Sacrifice Isn’t Sacrifice

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. — Matthew 25:32-33, NRSV

I live in a country that speaks often of sacrifice. We extol the virtues of our military and civil service members, revering the sacrifices they make to keep our nations safe and free. Movies portray characters that give of themselves to a heroic degree, always affecting some sort of monumental change at the end. Not surprisingly, we also lift up Jesus and His sacrifice, which grants us forgiveness and understanding of God’s insurmountable love.

With all that in mind, I believe we are very unhealthy when it comes to the notion of sacrifice and the “hero-worship” to which this nation subscribes. It is right that we respect the choice of those who join our military out of a love for family and country. This becomes problematic, however, when we are no longer allowed to question the legitimacy of the causes for which they are made to fight. Further, our respect seems to be mere lip service in a country with such high veteran unemployment and suicide rates.

Our police officers should be respected and given every chance and resource to safely and effectively keep our streets free of crime and violence. This goes too far, however, when the justice system cannot be challenged for its injustices against the poor and people of color. Again, our praise falls short when budgets, paychecks, and training protocols don’t reflect a desire for safety when it comes to our officers and civilians.

Parenthood requires self-sacrifice and putting the needs of others before ourselves. Problems arise when this idea is used to send an abused wife or child back to their home with the misguided hope of “keeping the family together” and “suffering as Christ suffered.” Again, what is a good notion of self-giving becomes an occasion by which innocents pay the price for the misdeeds of others.

I hope you noticed an important distinction. I am in no way criticizing the individuals who are simply trying to do what is right, but I am casting a suspicious look on the powers that make use of their good intentions. Blaming individual persons for structural issues is unproductive, and I do not want to be misunderstood.

So what is my point here? Sacrifice in and of itself is not necessarily a good or blessed thing. It matters who is doing the sacrificing, and it also matters for what they are making the sacrifice. Further, it is important to note that sacrifice, in the Christian sense, is not to be limited to our heroes. It’s the call of all people who claim to follow Jesus.

The text of Scripture that motivated this point is Matthew 25:31-46, known commonly as “The Sheep and the Goats” or “The Judgment of the Nations.” The “sheep” are those who, at the final judgment, are commended for their care of others (verses 34-40). As they did to “least of these,” so they did to Christ (verse 40). Notice the “sheep” have no idea that they were serving Jesus, just that they were doing the right thing!

Now, to truly care for another person, we must sacrifice ourselves. To feed, give water, clothe, visit, and comfort, we must give of our comfort and resources. This kind of sacrifice must be made of our own volition, utilizing our gift of freewill to honor God.

The “goats” also make sacrifices… out of others. They receive criticism for refusing the same compassion evident in the lives of the “sheep” (verses 41-45), and they pay the penalty for such selfish behavior (verse 46). When we decide not to care for others, we sacrifice them for the sake of our comfort, security, and self-preservation.

Now, it was no accident that sheep and goats were chosen to represent these two divisions of people. Both animals are used for sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the parallel makes perfect sense! Sheep are used as freewill offerings, while goats are the offerings for sin. Creepy, right?

One represents an offering of free will to God. The other represents a necessary sacrifice because of the power of human sin. The “sheep” sacrifice themselves by choice, offering comfort and peace to the afflicted. When we get to the “goats,” we see those who sacrifice others for the sake of themselves.

The latter is not a worthy sacrifice, and here is the takeaway: God will vindicate those who are sacrificed by executing justice on those who take advantage of them… as well as executing judgment on those who allow this to happen. It is here that we have a serious implication for this world and our tendency toward hero-worship.

When we pay lip service to those with genuine, self-sacrificing motives, we fail to truly honor what they have given. For example, if we look to Christ as a hero as opposed to an example, we fail to realize the truly transformative power of what He has done. We are called to take up our cross and follow, not to sit underneath the cross and be grateful that we no longer have a dog in this fight.

A more desirable alternative is to embody the values we extol in others, recognizing them as examples for us to follow. We should be willing to make sacrifices so that all may live full and blessed lives without having to bear the weight of our selfishness. This means asking the questions, taking the chances, and making the generous choices, even when all of this is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Now, I am not laying the world’s fate at your feet. This is a work that will not be completed until Christ comes to restore all things… but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a role to play. Start small. As always, I believe in examining our daily lives, finding opportunities to extend hospitality, keep silence, and work for justice. Whether it’s the man begging on a corner, the co-worker having a hard time, or that unbearable family member, our day-to-day decisions will bear witness to our willingness to sacrifice either ourselves or each other.

