A Complacent and Fearful People

As Christians, we are to be disciples of Jesus.  Simply put, this means we are to try to be like Him.  We are told we are sons & daughters of the King, a royal priesthood, representatives of Christ, and implementers of His kingdom – here, “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.

Yet in our day to day lives few of us aspire to, or even act like we have, this high calling.

Just like the Israelites who would doubt God time and time again, we doubt that the teachings of Jesus will actually work in this world.

Instead of being a bold witness to His ways, we have become a complacent and fearful people.

We refuse to take the personal risk of living out what He said.  We want laws and government to do the job for us so we can feel safe and comfortable even though that is the exact opposite of what Jesus said his followers would experience.

 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” –John 16:33

He is not promising us an earthly peace, but His peace which passes understanding. Peace in the midst of fear, of disaster, of violence around us.

Empires, powers, and principalities of this world make laws and rules to protect those empires and to protect their power.  They are “of this world”.

For decades now, we Christians have been colluding with the enemy instead of working against it. To what end? It hasn’t gained us anything! In fact, it has only made those powers stronger and us more reliant on them – sometimes to the point of idolatry. This partnership has not, and will not, do what it promised.  It will not end abortion. It will not make the world safer.  It will definitely not protect our “Christian values” – many of which we have already sacrificed on its alter.

Sleeping with the enemy has left us impotent in the ways of Kingdom living.

We are not living the peacemaking way of Jesus, we are promoting wars and buying guns to protect ourselves.

We are not welcoming the immigrant, we are trying to keep them out or send them back – even to places they have never known or lived or to regimes that will likely kill them because they are fellow Christians.  Apparently we think it is worth it for our own false sense of security.

We are not loving our neighbors. We are allowing divisiveness and prejudice to run rampant in our world and even within the church.

We are not caring for the poor and for the widow.  We sometimes make a show of helping in the way we think is best for them but we are not listening to them, we are not willing to support programs that help them if it might cost us a few more dollars in taxes that we could spend on ourselves.

We seem to have completely forgotten, or have just chosen to ignore, that Jesus never said follow me and you will be happy, safe, and comfortable.  What He did say is:

 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 *

Until we can honestly admit that the American dream of more money, more power, and more success is in opposition to the Kingdom of God where all are welcome, where we are our brother’s keeper, and where we are not ruled by fear but by love, we will never be able to grasp living as a true disciple of Jesus.

 

I’ve been asking myself these questions for a while now.  I invite you to ask them too.

  1. What did I do this week to bring Kingdom here, now?
  2. What did I do this week that required courage – that caused me to risk my reputation, my safety, or even just my comfort for the benefit of “the least of these”?
  3. Where am I relying on the things or the powers of this world instead of relying on God?

 

* I love The Message version of this full verse in context:

31-33 Jesus answered them, “Do you finally believe? In fact, you’re about to make a run for it—saving your own skins and abandoning me. But I’m not abandoned. The Father is with me. I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”

 

 

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When Fake News Becomes Real

Fake News, Fake News, read all about it!

Over ten years ago conservative religious groups began talking about a “war on Christmas” that didn’t actually exist. They called for boycotts over the years on stores and restaurants whose advertising wasn’t “Christmassy” enough to suit them. There were numerous stories and memes and social media comments.  One of the well known ones was that __________ department store told employees not to say Merry Christmas to customers.  While this may have been true of some individual store manager somewhere, there is no evidence nor is it even likely that it was anyone’s corporate policy.  I actually worked for a large national retailer for a number of Christmas seasons during this time under two different store managers.  Neither directed anyone in what they could or could not say.  One did suggest that we be observant of our customers and choose our responses accordingly.  His suggestion had no religious overtones.  His example was that the holidays were often difficult for people who had lost someone during the year or for families who were missing someone serving our country overseas. His idea that we be thoughtful of, and kind to, our customers rather than mindlessly offering a greeting seemed to me like the more “Christian” thing to do.

