I Believe

It’s not that I’ve left faith behind

I’ve simply cleared my space to find

That I’ve no room for doctrine’s press

Or creeds that cause my mind to stress

‘Bout whether I belong or not

I can’t abide that kind of thought

To me the Spirit’s ever-near

To anyone with ears to hear

Without regard to mosque or mountain

Church or temple, Spirit’s fountain

Waters any willing ground

In whom desire for truth is found

Even those that don’t believe

Can the blessedness receive

God only needs a gentle heart

Willing to do its own part

To make this world a better place

Regardless of the worship space

Now there are those who’d call me lost

A heathen, desperate doubter tossed

Among the waves of modern times

Dressing heresy in rhymes

And that’s just fine, think what you might

I’m only trying to spread light

And love and life as I know how

The rest just doesn’t matter now

But I must say before I go

God’s more than what we think we know.

Forced Religion: A Change in My Thinking

So normally, I’d advocate for voting according to one’s religious values. Recently, though, I have been making a distinction between voting with love and compassion as opposed to “this or that” spiritual inclination. As I’ve reflected on this change, here’s the reason that came to me:

Theocracies are always oppressive.

Whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or any other historically theocratic society, governments based on religious principles always fail their people. At best, the majority of citizens fall under the correct religious umbrella and a minority are persecuted. At worst you have the Taliban, who don’t care about religion so much as control with a religious flavor.

The United States was established by mostly Christian/Deist men. This should not be confused with the idea that the U.S. was supposed to be a Christian nation. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have protections of varied religious practices and protection against the establishment of a state religion.

I bring this up because I realized more explicitly that there is something very unspiritual about voting for a government that would force one’s spirituality on other people. Both liberals and conservatives do this, and it is quite unnerving.

Anti-abortion advocates are heavily driven by religious ideology, usually Christian. The same goes for those who are pro and anti-marriage equality or immigration reform.To force such views on each other via the vote is actually one of the most un-American, unconstitutional, and unkind things we could ever do.

Our nation was designed with a secular bent, not because the founders thought religion was stupid or going away, but because they recognized the danger in government enforcement of religious doctrine. The citizens of this country were expected to vote according to secular principles, using education, reason, and logic to make national decisions. While I would and compassion and neighborly love to this list, I otherwise agree wholeheartedly with this approach.

Now we only vote every four years in terms of the presidency, but how often do we judge or criticize others because they don’t adhere to our religious or spiritual values? Far too often, I’d say. This is, in and of itself, an unspiritual, impious tendency that needs to be eliminated. The world is too big and too diverse for one religious clan or the other to go around constantly bitching at each other, as it only results in violence, whether physical or ideological.

Now I am a Quaker. I have principles that I will adhere to in my everyday life, and those principles may get me into conflict. I, however, should not attempt to shape the rest of the world according to my views. I should simply act in accordance with the principles of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality; the rest will work itself out.

If we were more focused on individually living our own spiritualities rather than trying to force others to do so, this world might be a better place. So I have made a vow to try and do just that. I pray you’ll join me so that maybe this country can fully become the diverse, beneficial, and tolerant nation it was designed to be.

Peace be with you!

Faith and 3-D Movies

When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs came to pass that day. — 1 Samuel 10:9, RSV

Have you ever gone to a 3-D movie? I’m personally not a huge fan, but I’ve still managed to find myself dragged to Finding Nemo, My Bloody Valentine, and other headache-inducing films that required plastic glasses. What I found was that the movie was actually more annoying without the glasses, all fuzzy and oddly distorted. When I put on the glasses, I may not have liked things flying at me, but at least I got to fully experience the actual movie.

I find that faith works in much the same way.

Living in a consumerist nation like the U.S., it is second nature to want some kind of proof or evidence before committing to anything. If I am going to purchase a product, its quality and function should somehow be vouched for or proven, which makes sense. The problem comes when we apply this kind of thinking to the experience of God.

As I will talk about next week, the Church is not meant to operate like the rest of the world. While we can shop for and “dip our toes” into everything else, the life of faith is one that comes to fruition only after we surrender to it in one way or another. Just like the movie, an immersive experience is the only way to get a full sense of God’s promises and action in the world.

