Sunday, January 10, 2016

Christ--the Stumbling Block--Unequivocal Love to the Immeasurably Unlovely

2 2 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom2 3 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

"The man stands in front of [Pilate] with his hands tied behind his back.  You can see that He has been roughed up a little.  His upper lip is absurdly puffed out and one eye is swollen shut.  He looks unwashed and smells unwashed.  His feet are bare--big, flat peasant feet although the man himself is not big."--Frederick Buechner, "Telling the Truth, the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale."

"He uttered nary a mumblin' word."  Negro Spiritual

We Christians are a strange bunch.   We worship a man who, when arrested and beaten and standing before Pilate with his "big, flat peasant feet" "uttered nary a mumblin' word." We are unlike the Jews (the religious people), who "demand signs," (miracles for the benefit of the religious people) or the Greeks (the intelligentsia), who "seek wisdom" (a better way to live.)  No, instead, we follow a man who suffered the most ignominious death ever devised by we cruel humans.  We follow a man who, rather than calling down the wrath of angels upon his oppressors, went silently to His death on a cross. 


Because it is true.  Because what was foretold in the Garden--that the serpent would nick the heel of Eve's offspring (hang Jesus on the Cross), but that Eve's offspring would crush the head of the serpent (through His death and resurrection)--came true.

We don't follow Jesus because he will perform miracles on our behalf (give us better lives, happy families, job promotions, victory for our country in war).  We don't follow Jesus because he will give us wisdom so that we can live better lives.

We follow Jesus, because the Cross (not signs or wisdom) speaks the ultimate truth about man and about God.

The Cross first is a mirror for each of us--we stare at it and into it--and realize that, like the Jews and Romans, we would have crucified Jesus.  Our innate sinfulness leads us to hate love, and Jesus was that--the embodiment of perfect love.  We don't like the fact that He chose the thieving tax collector over the upright, successful businessman.  We don't like the fact that He saved the adulteress.  We don't like the fact that He loved the non-religious people of his day and upbraided the religious.  We don't like the fact that, instead of throwing out the Romans occupiers (the enemies of His people), He allowed himself to be killed under their governmental authority.  

The Cross second is a reflection of God's response to our innate sinfulness.  God didn't prevent the death of Jesus.  God didn't seek retribution after His death.  Instead, God forgave those who crucified Jesus.  For, from the Cross, Jesus exclaimed:
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  If Jesus asked His father to forgive those who murdered Him, would His father not heed his Son's wishes?  If God forgives them, will He not also forgive us?

The Cross is the victory of God over man.  It says to us that we are immeasurably unlovely, but nonetheless unequivocally loved.  Praise God for giving us the Cross, rather than signs or wisdom.  Praise God for not giving us what we desired or deserved, but rather for once and for all expressing His infinite love to us while we were yet His ultimate enemies--the murderers of His son.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

God works "sub contrario"

2 2 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 2 3 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.   1 Cor. 1:22-25

18So the Jews said to him, "What sign do you show us for doing these things?" 19Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  John 2:18-19

"And he said not a mumblin' word..."--Spiritual

"God works 'sub contrario' ('under his opposite')."--Martin Luther

In order to determine whether God was at work, the Jews demanded "signs"--they wanted to see miracles to prove that the person claiming to be acting for God was telling the truth.  Moreover, they wanted the miracles to be positive actions--actions for the seeming good.  We modern day Christians are no different.  We want to see "signs" that God is at work--healing someone from cancer; having our country prevail in war; providing us with a loving spouse, healthy children, and job promotions.  Indeed, Jesus had already performed numerous "positive" miracles.  

Yet, when the Jews asked Him for a sign, He didn't refer to any of them.  He didn't refer to restoring sight, or curing leprosy, or even raising the dead.  Each of these was more than sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus was "acting for God."  Instead, Jesus answered: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  The "sign" that Jesus pointed to was His crucifixion and resurrection.

Death at the hands of the Jews--death at our hands--death from those who want God to work in strength.  Instead, God works "under his opposite"--through death, rather than life; through weakness rather than strength; through loss rather than success.  This is why Jesus was a stumbling block to the Jews and why, so often, He is a stumbling block to us.

This is our God--one who is acquainted with the suffering of His people; one who went to His death while saying "nary a mumblin' word;" one who could have called down angels to kill those who would kill Him but instead withheld His power; one who we can always turn to in our times of sorrow, suffering, and grief.  

