Monday, January 28, 2008

More Pastor Love Power

As I say, I like stories. I can understand stories. So on the theory that you are like me, I’ll tell you a story. That way, maybe I can understand.

Church yesterday, one of our pastors preached about Jesus’s prayers prior to his capture. Prayers in John, who is. Oh. Whose Gospel is Handel’s Water Music to my ears. Who rejoices in the mystical shmystical Jesus. In the mystical shmystical nature of our attraction to Jesus. The mystical shmystical relation of us with Jesus and of him with the Father and the mystical shmystical relation between ourselves and the Father through him.

The pastor in question spoke about the prayers in John 17. Prayers that assert a relation among his followers then and his followers now and him and the Father. A relation that is full of knowledge and love and joy and glory and spiritual protection and unity. A oneness in relation. A unity of purpose in relation and because of relation. A unity that makes it possible for God’s own love for Jesus to be present in us. A unity that makes possible Jesus’s own presence in us, through his Holy Spirit.

And as he chatted colloquially about these prayers, the pastor never once mentioned mysticism or mystical connection. He never once mentioned spiritual connection among us. What he did mention was that Jesus was and is God’s word to us. He did mention that he prayed not only for his followers then but his followers now. He did mention Jesus’s concern for our protection from the evil one. And he did say that God’s glory is our glory. And he did say that we are like Christ because of our glory. Because we have glory like Christ has glory. And we are therefore capable of being like Christ and capable of growing in his character. And we therefore should seek to be like Christ and grow in his character.

So later yesterday evening we talked, at my request. And I was vibrating. I mean I had a hard time putting sentences together so that they didn’t sound like I was riding in a twenty-year-old beat-to-blazes truck, suspension shot, rushing at fifty miles an hour down a mightily potholed and washboarded dirt road.

I pulled out the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, and asked him if he could find in these any reference to our believing that we need to be or should be like Christ. No, he said.

Okay, I said. Can you show me exactly where in the Gospels that Jesus tells us to be like him. Well, he then spoke about how the Scriptures are divinely inspired and how there is, as far as he’s concerned, no automatic writing involved. No dictation involved. And so forth.

And so I asked him whether he viewed all Scripture as instruction. I said, take for example Genesis. Is Genesis designed to tell us what to do. Well, that is the Old Testament, he said. Psalms. Take Psalms, for example, I said. Are these poems designed to tell us what to do?

I think I’m beginning to get your point, he said. But let me tell you a little about my background. Baptist and Lutheran and Bible churches. And in all of that background, the New Testament was treated all the same. All the same thing. All the parts of the New Testament equal.

But it isn’t, I said. It is the Gospels and everything else. It’s the Gospel story of Jesus and what he said and did. (And Acts, the history of the early church.) And then it’s normal people’s responses—normal people like you and me with limitations and issues all over the place—to Jesus. To the Gospel story. To their particular experiences of Jesus. To his Holy Spirit. Their responses to the early Christian church, the issues there. Their responses to one another and to members of the early Christian church.

But don’t you think, he said. Don’t you think that we can have just a small part. A small piece of Jesus’s nature.

A small piece of perfection, I said. A small piece of divinity. How can we become divine in a small way. Perfect in a small way. I wanted to know. And he fell silent for a time.

So Paul, he wanted to know. Don’t you read Paul. I read Paul as Paul, I said. Limited. Issues. Imperfect. Groping. Trying to find a language he could use that would adequately deal with his experience. His mystical experience. Foundering. Flubbing. Stumbling to try to get across what his experience of the Holy Spirit was and what it might mean for him. And by extension what it might mean for all of us. And also, by the way, trying to find a way to get the hedonists to pay attention. And more, of course. Much more.

But don’t you read Paul as instructing us, he said. No. No, I said. I read Paul as instructing the particular people of his time, to the best of his ability to instruct. And his instruction is limited. Flawed. It’s hard to understand. It’s convoluted. It’s groping. It’s culture bound. It’s Paul bound. And it’s to some extent self-aggrandizing. I’m a Christian, I said. Not a Paulian. I follow Jesus, not Paul.

But Paul, he said. And James. And Peter.

Yes, all of these, I said. I’m not a Jamesian. I’m not a Peterian either. All of them limited and with their own particular personal and experiential and ideational and relational and cultural issues. And none of them God. None of them Jesus. None of them having the authority of Jesus in the Gospels. Some authority, certainly. Some significant authority for a variety of reasons. But not the authority of Jesus. Not the authority of the one we follow.

When you read the Psalms, I said. Do you read the prayers for the destruction of the psalmist’s enemies as a recommendation? As an instruction? Is it okay for us as Christians to actively desire the destruction of our enemies? Or have we been instructed differently? And if so where would that instruction be? Where would we go to understand that instruction. The Gospels or the Epistles.

Look, I said. You frequently preach that being Christian in this church means wanting to be like Christ. I don’t want to be like Christ. I don’t think there is any Scriptural basis for it in the Gospels. Jesus has not asked us to be like him. That would be cruel, and Jesus isn’t cruel. If you think there is a Gospel basis, show me. He has asked us to do a number of things. The Isaiah agenda. Love God and one another. Look for the Counselor and do what the Counselor counsels.

He has taught us about the Kingdom. He has taught us that there is a mystical relationship involving God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and us. And that the Kingdom is a way of talking about this relation.

He’s taught us that only God is good. Do you remember the rich young man, I said. Yes, the needle’s eye and so forth. Well, no. The tell me teacher what is the one good thing that I can do to obtain eternal life. And Jesus saying, there is only one who is good.

Then surprise in his eyes, the pastor’s eyes. You don’t mean. Certainly you don’t mean that we can do whatever we want. That’s another issue altogether. Altogether. The important thing to keep in mind for now is that according to Jesus only God is good.

But certainly we can disagree about something like this, he said. Certainly, we can disagree about this and many other things. But you are making your motive to be like Christ a condition of membership in this church.

What do you mean?

You bring this up often. You insert it almost, it seems, wherever you can. I am getting the feeling that if I don’t agree with you on this, I don’t belong here. If you brought it up once, fine.

How often do I bring it up. Oh, I said. I don’t know. Maybe every third or fourth time you preach. Really, he wanted to know. Really, I said. Then we rested.

You know, this is much better than your getting mad and exploding, he said. Thanks for bringing this to me. Sure, I said. I don’t like exploding. There’s always such a mess. And the paperwork. The mounds of paperwork.

