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Grace and truth

February 17, 2016 1 comment

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I recognize that there is some inherent danger in writing about stuff like this on the internet. I have no formal theological training; I only know what I think I know. I’m just a lawyer with a curious mind who happens to have a checkered history with Christianity.

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I think better with my fingers on keys. (Mostly because I can’t read my own handwriting.) To that end this entire site is a peek into my cobwebbed confusion as I try and make sense of what I read in the Bible, what I believe God is revealing to me in my mind, and what I perceive as I look at my religion’s history. I realize that I’m deeply conflicted with my faith, and that my relationship with God is frankly, complicated.

I will also confess that some of my hope is to reveal a side of Christianity that the world doesn’t always see. I hope that some of these thoughts will sow seeds that may someday germinate in a mind that has otherwise not found much use with Jesus.

Balancing “grace” with “truth”

I am fortunate enough to be connected with a great church and some amazing guys I get to explore life with. We meet each week off the highway in Conifer, Colorado and we explore what God seeks to tell his followers though the book we call the Bible. Hopefully we are iron sharpening iron, and not just a bunch of rocks bashing against each other.

On the menu this week is the tension between “demonstrating grace” and “revealing truth.” One of the guys posed the question of balance – How do we balance the demonstration of grace, mercy, and love against the instruction to correct others?

As a starting point, I believe that neither grace nor truth is ours to give. We can only demonstrate and extend the grace and truth that God has first extended to us. As a reinforcing point, all the scripture references I’ve come across deal with Christians correcting each other, not correcting or admonishing others. (See Titus 3:10, Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5:11, 1 Timothy 1:20, Romans 16:17, several others.)

Like everything in the Bible, these verses must always be read in the broader context in which they’re presented. To do otherwise is intellectually dishonest. But read in their proper context these passages and many others speak to the Christian’s duty to correct and admonish other Christians – and only in love and mercy. They do not give Christians license to “lead with truth” and attempt to correct other people who do not first know Christ.

The model of Jesus: different standards for different audiences

If we look to Jesus as our model – and if we dare to call ourselves Christians, we have no other model – Jesus applied different standards to different audiences, depending on what they needed most.

To the Pharisees, the religious insiders, and the politically connected – those who thought they had religion all figured out and had solved God like a theological equation – Jesus led with truth. In fact, Jesus was “all truth, all the time.” We see this in the accounts of Jesus’s interactions with the Sanhedrin and with other Jewish leaders of the day. (See Matthew 12:24-37, calling them a “brood of vipers.” See also, Matthew 23, calling them – among other things – white-washed tombs, blind guides, blind fools, etc.) Jesus always saved his harshest words for the self-righteous who thought they already had it dialed.

But to those who knew they were broken, to those who knew they didn’t have it all figured out, Jesus led with grace. Consider the account of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Jesus did not condemn her, but interceded with grace for her and “truth” for those who would cast the first stone. Only after saving her life did he say “…go and sin no more.” This is a consistent pattern through Jesus’s ministry. Look up most accounts of miraculous healing or his intervention. You will find that in almost every circumstance he first gives the tangible thing the person needs before he says anything to admonish them toward truth. (And sometimes he just lets grace do the work anyway.)

This can be reinforced by a macro view of Jesus’s most popular public address, the “Sermon on the Mount.” (Matthew 5) Jesus leads off with

  • God blesses…
  • God blesses…
  • God blesses…

A total of nine times! He talks about letting our good deeds shine. He says that his followers are to be salt to give flavor and preservation to a bland world, and to be light shining in the darkness for all to see. Only after talking a lot of “grace” did he ever start talking much “truth.”

When Jesus spoke with people who would listen, grace was always the hook.

Truth cuts both ways

We must likewise lead with love and grace in all our interactions. We must let others know that we love them and that God has mercy and grace for them before we ever presume to give any dose of “truth.” If we ever allow our relationships to get so far as to genuinely and consistently demonstrate love, only then can we presume to have permission to correct or admonish. And if we dare go that far, any admonition must be bathed in mercy and love, not in fire and brimstone.

Underpinning all this is the sense that any opportunity to admonish must first be rooted in a genuine loving relationship. It can’t be lip service, and it can’t be contrived. And it is only genuine if it is consistently demonstrated time, time, and time again.

