Thursday, July 28, 2016

Reconciliation and expectations

Our human relationships are fragile things. One wrong word, one wrong assumption, left unchecked, or let to fester, leads to a tearing of that delicate fabric. Fast friends, however diligent in loving; witness the cracked foundation of their kinship riven wide in the course of time and carelessness. Spouses, once dedicated to the care and keeping of the other, find ever growing discontent in the person they married. Relationships are like a tenuous web of spider’s silk, heavy with morning dew: the slightest breeze is ruinous. We are connected to one another, and our relationships are the strings, the wires, the ropes, the cables, that hold us together.
People have their relationships ruined by the course of life. Even relationships with God are ruined by changing circumstances. We who are clothed in these mortal bodies do look forward to a life eternal. In all our busyness, our lives revolve around the attaining of things that cannot possibly follow us into eternity. We carry none of our money with us. Our homes, our toys, our material wealth, do not follow us beyond death. Our relationships do follow us. Our relationships are eternal affairs. How can they be torn apart so easily? We ought to be more diligent in repairing the human connections God has given to us. We should be experts in reconciling. I have learned that reconciling is impossible to do well; if we cannot identify the expectations that caused our relationship to pull tight, fray, and break.
Relationships are delicate when they have hidden expectations. We do this with God all the time. We expect God to do certain things for us, and we are not honest about those assumptions. Relationships with God will fail when we believe He will provide us with what He hasn’t promised. Our own visions of what a friendship with God will yield are often the very death of that friendship. We don’t just do this with God. We do it with our friends, our family, our children, and our spouses. If we are going to be good at reconciling our broken relationships, we must become experts at identifying the expectations we have of others, and let them go.
What are we to do? We, once rich in relationship, and now impoverished-- torn from our grip the greatest loves. Is there any way our friendships, marriages, and sacred family bonds can endure the test of time? Having loved and lost, trusted and betrayed, we look for a way to reclaim those broken threads. Reconciliation is the way, and reconciliation requires the death of certain expectations.
As in all things, we have a lot to learn from Jesus.

There is an example of reconciliation-- a man who lost the most, over his lifetime, and yet was able to reconcile those lost friends-- when they were able to recognize and release their expectations of Him. The mists of time have not been able to expunge the record. He was a blue collar worker, in the time of the Pax Romana, long ago in the region of Judea. Sometime shortly after His 30th birthday, Jesus of Nazareth left his trade to follow a call of itinerant preaching, healing, and messiahship.
Along the coastal roads, and the wilderness byways, He ministered through the land. He preached the good news of the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God. As He did so, He called individuals to be a part of his ministry; and a part of His heart. They followed, each a part of the ministry; each a part of the Savior’s heart. Each lost in the fantasy of what a relationship with Jesus meant. And, oh, the crowds.
How they loved to hear Him preach! Finally, there was a prophet who spoke with authority. Any who doubted, the many cacklers and naysayers, had their mouths shut early by the wonders, those supernatural miracles. Deaf people were hearing. Blind people were seeing. An army of poor and desperate souls poured out of the cities, and marched across the wilderness to hear Jesus. The disabled were armed cavalry, no force on earth able to stop them from receiving their healing. And healings there were. Everyone was talking about Jesus of Nazareth.
The religious establishment, whose mouths were full of the same old tired teachings, grew afraid of the power this prophet had. The people were listening to Him, and He was claiming to be the long awaited Messiah.
Jesus was a man of momentum. He was the right person, in the right time, with the right abilities. Everyone knew it, especially those that Jesus called His “Twelve.” They were in. They got in on the ground floor, and the Jesus elevator was going to take them all the way to the top. What a ride they were on.
The Twelve were the only real friends that Jesus had. They had His trust. They were the ones that He relied upon to execute miracles, distribute food to the poor, and manage the treasury. Each of the Twelve had visions of what they were being called into. Each of them saw a different vision of what the future held: and it was tantalizing. Peter saw himself sitting at Jesus’ right hand, when He finally executed the Kingdom. Jesus would be the king, and Peter would be His hatchet man-- overseeing everything there was to oversee. James and John were the famed “Sons of Thunder,” and saw themselves in high places of honor; trusted to make things happen for the great Lord, and trusted with much land and wealth. Judas was in charge of the treasury, and used it whenever he wanted to buy the things that he wanted. He knew the treasury would one day be vast; and there would be more than enough for him to skim whatever he needed, whenever he needed it.
The future was bright for those twelve friends of Jesus.

And then, Jesus started to talk about being crucified. The grand arrival of the Kingdom would be the most humiliating and disastrous end there could possibly be. The cross was reserved for the terrible mutineers and political coup artists who failed. For miles, as one walked toward any city of importance, the streets were lined with crucified degenerates. Like streetlights and highline poles, the conscience of the Roman people was ever illuminated by those damned souls, nailed to a crucifix; moaning their final regrets. Until, finally, they died; and the crows pecked off their flesh. Rome stomped her opposition, and the cross was the heel of her iron boot.
The Twelve could not believe Jesus. His friends rolled their eyes at his distant chantings of death. Peter even publicly rebuked the Lord for His insistence on crucifixion. Jesus would have none of it. He knew he was going to die. Jesus’ insistence on His own death caused those thin relationship strings to pull tight. The breeze was blowing. His will did not mesh with His disciples’ ambitions. Their expectations of what Jesus would do for them made their relationships with Him very weak. As soon as they would discover His unwillingness to be what they wanted; those relationships would break.

