Thursday, 4 February 2016

To Beard or not to Beard

I’ve been bearded most of my life.

Whenever people asked me about my beard, in jest I would often say something to the effect of, “I wear a beard for religious reasons. The way I figure it, if God gave me the ability to grow a beard, He must have meant for me to have a beard.

Then one day, after using that line on an uncle who asked a similar question, the uncle said, “God also gave you the ability to father hundreds of children, but He probably didn’t intend for you to do so.

We both laughed, and I was busted! Clearly my uncle had a similar sense of humor to mine. In truth, the beard probably remains more out of laziness and an aversion to shaving than it does for any religious reasons. Oh, and I also think I look better with the beard than without it, so I guess vanity has something to do with it too.

But seriously, as my son reminded me in a recent quote he shared with me, there was a time when a man’s beard not only had spiritual implications, but was also viewed as being akin to his salvation.

Church history tells us that back in the time of Tsar Peter I (1672-1725), also known as ‘Peter the Great’ of Russia, the church was essentially dragged into the modern age by importing several western customs and beliefs. Among these new reformations was the question of what to do with the man’s beard and which ultimately introduced the custom of shaving to part of the church which probably would rather have not discovered it. Historian Jonathan Hill says,
Western fashions were imposed on the Russians, and even beards – an enduring symbol of the Orthodox Church – were banned. Many old men obediently cut off their beards but kept them in boxes, convinced they could not be saved without them.
After I was done chuckling and sneering over that one, I was reminded of the story of how King David sent a delegation to Hanun, the heir to the Ammonite throne, on the occasion of the death of his father. Hanun’s advisors suggested that David’s men were spies, and so the Ammonites seized the delegation and humiliated them by cutting off half of each man’s beard (2 Samuel 10:1-4). There was a peculiar sacrosanctity to the beard, which is also seen in Samson’s case, that in shaving one’s beard, would lead one to being viewed as being less than a man (Judges 16:19). In Old Testament times, basically there was something about a man’s beard that was held in high and religious esteem.

A beard was a sign of maturity in the ancient near east. It was synonymous with the word “elder.” At the risk of digressing too far, this is interesting when compared with some cults, such as the Mormons, which send out young missionaries who, while called “elders,” ironically often appear too young to even shave, much less grow a real beard. But I’ve digressed.

Many ancient monuments often displayed bearded figures, and in some cases, even women were portrayed with fake beards on formal state occasions. The Old Testament likewise had some pretty strict rules about altering and trimming the beard (Leviticus 19:27). So severe was this that, when it came to a prophet’s beard, shaving it was viewed as bringing on the judgment of God (Isaiah 7:20). The fact that in some cultures, such as Greek and Roman civilizations, men were typically clean-shaven, only reinforced Jewish pro-beard stance. Essentially the beard was the man’s glory.

Going back to the previous quote of the Russian Orthodox Church, that almighty reverence for the beard seems to have remained well into the history of the church.

Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. What happened to the church to cause people to think that their salvation was somehow tied to their beards? I then wondered, what about those poor souls who suffered with follicular challenges, and couldn’t grow a real manly beard? Were they viewed as being lost spiritually, or perhaps as lessor Christians? Or was this merely cultural? At the very least, it begs the question.

Had the church of the day forgotten that it is by grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:5), and not by the beard they possessed? If so, how many other anomalous, peculiar, and queerish things did they also believe when it came to their Christian faith?

Fast-forward to our modern western church; are there also some off-beat and screwy things that we’ve embraced in our Christian walks, which when it comes right down to it, are also inconsistent with the things Jesus taught? I wonder.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Two Reasons Why I May Never Vote Again

I have a bit of a confession to make.

I feel that I am beginning to have a real aversion to that inalienable right of our society … voting in the political machine. As a matter of fact, so strong is this aversion lately that I am seriously considering never voting again. I know, I know, many will then say, “If you don’t vote, you cannot complain.” The truth of the matter is, however, I’ve done my share of political complaining and/or whining in the past, and quite frankly, I’m tired of it. Maybe God is tired of it too.

