Friday, March 9, 2018


Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
-Matthew 5:3-12 (NIV)

At a speech on the campus of Michigan State University this past week, a white supremacist contradicted Jesus.
     I don’t mean he contradicted Jesus’ teaching (though he did), or that his attitude toward others contradicted the love of Jesus (though it certainly did). I mean a statement that he made actually nullified Jesus’ literal words.
     I don't want to give Richard Spencer’s actual words enough space to give them any context. Suffice to say that the line in question was about creating a “movement” in the world. (Insert whatever jokes you wish…) You can read more about what he said here, if you’re so inclined. At any rate, the line I really paid attention to was this one:
“I have never gained anything in my life or my career by watering it down to be just a little bit more palatable. The meek shall never inherit the earth. ... People who are bold and strong will always dominate.”
     I don’t know how impressed Jesus would be that a white supremacist doesn't agree with him. Something tells me it wouldn’t keep him up nights.
     Here’s the thing, though: I’m guessing that a lot of people who wouldn’t want to be caught agreeing with a white supremacist would actually find it difficult to argue with him about that particular statement: “The meek shall never inherit the earth.”
     Look around you. In how many fields do you see the meek rising to the top? We don’t even know what to do with that word, meek. We don’t much even use it, and when we do it’s an insult. It’s reserved for the people who can’t or won’t fight for what they want. It’s for the people who are walked over by the ones headed for success. The bullied who never fight back — they’re the meek.  They’re the yielding, the compliant, the domesticated, the acquiescent. They don’t protest when their rights are infringed. They don’t speak out or stand up for themselves.
     The meek are the people at the office who don’t make a sound when someone takes credit for their work. 
     The meek are the people at school who no one much pays attention to.
     The meek are the people who don’t command attention when they walk into a room. 
     The meek are the people who work in the background while the more aggressive get all the glory.
     Who are the ones who succeed in our world? That's right: the ones who take what they want. The ones who are always driving, pushing, the ones who by sheer force of will and personality move others out of their way. Not the meek. And Richard Spencer is not the only one who thinks so.
     Famed Alabama football coach “Bear” Bryant — who got his nickname, apparently, from actually wrestling a bear, suggesting that meekness might not have been a defining characteristic for him — once said, “If the meek are going to inherit the earth, some of my offensive linemen are going to be land barons.” I don’t guess he was necessarily disagreeing with Jesus about the meek inheriting the earth. He just didn’t see how it was going to happen.
     So maybe it's difficult even for Jesus’ followers to believe him. The idea of the meek inheriting the earth cuts so against the grain of our culture that it’s hard for us to even fathom what he meant. You just don’t know many meek athletes, entertainers, politicians, or CEOs. The most popular kids at school were probably not meek. Neither are the professionals at the top of their fields, the cops that patrol your neighborhood, the firefighters that protect your home, the soldiers that fight for those at home. 
     The thing is, in Jesus’ day the meek didn’t inherit the earth either. If anything, his culture emphasized strength and power and ambition even more than does ours.  
     No, Jesus’ words to those who heard him then were as countercultural and revolutionary as they are to us today. His point through all of the “blesseds” in Matthew (often called the “Beatitudes” after the word for “blessed” in Latin) is that in the Kingdom of God it’s often those who the world would not call blessed that truly are. No one would imagine that the grieving, those in need of justice, the persecuted, the insulted were blessed at all. Yet Jesus says that God has blessings in store for those who can’t go and get them on their own — the “poor in spirit” who, through no fault of their own, seem perpetually shut out from what the world calls blessings. 
     Because God comforts those who mourn, he fills those who hunger and thirst for justice, he shows himself to the pure in heart and calls the peacemakers his children. His kingdom is for those who are willing to endure persecution as he did. And, yes, those who refuse to makes gods of strength and power and ambition will, in fact, inherit the earth.
     That’s not to say there’s never a time for us to speak up for ourselves, or (maybe especially) for those around us. But we follow the One who was led like a lamb to the slaughter and who did not open his mouth to protest. So we know that the way to live is not by stepping on others, but by serving. Not by controlling, but by loving. Not by taking all we can, but by giving all we have. 
     May we take Jesus’ words seriously. May we learn what it means to trust in his promise that the meek will inherit the earth.

