Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is God Violent?

On Saturday, a gunman killed one person and injured three more at a Passover service at Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, California.  Last October, eleven people were killed and seven injured at a mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.  This was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.  Crimes against Jewish worshipers are certainly on the rise.

But that's not all.  On March 15 of this year, Christchurch, New Zealand mourned as its Muslim community came under attack.  "The attacks began at the Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton at 1:40 pm and continued at the Linwood Islamic Centre at about 1:55 pm. The gunman live-streamed the first attack on Facebook Live. The attacks killed 50 people and injured 50 others."

In addition to the Jewish and Muslim communities suffering violence, Christians are under the gun.  On November 17, 2017, a gunman killed 26 people and injured 20 others at First Baptist Church.  "The attack was the deadliest mass shooting in Texas and the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the United States.  It was the deadliest shooting in an American place of worship in modern history, surpassing the Charleston church shooting of 2015 and the Waddell Buddhist temple shooting of 1991."

Of course, none of this is new.  These are but a few examples in recent memory.  Down through time, faith-based violence has always been a huge theme in human history.  All you have to do is read the texts of sacred literature from around the world and learn that religions have been at the center of violence, either as perpetrators or as victims, since the dawn of time.  But recently, such violence is on an upswing.  On March 15, 2019, WJAC's Crispin Havener wrote:

Violence against religions is as old as time, but studies have shown that in the past decade worldwide, the number of incidents have spiked upward
According to Pew Research Center, in 2018 more than a quarter of the world's countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes. That’s up nearly 10 percentage points from a decade ago and affecting virtually every religious group: with Christians, Muslims, and Jewish groups the most targeted.
In the United States, the FBI says hate crimes reports were up about 17 percent in 2017, the last year data is available, marking the third straight year it's increased. Specifically, religious based hate crimes went up 23 percent in 2017 from 2016.

The upturn in religious brutality leads to the question: Is God violent?  Our answer will determine whether we condone or condemn such atrocities as the shootings in mosques, churches, temples, and churches, or whether we believe someone is justified in bombing abortion clinics.  And what about violence that is not physical?  If God is violent, then faithful people have license to engage in hateful diatribes against believers of other faiths, and against nonbelievers.  Suddenly, gay-bashing isn't such a bad thing, if it promotes a stricter adherence to religion.  But it God is a God of love, we have to denounce violence perpetrated in God's name.

For most of my Christian life, I've had a hard time grasping biblical passages that depict God as either directly violent (e.g. the Great Flood), commanding violence (e.g. the Jewish conquest of Canaan), or endorsing violence (e.g. prophets calling down curses on their enemies).  I've asked myself, "Could a God of love really be violent, ask people to commit violence, or support violence?"  If the answer was "yes," then God became a scary, mean, capricious person in my perspective.  But if the answer was "no," then that called into question the integrity of the scriptures that made such claims about such a seemingly violent God.  I've struggled with this for years, going so far as to do my own lengthy study of the topic myself--with no good solution.

Recently, I finished reading Greg Boyd's Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence.  While I can't agree with a hundred percent of what Boyd says (I have yet to agree with 100% of what anybody says, I did find his overall perspective compelling.  In a nutshell, Boyd takes the position that God is love.  God's most perfect expression of that love is Jesus, and specifically the self-sacrificing, nonviolent love that is expressed by a Savior who is willing to be killed on a cross rather than to take divine anger out on his enemies.

1 John 4:7-12 (NLT) says:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Jesus was very clear that the most complete understanding of God can be found by looking at the Savior.  When the disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replied:

Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:9-12 NIV)

To see Jesus is to see the Father.  This means that the character of Jesus is the very character of God.  Jesus was the one who refused to call down legions of angels to defend himself (Matthew 26:53).  When Jesus' disciples asked for permission to call fire from heaven to destroy those who rejected the Gospel, Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:54-55).  Not only is God nonviolent, but Jesus says that God's people must also be nonviolent, doing the same works that he has done.

If this is the case, you may ask, what does Greg Boyd do with all the cases of violence in the Bible that God seemingly commits, orchestrates, orders, or condones?  While Boyd affirms the divine inspiration of the Bible, he denies that every story is accurate in its depiction of God or God's will.  For example, when God drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, or when God commands the Hebrew invaders to kill the men, women, children, and livestock in a particular village, Boyd argues that the biblical record renders not what God really did or commanded, but the primitive conception of what God did.

Boyd is aware that biblical literalists will accuse him of misrepresenting who God appears to be in the Bible, making God out to be who Greg Boyd wants God to be.  But Boyd simply points to Jesus, saying, that the Savior is the true character of God, and that any depiction of God that falls short of nonviolent, self-sacrificial love is only a shadow of God God is, and falls short of being a true description of God.  Then, Boyd does something fascination with the picture of Jesus on the cross, that explains how the Bible could contain misunderstandings of who God is.

On the cross, Boyd says, God stooped to being misunderstood.  While God is a God of truth, God allowed the divine nature to be so misunderstood and misrepresented as to submit to crucifixion between two thieves.  Jesus allowed himself to be identified as a sinner, even though he never committed a sin.  Just as Isaiah 52:14 describes the Suffering Servant as being so abused and scarred that he no longer appeared human, Jesus allowed himself to be so misrepresented to the extent that he didn't even appear to be God.  On the cross, the nonviolent God was willing to be identified with violence so that God could identify with humanity, and we might know God.

