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Blessed Foolishness: A Comment on Church Status

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. — 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, NRSV

Alright, so get excited, everyone. This is a rant I have been just waiting to go on, but don’t worry. It is rooted in Scripture and a love for the faith that continues to strengthen and change me. This post was prompted by President Trump’s Christmas speech. Actually, it was prompted more by the response to said Christmas speech, piled on top of the comments I have heard over and over again about the supposed, rightful Christianity of the United States. 

First, I must issue a disclaimer. I am not attacking or denying the Christian faith of the majority of Americans dating back to our nation’s founding. I am not going to be dumping on the president. I am not going to be dumping on the United States. I am also not going to be dumping on Christianity. I am, however, going to take issue with a tendency that has plagued the Christian Church throughout history. As a matter of fact, this is a tendency that has always plagued humanity, namely the tendency to seek out power and protect however much power we manage to get our hands on. 

What do I mean by “power?” I mean social, political, military, and economic influence. I mean that which makes Christians the primary beneficiaries of policy, the chiefly expressed and practiced religion, and the religion that is adopted by the nation to suit the purposes of the nation. It is my contention that for us as Christians to seek out or possess such influence is to undermine the entire faith. 

Christianity was never supposed to be a faith of worldly power. Jesus himself addresses the lack of popularity to be expected by Christians in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The quote at the start of this post comes from a bigger section of the First Letter to the Corinthians in which Paul address the fact that Christian beliefs alone are counter to the world’s logic, much less the way they live their lives in pursuit of “nothing… except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

My point is that Christians believe God Incarnate, Jesus, the King of kings, did not come with the might of an army, the wealth of a king, or the privilege of the elite. He was a son of a carpenter, wandering from place to place, living off of the kindness of others, and spreading a message that challenged the powerful, lifted up the poor, and ended with his own crucifixion. Jesus never pursued worldly power or wealth, and he never encouraged his followers to do so. He actually warned against it multiple times, saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

So what is my point? After President Trump’s speech, so many extoled the virtues of our Christian country. On top of that, we have a habit of talking about our troops as if they were Christ, potentially sacrificed on the altar of freedom for our salvation. Even more, we equate being a good American with being a good Christian, and  the American values of wealth and privilege seep into our churches and teachings, causing us to mistake riches for blessing, status for righteousness.

This is not the first time. Whether in Rome, the Crusades, colonization, or modernity, any time the Church has sought or achieved worldly power, it became decadent, corrupt, and idolatrous. Forced conversions, wars for land, wars for power, slavery, and the blending of Christian and civil religion all resulted from the Church’s pursuit of that which is counter to Christ… and I worry it’s happening again.

When we as Christians become concerned with our status or endorsement by the government, when we emphasize numbers, when we seek after wealth, power, and security above all else, we start down that wide road that “leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13).

It is my prayer that you will join me in praying for the Church, that she may recover her purpose and identity. It is my prayer that you will find strength not in riches or status, but in the humble cross of Christ. Remember that the love of God is not found in material abundance or social privilege, but in the humble, daily pursuit of justice, service, and kindness for all people. If we can remember that, we  could have a bright new year ahead.

Peace be with you!

Just a Moment to Marvel

“For this foreign affair, I will abide as the middle man, ‘Cause the solo cry is more than I can stand. So I walk on air, and awkwardly seek out a child’s form. And I know that you won’t lead me to the storm.”

Christmas is a-coming! With just two days to go, I have been reflecting pretty intently on the Incarnation. If you don’t know, this is the word that means “to take on flesh,” which is what we Christians celebrate on Christmas: when God took on flesh as a baby in a feeding trough, soon to show us the true meaning of love and humility in the person of Jesus Christ.

The quote above is from a song called “Anything You Say,” by Deas Vail, a band with heavy Christian influence. When I hear this verse, I immediately think of the gift of the Incarnation, and I wanted to share why this story is so beautiful, powerful, and worth becoming a part of.

When we think of God, we often picture a big person or figure in the sky, like Zeus. Maybe we imagine an invisible, impersonal force. Some just don’t even think about it at all. In any of these scenarios, God is something hard to look to or imagine, much less something with which we can have an honest, intimate relationship.