We also have to be willing to receive admonition in return. As the Sermon on the Mount continues in Matthew 7, we must first carefully examine our own lives and correct ourselves before we ever presume to point out a flaw in someone else. If we dare to correct another person, not only must we do it in love (see Matthew 15:11 (we are defiled by the words that come out of our mouths); Romans 14), we must also expect that we will be judged by the same standard we use to judge others. (Matthew 7:2)

The trouble is, “truth” is alluring; grace feels too easy. Dosing out truth gives us the ability to take our critical attention away from ourselves and focus it on someone else. By saying, “Well, at least I don’t do THAT!” we turn away from the work God would have us do in our own lives. Not only do we alienate ourselves from the other person, we turn our backs on the improvement God wants to do to us and we drive the wedge even deeper between the other and God.

At this point in my life I have so many flaws to work on that I can’t afford to give anything but grace. That’s what I want for myself, so that’s what I try and give. Perhaps someone who has it more put together can get away with dishing out “truth” and admonition, but I am not there yet.

 

 

Ripple effect: reflecting complete love

January 21, 2016 1 comment

Water drop(photo credit: Ashten McClintock)

The more I dig in on Romans the more it digs in on me. For anyone who can stumble through my first few lines as I try and get this post on track, I think it will tie together at the end. But I couldn’t think of any way to get this idea up to cruising altitude but to go full throttle and pull the stick back.

When we only love people who are nice to us and who love us back, we’re only demonstrating half of the love of God. Only when we demonstrate genuine love for those who don’t love us are we able to reflect the kind of love God demonstrated to humanity. THAT kind of love is what is supposed to make Jesus followers different.

The love of God that Paul discusses in Romans 5 is the love that restored humanity to peace with God through one single act – the sacrifice of Jesus. By contrasting the essential sinful nature of us all through the story of Adam (see Genesis 3), Paul shows us the power of a single act, whether that act is bad or good. Not to diminish the salvation story Paul is specifically emphasizing, the contrast also shows the profound, unforeseeable ripple effects our actions can have.

As Paul transitions through the story of God’s love for Israel, the demolition (or more correctly stated, the fulfillment) of the law and newfound salvation through grace, and the extension of his grace to nonJews (see Romans 6-11), Paul now encourages those who want to follow Jesus to reflect God’s love in our relationships with others.

From the New Living Translation:

[9-10] Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.

…[13] When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

With a quick read, this seems easy enough. After all, it’s fairly easy to show love to those who are like us. If people are nice to us, generally share our same beliefs, etc. then being hospitable isn’t too tall an order.

But before we read further, we have to consider whether hospitality equals “love.” We can be hospitable to people without really loving them; we can be polite, kind, friendly… But love clearly requires something more. We’re told that the love we should demonstrate is rooted in “genuine affection”, which requires truly caring deeply for the other person. There is also a measure of self-sacrifice required as we honor each other and put the needs of others above our own needs.

A quick side note:

I think that in too many circumstances, we get self-righteous and perhaps misread this section. Note that Paul says to hate WHAT is wrong. He does not say “Hate people who do wrong things.” Perhaps this is the origin of the classic evangelical meme: “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” But that becomes a copout we often use to dehumanize people and see them not for their humanity as a reflection of God’s image. We use that as an excuse to make people’s actions define them, when that is clearly not what Jesus taught nor what Paul writes about.

Paul’s instruction comes on the heels of his teaching that God offered salvation to the Gentiles in order to make the Jews jealous. (Don’t believe me? Go read Romans 11. See previous discussion, linked here.) It’s no accident that Paul first laid the groundwork to demonstrate God’s love before teaching us how we should love. Our love should be a reflection of the kind of love God showed to humanity. God demonstrated love to those who loved him – the Jews – by sending Jesus through the line of Hebrew King David to be raised and trained as a Jew, to become a Jewish rabbi, to challenge the Jewish leadership, and to be crucified as a sacrifice in complete fulfillment of God’s original covenant with Abraham. (It doesn’t get more Jewish than that!)

But God also demonstrated his love to those who did not love him – the Gentiles, who were completely shut off from relationship with God. The Gentiles (used in the Bible to mean everyone who is not a Jew) had never before been entitled to God’s mercy and love. But in demonstrating the fullness of love and mercy, God provided a path of reconciliation for those who previously had been hopeless.

And so as Paul continues in verses 14-21: (Note, I’m cherry-picking a little, but the skipped verses are also relevant.)

