Sunday, March 27, 2016

Of a dream about dirges, Sunday School "classes," and the presentation of the Gospel

About a month ago, just before a regular Bible study I attend, I overheard two of the leaders--who are also leaders of my church--lamenting that our church, in a major outreach, had recently started several new topical Bible study "classes" during the "Sunday School" hour, with topics geared to answer practical questions of younger people, but no one was coming. They wondered why no one was coming. I didn't interrupt their conversation, as I wasn't a part of it. But I had a dream a few days later that illustrated the answer to their question, in a weird way.

As with most dreams, I didn't remember most of it for very long after I awakened. But the part I remembered long enough to write it down went like this:

I was with some other people, in a vehicle, of what type I don't remember, and I was aware that we were moving out of a temporary house to somewhere else. I heard celebratory, probably sales-type, music coming in through the window of the vehicle, and commented that it should be a "dirge" instead. The others in the vehicle then reproved me, not because they were joining the celebration, but because none of them knew what a "dirge" was. They didn't understand the word, and I apparently couldn't explain it in a way that would permit them to understand. The word and the meaning seemed both to be obsolete. I started to explain that a "dirge" is "funeral music," but then corrected myself when I realized that a "dirge" really isn't modern funeral music, at least in our American culture. Modern people make no space, at least no public space, for dirges. Instead, we have very brief "celebrations of life." Mourning is all done in private. A few sessions of "grief counseling," some antidepressants if the counseling doesn't work, and then get "back to business," is the expected norm. It is business--mostly maintaining sales, which requires a "positive attitude"--which must go on as usual. Death, the last enemy, is ignored in a way which is not possible, and not thought natural or healthy, in other cultures going back to antiquity. We do not grieve. We do not sing dirges. We do not even understand what a "dirge" is or why one would be sung.

But if we can't understand what a "dirge" is, if we consciously ignore death, what does the Resurrection mean to us? Nothing! At least nothing, except possibly at funerals, where death can't be entirely ignored. It is no wonder that Easter has come to be a celebration of a rabbit that lays eggs and buys candy and greeting cards!

So it is with many inconvenient emotions in our culture that were given full expression in other cultures--including the cultures in which the Early Church flourished--and which were allowed full expression in our own cultural past. They are stuffed into "private" boxes that must be allowed only very minimal time and exposure, or sent to professional counseling or given pills to get rid of them. They are ignored in the interests of business as usual in every sphere of life. We no longer even truly understand the words for them. Yet Jesus reached people in these emotions, and through these emotions, by using words and his touch. The one condition he had the most trouble reaching through was self-righteous business-as-usual, the condition of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and also of modern Western humanity generally.

Unfortunately, churches have historically taken the lead in the suppression or required hiding of "negative" emotions in favor of maintaining a "positive" sales atmosphere. Of course, in doing so, churches wouldn't call what they are doing maintaining a "sales" atmosphere, but the underlying purposes for it are at least partially the same as in the commercial world: maintaining numbers, maintaining offerings, and just not being bothered by other people's "problems." Many churches, to their credit, have in recent years, started separate church "programs" to help people "deal with" their negative emotional baggage and its consequences--I personally participate in one of those, a twelve-step program called Celebrate Recovery. Still, even when such separate "programs" are established, "those people"--the ones with "problems"--are expected to keep them quiet during the regular church program, that they may not interfere with the regular "business" of the church.

One aspect of this shelving of "negative" emotions in the church actually goes back many centuries: the insistence that parishioners should derive most, or preferably all, of the support they derive from the church from formal, one-way instruction. In the traditional churches, the liturgy is fairly fixed; but even in churches with freer habits, there are fixed liturgical expectations within which the people must express their collective worship. Outside of this liturgical pattern, the leaders teach verbally, and the people learn silently. If leadership becomes aware of a problem that needs to be addressed, a sermon will be preached about it, or a class will be offered on how to "deal with" it. But even an organized class is still mostly one-way "instruction," with a fixed curriculum around which any discussion is centered. The people are expected to be able to take the factual propositions being "taught" and apply them to their lives in a manner that causes minimum of unpleasantness to other church or class members.