That’s why this story is so important! God desires to have us love Him, know Him, and follow His ways. Because God is so immense and, in some way, unknowable, He has made a habit of revealing Himself to us. We see God in Creation, on Mount Sinai, in the still silence on a mountain, and, in time, our very own flesh!

The Christmas story is the tale which reminds us that God is not some distant tyrant who lords over our lives. God is willing to humble Himself, becoming a lowly child, not born in a palace or house, but in a barn. This child grew to be a wandering preacher and healer, crucified because of the wickedness of those He came to save, only to break the powers of sin and death by rising again. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the beginning of this beautiful story, which teaches us that, wicked as we may be at times, God still earnestly desires to dwell among us in love. That’s some inspiring and instructive stuff!

Peace be with you!

“To Bind Up the Brokenhearted”

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” — Isaiah 61:1

This is a pretty popular Scripture among Christians, as it should be. After all, Jesus quotes this very passage, using it to refer to himself in Luke 4, which actually makes this a perfect Scripture for the coming of Christmas!

Christmas isn’t always a full-on occasion for celebration. Many people find it to be one of the hardest times of years. It is a time for family, love, togetherness, and joy, but many of us experience it as a reminder of the absence of these things in their lives. I myself am experiencing that this year. I am unemployed, changing careers/callings, and about to close a chapter of my life that I was so sure had many more pages to go. I will be battling shame and a major sense of disappointment as I interact with family this year. This is one of several Christmases that were more painful than joyful. Odds are, you yourself know what this is like.

This is why it is essential that we remember Scriptures like this one from Isaiah. They remind us that the coming of Christ isn’t about family gatherings, presents, and being of good cheer for a month straight. Christ is entering into the dirty, dark depths of human existence. When Christ takes on flesh, it is that of a poor carpenter’s son, nestled into a feeding trough. Christ’s life is lived in the service of others, homeless, wandering from place to place, His great love rewarded with a cross.

With that in mind, the Incarnation we will celebrate this coming Monday is more than a cause for joy; it is a cause for remembrance. We are to remember that there is no darkness, no heartbreak, no addiction, no dishonor, no shame, no scars that are strong enough to defeat the love of God revealed in Jesus. We are to remember that, knowing all that we are and all we have done, God still chooses to be immediately and powerfully present among us, sharing our pain and guiding us to wholeness by the tenderness of His Spirit. Further, we must remember that we are called not only to experience this wonderful story, but also to take part in it. Through Christ, we are made members of God’s family, and as members of God’s family, we are called to share in the work of Jesus Christ. We are called to be sensitive toward those who are in pain, and to develop a rule of life based on the compassion, justice, and grace we receive in Christ.

As you go about the final days of preparation for what truly is a joyous holiday, remember why it is joyous. It’s not about your successes or failures. It’s not about what you have lost or what you have. It is about the God that meets you right where you are, with open arms and a heart full of love as He calls you to experience grace. Believe in this Good News, and share it through your own love of others.

Peace be with you!

 

Fruit-Making and the Gospel

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” — Matthew 12:33, NRSV

The Gospel is a black-and-white kind of thing, right? In some ways, yes. You are either intentionally seeking and following God or not. There are strict consequences for fitting in the “not” category. You either love your neighbor and your enemy or you don’t. There are strict consequences for those in the “don’t” category as well.

Now, many of my liberal brothers and sisters don’t like when you bring up the idea of hell or punishment or consequences, as there seems to be no grace in these things. On one level, they are right. On the other hand, consequences are naturally built into our world due to the nature of free will, so it isn’t God’s lack of grace, but our sinfulness that lands on our own heads (Psalm 7:16). In fact, as discussed in a previous post, the teachings of punishment seem to be serving a gracious purpose, and I’d like to re-emphasize that in more detail today.

Before my conservative brothers and sisters pump their fists too high for my argument against avoiding the judgment language of Scripture, it’s only fair that I throw out some challenge in the opposite direction as well. If we get too caught up with this judgment stuff, we run the risk of treating others as though we are the ones who get to judge and condemn them, as opposed to God, the only one with the information necessary to do so. Hopefully, I don’t have to remind you that this is frowned upon by our Savior (Matthew 7:1-5). When we do this, we tend to write people off, and this is dangerous for any faithful person.

