A Weak and Watered Down God Just Won’t Do

As followers of Jesus we are all called to enter the fray of life just like our Lord did. We are told to be ‘in’ the world without being ‘of’ the world. Jesus told his disciples they would be like sheep among wolves. We are to be immersed in the life of this world loving those that are closest to us and seeking to make changes in order that the poor, the widow, the oppressed and marginalized are loved and cared for and invited to live now in the Kingdom of God.

But we cannot approach this life with the weak and watered down version of God that some churches are offering. Our God is Almighty, Powerful, and able to do more than we can even think or imagine.  Some folks don’t even want to call God ‘Father’ anymore. They prefer more inclusive terms. I want a Father who is strong, who can defend me, who knows how to love and protect me. I want the same ‘Father’ whom Jesus called upon. I don’t mind other images of God but don’t take away my Father. The world knows little of the majestic and self giving nature of a good Father. Let us proclaim the Fatherhood of God as the model for all us fathers.

I hear folks uncomfortable with the notion of a crucified Christ, ordained for his cross by his heavenly Father. That seems too abusive they say. They don’t want to think of such cruelty, such weakness. But I want a Lord who was sent by his Father on a mission to rescue humanity, save us, redeem us and willing to give his life for us. Remember when General Eisenhower sent the troops into the hell of D-Day? He sent them fully aware that so many would give up their lives to rescue the world from Hitler.

I don’t was a self-help God preached by many today. This God is just hanging out along side of us showing us how to get back on the right track with just a little more money and personal power and right principles in our own lives. No, my God is righteous and knows that I am broken and demands that I come to Him on his terms through confidence in the blood that was shed for you and me. I want to know the God whose will I want to do, not one who wants to know what I think best. I want to enter through the narrow gate. It might even be a tight squeeze but it’s the right gate. I don’t want any old god who says that it doesn’t matter what you believe or whom you trust. That’s an idol and a devil from hell who would dissuade us from the one true heavenly Father.

I don’t want an accommodating god. I want to accommodate my life to the God in whom I live and breathe and who knows absolutely what is best for me. I want a God whose ethic for life and love challenges me. I do not want comfort unless comfort is found in seeking the will of my Heavenly Father.

We as followers of Jesus have a challenge ahead of us, to preach the Gospel and help others to know God’s love and His Kingdom. To care for the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the widow and orphan. To put an end to killing. And above all to learn the art of forgiveness, probably the greatest challenge and the most narrow gate in the Christian experience.

And to do that and more I want to go with an Almighty, All Loving, Father. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus. I fear it may be a great challenge and any less challenge would require a weaker God.

Listen, when those early Christians faced the lions, the gladiators, the stakes of fire and the crosses what God would they desire to know? They wanted a strong powerful loving Father who though may not rescue them from the fire and the sword would sure bust them out of the grave and bring them into his presence while he continues to create the new heavens and new earth within which they (we) will live forever. That’s my God, and my Lord. I think that was said by doubting Thomas when he met the risen Christ who also was busted out of his grave.

 

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GRACE IN ATHEISM

So here’s what I think about atheists. There are folks who say God just doesn’t exist, no way, shape or whatever. They are sometimes adamant that there is no power or authority, influence or being and certainly no entity called God.

So I got to wondering one day. What would or could give someone the idea that there is no god, no being of authority in the universe? Could be that people have been hurt by religion? No, that’s enough to maybe stay away from the church but not to believe in nothing. I suppose believing in nothing is some kind of religion but to my mind IT requires more faith than believing in God. But that’s for another time.

So after some pensiveness I came to at least one conclusion. Authority is one of the main issues contributing to atheism. If you believe there is a God, or even gods, you might draw the conclusion that someone or something has authority over your life. And who enjoys anyone being in control or having some authoritative say in our lives. Notice I switched from you to us because this ‘authority thing’ is a problem for believers as well as unbelievers. In atheists it may be more apparent by their words of rejection concerning God, Jesus or any religious figure.

See, we love to be the only authority in our lives and believe me, that is a poor foundation for living. I mean just take a look at AA to see that one of the first steps is surrendering to a higher power. And that is no easy feat.

