Beware of those who Shout the Loudest

Immigration ProtestsThe televangelist who preaches the loudest about the sin of adultery is discovered checking into a seedy hotel with a prostitute.

The preacher who decries most vehemently the homosexual ‘lifestyle’ is found to be having an affair with a young man in a nearby town.

The politician who campaigns on the ticket of ‘family values’ ends up having a fling with one of his staff, leaving his own family when it’s discovered she is pregnant with his child.

The youth pastor who is known for his long sermons to his youth group on the subject of purity winds up in prison convicted of sexually abusing a girl in the same youth group.

It appears that one very common tactic to distract folks from an unpopular action is to shout very loudly against whatever one actually practices.

And its not limited to sexual hypocrisy.

The alcoholic speaks the loudest about the evils of drink.

The obese woman preaches the message of healthy eating to her family.

The environmentalist makes regular use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in his garden.

Isn’t this a little like the Tupperware lady campaigning against the use of plastic? Or the oil company promoting electric cars?

There is a common misconception that being seen to loudly oppose something will make you more able to resist the temptation. It doesn’t.

But maybe it’s not about resisting per se, but being seen to be so much in opposition that people watching would dare not think you could actually do that.

If we have learned one thing from years of watching momentous ‘falls from grace’ unfold on The Evening News it is this: vehement opposition to a particular vice, addiction, or suspect behaviour often signals participation in the very thing being condemned.

We have learned well the lesson: Beware of those who shout the loudest. It’s they who (usually) have something to hide.

Perhaps this is what St Paul meant when he wrote: “Let your moderation be known to all.” In other words, don’t go overboard. Maybe he took his cue from the teachings of his Master, who instructed his disciples not to blow a trumpet when they gave alms and not to stand on street corners praying loudly. Instead, live a humble life before God and before others. Let your actions speak louder than your words (or trumpet).

In a world of biggest, greatest, loudest, richest and most bedazzling, may we have the grace to live quietly and let our deeds speak for themselves.

 

 

Blame God

So I’m talking with a friend of mine and he says something like, “God has a good thing going for him.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well,” he replies, “Who else do you know that gets thanks and praise for all the good things he supposedly does, but cops none of the blame or criticism for the bad things which, surprisingly, also happen on his watch?”

My brain seems to draw from somewhere deep in my subconscious, Evangelical past and (embarrassingly) comes out with something along the lines of, “You can’t blame God for what humanity has brought upon itself by its continued rejection of God. After all, God has given us freewill and, if we choose to go against his laws, there will be consequences.”

(I cringe now to think there could have ever been a day when I said such things; after all, this is exactly how loonies such as Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker portray their God and his interaction with ‘dirty rotten sinners’.)

My friend (let’s call him Bob) continues.

“Yeah, but you believe God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere, right?”

I nod my head in agreement.

“And yet, in spite of the fact that God could stop the tsunami, cripple the 9/11 hijackers, bring the Pakistani earthquake below 1 on the scale, heal my mum of cancer and turn back that massive hurricane, he didn’t.”

I respond: “God can’t just arbitrarily interfere with the course of nature and, in the case of the hijackers, he won’t overrule the free will of human beings to decide to do evil.” (My response is a little weak, given that I catch myself partway trying to justify God’s actions, or kinda trying to place limits on The Almighty–and feel somewhat guilty for doing this.)

Bob isn’t satisfied with this canned, classic textbook answer.

“If you were able,” he says, lifting a semi-accusing finger to my face, “to save your child from certain death by running out in the street and grabbing him, pulling him to safety before the truck roared past, you would, wouldn’t you?”

The way he asked this question made me wonder if Bob thought I was some sort of monster.

“Of course I would; he’s my kid. I would never allow him to be harmed.”

I noticed that smug, “gotcha” look come across Bob’s face. I instantly knew where this conversation was headed.

“Yet, God—whom you say loves all of us as a father loves his children—will allow his children to go through hell, to lose family members, their health, their homes, their livelihood, and even their own lives in disasters that he himself could have stopped.”

“Yeah, but . . .” (I sensed I was starting to sound like a whining 3rd-grader) “. . . but God can’t change the natural course of things. He’s put laws in place that govern the weather, the earth and human beings. He can’t just override these laws.”

Bob laughed. “Seriously, you should listen to yourself! You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself that your God isn’t as big or powerful or loving as you’ve been led to believe. So would you say to your son when he gets hit by that truck, ‘That’s the consequence of not obeying my rule of staying in our yard’?”

