Sunday, December 10, 2017

Doctor, Warrior, Judge or Parent?

The early Genesis story is filled with wonderful insights about God and humans. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden tree in the Garden, they experienced "dis-ease" (lack of peace) for the first time and hid from their Maker with whom they had enjoyed pure bliss and peace. God's response to their hiding was to call out to Adam, "where are you?"

If you were to retell the story putting it into a setting that fits your view of God's primary way of relating with humans, would you say that Adam and Eve needed a Doctor to heal their wounds, or a Warrior to fight their battle, or a Judge to apply the law, or a Parent to unconditionally love and comfort them?

In other words, do you picture God as a Doctor asking Adam, "What happened? Let's look at your injuries; I'll heal you..."? Or do you picture God as a Warrior asking Adam, "Where are you hiding? It's safe to come out; I'll fight for you..."? Or do you picture God as a Judge saying, "What did you do? You have offended me and my law and will be sentenced to death..."? Or do you picture God as a Parent longing and looking and calling at the top of his lungs, "Where are you?! Come out of hiding; I love you..."?

All of us lean more heavily towards certain pictures of God by virtue of many factors, not the least being our inherited theology. I see all of these metaphors for God in scripture, but the one that I see most in Jesus' teachings and in his example of self-giving love in life and death is the parental or family metaphor.

A good book that presents the differing atonement theories that have been adhered to in the church through her history is Brad Jersak's Stricken by God?  Many who are raised in Christian homes or taught from youth by modern western Christians don't realize that there are various legitimate atonement theories about God and the cross, not simply the one that they were raised with. It can be a life-altering experience to explore how God's people from various theologies have thought and believed about him and his relationship with us. It is a fairly scholarly book, but I recommend it to help expand one's way of knowing and loving God.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Dark Night of Loving Fire Brings Peace and Rest

I'm going through a simple devotional book that I've recently discovered entitled Daily Office, Remembering God's Presence Throughout the Day by Peter Scazzero.

Here is a quote from Week 4 of this book that I trust will encourage you; the theme of Week 4 is "The Wall" which refers to times of great difficulty:

"The best way to understand the dynamics of the Wall is to examine the classic work of St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, written over 500 years ago. He described the journey in three phases: beginners, progressives, and perfect. To move out of the beginning stage, he argued, required the receiving of God's gift of the dark night...This is the 'ordinary way' we grow in Christ.

"It is God's way of rewiring and 'purging our affections and passions' that we might delight in his love and enter into a richer, fuller communion with him. God wants to communicate to us his true sweetness and love. He longs that we might know his true peace and rest. He works to free us from unhealthy attachments and idolatries of the world.

"For this reason John of the Cross wrote that God sends us 'the dark night of loving fire' to free us from such deadly imperfections as: pride (being judgmental and impatient with the faults of others), avarice (suffering discontentment), luxury (taking more pleasure in spiritual blessings than God himself), wrath (becoming easily irritated, impatient), spiritual gluttony (resisting the cross), spiritual envy (always comparing), and sloth (running from what is hard)."

The prayer at the end of the reading:
"Lord, I invite you this day to cut any unhealthy attachments or 'idols' out of me. You promise in Psalm 32 to teach me the way to go. Help me not be stubborn like a mule but rather to be cooperative as you seek to lead me to freedom. Lead me to a place of communion with you where true peace and rest is found..."


Saturday, October 21, 2017


In my meditations on scripture, I'm presently in Psalm 44; I typically look at different versions to start with, and this week I was struck with the wording of vss 6,7 in The Message:

                                                      I don’t trust in weapons;
                                                     my sword won’t save me—
                                         But it’s you, you who saved us from the enemy...

As I read this, the following question came to me: what 'weapons' do I trust in to 'save' me?

To start, why do weapons exist? I believe they exist because of fear, and that the enemy I need saving from is death in its many forms (Heb 2:14-18); in other words, the fear of death drives me to accumulate weapons. Fear of death is a foundational human predicament and a subject that Richard Beck deals with very well in his book, The Slavery of Death. (For a review of his book and some understanding of why I propose that weapons exist because of fear of death, you can read what I wrote a couple of years ago on this: Disinterested Love...

Now to the question about what weapons I trust in to save myself - I identified several weapons that I tend to lean on in this season of my life when I feel threatened. I will summarize them as follows:
1) Weapon #1: knowledge or gathering information to bolster my point of view when I feel my worldview is threatened.
2) Weapon #2: possessions or holding tightly to what I have when I perceive that my lifestyle may be threatened.
3) Weapon #3: relationships or people-pleasing when I feel certain relationships could be threatened.