So, there was silence for awhile. Then, give me time on this, he said. Sure, I said. Take your time. No pressure. Think about it. I’ll pray about it, he said. Certainly, I said. Whatever. And then when you’re ready, let’s talk again. Okay, he said. And then we prayed for God to come in and help us through this. Specifically asked God to help our relationship grow and improve through this.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pastor Love Power

Even these. Even such as these. Even pastor thieves and adulterers. Pastor swaggerers. Pastor gluttons. Pastor arrogants. Pastor haters. Pastor self-satisfieds. Pastor judgmentalists. Pastor preeners. Pastor willfulists. Pastor pistols. Pastor condemners. Pastor vilifiers. Pastor greedists. Pastor holy-holy-holier-than-thou-ists. Pastor ignoramuses. Pastor sloths. Pastor liars.

Even these. Even these gross distortions. Even these evil ones. Even these run-of-the-mill sinners. These humans. These poor misguided. These pastors of the world.

Even these charlatans. Deserve our love. Even these require our love. Even these.

I was having dinner with a friend the other evening. A friend who is an organist now and about 80. Whose wife died just over a year ago. A guy who was a preacher once himself in his early twenties. Tells me about the pastor at his church. A man about 425 pounds. A man who wears his sin for all to see. A man who cannot hide.

A man who plays video games most of the day and surfs the web, according to my friend. A man who does not visit members of the congregation in the hospital or at home because there is no furniture that will accommodate him. A man who rarely gives a sermon anymore. A man who imports others to give the sermons.

A man who sits in the back of the church and tells his congregation when to stand and when to sit and when to kneel. But who can do only one of these himself because of his gravitas. His gravity. His great fleshy weight. And because of his disintegrating knees and hips.

A man whose congregation is slowly dwindling. Dwindling down and down. A man who is reaching the end of the line. A man who is reaching the end of his days. A pastor who has nowhere to go. But here. In this dwindling church.

Even these. Even these people who drive us away from God. Even these who body forth a God who one wants nothing to do with. Even these poor creatures like you and me.

One wants to get out the rod. One wants to cry real tears. One wants to shelter these poor souls from their own merciless judgments. Because somewhere in them there is such self-loathing, it would make for fine horror. Fine torment. Such hideous torment that goes on in there. That one wants to cry like a baby to contemplate it.

Oh. Pity them. Love them. These poor creatures. Torn by their own thoughts into so many fleshy lumps. Distributed among us for our delectation.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Marriage Love Power

And now. Even now. Even after. Oh. How many years is it for you? How many is it for me? I think it’s maybe 35 for me now. 36? Maybe it’s 36. Something like that.

And even now. Even with our not-so-good days. Even with our so-so days. It’s lovely. This marriage we have. This marriage that is something like a canoe in which we each have our part. A canoe in which we each have our own end and our own paddle.

We each can do whatever we like with our paddles. We can each independently choose to work at cross-purposes, if we like. Or bash each other over the head, for example.

But things go so much more smoothly. So much more aesthetically. So much more peacefully. So much more enjoyably. If we decide together where we are going. If we choose together for the good of the journey how we will proceed.

How we will accommodate one another. And then cooperate. Coordinate. Coruscate under the bright light of the sun’s scrutiny. Confabulate. Communicate. Commiserate. Congregate. Conglomerate. Coagmentate. Cogitate. Cohabitate. Periodically copulate. And rehabilitate.

And this journeying together. This agreement to paddle in the same canoe. This is certainly choice. But it is also affection. It is also feeling. Because without affection. Without love. Without patient love. This would. It just wouldn’t be.

Have you ever tried to paddle a canoe with another person? For 35 years? Every day? All day long? In often difficult weather? Difficult water?

You get on one another’s nerves! You get eternally irritated, at the very least. And you can get dangerously angry, if you don’t watch out. You are both merely human, you see. Both deeply flawed. And so you regularly act like asses. You regularly act in ways that would be embarrassing if put on national television.

I say regularly. I mean momently. I mean all the stinking time. I mean every time you regard yourself you find yourself doing or thinking or saying or feeling or wanting something that you desperately need forgiveness for. That only God could possibly forgive you for, because only he has that infinite capacity of forgiveness that your sinfulness requires.

But then there is your marriage. Then there is this other wonderful person who is with you in the same canoe. Who knows everything that another person can know about you. And who by being there in the canoe with you implicitly forgives you.

Explicit forgiveness is nice. It’s very powerful stuff. But whether you get the explicit forgiveness or not, you’ve got something almost as good. You’ve got the continued presence of your lover and friend.

And this forgiveness. It can only come. It is only possible. Because of love. Because your wife or husband or partner has opened the infinite well of love in his or her heart for you. For you.

Can you understand that? Do you believe that? This person. This other merely human being has made you—disgusting you—tolerable and possible because she (or he or whatever) has chosen every day to remain vulnerable to you and all your cruelties, all your coldness, all your silliness, all your depravity, all your insensitivity, all your selfishness, all your defensiveness, all your denial, all your laziness, all your grandiosity, all your insecurity, and so on.

Isn’t this uncalled for? Isn’t this extraordinary and remarkable and miraculous? Isn’t the very idea that anyone would put up with you for 35 years fundamentally astounding? Doesn’t it make you humble and grateful and tender-hearted just to contemplate? A little leaky around the window shades?

That another person would do that for you? That another person could love you—ridiculous you—that much? That you could mean that much to anyone?

It should. It definitely should. In fact, I recommend it. I highly recommend it. A little reflection on the enormous love it must take to accommodate you.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sex Love Power

And even further back. Back. Back. Through the annals of time. Back through the many days and years, lying like so many layers of sedimentary rock over what is hidden in oneself. Hidden just as rough and dark and hard there as diamonds. Enormous and heavy as fist-size diamonds.

Resting in the dark. Waiting for. Reserving themselves for rediscovery. Dark there but potentially bright and dazzling.

And in that deep down darkness. There is the person one once was. The boy. The boy-man. Who could think of nothing in his spare moments but women. Woman.

Who could think of nothing but his fulfillment in the act of sexual love. Fulfillment as completion. Fulfillment as end state. Fulfillment as purpose. Fulfillment as rapture. As ecstasy. As rest. As intimate knowledge of the other. Intimate understanding of. Well. The other. Because what else was there?

And that understanding, that rest, that peace, that ecstasy, was. Well. What one also understands to be love. Love of the welling kind. Love of the making kind. Love of the recreating kind.

Love reciprocal. Love elliptical. Love indelible. Love correlative. Love unstoppable. Love improbable. Love incalculable. Love ineluctable.

And this sexual love business. Oh, what can one say about this? And not come off as a moron. As misguided. As advocating sin. As being prurient. As being immoral. In the Christian context we’ve created for ourselves. In the deeply superficial sense we have of sin in this facile Christian culture we’ve created for ourselves.

