Friday, September 25, 2009

How the "Religious Right" REALLY got it wrong. Part 1

     In the winter of 1985 I was going to school in Israel.  As it turns out, Jerry Falwell held a prophecy conference in Jerusalem and I wanted to go hear him speak.  So myself and a few other students headed over to the King David hotel and went in.  We actually got to meet Reverend Falwell. (He was shorter and wrinklier in person than I would have guessed.)
     Once the program started, Falwell made the usual jokes about how all that week his group had been "Running where Jesus had walked."  Then the first guest got up to speak and he was no less than Gen. Ariel Sharon.  He had been the commanding general of the Israeli army that had invaded Lebanon a couple years previously.  Israel was now stuck in their own form of a Vietnam War that they couldn't dislodge themselves from.
     I was puzzled at the choice of him speaking.  First, he certainly wasn't a Believer.  Second, soon into the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, troops under his direct command had stood across the road from the Sabra & Shatila refugee camps as Israel's allies, the Christian Phalange militia had gone in and slaughtered upwards of 3000 unarmed Palestinian women and children.  An odd choice indeed.

     The final speaker of the evening was Dr. Tim LaHaye. (You might have heard from him through the Left Behind series that he co-authored.) Dr. Tim said that he would explain the prophecy on Ezekiel 38 & 39.  He said that what God was telling Ezekiel was that the Soviet Union was going to invade Israel, but then be destroyed by fireballs from heaven.  He went a bit further saying that all communists everywhere would be killed off, and to my dying day I will never forget the reaction of the crowd.  Dr. Tim ended his lecture by saying that it wouldn't just be Soviet communists that would be destroyed.  No.  He framed his final sentence in the form of a question. "And won't all the American colleges and universities be surprised when they wake up to find that half of their professorial staffs have been destroyed by fireballs from heaven?"  At that, the crowd leapt to it's feet and cheered.  I can still hear those southern accents cheering "Ay-May-en."
     It was at this point that I asked myself a question; "Is it right for anyone to be so happy at God killing people and sending them to Hell?"  God is the righteous judge, to be sure.  But does that mean that a Believer should be happy about someone else being punished by God?  Doesn't God explicitly warn against that?

(You know, God says that False Prophets are supposed to be killed by stoning.  Since the Soviet Union no longer exists, they can't invade Israel.  Also, most American college staffs haven't been smitten by fireballs just yet either.  "Excuse me, Dr. LaHaye?  Could I see you for a moment?  I found this really nice rock I want to show you.")

     Myself and the three other students from our school remained seated.

     Up until that point I had been a big fan of the Religious Right.  I thought that America needed protection from the evil, secular lefties out there trying to throw Christianity out of America.  To this day, I am still a fairly conservative guy...I really am.  So, you can probably guess which party I vote for more often then not.  That having been said, I'm not a fool either.  I remember during the 1984 Presidential election seeing a guy carrying a sign that said "God is a Republican," and I agreed with him.
     It took me a few years of soul searching and researching to come to the painfully obvious fact that, no, Jesus is not a Republican.  Neither is he a Democrat.  As it turns out, Jesus is not a member of the Labour party, the Conservative party, or the Parti Quebecois either.  In fact, it is questionable whether Jesus even believes in democracy.  After all, he is a king.

     Many people will say that America is a "Christian" country.  Really?  Since when?  Were we a christian country when we enshrined slavery into our constitution?  How about when we made Jim Crow the law of the land in the southern states?  Were we a christian country when we slaughtered the Native Americans during our westward expansion?

     The only "Christian" country that I know of is not a representative democracy.  It is actually a dictatorship, albeit an enlightened one.  It is a divine right absolute monarchy.  It is called "The Kingdom of God."  Scripturally, that is spot on.

     Now I don't want anyone to think that I am ragging on the U.S., because I am not.  I love America.  I love the uniqueness of our country.  Most countries were created around an ethnic group.  America was an idea, long before it ever became a country.  That alone is amazing!  Not to mention that members of my family &  friends have given their lives for this country.  I LOVE America!  But I DO NOT believe that America, or ANY other country, is a "Christian Country."  We need to to be very careful about that name.
     The problem with calling a country, any country, a "Christian" one is that you drag Jesus into all of the mistakes that that country makes.  Heck, Hitler called himself a christian when it suited his needs.  His Wermacht had "Got Mit Unse" (God with us) printed on their belt buckles as they invaded Poland.  Countries are run by fallen people who make mistakes.  Jesus doesn't make mistakes.  It also smacks of idolatry when you equate a nation with Jesus.
     The founding fathers of the U.S. were great men, but only a handful of them were what we would now term Evangelicals.  Guys like John Adams and James Madison could sign the statement of beliefs of Bethel University or Wheaton.  Jefferson certainly would not sign it.  He was to busy cutting all of the miracles of Jesus out of the New Testament to make his famous Jefferson Bible that you can find in most libraries.  Ben Franklin wouldn't sign those statements of beliefs either.  He was having to much fun looking up ladies petticoats in Paris.

     In their book, Un-Christian, David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons have a chapter titled Too Political.  The perception of Christianity that young people have today is that Christians are primarily motivated by a political agenda and promote right-wing politics.  You don't have to like that perception, but that is a fact.
     Two weekends ago, the Values Voters summit was held in Washington D.C.  This was a meeting of primarily the religious right and their allies.  Needless to say, it was almost exclusively Republican in nature.  Dr. James Dobson was there, along with Mike Hukabee and even our Governor, Tim Pawlenty.  What was interesting to notice was that the only two values that these voters cherish are No Gay Marriage, and No Abortions.  There was nothing said about poverty, homelessness or the fact that over 30 million Americans have no health insurance.  Those two items were the only items of value to the people.  I still have no idea why.
     Environmentalism was brought up at the summit.  As it turns out, the whole climate change thing is all a big hoax, and we have nothing to worry about.  So apparently that air that I was able to chew when I was in Beijing two years ago was all in my head.  It's good to know that it is all a hoax, because I would like to invite all of the readers of this blog to join me on the river banks where the Minnesota river runs into the Mississippi.  We shall then fill up some empty gallon jugs with the river water and proceed to have a chugging contest.  So come on down and bring your imodium.
     I find it odd that a group that uses the word CONSERVative wouldn't be interested in conservation.  Further more, I find it even stranger that these people would disobey God's second directive to humans.  After all, in the second of the three creation stories, right after God tells people to be fruitful & multiply, He then tell us that we are supposed to be responsible for the whole creation that He so painstakingly made.

     Could it be that there are other legitimate issues out there that American Christians should value?

     A friend of mine has walked away from his faith.  He is a liberal oriented person politically.  His mother has Rush Limbaugh blaring from the radio when ever I would go over to her house.  She equates christianity with being a Republican.  She essentially told him that he was a heretic because he voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. (Why do so many Christians listen to a guy like Limbaugh?  He is not a Believer.)

     Chuck Colson stated in his book Kingdoms in Conflict that Christians should never have a political party.  He says  that "It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology.  Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and christians instead believe in the revealed truth of Scripture."
     Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote an essay in which he says, "Evangelicalism has been hijacked and usurped by a partisan political forces.  Conservative religion is now being driven and dictated by secular right-wing political forces."  I think he is exactly right.