He had a point. I was beginning to realise that I had created a wonderful, rather small box to contain my God. I had assumed that those who were supposed to know all about God (theologians, pastors, Sunday School teachers) were right when they taught me this catechistic auto-response, that God allowed such happenings because he couldn’t go against his natural laws and couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere with humanity’s free will.

But this put God in a predicament because throughout the Bible (it is said) he did intervene, did interfere and did overrule. If the Bible is fact, then God could choose to step down out of heaven and come to our aid (Isn’t it funny how we placed him “up there” when we say that he is everywhere? But then, it’s also humorous when we anthropomorphise God to be a male when ‘he’ is not even human. But I digress.) God could choose to stop the winds and the waves, the wars, befuddle hijackers and terrorists, or heal the young mother of her cancer.

But.

God.

Doesn’t.

Why not?

I know this has led many people just like my friend Bob to stop believing there is a God, or at least a personal, loving, interacting Deity. I can understand their frustration and the incoherence of much of what religion portrays God to be.

I am also aware of the multitude of books, articles and talks that have been published on this problem of human suffering. Most de-converted Christians would say this is the one big question that caused them to rethink the whole idea of the existence of God.

Personally, I continually try to reconcile this dichotomy in my own mind. While at one time this had caused me great concern and anxiety, I now am now beginning to see how I can live with the tension as many before me have also learned.

 

Despite this, I take a page from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, the legend of Job, from David’s psalms of lament, and from Ecclesiastes and don’t feel in the least bit conflicted when I cry out in anger to God, “Why?” when my words sound more accusing than trusting, when I place the blame solely and completely on Him who, tradition tells us, is without blame.

And I believe that God welcomes my dissent. I think it’s this honest, confrontational, letting loose that God expects from his children. As Rob puts it, God wants us to rip open our rib cage and let our heart out. It’s in these moments of openness and vulnerability that we are changed and we begin to see things framed in a new consciousness, a new understanding and a deeper relationship with the Divine.

This is not an easy answer. There is no such thing. As long as we have apparent inconsistencies, we will struggle to understand God or conceptualise Deity. We may change our way of seeing things. Hell, we may even decide it’s easier not to believe.

Regardless of what we choose to do, I’m sure God is more generous, and more loving than we could comprehend anyhow, and would still do all he or she could to get that message across to us, even if it’s in the most unlikely of sources, like Bob.

Atonement, the Prodigal Son and ‘Why So Serious?’

cross_2There is no doctrine so entrenched in Christianity as that of the Substitutionary Atonement (also known as ‘Vicarious Atonement’ or the ‘Penal Substitution Theory’). In simple terms, this is the teaching that, on the cross, God’s wrath against sinful humanity was absorbed by Jesus—that the payment for sin was made to God by Christ; that this blood sacrifice appeased a holy God and saves us from certain (eternal) condemnation/torment.

This is a major (or may I say MAJOR) theme in many Christian circles, more so amongst fundamentalists. When I was a student at a leading fundamentalist university, this was hammered home to us in every sermon, in most classes, in many prayer meetings. It was not ‘a’ but ‘THE’ central tenet of The Faith and demanded a serious analysis, on a regular basis, of one’s place in the overall scheme of sin and salvation.

And serious it was. One would be out of line to show a smile in a church service or during the singing of a hymn. People had been expelled at this university for daring to treat a song about Jesus in a ‘frivolous’ manner. (see the video that got two students expelled and a third a severe reprimand here.)

And so they sing solemnly, seriously, it seems with a burden that is weighing them down. (Have a look at these two videos of a ‘performance’ of a well-loved (fundamentalist) hymn here and here.)

Here are the words for those of you following along at home (the sheet music is here.):

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

Chorus:
I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

His robes for mine: God’s justice is appeased.
Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased.
Christ drank God’s wrath on sin, then cried “‘Tis done!”
Sin’s wage is paid; propitiation won.

His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.
Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though His foe.
He, as though I, accursed and left alone;
I, as though He, embraced and welcomed home!

(His Robes for Mine by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger ©2008 ChurchWorksMedia.com All rights reserved.)