Boyd suggests that this is exactly what God was doing by allowing people to misunderstand the divine character, identifying God in ways similar to other near eastern warrior deities.  In order to have a relationship with humanity, God was willing to be misunderstood in the short term so that in the long run, Jesus could lead us to a full understanding.  Boyd contends that every passage of scripture that depicts God directly committing violence, commanding violence, or condoning violence, is an example of God condescending to be misunderstood by violent humanity, just as Jesus condescended to be misunderstood on the cross.

While many will say that this view denies biblical authority, Boyd contends that understanding scripture in this way allows us to read the Bible not as a science or history textbook, but as a narrative of humanity's misunderstanding of God, coming to a climax with Jesus' redemptive death on the cross/.  To believe that Old Testament depictions of God are more true to God's character than the loving, nonviolent, and self-sacrificial depiction of God that we find in Christ is to elevate the Bible over the witness of Jesus himself.  Boyd suggests that any biblical passage that depicts the character of God in a way that seems contrary to the character of Jesus himself must be reinterpreted in the light of Jesus' love.  He says that the best way to understand this is to see that God is willing to be misunderstood and misrepresented as violent, in order to stoop to our level and eventually through Christ lead us to a more perfect way.

Perhaps this is a new concept for you--it certainly was a new idea to me when I read Boyd's book.  I encourage you to read it for yourself and see if it helps you to deal with the subject of divine violence in the Bible.  Personally, I feel sick over the religious violence that is all too prevalent in the world.  It's important that we answer the question, "Is God violent?"  How we answer that question will determine not just whether God is violent, but whether we ought to be as well.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Holy Sites Aflame

I have to admit that I was shaken when I heard about Notre Dame burning in Paris.  My earth quaked even more when I heard about the Al Aqsa Mosque catching blaze in Jerusalem, on the same night.  Now, I'm not the type of person to read signs and find omens in everything, but I have to admit that I was a bit unsettled that one of the most recognizable churches in the world caught fire the same night as the third holiest Muslim site.  No, I don't believe God made it happen, and I don't think the sky is falling.  But it did give me pause, and remind me of a few sayings of Jesus.

Image of Notre Dame Cathedral, Royalty-Free

The first is the Lord's reminder that good as well as bad things happen to everybody.  In Matthew 5:45 (MSG), Jesus says:

This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.

Some religious people on "their" side might call us nasty, and label themselves nice.  Alternately, some might want to think that burning buildings are tragic for "our" side, but are God's judgment for "their" side.  But Jesus is clear that "stuff happens" to everybody.

I also think of the words of Jesus, when a Samaritan woman asked him which was the best place to worship.  John 4:19-26 (MSG) says:

“Oh,so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?” 
“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. 
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.” 
 “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”

Image result for al-Aqsa mosque royalty free
Image of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Royalty Free
While it's tragic that these fires destroyed or damaged holy real estate, perhaps we would do well to remember that God is bigger than brick, higher than the spire of Notre Dame, and more encompassing than the lead-colored dome of Al Aqsa.  God isn't concerned with where you worship, but how you worship.  Jesus invites worshipers to seek God in spirit and in truth.  

Wherever you are, and whatever religion you belong to, I hope you'll pray for worshipers with ties to both holy sites.  And I hope you'll be less concerned with outward forms and locations of worship than you are with inward expressions of spirit.  

Peace be with you.

Saturday, April 13, 2019


Sometimes ya just gotta unfriend somebody.

Now, that might not sound like a very nice thing to say.  After all, didn't I just blog about loving unlovable people?  Yes--I did.  But loving people doesn't mean you have to be everybody's friend.  

That may sound unkind, unchristian, and unpastoral to some people who might read these words.  But the Bible says there's "a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing (Ecclesiastes 3:5 NIV)."  So today, I unfriended someone.  I decided it was time to break the embrace.

Not that it was much of an embrace, anyway.  This person was a Facebook friend with whom I haven't had any real contact for years.  At one time, they were part of my social circle, but they were the kind of person that you're friends with simply because you feel it's your "Christian duty."  They need something, and it's in your power to give, so you give.  You've had folks like that in your life too, I'm sure.  This person was someone who I had frequent disagreements with, whose outlook is quite different from mine, and with whom friendship was more situational than soul-based.  And today, that person ticked me off just a little too much.  So I unfriended them.

No, I'm not going to go into the details.  But I've been realizing lately that I don't need a thousand Facebook friends.  When I was pastoring churches, I used to say yes to almost every friend request, because, "Hey, I don't even know them, but they live in the same community, and they might need a pastor!"  The truth is, I lacked proper boundaries.  Nothing in my job description said I needed to be everybody's friend.  And now that I'm not in the pulpit any longer, I realize that not only is being everybody's friend NOT in MY job description--it's not ANYBODY'S "Christian duty."  John 2:23-25 (NI|V) says:

Now while he \(Jesus) was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.  He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.