This aspect of limiting life involvement mostly to one-way teaching of factual propositions ("propositional truths") started within the first few centuries of the Church, and was largely a reaction to "heresy"--groups that actually had substantial non-leadership participation could get out of the leaders' control. However, in the early centuries, and up through the Middle Ages to the time of the Reformation, there were other outlets for the "negative" baggage. There was the practice of aural confession, which, for all of the problems that accompanied it when it developed into a way of buying forgiveness by doing penance, had a positive value. There were also real communities that cared for each other, and had systems outside the formal church structure for dealing with some of these "problems." After the Reformation, the practice of aural confession was rejected by the whole Protestant side of the Church, and the stresses introduced by the Reformation and its wars largely destroyed many of the cathartic aspects of medieval "community" even in places that remained Catholic. The Enlightenment, followed by political revolutions and industrialization, continued the process of impersonalization of all "business," including the religion business. The economic and social transition into the "modern" world finished the process. It is expected that anyone with "personal" problems should deal with them quietly--either through impersonal one-way instruction or through professional counseling that doesn't interfere with "sales."

There are two huge problems with this shelving of emotions, other than sales "enthusiasm," in the Church. The first is that the Church is composed of real humans, not economic machines. All real humans have "negative" emotions. "Negative" emotions are not limited "those people" who we put in a separate corner as having "problems," as people not like "us." Everyone has problems, and the "negative" emotions occasioned by those problems are often God's way of getting our attention. The emotions engendered by facing our last enemy, death, are a very good example of this. A major part of the message of the Gospel is that Christ came to deliver his people from the fear of death, a fear which we are told had previously subjected each of us to "slavery" (Hebrews 2:15), not by learning to ignore it, but by actively trusting and proclaiming Christ's resurrection. In Christ, I defeat the fear of death, not by ceasing to feel it or pretending to no longer feel it, but by clinging to the hope that the enemy who still has the "power of death" in this world has been defeated (Hebrews 2:14-15). I would submit that similar things can be said about all of the other "negative" emotions we try to cover up.

The second problem with the shelving of certain emotions in the Church for the sake of business is that the Body of Christ itself is a living organism, not an economic machine. Whether we successfully live it out or not, all who are in Christ have a shared life. Even if we are careful not to talk about it, "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it." 1 Corinthians 12:26. This means, as some of us are now beginning to learn, that when Syrian Christians we've never met are murdered, we all suffer. But it also, and much more pointedly, means that when the person sitting next to us is suffering from a "problem," we all suffer, even though fear, tradition or etiquette will not allow that problem to be shared. It also means that the whole body suffers with my problems, even if they are kept hushed up. We are all members of one another. (Romans 12:4-5). Jesus dealt with people in their "problems." A gospel which does less than this is not the true Gospel, but a only feeble shadow of it.

What all of this means as applied to the concept of repentance, and comments on how we can reach our emotionally stunted culture in spite of their businesslike lack of understanding--or even of language--for dealing with most human emotions, will be discussed in future posts.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Introduction and Outline to Proposed Revision to Chapter 14 of "Our Oneness in Christ" now posted for comments

As I said in my last post, I have come increasingly to realize that the parts of the book,Our Oneness in Christ, that I wrote, as originally published 10 years ago, were both too difficult to read and, in several places, not rigorous enough. Mr. Stephens' contributions to the book lacked these problems.

So, for the last nine months or so, I have been thoroughly rewriting my parts of the book. I now have all of the substantive rewriting done except for Chapter 14, the last chapter I wrote. Chapter 14 was, and still is, entitled "Doctrine is Not the Underlying Cause of Lasting Division in the Church," and it still leads to the general conclusion that nearly all lasting schisms in the church continue because of the influence of secular power politics of one kind or another on the Church. Chapter 14 as written 10 years ago was a very light, incomplete discussion of a few examples of this. However, in the rewrite, I want to be much more complete, and also more rigorous about my sources. What I am now attempting is nothing less than a brief but quite comprehensive historiography of division in the Church, including the role of that division in bringing about the rise of Islam. Please read the introduction and the outline, and then comment--particularly if you think I'm missing something!


