Saturday, March 14, 2015

Back to the Bible (Pt. 1)--Trustworthy, not Inerrant

I grew up being taught that the Bible was the "holy, inspired, inerrant Word of God."  This made me want to read the Bible to obtain righteousness.  I wanted to know more than others, and I wanted to demonstrate that I knew more than others.  I probably even wanted to "save" others.  I wanted to be an "insider" with God.  However, reading the Bible as the "holy, inspired, inerrant Word of God" didn't cause me to love others.  Instead, it fueled my innate self-righteousness and caused me to believe that God was lucky to have me on his team.

Somehow, inexplicably, I read the Bible to say that God was damning the "outsiders"--the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the other "ites"--even though Jesus, God Himself, teaches us to "love our enemies."  If the Bible is "inerrant," then God was telling the Jews to kill the "outsiders."  The logic of this to the Jews was that, if they didn't kill the others, then the Jews would become like the others.  The logic to modern-day Christians is that God was exercising his divine justice through his chosen people--the Jews.

Love your enemies (Jesus).  Kill your enemies (God of the OT).  Is this somehow correct?

When I saw the Bible as speaking with a forked-tongue, I didn't love it.  Loving the truth, I couldn't deal with the inconsistencies in the Bible that I had been taught was the "holy, inspired, inerrant Word of God."  I read other books about Jesus (many, many, many other books about Jesus--Jesus is captivating), but the Bible had lost its appeal.  As God dealt with my self-righteousness, the book that had cultivated my self-righteousness lost its luster.

Recently, one of my favorite pastors described the Bible as "trustworthy."  This I can believe.  Seeing the Bible as "inerrant" was a huge problem for me.  But "trustworthy"--that I can wrap my need for truth around.  We have a new Sunday School teacher for whom the OT is his friend.  He brings it alive--dispatching with the rote, uninspired teachings of my upbringing and, instead, bringing the Word to life with a sense of wonder.  This I want to hear.  So, now I can go "back to the Bible" and hopefully read it correctly.

Our SS teacher explained that, after the Jews killed the "outsiders," the Jews then became exactly like the "outsiders."  To my way of thinking, then, there was no point in killing the "outsiders."  The Jews were sufficiently sinful in and of themselves, even without the supposedly corrupting influence of "outsiders."  So, maybe the God of the OT wasn't telling the Jews to kill the "outsiders" in order to maintain their purity?  (Indeed, this is the very thing that ISIS--murder your enemies to maintain your purity.)  Maybe the Jews wanted to kill the "outsiders" anyway and were just using God as a justification?  Maybe the Prophets weren't just upset with the Jews because they were immoral, but rather because they didn't love their fellow man.  Maybe Jesus came to correct the incorrect views of the OT Jews and of modern-day Christians.

Our SS teacher also taught that there are four groups of people that God was greatly concerned about and, accordingly, the Prophets were concerned about--the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the sojourners.  These were the folks outside the Jewish religious order, outside the mainstream of society, outside the love of God--according to the insiders.

If God wanted the Jews to be concerned about the "outsiders," is not God even more concerned about them? If the "outsiders" are special to God, you could read the OT to say that redemption lies with the "poor, the widows, the orphans, and the sojourners."  But this isn't what the Jews believed.  They believed that redemption lay within the Jewish religious order, just as we Christians believe today.

So, as for me, I'm going with the Bible as being "trustworthy," not inerrant.  I'm going with God as the friend of sinners (not their judge), the lover of His enemies (not their murderer), and the deliverer of all--even the self-righteous like me.  For, indeed, this is my only hope!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

GNR--Take 2--my heroes Bryan and Emily

To get the background for this post, you may want to read my other GNR post.

When reading "A Mess of Help" by David Zahl, and his gracious treatment of Axl, I began weeping.  God has been so gracious to me.  He has rescued me from binge alcoholism, partying, and worse yet self-righteousness.  I will still have these tendencies until I die, but God has given me a tremendous respite from them.  Back when I saw GNR twice--1987 and 1992, I was a full-blown alcoholic and self-righteous prick.  Most people knew about the drinking and partying, but I disguised the self-righteousness pretty well.  

Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I understood that Christianity was all about my performance.  So, if I was performing good at church--attending multiple times per week, teaching SS, and helping my wife to become a Southern Baptist Stepford wife, then it was okay to "party hearty."  

As I read David's gracious treatment of Axl, I also began weeping for a friend--Bryan Bonds who attended the first GNR concert with me.  Bryan has ALS.  Bryan is one of the strongest Christians I know, as is his wife Emily.  They have faced Bryan's disease with courage that can only be found in a deep-seated appreciation for the love that God has bestowed upon his created beings--his sons and daughters.