I was reading something the other day. It was in one of those Christian magazines. I think the essence of it was, the guy wanted everyone to believe that orgasm is unimportant. That sexual fulfillment is really just a contraction of a couple of muscles. That sexual love is trivial.

And he wanted us to understand that love is a much more profound business than this. Than sexual love. And I wanted to wring his neck.

I wanted to reach into the Christian magazine I was reading and wring this misguided pastor’s neck for spewing such nonsense. I wanted to take his words to the fireplace and exterminate them with extreme prejudice. Because of what words like these can do out here in the world. Coming as they do from an authority. From God’s representative on earth.

Oh, let’s just take a brief tour through human history. And human literature. Let’s just take a look at what the role of sexual love is in the history of the human species. Let’s just reflect on the little that we know about this.

It is a history—among other things—of sexual love driven wars and triumphs and death and art and literature and murder and suicide and ecstasy and mayhem and economic striving and ruthlessness and bliss and agony and degradation and aspiration and. And. And. It’s a history that over and over demonstrates the extraordinary power sexual love has had in the lives of the human species.

Why would anyone try to pretend it is unimportant? Trivial. All the facts say otherwise. The history books are full of this stuff.

Rather than being superficial in its expression or superficial in its experience or superficial in its import or superficial in its consequences, it is utterly profound. It absolutely drives huge complexes of human behavior. Huge sequences of acts and omissions of acts of human beings.

And it makes human beings. It makes human spirit beings.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Child Love Power

I was visiting my son this past weekend and was trying to explain to him the extraordinary power—Love power—his birth had over me. Has over me. But I gave up after a few feeble attempts. It’s hard to put this into words. It’s hard to say what overwhelming and humbling power love really does have over one. Over one’s emotions and actions. One’s choices. The whole orientation of one’s life.

It wakes one up in the middle of the night and occupies one’s thoughts all day long. It drives one to work harder than one might otherwise. Perhaps become monomaniacal about one’s work to provide adequately for one’s children.

I was an atheist at the time of my son’s birth, and he was our first child. My wife and I had been married about 11 years when he was born. And I was with my wife in the birthing room.

It was a hard delivery. My wife had real trouble delivering him. The doctor considered a c-section because of the sustained lack of progress in the early morning hours. But after much pain on her part and wincing on my part, he was born naturally, and his head came out looking. How shall I describe this. His head came out looking a little bit like a short cigar.

So what I’m saying is that he had quite a large head, and my wife’s pelvis was rather small. And so his head was more or less extruded in the shape of a small cigar. But this really didn’t register at the time. I mean, I only think about it this semi-humorous way with a great deal of perspective. Of time. The emotional distance time can give you.

What I really did see when he was born was suddenly this other precious human being that was of me, of us. One of us. Out of us and from us and now to us. Now given to us. And I was absolutely struck. I was absolutely slain. All I could do was stare and breathe deeply with my mouth hanging open like a Neanderthal. As the nurse cleaned him and held him and he squalled as newborns like to do.

It was love at first sight. It was love unexpected and unasked for. It was Love crashing in upon my heart and taking it prisoner.

For weeks and months and years afterward, I continued to marvel at this. This extraordinary feeling that all I wanted to do was to be in the presence of this human being who was of us, from us, to us. All at the same time.

A person who was a gift to us at each and every moment. As though each moment, he were a new gift to us. And a gift from us, of us, to the world.

I had the feeling that we were newly receiving this extraordinary gift from the cosmos and giving it back to the world. Like we were maybe actors in a play of transformation. And our role was to receive and to give. Receive and to give. Receive and to give. Now and for the rest of our lives.

I felt enormously privileged. Enormously favored.

And I was shaky. I mean I no longer had the same bravado. The same swagger. The same feeling like I was captain of my destiny.

I was now quite emphatically at the mercy of the cosmos. Quite completely at the whim of the cosmos. Now I was vulnerable. I was caught up in the love stream of the cosmos. The great broad love river of the cosmos. And who knew what would happen to me now? What boulders and strainers and souse holes and other hydraulics I would find downstream? As I floated down the broad deep river of love.

An enormous river that I previously thought was a mere stream. A merely pleasant delicate little familial stream ten or twenty feet across. Before this.

But now this flow that I found myself in was actually a broad flood. An earth-sized flood. And more. A cosmos-size river. At the heart of everything. Through and over and around and under everything one might know or think to know. Running from horizon to horizon. As far as my eyes could see.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Holy Spirit Power

And what God sends us, when our hearts are open to him, is Love with a capital L. It is the Holy version of love. It is God’s own Love, which is full of power and light. It is full of healing. It is full of knowledge. Wisdom. It is Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit power.

Or I should say it can provide knowledge. It can provide healing to others. It can provide healing to us.

This Love power that God sends to his lovers, to those whose hearts are open to him, is various in what it delivers, and it can deliver different qualities or attributes to different people. It is all Holy Spirit Love, but the transmission may contain words of knowledge or not, healing for specific people or not, tongues or not, power to cast out demons or not. And so forth.

The only sure thing about Holy Spirit Love is that it is first and foremost God’s Love, and this Love does at a minimum restore us, stimulate us, reassure us, comfort us. Oh, some of its manifestations may be odd, unsettling. But when the momentary manifestation passes, there is usually a glow. A feeling of peace. Of well-being. Often people describe this feeling as being held in the palm of God’s hand or being held as a baby is held by a parent. Gentle assurance and tenderness are often feelings associated with the after-surge time, the time following a surge in Holy Spirit presence.

Sometimes in this Love-surge, God will deliver audible words. Sometimes in this Love-surge God will send us impressions, visions, interpretations. Sometimes it will seem as if a curtain has been drawn back, and we are able to see spirit beings that we normally cannot see. But these are examples, not limitations. There is no complete list of the kinds of manifestations that God sends us in the Love stream, the Holy Spirit stream, that he sends to us. There is no predicting what Holy Spirit Love will do.

The most common experience of Holy Spirit Love is found in worship. There is something about music and about singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God that seems to invoke the Holy Spirit, to call forth God’s Love. To enable us to receive this Love. So in worship, I often see people crying, falling to their knees, closing their eyes with rapturous expressions on their faces. These are signs of Holy Spirit Love washing over and washing through a group of people. There are more obvious signs—whole groups of people falling down, for example.

I mentioned the concept of decision in a previous post in a discussion of love. I said that love is first and foremost a feeling or a set of feelings. That love is not primarily a matter of will but of heart. And I want to augment what I said earlier, now that I’ve had the chance to further explain what I think love is, where it comes from, and how it works.

