• “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
    trees

  • Walking each other home sm

    Dancing The Way

    How many of you, at some point in your life, thought that there were two ways to do things; the right way and the wrong way? And that your job was to find the right way. Failing to find the right way might mean being a bad person, being unlovable, being rejected by God, being outside of God’s will or just being a stupid doo-doo head. I suspect a lot of you just raised your hand. I suspect that those of you who didn’t just haven’t dug quite deep enough into your heart to find that particularly nasty snare that gets planted in the heart of nearly every human being along the way.

    Now, do I mean to say that there are no wrong ways and no right ways to do things? That all options the human mind can conceive of are equally good? No. Of course not. Going to the spa is a much better way to deal with burnout than doing meth. As anyone who has done meth has probably figured out by now. Hell, smoking weed is a much better way to deal with burnout than doing meth. But not if you are prone to addictions are might be tempted to do meth. Because meth is really, really bad, donchano. (Hey – fun fact: do you know how much weed it takes to kill a rat? Continue reading

  • THIS

    This is what God would want those who claim his name to hear today. Like really today. Right here in the reality that is June 2014. Don’t worry, I’m not claiming to have some “prophetic word” for y’all. Although maybe more people would pay attention if I did. I’m just repeating things God has made clear to those who put trust in his word. You know, all the stuff in between the 50 verses you can use to win an argument:

    God is God. God needs nothing from us. He takes no satisfaction in people who will make any sacrifice imaginable to protect the Christian faith but refuse to be moved by the site of despair all around them. Who claim that their way really is loving, no matter how much our neighbors say that it hurts.

    Really they are just refusing to be broken by the site of God’s suffering children. What kind of father is happy that his kid claims to be sweeping the floor as they’ve been asked while listening as their brother begs them to stop hitting him with a broom? What kind of Father do you think we serve? One who doesn’t give a crap about one of his children just so long as his orders are followed. One who elevates service to him above any other concern? If that’s what you think, either you are under the mistaken impression that God is far less good than you are or I feel sorry for your kids. Continue reading

  • 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.

  • Jesus_with_children

    Suffer Us Little Children

    What parent doesn’t want to be a better parent to their kids?

    And what Christian doesn’t desperately wish to be truly humble? (OK, almost no Christian actually wants any such thing, but play along with me here.)

    What if I told you that I have the secret to attaining these two highly desirable goals all in one fell swoop? Well, I’d become a viral sensation and finally be discovered and recognized as the spiritual genius I am, of course!

    Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Ah. Sorry, sometimes I just need a good laugh. (You may not find me so amusing, but from time to time I crack myself up. It always makes me happy to know that someone thinks I’m funny.)

    Anyhow, in all seriousness, somewhere along the line I picked up a spiritual habit that actually does humble me far more than I want to be humbled. And it does make me a better, more compassionate parent. And I will share it with y’all in case any of you are stupid brave enough to want to follow in my footsteps and enjoy the horrible joyous spiritual misery benefits. (I’m feeling really up on life today. Can you tell?)

    It goes back to something Jesus said:

    “[Jesus] called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

    Now, the bible is filled with references to God as father. Which would make us children. But it’s often not a particularly helpful concept because we tend to want God the Father to be a grandiose, super hero version of dad rather than a real dad.

    So we think that being dad, God is supposed to protect us from all harm. Which, as anyone who has ever watched Finding Nemo knows, doesn’t actually work in real life. And we want God to be the dad who makes sure his kids have everything they need. Which is no doubt what the father of every child who has ever gone to bed hungry wants as well. We want God to move heaven and earth, changing time and the rules of life itself if that’s what it takes to make things all better. Even though heaven, earth, time and life itself all work the way they do because God made them work that way, presumably for good reasons.

    The truth is that we don’t actually want God the Father. We want God the personal body guard/Santa Claus/magician.

    In real life, dads do provide and protect, to the best of their ability. But mostly they tell you to stop jumping on the couch. They spin you in circles and tickle you and make fart jokes. They refuse to give into your temper tantrums and tell you to wait your turn and share with your sister. They teach you how life works and strategies for coping with its difficulties. They tell you stories and give advice and keep your secrets.

