Rules of Discernment, Rule 2: Boogeymen

As most of us are well aware, the church can be a treacherous place. Unfortunately, many Christians are ill-equipped to navigate it without falling prey to false teachers, bad shepherds, false teachings, lies, manipulation, etc. When Jesus said “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves”, he apparently wasn’t kidding. Of course, immediately after telling us that he was sending us out like walking dinner plates at the Fyre Festival, he also said, “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” To that end, I’m sharing my “Rules of Discernment” to help you and your loved ones navigate the treacherous ground we stand on.

Last week, I shared my 1st Rule of Discernment which is, basically, don’t trust anyone who claims authority for themselves rather than directing you back to the Spirit of God in you. Which right there eliminates a big chunk of the very most noxious false teachers, charlatans and cons. However, there are plenty of dangerous snakes who are a bit too savvy to come right out and openly claim the authority of God for themselves. So we need to move on to other obvious as well as telltale signs that you’re dealing with a false teacher or bad shepherd without having to go through the whole process of experiencing the effects of false teachers and bad shepherds yourself. At the top of the list of fairly obvious signs I’d put my 2nd Rule:

If a teacher/pastor/leader views the world as an “us vs them” endeavor with Christians on one side and other people/groups/ideology on the other – RUN!

Quite literally, if you hear a teacher tell you that the gays, the liberals, the trumpists, the atheists, the feminists, witches, warlocks, pagans, communists, nudists, the guy who takes his shoes and socks off on the plane or any other person or group of people is trying to “defeat/eliminate/attack” Christianity somehow, you can very comfortably turn tale and run. There’s a near zero chance that that person has anything to teach you that you can’t find in a bajillion other places.

Properly practiced, one of Christianity’s foundational, primary teaching is love of our enemies. It’s what we, at our best, have been known for from the days of the early church right down to our current time. A teacher who instead teaches fear of enemies can barely even be understood to be a Christian regardless of their theology or other claimed beliefs.

Loving our enemies and responding to evil with good doesn’t come naturally, of course. It’s something we must discipline ourselves to do. It’s something we rely on leaders to model and, well, lead us in doing. With practice, there does come a time when loving our enemies starts to come naturally but along the way we need lots of messages telling us over and over, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. . . Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

One of the jobs of a real Christian teacher – one of the things we NEED from our teachers – is to proclaim that message over and over and over again. To shut down all of the excuses and justifications we use to get out of loving our enemies. And one of the things the world needs from us as Christians is to see us engaged in this discipline, to be on the receiving end of kindness in response to hostility and care in response to harm. If we as Christians aren’t engaging in that most Kingdom of God like practice of enemy love, how will the Kingdom of God ever be made manifest among and around us?!? It’s literally part of how we bear witness to the power of Christ in us and without it; without it our witness has no power and no credibility.

A teacher who encourages their flock to view others as a threat to be resisted, condemned and rejected is failing at being a follower of Jesus. They have absolutely no business teaching about or even representing the Christian faith to anyone. It would be like a Muslim Imam encouraging their followers to worship trees. It’s completely incompatible with the Christian faith. And it’s an abuse of the flock.

The bible says the words “do not fear” (or some variation thereof) over and over and over and over and over again. Like hundreds of times. Yet these “teachers” stand up and exhort their flocks with all kinds of reasons to be afraid. When we are afraid, our rational, thinking brain stops communicating effectively with the reactive, emotional brain. In this state, we’re very vulnerable to manipulation. Triggering our fear provides a durable screen for the con or charlatan to hide behind. Even if you catch on that they’re not on the up and up, you’ll be tempted to take an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” stance so you can continue battling “the good” fight together. It’s quite a neat little trick.

Even worse, once fear brain takes over, it becomes ridiculously difficult to see those you’ve labeled “enemy” clearly. All over the country there are Christians who sincerely believe that their neighbors who are atheists, lgbtq, liberal, Muslim, poor, immigrants or whatever are a very real threat to them, their way of life and the Christian faith. Of course, this isn’t reality. We’re all just people. We all bear the image and likeness of God in our innermost being. We belong together. But if all I can really see when I look at my neighbor is “enemy who is serving the forces of evil with the goal of harming me and all I hold dear”, that’s not what you’re going to see. Unity with mankind (Hebrew – Adam) based on our common humanity is, I believe, our birthright. It was stolen from us by the enemy. And it is kept from us by the immature impulse to view the world as “us vs them”.

