Unchurch

I have a confession to make. I don’t like “church”. Not “church” in the way most of us think of “church” anyway. We’ve all been at onetime or another whether as a child or adult, a guest to someone who invited us to attend their church, or maybe as a “holiday” church goer attending the Christmas, Easter or Mother’s Day service, maybe even as a member of a church or churches.

We know the drill: met at the door by the greeter who smiles, shakes your hand and thanks you for showing up. The music, traditional or contemporary, the prayer, a couple more songs, the sermon, the plate is passed, another prayer or offer to come forward for prayer and a couple of closing songs then the walk toward the exit to nod and shake hands with a few of the regulars and finally, for the newcomer, the invite from the pastor to come back again.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t have anything against the way we in America have chosen to “church”…..I just don’t fit in. Ever had that experience? That’s really why I don’t like church, I just have always felt like an outsider. Like I’m on the outside looking in. Even when I have been a member, lead a class,  or sang in the music ministry.

For the longest time I just thought that it was my perception and that I just needed to learn to fit in, to be like everyone else and so I did. I spoke “Christianese”, changed the way I dressed so that I blended into whatever the culture of the church “brand” happened to be, carried my Bible, memorized scripture enough so that I could sprinkle conversation with my obvious close relationship with God, attended dozens of women’s Bible groups, and volunteered to do my part so that I could BE a part. The problem was I wasn’t being “me”, I was faking it, pretending to be someone I was not and I didn’t like that.

Fast forward. After a series of events which will be left for a later discussion, I was done with God and church. I had no need for Him or prayer, or the Bible, or the myriad promises the church said God would make a reality; I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Again after a series of events I decided in my infinite wisdom and grace that I would give God another chance. How very generous of me, right? But in all seriousness I missed God, I missed the relationship. I did not miss all the trimmings, being focused on fitting in. So now what? How was I going to “be” a Christian without feeling like an imposter?

Well first I decided I didn’t have to “label” myself as a “Christian”. Now before anyone takes offense let me make my case, and let’s remember this is my story, not yours. If you identify yourself as a “Christian” I am completely cool with that, no judgment from me whatsoever, so no worries. But for me the word “Christian” had negative connotations because of my experiences in the church and because I had tried so hard to “be” a Christian.

Before abandoning ship I had done study in Messianic Judaism and I liked what I learned, so the “label” I gave myself was “Messianic Gentile”. That is just a fancy shmancy way of saying that I had adopted the mindset of those who were not Jews by birth, rather honored the “Jewishness” of Jesus and the scriptures. Again that’s a discussion for another day.

I started by talking to God, not praying in the traditional sense, but just talking. Mostly I just thanked Him. I thanked Him for my kids, my job, the “things” I had. In short I adopted “an attitude of gratitude”. It was the least I could do, I mean I was still here and kicking so I figured there was hope for me however sorry a human being I was!! In truth I wasn’t even sure God loved me or accepted me anymore because I had been down some not-so-pretty roads in my life since I had abandoned ship. I was dirty, bedraggled, foul mouthed, negative, had been suicidal, and participating in vices I had no intention of giving up and one I still don’t intend to give up, and really that is a relative statement depending upon how you define “vice”. If you find any of that shocking hang onto your hat, but I refuse to apologize for who I am. And that is really where I am going with all of this: none of us should apologize for who we are. God, I reasoned, was either going to love me and accept me for who I was, warts, wounds, scars and all or He wasn’t. It was as simple as that.

Oh yeah, I challenged Him, tested Him, said whatever I thought to Him daring Him to toss me out with the trash, but He didn’t. Imagine that. There were days I shook my fist heavenward, screamed, yelled and stomped my feet better than any 3 year old out there! And STILL He refused to go away!

You see, God is love. The Bible says that and so He can’t do anything else but love us. He loves me and He loves you! Maybe you don’t believe that but He does!

How do I know that? How do we know anything really?? I can’t explain it but I KNOW He didn’t move one step away from me at my worst, He just moved a little closer.

Well what I just said isn’t quite true. I do know because the Bible is our reference manual for God. Now wait before you click me off or flip me off, whichever, it’s all good, I don’t intend to go all “churchy” on you but we can’t talk about God without talking about the Bible. The Bible says that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever and if He is also love then He loves us as we were, as we are, and as we will be. We are at best a messy bunch of misfits on any given day and He knows that better than we do.

So, what has any of that got to do with an “unchurch”? It has everything to do with it. The “unchurch” is for all of us who don’t fit in, never did, never will. For all of us who are messy, bedraggled, insecure, fearful, struggling, rejected and stumbling through life but STILL want a relationship with God. And when I say God I also mean Jesus. The good news is there is a place for us. The “unchurch” is a gathering of people who want to know God, not to have all the do’s and don’ts dumped on us as we walk thru the door. The “unchurch” is anywhere 2 or more are gathered.

It’s time for “church” to be all inclusive. It’s time for us to make our relationship with Him our primary focus. It’s time.

Creation, Original Sin, And All That Good Stuff Part 2…..