Furthermore, I’m really am beginning to wonder as to the wisdom of always voting according to the proverbial “the lessor of the evils.” I mean, does not that very mantra suggest that, regardless who we vote for, we’re still voting for … evil? I know it’s just an expression, like saying that I’m “playing the devil’s advocate” (his defense lawyer), but there’s still a measure of truth to it, no matter how much we try and mask it over with cute clichés. Perhaps it’s a little ironic that voting in our “Democracy” often appears to have “Dictatorship” overtones to it. As an aside, I have a book in my library called “The Friendly Dictatorship” featuring the profile of former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (Liberal) dressed like some third world dictator. Coincidence? Hmm.

Please understand that I am not trying to be legalistic or religious about all this. Likewise, I am not suggesting that Christians should or shouldn’t vote in secular politics, for to each their own. However, there are also a couple biblical themes that have contributed to my thinking that I may never vote again, and to those I’d now like to turn. At the very least, I have found myself meditating on them a little more lately as I wondered if there isn’t also within them a modern application to our polling station pilgrimages.

A lesson from Samuel: Does it apply today?
“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.’ 
“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.’” (1 Samuel 8: 4-9; NIV)
As we read further, Samuel does warn the people as the Lord instructed him to do, but in the end, the people adamantly refused to listen and still demanded a king. Bottom line was, they wanted to keep up with the proverbial Jones’ and be like everyone else around them. The bigger bottom line was, God called it a rejection of Himself. Still, God was not going to force Himself on the people, and so He told Samuel to give them what their hearts longed for; He told him to give them a king (1 Samuel 8: 19-22).

I cannot help but wonder if there isn’t a correlation between that event leading up to Israel’s first king, and the way many of us chase after political leaders today through supporting our electoral processes. Society says we have an obligation and a right to vote, and the implication is that we are somehow deemed unpatriotic if we abstain from casting a ballot on Election Day. After all, it’s the democratic way (whatever that means), and democracy is good, right? Hmm. But what if, in casting a ballot for a political leader, we also inadvertently cast a ballot against God as leader? Is King Jesus not enough?

Likewise, politics and big money go hand in hand, begging a possible rethink of Matthew 6:24 where Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (NIV). Let’s take this one step further. Is voting an agreement with the political machine, and then by default, essentially a bowing of the knee to the worldly god of Mammon? Ouch!

Is it such a stretch to apply Israel’s rejection of God (remember, that’s what God called it) by asking for a king to our asking for a new king (President, Prime Minister, etc.) every four years as a rejection of Him as well? For me it certainly is beginning to beg the question. Still, I do not wish to be dogmatic about this, and so I will just leave that thought here on the back burner and move on to the second reason why I may never vote again.

Strangers and aliens: Am I one?

Let me ask you, where is your true home? Where is your true citizenship? There are three interesting related words in the New Testament, which basically describe an alien living in a place that is not his home. They are: paroikeō (Luke 24:18, Hebrews 11:9), paroikia (Acts 13:17, 1 Peter 1:17), and paroikos (Acts 7:6,29, Ephesians 2:19, 1 Peter 2:11). Are we living in a place that is not really our true home? For the purpose of this blog post, let’s focus on two of those verses.
“Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here” (1 Peter 1:17; NIV). “Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11; NIV).
It is interesting to note that in the Apostle Paul’s day, most people who lived in the Roman Empire were actually not Roman citizens. Having said that, they still had to pay taxes to the Roman political machine and abide by its laws, much like we have to, but the rights of citizenship most didn’t have. Even the Roman centurion who was about to flog Paul seemed surprised to learn that he was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:26). What does that mean for us today when we read Peter’s call to live our lives as strangers and aliens? Did that only apply to the early Church in his day, or is there a call to do likewise here today as well? In many ways it’s just as if I were travelling or vacationing in another country. I would not be a citizen of that country, and as such have no voting rights. I would, however, still have to obey and abide by the laws of that country.

