All Things … Really?

Three weeks ago yesterday, I lost the closest friend I’ve ever known … my beloved cheese-loving 14+ year old golden retriever, Harley. I know, I know … there’s gotta be something jacked up about a full-grown man who can say that a dog has been the best friend in his life. Admittedly, it is true that there are a few actual humans for whom I could make a similar claim … my brother, Dave; both of my incredible parents; my gracious and loving sisters; my life-long buddies, Kurt and BR to name a few. While that’s true of all of them, it’s equally true that the Harleydog held a singular place in my heart that none other has ever occupied. And the treasured friends listed above are all keenly aware of this. As Harley aged, it became more and more obvious that his poor feeble body was breaking down … rather rapidly in the final weeks of his amazing life. He and I were frantically running a losing and dispiriting race against the clock. I wrote about this back in January, 2011. To be truthful, at that time I didn’t believe he would make it to July 23, 2012. As I watched him grow weaker and weaker each day, my heart grieved the fact that I would most likely outlive him. All who know me well were well acquainted with the obvious toll that this was taking on my spirit. I frequently found myself saying to people who met the Harleydog that I wished I could make him a puppy again … turn back the clock and start over with him … again … and again. Of course, in the real world we all know that’s purely fantasy … hence, July 23 … for me a very dark day.

And speaking of dark days, we all have them: the day you lost a parent, the day your husband traded you in on a newer model, the day of your miscarriage, the day you were abused by another in unspeakable ways, the day your daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Maybe it was a day of your own making, like the day you woke up in prison for vehicular homicide after choosing to drive home from the party rather than asking a sober friend for a ride, the day you got caught cheating on your husband and lost him and your children as a result, or the day your son entered rehab … for the 4th time, etc., etc. Depressing, isn’t it?

In my mind, Jesus was by far the most compelling figure in human history. There are so many extraordinary things that amaze me about him. One of them is the fact that he never shied away from using big words … huge words … words like always (“I am with you always– Matt. 28:20), never (“I will never leave you, nor forsake you” – Heb 13:5 … technically attributed to God, but Jesus boldly identified himself as God), and all (“I am making all things new” – Rev. 21:5), among many others.

I’d like to look at this “all things new” thing today. By no means am I a scholarly expert on the book of Revelation. I’ve read it many times, but with each successive reading, I invariably end up more baffled than the last. My best assessment of this apocalyptic book is to sum it up in four simple, yet hopeful words … the good guys win … (or more accurately, the good guy, i.e. Jesus, wins). And what does the good guy say? He says, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away … I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:3-5)

These are the (very big) words of Jesus … the same Jesus who, among many other extraordinary acts, willingly endured a mockery of a trial, declined to defend himself against self-serving accusers, voluntarily gave his life in the most brutal and humiliating of ways … and then took it back, once and for all, in the most overwhelming of triumphs, his resurrection.

In light of that fact, I ask a few simple questions. Does the loss of a beloved parent, a train wreck of a marriage, a miscarried baby, a spirit broken and defiled by abuse, a little girl’s leukemia, a life wrecked at one’s own hands by a moment of reckless impulse, a seemingly unbreakable addiction, a mental illness, etc., fall into the category of all things? Is it possible that the man who voluntarily, (I believe intentionally), offered himself up for nothing less than an undignified public butchering, but then turned it all on its head by making his own life new (remember … “all things new?”) also be capable of turning your loss and the bewilderment that accompanies it on its head? Today I’m asking myself the same question about, among other things … the Harleydog. If so, they’re going to be needing a lot of cheese in heaven.

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… envy rots the bones

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones(Prov. 14:30). Solomon had a way with words. And so does Andy Stanley … one of my favorite teachers. I enjoy listening to the sermons of great pastoral teachers … (yes, I’m kind of nerdy that way). And recently I heard a brilliant talk by Andy on the subject of envy in which he cited the passage above.

It got me to thinking about some of the people I’ve envied in my life … and of the personal cost I’ve paid for doing so. So today I’m naming names … actual names. In the interest of shining some light on the very dark “bone-rotting” poison of envy, I’m going to confess to the world of 3 men, (though there have been many others), whom I’ve envied in my life. And I’m going to try to demonstrate some level of the degree to which that envy has robbed me of joy, hope, opportunity and friendship … literally of life itself … just like Solomon said it would. To be clear, each man mentioned here, (some of whom may find themselves reading this piece), is today a man whom I admire, love, and embrace as a gift in my life. None of them has ever intentionally done nor said anything to harm me personally in any way. They’re simply very good men to whom I chose to compare myself, and as a result, ended up robbing myself of countless joys.

John P. – John was that guy in school who seemed to have it all … great personality, confidence with the girls, intelligence, height, good looks, popularity, and worst of all … athletic prowess. Among many athletic skills, John was an outstanding basketball player … the very thing I wanted most to be. And I quietly hated him for it. Actually, I didn’t really hate him as much as I hated the fact that he got to do what he got to do while I languished in social and athletic obscurity in my 4’10” / 85 lb. frame. The truth is, John was (and remains) a very good guy who was blessed with many gifts, who would have very likely made a great friend. But sadly, I would have none of that, because I was floundering in the quicksand of envy. In my simmering envy of John, I disqualified myself from friendship with him and all the unrealized benefits that may have resulted from it. Thankfully, in recent years, I’ve been able to reconnect with John briefly, and count him as a friend today. John, I’m very sorry that it took me so long.