He is a god unlike any other.  God's "sign"--"Christ crucified"--was unequivocal love to the immeasurably unlovely.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Debbie--My "Dancing Queen" (Abba)--Our Marriage after "Waterloo"

I had dated two women that I had seriously considered marrying.  I realized that the first was not the "one for me."  Unfortunately, I didn't break off the first relationship as definitively as I should have.  When it reared it's head again, the second relationship didn't survive.  I was despondent.  Both of these women--particularly the second--had met my definition of a woman to be married--they were both attractive and they came from a certain background--they had successful fathers.  Then, I met Debbie.

The first time that I saw Debbie I was out with friends at the old Upside Down Plaza--the one which is now occupied by Hot n' Hot Fish Club.  I was instantly mesmerized.  Debbie was the most beautiful woman that I'd ever met.  As we talked, I realized what an amazing, kind disposition she had.  To me, she was "young, sweet, only seventeen"--a "Dancing Queen."  I recall trying to get her phone number, but she wouldn't give it to me.  She had some excuse (true I'm sure) of having recently given it to someone else, and he wouldn't stop calling her.  She told me that we would see each other again--out on the town.  Well, one of my friends got the phone number from Debbie's roommate (this was before cell phones--all they had was a house phone).  The next day I called and invited Debbie to lunch.  Debbie: "I'm sorry, I'm running out the door to have lunch with a friend."

So, rebuffed TWICE by Debbie or, at least, that was my perception.  I was crushed and mad.

That Sunday, Debbie and her roommates were having a housewarming party.  I went to see Debbie even though I didn't see much chance with her.  When I got to the party, I found out that Debbie's sister was there, and I immediately began talking her up--"hitting on her" in the vernacular of the day in hopes of generating a reaction in Debbie.  After 10-15 minutes, Debbie came over.  She swears that it wasn't because she was jealous.  Maybe so, but I was intent on getting Debbie, which was the only reason that I was "hitting on" her sister.

We went to dinner Monday nite, and then had a second date Tuesday nite.  I had to work fast, because she was the "one for me," and I was leaving Birmingham to work the rest of the summer in D.C. and then back to law school.

So, I PROPOSED, on our second date.  Debbie thought that I was crazy.  She was right.  I couldn't imagine life without her.   Over the next three weeks, she met my family, and I met hers.  My father approved, and Debbie's grandmother approved.  From what I recall, the other family members didn't say anything--I'm sure they thought we were crazy as well.

Marriage is rough.  Your wife goes from being your "Dancing Queen" to being your chief enemy.  I had a picture in my head of what I wanted our family to be like--a good Southern Baptist family--with a successful husband, dutiful wife, and respectful kids.  I did everything I could to achieve this goal.  In doing so, I killed my "Dancing Queen."  We had a picture of Debbie as a 3 or 4 year old in which she had a mischievous grin--a really mischievous grin.  I lost this person over the first 12-13 years of our marriage.

Even though my friends would have told you that I was a passionate person who cared about others, I was screwing my marriage up terribly.  Rather than letting Debbie be who she was, I was trying to turn her into a Southern Baptist "Stepford wife."  Sometimes, I did this with express admonitions, and sometimes with only implicit ones.  This was death.

Over time, I learned that Debbie didn't have a very high opinion of herself and I was making it worse.  I was squelching the life out of her--so much so that in 2000 or so--she told me that she was "plotting her escape" for when the kids graduated from high school.

I was floored.  I had no idea that I was her "prison guard."  Thankfully, we had both been going to life-giving Bible studies for a couple of years.  This allowed us to pray together, and from that day forward, things began to change.

I had come to my "Waterloo."  In addition to learning that I had screwed up my marriage and family, along about the same time, I received a diagnosis of a rare auto-immune liver disease, and I learned that my efforts for one of my best clients had all been for naught.  I had lost.  My efforts to create a good Southern Baptist family had failed.  In retrospect, I'm so thankful that I failed.  I finally learned that I had no control over anything and that my efforts at control were damning, not helpful.

Over the last 12 to 15 years, Debbie and I (through nothing but the grace of God) have begun accepting each other as we are.  I'm so thankful for her strengths that her weaknesses pale in comparison.  What's more, you don't get certain strengths without the concomitant weaknesses.

Over and over, we lose--we give up expectations--we accept failure--and we forgive.  To the world, failure and forgiveness are an anathema.  They feel that way to us at the time.  But over time, they are the work of the Holy Spirit.  It's only when we give up trying to achieve our aspirations, that we receive those as pure gifts from God.