But believers can experience profound truth concerning authority from atheism. We too love to be in control of our own lives. Oh, we talk a good game about surrendering to Christ, trusting God and so forth but when the rubber hits the road we discover that the words of Jesus ring empty to our ears when it comes to living the life of faith. So that’s why I call this piece GRACE IN ATHEISM. It’s because we have something to learn about ourselves through others.

You know, if an atheist person wanted to, he or she could search and search to really discover if there is a God. God knows there is enough evidence in nature, in philosophy, in science and in writings like the Bible to be able to uncover this God. But if he or she did, then what? Uh oh. Authority.

Recall something Jesus said. And by the way I cannot fathom why anybody could have a problem with Jesus, the smartest, most loving being to walk this earth. But I digress. No I don’t. I want to say something about Jesus.

At one point Jesus told the people around him, especially the religious leaders (now there’s some folks we could have problems with). He said to them that if anyone chooses to do the will of God that person will find out whether Jesus’ teaching really comes from God or if Jesus simply made it up on his own. (Found in the Gospel of John chapter 7:17)

So right there you have it. From the lips of God’s own son. That son, who by the way, in the Garden of Gethsemane tried to work things out on his own but finally said to his Father, ‘Your will be done’

So my invitation to all, including to myself, is to simply say to God –your will be done. And discover that Jesus is real. There is a huge sigh of relief in surrendering one’s life, imperfect as that life might be. See the authority of God, if we really search, is such that we cannot miss the great love of the God of the universe who from the beginning has had only one desire, to share that love with all of us in the midst of all the crap and our own misdeeds. “God is love” is not some trite slogan but the essence of the ONE who governs this creation.

So, see if we look diligently we can find in atheism some of the same stuff we believers are struggling with. Let’s be honest enough to admit that struggle.

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TOO MANY RULES

signs

 

Remember the old song about signs everywhere telling us what to do. In case you don’t, here are some of the lyrics. (The Five Man Electrical Band)

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read?
You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat
You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat
You ain’t supposed to be here
The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside
Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray”
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all
I didn’t have a penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine”

We might also write down the same thing for religion. Everywhere we look we see another rule, ceremony, code, law and maybe even a secret handshake tell us what and how to believe within the Christian faith.

Keep this in mind. A passage from Romans 10:4 ‘For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.’

This means that anything and everything the law was meant to do in bringing humanity into right relationship with God has been culminated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. According to the Apostle Paul anything but Christ being the way to our righteousness is ANOTHER gospel, one that isn’t true. He wrote this to the church in Galatia where people were insisting that ‘real’ followers of Jesus ‘had to’ be circumcised.

So I got to thinking one day that ‘religion’ of any stripe is too heavy a burden to bear. And within Christianity, according to some estimates, there are 33,000 Christian ‘organizations’ around the world plus many thousands of other religious sects and cults with lists of dogmas, doctrines, rule and regulations too numerous to list.

Now some folks need all those burdens, and boundaries to feel safe. In truth there are people who are willing to give up their freedom for a sense of security. And not in any good way do some people stay in an abusive relationship to be safer from harm that may occur by ‘breaking free’.

It may be why some people join very fundamental religious groups in order to have life that is defined for them in order that they don’t have to make their own decisions.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s why Adam and Eve became nervous in the Garden just living in love with their creator, making decisions from their place of communion with God. Freedom and love can be so risky.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, within the first five books, there are 613 laws and commandments on how to live with God and one another. They were, due to the immaturity of the chosen people at the time, necessary. In the New Testament Jesus announces that there are basically two commandments: to love God with all your self and to love your neighbor as yourself. He further says that all the laws and the sayings of the prophets are summed up in those two commands. Paul wrote that the entire law is fulfilled in keeping one command, LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. (Galatians 5:14) See also Romans 13: 9. And let us not think that this command to love neighbor as self is a walk in the park.

To love God fully means placing our trust in Christ, nothing more and nothing less and loving neighbor is a process of maturation in Christ to the point where we are willing to give up our lives even for the people, close to us, who annoy us most.

But and read this carefully: love comes from freedom, not rules. We are ‘freed’ to love. Here’s an illustration I heard once upon a time. If I bring home flowers to my wife and she is so surprised and asks me why and I respond by saying it is the rule of the Bible to show love. I can tell you this. It’s not going to be pretty.