Have you ever been written off? Have you ever been categorized according to the worst parts of yourself and given in to that identity? I have. I have believed the lies other people told me because they only knew me for the mistakes I had made. I have known people who lacked grace for themselves, therefore they had even less to show others. The only thing that mattered was the black-and-white of justice, even if the truth was far more complicated. Whatever I had done wrong, that’s what I was, and you can bet I have repeated this cycle with others.

We all, in some way, do this. We categorize each other. We determine who we like, who we don’t, and we define them solely based on those characteristics. If we like or love them, we overlook the flaws. If we despise them, we overlook any complicating factors that might taint our truth. We do this with ourselves. We overlook either our faults or our gifts, usually a combination of both, and we become defined by the most narrow bit of information.

For example, consider this parable from Matthew 13:24-30. This is a pretty classic “day of judgment” piece from Jesus’ teachings. Now, the traditional interpretation that I hear when going over this Scripture is that eventually, THE judgment will occur, and some people are wheat, some are weeds, and one had better hope they are wheat! What’s more, far too many people use this to justify their prejudicial categories against others. We say things like, “One day, they’ll get what they deserve,” and “Thank goodness I am not one of those.”

Looking at the text though, we spot something interesting. When the enemy plants the weeds, the “slaves of the householder” point it out, and the response of the householder is not what we might expect. The slaves ask if they should go ahead and uproot the weeds, and the householder (Jesus) responds, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (13:29-30). On the surface, it would seem Jesus is worried about accidentally uprooted those that are wheat with those that are weeds. The problem is, people aren’t rooted in the ground, and this is a parable.

Jesus isn’t hoping that eventually the weeds and wheat grow apart. He is hoping that there will eventually be no weeds. God’s grace is evident in the fact that He doesn’t want judgment to be premature, and He wants all of us to find our way back home. We are not doomed to either be wheat or weeds. Whether or not we are the fruit of the kingdom or not is dependent upon our willingness to seek after God and live a life that reflects the love He shows us in Christ.  

You are not doomed to be anything. I am not, either. We have to make daily decisions, and whatever we decide will determine what we are in the end. Will we make mistakes, even after resolving to bear the good fruit of the kingdom? Absolutely. It happens. The life of faith, however, is not about achieving the perfection of God revealed in Jesus. It is about pursuing it with grace for ourselves AND for each other. It is the refusal to give up on ourselves and on each other, just as God refuses to give up on us. I think that is some damn good news, and I hope you agree.

So, as the quote at the start of this post says, we are free to decide what fruit we will bear in our lives. It is never too late to change our choices, to seek help in order that we may walk a different path. We are not stuck with no way out of the darkness. There is a searchlight that is always shining, and it is my prayer that you will lift your hands, raise your voice, and begin the slow move toward it. God will be there every step of the way, and He will take care of the rest.

Peace be with you!

The Season of Giving and Why God Probably Doesn’t Like Christmas

“Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” — Isaiah 1:14

Now THAT is a Scripture full of holiday cheer! Okay, so between the title and Scripture, you may think this is going to be harsh, but it really isn’t. I don’t hate Christmas, and neither does God, I’m sure. There are, however, some issues for the faithful, and anybody else, when it comes to seasons, rituals, and holidays. So let’s talk. 

Now, this isn’t going to be a rant about the pagan roots of modern-day Christmas decor and traditions. Yes, it’s true. No, it isn’t a bad thing because those symbols are re-interpreted faithfully. All in all, if it bothers you, don’t get a tree. It’s not a requirement and your faith is more important. So there. Done. 

That said, the reason I picked the Scripture I did for this conversation is because I’ve gotten sick of hearing the phrase “Season of Giving” applied to Christmas time. Why? Because giving, kindness, and familial love are not to be restricted to particular times and places. This attitude actually typifies one of the worst issues facing us as Christians (and as people in general).

