Monthly Archives: November 2013

How Easy It Is to be Deceived…

In church yesterday we got into a discussion about deception and discernment, and about how sometimes ideas that are not from God tend to seem like they are, tend to seem full of love and peace and power all the right adjectives, when in reality they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. In reality, they are elaborate lies designed to keep us lulled in a life that isn’t truly what God wants for us.

That discussion has been on my mind since then. I think that these sorts of things are easy to say and believe, but it is quite another thing to think about them concretely and wonder in what ways deception is at work in our own lives, and dare I say it—in our own churches!

Thinking on these things reminded me of an experience I had several months ago. I had gone home for a weekend, and Sunday morning my family went to church, as usual. I attended the same Sunday School class I used to attend when I lived at home. I knew the ladies who attended the class moderately well. One lady in particular had been a part of the church for a long time, and she was extremely sweet and wise and compassionate—just the sort of person you’d love to spill your guts to in a moment of crisis, or have as a mentor in your life.

I don’t remember the topic of discussion that Sunday, but I do remember that we went off topic and started discussing other things. Controversial things. And then…this sweet lady who has always had the kindest of dispositions started talking about Romans 1. She started talking about how gays and lesbians are not welcome in this church, because God’s Word says in Romans 1 that their lifestyle is perverse and sinful.

To this day I wish I’d said something, I wish I’d stuck up for my LGBT friends. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t really because I was too afraid. I’ve become accustomed to challenging the status quo, and I would have spoken up except for the fact that I was reeling in shock. I was utterly speechless. I couldn’t believe that this lady, who was always so sweet and kind, loving and gentle…would say such venomous things about those who identify as LGBT.

My point in sharing this story is not to demonize this woman. I’d still say today that she is one of the sweetest ladies I know. My point is to illustrate that even the most terrible deception can come from the mouth of someone you least expect. I never would have thought that person would say words that hurtful. But she did. Even the kindest of souls, the ones who seem most in tune with the will of the Father, can be deceived in unimaginable ways. In the moment, hearing that in the church I’d spent so much of my life attending was shocking. But in retrospect it is sobering, because I realize how easy it truly is to fall into the trap of deception and be led astray by ideas that are not of God.

In the future, I’m going to try to be more aware of that, and continually examine my own heart and remain open to the guidance of the Father.

Shane Claiborne, David Platt, and True Charity

Last summer, I read David Platt’s book Radical for the first time. If you aren’t familiar with the book, the gist of it is that David is challenging us to rethink how we live our lives and use and value our money, based on the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. He refers to verses like Matthew 19:21 and Luke 18:18-22 to basically say that we’ve got to let go of our materialism and start trying to live like Jesus did. I didn’t like the book very much, and I couldn’t really put a finger on why except to say that reading it filled me with guilt instead of conviction, paralyzing shame instead of a desire to change the world by changing the way I live in it. And I wasn’t sure whether my own heart was to blame for that, or if the ideas in the book were.

Right now, I’m reading a different book: The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. On the surface, it’s message seems to be the same. Jesus hung out with poor people all the time, and we should care about social justice and ending poverty. We need to rethink how we value, spend, and save our money. As I read it, I even found parts that echoed David Platt’s sentiments almost identically. Consider these excerpts, pulled from each book:

“We’ve been very careful at the Simple Way never to claim that we have the corner on the market for “radical Christianity.” Nor have we even tried to spread a brand or model. And the incredible thing is that the stories of ordinary radicals are all over the place, stories of everyday people doing small things with great love, with their lives, gifts, and careers. I heard about a group of massage therapists who spend their days washing and massaging the tired feet of homeless folks. Some manicurists told me they go to old folks homes and ask which old ladies have no visitors or family, and then they sit with them, laugh, tell stories, and do their nails…There are lawyers who bail us out of jail, advocate for human rights, and go with us before zoning boards that have no categories for understanding how we live. The examples are as numerous as the number of vocations. But the calling is the same: to love God and our neighbors with our whole lives, careers, and gifts.” ~ The Irresistible Revolution (source)

“When I sit down for lunch with Steve, a businessman in our faith family, it’s obvious we have different callings in our lives. He’s an accountant; I’m a pastor. He is gifted with numbers; I can’t stand numbers. But we both understand that God has called us and gifted us for a global purpose. So Steve is constantly asking, “How can I lead my life, my family, and my accounting firm for God’s glory in Birmingham and around the world?” He is leading co-workers to Christ; he is mobilizing accountants to serve the poor; and his life is personally impacting individuals and churches in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe with the gospel.

