Saturday, September 20, 2014

What does death say about life?

Recently, Paul Zahl said:  "What does it say about life that it ends in death?'

I've been pondering this statement daily since.

If we go back to the Garden of Eden, we see that God cursed the soil (work), and He cursed childbirth (children).  As I've previously written, God did this because:  a)men will put their work before God and family;  and b)women will put their children before God and family.  So, the curses are designed to keep us putting God first, but they are still curses.

This means that life on earth is cursed.  It may have been gracious for God to curse life on earth, given our idolatrous hearts, but it's still cursed.  Life, in other words, is not the best.

The fact that life ends in death confirms this.  If there is a God who cares about us, He wouldn't leave us in a perpetually cursed world.  In fact, the flaming swords at the Garden of Eden were put there so that man couldn't sneak back in, eat of the Tree of Life, and live forever in this cursed world.

So, I think the fact that life ends in death confirms that there is an afterlife--at least if God is merciful.  In PZ's latest book, he describes the one word that a "floater" (someone hovering on the ceiling of his hospital room over his dying body) needs to believe about God--mercy.

If God is merciful, then we can expect that He has prepared something better for us.  Indeed, Jesus confirmed this.  "In my father's house, there are many rooms.  I go there to prepare a place for you."

So, why life?  Perhaps it is because we can't understand mercy without having experienced non-mercy.  This morning, Tullian wrote that: "at age 25, I thought that I could change the world.  At age 42, I know that I can't change my wife, my kids, my church, and certainly not the world."  This turned Tullian more and more to God's grace.  This turns me more and more to God's grace.

The afterlife is going to be that much greater, because we have lived in this world.  Yet, we are not to reject this world.  If Jesus came into this world, and lived amongst us (exhibiting love to all),  who are we to think that we shouldn't embrace this world and live out lives of love towards our fellow man?

The Kingdom, which Jesus discussed over and over, is already, but not yet.  It has broken through into this world, but not fully.  The best is yet to come.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Walter White, the Work of Men, and God's Strange Love

I watched the last three episodes of Breaking Bad again and saw yet more of the profundity of the show.  For four seasons and 15 episodes, Walt said that he did it all "for his family."  In the last episode, he sees Skylar for the last time, and he's giving his parting words.  She says: "Don't tell me that..." (obviously going to say--don't tell me that you did it for all our family).  Walt surprises her and all of us with his truthfulness:  "I did it for me.  I enjoyed it.  I was really good at it."  Earlier in the episode, Walt recalls a birthday celebration before it all began when Hank said: "Walt, get a little excitement in your life.  Come with me when we bust a Meth lab."  Of course, it was due to Walt's ride-along on such a bust that he met Jesse, and so began his life of crime.  Walt delved further and further into the criminal world--all the while telling himself that he was doing it for his family.

How blind we all are--in so many areas of our lives.  For men, it's often a blindness to the role that work plays in our lives.  We define ourselves through work.  If we're successful in work, we have a meaningful identity.  We become Heisenbergs.  Yet, we tell ourselves that we're chiefly working to provide for our families.  As we grow older and look back upon our lives, we realize that the work often superseded the real needs of our families--to have a present, kind, loving father--such as Walter started out.  If we're fortunate, God reveals this blindness to us while we can still change.

Over the years, my view of God's grace has grown and grown and grown.  Now, when I read the Old Testament, I read it as one acquainted with Christ and His strange love.  He loved not the good, but the bad; not the strong, but the weak; not the successful, but the failures;  not the well, but the sick;  not the upright church-go'ers, but the Jimmy Hale Mission-go'ers.  Indeed He loves all, but the good, strong, successful, well, and upright people can't recognize His love until they first realize that they are sinners.  That's why Jesus upbraids the Pharisees time, and time, and time again.

As displayed in WW, one of man's chief sins is to place work above everything else.  And, all the while, we delude ourselves into thinking we're doing it for our families.  So, in order for man to recognize the idolatry inherent in placing work number one, as told in Genesis, God placed "thorns and thistles" in the earth that man was tilling.  This is almost always spoken of as a curse--as a bad thing.  In fact, it's the opposite.  Eventually the thorns and thistles in our work--whether it's being passed over for a job promotion, having a difficult boss, representing ungrateful people, or the milieu of other negative repercussions of work--cause us to realize that work is not the "be all and end all."  It is not how we are to define ourselves.  Work is meant for us to enjoy, for us to provide for our families, but not for us to worship.