What issue? The issue of compartmentalized living. You know what I’m talking about. “Religious me” is private and for church time. “Work me” is for work. “School me” is for school, and so on. Similarly, we have “Holiday me,” the alter ego that goes all “best behavior” for the span of about a month or so, and I am just about sick of all of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have been just as guilty of this as everyone else. It’s a problem we all have in this world where it is frowned upon to be utterly devoted to a way of being that doesn’t match the values of the powers that be. That’s why we have holidays, designated times for kindness and familial celebration so that, when they end, we can ease back into life as it should be lived: in pursuit of other things. 

This practice is as bad as it sounds, especially within the Christian world. When Christmas became the “Season of Giving” and our holy days/worship meetings became THE time and place to devoutly practice our faith, a major battle was lost in the war for our souls. It became much easier to have our cake and eat it. We can worship at the designated moments while dedicating the remainder of our time to getting what we want, achieving what we desire to achieve. Why is this a problem?

Nothing changes, including our hypocrisy. To us, it seems like balance. To the rest of the world, it’s the proof that what we believe is self-serving B.S. 

So what is the solution? Abandon holidays?

Don’t be dramatic

While we are on the subject, though, it’s time worship and holidays (from the Old English word meaning, “Holy Day”) were re-understood as what they were really intended to be: reminders. The practice of faith and goodness is not found in the sanctuary, worship center, or the temporary toleration of difficult people in the “spirit of Christmas.” Worship, holy days, and other such themed seasons are supposed to be reminders, means of getting in the habit so we can function like human beings were intended in the other aspects of our lives.  

Now, you’ve no doubt heard or been this person before. “I don’t celebrate commercial holidays because we should be that way all the time.” Well, we aren’t, ding-bat, that’s the problem. However, instead of treating these holy days and weekly reminders as instances in which we can learn how to habitually love, we treat them like the timed trials in which we are to get all of that distracting affection, adoration, and discipleship out of the way so that we can get back to living life in the usual self-serving, poor-ignoring, tension-avoiding way. 

This is why God says what he does in the Scripture at the start of this post from the prophet Isaiah. Our holidays and designated times/places for worshiping and following God “have become a burden to [God], [He] is weary of bearing them,” precisely because their point is being missed entirely. These seasons and holy days are designed to teach and remind us to “cease evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17). These are actions that make up a lifestyle of faith, the intended lifestyle of Christians (it’s even a great way to live as a non-Christian, I might add). This is not a lifestyle that allows for our preferred, compartmentalized lifestyle. We are to be “faithful me” at work, at school, at home, in the voting booth, in the mall, yes, in our places of worship. 

As you go about the holidays, worship, and rituals of your life (whether they be Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, family dinners, new moons, weekly worship, Lent, Ramadan, etc.), remember that these are times to develop habits, not to hastily exercise all of your kindness. What habits? The habits that will allow you to live a faithful, kind, generous, just, and full life all day, every day. If we can begin to take even a tiny step in this direction, perhaps we will see a “Season of Giving” that never ends, and that Kingdom of God will move just a tad bit closer.

Peace be with you!

 


Sharing, Caring, and the Word “No”

“Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.” — Mark 4:5-6, NRSV

An exceptionally special person in my life shared an article with me, which you can find here. The article regards empathetic people, people able to really grasp how a person is feeling and thinking. Most people have some level of empathy, and whether or not it is your primary way of dealing with others or not, this article is worth the read. Empathy, and caring for others in general, is a draining place to be in. Odds are, you know what it’s like to be a giver. It can be rewarding, powerful, and somewhat addicting. In fact, it can be tempting to make our lives all about what we put out into the world, which, while well-intended, leads to a severe loss of self.

In the world of faith, it is no different. The quote above is from the “Parable of the Sower” in Mark 4. In this parable, Jesus is addressing the various responses to the Gospel that we still find today. The article my beloved friend shared with me made me think of this parable, specifically the seed that fell on rocky ground.

Why is that?

Well this particular instance of withering is characteristic of many people who are too busy reaching out to develop any depth of soil or rootedness in their lives. Why is this important? Roots nourish the plant. They reach deep into the nutrient soil far below the surface, supplying the plant with the energy, growth, and the ability to healthily grow and be sustained. Even when the season changes and the weather turns harsh, the plant can retreat into the soil, back to the roots, until the time comes to reach out again.