Not to mention that the whole idea that a group of people, an ideology or a person could constitute an actual threat to my Christian faith is absurd. My faith is and internal affair can’t be taken from me. And even if I were unable to speak a word of it, God is still plenty capable of revealing himself to people in their innermost being regardless. And how can anything be a threat when Jesus said, flat out, that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. Like, do you actually believe anything Jesus said or not? How serious is a threat that has zero chance of prevailing anyhow? Even if enemies appear to be crushing the church (a reality in places like Pakistan and parts of the Middle East), we’re following a savior who died and rose again and has promised the same to us. Do we believe that or no?

Literally nothing good comes from viewing our neighbors as enemies. It’s alienating. It’s unfaithful. It strengthens the enemy’s kingdom on Earth. It deprives us of the fruits of disciplining ourselves to love our enemies. On the other hand, loving our enemies is revolutionary. It starts to undo the harm humans have done to each other, creates unity among people and forces us to grow and develop as human beings. Do yourself, the body of Christ and the world a favor and refuse to follow any teacher who warns you about boogeymen. Nothing good comes from following a bad shepherd, peeps.

Rules of Discernment, Rule 1: Authority

One of my persistent frustrations with my fellow Christians is a general lack of discernment and good judgment. As the bible makes amply clear, there are false teachers and bad shepherds out there yet everywhere I turn, I meet Christians who have fallen for con artists and cult leaders and false teachings by the boatload. When you see the wreckage of broken families, broken people and corruption wrought in people’s lives, the persistence and ferocity with which scripture condemns false teacher and bad shepherds makes perfect sense.

What I’ve realized in talking with the victims of the charlatans and cons is that no one ever taught them even the most basic rules of discernment. Which makes sense since charlatans and cons are hardly going to start teaching their victims how to sniff them out. But I’m not a charlatan or a con, although you are plenty welcome to go buy my books, so I’m happy to share what I know, starting with rule numero uno:

All authority belongs to God. No one who claims authority for themselves is to be trusted.

It doesn’t matter if the claim to authority comes by way of their education, revelation, natural ability or giftings, their call, the affirmation of others, institutional position or because they were born on a Thursday in July in a magic lightning storm. It doesn’t matter what the reason given is, any teacher who claims authority for themselves (or claims that God has conferred such authority to them) is a false teacher to be rejected out of hand.

A true religious teacher claims no authority for themselves and will direct you to verify anything they say with the Spirit in you rather than just accepting what they say at face value. They know that God is real and that the same God which is teaching them is available to you. If their words are true, the Spirit in you will affirm it. If their words are false or not meant for you, the Spirit will keep you from falling into error. An insistence on directing you back to the Spirit in you for your answers is a hallmark of a true teacher.

Further, a real teacher will show a willingness to accept with a minimum of quarrel or offense if you come back and say that the Spirit in you did not affirm their words. Their impulse will be to go to God for instruction and understanding, not to make you defend yourself. A real religious teacher doesn’t need you to agree with or affirm them. They know that it’s God’s job to grow and teach his children and He will do it with or without the teacher’s help. And they have enough experience listening to and sitting with God to easily receive correction or allow their understanding to be expanded, so your disagreement is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Now, perhaps you are reading this and you’re thinking of the teachers you’ve known and realizing that what I’m describing is assuredly not the sort of behavior you are accustomed seeing among Christian (or other religious) teachers. Which explains right there why the church is in such horrific condition. A disproportionate percentage of Christian teachers can’t even make it past the first rule of discernment. They don’t even pass the sniff test. And yes, that includes the ones with the largest followings and most money. In fact, it especially includes them.

The truth of the matter is that most of the teachers God has trained for the benefit of the body are nowhere near a pulpit. Some are. But not many. Most of the best teachers are just walking among us unrecognized and unheralded by the institutions that claim the label of the church for themselves. They simply speak truth into whatever situation they are in, watering the ground around them with words of life, weeding out falsehoods by the root and scattering seeds of healing and restoration in their wake.