Link to "Our Oneness in Christ," Introduction and Outline to Proposed Revision to Chapter 14.


The "introduction" to Chapter 14 is actually the first two sections of the chapter. The "outline" is a very expanded outline that really mentions most of the details that will be discussed in the chapter. You will notice that some of the details are listed in the outline more than once. Usually, this means that I haven't yet decided at which location the repeated detail fits best (please advise!).

Happy thinking!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My personal experience with prophecy

For a period of years that started in 1998, I was an ordinary member of a fairly conventional Pentecostal church. There was a problem, however. While I had seen and heard numerous charismatic manifestations of various kinds--some of them real beyond any doubt--and personally spoke in tongues and was familiar with words of knowledge, I saw no evidence that any of these manifestations, tongues included, were intended by God as "evidence" of anything about the person through whom they were manifested. In fact, I had privately spoken in tongues many years before anyone suggested to me that doing so was "evidence" of an "experience" separate from salvation, the "Baptism of the Holy Ghost," as traditional Pentecostals insist that it is. I had not started experiencing it as such, so to follow the party line of what was then my church would have required reinterpreting my experience to fit their collective experience--which seemed an odd thing for a group that depends on a personal experience to be asking me to do (it seemed to insist on a logical fallacy, or maybe this fallacy or maybe this fallacy). At least, to ask me to reinterpret my own experience to fit their doctrine, they should have been able to give me a good scriptural basis to do so. I was never able to find one. Moreover, it was during this same era that not a few big-name Pentecostal and Charismatic "stars," people whose "ministries" boasted healings and miracles, publicly and dramatically "fell into sin." So there was an obvious disconnect between the doctrine that manifestation of gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly tongues, are "evidence" of spiritual superiority, and what I could see in my own life, among leaders, and in Scripture. It was during this time period that I wrote the first version of what has now become "The Miraculous Clear and Present," which has since been edited, modified and clarified by my good friend Jonathan Brickman.

This was the state of my knowledge and life experience, so far as the gifts and working of the Holy Spirit were concerned, in the summer of 2000. Many questions, few answers, but I was at least looking for answers in the right place--the Scriptures--and asking God to show me the truth. I had read, and re-read, the major passages on the subject--I Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and the Book of Acts--many times, and the early version of "The Miraculous Clear and Present" was the result. At the same time, sometime in mid-2000, I took particular note of the following verses from I Corinthians 14:

Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. 3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. 4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy... 12 So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church... 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you... 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.

In what may have been my naivete, I read these references as saying that, while glossolalia is a legitimate manifestation of the Holy Spirit that has its proper place, I should really desire, and ask, to prophesy. So, in the summer of 2000 I started praying that God would give me prophecy, even though my understanding of what that prayer meant was very incomplete.

Beware what you ask God for--particularly if it is something he says he wants you to have! By this, I don't mean that God punished me for what I asked. God doesn't punish his children for coming to him with requests, even if they are wrong requests, and leaving it to him to answer--though in his mercy he may deny wrongly motivated requests. James 4:1. But my request was rightly motivated, and was for something he said I should desire, so the answer was--frighteningly--"yes." The first message I was given, during a meeting, and immediately later reduced to writing, was a simple and reassuring one, "God says: Trust me with the frightening future." The second one, however, was a frightful warning, which I pondered carefully, reduced to writing, and posted on the Internet on October 8, 2000 as "A warning against idolatry."