Adam and Eve hanging out in the Garden, nurturing and caring for the creation and living in a state of gratitude; life was good and abundant, with Adam and Eve the benevolent leaders of all creation, no need to subdue or bring anything into submission, so far, so good. Enter the serpent; that crafty creature who twisted the words of the Creator leading the first humans into doubt. We know the rest of the story, right, at least what is recorded in the Bible; Eve ate of the fruit, offered it to Adam, he ate, and voila, sin was born. God comes along looking for the man and woman who were now aware of their nakedness and were hiding. Of course, God knew what had happened, but He wanted their version of the story. Long story short, Adam blames Eve, then God hands out the consequences. Adam had enjoyed “avad”; caring for and nurturing the creation, but now he would “atsav” – toil by the sweat of his brow. No longer would Adam speak and the creation would respond.

This is where the subject of free will and original sin come into Christian theology. Here’s my take on it; God gave free will to man when man was created, it existed in man from the moment Adam was fashioned from the elements of the earth. The problem was not that Eve chose to exercise her free will, the problem was that she and Adam had been given dominion over the entire earth and were to subdue its inhabitants, the serpent included; they were to walk among the creation as the benevolent leaders, keeping the creation in check, so to speak, not letting any in creation get the upper hand. The serpent, however, did take the upper hand by introducing doubt, telling a half-truth, skewing the words of the Creator, and instead of Eve subduing the serpent, she chose to have a conversation and allowed the serpent plant a seed of doubt.

God’s directive had been clear, so what happened with Eve? I don’t believe the act of eating the fruit was the “sin”, the disobedient act that led to what the church views as “original sin” resulting in condemnation of all mankind. Rather, I believe Eve allowed her heart motivation to be affected by her conversation with the serpent; she wanted the knowledge the tree offered, and she didn’t take into consideration that her decision would affect others. Isn’t that self-centeredness? When our heart motivations are inward centered, centered on self, instead of outward centered, centered on others, we choose wrongly.

Man, made in the image and likeness of God, operated within free will from the get-go. God is free to exercise His will freely so it stands to reason that man would enjoy that as well. God is Love, He is merciful, kind and just, and only chooses to act righteously.  Eve’s decision did not take into consideration how her one act would affect Adam. As the story goes, Adam and Eve were put out of the Garden to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life and living forever; forever able to make self-centered choices. Wow, wouldn’t that create a lot of unnecessary havoc!

So, let’s talk about “original sin”; the concept identified by the church as the reason we all need salvation. The church contends because Adam and Eve sinned, every person from that time forward would be born a sinful being, in essence, from the moment we are conceived we are doomed without having done a thing! If free will got Adam and Eve in trouble, how is it that a fetus, so many cells destined to become a human, has already sinned by virtue of fertilization? Doesn’t make sense, at least not to me. Further, in Genesis 4, in the story of Cain and Abel (Adam and Eve’s sons), Cain kills Abel and God curses Cain. Are we to assume man from Cain on down, now has received a second helping of condemnation for his sin?

The Creation story, as is much of the Bible, is just that, a story, which is not to say that it is falsehood; only that a story is man’s interpretation of higher spiritual principles and concepts. We understand what we do not know through the eyes of what we do know. The Catholic Bible says as much in the pages explaining how the Bible came to be, along with other interesting facts and ideas, so not even the church supposedly built on Peter, the Rock, the first church, believes the Bible to be a book of absolute fact; rather the Bible is God’s inspired Word as seen through the eyes of man in story, poem, allegory, and the like.

Original sin, a foundational doctrine of the church, teaches man screwed up and thereby cursed all of mankind necessitating the need for a Savior, the One we know as Jesus. The church fails to answer questions that we have all likely had, at one time or another, and have passed off as a mystery God will reveal in the sweet by and by. Study of church history will show that original sin is a post-New Testament idea, and did not enter any teachings until after the time of Jesus. Interesting, is it not? Yeshua (Jesus) never mentioned it. To further challenge the church mindset, the original script and characters involved were Jewish, and as is often the case, a different picture emerges. In Hebraic thought, sin is merely an act of disobedience, a wrong choice, the opposite of righteousness, and speaks to our relationship with God, our nature as humans, versus a flaw in our character.

When God created man He declared him good, so how did man become flawed? Man was created in the image of God, endowed with the ability to choose; free choice, as it were. Evil, or disobedience is a choice rather than a thing, or creature, as we are often taught; the serpent in the Garden being the embodiment of evil. God did not “create” evil, it doesn’t exist without choice. Why would a loving God create evil to trip up the created He called “good”?

Church history is enlightening; it gives one a very different view of the Bible and of man. The doctrines we have come to know and believe as the inerrant Word of God is, in reality, a doctrinal soup based on the theories and interpretations of Augustine and embellished by various writers that were not established until after the advent of the New Testament church. These theories and interpretations have been used to justify man’s nature and the traditions and practices of modern religion; we accept them without questioning their source. It is my firm belief that there is a God, a Universal Life and Light, a Power greater than ourselves, and that we have been created in His image. Man, however, has done a fine job of creating God in his image…..

Creation, Original Sin, And All That Good Stuff Part 1…..

What are your thoughts on the creation story? We can’t stop there, after all the story of creation runs headlong into the concept of “original sin”; the sin of Adam and Eve eating of the fruit resulting in condemnation for all mankind. Me being me, I have thought a lot about it and researched it from the church perspective and the Jewish perspective and have concluded, once again, the story we are so familiar with is just that, a story. Keep in mind, man creates stories using the familiar to explain the complex. To explain the creation of the earth we have the story version we read in the Bible that contrasts with the scientific version of evolution; the solution to the creation/evolution debate, I suspect, lies somewhere between the two.