     In central Israel there is an archeological site called Tell Hazor.  It was one of those city states that existed 4000 years ago.  We went to the diggings there and poked around.  Apparently, in it's time the city of Hazor was so wealthy that it could simply buy off it's enemies.  It was extremely influential and powerful in it's day.   Now all that is left of it is a huge lump of dirt in the Jezreel valley.
     As we stood there looking out over the valley, one of our instructors opened up his Bible and read from Isaiah 40.  "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.  the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."
     America is like the city state of Hazor.  So are all nations.  They are temporal and finite.  Some countries last for centuries.  Some only last a few decades.  All countries will wither and fall.  But the Kingdom of God last for eternity.

     A week after visiting Tell Hazor I went to a theater in Jerusalem.  I saw Blade Runner. (Most critics consider it to be the best science fiction movie of all times.) The basic plot of the movie is about a cop who is hunting down Replicants.  Replicants are a sort of manufactured human that has only a short life span.  They do all of the dirty work on planetary colonies and such.  A group of them have escaped and come back to earth.  They are trying to seek out the man who created them in hopes that he can extend their lives.
     The cop tracking them is played by Harrison Ford.  The last of the Replicants is played by Rutger Hauer.  At the end of the movie the two characters are pursuing each other through this broken down building.  At one point, Roy Batty (Hauer's character) actually pushes a large nail through his hand to retain his consciousness.  He knows that he is about to die.
     In the final scene, he actually saves Harrison Ford's characters life.  Hauer sits down on the roof clutching a dove to his chest.  He tells the cop,...ah, what the heck.  I finally figured out how to get a video on here, so just watch it for yourself.


     
     I like the nice touch of the dove being released at the end and flying towards the sky like a soul going to heaven.

     Sitting in that theater, those lines made me think about Tell Hazor.  They also made me think about America.  In another hundred years or so, will the U.S. still be around?  Will there still be Democrats and Republicans?  Or will we be lost like tears in the rain just like Hazor?

"The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
but the word of our God stands forever."

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, 
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away...
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God...
And I heard a loud voice saying "Now the dwelling of God is with men, 
and He will live with them.  
They will be His people, and He will live with them and be their God.  
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, 
for the old order of things has passed away."
Revelation 21

     Now THAT'S the kind of country I want to live in.

     Peace

     Joe



Jesus on the Therapist's Couch

 
     John wrote "God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him."

     I don't feel very lovable this morning.

     Yesterday at Living Waters, Pastor Scott was still preaching through Philippians, and he quoted Paul saying "Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!"  Scott pointed out that this was not a wish on the part of Paul.  It was actually a command.

     I don't feel much like rejoicing.

     I'm in a sour mood this morning.  It's cold and windy outside.  Last night at work it was cold & windy AND wet!  I was miserable.  I was working in the parking lot with some of the kids when the wind whipped up so hard that I was actually hit by grocery carts sailing across the lot.

     I just don't feel like rejoicing.

Warning: What I am about to write is, shall we say, NEGATIVE.
But it's just me venting.

     Let me tell you a little about what I have seen by staring at the parking lot of that grocery store.  Someday I will write a book of short stories about what I have seen there.  I have learned first hand just how dumb humanity is...and I do mean dumb.  I am often amazed that humanity ever learned to tie their own shoes. 
     I have been hit twice in that parking lot by drivers not paying attention to what they are doing.  Last week, as I was standing in front of a car waving my hands and yelling for the driver to stop, (She was looking right at me the whole time, too.) she backed up 30 feet right into a line of carts which then smacked into one of the Maintenance kids.  He ended up going to the hospital.
     I see people back into other cars every week.  I see people yakking on their cell phones as they are going in reverse.  I see people dump their trash in the lot.  I see lazy people leave their carts in parking spots when they are only 10 feet away from a cart corral.  I see stupid people who never bother to look both directions right before they pull out in front of oncoming traffic.
     (Yes, I have even caught people getting high and/or having sex in the parking lot a grocery store) 

     Now, once you get inside the store, it gets even better.  I figure that it has something to do with our Fast Food mentality which makes us think that having to wait more than 3 seconds for anything ruins our entire day.  There could be 500 people in the store, but every single one of them thinks that they are the only person in the place...and they behave accordingly.  "Please be sure to park your cart diagonally in the aisle for maximum blockage of all other shoppers."
     A study came out last Spring that said that 1 in 5 Americans have a personality disorder.  "NO!  Well, knock me over with a feather."  I could have told them that ten years ago just based on what I have seen in that store.  How else do you explain a person taking a dump in the potato chips ailse?  I have been told by the overnight crew that it gets even weirder after midnight.  "Please, Jesus!  I want to get another teaching job so bad.  If I have to stay at that store much longer I will lose what little of my mind that I have left."

     When people think of the word Sin, they usually think of stuff that is really, really bad.  Something along the lines of robbery, murder and such.  People seem to rate sins.  The catholic church certainly does.  Depending on what you confess to a priest, you will be given a certain amount of Hail Marys and the like to do as an act of contrition.  It's all relative because being good or bad is relative.  You can be really good, or just sort of good.  It's relative.
     Sin doesn't work like that.  In God's eyes all sin is the same.  It makes you unholy.  It doesn't matter what the sin is.  It still makes you unholy.  Being holy is like being pregnant.  You either are or you aren't.
     That lazy moron who left his cart in a parking spot, blocking another customer from parking there, acted selfishly.  He sinned.  That slob that dumped his trash in the lot instead of the garbage can acted selfishly.  He sinned.  Both of them are unholy.

     Have you ever wondered about why, when Moses asked God to show him His glory, God responded with "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."?  In that story, God shields Moses in a cleft in the mountain and passes by him.  God essentially Moons Moses by letting him see His backside. (Who says God doesn't have a sense of humor?) That tiny glimpse of God caused Moses' face to shine so brightly that he had to wear a veil for the rest of his days.
     When Isaiah had his vision of the throne room of God, he just about filled his trousers in fear.  His response to seeing God's glory was "Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."  Isaiah saw the holiness of God and he was convinced he was a dead man.   Nothing that is unholy can survive in the presence of God.  That is why God wouldn't let Moses see His face, his Glory.  
     (I should point out that Isaiah's claim to being unholy was for apparently having a potty mouth.  What's worse, saying a cuss word when you smash your thumb with a hammer, or dumping your garbage in a parking lot?)
     
     I think you get the idea that humans are flawed creatures at heart.  I certainly am.  Some of the thoughts that raced through my head this morning...and probably will again in a few minutes...and this afternoon...and this evening, remind me that I am flawed and sinful.

     So why in the world would God love us?  Why would God take on human form, with all of it's irritating limitations like morning breath, acne, B.O., bad food, and having to put up with lazy people who don't put their carts away, when He knew that He would only be killed for His troubles?  Why would Jesus allow himself to be crucified, knowing full well that the majority of humanity would still ultimately reject him?  Because he loves us?!?!

      Get that man some Zoloft at once, because he is clearly out of his mind!  
      
     There are a few people that I would take a bullet for.  Certainly for my Mom & Dad.  But would I take a bullet for the average person out there?  No way.  That guy that just dumped his ashtray in the parking lot?  I would rather take a broom handle and turn him into a living sock puppet. 