[14] Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them…

[16a] Live in harmony with each other…

[17-18] Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

On the heels of Paul’s good news that reconciliation with God is a gift for everyone, he teaches us that to demonstrate God’s love fully is to love people who don’t love us at least as much as those who do love us. When we only love people who are nice to us and who love us back, we’re only demonstrating half of the love of God. As Jesus (remember the rabbi?) taught on the Sermon on the Mount,

You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good…

If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?…

If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?… (From Matthew 5:44)

So only when we demonstrate genuine love for those who don’t love us are we able to reflect the kind of love God demonstrated to humanity. THAT kind of love is what is supposed to make Jesus followers different.

I’ll be the first to confess that I am TERRIBLE at this. Far too often I find myself pretending to sit in judgment over others whom I perceive are different from me and who don’t live up to MY standards. (Oh, the sweet, acrid smell of hypocrisy!) I justify being a jerk to them because I perceived they were a jerk to me. Or I justify hating people from other religions as a means of self-defense. That is not the way of Paul’s teaching. That is not the way of Jesus.

That does not mean that all perspectives are created equally, or that all belief systems are equally valid. What that does mean is that every human that has ever walked the planet is an image-bearer of God, and that as a person who claims to follow Jesus, I should love them all and show mercy to all.

 

Christianity and Jewishness

January 6, 2016 1 comment

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I have struggled with whether or not it would be appropriate – or more accurately stated, appropriately received – for me to write about an issue that has been on my mind a lot in recent years. It’s a potentially inflaming issue, though I don’t believe it should be. Rather, I think it’s a unifying idea that might begin to bridge an unfortunate multi-generational gap between Jews and Christians.

So here goes…

I meet almost weekly with a group of guys I go to church with. While part of it is unapologetically frivolous, most of our time is spent in deep conversation trying to reach a better understanding of God, his mission to humanity, and the Bible, which we believe is the divinely-inspired story of God and humanity’s reconciliation to him.

As an aside: I ask that any who stumble across this page who may not share that conviction please put aside any postmodern skepticism you may have as to that particular point. There are other issues at work here that will be overlooked if you hang up on that. I do not claim to be an expert apologist to extol the historicity of the Bible, though I believe it is far more historically supported than any other sacred text. At some point faith in anything – even in atheism – requires that one transcend that which can be irrefutably proven according to modern scientific or rhetorical methods. 

That is not to say that Christians (or Bahai, or Muslims, Jews, or other religious adherents) should suspend rational thought and blindly accept what their clergy say. Furthermore, intellectual integrity requires that we test what we believe against common sense – however flawed that sense may be – the weight of history and science, and yes, sacred texts that have been handed down through millennia. But with all religions, philosophies, and scientific theories, a measure of “faith” is required when we cannot perfectly prove that which we believe to be true.

But I have digressed…

During the past many months our discussion group has focused on Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (canonized in the New Testament as the book of Romans). I’ll spend time in future writings focusing on other issues in Romans because it’s a very meaty letter. In fact, much of the Christian perspective of salvation through grace is articulated there, and frankly, I think that most of us Christians get it wrong most of the time.

The issue I want to explore here deals with God’s offer to extend grace and reconciliation to us “Gentiles” as Paul discusses in Romans 11. I believe that for many generations less enlightened Christians have believed that God turned his back on his chosen nation of Israel when the Jewish leaders in the ancient Roman empire rejected Jesus as the messiah of Israel and persuaded Rome to have Jesus executed. Many Christians have taken that whole transaction to mean that God no longer “chooses” Israel and that the Jews are no longer his chosen people.

A plain reading of Romans 11 should put this argument to rest. The most prolific author of the New Testament goes to great lengths to establish that instead of turning away from the Jews, God used Israel’s rejection of Jesus as an opportunity to expand his grace and reconciliation beyond the Hebrews to the non-Semitic world. As Paul writes in verses 11 and 15,

[11] “Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves.”

[continuing to v. 15] “…since their rejection (of Jesus as messiah) meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance (someday, for those who choose to believe) will be even more wonderful.” (New Living Translation)

(Note: I believe my parenthetical additions in v. 15 are consistent with the context of Romans.)