I don't know why Bryan has ALS.  I don't know why children starve and die from Aids in Africa.  However, I do know that the only god out there who has demonstrated His heartbreak over human suffering is Jesus.  Jesus demonstrated solidarity with mankind by living in this difficult world and then entering into death in the most painful way known at that time.

Emily told me that Bryan still talks about the 1987 GNR concert which we attended.  So do I.  It was outdoors at the Birmingham Race Track, and it was raining cats and dogs.  We were knee-deep in mud, and Axl was having problems with his voice.  Even with the discomfort and the breaks in the show for Axl to treat his voice, when GNR played, it was like magic.  Their music wiped away, temporarily, any tears, fears, discomforts, or problems that we had.

The camaraderie that we experienced at that show is something that we will get to experience in heaven.  In heaven, all of our relationships will be direct and not affected by sin--such as alcoholism or self-righteousness.  For Jesus, the friend of sinners, will reign supreme.  He will wipe away every tear.  There will be no more fears, discomforts, or problems.  And "the grass will be green and the girls will be pretty."  Even me, a 54 year old, overweight balding lawyer will be pretty.  

"A Mess of Help" and GNR (Is "Paradise City" a guilty pleasure or picture of heaven?)

"Take me down to Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty;

Oh won't you please take me home."  (Guns n' Roses--1987)

A rock anthem for the ages, or it should have been.  With GNR making such a sudden and complete exodus from the rock scene in 1992, they somehow lost the respect of music critics and even fans--even a fan like me.

From other's accounts, it sounds like the band self-destructed after their 1992 world tour.  Axl's self-destructive tendency was perfectionism.  This contributed to the band's breakup and kept him from putting out another album until 2008.

Folks at work still give me grief for liking GNR twenty years later--even the younger folks at work know that I was a GNR fan.  The Bible says that our thoughts are directed by our hearts.  So, I guess my heart was pretty attracted to and infatuated with GNR.

The band's sudden breakup and terminus caused even me to look down on them.  How could they not get it together to make their amazing music again?  If they couldn't control themselves, then maybe their music wasn't that great after all.  This is where I wound up--disenchanted and feeling like a rube for ever having liked GNR.

Then, I read "Mess of Help" by David Zahl.  David applies grace to band after band--from the Beatles to GNR.  The grace that David Zahl heaps upon Axl is not to be believed.

David explains that Axl was raised in a very fundamentalist Christian home to which Axl responded with rebellion.  He and his band mates wrote their first album "Appetite for Destruction" while all five were living in a one room apartment in LA.  David notes that they gave song-writing credit to all five of the band members--which is rarely if ever done.  They were living in a state of thankfulness for one another--a state in which each was humble about his own role in the band.

Than, after the remarkable success of Appetite--the largest selling debut album of all time--they were faced with the law of performance--"how're you going to top that?'  Living under this burden, it took them several years to put out "Use Your Illusion 1 and 2."  (By the way, I bought this album when it went on sale at midnight and went home and listened to it right away.)  UYI has multiple types of music--from hard-edged rock to ballads to even rap-like songs.  UYI was loved by the fans, but panned by the critics.

After their world tour to support UYI, they broke up.  Axl wanted to control everything, and other band members thought he was getting away from their roots.

David points out that Axl's desire for control over the band in his pursuit of perfection was probably derived from the control which was modeled to him in his family growing up.  Sin begets sin.  God doesn't curse future generations-- we do.  So, the band's breakup is now more easily understood.  David gives grace to Axl.  Rather than condemning Axl as the media and fans like me have done, David explains where Axl's actions came from.

David ends his article with a crescendo of grace.  David says that Axl wears a large cross whenever he performs.  Of course, David points out, this could merely be a fashion statement.  But David doesn't think so.  For you see, Axl has a collection of antique crosses.  Axl seems to understand that, in the midst of the "mess" of this world, all he has and all he needs is God's grace.

If God is as gracious to us, as David Zahl is to Axl, then heaven is probably going to be more like Paradise City than the monastery or the clouds or the golden streets promoted by American evangelicals.  There will be rock guitars rather than angel's harps.  The grass will be green, and the girls will be pretty.  Indeed, we'll all be beautiful--reflected in the glow of Jesus' love.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lent, the Two Trees, and St. Judas

The Cathedral Church of the Advent (the "Advent") is where I learned grace.  The Advent was God's instrument of grace for saving my marriage, my career, and even my life.  The Advent has faithfully called preacher after preacher who actually understand and proclaim the Gospel.  This proclamation is God's instrument of salvation.

