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.

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.