Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Dangerous Descent into Doctrine: Step Away, not Down

Please note: Today’s worldly strife is NOT of God! Yes, much of the fighting deals with religion, but God is not religion.
Many justify the destructive hatred and violence as God-ordained, God-directed, and God-orchestrated. They are wrong.
The Judeo-Christian creation story never mentions divine wrath or annihilation. No revisions. No rebuilds. The whole universe in its original condition earned God's pronouncement, “It is good.”
And when God created humanity in His own image, He reveled in his handiwork, bestowing nothing but blessings.  
Life. Water. Food. Everything "that was pleasing to look at and good for food." (Genesis 2:7-9)
Most significantly, God provided companionship, relationships based on love. While he labeled the rest of the cosmos good, the tie between God and humanity was supreme.
Then came sin, humanity's betrayal. Despite the pain, did God sever the relationship in a flurry of flogging, disembowelment and death by chigger bites?
Was there punishment?
Yes. But not not abandonment. Not destruction. Not divine hatred and retribution.
Instead of schmucking Adam and Eve with a brick as He could, God gave them a new set of clothes, exchanging their fruity patches of fig leafs for more durable garments of skin. 
Violence and the destruction of life eventually came, but not at God’s hand. As human jealousy and anger grew, God tried to head off the inevitable. 
He exhorted Cain, "Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It is desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it." (Genesis 4:6-7)
Still, Cain murdered his brother Abel. But even when he did, God did not break relationship with him. 
No capital punishment. No corporal punishment. Not even future condemnation to hell. In fact, God protected Cain from the violence of others. 
In fact, the first mention of vengeance in Genesis is not of God’s, but rather Lamech killing an unnamed man for some unknown crime. 
And the descent into doctrine began.
Like Lamech, people abandoned their relationship with a loving God and depended on recrimination rather than repentance.
Instead of accepting responsibility for sin, people justified themselves without consulting God, punishing others with a ferocity God never even visualized. Rather than turning to God for direction, they relied on doctrine and revenge.
And so mankind began a four-step descent of doctrine that led to the type of destruction we see today, beginning with the initial step of
Humanity's first creation chronicles succinctly and joyously pronounced God’s action and proclaimed our importance to Him. No detailed explanation of how and why. Just that it was and that it was good.
As sin became more prevalent and pervasive, however, humans recognized the need to control the unruly. Authority needed to be asserted, people thought, and if God wasn’t going to do it…. That altered description of God's nature––a human-tempered avenger––led to perverted human justice. 
Still, to lend credence to their savagery, mankind invoked God’s name and moved to step two of the descent into doctrine:
 Rather than highlighting God’s forgiving and protective reaction to the Fall, humans further disguised and warped His image, portraying Him as what modern skeptics call a savage, hate-filled "invisible sky wizard.” 
In God's wrathful name, humans eagerly unearthed the depravity in others and willingly ignored their personal perversion while slaughtering the heathens.
Unfortunately for them, God’s voice kept speaking annoyingly in their defiant ears, which necessitated step 3:
Easing––or rather, ignoring––mankind’s collective conscience required a speck of mental gymnastics and a whole mountain of denial. 
First, they had to disavow any involvement in the disintegration of society. This meant that they must embrace hypocrisy by selectively utilizing and ignoring the truths of history, science, and reality.
Secondly, they must deny the very composition of God, rejecting what they knew from the moment of their creation, that God is love.
Finally, to assert their singularity, mankind had to deny God's supremacy, by denying His very existence and relying on their own "wisdom and strength." 
All of which has led the world to the final step in doctrine's descent,
To some, the outbreak of war and violence today causes little concern. The incidence is limited in scope, they argue, and sure to end soon. 
But despite this wishful thinking, human behavior is as subject to the Laws of Nature as a feather in a windstorm.
When Sir Isaac Newton postulated his Third Law of Motion (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”), he did not simply clarify the physical universe; he exposed the human instinct to meet violence with further violence.
Unfortunately, the endless echo of retribution from competing doctrines, with the attendant devastation and death, can only truly end in one way––the permanent annihilation of the combatants.
Alternative plans
Which leads us to the good news. If mankind prefers to exist––and most people do–– particular remedies can be taken. 
First, reject violence as a solution to anything. Just stop. Violence has never ended violence in the past; it never will.
Second, reject any doctrine that embraces or even allows anger, hatred, and violence. However, most descend to this level and are better exchanged for the third and only real solution to the problem.
Accept the reality that GOD IS LOVE! And created us to be. Seek the relationship He always wanted to have with us…and for us to have with each other.
In other words, step away from the dangerous descent into doctrine and up to the rewards of relationship.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Grandpa's Notecard

Life gets hectic. 