    Once you understand this, Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children takes on a whole new flavor. In fact, what I’ve learned is that when God is not responding to me the way I think he should, it’s because he’s dealing with me like a real father. And I’m acting like a real child. Which is hard to see when I think I’m the righteous heroine in distress and God’s supposed to be my father cum super hero/Santa Claus/magician.

    For example, this spring, I realized that my ongoing anger at God was very much like when my kids would attempt to bend me to their will by throwing the world’s biggest temper tantrum. And that much of my time in the desert was basically God using my own super easy, super effective parenting trick on me. He was just standing by, waiting out my hurt and anger so we could both start to move forward.

    And it makes me appreciate how much God puts up with from me. How rarely he chastises me for my anger and instead offers comfort and understanding. He bends down to my height and listens to my howls of pain and outrage and tells me I’m going to be OK. Then when I won’t be comforted, he withdraws a little to wait until I’m ready.

    But he never mocks me. He doesn’t tell me to shut up and show some appreciation for everything he does for me. He never holds the things I say in anger against me. He doesn’t walk away in disgust. He doesn’t yell at me or tell me to pull myself together and grow up. He doesn’t get angry at me for not showing proper respect. He just loves me through it until I figure things out for myself.

    Realizing how much pain I am in when I throw my spiritual little kid temper tantrums, forces me to look at my children’s temper tantrums with much more compassion. I can see how ridiculous they are sometimes being. But even when they know they’re being kind of ridiculous, they are in so much pain that they just can’t help themselves.

    So I do for them what God does for me. I don’t mock, ridicule or yell at them. I offer comfort and if they won’t take it, I just stand by and wait it out. I understand that as annoying as a temper tantrum throwing little kid is, it’s much worse to be in that much distress.

    Right now I’m in a period of waiting. My life is a disaster. Beyond repair, so far as I can tell. Yet I’ve had multiple people who I trust pass on messages telling me that it’s just a matter of time. God has very good plans for me. But he’s working on his own schedule and he’s not going to deviate from it, even though it’s painful for me.

    This is very frustrating because every time I get upset and beg God to step in and help me and I get angry about my life, I am forcibly reminded of how my kids pester me when I tell them to wait. How they will come to me multiple times a day demanding to know why it’s not their birthday yet. Or asking, “are you ready yet?” over and over. Or wanting to know when their stomach flu will pass.

    Frankly, my kids’ inability to wait irritates me like nothing else. Realizing that I’m in the same boat and that the waiting is unbearably painful both humbles me and gives me new compassion for my kids. I’m not sure I’ve really understood before how much I’m asking from them when I tell them to wait. Which has forced me to be more judicious about when I elevate my priorities over theirs and how long I ask them to wait.

    It also makes me more cognizant of the burden of their trust. I cannot ask them to wait patiently if I cannot be trusted to do what I’ve said I will. I’ve learned to make very, very few promises or commitments with my kids. It drives them nuts, but then when I say I will do something, they can have full confidence that it will happen, no matter how long it takes.

    I don’t honestly like the idea that my problems, which from a human perspective are not small, are so small in the eyes of God. It makes me feel less than. No one likes to feel less than. Like a lot of us, if you tell me that my problems are childish or my pain is caused by my immaturity, I feel angry and humiliated.

    But this reveals a flaw in my thinking; God is not a man who would look on a child’s problems as foolish and inconsequential. The harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. He’s not the sort of parent who demands that his child takes his perspective for their own. He respects our limits and doesn’t treat us with disrespect because we are not as mature, powerful and capable as he is. God asks us to be humble, but never, ever, ever wants us to be humiliated by our status as children.

    We’re children. We have children’s problems. What Love knows, that we too often do not, is that children’s problems are real. The fact that we, from our vantage point as adults see them as foolish and unworthy of care or concern comes from our lack as parents. Yes, sometimes our kids frustrate us and sometimes the gap between their distress and the magnitude of the actual problem makes us laugh. But we should never shame them or humiliate them for seeing things from a child’s perspective.

