Saturday, 28 January 2012

Give Me A Chance, and I'll Pay it All Back

Photo Credit: Evan Leeson
The grey cloud of unforgiveness?
There is a lot of stuff that man has put out there under the guise of Christianity. Sometimes it’s hard to know just what to believe. Solomon was right when he said, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17; ESV). How do we wade through it all? How do we, as a friend of mine likes to say, “chew on the meat and spit out the bones?” Augustine said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Today I was reminded again of something that Heavenly Father takes very seriously. It is, I believe, one of those “essentials.” What is that? I’m taking about “Forgiveness.” Jesus said, 
“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35; ESV). 
What will the Father do to us if we don’t forgive others from our hearts? Let’s look at how Eugene Peterson paints the picture in “The Message.”
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got underway, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king. 
“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that is exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
There is so much that we could unpack from this story, but I’m only going to nibble at it a little. Does this story imply that we will not be forgiven? No, for in Christ we have already been forgiven. Does the story teach that if we fail to forgive others, the wrath of God will still come our way, despite our having already been forgiven? That does seem possible.

It is interesting that the word that the ESV translates as “jailers” in verse 34 comes from the Greek word for “torturers.” Does that mean that our loving God will send a child that He has already forgiven to be “tortured?” That does seem a little inconsistent with His nature, and yet figuratively Jesus does seem to be saying just that.

Maybe we would do well to think of the word “tortured” in the context of “the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6; ESV). It may very well be that, in love, God gives us a season in jail and in the hands of the “torturers” in order to teach us what He deems to be an important lesson. Though we might be tempted to view the “tortures” as evil from others, maybe the truth is more in line with what Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20; NIV).

God loves you and me dearly, but He also expects us to love one another. That love includes mercifully forgiving each other’s faults. It’s not a case of God’s love being conditional, but of God having expectations of His children. It is no different than any parent expecting their children to play nicely together as siblings. As a child, whenever I beat up my little brothers, I could expect a good old fashioned spanking from my dad. I know that dad still loved me, despite my sore rear end. The spanking was always a lesson learned; dad expected his children to behave in a certain fashion. You and I are siblings in God’s family and God expects us to play nicely together too. Failure to do that may also result in punishment.

It’s important to remember that the forgiveness that we offer others must be genuine and “from the heart.” Anything less does not count as true forgiveness. Anything less becomes conditional. It is also important to know that what is in our hearts will be revealed by our actions. In other words, people are not fools; the heart is easily read through our actions and our body language. Certainly, God is not fooled.

So what comes out of your heart when I have wronged you? What comes out of my heart when you have wronged me? Do we offer each other only a cheap and worthless form of pseudo-forgiveness that, I might add, any fool can see through? Or do we really forgive each other from the depths of our hearts? I think Jesus spelled it out pretty clearly exactly what the Father is interested in. True forgiveness of each other is one of the essentials of the Christian faith.

Anyway, that's the way I see it.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Do You Have A Personal Church Story To Tell?

I am pleased and excited to announce that I have been asked if I would like to contribute to an interesting book project. My answer is an unequivocal, "Yes." The working title of the book is "Finding Church: Stories of Leaving, Returning, Changing, and Transforming." Doesn't that title just grab your attention and make you want to know more? I think so.

The book is going to be a collection of stories from various people on their personal experiences with the church. This promises to be interesting precisely because they are, in fact, “personal” stories and not simply more divisive theological debates. And who doesn't love stories? We all do, right?

We all have different ideas about what it means to "be" the church or "go" to church, as evidenced by our current spiritual paths. Unfortunately, along with those ideas often comes a great deal of misunderstanding and distrust of each other as brothers and sisters. This need not be. Maybe I’m being utopian, but perhaps the telling of some of these personal stories will actually lead to fewer “dissentions and factions” (Galatians 5:20) in the church. Who knows?

Why do some people leave the church? Why do others who have once upon a time left the church feel drawn to return to church? Likewise, I have met some people who feel that it is possible to better reform the church from the inside rather than from the outside, and wondered why. In short, what is it that has brought each of us to the place where we are today in our spiritual walks? Interesting questions.

The way I see this project is almost like a collection of autobiographies, and I love a good biography. There are a lot of interesting people out there with interesting stories to tell. I am looking forward to curling up in my favourite chair with my copy of Finding Church.

The project is the brainchild of my friend Jeremy Myers in conjunction with Civitas Press. As Jeremy said, If you have a story to tell, and would like to get your story into print, you are invited to participate.” So, do you have a story to tell? If so, here’s your chance. For more details, please visit Jeremy’s blog “Till He Comes.” I’m sure that he would love to hear from you.