Yesterday, one of the preachers whose Gospel explication meant so much to me, came back to preach at the Lenten series at the Advent.  As one of my law partners, Ed Ashton, said:  "Paul Walker never disappoints."  In ushering in the Lenten season, Paul referred back to a letter which he received from the priest who officiated him into the Episcopal church.  Paul recalled anxiously opening the letter to glean the wisdom of a man who had been in the ministry for 30 plus years.  He began it with: "Don't give up beer for Lent."  This may seem odd, at best, but it's actually deeply profound.  For, as Paul preached, giving up beer or chocolate or whatever is okay, but it isn't sufficient, not anywhere near sufficient.  It isn't our actions, our minor addictions, which need to be remedied--it's our hearts.  Our hearts which are the root of anger, lust, control, self-righteousness, judgmental attitudes, and all other manifestations of evil--that's what needs mending, and there's only one solution--the Gospel.

Before Paul came to town, I listened to one of his recent sermons on the Mockingpulpit entitled: "Let's Get it Started in Here," which dealt with the parable of the ten vestal virgins--those who went into the party with the bridegroom and those who didn't.  Paul ended his sermon in a way that left me floored by God's grace.  Paul said that Judas was at the party--the great eternal party with his friend and savior Jesus.  Now, I've know of only one other person who takes the position that Judas is in heaven--Garry Wills.  Quite frankly, although I love Wills' writing, I thought Garry was going too far when he called him: Saint Judas.  Now, I don't.  Now, I think that Paul and Garry are right--he is Saint Judas.

At the end of this sermon, Paul read the lyrics to a song: "The Judas Tree."  The song tells that, per the Apostles' Creed, Jesus descended into Hell after he was crucified.  The song says that Jesus cut Judas down from the tree on which he had hung himself and liberated Judas from Hell.  Could this be?  Could the person who committed the most grievous sin in the history of man be at the eternal banquet with God?  Like Garry and Paul, I think so.

Garry points out that, when Judas sold out Jesus, he likely had no idea that Jesus would be killed. The Jewish authorities had no authority to commit anyone to death--without the say of the Romans.  That's why he hung himself--he was so aggrieved that his selling out of Jesus had ramifications far beyond what he had imagined.  Judas thought his sin would have certain repercussions (which he was prepared to deal with), but he had no idea that his sin would result in the death of his friend.

What we learn from the Judas Tree is that the world is a deeply broken place.  The world can take our lesser sins and wreak devastating, never intended or imagined, consequences.  This is one tree that we should consider entering into Lent--into the season where we contemplate the human condition and then God's response.  The Judas Tree reflects that this world is not our home--it is not friendly towards us--it can be damn unfriendly--wars, rumors of wars, the plague, ebola, famine, hunger, murder, adultery, incest, crimes committed in the name of religion, etc.  The list of problems with the world is endless.

The second tree--the Cross--is the primary focus of Lent.  The Cross first diagnoses the condition of the human heart.  We are bloodthirsty.  We are bloodthirsty like ISIS.  As my current pastor said: "Jihad was committed against Jesus."  The religious fervor of man caused them to spill the blood of an innocent man, and we are no different.  We are all jihadists in our flawed religious hearts.

But, the Gospel doesn't end with the diagnosis of the world and the human heart--it flips to God's grace.  God's grace is borne out by these two trees.  God has triumphed over the world and over our hearts.  God raised His son from the dead.  God liberated Judas, and indeed all of us, from the Hell of this world and the eternal Hell.

As I enter into Lent, I have hope for God's salvation.  I've long said that, if God saved me, He could be saving anyone and everyone.  If there's hope for me and Judas, then there's hope for mankind--hope for liberation from the vagaries of this world and our inward-looking, twisted hearts.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sanctification--a few thoughts

1.  Sanctification is occurring if you see yourself as more and more sinful.  The only person who can see sanctification in you is someone else, and it has to be someone who's known you for a while.  Sanctification is about change.  I may not seem sanctified to those who meet me now.  But those who've known me for years remark about positive changes in me.  Yet, I see myself more and more as a sinner.  I am much more in touch with my motivations--most of which are selfish.  Becoming more and more acquainted with my selfish motivations does lead to change, over time, but ONLY if you feel forgiven for those sins.  This is where grace comes in.  Grace is the fuel of sanctification.

