Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Problem with Spiritual Formulas

One of the problems with applying Biblical text as spiritual formulas is that Jesus often said contradictory things. We often miss the principal behind the point.

For example:

Formula 1: If you want to catch fish go far out into the deep water.

Luke 5:4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."

Formula 2: If you want to catch fish, fish in the shallow water near shore.

John 21:5 He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered. 6 He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.

Here we have two opposing formulas to catch fish. To be successful in "fishing" it is not about applying one of the above formulas, it is about understanding that Jesus knows where the fish (and people) are. The underlying principal is: go to where the fish are, not where they are not.

Many "Christian" speakers and writers have made vast fortunes and garnered enormous attention by proclaiming various spiritual formulas for obtaining salvation, being physically healed or gaining financial security. Entire denominations have been built around the application of a single verse of scripture and the exercise of some "formula" it seems to contain. They claim by doing or not doing something you can either gain God's favor or avoid His wrath.

Jesus did not come to teach us a method, a process or a formula to somehow evoke God into action in our lives. He came to infect our lives with His unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness. What both the "world" and religion have in common is that they both try to convince us that until we "do something" we are not included and not worthy of the love and favor of God. They both say that until we participate in some program to improve ourselves we will be outside, lost and excluded. They of course have such a program all wrapped up in bows and ribbons.

Jesus offers no program, no rules set in stone and no requirements to earn His favor. He simply asks us if we know that He loves us and if we do we should love others as He loves us. I know some will find verses that say to do this or don't do that but the bottom line is: Are we living in the knowledge of His unconditional love and are we sharing that with others?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Nature of Children (regardless of age)

Jesus got a bit ticked at His disciples once because they tried to prevent some children from "bothering" Him as He went about His important business. What the disciples failed to understand was that His relationship with the children was His important business! Whenever anyone tried to come between Him and the people He was trying to minister to Jesus got a bit angry with them.

Matt 19:13-15 One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: "Let the children alone, don't prevent them from coming to me. God's kingdom is made up of people like these." After laying hands on them, he left.

Matt 18:3 And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Why would Jesus want to be around children and why did He say "God's kingdom is made up of people like these"? While there are many wonderful things about the nature of children there are also some things that are not so wonderful.

Writers, preachers and theologians most often refer to the innocence, trust and openness of children in explaining these passages. I think they completely miss the point that Jesus was trying to make.

Jesus spent His time, bestowed His compassion on and loved being with outcasts, underdogs, misfits and miscreants! I think He used children as the example of the population of His kingdom because kids are messy, noisy, unlearned, more interested in play than work, prone to make bad decisions, self-centered and not above lying to avoid punishment. They are real, not religious.

In another passage Jesus says, My little children, I will not leave you orphans (John 13). This time He was addressing adults, the very adults who had spent more then three years with Him in close contact. They ate, slept, traveled, bathed, cried, prayed, played and ministered together with Jesus for over 1000 days. These were the inside guys, the core group, the major players, the big kahunas, but Jesus called them "little children". If these men, who we so revere as the fathers of Christianity were "little children" in Jesus eyes then are not the rest of mere infants?

We put so much stock into our theological theories, our doctrinal foundations, our perfect Sunday School attendance badges, our correct Biblical interpretation that we forget that in His eyes we are not even potty trained yet.

Brennan Manning says it like this (paraphrased): Jesus only asks us one question, Do you believe that I love you?

God comes to us and says I have a word for you, I know your whole life story, I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, and degraded love that has darkened your paths

Right now I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship, and My word is this, I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you are never going to be as you should be.

Always remember we are His little children, we belong to Him!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Fish Story

This is an excerpt from a blog of my friend Bert Gary.

(click on the title go to his blog)

Remember Jonah and the giant fish (The Old Testament Book of Jonah)? This story is a perfect example of the scandal of God’s mercy. Jonah despised God’s mercy and wanted nothing to do with it!

Jonah is in Galilee, Israel. God tells him to go northeast to preach in Nineveh. It’s an Assyrian city in what is today Mosul, Iraq. Jonah without a word goes southwest to Joppa and boards a ship headed to Tarshish, the location of which is uncertain, but might be a reference to a region in faraway Spain! That’s as far as you can go via the Mediterranean Sea, and obviously it’s in the opposite direction that God instructed. Exactly where Jonah was headed is not necessary to get the point. God said go this way. He went the other.

Jonah tells the crew of his ship that the terrible storm they are experiencing is his fault. He’d disobeyed God and they should throw him overboard. He is guilty and deserves to die without mercy. This is Jonah’s way of showing God how judgment is supposed to work! If you’re guilty of disobeying God, God should show no mercy to you. It’s as if Jonah’s saying, See, God? Here’s how you’re supposed to do your job. I’m guilty. I should be destroyed. Nineveh’s guilty. It should be destroyed. Jonah is giving God an object lesson on how to be God! And Jonah sees no room for mercy. He wants the punishment he deserves, and he’d rather die than offer Nineveh a chance.

God, however, shows mercy to disobedient, arrogant Jonah by sending a big fish to rescue him. And God leaves him in the fish three days to give him a chance to think about this mercy business.

After the fish spits him on the beach Jonah heads for Nineveh. When he gets there he preaches a halfhearted sermon to only a fraction of the city. But against all odds the pitiful sermon he preached works. Nineveh listens and responds. And Jonah is fit to be tied:

Jonah 4:1-3 [T]his was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." (italics mine)

But God shoots back at Jonah:

Jonah 4:4 And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

Anger is an appropriate and normal human emotion. Jesus himself got angry. (Mark 3:5) God’s not telling Jonah that anger is wrong. God is asking Jonah if he really thinks he has a right to be mad about this situation. Does he have a right to be angry that God is merciful? But Jonah doesn’t answer the question. He ignores God and the implication of what he has asked.

Instead, Jonah goes outside the city and makes a shelter to protect himself from the scorching desert heat. He sits himself down to watch God destroy Nineveh, as God should have done in the first place! He finds the idea of God’s mercy absolutely incomprehensible. Jonah never expected his pitiful unenthusiastic sermon to work. He never thought they’d listen or change. They deserve to die, and Jonah has a front row seat for the show! It’s a sit-in. It’s a protest. He is going to sit there until the God of the universe starts to act like the condemning god Jonah had created in his own mind. He wants fire and brimstone to rain down on those people. The god of his imagining would not and could not show mercy to Assyrians. They are enemies. They are evil. And Nineveh is the nerve center of the beast. If God is God, he must destroy them. Jonah sits and waits for God to repent (change his mind--metanoia) and do “the right thing”!

God, however, throws Jonah a curve ball—an object lesson of his own. He makes a shady bush grow up over Jonah to further protect him from the heat. Jonah thinks, now that’s more like it. God should reward good people (like me). And he should punish the evil people (like the Ninevites). If only Jonah had binoculars to see them suffer up close! Jonah watches in anticipation of “the show.” But God doesn’t destroy the city. Instead, God destroys the bush!

Now Jonah is really mad. He tells God again just to let him die. He can’t stand living in a universe where Assyrians get mercy, innocent bushes get smited, and God’s messengers get toasted in the blistering heat. God speaks to Jonah again about his outrage. Listen to this exchange. With it the Book of Jonah abruptly ends:

Jonah 4:9-11 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?"

And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."

10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

God is scandalously merciful, says the Book of Jonah. The End.

Luke records Jesus saying, “. . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Then Jesus continues by telling you and me (and Jonah!) to be like that too. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35b-36) Be scandalously merciful.