Taken a step further, just because your home country gives you the ‘right’ to vote, or any other ‘right’ for that matter, does that automatically mean that you must exercise that right? I don’t think so! As a matter of fact, just because society says something is good and acceptable, doesn’t mean that God necessarily sees it that way too. In fact, as He told Samuel, it is possible that God may actually see the exercising of some of those rights as a rejection of Himself. What are we going to do with that?

Remember, Jesus said, “if you belonged to the world” (John 15:19), implying that we do not belong to it. Certainly we are to be lights to the world, just as Jesus said that He was the light of the world (John 812), but we do not belong to it. If Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and if we belong to Him and to His kingdom, “then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), then is it not also right to say that we don’t belong to this world anymore than He belonged to this world?

Where is our true home and true citizenship, regardless where worldly political machines have drawn the borders on this planet Earth? While I’m a Canadian by birth, and by default my citizenship is Canadian, and while it’s true that as far as my earthly existence goes, I really do like living in this country, that in no way means that I have to support the politics of this country. Fact is, true sojourners don’t have votes at all.

Prayer: More effective than casting a ballot?

So if you don’t see me in the voting booth, it may be that I’ve finally made peace with this strange dichotomy of being a citizen of Heaven while being a stranger and an alien in this world and struggling to keep from embracing its crooked and often anti-Christ values. At the very least, I’m asking myself a few questions these days. Do I really want to cast a ballot endorsing an individual or party that does not share my values? Am I really OK with simply shrugging my shoulders and nonchalantly saying, “it’s the lessor of the evils,” out of a twisted belief that I must vote for someone? Why would I vote for any kind of evil? As a Christian, I already have a perfect King; why would I even think of voting for a lessor one? As I asked earlier, “is King Jesus not enough?”

Having said that, though I may never vote again, I am not completely lethargic or apathetic on the subject; Jesus did in fact call us to pray even for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Despite the fact that sometimes God has been known to use evil world leaders for His purposes, by default I’d suggest that Matthew 5:44 extends to include our political leaders as well, whom we sometimes seem to see as enemies of God and His ways, or at least subjectively so in our own mind’s eye we appear to do.

Though I may choose to never vote again, I also choose not complain about worldly leaders. Rather I choose to pray for them, and then leave them and their earthly kingdoms to God. My King is already on the throne and I know that He isn’t about to be voted out.

That’s the way I see it. Peace and blessings.

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2: 15-17; NIV).

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Insanity of God: A Book Review

One of the books I received this past Christmas was this one: “The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected.”

Its author uses the pseudonym Nik Ripken. Why a pseudonym? It is pseudonymously written as a part of the author’s effort to protect the identities of the people whose lives continue to be in real danger because of their faith.

It is the story of Nik Ripken, who when once asked by a mission committee interviewing him about his call to the foreign mission field, answered simply, “I read Matthew 28.” It is the story of how the Ripken family would move from their native American homeland to Nairobi, Kenya. It is the story of how in the early 1990's, long before the western world woke up to the plight of the Somali people and responded with aid and UN troops, Nik Ripken made several trips in and out of war-torn Muslim Somaliland to assess the needs and do what he could for a people devoid of hope. It is the story, not just of tragedy among the Somali people, but also of how tragedy stuck even in the Ripken’s own family. In reflecting on his time in Somaliland, the author writes:
I had to work hard to remember that neither Islam nor Muslims were the real enemy here. Lostness was the enemy. The enemy was the evil that viciously misleads and traps people like lost sheep without a shepherd. The Somalis were the victims. They were not the source or even the cause of the evil in their land. They were victims suffering evil’s grim effects. (p.119)
After already having spent years in Somaliland, and in a effort to one day return better prepared to serve and work amongst the Muslim communities of Africa, Nik Ripken traveled to over sixty countries to seek out and listen to the stories of more than six hundred believers, men and women who learned to live their faith often amidst severe persecution. Toward the end of the story, and after travelling the globe listening to the testimonies of the persecuted church, Nik Ripken seems to have an epiphany of sorts, and makes a few statements that ought to wake up an otherwise slumbering and non-persecuted church. He says:
We identify ourselves as believers by taking a stand with, and following the example of, those in persecution. Or we identify with their persecutors by not giving witness of Jesus to our family, our friends, and our enemies. Those who number themselves among the followers of Jesus – but don’t witness for Him – are actually siding with the Taliban, the brutal regime that rules North Korea, the secret police in communist China, and the Somalilands and Saudi Arabias of the world. Believers who do not share their faith aid and abet Satan’s ultimate goal of denying others access to Jesus. Our silence makes us accomplices. … “Why would Satan want to wake us up [to anticipated potential North American persecution] when he has already shut us up?” … Perhaps the question should not be: “Why are others persecuted?” Perhaps the better question is: “Why are we not?” (p.310-311)
Ouch! Hard words, no doubt, but (prophetic?) words nonetheless that Nik Ripken believes that many of us need to hear. He may be right. Still, it's amazing to me how often it seemed that I was reading a paraphrase of the New Testament book of Acts.