     One of the aspects of Christianity that convinced me of the truth of Christ was his willingness to be murdered and resurrected, and to put up with all the other crap before hand, on our behalf.  It just seems to be completely crazy.  Why would ANYONE do that for us?  We are not worth it.  It just seemed so insane and contrary to the way the average person lives their life that it simply had to be true.  I was further convinced by the lives of the apostles and others in the early church.  Perhaps I should not say their lives, but their deaths.  They just came across as so secure in the understanding that Jesus loved them and had something better than this turd of a world waiting for them, that they weren't at all afraid to live for him AND to  die for him.
     It's pretty clear that Paul didn't get much in the way of power for following Jesus.  He didn't get money either.  He didn't even get any chicks out this deal.  What's up with all that?  What he did get was a nice beating in many of the towns he preached in.  He also got arrested and locked up a lot.  Finally, he gets his head cut off by the emperor.  And all the while, Paul was Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky.  He was absolutely convinced that God loved him and was waiting to call him home.  He was completely at peace with that knowledge.
     At the close of his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote "And may the God of LOVE and PEACE be with you."  He really understood something that I am unfortunately still wrestling with...especially this morning.  But it must be true.  I have no other way to explain it.

     The Bible is clear on the idea that my walnut of a brain will not fully comprehend the Almighty during this life time.  I will not fully understand why Jesus did what he did for me.  It really does come off as crazy, you know.  It really does.  Still, I can accept it.  In fact, since I AM nuts, maybe it's just another of Jesus ways in identifying with me and the rest of humanity. 

     Maybe I'll feel more chipper after a warm shower.

     Joe

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"So this Idol worshipper goes to communion..."

     The picture to the left is of Narcissus.  If you know your ancient Greek mythology, then you know that this guy was so enamored with his good looks that at one point, when he saw his reflection in a pond, he stayed there and stared at it until he eventually turned into a flower. (If it helps, think of those Pretty Boy models for Abercrombie & Fitch.) Narcissus worshipped himself.  Simple as that.

     In the final of the three creation stories in Genesis, the fall of humanity comes about with one simple temptation.  The serpent tells Eve that if she eats from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil that "You will be just like God."   The original sin was not taking a bite out of whatever fruit was hanging from that tree.  No.  Sin entered the world when Eve thought something along the lines of; "Yeah.  I want to be just like God."  The moment she desired to be something she was not, and made a move for that fruit, BOOM, sin entered and it's been downhill from there.

     There is a group of musicians that I really like called The Newsboys.  Most of the members are from Australia.  So for a while they called themselves the Aussie Posse'.   A couple of years back I heard a song of theirs titled "Rescue."  I pretty much made that tune the theme song of my life.

"Old as the hills, new everyday
It's in the bones like it's DNA
First taste is sweet 'til it rots in your mouth
Another old friend who rats you out
All of the time in this life
Can't loose the ties that bind
They shackle our feet, we trip, we fall
We crawl
I was born in the mess of it all

Then You rescued me, rescued me
Lord, with a touch of Your hand
Another captive free again
Who else in heaven could do this but You?
You rescued me, rescued me
Lord, with a love out of mind
Oh, You know I love it when
Everyday I am rescued again"

     There is more to the song, but you should go out and buy it instead merely reading it here.  I emphasize the final verse because it's something that I have come to understand more fully with every passing day.  The grace of God really does surpass understanding.

     So why did I bring all that up?  Well, something rather beautiful happened during the service at Living Waters this past morning.  Please understand, there is a running joke that says that what ever happens during the service at Living Waters, wether what is preached, sung about, or said, NEVER happens by accident.  Every single service seems to relate to what the other members have been dealing with during the previous week.  Indeed, it happened again this morning.
     Pastor Scott took a back seat and let Bobby Hill run the show. (Yes, his name is the same as the cartoon character from the King of the Hill cartoon series.) It was to be a communion service, but it was decided to be run quite differently than your standard fare.  There were a huge number of musicians on stage.  Bobby told us that in between songs, if anyone thought they had a word from the Lord, or if they had an encouragement, a request, etc., that they could speak up and come forward.  At the end, we were to serve each other the bread and the cup and just enjoy the fellowship.
     I usually do not get very involved in the whole singing portion.  I dig on sermons.  Still, I have noticed that I find myself getting more and more out of simply listening to the others singing.  In fact, I whispered to a woman next to me that I ought to have known better and brought some tissues.  You see, I am a Weeper. (Hey, I cried when Old Yeller was shot.  How much more so when something of significance hits my heart?) So, by the second song I started to get that certain feeling again..."Where's a hanky when you need one."
     The second song was one called "My Soul Longs for You."  It is an intentionally repetitive song and has always reminded me of the old tune by the 5th Dimension "The Age of Aquarius."  "My soul longs for you.  Nothing else will do.  I believe that You will come like the rain.  So let it rain."  Now I have to tell you that our worship team is GOOD!  Especially the ladies.  And when everyone sings in harmony, it can be extremely powerful.
     My soul does long for God.  As stuck as I am in a life that is far from perfect, I long to be close to God.  Although I am never quite sure why God would long to be with me.  But the Bible is very clear that God longs for a relationship with all of us.  I doubt I'll ever figure out why that should ever be the case...at least in this life.  Still, there I was with the beginning of becoming a human puddle.  If this keeps up, folks are going to start scattering rice seeds around me. 
     Eventually we got around to a song I hadn't heard before called "You Won't Relent."  A few of the verses go like this, "You won't relent until you have it all.  My heart is yours.  Come be the fire inside of me, until you and I are one.  My heart is yours."

     I do not recall the name of the poet or all of the specific verses, but many years ago I read a poem that describes God as the Hound of Heaven.  I pictured one of those Coon Hounds out in the woods, relentlessly pursuing some escaped convict down in Louisiana.  The poet's assertion is that God pursues human beings relentlessly until we are cornered and simply give up.  However, in the case of this hound, once cornered it leaps on you and licks you in joy. (Dog juice seems much preferable to Angola prison in Louisiana.) 

     SO ANYWAY, it was at that point in the service that I could feel God pointing something out to me.  In Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth he comes to a part where he begins to speak about celebrating the Lord's Supper.  Paul wrote "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup."
     Well, I was a feeling a bit on the unclean side that morning.  There are a few issues that I struggle with.  I have noticed that what might be a serious issue for me might not even hit the radar of someone else, and visa-versa.  Still, for me these are serious issues that I feel hinder me from growing as close to Jesus as I would like.  I felt God saying to me "Hey, now is a good time to confess this one publicly to to the rest of the body.  They will be here for you!"
     I will confess that I was a bit scared.  But I walked out of the service and out to my VUE.  I grabbed something that I am ashamed of and came back to the service.  I came up to Bobby and  he let me address the rest of the body.  I pulled out my tin of Grizzly chewing tobacco and told everyone that this is idol that I worship.

     (Now I can't swear that using tobacco is a sin.  Guys like C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien smoked pipes, but were also strong Believers.  You could probably make arguments either way.  However, something doesn't have to be an out right sin to be a bad idea.  I mean, the Bible says nothing about hitting yourself in the mouth repeatedly with a ball-peen hammer.  But it strikes me as a rather poor idea...depending upon your dental coverage.)

     For me, using tobacco IS a sin because I treat it as an idol.  Part of me is addicted to it.  However, another part of it is simple willfulness.  I put its use before a healthy relationship with Jesus.  For me, that is simply a fact.  I worship it.  Believe me, this has never been something that I was proud of.  If I could reverse time, of all the stupid things I have done, this is the one that I wish I could undo the most. 

