Friday, September 30, 2011

Love is Everything ...

Perhaps the single biggest “proof” that God exists, is that love exists.  Love runs counter intuitive to survival of the fittest, or even self-preservation.  Love is more than instinct, more than emotional response, more than a feeling or chemical reaction in our brains.  Love is a choice.  Love is about prioritizing the life of someone else above even your own.  Love is defined in the giving.  It is impossible to measure the limits of love, for even when you think you know what they are, you find they can still be exceeded.  There are no laws to limit or regulate how much a person can love another, laws exist only to limit our actions that come from a lack of love.  John wrote … “For God so loved the world” these immoral words define the reason we exist, the reason why love is greater than justice, the reason why forgiveness is greater than revenge, and the reason why there is hope beyond this mere mortal existence.  Truly love is everything.

There are those who dream of wealth and the ease, comforts, and beauty it could bring to their lives.  But all the comforts of wealth are really only worth experiencing if they can be shared.  Isolation, even if in grandeur is not nearly as fulfilling.  We eat a fantastic meal, and the experience is better if there is someone we can share it with.  The more we care about the company we keep with us, the more the events have meaning and fulfillment.  The best beach in the world is better with someone you love.  The finest meal, the most elegant play, whatever the event – it gains meaning only so much as it can be shared.  And though we may desire ease and comfort, it is actually the sharing that brings what is true meaning to our lives and existence.  Wealth means little without love.  But love can mean everything even without wealth.
There are those who dream of fame and popularity, they crave the adoration of people they have never even met.  Yet fame does not offer real love.  Admiration is not the same thing as intimacy.  We may admire celebrities, want to have our pictures taken with them, or get an autograph, or have a brief exchange.  But the motives of the masses are not about how to show love to those we call celebrity.  They are more about bragging rights with our friends.  They are more about serving the ego of the non-celebrity by being close to those many admire.  We rarely are interested in friendships with celebrities for the purposes of what we might do for them, but rather what we might gain from the relationships.  This is not love, it is merely another form of greed.  Those with great fame are usually not the objects of selfless acts of kindness and charity, instead they are expected to show those acts to those who only seek them out for it.  Fame then, is empty.  It offers nothing but the questionable motives of those who seek proximity for reasons largely based on self-interest.  Adoration is not love.  But love is everything.
Our God showed us what love is, before we knew who He was.  Our God loved us, before we could even consider loving Him.  Our God loved us when some of us called ourselves His enemy.  Our God loved first, last, and most.  We come to our God because of His love and for no other reason.  Fear will not long compel anyone to do anything.  People have “close calls” in matters of health, or behavior, and may modify their actions for a short while, but it rarely lasts.  Imminent consequences or fear of those consequences will motivate short term change, but can do nothing to hold it in place.  But love, the kind of love that Christ brings to the human heart that is willing to accept it; that kind of love is life altering.  God’s love will change your perceptions.  God’s love will alter your thinking, your desires, and your actions.  God’s love is transformational and constantly adding even more value to your existence.  God is love, and love is everything.
To imagine the cosmos sprung into existence; that a periodic table of inanimate elements suddenly congealed in a way we have been unable to replicate, and life was born.  To imagine that life grew and evolved into the series of species we have around us, absent design, absent intent; offers no explanation for the existence of love.   More than the chemical attraction between two people, why does a mother protect her child at her own expense?  The need to propagate a species implies a willingness to sacrifice the needs of the individual for those of the collective.  Yet this is rarely found in human behavior.  Why should a mother do anything to care for or nurture her child?  We call it instinct.  But how does instinct cover the life-long sacrifices a mother makes for her child well after they are capable of caring for themselves.  How can we call instinct, the willful choice of a mother to sacrifice her own interests for the sake of her child?  Willful sacrifice for the well-being of another is the base definition of love.  The life of a woman who is devoid of love, would be better served to ignore having children.  Devoid of the intimacy that develops between mother and child, the mere physical discomforts of pregnancy outweigh the results – absent love.  But as love is something whose origins cannot be traced, and whose limits cannot be measured, yet we find it within us – so a mother comes to love a life she has never even met,  as God loves us, even before we knew who He was.
One makes a choice to love.  Beyond the pheromones that attract a mate, comes the choice to become monogamous and intimate with a person of our choosing.  A life is dedicated to another.  A life is spent shared with another.  And there is no regret in the lives and loves of those who choose to give 100% to another without thought of what it is in for them.  Reciprocated love, based on a choice, becomes even more powerful and profound over time.  It is our decisions to abandon love that bring us pain in our lives.  It is love unreturned that aches at our hearts and makes us miserable.  It is the opposite of love that is everything we do not want.  Where love is all we want, all we need.  As we pass on, our lives are measured by the love we leave behind.  Many grieve for the one who loved greatly, few for the one who loved sparingly.  Indeed the measure of our existence is found in our love.  We are the reflection of our creator.  We are made in His image, the image of love.  Love is a part of us, because we are a part of our Creator.  He loved us so greatly He was willing to forego His own life, to redeem ours.  The universe will forever marvel at this example of just how far love will go.  He did not do this great act of redemption for Himself, He did it for the object of His love – He did it for us.  It was His choice to love us.  It was a choice He has made, and never faltered from.
If we are to know eternal life, we must know Christ, for He is eternal life.  He is love.  His work, His ministry, His miracles, His words – were a constant source of redemptive love.  More than justice, more than doctrine, more than ideology, more than ancestral heritage, He was love to the world.  If we are to bring Christ back into Christianity, it must begin and end with how we love.  We must allow Him to fill us with His love.  We must let Him teach us how to love like He loves.  We must give up our own ideas about love and instead let His love control our very thoughts, our motives, our desires, and our actions.  We must become one with Him, but submitting our will to His control, and His reform.  Love does not originate in us, it is reflected through us.  We are not the source of love, we are its image.  As we allow God, we allow love.  As we restrict God, we restrict love.  He is love, the source of all love, a never ending fountain whose limits cannot be measured.  God is love.  And love is everything.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Killing the Critics ...

