Sunday, May 17, 2009

Distance Undone

Do you ever experience times when you wonder if God is really around? I do.

You know, when your hopes and dreams just don't materialize - on your schedule? Maybe people aren't treating you the way you think you deserve to be treated. Funds are getting low; you just got fired; someone you love just died; cancer just showed up.
Life just isn't happening the way you'd like it to.

These are the times when my head wonders if the Father is on vacation at some distant corner of the Universe, even though my heart tells me he's right here. But maybe I have good reason to question God's presence.

Perhaps it was different for you, but I grew up learning prayers such as: "Our Father, which art in Heaven . . ." That formal prayer transitioned sometimes into, "Oh Lord, please come down and help us." Or, "Come Holy Spirit, we're waiting for you to bless us with your presence."

In prayer and worship we sometimes lift our hands and faces to the sky, or ceiling, which suggests that God is "up there" somewhere. Some of the more dramatic saints may warn, "You better be careful. God is up there watching everything you do, and you don't want him to come down here and deal with you!"

The point is that many of us have adopted the notion that Jesus is somewhere other than where we are. Mostly, the concept is that he's seated up there on his mighty throne, perpetually scanning his followers down here on earth. No wonder we feel alone sometimes, or even abandoned by God.

Thankfully, the Trinity's presence is not dependent on our feelings, thoughts, or behavior! Not only is he where we are, we are also where he is. That's right.

Most of us are familiar with, "I will never leave you or forsake you." And, "I am with you always." But how about, " . . . your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3b). Or my favorite, "He also raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavens, in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:6).

Notice that neither of those verses are in the future tense. The first is present tense, and the second is past tense. Now that's cool. I am ALREADY seated with Christ in heaven! So are you.

There is no distance between us at all.

Not only is Christ in us, but we are also in him.

He IS where you are, and you ARE where he is.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Cosmic Vending Machine

The scene opens on our three characters as they stand, with gaping mouths, before a massive vending machine. Kant Meshurup, Bib Lickly-Blind, and Trapt N. Tradition can hardly believe their bulging eyes. Everything they could possibly need or want in order to be good Churchians is right there, just behind the glass.

Bib is the first to speak. "Oh look, the vast items on display in that machine are incredible! The product labels are so clear and descriptive! There's Healing For All Diseases."

"The one next to it is Joy Unspeakable," blurts Kant. "And just two up and to the right is Marital Bliss!"

"Wow!" says Trapt, "My church really needs to buy the one in the bottom left corner: New & Improved Pastor."

"My gosh, look at the one at the very top!" screams Bib, as she points wildly. "The one with the big red letters. It's World Evangelization! Let's pool together the right change and buy it!"

"Wait a minute", cautions Trapt, "the price for each item is different, and none of them are cheap. Let's see, that one requires Thirty Days of Fasting. That's a bit pricey just for Know God's Will, don't you think? And look at World Evangelization. The price for that is Give Up Your High-Paying Job, Four Years of Seminary, and Move to Africa as a Missionary."

As reality begins to settle in, Kant locks onto one particular item: "Holy Moly, that one takes No TV for a Month, Read the Gospels 3 Times, and Forgive My Spouse! Oh well, God's Approval probably wouldn't last very long anyway, and he'd just make me pay more next time. I think I'll pass on that one."


Several years ago a good friend gave me the secret to great wealth. He quipped that I need only to write a passable “how-to” book on anything having to do with the Christian life. Even though it was a tongue-in-cheek comment, it was partially true.

Titles such as “Seven Steps to Lasting Joy”, or “How to Unlock God’s Door of Blessing”, or “How To Raise Kids That Never Rebel”, would surely attract believers who are depressed, broke, or fighting with their teenagers.

Self-generated formulas designed to get what we want from God, or produce what we think he wants from us, are pandemic throughout the Body of Christ. Somewhere along the line we’ve slipped into the misconception that frenetic Christian service will win some brownie points with our Creator.

Not only are our formulas ineffective, they actually create an environment of religious legalism, which results in the “yoke of bondage” that Paul addressed in his letter to the Galatians.

Our carefully crafted theology of self-effort forces us away from the very truth that sets us free. Instead of basking in the wonder of Jesus’ indescribable love, and resting in him as our very life, some of us manifest an addictive proclivity to “work for Jesus”, living under the flawed notion that the God of the Universe actually "needs" us to do something for him.

Accompanying that deception is the faulty idea that by saving us through Christ, God set the stage for us to live lives that are holy and acceptable to him. Now he expects us to finish the job. All we have to do is uncover or manufacture the right formulas, and feed them into the Cosmic Vending Machine.

After all, God will give us anything we ask for as long as we do it in the right way.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Theologies of Abuse

In the last posting I wrote about the gap between what we know and what we believe.

The knowledge of God, his Church, and the story of redemption is learned progressively through our exposure to Sunday School, Youth Group, Sunday sermons, Christian literature and music, and so on. These many venues and experiences gradually build ones framework of Christian thought, resulting in a personal theology and world view.

In general, there is a not much debate over the primary tenets of our Faith. Most Christians agree that God is loving, that he exists in three persons, that salvation is an undeserved gift, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he died to save us from sin and rose from the grave to give us new life. Those are the things we know.

Our belief system, however, is applied knowledge. It’s the body of ideas and attitudes that function as the catalyst for our behavior. These are the notions and practices that cause division in the Church, and are the basis for what I call “theologies of abuse”.

the-ol-o-gy |θēˈäləjē|
noun ( pl. -gies)
the study of the nature of God and religious belief.
• religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed

a-buse |əˈbyoōs|
the improper use of something
• unjust or corrupt practice
Thirty-five years of Christian education, ministry activity, church life, and my own spiritual journey have produced a lamentable observation - much of Christendom embraces a belief structure of performance-based acceptance and a doctrine of works.

The sad result is seen in the lives of countless Christians who don't really live in the freedom that was purchased for us on the cross, or the victory won out of the empty tomb. Our bondage to faulty concepts prevents us from embracing our release from the Mosaic code. Instead, we contradict the Gospel by concocting a strange mixture of law and grace.

Sincerely confused saints expend great effort to capture the benefits of the covenant of grace by trying to satisfy the requirements of Old Covenant law. The outcome is a form of schizophrenic spirituality that clouds the truths of identity in Christ. That, in turn, produces a life of frustration, confusion, and defeat - the antithesis of what Jesus died to give us.

Years ago I heard a series of sermons by a zealous young pastor who unwittingly illustrated this oxymoronic faith. One week he creatively portrayed the measureless wonders of God’s saving grace through Christ. He beautifully described the father-heart of God, the redeeming power of the Cross, and the ever-present companionship of the Holy Spirit. We left the sanctuary buoyed by the joy and relief that the Good News always produces.

The very next week the pastor delivered a passionate sermon on the Ten Commandments. With fervor equal to that of the previous message, but now with an angry slant, he described in colorful detail the horrible fate that awaits the believer who fails to practice and promote the unshakable requirements of the first ten of God’s 600-plus laws. When the diatribe was finally over, the crowd filed quietly out of the sanctuary, convicted by a sense of shame and guilt that contradicted the message of the previous week.

This back-and-forth profusion of confusion flows regularly from the pulpits and pens of professional Christians. In the well-intentioned attempt to make our knowledge of the Divine practical we formulate beliefs that spotlight our efforts, actions, and behaviors far more than the finished work of Christ on the cross.

When we find it impossible to live up to our own standards, which doesn’t take long, we shift our focus to the failures of others. This is always the result of the improper use of one’s Christian beliefs - theologies of abuse.