The night before He was crucified, they all ate one last meal together. The scene of the glorious mundane. The meal. Jesus eating with those twelve friends, washing their feet, reminding them of the importance of serving, not lording over people. It was at that meal Christ’s fate was sealed by the betrayer, Judas Iscariot. He knew he was going to betray Jesus. The Christ had stopped feeding the emotional need Judas had, to become somebody great. Judas was the first of the disciples to figure out that Jesus could not be co opted. They were riding His coattails, but it wasn’t the direction they had hoped. Judas discovered the dream, the vision of greatness, the unending money, his expectation, was all but over.
We can guess as to the motive. Perhaps Judas knew that there was going to be a time when there would be a reckoning for his skimming off the treasury. They would have made an example out of him for the treachery. Judas knew the ride was over, and was looking to turn a profit, turning over this rising star.
For certain, Judas had talked himself into the betrayal of Jesus. He found some fault in his friend, perceived some dissatisfaction, some prideful arrogance, and then focused on it. Given enough time, that once strong filament of relationship brittled. At the meal, as Jesus looked into his eyes, and gave him bread dipped in vinegar; the very devil entered his heart. He knew he was going to betray Jesus, for 30 pieces of silver. The string broke.

After Judas left. Peter was convinced that Jesus might get in trouble, and promised to die protecting his Lord. He was a little denser than Judas. He was convinced the Jesus Twelve could win a back alley brawl with the thugs of the religious establishment. The relationship thread tightened. Jesus shook his head, predicting that Peter would deny him three times before the first rooster crowed. The Lord knew something that Peter didn’t; Peter was more interested in what fidelity to Jesus would do for him; than he was in being faithful to Jesus.
Peter’s relationship thread didn’t brittle until the mob took Jesus. Peter had to watch his expectations, his dreams of grandeur, shatter into a million pieces. He realized friendship with Jesus was no longer an asset, taking him to the highest echelons of power and prestige-- that friendship was a liability, and loyalty to Jesus wasn’t going to get Peter anywhere; but crushed under the iron boot of Rome.
Peter followed Jesus at a distance. Something was wrong. That momentum, those miracles and sermons; were nowhere to be found. Peter was confused. The power of Jesus was hobbled. Where was his ability to shut the mouths of his opposition? Where were the miracles and the favor of God? Peter stood in the courtyard, as Jesus was being humiliated. Throughout the night, the voices of the accusers boomed out across the paving stones. Jesus provided no response.
A high pitched voice of challenge barked out of the darkness, from a lowly servant girl. “Aren’t you one of his disciples? Didn’t I see you with him?” Oh, the irony. The notoriety that Peter craved, being one of Jesus’ friends, would be his undoing. Unless he acted quickly.
“No.” A simple answer. Perhaps, if he kept his response low key, this would just blow over. A few seconds of silence followed. The sky was beginning to brighten with the impending arrival of a new day.
“I saw you with him? Didn’t I?” She insisted. People were starting to turn their attention toward him. Peter’s soul was frantic. He was about to be drug down by his association to Jesus. He needed time to think; a luxury he didn’t have. Loyalty was important to Peter, but what good is loyalty in the grave?
“No.” Peter cleared his throat, as casually as possible. “You are mistaken.”
The girl was looking at him hard now. So were the others gathered around the fire. They were searching his face. He kept it straight, but his insides were screaming. They would find him out. They would find him out. They would kill him. His family would starve. Friendship with Jesus was costing way too much. Jesus lied to him. Jesus wasn’t going to save anybody, he was a fraud. They, they were going to crucify him and everyone who was associated with him. What an irresponsible bastard.
That’s what he was. An illegitimate child with visions of grandeur, preying upon the desperate and the foolish, of which Peter certainly proved himself to be. Damn him. Peter made a decision, to hang Jesus out to dry and protect himself. Which he should have done from the beginning. Somebody had to look out for Peter.
“No. I’m sure of it. Your accent betrays you. You’re from Galilee, and that’s where Jesus is from.”
“Goddam snotnose! Shut your hole! I said I don’t know the man, and I mean what I say!” Peter didn’t have to fake the rage. It was bubbling up from deep inside, and once freed, it gushed. “In my world, a person keeps on insisting you’re not talking truth, they mean you’re a liar. And then, we fight to the death. Is that what you want? So shut up! I swear it by God Almighty, I don’t know the man!” He growled a little at the end. The firelight cast flickers and shadows on Peter’s face, and the now present dawn pushed away the last of the darkness behind him.
The girl opened her mouth, as if to speak; and a rooster crowed. Since the dawn of mankind, no rooster crow had pierced a heart so deep. It was a dagger, driven straight and true into Peter’s soul. Jesus said that he would do this: betray him. And, he had. Lost in the moment. Lost in the sea of broken dreams. Scared, and teeth on edge; Peter denied Jesus three times before the rooster had crowed once.
The rooster kept crowing, but it could not muffle the sound of the relationship thread popping apart. His face recoiled in surprise, and Peter looked over his shoulder at the figure of Jesus before a tribunal.
Jesus was staring at Peter. Their eyes met. Jesus knew. Peter knew. Peter turned away from Jesus. Bodily. Spiritually. Emotionally. And he ran.