I enjoyed reading The Insanity of God and I do recommend it. Peace and Blessings. 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Prosperity ... and the Gospel that Isn't

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." (Galatians 1: 6-10; NIV)

I have often meditated upon that passage from the Apostle Paul. While historically there have almost always been false prophets teaching their "different gospel," and while Paul most likely had the Judaizers (*see footnote) in mind when he penned that, I've often wondered if one of the best known "different gospels" of our day isn't Prosperity Gospel, or as it's also known, The Word of Faith Movement. Still, Paul repeats himself by twice saying of the offenders "let him be eternally condemned." Was that the same as telling them in the modern vernacular to "go to hell?" Ouch! At the very least his repetition does seem to suggest how seriously Paul viewed such things.

Today I saw a post in which author Rick Henderson said the following:
If you listen to Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, if you take what they teach seriously, it will not be good for you. It will be detrimental to your long-term growth as a follower of Jesus.

What came to mind as you read that? As I read that post I imagined what some people might be thinking, such as (that often misquoted) "do not judge" of Matthew 7:1. But is airing the proverbial "dirty laundry" of others necessarily wrong, and especially if they're church leaders? No, we are not to judge in a condemnation sort of way, but we are to judge in a discernment kind of way, and especially, I would argue, when it comes to leaders of the church who have the power of influencing others with their teaching/preaching.

It all reminded me of another post, one that I wrote several years ago, and which I entitled On Critically Testing Church Leaders. Part of the reflection in that post centred on Revelation 2:2, which in the Amplified says, "I know your industry and activities, laborious toil and trouble, and your patient endurance, and how you cannot tolerate wicked [men] and have tested and critically appraised those who call [themselves] apostles (special messengers of Christ) and yet are not, and have found them to be imposters and liars" (emphasis mine). As I meditated further on that verse I mused,

What I noticed here is that Jesus commends them for testing and critically appraising. This may sound harsh, but Jesus is not against them for this, but rather commends them for taking such action. Jesus does rebuke the church at Ephesus for something else, but He first commends them for testing those who called themselves apostles. The result of the test is that these so-called “apostles” were found to be impostors and liars. If this was true already back then in the church of Ephesus, does it not stand to reason that the same thing could be true today? Of course it would, and maybe even more so today.

At the risk of offending some still further with this post, and based upon Jesus' words to the Ephesian church, could it be that calling out the likes of Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer (popular as they are), and others like them who would espouse a "different gospel," is actually also somewhat commendable? Taken one step further, if doing so saves a sister or brother from potential spiritual ruin, is that then really wrong? What, if anything, should we say to someone dear to us who may have been exposed to a "different gospel?" If, out of our desire for political correctness we say nothing, and if they end up becoming spiritually lost, are we then also guilty by default if (heaven forbid) they end up also being "eternally condemned?" Have you ever wondered about such things? At the very least, perhaps it's something to think about.

