Monday, August 28, 2017

"Paraclete"

            A visually impaired, older lady named Elsie has a pet parrot named Sam.  Sam goes with her everywhere she goes.  She keeps his wings clipped, and he is so well-trained that she never has to worry about him flying away.  Sam is one of the smartest birds she has ever known.  He brings her small items in his beak when she asks for them.  He sits on her shoulder and whispers in her ear whether something is to the right or the left.  Or when she gets sad or lonely, he climbs up on her chest and comforts her by snuggling under her chin and saying, “It’s okay, Elsie.  I’m here.  Calm down.  You’re all right, Elsie.”  Once, Sam even rescued her.  She had fallen and lay in the floor for hours, but when a neighbor came to their own apartment door across the corridor, Sam flew up and down against the window in his own door, flapping his wings and bumping against the door to get the neighbor’s attention.  This helped the neighbor to notice what was wrong and get help.  When she got Sam, Elsie didn’t originally train him as a service animal—he kind of did that himself.  But because of parrots’ long lifespans, Elsie knows that Sam will be with her, helping her for the rest of her life.  Elsie got Sam registered as an official service animal, which guarantees him access to public transportation and public buildings, the same as if he were a service dog.  People may look askance when the lady with the parrot on her shoulder gets on the bus, but she smiles and says, “I never see those looks.”[i]

            In the fourteenth and sixteenth chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus comforts His disciples by promising that when He leaves them, God will send the Holy Spirit to continue His work among them.  In 14:16-18, He says,


“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you.  He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you.

            When Jesus says God will send the Advocate, He says “another,” a Greek word which means “another of the same kind.”  In fact, the Holy Spirit will be so much like Jesus that He says, “I will come to you.”  Yes—God will still be with them, even when He leaves.  Without getting into the mystery of the Trinity, I want to simply rejoice that God does not leave us as orphans, but promises to help us.  In verses 26-27, Jesus says, “But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”  Then, in 16:5-15, He picks up the subject again:


“But now I am going away to the one who sent me, and not one of you is asking where I am going. Instead, you grieve because of what I’ve told you. But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged.
“There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’

            The word that the NLT translates as Advocate is Paraclete.  This word is also translated as Comforter, Helper, and Counselor.  It comes from two Greek words meaning “close beside” and to “make a call.”  A Paraclete is “properly, a legal advocate who makes the right judgment-call because close enough to the situation.”  A Paraclete “is the regular term in NT times of an attorney (lawyer) – i.e. someone giving evidence that stands up in court.”[ii] 

While all this is true, please permit a little license to compare the role of the Paraclete to the job of a helper animal.  Like the parrot Sam with clipped wings, the Holy Spirit’s dove won’t fly away from you.  This Paraclete (not Parakeet) will remain with you, whispering words of comfort and warning to your soul.  Because the Spirit indwells you rather than simply sitting on your shoulder, this Helper will never leave you.  Like a helper animal gives comfort, assurance, and assistance to a human, the Spirit guides, comforts, and helps believers.  But unlike a helper animal that is subject to the control of the person, instead, the Christ-follower ought to submit to the authority of the Holy Spirit.

If we believers are to love as God loves, then we must adopt the role of Paraclete for other people.  We must become their comforters, helpers, counselors, and advocates.  God calls us to whisper words of reassurance and warning, peace and blessing, to lead people in the truth that we know.  Since this is what the Holy Spirit does for you, this becomes your mission: to be the Paraclete and friend to those in need.





[i] This fictional story is based on real-life helper animals (including a helper parrot), in an article entitled Creature Comforts, by Rebecca Skloot.  New York Times Magazine, Dec. 31, 2008.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/magazine/04Creatures-t.html?mcubz=0.  July 24, 2017. 
See also an article entitled Assistance Monkeys, Ducks, Parrots, Pigs and Ducks … Should the law protect them? By the same author. Culture Dish.  Dec. 31, 2008.  http://scienceblogs.com/culturedish/2008/12/31/assistance-monkeys-ducks-parro/.  July 24, 2017.
[ii] HELPS Word Studies.  3875.  © 1987, 2011. http://biblehub.com/greek/3875.htm.  July 27, 2017.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Big, Big House"