     Trust me. You’ll find yourself in much better company.

Friday, February 23, 2018


   No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 
-Luke 6:43-45 (NIV)

So it turns out that William Shakespeare plagiarized his works.
     Well, no. That’s not right. It isn’t that he plagiarized. But a writer and self-taught Shakespeare scholar in New Hampshire used plagiarism software to identify a previously unidentified source that Shakespeare apparently used in 11 of his plays. 
     Dennis McCarthy used the software to identify words and combinations of words Will used that also appear, often in the same order, in a work from the early 1500’s written by George North, a minor court official of Queen Elizabeth. North’s work, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, shaped the opening soliloquy of Richard III, (“Now is the winter of our discontent...”) “He keeps hitting word after word,” McCarthy says. “It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.”
     McCarthy shows that the Bard not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In one passage, for instance, North uses six terms for dogs to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in King Lear and Macbeth.
      In Henry VI Part 2, Shakespeare describes a rebel, Jack Cade, who he says he was starving and eating grass before he was finally caught and dragged through the street by his heels and his body left to be eaten by crows. All of those details are present in a passage from North in which he condemns Cade and two other famous rebels. Mr. McCarthy argues that Shakespeare used those details to make Cade into a composite of the three.
     Given a little thought, though, it isn’t at all surprising that Shakespeare used sources to help develop and flesh out themes and characters in his plays. No writer sits down to write without bringing influences and sources to the table. Sometimes it’s intentional. Most often, it’s unconscious: wording a writer hears or sees that comes out unbidden later, syntax picked up from another source that finds its way into an author’s work. It isn’t plagiarism, not really. Not when influences affect the heart and make themselves known naturally and freely.
     Something like this influence is what Jesus has in mind when he says “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” 
     If there was software to see the sources from which I “plagiarized” my words, I wonder what it would identify. I wonder what would be on my list? 
     Would there be vocabulary from the language of political debate and partisan loyalty? 
     Would my syntax be influenced by the tone of media and pop culture?
     Would you hear echoes of racism, classism, and ethnocentrism in the things I said?
     Would my words be full of obscenity, and innuendo? Would those around me hear the influence of people whose language insults, belittles, or objectifies? Would I speak like the bullies who control much of the world’s corporate and political wealth and power? 
     Would my words be full of innocence and purity? Would those who heard me speak detect the influence of Scripture, the language of blessing, encouragement, and kindness? Would I speak with the humility of those who have changed the world through sacrifice and service?
     Would my words resound with acceptance, tolerance, and grace?
     Would the things I said be formed by the worship and prayers of the church?
     Would the vocabulary of love, unity, and peace be easily detected?  
     It’s a good reminder for us, isn’t it, that the things that come out of our hearts when we speak don’t just happen to be there? It’s good to remember that expecting the things we hear and read the most to not influence the way we think and the things we value and, thus, the way we speak is as ridiculous as expecting to get figs from thorn bushes or grapes from briers. It’s as silly as expecting a bad tree to produce good fruit.
     So maybe it’s helpful for all of us to do the plagiarism software exercise. What are your sources? What do the people around you hear when you open your mouth? I don’t mean what do they hear in those moments when you curate what you say: in work meetings or church services or formal social occasions where everyone is on their best behavior. I mean what are the sources they’re most likely to identify in those times when your filter isn’t engaged and what’s in your heart comes immediately and directly to your lips? Do they hear the media? Politicians? Do they hear echoes of social media? Or do they hear the words of Scripture? Prayer? Worship? Kindness? 
     If you don’t like the answer you’re coming up with, then you know that there’s something you can do about it, right? Yep, that’s right: get different sources. If you don’t like what’s happened to your heart as you’ve fixated on what comes out of Washington, or Hollywood, or what’s pumped into you through your broadband connection, then make a change. Start seeking out different sources. Read the Bible more, and some of the authors who write about living as a person of faith. Worship more. Spend more time with the songs of faith that the church has composed over the years. Memorize Scripture — that’s become kind of a lost art, but there’s no better way to get it into your heart. Pray more. Spend more time with the church so you can be influenced by others who are living lives of faith.
     This is a long-haul fix, you understand. You might not change everything overnight. But if you’ll seek out the Lord in the sources that influence you, then I promise you that you will change. God’s Word is powerful, living, and at work. The Holy Spirit is active. And the Word made flesh will teach you as you take his words into your mind and heart.
     Go ahead and plagiarize from him. To your heart’s content.