There are many who have a horrible picture of God, and even worse of the Bible.  It would be easy to assume they are all outside of the church, but such is not always the case.  Critics are alive and well and ever present in online forums, social gatherings, and even inside church business meetings or board meetings.  Those who criticize from outside the church are taught to do so, by the encounters they have had with those who profess the name of Christ.  The critics within do an excellent job of training the critics without.  How do those who bear the name of Christ undo the damage that has been done by those who believe it is their duty to point out the flaws - in everything?

When one examines the ministry of Christ, we always find Him focused on the redemption of all He encounters.  Christ does not center his conversations on what is wrong with His listener, only how His listener could escape the pain they carry.  Mary Magdalene was guilty of far more than adultery when she was cast at the Savior’s feet.  Christ could have enumerated all the sins He knew she had committed over her lifetime.  He did not.  Nor did He call attention to each of the sins in the lives of those who were picking up the stones to end her life.  With a simple but piercing gaze into the eyes of the angry mob, He gently reminded them that they too were equally guilty and deserving of death, or more importantly of the mercy He was extending to Mary.  Christ was not trying to excuse Mary, or proclaim her innocence.  He was trying to free her from the pain she had chosen to embrace.  This is the very nature of redemption, not provide an excuse for evil, but an escape from evil.  And in this work, Christ was decidedly NOT a critic.  Instead He uses the power of positive reinforcement, blessing her, freeing her, and saying … “go, and sin no more.”  Forget what you have done and embrace the freedom from pain He offers to her.  Do not focus on your sins or your past or the hundred other things she had done wrong – instead be free, and focus on the freedom only Christ could bring.
Criticism does not bring reform.  But the hope and love Christ offered brought about change.  When Christ encounters the Samaritan woman at the well, he again gets her excited about what He has to offer her – a living water, a freedom she has never known.  He does not focus on all the woman’s sins or faults.  He mentions her social history only to reveal to her that He knows her as a person, cares about her as a person, is interested in freeing this particular woman from the pain she has known in her own life.  She becomes so excited she is compelled to go back to her town, and bring with her everyone who knows her to hear “this prophet who revealed the secrets of her life”.  She is not content to hear His message of freedom alone, but rather wants the entire town to come to Him.  Had Christ been a critic with divine knowledge about her life and sins and focused only on her faults, she would have wanted to hide herself from Him, and never let Him speak of her long list of evils in front of the entire village.  Instead, Christ does not center His encounter with her on what she may have done wrong, but on how she can be freed from the pain of evil.  This freedom, this hope, this love is what she is compelled to share with everyone she knew.  Christ brings reform, criticism accomplishes nothing.
Yet somehow over the years “Christian” has become synonymous more with “critic” than with “Christ”.  Too often Christians focus on what is wrong with the world around them, and more specifically with the people they encounter, than on the hope the Christ brings to escape the pain of evil that plagues our souls.  When an outsider looks at a Christian for the first time, they mark whether they see a person who loves them unconditionally, much like our Lord – or someone who seems to think their sole mission is to point out every flaw, every shortcoming, every sin that might be preventing them from “finding God”. 
As when Christ encountered Mary, there was no question that the crowd was right, she was guilty.  But the lesson is not about judging the guilty, it is about reforming a life from guilty to one that is not slave to the pain that evil brings.  So too, when we encounter the sinners that surround us in the world, it is not our mission to focus and call attention to the obvious evils they commit – but to point them to a God who loves them SO much He was willing to die to heal them.  People avoid criticism, but are drawn to love.  If we are to represent Christ, we must be a picture of unconditional love.  Proving that we actually do love the sinner, despite his sin; for our Lord loves us despite the evil we continue to cling to.  Our mission is not to “fix” people, we are incapable of that.  Our mission is to point people to the source of all love and let Him “fix” them, as He does with us.
Christ does not discriminate against “some” of His children, choosing not to love them because of a particular evil they commit.  Instead He loves ALL of His children, despite the condition they find themselves in, despite the sin and pain they have chosen to embrace.  He longs to free ALL of those He loves from the pain in their lives.  He wants ALL to come to Him; age is no barrier, sex is no barrier, race is no barrier, even our sin is no barrier to come to the Lord of Lords.  He did not ask anyone He encountered to go become blameless and give up certain vices before they could be with Him.  He knows that is not something humans can do.  Instead He bids us all to come to Him.  He knows when we do we find rest.  Only when we come to Him can we find the peace, the hope, and the change we ALL so desperately need.  In this He presents an infallible picture of unconditional love.  How can Christians then, those who bear His name, love others any less?  How can we claim the name of Christ and then totally reverse His ministry from one of hope, to one of condemnation and fear.
Notice that Christ never once threatened any of His listeners with eternal Hellfire and damnation if they did not choose to believe in Him.  His ministry was not one based on … “you better or else”.  The Beatitudes are not followed by ten curses to those who refuse to embrace Him.  Yes, on occasion Christ warned His listeners about the dangers of disobedience (mostly to those who thought themselves the religious leaders of the day); but even then it was always couched in an appeal of love.  Christ’s evangelism was not based on the soon coming end of the world, the last plagues, persecution, torment, and the evils of going to hell for our sins.  He did not preach long sermons designed to scare people into submission to an all-powerful vengeful God.  That is not who He was.  That is not who His Father is.  Instead, He presents the perfect picture of love, acceptance, and freedom from the pain of evil.  The Bible is not written to show the justice of God in condemning the evil ones, it is written to show the mercy of God to those who do not deserve it.  We are the beneficiaries of His love, His mercy, and His sacrifice.  We receive it as a gift, unearned.  He needs no fear to motivate us.  He has something considerably better to offer than merely an escape from fear.  He has a real alternative to the pain of slavery in serving only one’s self.
