Saturday, February 25, 2012


Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
     The Lord is one.  What does that mean?  The obvious answer is that God is God alone.  There is only one God.  That is so accepted by the major religions that it’s hardly a big deal, but in Jesus’ day, it was a big deal.  In fact, it’s what would get Christians into trouble with the Romans later on.  The Romans worshiped a number of gods, including their own emperor, and Christians, believing that there was only one god and therefore refusing to worship Caesar, got into a lot of trouble.  So that’s the obvious meaning, but Jews and Christians understand that that statement, the Lord is one, has many layers of meaning.  In fact, whole theological systems have sprung up from this one idea.  For instance, since God is one, he is indivisible—there is no composite or partial aspect of his nature.  What he is, he is completely.  This leads, through a series of rather philosophical musings, to the ideas that he is also immutable or unchanging; omniscient or all-knowing; omnipotent or all-powerful; and omnipresent or always everywhere.  So from this one simple statement, God is one, we get that God is perfect, immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.  And that is why that statement is foundational to our faith. 
But I think that if you stop there, you get a distorted view of God, and a distorted view of God leads to distorted religion, and distorted religion is the source of great evil in the world.  Old definitions emphasize the difference and the distance between us and God.  That’s OK, God is different.  The creator can never be the same as the created.  We call this transcendence.  But there is another aspect to the statement that God is one that I believe really gets to the core of our understanding of God. 
We can think of oneness in terms of uniqueness, singularity, aloneness—which is one step from loneliness.  But the opposite of loneliness is togetherness.  And what is the ultimate expression of togetherness?  When you and another person are so together that even when you are physically separated your are still together, it feels like what?  Like you are one.  You live and breathe and act as one.  You anticipate each other’s actions, your think each other’s thoughts, you feel each other’s feelings.  You intuitively understand each other.  It’s as if before the two of you met you thought you were one person, and then you met this person and discovered that you were only half a person, and that person was your other half—your better half.  And together, you make up a whole.  You are one.  Together. 
 The Father and I are one. (John 10:30)
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  (Genesis 2:24 )
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:1-6)
That, in my mind, is the ultimate expression of who God is.  That he doesn’t want us to be far apart from him, distant relationally, but so close to him that it’s hard to tell where we begin and he ends.  The goal of personal transformation is unity with Christ. 
Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 2:5) 
This is what God wants, and it is what we have to want also.  We have to want it so bad that we would rather die than to live without it.  Because that’s what Jesus did.  He came so that the oneness he shared with his Father, we also could have. 
And he died so that we could have it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Our Job and God's Job

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.  And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'  He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'  But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
     What is the point of this parable?  Some people focus on the enemy, and develop from this parable a theology of Satan, that he tries to infiltrate the ranks of the faithful with subversives who will pollute the church and knock it off course.  Similarly, some people focus on the weeds, that there are among us those who are not true believers, and one day it will be revealed who those imposters are, and they will be removed from our midst.  And others focus on the final destination of the weeds and the wheat, that there are some people who will be gathered at the end to be burned in the eternal fires of hell, and there are some people who will be gathered together to spend eternity in God’s barn, in heaven.
I don’t think any of those is the point that Jesus is trying to make.  In fact, I think all of those reflect a point of view that Jesus is in fact trying to correct in the telling of this parable.
     When Jimmy Carter gave an interview in which he talked about his Christian faith, he used a term that was familiar to Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, but unknown to most others, including a lot of Christians: born again.  The national media jumped on it as a means of saying that Jimmy Carter was claiming to be a different kind of Christian.  I don’t think he was, he was just using terminology that was common to his particular Christian upbringing.
     Well, then evangelicals, and, in particular, Fundamentalists, who had always kinda been using the phrase, really jumped on it, as a means of distinguishing between the weeds and the wheat.  In other words, there were people who called themselves Christian who really weren’t, and then there were the born-again Christians who believed in the fundamentals of the faith, who didn’t preach a works-religion, who didn’t baptize babies, who had walked down the aisle, prayed something called The Sinner’s Prayer, been baptized, had Quiet Times, witnessed to sinners, and served on church committees.  And so “Born Again” became something of a shibboleth: a word or phrase that showed you were one of the faithful.  If you had to ask what a born-again Christian was, it’s because you weren’t one.
Religion often tends to separate people into the ins and the outs.  This mindset was rampant among the Jews of Jesus’ time.  There were all kinds of groups that operated at different levels of exclusivity.  There were the Essenes, and very exclusive group that thought that all Judaism was corrupt and retreated to the caves around the Dead Sea to get away from the impurity of the faith.  There were the Sadducees, an elitist group that tended to be the wealthy and respectable, who held to an orthodox, conservative belief system but also advocated getting along with the Romans.  There were the Pharisees, a lay group that was actually the more liberal group theologically.  They believed that the reason Messiah hadn’t come was because Israel was unfaithful to the law, and so they set about to be extremely obedient down to the jot and tittle, and were judgmental of those who wouldn’t do the same.  And there were even two different groups of Pharisees that followed the teachings of two different rabbis and didn’t get along all that well with each other. 
     Each of these groups spent a lot of their time trying to weed out the fields, trying to separate the weeds from the wheat, the unfaithful from the faithful, the pretenders from the true believers. 
     Jesus says that’s not for us to do.  I think the point of the parable is in the interchange between the slaves and the landowner.  The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them (the weeds)?'  But he replied, 'No’. 
     It’s not our job to decide who’s in and who’s out.  God will do that, and he’ll do it in his time.
     The role of faith is to bring people together, not separate them.  Reconciliation, not judgment, is the job of the follower of Jesus Christ.
     It is this kind of life that Jesus calls us into.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No Masks