It would be lovely if these were the people leading the church, of course. Maybe you can check with God and see if there’s a plan for that. 😉

A Bunch of Noah’s in Nashville

Do you know what I don’t like doing? Arguing with conservative Christians. I used to do it. But it’s pointless. Sometimes someone is so many different kinds of wrong that it’s hard to know where to start. And why bother? Arguments have been made, the sides staked out and scripts provided to all involved. It’s just the same conversations over and over again. As is so often the case when it comes to controversies grounded in scripture, we tend to come down to two fairly plausible readings of the text. As much as we want to argue over minutia and details, when you get right down to it, we’re just picking the interpretations which seem right to us. Which means all we’re doing is using the scripture to reflect our own hearts.

Sometimes what’s in our hearts is ugly. Like the recent appallingly timed release of an anti-LGBT statement by an appalling list of right wing charlatans who use the fear of God and man as a weapon to maintain control over much of the white American church. (If you are fortunate enough not to be in the loop about these things, it’s called the Nashville Statement. Google.) Now, not only am I openly biased about this statement, but I haven’t even read it. I’ve just read what other people who are appalled by it have said about it. That’s how flagrantly biased, unfair, bigoted and close minded I am.

Except I’m totally not. I haven’t read it because, again, what for? It’s not like we don’t already know the script they’re working from and it’s not like a bunch of “leaders” who long ago lost my respect are entitled to the time and brainpower it will take for me to read it. But because of the prominence and proximity to power which the signers hold as well as the fact that these morons thought we needed to hear them formally recite their opinions – AGAIN – about other people’s genitalia while we’re in the midst of several human, ecological, political and social catastrophes, it’s a thing people are talking about.

So, to start off with, contrary to what these jokers claim, the bible is not nearly as clear as they’ve made it out to be when it comes to LGBT people’s genital pairings. There’s an excellent case to be made that the bible passages which forbid homosexual activity have been completely misunderstood and misrepresented. If you’re not familiar with it, here are some good places to start looking. And here. And here.

But even in the absence of a scholarly case for LGBT acceptance, scripture provides us with ample room and cover for re-examining the old prohibitions against homosexuality. Go back to Noah. In Christian lore, Noah is held up as a righteous man who obeys God’s commands without question. A hero of the bible who saved life on the planet. The Jewish people, however, have tended to see things differently. In their eyes, Noah is not particularly admirable and, despite being a literal forbearer to the Jewish people, according to the text, has not been accorded the honor of being recognized as a Jew at all. The reason? Because he obeyed God’s commands without questions. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, certainly no liberal, explains this Jewish perspective of Noah thusly:

The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation.” He was only a righteous man compared to the others who were far worse than he.

Now, why wasn’t he righteous? Because righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.” . . .

[Noah] failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God. . . God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith.

It isn’t until Abraham, when God says “we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,” Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?” He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience. [Source]

Jesus was a Jew in the tradition of Abraham, not Noah. We see it in his proclamation that “the sabbath was made for the man, not the man for the sabbath”. That is to say, the rules do not take precedence over human beings and their needs. It’s up to the rules to serve human needs, not the other way around. This idea is further re-enforced in Acts 10 where God tells Peter to stop dividing between clean and unclean. Those rules which had been put in place long ago for the Jewish people would no longer define what was acceptable and unacceptable. Real Jews wrestled with God in defense of their fellow man. And going forward, Christians would no longer bind people to the rules which had previously defined everything Peter knew about right and wrong, good and bad, clean and unclean.

The fact of the matter is that those who continue to declare homosexuality unclean, forbidden and a violation of Christian morality are like Noah. They are obedient, but fail at the most basic requirements of caring for human life. Regardless of our understanding of what God has declared his intention or desire to be, LGBT people have made it clear, in word and deed, that they are being deeply hurt by the teaching that their innate sexual inclinations are defective and acting on them an affront to God. The traditional teachings regarding human sexuality have resulted in suicides, addictions, destroyed families, people being cast out of communities, mental health problems and intense rejection and hostility for LGBT people. So even if we believe that it is, in fact, clear that God condemns homosexuality, that is not a good enough reason to continue promoting a teaching which is hurting the people who are subject to it.