Knowledge, possessions and relationships are legitimate needs that, when met, contribute towards general health and well-being; it's natural and acceptable that we instinctively reach for whatever will satisfy our needs. But it is the fear or anticipation of loss of these things that drives us to turn these things into 'weapons' to dehumanize or neglect others for the sake of our own survival.

The psalmist says that my weapons will not 'save' me but rather that it is God who saves me from the enemy of death and loss. Motivated by love, God in Jesus broke the power of the fear of death over humanity by submitting to death (Heb 2). In doing this, He has empowered humans to love selflessly; and disinterested love is the antidote to fear. Each day I get to choose love over fear whether I am conscious of it or not. I still need that which knowledge, possessions and relationships can give me, but I must not find my sense of security and well being in knowledge, possessions or relationships or I will end up weaponizing them to survive. 

A life of self-giving love is the way of trusting in God to save me rather than resorting to using weapons to protect myself.

Can you identify particular 'weapons' that you are tempted to trust in when feeling threatened?


Saturday, October 07, 2017

Is Spiritual Maturity Possible without Emotional Health?

I'm presently reading a book entitled Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It's Impossible to be Spiritually Mature while Remaining Emotionally Immature, written by Peter Scazzero.

Although the material in Scazzero's book isn't new to me, it has given greater focus, clarity, and language to a reality that I have embraced and taught for some years, which is that all of God's heart and intention is summed up in Jesus' words when he was asked about the commandments of God: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NLT)

Scazzero uses his own experience as an emotionally broken pastor of a multi-ethnic congregation in New York City to illustrate the need for joining contemplation with emotional health in order to be spiritually mature. He equates contemplation of God with 'loving the Lord you God with all your heart...'; and he equates emotional health with 'loving your neighbor as you love yourself.' In other words, loving God and others is necessary for spiritual maturity, and we cannot genuinely love others without emotional health.

The following are some quotes from the book:

"Being productive and getting things done are high priorities in Western culture. Praying and enjoying God's presence for no other reason than to delight in him was a luxury, I was told, that we could take pleasure in once we got to heaven. For now, there was too much to be done. People were lost. The world was in deep trouble. And God had entrusted us with the good news of the gospel...

"Are these things wrong? No. But work for God that is not nourished by a deep interior life with God will eventually be contaminated by other things such as ego, power, needing approval of and from others, and buying into the wrong ideas of success...Our experiential sense of worth and validation gradually shifts from God's unconditional love for us in Christ to our works and performance...

"The greatest commandments, Jesus said, are that we love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul and that we love our neighbor as ourselves...Brother Lawrence called (contemplation) 'the pure loving gaze that finds God everywhere.'...We are not simply about experiencing a better quality of life through emotional health. Awareness of and responding to the love of God is at the heart of our lives...

"Emotional health, on the other hand, concerns itself primarily with loving others well. It connects us to our interior life, making possible the seeing and treating of each individual as worthy of respect, created in the image of God and not just an object to use. For this reason, self-awareness -- knowing what is going on inside of us -- is indispensable to emotional health and loving well. In fact, the extent to which we love and respect ourselves is the extent to which we will be able to love and respect others."

I highly recommend this book as foundational in making disciples (mature followers of Jesus).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Prioritizing What Jesus Prioritizes Requires Letting Go, Self-denial

Following up on the two previous posts, What Does It Mean to be 'Blessed'? and Jesus' Priority, Inordinate Attachments, and Self-denial, I will share concluding thoughts here.

Why does God prioritize oneness/unity among His followers? Jesus tells us in John 17 and also in John 13:

John 17:20,21 "...that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
John 17:22,23 " that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
John 13:34,35 "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Apparently in God's mind, the family likeness that is most attention-grabbing and most attractive to those looking on is our love and acceptance of one another. This does not mean that we agree about everything; in fact, there's plenty of room for disagreement because that isn't the main point! Even though I may think other things should be priority, God says that in His design of how things best work, this is what matters most. 

In conclusion, the following are two steps we can take to start prioritizing what Jesus says is most important. These are just the ground floor (contemplative) steps but are necessary in order to healthily move forward in the action to come afterwards:

First, study and meditate on and discuss this issue honestly with God. This requires time and an honest effort to put aside our dogmatic opinions concerning what is most important in the kingdom of God. Letting go can be scary for many of us who have been raised with the idea that God cares most about right beliefs (generally defined as my inherited list of 'correct doctrines') and therefore expects us to prioritize proving other family members wrong who have a different list of 'correct doctrines'. The way to dare to step out of the correct doctrine boat onto the water with Jesus is to begin to look at and agree with how utterly kind and big-hearted God is - so much so that we can be assured that He won't let us drown if we dare to trust in Him rather than trust in our beliefs about Him. This is a form of self-denial and of laying down my life for the sake of Jesus and what matters most to Him.

