The Dearly Departed

the dearly departedWe have all heard the quote, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  I’m sure there is a lot of truth in that.  However, what I keep asking myself is, “what if it kills me?”  What if the thing I’m most afraid of facing actually does kill my purpose and identity?  What if it takes away my rights?  What happens then?  What if I am to become the dearly departed?

I just recently re-read C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed.  The book was made out of journal entries after the death of his wife, and how he dealt with it.  In it he says this:

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

What if the whole point is our death?  What if God is knocking down our house of cards to show us what really matters?  To ressurect us into something greater than what we had expected.  The late Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon has said:

“Jesus is only urging his disciples, and us, to do what he himself did in his own trial and passion: to lay down his life and to let God raise it up in his own good time…In Gesthemane, he prayed that God would “let this cup pass” from him. But he also prayed, “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Poverty, not wealth – death, not life – is the only material God uses to save us.”

and Capon again from The Foolishness of Preaching:

“Our preachers tell us the wrong story entirely, saying not a word about the dark side – no, that’s too weak – about the dark center of the Gospel.  They cant bring themselves to come within a country mile of the horrendous truth that we are saved in our deaths, not by our efforts to lead a good life

Maybe his will is to knock down our house of cards.  Maybe his will is for our death to occur. We might need to just drop dead.

God uses the circumstances that break us and kill us to save us.  As if to say, “now I can resurrect you!”

What if in our dying we find ultimate redemption?  Isn’t that what a picture of baptism is?  Doesn’t baptism signify our dying, and Christ resurrecting us?

Could the thing that is killing us bring us deliverance?  Look at Jesus.  Three nails brought about his death, but in that death brought deliverance to the world.

The fish in Jonah was both his death and the thing that brought him redemption.  For starters, the Bible says that “God prepared” the great fish for him, and then Jonah prayed in 2:1 “From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

Capon again: “Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.”

Christian Obedience School

Christian Obedience SchoolDoes my disobedience throw God off? There have been many times in my life where I thought “God must not love me”, or “I’m sure I’ve lost my salvation.”  I would usually have these thoughts right after I committed a sin, and felt a good dose of condemnation for it. It was in these times in my life that I truly believed that my position in Christ had everything to do with what I did or didn’t do, instead of what Christ did in his finished work on the cross. According to Romans 5:18-19 our obedience is really a non-issue with God.

“Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”

Take for example Peter.  Jesus tells Peter that he will be disobedient by denying him, but what does Jesus do to Peter?  He restores him and makes no mention of his sin.  Christ was obedient not Peter, but yet Christ restores.

We also see in Matthew 18:12 a parable about a sheep who wanders off, but the shepherd leaves the 99 to bring the sheep back in.  The sheep’s disobedience had no bearing on his relationship with the shepherd.  His disobedience proved how much the shepherd loved it because he left his home to bring the sheep back to the fold. To me, this really sheds light on Isaiah 53:6:

“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on HIM the iniquity of us all.”

We have all left the fold, but the Lord laid our iniquity on Jesus and gave us his righteousness.  The great exchange.  

To be clear, my disobedience may cause me discomfort, there may be very hard consequences for my actions.  As Robert Farrar Capon put it:

“You can’t get into hell by being bad. You get into heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness. Now, that does in a way mean you have permission to be bad. If you want to stick your hand in a meat grinder, you are free to do that. It’s stupid, but God isn’t going to run the universe that way. God is not going to punish. He cares more about relationships than behavior.”

My disobedience may bring consequences, but my disobedience does not affect my position with God.  In Christ, I stand perfect.  To quote John Calvin:

“Now someone asks, how has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience.”

His obedience, and not mine has abolished my sin, gave me access to God, made me righteous, and gave me favor. The moment I think my morality and good works makes me right with God, is the moment I mix law and grace and becomes my attempt to save myself.

“Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” Romans 4:25

We need a savior

we need a saviorPicture Moses coming down off the mountain after meeting with God with the Ten Commandments in hand. Imagine him reading out the law of God to you. What goes through your mind? What do you think to yourself as you hear the new standard? If I was there, I would think…there is no way I can keep that! Imagine this scenario:

Moses: Hey everybody, God really would like for us all to do this. It will really make him happy, our lives a lot easier, and he will bless us if we do it. So it sounds like it is a good idea and he means business.

grumbling and murmuring among the crowd and finally Bobby speaks up

Bobby: Say Moses, does God know you killed someone?