Jesus told us, flat out, that we can judge a thing by its fruit. The fruit of the teaching against LGBT people has been consistently bad. To ignore this because we believe that the teaching was handed down by God doesn’t actually honor God. As 1 John 4:20 says, if we don’t love the human beings who we can see, we CANNOT love God who we cannot see. Insisting on feeding people fruit that poisons them is not love. Saying that the fruit that poisons them is from God and must be eaten for our own good only makes it worse. Pointing to the very rare person who is able to tolerate the fruit without being obviously poisoned by it does absolutely nothing to help those who the fruit would kill. God’s ways bring life, not death.

At the end of the day, we do have a choice to make. It’s much the same choice that Noah and Abraham had to make. Do we just go along with what we’ve heard God has said he desires, or do we push back in order to defend our fellow man from destruction? The writers of the Nashville Statement have chosen the path of Noah; they will accept the salvation of being right for themselves while others continue to perish. I and many others are choosing the more faithful option of refusing to continue imposing death, suffering and rejection on LGBT people in God’s name. And I am not remotely worried that God will condemn or reject me for following in the footsteps of father Abraham.

Is This the End Times Delusion?

I’m pretty sure Christian enthusiasm for Trump, where it exists, is the end times delusion the fundies have been trying to warn us was coming. For those of you who aren’t in the know, it’s a common teaching in some Christians circles that in the end times, there will be a delusion sent by God which causes people to call good evil and evil good. The term delusion comes from 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 which saysFor this reason, God will send them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, in order that judgment will come upon all who have disbelieved the truth and delighted in wickedness.…” This verse is often connected with Romans 1:28 which says, “Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.”

Of course, probably since the afternoon after Paul wrote his words about powerful delusions and depraved minds, people have been claiming that this or that event is evidence that the end times delusion is happening. Depending on where they fall on the crazy train, they may claim that anything from the acceptance of homosexuality to the alien cover-up is evidence of that the end times delusion.

Anyways, I’m calling it now: the fundies were right. Turns out that in the end times, there really is a great delusion where good is call evil and evil is called good. Too bad they never were much good at being able to tell which was which. I’m sure God will help them figure it out. Soon, I hope.

BTW, if you’re interested in an alternative and actually, you know, SANE examination of the so-called “end times”, you can go check out my writing on the subject here.

Jesus Saved Our Christmas Dinner

We have a seating problem in our home. Well, two of them actually. The first is that our chairs don’t match and the folding chairs have all lost their stuffing. It’s not very Martha Stewart-ish. Or comfortable. The second is that I have 3 girls under the age of 8. Who all have very strong opinions about where they ought to sit at dinner. And those opinions change nightly. (Yes, yes, I know – each person should have their own seat that they sit in every night. Please, feel free to show up at my house for dinner each night to execute that plan. I’d be mighty appreciative and the best of luck to ya.)

I almost had the whole thing fixed this summer when I got the idea to have the kids basically draw straws. I marked the tips of 5 sticks with a color. Each color corresponded to a spot at the table. The color of the stick you drew told you which spot you would sit in. The only trouble was the 2 year old hadn’t actually agreed to and didn’t care to understand this plan. So if she wanted to sit in a spot one of her sisters had pulled a stick for, all hell broke lose. If I managed to get the baby to chose a spot first, she would often simply change her mind part-way through. So whatever. We’re back to our nightly game of “who’s going to sit where and who’s going to be upset about it?” It doesn’t happen every night, but often enough. In fact, on occasion a child will even storm off and refuse to eat when a settlement to their liking is not reached. Depending on what we’re having for dinner that night this can be a good thing because, you know – more for me. But not for Christmas dinner. So when my most emotional, dramatic daughter stormed off right before Christmas dinner due to a seating dispute, I figured I ought to go and fetch her.

