a lifeboat, Yann Martel said over and over again in a hundred different ways that dualism is a poor way to deal with life’s complications. He makes it clear that even lost at sea in a lifeboat he shared with Richard Parker, there are many ways to look at life’s circumstances – not everything can be interpreted as either black or white.

In the end, we all believe the story we tell ourselves is the ‘truth’, factual, the real thing, the only story. Yann Martel makes a strong case for the question of whether or not any of us know the ‘real’ story (maybe we can’t know it), and he asks that we take note when someone we come into contact with has a story which contradicts ours. How often do we sacrifice relationship and growth in our determination to make our story ‘right’? We stubbornly hang on to our own construct – an illusion of safety – often at the expense of those around us. Maybe the problem isn’t that we believe the ‘wrong’ story, maybe it’s just that we are unwilling to truly hear anyone else’s. What if, in the end, everyone’s story is ‘wrong’ and the real point of life was learning to love in spite of it all?

2000 years ago a group of Pharisees resorted to murder to protect the story they told themselves. Throughout the centuries the church has continued to do this as if more violence is the solution to violence. Jesus showed us another way. He told a different story to the violence we use to understand and control our world. I wonder to what lengths I would go in order to protect the story that makes sense of my life? To what extent have I sacrificed relationship in my determination to be ‘right’?

Maybe this is exactly why Jesus told parables. Parables, unlike any other story, can be interpreted in so many different ways. Filled with multiple applications, they are designed to both enlighten and confuse. Maybe Jesus’ very use of the parable is proof that knowing the ‘right’ story was never the point. And maybe, just maybe, the Word of Life is the only one able to ‘correctly’ interpret each of our stories. That’s what I believe ‘judgment day’ will be all about: helping me understand my story.

In the meantime, I want to learn to listen to other peoples’ stories, fully aware that I hear through my own grid, somehow finding a way to love in spite of my misunderstanding and contradictory construct. Jesus didn’t promise that people would know Him by how right we are; He promised people would recognize Him by how well we love one another. In the end, only grace signifies, and love really will win.

QUOTE: God Needs No Defense

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God. As if ultimate reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy, begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street and think, “Business as usual.” But, if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening. 

These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves, for evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open battlefield of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush. 

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

 Matthew 25

40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

.  .  .

45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Quote: “We considered him stricken by God, but …

Daily Prompt: Imitation/Flattery

by michelle w. on November 30, 2012

Write a post about anything you’d like — in the style of your favorite blogger. (Be sure to link to them!)

Did God really pour out his wrath against sin on his Son to satisfy his own need for justice? Or did God-in-Christ forgive the world even as it unleashed its wrath against him? Was Christ’s sacrifice the ultimate fulfillment of God’s demand for redemptive bloodshed Or was the cross God’s great “No” to that whole system?” Back Cover, Stricken by God? Edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin

Thanks, JS for the idea!

Daily Prompt – Audience of One

Daily Prompt: Audience of One

Picture the one person in the world you really wish were reading your blog. Write her or him a letter.

Dear _______________,

Look at that. I don’t even know what to call you anymore. You have become for me a nameless, faceless entity, grown out of control and out of reach. Your strength remains, yet too often is used to wound instead of heal.

So many things I want to say. Too many words rolling around to make coherent sense. Impossible to ‘boil it down’. Overwhelming to think of saying it all. But if this were my last chance to say what needs to be said, what would it be?

God has not lied to you.

He means what He says. He will never be too small to do beyond what any of us dare to imagine. He is everywhere, in everything. I know it’s hard to see that when you look around you. Maybe if you looked inside with honesty you would see that you are but a microcosm, a mere reflection of what you choose to vilify outside yourself.

Paul has not lied to you.

You think you teach grace, but spend all your words applying law. The letter really does kill. Only grace signifies. You focus on judgment, not seeing how that leads you into the very things you say you hate. Would that your eyes would focus on mercy. Would that you could see the living Word as the only lens through which you can interpret the written word. Bereft of grace you follow your fathers, eating from the tree of judgment – toward those who are different, those who are outside, anyone who does not hold to your dogma. Jesus does not believe your dogma, why should anyone else? Would you recognize the Lord of grace if He stood inside you? Or would you denounce the One you name Lord when you saw His refusal to adhere to your pet teachings?

