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The Story Of Thanksgiving

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

The First Thanksgiving

Once upon a time, people thanked God for what they had. Every day was filled with prayers of thanksgiving and everything they had was cherished and shared with others so that everyone would benefit.

Then, one day, someone told us we could have more. We forgot to be thankful and spent all of our time striving for more than we had the day before. Nations were built and empires spread; we knew we would not have what God gives us, but what we give ourselves.

One day, a great war broke out; the nation was divided. Whenever a battle was won, the victorious side had a day of thanksgiving. Then the president had an idea, “What if we had one day to give thanksgiving as a single nation. Instead of thinking about our blessings from above, we could be thankful for those founders that came before us who built this great nation.” His side won the war, and the whole nation gave thanks to our nation on a single day.

Over the years, people became disillusioned about the country and what they had been told about its greatness. They started to believe again that what they had was not a gift from God or a country, but their own hard work. The companies told the people that they should reward their hard work and the day after declaring what they were thankful for they should go out and buy things that they didn’t have the day before.

People began to get more and more excited about buying things they didn’t need, and hording things things they didn’t know they wanted. All of the things they declared their thanks for no longer held appeal in their eyes.

The people demanded to know what they wanted before they arrived at the stores, so the companies filled their mailboxes and driveways with advertisements on the very day that people were supposed to be thankful. No one had time to pray and think about what they had, their day was now consumed coveting the things they saw in pictures and they dreamed of the day to come.

Then one day, the companies reminded the world that the day legally begins at midnight, and that their time of thanksgiving should end at 11:59:59pm. People now spent their mornings coveting, their afternoons eating, and their evenings sleeping, lest they lose the energy to shop.

As the years went by the companies, and the people, wanted more. Thanksgiving had giving way to coveting, and the people couldn’t wait until midnight to feed their desires. The shopping would now begin the night that was once part of Thanksgiving day, after all, people had formally just been preparing during this time anyway.

So we stood at the dawn of a new century ready to pounce on new things, instead of kneeling for those that we already had.

We bought and we bought and filled our homes with things. We discarded thanksgiving altogether because of our lust for new things. We lined up at the stores and rushed the doors. We trampled anyone who got in our way.

So it came to pass, we traded thanksgiving for materials. We hoarded the newest and the best. We spent all of our money on things we didn’t even need know we needed the day before. We did it all in the name of the holy day to come, the day when we celebrated the birth of He who said, “sell everything you have and follow me.”

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Truly Pro-Life

November 10, 2012 1 comment

There are few more controversial labels than “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Although abstract in their nomenclature, these labels always refer to the same issue, abortion.

In the America we are obsessed with this issue, and why not? How can you not be enraged by the thought of a cute little baby being snuffed out at the beginning of its life? or an entire gender’s right to self-determination cast aside by the other sex? The issue is always framed this way, usually because one of those aspects will resonate with half the country more than the other. It creates a righteousness to each side, while at the same time demonizing the other. This dichotomy is politically useful, but over the past 40 years has proven to be practically useless.

The choice between these two positions is a false in and of itself, as we are told the only battleground this is to be fought on is the legalization of abortion, oversimplifying the issue to the degree of hopeless quagmire. The issue of abortion and women’s’ rights are part of a deeper issue, and unless that deeper issue is addressed, a resolution will never be achieved.

The real issue is this: do we really honor life?

Ask the poor, uneducated, single mother of three if she really has a choice when she finds herself pregnant. Ask her in her moment of decision if she feels that any really cares about her or her children’s’ life. The truth is, neither position is a position of truth.

Advocates on both sides of the divide project a poor understanding of people caught up in the middle. Those who seek to make abortion illegal have little problem watching a poor girl have a child, and that child grow up without parents because one is in jail and the other must work long hours to support him or her. That child grows up without the support of family or community, and only choice for an education is one that doesn’t even provide the basic skills needed to survive. When that “saved” child becomes an adult they are told that they are not qualified for anything but the most menial jobs that pay insufficiently to support themselves let alone family. Eventually the person does have choice, stay in a state of poverty, unable to support a family of their own, or turn to crime and possible rise out of their situation, usually destroying what little life they had.

How is that honoring life? How does that give anyone a real choice?

