• God’s Ways Have a Power All Their Own

    God’s ways do not rely on the goodness of men (or women) to work. They have a power all their own. Thus, all through the Old Testament, we see God relying, not on good men, but on people who were prone to abuse, violence, weakness, arrogance and all manner of human sin to enact his plans. To put a finer point on it, any idea about how things work which relies on the goodness of humans to work, is self-evidently not from God.

    To see the difference in action, consider the difference between the fruit from the teaching of the unique subordination of women vs full equality and mutual submission between men and women. Despite having been tried all over the world, the unique subordination of women has never produced a human society where peace, justice and freedom were widely enjoyed. (Anyone who says pre-1960s America gets slapped – slavery?) The explanation for this is always the same – it requires good, Godly men. This teaching is like communism, a great idea that’s just never been properly executed.

    On the other hand, women in the early church served in all areas of the church. They enjoyed rights in their marriages and as daughters not allowed or expected in the prevailing culture. That all faded away after the first few hundred years, but the remnants of this teaching carried such power that the places in the world where women first gained (pretty much) full equality and are considered the most free, most respected and most empowered are places where Christianity has deep roots. Once God’s ways are introduced into the system of humanity, they will face more and less opposition, but over the course of time, they will persist and bear good fruit.

  • I Probably Shouldn’t Say This . . .

    OK, I just want to say at the outset that what I am about to say is not in anyway meant to insult Jesus. I would swear it to you, but Jesus says not to swear on anything. But you should know that that’s how much I mean it when I say that I’m not insulting Jesus. So don’t go taking this all the wrong way . . . But . . .

    Did you know that pretty much everything Jesus said could totally come out the mouth of the sort of drunken, bitter man who yells at people at the bar?* Before you get mad, just stop and think of something Jesus said that you can remember off the top of your head. Go ahead. Do it. Think of something else he said. It’s true, isn’t it? I mean, I haven’t done an intense reading of the gospels with this idea in mind, but I’m still pretty sure this is a thing.

    Now, I’m not at all saying that Jesus was a drunken bitter man who yelled at people at bars. But isn’t it interesting that you could put the entire Sermon on the Mount into the mouth of some drunk, embittered wise man in a bar and it would totally be believable. You couldn’t put those words in the mouth of Herod or a congressman and get anyone to believe they meant it.

    Or maybe Jesus was a bit of a comedian. Maybe he said, “blessed are the poor” and the crowd roared with laughter.

    Maybe he was a specialist in the absurd. He could tell stories about a woman throwing a party because she found her coin and people would laugh knowingly at the irony of it.

    In my head and in the movies and at church, Jesus words are always spoken in a flat, peaceful sort of way with an edge of what was suppose to be authority. But that’s not how people speak. And Jesus was a real, live people. But we’ve lost the tone. The words go flat and lose their power. We hear words of revolution and comfort and bitterness and humor and they all come out just the same. We can rely on scholars to help us tell one from the other.

    But what we really need to do, I suspect, is to imagine the words coming out of a drunk guy. Or a smart ass. Or a person smiling as they die.

    Imagine that Jesus’ words were your words. Could you really say with conviction that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied without being bitter or angry or mocking?

    When you give Jesus’ words personality, you start to discover that after all this time, they still have power after all. They bring you up short with the power of “I never saw it like that before”. They take you to a place where you could understand why the drunk man is so bitter and why the people laugh and encourage him to keep sharing his thoughts. For entertainment if nothing else.

    It starts to dawn on you that Jesus couldn’t just say these things without understanding at a deep level what they mean. Because they aren’t easy things to say honestly when you’re not drunk or bitter or cynical or asleep or laughing. But Jesus said them and meant them.

    In fact, it turns out that after 2000 years, his words can still change a person and how they see the world. Or at least that’s how it’s been for me. Maybe you’re too hung up on me conflating Jesus with an angry drunk guy to find out for yourself. ;)

    *I did not come up with this pseudo-blasphemous idea of Jesus as a bitter drunk guy, btw. Someone else pointed it out to me but I can’t remember who for the life of me. But they were right – it does work!

  • “I See Men Like Trees”

    “They came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. And He sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.” ~ Mark 8:22-26

  • The Christian Gospel

    God the Father is Love as the one who encompasses all that is expressed in the created universe.