Doug T. – I believe I met Doug in the first grade, with sweet Mrs. Tarbet as our gracious teacher. Doug is quite simply one of the most brilliant individuals I’ve ever known. He had an intellectual capacity that was nothing less than staggering. His intellectual firepower intimidated and overwhelmed me, even at such a young age. You see, I thought I was pretty smart, too; and I wanted to be the smart-est (I had wrongly endeavored to derive my sense of personal worth and significance from such vain considerations). When I met Doug, I knew I was outmatched … and I resented him for it. He had stolen my birthright … he had to be destroyed. So I set about the evil business of teasing and bullying him however I could, whenever I could … out of sheer, unadulterated, bold-faced envy. I said mean and ugly things (which I will not repeat here, nor ever). I scurried to out-do him in class … to out-math him, out-science him, out-read him (never even came close), out social studies him … out-anything him. I failed … miserably. And in the process of trying to out-brain him, I once again deprived myself of the opportunity to enjoy what surely would have been a great friend for life … and all that comes with it. But thank God, I’ve been blessed to become re-acquainted with Doug as and adult, only to discover that his near-infinite capacity for intellect, while still overwhelming, is surpassed only by an even greater capacity for grace and kindness. Doug, I’m sorry … and thank you … you actually are a great friend … for life.

There are many others, but time and space dictate brevity; save to confess that one of these men is the very teacher who inspired much of this piece … Andy Stanley himself. I’ve never met Andy, but he’s been the subject of more than his share of my envy … for his brilliance, his success in ministry, and opportunities afforded him. I’m thankful that God was able to use Andy to teach me in spite of myself. Envy robs us in so many ways, only two of which are the facts that it willingly provides us with a limitless supply of excuses for our own failure or lack of faith and courage, and can render an otherwise good person utterly imprisoned in self-inflicted solitude. Bone-rotting? Without a doubt. My humble plea, if you’re reading this, is simple: please … just … don’t.

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Jesus and the “War on Women”

This is an election year. And as such, we’re all about to find ourselves in need of head-to-toe body armor in order to survive what is sure to be a veritable crap storm of political hyperbole and innuendo. (I cleaned that up a little in the interest of retaining my PG rating). Much has been made recently of what some have called a “war on women.” This term has been used as a battering ram on both sides of the political aisle as a weapon against the other. All of this “war on women” talk has gotten me to thinking a bit about Jesus, and his style of relating to women. Having no interest in joining the political crap-slingers, I’ll go in another direction altogether.

It’s my belief that Jesus was the most radically different and dynamic man (or woman) to ever walk the earth. One thing that made him so extraordinarily different was the way that he related to women. In order for us in 2012 to begin to appreciate this, a brief historical and cultural lesson is in order. Jesus was a Jewish man in the 1st century. And 1st century Jews had very specific and rigid views as to the nature and role of women … and they were not flattering. Women were viewed in many ways as little more than the property of the men under whose authority they fell (their fathers before marriage, and their husbands after). Their personal worth generally was evaluated by their ability to perform two simple biological functions: procreate, and gratify men sexually. They were generally deemed to be intellectually vacuous; and were forbidden to attend school, or study the Torah (the Jewish spiritual law). Hence, most women were life-long prisoners to the darkness of illiteracy. Josephus, a prominent Jewish historian, stated in his Antiquities, “the testimony of women is not accepted as valid because of the lightheadedness and brashness of the female sex.” Furthermore, they were forbidden to speak to any man (even their husbands) in public … and least of all regarding anything of a lofty spiritual, intellectual, or religious nature. Women are described in the Talmud (the central text that codifies Jewish law, culture, and tradition) as “a pitcher full of filth with its mouth full of blood, yet all run after her.” This was the Talmud’s way of asserting that women should be sequestered, so as not to become a snare of sexual seduction for men. In the understatement of the year, it’s safe to say that 1st century Jewish women were severely repressed and degraded … and foreign (i.e. non-Jewish) women, even more so.

It is into this cultural landscape that Jesus inserted himself. I want to look briefly at just how revolutionary Jesus was by looking at his methods of relating to 3 specific women … all from the gospel of John.

The first (Jn. chap 4) was a woman from Samaria (i.e. a foreigner … a female foreigner from one of the most despised of all places to Jews) … kinda like being from Arkansas … (I’m just joking … I promise!). Jesus broke cultural code by speaking to her and allowing her to address him as well ... in a public place. Not only that, but he requested and drank from her water vessel. This was against cultural norm because Jews were forbidden to eat or drink from the vessel of one who is “unclean” … and none was considered more “unclean” than a Samaritan (i.e. pagan)woman.  Furthermore, he chose her … a Samaritan … woman … with a very sketchy past … to be the first person (including men) to whom he announced directly that he is indeed the long-awaited Messiah (i.e. the son of God) (Jn 4:25-26). Imagine the cultural implications of this … not to mention the personal implications for her! But he didn’t stop there. He went one step further by allowing her to then go into her town to announce to the people there of his arrival … (ostensibly sanctioning a woman to instruct other women … and men regarding a great eternal spiritual event … the direct intervention of God into our lives). In fact, though Jesus knew she was not actually married, he had even suggested that she go and “call her husband” to bring him as well (thereby elevating a woman to the level of teacher … teacher of a man, no less, regarding a theme of eternal spiritual discovery) (vs. 16). And this was not the only gift that Jesus gave her. He also extended her the preservation of her dignity by offering her mercy and acceptance in light of her admitted past life of adultery (vss. 16 – 24). No wonder she couldn’t wait even long enough to retrieve her water pot before racing to tell her friends.