Time is short. 

We need to go here. We need to go there.

We need more STUFF!

When the mind fumbles and jumbles with desires and inconsequentials, the wisdom of the past reminds us that the most significant contribution to our sanity is not the amount or monetary value of our possessions. It is a simple thing. Like an old, stained, and worn 3x5 notecard. 

Let me explain.

My late paternal grandfather was the most even-tempered man I ever met. He witnessed much in his 90+ years: Two presidential assassinations (McKinley and Kennedy), the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the development of air and space travel, the transformation of the Industrial Age to the Information Age...

The 20th Century with all its change and turmoil, both good and bad, had to be be mind-boggling and threatening  The opportunities and pressures had to tear at at even the strongest psyche. (And we of the 21st Century have difficulty deciding between Netflix or Hulu.)

Grandpa was noted for his quiet patience, his integrity, his perseverance, and his willingness to take on a challenge.  His talents and efficiency cast in many crucial roles at work and in his community. The secretary at First Congregational Church of Berkeley (CA), after examining the church archives, told me, "Your grandfather held every office in this congregation except president of the Ladies Aid."

Berkeley? You mean...?

Yes, that Berkeley. Berkeley, California. Home of the Hippie. The only city I have ever seen with an officially-designated "Drug-Free Zone." I always wondered how Grandpa maintained his calm demeanor and positive outlook on humanity living amongst the social upheaval and day-to-day struggles of existence in that Pacific Pandemonium.

Last night, I discovered one way.

In preparation of the upcoming Mega-Purge of 2014, my wife and I spent the evening digging through old family papers and pictures to cull the precious from the "What-were-we-thinking-when-we-kept-that?" Among the legal documents, the pile of canceled checks, and innumerable travel slides my grandfather had accumulated, we found a peculiar stack of 3x5 index cards. We understood that the other material explained his terrestrial lifestyle. We discovered that this collection of notecards exposed the foundation of his spiritual survival.

Each item in the stack included handwritten a maxim, Bible verse, prayer, or self-disciplinary exercise which Grandpa used for inspiration and direction. The most important thoughts, the ones to which he referred repeatedly, he wrote in ink. Others, the ones that corrected wording or expressed his immediate reaction, he quickly scrawled in pencil. 

The once bright-white cards had discolored unevenly, some to dark gray, some to a brownish yellow. The hard edges of the cards curled limply, worn soft from shuffling. On some the script itself had faded, smudged by intrigued fingers rubbing across the most important words, the ones read and considered, read and contemplated, read and memorized .

One card stood out among the rest. 

Ink and tea stained, this was the only one with a heading: "Tranquility––Serenity." Two simple words written large, taking up two of the now-barely-visible printed blue lines. One long curving streak of dark ink underlining them emphatically. 

Beneath the heading read this simple passage in carefully formed letters: "Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. Everything passes away except God. God alone is sufficient." 

Unlike the other cards, the handwriting here was larger, more legible. The only missing element was enough room to fully cite the source. This was not only uncharacteristic of the other cards, it was highly unusual for a man who meticulously labeled every book, every piece of furniture, every travel slide in his house before he died. Since the words were obviously most important, Grandpa obviously thought the speaker need only be known as a "16th Century mystic."

What Grandpa needed when he wrote this card was daily direction, plain words to reinforce his mental well-being, the assurance that "God alone is sufficient." That this promise was originally spoken by a Spanish nun (Sr. Teresa of Avila) was secondary. (For a complete modern translation, see the photo below.)

As indicated earlier, this notecard expressed the foundation of my grandfather's spiritual survival. Instead of accumulating fortune and stuff, instead of nurturing status and acclaim, he built on the card's assurance, cultivating relationships and exploring the vast beauty and mystery of God's world. Through the tragedies and triumphs of nearly a century of constant cultural chaos, four simple words comforted him, inspired him, molded him. Those four words ensured and enrich his legacy. 