The iron boot stepped down on Jesus. Alone. He breathed his last, naked and alone; hung on a crucifix with the crowds gawking. They buried him in a cave.

Three days later, the grave was empty. Some believed again, somewhere in their hearts. Like Peter, who believed, the belief of a living Jesus was not a relationship. He believed, but he could not see past his own betrayal; his own worthlessness. There could be no reconciliation.

The Twelve were gathered. They were already down to ten, but they kept going by the moniker Jesus gave them. Judas had hung himself. Thomas was out getting some food to stockpile, so they could lay low for a while. The door was locked. The Twelve were stone faced. Each man found himself repeating the events of the last few days over and over, switching partners every few hours; but unable to reach any kind of resolution. There were murmurs and low whispers. Each man looking for a way forward with his life.
There was a lot of confusion. Nobody was sure what to do, and their leader was probably dead. Risen maybe. Definitely gone. No spider’s web of relationships now, just a pile of strings.
Jesus walked right into their midst. No knock. He just appeared. His message was incredible.
“Peace be with you.” They looked in shocked silence. He was quiet, powerful, and present. Jesus was with them. He was looking each one in the eye, man by man; as he slowly lifted his hands. They saw the scabbed over holes. He showed them his side, still red and healing. Bartholomew stood, hugged Jesus, with a low hearty chuckle. The tone in the room changed. Gladness crept into the stony faces. Whispers grew to laughs.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then Jesus breathed on them, a long full breath. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
In the relational dimension, those strings lying on the ground were lifted. One by one, they reattached to Jesus. All but three: Judas, Thomas, and Peter. Jesus was giving His disciples forgiveness. He was giving them the opportunity to let go of their expectations. Jesus was sending them out to work for Him, full of His Spirit.
As he had come, he left. Jesus walked out. Peter had enough. It was torture. Trust had been broken. Broken! Jesus would never trust him, and Peter could not trust Jesus. Why did he have to deny Him? Why did he follow so closely? Why? It would have been far better to fail, to deny, out of His sight.
He really was the Son of God. It still blew Peter’s mind circuitry. Jesus was there in Eden, calling into being the entire created order. The breath breathed on the Twelve, was the same breath he breathed into the first man, some eons ago. He had the authority of the Messiah. Peter shuddered. There was coming a day when Jesus would judge Peter’s soul. Peter knew what Jesus knew. He would be found guilty.
Peter was glad he left.

Then Jesus came again to the Twelve, eight days later. Thomas was in this time. Jesus let Thomas feel the healed-over holes in his hands, and the stab wound on his side. Thomas believed, and reconciled with Jesus. The Twelve believed again. Their expectations, those wild visions of power, wealth, and grandeur, were the only things that finally died the night of the crucifixion. Those relational expectations of Jesus were gone, and for the better. The truth, that Jesus was the Son of God, was not shaken by a physical death. He had been right all along: he had the authority to lay down his life, and the authority to take it up again. To his greatest sorrow, Peter could not reattach that string.