For those who don't remember the time period just before the 2000 elections in the United States, it was an economic boom time, the end of the dot com boom. My message was that we had long since come to trust in our booming economy, government and social institutions too much--so much that we forgot God. Unless the Church repented of this idolatry, God was going to bring a collapse. That collapse came two months later, in December 2000, and has been continuing, with brief periods of apparent recovery, ever since. The economy has never recovered close to the October 2000 level, and, in America, good jobs and the middle class have been steadily disappearing, and the poor increasing and getting poorer. As I predicted, the social "safety net" has been collapsing. And it is still up to the Church to reverse this, by repenting of its idolatrous dependence on human institutions ahead of God. However, the collapse of the whole human structure was not instantaneous and has not been continuous or generally rapid (though there have been a few rapid falls), and this illustrates something about negative prophecies in general: negative prophecies are, generally, calls for repentance and are conditional. I have not been by any means the only person who has called for repentance in the last 15 years, and, in the years since the December 2000 economic downturn, parts of the Western Church have been progressively repenting. So chastisement has been moderated by repentance, though the trend has still been downward.

In 2001, I included "God says: Trust me with the frightening future: and "A warning against idolatry" in a larger collection of unpublished works I registered with the Copyright Office. (At that time works published only on the Internet were considered "unpublished.") The Copyright Office's date stamp on my copyright application for this collection is very significant--September 10, 2001. We all know what happened the next day...

The next small burst of specifically predictive prophecy came about a month after 9-11. I qualify this as specifically predictive prophecy because my understanding of the nature of prophecy has changed since then--God was working with me where he found me, as he usually does. This burst of predictive prophecy came in the form of a group of short pieces which I first read aloud and then posted on a GeoCities web site in early October 2001. They remained on the GeoCities web site until Yahoo disbanded the GeoCities platform a few years later. In the interim, I had included them in another unpublished copyright packet in 2003. Though they are no longer online (I did not re-post them when GeoCities went out of business), I still have copies available for verification. One of these documents pertained to Osama bin Laden, and connected him in part to the previous warning. The specific prediction it made was that, although the then-current President, George W. Bush, would do his best to eliminate bin Laden, he would fail to do so. Instead, God would remove bin Laden in his own time. Subsequent events confirmed this prediction--although President Bush devoted considerable resources to eliminating bin Laden, the honor(?) of bringing about his death went to President Bush's successor, President Barack Obama. The second document in the set pertained to Mohammed Omar, who at the time was the head of the Taliban government of Afghanistan. It stated that, unlike bin Laden, Mullah Omar was being given time to repent. Subsequent events showed that, though Mullah Omar was deposed from office by American forces in October 2001, he died of natural causes(mainly tuberculosis) in 2013, and was never either captured or killed by American or allied forces. The third message in this set was to President Bush. It encouraged him to resist the pressure that would be brought upon him after 9-11 to muzzle (either suddenly or gradually) non-Islamic religious voices in the U.S., in order to keep the peace with our Islamic allies in the war against Al-Qaeda. President Bush--who likely was unaware of my website--actually did resist these pressures. But I do note that, for reasons mostly causally unrelated to pressures from our Islamic allies--mainly the continued growth of an antiseptic legal and social secularism throughout the period--Christian expression in many areas of public life has been becoming legally, economically and socially more dangerous over the last 15 years. At the same time, the expression of Islam, a protected "minority" religion, has been becoming easier, so the results are the similar to those I foresaw, just with a different mediate cause. (The difference is that the present environment equally favors all other-than-Christian minority faiths, not just Islam; second to Islam, Buddhism is showing particularly robust growth.)

Up to this point, God had been answering my request essentially as I understood it, even though my understanding of it was less than half correct. I still had a picture of prophecy that focused on prediction, with prediction used to focus moral teaching, and this had been what God had given me. I am now convinced that his purpose in giving me these predictions was, in part, to frighten me, or, at least to give me great respect for what he was doing. The predictions above were frightening--and now, in retrospect, appear even more frightening because of their accuracy. Surely I was to understand, and I did come to understand, that prophecy is very serious business, not a toy to be used to gain notoriety. Also, like tongues and the other manifestations of I Corinthians 12 spiritual activities or "gifts," prophecy is NOT intended as evidence of greater personal spirituality, or as a divine endorsement of the life of the speaker. I can say this from experience--in the 2000-2001 time period, in many ways, my life was a mess. Still, when I asked for prophecy, God used me. All of these spiritual manifestations are given by the Holy Spirit, for his own purposes, for the common good of all believers, as the Spirit wills (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).