Instead of leaning on others to do what we will not, the life of Christ calls us to join the large family of people who bear witness to the love of God by their lives of chosen self-giving. Rather than merely talking of our heroes, let’s respect them fully by doing our part, walking the way of the Cross together, that we all may experience the life of God that awaits us.

Peace be with you!

For the Days I Don’t Believe

No, you didn’t misread the title. There are days when the idea of believing  in and connecting with the Source of all Being in the universe makes no sense to me. Usually, these days are spawned by my rebellious nature. Someone tells me what I should believe or what people of my faith believe, and my instant response is to resist when the subject appears to be arbitrary or unknowable.

Do you ever have those days? I bet you do. I have found that people are reluctant to admit it because, as I covered in a previous post, doubt is not considered acceptable by many in the Christian world. It is often seen as a weakness, and people like me are often blamed for our unbelief and the inability to “feel connected” to God.

This is consistent with current worldly trends. Faith is seen as a matter of feeling, so we seek worship environments with plenty of good music and lighting. When we don’t get what we want, we move on until we do, never thinking that our dependence on how we feel is getting in the way of our worship.

Our world also promotes tribalism. Whether it’s politics, social causes, or our faith, it is considered weakness to question the groups to which belong. After all, there is no security in admitting we might be wrong.

Yesterday was one of those days when I didn’t feel like a believer. My connection to God just wasn’t there, and my mind was deconstructing everything to which I normally devote myself. It was a rough day, but like all such days, an important lesson was close at hand.

Today, I stand as a believer, a person of the Way of Christ, not because I feel fuzzy when I think about it, and not because there was an open, front-row parking spot at Target this morning.  I believe by choice. I believe because I have an entire life story to look back upon wherein I see the power of my faith at work in my life.

My faith has made me a better man. It has sustained me in some of the darkest and most painful moments in my life. Days may come when my feelings and thoughts betray me, but in the end, I have to make a choice. We all do.

I don’t know if this is a struggle you have, but if so, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Instead of relying solely on how you feel or how well you’re able to rationalize your faith, I encourage you to remember the powerful transformation brought about by belief in Jesus. If you don’t have that experience, I pray that you will decide to strive for it. In any case, don’t judge yourself for questioning. It can actually be a healthy practice for your faith!

If you don’t struggle with your faith and tend to… admonish (judge) those who do, please stop. Compassion is part of the Christian witness, and when we fail to show it to everyone, we fail to walk in the Way. It is scary when people we know and love express doubt in something so dear to us, but it’s important to remember that love, support, and camaraderie stand a much better chance of promoting faith and peace than judgment and fear tactics.

Jesus let’s us know that faith is costly, and it won’t bring us all the peace, security, and prosperity we crave in life. Rather, we will be met with persecutions. We are told, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 21:16-17, NRSV). There are going to be days when the Way of Jesus doesn’t seem appealing. So what then?

We have to make a choice. Faith is a decision to walk in the Way, even when it doesn’t appear to do anything for us. When we make the choice to worship and act in faith in spite of our feelings and doubts, we are actually closer to the heart and mind of Christ.

I pray that you will join me in making this choice. It is a Way of adversity and self-sacrifice. Days will come when it makes perfect sense for us to want to abandon it. However, we must remember that it is also the Way of God’s transforming love, which makes the risks well worth it.

Peace be with you!

Doubt: What I Wish I Had Known

Doubt isn’t a thing fondly spoken of in faith circles. James tells us that “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” and this person “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8, NRSV). Such opinions abound in the Scriptures, but I can’t help but feel a little rebellion toward them. After all, it is unreasonable to expect humans to believe in what cannot be seen with unyielding resolve.

For some reason, though, this seems to be the standard for the religious of the world. Doubt means a lack of faith, which puts one in danger of a lesser standing in the eyes of the Divine. Anything that could cause a person to reconsider their faith, traditions, or core belief system is a threat to the fragile realities we tend to build for ourselves.