Woman #2: Martha (Jn. chap. 11). First of all, Jesus makes no attempt to conceal the fact that he (a Jewish man) is openly fond of a woman (who is not his wife). We know this because John writes in verse 5 “Jesus loved Martha and her sister …” (make that 2 women). This is a clear indication that he (the creator and savior of the world) was content to carry on a very public friendship with, in this case, at least 2 women. But, as in the case of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus didn’t stop there. It becomes apparent that Martha (unlike nearly all women of her day) had been allowed to receive significant spiritual instruction, as evidenced by her statement that Lazarus (her brother who had just died) would “… rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (vs. 24). The scripture doesn’t indicate this explicitly, but given the obvious nature of her friendship with Jesus, it would not be far-fetched to assume that much of that teaching may very well have come from Jesus himself. But Jesus also did not stop at this point, for it was at this moment that he chose Martha … a woman, to be the one person to whom he addressed one of his most famous quotes … one of his “I am” quotes … (a blatant reference to his identity as the son of God … i.e. God Himself) (see Exodus 3:14) when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life …” (vs. 25). Did he stop there? Of course not … this IS after all … Jesus!  He went on to ask Martha if she believed him, thereby prompting from her one of the 2 greatest statements of faith and belief that are recorded in the scriptures … “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God …” (vs. 27). If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should; as it’s nearly a mirror of the apostle Peter’s confession in Matt. 16:16, after which Jesus declares him to be “the rock on which he will build his church.” In a sense, by choosing Martha to receive his “I am” declaration and receiving her confession of faith, he essentially elevated Martha (a woman) to roughly the level of one of the greatest apostolic proponents of Jesus’ kingdom ever in history … no wonder she loved him.

Want more? How about Mary Magdalene? Among the few facts we possess regarding her, she had been “cured” of “7 demons” (a fact that some have loosely interpreted as an indicator of a “sinful” lifestyle of promiscuity, and perhaps even prostitution). At the very least, she had been significantly disabled, most likely in a mental and / or behavioral way. What we do know for sure is that Jesus welcomed her as a part of his inner circle of friends (see Lk. 8:1-3). We also know (see Jn. chap 20) that Mary was chosen to be the very first person to witness Jesus’ empty tomb. But did Jesus limit her revelation to merely seeing a rolled away stone? Again, of course not! He then chose her (a woman of formerly questionable repute) to be the first person to whom he revealed himself personally after the most significant event in human history … his resurrection (vss. 14 – 16). Again, imagine the implications of this to her! And did he stop there? You already know the answer. He then proceeded to call her … by her name … simply saying … “Mary” (vs. 16). Of all the things he (aka: God) could have said to her in that moment, he simply … and I’m betting softly … said … her name. And she knew … who he was. Did he stop there? I know … silly question. He then commissioned her (a woman), to “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘ I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'” (vs. 17). In one sentence, he elevated Mary Magdalene, a former loser and cast-aside in the lottery of life, literally to the position of evangelist, to declare (to men) the greatest single spiritual event in human history … the victory of Jesus over our greatest nemesis, death. And in that same sentence, he elevated her to familial status, by declaring God as her Father and her God … just as he is the Father and God of Jesus himself … thereby claiming her as his sister … a member of his family. And no wonder she loved him.

By now, I hope it’s clear to us all that Jesus far transcended human political wranglings such as any “wars on women” from either side; and that his true intent was to simply affirm that every person, regardless of gender, race, station in life … (and I would add lifestyle, among many other considerations) … is of no greater or lesser value than any other. I believe he sought to elevate … in these cases, women; but in every case, all of us to something so much greater than we’ve come to expect. No wonder so many of us love him too!

(Note: Much credit goes to Karen H. Thiessen and her brilliant essay “Jesus and Women in the Gospel of John” for much of the factual and background content of today’s piece.)

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Us vs. Them: The politics of division in Jesus’ church

This piece is not about politics. It’s about a mindset … one that I believe is all too prevalent in Jesus’ church. We humans seem to share an almost knee-jerk tendency to view others who think or believe differently from us as being innately adversarial to us. We then, in full-blown reaction mode, assume an equally adversarial posture … thereby creating an “us vs. them” relationship. And with the church being comprised 100% of humans, we naturally carry the “us vs. them” reflex into our faith community. Who are the “thems?” Some are atheists, agnostics, liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, any ethnic group, and virtually any faith / philosophical tradition other than our own. Ironically, the list of “us’s” is essentially the same list. For those of us in the Christian church, this presents a problem, as the church is called the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27), and Jesus is identified as the “head of the church” (Eph. 5:23) in the scriptures. Jesus seems overwhelmingly to have thought and conducted himself in a manner utterly devoid of the “us vs. them” reflex. In fact, I believe he was and is openly hostile to it. I’m not suggesting he was never critical or argumentative with anyone. He surely was. But to my knowledge, only to those on the inside (i.e. Pharisees, etc.) who actively obstructed those seeking grace … never on the basis of arbitrary considerations such as nationality, race, or even sincere philosophical / religious belief (or lack thereof).