In life, we are called to “bear fruit”, yes (Mark 4:20). We are called to reach out to others and care for them as we would like done for us (Luke 6:31). However, if we don’t gain depth, develop roots in our lives, and take the time to make sure we are healthy, we won’t be able to do that to the degree we want to. We will give and give and give until there is nothing left and we become defined by the uses we have for others. When times get difficult, when it becomes hard to give, our shallow sense of self will cause us to wither away, as Jesus says in Mark 4:17. Even though Jesus is referring to remaining faithful in the face of persecution, the application still works for the situations in which our failure to be nourished eventually chokes out our ability to be a nourishing presence for others.

Sure, we might be able to give, nonstop martyr-style for a good long while. However, that giving will lack the transformative depth, quality, and sustainability to truly make a difference in our lives that the lives of others. The same truth for empathy and self-giving is true with practicing faith. It doesn’t matter if you read the Bible a book a day for a year if by the end of that time, you’re sick of doing it and don’t even know how to live what you’ve read. It doesn’t matter if you go to church every week, multiple times per week if you don’t take the time to personally develop your faith in a way that complements that community time. It doesn’t matter if you go build houses in a foreign country in the name of Christ if that is the limit of spiritual development you allow for yourself, burning out in a matter of a few short years.

In all of this, the truth remains the same: in order to sustainably show grace, compassion, and love for others, we must first be able to receive the grace, compassion, and love we are offered by God, by others, and by ourselves. What does this look like?

  1. Develop sustainable spiritual habits that nourish your soul. Reading a chapter of Scripture in the morning and evening, praying two or three times a day, meeting with the Church once a week, serving regularly, going on a spiritual retreat by yourself to recharge, all of these are possible means by which you can remain spiritually rooted in God and your place in the story of His love.
  2. Make sure that you are mentally healthy. Everybody needs someone to talk to, and sometimes, dishing to your friend over cocktails just won’t do it. There is no shame in seeking out professional mental help, even if you “feel fine.” It is a place where you can literally vent about anything and everything by someone who is not going to judge you. It is also a great place to discuss your worries, your concerns, and to develop a plan that keeps you in the healthiest place imaginable so that all of your relationships and endeavors function as highly as possible. God wants you to be equipped to handle all that faithful living involves, and that includes having the mental capacity and health to know what you need in order to better serve others.
  3. Make sure you are as physically healthy as your situation allows. There are many things out of our control, but having some sort of regular physical care (whether that means gym workouts, sports, walking, regular doctor visits, sleeping 10 hours a night, or a healthy diet) is key to being able to healthily manage your own life along with the concerns of others when needed. Not everyone can exercise conventionally, I get that, but making sure that you, in some way, are taking care of your physical needs will ensure that you are strong enough to handle life.
  4. Maintain boundaries. There is absolutely no shame in saying, “No,” as the article I was discussing earlier points out. Including the concerns above, you have a life which God has given you to enjoy and maintain, which means that sometimes, you will have to know when to back out of “giving mode” so that you can soak up the nutrients you need. Whether that is time with family, friends, your counselor, your Bible, or your weight set, there is no shame or selfishness in making sure that you take time to charge your batteries. No one has the right to obliterate or transgress your boundaries, and if they can’t understand that, it’s their problem, not a problem with you.

In order to give effectively and meaningfully, we also have to be able to receive the spiritual, emotional, and physical nutrition God intends us to have. If we are going to live impactful lives, we have to have the roots to sustain us, and those don’t come except through radical self-care. Just as God loves others, God loves YOU and wants YOU to live a blessed life that blesses others. The only way to achieve that, to give as God gives, is for us to take time to soak up the grace we are offered, and to, sometimes, just say, “No.”

Peace be with you!

“The Kingdom of God is Within You”

Prayer is something with which I have always struggled. I believe in God, specifically as revealed in Jesus, but for some reason, communication or connection with God is something that I just haven’t really been able to get a grip on… until recently. At least, I think so. That’s the thing about prayer and worship life, though. It involves transitions, growth, and practice. I have wandered through several different ways of praying and trying to connect with God, following the advice of spiritual authorities, books, TED Talks, and a host of other material.