Jesus knew that not everybody was trustworthy, and that while some people were worthy to be part of his inner circle, he didn't need a thousand Facebook friends any more than I do.  Facebook has only been available to the public since 2006--but long before "unfriending" became a word, God modeled setting proper relationship boundaries.  When people refused to behave in friendly ways toward God and other people, God removed the blessing of divine presence and favor.  Recently, I've been reading Boundaries: When to Say Yes and How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend.  I've also been reading Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don't Like Christianity by Wolsey.  Both authors talk about God distancing divine presence and favor from people who act in unfriendly ways towards God and others.  So I've taken God's cue and done the same thing with this person who crossed my boundaries.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not advocating disposing of sacred, special, dear, and important relationships like real friends and family.  But if you're honest with yourself, you'll have to admit that there are some people in life that were never really friends anyway--folks who you're better off without.  Today I created some breathing space in my life by being a bit more authentic in a really peripheral relationship.  Maybe you need to decrease your Facebook friends list, too.  Even if I'm the one you decide to drop, if your life has more breathing space, it's probably a good decision.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

When They're Hard to Love...Love Anyway

Some people are hard to love, aren't they?  As soon as you read that sentence, you probably brought somebody to mind--somebody who has mistreated you, ignored you, used you, betrayed you, or hurt you.  Maybe this person is even in the circle of people that you call friends and family--those people who are closest to you.  This makes the damage even worse, because they are supposed to treat you well, and yet they don't.  Perhaps, despite your best efforts, despite your peace offerings, despite yourself-sacrifice, they continue to be selfish.  They continue to not only disrespect you, but they treat others terribly.  Yes, these people are hard to love.

But loving someone isn't a feeling that happens to you.  Love is a choice.  Being IN LOVE certainly is a feeling--a powerful one that you feel for somebody who's easy to love.  We usually think of being in love as a romantic feeling, but I think you can feel that same kind of strong love for people besides your significant other.  For example, you can be in love with your own kids or grandkids--so overwhelmed with love that you see their beauty and perfection all the time.  But as beautiful as being in love is, it's different than choosing to love someone who's hard to love.

I want to suggest that when you choose to love someone who's hard to love, you're loving the way God loves.  That's agape, or unconditional love.  In his Bible paraphrase, "The Message," Eugene Peterson renders Jesus' words in Luke 6:32-38a as:

If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that.  If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that's charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.  "I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You'll never - I promise - regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we're at our worst.  Our Father is kind; you be kind.  "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults - unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don't condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you'll find life a lot easier.  Give away your life; you'll find life given back, but not merely given back - given back with bonus and blessing.

With the words of Jesus, I want to encourage you to choose to love people who are hard to love.  Those people for whom your love doesn't naturally flow.  Those are likely people who are different from you are.  Or people with whom you have a bad history.  Or people who have offended you or hurt you or treated you as irrelevant in their own lives.  Choose the way of agape, the way of unconditional love.

I leave you with the words of a poem that is probably falsely attributed to Mother Theresa.  Even though, I doubt that she wrote them, they are good words, anyway.


People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.  
Love them anyway. 
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.  
Be kind anyway. 
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and true enemies. 
Succeed anyway. 
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  
Be good anyway. 
Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable.  
Be honest and frank anyway. 
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  
Build anyway. 
People need help but will attack you if you help them.  
Help them anyway. 
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  
It was never between you and them anyway.

Friday, April 5, 2019

An I for an I

Where does the phrase "an eye for an eye" come from?  Most people would quote Exodus 21:23-25 (NIV), which describes an injured person's right to retribution against someone who has harmed him:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Many Bible scholars point out that this law was not written to encourage vendettas and vengeance, but to limit vindictive aggression.  Instead of killing the person who bruised you, you're only allowed to bruise him back.  But people who cite the book of Exodus as the original source for this phrase probably don't know that it dates further back than Moses.  According to

"An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."
This phrase, along with the idea of written laws, goes back to ancient Mesopotamian culture that prospered long before the Bible was written or the civilizations of the Greeks or Romans flowered.
"An eye for an eye ..." is a paraphrase of Hammurabi's Code, a collection of 282 laws inscribed on an upright stone pillar. The code was found by French archaeologists in 1901 while excavating the ancient city of Susa, which is in modern-day Iran.

In a 2016 article entitled "Trump's Favorite Bible Verse," Noland D. McCaskill wrote about one presidential candidate who was very fond of this concept:

Donald Trump’s favorite Bible verse involves an “eye for an eye,” he said Thursday.
WHAM 1180 AM radio host Bob Lonsberry asked the Republican front-runner if he had a favorite verse or story from the Bible that’s impacted his thinking or character.
“Well, I think many. I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think many. So many,” he responded. “And some people—look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us.”
“And they laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country,” he continued. “And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”

Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi, the renowned teacher of nonviolent resistance, is well-known for his different perspective.  According to Quote Investigator, Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."  Of course, Gandhi was echoing the teaching of Jesus, who said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Gandhi's point, and Jesus' point too, is that you can't solve the world's problems by meeting aggression with aggression, insult with insult, offense with offense.  When we act this way, we put ourselves first and others last.  When I behave like this, I forget that my neighbor and I are one.  So I suggest an intentional misspelling of Gandhi's famous phrase, to help understand what it really means:

An I for an I makes the whole world blind.

I stands for ego.  It stands for me first.  When two people contend with each other, this ego is blind to the needs of that ego.  The other ego can't see the perspective of its adversary, precisely because it has placed itself in an oppositional position.  Our problem is that we want to stand toe to toe with others, naming them our enemies rather than recognizing them as people who need our help.  Our problem is that we blame others for our problems rather than taking a look at our own responsibilities.  Jesus had something to say about this.  I beg your latitude as again I change the word "eye" to "I," so that you can see the point clearly:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s I and pay no attention to the plank in your own I? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your I,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own I? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own I, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s I (Matthew 7:3-5 NIV).