    God the Holy Spirit is Love as it interacts with the created universe.

    God the Son is Love experiencing the created universe in human form.

    Jesus shows us the power of a man who relies on God the Holy Spirit to know God the Father and discovers that he is one with the Father. He now asks us, his Bride, follow the Way of the Son, relying on the Holy Spirit in order that we would know God, in whose image we were made. Jesus showed us what we look like. The Holy Spirit tell us what we act like. God tells us who we are.

    The path is narrow, although easy enough to follow. You just have to follow Jesus’ words. It’s the path of the cross, however, because it means suffering the loss of whatever you take your life from that isn’t Love. Which, until Jesus returns is everything. If you do not allow the Holy Spirit to take possession of you, you will never make it, so long as humanity, by and large, is unaware of the reality of who they are as image bearers.

    In the end times, the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Earth will be joined in the hearts of the people who have discovered the holy of holies that is their innermost being. And when they come together, the Golden City will be born. It’s light will cover the surface of the whole world and all mankind will seek to join in the wedding party. Which will be the final defeat of the false idols of this world that torment and oppress suffering mankind.

    The church cries out, “come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

    Jesus whispers back, “Just as soon as you show yourself, my bride.”


  • Manual_harvest_in_Tirumayam

    “Whoever Is Not Against Us Is For Us”

    “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

    “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”  ~ Mark 9:38-40

    I have long thought that we Christians would do well to embrace any and all who walk and work on the side of love, regardless of their theology, religion or ideology. God is love and love is what’s left in the end and it never fails, so why not? Why should I not stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with anyone who is on the side of love, regardless of what else we disagree with? Whoever is not against us is for us, right?

    Unfortunately, the church has long chosen to embrace this idea from the opposite side of the coin. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is recorded as saying, “whoever is not for us is against us.” This saying has often been used to reject those who, while perhaps sharing the same devotion to love, are not actively for Christianity. And not only those who are not actively for Christianity, but for the same peculiar form of Christianity.

    This is how we end up with the bizarre spectacle of atheist volunteers being turned away from helping at Christian soup kitchens. Or one group of Christians denouncing another, apparently equally devout group of Christians. It’s how we have so many supposed leaders who are able to convince their followers to see the world in “us vs them” terms. “If you’re not for us, you are against us.”

    But look at the context for Jesus saying “if you are not for us, you are against us”. In both Matthew and Luke, it is spoken in response to people who accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus responds by saying:

    “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.”

    Now, the first, obvious point that Jesus is making here is about unity. A house that is divided against itself will fall. Satan knows this, but the people of God need to be taught it.

    Beyond that, there’s this somewhat odd bit about a strong man and his house that is often misunderstood. Usually when Jesus speaks of a powerful man like a king or a landowner, he is alluding to God. However, in this case, the strong man is not God, but Beelzebul. What Jesus is saying is that the devil is like a strong man who has been bound up so that his house can be plundered.

    In the early church, it was universally accepted that when Jesus died on the cross, he descended into hell, wrested the keys of death from Satan and plundered his house, taking with him into heaven the souls held prisoner there. This was what Jesus was sent to do: to set the prisoner free and lift oppression.

    Of course, when he tells this story, Jesus has not yet been crucified. Yet here he is already plundering the strong man’s house and taking back those who were possessed by him. Which is why Jesus goes on to say:

    “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

    Prior to his death and resurrection, Jesus is preparing for the ultimate victory over the strongman who holds humanity captive. It is the Holy Spirit who has bound up the strong man, so that Jesus can begin the plunder of his house. The accusation that Jesus was working for the strong man was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because it failed to recognize the power of God at work.

    The reason Jesus says that this sin will not be forgiven is simply because if you do not recognize your Savior’s voice or the hand of God at work, you will not respond to it.

    If you cannot tell the power of God from the power of the devil, how will you be saved? You will turn away from God and towards Satan without even knowing what you are doing. If you are as blind as the Pharisees, you could die and be in the presence of the Holy One and be repulsed by the source of all that is good, thinking it is evil.

    Which is why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can’t be forgiven. Forgiveness must be accepted in order to bear fruit, but if you reject the forgiveness God offers because you mistake God for Satan, how can you benefit from it?