            According to the Pew Research Center, 25-35-year-old Millennials are more likely than previous generations to live at home with their parents.  As of 2016, 15% of those in this age range lived with their parents, compared to 15% of Gen-Xers in 2000, 11% of late-Boomers in 1990, 8% of early-Boomers in 1981, and 8% of the Mature/Silent Generation in 1964.  According to the same research, they are not only boomeranging, recovering, and moving back out—but they are either remaining in their parents’ homes or moving back in for a median of three years.[i]  Many factors contribute to this trend, including an increased demand for college degrees, which delays marriage for many millennials.  According to CNBC’s Jessica Dickler,


In addition, sluggish wage growth and sky-high rents in many urban centers have made it unaffordable for some recent graduates to move out on their own. Even as hiring picks up, wages for new college grads have not budged, when adjusted for inflation, from prerecession levels, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Then there are the hefty student loan bills from school, which are at an all-time high, putting a severe strain on most recent graduate's financial circumstances. Seven in 10 seniors graduate with debt, owing about $29,000 per borrower, according to the most recent data from the Institute for College Access & Success.

From a financial perspective, moving back home can provide millennials with an opportunity to start paying back loans and build up an emergency fund with a goal of getting to independence.[ii]


            But it’s not just poor, struggling Millennials who are moving back home.  In London, Prince William and his wife Kate, the Dutchess of Cambridge, have moved into an apartment in Kensington Palace, where he grew up.  William’s brother, Prince Harry, has also taken an apartment in the same palace, just like Diana and Charles did before him.  Historically, multi-generational living is much more prevalent than what we think of as the two-generational norm.  From peasants to royalty, parents and children have lived in the same household along with grandparents and great-grandparents.  As I write this, I’m blessed to have my Millennial and Generation Z children and grandchildren living in my home—and I wouldn’t change a thing about it (not just now).  I’m glad to have a house with so many rooms, where multiple generations of my family can live and thrive.

            Jesus’ words in John 14:1-14 have brought comfort to people throughout the generations.  They have also inspired songs like “Mansion Over the Hilltop” by Ira Stanphill, which promotes a materialistic and wealth-based notion of heaven; and “Big Big House,” by Audio Adrenaline, which humorously depicts God having a “big big yard, where we can play football.”  Theologians have debated over the meaning of the word “mansion,” but I like the New Living Translation, in which Jesus says, “There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am (vv. 2-3).”[iii]

            “More than enough room” describes more than just the Father’s house—it describes the Father’s heart.  Some believe that God only wants to save a few, but the Bible I read describes a God whose love is so great that God wants to save everyone.  Jesus says in John 12:32, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself."  In Matthew 18:14, Jesus says, “It is not my heavenly Father's will that even one of these little ones should perish.”  While I have difficulty with universalism which teaches complete salvation for everyone (this violates human free will), I do believe that God’s embrace would be big enough, if every human being who ever lived would come to accept God’s unconditional love.  There’s more than enough room with God.

            Jesus describes the way that everyone can come and live in the Father’s house.  He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him (vv. 6-7)!”  He continues to explain that anyone who has seen Him has seen the Father.  This is because Jesus and the Father are one.  It’s a remarkable claim to be the only way to the Father—but this is because Jesus so perfectly represents the Father, that anyone who imagines God apart from Jesus is missing the full picture.  Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross.”  God is a peace-making God, loving the world enough to die for it.  God fully exemplified this love in the demonstration of forgiveness Jesus showed on the cross, exonerating the very people who crucified him.  There can be no greater expression of love and grace than that.

            Unfortunately, people try all kinds of other ways to reach God—through good works, through pious acts of religion.  But Jesus says the only way to the Father is through Him—through receiving and sharing God’s grace as perfectly demonstrated through Jesus.  The only way to understand God is to understand God as we have seen God in the person of Jesus.  Those who want to depict God as a warlike, vengeful, alienating kind of God aren’t really grasping who God is.  The only way to the Father is through Jesus—the God who reconciles and loves.  Anything other than this isn’t really God—simply a transference of our tribal hierarchies and rules onto our notion of a God that we’ve created in the image of our kings and judges.  You can’t reach God except through the gracious Savior, who isn’t a finger-shaking heavenly magistrate, but the one who invites us to the table in God’s “big, big house.”