The augmentation is this: One must allow one’s heart to be open. For some people, their hearts are just open. They need do nothing. Some people must make a decision to open their heart to receive God’s Love. Some people must make a decision to open their heart to love God. And the same may be said for people. There is often a decision involved in loving and receiving love from others. Or permission may be a better word. One must often give one’s permission for love to flow in and out.

So will can involved. But will is not the author of love. It is not love’s own active agent. It is certainly not love itself. It can be the gatekeeper. It can allow love to flow like living water all about the place. In and out of one’s soul. It can determine the forms that love will take on the outflow. And it can play a role in a person’s receiving Holy Spirit Love.

Its role in receiving Holy Spirit Love can be the opening of the doors to one’s heart. The person’s will can choose to look for God. To expect God. Can allow the heart to long for God. For his Holy Spirit Love. His Holy Spirit presence. Can allow the heart to reach outside of itself for completion.

But a conscious act of the will is often not required. People who do not believe they are Christian can certainly experience Holy Spirit Love. People who have made no decision per se for Jesus have experienced God’s Love. Routinely do experience God’s active Love. I experienced Holy Spirit Love repeatedly when I was an atheist, but I didn’t understand what it was at that time. I didn’t understand where these feelings came from, why I was having them. What they meant.

My own experience of Holy Spirit Love has been rather spectacular. Rather wild and vivid at times. But these experiences have largely been perceptual and emotional on my part. I’ve seen, felt, heard, smelled, and touched things at the same time that others who were present apparently didn’t. Often, others have been present when I’ve had these Holy Spirit Love experiences.

I have not barked like a dog or spoken in tongues. I have not fallen down or foamed at the mouth. But I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and these manifestations were not welcomed there. In other words, I tend to be the kind of person who would not welcome these more physical manifestations in myself.

Now does God love us in non-spectacular ways? Of course. The non-spectacular manifestation of God’s Love is how I normally experience him. How I normally experience God’s Love. How about you?

For me, there’s a warm glow. In worship often, it feels like a lion six feet at the shoulder is rubbing up against my back. Is this spectacular? No, not really. It’s usual now. It was spectacular and disconcerting when I was 15, but after more than 40 years of this, it’s usual. Normal. The warm glow and stimulating—diaphragm fluttering—presence of God in worship.

In prayer, it often feels like I have waded into warm water. Ninety plus degree water. Bathtub warm water. Up to my neck. It feels like I am slowly walking through this neck-deep water. Or am just standing in the one spot, sand between my toes, the sun shining down in a sandy lush part of the earth, with deep blue ocean out in front of me as far as I can see.

It feels like I’ve waded into God. That God is the water and the sand and the foliage and the air and the sun and the pale blue sky. God surrounds me everywhere I look. For the moment, I am at peace. I want nothing but this calm. This Holy Spirit bliss. This immanent, extravagant God Love. And I am happy.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

More Well

But as I say, this artesian well of love in us, God’s own love, can be tampered with, can’t it? Bad things can happen to it.

It can get paved over, for example. So that all or almost all the love goes out of a person’s life.

Or it can get polluted, for example. Salt water or poisons of various kinds can get injected into the limestone substrata of our beings so that the artesian water, the living water in us, becomes vile. Becomes dangerous to us and others.

Or the form this water is allowed to take when it bubbles up in us can get restricted. The hydrology engineer in us might cap and contain this artesian well and construct water works so that this water can only be released or shaped into only a few of its many possible forms.

In other words, things can go wrong with love. Our love for others. Our ability to experience God’s love for us. Our ability to love God. And our ability to experience others’ love for us.

We all know people in whom love has gone wrong. In fact, in all of us, from time to time, it might accurately be said that something goes wrong with our love—our ability to accept and express love.

I know plenty of Christians who have been taught that their feelings are unimportant or dangerous or both and that therefore their feelings in general should be ignored. Should be set aside. Paved over. And so, because they have been taught this, and they believe it, they therefore act on it.

They pave over the sources of many of their emotions. Curiously, anxiety, fear, hostility, depression, and anger are not well regulated in these people. But love, joy, and peace are. It’s almost as though when one puts a lid on love, joy, and peace, what comes to the surface are these other emotions, whether we like it or not.

In addition, some people have been abused or have suffered great traumas, and it is as though someone has injected poison into their artesian water. Into their living water. And the result is that love comes out as a poisonous emotion. Poisonous to the person himself and to the objects of that person’s now quite poisonous and destructive love.

Some people severely restrict their experience and expression of their love. They strictly confine love relations to spouse and children, for example. Others confine their expression of love only to their work. Others restrict their love from expressing itself in erotic or sexual forms. And so on.

Jesus tells us to love God and love one another for a reason. He doesn’t tell us this because he wants to punish us or because he wants to make our lives difficult or uncomfortable. He tells us this because we are made this way. We are made to love God and one another.

Loving God and loving others therefore fulfills our nature. And when we don’t, things often go wrong. And we end up quite miserable and potentially ineffective. Ineffective as promulgators of God’s kingdom. Ineffective as spreaders of the Gospel.

And when Jesus says love God and love one another, what he doesn’t say explicitly but what he means is for us to allow ourselves to be loved by God and to be loved by others in return. In his mind, it goes without saying. Think of love as a joining of hands with the objects of our love. As we touch those we love, we also are touched by them in return.

This is quite important, because one of the things that also goes wrong with our love is that we get played out. We give and give to God and those around us, but we do not allow ourselves to receive simultaneously.

In this case, we are love transmitters only. And this means that we do not fully connect with God and with others. We do not fully love God and others if we are only in transmit mode.

Love is ideally bidirectional. Reciprocal. Particularly regarding our love for God. If we do not also allow God to love us, our love for others diminishes. Without allowing ourselves to receive God’s love, our love for others may even disappear.

In other words, God’s love for us is essential for spiritual health. If we cut off the source of the living water in us, we will quite simply be unable to love others or God.

Our love is God’s own love coursing through us and back out to God and to others. And this circuit. This loop. Or really, when others are included—these many many loops. Create a new dimension. A love dimension. A spiritual dimension. The spiritual realm that Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


Because feeling. Emotion. Tonality. Heart. Is where we begin, don’t we? It’s where we live and breathe and have our being. It’s how we know we’re alive. How we know we’re not some kind of an organic clock or computer or music player or talking reference resource or two-legged automobile.

And this heart that we have. What a curious invention! It’s our portal into the kingdom of God. It is our way into God’s presence. It’s the door through which we may pass into God’s own bliss and see the spirit-beings who inhabit his kingdom. Converse with them. Perhaps understand something about them. Inhabit their world with them.