Sam: Yeah, thats right you did kill that man back in Egypt Moses. Also, does God know that you forgot to circumcise your son?

Aaron: Hey Moses, we also kind of made a golden image and we have been worshiping it. Moses, I’m not sure this commandment stuff is going to work. We are kind of messing up already pretty bad, who’s to say we can actually keep all these rules?

It looks like they are setup for failure, but in reality they and we are setup to need a savior. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world!

The law, by nature is accusatory. It reveals to you the true nature of your heart, and shows that you have no ability to fulfill God’s standards. In Romans 7:18, Paul boldly declares something we have a hard time admitting, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me.”

Who talks like that? Who says nothing good is in them?! Paul gives us nothing to hang our achievements or effort on. We hate admitting we are flawed. We think by our merit and bootstrapping ability that we can somehow save ourselves. Yes, even in American Christianity. Most of our sermons are ways to better ourselves. What we really need is a savior.

When people ask me how I am doing, most of the time I lie. I actually had a friend of mine text me the other day and say that he was living a nightmare. For some of us, no truer words have been spoken. In Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program the first thing you admit is you are powerless. You might not be an alcoholic, but you too are powerless. Thankfully, in our weakness he is made strong. We need a stand-in. We need a savior. Not more do’s and don’ts.  A savior.

I love how God knew this even as Moses was leading his people. In Deuteronomy 18:18 we find a Messianic prophecy, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.”

That is probably the best news they heard all day!

The law shows us our warts, imperfections, and sin. But, when I hear the law I also want to run. I want to run into the arms of the one person who is full of power and love. I can’t do it, but I found a man who did it.

We are all Billy Corgan

billy corganOut of all the 90′s alternative/grunge bands, The Smashing Pumpkins are my favorite. They have meaningful, deep, sad, and painful songs. Their music means a lot to me and touches me. The Pumpkins were by and large driven by lead singer and guitarist Billy Corgan. I don’t know much of Billy’s story, but he has never been without controversy or criticism. Billy has recently entered the news for taking some what of a career turn into professional wrestling. In one way or another, I believe we are all like Billy Corgan.

The Smashing Pumpkins created a masterpiece with their third album Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness. It was an album that was hard to top. As I’m writing, I have it playing in the background for inspiration, and it is still an amazing record. Billy has continued to make music through the years with the Pumpkins, but in the public eye his creations have not compared to his earlier records. Critics have pushed him and have been hard on him. If you have the time you should check out this Corgan interview where he let’s out a lot of frustration and anger about lack of positive reviews for his new album. He goes as far as saying to the interviewer, “I hope you and I are never locked in an elevator together. Because you would either kill me or I would kill you.”

What happens when the world sees you as peaking too early? How do you go on creating when everything is judged based on your past performance? How do you make something relevant after you have made what the world thinks is your best? What does it feel like to create something that so many people hate?

Somewhere he pulls his hair down over a frowning smile – Billy Corgan

Now Billy is doing something very different, he is making the odd choice of joining professional wrestling as a producer. Is this Billy trying to fit in with a different crowd? Is he seeking acceptance from a group of people because he didn’t get it from fans, critics, media, etc.?

We all feel the way Billy feels, and here is why: we all want acceptance and love for what we have done. Whether we admit it or not what we do is important to us and we all want to hear, to quote Billy; “You did a good job – it’s good you’re still here.”

We are Billy Corgans because we are searching for meaning, significance, love, and acceptance in what we do. Unfortunately, as Corgan says, “The world is a vampire, sent to drain.” Thankfully our worth and significance is not wrapped up in what we do or create, it is wrapped up in what He has done. Our creator loves what we do whether or not the world does.

We may not find acceptance in other people, fame, or from our own individual art work, but we can find it in Jesus. He allows us to come to him without meeting any preconditions. We can come as we are. As a failure or as a success.