[i]Fry, Richard.  “It’s becoming more common for young adults to live at home – and for longer stretches.”  May 5, 2017.  http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/05/its-becoming-more-common-for-young-adults-to-live-at-home-and-for-longer-stretches/.  July 19, 2017.
[ii]Dickler, Jessica.  “More college grads move back home with mom and dad”  June 11, 2016.  http://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/10/more-college-grads-move-back-home-with-mom-and-dad.html.  July 19, 2017.
[iii] All scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"“Betrayed and Denied: The Aftermath of Charlottesville”

            As I watched the footage from Charlottesville, my heart broke and I felt betrayed and denied.  Betrayed by a city that at one time was ranked the number one place to live in the US.  Betrayed because the man Charlottesville chose as their vice-mayor was a man who between 2009 and 2014 tweeted numerous racist, sexist, and gay slurs, and also lewd comments about female genitalia[i].  (But I guess those kinds of tweets are popular these days—Republican and Democrat.)  Betrayed by a city that I love, that permitted protests like those on August 12 to happen, without providing enough police presence to keep the violence from taking place.  Watching the footage, I said to myself, “My kids and I played in that park.  We ate ice cream cones there at the Downtown Mall,” where a white-supremacist car smashed into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing one.  To see such violence in a place of such peace makes me say as Caesar did, “Et tu, Charlottesville?”

            This all took place in the city of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Yes, Jefferson’s town allowed this—denying the very truths written by its founding father.  In the shadow of Monticello, people who deny that all people are created equal assaulted and slew others who stood in protest against the notion that some are better than others.  Yes—I feel stabbed in the back.  All Virginians should feel stabbed in the back that in what’s probably the most educated, forward-thinking town in our Commonwealth, such a thing could take place.
           
            Perhaps you have been betrayed like this as well—stabbed in the back, not with literal knives but with words and deeds of people who profess to love you.  John 13:18-38 tells the story of two disciples who stab Jesus in the back, before He is ever pierced by nails.  In these verses, Jesus predicts that Judas will betray Him, and that Peter will deny Him.  Understanding these two characters will help us come to terms with the people whose emotional daggers pierce our own hearts.
           
            Many people vilify the character of Judas, double-damning him both for the sin of betraying Christ, and for the unforgivable sin (according to Catholic tradition) of suicide.  In retribution for their crimes, Dante’s Inferno has the trio of Caesars assassins Brutus and Cassius, along with Judas eternally devoured by the devil in the lowest level of hell. 

            In contrast, recent scholarship has been asking whether Judas might have gotten a bum rap.  Certainly, saying “it was all part of God’s plan” does not excuse Judas, but at the same time, Jesus chose him as a disciple with complete foreknowledge of what he would do.  There seems to be an intimate friendship between Judas and Jesus.  In the fourth century Gospel of Judas (which we recognize as non-canonical), the Lord asks Judas to perform this difficult task of betrayal.  While I personally don’t believe this to be fact, it is evidence that a certain community within the fourth century believed that Judas had been wrongfully blamed.  Alternately, many scholars regard Judas as a patriot who did not intend to betray Jesus, but merely wanted to force the Messiah to reveal Himself and save the nation.  However we understand Judas, we must recognize that the narrative reports that he hanged himself, indicating his remorse.

                Though Judas’ suicide is probably the worst thing he can do to express his repentance, it does indicate the severity of his contrition.  Perhaps he can’t imagine how to face the disciples, or maybe he can’t bear to live with himself after what he’s done.  Judas becomes his own judge, jury, and executioner, and creates a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  How different would the story have been if he had only, like Peter, only gone away, “weeping bitterly (Matthew 26:74; Luke 22:62)”?  Peter similarly regrets his denial of Jesus, but he takes no rash action like Judas, and so gets to witness the resurrection three days later.  How much better if Judas had likewise waited—he would no doubt have been restored even as Peter was.  In John 21:15-17, Jesus forgives and restores Peter three times—once for each time the disciple denied Him.  Surely the Master who taught us to forgive our enemies would have done the same with Judas! 

            So here are these two characters, Peter and Jesus.  We like to exonerate one and damn the other.  We like to declare who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are in any story.  Because, by doing so, we make ourselves superior and able to judge both.  But sandwiched in between these two narratives of Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal, and Jesus forecasting Peter’s denial, we find Jesus’ words of hope for both situations.  In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  Jesus reminds them to love unconditionally, even as He loves without reservation.  Though Peter denied Him, Jesus restored.  And He would have restored Judas, too, had that disciple not taken his own life.  Because “God does not play favorites (Romans 2:11).”  And neither should we.  So we should love Peter—but we should love Judas, too.

Keep in mind that if someone has betrayed, denied, and stabbed you in the back, that doesn’t mean you need to remain in a vulnerable position of trust—but it does mean you should get yourself to a safe place, and from that position of safety, learn to forgive.  Loving and forgiving your enemies doesn’t mean you become their victim over and over.  It simply means you choose to trust God for your healing, and that you also trust God to deal with that person instead of you.  So whether that person is an abusive spouse, malicious co-worker, or vocal bigot, the love of Jesus should overflow from Christians onto others who are hard to love.

