Don’t Judge Your Journey…

Do not reproach one who is turning away from sin; remember that we all deserve punishment. Sirach 8:5, NRSV

At age 27, almost 28, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’ve learned lessons about managing emotions, honoring relationships, watching the words of my mouth, and avoiding situations I don’t need to be in. I’ve learned about my relationships with God, religion. and other people. As you can imagine, many of the lessons I have learned came through the undesireable avenue of mistakes made… and I used to hate myself for it.

As a society, it feels like we have gotten in the habit of judging not only the lessons we have learned, but also those others have had to learn. While one person may struggle with addiction, they cannot fathom why someone would cheat on their spouse. When one person works their way to an early grave, neglecting their family and friends, they can’t stand those who are overzealous with their opinions online or at social gatherings. In all these instances, we are resentful of ourselves because we weren’t born perfect, and downright wrathful toward those who have had to learn things we didn’t.

As I said before, I used to HATE that I ever had to learn how to be a decent spouse, son, friend, etc. I hated myself for not having a natural gift for navigating complicated people and situations. On top of that, I would find relief in the obvious flaws of others.

Guy that yelled at me after a sermon? What a jerk!

Lady that flipped me off in traffic for stopping at a stop sign? Rude!

Overzealous Facebook warrior? Crazy!

It feels good to hammer on people who are flawed in ways we are not. We are able to rationalize OUR mistakes because WE have good reasons, right? We couldn’t say the same about others… Could we?

The Book of Sirach teaches that we shouldn’t reproach people “turning away from sin” because “we all deserve punishment.” The language is somewhat condemning, but the message is powerful. Jesus says something similar in Matthew 7:1-5.

In more positive terms, instead of condemning others for their darkness because we don’t want to confront our own, we should remember that just like “them,” we have lessons to learn, and THAT IS OKAY. We are imperfect creatures, and each of us is on a path. When we despise our path, we start to envy or judge those of others, and no one gets anywhere.

Instead, we should mind our own road, fearlessly and compassionately embracing that which we must learn about life and ourselves. In that process, we become more understanding of others and what they are going through. That understanding enables us to lovingly embrace others where they are, possibly helping them along just as Jesus does in the Gospels.

All of this boils down to treating ourselves more kindly. I had to learn through long processes and lots of therapy that my lessons are nothing to fear or be ashamed of. They’ve made me a better man, husband, friend, son, and (God willing) father. The acceptance of who I am and how I got here has also made me more accepting of others, and I believe this is something God desires for us all.

I pray that you will ease up on yourself. Learn the lessons before you, for that’s what mistakes are intended to be. Through them, we learn humility, patience, and how to do better. Embracing that ride also helps us to be more compassionate toward others, and I don’t have to tell you how important that is.

God loves you. I love you. It’s time for you to love you, so you can love others.

Peace be with you!

Blessed Submission

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5:21, NRSV

Ephesians 5:22-33 is often quoted at weddings, and verse 21 is often omitted from the beginning because it implies that men and women should “be subject to one another,” rather than just the wife being subject to her husband. While this is generally a small issue, I find it gets at the heart of authority and what it actually means to follow Jesus.

We live in a world that likes authority and power. We admire those who are in charge, and we aspire to their perceived level of success, whether it’s the loaded CEO or the couple your age that just bought a nice house while you’re stuck in the same small apartment. As mentioned above, certain traditionalists in the Christian realm believe men are special in the eyes of God, and are thereby called to all positions of prominence in the home and in society. In the church world, those with large parishes and congregations are held up as paragons of effective ministry.

It’s my contention that as long as we maintain this outlook, our world will continue to spiral out of control with greed, envy, and the resulting violence.

When we read this passage in Ephesians, we are seeing so much more than a mandate for newlyweds. Rather, we are actually given a template for the function of society and the potential impact our discipleship can have on this world. The key is submission, which is a dirty word, especially *stereotypical southern drawl* in these here United States.

We don’t like to be subject to anyone but ourselves. We’d rather serve our own interests first, reserving that of others for the occasional act of charity. Whether it’s traffic, self-defense, voting, or relationships, we want things to fit our preferences, and we resent anything that might force us to deviate.

As a result, we are violent. We engage in war to make the world look and function like we prefer. We physically attack or kill those that are different or frightening to us. Our words and thoughts are full of anger and ill-intent for those people or things that inconvenience or challenge us.

But what if we change?

What if we would rather be inconvenienced or hurt than do the same to others? What if we speak and think with the calmness and gentleness we would like to receive? What if we become “subject to one another,” and what if we love each other “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” as Ephesians 5:25 asks of us?