Friday, February 2, 2018

Among Us

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made….  
     The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
-John 1:1-3, 14 (NIV) 

Guillaume Ouimet likes hockey, apparently. 
     You can tell because he gets up at dawn so he can have the outdoor rink in his neighborhood (which apparently they have in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec!) all to himself. On January 9th he was working out as usual when a car rolled up and a guy got out with a hockey stick, skates, and gloves. The new arrival asked him from across the ice if anyone else was coming, and Guillaume said no. So the guy sat down in a snowbank and started lacing up his skates. 
     You can tell Guillaume likes hockey because he recognized the guy almost immediately. As his impromptu workout partner skated out onto the ice, Guillaume went over and introduced himself to Sidney Crosby, NHL legend and captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
     Crosby was taking a short vacation with his girlfriend in the Mont-Tremblant area and happened upon the rink.
     Crosby and Guillaume played and practiced for over an hour. At some point, Crosby’s girlfriend showed up and said they had to go. Twice, Crosby replied, “Ten more minutes!” She took some photos of Guillaume and Crosby together and later sent them to him. Good thing, too, as up until they saw the snaps his friends hadn’t quite believed him.
     Well, can you blame them? It’s kind of hard to imagine, isn’t it, that a perennial NHL all-star would show up unannounced at a little rink in middle-of-nowhere, Quebec? Imagine LeBron James shooting baskets with you at your YMCA gym. Jordan Spieth hitting with you at the driving range. Tom Brady walking on to your high school field and telling you to run a post while Giselle screams from the car that they’re going to be late. You could see how someone might doubt a story that starts with, “A couple of weeks ago, Sidney Crosby and I played one-on-one at the rink down the street.”
     It’s hard to believe because, in our experience, one of the results of fame is a disconnect from the world of “regular people.” Sidney Crosby doesn’t practice at neighborhood rinks with Junior AA players because he doesn't have to.
     That being the case, it’s no wonder that the story of Jesus has always been a little hard to believe.
     The church exists because of this story — not a collection of theology formulated by academics and clerics, but this story: that in Jesus God was doing something unheard-of and unimaginable. John begins his Gospel, his telling of the story, by invoking God’s Word, always with God and inseparable from him. This Word, John reminds us, is the “Let there be light” power that created, well, everything. You can’t conceive of this Word as existing apart from God. And yet…
     John says something remarkable. God’s Word “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” 
     While most religions provide some path by which people can come to the Divine — through obedience or sacrifice or enlightenment or whatever — Christianity has the traffic moving in the other direction. Human beings don’t come to God — at least not initially. Instead, God comes to us
     The proposition that begins John’s gospel is that he’s about to show us what it looks like when God takes on humanity and comes to us. What will he care about? What will he say? What will he do? John tells us that he comes to bear witness to truth, to bring light in darkness, to show us the way to God. And he does this by turning around suffering and death so that it becomes the way to glory and life — for him, and for those who believe in him.
     Hard to believe, yes. And so John shows us what happens when people take even those first, faltering steps toward belief.
     The church wrestled with that story for centuries, trying to describe it and quantify it, categorize by inventing vocabulary and creating documents that purported to be the final word. In some ways, we’re still wrestling with it. For some of us, Jesus just came to die on the cross for our sins, and the way to salvation is just to acknowledge that happened and thank him for it. But John and the other Gospel writers say much more than that in their retellings of the story. For them, those years between his birth and his death and resurrection mean something. 
     For some of us, Jesus is a good teacher, chiefly useful because his words can be made to conveniently fit whatever we’d like them to fit. But the story isn’t about using his words to support our own opinions, but that he is God’s Word to us. We aren’t supposed to use his teaching as much as we are to hear it and live it.
     The anonymous author of the letter we call Hebrews says that God is a God who reveals himself — always has been. He goes on to make the case, though, that of all the ways God has chosen to make himself known to us, his last revelation through his Son is the most complete, most significant, and most clear. So, he says, “We must pay the most careful attention to what we have heard.”
     Paul pointed to this story when he told the church in Philippi to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” by having his love for one another and choosing to forego their own interests and ambitions to instead look out for each other. He tells the story of Jesus giving up his equality with God to empty himself, become a servant, and to humble himself to the degree that he accepted the execution of a common criminal. In this, Paul points out, we believe that Jesus found glory. And in following him, he says, the church would “shine like stars in the sky” as they “hold firmly to the word of life.”
     We, church, are supposed to carry with us the snapshots of our encounters with Jesus. When people have a hard time believing this story, we’re the evidence. When we think and humble ourselves and empty ourselves out of love like Jesus did, we answer the doubts. We respond to those who think it isn’t possible with proof that it is. That Jesus did come to us. That he lives with us, that we’ve met him. And that they can too.   