Christ does not need fear to transform His listeners.  He does not criticize to reform.  He loves.  He genuinely loves, each person, each encounter is one designed to redeem.  Christ knew the mind of Judas.  He knew that Judas was skimming from the collection plates.  He knew that Judas would betray Him.  He knew what would become of Judas.  So why not reveal him?  Wouldn’t you?  Why tolerate a known traitor in your midst?  But Christ did.  Not just to fulfill some prophecy written centuries earlier, or not because He intended to provide Judas with false intel to give the Pharisees.  He allowed Judas to be one of the twelve, because He desperately wanted to save Judas from himself.  He hoped that close-up, constant exposure to love might reach into the heart of Judas and reform him. 
But to do this, Judas must be willing.  Judas thought he knew better what the mission of Christ should be, and while he believed in the divinity of Christ, he never imagined that one who had such power would not use it to free himself from certain death.  Judas never accepted the freedom Christ offered, yet that did not ever give Christ an occasion to criticize Judas, and point out his every fault.  Christ did not try to frighten Judas into reform.  He did not tell Judas that what he was doing, and how he was thinking, might lead him to the very gates of hell.  Instead, He was patient and loving with Judas.  He accepted Judas as one of His own.  Judas was a member of the 12.  He could have had his name written on one of the gates of Heaven itself.  He could have been a mighty leader of the early Christian church.  But Judas would not have it.  And Christ never changed his approach with Judas, no matter what Judas did or said.  Christ only ever showed him love and acceptance.
If criticism is to end within the Christian church it must first end inside of me.  I must look in the mirror and confess to my Lord that my heart is one full of critique and empty of love.  I must ask the Lord to change how I speak, how I love, and how I communicate with others.   I must find a way to focus on what is good, and allow Christ to fix what is not.  I must become an encourager of the faith, and an unfailing reflection of His love through me to those I encounter.  I must love those who are hard to love.  I must remember not to respond to criticism with barbs of my own.  Instead I must return love for insults, love for hate, love for dislike, love for apathy, love for greed.  Whatever is thrown at me by those I meet, whether inside or outside the church walls, I must only ever return love. 
This is what my Savior did.  This is how Christ ministered.  He was not obsessed with a list of woes.  He was laser focused on how to redeem people with love.  He wanted to reconcile ALL of us to His Father, not just the ones struggling with “certain pre-approved sins”, but everyone, no matter what their particular sin was.  He did not care about the belief systems a person held to be valid, He knew He would have to help them see truth.  But we can only see truth AFTER we come to Christ, not before it.  He knew it might take years to help us believers find the truth we ignore thinking we know better – like Judas.  But He does not give up on us.  Therefore let us not give up on each other, and let us find His strength in our hearts, to destroy any shred of criticism that might remain.  And perhaps then redefine “Christian” to be synonymous with “unconditional acceptance” rather than “critic”.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Christian Rock Music ...

The greatest day in a person’s life is the day they accept the gift of salvation from our Lord Jesus Christ.  On this day they begin a journey that leads them into perfection of mind, body, and soul.  It begins here and reaches fulfillment in the heaven we all so long to see.  As we submit ourselves to Christ, He changes how we think, what we want, and therefore what we do.  We come into harmony with God, and begin to learn how to love like He loves.  This is the power of the gospel.  This is the reason why love conquers all, even death.  This is the only ideology where a God works so hard to redeem the erring creation that sometimes fights Him as an enemy.  Our God indeed loved us while we were yet His enemy.  As we allow Him to recreate in us a new heart, a new mind, and eventually a new body, we begin to escape the pain of self-inflicted evil that we were once enslaved to.  The greatest day in a person’s life is the day they come to accept our Lord.

So it stands to reason, that for the devil to have a chance at winning the fight against love, he must do everything he can to keep people away from a decision to accept Jesus Christ.  He must keep them too busy, too skeptical, too disoriented, too distracted – anything he can use to avoid a call that might lead one lost soul to the throne of grace.  Once a lost soul accepts the gift of faith granted by Christ, the devil will forevermore be fighting a losing battle.  Anything that would point a lost soul to Christ, is something that is sure to meet with the intensity of hate as nothing else on planet earth can warrant.  For it is nearly impossible to pluck one dear person from the protecting hand of our Father God.  Our God is jealous to protect His own, and faithful to save us to the uttermost.  The devil knows this, he has lost too many souls to the simple love of God.  So he must spend his energy warring against the witness of a changed life.
How then does a lost soul come to find the Lord, when the devil is so determined to keep them away from the source of all salvation?  Perhaps the most common method is the personal testimony of a caring friend or family member who has experienced it firsthand and can tell of the saving power of Christ to take pain away from our lives.  When Andrew found Christ, He quickly went to call his brother Simon Peter to let him know the good news.  Even today when Christ actually saves you from a sin which you had no power over, and brings you victory you did not deserve but were given anyway – the freedom from pain this brings is enormous and MUST be shared.  So today the power of personal testimony has not lost its edge, we still desire to share the good news we have found with those we care about.
