Spirituality


skeleton keys

Skeleton Keys (Photo credit: peatbogyeri)

Most of us learn the Sermon on the Mount as a random, disconnected collection of sayings from Jesus. But that’s not what it is.

It’s a comprehensive action plan for new life, presented in a specific order for maximum results, and recorded in three full chapters of Matthew (5-7).

Following it is how one follows Christ to seek his kingdom. To use Paul’s words, it’s how you put off the old self and put on the new (Eph. 4:22), continually working out your salvation (Phl. 2:12).

The Sermon is where Jesus has “hidden” the keys to the kingdom of heaven, God’s system of goodness and well-being at hand. Even the spiritually destitute can unlock it and enter, provided they’re not merely hearers of the Word, but are also doers of the Word. (Jas. 1:22)

How Did I Miss This New Life From Above?

I used to wonder why, having been a “believer” all my life, the presumed new creation in me never actually showed up, and Jesus’ words and ways still seemed ridiculously unrealistic. Yet they must be crucial to grasp or he wouldn’t have said them.

But the Christian books I read and radio shows I heard insisted that Jesus’ primary value is in his blood. Whatever he taught was back-burner stuff—either too random or too profound to make sense of in real life, and in any case, was separate from deliverance.

This conclusion shows in the lives of multitudes of sincere Christians (including the old me) who nevertheless have no idea how to love their neighbors, themselves, or do what Jesus says to do. We’ve been taught that getting our doctrines correct—the Trinity, justification, atonement, baptism, etc.—takes priority.

However, the new me has learned that doctrines, although helpful, don’t produce the radical, long-term changes that God is looking for. No wonder genuine new creations in Christ are as common as three-legged cats. There’s more to Jesus than his blood!

A Brilliant Savior

The sequence in Jesus’ Sermon is a divine strategy for life to the full. Before he delivered it, he had already provided incentive and hope for scores of people trapped in the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (ROTSAP) by announcing his good news of an alternative system available for new life, i.e., his gospel of the kingdom of heaven at hand.

So here’s a quick run-down of his plan that invites even the most spiritually impoverished people to follow him into the kingdom of heaven in the life they’re living now. It’s a matter of “yoking” with him, through practice and grace, to eliminate the following habits of mind, heart, and behavior.

1. Willful, retained, “righteous” anger and contempt. The Pharisees were constantly angry at Jesus. The more he went on about God’s kingdom, the more offended and contemptuous they became. People rarely say, wow, my anger is wrong. It always seems right, so we cherish it and hold it dear, refusing to let go. This leads to:

2. Adultery and divorce. Individual human affairs/divorces aren’t Jesus’ direct target here, although they are micro-reflections of the systemic target he’s aiming at. This is primarily a spiritual adultery “in the heart” and a collective divorce from God. It’s about lusting for substitute ways of life, both religious and secular. Together, they become the “harlot” we embrace, which leads to:

3. Swearing oaths. This addresses stubborn insistence, pride, and proving things by swearing this or that, which often backs us into disastrous corners. Recall that Peter swore on oath that he didn’t even know Jesus. So Jesus advises that anything beyond simple Yes or No comes from the evil one. Swearing progresses to:

4. Score-keeping, returning evil for evil. This stems from a greedy sense of fairness that turns revenge into something righteous (eye for eye). It demands “payment” from people who owe anything from apologies to favors to money. If they don’t pay up, pay-back’s a bitch, and a sworn enemy is born. Compounded by anger, it manifests as anything from spiteful insults to mass shootings. Score-keeping leads to:

5. Obsession with outer appearance and reputation. The old fashioned term is vanity, and the Pharisees were experts at it. This is about egotism, looking down on others with contempt if they don’t measure up, or about envy, admiring people for superficial qualities. Both finally create:

6. Judgmentalism and hypocrisy. Here’s the finished product of all the previous habits. It manifests as a compulsion to correct everyone else, whatever it takes, up to and including abuse. Whether it’s snobby social practices, political character assassinations, or “holy war,” the full-grown beast destroys others in self-congratulatory “correctness.”

This is sin and spiritual death in a nutshell, to which everyone falls prey. It’s important to realize that these are not only sequential, but also cumulative. Each new habit is built on the previous one, creating a less and less Christ-like heart.

Getting rid of these habits one by one is what “dying” to self is. Jesus knows that if you start by knocking the legs out from under willful anger and contempt, the rest of the structure gets wobbly and almost falls apart by itself. It’s precisely how you repent, surpass ROTSAP, and seek and enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus’ well-defined “narrow gate.”