Steve and others like him have decided that they are not going to take the command of Christ to make disciples of all nations and label it a calling for a few. They are not going to sit on the sidelines while a supposed special class of Christians accomplishes the global purpose of God. They are convinced that God has created them to make His glory known in all nations, and they are committing their lives to accomplishing that purpose.” Radical (source)

So what is the difference between the two? I was trying to figure this out, because at first I thought it was because Shane’s life experiences give so much more weight to his words. In college he and a group of friends stood by a homeless community as the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia tried to evict them from an abandoned cathedral. He spent a summer in India with Mother Theresa, caring for and learning about love from lepers. He had stories, and I believed him when he explained that living among and serving the poor opened his eyes to the heart of Jesus in a way nothing ever had before.

As I continued to mull over these two men’s books and the difference in my reaction to them, I realized that it went even deeper than the difference in life experience between the two men. Because really, God can use you wherever. We aren’t all called to the slums of India. Some of us might become David Platts who pastor mega-churches and talk about living a radical life for Christ even if we never leave the U.S.

What stood apart in Shane’s book, what reached into the core of me and infused me with a desire to love as Jesus commands us to love, is that Shane pushed not just for charity, not just for helping the needy. He writes,

“When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.” Charity wins awards and applause but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for living out of love that disrupts the social order that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.”

And:

“We are not a voice for the voiceless. The truth is that there is a lot of noise out there downing out quiet voices, and many people have stopped listening to the cries of their neighbors. Lots of folks have put their hands over their ears and drown out the suffering…it is a beautiful thing when folks in poverty are no longer just a missions project but become genuine friends and family with whom we laugh, cry, dream, and struggle.”

Wow. Powerful. And that’s where David Platt fell short for me. I felt like his book emphasized charity, but didn’t have much to say about solidarity in the way that Shane describes it here. Blurring the lines between rich and poor looks a whole lot more like the Gospel of Jesus than just wiser money management, alms-giving, or even living out a vocation that plays a part in helping the least of these (all of which both David Platt and Shane Claiborne support, as evidenced from the excerpts I shared from their books earlier in this post). And this is why I felt convicted by Shane’s book—because he reached into the heart of the matter, the heart of why poverty exists at all. It exists because we, the rich, the privileged, find it so easy to keep the poor at arm’s length. But when we get down into the slums with them, we’ll realize…they are also made in the image of Christ. They are also worthy and treasured by God. They deserve dignity too.

In closing, I wanted to share this blog post with you. It’s beautiful. And it just rocks my world when the story of this agnostic blogger feels so very much closer to the heart of what Jesus desires of us than what my own life has been. It’s high time I change that.

Reflections

It’s been about a year since I let go of religious doctrines that I had never truly claimed in my heart. The journey has been a rocky one, full of tears and anguish, full of joy and eagerness. There have been ebbs and flows. Times when I felt I was drowning in an immeasurably good God, times when I genuinely doubted that God is good at all, and times when I felt overwhelmed with pressure to figure out what God wants me to believe about Him. For the first time, I’ve realized that my perception of God is not ironclad because I draw it from the Bible, and that my perceptions color my reading of God’s Word just as surely as they color everything else.

I’ve had moments where I believe what I want to believe, because I’m tired of denying what my heart tells me is truth. I’ve had moments when I wonder if I ought to believe anything at all, unless it’s something that God actually comes down and tells me explicitly is true. I think sometimes that this is the only way I could ever know truth. In all, my search for truth has often felt like a never-ending maze. A maze which, when I turn a corner,  I find about a dozen more options, a dozen more paths to choose from.

In the midst of all this, though, I’ve also discovered in a very profound way what it means to put my faith in God. When I don’t know the answers to all of the hard questions, it suddenly becomes a lot more important to trust in the goodness of God. When my own eyes see dark and blurry and confusing images, the light of God’s love feels so much brighter and clearer. When I refuse to pin my idea of God down with a particular theological belief, my mind is freed to imagine the immeasurable, immutable, mystifying nature of my Father in heaven.

Trying Harder Isn’t What It’s All About

This afternoon I reread an article on the Redemption Pictures blog, and it got me thinking about the relationship this writer draws between sin and doubt. It’s so easy to accuse those of us who struggle with doubt for doing so because we’ve embraced sin in our lives (in this example, sexual sin). But it’s just a lot more complex than that. I relate so well to Micah’s story. because I’ve pursued purity and righteousness all my life. Yet I’ve always felt the need to earn God’s favor.