With Walter White, it took the complete devastation of his criminal enterprise, of all of his work, for him to come to this realization.  By God's grace, may we be less blind than WW.

By the way, in a recent interview, Bryan Cranston intimated that there might be more BB.  Let's hope so!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Eminem's Devastating Diagnosis of the Human Condition

"Slim Shady's crazy.  Shady made me, but tonite he's rock-a-by-baby."

In the "When I'm Gone" video, Eminem appears at what is clearly an AA meeting.
In response to: "Is there anyone else who'd like to share with us tonite," Enimem launches into one of the most confessional raps/songs/speeches that I've heard.  As Christians, we're supposed to confess our sins one to another.  Eminem gets this.

He begins by telling us how much he loves his daughter--that he would "give an arm for her"--that he would "destroy anyone who tries to harm her."  What happens when you then become the person harming her--you become the "main source of her pain," he raps.

"Daddy, where's mommy?" (They've been divorced two times.)  He dismisses her saying that he's got to write a song and catch a plane.  He tells her to "swing by herself."

Then, "you turn right around and, in that song, tell her you love her--and put hands on her mother, who's the spitting image of her."

Talk about a divided self--not doing what he desires (loving his daughter) but doing what he doesn't desire (leaving his daughter, even doing violence to her mother--the "spitting image of her").

Remarkably, Eminem arrives at the same place as St. Paul:  "Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death?" "Tonite, he's rock-a-by-baby."

In Christianity, we believe that self-improvement plans don't work.  We believe that we are such inveterate sinners, so incapable of doing the right thing, that a death is necessary.  St. Paul cried out for deliverance.  Eminem cries out for deliverance.

St. Paul gave us the answer: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

How can this be the answer to the divided self?

Our divided selves react negatively to the law.  When someone tries to tell us how to live our lives, we are prone, even programmed perhaps, to do the opposite.  When our wives, bosses, even best friends try to tell us what we should do, we revolt!  We hate the law!

How much worse is it then, when we believe that God is laying the law down for us to follow?  We revolt that much more.  Sure, some people may seem to outwardly keep the law, but their hearts are not in it, they're not in love with God.  As Jesus said, if you look in their hearts, there is no goodness, only self-righteousness.

But, when we realize that Jesus removed the demand of the law--that we are free from "having" to keep the law, then we "want" to keep it.  When we know that God loves us, irrespective of our actions, we are slain--maybe even "slain in the spirit," as the Pentecostals claim.  We die, and a new person arises--a person who, through the grace of God, begins to keep the law out of love for God, not out of duty.

"All this time I couldn't see.  How could it be that the curtain is closing on me.  I turn around, find a gun on the ground, cock it, and put it to my brain.  Shady's _____"

Then, at the instant of death, Eminem's eyes are opened.  He awakes as if it has all been a bad dream.

"That's when I wake up, alarm clock's ringing, birds are singing, Hallie's outside swinging."

"I walk right up to Kim and kiss her, tell her I miss her.  Hallie just smiles and winks at her little sister."

In real life, Slim Shady does seem to have died.  Indeed, this song "When I'm Gone" was the swan song of "Slim Shady."  Eminem decided to kill off this persona and try for a new life.  According to Kim's mother, Kim and Eminem are back together.  She says that both struggled with addiction for years, but seem to be clean.  According to the mother, they intend to give their relationship another go.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What Christians can Learn from Atheists

"Happy Clappy."  I saw a fellow wearing this shirt the other nite, and it has stuck in my craw.  Of course, maybe he was wearing the shirt in irony.  If so, he understands the world.  If not, he doesn't.

One problem (indeed the chief problem based upon my atheist friends) that atheists have with believing in God is that this is a messy, cruel world.  If there is a God, why can't the world be better?The chief problem that atheists have with Christianity specifically is that we preach morality, but live differently.  What can we learn from these very apropos criticisms?