Re-boot

If the forgiveness-only view of life from above purifies the human mind and cleanses the heart, why do we still have obnoxious, forgiven Christians? Wouldn’t these destructive thoughts and behaviors vanish? Forgiveness cleanses guilt, but has no transformative power over sin, the cause of guilt. Wouldn’t it be smarter to aim for the root, as Jesus does, and let the result take care of itself?

If we plan to someday rule the earth with Christ, it’s best to follow his plan and practice. God can hardly entrust dominion to people who can’t or won’t live in His system of total well-being.

So Jesus’ complete package to restore God’s system to humanity consists of his gospel of the kingdom of heaven, his Sermon on how to unlock and live in it, and his death and resurrection to ensure safe passage for those who choose to practice. Faith alone in Christ alone.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (Jhn. 1:4)

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Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty

Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty

Until the other day, I had only heard about the uproar over Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and A&E’s decision to suspend him from the reality show he stars in. I hadn’t read the actual article in GQ magazine that started it all.

The uproar is over Phil’s apparently raunchy, gay-bashing remarks. Having watched the show several times this year, I knew that he can be a colorful character, so I braced myself for a real doozie.

Well, first of all, and to my surprise, it was the author who struck me as raunchy. From the opening paragraph, I thought, wow, this guy’s like a kid trying to impress people with big-boy words (F-bombs and other language)—long before Phil made a peep.

When I read what Phil actually said, my second thought was, that’s what everyone’s freaking out over? That Phil finds it illogical for some men to prefer men over women? He specified that it was just his opinion, and I detected no ill will, bashing, or ridicule. And his raunchiest words were “vagina” and “anus.” For Phil, I think clinical terms were his best attempt at maximum sensitivity.

Shrug.

Now A&E certainly has the right to react and run their business as they see fit. If they didn’t like what Phil said, or more likely, feared advertiser repercussions and grief, that’s their choice. Personally, I think it’s a bit cowardly, but I’m not running their business.

Phil Robertson also has the right to express his opinion, although there may have been something in his contract stating that his on- and off-camera remarks were subject to approval. Who knows? But he strikes me as having more courage than A&E execs do, and whatever happens from here, I think Phil and his dynasty might even be better off while A&E may have shot themselves in the foot.

As for the gay community, they have as much right to God’s love as anyone else. They certainly have some legitimate challenges here, what with crazy, hateful people running loose who call themselves “real” Christians yet haven’t a whiff of God’s spirit in them. Like the Pharisees, they’re the same sort of self-proclaimed, but clueless “experts” for whom Jesus had more than a few sobering words. But Phil doesn’t strike me as one of that breed and I think people are, honestly, overreacting.

Here’s my bigger point: In America’s culture war and identity crisis, both sides fear they’re being mowed down by a relentless machine that will stop at nothing to wipe the other out. And both sides have a point. So people love drama and are perpetually poised, like cobras, to turn anything into a fight—the nastier, the better.

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...Perpetual alarm, anger, and mistrust are hallmarks of a deeply unhealthy society of unhealthy individuals, and ours is definitely sick no matter how Christian or non-Christian it claims to be. By contrast, authentic Christian faith is marked by, among other things, a pervasive sense of unrattled-ness. Jesus was never rattled. Neither are his strongest followers.

But human beings are funny. We keep stabbing ourselves in the eye with a sharp fork. We ask the doctor why there’s such terrible pain in the eye, and when we’re told to simply stop stabbing ourselves with the fork, we grab it even tighter and look for a different answer.

So the way I see it, everyone is given the opportunity to contribute to Jesus’ vision of self- and neighbor love. If more people on both sides learned to stop feeding the drama, it would stop feeding on us and making chumps of us all. Seriously, who wants to be a chump? 

Blessings, peace, and a happy drama-free New Year to all! 

 

The binding of the UK edition of Star over Bet...This is a modified re-post from last year that seems appropriate again:

I propose that we Christians stop hyperventilating when people say something other than “Merry Christmas.” I’m always sadly amused (if that makes sense) when I see on Facebook, in all-capital letters, stuff like:  PUT CHRIST BACK IN CHRISTMAS!!!!! RESPECT OUR FAITH!!! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!!!!!

I understand that Christians feel threatened by the equal and opposite hyperventilating from those who seek to wipe out every public nativity scene or reference to Christ.