            So often, we choose to give Peter grace for his sin, yet condemn Judas for his crime.  God, on the other hand, is not as fickle or capricious as we are.  God loves us absolutely, and calls us to do the same.  Have you been betrayed by one you love?  Denied by one who is close to you?  Have you ever received bigoted and hateful language from people who don’t even know you?  Have you been tempted to return wound for wound, hatred for hatred?  Instead, do as Jesus did—love without condition.  Receive the Judas kiss—and even give love in return.  Love—and forgive—as Jesus does, for your love will prove to the world that you are His disciples.

            When the torch smoke clears from Charlottesville, it will be self-evident who acted with hatred in their hearts, asserting that some people are better than others—and who gathered to insist on equality for all.  It will also be proven who violated the law, and who did not.  But let’s be careful that we don’t do what we do so often, and that we don’t label some human beings as evil and others as righteous.  The same Jesus died for them all, and the same Jesus calls us to love our enemies as well as our friends.  Jesus gives a new command to every Christian who follows Him.  “Love each other.”  Now let’s see if we can do just that.
           





[i]Higgins,Anna and Dodson, Tim.  “Homophobic, sexist, anti-white language abundant in Charlottesville vice mayor's tweetsThe Cavalier Daily.:” November 28, 2016.   http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2016/11/wes-bellamy-charlottesville-twitter.  August 12, 2017.
Suarez, Chris.  “Tweets from Charlottesville councilman cause some to call for his removal. “  Richmond Times-Dispatch.  November 28, 2016.  http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/tweets-from-charlottesville-councilman-cause-some-to-call-for-his/article_9e478187-2938-5603-9186-a05ac15e6c6a.html.  August 12.

"The Great Reversal"

One of the great citizens of France during the 1300s was Nicolas Flamel.  A great philanthropist, Flamel was also known as a scientist and mystic.  The particular brand of work he did was the ancient art of alchemy.  Legend had it that alchemists could take base metals and turn them into gold.  For thousands of years, alchemists from Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and other parts of Europe endeavored to perform this transmutation.  Somewhat like Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, alchemy was something that lay in that shadowy place between myth and science.  Nicolas Flannel, however, just may have accomplished this tremendous feat.  Though there were no witnesses aside from Flamel’s wife, history records that his wealth increased suddenly, and he enjoyed good fortune and serenity for the rest of his life.
          Flamel was a scribe.  Among the many books that he copied there were many alchemical texts.  One that he acquired was not printed on paper, but on tree bark.  With the aid of this book and the advice of a Jewish doctor he met while on a pilgrimage to Spain, Flamel discovered, as he says, the secret to transmutation.  He used a special red stone that he called the Philosopher’s Stone, along with other scientific-type equipment in his work where he allegedly turned mercury into gold.  He repeated this several times, until he was able to use this gold in his philanthropic works.  Nicolas and Perenell Flamel founded and endowed with revenues fourteen hospitals, three chapels, and seven churches in Paris.  Flamel continues in his writing, "We have also accomplished in Boulogne about as much as we have in Paris, not to speak of the charitable acts which we both performed, specially with regard to widows and orphans."  In an archway that he had built in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents a mural still exists today, which depicts his wondrous work of transmutation.
          In the world of ancient wonders, many people have striven to transform that which is base into that which is extraordinary.  Alchemists attempted to rearrange the molecular structure of ordinary metals and turn them into gold.  Likewise today, the human need for transformation cries out for fulfillment.
          In the upper room of Jesus' last supper, our Lord announced the greatest alchemy of all.  He took something base and transformed it into something sublime.  Taking bread, he blessed it and said, "This is my body."  Pouring a cup of wine, Jesus said, "This is my blood."  There can be no greater alchemy than that:  the transmutation of simple elements into sacred objects of holy ordinance or sacrament.
          Now, there are many Christian denominations that debate what happens mystically, to the elements of Communion.  The Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation says that the bread and wine become the actual physical body and blood of Jesus in the mouth of the communicant.  In contrast, the Protestant teaching of Consubstantiation says that Christ is present in and through the elements.  Some reject both of these, favoring the belief that Communion is simply a re-creation of the Lord's last meal with his disciples.  What is really at issue here is the question, "What is actually being transformed in Communion?"
          Regardless of what happens to Communion bread, the body of Christ is transformed when the Church takes Christ into itself and becomes His body.  No matter what it believes about wine, the Church is transformed when it abides in the vine and is filled with Christ’s life-energy that we call His blood.  Theologians may argue over what happens to the physical elements of Communion, but there can be no doubt that a greater change is taking place here.  More than body and blood, the real transmutation takes place in the heart of the one who receives the Lord's Feast.
          Alchemy is the transformation of base metals into gold.  Modern scientists don't believe any real alchemy ever took place, and modern alchemists talk far more about inner spiritual transformation than they do about mercury and gold.  Alchemy is about being changed from within, and this kind of change was just what Jesus was getting at when he said, "This is my body and blood."
In John's gospel, just before Jesus gave them the sacrament of Communion, he washed the disciples' feet.  He transformed his role from leader to servant, and asked them to do the same.  Rather than debating the issues of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, we need to focus on the real thing that needs to be transformed:  ourselves.  Jesus allowed himself to be transformed from the Lord of Glory into a tiny baby.  He allowed himself to be transformed from Master and Teacher, to that of a humble servant who washed his disciples’ feet.  He allowed his body to be transformed even to the point of brokenness and death—so that we might be transformed as well.
Jesus asks his disciples—he asks us—to be transformed.  Become a servant.  Give up yourselves, as I have done, Christ says to us.
          According to the ancient legends, the first step to alchemy is slaying a dragon.  This is actually a metaphor for putrefying the mercury out of a lump of metal.  Modern alchemists say that the metal is really a secondary metaphor, an allegory for what must first happen in human transformation.  If we base people are going to be refined and turned into gold, we must first slay the dragon that is within us.  Paul said we must put to death the old person and the deeds of the flesh.  This is the first step in alchemy, and also the first step in the spiritual transformation that Jesus brings.
           Romans 12:2 says, "Do not be conformed anymore to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."  2 Cor 5:17 tells us, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new is come."  The real question of Communion is whether you will be transformed today.
           In the old Latin masses, the priest would say, "Hoc est corpus meum," which means "This is my body."  People who didn’t understand the Latin interpreted this sacred sentence as the magical phrase "Hocus pocus."  But really there are no arcane words, and there is no magical enchantment in the alchemy of Christ.  There are simply souls transformed, turned into living gold.
 