     The root of all sin is in our desire to be God.  We want to set the rules.  We want to decide our own fate and be in charge.  We do not wish to turn our lives over to God.  Maybe a part of us does, but there is a nature at work deep inside all of us that resists.  Even if you are a Believer, you still struggle with this old nature.  The Bible says that you always will in this life.  That little can of wasted money and potential mouth cancer has been the lynch pin idol for so many other issues that I wrestle with.  I had to come clean about it.  I didn't want to be a part of communion until I had made that clear.

     It was only a matter of moments before a sizable group had gathered to lay hands on me and pray.  The little can of chew had been taken and put in a bowl.  The juice we use to celebrate communion was poured over it to symbolize the blood of Jesus covering our sins. (Hey, I'm a Baptist.  We use grape juice.  Don't be judgin' now.) It felt good.
     After that was finished, we went on with the service.  Torian led us in singing "Amazing Grace."  Jeez, that guy can sing!  The harmonies were much more powerful, sweet and vivid than I ever recall noticing before.  It was pure.  It was beautiful.

     I certainly was not the only person to get up and speak.  I don't know if anyone talked with the others about what they had said after the service.  I do know that a couple of people came up to me and said they were happy that I could make myself vulnerable.  However, it wasn't my doing.  The real compliment goes to the other members of the body, and of course to Christ.
     You see, I have gone to services at many places of worship with many, many other Believers.  The body at Living Waters is the first group of Believers that I felt I actually COULD be open and vulnerable with.  That is a compliment to them and the way that they have allowed God to work in their hearts and minds.  But it is also a rather sad statement about much of the church in America.

There is no such thing as a "Good Christian."

     That is a statement that I have used for a long time now, and I mean it with all of my heart.  There is no such thing as a good christian.  You are either a STRUGGLING christian, or a non-struggling christian.  If you are not struggling, then please get away from me as quickly as possible because you will be absolutely of no help to me at all.  If you do not struggle, then you are in denial.  You are a Pharisee.  You are a walking lie!  In John's first letter to the church in Asia Minor he notes that "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (You will notice that he includes himself in this.  Not bad for a guy who hung out with Jesus while Christ was on earth)
     Believers have no right what so ever to be stuffed shirts.  If anything, we ought to be the most honest and bold people on the planet about our struggles.  We all have them.  Give a person a few minutes of your time and they just might pick up on a few of them.  We might as well be honest and say "Yep, I can be quite a mess at times.  Good thing Jesus loves me and will help me through all of it."
     Back in college, my friend Moy-Moy made this massive painting about the mask that we all wear.  He points out that we ALL wear them from time to time.  The irony is that we all know that we wear them, and that everyone else KNOWS that we wear them...and that they & we know that the they wear them too.  Yet, it is so hard to simply remove them and throw them away.  Why is that?  Is it because we are all still trying to be something we are not...just like Eve did all those eons ago?  Are we still trying to be God?  Could be.

     I can't claim that this will be an easy fight for me.  I know full well that there are times and situations that trigger my desire for a dip in the lip.  It is very helpful to know that I have a group of people, members of the body of Christ, who might not fully understand my struggle, yet are there for me never the less.  I will do my best to turn myself over to the power of Jesus so that he can help me to be there for them too.
     Actually, ever since that service it feels like a significant weight has been removed from my shoulders.  Christ at work in the members of his body I do suppose.

     You know, I feel at this point that I have to apologize to any reader if they have ever been hurt by someone who called themselves a "Christian."  If they judged you, or weren't there for you when you opened up and were vulnerable, I'm sorry.  Believe me, I understand...I REALLY do.  It is not supposed to be that way.
     I hope that you, that everyone, can find the type of Believers that I have found at Living Waters.  It's a beautiful thing when the body really does allow Jesus to be the head.  It demonstrates just how amazing grace can be.

"I was born in the mess of it all.  
Then you rescued me, Lord, 
with a touch of your hand. 
Oh, you know I love it when, 
Everyday I am rescued again."

Joe

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tom & Deb go to Boot Camp


Sorry that it's taken me a few days to post anything.  I've had a few things on my mind.  That having been said, "Welcome" to Trayce.  I'm not sure who you are, but it's nice having you.


     "I don't trust Christians who haven't been broken."  This is a quote from my friend Deb.  She can alternately be known as St. Debbo.  She said it in passing a few weeks ago as we were leaving Living Waters.
     Let me tell you a bit about my friends Deb and her husband Tom.  St. Debbo is one of the sweetest & nicest people you could ever come across.  She has a great heart, especially when it comes to kids.  I tell her that she ought to go back to college and become a pediatric nurse.  I'm sure that she must have some flaws in her character, but as much as I look I can't seem to find any.  I am of the opinion that if I ever heard her cuss at anyone, I would pass out.
     On the other hand, Tom her husband, is a horrible person who likes to trip old ladies.  He also likes to dump his car's ashtray in the parking lots of elementary schools. (Oooh, he is going to hit me so hard next week at worship!)
     Actually, Tom is one of my heros.  He is a rather soft spoken guy.  When he talks to me, half the time I need him to repeat himself because I didn't hear him clearly. (This is what I get for having my stereo so loud in my youth) He is a very good musician too.
     About two years ago, God asked him to lead a men's Bible study group called "Heart of a Warrior."  Tom said he would, and he asked me to be a part of it.  This group of guys helped me to finally get off my butt and start working on a better relationship with Jesus.  God used Tom to restore me.  Tom is a hero to me.
     In the past year and a half, Tom & St. Debbo's little boy, Ian, developed a brain tumor.  Ian died.  He was only 7.  It's hard for me to write about this without tearing up.  Ian was a great kid.  I have no kids of my own, so he was kind of like a nephew to me.  I have no idea why God allowed this to happen.  But I think that Rob Bell is right when he says that there isn't much point in asking why.  It's more important to ask "What now," and "Where?" 

     A few weeks ago I took my friend Karl Koolboy out to lunch at Famous Dave's.  Karl had just graduated from Marine boot camp. (It's kind of a tradition for me) Koolboy lives up to his name.  He grew up in a very wealthy family, but is not the least bit spoiled.  He is very down to earth, and he loves Jesus very much.  He also has a smile that can blind you if you gaze directly at it for too long.
     So I was asking Koolboy about his boot camp experience as he inhaled the mass of food piled in front of us. (When you come out of boot camp, you apparently no longer chew your food.) He said he actually liked it.  He told me about the various drill instructors and all of the physical stuff they made him do.  As he spoke, I realized that Koolboy can now beat me up.  This caused me consternation.  I will now have to put the batteries in my hand held taser again.

     I told Koolboy about a guy I knew many moons ago who had been an Air Force commando in the first Gulf War.  It was his job to go behind enemy lines and use a laser to guide in some of those Smart Bombs that weren't actually all that smart.  I tried to picture him sitting in a hole with a little laser pen, pointing it at targets while trying not to be seen & shot.
     He told me about his boot camp experience.  It didn't sound particularly fun at all.  At one point, they took all the commando wannabes to an Olympic sized swimming pool.  They tied a rope around their waists.  They also strapped a bunch of weights to the guys.  One by one, the instructors would tell them to take a deep breath.  Then with a shove, those guys would have to walk the width of the pool...on the floor of that pool.  Once they climbed up the other side, they had to repeat the process.  
     Eventually, all of the recruits would pass out.  That's why they had the ropes tied around them.  They would be pulled out of the water, woken up, and then asked "You OK?  You breathin'?"  When the recruits would say they were fine, the instructors would say "Good.  Take a deep breath"...SPLASH! (And remember, you volunteered for this.  Ha!)

