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“Do not be upright to excess and do not make yourself unduly wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be wicked to excess, and do not be a fool; why die before your time? It is wise to hold on to one and not let go of the other, since the godfearing will find both.” — Ecclesiastes 7:16-18, NJB

Now that is an odd quote. Isn’t faithful life all about being as righteous as is humanly possible? Aren’t we to try to avoid intentional sin at all costs, as we are crucifying Christ again by our repeated iniquities (Hebrews 6:6)? Well, yes and no.

I have been asked a lot by students in ministry whether this or that is a sin, and if this or that will send us to hell, as if there is a list of actions that is so specific that if we so much as dip a toe in the pool of that particular wrongdoing, we go straight to the hot (cold in Dante’s Inferno) place. I always like to point to this quote from Ecclesiastes as part of my answer.

This quote can be misapplied, of course, to literally mean one should balance each good action with a negative one. Such a misinterpretation could have people seeking out wicked behaviors, which is probably (read, “definitely”) not what any of the biblical authors had in mind. So what are we looking at here?

My contention is that this is a discussion of trends. Wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Job,etc.) is concerned with how one lives “the good life.” This genre is concerned with what it means to truly live life, and to do so well. Wisdom literature readily admits the fallibility of people. We will all screw up sometimes. This is a fact. It is inescapable. With that being the case, how can we avoid a fiery fate?!

Okay, first of all, as addressed in a previous post, hell is not the reason to live a good life. Being overly concerned with the varying realities of hell is really no way to live a full and productive life of discipleship. Secondly, whatever side of God’s judgment you end up on certainly doesn’t depend on committing the right sins or not. It also doesn’t depend on you living the perfect life. It depends on your faithfulness to Christ and the trend of your life. No, I am not talking about how many re-tweets and likes you get. I am talking about whether the curve of your life tends more toward right actions and loving behavior in the name of Jesus, or… not. Remember, salvation, that is our renewed relationship with God by which we enter into eternal life, is found in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ evidenced in His sacrifice on the cross, that we may know the infinite love and victory of God (Romans 5:24-25). It does not depend on our perfection, but our lives should be outward expressions of our faith as often as we can do so, by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

So where does the Ecclesiastes text fit into this? The teacher speaking in this book of the Bible is concerned with the wasted efforts of those who place too much emphasis on their personal righteousness and wisdom, as they will eventually die, just as fools and the wicked will. It is not that righteousness and wisdom are bad, but they become unhealthy if the pursuit of them is taken to excess (7:16). Think about it. Have you ever been expected to be perfect, whether by yourself or others? It is impossible, and on top of that, because of its impossibility, it breeds resentment of ourselves, of others, even of God. Also, we waste life for fear of messing up. We avoid enjoyment because too much can lead us to sin, and while this is true, it is just as wrong to not enjoy the life which God has granted us, failing to help others do so as well.

Now, the teacher anticipates the opposite problem, which is why the very next verse explicitly forbids excessive wickedness and folly. As I said previously, we all mess up. We all take things too far, but these should be as unintentional as possible, and kept to a minimum. However, we can never fully let go of our selfish inclinations, and we really shouldn’t pretend that we can, as this is dangerous. Instead, as the third verse of our selection indicates, the best thing to do is acknowledge our faults, enjoy life, and ensure that the trend of our life is as positive as possible.

What does this look like?

Last night, I was sitting on the couch thinking about my life. I have cheated, hurt people, spoken harsh and cruel words, and participated in a large assortment of other sinful behaviors. However, I have also healed lives, brought hope to others, helped to break down barriers between communities, and served others. I realized that my life is a story within a story. My story is a part of the greater story of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, and it was up to me to decide how the rest of my story will go. Here is what I wrote in my journal last night:

“When I meet my end, whatever and whenever that may be, it is my goal to leave behind a story that, for all its twists, turns, and steep falls, has the ability to kindle hope and inspiration.”

You see, the life of faith isn’t about the amount of mistakes you do or don’t make. The life of faith is about the transformation of your story into an upward-trending testimony to the power of God to redeem and work through you. Yes, there is plenty of negative in my past. There is plenty of pain to deal with. However, I don’t have to deny that in order to allow God to redeem my story. Instead, recognizing it and doing all I can to both enjoy life and live it in a much more righteous way for what days I have left are far more realistic and faithful options for me to pursue.