Micah writes,

 “As a teenager, I literally thought I could chart my “spiritual health” on a line graph, with my only data point being how many times per day I snuck an eager glance at the lingerie section of a J.C. Penney catalog. I believed that the sum total of my relationship with God could be measured by my ability to control my sexual urges. Of course, this was a ludicrously flawed approach to spirituality.

If young people today are hesitant to turn to God, it’s not because “His opinions on sex are restrictive”. It’s because they think that following God is primarily about morality, about “not having sex”. It’s because they see Christianity as a list of beliefs to accept and sins to avoid. It’s because, despite all the right teaching and doctrine, it’s so often just about “trying harder”.”

Read the rest of the article here. It’s a wonderful read.

So how should we approach this? How do we live lives that are more Christlike without falling into this soul-sucking trap of always feeling like we have to try harder to avoid sin and win God’s favor?

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that, but I think it starts with understanding that your identity is not based on your own merits and your own ability to avoid sin. Because, let’s face it, who among us is really capable of living a stellar moral life on our own? Instead, if we start with the foundation of God’s boundless grace, we are not shamed into trying harder to avoid sin. Instead we are driven by love to imitate Christ—not because we are trying to earn His favor, but because our hearts desire to demonstrate our love for Him.

I am reminded of that beautiful passage about the power of love in I Corinthians. The first few verses, especially, relate so powerfully to the futility of trying to earn the favor of God by good works. I mean, my goodness, if martyrdom itself is meaningless without a foundation of love, what does that say about yours or my strivings for righteousness?

 “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I Corinthians 13:1-3

The Nature of Fallenness

This past week, I got into a bit of an argument online about good deeds and faith and Christian love and all that jazz. The person I was debating essentially quoted Matthew 5:48 (“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) to make the point that we must strive for holiness in our lives. While I think this is absolutely true, I also expressed my thoughts that this idea really needs to be supplemented by Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9, which says, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Basically, living a life of righteousness–pursuing “perfection”, so to speak—is kind of a pointless endeavor in light of the truth of what it means to be a Christian. I mean, I’ve done that my whole life. I’ve gone to church, I’ve tried my hardest to speak graciously and develop positive friendships, I’ve done my best to pursue the will of God in my romantic relationships, I’ve taken the Bible seriously and sought to live out its precepts. But all this pursuit of holiness, all this striving to live rightly has never, for a moment, made me feel closer to God. And I don’t think it’s because I haven’t tried hard enough. I think it’s precisely because I have tried.

Being in a relationship with the Father isn’t about trying to do more or be more. It isn’t about pushing full steam ahead in the works department and crowding out the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit. Being in relationship with the Father is about surrender. It’s about having the humility to acknowledge, as Paul does, how weak I am, and how full of sinful desires I am. I know that’s the truth, whether people on the web agree with me or not.

One thing I thought of, though, as I shared and discussed the 2 Corinthians passage is how much I really believe I’m weak and depraved and all of that. Because, as I said, I’ve striven for holiness my whole life. I generally wish well for others and try to be the best person I can be. How depraved am I, really?

What I’ve come to realize is that my sin nature isn’t as blatant and easy to detect as I’ve always imagined it ought to be. I think my sinfulness rears its head most often in the subtle but very pervasive mindset that the world revolves around me. When I stop and think about how many times a day I think a selfish thought, or fret over why someone else doesn’t see things the way I see them, the realization is just staggering. That tendency to think inwardly, to think about how the words and actions of those around me can best benefit me, is the core of the human nature of  fallenness. It’s easy to justify, easy to explain away and write off, but oh dear goodness is it pervasive in my life!

Anyway, the point of all this self-reflection is to say that I am done trying to battle my sin nature on my own. I’m done trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t play a large role in preventing me from embracing the love of the Father. If all this soul-searching has convinced me of anything, it’s that I can’t try to be holy, I can’t try to be righteous, I can’t try to drive away my sinful predisposition, all on my own. Instead, I’m going to focus on surrender, on humbly giving up my will to the grace of God, that his power may be made perfect in my weakness, just as Paul says.

“It’s the End of the World”

Today I’m going to do something a little different. Instead of writing about church, which I’ve done a lot of lately, I’m going to offer my thoughts on a sermon series I’ve been listening to about the book of Revelation. You can find the series here, if you’re interested. Just scroll down to the “It’s the End of the World” sermon series. It’s really worth a listen, whether Revelation fascinates you or terrifies you (I’d say both are true for me!).