     May we be found faithful.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Losing Your Religion

     But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
-Matthew 3:7-10 (NIV)

In a recent blog post, Eva Petross shares the story of a man named Suleiman. He’s a Christian of Muslim background who helps refugees and immigrants in East Africa get ready to return to their native countries to live and do ministry. 
     Suleiman grew up with the traditional religion of his parents and grandparents. He attended a church for a while as a teenager. Eventually, he became a devout Muslim and an avid student of the Koran. His life as a Muslim culminated, like it has for billions of others, with Haj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
     One of the big moments of any Haj is walking in circles around the Ka’ba, the structure where the sacred black stone is kept. And in that place, at the holiest of holy sites, in the midst of a sea of the faithful at one of the most sacred moments of his religion, Suleiman lost his faith.
     He began asking people around him, people he trusted as spiritual leaders, What are we doing? Why are we doing it? He was told to stop asking so many questions. So he did. But he also stopped being a Muslim. And in losing his religion, he began to find Jesus.
     Maybe that’s necessary, right? 
     John seemed to think so. Some of the folks who were coming to hear him preach were maybe coming to challenge him or reinforce their prejudices. But maybe some were coming for some of the same reasons Suleiman went to the Ka’ba. It was a religious experience: a prophet in the desert who preached that God’s people Israel needed the same transformation as the most unregenerate of pagans. They weren’t walking in circles around him, but all that business about being immersed in the Jordan River was full of biblical imagery and import. 
     And the Pharisees and Sadducees: any event that would attract both of them to the same place must have been something. The Pharisees were the sticklers for the traditions of the fathers, for studying and knowing the Law of Moses and the centuries of commentary that had grown up around it like a hedge. They were the literalists, the biblicists, the people of the Book. For them, the proper (that is, traditional) interpretation of Scripture would let them maintain their identity if the Temple and its sacrifices were ever lost again, as they had been during Israel’s exile.
     The Sadducees were as pragmatic as the Pharisees were pietistic. They were concerned about the Temple: maintaining it, keeping it operational, making sure the sacrifices continued. This meant playing nicely with Rome, who was the empire du jour. They made most of the laws and worked with Rome to make sure taxes were collected and rebellions were discouraged.  
     Two very different ways of understanding who Israel was as the people of God. Yet they agreed in one significant way: they had to stay plugged in to their heritage as “Sons of Abraham.”
      How scandalous it must have sounded when John dismissed their heritage. “God can raise up children of Abraham out of the rocks.” And, to make it worse, “The ax is already at the root of the trees.” There’s just no way to make that sound positive. 
     Look, I think your spiritual heritage matters. It forms you. Gives you categories to help you grow and mature. It teaches you character and traditions that give you an anchor point in the world. But if you never get to a point where you run that heritage through some tough questions and discover that it comes up a little lacking, you’ll never look through it and past it to find Jesus. 
     I’m part of a small fellowship of believers known as the Churches of Christ. We’re a subdivision of a small 19th-century movement on the American frontier called the Restoration Movement. I’m fourth generation on my mother’s side. My great-grandfather was baptized by T.B. Larrimore, which admittedly doesn’t rise to “children of Abraham” level but ought to make the very small percentage of people who know who T.B. Larrimore was go, “huh.” 
     I hardly missed church growing up. I was baptized when I came to faith in Jesus. I went to one of “our” universities. I majored in Bible or Ministry or whatever they were calling it and walked around with Greek flash cards hanging out of my pocket. (You can see why my wife was swept off her feet…) 
     Point is, I’m invested in my heritage. But I’m reminded by Suleiman — and John the Baptist — that God can raise up 4th generation, properly baptized Church of Christ people who have rarely missed church, are graduates of “our” universities, and who have degrees that affirm they can read the Bible in the original languages  at about a “C” average out of rocks. And, you know, he could do it without the rocks too.
     I’m invested in my heritage, I’m thankful for it, but the instant it becomes more important to me than Jesus I ought to be willing to let it go.
     God can raise up Muslims who travel to Mecca out of the rocks. So can he raise up conscientious Catholics, earnest Episcopalians, pious Presbyterians. He can create out of the pea gravel in your landscaping good evangelicals who vote Republican, or good AME folks who vote Democrat. He can fill megachurches with celebrity pastors with a wave of his hand (and it sometimes seems as though he does.) Spiritual heritage doesn’t impress him, it doesn’t force his blessing, and it doesn’t make us more special than anyone else.
     If we find our way to him, it will not be ultimately be because our spiritual heritage (though it can help). It will be because we’ve recognized in our own lives what's always been true: that God’s ax is at the root of the tree, that he’s looking for fruitfulness, and that confusing heritage with faith will only keep God at a distance. If we find our way to him it will only be because he has come to us at Jesus. 
     At best, your heritage can point you to him.
     At worst, it may point you away.