A few examples: Jesus healed the servant of a Roman military commander (Matt. 8:5-13). It doesn’t take a Bible PhD to deduce that first century Jews (i.e. Jesus) and Romans were neither political nor ideological bedfellows. In fact, the Jews held deep and bitter resentment for the Romans (outsiders) who occupied their homeland under heavy-healed boots. Yet, Jesus didn’t hesitate to receive this man or to grant his plea for mercy. Speaking of soldiers, Jesus replaced the lopped-off ear (by Peter’s sword) of one of the high priest’s officers intent upon capturing him for execution (Lk. 22:51). Us vs. them? I think not.

It was Jesus, who contrary to contemporary cultural code, publicly welcomed women into his inner circle; thereby elevating their personal worth, equating it to that of men. Jesus astounded even his closest followers by engaging in lengthy conversation with another woman … and not just any woman, but a Samaritan woman. (Jews and Samaritans viewed one another with approximately the same degree of warmth and fondness that the New Black Panthers and the KKK hold for one another … not exactly in the habit of exchanging Christmas cards). Us vs. them? Uh-uh.

Just one more (of many) … Jesus personally visited the home of a despised “tax collector” (deemed the lowest of bottom-feeding scum in his day) named Zacchaeus; likely to have dinner (a shocking and dramatic gesture of acceptance) … again, diametrically opposed to the social code of the day (Lk. 19:1-10). Us vs. them? Hardly.

Apparently, Jesus bore no such knee-jerk inclinations. If he did, he clearly chose to function with intentional disregard of them. So why do so many of us often not do the same? I won’t wager a guess, other than to note that it does seem to occur across most cultural and ideological lines; and may thus be simply human nature. I won’t propose the why, but I will propose the what. When we do so in Jesus’ church, of which he is the head, we commit two egregious errors. First, we misrepresent him; potentially projecting a deeply skewed view of his nature; or at the very least, of what it means to follow him. Secondly, it’s off-putting. We alienate anyone whom we view as a “them” from both ourselves; and perhaps by extension from him, the epicenter of grace. Furthermore, in doing so, we present ourselves as petty, small-minded … and unkind. It begs the question, why are so many of us seemingly hell-bent upon making enemies out of those who simply believe a different thing, live a different way, or view truth from a different vantage point? Do we really need more enemies? We’ll never suffer a shortage of “thems” who seemingly exist only to make our teeth grind with their every word. But does that mean our only response is to lower ourselves to our ugliest state, making an enemy of them? Us vs. them? Probably more than we’d like to admit. But we can do better. We can be better … our head was … and is.

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Atheism: maybe it’s not just about God (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series I asked some questions of us Christians regarding our attitudes and openness to those who differ from us ideologically … particularly atheists and agnostics. I challenged us to extend to them the same basic respect, courtesy, and love that we would wish from them. In that spirit I offer today’s post, which consists mainly of quotes excerpted from a recent conversation with “Lynn,” a valued friend of mine who also happens to be atheist. I offer them, not to generate fodder for debate and argument, nor as an attempt to poke holes in her logic; but rather to provide us (Christians) with a window on ourselves and our faith from a radically different perspective. It’s not every day that we get an honest outside assessment that is not driven by, nor characterized by hostility. The following comments were offered peacefully and sincerely with no intent to insult, provoke, or demean. I will offer occasional comment and paraphrase (all in parentheses), but will limit my own thoughts so as to refrain from diluting the impact of the insights offered. All quotes are offered with Lynn’s permission.

Lynn’s thoughts on Jesus:

“I get Jesus … he’s easy. I am a Jesus fan by concept. I do not believe the dogma, but I deeply believe his teachings aside from that.”

“I would like to tell you that it took a long time (to “get” Jesus). I’d like to say I had to study to understand … but I didn’t. The first time I really heard the story and read it, I understood it exactly.”

“Just to be clear, Jesus is a special person in my heart. I don’t think it matters if he was the living god, or if he was resurrected. What matters to me is what he taught, and that he was willing to die for the world to understand it was the right thing … die horribly. To me, it is more powerful than to believe he understood he would be saved. Isn’t that the point, that in the garden (Gethsemane) he felt disconnected and unsure, betrayed and afraid; but it was love that kept him going? Isn’t that the whole point? I mean, in the face of that, does it matter what else happens?”

I am a big fan of Jesus … I just like him; so I made a point to understand him … he’s not difficult to understand at all! What is difficult for people, as I gather, is to reach the same level of sacrifice (as his); so they say they just don’t understand. (But) he was very clear. He said, ‘I love you past your shortcomings, selfishness, pettiness, and mistakes. You cannot make me not love you, no matter how hard you try.’ He said, ‘I am here to love you more than anyone will ever love you.’ He said, ‘I will love you, even though most of you will never allow yourself to steep in the responsibility that is inherent in understanding it and feeling it.’ But he said, ‘I expect … I hope you will try … and keep trying, no matter what.'”

(Yes, the above comments are those of an atheist. And yes, we could poke some holes in the theology if we tried, (i.e. the critical nature of the facts of his deity and resurrection), but to do so here and now would be to miss the larger point of just how potent is the person and teaching of our hero in the eyes of one who does not even believe in such things.)

Lynn’s thoughts on Christians:

“Most of the spiritual people (Christians) I’ve ever known have been pretty clear on being right (rigidly clinging to religious dogma and demanding full compliance of others like me) … and that there are no blurry lines” (areas of uncertainty and exploration).