In the parable of the prodigal son, we find the father running to a failure of a son and throwing a party for him. He just wants us, whether or not we produce something great or we spend all his money. He just wants us.

I’m grateful that God is pleased in who I am, all by myself.

I used to be a little boy,  So old in my shoes – Billy Corgan

Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Grace!

lorena and eleanorI love history and I really love presidential history.  I just finished a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jonathan Alter titled, The Defining Moment, that focused on his first 100 days in office. I’ll admit my knowledge of FDR was very limited up until the book.  I was very interested in learning more about FDR, but I came away with more intrigue in his wife Eleanor, so much so that I hope to read more about her in the years to come.

Eleanor was surprisingly nervous and adverse to moving into the White House, and secretly wished that her husband might lose the election.  She was very hurt, depressed, angry, and couldn’t express her emotions to her husband.  FDR was a man with his own unique struggles and problems ranging from health and infidelity.  After his first affair, things were never the same for their marriage.  In fact, they never again shared a bed after his first affair.

In light of all the abuse and crap that Eleanor went through in life, I found my heart going out towards her because of her pain.  In her seclusion she found refuge in a journalist and friend, Lorena Hickok, called Hick by all of her acquaintances.  Hick provided Eleanor comfort and guidance in a time that she needed it most.  Alter writes:

“Hickok eased those fears, suggesting a fresh path for the new first lady that influenced, to a greater and lesser degree, the roles that all women married to American presidents would play in the decades to ahead.”

To Hick she could be herself without fear of judgement.  In Eleanor’s state of depression she wrote Hick saying, “My zest in life is rather gone for the time being…If anyone looks at me, I want to weep.”

Hick was a true picture of grace to Eleanor.  She was the shoulder that Eleanor needed in her time of depression (they wrote thousands, yes thousands of letters to each other).  She was someone that she could run to and be…just be. She didn’t have be the first lady to Hick, just a friend that was hurting and needing someone to hear her.  FDR should have been the person that fulfilled this void in her life, but that was not to be.

Isn’t this what we all want?  Real, graceful, forgiving, understanding, and loving relationships?  Don’t we all want a place that we come to without judgement?  Don’t we all want relationships where we can be our real selves without the alter ego’s, identities, and masks?  Don’t we all want a place that we can be naked without shame?

I think relationships like this are rare, but I pray we find them.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

Daddy, I just can’t

daddy i just can'tThe law will always beg you for more, but sadly you cannot satisfy its requirements.  Nothing is good enough for it.  No amount of trying to be good or holy can appease its requirements.  The more you sweat for it, the more it breaks your back.  It commands you to keep working but rewards you with no rest.  What you get is more commands, lists, and do’s and do not’s.  No matter how hard you try you will never make it happy.

Last week my son and I went out to practice baseball together, and it was a good time for me to have a talk with him about lying. The day before he had lied about something, and as we took a break from playing together we sat down on the field and began.  I asked him if he knew that lying was wrong, and he said yes.  He then told me, “everybody lies dad, except for Jesus.”

Fast forward a few days and my two and half year old daughter and I are in the drug store, and she is not listening to me.  She is strutting her stuff all through the store, and refused to come to me when I commanded her to.  I admit, she was cute, but it frustrated me.  As I told her that she should listen to daddy she said, “I just can’t.”

The law is evil in that we can’t satisfy it, but as Paul says it is in essence good.  Romans 7:12 says ,“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”  The law is good because it came from God, the law is the right thing to do, but as my daughter said, “I just can’t.”

I love how Paul words it in Ephesians 2:15, “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.”

The good news is the law is abolished. God made peace through the sacrifice of his son welcoming us all to the party. The war with the law is now over because grace won. The good news is even though we all say, “I just can’t”, Jesus says, “I can and I did.”

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.  No sin, lie, adultery, you name it can come between me and him.  In fact, the God that I believe in throws parties for people who don’t deserve it.  He puts robes around them, rings on their fingers, and serves them the best meat and wine in town.  He draws all men unto himself without a requirement of good behavior because everybody lies, except for Jesus.

What is Easter all about?