For the sake of conversation, let’s lean toward the creation story, as recorded, understanding God, the Creator, is capable of all things and is not limited by man’s finite imagination. I do believe in a Creator, a Supreme Intelligence, a Universal Power, God, and I believe at the conclusion of His creation efforts He declared all that He created good, including man. Following that line of thinking, let’s assume there was a conversation between Adam, Eve and God setting the boundaries for the Garden, in other words, don’t eat from the Tree of Good and Evil.

Backing up to the beginning, God had created the whole earth, so when Adam was created God put him in the Garden. (Genesis 2). God decided Adam needed a partner and from a rib Eve was created. Then God said to be ”fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air and every living creature that crawls on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 The Complete Jewish Bible) Notice it says “fill” the earth, “subdue it” and “rule over” it. Adam and Eve were not meant to stay in the Garden forever, which should lead us to understand that God knew Adam and Eve would choose to listen to the serpent rather than the directive they were given. We don’t ever catch God “off guard”; He is fully aware of our fallibility and loves us in spite of our flaws and faults. We were created “in His image”, we are not clones.

So what exactly does it mean to “subdue” the earth and “rule over” all that is within it? English is so limited. It is truly difficult to get the full understanding and meaning of the original Hebrew. The verb form of the word subdue is “kavash” and literally means to place a foot on the neck of the conquered enemy, to demonstrate submission of the enemy; figuratively, kavash means to bring a nation or a people into submission, stop the shenanigans. Ever heard or said, “I’m putting the kabash on that right now” ? My grandmother used to say it. Same concept. Dominion or to rule over something in the Hebrew is a different word; “radah”, and means to descend, go down, wander and spread. Its literal translation alludes to rule by going down and walking among the subjects as an equal.

Man has massaged the scriptures many times over through the centuries, but I still believe God watches over His Word to ensure the gold remains intact, ready to be mined by those willing to search and find, so I don’t think it accidental that subdue and dominion are both used in the same scripture. Together the two words relate to a relationship with all of creation. The creation is to provide for humankind, and we are to learn from the creation, always acting as a benevolent leader, not a dictator.

“On the seventh day God was finished with his work which he had made, so he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. God blessed the seventh day and separated it as holy; because on that day God rested from all his work which he had created, so that it itself could produce.” (Genesis 2:2-3 The Complete Jewish Bible) Anyone who has ever darkened the doorway of a church or Sunday School class knows that on the seventh day of creation God rested and that is why church is on Sunday, at least for much of western Christianity. What we haven’t been told is why God rested; “so that it (all that He had created) itself could produce.” God was done, out of the creation biz, now the job of creation was in the hands of humankind, and humankind had been put in charge. Created in the image of God, man would “produce” like God had; makes sense, right? Adam didn’t know any differently. How did God produce? According to the scripture, He spoke, so man would produce by speaking to bring what he needed into being. Perhaps Adam told the trees to bear fruit, told the rain to fall? We don’t really know. What is recorded says in Genesis 2:5, “ADONAI, God, took the person and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it.” (The Complete Jewish Bible). Cultivate at this point is “avad” and means to serve both the creation and worship the Creator; cultivate after the conversation with the serpent became “atsav” meaning “to toil”; very different connotation. Mankind was created from the earth and in turn was to care for it, nurture it and all of creation, and in so doing is serving the Creator, worshiping the Creator, in other words, in relationship with God. Worship is simply living in a state of gratitude. Adam enjoyed the creation, lived in abundance and not by the sweat of his brow as he will eventually do. Enter the serpent…..

In His Image…..

Without salvation and the “Sinner’s Prayer” we are unworthy of His love, unworthy of His blessings, unworthy of His sacrifice. Unworthiness is the battle cry of Western Christianity, and yet is it sound theology?

“So God created humankind in His own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 The Complete Jewish Bible) Think about that for a moment in the light of the opening paragraph. Does it say that we were created unworthy? No, it doesn’t. We didn’t lose our worth, or the image of the Creator in the Garden, as many believe. And yet, we as believers, Christians, seekers, whatever we choose to call ourselves, embrace the falsehood of unworthiness, wearing it as a badge of honor. Some who claim no spiritual path believe themselves unworthy. Whose voice are we listening to?

In the book of 1 John, the disciple is explaining how we are to know if a teaching is from God or from another source, in this case credit is given to the “spirit of the Anti-Messiah”. John teaches that those voices from God, in other words, people who teach from a Godly position, acknowledge Yeshua (Jesus) and love others because God loves. That seems pretty straightforward and reasonable. In my opinion, one of the more well known and misinterpreted verses from 1 John is “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4 The Complete Jewish Bible) I have heard that verse preached on too many times to remember and the message always boiled down to God in us (being saved) and the devil who is in the world (not being saved). Do I believe in an actual “devil”? No, not in this sense of the word, but the idea, and the word itself creates fear, and I don’t believe that was the intended message.

