Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Man in the Crowd

Francis Spufford: "When I pray, I am not praying to a philosophically complicated absentee creature.  When I manage to pay attention to the continual love song, I am not trying to envisage the impossible domain beyond the universe.  I do not picture kings, thrones, crystal pavements, or any of the possible cosmological updatings of these things.

I look across, not up;  I look into the world, not out or away.  When I pray, I see a face, a human face among other human faces.  It is a face in an angry crowd, a crowd engorged by the confidence that is is doing the right thing, that it is being righteous.

The man in the middle of the crowd does not look virtuous.  He looks tired and frightened and battered by the passions around Him.  But he is the crowd's focus and centre.  The centre of everything in fact, because if you are a Christian you do not believe that the characteristic action of the God of everything is to mould the course of the universe powerfully from afar.  For a Christian, the most essential thing God does in time, in all of human history, is to be the man in the crowd; a man under arrest, and on his way to our common catastrophe."

It's Unloseable--the Love of God

David Zahl describes the love of God as "unloseable."  Is this so?  Can we lose the love of God?  Not according to the Bible.

Can theft separate us from God?  No--Jacob stole his brother's birth right.

Can adultery separate us from the love of God?  No--see King David and Bethsheba.

Can murder separate us from the love of God?  No--see King David and Uriah, or St. Paul and his killing of Christians.

Did Jesus say that any of these sins could separate us from God?  No.

Indeed, the only sin that Jesus seemed to proclaim that separated us from God was self-righteousness.
Jesus never said that thieves, adulterers, or even murderers were destined for Hell.  No, according to Jesus, if anyone was going to Hell it was the Pharisees--the self-righteous church people of his day.

I'm sympathetic to the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were trying to maintain order--which is no small task given the unruly hearts of men and women.  But if we are to read literally Jesus' pronouncements about Hell, and being separated from God, they point to the so-called "good" people, not the sinners.

I think Jesus was right.  If I look at my heart when I was a "good church-going person," and compare it to now, I actually love people a little more, sometimes a lot more.  Now that I believe that Jesus came for sinners, I'm free to look my sin directly in the eye.  With the grace of Christ, I can stare it down--it's not a pretty sight.  Most importantly, I can look at its impact on others.

When I was a "good church person" (a Sunday School teacher, deacon, a person there every time they opened the doors), instead of acknowledging the harmful impacts of my anger and lust on others, I simply downplayed them.  It wasn't my problem.  There wasn't anything wrong with me.  The problem lay with those around me.

Now that I truly, deeply know that God is the friend of sinners--that His love is unloseable--I'm able to look at the negative consequences of my nature and actions.  This new-found freedom to embrace the negative consequences of my sin has led to deep loving relationships.  It has led to significant "amendment of life."  I'm not bragging--it's what others have told me.  But I'm not home yet.  While I'm a member of the Kingdom, the Kingdom is not fully realized.  In this in between time, I'll continue to sin and sin deeply.  But the grace is that I can look at myself in the mirror, acknowledge these sins, repent, and seek forgiveness from those that I sin against.

My God, instead of remaining aloof, came, walked upon this earth, entered into suffering, expressed solidarity with mankind in the difficulties of being human, and let the "good church people" of his day kill him.  Had I been there, I would have joined the crowd that said:  "Crucify Him."  His words from the Cross reflects that He forgave even the "good church people:"  'Father forgive them for they know not what they do.'