     I asked the commando about how he felt about the whole experience.  He said it was awful.  However, he also said that by the time training was finished, his lungs had doubled in size.  In other words, he could run at high altitudes with no problem, where people like myself would lay down and cry like a baby.
     He pointed out that the whole point of a boot camp experience is to tear apart the old person, and to rebuild them in the military's image.  If a soldier, sailor, or marine goes into combat still thinking like a civilian they will get themselves killed.  Worse, they might get the others around them killed.  They are of no use to the service unless they have gone through the boot camp experience.

God has His own boot camp.

     In Proverbs it says, "My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent His rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, as a father the son he delights in."  The writer of Hebrew says, "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons...No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
     I think that this is why God allows all manner of painful things to come our way.  Let's face it, humans can be extremely willful.  A good kick in the pants can be extremely helpful from time to time.  In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul said "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given to us."

     I think that God's boot camp can come in many forms.  In Tom and St. Debbo's case, it was through that horrible tumor that took their son.  They had done nothing to deserve it.  In my own case, it was a combination of a very bad church experience, and then my own willful & stupid rebellion. (I'm still working on parts of it, and Jesus still shoves me in the pool from time to time.)
     I will tell you what God did in the midst of Ian's tumor.  If I ever figure out how to put more than one picture on here, and to post a video I will show you Ian's baptism.  It was very powerful to watch.  At the ripe age of 7, Ian's testimony was amazing and his heart burned for Christ.  At his memorial service, the majority of Tom's co-workers heard the Gospel for the first time.  God was at work through out the entire experience.  God is at work even when we don't understand why.

     Apparently, the very first book of the Bible to be written was Job. (Pronounced Joeb, not Jahb.) I don't think this was an accident.  I have to be honest and admit that I have always hated that book.  I mean, it starts out with God making a bet with Satan.  God allows all sorts of terrible things to happen to Job, even allowing his kids to get killed off.  Job spends all of his time protesting his innocence to his friends and wife.  When God finally shows up to talk to Job, He essentially says to him, "Why don't you just shut up?!  Who do you think you are to ask me anything?!?!"  At least that is what I thought.
     I asked one of my seminary professors about all of this, and my anger towards the book.  He laughed and said "Context, context, context.  You always have to read the stories and letters in the context of which they were written."  He said I misunderstood what God was really saying to Job.  God wasn't telling Job to shut his whiny pie-hole.  What God was telling Job was that Job simply couldn't understand even if God spelled out every little detail for him.  Job was finite.  God is infinite.  I am finite.  I can't fully understand.
     As I said, I don't think it is an accident that the very first book of the Bible to be written, was to be about the struggles that come in this life, and humanities search for answers which, more often then not simply can't be found.

     When God was talking to Isaiah, He told him "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts."  So I guess that I will just have to settle for being left a bit in the dark.  I can accept that, and I think I can still trust the Lord.  Frankly, it would be a bit creepy to have God entirely figured out like some theologians seem to think they have.  So much for being the ultimate reality in the universe.

     I was told a story at church camp years ago.  I never bothered to verify it, but it goes like this.  In every flock of sheep there is always one little lamb that is wayward.  Most sheep live up to their name and all follow the shepherd blindly.  Remember, when Jesus referred to humans as sheep, it wasn't a compliment.  So anyway, the shepherd will take that wayward, little lamb and break it's leg.  He will then bind that leg, and carry that lamb around until it is healed.  Once that leg is healed and the cast is off, that little lamb never leaves that shepherd's side.  Hhmm, interesting.

     So Tom and Deb went to boot camp.  It was awful.  But the result was God being glorified.  I'm still in a bit of boot camp.  All of us, if we claim to follow Jesus, will end up in any number of boot camps through the years.  To be a good soldier, you gotta get trained.
     
     St. Debbo made a comment a while back about enduring that trial.  She was talking about some of these preachers out there that claim that bad things will never happen to you if you just have faith.  She said, "I wonder if those people have ever bothered to read the gospels?"  I know of a pastor who ran a so-called "Christian" school.  He told the students that any illness...ANY, was only the result of sin and no faith.  He was dead of cancer 3 months later.  He may have been correct.  
     I once heard about a preacher who stated that if Joni Erickson Tada (She is a gifted, but paralyzed, artist who paints using her mouth) had any faith, she would get out of her wheel chair.  I hope very much that I never hear anyone say something like that about Tom & Deb.  I'm afraid that I would ask Jesus to stay in the car while I have a very painful chat with that fellow. (I don't think Jesus would want me to do that, but still...) 

     So, God will send Believers to boot camp to train them for His work.  With out it, we simply aren't much use to Him.  In fact, the most judgmental Christians I know, are those who have never been broken...and I am guilty of that crime too.  St. Debbo is right when she said "I don't trust Christians who haven't been broken."  They, me, you cannot be trusted because we haven't been trained in God's boot camp.
     I know that is not the most "Yippy, sign me up for that!," type of story.  Still, it's true.  One of the reasons that I placed my faith in Jesus is that the whole concept of following him is so contrary to the way people want to live their lives. 

     The singer, Mark Schultz wrote a song a while back called Broken and Beautiful.  It goes like this;
There’s a businessman, there’s a widowed wife
A smiling face with a shattered life
A teenage girl with a choice to make
It’s crowded here in church today

And the preacher says as the sermon ends
“Please close your eyes, bow your heads
Is there anyone in need of prayer, 
Oh Jesus wants to meet you here”
Cause we all fall short, and we all have sinned
But when you let, God’s grace break in

Well he’d never been to church before
But he came today as a last resort
His world was crashing in
And he was suffocating in his sin

But tears rolled down as hope rushed in 
He closed his eyes, raised his hands
Worshipping the God who can
Bring him back to life again

And it’s beautiful, beautiful
Come as you are
Surrender your heart
Broken and beautiful, beautiful
Come as you are
Surrender your heart
Broken and beautiful

Cause there’s nothing more beautiful at all
Than when His sons and daughters call, broken


     By the way, you should know that I am no longer mad at the book of Job.
     Peace

     Joe


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Creativity

     I haven't posted anything in a few days.  I guess that I had some form of Writers Block.  However, this past morning I got a little bit of inspiration.
     BTW: I know that my posts are long.  Think of them as chapters for a book...hopefully  Also, I would really like to receive more comments from anyone who might read this stuff.  I want to know if I am doing any good with all of this blogging.  Having some more followers wouldn't hurt either...hint, hint.