Here, the I is the probem.  The ego is the issue.  When my ego finds fault in another before taking stock of my own errors and flaws, I have made myself better than my neighbor. When I let my bruised ego get so hurt that I feel justified in wounding another, I have sinned not just against them, but against myself.   Let's be better than that.  Instead, let's be people of vision, people of the light.  Because an I for an I makes the whole world blind. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Have Patience

At this time, there are two young women in my life who are expecting babies.  My daughter Lydia is looking forward to the birth of her first child in April.  Christina's one-time foster daughter Bri is due any time now.  As we eagerly await the birth of these two little ones, it's easy to get impatient.  Maybe you can identify, because you've been waiting for something good to be "birthed" in your life as well.

This morning, for no reason at all, Christina started to sing this song that she remembered from her childhood:

Then, as I sat down to have my quiet time, the assigned scriptures in my devotion were:

Hebrews 6:13-15For example, there was God’s promise to Abraham. Since there was no one greater to swear by, God took an oath in his own name, saying:
“I will certainly bless you,    and I will multiply your descendants beyond number.”
Then Abraham waited patiently, and he received what God had promised.

Psalm 27:14Wait patiently for the Lord.    Be brave and courageous.    Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.

Hmmm...with all these things hitting at once, maybe God is trying to tell me something.  Do you have trouble with patience, like I do?  Has God been bombarding you with a message, through life events, through scripture, through music?  Maybe if we take time to wait patiently, we'll hear what God has to say.

Comment below if you'd like to share how God has been speaking to you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Fix Your Thoughts

Today in a case managers' meeting, we took turns standing up and sharing uplifting stories about people we had gotten housed, or positive things about our coworkers.  Each of these things was represented by a house sticker or a "thumbs-up."  These are just a few of the reminders that good things are happening around here.  I was especially blessed because one of those thumbs you're looking at represented the inspirational quote board that I keep at my desk, and change daily.  It made me smile to know that something I've been doing has made a difference for others.  

This got me thinking about all the times that I'm having a hard day, finding it difficult to find something positive.  Inevitably, God puts someone in my path who says something encouraging.  Or maybe there's a sunrise that I find uplifting, or a scripture I read in my quiet time that inspires me.  I'll be it's the same for you.  Even on the worst days, there's something to lift you up.  It's a matter of choosing where your focus is going to be.  Are you going to choose the things that bring you down, or choose the things that make you rise above the circumstance?  The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:8 (NLT)

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

In this translation, Paul says, "Fix your thoughts."  This probably means "keep your thoughts," but I'd suggest that if your thoughts are broken, fix them.  The truth is, life doesn't bring us down.  We bring ourselves down when we decide to focus on our troubles rather than focusing on positive things.  Keep your mind on things that build you up, and build others up.  And maybe, while you're at it, share those good things with others to brighten their day.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Don't Kill the Messenger

We've all heard the expression, "Don't kill the messenger."  Usually it's said by someone who is bringing you bad news, and they don't want you to take your anger out on them.  Of course, this comes from a long tradition of king doing just that--venting their frustration about bad news on the person who brought it.

If I'm honest with myself, there are probably times in my life when I have done just that.  No, I didn't pull a trigger or swing a sword, but I've definitely taken my frustrations out on those who didn't deserve it, just because they were telling me something I didn't want to hear.  Haven't you?  

Image result for head of john the baptistIn Luke's Gospel, King Herod did just that--he killed the messenger.  John the Baptizer was a prophet who not only foretold the coming of the anointed one who might threaten Herod's reign (Herod was a puppet king under Roman authority), but John also criticized Herod's decision to marry his own brother's wife.  Long story short, John's critical message ended up costing him his head.  Luke 9:7-9 (NLT) says:

When Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, heard about everything Jesus was doing, he was puzzled. Some were saying that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others thought Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets risen from the dead. “I beheaded John,” Herod said, “so who is this man about whom I hear such stories?” And he kept trying to see him.
When I read this, I've got to ask the question--if Herod thought Jesus was John raised from the dead, why would he keep trying to see him?  Maybe he realized that he'd loosed his anger on the one person who was being the most honest with him, and he regretted it.  Maybe, after realizing his mistake, he wanted to hear more of what this messenger had to say.

When God speaks to us, we often stop our ears, not wanting to hear what's being said.  When others are critical of us, we want to kill the messenger.  But maybe the people who are the most difficult are also the people God has sent into our lives in order to teach us the lessons we don't want to learn.  You can kick a person out of your life for telling you a hard truth, but chances are that if it's something God is trying to tell you, another messenger will pop up and give you the same message.  That's what happened to Herod.  And maybe, just maybe, when he was seeking out Jesus, it's because he had enough sense to seek out the source of his frustration instead of running from it.

What message has God given you, that you didn't want to hear?  How have you avoided, ignored, or even been nasty to the people that God used to convey that message?  Here's a hint:  If you don't like the message you're hearing, learn from it so God won't have to keep repeating the lesson.  