I remember a pastor saying a very long time ago that love is a decision and not a feeling. Or maybe he said that love is a decision more than a feeling. I’ve heard similar statements from pastors, ministers, priests, and believer priests several times since. I may have read this several times since as well.

As though decisions or commitments could take the place of love. As though we could somehow overcome the centrality of emotion, of heart, in our lives by will.

Oh, I want to get a little moist around the window-shades when I hear this. Or read this. I feel so lost when I read something or hear something like this. When I trust the person who says such a thing. As though our spiritual beings themselves could be trained like circus animals. Could be brought to heel by our will. As though our heart is or should be at the service of our will.

The very idea of it gets the rain falling heavily in the high country of my being and fills the rivers and valleys and water tables full to overflowing. Floods threaten to inundate everything when I hear people I trust say asinine things like this. Because.

Because our heart is sacred. Our heart enables us to connect with, identify with, be at one with, and understand others. When Jesus says to love God and one another, he isn’t saying to program ourselves to do nice things for one another. He isn’t saying to do these 10 or 100 or 1000 specific things for God and for one another, and then we’ll be okay. And he’ll stick a fork in us and call us done.

He didn’t say the first commandment is to make a commitment to or decision for God. And he didn’t say that the second commandment is to make a commitment to or a decision for one another.

No, he isn’t saying anything like these things. He’s saying first and foremost open your hearts to God and love him. Allow yourself to feel his love for you. Look for him. Seek him. Allow your heart to want his presence. Allow your heart to ache for him. Because this is what it is designed to do.

Allow yourself to feel these things. Allow your heart to guide you toward God through its need to find him. And once your heart finds him, allow your heart to luxuriate in his presence. Allow your heart to be overwhelmed and gentled and loved by him.

Allow your heart to take you into his presence and the presence of the saints. The communion of saints. Allow your heart to make God and the saints real for you and put you at one with them.

He’s saying love one another. Open your hearts to one another and understand that in loving one another you are loving God. He’s saying give in to your need to love one another. He’s saying this love will enable us to do things that seem impossible, unreasonable, imprudent. Remarkable.

This love will enable you to change your lives and the world itself. This love will give you purpose. Meaning. The power of this love will enable you to do the impossible things I have asked you to do. The ridiculous counter-intuitive things he’s asked us to do. But we can be certain of the importance and the rightness of doing these things by the power of the love that motivates them.

When it is said in the Bible that we are made in the image of God, what God means to tell us is that we are given his own heart. We are given the spiritual capacity to join him and the communion of saints and to join with one another in his kingdom here on this earth in this lifetime.

This spiritual capacity is love itself. Love is the means by which God’s kingdom and all its glory and splendor and majesty are opened to us. It is the portal by which we can discover the lost world we have before us and it is the means by which we can participate in the world’s recovery, its restoration.

Love is at the heart of who we are. We are love beings. Spirit beings. And whenever this impulse is denied, ignored, punished, mistreated in any way, or willed to be less than or something other than it is, we do spiritual violence to ourselves and to God and potentially to one another. We become spiritually deformed beings. And this deformation is expressed in our behavior, our relations with one another and with God.

And so you have the older brother in the parable of the lost son. His soul has become deformed. Maybe permanently. He is no longer capable of loving his brother. He has only hate and resentment for his brother and is angry with his father for loving his brother. For expressing his overwhelming love for his brother, who is now being restored by his father’s love.

The older brother turns against love when he turns against his brother. He turns against his own nature. Against his father. Against God. He does spiritual violence to himself and his family.

What does the word love mean in my lexicon? I’m talking about God’s own love that he has put in us, a capacity for his own love that he has put in us. Think of this love as an upwelling in us that is like an artesian upwelling of water from streams running through rock in the earth. Once this water is forced up to the surface, it will flow into a small stream, into a mighty river, into a lake, and into the sea.

So this love we have in us, once it surfaces, can take many forms.

In church, we like to talk about agape love. The ancient Greek word that means love of spouse and family and by extension perhaps the self-sacrificing love of God. There is also philia, which is generally translated to be brotherly love—love without any sexual content. And then of course there is eros, which is indeed sexual love.

But the kinds of human love are not confined to these particular three names used by the ancient Greeks. There is the father’s love for his daughter. The father’s love for his son. There is the love of nature. Of learning. Of literature. Of sculpture. The daughter’s love for her mother. The son’s love for his mother. The uncle’s love for his niece and his love for his nephew. The grandmother’s love for her grandson, her granddaughter.

And the love changes. The love a father has for his son when he is born is different from the love he has for his son on the day of his marriage. And the son’s love for the father changes also. And so on.

There appear to be many, many kinds of love. Forms of love. Expressions of love. And only a few of these have been given one-word names. And the common source of all of this love—love in its original form—comes out of the one well in us.

The love well that bubbles up living water. The living water that Jesus talked about. The living water that takes as many shapes as there are human beings on the planet. As there are human relationships. As there are human loves.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Where Is He?

Now let us pseudo-randomly turn to Luke 15. Thank you.

What do we find here? He’s at it again! Here’s Jesus once again with sinners and tax collectors gathered around him. Sinners and occupier-sanctioned thieves. So your general purpose sinners and your very specific kind of sinners. And the Pharisees pointing their fingers, saying, “This man is not one of us. He is unclean. He associates with sinners. He not only associates with them but enjoys their company! And he even eats with them! He even enjoys himself in the homes of sinners!” Or something like that.

Please notice that he was not an unwelcome guest among these people. These people did not throw him out of their homes. They invited him in. They naturally were drawn to him as he made his way around the country-side or around town.

What pastor or priest or minister who you know spends a lot of time with people who. How shall I put this? Who are foul, morally speaking? Who are obviously and morally odious?

In our time, who would such people be? People who are obviously odious? Morally? In your church community or the surrounding community today, who would these people be? Would they be the well-to-do people in your church? The people who dress well and drive late model cars? Would they be the people who take pride in their possessions, in their stature in the community, in their talents, in their gifts? Would they be the overweight people in your church? Would they be the people who are prone to getting angry, maybe about a particular set of political issues or social concerns? Would they be people who seem to like to talk about other people, their short-comings in particular?

No, certainly not. All these people are sinners. No doubt about it. But these are the acceptable sinners. These people engage in acceptable sins. Sins of greed, gluttony, wrath, envy, and pride. Five of the so-called seven deadly sins. And I get the sense that the Pharisees overlooked these sins also in their time. In fact, I get the sense that people who exhibited some of the indicators of greed and pride were just as highly regarded in the first century as they are now.