The quote that kicks off this post comes from 1 Samuel 10, in which Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. After Samuel gives Saul a detailed account of all that is to come, God gives Saul “another heart,” and then “all these signs came to pass that day.” Before Saul could experience all the wonders God had in store for him, he needed a new heart, to become a different person.

As Christians, we are to “be transformed by the renewal” of our minds, in order to “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Before we can fully experience, appreciate, and participate with regard to the Divine Presence, we must change by accepting God’s invitation as offered through Jesus. Even if we aren’t entirely sold on the idea, we must at least be truly willing to try, actively inviting God to give us a new heart with which we might understand the truth.

I used to spend much of my life waiting for signs to show me it was acceptable to submit myself to discipleship. I wanted to know this was true, dammit! The interesting thing is that it was only after I decided to actively try to believe (even in the absence of my required evidence) that I began to see all that God was doing in my life.

If you’ve been sitting around waiting for signs, I can honestly tell you that I understand. We are taught from a young age to look for evidence, to never commit to something without proving it first. However, I can also honestly tell you that the only signs you’re likely to encounter are those that point you to the curtain of faith. For anything more, you’ll have to walk behind that curtain.

What does this look like? Practice. Faith is learned by doing, not by abstract theories and considerations. If you want to see God at work among the poor, go work among the poor. If you want to see prayer work, offer to pray with a hurting stranger. The Christian faith is designed to walk, talk, and breathe. It is earthy, tactile, and real, and it can only be fully experienced when practiced.

I continue to struggle with walking in the life of faith, as I’m sure many of us do. I’m skeptical by nature, and I second guess everything. However, I’ve found that when I stop debating every Divine moment in my head and simply act as Jesus leads me, powerful manifestations of the grace of God follow. I would covet your prayers as I continue on this lifelong journey, and it’s my prayer that you will walk this road with me, that we may together experience all that the Kingdom of God has in store for us.

Peace be with you!

 

Recovering Love

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. — 1 John 3:14, NRSV

I’m always surprised at the lengths people will go to not have to love any more people than they would prefer. Even at seminary, there were proposed interpretations of Scripture that were geared toward narrowing the field of people we are responsible for loving… And they were put forward by future priests and pastors!

It’s true, though, that thanks to mainline denominations and pandering politicians, the word “love” has taken on a squishy, almost manipulative quality. Too many leaders and speakers use the term as a means of pushing their political or social agenda, guilt-tripping some into either falling in line or pushing others away to new levels of anger and spite. This, however, doesn’t mean that the teaching of Jesus doesn’t have any merit.

On the contrary, it is more important than ever that we recover the intent and actions of love that Christ intended for us. The love of Christ involves calculated and accepted risk, not merely a general pleasantness. Too many people confuse active love for “not pissing anyone off,” and that is not at all what the crucified Messiah has in mind. Truly loving others is a path that leaves us open to pain and being taken advantage of. It means setting ourselves aside for the good of each other, and looking to the crucifix as a reminder that even in moments of deep darkness that are bound to come, God is there, bringing us life.

In the First Epistle of John, chapter 3, we encounter a conversation about love. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (3:11). The fundamental teaching of Christian living and belief is love, both of God for us and of us for each other. Further, this love is an indication of Eternal Life that abides within us here and now. As John says, “Whoever loves a brother or sister[c] lives in the light, and in such a person[d] there is no cause for stumbling” (2:10).

Conversely, when we lead self-serving lives, we turn our backs on Eternal Life, and we cease living in relationship not just with each other, but with God. “Whoever does not love abides in death” (3:14). Love is a way of life, and it is Life itself! It is living in a way that brings the eternal life of God into every situation and interaction. When we choose ourselves, and when we do all we can to narrow our field of affection and concern, we opt for the opposite.

I am aware of the concerns regarding the context of this passage. It is clear that John is talking about love as it exists between fellow Christians, but let me ask you a question. Does John’s emphasis of the Christian community mean that we are free to be un-loving toward those who are not “in the fold?”

I think you and I both know that this is not the teaching of John or Jesus.