Some groups and some people, even ten years ago, seemed to want to be offended.  I don’t know what motivated these people. I wonder if it might not have to do with a need to feel persecuted.  Across the world there are places where Christians are actually persecuted.  We are told in the Bible that followers will be persecuted and the disciples are examples of that truth.  American Christians seem to have felt the need to create some kind of situation so they could claim to be persecuted. They created the fake news of a “war on Christmas”.

These claims, more political in intent than religious, have continued to come up over the years. In 2015-2016 the President made it part of his campaign.  “If I become president, we’re going to be saying Merry Christmas at every store”, Trump stated.  He has continued to bring it up at his post-election rallies. (It should be noted, of course, that he doesn’t have the power to make people or companies say certain things.)

So here we are, Christmas 2017.  The President has an abysmally low approval rating so he’s spouting off about Christmas in an attempt to placate his far right evangelical base.

This is where it happens – when fake news becomes real. 

I have been in way too many retail and food establishments over the last few weeks. I began noticing that hardly anyone was giving a seasonal greeting.  I have had a total of three people actually say “Merry Christmas” to me. Further, they aren’t saying “Happy Holidays” either.  They’re saying “thank you” or the standard “have a nice day”.   I considered that maybe it was just my personal feelings influencing what I thought was happening so I ask some friends about their experiences.  Many of their interactions echoed mine.  Then I saw this tweet and responses about it from people who likely live in an entirely different part of the country.

So, at the very least, less people are actually saying Merry Christmas than in years past.  Further, when I said Merry Christmas to a clerk as I checked out earlier this month she was unsure how to respond.  She looked at me a little funny and said, “Uh, thank you?”  That’s when I started paying attention everywhere I went.  I realized, unfortunately, “Merry Christmas” has been turned into a political statement and most people don’t want to be associated with it.  The truth is, I don’t either. Sadly, I’ve quit saying Merry Christmas to salespeople and waitresses I don’t know.

The fake war on Christmas has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thoughts & Prayers

Another tragedy in America. A mass shooting after three devastating hurricanes and acres of fires, after a car attack after a shooting on a baseball field after a shooting in a nightclub after…

Each time we offer our thoughts and prayers to the victim’s families.  We post “Praying for _________” on our Facebook page or Twitter feed.  Again and again.

IT’S NOT ENOUGH!

Sure, we say this initially because we don’t know what else to do.  We say it because we want victim’s families or towns or islands that have been devastated to know we care.  Thinking with sympathy or empathy for those who are hurting is good.  And some of us do actually pray. Prayer is important after a tragedy. It is.

BUT, IT’S NOT ENOUGH!

Especially in the last couple months things have come at us so fast that even if we haven’t been directly affected, we feel the tension.  Tension is a sign that something needs to give.  We need to start DOING something more and doing some things differently. And, what I need to do and what you need to do may be different things. Maybe we need to be donating to organizations that provide services. Maybe we need to donate blood. Maybe we need to volunteer to cook, to clean, to sit with victims. Maybe we need to write to our representatives in Congress to plead for more gun restrictions. (Why does anyone not actively employed by the government need an assault style rifle or a silencer?) Maybe we need to be creating organizations with less overhead to respond to the natural disasters that seem to be coming more frequently and more forcefully. We each need to use our own time and talents and resources and lean into these situations.  Mr. Rogers famously said to tell children “look for the helpers”.  As adults, we, too, need to look for the helpers and then help the helpers or just plain BE the helpers.

BUT, IT’S NOT ENOUGH!

As Christians, we have a further responsibility. We come back to prayer.  We need to be praying and lamenting the tragedies, absolutely.  Further we need to be intervening ahead of the tragedy. We need to at least have the “faith of a mustard seed” and be praying against the storm and praying ahead of time for those being evacuated to have a safe place to go.  We need to be praying against the “roaring lion looking to devour” that he will not find a willing accomplice among us to carry out violence and evil. We need to keep praying and keep helping and keep loving…

UNTIL IT IS ENOUGH.