I am constantly bemused by the Christians who call themselves pro-life and can never understand why anyone would choose to kill a baby. How can you kill an adorable little baby whose parents will one day watch him take his first steps and record the even on their video camera? How can you kill that child before he smiles and gets on the bus for the first day of school, or piles out of the mini van for soccer practice? How can you not want to sit there on graduation day and watch your offspring take their college diploma? Why would you want to prevent yourself from sitting at thanksgiving dinner while your child cuts the turkey for the first time in his own house, while his wife watches with pride as she nurses your grandchild?

The sad truth for many of the children who never make it to birth is that they are not missing any of those things, because they would not have happened had they lived. Few of the women forced to make such a heart wrenching decision would say they had much of a choice.

You may argue that any life is better than no life, however to stand before a woman in such a context is cold, unloving, and definitely not “life-affirming.” A person who screams, “this is your problem, now you deal with it!” while providing no help or love to a woman in crisis has no right to say such things. Only when we bear one-another’s burdens can we rightful give our input.

I have a modest proposal, let’s eliminate abortion, but let’s do it in a truly pro-life way which provides women with real choices. A pro-life way honors life not just from conception to birth, but all the way to the hopefully long-off grave. As a follower of Jesus, I believe his command to me to “love my neighbors as myself” means I have to love not only the unborn child, but the mother as well.

Here is how you do it: Provide medical care and support for a pregnant mother to be, let her know she is loved and cared for. Provide a world where children born to mothers that cannot handle them will not rot away in the foster system, but every child be given a chance to succeed. Give children opportunities to thrive no matter where they are born. Create a culture that never views other human beings as a burden or an enemy, but as valuable children of God.

If we do these things, I predict that abortions for otherwise healthy babies will drop to nil even without legal prohibition. As a Christian, I believe that all these things should be done anyway, because that is the embodiment of loving others. If you want a world where we do not do these things for others, I’m afraid we will never rise above a contentious debate where both women and children are cast aside. I may be wrong, but until we try it we will never know.

You are not God

November 7, 2012 Leave a comment

You are not God.

That is the declaration that sin makes, yet somehow we seem to have lost that concept. Modern understandings of sin tend to fall on or near one of two extremes.

The first extreme is growing in popularity but is still the most easily dismissed. That is the view that there is no sin. This view is usually held by people who are more “progressive” or “liberal,” labels which they carry proudly. They tend to view sin as an archaic concept from an ancient time of absolutes. Adherents to this idea tend to argue that “good” and “bad” are relative. However the hypocrisy and ultimate defeat of this theory is that even the staunchest “live and let live” liberal has in their mind a list of sins, some of which are unforgivable. Examples may include oppression, pedophilia, rape, etc. I have still yet to find a person who truly holds to this view, even if they idealize it.

The more insidious misapplication of sin is when people think of sin as a heavenly list of dos and don’ts. This view is often held by self-identifying “conservatives.” These people believe that committing one of these forbidden acts earns a person a one way ticket to Hell. Conversely, there are things that one must do in order to avoid hell. People create lists which they believe are universally applicable in all places and every situation. Ironically, these lists vary from one person to the next, casting doubt on the legitimacy of any particular list. Often using the Bible as source material, they tend to handpick certain “sins” (to outsiders this will appear random in nature) and elevate them to special pinnacle of evil. The sins chosen for this tend to be plucked from the Bible without any regard for historical or cultural context, yet tend to conform more to the culture and context of the modern individual creating the list. Nuances such as “good and vs holy and common” or “biblical Israel vs all peoples,” tend to never even be considered. Examples in the United States include Christians’ opposition to Capitalism in the 19th century, and seeming reversal to opposition to any hint of Socialism in the 21st, the mid 20th century war on racial integration and mixed-race marriage. and most recently the obsession with what civil rights should be granted or withheld from homosexuals. In every aforementioned instance, biblical verses were found to support their position, and verses that opposed such views completely dismissed.

Both of these views have something in common. Both are used to declare that the self is God. Let me explain. In the first view, the self is allowed to view the entirety of the world and declare that there is nothing morally wrong (please remember I stated that I don’t believe anyone actually holds this view). In the second view, the self is allowed to declare what is and is not acceptable, and clothe that list in divine authority. In both these instances, humility has been removed and there is no room left for the divine.