    Part of what I have learned from humbling myself enough to see that I really am like a child to God who really is like a father is how much is required of us as parents. We speak of child’s problems as if they are small, foolish things. But as I said, the harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. And too often parents minimize the harm done to their children because they are unwilling to be strong, brave and sacrificial enough to help them.

    Think of all the children who are abused by parents who believe they have the right (if not the obligation) to inflict pain on them for their own good, when really the parents are just too immature and out of control to handle the demands of parenting. Or the kids who seek help only to be turned away by adults who are unwilling to risk ruining a reputation or threaten a comfortable family dynamic. Or all the kids who are hurting and in trouble who get met with “tough love” or ignored by adults who want the child to carry all of the burdens placed on them rather than facing their own failures or disrupting long existing ideas about how things are done.

    Then think of what God did for his hurting children on the cross.

    When God asks us to humble ourselves to be little children, he’s not trying to humiliate us. He’s asking us to give him the chance to be the sort of parent that we actually need. To be the parent who is trustworthy and won’t turn away in our time of need. To be the parent who comforts rather than shames us. To be the parent who takes our hurts seriously rather than mocking them. To be the parent who lifts our burdens rather than telling us to buck up under them.

    Which all sounds nice, but there’s a great deal at stake here. You see, it’s very hard to parent when you were never parented well yourself. No matter how much you love your children, when your back’s against the wall, your automatic response will come out of your brokeness rather than your love.

    Children are vulnerable. It’s easy to hurt them without ever meaning to. And if you are unwilling to humble yourself, to allow God to parent you and show you the way, you may cause harm that can’t be undone in this lifetime. Which is why Jesus ended his words about becoming like little children with a promise and a warning for us:

    “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

  • cropped-three-paths-sunrise-1

    Three Sinful Paths

    Let’s say that you are a new Christian, earnest and eager to follow the narrow path and repent of sin and all its damaging consequences. Which is a good goal. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for sin mean to miss the mark. The mark being union with God. Since union with God is the full fruit of redemption and sin means missing that fruit, avoiding sin is a worthwhile goal. But how to do that?

    Well, in general, there are three paths you can take. One will take you to God. One will take you destruction. And one will get you somewhere between the two. Allow me to explain these paths and you see if you can pick out which is which.

    The first path is one favored by many in the church. It is to identify sin and target it for elimination. It may mean that you refrain from engaging in worldly activities like drinking, swearing, watching questionable movies, hanging out with friends who are up to no good and the like. Perhaps you get involved in a small group or pursue relationships with more mature Christians as a way of building accountability for yourself.

    This path does have its uses, particularly for those who are new to the faith. When a person converts to Christianity, it means adopting a new identity and with it, a new way of life. If your old identity was grounded in being a promiscuous partier who was known for your outrageous antics, it may be necessary to swear off those old behaviors in order to make room for your new identity in Christ.

    The danger of this path is that identifying and eliminating sin can become the way you live out your faith and the basis of your Christian identity. Those on this path are too often the public face of the church, defined by what it is vocally against. In fact, the church has no end of self appointed gatekeepers for whom a willingness to identify and target sin for elimination is synonymous with being a faithful Christian. They think they are protecting the church when really all they are doing is attempting to lock everyone in the nursery. Continue reading

  • adameve

    Adam and Eve and When It All Went Wrong

    Well, it’s been a while since we dropped in on our friends Adam and Eve in the garden. So I figured I might as well make it a week of weird and tell y’all what I’ve been thinking/figuring out about them.

    For those of you who don’t know, I have a wee bit of an obsession with the creation stories and the story of the fall. In fact, if it were possible to make money off meditating on them, I would be writing this from a beach in Fuji instead of on a computer with vacuum tubes in a spare bedroom that looks it hasn’t been cleaned in 2 months (because it hasn’t).

    The reason I am so obsessed with these stories is because they seem to hold the key to understanding what is wrong with our relationships with each other, God and creation. Once you stop reading them as either the worst history book ever written or a fairy tale just-so story and taking them seriously, you discover that they are a lot like a puzzle. And I’m one of those people who plays soduku to relax. I like puzzles.