So let’s take a look at what freedom is. Jesus came saying to the people who wanted to follow him, ‘If you hold to my teaching your are really my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ (See John 8) Jesus is telling us that whatever we need to know about life in the Kingdom of God, right here and now is known simply by trusting him for everything. That’s why he says later, that is the way, truth and life (all meaning the same thing) and that no one is really able to come to the Father (live in the Father’s loving kingdom) except by trusting in Christ to be and show us the way there. And the commandments of Jesus, as John writes, in 1John are not burdensome. They are simply the truth of life in the Kingdom. But not even those commandments are the way to life. Jesus is. And trusting in Jesus is the best that we can do and life will follow.

And Jesus is not like some fuhrer setting up a system that kills. That’s a thief who steals life. Jesus gives life abundantly and if we don’t experience the abundance and joy then it could just mean that we are carrying too heavy a load.

If we look at Matthew 11 we find Jesus saying to the crowds, and I write from the Message Paraphrase; 28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” MSG

Now there’s a relationship of love that leads to a joyful responsible life. Jesus invites us to step into a life where we ‘want’ to do God’s will, not where we ‘have to’. “In the will of God, the kingdom of God there is no need for do’s and don’ts, no need for tables of commandments, tablets of law. In this kingdom everything will be regulated by inner rebirth and inward inspiration under the rule of Christ’s spirit.” (Ebehard Arnold wrote in 1935)

When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus (John 3) about a new birth he said, ‘The wind blows where it will- that how it is with the spirit’. The spirit of the living God moves here and there directing as God wills for each life, no two lives the same. And so when one person discerns the will of God in a particular way, another maybe differently understands the workings of God. That’s how it is with Freedom born of a relationship of love and inspiration.

When in the early New Testament churches leaders made rules and regulations for other’s conduct Paul wrote that they didn’t need to submit to the rules of an old way of life where folks were saying, ‘don’t eat this’, ‘don’t touch that’, ‘observe days of Sabbath’. (See Galatians 2:16-23) I like how the MESSAGE puts it, ‘don’t tolerate people who want to run your life.’

And there are a plethora of religions and people who want to do just that. I recall as a teenager, of the Christian slogans was ‘I don’t drink, dance or chew or go out with girls that do.’ Well, I pretty much broke all of those rules.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of freedom. The gospel has no moral code that defines our relationship to Christ. Because we are God’s new creation in the new Adam we live solely out of love and union with God, governed only by the word of Christ dwelling in us and constrained only by his love for us. When churches or other human tell us how or what to believe or live we respond that have no other King but Jesus. When our own flesh desires, or commands our obedience we say again that we have no other King but Jesus. Because remember we can be just as enslaved to sin and its wages of death as to some other cruel master.

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NOT SAVED BY FAITH

We are not saved by faith, as some would emphasize. We are saved only by God’s grace from beginning to end. It’s like that passage in Philippians 1:6,which states: “God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day Christ returns.”

In a passage bursting with the understanding of grace we find these words, ‘we have received grace on top of grace’ or ‘grace upon grace’(John 1:16). God has lavished us with his blessing, his gifts of grace and truth that have come through Christ.

The Gospel cannot be supplemented by any human effort (even that of believing). All rescue from sin and idolatry is first and last by the grace of God revealed and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Salvation, living with God, is all God’s idea. IF left up to us we would turn our backs on God, remain enemies as it were. But that’s when God showed his love for us. We showed nothing but vain attempts to appease the idols of religion and self-sufficiency. We, like the prodigal son, wished God dead, took what blessings we thought were owed to us and left town.

So you see, it’s all grace- a gift from God. Every breath we take is grace and on our worst day we are never outside of the reach of God’s grace and on our best day, never outside of the need of grace. (I think I stole that from someone but can’t remember whom). God’s grace saves us and transforms us.