    So, it is in this context that Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters.” What he is saying is that anyone who is not with him – recognizing the hand of God and the work of the Holy Spirit when they see it – is against him. Anyone who sees the work of the Holy Spirit and instead of celebrating it, rejects it is against Jesus.

    Labeling someone as against us due to differences in doctrine, religion and ideology is foolish in the extreme. As Jesus says in John’s gospel:

    “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

    The Spirit moves as it will. It will not be contained by human minds, beliefs and expectations. Failing to recognize the Spirit when it is at work ought to be considered far more dangerous than the possibility that those we associate with may not be pure or righteous enough.

    Notice that those who are with Jesus gather, while those who against him scatter. Jesus and his followers are tasked with gathering up the harvest. It is the job of Jesus’ followers to recognize the Spirit moving and claim the harvest for Jesus regardless of where the harvest appears. After all, as with the landowner in the parable of the talents, God “reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he scattered no seed.” The whole harvest belongs to God.

    It is the enemy who scatters and sows division. When we use Jesus’ teaching that “whoever is not for us is against us” to divide between “us and them”, “believer and non-believer”, “orthodox and heretic” and so on, we are playing the role of the one who scatters. Rather than gathering the harvest, we are rejecting it and throwing it aside as not good enough, not pure enough and not holy enough. Which is exactly what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit looks like.

    So, how are we to avoid rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit? Well, we can go back to what Jesus said about those who were casting out demons in his name: “whoever is not against us is for us”. If someone is driven by love, they are for us. If someone wants more peace, joy, patience, justice, mercy and grace in the world, they are for us. Even if they are, as the disciples put it “not one of us”. After all, the Spirit moves where it will. And it is our job to gather the harvest, claiming it for the one who is the source of all good things.

  • In the End Times No One Listens to Their Pastor

    Remember me writing about the church’s inability to deal with the reality of the world rather than clinging to their ideas about the world? Well, if you would like to see what this looks like in action, ask a pastor why people leave church and then ask 20 people who have left church about their experience. The overlap will be non-existent.

    Oh, I get where the church people are coming from. It’s easy enough to take “I never felt accepted” and hear “I’m unwilling to engage with people who don’t think like me”. Or hear, “I was turned off by the church’s fixation on sex and politics” and hear “I just want to be able to sin without anyone holding me accountable“. Or “I found peace in my heart when I walked away from the church” and hear “I just want to engage in navel gazing as spirituality”.

    I get the temptation to interpret people’s words in such a way as to affirm our assumption that they are in error. But what if we just took people at their word? What if we accepted at face value that people don’t find acceptance at church, are turned off by the church’s fixations and have found peace by walking away? What then?

    I believe that people are being drawn away from the church by God. I think that people are leaving and have peace about it because they know that they know that they know that they are on a path towards God that has taken them out of the church. At least for now. The rise of the nones and the spiritual-but-not-religious types is actually a sign that we are seeing the fulfillment of scripture.

    The bible tell us to expect a time such as this: Continue reading

  • babel

    The New Reformation

    It occurred to me this morning that perhaps Christianity has been going through a Tower of Babel experience. If you recall your kiddie bible stories, the tower of Babel tells us why there are many languages and peoples. If you don’t recall the details, after the flood, all the men got together to build a great tower. They were able to do this because they had gathered themselves together and all spoke one language. But God saw what they were doing and was alarmed at the potential of what man could accomplish working together. So he confused their speech and they stopped building and scattered themselves across the world. And that’s why we all speak different languages.

    The Jewish Midrash (the collection of ponderings, stories and explanations of Jewish rabbis which dates back to before the time of Jesus) held that the tower builders were motivated by a desire to defy or confront God. One writer claimed that they intended to put an idol with a sword on the top to wage battle with God. Josephus said that they had made the tower very tall and waterproof. Perhaps they were all still peeved at God for drowning everyone in the flood a few generations back?

    At any rate, ages ago I read an explanation of the Tower of Babel which claimed that the Tower of Babel can be understood as foreshadowing the Temple in Jerusalem. It was meant to create an identity for the people (“that we may make a name for ourselves”). It would be a point where heaven and earth met (“a tower that reaches to the heavens”). And it was meant to be a permanent focal point for the group to orient itself around (“otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”). 