“Science and religion are very similar … all I know is that the deeper I get in (to scientific exploration), the closer to a concept of God I feel.”

“I struggle a lot with concepts of spirituality.”

(Don’t we do the same?)

“The thing that makes my blood boil; and it happens a lot, is when a Christian finds out I’m not a believer; they often say, ‘so how do you know right from wrong, and does it even matter to you?'”

I think a mistake Christians make is they spend more time reading about and talking about Jesus than actively trying to be like him.”

(Ouch.)

“When you face choices that tear you apart, and choose the kind way; even though it makes you suffer, it is really a lot easier to understand.”

“If Christians spent Easter in old clothes, helping the poor to plant and teaching them how to tend gardens, or just sitting and listening to a homeless person’s story; or spent the money they do on Easter dresses buying new clothes for poor school children; I think you guys would find atheists giving time and money to the churches. I would. I hope that isn’t offensive … I don’t mean to be.”

(Ouch #2.)

“Ironically, the nicest, most conscientious people I know are atheists.”

(Why would she choose the word “ironically” here? Could it be that she, and others like her, are acutely aware that we (Christians) are called upon to set the standard for kindness? This sounded almost like lament to me … a lament for us. Ouch #3.)

“It’s very unusual to find a Christian who actually wants to listen to what I have to say.”

(Ouch #4.)

“Let me know if you want insight from the dark side about how it feels to be discriminated against and looked down upon all of the time; and how many of us would like to be included in churches, and long for the community, but know we have to lie to be welcomed. So because we feel rejected, we become defensive and snide.”

“Imagine going to a high school football game and being asked as a black child to stand up and support a song about how white people are better than you; and because they are white, they will be rewarded and you will go to hell … that you are the lowest of the low, and evil (simply) because you don’t share a concept.”

(Ouch #5.)

“Then you have those who show up at the door to “save” you; or litter their pamphlets all over the place. Then they say, ‘Hey, come to church some time.’ Uhhh, no.”

(And who could blame her?)

“And my number one issue hands down … is the gay issue. It’s a serious hot button issue for me how gay people are treated …”

(Please see “The Gay Question” and “The Gay Assumption” in the archives of this site for more thoughts on this issue.)

Lynn shared much more; but for the sake of brevity, I’ll refrain from going further today. I’ll simply close with this: given Lynn’s insights, would Jesus himself pounce on her in a theological debate designed to “set her straight,” or would he simply invite her to go have some coffee … or heaven forbid, maybe a nice glass of merlot?

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Atheism: maybe it’s not just about God (Part 1)

According to a recent ABC News poll, 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. 13% claim no religion (atheists, agnostics, etc.), and the remaining 4% consists mainly of Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Few would suggest that in the USA, we Christians do not overwhelmingly outnumber all other spiritual paths combined. With this in mind, I ask a few questions of us who are Christian. Question #1: How easy would it be for one to choose a path other than that of 83 out of 100 people around him? I’ll go out on a limb and guess that for most, that would not be an easy choice to make. Question #2: Do we really think that a person would come to such a decision lightly … without a great deal of introspection and soul searching? Again, I’m going to take a leap and suggest that very few would do so without extensive consideration. Does that make them factually correct? For us, probably not. But we must remember, they’re not making decisions of this magnitude for us, but for themselves. And for themselves, they believe this to be the best choice, given the options at hand as they understand them.  Question #3: Is it possible that we Christians could simply acknowledge this fact, and kindly respect their path … just as we wish for them to respect ours?

You see, I believe that we (Christians) have strapped ourselves with a cumbersome burden we were never meant to bear. And that is the burden of thinking that it’s on us to “win them over,” or “prove to them that Jesus is the way;” or worst of all, argue and debate them into a faith that, at least for now, does not fit them. If it did, they’d probably give it an honest look. I suggested that we’re not meant to bear this burden because Jesus himself essentially said the same when he said, “no man can come to me unless the Father draws him” (Jn. 6:44). From God’s viewpoint, I don’t think he intends that it be our job to do what only his Spirit can do in the mind and heart of another person. Even Jesus himself did not have a 100% success rate, if we define that as attracting all people to follow him and never leave him … (see Judas Iscariot … see those Pharisees who wished him dead). Question #4: If it’s not on us to “prove our way is right” and “prove the others wrong;” then just what is it that Jesus asks of us in relation to those pesky atheists, agnostics, and such? The same thing he asks of us in relation to one another … just love them … just like we want to be loved. And who would argue that basic courtesy and respect is not a fundamental component of love? Question #5: Does loving and respecting a person imply that we agree with him in every way, or that we endorse everything they stand for? Of course not! Who among us agrees with our own spouse, or significant other, or even with ourselves 100% of the time? And does honest disagreement negate the fact that we love them? But when we take it upon ourselves to argue or prove a person into the Kingdom, so to speak, I’ll bet the last thing he feels at that moment is loved. He probably feels more discounted and disrespected than loved. Does this mean we should never “share our faith” with anyone? Sure we should … but in a manner that comports with the nature of the God (i.e. Jesus) whom we proclaim … which, by the way, was characterized by a great deal of mercy, kindness, and respect … and not with an attitude that viewed the other as an adversary; but rather as a valued brother or sister … deeply loved by God, who just like us, is diligently searching for truth. And was it not Jesus himself who said that if we seek, we will find? (Matt. 7:7). There comes a point where we must trust that God is big enough, smart enough, and loving enough to disclose truth to all who honestly seek it … in his time, and in his way. When we take it upon ourselves to define the “hows and whens,” we may very well be acting to diminish and alienate the very person whom we claim to love and the difficult path that has brought him to this point in his journey. In instances like these, simple awareness, respect, and acknowledgement of the person and his path, and most of all … love and kindness will result in building more bridges than walls. And Jesus was clearly more interested in tearing down walls than building them. Remember the veil of the temple? (Matt. 27:50-51). Does this mean then that we shrink away from our faith in timidity? By no means! But what it might mean is that we’d do well to consider that Jesus himself defined this infinitely rich faith by way of two eternal and lofty, yet simple aspirations: love God … and love our neighbor (Lk. 10:27). This is our mission. And when we fulfill this mission, our faith will speak for itself … much louder than our mouths ever could. Question #6: How about we just do … that?