Debbie is my "Dancing Queen" once again and even more so.  She has the mischievous grin from her picture as a 4 year old.  She has the best sense of humor of anyone that I know.  She's like Tina Fey, but her humor is simply natural.  She and I have a marriage that we never thought possible.  We're "having the time of our lives." I see Debbie as "young and sweet, only seventeen, (my) Dancing Queen, feel(ing) the beat from the tambourine--oh yeah."

At the same time, we're still deep-down sinners, which is not cause for despair.  Because we're both sinners, we get the opportunity to forgive one another daily (on minor and major things).  We daily meet our "Waterloo."  This opportunity to forgive allows us to exhibit (albeit in a small way) the forgiving love of Christ to one another.  It gives us a present taste of the Kingdom which, according to Christ, has broken through partially, and is breaking through, but isn't yet present in all of its fullness.

Praise be to God who makes all things new, and gives us the desires of our hearts, but only after He has killed us.  So, God, bring quickly death--death to control;  death to our aspirations;  death to our self-birthed identities, and then give us life--life sensitive to the control of the Holy Spirit;  life that gives birth to our aspirations; and life that breathes new identities into our dead selves.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Shymalan's "Wide Awake" and where we really find Christmas

In "Wide Awake" (one of Shymalan's first movies), the protagonist, a fifth grader named Joshua, loses his grandfather.  Losing his beloved grandfather sends him on a "mission" to find God.  (This movie is corny, but I get choked up every time that I see it.  Last nite, I had to fight back the tears since Debbie and Mathis were watching with me.)  (BTW, "Wide Awake" is also, and importantly, full of humor with Rosie O'Donnel as a nun, and Denis Leary as Josh's father.)

Like us, Joshua seeks advice from religious figures.  In his case, since he attends a Catholic school, he seeks guidance from a nun, a priest, and a Cardinal--all to no avail.  He also seeks God through Judaism and Islam.  Again, no luck.

His best friend, Daredevil Dave, sees that Josh is despondent in his failure to find God.  Daredevil Dave:  "This whole mission business is getting out of hand.  You're wigging man. People are talking.  In all this time, in all that you've done, have you one sign, any sign, that there's a god?"  "No."  To Daredevil Dave that means: "either there ain't no God, or He doesn't care that you're looking for him.  Either way, I'd stop."

Joshua thinks about discontinuing his mission--it's been a failure.  Then, he reminisces about his life with his grandfather and his unqualified love for him.  Josh asks God for a sign.  One day in class "crazy Robert Brickman" takes the picture of the Pope off the wall and begins showing it to the kids in the class.  One student says in a hushed tone: "Robert's touching the Pope."  Robert not only touches the Pope but takes him out into the rain and sits on the top of the jungle gym, holding the Pope as high as he can.  Everyone else thinks it's just another crazy antic by Robert, but Joshua thinks it's a sign.

The movie then moves forward to Josh sitting on a bench outside the nun's office.  He's thinking: "something strange is about to happen."  Indeed it does, but like the Gospel, what happened next isn't what Josh was looking for.  As he sits on the bench, he hears a commotion in the nun's office.  Freddie: "I'm not going to go.  I can't leave."   Josh learns that Freddie, the bully who put him in a school locker and put cherry jello in his shoes, is going to have to leave the school given his parents' financial straits.  Josh thinks:  "This should be the happiest day of my life, but it isn't."  Josh is able to empathize with Freddie's pain and offers his hand in friendship to Freddie when he leaves school with his parents, for the last time.

Then there's Frank, the class "fat kid" who no one likes.  Obviously, Frank desperately wants to be liked, which makes him all the more unlikeable.  Throughout the movie, to put Frank off, Joshua promises Frank that he will play with him "tomorrow," but tomorrow never comes because, well, "today" is always "today."  When they go on a museum field trip, Frank tries to go through the turnstile with Josh, and they get stuck for 20 minutes--20 minutes of embarrassment in front of "300 people who stopped by to watch."  Josh: "I hate field trips."  After they are extricated, Josh sees Frank sitting alone on a bench and overhears a classmate: "that fat turd, he's going to weigh 5000 pounds when he grows up." Instead of joining in with his classmate's ridicule of Frank, Joshua thinks:  "I better complete my mission soon.  I think I'm really losing it."  Josh then goes and sits down next to Frank who has been crying and is still sniffling.  "Frank, you know what?" "What?" "Yesterday is yesterday and today is tomorrow.  Do you want to go and make fun of those ugly statues?"  Frank's face brightens, he breaks a grin, and they go off together in camaraderie to endure the field trip to the museum.