One of the things which I am keenly aware of during the holidays is how easy it is for special occasions to be ruined by conflict between parents and kids. The kids are wound-up and hyper and probably a little overwhelmed and the parents are stressed and busy and feeling insufficiently appreciated. It’s very easy for both parents and children to end up behaving worse than usual. Which is clearly all the kid’s fault but I suppose someone has to be the grown-up, so it might as well be the parents. As much as I wanted to go upstairs and yell and rant and drag my daughter downstairs to sit and sulk in her seat at the table, I don’t particularly care to have this remembered as the Christmas mom ruined. So I want up to her room where she was calming down by doing math problems (seriously – this is one of the ways she calms herself down – by doing math problems). I sat on her bed near her and thought for a minute. Finally I asked her, “do you love God?”

A nod.

“Do you want to make him happy?”

Another nod.

“Do you know that Jesus is God?”

Hesitation and then a nod.

“Did you know that Jesus once talked about picking which spot to sit at when you go to dinner?”

She looked up from her math, gave me a slightly dubious look and a head shake.

“He did – seriously. He said that when you go to a meal, you shouldn’t try to sit in the best spot. You should sit in the worst spot. Because if you pick the best spot, someone else might come along who is supposed to sit in that spot and they’ll make you move. And then you’ll feel bad. But if you pick the worst spot, then if you ever have to move it will be because it’s your turn to sit in a better spot and then you’ll be happy.”

“Yeah, well – no one else does that.”

“Your brothers do. You don’t see them getting upset over where they sit, do you?”

Head shake. She switched from math problems to writing random words.

“Besides, you want to be loving don’t you?”

Nod.

“You have to actually do things to be loving. It’s not enough just to feel it. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach us – how to actually be loving. Like he said that we should put ourselves last because people always try to put themselves first and then we’re always mad at each other and fighting. We keep doing it because we want our way and keep trying to fight to get it. But it doesn’t work, does it? Besides, fighting’s no fun and it makes people feel bad. You like playing with your sisters when you’re not fighting, right? But you guys spend an awful lot of time fighting with each other. You can’t do anything about what your sister does – no matter how mad you get or how hard you try. You might as well decide for yourself that you’ll do it the way Jesus said to do it. I mean, God made this whole life we’re living – he might have a pretty good idea about how to do it right, don’t ya think?”

Sheepish nod.

“Heck, wouldn’t it be nice if after a while you didn’t feel like you had to fight all the time? Besides, I have a secret – it turns out that the last spot is usually the best spot. You get to see and learn a lot of interesting things and meet interesting people when you go last. If you go last and just pay attention, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

She stopped her writing, sat looking thoughtful for minute and then agreed to come back down to eat with us. As we left her room she grabbed on to my waist.

“It’s hard. Doing things the way God says. It’s really hard. But just at the beginning. After a while you figure out that God’s ways actually are better. And then it’s really easy. Much easier than doing things your own way ever was. It’s only hard for a little while.”

So drama girl and I went back to Christmas dinner, hand in hand. And I made her brother move so she could sit next to me.

(Now before anyone is tempted to be impressed, y’all ought to know that last week my almost 8 year old picked baby Jesus up from the nativity set and said, “I forget – who is this baby supposed to be?” Jeeze.)

*This is a repeat from a few years back. The kids don’t fight nearly as fiercely about seating arrangements anymore. But our chair situation is still all jacked up. Kitchen chairs are expensive, yo.

The Christmas Bird

Instead of doing my Christmas shopping a couple of years ago, I recorded this. It’s perfect for sharing with the kids, if they are the sort who will listen to a recorded story.  Grab a cuppa whatever suits you best and listen to the dulcet sound of my voice sharing a heartwarming Christmas story about a farmer, a bird and a little boy. It will be the best 11 minutes of your day. 🙂

For those of you receiving this via email, here’s the link to the recording on soundcloud.

Let’s Get Something Straight

Praying for someone and being critical of them are not mutually exclusive things. Neither are loving someone and calling out their wrong doing. And, I know this is hard to believe, but speaking out against evil is not the same thing as sowing fear.

Right wing Christians understand all these things when they’re targeting the weak, the vulnerable and the oppressed, but seem to lose site of them entirely when it comes to the mighty and powerful. If one more person tells me that we need to pray for the president love our enemies and not sow fear in response to me criticizing the cheeto dusted Mussolini redux they just elected, I might have to start being rude about it.