I always knew words had power. I just didn't realize how much power could fit on a single 3x5 notecard.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

613 vs. 1: God's Transformed Law (Fundamentally Speaking) From Nuts to Soup

I've heard a lot of talk lately about getting back to basics of Scripture, living according to the fundamentals of God's Law, and avoiding God's fiery wrath and devastating judgement:
"Sin is death!"
"A blazing arrow is pointed at your heart!"
"No soup for you!"
...Oh, wait a minute. That's something else. 
God's will, we're told, is spelled out in the Old Testament, yet when reading the violent imagery of a vengeful Deity out to destroy all vestiges of sin, it's easy to become terrified, not just of God, but the demoralizing task of obedience. Especially when we're also told that a single transgression is sufficient to incur mayhem and fury.
For angelic spirits, observance may not be daunting, but for us puny, flesh-inflicted, finite human beings, the problem of the commandments is simple, yet profound: There are just too many of them! Enough to drive a person nuts.
According to Talmudic tradition, the Torah contains 613 commandments. 
613 fundamental laws to be strictly enforced. 
I can't remember how many wheels are on a tricycle!
Some rabbis insist that the actual number is not that high since history has prevented the observance of all 613, especially since the destruction of the Second Temple and a number of Israel-specific rules. However, even eliminating those few, there are still A LOT of commandments for "fundamentalists" to remember, let alone adhere to. 
And if only one sin is enough to condemn a person, there really will be "no soup for us."  
What to do? What to do?
Thank goodness for the New Testament where the teachings and life of Jesus supplies a perfect remedy: Take those 613 laws and smoosh them down into one. 
Not one sentence. 
Here's how it happened.
The legal scholars/rulers/doo-doo heads of Jesus's time decided to test his knowledge one day by asking a loaded question: "What is the greatest commandment?"
Surprisingly by today's standard,  he did not refer to any of the prohibitions about sexual conduct, cloth composition, or the consumption of shellfish. Instead, he replied, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
So why did I just say one word when Jesus said there are two commandments? Note that his two commandments have one common directive, the directive he preaches throughout the whole of his ministry: love.
Love God.
Love our neighbors. 
Love ourselves. 
Earlier in his teaching, he even said, "Love your enemies." (Matthew 5:44)
So basically...fundamentally...everything we need to know, everything we need to do, the only law we're called to obey, the one upon which all law is built, comes down to that one word: love. 
Thus, when we love, we follow God's Law. God's happy. We're happy. Life is wonderful.
When we don't, no soup for us.
That simplicity saves a lot of wear and tear on the cranium. Rather than struggling to remember each and every one of the 613 laws, before acting, we need only ask, "Is this love?"
I'm all for it. Being a true fundamentalist is a good thing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Great Light Bulb: Seven Reflections of Easter