As you take stock of your life, consider what you want your story to be. Don’t walk about living in fear of mistakes, and thereby denying the beautiful things in life that God has given for you to enjoy. Also, don’t seek out enjoyment so much that you go all, “Carpe Diem” on us all and live a life of selfish indulgence. Rather, balance. Enjoy, but also help others to do so. Live a life that is as giving, compassionate, and kind as possible, and keep yourself personally nourished so that you can sustain that work. Let your life tend toward righteousness and gratefulness, and you will be just fine.

Peace be with you!

On the Female Form…

“I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin.” — 1 Timothy 2:12-14NJB

Alright, so this is not really a post about female physicality, but I wanted to use the title to honor my sarcastic best friend’s suggestion for today’s topic. So there. Anyway, take a look at the quote above. Wow. Yes, that is in the Bible. It is one of the many Scriptures that place women in a place both spiritually and physically inferior to men.

Do I think this is true? No, I don’t. The Church as a whole, however, has done a great job of enforcing Scriptures like this throughout history, excluding women from leadership positions in local churches, blaming women for the majority of sin in the world, opposing independent or free-thinking women, and facilitating social standards that have kept women underpaid and underappreciated.

Similar to the issue of race, the Church has not often performed well when it comes to the respect and empowerment of women. There are, of course, exceptions. Many notable women  have served as spiritual guides and authorities throughout the Church’s history, but on the whole, the Christian Church has been keen to, in one way or another, keep patriarchy alive and well.

Patriarchy is a familial and societal tendency toward male leadership and control. The world in which the texts of the Bible (like Paul’s letters to Timothy) was extremely patriarchal. Men are perceived to be the generic human being, God’s standard for humanity. They are the closest to the image of God, and this meant women were, at best, second class citizens.

Now, does patriarchy automatically mean misogyny (the hatred or mistrust of women)? No, not always. To our 21st Century American sensibilities, however, such familial and societal expectations are viewed to be backward and primitive, inherently hateful toward women. This is both fair and unfair. True, patriarchal societies would have a major problem with American culture nowadays. However, it is unfair to think that the biblical authors were intentionally being hateful or derogatory. They thought they were right, and in the world they lived in, no one contradicted them. As we all know, when any person feels they have come to understand the truth, they can be impossible to dissuade.

My point is, yes, we have a resentment toward this worldview that is understandable, but it is still important to be historically considerate. We waste time getting mad at dead people who had misconceptions about human nature, and it is exhausting. Now, we can definitely feel some productive anger toward institutions that still perpetuate those misconceptions, but again, it needs to be productive. 

There has been a tendency to avoid or resent the Christian Scriptures and faith because of their patriarchal roots. I get that. It’s not easy to be a part of something that you feel hates you. Here is the thing: it’s not inherent to the faith that women be considered subordinate. Even in the Bible, there are different opinions and portrayals regarding female leadership and social status.

Remember, the Bible is a collection of (at least) 66 different texts written by different people. These texts are often geared toward specific audiences dealing with specific issues, especially the pastoral letters of Paul. So while there are definitely lots of Scriptures that don’t do women any favors, there is also a lot of room to re-understand ourselves and each other in a way that is mutually empowering and loving. 

First off, let me say that I am a man. I have long enjoyed the privileges of being both white and male in my country, and I recognize that. I am not claiming to speak on behalf of women. I am simply providing Scriptural encouragement to any readers who struggle with the Church’s historic perception and treatment of women. I also hope that any women who read this post know that they are equally made in the image of God, and that while God is described often as male, God is first and foremost YHWH, the One who simply is. Therefore, God is beyond our petty categories, and as capable of/likely to be at work in and through women as through men. God’s salvation and promises are for all humanity. So let’s get started.

First, let’s start at the beginning. Genesis 1:26-27 says, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves… God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” Yes, the language is quite male-oriented (remember, patriarchy), but whether the translation reads “man” or “humankind” or “humanity,” look at what the text says. All of humanity, regardless of sex, are made in the image and likeness of God. Everybody. They are spoken of in a male collective, which is how Hebrew works, but EVERYONE is considered by the text to be made with God’s image, likeness, and capacity for stewarding creation.

“Okay, Jordan, but what about the second chapter? That’s the one Paul is quoting in Timothy! Seems pretty clear!”

You got me there. On second thought, no you didn’t. Let’s look! Genesis 2 does in fact have a male human created first, whilst the female human, later named “Eve,” is formed second. However, look at the word used by God to describe her in 2:18. See it? “Helper?” This word is actually used again later in the Psalms to describe God,  not women. This word has often been interpreted as giving women an assistant role in relation to men, but this very word is used to describe God several times (see Psalm 54), and I doubt anyone would use an inherently subordinating word to describe that biblical character.