What is Easter all about?When I think about Easter, I have fond memories of jelly beans, easter baskets, easter egg hunts, and special moments with family. When I think about Easter my mind drifts back to hot sun and playing in my grandparents’ yard and in the street with my cousins. I think about a big family dinner, cake, and church. All of these things are awesome and great, but Easter means so much more to me now than it ever has, and it makes me think…what have I been missing all these years?

I’m not looking forward to Easter because it is another Sunday to go to church. I’m not looking forward to it because I get an extra day off. I’m looking forward to reflecting on what I’ve been reflecting on for two years; love and grace.

Easter is about me recognizing that there is nothing I could do about my sin because all sin was dealt with 2,000 years ago on the cross. Easter is about me recognizing that someone did something for me that I couldn’t do for myself. Easter is about me recognizing that morality can’t save me, only Jesus can. Easter is about freedom. Easter is about the law not having dominion over me anymore. I now live in a dispensation of grace.

Easter is about Jesus getting what I deserve, and now I don’t have to live in fear of judgement.

Easter Sunday is so much more than the trappings, as is Christmas. This Sunday morning is about one thing, and it is the ONLY thing that matters, a stone rolled away and a man that was dead walked out! He walked out to show that He, and only he could forgive sin.

Imagine being in debt up to your eyeballs and someone paying it all for you…that’s easter.

I quote him often, Robert Capon said, “The point is that as long as the world runs this show what it tries to say is that if you do something wrong God will get you. What it said in Jesus is, by the blanket absolution of everybody in the death of Christ, that God is not going to get anybody.”

Easter is about God not being angry any more because of what Jesus did. Isaiah 57:6 says, “I will not accuse them forever, nor will I always be angry.”

He’s not angry if you sin (he already died for it!), he’s not angry if you don’t go to church, he’s not angry if you don’t live holy, he’s just not angry. Jesus came for the least and the losers of this world and completely and totally let everyone off the hook through Easter.

Have your jelly beans, eat your cake, have a glass of wine, smoke your cigar, find an egg or two, and be thankful that Jesus paid it all!

Where you might not find grace…

grace in churchGrace has changed my life in countless ways, but I didn’t always find it in church.  John Updike said, “In general the churches…bore for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola: they promoted thirst without quenching it.” As I write this and reflect on my many years in church I realize that most of what I have received on Sunday mornings has been law and not grace.  It should be the place that our thirst is quenched, but I often left frustrated.

Paul Zahl says most of what you hear in church is, “always the same: here is what you should do, you are not doing it, so get out there and try harder.  This is the “three point sermon” of churches.  I sometimes suggest to clergy that they carve over the main door to the church the following words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  From the pulpit, what you are likely to get is the law.”

A lot of sermons I have heard have been filled with what I should do instead of what Christ has done for me.  I have often heard of how I was not measuring up to what church expected of me, and how I had to do certain things in order to be accepted in the fold.  What I should have been told is I was accepted without doing anything at all!  In truth, a lot of sermons resemble titles of self-help books and you often can’t distinguish them from what you might hear on a talk show.

A lot of our churches are full of pharisees.  The world is hungry for grace, but we give them rules to live by in lieu of a Christ that took their place because they couldn’t keep the rules.     

I love what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

What if church were a place where you heard death, burial, resurrection instead of ways to bootstrap your life?  What if  church were a place where freedom was proclaimed instead of fear of sin and mistakes?  What if church were a place you didn’t hear moralism, but you heard you were loved in-spite of the fact you aren’t moral?  What if we just preached Christ instead of all the other stuff that doesn’t help anyone?

If you don’t find a place like that I hope you know that God loves you just the way you are warts and all.  ”But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”, “there is therefore now no condemnation…”

I’m sorry to say you might not find grace in church, but you will find grace by simply looking to Jesus. If you are in a church that doesn’t extend grace then you have my permission to leave.

Cash, Jagger, and God is Selfish

god is selfishOne of the things I continue to learn about God is he always gets what he wants.  God is selfish.  As I say that I hear Mick Jagger singing: “You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometime you find, You get what you need.”  Whether we know it or not, we all get what we need, and God gets what he wants.  The world around me may seem opposed to Him, but ultimately control is in his hands, and not mine.  He is sovereign.  