This weekend, I discovered the answer to wandering aimlessly through the darkness of Life: TURN ON THE LIGHT! 
For too long, I’ve been observing Easter weekend the same manner: guilty and depressed on Good Friday, numb to the world on Saturday, and on Sunday all dressed up in spring colors with a smile plastered prominently on my face. I expressed and felt just what I was supposed to.
Following the same routine. Going through all the motions.
But this year, I found the light switch. Truth transformed tradition.
In the light of Good Friday services, the events of the Crucifixion and Resurrection shined for what they really are, not historical religious events, but glorious manifestations of God’s grace and love.
Before you cringe at my choice of nouns in that last statement, I realize that grace and love sound like Christian-ese. At any other time, I would agree with that characterization. However, I understand now understand why those words are so prominent in the Christian tradition. Easter morning only reinforced their appropriateness and intensified the awe and wonder of Friday night.
Since this weekend, seven impressions that originally formed while feeling my way through the darkness of a finite human brain solidified into shining reality:
1. First, the glory of the cross is not Jesus's death; it's His self-sacrificial love. For the first time, I understood––not with head-knowledge, but with heart-knowledge––WHY the Crucifixion took place. I always knew Christ died for me, but I thought He did it out of duty or compulsion. Instead, I now understood that His reason was to show the earth how much He loves us. No literary description or cinematic rendition can come close to capturing the horror Jesus experienced...OR the love that motivated Him to endure it.
2. The cross does not represent our guilt; it represents our freedom. As stated above, I've always been good at Good Friday, but looking beyond the gore and misery of the Crucifixion to marvel of Christ’s love revealed that besides sin being erased, so too was the guilt that accompanies it. Because of the cross, there is no longer any need to dwell on the wrongs of the past; rather, the opportunities of the now abound.
3. Jesus did not come to condemn; He came to rescue. For too long, the "righteous" have harangued "the sinners" with the specious claim "Because God hates what you do, He will destroy you and your evil." The speakers ignore the question, "Why then did Jesus die?" God's judgement and anger could have eradicated sinful mankind in the blink of an eye. Instead, He became a vulnerable human. On Good Friday, He bore our sins and suffered death for all of us. No hint of condemnation or vengeance. Just mercy. Mercy that rescues us from ourselves.
4. Jesus did not come to institute a new religion; He came to renew a relationship. These first three reflections have fortified my belief that religion separates us from God more than it brings us closer to Him.  Rules and ritual disguise the truth that Jesus stated when He encapsulated the whole  of Jewish law into two simple commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength....Love your neighbor as yourself." His crucifixion and resurrection meant to reestablish the affinity between God and man that existed before the Fall. Which brings us to the most essential truth of his ministry.
5. Jesus did not come to change our behavior; he came to change our hearts. As stated above, Jesus did not bring more ritual, liturgy, and commandments. He reduced our relationship with Him to one thing: loving. No ceremonies. No ritual sacrifices. No enticement of reward. No threat of punishment. Just unending, matchless love.
6. For every Good Friday (suffering), there is an Easter (resurrection). On Easter Sunday, our pastor reminded us of this Resurrection Principle: Life will bring trials and pain, try as we may to avoid them. But like Jesus, God will raise us above them. He does not impose anguish on us, but He can and will lift us out of the ashes, recreating us stronger, victorious, perfected.
7. Jesus’s resurrection was not magical. It was mighty. It was transformational. It was God being God. Those who doubt the existence of God often point to the Resurrection story as magical thinking and evidence of the gullibility of Christians. However, the power that can create a universe can also overcome any limitations of that universe. Yes, there is Natural Law, but the very existence of Natural Law is unnatural. It only exists at the discretion of the originating power which created it.
As life-altering as reflection can be, the previous ideas do not form the entirety of a new belief system, but they do provide light, light to step confidently and deeper into a relationship with the Creator. When one can see, there is so much more to explore and learn.
You just have to flip the switch.

Water upon Water: The Nature of God

In the Great Evolution Debate, someone always postulates, "We were all made in God's image."

I just have to say, "If God looks anything like me...Oh, boy." Not to pick sides or anything. 

Genesis 1:27 says: "God created humankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them." (New English Translation)

In confirmation class, that verse always led to the argument, "Which was it? Male or female?"

The boys stomped their feet and blustered, "Male!" The girls countered with reddened cheeks and threatening snarls, "Female." 

Years later, I discovered the answer was neither. It was most accurately and definitely, "Yes."

That is not a snarky quip or contrary response. Seriously. In John 4:24, Jesus describes His Father thusly: "God is spirit..."

Spirit. Funny thing about spirit. It has no physical form. Look all you want, there is no there there.

While at first that idea is intimidating, on second thought, it is a liberating concept.

Without physical form, there is no gender. Hence, God exists beyond the limitation of words like male and female. God simply is.

See? "Yes" wasn't such a goofy answer after all. In fact, it leads to other conclusions about the nature of God.
For example, just as God exists without gender, as spirit, His appearance and personality are unencumbered by race and ethnicity. 

To illustrate: As a youth, future author James McBride, asked his Jewish mother, "What color is God?" 

Considering the daily conflict her son faced in his primarily black school in Brooklyn, she contemplated carefully before arriving at one of the most profound answers ever: "God is the color of water."

Beyond appearance, it is also important to realize that without tangible shape to restrict its movement, spirit is not confined by natural borders. Therefore, God also exists beyond national identity,  even beyond planetary designation. Because God is spirit, it is easy to understand why there is no place one can go where God is not.

So it is important to remember God is not human. Neither man nor woman. Not black, white, nor Asian. Not American, Italian, nor Norwegian. Not earthling, Vulcan, nor space wanderer.

Nor are we humans God. We have many of the same attributes, but it is important to realize our finite limitations.

We can develop and invent, but we can never create something from nothing. We can like and dislike, but we cannot judge and condemn. For all of our abilities, creation and judgement are God's roles alone.

So back to the evolution debate. How are we humans like God? How can we be described as "in His image"?

Definitely not physically. Right now, there are over 7 billion human bodies that are constantly changing––growing, shrinking, maturing, deteriorating. As every member of AARP knows, despite our best efforts, our bodies will grow flabby and old. It's difficult to imagine an old and flabby God.