A few years ago George O’Leary, then the head football coach at Georgia Tech, was given his dream job—the head football coach at Notre Dame.  What could be better than a guy named O’Leary coaching the Fighting Irish?  A few days after the best day of his life, the worst day of his life occurred.  It seems that many years previous, he had padded his resume, claiming master’s degrees that he was never awarded.  For more than twenty years no one noticed, but now that he had the highest profile college coaching job, someone did, and he was never hired.  And there he was, exposed, and all alone.
     This was a high-profile incident, but everyday people like you and me live with similar secrets.  There’s the young mother taking care of young children who gets so angry that she could just scream.  And often she does, and sometimes the frustration just pours out of her and she can see the fear in her children’s eyes.  She hears about mothers who harm their children, and she wonders if she’s capable of that, but she doesn’t tell anybody.  And she feels so alone. 
     Or there’s the well-respected business man who has to have a drink for breakfast to face the day, who keeps a bottle in his desk drawer and sneaks sips throughout the day.  Every night he tells his wife he’ll be up soon, he’s got more work to do, but in reality he’s just waiting for her to go to sleep so he can have one more drink.  He tells himself he can stop if he wants to, but he knows it’s not true.  And he feels so alone.  That’s what happens when we try to hide our secrets from others—we isolate ourselves and feel so alone.
     When I was in 8th grade I thought it would be cool to smoke cigarettes, so one day, when no one was looking, I bought a pack from a vending machine.  I kept them hidden in my room, and would grab them just as I left for school each morning.  I had to keep them hidden because I knew my parents would kill me if they found out.  But it was also near time for tryouts for the basketball team, and I knew the coach would kill me and cut me if he found out.  Bordering the school were some woods, and once I was safely in the woods where no one could see, I’d light up, and crush it out by the time I emerged on the other side.  Now, what’s the point of being cool if no one sees you?  But there I was.  One cigarette walking to school, one walking home, all in the woods where no one could see. 
Tryouts came, and I survived the first cut, then the second, and then came the day for the final cuts.  Mom wished me well that morning, knowing how much I wanted to make the team.  And sure enough, before practice was even over coach called ten of us off to the side and told us we had made the team, go downstairs and get fitted for uniforms while he watched the rest of the final tryouts to decide what two guys would join us on the team. 
     We celebrated, got our uniforms, changed clothes, and went home—and, of course, I went through the woods on the way home.  And when I got home, Mom was in the bedroom reading, and I went in and told her I had made the team, and she got all excited and wanted a hug and a kiss.  I realized, however, that she’d be close enough to smell the tobacco on my breath.  So I held my breath while we hugged, and turned away when she kissed my cheek, and prayed.  Then I went and brushed my teeth, and went in my room and closed the door behind me.  All alone with my secret.  I’ve still never told her. 
     And so it is with human beings. We keep secrets. We wear masks with each other. We get very good at hiding. Our greatest fear is that somebody might find out, that the truth might get brought to light. But that’s not the worst thing that could happen.  The worst that could happen is that no one will find out, that the truth will never come to light, and you will go to your grave and you will meet your God having lived a lie that enslaved you your whole life long. You were made to know and be known. That’s why God created you--to know and be known. It is the deepest desire of any human being.  Our habit since the Fall is to hide as if our life depended on it when if fact our life depends on getting found, on being known, because there’s no healing in hiding. There isn’t. Pain avoidance, maybe, but no healing. Some people have been hiding for years. You try not to think about it but it’s true, and that secret keeps you from fully experiencing love. Because even when somebody tells you they love you inside there’s a part of you that says to yourself, “I know you say those things, but you don’t know the whole truth about me. If you knew the whole truth about me you would not say what you say now.”
     So here’s the truth: you cannot be fully loved if you are not fully known. That’s why there’s such a connection between knowing and being known, loving and being loved. You can only be loved to the extent that you are known.  And here’s the further truth: through Christ you are fully known and fully loved by God.  Your life depends on you accepting that.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Better Message

If a candidate for president emerges who will say this--and actually mean it--I will vote for them, regardless of party.