So, maybe, just maybe, the "church people" will be with God in eternity, along beside the thieves, murderers, and adulterers.  If Jesus' words from the Cross mean anything then there is hope for the self-righteous, like me.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Proselytizing--Not!--Part 2 (Christianity's closest kin)

Christians tend to view Judaism and Islam as its closest kin.  If by kin, we mean our blood relations with whom we fight over our differences, they are correct.  If by kin, we mean those with whom we share common interests and beliefs, they are wrong.  Based upon my conversations with Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jewish friends, Muslim friends, and my brother-in-law (an Eastern mystic), I would have to say that Christianity's closest kin is Eastern mysticism.  Maybe I'm wrong about this, but try proclaiming "sola gratia," "passive righteousness," "one way love," "no free will," and "sovereignty over suffering and evil" to most religious people, and they get "mad as hell."  When I discussed this with my brother-in-law Marty (Jewish heritage but So. Cal. surfer and artist), we agreed on all of these things.  (By the way, Marty is one of the hardest working people that I know.  You see, he is free to work hard, because his standing before God is not dependent upon his success or failure.)

I was listening to a Q&A with David Zahl and his friend, Jacob Smith, this week about Christian freedom.  "For freedom, Christ has set us free."  (Gal. 5:1) David queried:  "What is Christian freedom?  What has Jesus freed us from?"  David then goes on to postulate possible answers (paraphrasing):  "Are we free to do as we please?  Possibly.  Are we free from the law?  Yes.  But what we're really free from is self."  This is exactly what Marty says.  This is exactly what has happened to me as I have come to know Jesus.  God has in large measure, although not totally, set me free from self.  Had God not, I would still be enmeshed in self-righteousness and its related sins of lust and alcoholism.

Why do so many Evangelical leaders commit adultery? The list is endless--from Ted Haggard to Bob Coy.  While it is a moral failure, it doesn't stem so much from their "lack of moral integrity" as from their "believing that they have moral integrity." They believe that they are "keeping the law" and "pleasing God."  The burden of keeping the law leads them to medicate with women and/or alcohol.  God has put a deep desire in men for sex to keep the human race going.  When one is otherwise "keeping the law," one feels justified in indulging in this deep desire.  This is why so many Evangelicals wind up committing adultery.  They are self-focused:  "How am I doing? I'm doing good."  They are living under the law.

In contrast, when one is not living under the law, when one is not working to keep God happy,  one's burdens are light and self-medication is not necessary.  Jesus said that He came to lift our burdens and that His burden is light.  Only when we view God's burden as light can we ever expect to keep the law without becoming self-righteous.  If it's a heavy burden, then shouldering that burden leads to the greatest sin--self-righeousness.  If you think I'm wrong about this, just listen to Jesus.  His two great themes were the Kingdom of God (where burdens are light),  and the poverty of self-righteousness (white-washed tombs).  If you think I'm wrong about Eastern mysticism, watch Kung Fu Hustle by Stephen Cho and listen to his interview afterwards.  If you replace "chi" with Holy Spirit, Cho is speaking Christianity.

For my Evangelical friends, I'm not saying that practitioners of Eastern mysticism are "closet Christians," but I'm looking into it.  Maybe Christians are "closet Eastern mysticists."

P.S.  "In God, we find all joy and meaning."--Marty

My abject failure at proselytizing--Part 1

Jesus was an enigma in many, many ways.  He told his disciples to go "therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Matt. 28:19-20, the so-called "Great Commission."

Yet, earlier in Matthew, we read that Jesus told the Pharisees: " But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves."  (One of the seven woes)  Matt. 23:15.  Yet, the scribes and the Pharisees were the believers of Second Temple Judaism.  They were the ones who tried to keep the Mosaic law.  They were the "church goers" so to speak.

My Christian friends are going to say that you reconcile these two passages, because the "woe" preceded conversion of an individual to Christ, and the "Great Commission" succeeded it.  This is a possible interpretation.  In fact, this may be the best interpretation.  But viewing my own soteriological history, and how it affected others, I have another interpretation.

Growing up Southern Baptist, it was my God-ordained duty to convert others to Christianity--to follow the Great Commission.  I told everyone about Jesus.  Folks at my church thought I was going to be a preacher.  That's how vociferous I was in carrying out the Great Commission.  For thirty (30) years, it never worked.  In hindsight, those thirty years were three lost decades--thirty years without the Holy Spirit.  In hindsight, I did not truly know the Jesus of the Bible.  In hindsight, the Jesus that I was proclaiming was not the God that is revealed in Scripture, but rather the wrong Jesus that is proclaimed in most "Christian" pulpits.