     So this morning I got up early and decided to head over to the the Farmer's Market in St. Paul.  I figured I could make a quick run before heading off to Living Waters.  Of all of the various farmer's markets around  Twin Cities, the market in St. Paul is by far my favorite.  Plus, since I live near the MOA, it makes it an easy shot to hit the River Road that runs along the Mississippi and be downtown in 15 minutes.
     It's also nice to get there early.  I don't like crowds very much.  It's not that I am claustrophobic, it is because I walk at a very fast pace.  It drives some of my friends nuts when we go places.  I'll simply start outpacing people. "Jeez, Joe.  Would ya slow down!?"  "I can't help it!  This is just me."
     Minnesotans tend to be a bit on the big side to begin with.  Then you throw in the fact that the average American simply pays no attention to how their behavior affects those around them, and you get large group of big people waddling slowly about in an incoherent manner. (Like sheep without a shepherd...except blindfolded & louder) I have a frustrating time with this, and often wish that I could carry a small cattle prod with me for just such occasions.   
     Well, as it turns out, the south bound lane of the River Road was blocked off for some type of bicycle race.  I had to get to the Market by another way.  Once I arrived I immediately set out to find red & orange sweet Bell peppers.  You see, I taught myself how to roast and then to can, peppers this past month.  I love to cook.  You would know that if you saw my belly.  The Farmer's market is a great place to find fresh veggies...and at an excellent price.  I walked out of there with over 30 huge peppers for only $18. 
     The Farmer's Market is not a massive complex by any means.  However, they manage to squeeze all sorts of tables in there, with all manner of product.  Most of the stalls sell vegetables.  However, there are vendors who sell organic poultry, pork, bison, sometimes even fresh trout.  You name it, they probably sell it.  Other vendors sell homemade candles, needle work & bread.  Plus, there are musicians there who sing in hopes of receiving tips.  There are only three main aisles to the market, and those aisles are only about 40 yards in length.  But as you walk these aisles, all five of your senses will experience all manner of sensation.  In particular, I enjoy the different smells that can turn on a dime every ten feet. 
     Across the street, I noticed a man playing guitar & harmonica.  You need a vending license to work inside the market.  I don't know if you need anything to play a guitar on a street corner.  Perhaps he was breaking some obscure law.  If he was, no one was hassling him about it.  He was playing the song, "Hey, Bo Diddely."  He seemed to really be enjoying himself.  In fact, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.  It was a beautiful, warm Sunday morning in September, and all was right with the world.  Even I was enjoying myself...despite the fact that my quick pace was being thwarted by large, slow moving, clueless people, and I had no access to a cattle prod to remedy it.

     "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

     When you read the first of the three different creation stories, all types of issues & ideas pop out. (Yes, there really are 3 different stories, and they all have specific intentions behind the stories they tell) One of the themes that I have always loved about the first story is the intentional theme of creativity that is woven into it.  The Hebrew word that is used for "Created" is the word "Bara."  Apparently Bara denotes a very intentional, willful & forceful act of creating. (Abba is a very Willful God) What you will notice next is that everything that is created gets more and more complex until the final created item, which is humanity.

     (Actually, if you want to have some fun and go a little loose with the text and what I just stated, then it turns out that women are superior to men.  After all, they were created after men if you take the stories literally.  So, if each creation is superior & more complex then the previous...you get the idea.  Most husbands will certainly admit that women are a lot more complicated then men.  HA!)

     Anyway, as God is going about His work, once He gets to organic living things, He gives them the power to create too.  Specifically, God has them recreating themselves endlessly.  The phrase, "According to their kind," is used over and over again.  So, God's creation is given the gift of creativity...at least in so far as recreating their own kind.
     Now, when God gets to His ultimate creation, which is people, He doesn't use the phrase "according to their kind."  Instead, God says "Let us make man in our image."  He also says twice that people are to be in control over the rest of creation.  Specifically, God uses the phrase "and let them RULE over..."  Actually, I have heard that a better understanding of that phrase is that people are supposed to be responsible for the creation.
     When God made humanity in his image it certainly wasn't in physical appearance.  After all, the Bible says that God is Spirit.  He can't be seen by finite, limited humans.  So, what is a part of this image of God that people are supposed to have?  Well, my old seminary professors were quick to point out that humans are God's representatives on earth.  We are supposed to be ambassadors of the Most High, and to kind of act like little mini-gods.  This means that we are to take care of that which God created. (The whole environmental aspect of this will be for another post some time down the road.)  However, it also means that we were all given the ability to be creative, because God is creative.

     Think about that for a bit.  Think about just how wonderful that is. 

     I fully believe that all people, no matter who they are, have some type of creative streak in them.  I also believe that the reason that some people pop a bolt and go nuts is that they never harness that creativity with a healthy outlet, or that they never bother to find out what they are creative about in the first place.
     My friend Moy-Moy is a very gifted artist.  He has made some of the most amazing paintings I have ever seen.  I don't know if they will ever make him a millionaire.  But I do know that if he couldn't paint, he would surely pull out what remains of the hair on his head.  My friend Tom is a good musician.  He likes to "Thwack" his bass when he is playing in the worship service at Living Waters.  Indeed, verily didst he Thwack said bass in yon service this past Sunday.
     For myself, as I said before, I love to cook.  Most of the time I try to cook odd & obscure ethnic recipes just to see if I can do it.  I also like to cartoon.  I like to garden...usually herbs and hot peppers.  This summer, I discovered in the course of repairing my parent's yard after a pine tree fell over, that I am really good at landscaping. (I love getting muddy!)  I also discovered that I am a halfway decent writer, and hence this blog.
     People are naturally creative because God hard-wired us for it.  You don't even have to be a follower of Jesus to understand that.  And one size does not fit all.  Maybe you're cooking could make a man with no sense of taste or smell vomit profusely at it's awfulness.  Maybe your singing causes dogs in the next county to howl at the moon.  Still, you must be creative at at least one thing.  Maybe it's working on cars.  Maybe it's carpentry.  These things are not always recognized as being an artform, but you really do have to be creative to be good at them. 

     Being creative is a part of the heritage that all people share, Believer and non-believer alike, from being made in God's image.  A while back in my post titled "God does a guitar solo," I stated that all things that are beautiful & true are of God...even if they come from non-believers.  I still think that is true.  I think that all things that folks create that are lovely, creative and beautiful are in some way tied into this first account of creation.  God created humanity to be creative.  This is what we do.  This is what we are.  Without an outlet for that, we go nuts.
     It is interesting to note that after God created people, He uses the phrase to describe this newest & final creation "and it was VERY good."  Up till that point, He only says that all of the rest of creation was simply Good.
     I don't know where any given reader of this blog falls on the idea that these three creation stories are literal, or that they are allegories, metaphors & such.  I DO know that folks who insist on the idea that every word has to be taken as literal, and that all things were created in a literal 6 days with 24 hours in them, are asking for trouble when they study the story in it's context.  Also, when you do fixate on that thought, you really do miss so much of the beautiful ideas that are conveyed in the bigger picture of this story.  There is enough in this first story alone to fill a book all by itself.

     So, the musician across the street from the St. Paul Farmer's Market was wailing away on his guitar.  He was blowing into that harmonica and alternately singing, 
"Saw my baby run across the field, 
Slippin and slidin like an automobile,
Hollerin, my baby got towed away,
Slipped on from me like a cadillac-8.
Hey, Bo Diddley!"
     
     I drove home along the other lane of the River Road that had not been shut off.  I stopped and asked a cop what was up with the road closing.  He said that St. Paul was having some type of family marathon for cyclists.  I thought, "Hmm, Lance Armstrong with toddlers and no steroids."  Cycling can be fairly creative.  Plus, doing something with the whole family is a good thing.
     I watched what seemed like a thousand cyclists whizzing past me in the opposite lane...with their kids in tow.  I looked out over the Mississippi river down below them and myself.  The sky was blue.  The morning was warm.  Not bad.

"God saw all that He had made, and it was VERY good.  
And there was evening and there was morning...the sixth day."

Joe

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

God only hates you a little bit.


     "Hate the sin, but love the sinner."  That's a quote from Mahatma Gandhi.  Many Believers think that is actually a verse from the Bible, but it isn't.  I have heard a couple of pastors protest using that phrase because of that.  Furthermore, I have also heard other pastors say that God not only hates sin, but that he also hates sinners.  They will quote a line like "I hate evildoers," or "The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth."  Therefore, God not only hates sin, but He also hates sinners.  I am a sinner.  I don't like it, but I am.  Apparently, God hates me.
     