Finally, in case you missed it in Henderson's post, here again is the video he featured by John Piper on the Prosperity Gospel. If nothing else, it ought to make us all sit up and say, "Hmm."

For Discussion:
  • Is there a parallel between Paul's "different gospel" in Galatians and the Prosperity Gospel? Why or why not?
  • Should church leaders be "tested and critically appraised" and called out if they're believed to be in error? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with John Piper's views on the Prosperity Gospel? Why or why not?

Photo Credit: Patrick Marione, Flickr Creative Commons

*Judaizers: Basically the Judaizers were a group of people who attempted to impose the laws and standards of Judaism upon the early church. This included such legalisms as requiring Gentile coverts to be circumcised and to keep the Mosaic law. At the risk of causing offence, I would argue that any "Christian" with legalistic or religious tendencies is basically also a Judaizer by nature and as such the same harsh words from Paul may apply to him or her. But that's just my humble opinion.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Accidental Saints: A Book Review

I love a good book recommendation. Recently my son told me about an author that the pastoral team at his church was reading. Apparently they all were quite enthralled with this writer. Who was the author? It was Nadia Bolz-Weber. Despite having been featured on CNN, the BBC World Service, the Washington Post, and others, I must confess that I really didn’t know anything about her. As it turns out, she is the author of New York Times bestseller Pastrix and the founding pastor of House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. Based upon my son’s pastor’s recommendation, I purchased her latest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. I wasn’t disappointed.

From the very first chapter, I liked Nadia immensely. From stories of her tattoos to her questionable language, from her openness with anger issues to her embracing God’s grace through her love of Jesus, I found the candor of this Lutheran pastor, who was once apparently mistaken for a burlesque dancer, very refreshing. She writes, “I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones – people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile” (p.7). 

So what’s the book about? Here are a few random take-away’s:

One of the things that made this a refreshing read was that throughout the book she seems to be preaching to herself as much as she does to others. In fact, I thought I had read somewhere that others had a similar testimony concerning her pulpit style as well. I like that. The fact is, ultimately we’re all (pastors included) “accidental saints” and can only come to the throne of grace because God first chose us and not because of any merit of our own. Jesus’ “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16) comes to mind, and it is just as we really are, warts and all, that Jesus chooses each of us. Nadia’s storytelling reveals a woman who comes just as she is, a person who appears to wrestle with many of the same things that a lot of us wrestle with, and in the midst of it, time and again, discovers God’s grace.

Therein also lies the difference, I think, between her and many other popular authors today. Whereas many others sometimes come across as elevating themselves in some twisted form of pseudo-perfectionism, although I’m sure not deliberately, Nadia seems to choose to remain vulnerable and humbly reveal her real self. In the process we get a sense that she is also indirectly reminding us all that, perhaps ironically, our perfect God has always chosen to use the imperfect for His purposes. As she writes, “Sometimes the fact that there is nothing about you that makes you the right person to do something is exactly what God is looking for” (p.39). It takes courage to confess one’s shortcomings and to lay oneself open like that. The more I delved into the book, the more chapters I read, the more I personally felt blessed, even to the point of shedding a few tears with her along the way.

Theologically speaking, a cautious smile came across my face as Nadia took a couple paragraphs to describe her take on that confusing and often misunderstood doctrine of the rapture. She writes,

I am certain there are more gracious ways of explaining the rapture, and not everyone who believes in it fits this description, but to believe in the rapture feels to me like it’s the same as believing that when Jesus comes back, he will do so as a judgmental, angry bastard who apparently underwent a total personality transplant since his resurrection. Or as a selective magician who will make all good people float up to the sky like a million Evangelical Mary Poppinses and force the bad people to be “left behind” on earth to suffer terribly. 
There are some Christians who talk about the rapture as if the good people in heaven will be given these awesome box seats from which to watch the bad people suffer on earth. This is the good people’s reward for never having any fun while in this earthly existence. This sort of fear-mongering bullshit sells like hotcakes. People eat it up. And why wouldn’t we? It panders to the selfish, hateful, vengeance-seeking parts of ourselves, like God himself is cosigning on it all. Which, come to think of it, is what so much bad religion does for us. (p.55)