“Okay, well Eve definitely ate the fruit first, right? Her fault! And that is the same chapter where God says Adam will “dominate” Eve!”

You are so right, person-I-made-up-for-the-sake-of-argument. As we look at the text of Genesis 3, we see that the woman “took some of its fruit and ate it” (3:6). Keep reading. “She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it” (also 3:6, emphasis added). Yeah, Paul may be right that Adam wasn’t the first to eat the fruit, but the moron stood there and watched his partner get convinced to eat it, saying nothing. Also, check this out: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked” (3:7). Hmmm… so the effects of their disobedience did not take place until BOTH of them screwed up. It would seem all humans are responsible for their sin, which makes sense, right?

Oh, and regarding your point about God’s seeming prescription of patriarchy in verse 16: Yes, God does say that. However, it is said after the supposed “fall of humanity” from grace. Therefore, it could be said that God’s intent for humanity was never the power dynamic of patriarchy. In fact, it seems that such power dynamics are actually the result of sin! If we are living a new life in Christ, restored by the grace of God, why would we try to keep living according to patriarchal standards that arose as a result of sin? Hmmm…

It would appear that Paul’s interpretation in Timothy is just that: an interpretation, and an incomplete one at that. However, it is also important to remember that the letters Paul wrote were to particular churches or people for particular reasons. His recommendations are not always uniform.

Look at Galatians 3:28-29. Anything jump out at you? “There can be neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Interesting, no? The whole passage is removing societal, economic, and racial distinctions from Christian believers, because all of them are now “the heirs named in the promise” of God (3:29). Think about that. All people in Christ (male, female, slave, free, whatever) are equally heirs of God’s blessing and salvation. 

How about Romans 16:1-2? “Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchrae,” is commended by Paul as a church leader, whom the Romans are to “help…with whatever she needs.” There seems to be some expectation that Phoebe will have some authority over the Roman Christians, which undoubtedly included some fellas! 

Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 7. Regarding marriage, Paul says, “The husband must give to his wife what she has a right to expect, and so too the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and in the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, bu the wife does” (7:4). Oh my! I know, it still has the wife yielding her rights over to the husband, but the husband is expected to do the same! Even more, Paul addresses the husband as needing to yield first! This may seem small to us today, but in the First Century world, it is highly unusual.

My point here is to show you that there are ways to find and experience Scriptural empowerment as a woman without having to cite Deborah from Judges or Mary, Mother of Christ. Paul wrote different things for different situations, as any good pastor would do. He lived in a time of patriarchy, but his writings sometimes challenged that system because of his steadfast belief in the new life of ALL who are in Christ.

Ultimately, the Bible and the faith of the Church are subject to how people choose to wield them. Some people and denominations will always be trying to keep women in an inferior position, calling it “traditional” and “biblical.” In some ways, they are right. However, is also “traditional” and “biblical” to seek out the image of God in all others, regardless of gender, and to treat them with the love and respect that is called for.

It is my prayer (whether you are male, female, or otherwise) that you will go forward knowing that God has made you and that God loves you. No one has the right to challenge that. Just the same, God has made and loves everyone else, and neither you nor I have the right to challenge or dismiss that. If we can remember and honor that, if we can fight for that acknowledgment for ourselves and each other in this world, we can in some small way usher in the kingdom of God that restores us all equally to the blessed state of oneness with the One who loved us first.

Peace be with you!

 

On Spiritual Healing…

“The Lord has brought forth medicinal herbs from the ground, and no one sensible will despise them… He has also given some people knowledge, so that they may draw credit from his mighty works.” — Sirach 38:4, 6, NJB

Okay, so before we discuss the topic of medical and spiritual healing for today’s faithful people, we need a brief history lesson!

“Sirach? What in the world is Sirach?”

This is the question I imagine anyone asking who hasn’t been Catholic, Anglican, or subject to any kind of seminary education. Sirach, otherwise known as Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus, is a biblical book that you won’t find in most popular Bibles you pick up today. This is because the standard Protestant canon of the Bible only has the 66 inspired texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. Only scholarly (NRSV, older ESV, RSV) or Catholic (JB, NAB, NJB, Douay-Rheims) Bibles include the Greek Old Testament texts referred to commonly as the “Apocrypha,” or, more accurately, the “Deuterocanon.”

When Alexander the Great’s empire was expanding in the 4th Century BCE, many Jews dispersed throughout that empire began to speak Greek. Makes sense, right? With that being the case, fewer and fewer people could read or understand the Hebrew Bible. This problem was addressed by scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. This Greek translation included all of the books we know today, from Genesis to Malachi, as the Old Testament, but it also included other books, like Sirach, that were written by faithful Jews and used for spiritual edification.