Here's a secret not everybody knows:  I took Algebra 1 four times.  I passed it with a D the first time in high school, but figured I couldn't build on that kind of poor foundation.  So I took it a second time and passed with a C.  Then, my freshman year in college I tested into Algebra 1.  I decided to take a self-paced, self-taught class, and (wouldn't ya know), because I didn't like it, I didn't do well.  So I had to take it a fourth time.  Maybe if I'd paid attention to what Mrs. Hodges taught me the first time I took it, I'd have learned and moved on. Instead, I made excuses.  I killed the messenger, saying, "This teacher is terrible!  She's confusing!  She doesn't care if I learn or not!"  But I was wrong.  Not only was she my teacher, but she was also my friend's mother and cared about me very much.  She took time out of her own schedule to help me after class.  But I didn't listen.  Instead, if I'd focused on what I needed to learn, I'd have had much better success.

Do you find you're getting the same lesson over and over again, just from different teachers?  Maybe it's time to crack open your textbook, turn on your listening ears, and learn.  Don't kill the messenger who brings a hard truth in life--they might just be your greatest teacher.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Only Thing That Matters

What do the following things have in common?

  • Eating certain kinds of meat
  • Not eating meat at all
  • Drinking wine
  • Not drinking wine
  • Being circumcised
  • Not being circumcised
  • Touching blood
  • Not touching blood
  • Spanking your children
  • Not spanking your children
  • Having children
  • Not having children
  • Getting married
  • Not getting married

The Answer:  At some point in history, ALL OF THESE things have been seen as religiously wrong by some people, and for some people.  For example, the early church debated on whether it was wrong to eat meat if the animal had been sacrificed to an idol.  Some said it was participating in idol worship, and others said, "No--it's just meat."  For Nazirites (those who had taken a holiness vow), it was wrong to drink wine.  But some rituals for both Jews and Christians require the consumption of wine.  In the Bible, certain religious workers were required to touch blood, and they were considered holy.  Yet, other people were deemed unholy if they came in contact with blood.  These kinds of things leave a religious person in a complete quandry.  It seems that good and faithful people disagree on what ought to be basic rules of the faith.

Some Christians say that acting like Jesus means being nonviolent, especially towards children.  Others say, "Spare the rod, and spoil the child."  In the history of the church, some believers insisted that being circumcised was the only way for a man to be holy, yet others insisted it was of no value, and even that the practice should be abandoned.  For two thousand years, the church encouraged most people to get married and have children, yet there were two groups of people expected to live a celibate life: those who were ordained, and those who were gay (But you'd better not be both of those things!).

All of this leaves religious people scratching their heads, wondering what they should do.  It seems we've become very good at double standards.  Jesus had the right answer when he said that there are two rules we need to follow: love God and love your neighbor (Luke 8:27).  All the rest is details.  The apostle Paul put it this way, "If you are a follower of Christ Jesus, it makes no difference whether you are circumcised or not. All that matters is your faith that makes you love others (Galatians 5:6 CEV)."  

If you really want to be daring, you can insert your favorite religious squabble by saying, "It makes no difference whether you are _______ or not.  All that matters is your faith that makes you love others."  I had some horrified religious people when I taught a class on the book of Galatians, because it's one of the most irreligious of New Testament books.  They were upset because religion is all about following rules, keeping quotas, and making God happy by what we do or what we refrain from doing.  But radical spirituality says that the only thing that matters is not rules.  It's your faith that makes you love others.

Are you a religious person?  Are you a spiritual person?  Are you hung up on rules, or do you want a relationship with God that works itself out by loving people?  That's the only thing that matters.  And Jesus said if you love God and people, you've kept the entire Law.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Abandoned Camps

A couple of days ago, while riding with the Homeless Outreach Team, we came across a couple of abandoned camps.  There are several reasons why a person might abandon their camp.  They might have been arrested.  They could have teamed up with someone who has better equipment, and abandoned their old tent.  Unfortunately, they could have died or disappeared altogether.  Or, they could have gotten housing, and left behind the gear that they no longer needed. In this last case, an abandoned camp could be a reason to celebrate, rather than a cause for fear, alarm, or sadness.

Not to be morbid, but this makes me think of my own death.  There will come a time when I will give up this tent I'm living in, because there's a better house waiting for me.  When I'm ready to occupy that mansion, I'll have no reason to stay behind, or even hang onto this used up frame.  So I'll kiss it goodbye and fly to my new home.

In 2 Peter 1:13-14 (NIV), the apostle Paul writes:

 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,  because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 

He also says in 2 Corinthians 5:1 (NIV):

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

When it comes to those I love who have passed from this life to the next, I have a choice.  I can look at their earthly tents and grieve that they aren't here anymore.  Or I can thank God that they've found a new home that is far better than the encampment they left behind.  Instead of sorrow, I choose joy.  And I hope it's not too morbid for you to think about the day when your tent wears out.  One of these days, we'll all abandon camp.  I hope that when you do, it's because you've gone to a better home.  

Thursday, March 14, 2019

I Love You More Than Ice Cream

Today when I got home, I got this in the mail:

Since I moved from Virginia to Washington State in December, I have talked with my grandchildren on the phone, and I have Skyped with them.  Today, I received the letter pictured above in the mail.  If I've got this right, the group of three on the right is (right to left) Daddy (Joe), Eli, and Jonah.  Then the group in the middle is the girls in the nuclear family, Mommy (Emily) and Josie.  Then the group on the left is me (Papa) and Nina (Christina).  Looks like everybody's smiling and waving.  At the top, Eli (almost 6) wrote, "Dear Papa, I love you more than ice cream."