No, God did not give us bodies to replicate Himself, but to house His true image––our spirit. 
God's image does not exist in the mirror or in any portrait. It exists in us. It exists for us. 

Like a flowing river, God's image is never still, never old. It is beyond shape and description. It  is spirit, a water that simply runs over and through us, cleansing us, invigorating us, and nourishing us.

Water upon water. God's image in us. No debate. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

No Clinging

It is difficult to let go of the comfortable and venture into the unknown. However, each new morning, each new opportunity, each new encounter is rife with possibilities unrealized until we heed God's invitation. Inherent in every sunrise, blessings await. Accept them. Treasure them. A glorious future awaits.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Remind Me, Lord

When I search for you 
In the breadth and depth of the ocean,
I forget You are the ocean.

When I search for you
On the mighty mountaintop,
I forget You are the mountain.

When I search for You
In the rolling clouds,
I forget You are the sky.

I forget You are
around us,
through us.

I forget You are
Then, now, forever.
Remind me, Lord.

When I forget,
I am blind.

When I forget,
I am deaf.

Blinded and deafened,
I deny.

I drain.

Drained empty,
I need.

I need
Your filling. 

Fill me soul.
Fill my life.

May I not forget.
Remind me, Lord.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Religious Freedom: Feeding the Aardvark

"...love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law." – Galatians 5: 22-23

Let’s pretend you have a friend with a really weird sense of humor.
How weird?
For your birthday, he doesn’t give you a pair of gloves, tickets to see Justin Bieber, or even an NCIS sweatshirt. No, instead of something useful, he gives you an aardvark.
An aardvark! 
A living, breathing, slobbering aardvark.
Plopping a modified traveling kennel with a big red bow on top into your hands, your friend smiles and says, “Here. This is Alfie. Take care of him. You’ll love him. He already loves you. I can tell.”
Peeking inside the cage, you see a sub-Saharan burrowing animal with a snout and tongue the length of a garden hose. He's kind of cute, but not really.
You glance from the aardvark to your friend and ask, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
Your friend hands you a three-page pamphlet entitled, “Fun with Aardvarks,” and says, “Whatever you want. By the way, he’s hungry.” 
He slaps you on the back, grins and leaves. He leaves you. On your own!
What do you do?
Realize however you act is a matter of religious freedom. Yours and the aardvark’s.
"Religious freedom?!? Are you nuts?" you ask.
The answer is yes, but bear with me. I just ate a salad and am feeling analogous today.
So it's you and the aardvark left in an apartment in downtown McKeesport, PA. He's kind of a cute animal, certainly not out to cause you any problems. 
You shrug and smile, thankful that your friend thought enough of you to grace you with a unique companion. Philosophically, you decide to get along with the animal, but there are obviously major hurdles to establishing a relationship. First of all, food.
On page two of the pamphlet, you find an article “Feeding the Aardvark,” where you find that the entire diet of your new roommate is ants, termites, and a form of cucumber found only in southern Africa. 
Your diet consists of Hamburger Helper, mac & cheese, and a inordinate amount of multi-frosted sugar cookies decorated by a three-year-old.
What to do?
You could feed the aardvark what you eat, but he wouldn’t like it. In fact, it would probably make him sick. You think you have problems with a healthy aardvark? Try living with one experiencing gastrointestinal disorder.
You could let yourself be so disgusted with the idea of eating ants that you silently reject your friend's gift, drive it to New Mexico, and abandon it on the highway outside Carlsbad, leaving it to its own devices.
Or you could let aardvarks be aardvarks, let him consume what he does, and learn to live with him.
Your choice. Your freedom.
Here's the moral of the story: Feeding the aardvark is a dilemma we humans face every day.
A friend (God) has left us in a world of humans of every shape, size, and habit imaginable. Like it or not, some of us are "dogs," some are "cats," and some are "aardvarks." (I'm not calling people dogs, cats, and aardvarks. It's a metaphor!)
We differ by looks, lifestyles, religions, and tastes, but we are all humans. So we have to make a choice in how to live with our fellow creatures. 
We could compel them to conform to our habits and beliefs with the distinct possibility that our efforts will prove counter-productive and harmful not just to the aardvark, but to ourselves as well.
We could refuse to have anything do with the aardvark, pretending he does not exist. We could simply ignore him and hope he goes away.
Or we could let aardvarks be aardvarks. After all we share the same planet. Rather than fighting about who's best or who's most deserving, we could accept our differences and learn to love the aardvark for who he is.
We could claim the first two alternatives as our religious right, but accepting either of these choices is to ignore the aardvark's rights.
This is not only unfair to the aardvark, but detrimental to us as well.
It is important to remember that to get along, even enjoy each other, we do not have to like ants and termites like the aardvark. The aardvark does not have to like Hamburger Helper or mac& cheese like we do. But maybe…just maybe…if the two of us can accept our differences,  we can learn to eat African cucumbers and the aardvark can learn to eat sprinkle-encrusted sugar cookies. 
This third alternative allows us to still be ourselves. It also allows the aardvark to be an aardvark. Everybody lives in harmony.
We’re happy. The aardvark is happy. Our friend is happy.