“The closer you get to God the more miserable things you will find in your heart. That is not a negative thinking. God allows you to lose confidence in yourself. You will have accomplished something when you can look at your inner corruptness or bankruptcy without anxiety or discouragement. Simply let it go and trust God’s work in Christ.” Taken from Francois Fenelon (a theologian ca. 1700)

Grace is more important than any of the Five Solas of the Reformation Doctrines. *

Grace is the heart of the trinity expressed by the self-giving love we call Agape. It’s God’s initiative from beginning to end. Sola Gratia. Without it we have nothing. Paul writes ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith.’ Ephesians 2. Paul will even add in that verse that the good works we do are done by he grace of God. Look at the way the MESSAGE puts it:

7-10 Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

In light of this we see faith as our ‘yes’ to Christ, nothing more, no greater work. And we must be careful that we don’t make ‘faith’ a work that adds something to God’s grace.

It’s like we are walking a journey and see two roads to choose between. Jesus is travelling one of those roads. ON the other road we see a heavy cart carrying the LAW, and with it the heaviness of the flesh. On Jesus’ way I saw light and though the way looked rough I saw Jesus on that road. And that was enough for me.

In John 1:16 we read the phrase ‘grace on top of grace’, meaning that it’s all grace from beginning to end. Faith takes no credit for what God has done in Christ. Faith may give assent, get on board, but all the initiative and credit comes from God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ and imparted to us by the Holy Spirit. Even faith is a gift. It’s the opening of our eyes to see the way to travel.

A classic line of Scripture is found in Ephesians 2:4,5: “Because of his great love for us God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our sin. It’s by graces you have been saved.’

Grace built the road. Grace sent Christ to walk it to Calvary. Faith is the yes we offer to walk that road, even reluctantly.

Have you ever walked on a frozen lake? My son did when he was little. We lived across the lake from some friends and one day he showed up at the friends’ door and was asked how he got there. “I walked on the Lake”, was his reply. As his parents we were grateful he was safer but a bit angered that he made such a dangerous venture. He was fearless at 9 years old, and maybe a bit faithful too.

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it.  When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down, horrified.  This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved!  In such a moment we are like that terrified rider.  When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger!  What did I do?  The most foolish thing I ever attempted!  What happened?  I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe!  You ask: ‘Do we really live in such danger?’  Yes, we live on the brink of death.  But we have been saved.  Look at our Saviour and at our salvation!  Look at Jesus Christ on the cross, accused, sentenced and punished instead of us!  Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there?  For our sake–because of our sin–sharing our captivity–burdened with our suffering!  He nails our life to the cross.  This is how God had to deal with us.  From this darkness he has saved us.  He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved! (Story recounted by Karl Barth)

I am not sure that there are really degrees of faith such that one person has MORE faith than another. Jesus sometimes comments to the disciples that they have little faith but I think in those cases he is frustrated about certain situations in which they are not able to accomplish a task he gives them like a healing or being scared to death in the boat with him on a stormy sea. But let’s look at this another way.

If there is a frozen lake and I decide to cross it, I may do so with fear and trembling, with a degree of anxiety or uncertainty but I will get across because the lake is solid. That’s what grace is- like a solid frozen lake that is never going to crack. God’s grace will carry us across. God’s grace is the assurance that God is at work in us to place us in his Kingdom now and forever. It’s God’s grace that assures us that through Christ’s faithfulness we are forgiven.

Grace is like electricity. God is supplying all the power needed. There is a switch on the wall and we either turn it on whether we understand it or not. Or we leave it untouched because we simply don’t believe that it works. But grace works whether we believe it or not. The power is there. Grace is strong. And if we don’t believe it then Jesus will by his own faithfulness turn it on for us and we sometimes don’t even know it’s been in use. Once we repent, (change our way of thinking) then we will understand that it is better to live in the light than in the darkness.

Grace is the most important of all the Reformation Solas for it includes and even initiates the rest- scripture, faith, Christ, and Glory to God. Grace is the essence of the universe.

Even when the Apostle Paul worked so hard for the Gospel, he declared it was all grace. 10 “But God’s grace has made me what I am, and his grace to me was not wasted. I worked harder than all the other apostles. (But it was not I really; it was God’s grace that was with me.)” 1Corinthians 15:10

Grace through Christ is the end of the law for getting or even being right with God. It’s all grace now. How great when we finally ‘get it,’ ‘trust’ and believe.

 

*These five themes were developed by the reformers in response to Catholic doctrines concerning the importance of works and merit.

 

 

 

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THE GRACE OF A FALLEN SPARROW

In Matthew 10 as Jesus warns his disciples of coming persecutions he promises them that God is watching out for them, that God considers them of great worth.