What a sweetheart!  He made my heart melt, just like ice cream!  I'm going to put this picture on my wall and when I get down, I'm going to look at it, breathe, and smile.  I'm going to reflect on the boy who loves me--on fishing and playing and snuggling and reading and laughing together.  And I'm going to let that warmth seep from my soul to my bones and energize not only my spirit but my body as well. 

See, I believe that the body and soul are connected, and when I nurture my spirit it's good for every cell in every system of my physical being.  I believe I'm made to love and to be loved--and that love sustains me.  Letters and pictures and gifts and mementos are like batteries that store love energy, to be used at a later time.  But the great thing is that those batteries never run down.  So I like to fill my space with things that remind me of those who love me, and those I love.  These things energize me.

You probably do the same.  But you might not think of it in quite the same terms.  I invite you to think of each bit of memorabilia, each note in scrawled handwriting, each photograph of a family member, as a meaningful connection to love.  If you feel down, negative, discouraged, attacked, confused, depressed, lonely, frustrated, or any of these negative emotions that can wreck your thoughts and emotions--surround yourself with reminders of love's presence in your life.  Then let love fill you like electricity.  Let it energize you, and bring you into the presence of Peace.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.(Philippians 4:8 NLT)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Sense of Entitlement

Have you lately encountered anybody who feels entitled?  Entitlement is a feeling that you deserve good things because of something special that you have done or because of something special that you are.  I've heard older people complaining that "young people today" have a sense of entitlement.  I've heard those who have plenty accusing those who have less of feeling entitled to a handout.  It seems that "entitlement" is a buzz word these days.  But I find it's also the people who are in a position of privilege who resent it when those who aren't in power begin to feel that they deserve something.  I want to ask, "What about the entitlement of the elite--those who feel that they're better, simply because they have position and power--and that because they're better, they deserve even more?"

In Luke's Gospel, a foreign officer came to Jesus the Masger to heal his servant.  He was was well-off, powerful, and carried the authority of the sword and Roman eagle.

When the officer heard about Jesus, he sent some respected Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his slave. So they earnestly begged Jesus to help the man. “If anyone deserves your help, he does,” they said, “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us (Luke 7:3-5 NLT).”

This officer was wealthy enough that he funded the building of a synagogue.  The people felt he was entitled to a miracle because of his wealth, which had resulted in his prominent and public gift.

Over the decades that I pastored churches, I encountered people who had a sense of entitlement when it came to God's favor.  They felt that they deserved God's blessing because they'd given generously to the church.  Maybe they'd put a steeple on the building, paved the parking lot, or built an extension to the campus.  Others felt entitled because they'd served the church faithfully and selflessly through the years.  Some felt they deserved blessing.  Others felt they deserved recognition and power.  But God prefers humility and a tender spirit.

It turns out Jesus did heal the centurion's servant--not because he was good, but because Jesus was good.  And that's a point to remember, the next time you feel a sense of entitlement creeping up in your own spirit.  Humans operate on a principle of what we earn and what we deserve.  God operates on a principle of grace.  Grace means God gives because of the overflow of God's generosity and love.  To be a person of grace means that I receive God's blessing knowing that I haven't earned it.  And then I care for people not because they deserve it, but because they are children of God.

Entitlement grasps to gain and hold.  Grace holds loosely, with open hands because it trusts in the goodness of a bountiful Love.  Today, I choose to remember my place.  I choose to be humble.  And I choose to receive and give God's blessing to others, which is a free gift, and never earned.  I hope you'll choose the same.

"I think I might not die now."

Nick (not his real name) was homeless until recently, when he moved into his new apartment.  He's been living in his vehicle and barely surviving for years.  Medically fragile, Nick describes himself as likely to die due to lack of housing.  And his doctors agree.  For people who rely on livable temperatures, shelter from the elements, and medical equipment that uses electricity, housing can mean life.  I am blessed to work for an organization that believes in "housing first."  What that means is, once a person's housing is taken care of, suddenly their medical needs and expenses and expenses go down.  Their mental health improves as they find themselves less vulnerable to attack.  They become less of a candidate for the emergency room or for the back of a police car.  When we help put people into livable housing, life gets better.

Today as Nick sat at my desk, I asked him how he was doing.  "Great!" he said with a smile.  "I think I might not die now."  It feels good to know that I'm working with a group of people that has helped save Nick's life.  That one sentence from his lips made my day!

In the New Testament, Jesus' brother James writes: 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17 NIV).

Whether you see homeless people on a regular basis or not, you probably have the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life every day.  What you do with those opportunities will reveal what's in your heart.  Do you claim to be a person of faith?  Then put some action behind your claims.  Don't just give lip service--give a piece of yourself to make another person's day better.  You may discover that you've saved a life without knowing it.  Maybe, because of some small gesture you've made, someone will say to you, "I think I might not die now."

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Communion Crosses Borders

Today, during Communion (Lord's Supper, Eucharist), the pastor made the point that when we take the body and the blood of Christ, we are connecting not only to God, but to all the saints.  In churches around the world, one of the things that unifies believers is this regular observance of Communion.  Throughout church history, Christians have shared this simple meal of bread and wine (or grape juice) as a sacrament or ordinance.  No wonder that since I moved 3,000 miles away from home, Communion has been a powerful moment for me. 