Here is an insight into Chris Anderson’s understanding that has prompted this composition:

“Verse 3 focuses on the grand doctrine of propitiation, the fact that God’s wrath was not merely deflected from us by Christ, but was rather absorbed by Him in our place. Jesus Christ bore the infinite wrath of God against sin, satisfying God’s wrath and enabling sinners to be forgiven—and justly so. Isaiah 53:10-11 describes it this way: God looks on the travail of Christ’s soul and is satisfied by it. His wrath has been exhausted on Christ. The doctrine of propitiation is taught Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, et al.” (source: http://blogs.mbu.edu/praisemen/songs/his-robes-for-mine-authors-thoughts)

I have a HUGE problem with the language used (and the theology implied) in this song: ‘Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage,’ ‘Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased,’ and ‘Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God’ among others.

But then I realise that this comes from that classic Biblical story:

A man who had two sons. One demanded his share of the inheritance and then went off and spent it, in a far country, on riotous and loose living. The father, enraged with a fiery anger against that son, took his brother and turned him over to the torturers and finally the executioner. Only when the elder brother had died, paying the penalty that the father demanded for the younger one’s disobedience, was the father able to open up his heart in love and welcome the younger son home and once again grant him the blessings of being a part of the family.

No, I don’t have that story in my Bible either. That, on so many levels, goes against my understanding of God. And if we understand Jesus to be the most accurate depiction we have of God in Scripture, then we must accept that God is loving and compassionate. He would forsake his own Son only as much as he would forsake us, his children. He would not demand a penalty to be paid vicariously any more than the father in the real parable would have demanded one son pay for the sin of another. That is a primitive view–a tribal understanding–of God rooted in a culture set in ancient history and grounded in stories handed down from generation to generation over fires and in marketplaces.

Many argue that this understanding of what took place at the cross is helpful to Christians in certain situations. Scot McKinght in his book A Community Called Atonement illustrates the many theories of atonement (Substitutionary Atonement being one) as being like a set of golf clubs where one club (say, a wedge) may be good for a particular situation (like, for example, if you land your ball in a sand trap), but not practical or helpful in others (as in driving). While this may be true in a metaphorical or illustrative sense (though this may be open to interpretation as well),  I don’t believe it is very helpful in explaining anything of the nature of God or God’s interaction with humanity.

The problem is that we have ‘Set the members of the Trinity against each other—as when the Son is described as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross. Others stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to “divine child abuse”—where an angry, cosmic Father beats up his meek and helpless Son—hardly the biblical imagery of the relationship of the Father and the Son.’ (source: Christianity Today) God becomes a deity with a schizophrenic tendency or bipolar disorder (and, as we know, without proper medication, either one of these illnesses renders an individual quite unstable.)

Joking aside, if we accept that God is love—If we accept the story of the Prodigal Son to be an illustration of how that love works itself out in reality—then we must not be so hasty to take on the ‘traditional’ view of atonement as fact. Certainly, it can be argued, some of the New Testament authors seemed to believe this was so. But a look at Jesus and his revelation of who the Father is cannot be dismissed. Rather, it should be the cause of much joy, celebration and excitement: All are welcomed—sinners and saints, elder and younger brothers, tax-gatherers and Pharisees—not because Jesus satisfied an angry God, but that God has sought and found us and brought us into the embrace of love and grace.  Welcome home!

Embracing Imperfection

One of the often-sung hymns in my early life was one entitled, ‘Yield Not to Temptation.’ The driven-in thought pattern which accompanied such singing went something like this:

‘You cannot be a good Christian if you sin.’

You cannot expect other people to want to become Christians if you don’t show you have victory over the world, the flesh and the devil.’ (or, ‘You can sin as much as you want, but don’t you dare let it be known.’)

‘Your number one aim in life is to avoid doing whatever may even appear to be evil so you can maintain a good testimony in the world.’

The words of the song provided the perfect backdrop for such a lifelong drama:

Yield not to temptation
For yielding is sin
Each victory will help you
Some other to win

Sin avoidance was the key to a successful and ‘victorious’ life, and, through this seemingly-successful life, others would be drawn to Christ.Sometimes God chooses to shine forgiveness and love through the broknness and imperfections in our life.*

Yet, the more I understand Jesus, and the more I am exposed to people who are sincere followers of his way, the more I see imperfection as being the cracks through which the love of God can shine–windows through which God’s forgiveness can be seen.