Only after I ceased trying to carry out the Great Commission did some of my friends come to believe that Jesus was God.  None of these so-called conversions resulted from my proselytizing.  Some of these conversions were nothing short of miraculous.  I didn't do anything except befriend them.  In some cases, they befriended me.  I didn't seek them out to try to share Jesus with them.  Rather, we were or became friends.  I didn't purport to have any sage advice about God to pass along.  Instead, I listened to what they had to say about their families, work, their hopes and dreams.

As our friendships deepened, they asked about Jesus.  They were the ones to bring Him up.  They knew that I was a Christian, but I didn't beat them over the head with it.  It turns out that we all have broken hearts--broken over this fallen world, broken over our own sinfulness, broken over death, broken over sick children, broken over difficult marriages, broken over sibling rivalries, broken over difficult fathers and mothers.  As we shared our hearts with one another, Jesus became the answer.  I didn't have to tell anyone that Jesus was the answer.  As we discussed life in this world, there was only one answer--the friend of sinners who experienced all of the difficulties that this world has to offer.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Unapologetic," "Wearable Coats," Cracks, and the Light

Thanks to David Zahl and Mockingbird, I bought Francis Spufford's "Unapologetic" a few months ago.  The book sounded so good that I ordered it from a British publisher before it made it to America.  However, I made the mistake of trying to read this book in bed before going to sleep each nite.  This book deserves my full attention in the light of day.

Now, I'm on vacation and reading "Unapologetic" since Spufford is going to speak at the Mockingbird Conference next week.  Spufford gets true Christianity like so few modern writers who supposedly are "Christian" writers.  (Many modern authors understand Christianity--it's just not usually the ones who claim to be Christians).  His writing courageously describes the human condition as HPtFtU, the "Human Propensity to F... Things Up."  He says that "we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature: that we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling."  Talk about nailing "original sin"--the inward war that we all encounter.

But there's more, because you can't stop with the diagnosis of the human condition, or we would all commit suicide.  He describes the main difference between Christianity and every other religion.  He says that every other religion prescribes a code of conduct--a "wearable coat,"  which if you follow means that you are a reasonably good person.  If you don't, you're not.  In contrast, Christianity sets the bar at perfection.  No one can love God with all of their heart.  No one can love their neighbor as themselves.  "But now notice the consequence of having an ideal behavior not sized for human lives: everyone fails.  Christianity maintains no register of clean and unclean."  This is Good News, wonderful news, the "best" news.  If we all fail, then we all realize that we need help from outside ourselves.  Spufford then quotes Leonard Cohen, "We do entirely agree that there's a crack in everything.  (That's how the light gets in?  Oh yes; that most of all.)"

Augustine said much the same thing: "Of felix culpa (oh felicitous sin)."  Augustine was pointing out that it is our realization of our fallenness, our inward 'kinkedness," that leads us to God.  But for the cracks, the light wouldn't get in.

I lived most of my life wearing the coat of a "good Southern Baptist."  Wait, that's not fair to Southern Baptists.  I lived most of my life wearing the coat "of a morally good person."  The problem with trying to be a "morally good person" is that:  a)you have to determine what is morally correct in every situation (which is challenging to say the least);  b)you have to try to do it (which is incredibly burdensome);  and c)half the time you feel self-righteous (thinking you're accomplishing it) and half the time you're despondent (when you realize that you aren't).  This is no way to run a life.

