Tuesday, November 28, 2017

An Invitation Too Good to Pass Up

"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect," 1 Peter 3:15

          My sociology professor wanted us to share our personal thoughts and experiences with religion... an invitation too good to pass up. This is a bit lengthy and to my delight, my professor received it in the right spirit. I trust it made a good impression on her and cracked open the door to experiencing God as He really is.
                Religion is a topic that tends to polarize people. As a born again Christian I'd probably be considered a “fundamentalist” by many. Although I do agree with some of this term’s descriptions in our text, I do not lay claim to that designation. In fact, I’m not a fan of religion at all.
           It may appear that identifying myself as a believer in Jesus, yet disavowing any connection to religion is contradictory, but I think not. In my opinion, religion is man’s attempt to figure out God and then get right with Him. Our programs generally degenerate into systems of regulations to be strenuously adhered to if one wishes to get into and stay in God’s good graces.  Follow the rules and you’re safe.
          Because we like law keeping, God gave us His concept of the standard to adhere to. It's found in the Old Testament in simplified form, the Ten Commandments. Judaism further codified them into about 631 laws covering every aspect of life. To date, only one person perfectly kept the Law…Jesus. Everyone else has failed.
          I believe God's interested in relationship, not religion. Of the two, relationship is the more challenging. I have been married for forty-five years. If my marriage was solely based on abiding by a set of rules that both of us had to follow, we wouldn’t have much of a relationship, if any at all.
          I have faith and confidence in my husband, not because he “religiously” follows pre-established guidelines, but because I know him. I know how he thinks, what he likes/dislikes, what makes him happy or sad and what he considers important. This comes from decades of living together intimately, not from reading a rule book and acting accordingly.
          Religion promotes the concept that unless you get it “right” you face the wrath of God. Therefore, getting to know God personally isn’t as important as learning how to behave in a manner that you think keeps Him placated. This never works. Everyone goofs up. Therefore, many Christians don’t have any real assurance that they've met all the “requirements” necessary for getting into heaven, which really isn’t the most important thing.
          Our ability to mess things up, even with the best of intentions was no surprise to God. He knew this and fixed the problem before we had a chance to make any mistakes. He desires is relationship with His children; we want is a sure-fire program guaranteeing  our eternal destiny.
          Developing a relationship with God takes time. It’s progressive. I have known him personally for over four decades. I know less now than ever because I continually find Him deeper and richer than I’ve imagined. There are standards that I willingly adhere to, but not because I think they will earn me brownie points with God. These guidelines make my life simpler.
          For example, I no longer drink or do drugs. I’m free to do so if I want to...I just don’t want to. I don’t need the high or the escape they provide and I certainly don’t want the negative impact on my health that repeated useage produces.
          I don't worry about losing control and saying and doing things under the influence that I’ll regret later. Furthermore, I don’t fear about being stopped by the police and potentially arrested for any number of violations.
          Also, I go to church on Sunday and have done so for decades. Unlike my early religious upbrings upbringing where Sunday service attendance was mandatory, I go to church because I want to. And I don’t consider it ritualistic. That term, to me, speaks of just going through the motions, doing the same thing repetitively.
          I’m thankful that God refuses to be boxed in and likes changing things up.  I have responsibilities that require I be in attendance, but I don’t do these out of compulsion. Corporate worship has a different dynamic than individual. What occurs when the body comes together demonstrates how much we need each other. Christianity isn’t for Lone Rangers.
          I take communion every Sunday, however, I’m not limited to that time only. I can receive it anytime using water and crackers, coffee and a bagel or grape juice and bread. The physical elements aren’t what’s important. Communion is remembering Jesus and what He’s done for me. It's a time to re-member with Him. I’m now part of Him and this is a chance to remind myself of this very important fact.
          Rather than trying to show God I'm a good kid by my behavior, I spend time with Him in conversation. I ask what’s on His mind. Is there something He wants to do today that I can participate in? Perhaps there’s someone who needs prayer. He tells me how to pray in agreement with what He’s doing and I'm assured I’m just not spouting out hot air. What I’m say, based in faith, makes the difference. And I spend more time listening than talking. His side of the conversation is always more interesting. Because His Word tells me that I am already seated with Him in heavenly places, I spend time with Him there and it is a fascinating realm.
          Instead of telling people they need to “get right with God” to “turn or burn. ” I prefer to tell them that, as far as God is concerned, He’s not mad at anyone. He not counting sin against us because they've been taken care it. Christ’s crucifixion was just a physical manifestation of what had been done before time began. The only thing keeping anyone from spending eternity with Him, which includes right now, is the decision to say, “No thanks. I’m not interested.” Because we are blessed with free will, God honors our choice.
           God is concerned about sin, but not for reasons most people think. It has consequences. What is often labeled the “wrath of God” is simply the natural offshoot of bad behavior. The times I experience His “wrath” so to speak, is when He identifies things in my life that are harmful, destructive, and definitely not of Him. He is jealous for me, not of me. He wants the very best and like a good parent will do everything possible to keep me safe and out of trouble. He knows that sin causes me to think I’m His enemy and that He is mad at me. Because of the way sin distorts my mental capacity to know and understand Who He really is, God hates sin in every form. He wants nothing impeding my relationship with Him.
          I understand how religion evolves and develops, sometimes with the very best of intentions. However, I’ll stick with relationship. It’s not always clear cut and at times can be very mysteriously unsettling, but I have God’s assurance that because I’ve placed myself in His Hands, He can keep me out of harm’s way. And I’m taking His word for it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Highway to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