Protestants (in this sense, meaning most non-Catholics) have had an issue with these texts, all too often because the Catholic Church uses them. Interestingly enough, however, the King James Bible of 1611 originally contained these texts! This is because those in-between Protestantism and Catholicism (Anglicans) believed these texts were secondary to the 66 standard books, but still helpful. For more on this, check out the Articles of Religion from the Episcopal/Anglican Church as they pertain to the Holy Scriptures here.

With all that said, there are good reasons for Christians to read and use the Deuterocanon, whether they are Catholic or not. These books contain historical texts that set the tone for the world Jesus emerged in (1,2 Maccabees), along with beautiful insights into the love and nature of God (Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach). Remember, they were written by faithful Jews, just like most of the other 66 books of the Christian Bible! 

Assuming I haven’t bored you to death, let’s get to the point of this post, which is to comment on the concept of healing by spiritual means as opposed to medical means or vice versa. There are many faithful people in this world who struggle with the nature of God’s work in the world, specifically, how God heals those who are sick or afflicted. Some groups believe that all one needs to be healed is faith. Pray, pray, and pray some  more. Eventually, they reason, you will either be healed or you will not, depending on God’s will. It is hard to argue with that, considering Jesus does talk about being healed because of their faith (Mark 5:34, Luke 17:19, Matthew 8:10-13, etc.). James recommends that those who are sick “should send for the elders of the church” to pray over them because “the prayer of faith will save the sick person” (5:14-15). There are many biblical instances of people being healed by faith.

The problem, however, arises when this reliance on faith-healing becomes exclusive. This may not be a problem for the common cold, flu, headaches, and other afflictions that eventually resolve themselves. It becomes a major issue when this same exclusivity is applied to cancer, trauma, and chronic conditions that can inhibit or even end one’s life. Faith, prayer, and positive thinking have positive medical benefits much of the time. They can make us feel great, and there is real value in this, but what if you’re feeling great as some form of cancer slowly grows and grows until it’s too late? What if you’re feeling great until that blood transfusion you refused doesn’t kick in and things start going dark? What if this asthma attack is the last one, not because of successful treatment and management, but because praying isn’t opening up your airways for the “nth” time?

You see what I mean?

Faith healing is great and possible until it isn’t. This is, of course, assuming that our understanding of faith healing is limited to some televangelist smacking you, parents refusing medical care, and other literal and exclusive manifestations of narrow-minded adherence to guilt-based healthcare that either ends with God or the afflicted being blamed.

What if we re-understood being healed by faith with the Bible as our guide? Sirach can be very helpful with this. The quote that started this post comes from a discussion of medical care and faith, between which the author sees no contradiction! Follow this link to Sirach 38. We are told in verse 4 that “The Lord has brought forth medicinal herbs from the ground,” and it’s true! We know that medicine as we know it today comes from naturally occurring substances and organisms that are later processed and massed produced by medical labs and pharmaceutical companies. This is a situation that existed even in the biblical days, when doctors of the time would find ways to utilize herbs, plants, animal organs, and more for the healing of the ill. Were they always successful? No. However, they often were. Were the people who went to these doctors unfaithful? No! Rather, as the text of Sirach, and we might add Genesis, indicates, God is the creator of all life (including medicinal creations and their users), and belief in that should move us to take advantage of what God has given us. 

God has given us the medicinal herbs, and God has “also given some people knowledge, so that they may draw credit from his mighty works” (verse 6). Just as God created things to be used for healing purposes, God has gifted people with the knowledge and drive to go about the task of healing, namely medical professionals. Cool, huh?

So how do we balance our faith with medical advancements so that we continue to worship the creator rather than those things which He created? Sirach has a great bit of advice on that as well.

“My child when you are ill, do not rebel, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Renounce your faults, keep your hands unsoiled, and cleanse your heart from all sin. Offer incense and a memorial of fine flour, make as rich an offering as you can afford. Then let the doctor take over– the Lord created him too– do not let him leave you, for you need him.” — Sirach 38:9-12, NJB (Emphasis added)

Pretty freeing, right? Of course you should pray when you are ill! Of course you shouldn’t just run and grab a pill bottle or schedule an appointment as soon as you feel a little queasy (unless you have a condition that requires you to do so; I AM NOT A DOCTOR)! However, remember that God created this world, meaning God created medicine and doctors. There is no shame in seeking medical help for medical problems. It does not make you weak in faith or idolatrous unless you just happen to be weak in faith or idolatrous, but an ER visit is not what determines that.