(Also, for the record, being rude is not a mortal sin. If you can’t tolerate some rudeness without having a meltdown and withdrawing, you are damn near worthless to the Kingdom of God, anyways. Who’s he supposed to send you to minister to – comatose people? The demand for that isn’t as high as you’d think, I’m afraid.)

Santa, God and the Problem of Certain Belief

I once knew a family that didn’t do Santa Claus with their kids at Christmas. The reason they didn’t do Santa Claus was because they felt it might lead their children to doubt the existence of God. You see, Santa is basically an old man living far away at the top of the world. He gives you what you want because he loves you. But nobody ever gets to see him. And many children think of God as an old man living far away in heaven who answers our prayers (gives you what you want) and you never get to see him either. So their concern was that when the kids discover that Santa isn’t real (sorry if that’s a shock to you), that would sow the seeds of doubt about whether they were being similarly bamboozled when it came to believing in God. No seriously, that’s what the mom told me. I’m not making it up at all.

I actually think that the experience of finding out that Santa isn’t real, when handled decently well, is a good thing for kids. It’s a safe way to teach them that sometimes you believe things that aren’t actually true. And it’s OK. Life doesn’t end. The presents don’t stop coming. Yeah, you lose a little bit of the magic. But it’s not the end of the world. The real fun of Christmas doesn’t come from in believing in magic; it comes from expanding what brings you joy beyond just receiving. Christmas is much bigger and richer than presents that show up by magic if you’ve been good. It’s just like Christianity that way.

Unfortunately, this whole “never allow doubt, never consider that you might be wrong, never question the reality you’ve be taught” mentality is exactly how a good number of people teach their kids to approach the faith. I know that the people who do this and think this way believe they are doing the right thing. But the hubris of it is astonishing.

In order for me to teach my child never to doubt, question or challenge what they have been taught about God, I have to be confident that what I have taught them about God is 100% accurate and complete. I have to be so certain that my faith experience and theology represents the pinnacle of the Christian faith that it would be foolish and dangerous us for them to ever seek anything better than what I’ve got. And if you believe that about your faith, um, well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but, hmmmm . . . how to put this delicately? Maybe if I pet your unicorn while I figure out how to say this without sounding like a jerk? I know they must exist somewhere in your world, because your world clearly doesn’t work the way my world does.

In my world, God is bigger than I can imagine. In my world, we have barely begun to grasp his goodness. In my world, we’re still struggling to live according to his Kingdom ways. In my world, the way we’ve been doing it hasn’t been universally embraced and resulted in the meeting of heaven on earth, so clearly it’s not good enough. In my world, what I know and what I have experienced is the jumping off point, not the end destination.

If you think that what you know about God and how to live according to his Kingdom ways is good enough, well, flowers better be springing up around you everywhere you walk. Because that’s a mighty big claim to be making. Big claims require big proof. If the faith you are passing on is so delicate that learning that Santa’s not real might threaten it, that’s big proof alright. Just not the sort of proof that points to you being right.

It occurred to me this morning that our problem is that we are looking for a once and for all solution to everything. We want to get our theology right once and for all. We want to get our parenting right once and for all. We want to get our governments right once and for all. We want to get our sexuality right once and for all. We want to get our economies right once and for all. We want to get our laws right once and for all.

But this runs utterly contrary to how God created the world to work. There are no once and for all solutions on planet earth. You can’t water a patch of earth once and for all. You can’t grow food once and for all. Everything changes. What was once a jungle is now a desert. What was once a dominant male lion is now a fallen carcus being eating by scavengers. There is no once and for all. There’s only a process.

Then I thought, “but God does promise a once-and-for-all, doesn’t he? He promises salvation and redemption once-and-for-all. Right?”

And then I had one of those ah-ha moments. We want a once-and-for-all, but God gave us a process. There’s a Way of doing things. It’s why Christianity was called The Way very early in its development. It’s a way of doing life. A process for challenging the powers and principalities which rule this world. The process IS the once-and-for-all solution we’ve been looking for.