He tells them that little birds which are bought for a penny are noteworthy to God and that not one of them will fall to the earth outside of the realm of God’s will. And if that is the case then how much more attentive will God be to his own children. So attentive is God that Jesus tells his listeners that God numbers the very hairs on their heads. (Matthew 10:28-31 paraphrase)

This brings up an important subject; the grace of God’s providence. Words sometimes associated with it are ‘sovereignty’ ‘governing’, ‘control’, and even ‘predestination’.

I have been having a friendly debate with a Christian friend who believes that every power and authority on earth has been place there by God’s will since nothing happens outside God’s will. Our conversation provides and interesting dialectic concerning the will of God and the will of humanity.

We could first go back to the illustration of the sparrow and ask, ‘Did God send it spiraling to earth? Or within God’s providence does the free will of creation and creatures find the care and concern of a loving heavenly Father?’

When Joseph confronted his brothers in Genesis 50:20 he explains to them, ‘You did everything for evil but God intended it for good.’ (paraphrase)

I like the idea of ‘orchestration’ for the providence of God. God brings God’s creation and creatures together as an orchestra, with each having its own part to play. The players are quite novice and some are quite bad and the music is horrible but God is the great Maestro. God is bringing it all together, each note, each melody and harmony and will one day present it to God’s self in glory and the whole creation gets to be a part.

So with the evil hearted brothers of Joseph who meant to inflict harm but God took those awful notes and turned them into a piece of music that would please God and God’s people. God, though allowing the freedom of his creatures was directing an ultimate purpose, a good purpose.

Some folks see the providence of God as too controlling or deterministic. And some, when tragedy occurs question why a ‘good’ God didn’t intervene in that particular situation to prevent ‘evil’ from happening.

Here’s how the early church defined ‘providence’. It is the expression of the divine will power and goodness through which the Creator preserves creatures, cooperates with what is coming to pass through their actions and guides creatures in their long-range purposes. (Thomas Oden, ‘Classic Christianity’ p. 143)

In some sense the word ‘providence’, which literally means to ‘see ahead’, is the all wise -knowing and providing of God for his creation in order for everything to work towards a good final ending to prepare for the new heaven and earth to the glory of God. And whatever works for God’s glory is good for all of us.

Let’s look at a classic example of the dialectic between a free willed humanity and the direction and sovereignty of God. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. According to Romans 13 some people understand that ‘all authorities are placed by God.’ (Romans 13:1) But if you read a bit further you discover that ‘the authority or ruler’ is God’s servant to do you good (13:4) So, my first objection to any Biblical authority for Hitler’s Reich is that he did ‘evil’ and not ‘good’.

Providence tells me that not one Jew killed, tortured, or persecuted by Hitler was outside the value, the worth that God has placed on each life. And grace tells me that in God’s providence each victim’s life is to be restored in the new earth.

My second objection to Romans 13:1 is that God in God’s wisdom allows the free will of humanity by which Hitler rose to power after WWI when the allies acted to impoverish and weaken the German nation. The people were then susceptible to the evil around them and made bad choices and decision in the name of security for Germany.

And let’s look at Hosea 8:4 for a moment. ‘They set up kings without my consent, the chose princes without my approval.’ God told the people at one time that he never wanted them to have any kings but the people rebelled. (See 1Samuel 8) and God allowed them their kings many of whom were evil. Yet God in God’s providence saw to it that from the lives of those kings and through all the persecution and suffering and even punishment, a new King would one day arise who would rescue the whole world from evil. That’s God’s grace hidden and again revealed even 700 years before Christ, to the prophet Isaiah.

So I believe that not all authorities are placed to rule by God’s direct will. And I do believe it is within the peoples’ power to disobey (like Daniel) or even overthrow bad rulers by the disobedience of the people. It may well be how the Berlin Wall came down and the German people were freed. And the same may be said for the end of the Soviet Union.