Wow! I am not suggesting that I agree or disagree with her position on the rapture, but I am saying that I’ve never heard it explained quite like that before. She went on to say that “rapture theories are nothing I’ve ever taken very seriously.” Fair enough. As I heard someone facetiously say, “I’ve survived many raptures.” Accidental Saints goes much deeper though, than semi-serious rapture discussions.

As I write this, we are only two weeks from yet another Christmas, and I was struck by a chapter entitled: “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Sandy Hook Elementary.” Remember that tragic event in Newtown, Connecticut, only eleven days before Christmas back in 2012? The author talks about her feelings and trying to minister to others in the aftermath of those dark days, and in the process we are also reminded of another slaughter of the innocents under the reign of Herod way back at that first Christmas (Matthew 2:16). She muses of being infuriated with what we’ve done with Christmas and “getting pretty snotty about ridiculous commercial versions that have no basis in the biblical text” (p.73). One doesn’t have to look long before seeing some of the weird stuff that has crept into our crèche scenes, such as a pious little Santa kneeling at the manger. Still, I’m thankful that, though more biblical, figurines of the slaughtered innocents aren’t there too.

In the chapter entitled, “Judas Will Now Take Your Confession,” I had my theology challenged yet again as I was reminded of my tendency lately to often gravitate towards reclusiveness whenever possible. I justify it to myself by saying that I’m an extrovert on the job, but after that, introversion and solitude suits me just fine. Unfortunately - or better yet, fortunately - that’s not how Christ designed his church to work. Peter, after denying the Lord those three times, still received grace and forgiveness, and he did so in community. The chapter reminded me that he could never have received that alone as a lone Christian apart from fellowship, because we’re called to preach grace and love and forgiveness to one another. While Peter received it on the beach over breakfast (John 21:12), Judas in his solitude went away alone and hanged himself. Nadia wrote, “How might that early Christian community have been different if Judas had received forgiveness, as the rest of them did? Again and again Jesus had said they should preach forgiveness of sins in his name” (p.169). Could Judas have been saved? Was his sin really any worse than Peter’s or the rest of the twelve? Was Judas beyond redemption? Or did he lose out on receiving forgiveness by ostracizing himself (or being ostracized) from, or by, the community? I confess that I have a hard time with this line of thinking, as John 17:12 does speak of Judas Iscariot as "the son of perdition" (Amplified), or "the one doomed to destruction" (NIV). Maybe forgiveness was not an option for Judas after all. However, one thing seems certain, belonging to a community of believers that loves one another, forgives one another, and gives grace to each other, is the way that God often chooses to bless each of us. This concept comes out loud and clear in Accidental Saints.

Not having been raised in the Lutheran tradition, and having been a Baptist before renouncing denominationalism all together, I was challenged by some of the traditions and practices of House for All Sinners and Saints as depicted in this book. Having said that, I do not mean this in a negative way, as if to suggest that I’ve somehow cornered the market in understanding the ways of God. Obviously I have not. My own personal spiritual pilgrimage has also undergone its own metamorphosis over the past dozen years or so, from being a Baptist pastor, to leaving the traditional institutional form of Christianity all together for a more organic form, to once again being more open to occasionally visiting other faith communities, to hopefully even being a little more gracious along the way when it comes to those little religious idiosyncrasies. The point is, having been all over the religious map myself, who am I to say anything? While in a different context, maybe Paul said it best when he wrote, "So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God" (Romans 14:22; NIV).