But God's course with my naive request for prophecy was, and is, not yet finished. After the trio of predictions in October 2001, God started in earnest to change my concept of prophecy. In fact, in prophecy, God is speaking forth his Word, applying it to his people exactly where they are. Prediction of the future is only a fairly minor aspect of this work of God, despite the popular focus on prediction as "prophecy." The essence of prophecy isn't foretelling but forthtelling, providing an understanding of what God is doing, and this understanding will generally come from the Scriptures, his written Word, and will involve being able to understand or even in a sense visualize the pattern of what he is doing in the world. All of these elements are visible even in "God says: Trust me with the frightening future," and "A warning against idolatry,"and became even more prominent in my post-2002 postings on Christian-oneness.org.

It was also in this 2000-2001 period that I started seeing one of the major patterns in my own life. I had known for some years that I often "saw" things differently than those around me. This was first brought fully to my attention during my sophomore year in college, through my lab partner in Organic Chemistry. Debbie was actually very intelligent--the last time I had any knowledge of what she was doing, she was a medical school professor. But, like most students in Organic Chemistry, she had trouble with the stereochemistry (i.e., how compounds and reaction processes are oriented in space) of some orientation-specific types of reactions. I had no trouble with this, because I could "see" the reactions occurring in my mind's eye. However, when I tried to explain these reactions to Debbie using the pictures I was "seeing," she was totally baffled, and I then came to realize that I was "seeing" things others couldn't even imagine. In general, I have always "seen" such broad pictures--whether they are pictures of chemical processes, pictures of the shape of the universe (it's a truncated section of a fluted four-dimensional hypercone with a real time axis), or the shape of history. It was in 2001 that a psychiatrist gave me a name for this unusual way of seeing--it is an aspect of Asperger's Disorder. That led to a period of questioning whether God had made a mistake with me. The answer to that question is "no," God made no mistake. (In fact, he never does). He gave me a natural developmental "disorder" (by the world's standards) that precisely fitted me for the work he had for me. All I needed to do was to submit to his control--this is his most consistent message to me.

The elements of forthtelling and of seeing patterns in scripture and in the world became completely dominant when Lauston Stephens and I published a book, Our Oneness in Christ, in December 2006. The portions of Our Oneness in Christ that I wrote, except for my last chapter (Chapter 14), strictly draw two conclusions from Scripture (1) that all believers in Christ are in fact one Body, despite the divisions we create, and that our divisions only harm us and rob us of our effectiveness--they do not actually divide us into many separate bodies, because it is Christ who has made us one--and (2) that we will demonstrate this real unity to the world only as we, individually, submit to our true head, Jesus Christ. Chapter 14 then made some historical observations supporting the thesis, based on a broad view of secular and Church history (again, a matter of visualization of broad patterns), that all of the lasting visible divisions in the Body of Christ have arisen from neglecting the true Head of the Church to indulge in politics--though sometimes through internal Church politics, more often the through the interactions of church organizations with secular politics. Over the years since 2006, with more study and more time with God, I have come to realize my treatment of some of the topics in the original 2006 Our Oneness in Christ,--particularly Chapter 14--though accurate, was too cursory and lacked rigor. So I am presently revising my chapters of the book. I will soon be posting on this blog my outline for the revision of Chapter 14, for which I will be inviting and encouraging comments.

Be watching for this outline!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Avowal of gifts and callings not to be hidden under a bushel

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

Matthew 5:14-16.

God has a strange sense of humor. He says that my light can't--or, possibly, shouldn't--be hidden, and then gives me light to show in ways that either, according to the world around me (including often those around me in the Church), MUST be hidden, or, if shown, are certain to be disbelieved. Still, I cannot hide. I cannot hide from God, like Adam tried to hide, once he came to know evil, sewing fig leaves to cover the way God made him and diving for the nearest shrubs to keep God's eyes from him. If I do try to hide, there are consequences for me, beyond others not seeing the light. As Jesus extended the same metaphor in Luke 8:

16 “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. 17 For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. 18 Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.”