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Big Mind / Little Mind

I’m coming out of the closet. No, not that closet (somebody please revive my mom … she just fainted) … the musician closet. Yes, my name is Randy, and I’m a musician. To most, that might not seem so heroic. But then, most people don’t live in Nashville … a global epicenter of musical talent … and lack thereof; which is why many of us huddle in a dark quiet closet. Being a “musician” in Nashville is not unlike being an “actor” in Hollywood. The first question you might receive is, “So, where do you wait tables?” (No offense, restaurant servers). It’s often said in Music City that “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting three musicians.” I’m not sure why anyone would wish to actually swing a dead cat; nonetheless, it’s not exactly a compliment. There’s a pervasive (and not always inaccurate) presumption that most musicians in Nashville carry about as much talent in their guitar cases as they could fit in a coin cup on lower Broadway; and consequently, live lives of pathetic self-delusion that would make Don Quixote look downright presidential. Thus, I keep it “on the down-low” in unfamiliar circles. I just don’t wish to be broad-brushed and lumped in with thousands of other “musicians” for whom the disparaging characterizations might be accurate. Nonetheless, I’m swallowing hard and “coming out” … I’m a musician. Let the cat swinging begin.

While I’m at it, I’ll go ahead and “come out” of another closet … the Christian closet. Yes, I’m also … a Christian. One might ask why I’d wish to hide in a “Christian” closet. Am I “ashamed of the gospel?” Not at all. Embarrassed by Jesus? Not in the least. I believe he’s the most brilliant, courageous, compassionate, and compelling person ever to walk the planet … a man’s man … a towering hero in every respect. I aspire to possess the courage to follow him anywhere at any cost. Perhaps I fear being “proven wrong” … that he’s not actually God? No … I’d follow him anyway. Do I fear that a brilliant physicist may one day prove beyond a doubt that there’s actually not a place called “Heaven” awaiting us? No … I’d follow him regardless of that, too … he’s just that good.

Then why the closet? Well, it’s kinda like that musician closet. You see, for many, when they hear the word “Christian,” they hear words like “small-minded,” or “closed-minded,” “utterly disinterested in pondering any question or viewpoint that doesn’t wholly comport with the prevailing Christian company line.” They may even hear words like “intolerant,” or “judgmental,” or “simpleton.” Call me proud, but I just don’t relish the idea of being lumped in with these characterizations either. More importantly, I wouldn’t want to experience the diminished life that would certainly be the byproduct of a sedated mind. Ironically, “small-minded” is not a description I’ve ever heard applied to Jesus himself. Why would any of his followers knowingly choose to take on life in a manner that elicits such a sentiment? There seems to be a bit of a disconnect.

Just a few of Jesus’ abbreviated quotes reveal only the tip of the iceberg of a very … very large mind. “Ask; seek; knock(Matt. 7:7) … not exactly a call to closed-minded obstinence here. Here’s another: “Love God, love your neighbor. This sums up all of the Law” (Matt. 22:37-40). In one breath, he summated the pinnacle of human aspirations; and called us to an eternal journey of discovery while he was at it. How about this one: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:45). A radical challenge to resist our innate craving for retribution by repaying evil with good. Consider “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12) … the “Golden Rule” of reciprocity, which actually predated Jesus by centuries. Jesus was clearly educated enough (asking, seeking, knocking), wise enough, even humble enough to cite and uphold the wisdom of ancient teachers (Confucius, early Greeks, etc.) in his own teachings. Again, not exactly positioning himself as a bastion of narrow-minded rigidity. Lastly, his tireless compulsion to extend mercy to the poor, sick, and lonely is unsurpassed. And he takes it very personally when we do (or don’t do) the same. “As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me” (Matt. 25:35-40). And I’ve said nothing of the ways he offered mercy and acceptance to those who likely feared his judgment. So why the disconnect? I’ll leave that for others to debate. Instead, I’ll just do my best to simply close my mouth, open my mind … and follow. He never huddled in a closet for fear of a few dubious sideward glances. I suppose the glances won’t kill me, either. Meanwhile, if you ever find me insistent upon clinging to a rigid, small-minded “Christian” view; claiming to have it all figured out, and nothing left for which to ask, seek, or knock … please do us all a favor, and shove me back into that closet and lock the door.