Without a constant presence, the Twelve were unsure of how to move forward, practically speaking. Peter filled a natural void. Though he was not the relational center of the Twelve, he was the central leader. After a couple weeks of lying low, the world started to move on. The upstart spiritual rebellion had been crushed. Status quo had won a great victory, now content to sit down and gloat. In the evening, just as the light was fading, Peter unlocked the door. The Twelve looked at him, curious.
“I’m going fishing.” He said, still facing the door. There was a murmur of consent behind him.
“We’re going with you.” James said, rising from the floor. To a man, they all followed Peter out to the docks, and out into the Sea of Tiberius. They were back to their old way of life, and the Jesus experience was behind them.
Though they labored all night, they caught nothing. Peter threw himself into the work, his calloused hands grasping at netting-- his calloused heart grasping the unattached Jesus string. There was no way back. There was no way forward. Jesus had come to them twice, talking about forgiveness. But forgiveness was not a way forward, it was just a thing. Forgiveness was a wiping clean the slate of chalked up wrongs. It was not a script of the future. Peter stood in the metaphor, line in hand, bewildered, culpable, and ashamed. Unable to let go the string, and unable to follow Jesus. He hadn’t just left Jesus in an hour of need, he had betrayed Him, three times.
Peter wished he would have died that night. He was ready to, so he mused. Jesus had put a stop to the fighting before it could really get going. Jesus rebuked Peter for defending Him. It was all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to go that way. It wasn’t what Peter expected.
He paused from thought and cast the net, hurling it with a grunt. The tiny weights spread the net into a beautiful blossom, just before kissing the sea and disappearing into the depth. The others were busy about the small boat, tending to the various sailing factors which kept the nets tossing and retrieving; productively scouring the sea for a school of fish.
Peter replayed the events of that night, the night he betrayed Jesus three times. Guilt and shame stabbed at his heart as the memory noir rolled again. In his stomach, a knife pierced-- that knife of irony and sorrow. He drew the net back in. Empty. Again. The morning light was just breaking from the eastern horizon. If there were roosters out on the sea of Tiberius, they would have started taunting Peter with that crowing sound. A common sound which would cause him to wretch a little every time it met his ear.
A familiar voice called him out of the reverie.
“Children, do you have any fish?” Before Peter could place the voice, while he was still scanning the shore for the figure poised in conversation, Thomas yelled back.
“NO!” A few seconds of silence, and then Peter saw the figure on the shore, hands cupped around his mouth to amplify his speech.
“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” Peter rolled his eyes. He hurled the net off the starboard edge, with the customary grunt. Another perfect throw. The net made that wet slapping sound as it vanished into the sea. Peter waited, and then began hauling the tail lines. The net was full. Seeing the struggle, others joined in on the haul. The nets were so full, they could not bring it up.
John grabbed Peter’s shoulder, one hand pointing at the figure on the beach. “It is the Lord!” Peter looked now with ferocity. He let go of the net. The Lord was standing on the beach. Without much thinking, but much passion, Peter threw on his cloak and dove into the sea, flailing about in a panicked swim towards Jesus.
The other disciples hung on to the nets, and sailed towards the shore. They beached, the palpitating nets now ready to be man-handled in without finesse.
Jesus was there, standing by a fire burned down to the coals. Bread and fish were laid out in strips over the red coals, just waiting for hungry men. How long had he been there, sitting by a fire and watching his Twelve, cooking breakfast?
“Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” Jesus said. Peter waded in and began to haul the net up. The others helped, and the nets did not tear out. They were strong enough to handle the stress. Jesus stood up, spreading his arms wide, hands open, “Come, and have breakfast.”
It was good food, and well deserved. The disciples were famished. Conversation was sparse, it was clear Jesus had some business planned. There was an indescribable tension. Finally, as they were just finished eating, Jesus looked hard at Peter. Silence stole over the group.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter met and held Jesus’ gaze. “Yes, Lord, you know that I have affection for you.” Jesus nodded slowly, a look of understanding in his eyes. The two kept eye contact. The other disciples looked uncomfortable.
“Feed my lambs.” Jesus said. Peter nodded. This was it. Jesus was making a deal with him. He had a way forward. Jesus was offering a relationship. Peter smiled. In the metaphor, Peter was reaching out, string in hand; to attach it back to Jesus.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asked. Peter paused in the reattachment. Why the question a second time, without asking about how much he loved?
“Yes, Lord, you know that I have affection for you.” He repeated.
“Feed my sheep.” Jesus commanded. Peter was about to nod, but the look in Jesus’ eyes was so fierce, so tender. It gave him pause.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” There, as the morning light was breaking into full brilliance; Peter understood. Jesus had to ask a third time. He had to respond a third time. The depth of betrayal was met with a depth of love. Jesus was going to the place that Peter wanted to avoid, and he was forgiving it. No, no, Jesus wasn’t just forgiving, he was asking for Peter to replace his betrayal with commitment. Peter’s love would be walked out by shepherding Christ’s own. No expectation of greatness, of power; but an opportunity to yield to the will of Jesus, and to care for Jesus’ people.
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.” Jesus said. “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. Follow me.”
Jesus stood up and walked away from the coals, the boat, the sea. Peter stood up and followed Jesus, jogging a little bit to catch up. There it was, Peter was following Jesus again. If Jesus would slow down a little bit, he could catch up, and reattach that relational string where it belonged.
As Peter was closing the gap, he became aware of John dogging along, too. “Lord, what about this man?” Peter said, pointing to John.
Jesus stopped, turned around to face Peter. He looked at Peter, and pointed at John, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
There the relationship connection was reestablished. The spider’s web remade, this time of thick steel cable. Reconciliation won. The will of Jesus, His true offer of Lordship, became the foremost driver of the relationship. The expectations of the disciple had been put to death, and reconciliation had finally overcome the betrayal.
We can learn from Peter, and the other disciples. Our own relationship lines must be made of thick woven material; not thin spider’s silk. The thin stuff is always present when we have expectations of the other, usually hidden and not talked about. You cannot be a true friend, not truly, if you expect that your friendship will yield results that are self-gratifying. We must do the hard work of rooting out these assumptions in our human relationships. In our relationship with Christ, we must be able to identify what it is that we want God to do for us. Maybe it’s like Peter, and John-- we want our friendship with God to yield honor, money, fame, or popularity. Perhaps it is something more sincere, like our children being successful, or our career being rewarding. No matter the relational assumption, it must go, before we break the relationship.
The lasting bonds, whether human or divine, are the ones where we are focused on the good of the other. Our connection must be made of love, and not self serving. When our bonds are made of love, we do not judge the other by how we hoped things would turn out. Instead, we look to sacrifice for the other person.
The work is difficult because we must admit to ourselves that our relationships can be self serving. We are loathe to admit that we care more about what someone is going to do for us than we care about them. When those relationships inevitably break, we have the opportunity to right the wrong expectations, and win a reconciliation.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Response to Tyler Huckabee, of Relevant Magazine

To start, one may want to read Tyler Huckabee’s article in Relevant magazine, entitled “Why I Support Gay Marriage” at http://tylerhuckabee.com/2015/07/07/i_support_gay_marriage/.