I bet things would start to look very different.

Discipleship isn’t just about how we check our religious boxes. It’s about actually letting the submissive love of Jesus (as witnessed on the cross) touch every single aspect of our lives, whether that’s in traffic, at work, or in the voting booth. Discipleship is about living differently because we have experienced the all-consuming love of God, which is too powerful to ignore!

I hope that you will join me in re-joining verse 21 to the conversation of our human relationships. “Being subject” isn’t a command of passivity that feeds our traditional view of power and authority. Rather, it is the very power of God that we see in Jesus Christ as He became subject to us, that we might know what it takes to truly live out God’s purposes for Creation. This is not a command just for women or saints, but for all people who desire to experience the Kingdom of God here and now.

Peace be with you!

Hiding From God

Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. — Romans 13:14, NRSV

I have many delightful and powerfully spiritual memories associated with traditional Christianity. The Eucharist, my baptism, preaching from a gorgeous Lutheran pulpit in Kentucky, and many such qualities of what would be called “orthodox” Christian circles are firmly and fondly planted in my mind and heart. Then there are… other memories.

Having come of age “in church,” I was always struck by the obsession with “grace” that seemed to yield very little in practice. God forgives us, yet we frequently stone one another for anything and everything. We also claim to believe that humans (along with all creation) are fundamentally good, having been created with the image and breath of God on and within us (Genesis 1:27 and 2:7). But when passages like the one above from Romans came up, there always seems to be this idea that we need Jesus to act as a spiritual, bullet-proof vest of sorts.

In this passage, Paul is talking about setting aside “the works of darkness” in favor of living honorably “as in the day” (13:12-13). We are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (13:14). In this context, we are encouraged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which many take to mean that we cover up who we are so that God only sees Jesus, thereby granting us mercy. 

I think this is a deeply flawed interpretation.

If this is true, it means that God isn’t interested in a relationship with us so much as with a multitude of Jesus clones. The message this sends is that we must hide from God behind Jesus so that our awful, sinful selves can be overlooked. Unfortunately, this is what I was often taught, either explicitly or implicitly by well-meaning teachers and pastors throughout the years. We see this idea put forth in literature, in the pulpit, in our worship songs, and in our liturgy.

What we don’t realize is this kind of thinking reinforces every negative cycle and belief with regard to ourselves and how we perceive our connection to the Divine.

If the “Good News” is that Jesus allows us to hide ourselves from God, that’s… not good. I also don’t believe this to be what the passage is getting at. It seems that to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is to act in a particular way in this life. It’s to walk in discipleship, following the example of love and Divine connection that we have in Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, to “put on Christ” is to be who we were always meant to be!

God doesn’t intend for us to go around in fearful self-loathing masquerading as faith. To follow Jesus is not to hide behind Him, for God doesn’t want us to hide, but to be who we really are. To lead a life of love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, integrity, and peace is nothing more than to embrace all of the gifts which God has given us.

The Good News is that God sees you for who you really are: a good and blessed creation that bears His image and likeness. He sees past your mistakes and sins, loving all of you in a more complete way than anyone else ever could. What remains is for us to act like this is the case, and that is what it means to “put on Christ.”

In Jesus, we see the ideal human and the ideal relationship with the Divine. Jesus fully embraced the Divine within Him, and He invites you and I to do the same as His disciples. God doesn’t want you to hide behind Jesus, but to join our Lord in openly embracing your true nature, which is fundamentally and irrevocably good. The cool thing is that doing this also means treating everyone and everything else in the same way, as all are beautiful manifestations of God’s creative power. So let’s get to it!

Peace be with you!

 

 

From Within

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defileMark 7:15, NRSV

I’ve always looked at this teaching with an emphasis on the “all foods are clean” thing (Mark 7:19). After all, it means I can enjoy bacon guilt-free and it represents a shift from religious box-checking to a more transformative spirituality. But the last part… the “defilement from within” part… that didn’t truly sink in until recently.

We as humans always look to external causes for our inappropriate actions. It’s never our fault. It’s the unclean “stuff” out there that got us.

We see this when the media crucifies an assault survivor for what they were wearing; we hear it about the victim of a careless police officer for what they may or may not have been doing out so late in that neighborhood OR we see the same logic used to justify the assault on a police officer. After all, there’s this back story…

It’s never our fault.

I’ve done this in my own life. Old habits die hard, and all the more so when changing seems too scary or painful. There was always a reason, whether it be my childhood, my losses, or my depression.

We always look for external sources of trouble and salvation. We don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes because then we might be responsible for fixing them. Jesus rightly criticizes this attitude.

