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.

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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 Presence in her Absence

Most of the time I see my sister in waking moments. But on September 30, 2014, I was getting ready for work when the dream I had the night before rushed into my awareness. It was one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had, and although it is rare for me to remember even pieces of a dream, I recalled this one in its entirety.

I had wandered off the streets of downtown Nashville into a sparsely occupied coffee shop. I sat down at a small table to the right of the door and wondered what to order. When the door opened again, I looked up and in she walked. Her bell bottom jeans brushed softly against the wooden floorboards. She was wearing a loose-fitting plaid shirt, untucked at the waist. The long dark brown hair that hung limply from her head was tucked back behind the ears. Her face was troubled. I stared for several seconds. A double-take later, I realized I was looking at my sister, circa 1977. “You cannot be here,” I thought, “you’re dead!” She did not look in my direction as she sat down at the large table next to mine. Her back was to me.

More people trickled in. I did not recognize any of them, but I somehow knew they were friends of hers from college days. They filled up the empty seats around the table she had chosen, and soon an animated conversation about life and God ensued. I was mesmerized by her presence and could not take my eyes off of her. I sat, watched, and listened, resisting the urge to get up and join the group. I wanted to interrupt, to tell her how much I miss her. But I had the distinct impression that she would not have heard me anyway.

The veracity of the New Testament was the subject of the discussion. Of all people, my sister was patiently explaining the texts regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The young man sitting nearest her commented, “You don’t really believe that stuff, do you?” She replied in a calm voice, “Of course I do.” I got the sense from her statement that she was talking about something more definitive than faith or belief, something more like knowing. It dawned on me that now she sees and knows clearly, even as she has always been seen and known. For her, there are no doubts or uncertainties, only truth and love – oh, so much love.

I wanted nothing more than to stay there in that room, watching her, listening to her voice. Having a dream like that helps heal the scar of loss. Waking from a dream like that leaves a brand new one.

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Sunset on New Year’s Eve, 2014.

On the drive home that night, I thought again about the movie, What Dreams May Come and Robin Williams’s dip in paint. My sister adored color. I have known since the day she left this world that she sees it now like never before. That sunset gave me a little preview. She has painted lots more sunsets for me since then – each of them a creative masterpiece. I know that one day we will swim in them together.

One time at the beach, I asked her to draw the ocean for me. She did it, but then kept insisting she had not gotten the waves or the light quite right. I always thought that the waves and the light in her beach drawing had been perfect, but in this life, my sister had never been able to appreciate her own brilliance. The splash of color across that twilit sky on New Year’s Eve told a different story, a story of artistic abandon transcending the need to get things ‘just right’.

~ ~ ~

For many years I have had a vision of a house sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean. A garden stretches out in front of it, filled with every kind of flower. Now that she is gone, I can see her there, tending to the plants, anticipating my arrival. I should have known all along it was her garden.

Tattoo March 3 2016
Second star on the right and straight on ’til morning. – Peter Pan

Hawks still visit me from time to time. Her way of watching over me, I suppose. Love you bunches & bunches and tons & tons, Ditty.

~ Your Little Sis

Lightning and Vultures and Corpses – OH, MY!

It’s Sunday and still early. Armed with nothing more than a lightweight throw and a steaming cup of coffee, I venture out onto my back porch to enjoy the sunrise. I marvel first at the stillness, broken occasionally by 5 or 6 different bird calls and a nearby rooster’s crow. A quiet ‘moo’ interjects itself every so often. Splashes of color begin to paint the back forty off my deck. If a leaf is disturbed, it is by the rare squirrel scampering through the tree limbs. An odd experience, Fairview without wind. For one of the few times in my life I live on a plateau. Every road into Fairview goes up, consequently, it’s one of the windiest places I’ve lived, making the morning stillness that much more exceptional.

I marvel at the peace I find myself wrapped in. Peace in the midst of a world gone mad. The most annoying sound I hear these days is television news – almost exclusively devoted to politics. The debates pierce my ear like the unwelcome call of the crow amidst the other, more pleasing bird songs in my back woods. Here’s a little tidbit I’ve learned about Fairview: there are large colonies of carrion birds living here – significantly more than other areas like it. I guess it’s a good place for them since I am assaulted by the musky smell of dead skunk on a weekly basis. One day a friend and I were out walking and happened upon a flock of vultures feeding on something in the road. Big enough to feed a flock of that size, it must have been a deer, although we didn’t get close enough to see. Without discussion, we simply backed up until we felt safe enough to turn around and retrace our path outta there. Upside is, the dead stuff doesn’t hang around long enough to really get in the way.

All this talk of vultures reminds me of a puzzling Scripture passage I am just beginning to unravel. (A woodpecker is beating out its song on a tree, like a knocking wake-up call, only more rhythmic. I’m reminded of the syncopated beat skills of my daughter on her djembe: a drummer with a different beat…) Most people make the assumption that Matthew 24 is about the ‘end times’, but even a cursory reading of the chapter reveals that Jesus was talking about lots of times – some of His ‘predictions’ would happen not 40 years after he spoke them, while some had happened long before Jesus graced the sod and would continue on long after He left it. Catastrophic events like earthquakes, war, and famine were nothing new to history or the disciples He was teaching. But maybe that was His point – life will go on until the end of the Age, just as it has since the beginning of creation. I think that is one of the central messages Jesus came to give us: Even though our hearts have been changed from within, the chaos without goes on. The heart-change doesn’t stop the chaos, but it does give us an ability to live differently in the midst of it. Kind of like my peaceful back forty in the midst of wall-street riots and the screams of politicians continually vying for power. Maybe my back yard is a picture of the human heart at rest in Christ in the midst of a dog-eat-dog world.