The Christian Bible does not speak of sin this way. Jesus repeatedly told his followers and detractors that human effort is never sufficient and often the most religiously “law-abiding” people are the ones furthest from God. See how Jesus condemns the publicly righteous man who “thanks” God he is so able to be sinless, in favor of the humble sinner who recognizes his need for a savior. One man judges himself as only God can, and judges himself great. He has deluded himself into believing that he is divine, that he is perfect. The other man is humbled by sin, does not condemn others because he knows he has earned plenty of condemnation himself.

After Jesus, the Apostle Paul speaks of the universality of sin, placing us all in the same “celestial boat.” James, the brother of Jesus, reminds the church that if they break one part of God’s Law, they have broken it all, because the same God who gave one law, gave us the other. Yet today the glutton condemns the adulterer, and the greedy condemns the thief. In their minds their sin is of lesser severity. The trouble is only God can make that judgement, and they of course are not God.

Jesus said the whole Law of God is built upon the command to love God with your whole being, and love everyone else as much as yourself. All sin is a failure to do this.  To use the concept of sin to degrade others is to sin against the very law you are invoking.

Sin has one purpose, and that is to loudly declare that we are not God. We are far from perfect. We often fight against perfection that we encounter. Sin is powerful in that it affects every person on earth. You cannot rank sinners. Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler are not worse than you, they just had more opportunity and motivation.

To walk around as if you are better than anyone is to declare to God that your sins don’t count as much as the next guy’s. To make that declaration you must be only one of two things: God or an imposter. You are not God.

You are not God.

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Grace Judges Us

October 25, 2012 2 comments

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
(Matthew 25:31-46)

While Jesus speaks volumes about God’s grace, we cannot ignore the fact that he will also judge. It seems paradoxical for a message of grace to also include a future warning of judgement, but it all makes perfect sense if we truly understand what grace is.

First we must understand that grace is God’s intervention in our world. Our world is defined by sin, suffering, and death. God promises that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, these three painful realities will be banished from reality. This is God’s grace. Christians often focus on the aspect of grace that means they will go to heaven, but we sometimes forget the fact grace alleviates all suffering. Put simply: God will remove the bad.

Second, we must understand our call. When asked what is most important for people to do, Jesus responded that the sum of God’s teaching is to love Him and love your fellow humans. Jesus often spoke of what such love meant, and how to differentiate it from normal human religion. He told stories to the masses to illustrate what such love looked like, and he always reminded people that the greatest example of such love was what God is doing on the earth through him. Above all else, people are called to live as if they believe evil will be wiped away from earth, and to model (even in our feebleness) the reality of grace that God is bringing. Put simply: We must act like God’s grace.

Finally, we must consider our present reality. By and large we humans do not practice such grace. Although we produce enough food to feed the world, a billion do not have enough to eat. Despite our ability to live in peace, millions die from war every decade. Despite the vast wealth of the world, over 2/3 of the world’s population live in poverty. Although it easy to point out the macro forms in which grace is not present within humanity, we cannot dismiss the individual responsibility we all share. Very few of us actually have the opportunity to oppress millions, like the great monsters of history we often invoke to ease our own conscious. We do have the opportunity to ignore injustice and even profit from it when our leaders call for it. We also have the opportunity to act in the same selfishness when we encounter or even cause the suffering of others. We are all guilty of gracelessness. Put simply: We often reject God’s grace.

This is not a world of grace. The sad truth of it is, many of us like it that way.

For God’s grace to be real on this earth, justice must be served on behalf of all those who suffer. Orthodox Christian theology believes that because Jesus died without sin, he was able to take on our collective sin and pay the price to satisfy justice. In other words, Jesus’ willful undeserved suffering paid the price owed for every bad thing that has occurred, is occurring, will occur in the future, as well as that which would have occurred had we had the chance to carry it out. This is the gospel and this is the working of God’s grace.

That last proposition though is subject of some controversy. Many people simply don’t believe it. Many people object to the necessity of righting the wrong or the insinuation of their own guilt. Even when Jesus spoke to people in his own time, people who saw Jesus in the flesh, many rejected it. Still many more reject it today.

The good news is that, as the apostle Paul put it, “where sin abounds, grace abounds.”

Grace most definitely judges, and it has already condemned. Jesus offered himself to stand in our place and all he asked in return is that we accept his grace. To accept grace is to live grace. It is to accept a reality where needs are met and suffering is banished. When Jesus told his followers that he would return and separate the peoples of the earth, he was telling them that those who accept grace show it radiating from within and those who will not accept his grace show it by the lack of grace in their own lives.