Richard Rohr writes of this ‘losing’ lifestyle thus:

One reason why I am so attracted to Jesus and then to Francis is that they found God in disorder, in imperfection, in the ordinary, and in the real world—not in any idealized concepts. They were more into losing than winning. But the ego does not like that, so we rearranged much of Christianity to fit our egoic pattern of achievement and climbing.

Isn’t it strange that Christians worship a God figure, Jesus, who appears to be clearly losing by every criterion imaginable? And then we spend so much time trying to “win,” succeed, and perform. We even call Jesus’ “losing” the very redemption of the world—yet we run from it. I think Christians have yet to learn the pattern of redemption. It is evil undone much more than evil ever perfectly avoided. It is disorder reconfigured in our hearts and minds—much more than demanding any perfect order to our universe.

St Paul well said, ‘[God’s] strength is made perfect in weakness.’ In our imperfection, in our humanity, in our losing, God’s grace–the one perfect constant in our life–is seen for what it truly is: fully unconditional, all-encompassing and imperfection-embracing love.

So I embrace my imperfection. It’s part of who I am as a human being. I will not and cannot be perfect. I cannot keep up a ‘victory’ front, appear to be squeaky-clean, look like Jesus. But I can trust, humbly live my life in my humanness, and believe that, through the imperfections, God’s glory will shine.

____________________

* The irony of this scenario seemed to me to be that one would put on a facade so they would attract others to Jesus. The new convert then would be taight that they too must put on a similar appearance to draw in others into this vicious cycle of hypocrisy and deception. In hindsight, I should have seen how unlike Jesus this really was.

All is Grace

I finished reading Brennan Manning‘s book, All is Grace, a while back and have been meaning to write about it but, for once, I am lost for the right words to convey how much I was moved by Manning’s story.

All is Grace is autobiography at its best–not simply a story but one that draws the reader into the author’s life and, more importantly, the joys and sorrows and lessons learned. Black Coffee Reflections blog writes of this book as being “A true testimony of a man who desired to be devoted to God but was insistent on sabotaging himself and the will of God at every turn. Brennan seems to know two things in his life: Despite his talents, he is his own worst enemy, and two, he knows he must cling to the grace of God to get him through – hence the title, All Is Grace.”

What I most appreciated about this book–in fact in all of Brennan Manning’s books–is his honesty and vulnerability. He has no problem divulging the dirtiest of secrets or the deepest of sins. And he has plenty to reveal. . . . but then, don’t we all–if we are honest with ourselves?

Brennan does this in such a way as not to paint any masterpiece of his erring ways, but to paint a glorious picture of God’s great love and all-forgiving grace. One cannot read this book and not see the grace and generosity of God.

I recall only a few times when I have been struck with such a powerful image of grace and both relate to books I have read and how they spoke into my life at precisely the right moment. The first was Why Grace Changes Everything by Chuck Smith. Here I began to understand grace as coming to me not because of my ability or effort, but simply as a gift as I rest in the goodness of God. The second was In the Grip of Grace by Max Lucado where the overwhelming love of God and unrelenting graciousness was first revealed to me.

Manning’s book takes God’s grace one step further. While Smith and Lucado both wrote beautifully about grace, Manning experiences this truth in a immensely significant way and shares his struggles, his failures, and his pain to show us that God’s grace is real and far stronger and greater than anything we can throw up against it.

God took one of the lowest points in Brennan’s life to teach him a lesson about the magnitude of his grace and forgiveness. Brennan’s mother had passed away and, partly because of his memories of her and his life at home and partly because of where he was at this point in his life, he turned to the bottle. He was so drunk he totally missed his mother’s funeral.

One of the questions I’ve often asked myself is, What makes a man drown himself in drink to the point that he passes out and misses his own mother’s funeral? It has seemed like a huge question to me. but eventually I realised: It is not the question. There is another question behind it. a more seminal one that forms and informs all my others. Not long ago, I came across a small yellowed piece of paper in my stack of writings. It has the letterhead “Willie Juan Ministries” with a scratch below it from my own hand, a single line, a question: “What is the telltale sign of a trusting heart?”

I cannot remember when I wrote it or what might have prompted the question. Yet it is there, evidence of a ragamuffin’s lifelong wondering. Here is my answer, the answer that is. as Thomas Merton wrote, “the ‘Yes’ which brings Christ into the world.”

The trusting heart gives a second chance.