Agreeing with James (4:1-3), Jesus asserts that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly(Mark 7:21-22). Our desires and our fears produce the evil we enact in the world. Other people or situations may stimulate or add specificity to these things, but our response is ours alone.

Now this is not a guilt trip or a statement about my own perfection. I am simply indicating that this passage has taken on new life for me because I now understand that I must heal what is within rather than waiting for something from without.

When many of us entered into faith, we are taught that God is a Savior, which is true. But what often follows is the expectation that God will do it all, which is actually a blatant denial of free will. God gives us the means and awareness, and He is with us always, but to change and grow and leave behind our harmful practices is our work. We must desire it, initiate it, and see it through while relying on God’s grace to keep us moving with compassion for ourselves and each other as we all embark on our roads to healing.

For me to change, I have to want it. If any of us have habits in need of changing, it must be us that seek to enter into that process with God. God’s already where He needs to be, He’s just waiting on us to meet Him at the station.

Whatever is plaguing your life, and whatever negative habits or behaviors are manifesting in you, I pray that you will know that it is never hopeless or too late. All that you need to make the change is already with you, waiting for you to find that motivation and get started. Is it your relationship with your family, friends, or kids? Your relationship with God or yourself? Are you simply sick and tired? Whatever it is, may the grace of God light a fire within, and may we all choose to take a step into that transforming Light.

Peace be with you!

But Did You Change, Though?

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! — Galatians 6:15, NRSV

I grew up mostly “in church.” I was baptized, confirmed, took Communion once a month, and attended all the Bible studies and youth events I could. When I became an adult in ministry, I read the Bible daily, studied the faith at seminary, prayed multiple times throughout the day, and participated in service and worship projects all. The. Time.

With all of that said, it’s only been in the last year or so that I feel I have actually experienced the grace of God for myself. When I was a kid and when I was a minister, I made lots of selfish and harmful decisions. I had scars that I had never healed and unacceptable ways of coping with them. While I had affirmed all of the doctrines, aligned with all of the beliefs, and performed all of the pious acts, I had not yet been transformed by a real encounter with the grace of God.

A lot of us are like that. We use the symbols, say the right words, agree to the right doctrines, and do all the right “stuff,” yet our scars remain unhealed, our habits remain unholy, and our lives have yet to be transformed. We talk about the grace of God we see in Jesus, but we don’t feel or know that grace on a real, personal level.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, the Christians in that area were being led astray by those who valued the outward expressions of faith more than the internal transformation brought about by it. Adult Gentiles were getting circumcised to please a particular religious faction, but that sign ultimately proved empty because it amounted to “checking a box” rather than transforming one’s life to follow Jesus. This leads Paul to say what he says in chapter 6, part of which is quoted above.

The truth is that what we believe is irrelevant if it only amounts to being a part of “the club.” If we claim to believe all the right stuff, say and do all the right things, but our lives remain unchanged, it’s time to re-evaluate the depth and meaning of our relationship with God.

The love of God, when experienced and truly understood, is a powerful, deeply moving reality that soaks into one’s very being and provokes change. It inspires us to live differently because we simply can’t afford not to do so when we finally become aware of God’s loving presence throughout this entire created universe. We can’t help but treat ourselves, each other, and this good earth with the respect and dignity of beloved creations of God!

When I was faced with this grace, this unmerited love, I had to change. I had to see a counselor and heal the wounds that had long influenced my behavior. I had to make apologies and find a different path forward. I had to take a step away from what was causing me to stumble so that I might be free to minister effectively in my everyday life. I just had to do all this because it meant I could more fully participate in the love I was experiencing!

If you feel like you are just going through the motions, checking the boxes, and joining “the club” because it’s all you know, there is good news for you. If you have left faith behind because you didn’t see any depth or meaning to it, there is good news for you. If you feel that God can’t possibly love you because of the life you’ve led, there is good news for you.

The good news is that it’s never too late to change. The good news is that God is not a doctrine, a building, an altar, or a ritual. The good news is that God is already present with you and reaching out to you!

I pray that you will ponder this good news and seek to put it into action by changing your approach to life. Live as though the love of God is for you and for all others. Live as though the image of God rests upon you and all whom you encounter. Live like this world is not a resource, but a beloved creation designed to be cared for and protected. After all, it’s true.

Peace be with you!