 

It’s All in the Translation

Amidst the books I’m reading, the Bible studies I’m participating in, and the research I’ve been doing for a future blog post, I have run across things in the Bible that make me stop and say, “Hmmm, I need to think about that.”

I’m discovering that some of the assumptions and conclusions I have from growing up in church are more of a cultural or translational understanding than a purely biblical one. I’m not offering resolutions here, just my thought processes.

Below are one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament in case you want to ponder them too.

In Genesis 9:15 God makes a covenant with Noah and _________ to never destroy all flesh, or all life, again with a flood.  Whether it is all flesh or all life depends on the translation but those are, technically, two different things.  Further, translations on who else the covenant is made with vary even more.

Many translations say “every living creature of all flesh” (KJV, etc.).

Others are “each soul living that nourisheth flesh” (WYC), “every living soul that beareth flesh” (DRA), “all living creatures” (HCSB & NLT), “all living creatures of every kind” (NIV), “every living thing” (NCV).

Obviously I’m focusing on semantics but I am fascinated by the nuance.  There is a difference between flesh bearing souls and every living thing.

It would seem that since God declared that each part of creation was “good”, it is all important to Him.  His intention seems to be to redeem everything. Think about the overly familiar John 3:16 –“For God so loved the world…”  Doesn’t the world include everything?  Otherwise, wouldn’t it say, for God so loved the people He created?  I understand that “whosoever believeth in Him” comes next strengthening the idea that it refers only to people. However, in Luke 19:40 Jesus himself says “the stones will cry out”. So there’s that.

 

Did you know that the last verses in the Gospel of Mark are most likely not even written by him?  While most translations make some notation about this, I hadn’t really thought much about it before.  Two alternative endings have been found, neither of which is included in the oldest manuscripts.  Mark’s actual writing seems to end with verse eight.  From a literary perspective, it is fairly obvious that the last 12 verses of chapter 16 have a different “voice” that the rest of the book.

Within those verses, translational variations of Mark 16:15 can also mean significantly different things. The meaning of the beginning of the verse is virtually the same although different words are used. It is a directive to go to the whole world and tell, preach, announce, proclaim the Good News (Gospel).  Who, exactly, to tell it to is a little less clear. Is it “everyone” (ISV, TLB, etc.), “every creature” (KJV, TLV, etc.), “all creation” (CSB, CJB, NASB, NIV, etc.) or “the whole creation” (ASV, ESV, NRSV, WEB, etc.)?

St. Francis of Assisi took this quite literally and preached to the animals. Maybe he was right in doing so.

For me choosing between these differences start with thinking through what the Good News really means.  The Good News is not just the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. It is about the purpose of his life, of his sacrifice, so that we and the whole creation can be redeemed and restored to relationship with God.

It is another reminder that God’s intention is not an evacuation plan but one of restoring His creation, all of it, right here.  That, however, is a whole other blog post…

The Need for Certitude

I’ve been learning recently a little about how Jewish people interact with the Bible. Since much of the Bible is their history and speaks specifically of them, maybe we could learn something from how they seek to understand scripture.

As Christians, especially American Christians, we tend to use the Bible just like we use other things. Culturally, we are geared to consume and/or to be entertained. On some level this filters how we read and understand the Bible.

We consume. We were taught from an early age to memorize the books of the Bible in order and various one line scriptures.  Enticements were offered – stars, prizes, Bible bucks. We grow up with heavy emphasis on reading the Bible in a year, or first thing in the morning, or for an hour a day.  There is an overabundance of reading plans to choose from so we don’t get bored or bogged down in the Old Testament. Now, none of these are bad things. It is good to read the Bible. It is good to commit scripture to memory. I suppose memorizing the books in order is, at least, helpful when someone says to turn to the book of Amos.

The problem is when we don’t go much deeper than that. We read our plan’s prescribed passages and then move on to the rest of our day.