I know that’s true because of an experience I had on a November day in 2003. My mother had been dead and gone for close to ten years. As I was praying about other things, her face flashed across the window of my mind. It was not a worn face like that of an old mother or grandmother, but a child’s face. I saw my mother as a little six-year-old girl kneeling on the windowsill of the orphanage in Montreal. Her nose was pressed against the glass; she was begging God to send her a mommy and daddy who would whisk her away and love her without condition. As I looked, I believe I finally saw my mother; she was a ragamuffin too. And all my resentment and anger fell away. The little girl turned and walked toward me. As she drew closer, the years flew by and she stood before me an aged woman. She said, “You know, I messed up a lot when you were a kid. But you turned out okay.” Then my old mother did something she’d never done before in her life, never once. She kissed me on the lips and on both cheeks. At that moment I knew that the hurt between my mother and me was real and did matter, but that it was okay. The trusting heart gives a second chance; it is forgiven and, in turn, forgives.

Grace doesn’t stop with forgiveness by God, but works its way through the heart of the forgiven one until he or she, overwhelmed by God’s love, then becomes a channel; of that generous grace in forgiving others. Grace, then, becomes a life. Broknenness becomes a path to understanding love. Pain becomes an avenue to trusting. Vulnerability leads us to see how much we are loved by God.

And then we realise, as Brennan Manning does, that

All

Is

Grace.

Change

“Perhaps the greatest obstacle to human transformation isn’t our inability to change but the unwillingness of others to believe our transformation is possible.” – Philip Gulley

I overheard someone recently talking about a man I once knew. They were describing him as a wonderful man, generous, humble, caring, and just an all-’round nice guy. When I discovered about whom they were speaking, I was astounded. Somewhere in the distant past I remembered him being a heavy drinker, able to swear up a storm (when drunk) but otherwise (eerily) aloof. I had recollections of gossip that had been circulating about the person in question spending time in newsagents, drooling over  pictures of who-knows-what in men’s quasi-pornographic magazines. This man didn’t care much for his family, he would be the type society would expect to be lurking just outside school grounds–not one who would ever darken the door of a church.

I would never have believed this man could have changed, especially so dramatically.

How often is it that we come across a person many years after we first met them and find out they are a totally different person than we remembered?

St Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about those who were immoral, swindlers, drunkards, prostitutes, pedophiles.slanderers, greed-driven extortioners. What he says next may surprise anyone who knew them as such:

 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Coritnthians 6:11, TNIV)

He testifies to the change in them. People who met them today wouldn’t know they were once an addict, once a sex worker, once an embezzler. They have been cleansed of their past. An encounter with the living God has changed them and changed their identity.

People change.

Imagine with me how our world would be truly transformed if we find ourselves willing to admit this fact and recognise this awesome potential in every person we come across every day.
Imagine how we would live in a world where judgement is replaced by a deep awareness of the possibility that the person we are condemning may one day be a genuinely remarkable human being with a heart of compassion, grace and humility. Imagine a world where forgiveness flows freely and love replaces fear and disdain because we realise that we are all broken people who are, in some way, on the path to renewal.

Imagine if we realised fully how capable we ourselves are of change. Maybe–just possibly–we need to change before we’ll truly see this potential in others.

Redemption

“God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Excerpt from Colossians 1:9-14)

When was the last time you heard the word “redeem” outside of church?

Whenever it was, I’m willing to bet it had something to do with coupons [vouchers]. Which is actually sort of what Paul’s talking about here. To redeem something means to pay a debt that’s owed on it. When you take your coupon to the store, we say you’re redeeming that coupon; actually, it’s the store that’s redeeming it when they give you your 10% off.

Paul’s claim is that whatever sins you’ve committed have built up a debt, and that Jesus has paid it off.  Christianity’s party line for some time now has been that the debt you owe is death, and that Jesus paid that debt off by his own death.  Maybe—but perhaps there’s another way to think of it.

At root, sin is about spending our lives on things that are not worth spending our lives on.  Spend enough of your life on the wrongs things, and it can start to seem like you owe your life to them. Maybe what Jesus does is to give us a purpose, holy and high, to which we can devote ourselves when we sicken of being in thrall to lesser purposes. Maybe he redeems us not by paying off a debt, but by showing us that we don’t actually owe our sins anything. That we have in fact always been free to walk away from them and back home to God.

Maybe redemption is finding something—someOne—worth spending your life on.

God, don’t let me or the world trick me into believing I owe anything to anyone but you.  Amen.

–Reflection by Quinn G. Caldwell, from StillSpeaking