Tuesday, 10 January 2012

of the Religious Atheist?

I read an interesting quote recently. Unfortunately where I read it, the quote stood alone, thus preventing me from seeing it in any kind of proper context. The quote said, “Atheists talk about God too much” and was credited to Nobel Prize winner (1972), Heinrich Böll (1917-1985). For some reason that struck me as both odd and funny at the same time. Could it be true? Do atheists talk about God too much? I wonder.

Atheists have sometimes accused me of talking about God too much, but given that I’m a Christian, this is perhaps understandable. But to suggest that an atheist may talk about God too much, well, that just seems odd. Yet the more I thought about it, the more it actually may make some sense (at least in some cases).

First let me digress and say that, in my opinion, many who call themselves atheists likely aren’t. I suspect that many self-proclaimed atheists are actually agnostics. What’s the difference? The way I see it, an atheist holds the view that there is no God. They are certain of their view, and aren’t easily swayed. Period. An agnostic, on the other hand, essentially says that he or she doesn’t know if there is or isn’t a God. In other words, if there is any measure of doubt in the atheist’s mind, then he or she likely is not an atheist at all, but is rather an agnostic. We could probably rightly say that the agnostic is sort of perched on the fence between the atheistic and religious view. For some this might just be a case of semantics; for me it is not.

Now back to the Heinrich Böll quote. Why might an atheist talk about God? Could it be that the reason is because he or she wishes to, or feels a need to, defend their view? Perhaps it is because of some Christians themselves that atheists feel forced into this. As Brennan Manning has said, 
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
Is an atheist’s discussion of God, in a strange kind of way, somewhat like Christian apologetics, in that it is also a defense of a faith? Do they wish to defend their faith and convert you or me to their religion?

Now hold on a minute! Did I just call the atheist “religious?” Well, sort of. If by the word “religious” we mean a specific view or set of beliefs concerning the divine, and if atheism is properly defined as the belief that there is no God, then it is also logical to say that such a set of beliefs is in and of itself, ironically, also a religious viewpoint.

Could it be that any discussion by the atheist to promote his or her view is ultimately no different than any other religious person (regardless of what religion we’re talking about) discussing their faith? And if that is so, could it also be exactly in that vein that Heinrich Böll was suggesting when he said, Atheists talk about God too much?” I wonder.

What do you think?
  • Do atheists talk about God too much?
  • Are Christian lifestyles, at least partially, responsible for atheism?
  • Can atheism actually be a religion?
  • Why might someone even bother to exert energy talking about something or someone they do not believe in (ie., God)?
For more on Heinrich Böll, see here and here.
Photo Credit:  Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Holy Flatulence?

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain
The Papal Belvedere by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the 1545 publication of Luther's Depiction of the Papacy. It features a papal bull complete with fire and brimstone, fresh from the hand of Pope Paul III meeting German peasants with farts, fresh from their "belvedere". This is a depiction of typical German behaviour. [Belvedere refers to a building in the Vatican, but also means "beautiful view".] ... Here, Pope, is my 'belvedere.' Source:

OK, I confess, I have a twisted sense of humour. I had to laugh when I saw this picture. The thought of two peasants dropping their pants and mooning the pope, while farting, is simply hilarious!

However, as funny as I took the depiction, I’m sure that there are some others who are not as amused by it as I am. Perhaps my posting it even offends you. If so, I am truly sorry. Yes, while we may take it as a joke, others might not. We can say that they need to “lighten up” and take it as it was intended, but doing that also simply reinforces the point that I wish to make here. Whatever else it is or isn’t, the drawing serves as a powerful illustration of what I see as a problem for many of us in the church today.

The drawing depicts an event from Martin Luther’s day around what came to be known as the “Protestant Reformation.” Reformation theology aside (for I am not interested in debating its pros and cons at this time) the picture also leads me to wonder how our actions and activities affect others. Regardless whether we call ourselves Roman Catholic, Protestant, Charismatic, or whatever other title we may choose to use to describe our particular slant of Christianity, if what we say or do offends another, have we acted in love?