Paul goes on to discuss the roots of God’s original covenant with Abraham, referring to the Jews as the original branches of Abraham’s “tree.” He extends the metaphor to explain that, although they were original children of God’s covenant with Abraham, God broke off branches from that tree and grafted in a different type of tree to be part of Abraham’s blessing. (See vv. 17-18) It is this act of grafting in those of us who are not Jews that provides God’s favor through our faith in Jesus. Paul reminds us not to become haughty or take this for granted, because we remain foreign additions to the chosen people of God. (vv. 19-21) It is only by his sovereign mercy that any of us ever came to faith in Jesus, covered by his grace and free from the law. (Go read Romans 6-8)

And so here is how I have come to reconcile the story of the Jews, Jesus, and the Gentiles:

Just as God was willing to sacrifice his own son Jesus to deliver the Jews from the overwhelming and impossible burden of keeping the law, so too did God willingly sacrifice his chosen people of Israel to make a way for salvation to the rest of humanity. And just as God restored Jesus to glory as the risen Christ, so too will God restore his favor to people of his original covenant as they are humbled to accept the free gift of grace that was originally intended for them.

Paul – who after all, was a Jewish rabbi and a member of the council who actively executed first century Christians – wants the Jews to see that faith in Christ is deliverance from the law, not a call to reject their Jewishness. In fact, Paul explains that faith in Jesus is the ultimate completion of Jewishness. At its core, it seems that being Jewish is about being set apart and in covenant with God. Because this was impossible through keeping “the law”, God made it possible through grace.

Following Jesus does not require a Jew to become un-Jewish. To the contrary, it is the very fulfillment of Jewishness. It simply requires that the Jew – and by God’s grace, us “Gentiles” – acknowledge through faith that Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf.

I’m sure this is imperfect and full of logical, rhetorical, and theological holes that I’m not seeing. After all, I’m not clergy and am not trained in this stuff. I’m curious, I read a lot, and I like to ponder stuff like this over a few fingers of good bourbon.

If faith were easy, there would be no reason for thousands of years of argument, wars, scholarship, rhetoric, and countless faiths and sects all trying to figure this stuff out.

Blinders on

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Lots going on in here, so I hope to be able to piece together some coherent thoughts.

I recently met a young guy (also named Matt) who just moved back to the States after spending a few years living and doing missions among Buddhist monks in Tibet. Matt is considering joining the team at Adullam Denver, our community here.

Two immediate sidebars: First, Adullam is, for lack of a more precise term, the “church” we have joined in Denver. But I think it’s important to explain a bit more. The community takes its name and mission from the cave at Adullam where newly-anointed David hid out while he was being pursued by Israel’s King Saul. (See 1 Samuel 22) The term “Adullamites” has come to mean the troubled, discontent, outcast, etc. who have rightful claim to power and who are committed to pursuing it. In our group’s context, we seek to reclaim the spirit of those who follow Jesus and who have become disenchanted by modern and western conventions of what “Christianity” and “churchianity” have become. Many Adullamites see modern churches as houses of Pharisees and seek to live and love boldly in the “sacrilegious” ways of Jesus.

One of the most obvious ways I personally manifest this is by living a deconstruction of many traditional conceptions of “church” in an attempt to reclaim the spirit that led the earliest followers of Jesus. For example, should a “church” own a building for itself? In my view, doing so makes church a place and devalues the community of Jesus followers, all of whom are just components of ONE body of believers – or church – in the world. Further, should leaders of faith communities get ALL their compensation from ministry? I think that followers should provide monetarily out of duty and love to enable the leader to meet his or her needs, but the leaders should also be in and among the real world with real jobs every day to continue to be challenged to see God at work.

Insulation and isolation can be very destructive forces on Jesus followers, either individually or corporately.

Pretty heavy for a sidebar, but there it is.

Second sidebar: So my new buddy Matt – whom, because of his Tibetan experience, I refer to as “Sherpa Matt” (which is itself ironic because Sherpa Matt is about 6’2” and blond) – told me of his experiences coordinating Bible studies with Tibetan monks. He talked a lot about their openness to the message of Jesus. Considering the virtue of enlightenment extolled by Buddhists, it didn’t surprise me to learn of their openness. But he also spoke of the significant hurdle Buddhists face when choosing to follow Jesus. “Conversion” from Buddhism to any other dominant belief system carries with it some nasty Karma that impacts not only the convert, but also his or her family both now and for all subsequent generations. Whether that’s real or perceived, it’s a massive challenge for many Buddhists to consider.

Each of those tangents are just backstory, each of which could probably stand on its own. But these thoughts connected me back to something I really wrestle with. Sherpa Matt mentioned to me that he and a few of his friends have also done some work among the Lakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. A couple of years ago I came across an article Ghosts of Wounded Knee (Harper’s Magazine, December 2009). That article explored the miserable lives of the Native Americans who live on the Indian Reservation in Wounded Knee, SD. I encourage you to read the article for yourself: Ghosts of Wounded Knee – HarpersMag Dec 2009

(Dear Harpers, I know I didn’t get your permission to post this. If you ask me to take it down, I’ll gladly do so. I’m certainly not profiting from it in any way.)