"...and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" Gen. 3:5.

The original sin was steeped in good intentions. What more noble aspiration exists than to be like God? The methodology was all wrong, but we can't fault Eve for wanting to be just like her Creator.

We Christians do the exact same thing. We invent any number of ways designed to make us more God-like. Read/study the Bible, pray, evangelize, do good works - all fine in and of themselves but they'll never make us more like God.

Eve's problem (and ours) was an identity crisis - she didn't know who she was. Already created in God's image and likeness, how much more God-like could she get? Unfortunately, she believed the lie that she was deficient in this department.

This same fallacy is being swallowed hook, line and sinker today by many believers. Ask Christians if they're righteous and a good portion with emphatically state, "No!"...but they'd like to be. Some are working really hard to attain this goal.

Despite the fact that First Corinthians teaches that Jesus has become our "righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1:30) or Second Corinthians which states that because of Christ we're now "the righteousness of God" (5:21), Christians strive to become what they already are.

Here's another old favorite stand-by. "I'm just an old sinner saved by grace." Really? Sounds humble and pious until you stack it up the Paul's position on the matter.

"But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us" Rom. 5:8.

Unless Jesus re-died in 1972, I wasn't around for Him to die for me at Calvary.

"That God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And He as committed to us the message of reconciliation" 2 Cor. 5:19.

God's not holding anyone's sins against them so then why do Christians label themselves and others as such? We don't know who we really are.

I've heard the title of this week's blog post used in a variety of settings and with a great deal of latitude. What I'm not insinuating here, however, is that Eve's sin sent her to Hell. The only way to enter that domain is to reject God's already-in-place gift of reconciliation. Eating the forbidden fruit didn't send Eve to Hell. It didn't even stop God from showing up for his customary daily chat with the pair after the Fall.

To me, the meaning of this popular saying is that many mistakes aren't based on evil intentions - just the opposite. In Eve's case she wanted something most would consider very good...to be more like God. Ignorant of her real current status in life, she set out to obtain what she already possessed.

Some Christians, even those with familiarity with Scripture are on a similar mission. Ask me how I know. Unaware of their identity in Christ they resort to all types of religious gymnastics designed to make them into someone that they already are. These turn our to be exercises in futility. Many suffer in silence as they attempt one more program of self-improvement, the latest Christian fad. Frustrated many give up and quit. Again these are often good things but they can't make you any better than what God already has done for you.

God went to a lot of time and trouble to reconcile us back to Him. All we have to do is accept that it's already done. As the truth takes root and we begin to live out of this new reality, our life changes. We don't strive to be transformed - we recognize and step into our true identity in Christ.

How about you? What religious self-improvement program are you on now? Is it designed to make you a better Christian and more like God? How's it working for you? Are you becoming a new person via effort on your part or by awakening to your true identity and living out of it? Are you refreshed or stressed? Can you relax in the truth that you're already like God, thanks to His actions alone?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Secret of Greatness

"Your gentleness has made me great" Psalm 18:35.

Viewing David's life, his ascension from shepherd to King of Israel, it is easy to ascribe his success to any number of things.

David was fearless taking on opponents to his flock and his nation. He was loyal to the point of never betraying or harming a king bent on hunting him down to destroy him. He was faithful to God in good and bad times. He was the man after God's own heart.

On the other hand, David had issues. He was a flawed character. His parenting skills were less than impressive; his home was in constant uproar with out of control kids. He was an adulterer who murdered his lover's husband in an attempt to cover his sin. Told never to number the people, his census brought disaster to the nation plus a very painful remedy. Still, despite all his failings, David is held in the highest regard.

Throughout God's dealings with him, it was the gentleness of his Lord that David says made him great.

David experienced God's correction and discipline. God didn't let him off the hook when he erred. David's seemingly private affair was made very public when the king was confronted by Nathan the prophet. Would David admit is sin or use his royal power to cover it up and sweep it under the rug?

