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.