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 path to real growth was to see the truth about yourself and then understand the way(s) in which God was different from that. Sometime in my mid-thirties I realized that most of what I knew about success, character  – pretty much everything – I learned by example of what not to do or who I did not want to be like. It was then that I began to understand experientially what our college saying meant in terms of the power of contrast to teach.

Time, experience, and study have expanded my understanding of the Bible as well. I now realize that the stories within it most often reveal what God is not. This particular learning tool can prove quite effective with human minds struggling to comprehend a vast, silent, and invisible God. But nuance is sadly ignored 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 foreshadowed God one day sacrificing Jesus to appease himself. But is that really what this story was about? Does God really 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? 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 the anger of their god(s). In fact, some sort of blood sacrifice has been practiced for centuries in almost all cultures ever to exist. Here is an eye opening site on the history of blood sacrifices 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, especially the first-born, to the god(s) was commonplace in those days. In fact, everyone was doing it. To Abraham it would have been business as usual for his god to demand the kind of worship that required the ultimate sacrifice of human blood. But while the story began ordinarily enough, the end revealed something radically new. Just as the knife made its way to Isaac’s heart, a voice stopped Abraham. A ram had been caught in a nearby thicket and the voice instructed Abraham to sacrifice it rather than his son. Here was the first instance of God showing man that he was in fact unlike all other gods.

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 you would get how this little nugget 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 much 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 to bring justice for the entire nation.

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

The last puzzle piece of what God is like can be found 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 because 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 teach that Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice for 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 post called Walking Through the Pieces. It went on to become my all-time most-read page, clocking in at a whopping 10,209 views as of January 6, 2020. No other post of mine has come anywhere near this number. The vast amount of interest in this topic has prompted me to keep digging into the story.

I have 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 walked between the pieces while stating the terms of the covenant. Walking the path 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 his covenant with God 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 does it, independent of any belief or behavior on man’s 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. 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 use Abram’s initial belief in the promise of an heir to teach that man’s part of the bargain is to believe that Jesus’ death paid God back for our sins because God requires blood. Whoever refuses to hold up man’s end of the covenant (by believing) will be treated like those slaughtered animals – except they will suffer an eternity in hell (at the hand of God, no less)!

Even I was captured by this interpretation of the narrative when I assumed that Jesus’ broken body was the fulfillment of God’s part of the covenant on our behalf – that God himself slaughtered Jesus to pay for our sins.

But what if that interpretation of the gospel story is completely erroneous?  What if the church is as wrong about God as good ol’ Sonny? What if Jesus’ death itself is a picture of what God is not like?

What if the real point of the story is Jesus’ life – a picture of how we were made to live, spiritually free from guilt and shame – not the story of what will happen to us after we die?

What if the gospel has absolutely nothing to do with a bloodthirsty God?

What if Rome sacrificed Jesus on the altar of their power because his message of spiritual freedom was a threat to them and the religious order of the day? What if it had nothing whatever to do with God’s supposed anger towards mankind?

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?

What if the story of Jesus’ death is a picture of what God is not like?

The literal interpretation of the Bible has served for hundreds of years to perpetrate 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 once 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 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, bloodthirsty ‘gods’ invented by violent men, designed to control people using fear, guilt, and shame.

True change can 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.

Thanks so much for reading.

Namaste,

~C

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!

God in Christ, Reconciling the World to Himself

Daily Prompt: Quote Me

by michelle w. on January 4, 2013

Do you have a favorite quote that you return to again and again? What is it, and why does it move you?

I don’t memorize Scripture very well. There. I said it. I mean, I can usually find a verse by searching a few of the words I remember. You know, the gist? And then there’s remembering the ‘address’. Yeah. I can usually get close … let’s see, like “I know it’s in the Old Testament…”

The title of this post is the small portion of the section below which I can actually remember. Here’s the whole thing:

2 Corinthians 5:18-20

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 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.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

I spent almost 30 years in what I call Evangelical World. In this world there is one goal and one goal only: Get everyone saved. This proved to be a very frustrating goal for me, as it turns out. Early on I found that I wasn’t very good and convincing people that they need saving. Apparently, I wasn’t very good at ‘praying people in’ to the Kingdom, either.

And then something really amazing happened: God blew up my theological box! What’s a theological box, you ask? Well, everyone has one. It’s the framework you have in your mind that forms your understanding of who God is (or is not). Even if you are an atheist, you have this box. Your box just happens to support the thought that there is no God. This is a theological box none-the-less.

So I haven’t quite gotten to why this verse moves me. It’s simple, really. In Evangelical World only a select few get in to God’s Kingdom. Only a select few will make the ‘right’ choice and find their way into God’s family. And in that world view penal substitutionary atonement is the prevailing (usually only) understanding of the atonement. As you can see from some of my other blogs about the atonement, this view basically says that our sin made God really mad (Evangelical World refers to this as ‘God’s wrath’). It also teaches that God is morally perfect and because we have sinned (missed the mark of perfection), God requires some sort of payment. They believe that Jesus paid God off by dying in our place. But these few verses turn that idea entirely on its head.

In them we see God’s real plan – the reconciliation of the world (as opposed to a select few). We also see that instead of the idea that God is mad and Jesus is loving (kind of like God the Father is wanting to spank us in a serious way – snuff us out – because of our sins, but Jesus stands in between God and us saying, “Don’t hurt them, Father, punish me instead!”), we see here that the Father and the Son are united in their quest to reconcile everything (and thus, everyone) to them. I mean, you cannot get any more intimate than to be ‘in’ someone, can you?

God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.

This moves me because it speaks a word of hope – something Evangelical World has completely neglected, even lost. As long as the Gospel remains available only to a select few, the world (Greek word ‘cosmos’ – the entire creation!) will be left out of the equation. As long as Evangelical World understands the Gospel in terms of the Law rather than Grace, they will have no hope to give.

Our God is a God of hope, love, peace, joy, and, above all, reconciliation. He Himself reconciled us (not because He was angry and needed a sacrifice, but because we didn’t believe He loved us). When man sinned, God did not change, we did. In Christ He showed us that absolutely nothing we do can turn aside His love for us, for His creation, for His beloved children.

That’s why this quote moves me. I hope it has spoken a word of hope to you as well.

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.