If we believe in God and in God’s healing power, we shouldn’t limit the ways in which that power is made manifest. Maybe it is through prayer of the church and anointing with oil. Maybe it is through a qualified surgeon or other trained medical professional. Just as God speaks through the Bible, a pastor, a donkey, a billboard, and through a multitude of other means, so God can act in ways that promote healing in an infinite number of ways. Sometimes what we call “faith” is actually imposing limits on God, and we have to be careful of that.

Now, if you are a Christian Scientist or fundamentalist of any kind, I first want to congratulate you on your humility and patience in reading this post. Secondly, though, I want to make clear that this is not an attack on your beliefs. It is, rather, a way of expanding upon them so that you and those you love can live the fullest and most blessed life possible.

To everyone else, thank you for reading, and I hope you found this post insightful and interesting. If you have a comment, different opinion, anything at all you want to say, feel free to visit the contact page! Now, go forth with a faith that allows you to remain open to the many ways in which God extends life and light to this world, and may you share that grace with others!

Peace be with you!

A Happy Kind of Trapped

“Where shall I go to escape your spirit? Where shall I free from your presence?” — Psalm 139:7, NJB

I don’t know about you, but verses like this one were often used as subtle threats. It was almost like pastors and youth leaders imagined God as Roz from Monsters, Inc, aaaalways watching…

Needless to say, the idea of God always being there watching us and judging us is uncomfortable, and it often becomes a cause for resentment. We don’t like authority as humans, and especially not where I live in the United States (Texas, of all places). We don’t like the idea of being bare before God, whether because of shame, fear, or a general distaste for judgment. 

Honestly, I can relate. I resent the idea that I could be judged or condemned based on how I manage in this life. It makes sense, but what if the ever-abiding presence of God with us is more than a means of keeping tabs on us? What if it is a cause for joy, just as much as concern? 

We all too often are taught to think of God in two extremes: the squishy, love-all deity that forgives us OR what is perceived to be the opposite, full of hard judgments, rendering what we deserve. We are tragically bad at balancing the notion of justice and grace, and it is my hope that this Psalm we are discussing will help.
You see, it is true that God’s presence with us includes judgment. God is just and holy. and when we aren’t, that’s going to get some attention. However, it is important that we don’t separate the judgment of God from His grace. 

God is not one who corrects or judges just for the sake of doing those things. God’s hope is to help us grow if we will let Him. Free will does mean we can choose to ignore the rebuke of God until everything goes to Hell in a handbasket, but it also means we can open our hearts to the grace God offers by showing us a better way. 

Psalm 139 reads:

“If I scale the heavens you are there, if I lie flat in Sheol, there you are. If I speed away on the wings of the dawn, if I dwell beyond the ocean, even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast.” (verses 8-10)

God’s presence is ultimately one of guidance, one of support. God’s presence bears judgment, not for condemnation, but in the hopes of our salvation, our experience of wholeness in relationship with God and each other. 

Unlike Roz, it is not God’s hope to catch us messing up. It is not God’s intention that we cower in fear because of His presence. Rather, God’s intent is for us to find comfort, correction, support, and inspiration, realizing that we are never alone in this life, and that the One who was made flesh in Jesus now dwells within us as the Holy Spirit, guiding and sustaining us. 

It will probably take a long time to heal from the wrong idea that God is like a cosmic hall monitor, always with us in order to smite us when needed. Perhaps it just takes a daily reminder (like this one) that God IS love, and love can mean correction or judgment, but neither of those is without the grace of our Father who loves us enough to die for us. 

Peace be with you!

What’s the Point?

“And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.” — Matthew 25:46, NJB

The picture with this post is Sandro Botticelli’s Map of Hell. Oh, yes, people! It is time for a talk on hell, everyone’s favorite. No, I am not telling you whether or not you are going there, as that is not my call. I am also not guessing as to the fates of others in the afterlife, because, again, that is not my place. I am also not taking the preferred liberal approach of finding the metaphorical meaning in Matthew’s discussion of hell. I’m actually not debating the existence of hell at all, as I have no intention of finding out whether it is real or not.

No, tonight, I want to encourage you to look at this teaching in a new way that quite possibly ignores the afterlife implications altogether, in favor of an interpretation that gets all of us up and moving to serve others. Interested? Let’s take a look.