We’re entertained. If we’re honest, we want our sermons to be short – preferably delivered with humor and pictures. We rely on the pastor to expeditiously explain scriptures and stories to us, often nodding in agreement with whatever they say. If we are fortunate enough to have a particularly good pastor, we may learn context and ancient language details that make confusing passages a little clearer or even allow us to see the story from a new perspective. Depending on the sermon topic, it may elicit some emotion from us. We may feel like we’ve learned something that applies to us and feel either convicted or prideful. We may even, often temporarily, feel inspired.

However, even the best pastors can become mere religious entertainers if after Sunday morning we simply say, “That was a good sermon” and carry on without absorbing and applying the ideas that drew our appreciation in the first place. This is how our cultural lens allows us to consume the Bible and be entertained by God’s Word without ever actually being truly impacted by it.

Too often we take interesting Bible stories and twist them into something that has some personal relevance that, conveniently, lines up with our pre-established belief system. Further, if the story doesn’t align with these beliefs, or with what we’ve always been taught, or worse, if the Bible seems to contradict itself, we tend to gloss over it or ignore it completely.

Here’s the thing. We say we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, the Living Word. We then read it as little more than a history book and a rule book. For the Word to be living it must not be stagnate in us. It cannot be read just like any other book.  We do this because it is easier than allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed and confused by scripture. We do this because we’ve been taught that questioning the Bible, or a leader’s interpretation of it, is a lack of faith.

This is where we have much to learn from faith-filled Jewish brothers and sisters.

Many Jewish people and Jewish religious leaders regularly discuss and debate scripture and enjoy it!  They do not tend to believe there is only one “right” way to interpret what they read.  While we get all bent out of shape over differing opinions or schools of thought and demand a determination of what is “right”, they embrace the debate.  They are comfortable with learning other perspectives, possibilities, and thoughts. They are fine with either remaining in disagreement or accepting that a passage could mean more than one thing. Unlike us, this isn’t seen as threatening to them or to their religion.

A good example of this would be a (true) story I heard recently about a group of Jewish rabbis and scholars meeting at one of the men’s house. They sat and debated the text from the Torah late into the night to where the man’s wife nearly ran out of food for them. She was thrilled they had stayed so long because this was part of what made scripture beautiful.  The text had invited them into community and conversation. They left arm in arm.

They were fine with disagreeing. They were fine with not having a definitive determination on how things should be interpreted. They seem comfortable with the idea that they could all be wrong, or even all be right. They weren’t afraid of the uncertainty.

So, when was the last time your Bible study looked like that?

Why are we so threatened by having our personal or denominational interpretations challenged?

What if the need for certitude is more indicative of a weaker faith?

What if we had honest conversations about the things that are contradictory, or confusing, or just seem wrong?

What if instead of getting into the Bible so we can check it off our list, we actually allowed the messages of the Bible to get in us?

People wrestling with and questioning God are seen throughout the Old and New Testament. Even Jesus had a couple of questions.

However, questioning and wrestling and debating require much more of us. We have to swallow our pride and admit our uncertainty. We have to quit consuming and start contributing. We have to quit just being told a story and start becoming part of living out the Story. Questioning, wrestling, and debating require relationship.

Maybe developing those kinds of relationships would allow our lives to look like we really believe what we say we believe – that God is sovereign and Jesus ushered in a Kingdom of love and forgiveness. Maybe it would give us the courage to live out, with actions and not just words, the things Jesus clearly told us to do.

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Love your enemies.

Care for the widow.

Care for the orphan.

Care for the refugee (immigrant).

Care for the poor.

What if a little less need to be certain allowed us to offer more grace, more mercy, and more love?

 

Brief Observations – Birds

I just watched a flock of small birds fly overhead in the evening sky all headed to the same unseen destination. They appeared to be attempting to fly in a “V” formation like geese. However, they couldn’t seem to figure out who should be in the lead or where they belonged in the formation. They darted in and out, back and forth, and their forward momentum was sometimes disrupted by unseen winds. Their journey looked anything but smooth and graceful.