Perhaps we would do well to remind ourselves that, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son” (John 3:16) for that other “twisted branch of Christianity too." I’m just saying, if He loved them too, shouldn’t we also? And if so, exactly what does that “love” entail? Let’s stop and honestly think about that for a moment.
Photo Source: Didi Lee; Flickr Creative Commons

It has nothing to do with who is right and who is wrong, or who is theologically correct versus who is theologically incorrect, but it has everything to do with the question of following the “Golden Rule,” that is, of treating others as you would want to be treated by them yourself. Jesus put it this way: “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31; ESV). Quite frankly, though others might still find it funny, you and I would likely be offended if we were mooned and farted upon! Do you see what I’m saying?

The “Golden Rule” is not even an exclusively Judeo-Christian principle, for virtually all faiths have some form of it, as depicted by this poster which I’m sure we’ve all seen before. Ultimately it is about being a decent human being. This is not to be confused with doctrinal differences between faiths, for they are a completely different matter, the discussion of which we shall reserve for another time.

The question is simply about our responsibility toward our fellow man. My question is, if other faiths see the importance of this, shouldn’t Christians (who claim to have the truth) see and practice it all the more? And if I am preaching to anyone here, I am primarily preaching to myself. Why is it that I sometimes still fail to treat others, including those who I love dearly, in a way that I would not want to be treated by them? That just doesn’t make any sense.

Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). Though deep down inside I’m sure we all know the answer to that, it’s kind of sad that many of us seem to still be asking that very same question ourselves today. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Am I responsible to treat my bother properly? If so, doesn’t that include being careful to not go out of my way to offend him? That’s the way I see it anyway.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Imagining the Gospel

Recently I was invited by my friend Jeremy Myers to submit a Guest Post on his blog, "Till He Comes." I am grateful to Jeremy for the opportunity to do so. I do not wish to publish the article I wrote here, except to give you a very brief taste of the introduction. For the full post you will need to visit his blog.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

So began the classic song “Imagine” by John Lennon. As a former Beatles fan, and more specifically, a John Lennon fan, I used to love that song. I remember a time before the Lord grabbed ahold of me that I actually said that I wanted that song at my funeral one day. It’s interesting how one’s perspective changes upon meeting Jesus. Today, that’s probably the last song I’d want at my memorial.

Over this past Christmas season, my son loaned me a rather controversial book. I won’t mention the name of the book here, but suffice it to say that the author, a prominent church leader, had some pretty bizarre views of heaven, and more specifically, of hell. I wondered if perhaps the author of that book was an “Imagine” fan too. At the very least, he seemed to have quite an imagination.

Please visit Jeremy's blog, "Till He Comes" to read the rest of the story.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Back Burner Ministry

Soon after I closed down my last blog to start "Rethinking Faith and Church" in early 2010, I had the honour and privilege to meet several interesting people online. Jeremy Myers is one such person. I have enjoyed following him on social networks and reading his blog, "Till He Comes." 

Recently I asked Jeremy if he might consider being a Guest Blogger on "Rethinking Faith and Church." I am honoured that he said, "Yes." It gives me great pleasure to have him inaugurate this New Year on my blog. 

Please welcome my friend Jeremy.

Photo Source Unknown
Most followers of Jesus eventually feel like they have been "put on the back burner." I suspect Moses felt like this while he was tending sheep for 40 years in the desert. Most of the prophets felt this way when they did their best to speak the Word of God, and only got mocked, jeered, and imprisoned in return. I'm pretty sure Saul (Paul) felt this way also after his conversion when he spent 14 years in Tarsus.

Maybe you are in a similar situation. You are in the boondocks. In the sticks. You feel like you are a nobody.

Sometimes we think this is because God is punishing us, but this is usually not the case. Most often, God puts us in such situations so we can mature and prepare for the next stage of ministry God has for us.

In some ways, I have recently felt "benched." Some of it, I'm certain, is disciplinary. (No, I won't explain why.) But also, I think that this time is also to help me mature and prepare for what God has for me in the future. And I am beginning to discover that on the sidelines is where the greatest mission and discipleship work can be done.

For example, how many pastors, in their quest for the radio spot and the book deal, have neglected ministry to their wife and children? I know I have. And while I'm somewhat a novice at family ministry, I am beginning to find that what I used to view as secondary (or tenth) is actually primary. A friend recently reminded me that family discipleship is God's primary plan for world evangelism. I always knew this cognitively, but I never really practiced it.

And take my job. I'm a prison chaplain. It's not a bad job, but definitely not one which will get me book deals and speaking engagements. Even from a fulfillment perspective, one of the things I enjoy most about following Jesus is studying and teaching Scritpure. Prison chaplaincy provides me little opportunity for either. So for me, Prison chaplaincy seems like back burner ministry.