Entertaining Angels

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2, NRSV

I have a habit of which I have recently become aware. When I am nervous, uncomfortable, or emotionally hurting, I hold my right fingers in my left hand, gripping them firmly. It’s something I have done since I was a child because it made me feel safe. My love language is touch, and when I was a boy I would hug myself or hold my hands like this when I couldn’t sleep. Somehow, this habit has stuck with me even as I approach the age of 30.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author talks about showing “hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Often, we who have heard this passage taught year after year immediately flip to the interpretation that our kindness should be automatic because literal, heavenly beings might be spying on us. I suppose this carries some weight, but after thinking on this habit of mine, I came to the conclusion that there is another way to approach this idea.

Every person bears God’s image. We learn this in Genesis 1, when God says as much (1:26-27). Even without that text, we know that all people are born capable of incredible and horrible things. Often, their choice between these two depends on their upbringing and experiences.

So let’s consider that for a moment.

My own experiences led to far-reaching consequences in the form of holding my own hand and resisting relationships that could hurt me. My wife has graciously and bravely contended with my issues over the years, both acknowledging my scars and refusing to let me be defined by them. While I am better than I was, I have hurt her and others, a reality which now horrifies me.

Odds are, the same is true for you. It’s likely that you have been shaped by many things, both negative and positive, and your less-than-desirable qualities have roots that go deep into the pain you carry. If you don’t think you have less-than-desirable qualities, congrats, we just found one.

So what does this have to do with the passage from Hebrews?

Just as you and I have our issues that can be explained by our past pain, so do others. Sure, they may not hold their own hand or be afraid of relationships. Maybe they are just raging jerks or internet trolls. Maybe they are alcoholics. Perhaps they abuse drugs or bully others. They could also be strict or uncompromising. They could be a mass shooter or terrorist. The point is, every person we meet has been shaped by their world. While they may not respond to it appropriately or responsibly, they still merit compassion because they were once a child like you or I, with all the potential in the world.

In that way, they are undercover angels, hidden by the ugliness of the world.

I am becoming more cognizant of how I treat others, especially those who are difficult or negative toward me, even when they aren’t around. Odds are, it all comes from their own pain, and while I don’t have to take their crap, I also don’t have to add to it by imitating their expression of pain. Perhaps if we can all learn this lesson together and put it into practice, we can see a world transformed by the compassion of Jesus, who calls out to us all.

Peace be with you!

Reconsidering Worship

So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:20, NRSV

When I use the word “worship,” most Christians envision what we call “church.” This is the designated, weekly time we set aside to sing songs, pray prayers, hear a sermon, and sometimes celebrate Communion or Baptisms. It’s a time when we do what we believe to be pleasing to God, namely saying or singing things about Him that we think He would like or appreciate.

Is this what the faith is about? Verbal praise? Sanctioned times and places when we acknowledge God before going about our typical lives?

I don’t think so.

In chapter 5 of the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Paul refers to himself and the other leaders of the church as “ambassadors for Christ” (5:20), as God is “entrusting the message of reconciliation to” them (5:19). While Paul may have been talking about the leadership of the ancient church, the same idea applies to all believers. When Paul, in verse 21, says God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” he means all of us, when reconciled to God through Jesus, are to be that righteousness in the world. As such, we are all to be “ambassadors for Christ,” representatives of His message in the world, sharing the love that we experience.

So what does this have to do with worship?

It’s been my observation that many believers opt for the comfort of praising Jesus as opposed to the struggle of following Him, as if the two are separate. It’s easier to passively experience the reconciling grace of God in a pew than it is to actively imitate and share that grace in a hostile world. We can kneel and apologize every week, participating in the beautiful ritual of the church; we can raise our hands and sing along with the talented contemporary Christian band; we can hum our agreement to a perfectly tweetable sermon. Yet all of this is only part of the greater work of representing Jesus in a world that needs Him.

Now, am I advocating for a guilt-tripping attempt at perfection? Of course not. We aren’t going to “nail it” every time, and you should already be aware that I am just as guilty as everyone else. But transformation is found in the effort of faithful living.

Just as we have received the gift of reconciliation and rightfully praise God for it, so we are also to “pay it forward” and live in honor of Christ daily. We are called to act with love and self-control with regard to that co-worker, classmate, friend, or family member we just don’t get along with. We are called to support the cause of justice, treat all others with the dignity befitting children of God, and work to bring comfort to those in need. Such practices are difficult, costly, and inconvenient, but the best we can do is to never stop trying.

We have each been gifted with reconciliation to God, as well as the invitation to participate in His saving work in the world. This is an unparalleled gift that deserves every bit of our praise and gratitude, but it also places on us the responsibility to get busy loving as Jesus did (and still does). When we start to practice the grace we have received, our worship becomes complete, and we honor the One Who has truly given us an “indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

Peace be with you!