But can anyone really take Christ out of Christmas? Is Christian faith so fragile that all it takes to knock us on our butts is a greeting like “Happy Holidays”? Should we behave the way the “other side” does, all fearful and agitated and snippy? How Christians answer this in their heads says a lot about what’s in (or absent from) their hearts.

Who cares what other people say? If we’re rooted in Christ, a simple holiday wish shouldn’t be our undoing. If you can’t take a generic greeting graciously, how will you ever come to “bless those who curse you, do good to those who mistreat you”? A secure, assured, at-peace spirit is the mark of Christ in you. So if that isn’t there, Christ isn’t there.

Assuming that we take Jesus seriously and genuinely want his kind of class and character, I propose that we wish our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and strangers a heartfelt Merry Christmas, and smile sincerely when they wish us Happy Holidays. Then say, “Thank you.”

What a concept.

Jesus with uplifted sword riding a white horseMy sister and I recently discussed her cool epiphany regarding “thief in the night” references to Jesus and his kingdom. Because it can be a confusing subject and her insights made great sense, I did some digging.

I discovered that (1) the NT uses two different Greek words that mean “thief,” and (2) the oldest Bible translations often blurred the distinction. They are:

Kleptes: a thief who steals by stealth, in secret as opposed to openly and/or by violence. This describes the pickpocket in a crowd, the cat burglar who slinks in shadow, and implies clueless victims robbed blind. It’s where our English “kleptomaniac” comes from.

A few usage examples: “Store up treasures in heaven, where thieves do not break in…” (Mat. 6:20, Luk. 12:33) and “The thief comes only to kill and destroy…” (Jhn. 10:10). Judas Iscariot (Jesus’ betrayer) was the pilfering keeper of the disciples’ money. He complained about expensive perfume poured on Jesus’ feet instead of being sold to raise money for the poor, not because he cared, but because he couldn’t steal the money. (Jhn. 12:4-6)

Lestes: a thief who plunders and steals openly and often violently; a marauder, a brigand. The plural describes a gang of bandits or an army that pillages entire communities. Usage examples: “…you’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves” (Mat. 21:13, Mrk. 11:17, Luk. 19:46), the two thieves crucified with Jesus (Mrk. 15:27, Luk. 23:33), and the severely beaten victim who “fell among robbers” in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luk. 10:30).

The idea behind the first word is unexpectedness. When Jesus says he’s coming like a thief in the night, he uses kleptes. This is usually followed by warnings to keep watch, stay awake, and maintain awareness so as not to be surprised. The second word is about fearsome, overwhelming strength. Both involve taking something that doesn’t belong to the thief.

Or does it?

Fast forward now to “the rapture,” a hugely popular Christian theory that I believed for many years. It claims that before Jesus physically returns to Earth in blazing glory, he secretly sneaks back to steal away his followers in stealth mode. It’s also greatly debated because Scripture doesn’t actually say this. People have simply inferred it based solely on kleptes verses (1Thes. 5:2, 2Pet. 3:10, Rev. 3:3 and 16:15).

I rejected this belief about 20 years ago because it presents several problems and doesn’t really make sense. For one, it adds a third visit. For another, it fails to consider lestes verses. And it conflicts with vivid descriptions of the overwhelming obviousness of Jesus’ return.

But a divine marauder—not slinking in shadows, but openly thundering in on a white horse with lightning and a mighty army—lessens the confusion and fits much better. Although Jesus personally used kleptes, such a Thief would bring both unexpectedness and fearsome strength (based on context and other Scriptures), evoking either terror or hope. And if Jesus is both the Alpha and the Omega, the root and the offspring, couldn’t he also be the “kleptes” and the “lestes” who takes back all that belongs to him, which is everything?

I believe that’s what the thief-in-the-night model intends to convey—like a cosmic Robin Hood robbing from robbers to restore what they stole, only on an epic scale. So, for citizens of Sherwood Forest, the thief is great news.

Not so much for the Nottingham sheriff and his impostor king!

A stuffed turkeyWhile most Americans give thanks for their blessings this time of year, I’d like to look at a different side of the coin using Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, found in Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus often aimed his stories straight at the spiritual elitists of the world. In his day, that would be the Pharisees. They (not the Roman Empire, as is commonly believed) embodied the worst of God’s enemies because they, unlike Roman/Greek/Gentile societies, were supposed to know better. After all, didn’t they constantly proclaim themselves the experts?