     More often then not, the folks who say that God hates sinners are Calvinists.  Many of my friends are Calvinists, so I do not mean this as any kind of insult, but they do tend to emphasize the depravity of humanity quite a bit. (If you want to know where I stand on that whole debate, well, that's for another time.)
     True story: There is a very brilliant Theologian who preaches at a church in Minneapolis.  He also is a professor of theology at a local college and seminary.  He is a VERY strong Calvinist.  While I was going to Bethel college, I attended services at his place of worship off and on for three years.  I know this man loves Jesus, and I have another story about that for another time.  At any rate, after three years of listening to him preach, the strongest and most vivid memories that I have of what I was told there is what an awful, sinful, bad person I am AND that there isn't much I can do about it because everything was all predestined before time began anyway. 

   God hates sinners.  Therefore, God must really, really hate me, 
because I have committed some whoppers.

     Now I understand where they are going with this.  Sin certainly isn't something to be flippant about.  Sin is horrible, and it damages our relationship with God.  However, in my opinion...and you can certainly feel free to disagree with me about this, I think that there is a significant difference between someone who honestly struggles with their sinful nature, and those who consciously and willingly go out and commit evil acts...and enjoy them.  An Evildoer, to me, is someone like Hitler, Stalin, and the guy who gets kids hooked on meth by selling it at the local High School, and Tony Soprano...even though he is fictional.  Eminem would be an excellent example of an evildoer.  He willingly writes songs that are mean spirited and cruel.  I once wrote a paper on him and had to critique him according to marxist theory.  So I said he was a parasite who lives & profits off of the pain of others. (Honestly, has that guy ever had a nice thing to say about anyone?)
     Somewhere in between are other folks.  Sometimes they know that they are doing something bad.  Other times they honestly don't realize that they are acting in a way that God does not wish them to.  The Bible says that it is the Holy Spirit that tells a person what is and is not a sin.  With out the Holy Spirit in a person's life to convict them of sin, there are folks out there who might be living in sin, but don't even understand that what they are doing is sinful.  That is not an excuse.  But it is the facts.

     Now, if it is true that God hates sinners, then why, when the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, did those same angels start rockin' out and singing "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men on whom His favor rests."?  Why did John write in his biography of Jesus write "For God so LOVED the world that He gave his only son,..."  Actually, my old Greek professor at Bethel seminary said that a better translation of that phrase would be "Because God LOVED the world, He demonstrated it in this way, by sending his only son..."  In John's first letter written to the church scattered around Asia Minor he said that "God IS love."  There just seems to be some inconsistency here, don't know think?

     It seems to me that if God hates sinners as much as some preachers emphasize, then those angels talking to the shepherds would most likely have said something like this to them, "Well, the Father has decided that since He hates you so much because you are all a bunch of sinners, He ain't sending the Messiah after all.  See ya, suckers!"  I could then imagine a massive, divine, middle finger being extended from the heavens towards earth. 
     Even if Jesus did decide to come to earth after that, since he is the visible image of the invisible God, he would ALSO hate sinners.  I can easily see Jesus walking up to the hooker at the Samaritan well and just shoving her right into it.  When the woman caught in adultery was brought before him, I can see him saying something like "Oooooh, you are so right about her sin.  Go get her, boys!  I found an awesome pile of rocks just down that street."  And after his resurrection, when he was cooking fish for the guys out fishing, I can see Peter jumping out of the boat because he was so happy to see him, running as fast as he could to Jesus, where upon arriving, Jesus kneeing him right in the crotch!  After all, Jesus would REALLY hate sinners after all he had just been through.

     The character of Jesus that you see written in all four biographies doesn't show him to be much of a Hater...nor does he crush a lot.  What you do see of the character of Jesus is a guy you was loving and gentle...and also a lot of fun! (I think you need to study the cultural context of a lot of his stories & doings to catch how funny he could be at times.) For some odd reason, all the sinners really liked to hang out with him.  Scandalously, he appears to have had women disciples in the extended group of people who regularly followed him.  This was NOT something that you did in First century Jewish culture.  Men good, women bad.  I heard a professor once say that considering how scandalous Jesus was in his time with all the company he kept, the professor was surprised Jesus' earthly ministry last even three years.
     The only time you see Jesus really get mad was towards the professionally religious people.  If you understand the linguistic context of the way Jesus speaks to the Pharisees & Sadducees, he was really cussing them out.  And I do mean that he was spittin' mad.  Of course, you can look at the times that Jesus cleared out the temple because they had turned it into a money making operation.  He actually got violently angry because of the complete disregard that those people were showing to his Father in heaven, and profiting off of His name.  He was absolutely enraged at this disrespect towards "Abba." (Abba is the Hebrew word for Daddy.  It denotes a term of endearment that is even deeper than the use of the more formal word Father.)  

     Frankly, it's nice to know that there are times where it is righteous for a Believer to Pop a Bolt, and Throw Down!  I would argue that very carefully, though.

     Anyway, Jesus would always show grace and mercy towards those trapped in a sin.  In fact, he showed a great deal of mercy and kindness towards "Sinners."  A lot more than most would expect.  He seemed to really enjoy the company of those folks.  Maybe because they were willing to listen to him.  But he didn't seem to have much patience towards the self-righteous.

     Brennan Manning is a great writer that I enjoy.  Again, I like my authors controversial, or what good are they?  I guess that Manning is a "Heretic!"  It said so at Apostasy Alert.org.  So, if it's on the internet, it must be true.  Mostly, people get their underwear in a bunch because they think he is a "Universalist."...i.e. Everyone is saved no matter what, and sin is no big deal at all.  None of that is true if you actually bother to read his books. (BTW: By extension, Rich Mullins and Michael W. Smith are heretics too because they endorsed this book.  So, feel free to burn their CDs)
     ANYWAY, in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, which I would highly recommend, Manning has a chapter titled "The Victorious Limp."  In it, Manning goes into the story of the Prodigal Son.  Most people are familiar with it from Sunday School and such.  Before he writes about the prodigal son he makes a statement that just about knocked me over when I read it.  Manning wrote "Forgiveness PRECEDES repentance."  Whoa!  Hang on.  I thought I was supposed to ask for forgiveness from God before He gave it to me?!?!

     Lets take a look at that story again: The prodigal son is the younger brother of a family.  Being the younger brother, his inheritance would not be as great as his older brother's.  Never the less, P-boy goes to dad and says he wants his inheritance NOW. (And I never read the word "Please" in his asking.) In the cultural context of that time, that would have been the equivalent of saying "Hey Dad, I wish you would just drop dead so I can get what's mine."
     Well, P-boy gets the goods and splits.  He squanders his money on all types of sinful behavior.  Jesus didn't go into to much detail, but I think it is safe to assume the worst.  P-boy burns through all of his money.  At which point he is naturally deserted by his "so called" friends.  He ends up working for a pig farmer, which was religiously unclean for Jews.  Worse than that, the only food he seems to get is from the pig trough.  Suffice it to say, P-boy is ceremonially, religiously, physically...and I would wager emotionally too, UNCLEAN!  I've always loved the wording that Jesus uses when he was telling this story.  At this point in the story he says "When he came to his senses..." 

When he came to his senses.

     And now the whole story begins to tilt.
     