After much study, prayer, and soul-searching I have come to the conclusion that the Bible is not literal, most of it anyway. No surprise there! Rather, the Bible was written from the perspective of the understanding and culture of the day, heavily influenced by man, as it is today. Does that mean it is wrong? Absolutely not. I believe God watches over the essence of His Word, His message. Man seeks to understand his world from what he knows in his world at that moment. It is why Yeshua (Jesus) taught in parables; people could understand spiritual principles in terms of the familiar. People for centuries believed illness was due to demonic possession, natural disaster was a result of sin and required sacrifice, and the like; today we believe differently. I do believe God communicates with His people and often it will be through the familiar, but we do need to bump what we believe He communicates against what we believe to be true; God is love. Creating fear is not of God. Operating from an attitude of fear is not of God.

Religion is based on fear. That is a radical statement, but if you think about it, religion has taught us to fear God, fear “sin”, fear the “devil”. In so doing, journey with God, relationship with Yeshua (Jesus) is steeped in fear. We are told to accept Jesus as Savior, confess Him as Lord, or we risk the fires of hell, so I question how many come seeking true relationship with God versus ensuring entrance into heaven? Even if we don’t truly believe in heaven or hell, the thought niggles in the back of the mind, what if? Religious tracts, and “Fires of Hell” performances at local churches during the Halloween season center on that very theme. We start children on their journey with God in Sunday school classes teaching songs and lessons about Jesus loving the little children, we see pictures of children gathered around Jesus while He holds a lamb on His lap, and then somewhere along the line we transition to approaching Yeshua (Jesus) in fear of condemnation should we stray far from the path of righteousness.  Fear creeps in, wriggling its way into our subconscious, and sometimes consciousness, edging out the still, small voice of our Creator in whose image we were created. The voice we lend an ear to is the voice of the world, the lying tongue whose bold declaration is that of unworthiness.

John differentiated the two voices; the greater voice being the one inside of us, and the lesser voice, the lying tongue of the world. The voice inside of us whispers to our spirits, bearing witness to our worth as having been created in the very image of God. The voice of the world clamors loudly proclaiming our unworthiness, the mistaken idea that we don’t measure up; and the crazy fact is we listen to that voice! What’s more is often that same voice speaks from the pulpit.

I must give the world credit where credit is due, however. Humanity has the uncanny ability to adapt. In a world that seeks to diminish the image of God within each of us through berating one another, setting impossibly high standards of achievement, ensuring we feel better about ourselves by verbally slicing and dicing our perceived competitors, we also manage to clothe ourselves in robes of false self-esteem and self-worth; an illusion that can be ripped from our spirit in a moment. The evidence is everywhere we look. Bruised and bloodied bodies of humanity painfully crawling through life, figuratively speaking, having been battered by cruelty in word and deed.

But what if, for a moment, we believed, we embraced the voice of the Creator whispering in our spirits that we were created in His very image? What if, instead of looking at ourselves in the mirror of the world, we viewed ourselves in the mirror of the Most High? How differently would we see ourselves? How might we live our lives differently? Am I speaking of elevating self to the status of God? Never! Are we risking becoming narcissistic, egotistical beings? Absolutely not! Believing ourselves made in the image of God humbles us. We no longer need to compete with others for position in a world that glorifies status. Instead we seek to serve others realizing others are also fashioned in the image of God; there is no need for competition. We will see one another as the image of God and not as belonging to a particular race, religion, socioeconomic group, educational background, or sexual orientation different from ours. Made in His image means we have the wisdom of the Most High available to us; we don’t need to seek out other sources for interpretation. 1 John 4:4 takes on new meaning. The voice of God in our spirits speaks to us and His message is greater than the world’s message; we are created in His image, not the image the world will create for us. The darkness of fear is banished in the light of God’s message that we are worthy in His sight…..

Far From Home…..

“Are you far from home and lost in a sea of confusion? Does your broken heart seem beyond repair? Has the fire in your soul gone out and grown cold? Do you think that no one sees, or even cares?” Words I penned several years back for a song called, “The Prodigal”. The song is probably my favorite, or at least one of the top two favorites of those I have written; the story of the Prodigal is my favorite in the Bible.

I have been the prodigal child in my life. I bet you have, too. Whenever we live life on our terms, in our own way, ignoring the still, small voice inside our hearts, we walk the path of the Prodigal. Interestingly, God lets us live life the way we choose, and He will be there to help pick up the pieces when we finally have had enough, when we find ourselves broken in spirit, financially ruined, face down in the gutter, literally or figuratively. Some folks will cry out to God, others defiantly choose to maintain their right to live life on their terms all the way to the grave. Years may pass and we think we are the “bomb”, we have the world by the tail, the cards are stacked in our favor, and then we find out our thinking was little more than an illusion. I believe many of us come to that crossroad in life, however, the place where we decide His way, or my way.