The Pharisee mindset isn’t unique to them and is still alive and well among scientific, academic, religious, social, and political elitists of all parties and cultures, including many Christians, who regard any group but their own with contempt. So Jesus’ illustration is as relevant today as it was then:

To some who were confident of their own rightness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

I disagree with the idea that God rejected the Pharisee’s prayer because he was insincere. I believe he was totally sincere. In his mind, he’s perfectly right, and therefore more than acceptable to God, for which he’s genuinely grateful. The Pharisee’s problem is precisely that he meant every word, which demonstrates a heart of condescension and contempt, a clueless heart. He not only doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t know God.

At the root of this problem is the relentless human habit of comparing oneself to others, which nearly always leads to judgmentalism and one of two extremes: self-degradation or self-superiority. Judgmentalism is different from simply making observations, i.e., discernment. It’s one thing to be aware of differences (discernment), but it’s quite another to use that to make yourself superior or inferior (judgmentalism).

The tax collector doesn’t compare himself to anyone. He’s not looking around, not obsessed with what others say and do, not distracted by how others look. I also disagree with the idea that beating his chest equates to beating himself up in self-hatred. I think he was simply discerning, which demonstrated a clean, honest heart. Aware, not clueless. Despite sin, he knew himself and God well, and that’s why he went home justified.

Now wouldn’t it be the grandest irony to miss Jesus’ point and conclude, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee”—or liberals/conservatives, gays/homophobes, atheists/Christians, Americans/rest of the world!

Isn’t that just how hypocrisy sneaks up on us like rust on a hinge? Speaking from experience, it’s a booby-trap that backfires mentally and spiritually, turning even the most sincere person into a blind, ridiculous expert. It’s why Jesus said to be careful and “watch yourselves!” (Luk. 17:3)

So I’m grateful for the usual biggies: life, laughter, family, friends, employment, enough to eat, a roof overhead, and a sound enough mind and body to enjoy it all. But I’m especially thankful for spectacular failures on my part over the years that were proverbial blessings in disguise. These are what seasoned my faith like pepper and onion in Thanksgiving Day stuffing.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone! May you live, laugh, and love (even through tears), knowing yourself and God more richly each year.

Refresh Symbol - Full CircleWhy did Jesus focus on love for God, self, and neighbor? Why all the practice in living well? Because we’re born to rule and serve creation with God. That’s why salvation isn’t just about forgiveness, but about new life, learning to rule without causing harm. And to prepare, we need divine leadership—the Shepherd, Teacher, and Provider.

That said, let me share three life-changing observations:

The Future (Vision)

I used to see God’s kingdom as strictly future-oriented. But what if this is only partially true? What if the whole truth is that God’s kingdom on Earth is in process now, not yet full, but well underway since Jesus announced its presence among us?

Several years ago, I was reading a retirement-panning article that mentioned setting aside an inheritance. I suddenly wondered why we always associate inheritance with death. Why don’t we ever associate it with living, something you get when you’re born? Don’t we inherit personal traits, living arrangements, and social/financial circumstances at birth?

A light bulb went off—that’s what Jesus meant! The kingdom isn’t set aside; it’s all around, near, at hand. Inheriting its riches is a matter of stepping into its life-style—re-birth. And Jesus brought the keys. (more…)

A ca. 6 months old Winter White Russian Dwarf ...Jesus didn’t make sense to me until I grasped his view of life, the soul, and salvation. The following was a huge revelation:

  • Life is the whole life, a single continuum from conception through physical death, extending to the afterlife, then bodily resurrection, and, as Bud Lightyear would say, to infinity and beyond.
  • A soul is the whole person, the self—mind, heart, body/substance, and behavior/relationships. When God saves a soul, He doesn’t save a piece of the person and forget the rest. Even after death, people continue to think, act, and interact with other people and creatures.
  • Ruin is to be broken, dysfunctional. Lost means to be out of place. Both are Death.
  • Salvation is deliverance from Death. It restores the whole person and entire life to compatible place with God and others. It is life lived with Him wherever you are.
  • Forgiveness is to salvation what birth is to living.

Accordingly, the gospel is about new life, about becoming the kind of person Jesus is in mind, spirit, body, and behavior. The good news is that God’s kingdom is here and at hand for any soul who wants to enter that life. Disciple-students of Jesus learn from him how to live in freedom, the power of knowing God, and secure love for one another.

You enter God’s kingdom not by dying or by drifting, but by living—by venturing on Jesus. In a word, you seek. God, of course, wants to be sought and delights in being found. That’s why He doesn’t barge through our doors. He also seeks us and celebrates when we’re found. (more…)

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