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"Hardened Hearts"

            In an article entitled, Does God Harden Hearts?, Dr. Bob Barrier writes about sharing his faith with an old man who had been exposed to Christian witnesses all his life.  “With chilling finality he responded: ‘I've said ‘no’ to Jesus for so many years that I don't think that I could become a Christian even if I wanted to.’"  Then Barrier concludes, “Now, it is possible to say ‘No’ to the gospel of Christ so many times that God finally says, ‘OK, if that is the way you want it, I'll harden your heart and I'll never ask you again.’"[i]

            When I read this article, something sat wrong in my spirit.  I know that there are several places in the Bible that say God hardened certain people’s hearts, but the concept seems hard for me to grasp.  Are there actually people who couldn’t become Christians, even if they want to?  John 12:37-41[ii] addresses this issue.  Quoting Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10, John writes:


But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

“Lord, who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

“The Lord has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and have me heal them.”

Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory.


            The Bible speaks of God blinding the eyes or hardening the hearts of unbelievers in several places.  Exodus 7:3 and 8:15 speak of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t let the Israelites go.  1 Timothy 4:2 says, “These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead [seared].”  Romans 1:24 says, “So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired.”  So with a cursory reading it seems there are people who are so wicked that God says, “Fine, then!  Be that way!”  And God writes them off.

But can we blame God for disbelief when the Bible also says people harden their own hearts?  Hebrews 3:15 quotes Psalm 95:7-8 as imploring the listener not to turn God off like a light switch: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.”  Ephesians 4:18 says of rebellious people, “Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him.”  So just as there are passages that support the idea that God hardens people’s hearts, there are others that say people harden their own.

In Isaiah 63:17, the people’s seeming repentance is overshadowed by the fact that they blame God for their own pig-headedness: “Lord, why have you allowed us to turn from your path? Why have you given us stubborn hearts so we no longer fear you?”  So, does God give anyone stubborn hearts so they can’t follow Him?  Jesus says in Matthew 18:14 that it is not God’s will than any should perish.  In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 16:11-32), the father never writes off his son because he strayed just a little too far.  Instead, he waits eagerly for the son’s return.  The merciful heart of God wants all to come to repentance.