But in some ways, I am discovering that prison ministry could actually be front line mission work. Prisons have a spiritual dimension, and I am convinced prisons are not only strongholds made of cement and razor wire, but are also strongholds of spiritual darkness. In many ways, Satan loves what goes on in prisons. The way inmates are treated. The way staff are treated. And most of all, the spiritual ignorance and blindness that is prevalent among both groups. And I am right there, at the gates of hell. Close enough to smell the smoke and feel the flames.

Back burner ministry? No. Front line mission.

Besides, in some ways I am beginning to believe that some of the people in prison are the future of Christianity. Most don't think of them in this way, but as Jesus said, "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first."

I believe that a great reversal is coming in the world, and those who are currently on the stages and in the spotlights will soon find themselves in the wings, while those who were turned away at the door will find themselves at the "front and center" of God's eternal plan for this world.

So where do you find yourself on the "stage of Christianity"? Do you feel like you've been benched? Are you sitting in the penalty box with your head hanging low? Are you on the floor, with a dazed expression on your face as the referee counts to ten?

But this is exactly where God wants you, because you are now drawing near to His kind of world, and His kind of ministry.

It is only when you've missed the bus (or got thrown under it), that you look around and see all the other people who are in the same predicament. And wouldn't you know it, Jesus is there too, saying, "Welcome! Your true ministry starts now, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these."

I Will Be My Brother's Keeper

Photo Credit: Julia Folsom
So another New Year is upon us. I’m not normally one for making New Year’s Resolutions, but as I was thinking about this, I wanted to share something to bless you and to encourage you. As I considered this and wondered what God would have me to say, a Rich Mullins song began to play in the background. The song was “Brother’s Keeper.”

As the music played I began to think about all the ways that we unfortunately often seem to be anything but our “brother’s keeper.” I thought of all the ways we sometimes judge one another simply because of our petty differences or theological opinion. I thought of some of the controversial books I’ve read this past year and of the barrage of Internet rebuttals that have sometimes ensued because somebody dared to have a doctrinal opinion that didn’t flow very well with the main stream of Christendom (or with ours). I thought of some of the ways that I too have been less than graceful, either verbally or through something I had written. I quickly felt ashamed of some of the ways we have treated one another.

As I thought about these things, I hit the replay for the Rich Mullins song and listened carefully to the lyrics again. “That’s it,” I thought. My goal, or resolution if you will, for 2012 is to seek to focus much more on my “brothers” and “sisters” for who they are – children of God and joint heirs with Christ – and much less on the things that divide. What would happen if we all spent a little more time celebrating the things that unite and a little less time focusing on the things that divide? What would happen if we all resolved to make 2012 the year in which we practiced more genuine and unpretentious LOVE instead of only pseudo-love? Ultimately, isn’t that what it means to be our “Brother’s Keeper?” I’d like to think so.
Yes, I will be my brother's keeper. Will you?
Rich Mullins was one of my favorite singers before the Lord called him home. His music continues to bless and encourage me. As you read the lyrics below to his classic, “Brother’s Keeper,” I would like to encourage you to rethink how you might respond to other brothers and sisters this year who perhaps don’t exactly share your interpretation of Scripture.  There is the question and there is the challenge. Will we be confrontational or will we be gentle? “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1; NIV). Which one will we use? Are you your “Brother’s Keeper?” Am I my "Brother's Keeper?" Lord, let it be so.
"Now the plummer's got a drip in his spigot, The mechanic's got a clank in his car, And the preacher's thinking thoughts that are wicked, And the lover's got a lonely heart, My friends ain't the way I wish they were, They are just the way they are.
And I will be my brother's keeper, Not the one who judges him, I won't despise him for his weakness, I won't regard him for his strength, I won't take away his freedom, I will help him learn to stand, And I will, I will be my brother's keeper.
Now this roof has got a few missing shingles, But at least we got ourselves a roof, And they say that she's a fallen angel, I wonder if she recalls when she last flew, There's no point in pointing fingers, Unless you're pointing to the truth.
And I will be my brother's keeper, Not the one who judges him, I won't despise him for his weakness, I won't regard him for his strength, I won't take away his freedom, I will help him learn to stand, And I will, I will be my brother's keeper.
I will be my brother's keeper, Not the one who judges him, I won't despise him for his weakness, I won't regard him for his strength, I won't take away his freedom, I will help him learn to stand, And I will, I will be my brother's keeper."

The Apostle Paul said, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6; ESV).

I wish for you a blessed and a happy New Year. Peace. 

(For more on this, please see my post Celebrate What's Right With The Church)