Sometimes however, a lost soul is not fortunate enough to have a close friend who has personally experienced salvation and can tell them firsthand what it means.  In these situations, God must rely on other means to reach the children He so desperately wants to save.  As our eyes and ears are bombarded everyday with stimuli from Internet screens to TV; from iPods and satellite radio to cell phones and twitter updates; we process information and try to make sense of it all.  Satan uses this to keep us occupied, but God uses this as well to slip in references to His word, and His love.  It comes as television programming dedicated to spreading the word.  It comes as internet sites dedicated to ministry of Christ.  It comes over the radio waves as music from every sub-genre and style popular today, but by musicians dedicated to the cause of Christ and with lyrics designed to uplift one to the throne of grace.  Messages to the masses, hoping that just once, the long lost child of God will pay attention and be drawn to the source of all love.
It really does not matter so much “which” message a person hears that leads them to Christ.  It is enough that they are led to Christ.  All of us find God with many erroneous ideas, many mistaken assumptions, and thinking that has long been corrupted by evil.  It takes time for God to undo in us what must be undone.  It takes time for Him to show us how to let go of pain, and our erring ideologies, and allow Him to lead us to truth.  But the journey cannot begin until we decide to begin it.  That greatest day must occur before growth can occur.  That greatest day must occur, before we have a chance to find deeper truth, and an even better definition of love than we thought possible.  Should we as Christians really care, if a person finds God through the sermons of Billy Graham, or Oral Roberts, or the Pope, as long as they find Christ?  Does it really matter “which” Christian musician inspires them to seek the Lord of Love, so long as they seek Jesus?  Do we care which internet site it was that led a person to a knowledge of Christ, if that knowledge begins their journey?
Too often Christians set expectations for new converts too high.  It is not enough to merely find Jesus, one must find Him in the proper way, using the proper doctrine, and be completely devoid of even the appearance of incomplete truth.  Yet none of us has complete truth if we were honest.  Our own limitations keep us from it.  Truth, like salvation from evil, is a process.  It has a beginning and a fulfillment.  It is a journey.  And what we can completely rest assured in, is that our God desires ONLY to save us.  He will not lead us into error as we move forward with Him.  He will not lead us to slaughter, but to truth.  Our Shepherd does not allow His flock to go astray, He leads them beside the still waters and restores our souls.  Restoration of that which is corrupted by evil to the state of perfection He intended.  But He does not do this in the blink of an eye.  And He does not expect us to wait to come to Him until we are sure that we know it all first.  He expects us to be ignorant, mistaken, and full of woe.  He knows our condition.  It is not a secret from Him.  But to fix us, our journey must have a beginning.  It matters little if the vehicle that brings us to Christ is a perfect one, it only matters that it gets us started.
The tendency of a Christian to believe their version of truth is the best one around, or their version of worship style is the only one acceptable to God is too great in our world.  Thus we fall into the trap of ridicule over ministries not of our own designs.  We disparage musicians who play a style of Christian music we do not personally equate to, particularly if it is similar to music that is not designed to uplift one to God.  We are not happy about the ministry of other denominations, fearing that “they” are leading people astray while only “we” have the right take on how to get to know Christ.  The problem with all this thinking is that it is “me” centric instead of Christ centric.  We forget that it is Christ who leads the captive soul to truth, not me.  We forget it is only Christ who can remove a sin from someone, no matter what I do or say, only Christ can actually bring someone a change of mind and heart.  We forget that Christ has more of an interest in saving a person than we ever will, no matter what our relationship is with that person.  In short we take our eyes off of Christ, use our own judgment, and begin to condemn what should have never been condemned.
Consider the alternative; would it be better that a person never came to accept Jesus Christ, than for them to be introduced to salvation by a Christian Rock artist, or Christian Rap artist, or a Christian poet or actor, or a Christian pastor of another denomination or faith?  Is it better to see a person denied the freedom and truth that Christ would lead them to, because WE do not approve of the tool used to bring them to Christ in the first place?  Better for darkness to reign, than to give the light a chance to break through; surely not.  I would rather walk down the streets of gold and find you there no matter how you first met Christ, than to debate with you if that method should have ever existed in the first place.  The devil has ZERO interest in seeing people led to Christ.  No matter what we think about the style, or completeness of truth of the vehicle that leads one to Christ – at least the person will have a chance at salvation because of it.  There is only one Jesus Christ.  There is only one decision that matters.  And there is only one result that occurs when a person surrenders to Jesus, they are saved from evil – all evil – in every form.  Truth will out.  People will change.  But it must all start somewhere.
The only appropriate response to a lost soul who finds redemption in Christ is one of exceedingly great joy.  The angels rejoice in heaven for even one soul, think of it, just one is precious.  Those heavenly beings who know how to love in perfection understand the value of even one soul who finds his/her way to Christ.  It is the greatest day of that person’s life, and will be followed by greater and greater days as the grace of Lord is revealed in them.  If heaven rejoices, how can we begrudge?  If angels sing, how can we condemn?  It is more revealing a portrait of those who can criticize a person for the method in which they found Christ, than it is the object of their criticism.  Love understands that truth and change come over time.  Love does not expect perfection first, but instead sees it occur over a distance.  It is a metamorphosis that occurs because of the proximity to Jesus Christ.  And for each of us, our story has a beginning.  Let us rejoice the end of our journey is the perfection God intends, and rejoice that any method that works, helped a lost soul reach the Lord.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Handling Adversity ...

“Onward Christian soldiers …” - Imagine an army that was not required to follow orders, and could at will completely ignore the chain of command; or how about a business where the threat of discipline or consequences was wholly absent from the HR policy of the company.  Soldiers could feel free to do as they please even in times of war; similarly company employees could choose to work or not work as they saw fit.  How long would you expect either of these organizations to survive?  Minutes perhaps.  Yet the church functions exactly in this fashion.  The church is a wholly volunteer organization where members can do pretty much as they please.  The only “threat” that can ever be imposed is dis-fellowship, and as the number of other churches is so plentiful, this really only translates into moving a mile or two down the road to the next group meeting place.  So how can any group like this ever survive?