God has no plan b, other options, or second guesses.  Nothing, and I mean nothing takes him by surprise.  My sin and my disobedience doesn’t take him by surprise, nor does it mess up his plans.  Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 1:11:

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”

Wherever you are right now is where you are supposed to be.  That is crazy to think about.  It goes against our thinking, but God has us right where he wants us.

God is Selfish!

The Bible actually has some funny ways of referring to Him.  God is selfish and God is jealous.  God is the most selfish being in the world. He is the only being that can actually have his way all the time.  His love is so great that it causes him to be jealous of us.  He is going to get his way.  I might kick and scream to get my way, but ultimately, the counsel of his will, will win.

What astounds me about this is my kicking and fighting.  If I “fight” against what he wants…it doesn’t matter because he will win.  This may be what Paul was experiencing when Jesus said to him in Acts 9:5, “And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”  In a sense, God is saying, “Paul, just stop it…I’m going to win this one way or another.”  Maybe my fighting and kicking is somehow a part of the process and His plan???  

In the words of Johnny Cash, “Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.”  God is beating the hell out of his drum, and we are marching to the beat of it whether we realize it or not. 

Think of Jonah.  If Jonah went to some of the churches I’ve been to then we would say Jonah was backslidden or Jonah was going to be cursed for his disobedience.  Jonah should watch out because he was now out of the “will of God” because of his sin.

BUT, Jonah is really not out of God’s will!  Even Jonah’s disobedience could not stop God from getting his selfish way.  On the surface Jonah looks like he is being selfish but really God is the one who gets His way. The fish was God’s redemption for Jonah.  God sent the fish to save Jonah from himself.  Even your sin can’t stop God.    

What if I forgot about what I wanted and just enjoyed Him?  Did Job get what he wanted, doubtful, but what he did get in the end was good.

I may not get what I want, but I will get what he wants, and that’s good.

Spiritual Performance Reviews – how to fail them!

Spiritual Performance ReviewsIf you have spent any time in the workforce then at some point you would have had a performance review. No matter how they are conducted these are all based on how well and not so well you did at your job in the previous year.  These meetings are about as fun as a root canal! They are seldom based on grace but based primarily on your merit. Unfortunately, performance reviews are not just found at your job, but they are in the bible, church, and in your personal spiritual lives. For fun let’s call them spiritual performance reviews!

Spiritual Performance Reviews

Beginning with the Bible we find spiritual performance reviews with Job and his friends in chapter 4 of Job:

7 Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed?
8 As I have observed, those who plow evil
and those who sow trouble reap it.

According to Job’s friends, because he has lost everything it’s his fault. He should just try harder next year.

How about the New Testament? Paul and Cephas (Peter), Galatians 2:11:

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

Paul taking Peter to task!  But why?  What gives Paul the right to jump on Peter?  Paul aint perfect either.  

There are more examples in scripture, but these are just the first two that came to mind.

Church is a funny place because it promises freedom, but doesn’t always deliver. I really don’t know where to begin with this one because a lot of church is performance based religion. If you don’t believe me then you haven’t been in it long enough. Give it time and you will see.

I wrote here about accountability relationships in church. Accountability relationships are just one big performance review that leads to nowhere. I take that back, it leads to the leader feeling puffed up and the other person feeling like a loser.

In our own spiritual lives there is the feeling that we have to measure up. There is the feeling that if we do enough spiritual disciplines, try harder, and get serious with God then He will accept us.

The good news is you already are accepted and there is nothing more you can do to get more accepted. You’re already in the club and your dues were paid for by Jesus.

I often feel condemned, not good enough, and that I should be doing more for God. I have to remind myself every day that God is fine. He’s at rest. He finished the work that I couldn’t do.

If God really had a review for us it would simply say there is therefore now no condemnation

Our names are written in His book and that’s all that matters. All of our bad performances, thoughts, sins, etc. were erased from his memory. All he sees is our name.

In the words of Robert F. Capon:

“C’mon up here and plunk yourself down by my great white throne and let’s you and me have a good long practice laugh before this party gets so loud we can’t even hear how much fun we’re having.”