Mr. Huckabee presents the clearest and [in my humble opinion] best argument for why a Christian who disagrees with a homosexual lifestyle can still support adoption of gay marriage laws. Most arguments have long been on the public table, which the reader will not be surprised by.

This response will not deal with Mr. Huckabee’s article in whole. Rather, there are three assumptions Mr. Huckabee makes that I need to point out. The first two he talks about, the third he does not.

As in all of my posts, my intention is to be respectful and committed to mutual discernment. While I do not know Mr. Huckabee personally, I expect he is an incredibly committed Christian brother. I do not intend to be antagonistic to him personally. I do, however, take issue with his position on supporting gay marriage.

First

Mr. Huckabee assumes that a homosexual relationship is a true expression of God’s love. Not supporting gay marriage, he claims, is “a life condemning others for something they can’t change about themselves,” and “a life judging love.”

Mr. Huckabee never defines love.

Scripture contends that homosexuality is not love. Love cannot be sin. Everyone knows exactly what the Bible teaches, but Mr. Huckabee’s argument makes Scripture teach something else. Such a position requires much work separating the Bible’s teaching from Christian practice. For Mr. Huckabee’s assumption to be true;  the Old Testament, and the New, must be interpreted through his own definition of love, which includes homosexuality. So, even Paul must be opposed to what God actually wants to teach us.

Those who disagree with his dubious rubric for Scriptural discernment are not allowed by Mr. Huckabee to have another one. According to his article, either we discern Scripture his way (which he claims is loving), or we must adopt every rule and regulation from the Old Testament without question. Either we are loving, or judgmental.

Nice try.

The book of Romans sets up a masterful way to understand what the Old Testament law means for those who live in New Testament times. And no, Scripture doesn’t use an undefined notion of “love” to reinterpret all of Scripture. Neither does the book of Romans stay silent on the issue of homosexuality.

Mr. Huckabee separates Scripture from Christian practice by placing undue importance in pre-determining what is, and is not, appropriate for a “modern conversation.” By this he prevents any Scripture that disagrees with his position from being used at all.

I get the feeling we are expected to nod our heads and say, “Yes, yes; we modern people are very different from everyone else. We need a new set of rules. We need a redefined way for our Scripture to speak to us.” I reject the very premise, that a modern conversation must needs to be different from those taking place in Scripture.

The argument is terrible, and the proof is in the pervasiveness of the word “perhaps.”

“[P]erhaps when Jesus came, he truly did free us from the law. Perhaps he didn’t free us from it in a complicated way, but a simple one. Perhaps the burden of our law is love. Perhaps the many, many scholars who believe Paul’s writings about same-sex relationships referred to a cultural practice no longer applicable to our modern conversation around homosexuality are right.”

And… wait for it… wait for it…

Perhaps. It could be true.”

My favorite.

The entire reliance of his argument upon the repeated use of the word “perhaps” is indicative of his persuasive style. Christians cannot accept gay marriage unless we all “perhaps” together, just repeating the mantra as if the Bible doesn’t actually teach on it; wearing down opponents by having conversation after conversation filled with nonsensical notions of what God might have intended if we don’t care about what the Bible teaches.

There is no room for “perhaps.”

The Bible is incredibly clear on the issue of homosexuality. Homosexual love is not love. The Bible expressly teaches this. The Bible says homosexuality is “vile passion.” Teaching that is not mean-spirited, or judgmental. It’s true. That is the very words Scripture uses in Romans 1:26, while specifically discussing homosexuality.

Mr. Huckabee’s argument relies on questioning the validity of what the Bible expressly teaches. Let’s just call it what it is. It upsets me that Mr. Huckabee dismisses Scripture for a clearly secular definition of love. It is crazy.

We don’t need to have conversation after conversation. There is one decision, with two paths. Either we believe what Scripture clearly teaches, or we don’t. Let’s not pretend that Scripture “perhaps” wants us to believe something different.

Second

Mr. Huckabee assumes that God judges people however we wish Him to. As he urges people to believe in the manner he does, he rightly must talk about judgment day. He states:

“But I’m not scared of it. I won’t be damned for this. I don’t fear judgement, because I do not think God is some strict old schoolmaster who means to check beliefs against a divine answer key at the pearly gates. The secret to salvation is not a pass/fail exam in which doctrines are lined up, weighed and measured.

And I don’t believe you’ll be damned either, if you believe God forbids same-sex marriage and it turns out you are wrong.”

Nice try.

We do get judged based on God’s standard of holiness. Nobody gets a free pass—not even if they imagine God is a cuddle-bear.

The book of Jude teaches us, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”

I’m not sure what to say to such a brassy interpretation of judgment day. While Mr. Huckabee is certainly an intelligent brother, his position is ludicrous. Christians do not fear judgment because we have Christ as the propitiation of our sins; not because we simply deny God the ability to judge!

Third

Mr. Huckabee does not talk at all in his article about legal ramifications. I assume it does not fall under the scope of his intended argument. I contend that it should. We must consider the ramifications of such laws on our society. His article does not address the most important aspect of a legal decision; legal ramifications.