It reminded me of following Jesus – trying to be like Him. We know where we want to go – to grow more and more like Him.  Along the way though, our growth comes in fits and spurts, often looking as disjointed as the flight of the birds. We get confused about whom to listen to when our teachers seem to have changed their theology or their messages don’t ring true. Like bird in the wind, we are sometimes pushed about and back by the unseen enemy of our soul.

Despite their erratic path, the birds have now flown out of sight, undoubtedly closer to their destination. We too, with the same persistence should keep moving forward in whatever way we can. Despite the confusion or obstacles, we should continue trying to grow, accepting that though the journey may not be smooth and graceful, it will result in us become more like who we want to be.

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Jesus Follower or Jesus Consumer

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We live in a consumer driven world. We are rarely satisfied with what we have, what we get to do, or even who we are.  The solution to this dissatisfaction seems easy. It’s what the advertisers, the companies we work for, and even our friends and family tell us: buy more, seek more and different entertainment or experiences, achieve more, be more.

So we consume. We consume goods, services, activities, and even people. We have pride in what we own or do. We share all our experiences on social media. We may even associate with those who can benefit us by helping us gain stuff or status or those who make us feel better about ourselves. We may spend time with those who think and act like us so we feel validated or so our thoughts, decisions, and behavior are justified. Additionally, we may spend time with those we feel slightly better than or who we can count on to make us look good in comparison. Much of our way of life is based on some type of consuming.

All too often, even our faith becomes consumer based.

Consumer theology says it’s all about my personal relationship with God. The focus can quickly become more about us and less about Him.

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Sadly, this theology is being bought and taught in too many churches.

Behind the clichés and platitudes, it’s about what I get out of it. That can be anything from a sense of security and control to enjoying the benefits or being labeled a “Christian” making us a part of a group or community.  It can manifest into us focusing on rules to follow and, therefore, who is included and who is excluded from our “club”.

We change churches when we “aren’t getting anything out of” the sermon, or the worship, or the programs, or the… In other words, when it isn’t making us feel good or like we’re important or the preacher says something that convicts us.

We use our Christianity to feel safe. We use it to guarantee our “ticket” to
Heaven. We use a prosperity gospel to justify our consumption and then brag about our blessings.

Consumer theology allows us to comfortably nod along with the things Jesus said without ever actually doing them. We’d rather focus on the rules and what not to do so we can check off our compliance and call ourselves good while, at the same time, creating loopholes, convenient translations, or cultural exceptions to what Jesus said to do.

This is a flawed and perilous theology when held up to the teachings of Jesus.

 

Love your neighbor. (Matthew 5:43-Matthew 19:19-Matthew 22:39-Mark 12:31-Mark 12:33-Luke 10:27)

Love your enemies. (Matthew 5:44-Luke 6:27-Luke 6:35)

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12-Luke 6:31)

Give to the poor. (Matthew 19:21-Mark 10:21-Luke 12:33-Luke 18:22)

 

These directives are clear yet we do not to do them.

How, then, do we actually follow Jesus?

In Biblical times followers (disciples) desired to follow their teacher (rabbi) so closely that the dust from his feet would be on their robes. They listened and watched, they questioned and discussed, so they learn as much as possible in order to become like the teacher.

To follow Jesus that closely we must focus in on what He said and what He did.  We need to study the four gospel accounts of His life. A good place to start would be with the Sermon on the Mount. Read it in more than one translation. Study it and pray for insight. Listen to sermons or podcasts about it. Then start doing it.

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Take a deep breath and be brutally honest about where you fall on the line between Jesus follower and Jesus consumer.

For myself, I think I fall a little left of center.  While my intent is to always be a follower, sometimes that is difficult. It is almost always counter-cultural. It is often uncomfortable. It is sometimes even dangerous.

 

It won’t come naturally.

 

If there is no tension involved in your theology, if there is no challenge in living out your faith, then consider that you may be more near to God in your head than in you are in your heart.

Lean in to the tension and follow Him. It is the only thing that will truly satisfy.