The judgement of grace is therefore a judgement of acceptance. There is no persuasion other than what has already been seen and what many have an earnest hope for. Regardless of man-made religious distinctions we have all witnessed grace, even if it was never defined in those terms, and we all have an opportunity to accept or reject it. But there is coming a day when there will only be grace, those who wish their own gain through the suffering of others will not accept such a place, and God will respect their decision.

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Faith and Works

September 23, 2012 1 comment

During my seminary education I struggled deeply with the relationship between faith and works. My previous background as a minster to young people in a megachurch setting and my dedication to learning in a vehemently Reformed graduate school have both emphasized that great tenant of the Protestant faith, that we are saved by faith alone. I have questioned the legitimacy of this belief.

I am not saying that I take issue with justification by faith alone, although I believe we are justified by grace, not faith. But this is not the problem I am dealing with. I do affirm that we are only justified by God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To argue contrary falls in the realm I am comfortable with calling heresy. However, justification is not salvation, it is the beginning. Salvation does not occur solely in some heavenly book, apart from our earthly life, for Jesus spoke of salvation as being born again (John 3), a totally transforming experience. Salvation is holistic in its effect. Protestants have traditionally called this part of salvation sanctification, but I don’t believe it is useful to separate justification and sanctification, as theology has done in the minds of many Christians throughout the ages but especially lately. Justification simply doesn’t happen apart from sanctification. Justification may occur instantaneously at some point, and sanctification is an ongoing process, but they are both present in the “saved.”

I believe that this division of terms has led to bad theology and even worse behavior in the church. In my classes I encountered seminarians who are astoundingly prideful, who verbally abuse both faculty and female students, who cheat on a regular basis, and display all sorts of greed and avarice that would make the most depraved men blush. Put bluntly, some of the worst people I spend time with are leaders (or future leaders) of the church. All of the people I have witnessed, even the vilest (and yes there are a few I would call vile) are convinced not only of their own salvation but of their ability to lead other Christians. They tend to be extremely defensive of the doctrine of salvation through faith, and mention of works elicits condemnations of “papist heresy.”

It would be easy to end the post here. I could just be pointing a finger and yelling “hypocrites!” But that is not my intention. I earnestly believe that one of the reasons these young (mostly) men act and think the way they do is because they are simply a product of modern evangelical teaching. This theology is a reductionist view of Reformed teaching that states “its not about what you do, its about what He did.” And while that is a nice sentiment, it is just not what Jesus said. Jesus spent most of his time teaching his followers what to do, not how to formulate theology. When it came to being “saved” Jesus seemed far more concerned with actions than beliefs. I don’t know that Jesus would actually separate beliefs from actions like that. He seemed to teach throughout his ministry that actions show true beliefs. I think this is an important point for one practical reason, I don’t know what you (or anyone else) really believe. The best I can do is look at your actions and try to discern your beliefs based on those actions. Is that fair? Jesus seemed to think so.

Jesus told his followers to judge teachers by their “fruit” (works).

You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
(Matthew 7:16-20)

But does this negate the belief that we are saved by our statement of faith? Jesus says in the next verses…

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
(Matthew 7:21-23)

This teaching about the coming judgment shows that Christ is more concerned with our acts (as true confessions of faith) than our words (which can state anything). Put another way, I can call myself a tiger, the fact that I am typing an essay right now, and was born to two human parents, etc., etc., places serious doubt on my claim. In the same way calling Jesus “Lord” doesn’t make is so any more than I can define my species with mere words. So who is saved if not the ones who declare that they are based on their statement of faith? The above text states that it is those who do the will of God (works). Is Jesus teaching justification by works? No, that language would be completely foreign to him. He is looking at the big picture of salvation, not the pieces that form it. If sanctification and justification are bound to one another, this makes perfect sense.

Jesus’ half-brother James puts it plainly…

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
(James 2:17-24)

James hits on several key points here:

  1. Statement of belief in God is insufficient, even Satan knows who God is.
  2. The example of Abraham (Paul’s favorite reference to faith) acted (works) as a result of his faith.
  3. Faith without works is dead, useless, etc.