The real point of contention (Christian or not) with gay marriage is not theological. The real problem is the secular state being able to dictate to any individual, business, or organization what marriage is. Get this; our government is dictating to us what the sacraments are allowed to be.

This, combined with anti-discrimination laws, ensure a collision course between church and state. We already see it in the private sector, and we will see it in the religious sector soon enough. It is inevitable. The plain truth is not being talked about. Supporting gay marriage is not  the conversation that needs to be had. The conversation that needs to be had is about whether the state can dictate to the church what it is lawful for the church to believe. I am absolutely shocked that Mr. Huckabee would support such legislation.

The whole aim of the legislation is not to allow homosexual couple equal protection under the law (which everyone with half a brain watt is fine with), but rather to disallow any conviction that homosexuality is vile. The aim of the radical legislation is to penalize those who believe homosexuality is immoral.

So now a private citizen, with a private business, cannot opt out of supporting an institution that they believe is immoral. This is wrong. A person should not have to support an institution that violates their conscience. It’s insane. Nor should a private business be required to violate an individual’s conscience or religious beliefs. While the state may go so far as to require a business to not discriminate against individuals, it should never require business to violate religious conviction.

I’ll illustrate by talking cakes. We all love to talk about cakes.

The law does not simply defend the right of a gay person to have a bakery provide a cake on their birthday. Nobody is going to trial over that. Gay people are not being discriminated against. Gay weddings are, because the institution of homosexual marriage is immoral to many people. We cannot, in good conscience, support the institution of vile passion.

Acting on individual conscience has been outlawed. When we are talking about gay marriage, we are not simply giving freedom to homosexuals to follow their own sense of morality; we are writing into law the enforcement of their beliefs on every person, business, and institution (religious or not).

Christians have the obligation, the duty, to stand up for what is right. So do non-Christians. Mr. Huckabee’s inability to discuss those ramifications is unacceptable. Standing up for what is right may look different for each individual. If we believe in Scripture, we cannot support the state’s enforcement of gay marriage. If we do not believe in Scripture, we still cannot support the state’s enforcement of gay marriage.


Doing the right thing does not mean being a judgmental turd, nor does it mean throwing stones at others who are struggling with God’s design of right and wrong. It does not mean condemning anyone. But, it certainly does mean being clear eyed about what is right and wrong, and for us Christians: teaching the truth of Scripture.

Friday, June 5, 2015

What is God's Will for My Life?

How do I know what God wants for my life? How do I determine His will for me?

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question. I’m sure there are plenty of pastoral answers that one could receive, and most of them are good. Let me break down a few simple rules that may help you get started. The bottom line is this: determining God’s will is a very personal process in which we draw near to God.

Those who do not have faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior have a definite starting point.

Some people are Christians, some people aren’t. Some say they are, but they really aren’t. See my post about ontological truth earlier on this blog.

The plain Biblical truth is that every person who has ever lived has to make a decision whether or not they will live in faith and trust in God as Savior, and Lord. When we say “Savior” we mean the ultimate Judge and Redeemer of humanity for all of eternity. When we trust Jesus to remove the stain of sin from our lives, we trust that God Himself will welcome us into eternal life with Him. When we say “Lord,” we mean that we submit to God in the here and now, and for all eternity, as the supreme leader and director of our lives.

Those without faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord can be sure that God’s ultimate will for their lives, the way He is trying to direct them, starts with such faith. So if a non-believer asks me the question, “What does God want for my life?” The answer is simple, “He wants all of it. He wants to redeem it, protect it, and guide it for all of eternity. God wants you to come to a place of faith in Him.”

Believers have freedom in Christ.

It is important to note that while God directs our path, He is not constrained by our sin or hard headedness. There is nothing that we can do to thwart God’s ultimate plan. Those who have fought hard against God, even those people of faith, wind up playing right into His hand. Ultimately, we are free to obey, or not. Surely discipline follows disobedience (for God loves us), but we cannot manipulate God in a bid to control our futures. This is really good news for those Christians who constantly question their own motives, or find themselves in a constant feedback loop of thinking without acting.

This is not to say that we don’t have input. Far from it. God loves our input, and there is plenty of Biblical evidence of someone pleading with God, and God granting a request. Moses on Mount Saini is a good example, David in the caves, Solomon at the temple, and the Apostles in Acts: all tell the story of human input changing God’s immediate courses of action. There are plenty of stories wherein God does not grant a request though, because He knows everything and knows it is not a good idea. Most famously, God denies Jesus’ request to escape crucifixion. He denies Paul’s pleading to remove his “thorn,” whatever it was. Hebrews 11 tells of people who never lost faith though torn in pieces, utterly destitute, and never delivered by God.

And all of this rests on the foundational principle that God runs the entire universe, and cares so much about you and I that He carefully directs our every step: God can be trusted. If God can be trusted, we surely can live a life of freedom. We don’t have to fear that some of our actions, if completed with a desire to serve and obey, are not exactly what God wants.

Starting in a direction is a sure way forward.

Using our freedom in Christ to get going in a direction is a great way to start determining God’s will for your life. Start serving somewhere: at a shelter, in your church, a small group, coaching, or whatever. Just go for it. Sometimes you find that some service is better suited to you, or perhaps you find out that you have a passion you were unaware of.