What I love most about Jonathan Martin’s sermons is that he places Revelation within the context of the cross, and reminds us that this enigmatic book is ultimately about the restoration of the earth and of God’s people, rather than about the spilling of blood and apocalyptic terror, which is what we ordinarily associate Revelation with. For example, he mentions time and again that when Jesus returns as the Lion, he is still comes wearing a robe dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13), signifying that he has not shed his identity in the Gospels: his identity as the Lamb. Even when he comes as a conqueror, he comes bearing a sign of the cross, reminding us that the true victory happened at Calvary.

I also think it’s absolutely fascinating how Jonathan uses first century Middle Eastern culture/history to exegete Revelation, especially Revelation’s use of numbers. He talked about how it was very common in that time to write Greek letters in numeric codes, and how the numbers “666” can be translated to mean the name “Nero.” Another number that we see constantly throughout the book of Revelation is the number seven. Seven trumpets, seven bowls of wrath, seven churches, seven spirits of God. I could go on and on. But what is significant about these references is that the number seven represents fullness, or wholeness. So when Revelation 4:5, for example, talks about the seven spirits of God, it is not a literal figure but rather a way of saying, here, at the throne of God, we see His fullness.

Another sermon of Jonathan’s that I found fascinating had to do with the two witnesses. In Revelation 11, we read about two witnesses who will prophesy, strike the earth with plagues, and spew fire from their mouths. Whenever I think of this passage, I think of the literal interpretation—two witnesses, literally clothed in sackcloth, roaming around the earth burning people up and turning water into blood and testifying about God.

However, Jonathan’s treatment of the passage makes so much more sense. He contends that this passage is metaphorical. For example, in Revelation 11:4, we are told that the two witnesses “are the two olive trees and the two lamp stands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” Earlier, in Revelation 1-2, John describes an image of seven lamp stands. He explains to us that these lamp stands represent the seven churches to whom the letter of Revelation is addressed. If the lamp stands in Revelation 1-2 represent churches, would it not make sense that the witnesses in Revelation 11, also called lamp stands, are also a metaphor for the Church?

These are only a few examples of many in which Jonathan talks through the book of Revelation in a way that is logically sound and practically applicable—which I think is quite a feat for a book as weird and complicated as Revelation! I never would have imagined that Revelation could have much to do with the current Church, or my current individual walk with God. But in the light of Jonathan’s talks about the book, I’ve discovered that it really does, and I can learn so much about the nature of God, and God’s love for us, from even this book.

I’m Ready to Hope

I’m ready to hope again. I’m ready to cast off the cynicism and the bitterness and the frustration with the institution of Church and give it another go. I’m ready to listen and learn, ready to forgive faults and see human beings in earnest search of God before I see broken theologies and lives lived within the cage of religious fear.

I’m ready to share my new thoughts and ideas unashamedly, and I’m ready to be held accountable for them. I’m ready to take constructive criticism, and learn from those who are old and wiser than me, instead of rejecting what they have to say because it doesn’t fit right in this new season of Christian faith I’ve stumbled my way into.

I’m ready to extend grace, ready to receive it. Ready to remember that ultimately, my faith isn’t about me. My faith is about God, and my faith is about how well I serve and love Him. And serving and loving Him well is darn near to impossible without a faith community to remind me what selfless love looks like.

More than anything, I think I’m ready to transform my life, one mundane day at a time, into a life of servitude. Into a life that remembers that we are all a piece of the image of God, and that even the least of these has the power to point me heavenward, because God’s love for the least of these is no less whole than God’s love for me.

I’m ready. Take my heart, God.

Coming to Rest in the Middle

I grew up with this mentality: Christianity = conservative. I know “conservative” is an adjective, and that you can fill in the noun with whatever you like: religion, politics, morals, etc., but somehow it all feels like one big melting pot to me. For the most part, I know what beliefs and worldviews and lifestyles qualify as conservative and what things don’t.

I didn’t realize until last year that there is such a thing as a committed liberal Christian. Conservativism seemed like the only viable framework for the Christian faith, so boy did it rock my boat when I discovered the blog of Rachel Held Evans, this left-voting feminist who believes in evolution and whose sincere love for Jesus holds me in awe every time I read a blog post of hers. Her blog, and many others, blew my world wide apart, showing me how so many parts of liberal Christianity are so much closer to the heart of God than I could have dreamed.