If you are someone who has struggled with prayer and feeling connected to God, you’re not alone. In the midst of all that searching, I have hit some pretty “dry” times. Now, how we feel isn’t necessarily the most important factor in spirituality, nor should it be. Often people believe they are experiencing God when they are really experiencing addictive “spiritual highs” that are the result of good music, careful lighting, and other forms of emotional manipulation prevalent in the “business of church” these days.

True connection with God can be found in such settings, indeed, it can be found in a variety of ways, but that connection shouldn’t be contingent on those things. Connecting with God should leave the believer at peace, and when emotions turn against them, it should still remain as a sustaining force. Discovering this connection in a world (and institutional church) governed by “cheap spiritual thrills” is tough, and if you’re like me, you know it isn’t easy to recover authentic connection with the One.

With that said, I’ll share a bit about what has helped me, in the hopes that it might serve you.

  1. I find it very difficult to focus on connecting with something as abstract as God, that is the external, unknowable entity that is literally the source of all life in the universe. That is big, incorporeal thing to try to have a personal connection to. This is partly by design. In Exodus 3, when Moses asks what God’s name is, God answers with what is thought of to be God’s personal name, YHWH, which really means “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” This is a statement that God’s entirety is something not to be known or grasped, for the simple reason that to try to box God is idolatry. There are no images associated with this, nor is there even a true name from which to construct a character. God is beyond definition, and that is a very hard subject from which I can draw spiritual nourishment and transformation.
  2. God is not entirely external to us. Yes, I know, I just went on and on about God’s unknowable qualities, but God is also one who reveals divinity to us. Just as God revealed that aspect of His nature to Moses in the passage above, so God has offered Himself to all of humanity in a few ways.
    • First, let’s look at the creation stories of Genesis. Yes, they are two different narratives in chapter 1 and chapter 2, but there is some beautiful commonality regarding God’s relationship with us that can prove instructive. We are told in Genesis 1, regarding humankind, “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Switching over to chapter 2, we see “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” What do these two passages have in common? Well, they both describe God as having left some part of Himself with us from the moment we enter existence. All of us are born with the image of God resting upon us, and His Spirit, His breath, sustaining us. This is the part of us that seeks after God, seeks unity with God. We often squelch it with our sin, which is why it has to be revived, which brings me to the next example.
      • God says in Joel 2:28-32, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Welp, in the Christian story, this is an occurrence that is first fulfilled in Acts 2, in which the Spirit of God falls upon the first of the Church, and they “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” which re-activated that image of God, restoring us and redeeming us. Even more, it gives us the gift of God’s presence with us always, which brings me to my third point.
  3. Sometimes, connecting with God can mean turning inward. This doesn’t mean we see ourselves as God, but instead, it means being still and focusing on the presence of God within us, rather than on the incomprehensible reality we are told lives in the sky and wants us to talk to Him. It means being silent, rather than speaking to the sky or the air around us. It means remembering the promise of God to remain with us, that we are made in God’s image, and in Christ that image is restored to our sight through a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When we do this, we can learn to peacefully rest in that presence, and from there, our communication with God can be nourishing and transforming, as prayer is intended to be. You can call this meditation, contemplation, interior prayer, whatever you like, but remember, this is focused on the presence of God with us in the form of the Holy Spirit, not an abstract spiritual practice centering on detachment.

Earlier this week, I realized that I was spiritually frustrated with my outward prayer life. I felt no connection or nourishment, and it wasn’t sustaining me. So I got quiet. I closed my eyes put my head to the floor, and repeated in my mind and heart a repetitive prayer I learned in seminary: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.” I did this while recognizing the Spirit of God within me, and intentionally put forth every word and thought while maintaining outward silence. Everything was intentional and from my heart, and for the first time, I felt a closeness, knowledge of the One who reveals Himself to us in Christ. It’s going to take more practice, but I am actually looking forward to it, which is new.

I hope this testimonial has been of service. If you are in need of deeper connection, but can’t seem to find it, don’t give up. Try remembering that God is not up, up, and far away from us. Sure, God is beyond our knowing in some ways, but He also reveals Himself to us and gives Himself to us through the Spirit within you and I. This is a gift that we would do well to remember and honor, and perhaps, in this world full of noise, what we need is silence, stillness, and the time to turn inward and remember who and whose we really are.

Peace be with you!

Trending

“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!