The process works when we are continually looking for a better way. When we are driven to do better and expect more from ourselves. We can always love better. We can always find better solutions. We can always learn from errors. We can always go deeper into God. We can always become more of who He created us to be. We can always experience our salvation more fully. We can always grow in deeper unity with each other. To embrace this process of continually learning better ways to follow Jesus’ teachings is to embrace God’s once-and-for-all solution.

The moment you insist that your way is THE way, that what you know about Jesus is what there is to know, that your theology is not only good enough, but unable to be challenged, you are cutting yourself off from God’s solution. You are like a child who refuses to mature. It’s not a good look, frankly.

Learning to be wrong is a skill. Most of us weren’t taught it. In fact, the more religious your upbringing, the less skilled you are likely to be at it. But refusing to be wrong doesn’t make you right. When I confront my children about their unwillingness to admit when they are wrong, I sometimes remind them of someone I knew growing up. He would never, ever admit he was wrong. He believed that it was his job to never be wrong and that to admit error meant he was failing at his job.

I ask my kids, “do you think he was ever wrong?” And of course they say yes. Everyone’s wrong sometimes. Then I ask them, “do you think that him never admitting when he was wrong fooled us? Do you think that we actually thought he was never wrong?” And of course they say no. We knew he was wrong even when he wouldn’t admit it. “Do you think you’re going to convince us that you’re never wrong just because you are unwilling to admit it? Do you think it will work better for you than it did for him? Or do you suppose we’ll all just think you’re kind of an idiot for never being able to admit when you’re wrong?,” I ask.

What I don’t tell them is that this person actually did manage to convince some people that he was as perfect as he claimed to be. It was shocking and hurtful to them when they finally had to face the reality that he was just as, if not more, prone to error than the rest of us. Even sadder was that he wasted many years dedicated to never being wrong that he could have been using to learn better ways of living and being.

So, I suppose that all of this is to say, there’s nothing wrong with your kids finding out that Santa isn’t real. And refusing to ever allow for doubt, questioning or error isn’t going to make you right. It’s just going to turn you into the kind of idiot who teaches their kids that God is like Santa Claus in the sky. Which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing. But it’s not nearly good enough for me.

*Originally posted May 2014.

Update on Shamneet

So, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been sharing the story of a 14 year old Pakistani boy named Shamneet who was kidnapped and brutally tortured by a man his father had a financial dispute with. He needed surgery to repair his injuries, but his family lives hand to mouth and had no way to come up with the $800 for his care. I have been collecting funds to pay his medical bills.

We still have a ways to go, but I have some good news to report on his case. Two days ago the doctor checked on him and, alarmed at his condition, agreed to perform surgery to in exchange for a partial payment upfront and the remainder later. He wanted half up front, which we didn’t have, but I sent Atif, my friend who is helping the boy and his family, what we had and he was able to negotiate with the doctor to accept that as a down payment. Yesterday Shamneet had surgery to repair his internal injury. His blood work after surgery looks good and doctors expect him to make a full recovery. Yay!

Now he just need surgery to repair fractures in his shoulder. Atif is currently pushing the doctor to go ahead with that surgery and the doctor is pushing Atif to make arrangements to finish paying off the bill. As I write this, there is $500 remaining on his bill.

So if you are one of the people who have already made donations, thank you again. You quite literally helped to save a boys’ life. It would not have happened without your help. If you have not made a donation yet, now’s the time to get this done. It’s been almost 2 weeks since Shamneet was attacked which means two weeks with breaks in the bones in his shoulder. Obviously, the longer he goes without surgery, the greater the chance that this injury will result in permanent, life-long disability. Any amount you are able to offer helps. The $300 we’ve collected so far was pieced together from donations ranging from $80 all the way down to $5, so any amount helps.

I will be updating the amount still needed as donations come in. So . . . whatcha waiting for? Let’s do this!

Amount needed: $0! We did it!

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Rules For the Wilderness: Do What You Can

Yesterday I shared a vision of a walled city and falling towers which you should go read if you haven’t already. In the vision, the area around the city was wilderness and in this wilderness people lived according to God’s rather than man’s ways. Over the next few days, I want to explore more about this idea of “God’s ways” and what they look like in real life. And today we’re going to start with what I said yesterday was rule #1. Which is an exaggeration. There are a bunch of other principles for living in the wilderness according to God’s ways which probably come first. But this is an important rule and pertinent for today, so I’m gonna start here:

Do what you can for those in desperate need before you do anything else.