Second, take the first step to another level and begin contemplating this with someone else that you feel safe with (and who won't try to keep you in the 'boat'). Until you move out of your private deliberations with God into deliberations with others in the family of God, you won't be able to take the needed action steps towards prioritizing what He prioritizes.

These initial steps will lead to an enlarging of the heart towards God and towards our spiritual siblings. After this, who knows what will happen?? The Spirit of Jesus is very faithful to lead each of us according to our unique personality and situation. From personal experience, I highly recommend this adventure with Him!

Friday, September 01, 2017

Jesus' Priority, Inordinate Attachments, and Self Denial

Chapter 17 of the book of John is a wonderful peek into Jesus' conversation with His Father after speaking intimately to His followers in the final days of His earthly life. He converses with God about those He has just been speaking with and all those who would follow His ways in future generations. In this prayer He leaves no doubt about His priority and intense desire for unity and love among His followers.

Five times Jesus prays for oneness among His own: " that they may be one, as we are one"; "...that they may all be one"; "...may they also be one in us"; " that they may be one, as we are one"; "...that they may become completely one" (John 17:11, 21a, 21b, 22, 23 New Revised Standard Version).

I mentioned the following in my previous post (What Does It Mean to be Blessed?): " any good parent, He longs for His children to get along with one another, to be in unity, loving and caring for one another in visible and obvious ways that attract others." I've observed over the years that the thing that perhaps gives parents the greatest joy is to see their children genuinely caring for one another.

I confess that in earlier years of my walk with God I prioritized other things over family unity among God's children; but the longer I live and walk with Him, the more I desire to align my heart and mind with His priorities. One reason most of His followers (including myself) don't prioritize Jesus' desire for oneness is that it requires that we hold our favorite doctrines loosely, not finding our identity in them. In overemphasizing adherence to correct beliefs, we modern western Christians have unwittingly developed an inordinate attachment to belief systems rather than to the Person of Jesus. This is a great obstacle to oneness since there is wide difference of opinion within Christ's body about what the "correct doctrines" are. If adherence to a certain set of beliefs about God is the standard by which we can be united with others, then widespread unity among God's people will not be possible.

The experience of letting go of unhealthy attachments in order to more fully receive and give God's grace and love is part of what Jesus refers to when He talks about His disciples denying themselves and being willing to lose their life for His sake (Luke 9:23,24). It's a willingness to "die" to anything that provides me with a sense of deep security and rightness apart from Jesus. It's stepping outside the "correct doctrine boat" (or whatever "boat" one is in) to walk with Jesus on the water.

Next time I'll share thoughts about why Jesus wants our oneness and suggest a couple of ways we can prioritize unity with one another.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Does it Mean to 'Be Blessed'?

In Genesis 12 God calls Abram to leave his home and tells him, "I will make of you a great nation and will bless will be a blessing...all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you."

Though there are other meanings to what it is to be "blessed", I want to focus for a moment on something I heard years ago related to one meaning of what it is to be blessed. And that is that we are included in God's family. Applying that to this pronouncement to Abram, we could hear it more or less in this way: "I will make you and yours part of My family; in turn, you will be a visible family attracting all the other families of the earth to My global family..."

Generally our thinking as affluent American Christians is that to be blessed is to have good things happen to us or given to us. We often say things like, "God has been good to me; I've been blessed with everything working out well in this situation..." It's appropriate, of course, to be thankful for good things, but what about people who never have anything good happen to them? What about the followers of Jesus around the world who suffer without any of the simple things humans need to survive?

So I propose that we look at being blessed more in terms of being in relationship, both with the Father of all the families of the earth (see God's Dysfunctional Family) and with all His children. After many years of living and working among diverse peoples outside of the US along with years of studying and teaching scripture, I'm increasingly convinced that God's priority in His kingdom is relationships. He shows from start to finish in scripture that He wants to bless all people; in other words, He wants all people to be included in His family.

And like any good parent, He longs for His children to get along with one another, to be in unity, loving and caring for one another in visible and obvious ways that attract others.

(Next time I'll touch on Jesus' desire for oneness among His followers as seen in His prayer in
John 17).

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

God's Dysfunctional Family

Religion places emphasis on performance and looking right. The emphasis in recent decades on how a 'Christian family' should look has resulted in much false and unnecessary guilt over the condition of one's family. Often because of judgmentalism and criticism that comes if one is open and honest, there is a lot of guilt and cover up in the church.

Some time ago when I read the words of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians: "For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name..." (Eph. 3:14 NIV), I was struck with this picture of God being Father of all the families of the earth. 

