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.