I've felt God's power dramatically for the past three months, worshiping and sharing the Lord's Supper at a church in Canada.  I've been brought to tears, remembering the church of my childhood.  I've felt nostalgic for the churches I've served as pastor.  But at the same time, those simple taste memories have brought a sense of community and family here in this new place.  I've heard God's gentle whisper, even across the border, saying, "These are my people."  

What's true for me is true for you as well.  If you're a Christian, then when you share Eucharist, you are not just observing a sacrament with your local congregation.  You're connecting with all believers in every nation.  You're touching all Jesus' followers of all time.  For the past two thousand years, this tradition and act of mystical union have been passed down to us.  So when you take the bread and wine, I hope it's more than a powerful taste memory for you (as it is for me).  I hope it's a connection with something greater, and with Someone greater.  Who knows--maybe the next time I take the bread and cup, I'll be sharing it with you, even from miles away.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Setting Up a Sacred Place

Here's a picture of the space where I work.  It can get pretty hectic around here, dealing with clients who are at the most stressful point in their lives.  That's why it's important for me to create some breathing space where I work.  One of the things I've done is post motivational phrases, as well as pictures of my family, on my walls, and at my desk.  I also have a message board that I can change every day, right in the entrance to my work space.  I change the message every day, with a different inspirational line or few.  My desk is at an intersection in the office, so the area gets a lot of traffic, and the message board gets a lot of people who stop and read it.  It's kind of a small sacred place that I've set up, right in the office.

In Genesis 35, right in the middle of chaotic events, Jacob has an experience with God.  To mark that sacred place, Jacob sets us a pillar and anoints it with oil.  This became a marker where generations who came after him could stop and remember that God was still speaking, and that God still cared.  It was a stone at an intersection, a message board at a crossroads in Jacob's life and in the lives of those who went to that place for inspiration.

What sacred places do you have in your life?  Do you have a place of worship, or a trout stream, or a mountain, or a favorite chair in your living room, where you can go to meet with God?  Do you have a way of marking your own private space as holy, to remind you that even in the middle of chaos, God is still speaking, and God still cares?  I encourage you to take some time to create some sacred space in your life where you can find peace, and share that peace with others.

"Breathing Space"

When I was a kid, my brother and I were always wrestling with each other.  We didn't actually fight much--our goal was to see who could pin the other down and dominate the other.  Being the youngest, I generally lost.  To this day, I can't stand to watch professional wrestlers put each other in choke holds, or pin their opponents in ways where they don't have room to breathe.  Sometimes, when life seems like it closes in or gets oppressive, I feel stifled, choked, like I just need some breathing space.  That's when I try to step away from the situation and just breathe.

Working with people in crisis, I often find that clients come into my office filled with anxiety and fear.  Much of that is, honestly, merited, given the traumas they have gone through.  But nothing can be accomplished when stress remains at such a high level.  Often, I ask clients to pause and breathe with me.  They find that this helps--not only because their body needs oxygen, but because returning to their breath means focusing on that which is most basic.

Your breath is the most basic thing in life.  It's what makes you alive.  Genesis 2:7 says that God breathed into Adam the breath of life, and he became a living being.  That same God is breathing on you today, filling you with energy, filling you with Spirit, inviting you to inhale the goodness of God's presence.  When life stresses you out, don't forget to breathe.  And in that breath, find your peace.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

It's 2019--and I want some EGG NOG!

When I was a kid, my family would go to a New Year's Eve party every year at the home of my dad's best friend from high school.  We kids would play together, ring in the new year, and enjoy all the food and drink--at least, the drink that we were allowed to have.  Every year, we were told that we weren't allowed to drink the egg nog.  For the longest time, I didn't understand why--only that it was a "grownup drink."  So I came to associate egg nog with being a grownup.  

In this New Year, I'm asking myself what I would like most in 2019.  At 46, I've decided that I want to be more grownup--that I want some EGG NOG!  Rather than resolutions that say "I'd like to do this or that this year," I've simply decided I want to drink more from the following six character traits.  I want to be more...

Ecumenical.  Along with my move to the Pacific Northwest comes a move from the Southern Baptist Convention.  I find myself surrounded by churches and denominations I've never heard of.  It seems I don't fit very well into the religious landscape--and that's okay.  Being ecumenical means that I'm not Baptist or any other sect--I'm simply a follower of Jesus.  Being employed outside of full-time ministry means I don't have to tow any denominational lines that I might disagree with.  It means I can embrace all that is good from the entire Christian family.  Ephesians 4:5-6 (NLT) says, "There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all."  By becoming more ecumenical, I recognize that just as God is greater than I can imagine, so is God's family.

Maybe you want to be more ecumenical this year as well.  It doesn't mean you have to give up on your church or denomination.  It doesn't mean you compromise your beliefs.  It means you're willing to invite others to a bigger table.