The full text for tonight’s post can be found here, in my preferred translation, the New Jerusalem Bible. I am not Catholic, but the website where the translation is found happens to be a Catholic site, so don’t feel like I am trying to convert you or anything. We are looking at verses 31-46 tonight, so scroll down, and get ready to take a look!… Done? Okay, here we go!

From the outset, we get the idea that Jesus is talking about the final judgment of the world, telling us “When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory… and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats” (verses 31-32). This is a prophetic text, then, one concerned with the judgment and implemented justice of God. As we see in the text, verses 33-36, it is far better to be considered a sheep! These are the ones who are on Jesus’ right side (the favored side in antiquity), praised for their kindness to others.

On the left side (not the good side in antiquity), we have those considered “goats,” and they are not in for nearly as good a time. As we look at verses 41-46, we their negligence regarding those who suffer among them result in their condemnation by Jesus, which would seem to land them in a very unpleasant place known as “hell” in the Christian universe. Obviously, “goat status” would be undesirable for us, yes?

Now, the easiest teaching to take from this could be rendered thus:

Jesus is eventually going to return to judge us all. If we do what we are supposed to, we will go to heaven. If we don’t do what we are supposed to, we will go to hell. So do what you’re supposed to do.

Familiar? Utterly unfamiliar? My guess is that there is a big split in my readership, dividing the group into two subsections. One grew up with hell teachings all the time and heard this text at least once. The other group was raised with no mention of hell (probably in the mainline churches) and finds the idea repulsive. There could also be a subset of people who are indifferent to this concept in general, and that is also fine.

The point is, this is not how I believe this text (or any judgment text) should be read. Keep in mind, I still insist the judgment texts be read. They are part of Scripture, and this is not a faith of squishy comfort. However, brow-beating people with the threat of a severe afterlife is also not a productive way to honor these texts and the teachings therein. So what’s my take?

This Scripture is not concerned with the afterlife nearly as much as it is with how you and I go about our lives from the moment we turn away from the computer screen or Bible and enter into our normal doings. Hell? Maybe. Heaven? Sure. Earth, here and now? Absolutely, without a doubt.

We have this unhealthy view of faith and prophecy that keeps us concerned with either looking back or looking forward to a problematic degree. When we look to the past as if these are just ancient words describing a nonexistent reality, it has the same effect as looking forward constantly to the time when some people get heaven, others get hell. That effect is negative and unhelpful, because you and I are living in the present, and I can’t help but think that Jesus and the prophets of the Scriptures were more concerned about how people live their lives as opposed to whether or not they know about the impending judgment.

Am I denying the judgment? No! I am, however, interested in recovering this text from its “end times” pigeon-hole in order to (hopefully) remove some of the fear, worry, or resentment that often gets attached to hell teachings. So if the point isn’t knowing how the judgment will go, what is it?

The point, dear reader, is that when you finish reading this text (or any other judgment text, like Revelation), you should be looking around for an opportunity to care for the people you encounter throughout the rest of your life. Will you feed the hungry? Will you give water to the thirsty? Will you visit and comfort those who are sick, in prison, grieving, and impoverished? Matthew’s (and Jesus’) hope is that you will respond with a hearty, “YES!” Will you do these things because you are secretly doing these things to Jesus and can thereby expect eternal blessedness? NO.

“But Jordan, what do you mean? Jesus promises us a reward!”

Yes, of course, because Jesus knows how you and I think. That doesn’t make it right, and the examples of rightness (and wrongness) are found in tonight’s text. Look at verses 37-40. “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” The same questioning continues for every act the righteous committed, which earned them the blessing of God. You see, part of their righteousness is that they didn’t do what they did because of a reward or punishment. They didn’t even do these things because they thought they were secretly serving God. They did these righteous things because it was right to do so. 

Let’s look at verses 44-45. The unrighteous as the same questions, but from a different perspective. “Woah, we neglected YOU? WHEN?” Their minds go to the fact that they are cursed by God because they missed a couple of key opportunities to serve him. Even with their judgment settled, they don’t get it. These are the ones concerned only with the reward (or punishment). These are the ones who require incentive to do what is right for others. 

You see, Jesus doesn’t want us looking forward, worrying about the coming of judgment. In fact, he says as much in  Acts 1:7. Instead, Jesus’ teachings are geared toward changing the way we do things and the reasons we do things here and now, in our everyday lives. Hell is a part of the teachings of Jesus, but it is hardly the focus. The focus is what you and I decide to do each day, and whether or not we will choose to act faithfully regarding God and others.