Rather than blaming God for the unbelief of lost people, the Bible says that “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).”  In Luke 8:11-12, Jesus explains the parable of the scattered seed: “The seed is God’s word. The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved.”  In his blog, Evangelist Jesse Morrell explains it this way:


To interpret John 12 to mean that it was God’s will for these men not to believe because God doesn’t want them to be saved, is accuse God of doing that which the Bible elsewhere blames the devil for. And if it is blasphemy to credit to the devil the work of God, then it is equally blasphemy to credit to God the work of the devil. It is the devil that exerts energy and influence to keep men from salvation, not God. God is the one who is exerting His energy and influence to save as many as He possibly can, in consistency with the freedom He has granted to the universe.[iii]


Personally, I don’t believe that there’s anybody who’s beyond the point of salvation.  Yes, some people seem to have their hearts hardened from the outside, and sometimes people harden their own hearts.  Instead of making salvation impossible for them, this hardening simply makes it harder.  In Matthew 19:23-26, Jesus presents a seemingly impossible scenario, saying:


“I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ll say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.



So how do we understand these different kinds of hardenings?  I look at it this way:  When I was in school, I did very poorly in math.  I used to joke that I suffered from “numeric dyslexia.”  Recently, I found out that that’s a real thing—the tendency to transpose digits is called dyscalculia.  So, when I was doing math, I’d see a 51 and write 15.  Most kids who have difficulty with math simply need to learn certain math principles and they’re ok.  Being bad at math might represent one kind of hardening, where a person has a simple struggle with, or tendency toward sin.  Dyscalculia then represents that some people have magnified issues with sin, that may be based on their internal makeup—say, a tendency toward addiction.  Then, there was another problem that I had.  Once I realized I had a problem with math, and that I had this tendency toward reversing digits, I got the notion in my head that I couldn’t do it—and that created a third kind of hardening.  Instead of pushing myself to overcome the issue, I just gave in and decided I couldn’t do math.  In the same way, some people with extreme spiritual dyslexia might throw their hands up and say, “I don't think that I could become a Christian even if I wanted to."

Another issue that I had in math is that because of my bad grades, I got it in my head that my teacher didn’t like me.  So I’d say, “The teacher is too strict!”  A lot of people feel that way about God.  That’s why Jesus says in John 12:47-48, “I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it.  But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.”  It’s not the teacher who judges whether I’m right or wrong—it’s MATH that decides.  It’s not Jesus who judges, but the TRUTH that decides.  Just as the teacher simply sheds light on math, Jesus simply illuminates the truth.  It’s up to me to overcome whatever mental blocks, excuses, and spiritual hardenings I may have.  I do this through the exercise of faith. 

All the while I was struggling with math, telling myself, “I can’t,” God was saying, that nothing shall be impossible with God.  Even when I was blaming God for making me bad at math, blaming my own inabilities or my dyscalculia, or declaring that the teacher didn’t like me, God was still for me.  Even though we harden our hearts in sin, or decide there’s no hope for us—even when we blame God or the devil or some other source for the hardening of our hearts—God refuses to write us off.  To those who despair of ever finding faith, Jesus says, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”  He extends his arms to everyone, not a select few, that anyone who desires may come (Revelation 22:17).



[i] Barrier, Roger.  “Does God Harden Hearts?”  http://www.crosswalk.com/church/pastors-or-leadership/ask-roger/does-god-harden-hearts.html.  June 29, 2017.
[ii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.
[iii]While I can’t endorse all his theology and methods, Jesse Morrell explains quite nicely how attributing this hardening to God is tantamount to the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  “Does God Blind The Eyes and Harden the Hearts of Unbelievers? Is this Predestination?”  Posted on July 31, 2013. https://biblicaltruthresources.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/does-god-blind-the-eyes-and-harden-the-hearts-of-unbelievers-is-this-predestination/.  June 29, 2017.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Radical Inclusion"


            In the early 1960s, racial tensions were at a great height, with sit-ins and demonstrations taking place around the country to protest segregation.  On May 6, 1960, President Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights act of 1960.  Under the new Kennedy administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed on in March of 1961.  In May of the same year, the first Freedom Rides took place in Washington, DC.  Violent white resistance in three southern states prompted President Kennedy to dispatch federal marshals to keep the peace.  It was in this turbulent year that Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) published his lovely little story, The Sneetches, highlighting the pointless artificial separations we create between people who are basically the same.


Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches
Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren't so big. They were really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, "We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches."
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they'd snort
“We'll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!"
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They'd hike right on past them without even talking.