Of course the goals are different for a church.  Where armies or businesses can expel those who do not fall into line, a church has the goal of retaining EVERY single person, regardless of their performance.  A church has the goal to keep even the “problem people”, in fact churches are supposed to specialize in attracting and retaining the “problem people”.  Each soul is precious to the Lord, therefore each member of His church is precious and cannot be expelled for merely being obnoxious, offensive, ill-tempered, foul mouthed, impatient, imperfect … the list continues.  And this description does not merely apply to new converts who are young in the faith, and perhaps still carrying the baggage of their former weaknesses into the sanctuary.  No, the list of faults more often applies to members who are known to have been in the ranks for years, sometimes decades, and still come across in this way.  These even more “experienced” Christians can often test the patience … well of everyone they encounter.
So how do we handle the adversity that is bound to come from people with differing ideas, differing interpretations of duty or doctrine, or who simply appear to be combative in nature always spoiling for a good fight?  How do we maintain the goal of inclusion when controversy will surely give cause to thin the ranks?  This is perhaps the most difficult problem a Christian will face, not how to reach those who are ignorant in the Word, but to reach those who are fluent in it.  While the goals of a church are for inclusion and thus very different from the world, the problems that arise between people are all too similar.  Two equally paired executives argue about a strategy to move a company forward, each believes firmly in their own ideas, and each believes firmly the opposing ideas are bad.  When facts have been exhausted, ego will gladly maintain the dispute.  A personal surety, a personal certainty, these ideas are prevalent in the business mind driven for success and without the ability to consider the idea that “I might be wrong”, I am destined for conflict.  It is the same within the church.
Those seasoned Christians with years under their belts, sometimes fall into the idea that their experience makes them “better” Christians.  It is easy to believe that the amount of study one has invested in doctrine makes them “more” knowledgeable on these topics.  The time spent in the pews listening to many pastors, studying in many groups, reading many books – these things are designed to improve the Christian experience and over time can lead one to believe it makes them “better” understand the ideas in question.  To think that a brand new convert might have something new, relevant, and perhaps even deeper to offer on a truth long taught in the ranks is considered nearly impossible.  New converts then are supposed to talk less, listen more, and take their cues from the seasoned members of a church.  As humility lessens so does the ability to learn anything new.  As humility lessens, the ego, even an ego that is centered in a knowledge of Christ and scripture, can grow to the point where it is comfortable seeing itself as “an authority” on spiritual matters.
Thus conflict between Christians with similar years of experience, but differing ideas on doctrines or policies, is bound to occur.  It is not a new phenomenon.  Instead of sharing their enlightenment with all the nations around them, the children of Israel walled themselves off and attempted to only promote ideas from within.  But even this failed as two prominent religious groups emerged in the time of Christ, the Pharisees and Sadducees who disagreed violently over the ideas of resurrection.  Within the early Christian church, there was a disagreement over John Mark that led to a split between Paul and Barnabas.  In later protestant churches divisions have arisen over various doctrines that lead to the fragmentation of churches and the foundation of yet another Christian denominational church.  Religious people have an equally embarrassing history of arguing over ideas to the point of segregation.  Not exactly the unity our Lord prayed for.
So recognizing that our human condition has led us in the past into conflicts, how can we use what we know now, to avoid it in future, or to handle it differently when it occurs?  First, we must keep our priorities straight, and our goals in the forefront of our minds.  The goal of our church is inclusion, not the forced change of another’s opinions or beliefs to align with our own.  Christ did not command us to go out into the world and become the “Borg” from the Star Trek series, telling those we encounter that resistance is futile, and attempting to absorb them into the collective.  We are first and foremost to share a message of love, love that offers hope, hope that offers a pathway to perfection – a pathway out of our slavery to ourselves (and our own ideas).  Every Christian must remember that the pathway with Christ leading, often leads us into thinking we did not consider before.  In short, we are all of us, wrong.  Wrong about what we like, what we want, and how we think – about a GREAT many things.  Christ is patient with us, and slowly leads us to see our errors, then as we allow Him, He fixes them.  But this process does not happen in the blink of an eye, so we cannot expect it in our brothers on our own timelines.
Keeping the goal of inclusion in our mind, we must remember that every word we offer another must be a word of love.  No hate, dislike, apathy, disdain, condemnation has ever made a person reform their thinking, change their mind, or feel loved.  Inclusion will require us to bite our tongues, deny our first impulses, refrain from throwing a counter punch, and sometimes swallow a ton of adrenaline.  It is not about the compromise of our values, it is about the effective ability to share our values with those who disagree in such a way that the ONLY message they see in them is one of love.  If our ideas cannot be relayed in such a way as to show only love, they are not worth expressing. 
Christ always was able to deliver pure truth in pure love and thus lure His listener to the source of all love in the process.  So should we strive for this in our own interactions.  Imagine how difficult it must have been for Him, the true source of all truth, to have to debate doctrines with the poisoned minds of the Pharisees bent on His destruction.  They were intent on killing Him, trying to trap Him into “no win” situations, while He was bent on saving each of them, trying to show them their error while never stating it in such a way as to offer them no hope, no love, and no redemption.  Christ was here even for His most devout enemies, those in His own church.