Jesus wants our hearts. Jesus wants us to love him, to love God, particularly through how we love others. These “others,” (our fellow humans and other parts of creation) are not to be viewed as means to the end of salvation, but instead, they are parts of God’s creation that are loved and wanted by God, just as we are. As such, we should treat them with the requisite amount of kindness, not based on whether they deserve it or we want to, but simply because it is the right way to live. Will it bring benefits? Yes. Will doing the opposite cause problems? Of course. We, however, are called not to love based on what is gained, but based on the love we already receive in Christ Jesus.

As you go out into your life of faith, I encourage you to pay heed to these Scriptures regarding the really uncomfortable topic of hell and damnation. Not, however, because I want you to be afraid or worried about the judgment, but because in these teachings we find the urgency with which Jesus hopes we will attack the world with radical and unrestrained kindness for each other. 

Don’t stress about the reward or punishment. Don’t stress about the “signs of the times” and the impending return of Christ to set everything right. Instead, look forward to these things with joy, and with moderation, spending the rest of your time looking around you here and now for an opportunity for Jesus’ love to be made manifest in your life. 

Peace be with you!

“I don’t need church.”

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” — Acts 2:44-47, NRSV

So this has been an interesting topic for me. So many people simultaneously proclaim belief in Christ, but indifference, even loathing with regard to the Church. They understandably believe that organized religion breeds division and hatred, and there are too many rules/regulations that surely Jesus wouldn’t care about. This is all aside from the politics, greed, violence, and poor pastoral care in abusive situations that formal Christian churches have been marred by throughout history. 

On the one hand, I get it. Churches are filled with many, many negative things that can distract from the experience of God they are supposed to facilitate. Churches (across the board) have poorly handled politics, sexuality, gender, science, and abuse. They have sent abused women and children back to their abuses, utilized scare tactics to maintain control, and twisted Scripture to allow for prejudice. At least, many have. Many people in the churches have. Many people have. See where I’m going? People have flaws, and these affect churches. 

It is astounding to me how quick people are to abandon “church” because they don’t like something about it while failing to realize what God’s Church truly is: a people. So if all the people who have a problem with practices or attitudes in the various individual representations of God’s Church leave, only those who are indifferent to or fed by those negative aspects remain… And nothing changes. 

Now, are you going to reform the whole Catholic Church? Unlikely. Is the United Methodist Church going to be shaken up by me? Not necessarily. However, if we just bail on gathering with other believers just because there are things we don’t like or are hurt by, we actually run the risk of enabling that pain to befall others. 

We also have this bad habit of saying, “My relationship with God is between me and God, so I don’t need church.” 

Wrong. 

That’s American individualism and privatized (ineffective?) religion getting to you. Christianity was designed for community. Every bad theological idea (think Jones, Koresh, etc.) came from some guy reading his Bible alone with no guidance or community. 

On top of that, Christian faith is supposed to be shared and mobilized to help and spread to others. It really doesn’t matter if one believes in their heart if their hands and mouth do nothing with it. It may very well be a ticket to heaven, but if that’s all one is after, I have to wonder if that’s actually what they are getting…

NOW. 

Are formal churches the only way to do this? No. They are the most convenient, but no. 

The trick is still being in community. Look at the passage at the start of this post from Acts. Believers met “day by day,” and they “broke bread… praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (verses 46-47). It is vital to the life of faith to gather with others who share that faith for the purposes of growing in that faith. 

Further, it is beneficial to gather and participate together in practices as old as the faith itself, like Communion, singing hymns, and studying Scripture. Churches are, by and large, the best places to do this. 

Does that mean you blindly accept that body or denomination? Hell no. Never. As I said, churches are rife with problems that need to be addressed. The important thing is recognizing and living into our membership of God’s spiritual Church that transcends time and space. Let the churches be a tool to do that, but that doesn’t mean you have to love everything about them, same as everything else. 

What’s more, if we get involved and invested, we have a higher chance of influencing the Church (and the world!) for the better. 

I hated church when I perceived my call to ministry. I was sick of anti-intellectualism, false hopes, and fruitless beliefs. However, as I pursued my call and got involved, God did some cool stuff. I had young people struggling with science and religion coming to me and leaving at peace, knowing it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” scenario. I had people concerned about their sexuality leaving empowered and encouraged, feeling loved as opposed to ashamed. I had people coming to me who made terrible mistakes, expecting shame but receiving corrective grace because they had a pastor who (Lord knows) has made many, many mistakes himself. 

This isn’t a boast about me or my ministry, but it is a statement about what God can do through all of us if we decide to reclaim faith and the Church for ourselves. Things can change in beautiful and powerful ways through you and your faith. 