To quote author Rachel Held Evans’ praise for Accidental Saints, “This is one of those rare books that will make you simultaneously wince with recognition and sigh with relief. A must-read for every screw-up and asshole caught up in God’s grace” (taken from back cover). Being a “screw-up and asshole” myself a time or ten (or a hundred), I can relate. Today I sense the need for God’s grace too, perhaps in some ways, maybe even more than ever before. Perhaps you can relate as well.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s definitely worth a second read, and I highly recommend it. Peace and Blessings.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Confessions of a Polytheistic Christian

Are we, Christians included, somewhat polytheistic? That is, do we believe in more than one god? Probably not officially, but our actions sometimes seem to say otherwise. Now if you're still here and I haven't rattled you completely yet, causing you to think I've lost my mind or am treading ever closer to heresy, Rethinking Faith and Church welcomes back guest blogger Waldo Rochow to share a few thoughts on this subject.

Accepting the Wikipedia definition of theology as “the systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious ideas...” I’d like to discuss the concept of God with you. (Caveat: I am a layman with no seminary training at all. However, this is a message that was on my heart when I awoke today.) It seems to me that there are three distinct aspects of the God concept that are often confused when people use the word. Regardless if someone is an atheist, a monotheist, or a polytheist, these three aspects of the God concept are relevant.  There is God the Creator, God the Sustainer, and God the Judge.

God the Creator is a pretty easy one to wrap your head around. Was creation some fluke, or was it designed? People are usually pretty polar on this point.

God the Judge is also a pretty easy concept to discuss. You either believe that your actions/decisions while you live have consequences after you die, or you don’t. Again, people usually have a pretty well defined perspective on this which drives their morality.

God the Sustainer is one where most Christians (myself included) have the most trouble. Mike Warnke said “Whatever you turn to in your hour of need is your god.” He went on to describe what eventually led to my understanding of God the Sustainer. If you need coffee to face your day, then at that point, coffee is your god. If you can’t handle stress without cigarettes, then cigarettes have become your god. For some, shopping therapy shows that money is their god. Same applies to alcohol, drugs, sex, and many other sustainers. Even things that may otherwise seem quite positive, such as exercise, can be seen as a god if they are used as a coping mechanism.

Sadly, in my life I have had many gods. While always professing to be Christian, I have often abandoned the Father for a man-made god. Less so now. I am confident that I am making progress toward relegating these gods to the mere role of participant. But as I work through this journey in my own life it occurs to me that many people may not have considered theology from this perspective.
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” - Exodus 20:5 (NIV)
Do you struggle with an addiction? Perhaps the solution is to view it in the light of God the Sustainer. As long as you are praying to the Father for help, but actively surrendering to another god, why would God the Father intervene? I’m not suggesting that one must quit the addiction before God the Father will intervene. What I am suggesting is that one must acknowledge that this addiction is akin to worshiping another god, and humbly repent of it in one’s prayer for support. The same is true of financial struggles. I don’t subscribe to the prosperity doctrine, but worry over finances is the same as placing oneself in the position of God the Sustainer. How’s that working out for you?

I don’t think that God is satisfied with us only accepting His divine roles of Creator and Judge. He wants us to rely on Him as Sustainer as well. He wants to be our entire God, not just two thirds of it.

I am working towards a place where I can honestly say that I am entirely dependant on the grace of God. Not just God the Creator, because that’s the past. Not just God the Judge, because that’s the future. But also, God the Sustainer, because that’s the now.

May God bless you in your personal journey.

Photo Credit: Michelangelo: The Creation of Adam
Guest Blogger: Waldo Rochow

Monday, 2 November 2015

Goose Theology and the Sermon on the Mount

One thing that never ceases to amaze me, and that I’ve pondered on many an occasion, is this rat race that we call life. Why is it that, of all God’s creation, that those who were created in His image, seem to wrestle with trusting Him with their daily provision and sustenance more than any other creature? Those of us, to whom God has promised to never leave nor forsake, to whom God loved so much that He gave His only begotten Son, to whom all the promises of the Scriptures were made, fret and worry about tomorrow like no other creature in all of creation. Does that not seem strange to you?