The picture of the divine Parent with countless children struck me in a new way. Why should any parent ever feel guilty for their dysfunctional family when the perfect heavenly Parent has nothing but dysfunctional children?! 

(This doesn't excuse evil treatment of children; I'm referring to the average parent who does their best to love and care for their children. Nor does this mean parents shouldn't seek to do whatever possible to bring healing and restoration, but laboring under false guilt hinders the healing process.)

So take heart! If you struggle with serious family issues and are tempted to feel guilty for having problems that religion and/or society says you shouldn't have, look to the Father of all and be assured that He understands your pain and suffering because of His own children, all of whom are broken and lost in one way or another. 

Friday, May 05, 2017

The Dark Night: Idols Being Toppled, Desiring God for God Alone

Gerald May was a psychiatrist who worked with addicts; he wrote several books, two of which I have read and reread because of their impact on me. Although he was a brilliant doctor, his writings are almost devotional and inspiring. He had an unusual ability to blend his understanding of psychology and theology. The following quote is from his wonderful book, The Dark Night of the Soul. It is one of the finest books I've read on this topic.

Although this book is not directed at substance abusers, he makes reference to them at times because of his work with them and his understanding that all humans are addicted. In referring to recovering addicts who cling to God simply because of the "desperate need to stay alive," May says the following,

"Many people continue in recovery this way for years - perhaps for their whole lives. Others, however, experience something different at a certain point along the way. After having worked the program for a while, a person may begin to notice that what began as a desperate need for God is changing into a loving desire for God. It is as if God were saying, 'Of course I want to be your saving Higher Power. But I also want to be so much more to you. I want to be your deepest love.' And somehow, something in the person's heart has become free enough to say yes to this barely heard invitation...

"Before, one needed God as the agent of recovery, the divine dispenser of grace. Now this need is developing into a love for God as God's self. This is a beautiful happening, but it brings with it a new relinquishment that can feel deeply threatening. Along with the sweetness of emerging love comes a certain shakiness about recovery. Recovery is no longer the single most important thing in life. Something else has taken place, and the fear of relapse grows.

"Later, one may come to realize that recovery, as the most important thing in life, had become an idol. God was a means to an end: recovery. Then in darkness, after the heart said yes and love grew, the idol of recovery teetered and fell. The powers had shifted. Recovery is now no longer the end, but only a means in the service of love.

"All the signs of the night are there in this transition. What had worked before no longer does, and one's previous energetic dedication is waning. More disturbing still, the deep care, the desperate need for recovery seems undermined. And if given the unusual insight and courage to admit it, one would have to say the deepest desire is no longer for recovery but for God alone."

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Lent - a Time for Recalibrating

Recently I asked myself this question: "Is my interest in continuing to learn and to grow in knowledge so that I can understand God better and thereby love Him and others more, or is it so that I can prove that I'm 'right' and win arguments? Is it so that I can give life to others or so that I can feel superior to others?"

I believe this was the Spirit's way of continuing to re-calibrate my journey in Him to keep me focused on loving Him with all my heart, mind, soul and strength and loving my neighbor as myself.

In the story of the garden of Eden, we see the two ways of knowing that humans are offered: knowing independently of God (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) and knowing in God (the tree of life). We humans have a wonderful capacity for knowing and learning, making great and wonderful discoveries because of being made in the image of our Creator; but when we exercise this capability apart from relationship with Him, even the discoveries we make that are beneficial to others have a dark underbelly to them and side effects that are worse than the knowledge/discovery.

The follower of Jesus is not immune to this reality. We never reach a place where trust and dependence on God is not necessary in our growth in understanding (whether that be theological understanding or any other discoveries). As we pursue knowledge that leads to creativity, we must do so in Him and dependent on Him; in other words, we must seek knowledge while in vital relationship with Him and with the awareness that the purpose of learning is to better understand God and others and to be conformed to His likeness so that the way we live our life is like Jesus lived His: in loving communion with God and loving actions towards all humans. A common deadly side effect to gaining better understanding of God and His ways is pride and a sense of being superior to others.

When we grow in knowledge while depending on God, the benefits of that knowledge will have no deadly side effects. 

If increased understanding is not producing increasing tenderness towards God and others, then it may be time to step back and allow His Spirit to examine us. Lent can be a good time for this. For each person this will look different, but a periodic time of healthy self-reflection (not a morbid unhealthy religious self-hatred type of exercise) is helpful in re-calibrating the direction in which we are headed. Our natural propensity towards taking what we are learning and using it in unloving, self-serving ways requires that we allow God's Spirit to call us apart (for a moment, a day, a week...) for renewal and a fresh reminder of what life is really about: receiving His freely-given love in order to freely love Him and others with the same love and therein bring life and peace into our small corner of the world.