As I started to “just go for it” I found myself doing all kinds of things. Mostly, I found myself serving in whatever local church I was attending. I used to be in the military, so I moved around a lot. I always found myself serving in a local church in some way. I helped run a junior high ministry, I led worship, I taught bible studies, and I taught Sunday school. I did all kinds of things. The ones that really stuck with me, and I was most passionate about always revolved around teaching.

Over time, I became aware of various patterns that emerged. I was always drawn to small congregations, I loved getting to know people, I loved engaging in Scriptural studies and teaching. Also, I found out that I not only loved it, I was good at it. This time when I was in the military, just trying to determine what God wanted with my life, developed my realization of a pastoral calling.

One more example: my buddy is a great administrator, and is passionate about high level strategy. He just started serving in various capacities wherever he felt the urge. He just went for it. After serving for a while ministering to international students through a church program, he found himself being approached by a non-profit organization that wanted to do social development in third world countries. He went for it. He knows that God is not calling him to be a pastor serving a small congregation, and he also knows that he is using his gifts, talents, and passions to serve in a capacity that the Kingdom of God desperately needs. It is challenging and fulfilling for him.

Of course, it needs to be said, both of these examples never would have happened if we were not jumping into service (even in places that we didn’t really like). If you want to know what God’s will for you is, start in a direction with faith that God will guide you.

God calls us to people, not to institutions.

You may think at this point, “Well great. I have to find some institution that I can serve at.” True, but not really. While you probably will find yourself in an existing organization, the care of the organization is not the primary call. You and I are called to people, real people. So sometimes we have to find ourselves in an institution; like a church, or the YMCA, or whatever; but God always calls us to serve people.

And so our helpful organizations do not solely hold the key to you finding out God’s will for your life. Sometimes He will just give you a family, or a person, or a group of people, and say, “Care for them.” And many times that’s how it all gets started. Mother Theresa is a good example. She found God’s will for her by falling in love with destitute people that God wanted her to care for.

So let me give you a litmus test for God’s will for your life: is it about caring for people? If yes, then you are in the right direction. If no, then you have to think about changing up your attitude about what God wants from you.

One caveat here: some people find there service helps in an indirect way. I know a guy who loves to clean things. You turn him loose on a bathroom, and he will make it shine. But his pleasure is in caring for people by cleaning up messes. That is awesome. He would not fail the litmus test. But if he ever got to a place where he was cursing people for messing up his clean bathroom; I’d say it’s time for an attitude adjustment.

God calls us to people. One more hint; it’s usually by name. Usually God gives us individuals to care about, not just “humanity” in general.

Hard heartedness is different than vice.

So, how free of sin do you have to be to enjoy hearing God’s voice? Well, it’s a trick question, as you might have guessed from the section title. Struggling against sin does not prohibit you from hearing God’s voice, or allowing Him to speak into your life. There is a sin that seems to drown God’s voice out, but it’s not because He refuses to speak, but we refuse to listen. We call it “hard heartedness.” It’s when you hear God, but don’t care. You actually know what He is saying, but you refuse to obey.

Now, we need a word here on addiction. Most people struggle with an addictive sin in their life. It’s that thing you do that you don’t want to do, but wind up doing anyway. You seem powerless against it, even though you know God wants you to stop. Addiction can oftentimes be linked to hard heartedness, but not always.

Here’s my recommendation. If you want to know what God wants from you, and how you fit into His plan; but you struggle with an addiction that you know God wants you to stop—try practicing soft heartedness. That’s when you admit your failings to God, and ask for Him to help you in your fight against sin; and admit your disobedience in the matter. It might sound like this:

“God, I can’t put this sin down. You have told me not to do it, and I hear you, but I feel like I can’t obey. Please help me. Please give me the power over sin that I need. Please speak to me and give me some ways to practice obedience to You.”

You don’t have to be free of sin to hear God, but you do have to be ready and willing submit yourself to His Spirit.

Community is key.

Anyone who has been human for very long can tell you that other people seem to know stuff about an individual that the individual seems totally blind to. It’s just a fact. You can also see things that are true about someone else that they probably can’t see themselves.

Jesus says that the hypocrite tries to remove the speck from the brother’s eye, without paying attention to the log in their own eye. He’s right. And we can use this very concept to our advantage. The book of Proverbs calls it the rebuke of a friend, and tells us that we are to cherish such rebuke.

Gathering the people who care about you, and inviting them to speak truth to you about what God may be calling you to will have great benefits: even though they will probably tell you what you don’t want to hear.

A friend of mine was absolutely convinced God was calling them to be a pastor. They thought highly of their own pastoring ideas, and their ability to preach (in particular). This person never asked any of those who cared about them, never said, “Hey guys, what do you think?” Had they, we would have affirmed that God was indeed calling them to something, but it sure wasn’t being a pastor. It would probably have given offense, but if heeded, would also surely have saved that person from terrible suffering, and a future string of congregations a lot of suffering too.


When trying to tease out the possibilities that God might have tailored for you; a community is an essential sounding board.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Evangelical reclaiming penance

Penance for Evangelicals.