As the story goes, the young man begged his father to let him have his inheritance to go out and live in the world, to make his own decisions, learn from his own mistakes. The father did as he was asked, knowing full well the world outside his covering was harsh and unforgiving. At first the young man lived high on the hog, so to speak, partying, partaking of every sensual pleasure and buying up friends by the dozens. Ever notice we have lots of friends when we are paying the tab? When the young man’s money ran out, his so-called friends left as quickly. For a time, the young man found ways to get by, temporary setback, he would be back on his feet in no time. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon how one looks at it, he found himself down for the count, the only job available to him was to slop the hogs; decidedly one of the worst jobs for a Jew. Face down in the mud, sharing the trough with the pigs, he reasoned if he returned home he could work as a servant in his father’s house. At least he would have shelter, food, and drink. The young man began his trek toward home. One day when he was still a long way off, the father spotted the young man having searched the horizon each day since his son had left for signs of his return. The father ran, he ran to meet his son and welcome him home. The celebration began.

There is so much gold to be found in this story; I have written on it before. The message for today is the young man’s attitude that led to his return home and the subsequent celebration. Humility and gratitude, plain and simple. Two of the most important and hardest lessons ever to be learned. The young man had come to the end of himself, the place we all need to find before God can use us, the moment in our journey when self and selfishness no longer have purpose.

We may say, “I am humble and God is still not blessing me.” Me. Who is the concern in that statement? Me. Humility is one of the greatest, if not the greatest virtue in Judaism. Our society knows little of humility, we undervalue its strength, misinterpreting the strength of humility as weakness. During the course of my lifetime I have watched the “me” mentality unfold before my eyes, gaining speed with each passing year. Keeping up with the Joneses has become commonplace, putting ourselves out there, declaring our own worth and talents to the world because Lord knows, others are not going to lift us up. It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, everyone striving to best the other. Life is about “I”; what I have, what I do, what I drive, where I live, the list is endless. Selfies are the norm, the standard.

Pride is the opposite of humility. Pride elevates self. Humility puts others ahead of self. It is not so much we need to think less of ourselves; humility sees the need of others outside self and seeks to serve others first. Humility is more often than not born of suffering, usually personal suffering. Those who are humble have been face down in the dirt, emptied and broken, and because of the brokenness become a usable vessel of God.  The young Prodigal found himself sharing the trough with the pigs; in the Jewish mind man cannot fall much lower. The Prodigal had come to the end of self, believing himself unworthy of the riches from which he had been born.

Another form of pride is elevating our seeming humility above others. Perhaps we are self-effacing, believing we treat others better than we are treated. Although it may appear as humility, it is not. Instead of entering through the front door, we opt to enter from the back door, believing and speaking as though we are continually hurt by others all the while decrying our tolerance, patience, and respectful treatment of others. The focus again is “I”; look at me, “I” am respectful of others, yet look how they treat “me”.  Very subtle, yet dangerous to our journey.  Maybe we believe respect is to be earned, a variation on this theme. Our demands for respect while being intolerant of others, or holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves, is veiled pride.  

Matthew 44-47 speaks clearly to both of these subtle forms of pride, You have heard that our fathers were told, `Love your neighbors — and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! Then you will become children of your Father in heaven. For (H)e makes (H)is sun shine on good and bad people alike, and (H)e sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike. What reward do you get if you love only those who love you? Why, even tax-collectors do that! And if you are friendly only to your friends, are you doing anything out of the ordinary? Even the Goyim (Gentiles) do that!” Whether this was in the original texts, or has been embellished through the ages, the principle is sound; we need to love all, which is not to say we need to spend time with those who have persecuted, or treated us poorly. Love is an act of the will regardless of feelings. Learning to love in spite of being persecuted requires humility.  

We are worthy in God’s eyes, our worth must be seen thru His eyes as we are an extension of Him. Humility is an attitude not a place. We live within an attitude of humility recognizing our worth as we live and breath the presence of God into a hurting world. All attitudes and being emanate from within transforming us from the inside out. A form of outward humility is not humility. In other words, appearing humble without being humble is not humility; that being the attitude of the religious leaders Yeshua (Jesus) called vipers.  

The Prodigal had been humbled. In his heart of hearts I believe he knew his father loved him in spite of his wanderings, behavior, and poor decisions. Our Father, the Creator of all, the Universal Life Force, whatever name resonates, loves each one of us, every cell of our being, thru our wanderings, behaviors, attitudes, and poor decisions. Gratitude naturally follows the humble of heart, grateful for every blessing, big or small. Just like the Prodigal’s father, our Father searches the horizon for us to return. In the end, we are all prodigals…..                                                                                       

 

Possibility Thinking…..

Several years back there was a television preacher who advocated and taught the power of positive thinking. Depending upon which side of the Christian fence one was on determined how his message was viewed. Some cried foul, misrepresentation of the scriptures, Christianity-lite, and some embraced his teaching. Because of the doctrine I was being fed at the time, I stood with the misrepresentation crowd, and not necessarily by choice. It was confusing to me why thinking positively was a bad thing, but what did I know? Didn’t the Bible tell us to do that?

Philippians 4:8-9 says, “focus your thoughts on what is true, noble, righteous, pure, lovable or admirable, on some virtue or on something praiseworthy. Keep doing what you have learned and received from me, what you have heard and seen me doing; then the God who gives shalom (peace) will be with you.” (The Complete Jewish Bible). The answer is yes, the Bible does tell us to think positively. The Bible also takes thinking a step further and crosses right over into doing, which makes more sense. Thinking positively is a good start, but it isn’t the whole enchilada! Paul is teaching an if/then concept here. Now, realizing I am quick to point out the Bible has been massaged many times over so we can’t truly be certain anything is stated as it was, or if it was, originally, I do maintain there is wisdom to be found even if the words and concepts aren’t 100% authentic. As I have stated before, I believe God watches over His message, concerned more with intent than exact wording. So the message in its entirety becomes train your mind to think positive thoughts and the thoughts will lead to positive acts; the result will be God’s peace in the midst of doing His will.