It’s not about ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Really. It’s not. As long as you believe you have the only truth, you will never be able to reach anyone outside yourself. Not really. Not with anything that matters. Not with love. Not as long as you cling to your agenda. You know what I’m talking about. That ‘hidden’ agenda behind every relationship you make. The agenda to save. But you do not seek to save, only recruit. After all, someone has to fund the machine, I get it. What if everyone finally saw you for what you really are? What if God finally decided He’d had enough of your corporate machine? What will you do when He says, ‘No’? It’s coming. I’ve been hearing it for a long time. Your days are numbered … at least in your present state.

Hell is not a place, it’s a condition.

By making it into a place you cripple the ones around you already ‘there’, leaving them with no way out and no hope for the future. That you are a slave to it by your own fear is the saddest part of all. Fear is crippling your message, leaving you bereft of any joy to give to anyone, even yourself. You believe the opposite of hell is heaven, but Jesus said the opposite of hell is abundant life.

Abundant life is not a place, it’s a condition.

My heart breaks when I see what you have become … even more when I see what must happen for you to become. I have seen your death. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone.’ A chrysalis awaits to transform you into the bride you will be. You won’t see it that way when you face it. It will crush you to dust until you submit.

I have felt your loneliness. The utter disconnect overwhelms me at your gatherings. You meet together all the time, but face one direction (never one another). You force yourself to perform, else others would know the devastating emptiness inside you. Refusing connection within, fearing connection without, you content yourself with loneliness, assuring yourself that being right is what matters.

I have seen your pride. You can’t connect with anyone from the prison of your self-satisfied beliefs. The idea that your law-keeping, or Bible thumping, or finger-wagging secures God’s love breaks my heart. God is near to the contrite, the broken, the humble. He does not need your rod of correction for anyone. He needs you to open your heart to grace, forgiveness, hope, and love. Your pride divides, delineates, denominates. So certain that your belief, your prayer, your works have saved you from punishment, you never realize that your form has bound you to a lifeless corpse – a form of godliness, denying the power of His grace. Ultimately, you have boiled your message down to one miserable word: Believe in Jesus in order to avoid God’s wrath. But really I must believe in your version of the Gospel in order to be saved. Huh.

Still, I have heard His voice calling, calling even you. His patience will never run out. His heart will never let go. His love will overcome everything – sin and self-righteousness alike. He’s like that, you know. Relentless. You cannot escape His love, no matter how deep you run to hide in the recesses of your structure. He has torn it all down, removed every nook and cranny where you cringe in fear of His coming. But I have seen it. I have seen you – exposed.

You are beautiful beyond imagining!

Returning the Favor

The other day I read this Facebook post:

May you truly know that you are loved and salvation is being saved from God by God Himself.

Really? The first word that came to mind when I read that was “schizophrenic.” The second was “split personality.” I don’t think the Scripture supports the idea that God has to save us from Himself. Somehow I don’t think that Scripture portrays God as conflicted toward His creation. I also don’t think I could interpret this kind of dichotomous behavior as anything close to love. How could I “know I was loved” by a God who has to save me from Himself? Who’s to say the angry side of God won’t trump the love side at my first slip-up?

If God never changes, and God is love … if the primary goal of God is the praise of the glory of His grace … how has anger and wrath become the focus of our belief system? Sounds more like the way men behave than God to me.

Baxter Kruger once quoted another teacher:

On the sixth day God created man in His own image … and we have been returning the favor ever since.

Have you driven on an interstate highway lately? Road rage is rampant. Have you read the news this week? More and more teens are running away from abusive homes. War is everywhere – people rising up and killing one another all over the world out of racial and religious hatred. People are angry. Our mental institutions are chock full of split personalities and our homes are rife with divorced parents raising confused children. This is us, not God.

How about this one:

I read a post on a friend’s wall about a dad in the middle east somewhere who killed his three daughters under sharia law and said he would do it again. It sickens me that he believes that is what his god requires.

It sickens me that my friend believes this is what Jesus requires. My friend doesn’t see the inconsistency. They believe that their heavenly Father will kill His children for failure to obey His laws – only God plans to do this for all of eternity. (In my friend’s mind the opposite of eternal life is eternal death.) To me, the Evangelical assertion that hell is eternal makes our God much worse than these Middle-Eastern fathers. At the very least, these men don’t know any better than what they have been taught by their misguided forefathers (and I realize this to be my friend’s plight as well), whereas God is all-wise and all knowing; and in their case, the pain they caused their daughters had an end, whereas God plans to punish His children without end.