2.  You can't approach sanctification "head on."  You can't view the law as a good way to live.  If you do, those who tend towards self-righteousness (like me) will compare themselves to others and feel better about themselves.  For those who tend towards self-judgment (like Debbie), they will compare themselves to others and despair.  However, as you know more and more about the love of God for His created beings, change actually occurs.  As you come to understand God's boundless love and grace for you, you begin to exhibit love and grace towards others.  Grace is intoxicating--it can't be held in, held back, or squashed.  True 100% grace is infectious.

3.  Gerhard Forde--"True antinomianism is watering the law down so that we can keep it."

4.  Jesus didn't water down the law.  He said: "Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."

5.  The best way, at least for me, to interpret Jesus' view of the law is as a Second Use--it brings us to our knees so that we cry out to God for His grace.

6.  St. Paul's words about what a Christian looks like are 'descriptive,' not 'prescriptive.'  In other words, over time, others will say that you are becoming more like Jesus.  Occasionally, you will discover that you are more like Jesus--but it will be like a thunderbolt out of the blue, not a reasoned analysis of your qualities.  Reasoned analyses of one's qualities leads to self-righteousness or despair, neither of which is desired by God, neither of which is more holy, neither of which is more sanctified.

7.  At the risk of appearing to "toot my own horn," I'm going to share a couple of thunderbolts.

8.  The first thunderbolt occurred about 12 years ago.  A friend, although not a close friend, came to me with a sexual issue.  He wanted help with the issue.  He thought I might could help for this reason:  "Ellis, you used to be the most lustful person that I knew.  Now you're not.  What happened?"
My reply was the message of grace that I had heard from Paul Zahl.  I gave some of my Zahl cassette tapes to my friend.   A month later he came back and said:  "Are you sure this is right?  I've never heard anything like this."  I said: "When I first heard it, I hadn't either, but I think it's simply the 'old, old story of Jesus and His love which has been squelched by the Church."  Another month went by.  He came back again: "Ellis, this is life-changing.  I'm beginning to experience freedom from my issue."  His story is even more remarkable than this.  While I can't tell it without possibly revealing his identity, the message of grace changed him as radically as it changed me.

9.  Other thunderbolts have happened over the years.  Two recent ones:  I took my mother-in-law to lunch.  I know this doesn't sound like sanctification, but if you'd known me before, you would say: "Wow," at least that's what Debbie said.  So, yes, I was an a.....e before.  A second one was an email from a new friend--someone that I've only interacted with briefly.  Yet, he could tell that I loved him and cared about his issues.  So, he poured out to me his trials and triumphs.  Sometimes, indeed most times, listening is the best we can do for one another.  Well, listening and speaking grace.

10. Finally, here's my favorite quote on sanctification.  Sanctification isn't about trying to follow the law, but rather knowing that our transgressions are covered by the blood of the Perfect One, the All-Compassionate One, the God who's property is ALWAYS to have mercy:

It is instructive, in this connection, to remember that God’s appointed place for the tables of the law was within the ark of the testimony.  With them were “the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded”  (types, the one of Christ our wilderness bread, the other of resurrection, and both speaking of grace), while they were covered from sight by the golden mercy-seat upon which was sprinkled the blood of atonement.  The eye of God could see His broken law only through the blood that completely vindicated His justice and propitiated His wrath (Heb. 9: 4, 5).
It was reserved to modern nomolators to wrench these holy and just but deathful tables from underneath the mercy-seat and the atoning blood, and erect them in Christian churches as the rule of Christian life.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Gracious Providence in Provision and Grieving

We can't grieve until we realize that we've lost something.  I'm very fortunate--I've only lost two people in my life that were close family.  One was my father, and the other was my children's godmother--Butch Smith.  Oddly, it took me 12 years to truly grieve for my father, and 2 years to truly grieve for Butch.  I was struck by grief in two peculiar ways which leads me to believe that it was brought about by the HS.

First, one of my dear friends at work, Walker Wells, told me that I had to read "The Road."  Given Walker's faith and intellect, I knew that it had to be good.  But, as always, I find it hard to take recommendations from anyone.  Then, I came down with a pretty significant bug and had to go home from work.  That afternoon, I finally read "The Road" in its entirety.  I couldn't put it down.  The picture of the father's love and provision--and the fact that they were "carrying the light" in a post-apocalypse world full of cannibals--brought me to tears over my father.  This was some dozen years after his death.  Clearly, Walker's suggestion was providential.