Often conflicts that arise in a church have less to do with doctrines and more to do with control, or the lack of it.  An idea is only as good as the person who came up with it – thus if “I” did not think of it, I am less likely to support it.  This thinking pervades the board rooms of corporate America, but all too often finds its way into Church board meetings as well.  There are those professed servants of Christ, who will refuse to serve in anything less than a leadership capacity.  Our character flaws are carried with us into His service, and despite our tepid willingness to work for Him, we still wish to exert our own ideas, our own conditions, on whether we will actually work for Him or not, or how much.  True servants, who in humility will serve in any capacity they are called upon, and perform to the best of His ability, are few and far between. 
In business it is said 20% of the people do 80% of the work, this truism may also apply to your local congregation.  Each church requires a wide variety of support positions for it to function well, from greeters, to deacons and deaconesses, to teachers, elders, administrators, musicians, and ministers.  But in most congregations, the same few folks tend to fill the same types of positions year after year.  This is not just due to their own desires, often it is due to a lack of interest by others content to do little for their own congregations.  As long as someone else is willing to take the vacant post, why should “I”?  Instead of 100% participation, which you might expect from those whose lives are supposed to be a profession of service to Christ, the percentage is far less.  Inaction, or conflicts over leadership, are an embarrassment to the ideas of true servitude in His mission.
When a conflict does arise over a doctrine of truth, the stakes can rise much higher.  It is not just the belief that “I” am right that is so driving, it is the combination that “you” are both wrong, and putting the church in moral jeopardy with your heretical teachings.  This is just the type of perfect storm designed to split the church.  One feels compelled to tell the other of the error in their doctrines.  One feels compelled not to stand by and allow other less educated sheep fall into the traps set by false doctrines, and doctrines of devils.  One must “stand” for Christ by opposing these heresies, for the protection of the flock.  All of these sentiments are keenly felt by the believer who is devout and cares about His church members.  But all lack one thing – a complete lack of self in the process.  The true leader of a Christian church is not the pastor, or the elders, or the church board, or the treasurer or other administrators, it is not even the entirety of the congregation by majority fiat: instead it is Christ alone.  Christ alone is the only true leader, and it is His church, that He cares about, and wishes to see escape the chains of evil, and avoid the traps of the evil one.
It is Christ alone, who is able to protect His church from falling into false and devil’s doctrines.  It is He, far more than “me”, that cares about what happens in His church.  And His motives are not corrupted with ego, or a desire to exert leadership, or a desire to be seen as “an authority” on spiritual matters.  So when a case of doctrinal dispute arises in a group designed for inclusion, perhaps each of us on both sides of the issue at hand might do well to first remember it is not OUR ideas that matter, but His alone.  If we are able to humble ourselves, and seek the leadership of Christ in this matter, in our own hearts, minds, and lives – perhaps Christ will lead us into a deeper truth, a better understanding, and with it a better approach on how to address the topic with those with whom we disagree.  In truth if both sides of a Christian conflict were to really use this approach, conflict would disappear through osmosis.  Christ would lead the erring one into a better position.  The reason why this is seldom seen in our churches, is that each believes it is ONLY the other person who requires His leadership and needs to change.  Each refuses to look in the mirror and find the heart that requires changing.  Yet our entire Christian lives are a series of self-recognition that truly “self” or “I” am the enemy of God.  We are constantly unlearning the poison of the world, in how we approach it, through the gentle leadership of Christ.  Perhaps it is time now, for us to recognize the process may also apply to deeper doctrinal understanding.
Trusting the true leader of our church to preserve the church He cares about, is the same requirement we have to trust the savior of our souls to complete the changes He has promised within us.  Too often we do not trust God to rid us of sin as He has promised and therefore believe we must “help” Him do so.  Our own self efforts to control our sins fail miserable time after time, yet we stubbornly refuse to let Him do all the work.  Instead we hold on to some of it ourselves, and continue to fail.  The same is true in the larger church.  We do not trust Christ to be the actual leader of our faith, and therefore believe we must “help” Him defeat ideas we believe to be in error.  We therefore cling to our own ideas, never realizing it was us who needed to change, and thus continue or promote controversy well after it might have otherwise gone away.  Christ does not need our help when it comes to removing evil, either from us, or from His church.  Instead He needs us to stay focused on “allowing” Him the complete freedom to remove evil from inside of us.  As this occurs, the evil in the church is removed as well.  One cannot remove evil from a group body, while consumed with it ourselves.  It was the lessen of the spec in a brother’s eye while a beam exists in our own.  Let us trust the Master Physician to remove both.
“It takes two to tango.”  And it takes two for conflict to remain.  If “I” can go humbly back to Christ, repent of my actions, and truly allow Him to change my mind on the topic as He needs to, whether in whole or in part, my part in the conflict can come to an end.  If “I” can seek the leadership of Christ in my church, and pray for the outpouring of His Holy Spirit on me, and on my enemies, to change me even more than He changes my enemies, my part in the conflict can come to an end.  But “I” have to resign myself, that my ideas must be totally placed on His alter, and He is free to change my thinking as He sees fit.  Even if my positions on doctrine turns out to be what He intended after all, my ability to express it in love will come from the divine reacher of souls who because of my abject willingness to be wrong, can place His words in my tongue that LOVE remains at the forefront of every communication with those who disagree with me.  For if “I” submit myself wholly to Him, it becomes less about what I would say, and more about what He would say through me.  He might even remind me that silence while He works on my enemy might be actually more effective, and joy over the changes I see in myself and in others is worth expressing.  Not all disputes must be solved in our own ideas of time.