So instead of narrowing our perception of who does and doesn’t deserve our love and consideration, I think it is time we take the calculated risk. We will be taken advantage of. We will be hurt. But that is love, putting ourselves out there that others may know the grace of God by our words and actions, even if it is not received the way we would like. We are not responsible for what others do in response to what we give. We are not responsible for whether or not certain others deserve what we offer. We are only responsible for whether or not we give.

It’s time to decide. Our world cannot sustain any more hatred or self-service. Make the choice today to keep your circle wide. How wide? As wide as the arms of Christ, stretched upon the wood of the cross in the hopes that we all might cease abiding in death, and choose Life.

Peace be with you!

Finding Joy In Poverty

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. — Psalm 49:7, NRSV

There is a song quote that always sticks in my ears whenever I hear it. Granted, the radio has done a great job of playing “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles to death, but every single time it comes on, I listen for the line that reminds me, “You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky.” This insight lined up perfectly with the base text for today’s post, so I just had to make something theological of it.

Psalm 49 discusses the foolishness of believing one’s wealth can essentially cheat death. Those who accumulate and hoard riches, however, meet the same end as everyone else, and “they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them” (49:17). They cannot bribe God for more time, and they will “leave their wealth to others” (49:10). It’s not that resources or having resources are bad things, but we are not intended to simply “have” things.

When God calls Abram (soon to be called “Abraham”) out from his homeland and from his kindred, the promised blessing also comes with a requirement, an intention with which God is choosing Abram. Genesis 12:2 indicates that God will bless Abram so that he would “be a blessing.” God says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God’s callings and blessings come with responsibilities, namely that we respond to God’s grace by sharing the blessings we receive, because none of it truly belongs to us.

Not.

One.

Thing.

This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. God emphasizes to the people of Israel that they are being given “a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13). Jesus addresses the impermanence of riches when He exhorts His followers to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20). Just as we are not permanent, neither are the riches we temporarily possess. All of this is on loan.

The reason this is an important message for today is because it appears we have forgotten that we truly are poor. We possess nothing, as it is all a gift that will be returned when we move on to the hereafter. Further, what we are given is intended to be shared in order that others may share in our abundant life. We are blessed in order that we may bless others. This goes not only for the grace, forgiveness, and love we have received from God, but also for the material gifts we have accumulated.

Now, I know. This sounds like “socialist” or “communist propaganda.” I shouldn’t have gone to college because now I am an indoctrinated “libtard.” Well no. This is a Scriptural and traditional Christian teaching that we have lost or ignored consistently throughout history. In fact, the resistance that we see to certain means of sharing for the common good are great indicators that we have come to believe that what we have is ours and ours alone to keep, to hoard, and to protect, which is completely counter to the teachings of the faith.

Advocating for a brand of socialism or some other governmental/economic system  is far from my intent with this post. Rather, I am concerned with each individual person and our attachments to all that we possess. Why don’t we give or want to give? Why do feel resentful toward projects or movements that ask us to give of what we have that others may share in the abundance of this land? It’s because we believe that what we have is a result of what we have done. It’s ours.

This is a bubble that needs bursting.

I run my own business, but if I did not have people willing to invest in me that I might render them my services, I would not have much of a business. I am, therefore, indebted to them. If my parents had not raised me with discipline and wisdom, I would have neither of those things. If my wife were not forgiving, but also with high standards, I would probably not be married anymore, nor would I be the better man I am today. If I did not have a God that consistently makes me aware of His love and mercy day by day, I would be lost in misery and cynicism, not to mention that it is God who has made all of the things by which I benefit.

These exact same truths pertain to you. You owe someone something for what you have.  “The Big Someone” aside, there are people without whom you would not have what you have. Dependence is a fact of life. As such, nothing that you or I possess is truly ours. Rather, all that we have accumulated is a gift that we are meant to share in order that others don’t go without as we prosper.

If we close our fists to our neighbor, we not only disobey the intent of God (Deuteronomy 15:7-11), but we also fulfill the awful prophecy of James. “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (5:5). There is no issue with accepting the blessings that come our way, but if we do so without a generous heart and life, we fail to fulfill God’s intent for our lives.