Back to providence. As Thomas Oden writes, ‘What God creates, God preserves, permits and guides. (‘Classic Christianity’ p. 149)

When we read in Scriptures particularly I the Old Testament that God seemingly causes everything to happen, (Isaiah 45:7, I form light and created darkness. I bring prosperity and create disaster; I the Lord to all these things.) It is within the context of God’s instructions to Cyrus the King of Persia) whom God will use for God’s own purposes. The writers understand that nothing can happen outside God’s will. And this particular verse concerns the wicked people who strive against God’s people. This is a warning to those who would think otherwise that there is only one God and God is not to be trifled with.

There are other scriptures that tell us that ‘the Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all He has made.’ (Psalm 145:17) And when Jesus heals the blind man (John 9) and is asked whose sin caused the man’s blindness, Jesus responded it wasn’t due to sin but that the glory of God might be seen through this man’s life at this time.

Let us remember that the ultimate character of God is love and love always wants the best for the other. God wants the best for his creation. The providence of God of God’s loving kindness toward all his creation and his kindness prevails even when evil raises its ugly head to destroy that, which is good. God will ultimately prevail, as we will see.

See, humanity has a responsibility to act in concert and in accordance with God’s will, which is always against sin, idolatry and evil and always for the reconciliation and restoration of God’s creation.

When you read scripture it is necessary to take the whole of God’s word in context and the wider context for everything is Jesus Christ through whom God is reconciling all things.

In God’s providence God is working all things to the best for all things, not just for a few but also for all. (Colossians 1:20).

When life goes or seems to go terribly wrong, it is not that God has forgotten us. Rather God’s grace is simply less perceived in the darkness of our minds. Christ is the reminder that God’s loving-kindness will never end.

One of my favorite scriptures is from Habakkuk 3:17 -18 which was written in the time of the rise of the Babylonian Empire and the threat to Judah was immanent.

Though the fig tree does not bud

And there are no grapes on the vine,

Though the olive crop fails

And the fields produce no food

Though there are no sheep in the pen

And no cattle in the stalls

I will rejoice in the Lord

I will be joyful in God my savior.

 It is by faith, confidence in Christ that we behold the providence of God, yes, the love of god from which we can never be separated. Jesus in word and deed told us as much in his bid for us to be less anxious. (See Matthew 6:25-31)

Paul confirms time and time again God’s plan of redemption through God’s grace in Romans 8:32, “God who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for all of us, how will he not also along with Christ graciously give us all things?”

And amidst all our uncertainties about this life that famous verse John 3:16 gives us comfort and encouragement concerning God’s providence,

For God so loved this world that he gave us his only son that whoever believes shall not perish but have life everlasting. (This is not biological life but spiritual life.)

 And so in the meantime we are given the opportunity to cooperate with God in God’s providential care and working through of all things to good.

12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure. (Philippians 2- The Message)

God has engaged in a venture giving humanity the free will to cooperate with God. But God believes in that collaboration which involves love because that is God’s nature. It is the nature of the Trinity to cooperate in love.

God’s charge to humanity is to do the same, to love one another, to care for each other. And because God knows the end from the beginning of all things God has decided in infinite time to reconcile the world to himself and to each other through his Son.

I do not believe that the earthquake in Haiti or 9-11 is the intentional or direct will of our Father in heaven who desires good for his creation. And while we may probe for answers, for reasons, I believe the only answer lies deep within the heart of God where wisdom, tears and providence lie.

It is only in the darkness of abiding in God that we will discover God’s answers. And they won’t be surface or pragmatic answers. They will be a communion with the God of providence and love. As was the case with Job so it is with us. God will hear every cry of anguish. He will, as the scriptures tells us collect our tears as in a bottle. (Psalm 56:8)

And God will speak. It may be as a whisper but his voice will be distinct even as it was with Job and Elijah. And in the final act of peace we will pray as Jesus did, “Father into your hands I yield up my spirit.”

 

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NAKED

In order to understand grace we need to understand our own predicament and for that to happen a basic requirement must be satisfied. I get to it by way of two examples from my own life.