Have you considered the parable of the wheat and the tares?  Those who are mistaken, the tares, are not immediately pulled out.  They too are watered and allowed to grow right in the midst of the wheat.  Only at harvest are they finally sorted out.  NOT in the growing process, not while there remains hope that the tare might look around him, and find it is better to be a wheat, and allow the creator to transform his life into that of a wheat.  It is not for the sake of the wheat that the tares are allowed to remain, it is for the sake of the tares.  The wheat have already been saved by grace, and are already transforming in the power of Christ into something of even more value.  It is the tares who are in need.  They should not be removed, but instead included, surrounded by the love of the wheat, that they too might also be transformed and saved. 
Cutting the tares out of the congregation early is condemning them to certain destruction, while doing nothing to enhance the wheat.  In fact, there is danger that cutting out the tares will also damage the wheat.  The wheat do not die because of the presence of the tares.  In fact, the wheat, having the knowledge of saving grace, cannot be deterred or tempted into darkness by those who have not yet seen the light.  The wheat grow up just fine, being nurtured by the Lord of the Harvest until they finally reach their goal.  It is the tares who so desperately need to be around the love reflected in the wheat.  It is the tares who need every opportunity to see love, and desire to be changed by it.  This is the role, those who believe themselves to be wheat in the church, must take on – to be a beacon of love that inspires change – not dogma desiring adoption.  Leave the tares alone, let them be, and show them nothing but love.  Their erring ideas will do nothing to pluck the wheat from the Master’s hands.  We can trust the Lord of the Harvest to protect His own, it is the tares who need our love, not our ideological domination.  If we can remember this, “we” can function differently on our way to His kingdom, leaving behind the conflicts of the past, and trusting in Him to light up the road as we move forward in grace.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Facing Death ...

Few of us plan to die.  So when death comes, it is generally a surprise that interrupts our routines and stops our other plans cold.  While it is a reality that we are ALL dying, whether by age, illness, or chance the fact remains all of us are mortal.  It is unpleasant, even for a Christian, to contemplate our own death, but harder still to consider the death of someone we have come to love greatly.  But given that death is a part of our lives, do we have a right to die, do we have a right to determine how and when, or are these considerations still referred to as “an act of God”.
Suicide has at times been considered the only unpardonable sin.  The idea behind this is that you are unable to ask forgiveness after you commit it, therefore unable to obtain a pardon.  But then like every other act, a black and white approach may not fit all situations.  Take for example the 3 Hebrew men who refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue of gold.  They knew the penalty for this act of disobedience was death.  Their own words to the king revealed this awareness when they said … “even if their God does not spare them, they cannot bow down.”  Is this not a conscience act of suicide, choosing a course that will surely lead to your death?  One could argue that ultimate end of their faith spared them from death, as it was with Isaac who placed himself on the altar his father built to God.  But the early Christians who faced death by the thousands in the coliseum of Rome were not spared death for their refusal to reject the name of Christ for that of Diana.  Samson as well, was granted full strength to bring down that pagan temple despite the knowledge of God it would be his last act on earth.  It appears not all suicides can fall into the same category with God.
What about a “right to die”?  Do we have one?  When the pain of our lives is so constant, unrelenting, and hopeless is a final alternative an acceptable one?  It is hard again to answer this question in concrete terms.  Consider the despair a victim feels of being bullied in school; powerless, defeated, hopeless – yet we would all wish to intervene and prevent what is otherwise a needless death.  But consider an elderly citizen who is racked with terminal stage 4 cancer throughout their entire body – how long do we keep them on morphine and machines if there is no medical help to ease their pain before they eventually pass into the sleep of death?  Both feel pain, both feel despair, both feel hopelessness – while the bullying might be stopped the cancer will likely not.  It would take outside intervention to make either situation better.
So why does God not save His children from pain and death?  Why does God not directly intervene in the situation of bullied child before it reaches the point of suicide, or heal the cancer patient despite the advancement of the disease?  We know He could do it.  And it seems He chooses not to.  Does that not leave God with at least a partial responsibility for these losses?  Many in our world believe this, and hold God accountable if not fully to blame, for every act of death that occurs.  When someone falls in a storm, tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster – God is held to blame.  When a Christian dies from disease despite prayers for healing – the Atheist uses it to verify the lack of existence of a loving God – and the Christian rationalizes to think it must have been “God’s will” that the victim die.  In effect the Atheist places less blame on God in this sad situation than the Christian does.  But the fact remains that not all prayers to heal the dying or to save the dying are answered.  Does God share the blame?
To consider this we must begin at the beginning: when God created man “in His own image”, He did not create us for a mortal life.  Death, or non-existence, was supposed to be part of the knowledge of good and of evil that we were to remain blissfully ignorant of.  After all prior to the existence of evil, death was a completely foreign/unknown concept.  Nothing had ever died, let alone suffered.  Plant life lived forever, as did animals, angels, and of course God Himself.  When man entered the universe as God’s latest creation he was no different.  God’s plans for humans were not stamped with conditions, or a time clock, or with death or disease in mind.   Therefore the “will” of God was that every single human would lead a fulfilling existence with Him, each other, in love and service to others.  It was AGAINST the will of God that death was introduced into our world.  Death then, is the natural and ultimate result of the existence of evil.
Going against God was never even considered in heaven, until the first day Lucifer began to consider what serving self might be like instead of serving others.  Despite God’s counsel to forsake the pursuit of self, Lucifer by intent strayed from the government and principles of the Most High.  He could not conceive of where it would lead him, and became jealous that God seemed to know something he was unaware of.  Evil would then need time to see where it would lead.  And while it progressed or rather digressed, it led to pain, suffering, and the opposite of every good thing God had created.  Eventually evil was revealed to be the opposite of life itself and existence itself – evil was death.  When Lucifer first asked his question why is serving self so bad he did not have it in mind to kill God.  But when after years of pursuing this course had deranged and captivated his mind, Satan would have no problem killing Christ as painfully as possible at the culmination of His earthly ministry.  Evil would kill God Himself, if it could, and Satan proved it before the entire universe at Calvary.