Finally, Josh discovers his best friend, Daredevil Dave, passed out in the aftermath of a seizure.  (Earlier in the movie, Josh tells us that Dave is the bravest kid he knows.  "If Dave says it can't be done, it can't be done."  So, to see weakness in Dave is particularly troubling.)  Thanks to Josh, Dave is taken to the hospital where he is found to have a broken arm from thrashing his arm against the confines of the closet where they play Galactic Battlecruiser.  Visiting him, Josh says that his mission to find God is over--that it was a failure--how can there be a God when his courageous friend has epilepsy?  Surprising, Dave (who before has told Josh that his mission is a waste of time) says:  "Josh, you need to stick to your mission.  It was a miracle that you found me when you did."

In one of the last scenes, each fifth grader reads their essay about what fifth grade meant to them.  Here's Josh's:

"Before this year, bullies were just bullies, for no reason.
weirdos were just weird; and
daredevils weren't afraid of anything.

Before this year, people I loved lived forever.
I spent this year looking for something,
and wound up seeing everything around me.
It's like I was asleep before and finally woke up.
You know what, I'm wide awake now."

This corny, but profound, movie beautifully illustrates a sermon that Bill Boyd preached at Covenant Presbyterian on the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, after John leaps in Elizabeth's womb over Mary's pregnancy.  God came in lowliness to a poor unwed girl who wasn't expecting to be pregnant.  Indeed, it was shameful for her to be pregnant, even a stoning offense.  He came to a barren older woman who also wasn't expecting to be pregnant, yet for Elizabeth it was a cause for anything but shame.  Elizabeth was the wife of a priest, and she had experienced shame for decades due to her barrenness.  Given her decades of shame, Elizabeth was able to empathize with Mary--to encourage her in her time of difficulty and shame.  Bill explains that:  1)we find God in lowliness, in shame; and 2)when we find God there, we then have empathy for others and can exhibit God's love towards them.

So, it was with Josh.  His loss of his beloved grandfather sent him on a mission to find God--to settle and quiet the pain.  And Josh found God.  He found God in Freddie, the bully;  in Frank, the pesky, uncool, needy "fat kid;" and in Daredevil Dave who had epilepsy.  Joshua found a God who is acquainted with our sorrows and is most powerfully found there.  He is a God unlike any other.  A God who is not first present in our triumphs, but in our defeats;  not first present in our joys; but in our sorrows;  not first present in our good works; but in our sin.  He is a God unlike any other.  He has a heart for the unlovely, the rejected, and even the victimizers, which then gives us a heart for them.

When we find God in an animal feed trough, follow him through an arduous life where He had no place to lay His head, and then lose Him to crucifixion, then and only then can we love our family, ourselves, and sometimes even our enemies.

Thanks be to our God!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

PZ, Pope Francis, and Oprah--What Happens When you Die

Zahl is at it again--dealing head-on with the facts that:  1)our lives are more like the Book of Ecclesiastes than "Our Best Life Now" or The Oprah Show;  and 2)we're all going to die--as Axl said:  "No one gets out of here alive."

Zahl says that he's been around more than a hundred people when they were near death, and they don't talk about their careers!  They don't even talk about their children.  Yet, this is what men and women focus on--our careers and our children.  Zahl says that, for decades, women were free from the anxiety and heart attacks wrought by obsession with careers--but no longer.

Zahl says that he failed in his goal to change the Episcopal church.  He says that 90% of them are concerned with social justice, but have nothing, nothing at all, to offer to hurting people--nothing insofar as the pain of this life or the apprehension of death.  After hearing Zahl's talk, I turned to a clip of Oprah on Colbert's show.  Oprah says the same thing that Osteen and most churches say now.

Cue Oprah:  "I just love Psalms 37:4--'Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.'"  Oprah says that, if we embrace love, compassion, empathy (which she equates with the Lord), then we will receive the "desires" of our heart.  Hearing her caused me great pain.  Debbie says that Oprah is trying to understand and explain why she has so much money--because she embraced "love and compassion," she received the "desires of her heart."  Sadly, Oprah has no word for anyone (let alone herself) about death, and her word for this life (embrace love and you will be rich) is simply untrue.

Zahl says that dying people talk about one person--the romantic love of their life.  (If you haven't seen "Red Oaks," fly to it.  The opening episode depicts this perfectly, yet poignantly, when the father is having a heart attack on the tennis court.)      