Matthew 24: 23-31: Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gatherBut immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.

So I got to thinking about this section, specifically vs. 28. The meaning of the vivid picture of carrion feeding on corpses has long eluded me. As I gaze through the trees, a couple of things start making sense. Clearly Jesus is contrasting His coming with the rise of false leaders. We’ve turned “Jesus Christ” into a name, but “Christ” wasn’t a name. The word “Christ” means Messiah and Messiah simply means ‘anointed.’ The Hebrew people understood the word anointed to indicate a redeemer – one who would rescue Israel from her oppressors. So the first warning Jesus gives is that fake (often self-proclaimed) Messiahs – redeemers, anointed ones, ones ‘chosen by God’ – were going to come. In fact, that had been happening since before Jesus was born. Many of the disciples were former Zealots, a sect of Jews dedicated to ending Roman oppression. They were constantly looking for a Messiah, an anointed one, a Christ – a leader who would deliver them politically and give the Jews back their earthly kingdom. It was Judas’s misguided belief that Jesus was going to do exactly that which led to his betrayal. Anyway, many such leaders rose and fell in those days. It’s interesting to note that Matthew began this chapter with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about Zealots and the Temple’s destruction:

According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala, who had fought the Romans in Galilee, escaped, came to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the Temple’s destruction.  Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zealotry

Did you get that? False leaders – Messiahs, Christsled to the destruction of the Temple. Their terrorist ways were such a threat to the Roman Empire in that region that the only solution was to take away the center of their devotion – the Temple. The real problem with Zealots is they are looking for freedom without. Jesus came to bring us freedom within.

According to Him, the mantra of the followers of these false messiahs was, “We’ve found the christ – he’s here or he’s there. In the wilderness, in the inner room, we have found him, come and see.” Now look at the contrast of Jesus’ coming: “For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” Here’s what I know about lightning: 1. You can see it for yourself; and if you miss the flash, you’re gonna hear the thunder soon enough. 2. Lightning cannot be contained. Look at how Jesus described this lightning flash: “from the east … even to the west.” In other words, His coming, His presence, will be out in the open and it will reach around the globe. This contrasts the claim, only here (in this church), or only there (if you believe this way), implying we have to go where these supposed messiahs/christs reside. Jesus is bigger than buildings, programs, and even our limited belief systems; in fact. He’s WAY bigger. Last I checked, He came to us, met us at our point of need (thus the word ‘incarnation’). Jesus didn’t command the sinners and tax collectors to high-tail it into the synagogues (you know, the religious structures they were banned from entering), no, He went to them, to marketplaces and bars, to parties, homes, and the streets where they lived out their exile. Jesus experienced their world – but more than that, He met them there. 3. Lightning cannot be controlled. C.S. Lewis said it best, “He’s not a tame lion.” Far from it – He’s out of control!! Out of our control, anyway. I don’t know about you, but when I see lightning strikes coming closer, I run for cover. Isn’t it interesting that He compared His coming to lightning – one of the scariest and most volatile of nature’s wonders? The real marvel is that we try and box that lightning in. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.

With that as background, I’d like to bring it back to the vultures and corpses that have been puzzling me all these years. It seems to me that Jesus is saying people can be like vultures.

Vultures gather in packs where they can feed, and what they eat is dead.

I’ve been walking with Jesus for going on 33 years now and I have literally seen it all. Well, all that Western Christianity has to offer. I’ve seen more so-called ‘anointed’ men than you can shake a stick at, and for the most part the message they bring is Law. Maybe they haven’t heard, the letter of the Law kills. What they are offering is already dead. Being in Christian leadership has given me perhaps a different perspective than some of my readers. What you may not know is that the politics of the church aren’t all that different from the republicans slinging mud at the democrats and vice versa (John Piper’s response to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, is a good example of that kind of nonsense). In fact, I’ve said for many years now, “No one can hurt you like the church.” Being chewed up and spit out by sheep and wolves alike has kind of become our family’s M.O., and it feels a whole lot like death. For me, no more. Funny thing is, it wasn’t bitterness that led me out the door, but pure weariness. I exhausted myself and my resources running to and fro following this and that move of God (“in the wilderness … in the inner room”), where, in the end, I found only death. This morning in my wooded back yard, I discovered a shiny rainbow of leaves in the midst of the peaceful Presence of the Holy Spirit, free from the clamor of men telling me what and how I should believe. If only they understood the mystery of diversity that God built into the fabric of the universe itself, maybe they would realize the arrogance of their claims to Truth, to being ‘anointed’, to knowing ‘the way’. Maybe one day the false will realize their falseness and all will become well with the world, at peace, like my back yard.

Until that day, I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of the self-proclaimed messiahs, promising me health, wealth, and happiness (focused on the outer man, not the inner one where real change happens – the hidden spaces of the human heart – where only love signifies). I’m tired of being told I should be under a pastor’s authority, when Jesus clearly said, “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:8-9) According to Jesus, no man on earth has claim to any authority over me, and His words teach me that the hierarchical structure of the church (laity vs. clergy) is not His will, for all that powerful men claim otherwise. In Matthew 20 Jesus went so far as to blast apart our idea of pastoral church authority altogether:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 26 It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

As usual the traditions of men trump the words of Jesus.

To the sheep John had this to say in I John 2:27: “As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.” I can still hear the call of the carrion crows: “The worship in this church is anointed … or: we know the way of salvation – come follow us!” The still, small voice I hear inside the vastness of my eternal self tells me a very different story… all about lightning and vultures and corpses.