These are instances of what I call ‘naked humility’. The first happened in Haiti back in the 1990’s. After a long sweaty day our team was invited for showers. ‘Showers?’ I wondered. ‘How is that possible here up in the mountains?’ Well, we were led to an area behind a family’s home, given large buckets filled with water; a towel and some soap and then told, ‘Go ahead, be our guests.’ Several women watched over us in anticipation of any needs we might have. Privacy would have been on the top of my list. So the team of men looked at one another, felt the sweat dripping down our dirt laden bodies and said, ‘Let’s get on with it.” There we were, buck naked, as the expression goes, in front of each other, which isn’t such a big deal if you know anything about gang showers back in high school days. What was different was being observed, wondering how to cover our manhood discreetly and wash at the same time. It took all of a minute to adapt to our situation and just get refreshed, and laugh at ourselves and our situation while all the time being a bit sensitive to our hostesses who most graciously came and filled up our buckets at a moments notice. Who was it who said, ‘naked I came into this world and naked I shall return.’

It was necessary to be naked in order to get clean. I think of the whole experience in terms of standing before God with the desire to hide part of ourselves, to keep something within ourselves a secret, to be in some regard a bit like Adam and Eve hoping to find some tree leaves to cover ourselves.

But no, there we are before God with everything laid bare, all our thoughts (see Hebrews 4:13) and everything about our lives exposed to God. Not only can’t we hide but also we learn eventually that we don’t want to hide our fears, doubts, wonderings, anger and things that could cause us shame. Before God they are the welcomed thoughts of God’s child who is growing closer to God because of God’s gracious acceptance of all that we are.

Like the prodigal son (Luke 15), who, to some extent, ruined his life and pretty much mad his family distraught; when he returns the Father is waiting to clothe his naked child in the finest apparel. In the same way, God sought out Adam and Eve and clothed them, graciously looking out for them.

The second example of ‘naked humility’ happened in my physician’s office. The doctor needed to perform a digital prostate exam. I expected this as part of the physical. But then he asked if his female student doctor could also perform the procedure. ‘Whoa, hold on there,’ I thought, but what could I say? Well, I survived but all modesty went out the window. There is nothing hidden from a good doctor.

God, I was caused to remember, is the most gracious of physicians and even forgiving our habits that may wound our own spiritual health. God will take the best care of us. And if he inflicts any pain we know it is all to a good purpose.

We bring our naked thoughts before him and he is attentive to us. We bring our sin and he forgives. We convey the best and worst of ourselves to him and discover anew the meaning of grace before our God.

I love this verse: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) NIV

And when all is said and done by God we learn again the meaning of grace.

‘There is nothing we have done to make God love us less and nothing we can do to make God love us more.’ –quote attributed to Phil Yancey.

One more final word on this subject is an old saying: ‘God loves us just as we are but never leaves us there.’

 

And…..there is no co-pay.

 

 

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CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG

So I have been contemplating how we Christians have affronted God’s graciousness by the divisiveness of our denominations, at least within the United States. But first let me share two important scriptures that address this concern. There are more but these two highlight the problem.

The first is from the mouth of Jesus in his wonderful prayer to his Father as recorded in John 17. “I do not ask for these only but also for those who will believe in me through their word (he is speaking of the disciples) that they may all be one, just as you Father, are in me and I in you, that they may be in us that the world may believe you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them so they may be on as we are one, I in them and you in me that they may become perfectly one so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (Verses 20-23)

In the U.S. there are 217 protestant denominations and 35,000 independent or non-denominational churches. Separate from these is the Roman Catholic Church that has 68 million adherents.

Oh, and the other Scripture? In Philippians 2:2 Paul writes “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love being in full accord and of one mind.”

All the disharmony and disunity within the Christian church seems to be in complete disobedience to what the Scripture calls for. At the very least we can say that it is not within the most revealed word of God. Jesus asks for unity and Paul is often encouraging his established communities towards unity, towards a place where they might just get along with one another.

If there are differences they would be in the matter of gifts given by the Holy Spirit, not in walls of ‘truth’ and ‘doctrine’ and ‘practice’ we have built against each other. And while in past days there maybe have appeared good reasons to divide, there is even greater reasons now to come together as one as a witness to our oneness in Jesus Christ, not just in name, but in the way we love one another. I confess my own part in this divisiveness desiring to stand my ground on the basis of what I believe to be the will of God in certain doctrines and ethics rather than making the effort towards graciousness and love.

Consider for a moment just some of our differences, things that keep us apart.

Baptism: believer or infant, immersion or sprinkling, age of accountability and the like.

Communion: symbolic, real presence, consubstantiation, transubstantiation, memorial, qualification for participation, and probably more.