            Star-belly Sneetches left Plain-belly Sneetches out of their children’s games, out of their social events, out of every aspect of life, insisting that Star-bellies were superior in every way.  When a salesman came to town, offering to put stars on Plain-bellies for only $3 each, everybody made the change.  But the originally-starred Sneetches complained because they wanted to maintain their superior status.  So, the salesman told them that it was no longer fashionable to wear stars, and removed all their stars for $10.  But then the newly-starred Sneetches wanted to be like the newly-plain Sneetches, so they had theirs removed.  And on and on it went.


Then, when every last cent
Of their money was spent,
The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up
And he went.

And he laughed as he drove
In his car up the beach,
"They never will learn.
No. You can't teach a Sneetch!"

But McBean was quite wrong. I'm quite happy to say
The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.[i]



            We’d like to say that history, or Dr. Seuss, or somebody, has taught us a lesson, but today it seems we have the same issues with who’s in and who’s out as we did in the early 1960s.  Some of the “in” people have changed, and some of the “out” people have, too.  Many of them have remained the same.  But society and churches still resound with voices of judgment and exclusion, rather than the radical inclusion taught by Jesus.

            In the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel, Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration (v. 20).”[ii]  Like many African-Americans in 1960s America, who wanted equal rights, opportunities, and access—Many Greeks in Jesus’ day wanted to be included in the religious practices of the Jewish people.  These “Greeks” weren’t necessarily from Greece; this was a nickname among Jesus’ people for Gentiles—anybody who was not Jewish.  These spiritually seeking outsiders were so attracted to the Jewish worship of God that they were willing to risk becoming social and political outcasts in order to find the truth.  So they came to Jesus’ disciple Philip looking for answers.

            Most students of most rabbis would have turned these Gentile seekers away, but Jesus was no ordinary teacher, and Philip was no ordinary disciple.  Nearly every time we see Philip in the Gospels, he is bringing people to Jesus.  First, he introduces Nathanael to the Master, and then he is one of two disciples involved in bringing the boy whose lunch would feed a multitude.  So instead of turning them away, Philip thought, “Perhaps Jesus would welcome even people such as these.”  Without another moment of hesitation, he told Andrew about it, and the two disciples told Jesus.

            It’s easy to picture Jesus’ welcoming face as He meets these spiritual seekers, these “outsiders.”  He trusts them by dropping truth about His own death and calling them to abandon all their false priorities in exchange for eternal life.  Then He says a radical thing: Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me (verse 26).”  In a land of Star-bellied Sneetches, Jesus told these Plain-bellies that they were acceptable too, without having to change a thing.  All that’s necessary is that they follow Him and serve Him.  Later, Jesus underscores this radical inclusion by saying of His own crucifixion, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself (verse 32).” In fact, in this same story, God speaks from the heavens and many in the crowd only hear it as thunder.  Only those with seekers’ hearts discern that something supernatural has happened—might these observant people have been the same Gentiles who came to Jesus?

            Paul echoes this radical inclusion when he says in Romans 10:12-13, “For there is no difference between Jew and Greek: The same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on Him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  In addition to ethnic or language differences, Paul adds gender and economic differences to those things that God cares nothing about (Galatians 3:28).  Romans 2:11 (GWT) says, “God does not play favorites”—and neither should we.  To God, Sneetches are Sneetches—people are people.  And when churches and Christian groups say, “all are welcome,” the should mean it—with no exceptions.







[i] Seuss, Dr. The Sneetches and Other Stories.  New York: Random House.  1961.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.  Underlined words are my own emphasis.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"Kingdom of Heaven"

                Leonidas, King of Sparta, was preparing to make a stand with his Greek troops against the Persian army in 480 B.C. when a Persian envoy arrived. The man urged on Leonidas the futility of trying to resist the advance of the huge Persian army. "Our archers are so numerous," said the envoy, "that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun."
"So much the better," replied Leonidas, "for we shall fight them in the shade.”.[i]

            It was this kind of hero that the people of Israel were looking for as they prayed God would send them a Messiah.  Someone with so much courage that he would stand against Roman tyranny and cast the oppressors out of the Holy Land.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of the people shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The people hailed a king, because they had seen much and come to the wrong conclusions.  You might mistake Jesus for a kingly candidate, too, if you had seen what they saw.  Because, like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, we often don’t see Jesus’ kingdom for what it truly is.