Religious freedom is a good thing when everybody is allowed to have it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Prayer for NOW

On our recent trip to Phoenix, my wife and I encountered one of the most unique Christian ministries we have ever seen, that of Paisley Yankolovich. 

On a porch in downtown Glendale one January night, Paisley played an acoustic concert and took Christian music places we never imagined it could even exist. 

From the initial sound check, it was obvious this was not Michael W. Smith. This was not Chris Tomlin. This was...Paisley Yankolovich. A man in wig and lipstick sharing pain and anguish in words and music that redefined the word fringe.

Our initial response was nervous laughter, followed by gaping mouths and confused grimaces.

Then we listened. We listened and we heard. We heard what was really behind this man's method. We heard the message.

Wails and scrams that moments before cried "Radical," bitter words that stunned and unnerved, now spoke truth and love. 

And we knew. 

This was not some extremist hungry for attention. Yes, the clothes and the voice were still the same, but now amidst the shocking and frightening performance was the reality of the hope and beauty of the Cross. No longer a wild-eyed fanatic spewing venom, this man preached and taught the grace of God.

Meeting with Paisley after his concert, we learned the depth of his commitment to ministry. We learned that through one of the most painful times any person could endure, he remained steadfast in his faith. The show was more than show to him. He believed. And he lived what he believed.

In quiet conversation later in the week, we learned that the three of us shared the same priorities, if not the same methodologies. Paisley's dedication to sharing Christ with EVERYBODY, regardless of their past or present, their pain or position, reminded us what life's journey is truly all about: Loving others as Christ loved and commanded us to do.

Doing so may not be comfortable, it may not be easy, but it can be done.

Paisley showed us that.

This prayer resulted from our meeting:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Passionate Destination

When life feels pointless, some people believe, as the George Harrison song says, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." As we flounder through life, our destination is unfocused, the road unclear. Still, we look for clues, for hope in the nothingness. At these times, it's important to realize that the destination we seek is actually seeking us. When we grasp that, when we realize the seeker and the sought have the same goal, getting passionate about the journey is pretty easy. And pretty wonderful.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Final Task

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, we only have one small job to take on: 

What do you think?

The Nature of God: Love vs. Vengeance

Some questions never go away, even when you think you have them all figured out.

After three days of relative certainty about the meaning of life, our place in the universe, and the importance of separating M&Ms by color in order to fully enjoy their subtleties, I found a friend's challenging status on Facebook this morning:

To my Christian friends: How can you say that God does not bring pain or suffering against people when there are tons and tons of examples in the Bible of God bringing pain and suffering against people? Throughout the Bible He judges people and brings against them all kinds of hardships. Also, you cannot say that is Old Testament so it doesn't matter. God is the same yesterday and today, right? Yes, Jesus was sacrificed for our sins, but how could God, being just, judge, destroy, and bring judgement upon those who lived before and yet we get off scot-free? If God knew that he was going to sacrifice His son either way (which being omniscient, He did) He would have done it before allowing generation after generation to be judged so harshly. It is not just to judge all the people who lived during the Old Testament one way and then judge us another.

All I can say is, "GAH!!!" This post raises many of the same questions I have struggled with forever and had successfully ignored or suppressed from my memory. Thanks a lot. 

So let's go back to the beginning. Last week, I asserted my belief that there is a God. Today, I'll take one step farther and say that I believe in the Christian God...although not in the same way many Christians do. Here is my take on the issues raised above. How accurate my perceptions are is open for debate and I fully invite comments and/or correction.