Mary: reverence, veneration, worship, prayer to, life virginity, mother of God.

The Bible: inerrancy, literalness, good advice, infallibility.

Then there are the disagreements and divisions about faith and works, about justification and sanctification and the return of Christ, war, abortion, pro-life, social justice, republican and democrat. Fine, let’s have conversations about such and let’s reason together but we don’t have to walk away from one another. Love is sacrificed for truth.

There was a time when the churches used the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed as a common expression of faith. Now there are so many different creeds it would make your head spin. At least mine does. I recall from the scripture the most original confession, JESUS IS LORD. There you have it.

Then there are the different expressions that divide us. Charismatics, Pentecostals, Traditionalists, Fundamentalist, music in worship, no music in worship, raising hands, speaking in tongues, and so forth.

I am not sure how I or anyone else has a corner on truth. I think it is more the war between our fleshly selves than a desire for right worship and love for God and one another. I am not saying we should not strive to better understand the will of God revealed in the Bible and particularly in Jesus but for heaven’s sake let us be loving towards one another and be one family again like the early church. I realized that even then there were problems but they were addressed and Paul once wrote, ‘put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’ Colossians 3:14.

I really believe that protestants and Roman catholic should come back together and give way to one another, to bear with one another, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13.

Oh there may be actual differences that have to divide the church such as the confessing movement in Germany during Nazi Germany or when the abuses of the Roman church brought Martin Luther to the forefront in the 1500’s let these be the great exceptions and not the norm and when they are resolved in some form let us get back together in oneness and love and as a witness to the world of Christ’s life in us.

Let’s look to something like the Sermon on the Mount as a confession of life, or 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s help the poor. Let’s do all we can that people don’t have to choose to end any life. Well, enough said for now but I think you get the idea. I do.

I want to choose graciousness and love to be the central doctrines of my life in Christ.
 

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DON’T WORRY! IT MIGHT NOT BE YOUR JOB.

I am writing for the anxious Christians who think they MUST evangelize, share their faith with all the people they meet. It’s not the responsibility of every Christian to make converts or even disciples for that matter. In general, believers are not told to go into the world and convince people to ‘accept Christ’ as if they fear for the souls of each person in their families, circles of friends or workplace.

But that’s what we are often made to think. How many books are there on ‘evangelism’, not sharing God’s love which is always a good thing, but rather trying to convince people to believe the same as we do.

If you read the New Testament, outside the Gospels, you will not find any explicit commands to evangelize anyone. You will however discover encouragement, commands, direction and even warnings about developing a Christ centered character, developing a lifestyle of love and forgiveness. And believe me, forgiveness is a lot harder than evangelism. You will learn how to love God, worship God and show God’s grace to those around you.

Paul, the Apostle, was certainly an evangelist but if you read his words to the churches and individuals he is most always writing about building up the body of Christ, the community of faith and developing a character whose chief quality is love.

In the Gospels let’s look at the words of Jesus. He called 12 disciples among others to be apostles and he directed them (Matthew 28) to go into the world and ‘make disciples’ which is more extensive and intensive than ‘converts’. This was a special assignment. On another occasion he sent 70 people to announce that God’s Kingdom had indeed come. He sent them as units of two to announce his coming, to prepare the towns and villages for he himself to come and preach. I am not sure how this translates into people going door to door, two by two, to win converts to a particular religion but that’s another matter.

See Jesus made disciples out of those who wanted to follow him. He was the premier evangelist but he does not declare that every follower needs to be a ‘soul winner’.

Billy Graham has been an evangelist. That’s his calling. But it’s not for everyone. We, individually, have been encouraged to be ready to give anyone an answer for how and why we believe in Christ and to do that with gentleness. (1Peter 3:15). Paul writes to the Ephesians church that ‘evangelism’ is a special gift given to some. One of those ‘some’ may be indeed one of us. But in general what we are commanded is to ‘have the mind of Christ’. We are to have the character of Christ, which will lead to loving others, even praying for one another and sharing Christ’s love with others. That will come in an almost natural way as we live with Christ day to day.

But don’t let anyone tell you that you HAVE to be an evangelist. You can I are called to be followers of Christ in word and deed. We are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth wherever and to whomever God leads us. Listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying.

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