    So, the tower was meant to serve purposes which would later be filled by the Temple in Jerusalem. We don’t actually know what motivated the tower builders, but clearly God is not willing to sit by and let them do this thing. And this is why I’m inclined to accept that the tower was basically humanity’s feint at creating what the Temple in Jerusalem would later be.

    The problem with it being that their vision of what this object could be was an impoverished version of the real thing. Beyond their stated objectives, we have no idea what they planned to actually do with the tower. There’s no mention of reconciliation, worship or learning God’s ways. The old rabbis seemed to think the whole purpose of the thing was to serve as a big middle finger from humanity going up towards God.

    Or to put it another way, if the tower represents the center of human religion, their religion sucked too bad to be allowed to grow into fruition. God caused confusion and division which is why were are not only so many languages, but also so many religions. (Also, people united by a common language usually shared a common religion.)

    Immediately after the story of the Tower of Babel, you get an account of the lineage leading up to Abram, later Abraham, father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim people. I don’t have the patience to add up all the years, but clearly a great deal of time passed between the tower and the arrival of Abram.

    In Hosea, God describes finding Abram and his line as “like finding wild grapes in the dessert”. Too many people seem to think that God found this bronze age people to teach his ways and rules to so that all of mankind could be bound by them. God’s purposes were much bigger than that. Wild grapes make lousy wine. But over the course of time, with cultivation, pruning, breeding and care, wild grapes give rise to grapes that makes the best new wines.

    In a way, the confusion and division of united humanity turned out to be creative destruction. Over the course of a great deal of time, a man and through him a people arose who God could work with to bring about a real temple, worthy of God’s purposes. And through that religion, the salvation of the world would eventually occur.

    Now, consider the history of Christianity. A bit like the tower of Babel, Christianity is mostly a man-made construct, using materials provided by God, Jesus and scripture. Jesus really didn’t leave any instructions behind. We had to figure out the way forward after he was gone. But unlike the tower of Babel, the people building Christianity were supposed to have a better idea of what they were doing than the ancient tower builders. Start with the foundation of Christ, build from there.

    Eventually, it became apparent that we Christians weren’t doing such a hot job with our building either. It wasn’t awful. There were a lot of good things about it and its influence in the world was a net big positive. But what we’d built was dangerously imperfect. As time went on, these imperfections became harder and harder to ignore. It could not be allowed to continue.

    This time, it didn’t take an act of God to bring about creative destruction. We did it ourselves. First through Luther and then through tens of thousands of his spiritual descendants. All taking a crack at building a tower worthy of uniting mankind around a common identity, bringing heaven and earth together and serving as a permanent focal point that unites us.

    Last time this process played out, it was God who found the fruit he could use to advance his redemptive purposes. This time, I think it’s going to be up to us to recognize and choose which fruit from this long process of creative destruction we’re going to use to build our tower. And I further think that there is a widespread, emerging consensus as to what that is.

    But before I share that, let me tell you a funny story from the Jewish Midrash about Abram which I think reveals the model for how this works. According to tradition, Abram’s father made idols for a living. He had a shop where people could come purchase idols for their homes, personal altars and other purposes common in that part of the world at the time. Abram thought the whole business of idols was nonsense and that his father and his customers were fools for worshiping bits of clay and metal that he himself helped to make. So one day when Abram was left alone in charge of his father’s shop, he took a hammer and destroyed all the idols in the shop but one. He put the hammer in that idol’s hand and waited for his father’s return. When his father came back, he was understandably upset to see his merchandise in ruins. He turned on Abram in fury, demanding to know why he had done this. Abram calmly explained that he had nothing to do with the destruction of the idols. That idol over there holding the hammer had done it. And that explains why Abram was so willing to pack up and leave when God asked him to. He was in such big doo-doo at home that leaving was probably a good life choice at that point.

    The story is apocryphal and almost certainly untrue, but it does provide an excellent explanation of exactly what Abram’s role was in the history of human religions. Through him, God brought about the destruction of the pantheistic idol worship common to man. For a very long time prior to Abram, all religions recognized many gods. Today, the overwhelming majority of humans follow religions which recognize only one God. At its simplest, most basic level, Abram was the man who exchanged many gods for the one, true God with humanity eventually following suit. (Yes, there was that one Pharaoh, but his attempt was about as successful as the tower builders at Babel.)