First, during dialogue with a Jewish atheist friend, he told me that he had relatives who were victims of the holocaust.  "How can your God allow such a thing to happen?"  In my former days as a Southern Baptist, I would have said that God gave "free will" to man and, therefore, we are free to sin.  But this can't explain the scope of the sin of the Nazis, of Stalin, and of Mao.  Millions killed for no reason.

Now, I said: "This is a fallen world.  Whether you believe in God or not doesn't change the character of this world.  The question for me is whether there is a god who has a legitimate response to the world's fallenness.  Like maybe empathizing with humans in their experiences in this world.  So, maybe a God who would lock the gates to Eden so that we couldn't live forever in this fallen world.  Like maybe a God who shortened man's life-span after the Flood.  Like maybe a God who came into this world in the lowliest birth possible, in a backwater town, who was loved while he was healing people, but then ultimately was despised and killed for telling the church people that they were sinners.  Would a god like that be responsive to the fallenness of this world?"

We will never understand, certainly not fully, why the world is so messy.  Yet, Jesus' life reflects that He understood and indeed entered into life in this fallen world.  When Jesus' empathy is proclaimed, He becomes dear to fellow sufferers.  When Jesus' empathy is proclaimed, the self-righteous can let down their guard and embrace their own failings and pain.  Then, Jesus becomes a god who is approachable in our pain.

Second, Christianity is not primarily about morality.  As a good friend said: "Christianity is not really about morality--morality is just a byproduct."  As one of my sons said:  "The Bible isn't a rule book.  It tells us who we are--sinners; and who God is--our redeemer."  Christianity isn't  a religion with standards or rules to live by.  Instead, Christianity sets impossible standards for living--"be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect."  But it gets worse.  Even if you were able to live a life of perfect actions, unless your heart was fully selfless, it still wouldn't be good enough.  This is where Grace steps in and shuts the mouths of the outcasts (shut with thankfulness) and the self-righteous (shut with disbelief that they are not righteous).  Grace is the only possible answer to the impossible standards espoused by Jesus.

If we take Jesus at His word, we come to understand that we are ALL SINNERS, in need of God's GRACE.  When this is the message coming from Christian pulpits, instead of moralism, the atheist critique that Christians are hypocrites will lose its bite.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

What Christians can learn from agnostics

Recently, I have taken Jesus at His word on a couple of matters.  First, Jesus says that all of the Scriptures are about Him.  Second, Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed is salvific.  Wherein lies the nexus between these seemingly disparate comments from Jesus?  An interpretation of the Bible that is Christo-centric, and nothing else.  Not inerrant, not as a science book, not as the great Holy Book.  Rather, an interpretation of the Bible that upholds the discontinuity of Christ--a discontinuity which many agnostics see, but many Christians don't.

Innumerable times I have heard pastors refer to the Bible as "holy," "inerrant," "the word of God," "infallible," etc.  This view creates problems, not the least of which are:  1)a view that God has revealed that the earth is only 6000 years old, when science reveals otherwise;  2)a view that the U.S. was to create a Jewish homeland which has led to further unrest in the Middle East (by the way, I'm a supporter of Israel, just not on Biblical grounds);  3)a view that Jesus (because of the way that God is described in the OT) could favor a first-strike war against Iraq;  4)a view that led to the Crusades;  and, most importantly: 5)a view that we are to look to the Ten Commandments as a way to please God or to honor God.  These views have led to a lack of credibility for the true message of Christianity--that the one true God loves everyone right where they are--in the midst of their sin--and died on the Cross to redeem sinners and this sinful world.

Why can't we Christians see this when others, indeed many agnostics, can?  Do the agnostics have faith when we Christians don't?

