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.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

The "Kung Fu Hustle" God

When Paul Zahl was invested as the new president of Trinity Episcopal seminary, there was a cocktail party the night before.  The party napkins were imprinted:

Law v. Grace

Strength in Weakness

Free Will? Not

The author of the napkins encapsulated PZ's teaching of the Gospel in three short phrases that I use to analyze everything in life--my life, my family, my job, my relationships, books, movies, everything!

"Kung Fu Hustle" is one of my favorite films, because all three strands of Christian truth are woven throughout the movie.  The heroes that take on the murderous, glamorous gang come from Pig Sty Alley.  There's even a resurrection scene.  I love the movie for its amazing humor, but I love it even more because it reflects the truth of these three Christian doctrines.

The writer and producer is not a Christian--his heritage is Chinese which is even older than Christianity.  This movie, to me, is further proof of these three Christian truths, because those same truths have apparently been part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years. "Truth is truth."

As I said, I examine life through these three truths.  This morning, Debbie and I were discussing God being at work in our weakness.

Some weeks ago, I was asked to read at a church service.  No big deal, except that that sort of thing--recognition from a church body--used to fill me with pride--not a good thing for me.  So, I told them I would do it, but only if Debbie could join me.  At this point in my life, if I have anything to take pride in, it's not me, it's my wife and marriage.  But for her, we would long be divorced.  I suggested that we do it on a Sunday when there were back-to-back readings.  Such a service came up, but Debbie couldn't be present, so I went ahead and did it.

But you need to know that Debbie didn't want to do it.  She perceives public speaking to be a real weakness.  She was going to do it for me.  So, when she couldn't be present for the reading, she thanked God for getting her out of that jam!

Fast forward, a couple of months.  We're having a campaign to raise money, largely to pay off the Children's building.  I had already expressed to the Church elders that I wasn't going to give to this particular campaign.  By and large, I'm against specific fundraising campaigns.  I give money to the church towards the general fund, and they can do with it what they deem best.

Well, when Debbie realized that the money was going towards the Children's building, she decided that we needed to give.  But for the Children's building, our kids would not have been at Covenant Day School.  But for our kids being at Covenant Day School, Debbie would not have gotten into Kathy G's Bible Study (where Kathy told them on the front end: "we're going to talk about your relationship with God, not your bad marriages").  But for Kathy G's Bible Study, Debbie and I could well be divorced.  When Debbie pointed all of this out, of course we should give to this campaign.

I told one of the leaders of the campaign about Debbie's testimony, and he wanted to videotape Debbie to share with the church.  As Debbie said this morning: "I thanked God that He got me out of reading the Bible verse.  Now, He's got me giving a testimony.  God loves working in our weakness.  Thank goodness I can see the humor in it."

So, all praise to the "Kung Fu Hustle" God who uses our weakness to reveal His strength--indeed, His strength at work in us.


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.