    Anyhow, last spring I wrote a short series about a vision/dreamy sort of thingy I was given about what happened at the fall. Which if you may want to check out. The big take-away from the whole thing was that the fall wasn’t actually our fault. It was more like the world’s worse act of abuse against a couple of kids. If you think I’m full of it or want to know more, you can go read the posts on the subject. They’re short, we can wait:

    What Was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil Doing in the Garden?

    The Fall Wasn’t Our Fault

    Does God Sit Around Monitoring Our Thoughts? And Other Pertinent Questions

    So What Happened to Adam and Eve Anyhow?

    Now if I haven’t scared you off, today I want to discuss the relationship between Adam and Eve. As I’ve said before (and as Ireneus and a few other early church fathers said), Adam and Eve were children. Little children.

    Adam was made first. Adam is the Hebrew word for man or mankind. It’s used thousands of times in the Hebrew OT to mean man or mankind. So when we talk about Adam, we are talking about a character who represents mankind as a whole, not necessarily about one specific individual. (Remember, mankind is one.)

    Eve is formed later as a subset of mankind. Still a part of mankind, but defined by her gender. Eve is like a little sister to Adam. Consider that it is Adam who named the animals, received instructions from God, went looking for a partner, etc. Adam even got to name Eve.

    So Adam would have been much like a big brother, showing his little sister around, telling her what things were called, explaining the rules, etc. Anyone who has ever seen a preschooler with a toddler sibling knows exactly what I am talking about here. A little kid enjoying being in charge and showing off what he knows for an admiring younger sibling.

    I’ve written before about a small detail from the story of the fall which is normally overlooked, but I think is important. When Adam and Eve were standing by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the snake approaches them, Eve says something untrue. She tells the serpent that not only can they not eat the fruit of the tree, but they are not even allowed to touch it. It’s a little detail that points to the fact that perfection, as we think of perfection, did not exist even before the fall. Which makes sense; God had declared the earth “good” and Adam and Eve “very good”. We’re the ones who made up this idea that it was perfect.

    So, where did Eve get this idea that they weren’t allowed to touch the tree? Perhaps she made it up and was just lying. Or perhaps it was what her big brother Adam had told her. It’s totally the sort of thing a big brother would do. (I once had my little sister convinced that clouds moving across the sky showed how fast the earth was turning. Because I wanted to impress her with my great understanding of the workings of the earth, of course.)

    God had given Adam one little rule to follow. It’s very easy to imagine that as a big brother, earnestly taking his responsibilities very seriously and feeling very important, he had instructed Eve, “see that fruit over there? God says we can’t eat it or we will die. We can’t even touch the tree it’s so dangerous!” He exaggerated a bit. Who doesn’t exaggerate from time to time? (My computer does not have vacuum tubes, by the way.) Especially when we’re trying to impress someone?

    So Adam and Eve are standing by the tree. Maybe Adam’s showing off how brave he is to get so close to the dangerous tree. And the snake, who knows damn well that he has no business messing with them comes by to chat. And let’s just say that perhaps, as they are talking a breeze goes by and a branch moves and a bit of fruit brushes against Eve. Who doesn’t die.

    And the snake says, “You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    Eve at this point is perhaps aware that her brother may have been doing what big brothers do and scared her in order to impress her. She didn’t die from touching the fruit. Perhaps eating it wasn’t so scary either. It was pretty. What little girl doesn’t like pretty things? And God had given the garden to them to eat from. Plus, the fruit was useful for gaining wisdom. If she was wise, then she wouldn’t be the little kid her brother could trick.

    Adam is standing there silently. Perhaps he heard Eve repeat his harmless lie and had some idea that he had made a mistake in telling her they couldn’t touch the fruit. Perhaps he had some vague awareness that he had been caught; that Eve knew he had lied to her. But I have had a child tell me “I didn’t stand on the coffee table” while they were standing on the coffee table. Little kids aren’t exactly know for their willingness to admit that they did something wrong.

    So Eve eats the fruit and hands it to Adam. Adam has just watched his Eve, who God made just for him, who would be the mother of all adam, sign her own death sentence. All he had meant was to keep Eve safe and maybe impress her a bit. He was the big brother and being a big brother comes with responsibilities. So Adam does just what a good man would do in that situation and bravely took a bite of the fruit Eve handed him. If she was going to die, he would go with her.