Based upon my conversations with some agnostics, they read the Bible as telling the story of a man who was discontinuous.  One of my agnostic friends wrote a paper in which he discussed the love ethic of Jesus.  He said, essentially, that Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves is too radical--that it can't work.  He's absolutely right--we can't love our neighbors as ourselves.  In other words, Jesus doesn't love like man--Jesus loves too much.  "If a man strikes you on one cheek, turn the other towards him to be struck."  "If a man asks you to carry his burden for a mile, carry it for three miles."  "Forgive others 7 times 70."  And, seemingly an insane command: "Love your enemies."  Agnostics believe that there may be a God, but, if there is a God, he is wholly different from man.  Is this faith which is the size of a mustard seed?  What's more, if agnostics were to commit themselves to God, they would be committing themselves to the right God--the friend of inveterate sinners, not the God who "helps those who help themselves" or the God who blesses the righteous.

The OT is not replete with stories of faith--instances where the OT saints got it right.  (Nor is the NT--Jesus' disciples ran away and hid.) Instead, the OT is full of sinners--Abraham who tried to give his wife up for sex to save his own life;  Abraham who took his wife's handmaiden, rather than waiting on God; Isaac who similarly gave his wife up to save his life; Jacob who stole Esau's birthright;  David who was an adulterer and murderer.  So, maybe Jesus got it right when he said that faith the size of a mustard seed is salvific, because we are taught that Abraham is in eternity with God, along with Isaac and David.  So, maybe, just maybe, there is hope even for self-righteous, sinful Christians, like me, because all that is required is faith the size of a mustard seed.

Monday, June 30, 2014

"To do" versus "done" religion

So often, we act as if there is still something for us to do for God.  Regardless of how much we talk about grace, regardless of how much we refer to Christ's finished work on the Cross, we still feel like we need "to do something for God."  We are inveterate "do'ers."  We want to earn our salvation.


Most divisions in the church have to do with whether we still have to "do something for God."  Just yesterday, a friend at church told me that one of his dear friends from seminary had fallen away from the faith.  Yes, he still claims to be a Christian, but he has fallen in with a group of "Christians" who have come up with another theological title for earning, or at least keeping, our salvation.

But this fellow is not unique.  Sadly, given my 43 years in church, this is what 99% of all "Christians" believe.  We may be saved by grace, but now we need to get on with God's work.  Our salvation is assured, but if our lives don't look "Christian" enough, then maybe we were never saved.  Or some say that you can lose your salvation.

Each of these beliefs puts the burden of the law, of doing, of working for God right back on our shoulders.  When we are subject to these burdens, a couple of things happen.  First, it destroys our rest.  We are not able to simply be in "communion" with God--we have to work at it.  When we have to work at it, we either avoid God, or we throw ourselves into boundless "Christian merit badge" projects--short-term mission trips, soup kitchens, Bible studies, prayer, etc.  These may be good things, but only when they flow out of thankfulness for what God has done, not out of our thinking we have things to do for God.

Second, it either creates in us self-righteousness (because we are getting it done for God) or despair (because we aren't getting it done for God).  And how do we decide whether we are getting it done for God--we compare ourselves to others.  This is DEATH.  Jesus railed against this.

I'm not saying that work is bad--work should be good.  But it all depends upon where our hearts are vis a vis work.  Does work define us?  Does it define our relationship with God?  Or is our work an outpouring of thankfulness to God? Are we grateful to be able to provide for our families?  Are we grateful that our status with God is one of being able to rest since Christ has already done the heavy lifting?


As David Zahl said in a recent sermon:

"We are not employees of God;  we are His children."

And perhaps even more poignantly:

"Jesus only had three years to get His ministry done.  He sure seems to have taken too many vacation days."

One of my favorite stories about Adam & Eve has to do with the "thorns and thistles."  Some say that God cursed us with work--that work was a punishment for sin.  But they're wrong.  Work pre-dated the fall.  Adam & Eve tended the garden, but they did so when they were in an unmediated relationship with God--they walked with Him in the cool of the garden.  So, God did not curse them with work.

Instead, God cursed the work with "thorns and thistles."  This sounds like God is being retributive, but He's actually being gracious.  God knows that, left to ourselves, we make work our god!  We value ourselves by how much we work (whether for man or ostensibly for God).  But God didn't want us to value ourselves this way.  He wants us to value ourselves as He does, as beloved children, not employees, "worker-bees," or slaves.  So, God cursed work so that we wouldn't make it God, it wouldn't be our ultimate joy, it wouldn't be our god.