     Know which yours is.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Faith That Moves Mountains

     Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed,  you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you.
-Matthew 17:20 (NIV)

Jalandhar Nayak seems like a very determined guy.
     The 45-year-old father of three was basically just missing his three sons, who are students at a residential school in a town that’s about 10 km from the tiny, remote village in the eastern Indian state of Orissa in which he lives. That’s just a little over 6 miles, but the walk between the school and their home would take the sons three hours because they had to cross five hills. They couldn’t come home very often because of the difficult walk. No one seemed very interested in building a road to Mr. Nayak’s village; they don’t even have water or electricity. So Jalandhar started working on a road himself. 
     For the last two years, every morning he has taken his tools — a pickaxe and a crowbar — and headed out to work on his road. Two years of breaking rocks, leveling ground, moving boulders. Slowly but surely, his road started to take shape. One kilometer. Two. Day after day, hour after hour he worked on his road. Like I said, Jalandhar seems like a very determined guy. 
     His determination, in fact, finally caught the eye of someone in the town’s government, who contacted him to say they would finish the road. They’re really impressed with his work. They say it’s good enough for a car to travel on. They’re even going to pay Jalandhar for the work he’s done.
     They should, since he’s finished 8 km of road. Over half.
     I love my son, but I don’t think I could build a road to his school. (In fairness, it is about 500 miles away…) Jalandhar’s determination and hard work are impressive and inspiring. He’s apparently also asking the town to run water and electricity out to his village. 
     No word on whether he’s a plumber or electrician as well.
   Jesus famously told his disciples that if they had even the tiniest amount of faith, they’d be able to move a mountain. I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the toughest statements in the Bible to me. Jesus seems to be saying — no, he explicitly says — that if a believer has any faith at all then impossible things should become commonplace. Move a mountain? Done. That’s tough for me, I have to admit. A little flashier than Jesus normally is. It claims too much, it seems to me. Makes him sound like a TV preacher.
     There’s probably a good chance that Jesus thinks of moving a mountain because of a vision in Zechariah 14:4, where God stands on a mountain near Jerusalem and it splits apart to give the Israelites an escape route from their enemies. That doesn’t really help me though; in fact, to imagine that faith gives us the power to do something that only God can do is even harder to believe. 
     I think, though, that I might have figured out the problem. 
     The problem is that I’m working with a bad definition of faith. I’m thinking of faith as some inner quality that gives a person superpowers — maybe like the X-factor in the X-Men comics. Get your faith charged up enough and you’ll be able to do impossible things. Jalandhar Nayak, however, reminds me that faith isn’t like that at all.
     Faith is what makes you get up every morning and grab your pick.
     There’s a scene in The Last Jedi where Luke Skywalker is training Rey. He asks her what she thinks the Force is, and she says it’s a power that Jedi use to do impossible things. Luke tells her that “everything [she] just said is wrong.” He tells her instead to reach out, to feel the Force. It isn’t something a person uses to do amazing things; it’s there, and you can either recognize it or not. The point is that Rey has misunderstood the Force as a power that’s within herself that she can learn to use to her own advantage. But it’s really a power that’s all around her, that’s already at work, that she can learn to know and lean on. 