As it is, I'm ready to write in Clint Eastwood.  That's how tired I am of the divisive rhetoric that characterizes our political system, where there is no vision for America beyond getting in power and beating up the other guy in the process.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Gut Feeling

One day a lawyer asked Jesus how to be saved.  Now, understand that by lawyer we aren’t referring to what we know as a lawyer, but rather as one who was an expert in the Old Testament law.  This man was a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, and prided himself on his knowledge of the Law.  Jesus gives him an opportunity to show off, and let’s the man answer his own question, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  And the lawyer responds correctly: love God with everything your are, and love your neighbor too.  Love God, love others.  Our answer wouldn’t be much different.  But then Jesus challenges him. 
He says, “You obviously know the right answer.  Now, do it, and you shall have eternal life.”  Do you hear the challenge?  Which is easier, to know the right answers, or to do them?  This man thought he was better than everyone else because he knew more than they did; Jesus points out that as important as it is to know what is right, that’s nothing if you don’t do what is right.  What good is it for a man to say he knows he is supposed to love his wife if in fact he never demonstrates his love for her? 
Well, it’s obvious the man fails this test, because we are told that he felt the need to justify himself—to make himself look better.  He knew that how he measured up against the second command to love your neighbor depended on how you defined neighbor.  He was asking, Who and how much do I have to love? 
We are often like the lawyer in that we try to reduce God’s commands to something we can live with. We would like to believe that loving my neighbor means loving people who love me, or at least loving people who are lovable. Loving my neighbor thereby comes to mean doing nice things for people who will probably do nice things back to me. That is probably what the scholar thought too.  His original question was, “What do I have to do to get in?” 
But Jesus’ answer is to tell him what someone who is already in looks like. He tells a story of a man who was mugged and left unconscious by the side of the road.  Two religious leaders, a priest and a Levite, saw him and did nothing.  A priest was considered the holiest person there was among the Jews. He was knew the Scriptures. He was entrusted with offering sacrifices for the sin of the people. He was allowed to go further into the Temple than regular  people were. If anyone was going to reflect the character of God, it would be the priest.  A Levite served in the Temple.  He was on staff.  He was a Reverend.  He knew better.  Both of these men saw a need, but did nothing, perhaps because of the perceived worth of the victim.  Maybe they figured he was partially to blame—there must be some sin in his life for something bad like this to happen to him.  Maybe they thought nothing like this.  But this much is clear, he wasn’t worth the time, effort and expense.  People die all the time; you can’t save all of them. 
They saw the need but did not do any thing about it. Both of these men saw the man but ignored the need. These two religious professionals, were caught up in a life-less religion. They played at church, but it didn’t affect the way they lived.  Not in any way that it mattered.  Luckily, they weren’t the only ones traveling down that road that day. 
Another man, an outsider and outcast to the Israelite religion, saw the beaten man. The passage says that when he saw him, he had compassion,  the Greek word used here for compassion  is a very vivid one. It comes from a word that refers to the intestines, or bowels. But it’s the equivalent of what we mean when we talk about a gut feeling.  A gut feeling is one that comes from the deepest part of who we are. The Samaritan saw the same pitiful man lying in agony beside the road and his heart churned within him so that he could not pass by without helping. That’s the way compassion affects us. It stirs us; it troubles us, it keeps us awake at night until we do something.  Compassion feels something. 
But compassion is more than a feeling; compassion also does something.  Which is what the Samaritan did.  It cost him time and money, which reminds us that compassion is costly.  But there is one other thing about compassion: It reveals who God is and what our relationship to him is all about.  It’s not about being right, but doing right.  It’s not about being the strongest and mightiest, but the most compassionate.  It’s seeing a need, and doing something about it.  That’s what God did for each of us.  He saw our need for forgiveness, and he sent his son to save us.  Not based on our worthiness or righteousness, but on his worthiness and righteousness and our overwhelming need.
That’s who God is, and that’s what God does.  As his followers, that who we are to be, and what we are to do.
It’s really quite simple when you think about it.