It amazes me how people cannot see the illogical nature of vilifying people who kill their fellow men while glorifying a God who kills (punishes in tortuous fire) people for all of eternity after a mere 80 years of sin. They call this justice? If it’s wrong for an earthly father to kill his daughters for disobeying the Law, then it is infinitely more wrong for an infinite God to kill the children He created for disobeying His law … for all eternity – without even the hope of an end. In other words, it was horribly wrong for Hitler to torture and experiment on hundreds, maybe millions of Jews, but at least there was an end to their suffering – death. Has it ever occurred to you that most Christians believe God is punishing Hitler in hell alongside all those Jews Hitler tortured and murdered who didn’t believe in Jesus as their Messiah? Sure. Makes perfect sense to me… IN WHAT UNIVERSE COULD THIS POSSIBLY MAKE SENSE?

You are probably saying to yourself what I used to tell myself: “But God’s Law is different. God is holy, so He has to punish sin. Anyway, God is different. He’s God. He can do what He wants.” Really? You don’t believe that. Your God is too small. This is what God wants:

2 Corinthians 5: 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Romans 5: 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood [not our belief], we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son [not our belief], much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life [not our belief]. 11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation … 18 So then as through one transgression [Adam] there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness [Jesus] there resulted justification of life to all men. (Don’t tell anyone, but all means all.)

Colossians 1: 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.


Help  me here … which part of “all things” did He not reconcile to Himself?

Romans 11: 32 For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.

Philippians 2: 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Romans 10: 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

1 Timothy 4: 10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.

Over and over again in a hundred different ways the New Testament writers talk about a great reversal – a reconciliation of all things back to God’s way, back to peace, wholeness, and righteousness. There cannot be complete reconciliation where anyone remains unreconciled. There is no end to sadness or any hope of fullness of joy as long as God is determined to vent His wrath rather than to heal. There is no glory in a God who must be appeased for the shortcomings of His creation. The maintaining of a ‘place’ or condition we call hell simply is not in the Bible, and beyond that, it does not portray justice.

Biblically, justice means making all things right.

People have redefined ‘justice’ to mean ‘retribution.’

I heard a great story recently about this. The speaker told about a girl who died as a teenager. Just before her death a friend invited her to church. After the service the friend asked her if she had accepted Jesus as her personal savior. The girl replied no, that she didn’t believe in God – she claimed to be an atheist. Her friend proceeded to share the Gospel with the girl, telling her that Jesus had died for her sins and she must accept this or God would punish her in hell forever. The girl continued to refuse God. The next day she was raped and murdered.

When the police caught the murderer, he was convicted and sentenced to death. During the trial the judge asked him if he was sorry for what he had done. Far from it. He reveled in his sin and bragged about the girl’s screams to her devastated parents. Throughout his life he railed against God and his fellow inmates. He was one of the most hated and feared men in the prison, and he spent most of his time in solitary confinement due to his violent behavior.

Three nights before his execution he received a visit from a pastor. He heard the truth about Jesus and the forgiveness God offers us for the very first time. Overcome by grief for what he had done, he fell to his knees and prayed to God for forgiveness. Two days later he was executed. Imagine his surprise when he woke up in God’s presence while the young teenage girl he tortured and murdered continued to suffer in hell because she didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer before she met her untimely death. How can anyone interpret this as justice? Where is justice for this girl whose life was literally taken from her? How can it be justice for a rapist to suffer a few years in prison and die a humane death by execution when she not only suffered a violent death in this life, but continues to suffer for all of eternity in fire? How can this even come close to what John promised:

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the [cosmos].

… puts to right all wrongs in all of creation. What else could this mean?

The creation, the ‘cosmos’ doesn’t sin. People sin. The cosmos – world – is inanimate – it can only be affected by peoples’ sin. Maybe if John had used the Greek word ‘Anthropos’ or ‘Ethnos’ I would suspect he was talking about taking away peoples’ sins (as in not counting their sins against them). But no, he makes the work of Christ much bigger than just forgiving the sins of individual people. John promises a great reversal to the world-wide effects of sin. When he talks about taking away the sin of the Cosmos, he promises that Jesus is going to turn the world upside down – make everything right.

But wait. Wasn’t this young teen’s sin (unbelief) part of the cosmos? Then why do we think Jesus didn’t take it away with the sins of the man who murdered her? Because the killer said a few words in prayer before the end of his life? Seriously?

I believe that it’s time we start taking God at His word and recognize when we have made God into our own image. Just because I may want to punish (murder) someone out of anger (and retribution), that doesn’t mean God is this way. Just because I respond to my environment with violence doesn’t mean that God does too. Jesus on the cross showed us the way of God – nonviolence. Jesus’ behavior was the very opposite of the people who murdered Him – Jesus was never schizophrenic, He consistently loved, even His killers. By His eternal Word, I believe He still prays,

“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

… believing … teaching … saying.

Isn’t it time we stop returning the favor?