Like begets like; positive and negative thinking not excluded. The more negative thoughts we have, the more our speech becomes negative, and soon negativity seems to be closing in on us. In essence, we paint ourselves into a box, a black box of doom, gloom, and depression. Thinking and speaking positively allows us to see other possibilities in the midst of problems in our lives. Life is not fair, life is difficult at times, and how we approach those times will affect our perception of the outcome, and may even affect the outcome itself.

Training the mind and heart to think and speak positively is a process. Isn’t everything? In the beginning we have to practice thinking and speaking from a positive viewpoint, looking for the good versus the bad in all situations; no easy task for many. The Charismatic mindset, from my past experience, is a form of positive thought and word, and yet it often seeks to deny the reality. I heard a well-known Charismatic evangelist say that if he had a headache he would rebuke it, tell the headache to go away, but would never admit to anyone he had a headache. In psychological terms that is called denial, some would just call it a lie. His teachings and beliefs were and are commonplace, often based on scriptures like Mark 11:23-24Yes! I tell you that whoever does not doubt in his heart but trusts that what he says will happen can say to this mountain, `Go and throw yourself into the sea!’ and it will be done for him. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, trust that you are receiving it, and it will be yours. ” (The Complete Jewish Bible) Charismatic theology has been deemed by some as the “name it claim it” theology largely because of idolatry of scriptures like these.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the above scripture; my opposition comes with how we use any scripture. Having known plenty of Charismatic adherents, scriptures like Mark 11:23-24 are treated as if they are edicts from on high, given far too much power, makes the focus about us rather than God, and are often spoken as an incantation, of sorts. This is misuse of the scriptures. Yeshua (Jesus) left us with the possibilities, a way of thinking differently to open the minds of His followers. Keep in mind the religious leaders of the day were among the few literate, and therefore those who were not depended upon them for interpretation of The Law. Yeshua is debunking that mindset when He says, “if anyone…” Anyone is you, me, the guy down the street; anyone is not just the person standing at the pulpit. Yeshua is saying with faith, ordinary people have power within them that can move mountains; the playing field has been leveled. Open the mind to possibilities!

Here is where we go astray; when the outcome is not what we expect, we assume we have done something wrong, or someone is quick to point out if we only we had a little more faith the ‘mountain’ would have moved. That mindset breaks people! Instead of allowing our relationship to teach and transform us on our journey, we become disillusioned, believing we have failed, and negativity moves in and sets up housekeeping. Some “get mad” at God, or lose faith in Him because He didn’t do what we said. What’s wrong with that picture?

Another scripture often used in the Charismatic/Pentecostal venue is Mark 16:17-18 “And these signs will accompany those who do trust: in my name they will drive out demons, speak with new tongues, not be injured if they handle snakes or drink poison, and heal the sick by laying hands on them.” (The Complete Jewish Bible) The extreme adherents are those who actually handle snakes, or drink poison; the remainder believe it possible when needed, or smorgasbord the list believing in new tongues and healing the sick, yet set aside the snakes and poison. Again, I believe it more a concept to teach a principle rather than an actual directive; the concept being the impossible is possible when we believe, or trust God is capable. Too often we put God in a box of impossibility, in other words, deciding He can do this, but probably not that.  To say with faith we can do the impossible through His is to demonstrate a principle.  The above scripture discussion in Mark allegedly took place following the resurrection when Yeshua (Jesus) appeared to His disciples, rebuking them for not believing He had risen, showing He had just done the impossible.

The possibility also exists this scripture was not found in the original texts at all. Mark was a friend of Peter, not having the advantage of actually walking with Yeshua as Peter did. Biblical scholars also note that Mark wrote more about what Yeshua did as opposed to what He said. Some of the earliest manuscripts end the Gospel of Mark at verse 8 of chapter 16 when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, later versions include verses 9-20 completing the resurrection and Yeshua’s appearance to others following, so we really have no clear directive at all, it seems, for driving out demons, handling snakes, drinking poison, speaking in new tongues, or healing the sick.

What if this scripture was meant to be metaphorical? Is it possible these scriptures are related? Yeshua said do what He does. How did He live His life? He lived a life of peace, of trust, of power. His thoughts were focused on His Father, in other words, positive thoughts. As Yeshua journeyed through His life clothed in the flesh of humanity, He healed the sick, cast out demons (negativity fled), the words He spoke were definitely new to the ears who were able to hear, and He called the religious leaders of the day vipers. The curses, or poison of those opposed to His teaching did not harm Him. In Him, we can do the same. Possibility thinking? Perhaps…..

The Road Less Traveled…..

Metaphorically speaking, have you ever found yourself standing at a fork in the road? Which way to go? Looking down each road, one familiar, one less so; faith will have to lead the way.