     

  • Jesus and the Rich Young Man

    Jesus’ Gift to a Young Rich Man

    As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. “You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

    I remember years ago hearing someone say that morals are for rich people. Which I didn’t understand. I mean, I can understand how a lack of money could drive you to stealing or fraud. But otherwise, why would morals be optional for people just because they didn’t have money? You don’t need money to be a good person, after all.

    I, of course, still don’t think that poor people don’t have morals and that morals are for people with money. But what I have come to understand two things. First, that having good morals does not make you a good person. I know plenty of people who never break any of the 10 commandments and are terrible people. The second thing I’ve learned is that it takes much more to hang onto morality when you are already depleted by a ridiculously stressful life.

    When there’s no comfort or pleasure in your life, it’s much harder to turn away from the comfort found in the arms of someone you are not in a covenant relationship with. When your mother and father were so desperate and depleted by the time that they came home, that they lashed out at you, it’s much harder to honor them than it is when you have a mom who greets you after school with a plate of cookies and a smile and a dad who wants to play catch in the yard after work while you tell him about your day. When a shady mortgage broker has defrauded you and you’ve lost your home and are living out of a cheap motel room, it’s much harder to convince yourself to stick to the rules just on principle. Life’s just different when you’re just struggling to survive.

    While we may admire the upstanding, morally sound, financially comfortable person, the truth is that many of those people wouldn’t have held up any better under trying circumstances than anyone else. Which is part of why we can’t judge people. Only God knows the heart. And sometimes even a good heart gets overwhelmed, depleted and despairs. Which isn’t an excuse for immorality, but it is an explanation. God knows this.

    The thing is that while we see morality as something that is just expected of us, it was given as something to struggle with. We’re actually meant to fail at it. In Romans, Paul says, “through the law we become conscious of our sin.” If we can follow the law, without fail, then the law is not having the effect God intends it to have in our lives.

    Now, does this mean that God has set us up for failure so that he can then show up and play the super-hero who graciously saves us? I can certainly understand why someone would think that. However, this isn’t the case. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explains about the law, “therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

    As Brene Brown says, “we are wired for struggle.” The law was meant to cause us to struggle. It is in struggling that we learn, grow and change. Struggle is like weightlifting for the soul. It tears us down and builds up back up, shaping us in the process. By placing demands on us that we will struggle and fail to meet, the law becomes our teacher, showing us the way towards Christ.

    If we never fail, we don’t need forgiveness. If we never rebel, we don’t need grace. If we never fall under our heavy load, we don’t need our burdens lifted. If we never rail against an unfair world and a seemingly uncaring God, we don’t need comfort. If we have no need of forgiveness, grace, burdens lifted or comfort, then we have no need for God. We all need God. But without struggling, we will never know just how much. Nor will we understand the value of what God has to offer us.

    When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he’s not saying that rich people are worse people than everyone else. That they love money more than everyone else. Or that they care less about other people than everyone else. He says that it’s harder for rich people because the whole point of wealth is to protect us from struggles. The whole point of the law is to cause us to struggle. Which is why money and following God are so often in conflict.

    Now, consider what Jesus does in his interaction with the young rich man. When the young man approaches, Jesus starts by disarming him. “Only God is good.” If the point of the law is to follow it, then those who are good at following it are completely justified in thinking that they are themselves good. But if only God is good and even Jesus refuses to accept that descriptor, then this young man knows he cannot stand on his own goodness. We are not good because of our morality, but any goodness we have comes from our connection with the one who is good – God alone.

    Jesus then brings up the commandments in order to draw out the young man’s relationship with them. When the young man responds that he has kept to them from his youth, we see the problem; he’s never struggled. Sure, he may have faced temptation. But he’s never had to struggle with the law to the point of failure. Which means that the law has not had the intended effect in his life.

    The story says that Jesus looked at this young man who has sought righteousness the only way he knew how and loved him. Jesus loves us all, of course. But he looked at this young man in particular and saw something in him that he loved in that moment. I suspect that what he saw was a young man who had done all of the right things and yet knew somehow that it was inadequate. Something in him knew that he needed more than to keep to the commandments in order to attain what he sought.