Zahl goes on to say that love is the only thing from this life that will follow us into the next.  Indeed, this is what St. Paul said.  Zahl believes that romantic love gives us a view into eternal life.

He also says that nostalgia points us to remembrances of joy, which also gives us a view into eternal life.  Zahl says that one of his favorite sermons by Pope Francis concerns the nostalgia that the Jews felt for their former lives--while they were in captivity.  Francis said that, without nostalgia, we can have no joy.

When Debbie heard this, she said:  "That's why our son doesn't want the Ginko tree cut down.  He has wonderful memories of climbing it when he was little."

So, if Zahl is correct, here are the views that I have had into heaven:

Debbie--it was truly love at first sight.  I  proposed to her within a week of meeting her, on our second date.  She thought I was crazy, and she was right.  Thankfully we have stayed together through "thick and thin," and there were many, many "thin" years in our marriage, but God has restored what the "locusts" (in my case, the locusts were my career and pride) had stolen.

bike rides in elementary school and junior high with my good friends;

playing army with my sister and Dean Harrison's grandkids when they came to visit every summer.

driving "up into the country" with my Dad and stopping at the same gas station every time for an "RC (or Mountain Dew) and moon pie--no lie, that's what kids in the South actually did.

Church softball games in high school with a "Bad News Bears" cast of players--mostly organized by me (it gladdens me to bring together disparate people and foster their relationships);

pre-game and post-game parties with my college friends at Derric's apartment (particularly those  before and after the games at Legion field);

road trips with friends in law school;

beach recruiting trips with my old firm;

seeing GnR at the B'ham racecourse with Brian Bonds (and giving people rides out in the back of his old pickup);

going "clubbing" with my brother-in-law David:

coaching all three of my kids in soccer;

ski trips with my kids--particularly the one to Mt. Hood --James and I had an adventure getting back to the lodge after a storm rolled in;

Tuesday nights at Jackson's with a varying group of people to drink beer, and the talk inevitably turned to Jesus;

when my mother, at age 90, finally told me how she used to antagonize her high school principal.

According to Zahl, all of these events give us a glimpse into heaven.  If God is who I believe Him to be, Zahl is "spot on."

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex (and men's need for affirmation)--and Freedom

Two interactions with slightly older friends are the genesis for this blog post  First, I was discussing church and how virtually all churches tend to segregate us based upon age--whether it's Sunday School classes or small groups--the "Seniors Class," the"Young Marrieds," the "50 Somethings," etc. So, this one church is having a marriage class for "Young Marrieds," and my friend was encouraged to attend another class. But this post isn't about that--it's about a better understanding of sex in light of the love of God.

Here's the wisdom that my female friend said she would give to a class of "Young Marrieds:"

"Men like sex a lot.  Men think about sex a lot.  It's a God-given desire so that the human race doesn't die out.  For women, not so much.  The problem is that men believe a woman's desire for them reflects how much the woman loves the man.  This simply isn't true."

Second, during lunch with a male friend, he furtively glanced at pretty much every woman in the restaurant.  This confirms my other friend's comments that "men like and think about sex a lot since they need affirmation."  I felt for him, because I know what it's like to be trapped by continual thoughts about sex and the concomitant need for affirmation.  Yet, I still felt like his distraction was disrespectful to me and our time together.  If I found it disrespectful, how must his wife feel?  It also was significant that he thought he had to do it furtively, because honesty about men's desires is the first step on the path to freedom. 

The second step to freedom in the area of sex is gaining the knowledge of God's infinite love for mankind and each and every man, woman, and child.  We are indeed "children of God."  God has given me some freedom in the area of sex due to one thing--knowing that Jesus loves me infinitely.  Jesus accepts me just the way that I am.  I don't have to prove anything to gain Jesus' love.

Knowing that God feels this way about me means that my desire to be loved by Debbie doesn't have the iron grip on me that it once had.  So, I'm not nearly as demanding about sex.  When I'm not demanding about sex, Debbie is free to love me.

Finally, I'm not saying that I've got it all figured out or that I ever will.  I'm not saying that I don't still look at other women some times.  But God's love has given me freedom that I never thought I would experience and that's good for me, Debbie, our marriage, and our family.  As I told Debbie: "It was pure bloody hell to be bound up in sex as a way to affirmation--pure bloody hell."