So I bought into all of it. I began to think about how the liberal vein of Christianity values open-mindedness and social justice and living the right way. I began to wonder if Christianity fit better into a liberal glove than a conservative one, and I began to criticize the ideas of those who held fast to a conservative perspective of Christianity. I even considered leaving my conservative church and in favor of a more progressive one.

But now, I think I’ve grown a little more. I’ve realized that Christianity doesn’t fit into the label of liberalism any more neatly than it ever fit into conservativism. Instead, the Christian faith in its truest essence, transcends it all, and adopts the best parts of both ideologies while remaining something unique, something special despite our attempts to categorize our faith on our terms.

Am I Failing the Church or Is the Church Failing Me?

This afternoon as I introspectively considered my experiences at church this morning, I realized something terrible. I’ve been going to church on Sunday mornings every single week since my work schedule changed back in February. I’ve been doing Bible studies once or twice a week as well, and showing up at *my* church’s extracurricular stuff, like dinners and Saturday night church services and women’s conferences. Seriously. I’ve probably been putting in like six to seven hours a  week at church consistently since February.

And my terrible realization is this. I haven’t had a positive thought—a genuine, glad thought about being at these various church activities—hardly at all since I’ve been going. I won’t make an absolute statement here, because that wouldn’t be true (I have learned some really meaningful things here and there), but overwhelmingly I’ve just felt critical, or bitter, or disappointed about the things I’ve learned in church over the past nine months.

How did I get here? How did I get to this place where church is no longer my sanctuary, my safe place where everyone thinks and acts the same way I do? With all the soul-searching I’ve done over the last year, all the transformations I’ve gone through in what I believe about Christian doctrine, about God, about who I am as a believer in Christ, you’d think I’d be more tolerant of the people at my church who still think the way I used to. But I’m not. I’m angry at them. I’m angry that belief is so easy for them, that answers come without a second thought and without wondering if they could be wrong. I’m angry that everything makes sense and that they can water down the Christian faith into an easily navigable system of theology.

I can’t do that anymore, and I refuse to try.  And my refusal to put Christianity, the Bible, God himself into a box makes me feel like an outsider in the one place I’ve always felt I belonged.

Church never taught me what to do when I feel as though I have more in common with the liberals of this world than the conservatives. It never taught me what to do when I can’t see past all the things that it has screwed up in me. Things like teaching me homophobia, like skewing the way I regard scripture, and like teaching me how to live rightly, but not necessarily how to love rightly.

I’m  so very tempted to give up on church, to just leave it altogether for awhile. It’s become so very hard for me to see God there, and I can’t figure out if that’s because of me and my bitter heart, or if it’s because church is doing a lot of things so wrongly that the institution can’t be fixed. Even this vein of thought that I’m entertaining—this idea that the church exists to feed me, to bolster me, to conform to my idea of what it means to be a body of Christ—feels like a product of the individualized spin the church has always given on the Christian faith. The church is failing me when it doesn’t meet my expectations. Not the other way around.

And now I feel like screaming because I’m back to the self-blame. At the end of the day, I guess all I know is that I don’t feel at peace there in that place that is meant to be the sanctuary of God. Truth is, I haven’t for a long time.

Unveiled Faces

“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:12-18)

This morning in church, we read the above passage. I can’t really explain why, but as I followed along, that little phrase in the last verse jumped out at me—“unveiled faces.” I read the passage two or three times through, and marveled at what wonderful news this must have been for Paul to disclose to the early Church. Paul and his followers had unveiled faces. I have an unveiled face. There is no curtain of the Law, no heavy weight of the Old Testament covenant weighing me down. There is no veil. My face is revealed, naked, transparent. I am invited into the presence of God in a way that the Israelites of Moses’ time never were.

There is no physical sacrifice to atone for my sins. There is no hiding behind a hardened heart that can’t accept grace. And best of all, there is no bondage of the Law, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” My relationship with God is not a subservient one as the relationship between a master and a slave would be. There is no “pleasing God”, no strict obedience to a set of commands or an obligation to fulfill them.

My relationship with God is a personal one, like the relationship between a father and his daughter. Or between a mother and her daughter. It is personal. If I screw up, there are consequences, but the deepest consequence of all is that I’ve damaged a relationship I cherish, not that I’ve displeased a master or failed in my duty to obey. That is the significance of 2 Corinthians 3:18 and of the removal of the veil.