     The reason we struggle with Jesus’ words is that we forget that faith isn’t about ourselves at all, that if we only have faith in ourselves we’ll sooner or later disappoint ourselves — and everyone else too. Your faith isn’t supposed to be in your pick, or in the strength and skill with which you swing it, but in the God who's coming the other way to meet up with you. That’s the reason you get up every morning and grab your pick. God is coming, and you can bet that he’ll meet you at lot further than halfway along the road. 
     That’s the kind of faith that enables a woman to get up every morning and care for her husband as Alzheimer’s inexorably takes him away from her. It’s the kind of faith that strengthens a couple to care for their autistic child, though they know the usual expressions of love between child and parents will be few and far between. It’s the kind of faith that inhabits a missionary far from home, a writer casting his words out into the world, a hurt wife offering forgiveness to her husband without knowing where it might come from. It’s the kind of faith that allows regular people face their own deaths with bravery and hope. Faith makes us believe that the impossible is possible because God is already at work, and that if we’ll just get to work too we’ll see him directly. We have to get to work on the road, but the job isn’t ours alone.
     Faith is the trust that you can keep going, working, digging, praying, speaking, hoping — because God never stops. Faith is what opens our eyes and hearts to his possibilities.
     I don’t know all the mountains your path will cross. I don’t know what obstacles you’ll have to overcome in your life. There will be some, I’m fairly sure of that. They’ll be significant. And when you come to them, when it’s time for you to start chipping away at them, please remember the hope you have: that God is just there on the other side. That he’s chipping away at them too. That soon there’ll be a road where that mountain once was. 
     How can I be so sure? Well, that is the good news: that God moves mountains for his children. In Christ, at the cost of his own life, he went to work to carve out a place for us through sin, sorrow, pain, and death. What mountain is so large, what hill so steep, that a God like that will not level it for us if that’s what it takes?
     You’re not Jalandhar Nayak. You’re the town. God is Jalandhar Nayak.
     So grab your pick and get to work. 
     God’s already started.


Friday, January 5, 2018

Sheltered from God's Wrath?

  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
-1 John 4:9-10 (NIV)

You might have missed it, but Thomas Monson, president of the Mormon church, died this past week.
     Maybe, like me, you couldn’t have named the president of the Mormon church. Maybe you didn’t even know they were led by a president at all. I know very little about Monson — only what a quick Google search can tell me. While anyone who climbs to the top of an organization like the Mormon church will have his share of detractors, he was, by most accounts, a kind, gentle, loving person who led the church to concentrate more on outreach to the poor. 
     In all honesty, I wouldn’t have spent much time thinking about Thomas Monson except for something a college friend posted about him. In his post, he compared Monson’s New York Times obituary with Hugh Hefner’s, the founder of Playboy who died in just a few months ago. I think my friend intended to compare the coverage of the deaths of these two men. But someone commented on his post:

“That's the legacy we can expect the world to notice. Sadly despite living very different lives both these men have faced a harsh judgment with nothing to stand between them and God's wrath.”