All praise to the God who has done it all so that now our days can be filled with not only rest, but work that is borne out of thankfulness.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

From death to life--how true Christianity brings liberty.

"I'm plotting my escape from you."--Debbie's words 14 years ago.

"I love you with all of my heart.  You're my best friend."--Debbie's words now.

Thanks be to God--correct theology when combined with the actions of God can liberate you from sin.

In 1998, I began attending Paul Zahl's Bible Study at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham.  I didn't understand anything he was saying, but it was intellectually challenging so I continued going.  It wasn't just Zahl's teaching that saved me, it was God's "awful" work in my life.  About 2001, God attacked my family, my job, and my health.  I finally understood that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't control my wife, my work, and certainly not my health.  Zahl's teachings finally made sense.  Finally, God was able to extricate my life from my clutching hands.  Finally, I was able to say "over to God."

Three of the hallmarks of Zahl's teaching (which are three hallmarks of Christianity) were directly contrary to what I had been taught in a Southern Baptist church (and contrary to what is taught in most churches):

Free Will? Not.

Strength in Weakness.

Grace, not Law.

Baptists are big on teaching "free will."  You tell your congregants that they have "free will" and can make correct choices.  This is because the preacher is trying to get his congregation to live right, to look right for the rest of the world.  THIS IS HERETICAL.

We now belong to a Presbyterian church which is theologically sound and life-giving (and there are a couple of others in B'ham, but not many).  But most Presbyterian churches get it wrong as well.  They teach that you are saved by God's grace, but sanctification is something we need to work at.  THIS IS HERETICAL.

We are all bound to deep-down libidinal urges--anger and lust for Ellis.  For Debbie, it was garnering the approval of others by serving them and never saying no to helping someone--even when helping them was not in the other person's best interest.

One of Martin Luther's most important books is entitled "The Bondage of the Will."  It describes how we are dead in our trespasses and powerless to change without the intervention of God.  And it's not that we just need a little help from God, God must go the whole way--it all lies with him.

I read "The Bondage of the Will" and thought it was theologically profound.  Debbie went much further.  She read "The Bondage of the Will" and said:  "Now I can love _____"--a particularly difficult person in her life.  After reading the book, Debbie could love this person and give them grace, because that person's will was bound.  As Debbie has done this over the years, that person has blossomed.  When true grace, not just servile obedience is directed towards someone, God's work can be done.

The idea that God's strength is revealed in our weakness is antithetical to our desire to be our own savior.  It is also antithetical to the teaching in most churches that we can be good people.  If I can be a good person in my own strength, then I don't need God (or maybe I just need him as a co-pilot).  If I can be a good person on my own, then I have to compare myself to others to confirm that I'm good.  In people like me, this leads to self-righteousness, which is death.  For people like Debbie, it causes her to find that she is always lacking when she compares herself to others.  God doesn't want us to be self-righteous or despondent.

Jesus didn't say "compare yourself to others."  Instead, Jesus said "be perfect."  And when you're being perfect, you better be doing it for the right reason, with a pure heart!  This means that it is impossible to live a Christian life!  Our only hope is grace.  We find this when we get in touch with our weakness, not our strength.

And it's grace all the way.  Not just grace for salvation, but grace for sanctification as well.  This is why many Christians withdraw from church.  Most churches teach that we can make ourselves better.  But this just reignites our comparing ourselves to others.  It diverts us from Jesus' teaching--"be perfect"--to trying to do what the pastor says: 1)tithe, 2)go on short term mission trips, 3)be truthful, 4)live a righteous life so that others will be drawn to Jesus.  This was death for me.

In stark contrast, grace was life.  Debbie went from "plotting her escape" from me to "planning on growing old together."  I can't ever thank Zahl enough for his seemingly boundless energy and courage for proclaiming the Gospel.  Every now and then, a prophet comes along--Zahl was one, and Tullian appears to be one.  But, it's not about Zahl or Tullian, it's about the grace of God as manifested in their lives and proclaimed by them.  It's about the God/man who desired to have a direct (non-mediated) relationship with his children.  So, He came and lived among us, died for us, and rose that we might live.