I am a truth-seeker. How much of what I believe have I just accepted because someone told me? As I stand here looking down one path, then the other, I hear voices from the past; voices that have shaped how I view God, the church, the Bible, and life, in general. What resonates within my spirit is not the teachings of the past, the lessons from various pulpits, or even people I hold in high regard. I don’t necessarily believe they are wrong, just that the interpretations they embrace, I cannot, or at least not fully, not any longer. There was a time when I believed that Christianity as it is preached across this country was the only way to heaven, the only way to journey with God. Today, I see organized religion as tainted, very often invoking fear to maintain the census, or worse, promising wealth, prosperity and an easy life from here on out if only we would come on bended knee, wallet open, and repeat the incantations, otherwise known as prayers of salvation, or any version thereof. At best, church is a gathering of people going through the motions of rote religious form hoping to fulfill an undefined quota of attendance and good works resulting in a seat in heaven. As I reflect on the words I have written I can see where some would think them a harsh judgment of the church, and that is not my intention. For a moment, set aside defense of the church, its practices and doctrine. Church and God are not synonymous.

One can have a deep and intimate relationship with God apart from church membership. We belong to churches because we seek to belong to a group of like-minded people; the reason for any group existence. If one feels connected, accepted, affirmed or nourished in the church setting, by all means, be present, be there. Certainly there are those who attend truly seeking relationship, living out the spirit of Yeshua’s ministry to a lost and hurting world; the genuine believers whose lives are centered on Yeshua whether inside or outside the walls of the church. Can one find God in church? I believe so, but in the end, God’s presence is everywhere; attendance in church is neither mandatory, nor guarantees a spot in heaven; therein lies a misconception.

Recently, I had a very spirited discussion with a childhood friend of my kids. I liked the young man as a kid, and now that he is grown he has adopted some ideologies I cannot embrace, nevertheless I still hold the kid close to my heart. One of the comments he made was that the church was “largely responsible” for my children turning out to be “great human beings”. I disagreed loudly and clearly, and my children chimed in, as well. Church provided them a place to meet friends, go on trips, and generally hang out in a safe environment. Do I believe it is responsible for their strength, resilience, compassion and humanitarianism? Not in the least. As one of my daughter’s pointed out to him, the church we belonged to knew the condition of our house, the abuse within its walls, and chose to turn a blind eye. Further, when I did reach out the pastor commented, “we have a lot of controlling men in the church”. That statement is concerning on a couple of levels and a mindset that must change.

In essence, often church leadership is condoning abuse in the name of Jesus, and willingly turning away from those most in need. Abuse of others occurs in churches across our country and likely around the world, when we exclude people from church life because of status, or lack thereof, lifestyle choices, and addictions, to name a few. Listen carefully to many of the sermons preached on any given Sunday; sermons dripping with the do’s and don’ts and why-I-don’t-measure-ups, and the need to scrub and scour the vessel until acceptable to God. Man puts conditions on God’s acceptance of the wounded, the sick, the needy, deciding who is worthy of God’s interventions. Matthew 11:28 calls those who are in need of relationship, “Come to me, all of you who are struggling and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Complete Jewish Bible) Notice the verse says “all”; it is all inclusive, it doesn’t leave anyone out. We all struggle, we are burdened, and we are all in need of rest.

The church has carefully crafted the image of God and Yeshua (Jesus). From historical accounts of Yeshua, we know that He was not well received by the religious leaders of the day, shunned by the elite, linked to prostitutes and criminals, accused of being a drunkard, His methods called into question as from the devil. In other words, Yeshua wasn’t the popular kid in town. He challenged conventional thinking and the religious leaders, and worked outside the box. Many tend to picture Yeshua gliding through the streets of ancient Israel, a Pied Piper, of sorts, children and lambs trailing after Him. Yeshua came to restore relationship with God and in so doing upset the norm. Those who embraced Him, sought Him out, listened, followed, and ultimately took His message forward after His death and resurrection were not the synagogue pew-sitters of the day. Yeshua’s life and message resonated with the lost, the lame, the infirm, the drunkard, the prostitute, the tax collector, those who did not have place or voice in mainstream society. Why? Their hearts and minds were open, they sought truth, healing whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual, they wanted relationship, truth.

So, here I stand at the fork in the road. One road is familiar, comforting only in that I recognize the path and its foliage. The other not as familiar. I perceive the path as partly shrouded in shadows, clarity not as obvious, however, the clarity of the other is based on familiarity more than truth, and my goal is truth. In the words of Robert Frost, he took the road less traveled and it made all the difference…..

Learning From the Journey…..

The other day I was in the process of doing a little research for a book I am writing about domestic abuse. I was specifically looking up spiritual abuse, mostly as it pertains to church teaching and doctrine justifying and overlooking the many cases of domestic abuse sitting in pews every Sunday. By definition spiritual abuse includes the misinterpretation of the Bible for selfish gain, encouraging ritual not included in the Bible, or opinions that are represented as fact, to name a few. If we look at the broadest definition, spiritual abuse would include every church and religion in the world, and I don’t agree with that.

Interpretation of the Bible seems to be at the root of most church-related definitions of spiritual abuse. Don’t we all interpret the Bible? I try to use the original text and keep everything in context as much as possible, but even then we can’t be 100% assured we are correct. In my prayer time I ask God to guide what I say and write so as not to mislead anyone. I surely would never mislead on purpose, and I am certain there are many in the pulpit who feel the same.