            For example, What if you took Jesus’ miracles, and instead of looking at them on a personal level, you applied them on a national level?  What if Jesus were running for President of Israel—I mean, if they elected leaders instead of declaring a king?  What would His platform look like?  That depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?  According to some in Israel, they expected that Jesus would:

  • ·         Provide bumper crops like He supplied a great catch of fish (Jn 21)
  • ·         Tax the fish instead of the people (Mt 17)
  • ·         Throw lavish parties with ever-flowing wine (Jn 2)
  • ·         Provide national healthcare (Mt 15:30)
  • ·         Set right all environmental problems (Mk 4:35-41)
  • ·         Feed an army just like He had fed the multitude (Mt 14, 15)
  • ·         Raise the dead (ensuring an unbeatable military) (Jn 11)
  • ·         Command legions of angels (Mt 26:53) for military and secret service
  • ·         Save them from the Romans (Jn 12:12-19)



But that’s not the kind of kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.  Though He often spoke in terms of God as King, and God’s reign as the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus meant something different by it than what His hearers understood.  They were looking for an earthly monarchy, but Jesus meant nothing of the sort.  In fact, Jesus’ policies would never work on a national level—and that’s one of the reasons the people ultimately turned against Him.  I mean, if Jesus’ Way were turned into law, there would be public outcry.  His agenda would include:

  • ·         Praying for your enemies, and doing good to them (Mt 5:44)
  • ·         Helping your enemies out when they’re in trouble (Lk 10:25-37)
  • ·         Lending, expecting nothing back (Lk 6:35)
  • ·         Practicing unlimited forgiveness (Mt 18:21-35)
  • ·         Putting other people first, and yourself last (Mark 9:35)
  • ·         Refusing to take up the sword (Mt 26:52)
  • ·         Welcoming strangers, feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick (Mt 25:31-46)
  • ·         Refraining from judging others (Matthew 7:1-6)


Nobody would win a national election with a platform like that!  Winners who are good at winning win by telling people that their group is the best, by teaching them how they can defeat their enemies, make a profit, win military victories—and they do so by reinforcing to people that they are in the right and everybody else is in the wrong.  But that’s not who Jesus was.  He didn’t come to rule the nation, but to be a role model for all who would follow Him.  He came not to conquer, but to die in order to demonstrate God’s great love.

The problem is that somewhere along the way—when Christianity went from being a minority persecuted by the Roman Empire, to the majority backed by a converted Roman Empire—religion and the throne married one another.  People were baptized not because they believed, but because it was fashionable and profitable and advantageous.  From that day, religion used the power of the state to enforce itself, and the state used the authority of religion to back its claims.  A new word was born: Christendom was the geo-political designation of all nations that claimed Christianity as the state religion.  People began to confuse the Kingdom of Heaven for every realm on the globe that claimed to be a Christian nation.  They forgot that Jesus didn’t come to establish kingdoms, but to reign in the human heart.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He didn’t gallop in on a white stallion, waving a banner and calling men to arms.  Instead, He came humbly, riding on a donkey.  When he stood beaten before Pilate, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36 NLT).”  Since Jesus said it from His own mouth, Pilate could see no reason to execute Him.  Jesus clearly was not an earthly King.  He did not come to challenge Rome or to change any human government.  Instead, He came to change people’s hearts.  Yet, Jesus’ opponents wanted to maintain their little kingdoms and power structures, so He was executed nonetheless.

Much like Jesus’ own opponents, Christians today get far too caught up in worldly kingdoms, and lose track of the true Realm of Heaven.  Some of our worldly kingdoms are political—like our egocentric belief that government should reflect Christian values rather than what’s good for people of all backgrounds.  Just like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who became too embroiled in the politics of Israel and Rome, Christians get too tangled up in the matters of this world, forgetting that “our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20 NIV).”  Other kingdoms are the little territories in our own lives that we seek to control, at work, at church, in our families, and in our other occupations.  We become possessive, manipulative, and deceitful, engaging in the kinds of intrigues one might normally expect from government officers and spies.  We fancy ourselves as heroes like Leonidas, rather than remembering that Jesus calls us not to be lions, but lambs.  Instead of fighting for our little kingdoms, or even for some idea of governmental Christendom, the Spirit of God calls us to model our lives after the One who saves through sacrifice.  Just like Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand, neither will the people around you.  But you’ll be living the life of a prince or princess in the Kingdom of Heaven.  You’ll be living a life of peace.






[i] Today in the Word, November 4, 1993.  http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/h/hero.htm.  June 15, 2017.