     P-boy understands that he is a complete "Shite," as the Irish would say.  But he realizes that his dad is a very wealthy farmer.  Perhaps if he begs him, dad will let him be like one of the hired hands on the farm.  He even works up a speech for the occasion.  Manning points out that P-boy's motives were mixed at best, and they were.  P-boy is hoping simply to survive.  He was NOT entertaining thoughts of a full reunion & reconciliation with his father.  He knew full well that he had gone beyond disgracing himself.  He had also brought shame & disgrace on the entire family.  By rights, for the culture of that time, his father could have simply killed him to restore honor to the family.  
       I have lived in the Middle East.  I have seen the type of compound that a wealthy farmer would live on.  Essentially, the house itself is in a walled compound.  Outside the main gates would be a basic path/road that would lead to the main road that everyone would be traveling on.  When Jesus was telling this story he says that while that rotten son "Was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion."  This means that the Dad was not in the house or the compound.  He had left that safe area.  He wasn't even on the farm's road.  He was on the main road that everyone else traveled upon.  He was out there watching and waiting for his child to come home.  He certainly could have sent a servant to do the looking, but he didn't.  He went himself.  He was there...waiting for his child.  What happens next is of extreme importance.  Jesus says that after the father's heart was filled with compassion, "HE RAN to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him."

     Think about that for a moment.  Think about what that signifies.

     His son was a Sinner.  Not just that, but I would wager that he stunk worse than an outhouse in July.  Not to mention the accumulation of morning breath, rotted clothing, and general emaciated physical appearance.  If you have ever kissed someone on the lips in the morning before they have had the chance to brush their teeth, you get the idea.  But that father gives him the bear hug of a life time, AND a kiss.  But do you know what is missing?  That prodigal son hadn't even had a chance to say a word.  It was too late.  The Father had been waiting with an attitude of anticipation and forgiveness the entire time.
     When P-boy finally gets to give his little speech about becoming a hired hand, the Father essentially ignores him.  He doesn't even respond to what his son just said.  What he DOES do, is essentially snap his fingers and say "Somebody get me a D.J.  We're having a party because MY BOY is BACK!" 
     Now, what this story is really about is the relationship between God and those whom He calls His children.  While we often treat God as if He is slightly dimwitted, the fact of the matter is that He is considerably more clever than we could ever know.  You see, Jesus KNOWS what a mess we are inside.  He knows we have all sorts of guilty secrets and issues that we struggle with.  He also knows that at times we won't just sin, we will also willingly walk away from him...and sometimes for a long, long time.
     Now, was P-boy ever at some point no longer the son of that father?  Did his DNA and parentage ever change?  Nope.  He had willingly, and actually, very rudely & selfishly left his father.  But he was still his kid!  And his dad was waiting for him to come back the whole time.

God is out on that road waiting for us, whenever we come to our senses.
     
     Say what you will, this does NOT look to me like a God that hates sinners.  It looks more like a God who loves sinners.

     "Forgiveness precedes repentance."  

     This actually makes a lot of sense if you think about it.  Jesus talked about forgiving others a lot.  In fact, the New Testament pretty much insists on it.  Extending forgiveness to others is an absolute necessity to following Jesus.  Also, and this is important, it is not about wether or not someone asks for forgiveness from you or anyone else.  You extend that attitude of forgiveness towards someone who has wronged you even if they never, ever know that you are doing so.  Heck, it might even be to late for some.  Maybe someone who hurt you is dead.  But you still extend that forgiveness, because in this case it really is all about you.  Holding on to that hurt is a poison that will eat at you until you give it up. 
     In this story that Jesus told, he uses God the Father as a role model, living out an example of how a Believer's life should be lived and understood.  We extend forgiveness to others because God is always, ALWAYS extending it to us...even before we get a word out.

     This is hard for me.  I have been hurt.  I have been hurt plenty.  Sometimes it's hard to forgive.  St. Debbo, my friend that I will write about later, tells me that I have to let these pains go.  And I am working on that.  Probably not as much as I could because wallowing in the pain that you KNOW is easier than walking into the future that you don't.  Still, it's stuff that I know I have to deal with...and I am, really!  It just takes more time for certain people than others.

     Brennan Manning goes on to write this; "We don't have to sift our hearts and analyze our motives.  Abba (Again, that's the Hebrew word for Daddy) just wants us to show up.  We don't have to wallow in guilt, shame, remorse, and self-condemnation.  Even if we still nurse a secret nostalgia for a far country, Abba falls on your neck and kisses us."

     I have two things to confess.  I am still working on forgiving others. (Yeah, no surprise there.)  I would guess that most people are too.  However, the other secret that I have to confess is something that I didn't even understand until I read the Ragamuffin Gospel.  Believers will say that they know Jesus loves them.  I would say that too.  However, I didn't really believe it.  I mean I DID believe that Jesus loved me,...but only so far.
     I don't know if it is because I was raised Baptist, or because I have a Scandinavian heritage, but I have a massive guilt complex.  I know this will sound crazy, but I still feel guilty about some things I did in Elementary School.  Honestly, there will be times where I want to kick myself for some stupid thing I did years and years ago.  
     So, I figured that there was no way that Jesus could really love me as much as he said.  I figured that I was always making him mad in one way or the other.  I would ask for forgiveness, but it wouldn't be long before I did something bad again.  There simply was no way that Jesus could keep loving me when I kept being, AND STILL AM, a guy who keeps falling on his face into a big pile of sin.

     What Manning points out, and is confirmed over and over and over again through out the Gospels, and all of the letters in the New Testament, is that the love that Jesus has for sinful human beings, especially those who wish to follow him, is simply that much bigger, and that much greater than any finite person can ever fully understand in this life.

     I do not think it was an accidental choice of words for Paul to write "And do not GRIEVE the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."  He did not say "Hey, don't make that Holy Spirit angry.  Don't get God mad at a you.  You know how He hates sinners."  No, Paul uses the term "Grieve."  I believe that when we sin we actually cause God pain.  As when a parent sees the child they love do something that they know will be terrible for them.  It causes that parent a pain deep on the inside of their spirit.  I think that this type of pain is far worse than the emotion of anger.  When we sin, we grieve the Spirit of God.  We HURT the infinite God of the universe.
     After all that this God has done for me, how He has saved and redeemed me, that I should cause Him pain...but his love for me is still there!?!?  I cause Him great pain, yet he will leave the safety of His house and compound, and stand on the road waiting to run to me at the first sight of me coming to my senses.

     I am a SINNER.  I don't like it, but I am.  That is a fact!  If I am to believe the Bible, sin is something I will struggle with until the day I die.  God doesn't like my sinfulness much either.  However, it's hardly as if he is surprised by any of it.  I don't think that he ever gets a confused look on His face and says to Himself, "Wow.  I never thought he would pull a stunt like that." 

     I am a sinner, but I know that God doesn't hate me because of it.  I suppose that is why Grace is so amazing.

"Amazing love!  How can it be, 
that you my king would die for me?
Amazing love!  And I know it's TRUE!  
And it's my joy to honor you."

Joe

P.S.  Brennan Manning wrote something else in another book of his that I believe is worth thinking about.  Sin IS a very serious issue.  This world is soaked in it.  It causes all manner of pain.  However, when a Believer is approaching anyone, Believer or Outsider, about sin and the truth of Jesus, they might wish to use Jesus as a role model.

      Brennan Manning wrote: "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today are Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."