    So out of the creative destruction of the tower of Babel and the religion it represented, we eventually get:

    Many gods ->Abram->One God

    I think that we are seeing a similar process at work today. Only instead of many gods, we have many teachings. In the ancient world, it was the gods which were in conflict with each other. But today, it’s our beliefs. We have a zillion different ideas about God and Jesus and the Christian life. Of course, none of them are correct. They can’t be. It’s impossible to fully understand God and his ways, so inevitably each theology we come up with will fail to contain the Truth.

    But there is one teaching we should be able to agree on. As mushy and unsubstantial as it seems, love is that one thing. Basically, what I think we’re seeing in Christianity right now echo’s what happened with Abram:

    Many teachings ->Christianity ->Love

    It’s not that none of the other teachings, customs, traditions or practices of Christianity have any merit. Many of them absolutely do. However, consider that worshiping the One God who is spirit was a prerequisite for God to reconcile mankind to himself. I believe that Love is the prerequisite for us to bring the best of Christianity to fruition. No amount of study, teaching, rule making and keeping, social pressure, governmental power or church participation can do what Love can do.

    Some will protest that Love is too generic. Every religion and no religion teaches love. If love is the center, then what do we need Christianity for? But the thing is that while it is true that love is a common teaching, the Christian vision of what love looks like, what it acts like and what it does is utterly unique. It’s a picture of love as sacrificial, selfless, but not self destructive, enduring through all manner of hardships, universally extended to both friend and enemy without regard for outward appearances.

    Further, the ultimate destination in Christianity is utterly unique. Instead of merely personal gain or enlightenment, an enjoyable afterlife, or a final judgment which brings destruction, the end game for Christianity is a new heaven and new earth. It’s the restoration of all things. Of God to man and man with each other and all of creation. A reign of peace and beauty which goes on and on in the here and now as well as after death.

    For a Christian to use love as the starting point and touchstone by which all other things can be judged and through which all of creation should be viewed is in no way a capitulation to some generic, wishy-washy religion. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of the faith we have received. And I trust that the fruit of a Christianity which is oriented and ruled by love will be the long awaited revelation of the Bride of Christ whose beauty will cause all mankind to marvel and praise God.

    I apologize that this is super long, but I want to go back for a moment to something God said in the story of the Tower of Babel:

    “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

    From a religious perspective, when we are all united together, nothing is impossible for us. God said so. Way back in the day, the people were united around an impoverished vision. Today, we know better. We can choose to unite around a vision which is utterly obedient to God, yet one that each man, woman and child can freely embrace, regardless of what other beliefs they hold. We can choose to unite around Love.

    If that’s the right plan, the right way to build the tower, we will be impossible to stop. And do you really see God stepping in and saying, “that’s enough of this love nonsense. Get back to your old way of doing church”? After telling us that everything hangs on the command to love God, neighbor and self? I don’t think so.

    Abram had a choice to make. Stay where he was or follow God. He chose to turn his back on many gods to follow the One True God. I think we have a choice to make as well. We can stay in the rubble of Christianity’s Tower of Babel experience, continuing to attempt to piece together a tower worthy of our faith. Or we can chose to turn our backs on our many teachings and ideas in order to follow the One True Teaching which is Love.

  • Becoming People of the Story

    Christian theology, while it’s often thought of as an argument over who’s right and who is wrong, can actually be understood as the stories we use to explain the reality of God, the reality of human existence and how to live in right relationship with God, neighbor and self. Using the bible and varying doses of church tradition and reality, we’ve written thousands of different stories, each purporting to be THE Christian story. Except the idea that any of us has found THE Christian story is preposterous.

    Jesus said there was one narrow path to him and we’d know we’d found it by its fruit. And I can say with confidence that not a damn one of the stories Christians have told produced fruit worthy of my God. None of them is good enough. Some are clearly better than others, but all of them are wrong.

    At best, the different theologies are like placeholders, explaining the best we’ve been able to figure out thus far. At worst, they are ideological prisons keeping people enslaved to a story utterly inferior to the real one. But none of the stories deserve our allegiance. Only Christ does.

    In Islam, Christians are called “People of the Book”. Jews also call themselves “People of the Book”. I think we need to become “People of the Story”. Continue reading