Generous.  James 1:27 (NLT) reminds me that faith is not something to have, it's something to put into practice.  "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you."  Working with homeless people, I have a daily reminder of how fortunate I am, and how many are in serious need.  I have a serious problem with the common phrase, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."  I know that people use that expression to mean, "I could be in that position myself, if it weren't for God's grace."  But that aphorism suggests that the people whose struggle is so great that it merits your comment are somehow outside the grace of God.  Before you post your #blessed, think how smug it makes you sound to the very people you're comparing yourself to.  This year, I want to develop the kind of personal generosity that not only gives financially to those in need, but the kind that gives the grace of God to others.  God's grace isn't something that separates me from the less fortunate--it is something that connects me to them.  It's something that commands me to be as generous with others as God has been generous to me.

If you want to be more generous this year, consider first a change in attitude.  A generous attitude isn't one that throws coins at a beggar--it's one that sees the beggar as no different than yourself.  It's a willingness to throw your arms around that person and accept them as an equal.  Only from such a position can you be truly generous--financially, and otherwise. 

Gentle.  Philippians 4:5 (NHEB) says, "Let your gentleness be known to all people. The Lord is near."  I have to admit that sometimes, when I get irritated, it's hard for me to be gentle.  But God's nearness provides everything I need to access the gentle spirit of Jesus and be gentle myself.  God is not far away from me, and neither is the gentleness that God asks of me.  In fact, God doesn't ask me to be anything that God doesn't provide.  So, receiving God's gentleness means I can reflect it to others.  Being gentle means being "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (James 1:19 (NLT)."  Lately, I've been reminding myself to be a better listener, and less of a talker.  Simply practicing this results in being angry less often, because I've found my understanding increasing as I actively listen to others instead of focusing on what I'm going to say next.  Maybe you'll find the same true for you.

Do you want to be more gentle this year?  Gentleness is one of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).  If you're a Christian, ask the Holy Spirit to plant seeds of gentleness in your heart.  Cultivate these seeds by active listening, and watch them grow.

Novel.  Though I written novels, I've never found a publisher who wanted to publish them.  But the word "novel" means more than a fiction book.  It means "creative."  Novelties are original things that stem from the imagination, and inspire more creativity.  God's inventive Spirit crafted canyons, designed dragonflies, set the stars in space.  The incredible thing is that God created humanity in God's own image, which means you and I are gifted with the same amazing novelty that God has.  I want to be more creative in 2019--which means I need to take the time to ponder, reflect, and imagine.  Then I need to implement what my heart generates--whether that's writing or other inventive ideas.

Maybe you'd like to be more novel this year.  One way to do that is to keep a journal of all the ideas you have.  Whether you think they're ingenious or silly--write them down, without judging them.  Sometimes the strangest of ideas is also the most brilliant.  By keeping an idea journal, you can treasure things that God gives you in your heart, pondering them until you bring them to fruition (Luke 2:19).

Open-minded.  I think that the more I judge myself and others, the less ecumenical, generous, gentle, and novel I become.  Withholding judgment doesn't mean that everything's okay--it just lets God be the judge instead of trying to put myself on the throne.  When I make myself the judge, then I put myself in God's place--and that's a dangerous thing to do.  Instead, I remind myself that I'm not called to judge; I'm called to love.  And all of a sudden, the world opens to me and becomes a beautiful place.  I can have a conversation with the Sikh man I see at the store, or with the trans woman I work with, without fear of their differences. In fact, I welcome the differences, understanding that these people make me richer for knowing them.  By letting God be God, I find that I'm free to let them be them, which allows me to be me.

If you want to be more open-minded this year, try this: Every time you're tempted to pull back from someone because they're different from you, just say this to yourself-- "God has not called me to judge; God has called me to love."  I began doing this a couple of years ago, and it has made a huge difference in my relationship with God, my relationship with others, and my understanding of myself.  Remember, "For God so loved the world..." means that God wants you to love the world, too (John 3:16).

Genuine.  In 2019, I want to be more genuine.  This might be hard for some to understand, but I'll dare to say that my shift from being a pastor to being a social worker allows me to be more genuine with people.  If that sounds wrong to you, it's because you've probably never been a pastor.  Unfortunately, pastors are all too often governed by other people's expectations, to the degree that they can sometimes be less than genuine about who they are and what they think.  In an attempt to be "all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)," they often lose themselves.  It's no surprise, then, that the people that Jesus chides the most are the religious leaders who are less than genuine.  He takes a whole chapter (Matthew 23) denouncing hypocrisy.  So, rather than trying to be something I'm not--or rather than pretending I think something I don't, just so I can tow a denomination line or look good to someone else--I think I'll try to be more genuine in 2019.  I've got to ask myself who I care more about pleasing--God or people.  Proverbs 29:25 (NLT) says, "Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting the Lord means safety."  It's better to trust the Lord for the righteousness that only Jesus gives by grace, than it is to fear the judgment of people, and put on a pseudo-righteousness that doesn't fool anybody.

Do you want to be more genuine this year?  It's as simple as this--forget about what people expect of you, and focus on what God expects of you.  You'll be amazed that it's easier to please God than it is to please people, anyway.

Maybe I wasn't wrong to associate egg nog with being an adult.  But I think the kind of EGG NOG I've talked about above will mature me far more than anything I could drink.  God wants us all to "mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ Himself, who is the head (Ephesians 4:13b-15)."  I'll pray for your New Year's resolutions, if you'll pray for mine.  But I hope that yours are more about becoming the kind of person you need to be this year, than they are about some checklist of things to get done.  And I pray that the God who began a good work in you would be faithful to complete it.