Now, the amount of people in desperate need probably numbers in the billions, so “do what you can for those in desperate need before you do anything else” is far too broad a statement to be practical. So let’s narrow this down a bit. Which of the people in desperate need should you personally be concerned with? Well, highest priority goes to the person in desperate need who God, in some way, places in your path. This could be someone you know personally, someone you run into in your daily affairs or someone who is brought to your attention by others. When it comes to your attention that an individual is in desperate need, assume that God intends for you to help that person. Like actually help that person. As Pope Francis says, “you pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”

It should be noted that whether the person in desperate need deserves help is irrelevant. Part of living in the wilderness, according to God’s ways, is that you assume that God is arranging all things for good. If a person in desperate need has crossed your path, assume that God intends for you to help them. Whether they deserve it or not is completely irrelevant. God works in mysterious ways. Do your part and let God worry about the rest.

Of course, not only are the number of people in desperate need probably in the billions, the needs of any individual person who is in desperate need will frequently be far in excess of what you can meet. Which is why this rule says “do what you can”. Your job is not to meet everyone’s needs and/or fix their problems. Your job is to do what you can. Sometimes what you can do is nothing more than a smile and a kind word. Sometimes you are in a position to be the angel who meets the need entirely. But more often than not, you may not be able to do more than offer partial or even token assistance. And that’s fine. What is important isn’t that we are going around saving people or fixing their problems, although it’s lovely when we can do that. What is important is that we are doing what we can. That’s our part. In the wilderness, we aren’t responsible for anything more than our part. We do our part and trust God to do the rest.

So now we get to the last part of the rule: before you do anything else. Remember those old Nike commercials that said “just do it”? Whoever came up with that tag line was a genius because rarely have truer lines ever been spoken. If human beings would just do all the good things they think about doing, we’d all be fit as a fiddle and well on our way to fixing every problem in existence within months. See, our brain has this little quirk; when we think about doing something, it creates the same sensation in our brains as doing it. So simply thinking about doing something makes us feel like we’ve done it. It’s true. When I’m angry, I frequently think about punching a heavy punching bag until I collapse. I visualize wailing on the thing and feel what it would feel like to move my arms and for my hands to hit the bag and have it softly bump away. And this drains my anger just like punching the bag would. The catch is that since I don’t have access to a heavy bag, I don’t get the muscles or skills that would come from actually engaging in the activity.

It’s very much the same thing with helping those in need. We think about helping them. We think about how it’s a good thing to help them. We maybe even think about how we might carve out a few bucks or some time in order to do. We may make our plans to help them. And then we feel like we’ve actually done those things. Which is the point at which talk ourselves out of helping them. Or we just move on and assume that the need will be met somehow. After all God is in charge, right? This is why it’s so important to “just do it” when you encounter someone in desperate need. Doing the right thing or even the best you can is a great idea. But in the real world, simply doing what you can before you do anything else is what gets the job done. If God puts it on your heart to come back later and do more or better, that’s fantastic. But the reality is that once the moment has passed, we’re not going to do anything. Immediate action is the name of the game when it comes to helping those in desperate need.

So consider this your first lesson on how to live in the God’s wilderness: do what you can to help those in desperate need before you do anything else. Now here’s your chance to practice. I’ve been sharing the story of a 14 year old Christian Pakistani boy who was kidnapped, tortured and dumped in front of his family’s home for a little over a week now. He needs surgery to repair the injuries, but his family is very poor and does not have the funds. The doctor is so alarmed over the boy’s condition that he has agreed to perform the surgery with only a partial rather than full payment up front. The total cost of the surgery is $800. So far, I have collected $235 towards the surgery. We need an additional $165 by 7:30 tonight. I will continue collecting funds until he has the full $800, but the $165 needed to get half-way is urgent. I will update the remaining need as new donations come in. Please make a donation in any amount you can. Many small donations work as well as one large donation. Now . . . go. Do what you can before you do anything else.

Amount still needed: $0! We did it!

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