I witnessed this first-hand in college. I was part of two pretty conservative ministries, and as a history major with a geology minor, evolution was just a fact for me, as it still is today. Little did I know that when I got into a conversation about Genesis with my small groups, my invitations back to those gatherings would cease and I found myself in search of a new spiritual home.

When I presented the evidence for an evolutionary view of biology and history that conflicted with Creationism, I was met with anger that seemed… panicked. I didn’t understand it, and I also felt there was something wrong with me.

This feeling continued even through seminary. Why couldn’t I believe like all of my classmates? What was making me question everything? Where did this resistance come from that kept me from accepting everything as it appeared to be?

I sought out counsel and was told “the devil was trying to throw me off course.” That didn’t help. Other people said I just needed to “fake it” until I was convinced. That came across as basically being advised to brainwash myself.

It was only when I stumbled upon Søren Kierkegaard that I found something useful. Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian famous for his understanding of doubt and faith as realities that play off of each other, best summed up in his quote, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” For Kierkegaard, faith is something that always exists beside doubt, as faith, truly expressed, is a decision to believe in spite of a lack of what is considered proper evidence.

This changed the game for me. Suddenly, my doubting nature wasn’t a curse, but something natural to me. It was a characteristic that removed all pretense and forced me to decide whether I was going to live in light of faith or something else. Faith, hope, and love became conscious decisons rather than passively received and executed spiritual gifts.

Odds are that you’ve shared my experience in some way, especially if you come from a Christian background. Doubt can often be a source for guilt and despair, even outside of the religious world. The “go-getters” are the true believers who never seem to waver or step back for examination. To be successful, we must believe, confidently striding forward in all our glory, right?

Nonsense. Life takes all kinds, and your doubt is essential to making sure we don’t get too full of ourselves. When no one asks questions or challenges the status quo, growth and positive change become impossible.

Doubt serves to keep us all in check, ensuring that every decision we make about what we believe and do in life is intentional. While an excess of ever-present doubt can be disheartening, tempering our words and actions with the possibility that we might be wrong produces a humility we could use more of these days.

So maybe you feel like you’re always the “Debbie Downer.” Maybe you feel like this world has no place for you because you don’t connect with our perceived cultural norms. Perhaps you feel flawed because you struggle to accept the dominant beliefs that surround you.

Well take it from me. You’re not flawed, broken, sick, or lost. You are gifted, loved, and here on purpose. So embrace the doubt in life, that the faith you choose to hold may mean all the more.

Peace be with you!

You Can’t “Have” God

…and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.” — Leviticus 16:2, RSVCE

I was in seminary, seated in a class we called “Systematics.” This was the infamous course in which two professors with different theological stances (who wouldn’t kill each other) co-taught on the different aspects of Christian belief. At the end of this course, the students were to write a thirty page paper that detailed their constructed theology based on the conflicting perspectives they received from professors, along with their own independent studies.

ANYWAY, in one of these seminars, a class discussion was being had over the nature of God and His relationship with humans. Now, I am a fairly relaxed guy. If you refer to God as “Mother” or “the Divine,” I understand that. There are arguments for that. “Father” is just easier and more comfortable for me. On this particular day, though, somebody took it just a little too far.

I had just wrapped up about my view of God as the most mysterious, distant, yet intimate reality that could possibly be conceived. I see God as the One who offers no real name to Moses in Exodus 3, precisely because this is a God that cannot be boxed or neatly categorized. In response, an older woman in the class interjected, “I mean, I understand that, but to me He is just family, I mean that’s ‘Daddy,’ know what I mean?”

Rest assured, I kept my reaction in check. Sure, my skin felt like it was crawling off of my body while my soul wanted to launch itself into sweet oblivion, but I was fine. You might be wondering why this bothered me so much, so let’s look at this text from Leviticus.

The context of this passage is a situation in which Aaron has lost two sons (Leviticus 10:1-3) because they did not behave in a holy way toward their charge. Because holiness and unholiness cannot abide together, especially in Leviticus, God’s very presence lashes out and consumes Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. These are two members of the chosen line of Levi, the clan of Israel perpetually assigned to be priests before God on behalf of the nation… and they were consumed by God for being lax in their duties.