So while death is a part of our reality, it was never intended to be so by the “will” of God.  Rather, the entire plan of salvation is to remove evil from within us, and around us, and one day completely remove the concept of death again from our consideration.  The “will” of God is for us to live.  But not just to live in a state of pain, but to live a life that is worth living.  It is our separation from God, from the source of all love, that causes us so much pain in our world.  It is the nature of evil itself to inflict pain, mental, spiritual, and physical in as much quantities as possible.  It is evil that is to blame for the pain in us, as well as the pain we cause when we embrace it.  These ever widening circles of pain were never part of God’s intentions for us.  And sadly, as He told Adam and Eve, He could not allow us to live indefinitely while in a state of the decay of evil and self-service.  Were we to be immortal as well as consumed with evil, our lives and our pain would know no limits.  Non-existence was not only the natural result of evil, it was also the only relief from evil outside of His salvation.
Thus God looks at our lives beyond our time spent in just this world of evil that surrounds us today.  During this meager time frame, He looks to lead us away from the bonds of our service to self, and free us to love as He loves.  But He also looks at our lives in TOTAL.  He looks at us, and sees us beside His throne, in the trillions of years to come.  He sees us in the unbridled joy of eternity, without any of our former pain or limitations, and knows as we would know if we could see it as clearly, that only that life is the one worth preserving.  He does sometimes grant our prayers for healing and safety in this world, but in so doing, He also recognizes that our pain will continue while we are here.  When death does finally claim us in this world, He recognizes that this minor interruption in our lives, will not prevent us from the eternity of peace, joy, love, and hope He offers in our redemption.
To illustrate to us how death too will pass, He gives us the concept of sleep.  Each evening most of us climb into bed and put our minds and bodies to rest in the bliss of sleep.  Once we lose our consciousness, time seems to pass in an instant.  We wake in the morning without a second by second account of our evening in bed.  We cannot remember that at 2:13am we rolled over on our left side, or took an unusually long breath, or passed a particular piece of nutrition from one bodily need to another.  We cannot remember how many heart beats occurred.  Sometimes we cannot even remember our dreams.  We do remember everything right up to the point of sleep.  In the morning we remember who we are, what our lives have been like, and what must be done today.  But our concept of time while we sleep passes only as an instant.  This is why scripture teaches us that death is like a final sleep; “we know not anything” at our death.  But at our resurrection, we resume our lives, our memories, and our identities – but we resume them in the perfection He originally intended – finally revealing the true “will” of God in our lives.  Cancer, disease, despair and hopeless are gone forever in the perfection God intends.
For those who die, time become irrelevant.  In the space of a nanosecond our minds will transition from our last thought to seeing His face coming in the clouds of glory and being escorted by our guardian angel in perfection to His side.  Given this knowledge, why would we not consider death a blessing?  Why not immediately seek an end to our pain here on earth and a rapid acceleration to His throne?  After all why seek to prolong this life, when it is one wrought in pain and suffering – especially when death will claim us all in any case?  The answer - is others.  Those who would seek an immediate relief to their own suffering tend to ignore their impact on those they love.  Not about the loss those who remain will feel after they themselves leave this mortal coil; no, I am talking about the day to day impact of how love can bring peace, joy, and happiness to another even in this world.  An eternity spent without those we love will never be quite as rich.  Perhaps while we live here in this world, we live to serve others, to show them the love of Christ as we reflect it through us.  Perhaps our steadfast mission in a world of pain and suffering and reason to try to prolong our existence here is nothing more than to daily offer a life of love that serves those we care most about.  To remind them, that love itself, is the governing principle of heaven and the very nature of our God.  To show them, that the only life worth living is one that is based in love.  To teach this, to those who we care about, before our opportunity to teach no longer exists.
Like our Savior, our lives are not intended to be lived for ourselves.  Our lives are intended to be lived for others, in service to others, in love to others.  Our mission as Christians is to follow the ministry of our Lord.  When a review of His life is conducted, one can only see countless acts on the behalf of others and none for Himself.  As a result, he revealed a love that draws all men unto Him.  He revealed the true nature of His Father, whose will was enacted in His life day after day.  Christ was not spared the pain felt in this world.  He was humiliated.  He was tortured.  He suffered loss.  He went hungry.  He ached when we ached, and felt it even more keenly when we refused to accept His freedom from our slavery to pain.  He was betrayed by one who claimed to love Him, even to the point of death.  He even experienced the same death we do, and spent 3 days in the tomb, resting on the Sabbath, and resuming His work of Salvation early Sunday morning.  And in so doing, He showed us again, that death is not our final destination.
We live to serve.  We avoid death, and seek to prolong life, not to wallow in our pain, but to allow Him to remove it from us, and make us even better servants.  We can keep our hope based in Him, and know with surety that even when the time comes that we lose our battle to prolong this meager existence, we can trust Him.  We can know on the other side of our tomb, is a life of infinite service to others, and infinite love.  While here our prayer should be … “let me live Lord, but not for myself, make me your servant, and let my life reflect the perfection of your love to ALL I encounter, for my goal is but to serve the living God.”  I pray our lives are long, but I pray harder that our lives are filled with meaning that truly echoes in eternity.  I pray that our love does more than touch the hearts of those we care about, but melts the hearts of our enemies.  I pray that our legacy on this earth is not about the countless things we have done wrong, but about the countless ways we allowed Christ to reach others through our actions.  This is how we can face death, and know there is so much more, to this life and in the next one He has promised us.