The burden of "living a good moral life" almost took my life (I thought about killing myself every day for about a year); almost cost me my family (Debbie--"if it weren't for the kids, I would leave you");  and kept me at a distance from God.  In contrast, acknowledging the "cracks" in one's life allows the "light" in.   Only through the power of the light have I been able to live a reasonably "moral" life without being either self-righteous or despondent all of the time.  Of course, both still creep in.  But, praise God, most of the time I'm just thankful to be a cracked vessel, relying upon the daily (even hourly) light of Christ.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Cops, Preachers, and Grace

"When will I ever learn that Christ's kingdom is upside down."--Ellis

This morning, I saw a Birmingham policeman at Starbucks and offered to buy his coffee.  Being a policeman in Birmingham is dangerous and probably often thankless.  He declined.  After he declined, I got my coffee and then approached him.  I told him:  "I'm so thankful for cops.  My uncle was a cop, and my father (his brother) was a preacher.  I've always thought that the two toughest jobs are being a cop and a preacher, because you have to deal with people all of the time."

Sadly, once again, I said the wrong thing.  I'm always doing that.  I'm wired to do that.  While what I said was true, it wasn't life-giving.  It left him right where he was having to deal with difficult people in a job that our society no longer esteems.  Debbie is always telling me that I'm naturally critical, and she's right.  I first see what's wrong with a situation.  Once upon a time, I never got beyond what's wrong with the world.  Thanks to my many truly Christian friends, and God working through them, I now see what's right with the world in difficult situations.

I never heard my father grouse about being a preacher.  In fact, he seemed to dearly love his job of ministering to and loving others.  Certainly, he loved his last job when he was the chaplain at Partlow, the state school for those who were mentally challenged, e.g., Downs Syndrome, etc.

The same with my uncle.  I never heard him complain about being a policeman.  In fact, he must have loved his job, because those on the force called him "Papa Bear."  You don't get a nickname like that unless you are seen as being a benevolent person.

So, my father and my uncle understood that they were fortunate to be able to deal with people daily.  They were fortunate to have servant-type jobs.  They were blessed in ways that I am only able to grasp in a small way as an attorney.

They were, and are, members of Christ's kingdom--one in which the true riches are found not in high-paying jobs, but in jobs where love, care, and even protection are bestowed upon the "least of these."

This is what I should have said to the Birmingham policeman.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Unlearning church-speak about sin

"If you don't forgive others, God won't forgive you."

"Your sin is separating you from the love of God."

"God is just waiting on you to turn back to Him so that He can love you."

"You can't draw near to God while you're in sin."

If any of these statements (that I heard all of my life in church) are true, then I'm doomed.  If I have to "straighten up my act" or "get it right," then I have no hope.  Perhaps more importantly, if any of these things are true (if I'm capable of forgiving others first;  if I'm capable of casting aside my sin) then why did Jesus die?

Do we, as parents--who love very poorly compared to God, stop loving our children because of their sinful behavior?

Are we waiting constantly (maybe not patiently, but constantly) for our children to return to us?

Does the sin of our children cause us to turn away from them?

No.  Nor does our sin cause God to turn His back on us.  God is constantly, and patiently, loving us. God isn't shaking His finger at us, or saying:  "tsk, tsk."  In fact, the only reason that God wants us to stop sinning is for our own good.  It's not so that God can love us--He already does.  Our sin doesn't separate us from His love--at least from God's perspective.

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, our love separates us from God--but only from our perspective.   We don't want to go to God in our shame, in our helplessness, in our despair.  We want to get it right before we turn to Him.  When this is our view, the day of turning back to Him never comes.

As a friend of mine said to her husband, upon hearing PZ preach for the first time:  "Wow, Christianity is 'sola gratia' not "sola bootstrapa.'"  She further said to him:  "Why have we never heard this in the church?"  They immediately joined the Advent.

This is why I go to church--to have it proclaimed that I can't out-sin God's love, that He never turns His back on me, that He is never surprised nor disheartened by my sin.  Then, and only then, does my sinful nature lessen.  It lessens not because of admonition, shame, or exhortation.  Rather, it lessens out of thankfulness to the One who never turns His back on me--whose character is always to have mercy--the One that came to earth to ensure that I fully understand this message of One Way love.