Obviously, we cannot compensate for a world full of injustices with our limited resources, and that’s not what I am suggesting. Rather, we should adjust our thinking with regard to giving of ourselves. Instead of judging those in need, why not judge ourselves and ask what we would like someone else to do if we were in that situation? Instead of turning inward and hoarding all we manage to gain, why not look for a way to “pay forward” the blessing which God has brought to us? If we can all change our thinking and renew our minds so that panicky, tight-fisted living gives way to urgent, practical generosity, I believe we can expect more and more manifestations of God’s grace in our lives and in the lives of our fellow humans.

I encourage you to join me in praying for our increasingly self-centered society and world. This includes you and I, because I can certainly admit that it is too easy for me to close my hand when others are in a time of need, fearing that my own limited resources may give out. However, if we remember that we are blessed so that God may bless others through us, and if we remember that we are not called to fear but confidence in the One who generously gives, I believe we can look forward to a truly abundant future. This is not an easy task, but it is made less difficult when we remember that we are all ultimately poor, possessing nothing, but offered everything by the One who loved us first.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

 

What is This “Grace” of Which You Speak?

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. — John 1:16-17, NRSV

If you’ve read much of my work, you’ve noticed my tendency to mention God’s grace and the fact that we are supposed to reflect that grace in how we live. I have been out of the writing game for a bit, and so I thought the best way I could come back would be a post that clarifies this idea of “grace.” I have good friends who aren’t steeped in the Christian tradition who have asked me about it, and even many of my brothers and sisters in Christ seem to misunderstand the concept (including me)!

In today’s world, the concept of “grace” is a foreign one. In one sense, we do not live in a time of forgiveness and the full embrace of one another, so it isn’t surprising that we don’t know what to do with a God for whom this is standard practice. Another common issue is actually a cheapened understanding of forgiveness and embrace that leaves us with the impression that we are free to do and be whatever we wish without any repercussions.

So what are we talking about, then? What is the grace of God, and what does it mean for us in our lives today? Grace is defined as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” according to this rather formal source. In short, grace is the unearned favor of God. It’s an expression of love that transforms our lives while not depending on us at all.

Paul sums up the idea of grace quite nicely in Romans 5, saying “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In Christ, we see the fullness of God revealed in a human being, and this God decides to take on the cross so that we may know the extent of God’s love, as well as the cost of our indifference to it (sin). But God doesn’t wait until we have achieved a sufficient amount of perfection before making His love known and offering us the way to a transformed life. Instead, God meets us where we are, as we are. We didn’t earn it, but it is given anyway, and that is grace.

With that said, just because grace is unmerited doesn’t mean we aren’t expected to honor it with how we treat each other. It’s not that there are strings attached, but for this grace to mean anything, it should have an impact on us! So what impact does God expect?

In Matthew 18, Jesus presents us with a powerful parable that makes grace practical. A slave owes his master lots of money, but cannot pay (verses 24-25). He begs his master for mercy, and the master obliges, forgiving the debt (verse 27). This slave, having just experienced mercy, meets another slave that owes him money, and has said slave thrown into prison when he could not pay him (verses 28-30). Now, does that sound right to you?

Of course not. Logically, one would assume that because the first slave knew what it was like to owe a debt, face punishment, and receive grace for no reason other than compassion, he would understand and extend that same grace to his fellow slave. Instead, the master gets word of his slave’s irresponsibility and now both slaves are trapped in prison (verse 34). Jesus ends with a warning that God will certainly be keeping an eye on whether or not those who receive his grace embrace the responsibility to share it (verse 35).

There are two big points to take away, here. First, grace comes with the responsibility to share it with everybody else. Just as the second slave owed the first money, so we will have people in our lives we feel don’t deserve our love. We will have enemies. It is important to note, then, that we don’t deserve the love of God. Sin is a part of being human, and we all have it. As the First Epistle of John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). God loves and forgives us anyway, however, and so our response should be the same. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 5, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We know what it is to be a pain in the heart of others. We also know what it is to be forgiven by God. Therefore, our lives should reflect compassion, even in the face of those that we don’t feel deserve it. That’s grace.