What I am hiding WILL be found out. And I will ultimately lose it, when I am shown for the coward I am. In fact, Jesus takes this same metaphor one step further in Luke 11--if I hide the light he gives me, the light within me will become darkness:

33 “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. 35 See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. 36 Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you.”

Luke 11:33-36.

Now for God's sense of humor. God has given me gifts and callings which I have kept mostly or wholly hidden because, given the circumstances of my life, doing anything else appeared ridiculous (and also appeared likely to expose me to ridicule or punishment). I have long known that I have a gift of teaching. But, with the exception of a brief and ill-timed stint as a pastor (a gift I definitely lacked at the time), I have confined my exercise of this teaching gift to being a writer of little-read websites, one little-read book circulated in the wrong way, and being an assistant/understudy Sunday school teacher. Given my lack of formal theological teaching credentials (toward which every effort I have heretofore made has been blocked) and the evils of my past (more on this later), any role beyond these has seemed preposterous--my message "would not be accepted"--and quietly resisted by me. I have also, at times, been discouraged by others in authority from seeing myself in any role beyond these.

Next, during a licensing ceremony in 1994, in which a group of independent Pentecostal ministers in Topeka licensed me to the ministry as a (part-time, volunteer) Assistant Pastor at Topeka Faith Center, this assembled body of ordained ministers, while laying their hands on me, prophesied that I had been given a gift of healing, of a very specific kind--I was to have the gift of healing those bound by mental, emotional and spiritual diseases. The entirely ironic thing about this prophecy was that, at the time this gift was prophetically announced, it had been barely a year since the Kansas Supreme Court had agreed with the Kansas Board of Law Examiners that I ought never be admitted to a license as an attorney in Kansas for the precise reason that I had been diagnosed with a mental illness in the past and had been unable to prove that condition "cured." A year after that, at my ordination ceremony, many of those same ministers reaffirmed this gift, which I have never since known how to use! Perhaps my ignorance of how to use the gift resulted from my unwillingness to use it while others in authority thought of me as an uncured, and incurable, nut? Or from pure fear of openly contributing to the healing of others, while I could still be accused of being mentally ill? At any rate, not long after that, I was put in a sink-or-swim situation: my mentor, the Pastor of Topeka Faith Center became terminally ill and resigned, leaving me as Pastor-by-default of a congregation that quickly shrunk away. Instead of swimming, I sank, hampered by my feeling that I could not honestly use my most important gift until I had the approval of others, and could no longer be accused of being ill myself.

But, if I now correctly understand the scriptures I quoted above, my true healing (regardless of what the Bar might say),would have come through using my gift to heal others. The lamp, placed on it stand, gives light to my eyes, too, and, through them, to my whole body.

I went through one later, similarly futile, paroxysm of trying to prove my non-defectiveness to the Bar in 2006. Then I gave up. But while practicing law is not God's ultimate design for me, I should never have given up on my gifts, the ones God gave me. My teaching gift has much more to do than it is now doing. And I've never really used my specialized healing gift, within which lies my own healing. I now publicly repent.

There is also a calling which I have hidden need to make public. I had two majors in undergraduate college: Chemistry and Linguistics. I've made my living by Chemistry. But, ever since an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship meeting during my sophomore year of college, I've been aware that I had some ministry calling, and that it had something to do with my linguistic ability. In College and Graduate School, I was fluent in Spanish and near-fluent in German, and the Linguistics degree also contained a good deal of language theory. Now, jump forward to my very last year of graduate school, 1984, a year when our lives were falling apart because of that mental illness the State Bar objected to years later. I was a mostly xenophobic American Protestant ultra-conservative at that time. God, with his strange sense of humor, sent alongside us at that time a sister in the Lord, a beautiful Brazilian spiritualist Catholic transfer student, to help us out of our distress. She talked me out of suicide, and stayed in Lawrence for six weeks after she graduated and could have gone home (she actually hated Lawrence!) to help my wife. So, say a quick goodbye to xenophobia, Ian! The last time we saw her, when she came back to visit about a year later, her instructions to me were that I was not to try to repay her for what she had done, but I was "to pass it on." She has since disappeared completely, without a trace.