First, I want to look at the statement "God is the same yesterday and today." Most assuredly, God is the same as He ever was, but Man is not. The more I read the Bible, the more I realize that God is desperately trying to reach us and return us to the loving relationship He had with us before the Fall. Unfortunately, the Old Testament is rife with examples of Man's misinterpretation of what God is trying to do.

Remember, God did NOT design the universe simply to antagonize His own creation. The whole of existence could be summed up in one word: Good. Pre-Fall there was no Law. There was no conflict. There was no evil. Only love. 

Love. That is God's true nature. The only word to describe Him. In short, "God is love!" 

Pre-Fall there was no talk of reward and punishment (heaven and hell), only peace with God. Pre-fall, Adam and Eve did not live in want or fear, only in a loving relationship with the Creator.

The Fall, Man choosing to play God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, demolished all that. What didn't happen afterward is telling of God's nature and displays His overarching love. He could have eliminated Man. He could have obliterated the serpent. He could have eradicated all of his creation and begun again. But He didn't. 

By Man's fallen, or Post-Fall, reasoning, He should have. But He didn't.

Because of his new-found, fallen point of view, Man portrayed God as smacking His lips just waiting for the proper time to inflict His wrath and vengeance. Self-serving Man blamed every military and natural disaster and justified every bloodthirsty and barbaric deed on "God's Will." And for thousands of years, we all bought into this portrait.

But today...? I'm not buying it.

Why not? Because that representation of God does not comport with the reality of God who became human, endured the suffering and shame of the Cross, and died for us. An embracing God who would do that when He could have simply blotted out our entire existence is not a God of anger and retribution. A gracious God who would do that is not a God waiting to throw us into the fiery pit of hell. No, a God who would do that is a God who wants to rescue us from ourselves. That is a selfless and all-loving God.

In an effort to get closer to this loving God, I took up a Bible-reading program. Recently, however, the prescribed readings, particularly in First and Second Kings, have driven me nuts. Chapter after chapter, I screamed, "These people were crazy! How...? Wha...? HELP ME!!!"

I guess all you have to do is bellow with multiple exclamation marks.

In church Sunday, the pastor told us to read everything in the Bible realizing that everything in it points to Christ and Christ crucified. The suggestion opened my eyes to a new reality: All those Old Testament stories that confused me are not pointing to the nature of God, but to the nature of Man. They are not tales of the way God wants things to be; rather, they are pictures of the way fallen Man is. What those stories reveal is not a savage and vindictive God; rather, they show a flawed and fallen humanity trying to justify its own actions.

In fact, everything bad that happens, then and now, results not from God's vengeance and judgement, but from Man's rebellion against a loving relationship with God. In other words, from Man's Mutiny, not God's Gotcha. 

Like the questioner above, I too once thought of the New Testament as a major shift in God's character. I was wrong.

 Christ's grace is not a sign of God changing, but is the culmination of the love that He has always had for us. It was like Him saying, "Okay, you've had enough trying things your own way, right? Here. Try mine."

Unfortunately, we don't understand simplicity. We still try convoluted methods of living our own way, trying to be good enough, condemning other who are not like us, striving for some reward that has always been ours if we would only take it. 

In regard to the questioner above, the point is not that WE get off scot-free while somebody else doesn't. The point of the Cross is that everything is free! The struggle is over. Done with. No mas. ALL sin is defeated. Not just ours. Then. Now. Forever.

Does that mean there's no evil? No suffering? 

Judging from the nightly news and the irrational behavior of Justin Bieber, Mylie Cyrus, and New Jersey traffic studies, no. But what evil persists does NOT come from God. 

Jesus's sacrifice and commandments -- love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, love your enemies -- trump all Old Testament regulations. He loves us without condition. Not if we do something. Not when we do something. Just because. 

That's all. He simply does. 

We should love the same way without asking what do we get out of it or what happens to us if we don't. Simply love.

How do we learn to do this in the midst of all the confusion caused by our fallen personalities? The key, as stated earlier, is to view everything in the Bible guided by the lesson/example of the Cross. 

God is love. That's it. Always has been. Always will be. 

Anything else is Man perverting that fundamental truth. A truth that extends across time and celestial geography.

And it's free. Good deal.

That said, let me add one further comment: Tough questions like these are not to be feared but are to be embraced. They refine our faith, bringing us into closer relationship with the Almighty. Discussion reveals our needs, our errors, and eventually the truth. I repeat what I said at the beginning: Feel free to join in.