David reflected upon this and other times the Lord dealt with him not as punitive or harsh but as gentleness. These shaped his character and caused him to excel.

The Apostle Paul came to this same conclusion.

"or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?" Rom. 2:4.

Paul's audience was the church at Rome, for the most part a congregation of former pagan Gentiles. Fortunately this group hadn't been steeped in the legalism of the Law with all its do's and don'ts. However they too had their religious baggage to overcome including the worship of an emperor who claimed to be god and who wasn't known for extending mercy to those who believed otherwise.

Paul stated authoritatively that God's kindness is what motivates us to change our thinking. As Saul of Tarsus Paul, according to Jesus, persecuted Him personally. That's how the Son of God interpreted Saul's actions. Knocked to the ground and temporarily blinded got hard charging Saul's immediate attention. Rather than eradicating the opposition (a popular Christian viewpoint) God shook up Saul to get his attention. Reflecting back, Paul recognized that is was the kindness of God that changed a repentant Saul of Tarsus in the Apostle Paul.

God's gentleness is the key to our greatness. Notice David didn't say "success," at least not in the terms we're familiar with today. Greatness had to do with personal growth and character not impression achievements like victory in battle and kingship. Gentleness allowed David's inner man to develop and grow large enough to embrace the ever expanding revelation of his great God and their progressively deepening relationship.

God's kindness was the pivot that turned Saul into Paul. Instantly realizing he was on the wrong side, Saul recognized that God's olive branch (and not a beating or worse) was the wise way to go. God's mercy and love overwhelmed Saul into submission and transformed him.

How about you? If you were in Saul's sandals on the Damascus road how would you have reacted to God's rude interruption of your life? As a believer, do you think Saul got off too easy? Looking at David's life, where do you see God's gentleness making David a great man? In your own life would you prefer kindness and gentleness or something more severe?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Road Trip

"Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage" Psalm 84:5.

I've never heard of anyone going on a pilgrimage. For Old and New Testament Jews accustomed to mandatory participation in certain Temple services annually, this was a familiar life event. Muslims traveling to Mecca are the closest contemporary example of pilgrims on a sacred journey that I can think of.

A pilgrimage is an adventure. Other than knowing one will travel from Point A to Point B, all that transpires in between these two is a mystery. The unknown enhances the overall experience. The final destination keeps the travelers filled with anticipation. The expense, trials and difficulties are immaterial when compared to arriving at one's heart's desire. Doing whatever it takes to reach the goal is well worth it.

Perhaps our walk with God would be more satisfying if we approached it with the pilgrim's sense of awe and wonder. To do this we may first have to reassess our concept of Who God is.

In the book, How God Changes Your Brain, authors Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mr. Mark Robert Waldman cite a Baylor University study done in conjunction with the Gallup organization. The sample interviewed included: Evangelicals, mainline and black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, adherents to all types of beliefs and those with no religious/church affiliation at all. The research revealed that Americans tend to classify God's personality as one of these four: authoritarian, critical, distant and benevolent.

Only twenty-three percent view God as "gentle, forgiving and less likely to respond with wrath" (pg. 110 kindle version). Furthermore this group viewed God as being personally involved in their lives, listening and responding to prayers and deeply concerned about those who suffer.

With statistics like this is there any surprise that some Christians find Christianity (the religion) pure drudgery? After all, who gets excited about a road trip to visit a cranky, mean old relative? A root canal's more preferable. It would be encouraging if Christians comprised that twenty-three percent who viewed God favorably - but that's not the case.

Why not?

Is it any wonder why people stay away in droves from the angry, retributive God fostered by much of the church today? Yet, when exposed to Jesus, they're captivated by Him because, by His own admission, He is the living example of God the Father. In His day Jesus was a radical departure from what His contemporaries were being forced-fed in their religious traditions. Christ turned no one away, good or bad. He never condoned wrong behavior because what we do and how we live matters. However, He never made a person's present life condition a barrier that prevented fellowship.

It's time to take a serious look at God through the lens of Jesus. Doing so can cause a major upheaval of our assumptions concerning the nature of God and His method of dealing with mankind. This can also transform our quest to know God into an exciting, festive pilgrimage as opposed to a torturous, frustrating journey.

How about you? How would you honestly evaluate your relationship with God? Is it what motivates you to get up each morning, curious to discover what the day will bring? Or, does it make you want to pull the covers up over your head because you're too tired and disappointed to go any further? Are you part of the twenty-three percent minority who look at God in a favorable light or the majority who do not?

Life will always present unexpected challenges. Whether we believe in God or not is important. What we believe He is like matters a great deal. If you're part of the majority who harbor a negative opinion of God, here's a suggestion. Get a new roadmap, one that will guide you on a journey to discover the Jesus-kind of Father God. Pack you bags and get ready for the road trip of a lifetime.