Three years later, near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, we had an extra room in our house, and the opportunity was presented to us by a friend at church to host a refugee from Iran for nine months. This Iranian lady, who was far too feminist to be safe at home, escaped without her husband--who could not come to this country until about a year and a half later. She also became a good friend. We were later honored to meet her husband, her parents, her sister, and her sister's family. These are all friends. None of them wants to kill us. We would repeat the experience, if we could.

Finally, at an evangelistic meeting in about 2002, the evangelist, who also had outreaches in Peru, asked everyone in the congregation to pray to God, right then, to lay a burden for another country on them. It might have been expected that God would motivate me toward Peru, because that was where the evangelist was going, or Brazil. No, God, with his odd sense of humor, reminded me of a place I am very unlikely to ever go--Iran. Thus started my prayers for Iran, and my study of the Middle East, the Eastern churches, and Islam. It is possible that my calling toward Iran was completely fulfilled when I published the first edition of my book "Our Oneness in Christ," which recognized the history of Christianity in Persia/Iran, when the second edition of that book which covers the same territory more rigorously is completed, or when I led local prayer demonstrations for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini. However, I doubt this is all there is to this calling. Does it somehow involve the refugees who are officially unwelcome in Kansas? Maybe (historically, most of modern Iraq has frequently been governed by Iranian rulers). Does it have something to do with my teaching gift and my atrophied language abilities? Or even the unused healing gift? Maybe.

I have no clear guidance on this yet. But I'm now willing to go, and to do, even if it appears ridiculous. I repent.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

No Merit--The Golden Key

The golden key to understanding salvation and life in the Kingdom of God is that no merit is involved. Not my merit. Not the accumulated merit of the Saints or the Church. Not even Jesus' merit. God does not accept us on the basis of merit. There is no transaction of merit paying an assessed valuation for sins which makes an angry, vengeful God into a gentle, merciful one. God does not change. We change!

2 Corinthians 5:14-21 (WEB) says:

14 For the love of Christ constrains us; because we judge thus, that one died for all, therefore all died. 15 He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again. 16 Therefore we know no one after the flesh from now on. Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. 17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold,* all things have become new. 18 But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; not, as is usually taught, reconciling himself to the world.

God is not, and never was, our enemy.

We have been God's enemies, by our own voluntary choice. I have been God's enemy.

We needed, I needed, to be reconciled to him.

When Adam sinned, it wasn't God who turned away from Adam. It wasn't God who sewed fig leaves to cover his nakedness and ran into the bushes to hide from Adam. It was Adam who felt shame and hid. It was Adam who perceived God would be angry and kill him--when, in fact, he had already died by turning away from God. It was Adam who turned away from God. God didn't move.

In repentance, we turn back to God. God doesn't need to be turned back to us. He has always pursued us. He never turned his back to us.

In our sin, it is we who are enraged against God. The Psalmist asks, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together... against the Lord?" Psalm 2:1-2. The question isn't why God is enraged at us. It is why we are enraged at him.

The anger that must be overcome to restore our relationships, with God and each other, isn't God's anger, it is ours.

We believe that, because we turned away from God in anger, upset that he withheld from us the knowledge of evil, he must reciprocate our anger. (The root of our anger against God is still that he withholds things from us, this hasn't changed). We instinctively feel that his justice is outraged at us, just as--or just because--we are outraged by his stinginess. Because we feel he is outraged, a stern, angry God--a God sitting on a cloud in the heavens holding a giant flyswatter, just waiting to crush us--he cannot look at us without destroying us in his anger. Because we fear this, we dare not come to him. We dare mot return to him.

But we are the ones who demand to earn our way back to him. We are the ones who demand merit. He does not.