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Water, Water Everywhere …

Picture a fish … in the ocean. Not just any fish … a barracuda … one of the fastest and fiercest fish in all of the sea. A barracuda obviously lives in … water. It could thus be said that the water provides him with a home … that it is his home … a home that, as far as he knows, has virtually no boundaries. In order to breathe, he essentially “drinks” the water, which runs over his gills; and incredibly, oxygen is extracted from the water and delivered to every cell in his body, allowing him to live. This same water also sustains him as he sleeps. Yes, strange as it sounds, fish do sleep. The water also serves as home to all the fish with whom he will mate, reproduce, and associate socially, and is also the means by which he will reach them. In order to move or travel from one place to another, he simply moves his muscle-rich tail from side to side against the water. In order to navigate, he extends the fins on either side of his body, on his back, tail, and undersides. Barracudas are carnivorous, meaning that he eats primarily other smaller fish, shrimp, and squid, etc. These other fish obviously live in the same water that he does. Hence, it is the water that brings his food to him every day.

The above are just a few of the things that the water does for the barracuda, and a few of the ways that he depends upon it. All of these things are so obvious that you’re probably wondering why I’ve gone to all the trouble of writing them down. (I’m kind of wondering that myself). It occurs to me that there’s an interesting truth that permeates all the above. It has to do with the water itself … the water that allows the barracuda to breathe, move, eat, sleep, mate, play … live. For the barracuda, the water is … everywhere. In fact, there’s no place to which he can go (under his own power) that is not wet. We could rightly assume that as much as the barracuda knows, there is no other realm of existence other than in the water that is his home. It is to him, quite literally, the entire universe. But that’s not the interesting point to ponder. The interesting point to ponder, in my opinion, is this … while the barracuda breaths it, navigates it, feeds from it, makes a bed of it, ingests it, and makes his home in it 3600 seconds every hour, 24 hours every day, 7 days every week, 52 weeks every year for the 10-14 years that he will live, he probably doesn’t consciously recognize that it (the water) exists. In other words, the water is so ubiquitous, so omnipresent, so constant, and so all-encompassing to the barracuda who’s perpetually immersed in it, both inside and outside his body; that there’s a very high likelihood that he’s utterly oblivious to it … unaware of the very presence of that which sustains him, even though his every hope for life is entirely contained therein. That is, until you take him … out of it. Then, in one terrifying moment, when extricated from the familiarity, safety, security, and provision of his omni-directional aquatic haven; the barracuda is rudely awakened to the fact that the very water that surrounded and sustained him so completely that he didn’t even know it existed … the water that oxygenated him, housed him, protected him, fed him, provided him with family and friends, moved him, rested him, etc., etc., etc., … is now … gone. And now all he can think of, as he violently flails his now much heavier body in abject terror and panic against the hard and unforgiving wood planks of the dock in a new and unfamiliar realm, feeling the excruciating pain of the breath of life rapidly departing his body … is getting himself back into that water of which he is now acutely aware as soon as he possibly can … that water that until 10 seconds ago he didn’t even know existed, though he derived every single aspect of his life and being from it. And isn’t it so often just like that for us … with grace?

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The Gay Assumption

My mom is diabetic, and must test her blood sugar daily in order to regulate her medication. This keeps her alive. She does so by pricking her finger with a needle, drawing blood … but just a drop or two. I’ve witnessed this many times; and after regaining consciousness, I’m always inspired by her resiliency to endure this day after day.

I recently enjoyed an enlightening conversation with a good friend who expressed concern about another good mutual friend who happens to be gay. His concern focused on the spiritual questions surrounding homosexuality. Namely, is our friend, (whom we all know as a wonderful, exceptionally kind and loving person, who was baptized as a Christian decades ago) indeed “saved;” or is he on the outside looking in as it relates to Jesus? He was not asking in that judgmental manner which asserts that because our friend is gay, he could not possibly be a Christian … a claim that many in the church fervently uphold; but rather, with genuine loving concern. He asked my thoughts on the matter, and my answer was essentially this:

If indeed our gay friend is more alienated from God than the rest of us (non-gays), and if indeed (as I believe) we’re connected to God via the mystery of atonement by the blood of Jesus; then one must logically conclude that it takes more of that blood to save a gay person than it takes to save a straight person. I believe we arrive at this conclusion by assuming that the sin of homosexuality is fundamentally more egregious than other types of sin for which we ourselves are guilty. Please, before you hit SEND on that angry knee-jerk, beat-someone-over-the-head-with-the-Bible email; yes, I am aware of what Romans 1:26-27 (among others) says about homosexuality. These are gold-plated “go-to” verses for many who would make the aforementioned assertions regarding homosexuals. Unfortunately, they’re often yanked right out of their context (i.e. verses 18-32); which, in my opinion, clearly demonstrates that greed, envy, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, insolence (disrespect), arrogance, boastfulness, infidelity, disobedience to parents, and various general misdeeds such as refusal to love or extend mercy, and “godlessness” are equally damaging to one’s ability to affiliate with a holy God. And who among us (heterosexuals) has never fallen to one (or more) of these? And because “gay” is a sexual identification, who among us can honestly assert that we’ve never fallen to certain heterosexual sins such as fornication, adultery, lust, infidelity, etc.?  Certainly not I. Furthermore, upon careful reading, it appears that all of these acts are the product or result of two fundamental sins … repressing God-revealed truth and exchanging allegiance from a true living God to a non-living man-made god(s) … aka idolatry (vss. 18-23). If I read this correctly, homosexuality is but one of many symptoms of the more elemental sins of truth-repression and God-exchange … not the actual disease itself. Nonetheless, many Christians have taken it upon themselves to treat gay people (fellow carriers of the Divine image) as if they themselves are the disease, and have banished them like lepers outside the city (or church) walls. And we wonder why they hate us … and why they think we (and perhaps God by extension) hate them?