Secondly, when we refuse to show that compassion, and when we turn our back on others, we spit on the grace God has shown to us, and things actually get worse. Look at the parable. Had the slave forgiven his fellow slave, neither would owe a debt and neither would be in prison. Instead, both end up trapped and in debt. The same holds true for you and I when we irresponsibly handle the gift of God’s love. We grieve God with our lack of compassion and forgiveness, and we also contribute to the world’s suffering.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life,” and “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:24, 26). Jesus brings God’s grace into the world that we may experience life in the way God always intended, but the story doesn’t stop there.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Those who receive the grace of God are expected and empowered to reflect it. By doing so, we truly become disciples of Jesus who follow his example and are known by their love for one another (John 13:34-35). This love sets us and others free to follow a new path that heals the wounds of the world.

I know this was a longer and more involved post, but grace is such a huge theme for Christians that anything less would feel… over-simplified. I hope that my explanation of God’s grace connects with, empowers, and inspires you to understand and accept how loved you truly are. I also hope that such love motivates you to reflect the same compassion toward others that you would want for yourself.

Accepting and reflecting the grace of God are not easy tasks, but they are vital means by which we experience the fullness of life. The life of a disciple is one of constant refinement, a lifelong endeavor to grow into the love we have received. We won’t always get it right, but the transformation that results from the effort is truly spectacular, and I pray that you will join me on this journey.

Peace be with you!

Your Own Eyes

…for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did. — Deuteronomy 11:7, NRSV

Religion is an interpretation of life and its meaning. Every faith in every place sees the world in a particular way, with problems that its teachings are designed to solve or address. Even if you don’t hold yourself to be particularly religious or a person of faith, I guarantee that you have a belief system that affects how you approach and understand the world around you.

The same holds true for the Israelites in this passage of Deuteronomy 11. In fact, I would argue that the long sermon of Moses that is Deuteronomy is designed to ensure what view of life the nation of Israel brings into the land of promise. Repeatedly, Moses emphasizes that the people of God should live in a way that honors their history and the grace God has shown to them.

Moses frequently reminds Israel to keep “the commandment.” The word is singular, implying that this command is an umbrella over the 613 specific commands laid out in the Torah. In fact, this command is the very one Jesus calls the “greatest and first” in Matthew 22:34-40. “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always” (Deut. 11:1, while Jesus quotes 6:5). Israel’s worldview, then, should be filtered through love for the God who first loved and delivered them.

The generation of Jews Moses is addressing in Deuteronomy is not the generation delivered from Egypt. Those of the previous generation were all led through the wilderness until they died, as a punishment for their chronic disobedience and dissatisfaction with regard to God. So why does Moses say, “It is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did?”

Communal memory is an important thing in Judaism and Christianity. We were all delivered from Egypt through the Red Sea. We all drank water from the rock, ate manna in the wilderness, and witnessed the pillars of fire and cloud as they led us to the promised land. We all saw the healing power of Jesus, fled from His cross, and rejoiced at His resurrection and ascension. This is not just the story of those who were physically there, but it is our own story that we (are supposed to) witness to with our lives.

So what is your story? What is the tale you tell with your life? For far too many of us, our lives do not tell of the magnificent works of God, nor do they bear witness to the hope of Jesus Christ. In fact, many of us live without any hope at all, settling for bleak acceptance. The result of this is a life lived proudly, inwardly, or selfishly. We become our own gods, and we fail to recognize all the opportunities God sets before us to make a difference.

Even if you are of the non-believing crowd, careful application of hope in the ultimate victory of good can make a huge difference. What you do in this world matters, even if only for those around you. The choice that faces us is the choice that faced the Jews in Deuteronomy: blessing or curse, life or death. Whatever you and I believe, I hope we will choose the things that bless others and bring life to a world trying to kill itself.

So now I ask, what have your eyes seen? How will you choose to walk on this brief journey of life? It is my prayer that the grace and love of God will be your lens, and that the hope of Christ will fuel your heart for the purposes of doing some good during your short visit to this earth. Pray the same for me, and let’s live out a better story together.

Peace be with you!