Jesus came, God became one of us, precisely because no merit is required. God won the victory in the incarnation alone. The crucifixion and resurrection merely confirmed the victory, making it final and complete. God was born one of us--and under totally non-meritorious circumstances, as we view things. He was born to two peasants, peasants who were at the very time of his birth demonstrating their subjection to a foreign conqueror by traveling far from their home to be registered and pay taxes in a census. He was born in a stable, not a palace. He was not born a king. Indeed, his claim to ancient royal blood, coupled with the announcement of the Magi that a king had been born, made the current puppet-king his mortal enemy, even as a baby. but, worst of all, he was born under the cloud of apparent illegitimacy. It took faith on the part of his mother, Mary, to receive the news that she was going to have a baby without being intimate with a man--the first and only time this has ever happened. It took Joseph, his stepfather, great faith to believe this and marry Mary, not divorce her or have her stoned.

The people of his hometown, Nazareth, could, no doubt, count nine months on their fingers; they, too, must have recognized that Jesus was conceived before Mary and Joseph were married. Their disrespect for Jesus continued into his ministry. When he announced to the synagogue in Nazareth that he was the one anointed to proclaim the day of God's favor, as Isaiah had prophesied, their response was "Isn't this Joseph's son?" They took such offense at him that they attempted to kill him (Luke 4:16-30; Matthew 13:53-58). Through the millennia since, few have believed who Jesus really is. A humble, illegitimate child of peasants who was called to be a prophet and moral teacher we can believe. But the Son of God, God making himself one of us, no!--that is too hard to believe!

It is too hard to believe because it intrudes on our lives too much. It deprives us of our feeling that we must earn our way to God, that we can do it our own way, on our own merits. It takes merit completely out of the equation. God came down to our level. All he asks is trust, joining him in a relationship, following him. We can boast of nothing. He demands, and we have, no merit.

Jesus died--yes, to bear our sins--but not to bear the weight of sins that God placed between us and himself. Our guilt was our own guilt, our shame was our own shame, the thing that we placed between ourselves and God. God, knowing Adam had sinned, still came to the garden to call Adam to walk and talk with him, as they had done previously. God did not come to the garden to kill Adam, to extract the price of Adam's sin. Adam had already paid that price--when he turned his back on God, the source of life, at that instant he died. And so it is with us--we are already dead in our trespasses and sins, by which we turned our backs on God--and God, having become a man and been put to death by our sins, now comes to walk with us, to restore us. Jesus did not have to pay for our sins as a debt we owed to an enraged God. Rather, he had to bear the weight of our sins to show that our guilt and shame for them never stood between us and God. He reconciled us to God by showing that God does not count our sins against us. Our shame kept us away from God because it led to fear, fear in which is no love; it lead us to fear God, certain that he would prefer killing us to looking at us. What we consciously ignored was that we were already dead, and could only find life by returning to God. We feared it made God vengeful toward us. This was why Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves and ran for the bushes, to hide from God and each other--even though God didn't tell them they were naked, they felt naked and ashamed, and ran away in fear. But it was God's plan all along to restore them. Our shame moves God to compassion, not wrath. It is only our continued rebellion, refusing his compassion, that brings reluctant wrath.

Jesus' "merit" doesn't pay the "price" God demands for our sins. God demands no "price."

God only wants us to return to him, to learn to live with him again, without the fear our sin initiated. In Christ, he is reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them--our sins against us--my sins against me--not because Jesus paid the price for them, but because their price never was counted. They were not demerits. They never had to be counteracted or outweighed by merits.

The one and only sin that ever "counted" was the sin of turning away from God, to go our own way, to go my own way.

Jesus overcame this sin of going our own way, by never turning away to go his own way. He did only what he saw his Father doing. He was perfectly obedient even unto death, his death on the Cross, to save even those who had killed him in their rebellion against the Father. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." He showed us the way to be restored to the Father by himself becoming that Way.

He demonstrated that this is all that is needed, all that the Father ever asked, by raising from the dead.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, we also have power to overcome death--the death that flowed immediately from our rebellion--by joining Jesus in his obedience, his death to himself, to return to the life that is in God.

He has shown us the way into a new life, a life beyond death, a life that is at peace with God. We must receive his life and follow him, living in the Spirit as he did. That is all.

No "merit" is involved. God doesn't look at our "merit." This is the key to freedom.