Just because people are chosen and loved by God doesn’t mean that they possess God. God loves us all as His children and desires a relationship with us, but that doesn’t mean that God is “in our pocket.” We still have responsibilities, and we are still dealing with something that cannot be contained, boxed, packaged, or defined. While God has made revelations of Himself to us in Jesus Christ, even the Incarnation is not what was expected (living a poor, nomadic life that culminates in being featured in a public execution, for example).

So my problem with the idea that “God is my Daddy, Buddy, Divine Pal,” and the like is that we somehow seem to forget that God isn’t always on our side the way we might think. This is a Presence that first and foremost is the I AM of Exodus 3. When we live lives of selfishness and lack compassion, it doesn’t matter if we pray to “Daddy God” every night. God will not be pleased, and we will eventually know it. God’s love is always there, the relationship is always possible, but in no way does that mean we are at a level of intimacy that puts us on God’s level. In no way are we not accountable for what we think, do, and say. This puts some fear in me, and I’m sure it does in you. Now you know what it is to have the “fear of God.” It’s not abject terror, but it is recognizing that you are still dealing with something that is totally “other,” something that is beyond us but chooses to be near to us. That is both an encouraging and humbling thought, yes?

So what am I getting at here? I don’t think this particular student was being idolatrous or silly, but I do think there is some reverence lost when we over-familiarize ourselves with God. Further, we become dangerous. When we feel God always has our back no matter what, we lose the ability to self-examine and recognize our need to change and grow into a more accurate depiction of Christ. On the large scale, religious terrorists feel that God is theirs and theirs alone, and they are fueled by the misconception that He will ultimately sanction whatever action they take in His name. They are wrong. Sometimes, God’s idea of “having our back” is giving us a swift kick in the butt to let us know we got off track… And that is okay.

For today, let’s take a moment to be in awe of the great Mystery that has revealed Itself to us. Let’s marvel at the all-inclusive Whole of reality, the Source of all Being, who chose to reveal Himself to us throughout history, and most especially in Jesus Christ. How about we take a moment to be utterly humbled that THAT is what went to the cross for us? I hope that, like me, you will find yourself challenged, encouraged, and feeling as loved as you really are.

Peace be with you!

Demons and Nutrition: A Weird Lesson on Holiness

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.” — Matthew 12:43-44, RSVCE

As a personal trainer, I have to work against a lot of myths and bad practices that put people off from something that should be healthy and enjoyable for them.

“No, you shouldn’t lift for 3 hours a day.”

“Please don’t squat that low.”

“No, you shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights after just starting a routine.”

One of the biggest fitness/health issues when it comes to general wellness has to do with nutrition. Too many people look at a healthy lifestyle in negative terms.

“I can’t do this,” or “I can’t eat that.”

This is known as deprivation. It’s a practice that works short-term, only to end in binge-eating and disappointment. Deprivation actually fosters resentment in people who are trying to make a positive change in their life, as the entire approach is defined by strict limitations.

A better practice for which I advocate has to do with the positive. “I need to add/do more of…” Instead of dwelling on the fact that one can’t eat snack cakes, why not focus on eating more protein and plant foods per meal/snack? Rather than act like a monk who isn’t allowed to drink alcohol, why not place an emphasis on drinking more and more water on a daily basis?

The point here is that positive transformation isn’t just about getting rid of things. It’s important to emphasize how we fill the void left by our unhealthy practices. Any addiction, negative attitudes, or habitual sins have to be replaced with something healthy for the transformation process to take full and lasting effect.

This is where Jesus’ lesson from Matthew 12 comes into play. Jesus has been casting out demons and illnesses all over the place, but the religious authorities keep seeking signs and explanations from Him instead of recognizing the Godly power at work within Him. In response, Jesus brings up an interesting point about exorcised demons, or “unclean spirits,” and what it takes to keep them out.

Even though Jesus is sending away the various afflictions that are brought to Him, the unbelief of the people and authorities obstructs any lasting improvement. Because they don’t recognize the Kingdom of God in their midst, and because they refuse to accept and embody the teachings of the Messiah, the empty void left by their demons and diseases only leaves room for more negativity to come and wreak havoc. Though Jesus leaves all in His wake “swept, and put in order,” the fact that hearts remain “empty” means there is room for the powers of evil to return.