No, today, the odious sinners are the people who are homosexual (in some circles), who like to have sex with children, who are thieves, who are murderers, who are rapists, who are prostitutes, who are illegal immigrants (in some circles), who are on some form of dole (in some circles), who are frequently and flagrantly inebriated (from alcohol or drugs), and who are homeless. This is an incomplete list. I’m sure you can think of others.

Who does Jesus like speaking with? Spend his time with? The Pharisees or the odious sinners? What sorts of people do our pastors, ministers, and priests spend their time with? Acceptable sinners or odious sinners?

How about you? You believer priests out there? Who do you spend your time with, your ministry time, let’s say?

Me? I must say that I don’t minister to odious sinners. Right now, I’m involved with hospice. But maybe I should. Maybe I should do something with. Specifically with. But I don’t know. We’ll see.

So. So, Luke 15. Once again, this chapter is divided into three parts. Isn’t that interesting? Threes again! Any numerologists out there? Interpretation?

As I say, three parts: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, and The Parable of the Lost Son.

Has anyone shared with you the primary rule of dramaturgy: Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them?

So each of these stories is about finding something that was lost and its restoration. And the tonality. Notice the tonality. In the first story, the shepherd rejoices. In the second story, the woman rejoices. In the third story, the father rejoices. These are stories about rejoicing. About celebration. About a discovery or a recovery that leads to celebration.

This business of finding the lost and restoring them isn’t a chore, then. It isn’t a job. It isn’t a duty. It’s a joy. Isn’t it? According to Jesus.

Odious sinners aren’t people to be put up with. Tolerated. Politely ignored. They are people to be sought after. Looked for. Invited in. Drawn in. And restored.

I won’t bore you with all of the usual stuff pastors and believer priests say about the story of the lost son. I’ll confine myself to just some of the usual stuff.

What I will say is that the story is about the contrast between the father and the older brother. And between the older brother and the younger brother.

The father rejoices, and the older brother becomes angry. Resentful. This older brother is not a profligate sinner. He is a scrupulous sinner. His sin is not flagrant. It is subtle. His sin is not self-destructive in any obvious way. It is mean-spirited and spiteful and potentially destructive of his brother.

Why did the younger brother leave in the first place, with a father like this? With a set-up like this? With servants like these? This is a rich family. What would have caused the younger brother to feel uncomfortable in a place like this? Could he have gotten fed up with his older brother? Or could he have gotten the message from the older brother that he was not wanted in the older brother’s house? That he was an unwelcome intruder? I don’t know. We aren’t given enough information to know how this came about. But my thinking tends in this direction. Motivation to some extent residing in the older brother.

The father is, of course, a buffoon. He’s clueless, isn’t he? He doesn’t understand tough love, does he? He’s probably never heard of tough love. He probably doesn’t know what it means. He’s a sap. A pushover. A rube. A simpleton. He doesn’t understand generally accepted accounting principles as applied to sin. GAAP as applied to sin.

The older brother is what many of us look like when we try to be perfect. Or when we think we are fairly close to being perfect. Close enough for government work.

The father is what we look like when all we seem to know how to do is love.

The hearts of all of these characters are in all of us. The tonality of all these characters. The capacity to feel like them. To act like them. The immediate question for us is, which tonality do we wish to call forth? Which of these characters’ hearts do we want to be our heart?

And if we choose the father (or mother) (or shepherd) heart of God, of course, the next question is: How do we go about finding that tonality? How do we begin to feel that way toward others?

Which others?

All others. Particularly the odious ones.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


January 6th. Today, a celebration. A commemoration. A remembrance. And an experience.

Of what, is the question. Of Theophany, is the answer.

Whether it is the Eastern tradition of Christ’s baptism by John. Or whether it is the Western tradition of the Magi.

It is the evidence of God among us. God in human form.

But most pertinent for us today, the Holy Spirit. The God among us, literally. Daily. Now. Still now. Evermore now.

So this morning at worship, the usual lion six feet at the shoulder walked among us, throughout the congregation, raising the hairs on the back of my neck with his close passing. His brushing against me. A low rumble in his throat. My diaphragm nervous as mayflies rising from a river.

So this morning, the little girls in pink. Two of them. Who I could not take my eyes off of and visa versa. Smiling. Taking my finger. Gripping it. Gripping it hard and laughing.

So this morning, the young woman who looks as though someone had put her head in a vice—her face in a vice—and squeezed it down. Squashed it. Sitting in her wheelchair, saying hello and smiling.

So this morning, the men whose wives have left them, one of them tearful. Sharing their morning with us.

So this morning, the women whose husbands have left them. All throughout us.

So this morning, a man says to me how he always looks forward to coming to church in part because there I will be, smiling. That wonderful smile. He says. Shaking my hand.

So this morning, the man who is raising his grandchildren, arriving by cab, because of a flat tire. And so many things to do today. His many miles and meetings and goings and comings yet today. But first there will be that tire.

So this morning, an African-American woman of remarkable gentleness and intensity who remained in the back with all us sinners.

So this morning, many new people who I have never seen before. Some of them joyful. Some of them worried. Some of them reticent. Some of them all of these.

So this morning, the senior pastor and his lovely sermon about many things. About who we are here in this church. This world-wide church. About what we’re about here in the church of Jesus. About how we’re really just a bunch of hopeful lovers. God-loving people who are all trying to love God and maybe understand a little of what that means as we go.

So this morning, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. A time for everything under heaven.

So this morning, a young woman smiling, delighted, with her parents and her boyfriend. The girl with whom I once planted squash. Now showing off her boyfriend.

So this morning, babies and toddlers by the dozens making noise, tugging at their mothers and fathers and teachers. Let me go, let me go, they seem to be saying, alternately laughing and spunky all the while.

So this morning, I keep thinking of Juno. The movie. The character. The sixteen year old girl who makes a baby out of wedlock and gives it to a woman, whose husband is leaving her and who has wanted a baby all her life. And now she has one. And is happy. And the girl herself. Who remarkably loves The Stooges, Iggy and The Stooges. Just like me. Who falls in love with the baby’s father throughout the pregnancy. A movie that I saw last night with my bride and that informs my morning.

So this morning, the snow all melting. The ice all melting. The green grass appearing. The fog hanging like a cloud. A celestial cloud. White. Dense as a substance. The very substance of heaven. A cloud of unknowing, if ever there was one. Hovering everywhere we look, as we move slowly back and forth, over all the earth.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Rich Young Man

I like stories. I can understand stories. I have a great deal of difficulty reading essays, tortuous and obfuscating devices invented or at least greatly elaborated by Addison and Steele, I believe. And now routinely extended into book length cruelties.