That's what my father did--he "carried the light."  He carried the light of grace.  He spent his last 15 years working as the chaplain at Partlow, the former state home for those who were mentally retarded.  (I'm sure that's not the PC word, but it was the word used at the time.)  My father loved those at Partlow.  I remember one in particular, Wayne, who came to our house frequently and was my father's unofficial assistant.  My father loved them, and me and my sister, without condition.  Yet, he had his issues.  In his last years, he was often hateful towards my mother.

I'm not besmirching my father's name by admitting this, but simply being honest which allows for grace.  Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast with Barnabas Piper, John Piper's son, and he was relating the story of when he found out that his baseball hero was a philanderer.  It knocked him right off Barnabas' pedestal.  This is where we go wrong as humans and Christians--we want to put people on the pedestal.  This is not grace.  Grace is seeing and acknowledging all aspects of a person and, yet, loving them.

As to Butch, she filled a role in Debbie's life for which I will ever be thankful.  For many years, I put work above my wife.  (That's why, as it's told in Genesis, God "cursed" work--to redirect our attention from work to God, our spouses and families.)  During those years, Butch was "there" for Debbie.  Debbie could not have had a better friend, indeed mother-figure, than Butch.  Butch also exhibited one-way love to me and my children.  It was nothing short of breath-taking to see such love.

And yet, Butch had her issues.  I think the parent-child relationship is perhaps the most difficult one to navigate.  Indeed, none of us can navigate it successfully.  Indeed, another person, one who is not a "blood parent" can provide one-way, unconditional love more so than the blood-kin.  It's something about the way that God set up the parent-child relationship.  It's not flawed, but it's sure peculiar.  This is what Butch did for Debbie.  But for Butch's support of Debbie, Debbie probably would have left me during those years that I was so selfish.

As with my father, my grieving for Butch struck out of the blue.  I was at lunch with a man that I'd met at a Christmas party.  We were both in the same industry and wanted to get together for lunch.  He reminded me at lunch that, not only was he a member at Trinity, but he was also on the Admin Board--meaning that he had to know Butch.  He did.  As he recalled his fond memories of Butch, tears of grief and thankfulness began welling up in my eyes--sitting at Bettola restaurant.

So, thank you to my father and to Butch for the one-way, unconditional love which you showered upon me and my family.  Praise be to God that you were both Saints and Sinners and, therefore, real and, therefore, persons that I could love instead of worship--for there is only One worthy of our worship.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Shout out to Jesus--for Breathing New Life into the Bible Belt

I was born a Pharisee. My natural inclination is to think that I'm better than others. This is how I justify myself. To compound the problem, I was raised in a church that taught that Christians are better than others. Oh sure, the pastor paid "lip service" to our being sinners, but there was always this idea that, once we "accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior," we would lead good, moral lives--become pillars of the community. This teaching just made me worse. Of course, based upon what most of my friends from that time tell me, I covered it up pretty well. But then, I got married. You can't hide it from your wife. The problem with thinking that you are better than others is that you have to keep proving it to yourself. You lie to yourself, over and over again. The anxiety of performance is a death sentence. I was headed to suicide. We were headed to divorce after about 10 years. 
BUT THEN GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY...I got invited to a Bible Study of Paul Zahl in January, 1998. Zahl said that we were inveterate sinners, full of libidinal urges, and that we had no "free will." He said that God met our inveterate sinfulness with boundless, confounding grace. I didn't get it at first, but as I fell on hard times in my life, I finally came to hear with new ears, to see with new eyes--I was a Pharisee. My efforts to be good (Deacon, SS teacher, generally moral person), were SIN. I was WITHOUT HOPE IN MYSELF. I HAD NO CONTROL WHATSOEVER OVER MY LIFE. BEING A SUCCESSFUL LAWYER WHO GAVE MONEY TO BAPTIST FOREIGN MISSIONS WAS NEVER GOING TO SET ME RIGHT WITH GOD.
As I write this, you must think I'm crazy--I certainly do. To think that Christianity was about being a good Southern Baptist (primarily giving to foreign missions) is so facile, so dishonoring to the God of the universe. I'm not alone in my view of Bible Belt pulpits. I have friends from the Florida panhandle who tell me that there's not a church there that they can attend.
BUT THEN GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY...put Tullian Tchividjian in the pulpit at Coral Ridge Pres. Tullian, like Zahl, has returned to that old, old religion that was so brilliantly described by St. Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Their message is impacting tens of thousands of people in the Bible Belt. There are preachers stretching from Texas to Alabama to Virginia to Kentucky to New York to Florida who have been influenced and blessed by Zahl and Tchividjian. 
Thank you Jesus for saving me. Thank you Jesus for breathing fresh life into the pulpits of the Bible Belt.