Friday, May 15, 2015

Back to the Bible (Pt. 2)--Where the Insiders are "out" and the Outsiders are "in"

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 9 For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 2 0 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
2 2 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 2 3 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

John 2:18-19
18So the Jews said to him, "What sign do you show us for doing these things?" 19Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 

These are the verses from the BCP  for a recent Sunday in March.  They related directly to a conversation that I had with a friend the following Thursday nite.

In the Birmingham community, at least in the last 20 years, there's one preacher who has done more to re-direct the Christian community to a true reading of Scriptures than any other--Paul Zahl.  That's not to say that Birmingham is now a truly Christian city--it's not.  Like every other city, most church-goers (myself included) still work awfully hard to be "good people" so that we can be pleasing to God, rather than resting in the One Way Love of God (as revealed in Jesus)--a restfulness which allows the Holy Spirit to direct our feet and hands instead of our egos, our pride, our fears, and our anxieties.

That Thursday nite, I was recounting to a friend the testimony of a preacher who said that PZ's teaching had not only allowed him to stay in the ministry but also allowed him to stay in the faith.  This preacher had fallen on hard times as a youth minister--the hard times being that "he couldn't be the Good Samaritan," and "he wasn't able to get his youth to be  Good Samaritans."  This same preacher later taught that Jesus is the Good Samaritan--a truly novel, but correct and liberating idea.

This preacher was not the only one.  Tullian named his most recent book "One Way Love" in honor of Zahl.  He says that "Paul Zahl saved my life."  I've heard this same testimony from at least six other preachers.  Indeed, God used Zahl to save my life.  His teaching and preaching of the Scriptures dealt a death blow to my ego--at least for a time (it still rears its head).  During that time, I understood grace for the first time.

Any way, my recounting of this preacher's changed life thru PZ's teaching caused my friend to question whether PZ was tending towards universal redemption in his latest book.

Ellis: "I don't know whether PZ believes in universal redemption or not.  However, I think PZ has gotten to the essential element of the Christian faith--if God isn't 100% merciful then we're in a world of trouble.  As I have dwelt on God's mercy for the last 10 years, I have become convinced that Jesus is saving everyone."

Friend: "What about the parable of the sheep and the goats?"

Indeed, what about the parable of the "sheep and the goats?"

Jesus tells that one group, the goats, will approach Him and say:  "Lord, Lord, didn't we heal and prophesy in your name?"  Jesus will say: "Be gone from me.  I never knew you."

What is "healing and prophesying?"  It's "signs."  Jesus was teaching, exactly as the Prophets had taught, that the religious Jews weren't right with God.  The Prophets taught that this would lead to the destruction of Israel.  This, indeed, led to the Exile.  Jesus taught that the unrighteousness of the Jews would lead to Jesus' destruction.  Indeed, the Jewish religious leaders did kill Jesus.

As the Prophets did, Jesus spoke in polemics--he spoke metaphorically.  From my viewpoint of a being like Paul "the chief of sinners," Jesus' parable about the "sheep and goats" wasn't meant to describe who would be in and out of heaven, but rather to abjure the religious Jews for their self-righteousness, their self-satisfaction, their lack of love for the "poor, the widows, the orphans, and the sojourners."  If indeed Jesus wasn't being polemic, then we all need to quit going to church, proclaiming God, and helping others--for these are the people that Jesus rebuked.

Most Christians teach that, in order to be saved, one must accept Jesus as their God and King.  They also teach that one hasn't really accepted Jesus as God unless they are engaged in some "Christian" religious pursuit--attending church regularly, praying and reading the Bible, and working at "soup kitchens."  In other words, Christians seem to think that one has to be "inside" the religious order.  This is exactly what the Jews of Jesus' day believed.

This isn't what Jesus lived or what he taught.  Jesus consistently rebuked the "insiders" and loved and accepted the "outsiders."   Jesus' kingdom is upside down.  The "have nots" have, the "unlovely" are loved, and the dirty are made clean.

If Jesus is dividing mankind into those who are redeemed and those who aren't, then He's damning the insiders (the Jews of His day--those who believe in signs; and the Christians of today) and redeeming the outsiders.  For insiders, like me, to have any hope, I have to believe that Jesus is a universalist--not that praying to other "gods" has any significance whatsoever, it doesn't.  But universalism in the sense that Jesus is saving everyone, because He's good, inestimably good.

Debbie was telling her mother about Jesus possibly being a universalist.  Her mother began crying and said that she didn't even want Hitler to go to Hell.  Debbie: "Is not God even more compassionate than you?"

Yes, God is more compassionate, unfathomably more compassionate, than any of us.