    He could have gone to the Pharisees and asked them what he needed to do and explained that he kept to the commandments and always had. They would have been happy to tell him that he was right with God, especially in light of the financial support his family provided to the religious establishment. But he didn’t. For whatever reason, he sought Jesus. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what the law is supposed to do – lead us to Jesus.

    So Jesus looked at this young man and loved him for whatever was in him that knew he was lacking. And he says, “sell all you own and give it away.”

    Jesus knows perfectly well that he’s asking this young man to do something he cannot do. It wasn’t just love of money, comfort and security that made it impossible for this young man to do as Jesus instructs. It would have been terribly destructive and irresponsible for him to sell everything and give it away. It would have meant casting his entire family into the streets, for one thing.

    Jesus had other followers who were wealthy. He never asks any of them to sell everything to follow him. But he loved this young man and so gave to him what the law could not – something to struggle with.

  • Oppression, Starvation and Christ

    The hallmark of an oppressive system is that it benefits some people while harming others. Because the system does provide benefits to some people, many believe that the system is fundamentally good. The fact that the system harms some people is attributed not to the oppressive nature of the system, but to the failures of the people who are being harmed. This has the effect of shoring up support for the system, even among those who are harmed by it because to admit that you are suffering is to admit your own unworthiness. Any evidence of harm being done by the system becomes evidence that the system is required to protect what is good about the system from those who are unworthy.

    Those who are unable to hide the extent to which they are suffering are unlikely to stand up for themselves, because as members of the human race, they inevitably will have faults and failures. Sometimes they themselves believe the narrative which says they are to blame for their own suffering. Other times they are resigned to suffering in silence, knowing that however unjust it may be, their faults and failures will be used to condemn them and dismiss their complaints against the system.

    We see a prototypical example of this sort of oppressive system at work in the book of Job. Job’s friends believe that suffering is caused by sin, that this is as it should be, and that Job’s suffering must therefore be the result of some secret sin on Job’s part. In the story of Job, we see that this is not the case. Job was specifically identified as a good man and God himself rebuked Job’s friends for suggesting otherwise. However, rather than understanding God to be rejecting the oppressive habit of blaming suffering on sin, we tend to read this as the story of a man who was an exception to the rule that you get what you deserve in life. A caution against relying on the system to excess rather than a denunciation of the system entirely.

    At the other end, oppressive systems claim that those at the top are owed a larger portion of the benefits from the system because they are simultaneously very good and very bad. They are very good in that they are smarter, more ambitious, more fierce, closer to the divine and capable of wielding more power than the rest. They are very bad because if they are not amply rewarded, they will not use those abilities for the good of others. Their demands are allowed to grow, unbounded by anything outside of themselves as the people who support the system trust them to provide for their wellbeing, provided their demands are adequately satisfied.

    An oppressive system always relies on an idol at the very top in order to operate. The idol allows the men who benefit from the oppressive system to lay claim to their right to power as the result of being the living embodiment of the idol. An idol may be a god or spirit, such as the ancient pagan gods or anthropomorphic spirits of the earth even ancestor worship. Or it may be an idea about the proper ordering of humanity such as in monarchies, gender roles or caste systems. Or the idol may be a virtue which is elevated above all others such as intelligence, ambition or strength.

    Idols, of course, are by definition false gods, unworthy of worship and unable to provide what they promise. The systems which grow out of them are inevitably oppressive, providing benefits to some while leaving others to suffer. Frequently this suffering is incurred in service to the system itself such as those who sacrifice their children to idols or who work themselves into an early grave providing for families they barely know.

    While many today view Jesus as either harmless or an advocate for the system de jour, in reality, Jesus subverts every oppressive system. He demonstrates that only God is worthy of the devotion we humans habitually give to idols. Unlike the idol, which is functionally viewed as simultaneously very good and very bad, Jesus shows us the face of a God who is good in all his ways. He does not provide for us according to our fealty, but causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on all the same. Rather than demanding disproportionate benefits in recognition of his worth and power, God demonstrates his worth and power by giving up all benefits and sharing in the lowest human’s suffering. Continue reading