I became aware of the idea of “penance” when I was studying for my 4 year degree. I was in a religion course that made good Evangelicals, like me, aware of other theological systems in Christianity. The idea of penance was almost laughable to me then; I thought of it as trying to earn forgiveness for sins. Every good Evangelical knows that is a stain upon the gospel. Jesus doesn’t require our good works in order to forgive us. Think “Thief on the cross.”

I was very unaware of how little I knew or understood, much less appreciated, theological reflection. I knew the right answers, and they came quick and easy. Such is the life of an inexperienced 19 year old. I thought penance was an old and stupid idea for people who weren’t satisfied with the Gospel truth that Jesus died for all sin, once and for all, and invites all humanity into a relationship with Him; forgiving all sins for those who accept it.

Little did I know, one day I would be pastoring a church. And when you pastor a church, certain truths are not so easy to dismiss or glaze over. To tell the truth, I now firmly believe in penance as a regular spiritual practice for those who have accepted the Gospel.

So what is penance? Is it really trying to earn salvation?

No. Actually, penance has less to do with earning what God is offering to us, and more to do with us accepting what is already there. In its proper place, penance allows us to stop wrestling with our sin, and start wrestling with our forgiveness. It usually is a task given to us by an ecclesial authority, formal or informal. It could be anything from saying prayers, or fasting, or a pilgrimage, or even completing some manual labor that benefits others. The tasks are supposed to be helpful, but mostly they are supposed to give us time to meditate on—and work out—this incredibly great forgiveness and life in Christ that we have been given.

A vignette of penance in the modern evangelical church.

A guy I know and love struggles with sexual addiction. I can tell you that any addiction, but sexual addiction in particular, is a seriously difficult problem to deal with on a spiritual level.

There is always a problem with the sexual stuff. It is sin that is very rarely resolved easily. It's stubborn.

Part of the problem is the root of past sin. My buddy was sexually exploited as a child, and so the normative sexual appetites a man can expect have been broken. He has never experienced sexual normalcy. This is not his own failing. Sin has a way of victimizing people, whether we admit it or not. Furthermore, our culture (more than our churches, in my opinion) makes sexuality a shameful thing; by exploiting its intrigue to sell stuff. Our churches say “sex cements” (and they mean that it’s proper place is to bond people and lives together in the sacredness of marriage), but our culture says, “sex sells.”

My buddy had been thrown into a world where he had been sold… yes… but he had been unwillingly and unwittingly cemented to deep shame and reproach. The work of being set free by Jesus Christ is just that: work. And while I do believe we should shy away from any boasting that salvation can be earned; I think we, the evangelical church, have forgotten to work that salvation out.

And so, sadly, my buddy got virtually no help from his Christian community. Pastors seemed to only have one line, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” His response was always, “I believe! But this sin is killing me!” The pastor could offer no other help. And when my buddy’s sin problem became an embarrassment to the church, he stopped receiving even that one line. Pastors seemed to say to him, “If one time forgiveness doesn’t work, you got to change. If you can’t change, then you need better help than I can give. Here’s the number to a good counselor that I know.” No offense to all my friends in the world of counseling and psycho-analytics; but I think we pastors have forgotten an age old pastoral tradition: penance.

So I invited my buddy on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is simple, you just walk with each other all day, for days on end. I asked each participant (Wait. No. no. Let’s call them “pilgrims,” shall we?) to identify spiritual goals that God was inviting them too. The goals were different for each pilgrim. One wanted to find God’s peace, another wanted to find spiritual strength, a non-Christian came to see what Christians were like while walking together, and of course, one man wanted to be set free from his sexual addiction.

And so we started each day with a meditation on Psalm 1, and Genesis 15. Then we walked, and walked and walked. We ended each day with a small fire, and another meditation. Then we’d get up and do it again. We prayed that every mile would get us closer to grasping God’s work in our lives, ever step a victorious step in sanctification, and every mountain an opportunity to struggle towards God.

I spent time with each pilgrim, as time allowed, praying for them, and talking through whatever God was doing in their lives.

“Rev. Shivers just went up my spine. Maybe God is going to set me free. Maybe this trip is going to allow me to finally lay down this burden.” My buddy said to me.

“Well, let’s walk it out. And pray.”

If the story ended with me telling you that the pilgrimage was a great one-time cure for my buddy, and that convinced you to try it out; you would be missing the whole point of this article.

The miraculous healing we wanted is not what God gave. Penance is never about manipulating God into doing what we want. But penance, in and of itself, is a grace that God gives to us to work out our salvation. That pilgrimage, for all intents and purposes, is the temporal answer to our struggle with God’s great salvation: Christians walking with each other, praying for each other, encouraging each other, and trusting God to do the work.

As such, the evangelical model of penance promotes the very antidote that Jesus established for serious, addictive, soul-crushing sin: A Christian community that continually (and oftentimes physically) brings one another to the Great Regenerator of Humanity—Jesus Christ.


This is how we get better. We walk it out with one another. The spiritual discipline of penance demands that the evangelical response to sin is not only, “That’s between you and God. Pray this prayer and you should be good.” But also, “Welcome to the inheritance of the saints! You belong here, and your struggle with sin does not disqualify you. We want to be reconciled to God, which while we still walk this Earth, is a never ending process we help each other with.”