This passage reveals our place in Gospel. While God’s gracious work in Christ cleanses us of evil and sin, we are responsible for maintaining that relationship so that we don’t fall back into habits that place a barrier between us and God. God’s love and grace are always there, but we have to decide whether or not to embrace them.

Too often, as Christians we think in terms of what is or is not allowed. We shouldn’t do this or that, and unfortunately this has the same negative effect we find in the fitness/nutritional world. We come to resent all the rules and regulations, ultimately falling away.

Instead, I suggest we look at filling the empty space left by our sin with the things that bring us closer to God and each other. Our addictions can be replaced with support groups and service. Our greed can be replaced with generosity. Our closed-mindedness can be replaced with a heart of compassion. Our judgmental words can be replaced by words of love, affirmation, and the pursuit of understanding. If we do this, we leave no room for the powers of evil to return and dominate us, and that sounds good to me.

Peace be with you!

 

New Book Published!

Just wanted to announce that my dear friend, Ekram Haque, has published his book on hope/optimism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam! Not only did he consult and quote me for the Jesus chapter, but he was gracious enough to invite me to write the foreword. I encourage everyone to check this text out, as hope is something we desperately need in this world of ours. It is also an excellent work for drawing parallels between the different branches of one of the world’s largest faith families. At the very least, you will encounter perspectives that are different and though-provoking, so what do you have to lose?

You can find the book here on Amazon!

Violence and Christian Compassion

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. — Luke 13:5, NRSV

When I look at the world and all of its violence, I always try to look and see how we as a nation are responding to it. News articles from a variety of sources, social media, church and dinner table conversations, all of these are indicators of our position regarding the death and violence that occur on a daily basis. For the most part, our position looks pretty bad.

Take, for example, the shooting of Botham Jean in Dallas. He was a man in his own apartment, which was mistakenly entered by Dallas police officer who proceeded to shoot him dead. In the wake of the shooting, news reports emerge regarding the marijuana later found in his apartment. It may seem like a trivial detail, but it’s actually an act of character assassination that is all too common, as if to say, “Sure, it happened. But look! It wasn’t one of the good ones!”

We tend to be stingy with our compassion. When someone is killed or suffers violence, our response is proportional to their innocence. Death row inmates (understandably) garner very little compassion, along with anyone who was committing a crime of any kind at the time of their death. Certain states even have laws that seem to say property is worth killing another human over!

For the Christian person, this must become unacceptable. Too many of us in the faith operate by this system of selective compassion, and it is exposing a frightful hypocrisy on the part of a belief system that centers on a God-Man who was put to death according to laws of His day!

So, if you’ve stuck around this long, you may be asking, “Why?” It’s an expected question.

After all, why should we show compassion even toward the worst of the worst? After all, don’t they deserve what they get? Perhaps they deserve worse!

Let me ask you this: do you want God to treat you as you deserve? He will, you know. Jesus says so multiple times, and it is even a central part of our most sacred prayer, remember?

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus teaches us, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 5:14-15). If we know this and repeat it every Sunday, why in the world do we treat others according to a standard we hope God will set aside for us?

God weeps tears for even the worst killer in existence. He may even weep more for this lost soul. On the cross, God even bled for the worst of sinners. How then, as His people, can so many self-professing Christians not see the danger in refusing to practice the spiritual discipline of unrelenting compassion? It doesn’t amount to a lack of desire for justice, nor is it a means of condoning wrongdoing, but it is an expression of the grace we believe we have received from God. It is our way of loving back the One who died because of our hard hearts. Further, it is a practice that is applicable without regard for race, creed, profession, nationality, or any other worldly criteria that are often used to determine the worthiness of others.

The good news hidden in this message is that God does love and is eager to forgive us, regardless of our past. The challenge is that He expects us all to pay that grace forward to all others, regardless of whether or not we feel they deserve it. The Christian’s response to violence in this world should consist of heart-broken compassion and self-reflection. These responses do not exclude a desire for justice, but they do temper it with awareness, preventing us from transgressing in thought, word, or deed.

This kind of change is not easy. It takes practice and a lot of grace with ourselves and each other. However, if we start to make the effort, the promised blessing will follow. After all, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Peace be with you!