Maybe the animal kingdom does worry too in some way and in accordance with their mental abilities to comprehend; I don’t know. I recently read a book by Cesar Millan (from TV’s ‘The Dog Whisperer’) in which he said that dogs live for the “now.” They may have some negative memory of past events, such as an encounter with a bicyclist, but there is no concern with what may or may not happen tomorrow; their lives center on the “now.” However, if some animals do stress out and worry in some way or another, they still seem more relaxed than we humans typically do. Have you ever noticed that?

Lately I’ve been meditating again upon something Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. Unless you’re new to Christianity, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. He said,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. 
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6: 24-34; NIV)

As I reflected on that, I also found myself thinking of all the rat-race stress that so many of us find ourselves in, and wondered why we even tolerate it. Oh, I know why we do it: there’s lifestyle choices, there’s providing for families, sometimes it’s a case of keeping up with the proverbial Jones’, and the realization that sooner or later we had better be building our retirement nest eggs, etc., etc., etc. Basically our societal mores and values dictate that this is the way we do life in the western world. But is that where our primary focus should be? Jesus said, “the pagans run after these things” and those who worry about them He called people of “little faith.” Does that mean that I’m being “pagan,” or “pagan-like,” when I do likewise? Do I only have a “little faith,” as opposed to one a little bigger? Am I serving money? Perhaps so, and especially if doing so trumps first seeking his kingdom and his righteousness. But then again, if I’m serving money, then Jesus says that I cannot at the same time be serving God. Or am I missing something here?

I was chatting with a friend of mine who many years ago used to be a Roman Catholic priest. As it turned out he had wrestled with similar questions in the past and came to the conclusion that, no matter how society prioritized what they deemed as important, he would stick to his own priority list. He had five groupings in which he put his life’s activities and values. Rated from most important to least important, they are: (1) God, (2) Spouse, (3) Personal Health, (4) Rest of Family, (5) Job/Career. Some might argue that priority order, but the more I think about it, the more I think that he hit it right on the mark.

He argued that where we often find ourselves getting into trouble is when we mix up that priority. What many of us often tend to do, and it seems like many employers expect that we do, is to place the Job/Career grouping into the number (1) category (God’s category). Sure, the employer’s catch phrase is often “Life-Job Balance,” but whose standard are they measuring that balance by? No doubt it’s by their standard. And it is there that we often tend to worry; if I insist on my priority list over my employers, I could soon find myself looking for a new job. But even there, I believe that Jesus would say to us, “Why do you worry?

In the same way, if my relationship with my wife is in it’s wrong priority slot, my marriage will suffer for it. If I do not place her higher than even my own physical and/or mental health, I’ve probably violated my marriage vows to her. My friend confessed that until he rectified that in his own life, he too struggled with that section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we looked at above. Perhaps I too have allowed my priorities to get a little screwed up and need to revisit my own priority list. Perhaps we all do.

I thought about all these things as I walked my dog around a neighborhood lake, and then paused to look at the geese just taking it easy there in the water. Did they know something that apparently many of us have forgotten (assuming that we ever really knew it in the first place)? Unlike many of us, they certainly didn’t seem stressed or burned out. Perhaps, not having to deal with serving money, serving and trusting God comes more natural to them. Dinner would present itself at just the right time, and in just the right place. Likewise, a place to nest and bed down for the night will be found when it’s needed. God would see to it. Perhaps the lesson of the geese is that they really know that it is our heavenly Father who feeds and cares for them, and they instinctively know how to rest in that. Is there a lesson in that for us too? Hmm, I wonder.

For further reflection:

  • Despite often giving lip service to the contrary, and if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, do Christians still tend to “serve two masters?”
  • How much do we really worry about tomorrow? Is that reflected in where we’ve placed our jobs/careers on our priority lists?
  • What do you make of Jesus’ reference that it is “pagans” who worry about these things, and when Christians do so, it is a sign that theirs is only a “little faith?”
  • Though the animal kingdom still has to “work” for its food too (hunting, foraging etc.), do you think that they somehow trust God in it better than most humans do? If so, why do you think that is?