As originally proposed by Addison and Steele, an essay was supposed to contain humor. Some bit of humor to make them less tortuous and easier to understand. Something to do with the tone of the writer—a light tone even when dealing with weighty subjects—injects some humanity into the thing.

Anyways, I digress. As usual. But I digress to a kind of a point. And that is that tone—the actual presence in the writer or speaker or character in a story of a bit of humanity (or human feeling)—is essential if we are to understand what a speaker or writer might be saying. If the writing or saying is toneless, it becomes—at least for me—much more difficult. Opaque. Kind of like reading email versus actually speaking with someone.

And so we arrive pseudo-randomly at the story of the rich young man that we are given in Matthew 19. It is one of my favorite stories and right up there—one of the top two for me—that Jesus told. Or that Jesus played a part in. It has become, in addition to the parable of the lost son, a story that I turn to over and over to understand what Jesus has asked of us and to understand who he is and who the Father is.

In fact, you might say that I want to weigh almost everything in the Bible by the content of these two stories. Now I said I want, not that I actually do. And I said that I almost. So I’m qualifying this all over the place. But these two stories contain volumes for me about who Jesus takes us to be and who he takes the Father to be, and by extension who he takes himself to be.

And both concern sin, among other things, and the idea of perfection. Moral perfection.

So far in this blog, I’ve been largely dancing around bruiting this idea of perfection and Christlikeness and holiness and sanctification, animated by. Oh. I’d call it outrage. There are a lot of other words that are applicable, but outrage (with a large hambone thrown in) seems the most suitable at the moment. I’ve largely provided you a little something of my own story in an outraged (hambone included) tone.

And that’s somewhat entertaining but can only be sustained for so long until it gets to be quite tedious for both the speaker and the listener, the reader and the writer. Until it stops being illustrative, revelatory, and useful and starts to wear on one like a deaf man practicing noise loudly on a violin.

Please do open your Bible to Matthew 19. Thank you.

What a remarkable chapter this is! It is divided into three parts. The first considers the subject of divorce and is stimulated by the Pharisees trying to trip Jesus up. The second concerns children. And the third part contains the story of the rich young moron.

I like threes. I like it when things come in threes. You have your Trinity of course. You have your sun and your moon and your stars. You have your Mother and Father and Child as a kind of a generational archetypal type of mode. Or Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, if you prefer. You have your proton, neutron, and electron. You have your classical, jazz, and pop. You have your front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive, and four-wheel-drive automobiles and light trucks. You have your blonds, brunettes, and redheads. You have your.

Well, that’s enough of that.

So in the first part we learn that divorce without adultery is a sin. And what this means at the time Jesus told the story was that a lot of men—relatively well-respected men in the community in those days—were in deep yogurt. Men who thought they were pretty close to being perfect but who had gotten rid of their wives. See? And they thought they were okay with God because of something Moses said. Because in the Law he said divorce in some cases is okay.

But turns out that abiding by the letter of the Law isn’t enough. No. Even though you are perfect according to the Law, you are not perfect according to Jesus. No. Some of these guys were up to their eyeballs in yogurt, and Jesus had the temerity to point this out. Imagine that!

In the second part we learn that to have a prayer of living in God’s own world, in his kingdom, you have to be so young in the world that you almost don’t know right from wrong yet. You are almost too young to have learned to sin. To have learned what a delight sin is and developed a taste for it.

And then in the third, what we have is the rich guy, who is clearly quite full of himself or some other equally odious substance, who says he yearns after righteousness. Who thirsts for the things of God. God’s kingdom here on earth. Or at least afterwards. In any event, he wants to be with God in eternity, wherever that is. And so he asks what good thing he can do to make that happen.

And Jesus gives him a kind of a rap on the knuckles or a rap on the shin bone or a rap on his Adam’s apple. He says, Wait a minute, Buddy. Wait a cotton-picking minute. “There is only One who is good.” Or something like that.

There’s only One who is good. Capital O on the One. And of course he means God. Only God is good. Don’t expect you yourself to achieve goodness, for goodness sake! Because only God is capable of being good.

And as he’s saying this, there’s this glimmer in Jesus’s eye. His eyes are wide-open. Innocent looking. But suddenly there’s this gleam in his eye that wasn’t there just a moment before.

The guy is clearly not paying attention. He’s clearly a moron, so wrapped up in his own lovely head that he can’t hear what Jesus is telling him. Which is that he’s barking up the wrong tree.

But then Jesus says, “Keep the commandments.” And of course the guy wants to know which ones, because there are a lot of these in the Law. There are the ten we Christians think about today, maybe, but then there are hundreds more that were current in this guy’s day.

So Jesus picks off a few. The murder one, the adultery one, the stealing one, the lying one, and the honor your father and mother one. And then he throws in what I call the love infinitely faithfully endlessly one. The impossible one. The life sentence one. The love your neighbor as yourself one.

And then the guy says, “Sure. No problem, man. I’ve done all that.” Which of course is a lie. It is a bald-faced lie. Because if he had done the impossible one, he wouldn’t be rich any longer. If he loved others as much as he loved himself, he would have already distributed his wealth out to the poor.

And so the rich young moron thinks he’s Mr. Wonderful already. He thinks he’s just about as good as a guy can get. But he’s just demonstrated for us and for Jesus that he can’t keep two of the commandments, the impossible one and the lying one.

And so I’m hearing in Jesus’s next words a kind of a straight-man delivery. Eyes open and innocent. But a glimmer in them like, let’s have a little more fun with this moron, as he looks at his buddies. The Apostles. A kind of Gracie Allen look in his eye.

So then he says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

(There’s that perfect word again! Don’t you love it? For some reason, it seems like it’s just about everywhere you look in this religion.)

So now. So now, you see. Even a moron like the rich young man can’t avoid getting the point. The point of the joke.

But no. No, rather than chuckling to himself. Rather than saying, “Hey, Jesus, man. God, you got me!” He says. Well, he can’t think of anything to say. So he just shakes his head and walks away.

Then Jesus talks about camels and needles’ eyes and so forth. And rightly so, his buddies are shocked. They can’t figure this out. If this is what is required, nobody can be saved. Nobody can enter eternity. Nobody can enter into God’s kingdom. Nobody can be perfect or Christlike or holy or sanctified.

After all, how many people do you know who will literally give away everything. Every single thing. They own. And walk naked into the ice and snow? Literally?

And then Jesus gives us the punch line. Really guys, he says, there’s no perfection here. You won’t get to perfection on your own recognizance. God’s got to get involved. God’s got to forgive you. And he’ll do so for no good reason except that he’s good. (And of course elsewhere he lets on that ultimately God has asked him to be the judge, when the time comes. So when he’s talking about God here, he’s really talking about himself, in a manner of speaking.)