This homosexuality issue remains an ongoing quandary among Christians today. But we could easily substitute homosexuality for any brand of sin that any of us believes to surpass the severity of our own. We often seem all too eager to assert that their sins (with which we do not struggle) are far more egregious than ours. And as such, logic dictates that it takes more of Jesus’ blood to cleanse their sins than it takes to cleanse ours. Of course, we don’t make that leap consciously. Who would dare to say such a thing out loud? But it is the subconscious product of our own misguided logical equation. To this we must ask ourselves, “Just how much of Jesus’ blood did it take to save me?” By virtue of the measuring stick we apply to others (i.e. homosexuals), many of us seem to believe that Jesus could have saved us in much the same manner that my sweet mom checks her blood sugar. But biblical history teaches otherwise. Apparently, Jesus evaluated my sins just as seriously as those of any gay person; because he shed the same amount of blood for mine as he did for theirs … and it was a hell of a lot more than a pinprick.

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“The Sun Also Rises”

My truck was stolen from outside my building today … or so I thought. I had left it for 5 minutes while I ran inside to wrap up a couple of things. The truck also contained some valuable property; money, my laptop (filled with vital documents), and my iPhone. I was terrified at the prospect of losing these things to a lazy coward. Most terrifying of all, my beloved faithful companion, “Harley” (my golden retriever), was lying in his bed inside the cab. I panicked, imagining what he might be suffering at the hands of a thief at that moment. I ran … no, sprinted … to the office to inquire if my truck had been towed (as I had parked in a non-authorized spot). The manager assured me that it had not been towed, so I immediately called the police. I searched the perimeter to see if I might spot anything. I checked the underground parking garage. And what did I find there? You already know, don’t you? There it was, my black Toyota … with my laptop, money, iPhone; and most importantly, my Harleydog, all inside … right where I had parked it before re-entering the building. I thought I had left it outside, but I had moved it … and forgotten … (age is creeping up on me). I called the police and office manager back to report the false alarm … a little embarrassed, but also more relieved and grateful than I can say. The relief of that moment felt like cold crystal clear Smoky Mountains water on a sweltering day in August.

So relieved was I that I fell to my knees, thanking God for what literally had NOT just happened; which got me to thinking … what else had NOT happened today? Well, here are a few things: I did NOT go without shelter, clean clothing, good shoes, or a warm bed. I did NOT have an accident at work. I did NOT lose my ability to walk, see, hear, talk, or feel. I did NOT have a stroke, or a heart attack. I did NOT succumb to a debilitating depression or addiction. I was NOT diagnosed with cancer … or anything else. My house did NOT burn down. My plane did NOT crash, (nor did the other c. 80,986 flights and 9.6 million people around the world that took off and landed safely today). My home was NOT robbed, (though it was 3 years ago). I was NOT a victim of violent crime or abuse. The stock market did NOT crash. NOBODY in my close circle of friends and family died, (though my sweet sister, Vicky, sadly did so in 2003). There was NOT a tsunami, nor a devastating earthquake. I did NOT have an accident on the highway.  I did NOT lose my job. My wife did NOT leave me (she did that 5 and ½ years ago), I did NOT starve. I did NOT go without clean water. I could go on and on, and so could you. But suffice it to say that nothing really bad happened to me at all today (or most days), nor to most everyone I know.

It would be easy at this point to dive into a Pollyanna “stop & smell the roses / count your blessings” riff. And that IS a legitimate message … but not today’s message. Today’s message is this … at the moment I was hit with the (perceived) realization that something horrible had befallen me; I immediately heard that not-so-little voice in the back of my head crying, “God, why did YOU let this happen?” In a fraction of a second, I had leapt into blame-God mode. And isn’t that so typical? It seems every time something horrible happens, my / our knee-jerk reaction is to blame God for it, then engage in an existential wrestling match with very real doubts about him, his nature … even his very existence. Indeed, many good people have constructed an entire theological system on the premise that because bad things happen to good people … (and they most certainly do … to ALL of us at some point) … that God is either cold and disengaged, impotent and timid, or simply nonexistent … a product of the imagination of millions of naive fools. (There are moments when I myself struggle with whether or not to disagree … I’m NOT casting stones at anyone who’s come to such a conclusion … nobody does so easily and without examination).

However, perhaps a bit of perspective is in order for all of us … believers and non-believers. A question to ponder: if God (or his absence) is somehow to blame when things go wrong; does it not logically follow that perhaps his presence is equally deserving of our acknowledgement when on 999 out of 1000 days, our lives are actually quite good. Or to put it another way, can any of us really question what seems to be overwhelmingly obvious; that on balance, there’s so much more good in the world than there is evil and random tragedy? Is it possible … just possible … that we actually are immersed in grace after all? Most all of us would admit that upon honest examination, there’s been more good in our lives than bad. And yes, of course we ALL have and WILL suffer mightily at many points in life. But on balance for nearly all of us, it’s hard to argue that life isn’t pretty good today … on this day … and frankly, on nearly all of our days. My question today is simply this: can God get a little shout-out for that, too?

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