We have all heard the stories of church leaders who have exploited their congregations for personal gain or sexual favor; we also know the stories of cult leaders who have led their flocks into mass suicide. These are the extremes, the media sensations that make it onto the five o’clock news. But what of the more subtle abuses?

One source states that spiritual abuse occurs when others are held to a spiritual standard of acceptance or behavior, in other words, how we perform as “Christians”. Whoa…….that is concerning! How many of us have been in churches where the teaching from the pulpit involves climbing the ladder of spiritual perfection? Do this, don’t do that, memorize scriptures, wear a certain style of clothing, avoid or even  condemn certain types of people, learn the handshakes, pass the snakes…. Ok, now I’m getting a little ridiculous, but you get the picture.

Abuse is an umbrella term for the many types of abuse; the goal and end result of any kind of abuse is control and domination of others. The scariest type of spiritual abuse is the subtle, insidious indoctrination of a group of people. It is happening in churches all across the nation, their brand of abuse even permeating the homes of the congregants. Ever had a friend who “got saved” and your whole relationship changed, or worse, ended because of their “salvation”? You may even have noticed an aire of superiority since the salvation moment. What about the people who see or suspect demonic activity behind every negative event, misstep, or “unsaved” person?

I was part of all that nonsense for years, but I never felt that I fit in; something did not resonate well within. We should never rely on another for our understanding of anything. We are intelligent beings, capable of deciding for ourselves, and yet many churches attempt to strip us of our God-given ability to reason and decide for ourselves. I realize deciding for themselves is what got Adam and Eve in trouble, but God still let them do it, didn’t He? And, the story most of us get on that event has been colored a bit, too, by man, if we only read and accept the Biblical version or interpretation without the advantage of digging into the Greek and Hebrew texts.

So where does that leave us? Through prayer, study, more study, and more prayer, I have decided that our journey with God is individual, and it was designed to be that way. I keep coming back to the life and death of Yeshua (Jesus), believing His purpose, clothed in the flesh of humanity, was to open the door, once and for all, to all who would seek relationship with God. The relationship is what Adam and Eve had lost, not the amenities of living in the Garden. Yeshua restored what had been forfeited.

Do we have boundaries within that relationship even though we are not bound by Jewish Law? I believe we do. God, and Yeshua while He was on the earth, taught, with the familiar; those things common to man. Parenting is one such example. Do most of us parent by setting boundaries to prevent our children from experiencing life, to stifle them? No, but we do want our children to be safe, and to learn how to accept and love others, ultimately to live peacefully with all in the world at large. We journey with our children. We take them by the hand and teach as they grow. No one holds their child for the first time, looking lovingly into their unfocused eyes, and says, “ Do not run into the street, talk back to me, take drugs, hit others, disrespect your elders, do not steal, kill, or destroy, and whatever you do don’t drink, smoke or get tattoos!” That last part is obviously tongue in cheek!! I couldn’t resist, given the many “Christians” who believe any who drink, smoke, or get tattoos have boarded the fast train to hell! We haven’t. Boundaries are good, however.

Our journey with God is the learning process, much like the journey with our children. God meets us where we are in our lives at the moment we reach out to Him. He doesn’t back up the spiritual-do’s-and-don’ts dump truck and unload on us; many times the church believes it their duty to do so.

I have journeyed with God for many years, and I have also been in several different churches during my life. Each had their own set of standards that makes one acceptable to God, as determined by their interpretation of the Bible, and their particular doctrinal tenets and beliefs. Some aligned with scripture, many did not. As humans we desire to congregate with others of like mind, thus one of the reasons people gravitate to churches when seeking to journey with God. I don’t blame them; it’s human nature. We do, however, need to read, study and question for ourselves and not lean on the understanding of others. There is a scripture in Proverbs addressing that very thing.  “Trust in ADONAI (God) with all your heart; do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him; then he will level your paths. Don’t be conceited about your own wisdom; but fear (as in respect) ADONAI, (God) and turn from evil.” (Proverbs 3:5-7 The Complete Jewish Bible)

Having the advantage of years in the church I believe that many put their trust in their pastor’s interpretation while paying lip service to trusting in God to guide and teach. This scripture tells us that we are to let God level all our paths; in other words teach us as we journey with Him. Alone, we do not possess wisdom; we may have street smarts, but that is not wisdom. Pastors are on a journey as well, so do not have the only and correct interpretation. Accepting their interpretations as gospel is treading dangerous ground.

Am I suggesting people leave the church? No, of course not. I would like for us to consider what is taught; search out our own understanding as it applies to our journey with God. Accept what resonates, set aside that which does not for a later time. We needn’t reject what does not make sense since we are all at different places in our journey; that which does not make sense or apply today, may tomorrow.

I have been asked on many occasions to start a church. If I were to consider that, it would need to be different from all else out there, otherwise the purpose would be defeated. So the question becomes how to do that? At the moment I don’t have the answer, yet I believe many would gravitate toward something different from the standard fare. I don’t agree with everything I hear, or read, nor do I expect others to readily ingest everything I say. The lesson is in the discussion; how scriptures, and the Bible as a whole speaks to each of us. In so doing, we learn from one another’s journey…..