I don’t think that any of my peers at the seminary would overtly argue against this, but their actions do. Evangelical Christians (more than other types of Christians) seem to be so wary of mixing justification and sanctification that they would hesitantly agree that a “saved” person could act in any way he or she pleased, since salvation was independent of works. I have even heard it boasted that a sinner as great of Hitler may have been saved, because our God is so great. Foolishness! How could the saved man bear such copious amounts of such bad fruit and know God? While it is true that before conversion there is no sin so great it cannot be wiped away (just look at Paul, murderer of Christians) after being saved we are made new, and cannot go on in our previous ways. Paul would agree (Ephesians 2), as would John (1 John), and the rest. I don’t even need to mention Jesus, who made this one of the cornerstones of his teaching.

To what degree does the sin leave our lives? This I do not know. My reading of Scripture tells me that I should be sinning a lot less than I do. The same sentiment haunted John Wesley for decades as he tried to reconcile plain biblical understanding with his practical experience.

To sum up, I believe that the dichotomy between faith and works is unjustified. Faith and works always travel together, and in the practical life of the believer and teacher, we should always remember this. We cannot go along sinning without concern, convinced that it doesn’t really matter because we are saved by faith alone. Faith never comes alone. I believe we should try to live like the woman caught in adultery, who after encountering Jesus told, “You are forgiven, go and sin no more.”

Don’t Want to Be an American Christian

September 9, 2012 4 comments

I don’t want to be an American Christian.

I don’t want to make public events out of prayer when Jesus told me to pray privately.

I don’t want to go to war for revenge when Jesus told me to forgive my enemies.

I don’t want to “help” the poor help themselves when Jesus told me to care for the least of these.

I don’t want to tell non-Christians how they should live when Jesus told me to love my neighbor.

I don’t want to withhold my riches from the poor to protect my future when Jesus told me I could die tonight.

I don’t want to lie to get ahead when Jesus told me to tell the truth.

I don’t want to hate those who “seek to destroy our way of life” when Jesus told me to love my enemies.

I don’t want to believe that America is the only hope for the world when Jesus told me that he is.

I don’t want to be an American Christian.

I want to be a Jesus Christian.

Do Christians Actually Like Christ?

September 3, 2012 2 comments

Jesus and the crossI was teaching Sunday School in Birmingham, Alabama while completing my seminary education when the brutal truth of modern Christianity hit me. I was doing lessons on the teachings of Jesus, trying to reorient people who had lived their lives in church to think about what Jesus actually said, rather than the conventional wisdom that churches sometimes pass of as divine revelation. I believe I was talking specifically about the part of Matthew 25 where Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and the future judgement of all people. I said it as clearly as I understood it– Jesus will judge us based how we treat the poorest and “least” among us. Jesus’ words seemed clear to me, and while the majority of the group seemed to accept Jesus’ teaching at face value, one person couldn’t contain his disagreement.

“But what are we actually supposed to do?” he asked.

“Uh, take care of the least among us?” I answered tentatively.

“Well I know what he said, but we can’t really do that. It’s just not realistic. Or fair to us,” he once again volunteered. “I know Jesus said that, but what should we really do?”

I was for a rare moment in my life, speechless. Although I had taken part in many conversations where people had rejected one of Jesus’ teachings or another, I had never had someone say it so overtly. The person who protested what was clear to me was a person who had grown up in the church, his father read Scripture from the pulpit nearly every week, and he had been involved in the higher echelons of church leadership since he was very young.

The young man didn’t come to my class much after that. But the exchange stuck with me.

Some years earlier, when I was a lowly undergraduate myself, I had an unpleasant exchange with a professor at my conservative Baptist university. Our point of debate was allegiance to Jesus above all else. The professor told me quite matter of factually that if he ever found himself in some foreign land, he would deny Jesus if it meant saving his own life. I was floored. Although still a young Christian, I had come to understand that our lives were to be for Jesus’ service, and throughout history that has meant death for thousands of martyrs. Moreover we should not expect to be above such a sacrifice.

My professor scoffed at my argument. “That is just not realistic. That is idealism, and I have no stomach for idealists.” I never really spoke to him after that.

Over the years I have watched many Christian leaders call people to “moderate” their allegiance to Jesus, to take his more radical ideas with a grain of salt. Ironically Jesus seemed to indicate in John 3 that being born again, a given concept for most Christians, was the most radical of all his teachings.

Although it has been said by many others many times before, I do not believe that our domesticated brand of Christianity has any actual similarity to the brand that Jesus lived and died for.

I wonder what would happen if we actually believed all that stuff Jesus said.

 

 

 

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