     Now, I have to acknowledge that there are some significant differences between Mormon theology and historic, orthodox (with a lower-case “o”) Christian theology. Some make the case that Mormons are not Christian in any real sense (though Mormons themselves do claim faith in Christ as the source of salvation). In saying what I’m going to say next, I don’t want to try to plaster over the real differences that exist between Mormons and other churches. 
     That said, I feel the need to say this: to claim that a man who has given his life to the service of his church and the poor stands under the same judgment as a man who gave his life to hedonism and the objectification of women is to misrepresent God and/or to misunderstand the gospel. I didn’t know Thomas Monson or Hugh Hefner, but if their body of work doesn’t suggest to you that answering to God might be a very different experience for the two of them then I don’t really know what to say to you. 
     Yes, I know that good deeds don’t save us. I understand that we are saved by grace, through faith. But faith isn’t a perfect understanding of vital doctrine, and if we’re not saved by good deeds, neither are we saved by perfect knowledge. While I might consider some of what Thomas Monson believes to be incorrect, and maybe even a little ridiculous, that doesn’t mean my track to God is inside his. 
     My friend’s commenter has a problem, I think, that is epidemic to many brands of Christianity. He sees the gospel as a collection of propositions that a person must understand and agree with in order to be saved. What I mean is, he and others like him think that the only thing keeping us from God’s wrath and judgment is a series of propositions that must be believed. The specifics of those propositions might differ from group to group and person to person, but they all have to do with what Jesus did on the cross and how a person comes to benefit from it. 
     My friend’s commenter seems to believe that Thomas Monson’s perceived deficiencies in understanding what Jesus did and how a person receives the benefits of it put him in a position similar to Hefner’s before God: with nothing to shelter him from God’s unmitigated wrath.
     That term — “the wrath of God” — gets thrown around a lot in some churches. So does the idea that Jesus’ death resolves and pacifies God’s wrath against sinners. It’s in one of my favorite songs, in fact:

 “…’til on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied…”

     Like I said, I like that song a lot. I just don’t think that line is completely biblical. 
     It’s trying to be, and so are folks who believe it. I understand where it’s coming from. It’s based on four New Testament texts (Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, Romans 3:25, and the text above, 1 John 4:9-10) that use a word that describes Jesus’ death as “an atoning sacrifice” or “a propitiation,” depending on your translation. And the translation makes all the difference because it’s one of those New Testament words that is sometimes translated based on what you already believe.
     It’s true that the word can be used in the sense of “propitiation” in Greek translations of the Old Testament. It can rightly be said that sacrifices in ancient Israel turned away God’s wrath. In the New Testament, though, the word morphs in meaning. You can see that if you take a step back and ask, “Who’s doing the propitiating, who is pacifying God’s wrath?” 
     Others have made the case more elegantly than I can, but here’s the thing: to translate the word as “propitiation” — that is, to say that Jesus’ death pacifies God’s wrath — God would have to be the recipient of that action. In none of the texts that use that word is God the recipient. In fact, in two of them God is explicitly the one doing the propitiating. He loves us by sending his Son, whose death atones for our sins. But not by turning away the wrath of an angry God. In fact, what God does in Christ he does specifically out of his love.
     “So what?” you’re asking. (I hear you.) So…Jesus didn’t come as the one who “stands between” human beings and a wrathful God who otherwise would destroy us. He came at the instigation of a loving God who would save us. That’s an important distinction. God is not pre-inclined to destroy us, our only salvation being the sacrificial love of Jesus. God comes to us from love, and out of that love sends Jesus as a sacrifice that reconciles us to himself and redeems us from the power of sin and death so that we can share his life with him.
     So…when a believer in Christ contemplates standing before God, it’s not in the hope that our good deeds, religious piety, or doctrinal correctness will be enough to turn away God’s anger toward us. It’s with the faith that God is for us, that he loves us so much that he has given his Son for us, and that whatever shortcomings there are in our lives are overcome by his sacrifice.

     I’ll put mine in the same work of God in Jesus that Thomas Monson apparently trusted.

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