Is it leading or serving in missions? Is it teaching a Sunday School class? Is it chaperoning youth events? Is it helping serve Communion or greeting in worship? Is it money handling and behind the scenes leadership? 

What calls to you? Where would you like to see changes in the church? Pursue it! Don’t abandon it so others can share your pain. Don’t hold up one of those anti-church, pro-Jesus banners that make no sense! 

We can’t, as a nation, stay in the habit of simply discarding that which contains flaws. We would have nothing left. The proper response is to recognize what is important, what is good, what is pure, what is just, and to pursue and nurture those things TOGETHER. 

Just a thought. 

Peace be with you!

Written Off

“So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” — Matthew 18:14, NRSV

This is an excerpt from the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew, a favorite of mine (you probably know by now that I have a lot of favorites) because of it’s encouraging message. Today, I want to share that message with you. 

Life in our world has become full of writing people off. Those who make mistakes, big or small, are often defined by those rather than any other positive characteristic they may possess. I’m willing to bet that you have, at one point or another, been written off in the minds of others. 

You could have done something absolutely awful. You could have simply done the wrong, minor thing. You could even just be of the wrong race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or economic class. In any event, I imagine you know what it’s like to feel cast aside, condemned, and undervalued. 

At the same time, we all have a tendency to write others off as well. 

The “major” sinners?

The “angry black woman” sharing her experiences?

The conservative family member trying to get a word in? 

All of these are examples of my own sinful inclination to shut down and categorize rather than open up and provide a welcoming space for others, as I would like them to do for me. It’s wrong, and it’s something that I bet we all could stand to work on.

So looking at this parable from Jesus, we should note two things: the grace we are to accept and the grace we are to exhibit. 

You see, God’s grace is not meant to just be received. It is to be imitated and shared by those who claim to follow Christ. The same holds true here. 

First of all, there is no specification on the one sheep who goes astray in verse 12. Is this the first or tenth time? Is the sheep intentionally wandering off, going to dangerous places? Does this sheep deserve to just be left behind? Just as it doesn’t seem to matter in Matthew’s text, neither do I believe it matters in life. 

We all stray from the paths of doing right and loving as we should. Some of us do it habitually, time and time again, while others constantly make brand new mistakes. Maybe you’re one who just has a big one every once in a while. In many instances we resign ourselves to our destructive cycles of behavior believing that we are “just that kind of person” because everyone else seems more than happy to accept it. In any case, the only specified truth of God’s attitude toward straying sheep such as you or I is this: “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” 

This is the grace to be received. It is not God’s will that you or I be lost. Regardless of the multitude or intensity of our sin, God’s will is that we will accept the truth that we are worth more than we think. Infinitely so. 

God sees our flesh and being as good enough for the Divine presence to reside in, evidenced in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God is NEVER going to give up on you. So, don’t you dare give up on yourself. 

Addict? Cheater? Murderer? Abused? Abuser? Promiscuous?  Angry? Hurt? Gossiper?  Some of these are sin, some are the result of it, but none are who you are. Those are distortions of who you are. Those are filters that cloud your image of yourself.  You are a creation of God, you are loved, and you can be set free from even the darkest parts of you. I have experienced this personally many times, and I hope you will become open to these experiences as well wherever you are at. 

That’s the grace to accept. The grace to share is the grace to extend to others the same love God extends to us. Just as God’s motherly arms remain open for us to run into, even when we turn away, so should our arms remain open to those who need someone to believe in them. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean we accept abuse or utter mistreatment. It is not God’s will that any person remain in an abusive relationship out of love. Call the police, get yourself safe so that you can be treated as well as God desires for you (that’s a lot).

What it does mean is that we stop writing people off. We let our hearts, arms, and ears remain open to those who challenge us, those we’d like to avoid, those we don’t feel we should respect. We might even call them enemies. 

“Love your enemies.”

Sound familiar? See the quote here. No, it isn’t out of context. No, it is not exaggeration. Jesus means it. Just as God extends grace to us, so we should do the same for ALL others (5:48). 

If we just take and refuse to give, nothing will change! The cycle will continue. If, however, we receive in order to give, accept love in order to show love, THEN we will see the coming of a whole new world. It may hurt or be uncomfortable, but it is is also the most blessed and powerful endeavor there is, for it is the sharing of the Gospel. 

So there you have it. God hasn’t written you off (and never will), so don’t let others (or yourself) do it either! Know that it is never to late, that you are loved, and you are called to love. If we can accept this, we are then free and able to share that love, and usher in a new way of life for all. 

Peace be with you!