This is a Tedx(DU) presentation by the photographer who shot the photos in that Harper’s Magazine story.

Sherpa Matt said that living conditions there among the Lakotas remain deplorable and the hearts of the people seem cold and lifeless. It reminded me of Proverbs 29:18(a) – “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (KJV)

Aside from the wrongs of the past that should be righted, I read and hear stories about the Lakotas and about countless other hurting people and peoples near and far and wonder if providing a new vision of their future is possible. Can they reimagine their future? Can we with vision help them reimagine it?

My dad shared this ABC video link with me, also discussing the state of the Lakota today. Here’s a follow up to that story, too.

It’s easy to think that the conditions on “the reservation” are someone else’s problem, that “the next guy” will help, or that the lady on the street corner holding the sign essentially put herself there. It’s tempting to think that the problem of poverty inside the world’s wealthiest and most powerful economic superpower are self-imposed. But that shouldn’t absolve us of responsibility or assuage our consciences. At some point is it not incumbent on those of us who are so much more fortunate to respond to stuff like this? Sure, there are some circumstances that require voters to make the government right past wrongs. Sure, there are more problems around us than we’ll ever be able to solve. That clearly doesn’t get us off the hook to do something immediate to ease another’s pain.

I don’t know what to do with this, but it eats away at me sometimes.

mm

Divergent thought – Parable of the Sower

August 2, 2011 1 comment

During our visit to a local church this past Sunday we listened to the pastor discuss the parable of the sower and the seed. For the uninitiated, that was one of the stories attributed to Jesus of Nazareth as recounted in Matthew (13:3-23), Mark (4:2-20), and Luke (8:4-15).

We think we like this church (Lookout Mountain Community Church) and have visited it now for three consecutive weeks. We’ll be trying it on for some time before we “place membership”, if we’re supposed to do that. The conversation on Sunday focused much on the sower and the soil: how it’s the job of the sower to faithfully and consistently cast seeds, and how we are all sowers and we are all different types of soil at different times in our lives. Something that I have been thinking about, which would not likely lend itself to pulpit talk, but which I think would be worth exploring over a bottle of wine, is to what extent the quality of the seed is involved, and what responsibility the sower has for ensuring the quality of the seed.

The Sower, Van Gogh

There is also the more elemental question: what is the seed? Without taking that into too great of detail, I believe that the seed represented in the metaphor is not the doctrinal “word of God” (i.e. scripture), but is the more fundamental “Word of God” that is marked by right living and love toward others, with subservience to the ultimate truth and consistent with the nature of God. In other words, the stuff I really suck at. Back to the metaphors at hand, though.

Carrying Jesus’s “sower” metaphor forward a bit, if the sower is throwing seeds that are contaminated by bias, malice, deceit, or misunderstanding, what crop will bear fruit? If the sower throws seeds from noxious weeds into good soil, that good soil – which might not discern bad seed from good – will soon be overrun by bad fruit, choking out an otherwise potentially good crop or worse, preventing a good crop from ever taking root where there is no room among the jungle of messed up ideas.

This brings me to the question: to what degree can the human mind discern good seed from bad – whether that mind belongs to the sower or the soil? How can the human mind prepare the soil accordingly, to fertilize the seed worthy of germinating, and to weed out the seeds that are noxious?

And one last thought that should trouble every sower: crops that grow have a tendency to reseed. Those seeds not only reseed the field on which they’re planted – they also can spread to other fields, carried by the wind or by others who have picked up the seed and resow them elsewhere. And so the quality and condition of the seed is all the more important, because the sower doesn’t control the quality of the soil, nor the germination and reseeding of the original seed.

I’m sorry to beat up this metaphor to this point, but I think it’s a very powerful image. It speaks to the grave responsibility that the sower has to not only faithfully cast seed, but to make sure that the seed itself is of the highest and purest quality, as the sower best and most honestly determines it to be. Understanding that all sowers are limited and fallible, and that all will naturally carry personal understanding and bias into their casting of the seed, if the sower’s motives are pure and if the sower aggressively strives to understand the seed and the soil, and is willing to tend to the crop with love and care, I suppose that’s all we can ask until some great harvest.