And of course Peter pipes up. Peter is worried because he left his fishing boat and nets and house and everything. They all left something or another. To follow Jesus. Temporarily, maybe. But maybe not as well.

You see, just like us, they all had a less than thoroughly selfless self-interest. A less than thoroughly trusting attitude. A less than completely faithful attitude. But Jesus reassures them. Sort of: “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Gleam still in Jesus’s eye, as he says this. Looking at his buddies who have put their lives in abeyance, yes. But who will pick up their lives again in some fashion after Jesus departs.

And so they’re thinking. Well, what does this mean then? I mean. He’s saying it as though to reassure us of our place in heaven, but what does it mean to be first in that sentence right there. What does it mean to be last? To whom does this apply, and what in the heck does it mean for me? Me, is what they’re thinking.

And there’s Jesus with that innocent look in his eyes. Wide-open eyes. Sun gleaming in them. A little like Gracie Allen.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Pastor Friends

I was talking with a pastor friend of mine the other day, on the way to this blog. And he.

(Well I still do have pastor friends, I think. I hope I still do. I don’t have it in for all pastors, ministers, and priests. Not all. I do actually like some of them. As I say, some of them are friends. One or two or three or four or five so of them are friends.

And because these good friends of mine are forgiving people, they are tolerant of this blog. Maybe even getting a little kick out of it themselves because, as you probably know, not all pastors love all other pastors equally. I think that’s a rather nice way of putting it. Not all pastors, ministers, and priests love one another equally.

Why is that, I wonder. I mean they’re Christians, by definition. They’re supposed to love one another, as well as us. The people in the pews. The unwashed. The bleating sheep. And they’re paid to do it. So wouldn’t you think if you were paid to do something, you’d actually do it? But some things are hard to do. Even for pastors.

I’ve known quite a number of pastors, ministers, and priests so far. Some have taken a positive pleasure in telling jokes about one another. Mostly denominational jokes. Based on denominational stereotypes.

I’ve heard people complain about this sort of thing, but I’m quite happy with it myself. A little standup humor from the pulpit or the music stand never hurt anybody. If you can’t take a little denominational ribbing, you’re in need of an attitude correction. Welcome to the human race.

There’s friction here, where we live. Down here on the planet earth. We each have somewhat different agendas and so we rub one another the wrong way. I think it’s healthy myself. I think it promotes intellectual stimulation and discussion. It’s a great source of humor.

Back in the old days, it was more murder and mayhem denomination-to-denomination than it was standup comedy. And so the way I think about it is this: better a little possibly cruel humor from time to time than murder and mayhem.

In the old days, a good bit of it was state sponsored. Those were the days when the priests, ministers, and pastors were tangled up, some of them, with the powers that be. The powers and principalities, as one pastor friend likes to call them.

But a lot of the murder and mayhem was free lance as well. Not so much state sponsored as state permitted. But hey, they knew how to have fun in the old days. Delightful bloody old days. Pastors and parishioners beating one another’s heads in until the brains oozed out.

And still today, you see it. This tangled business between faith and politics, belief and worldly power. What right belief is. What right political power is. What correct or sanctified or legitimate or God-breathed politics and belief are supposed to look like.

But it’s the free-lance pastors, ministers, and priests who swing some of the big bats in this conversation. These days. This one-way conversation. Along with the church-sponsored ones.

People on the radio, people on the TV. People who try to set the faith and politics agenda for people like you and me. Who try to tell us who God is. What he’s like. What he wants from us. What we should do politically and every other way to be good little Christians.)

But as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, I was talking to a pastor friend of mine the other day. Over the break. Somewhere in that expanse between Christmas and New Year’s. And he said, “Bill, you’re lucky you’re still welcome in your church, after all you’ve said and done. (My shenanigans extend well beyond this blog and began shortly after I began attending a church some seven years or so ago.) Your pastor is a remarkable guy. Most of the pastors I know would have shown you the door by now.”

And he’s right. They would have, most of the pastors I’ve known. And that’s a significant issue, I think. For me and for all Christians. The idea of not being welcome in a church because a person does not buy a particular theological perspective that the pastor likes. A particular political perspective that the pastor likes.

By the way, my pastor is an amazing guy. Pastors, I should say. Three of them, altogether. Compassionate, understanding, smart, funny, courageous. Forgiving. (They even forgive me. Can you imagine?) As far as pastors and people go, I don’t know better pastors or people.

And they encourage and nurture diversity. Remarkable, wouldn’t you say? Doctrinal and dogmatic diversity. Theological and political diversity. Ethnic and racial. Even gender diversity. Have you ever heard of such a thing? And in an Evangelical church. I do believe that wonders will never cease.

I indeed am blessed.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

But What In The Heck Do I Know?

But what the heck does this jerk know, you’re thinking. Who the heck does he think he is spouting off about all this stuff that guys a lot smarter than he is have delved into over years. Decades. Centuries. Millennia. Saintly guys some of them. Guys that have actual divinity degrees and were ordained and everything, some of them. Many of them.

Some Yahoo out of a Jonathon Swift satire who doesn’t even do religion for a living. An amateur, for Pete’s sake! A rank amateur! Some yokel from who knows where and has who knows what for a personal agenda.

Some defective semi-human with half a brain. A lobotomized creature from the corn belt or the rust belt or somewhere nobody’s hardly ever heard of where the mutants and defectives have taken over.

And you’d be mostly right to think this way. You’d be right to have your bull-crap-ometer (BCO) turned on and dialed into high-sensitivity mode (HSM). Because who knows who I am? Who knows what diabolical or demented or cockamamie schemes I might have?

Test what I say. See what sense it makes. Read the Bible. Get out your Bible commentaries and dictionaries and what-not. Pull out your Wesley. Your Augustine. A variety of others. Read all that stuff or reread it.

Pray. I don’t mean goody-two-shoes praying. I mean shout-at-God praying. Complain-to-God praying. Ask him why in the world he gave us the pastors, and priests, and ministers we’ve got right now and have had for. Oh. I don’t know. Millennia. Millennia! I mean kick-out-the-jams type of praying! I mean get-angry-at-God-praying for letting things get so out of hand. So out of hand that you find yourself reading drivel from some no-name cretin in the blogosphere like me.

Please don’t rely on me for Truth with a capital T, because I don’t have that. I’ve got my own understanding and it’s going to be. How shall I say this. It’s going to be half-baked because I’m half-baked. I’m a pissed off guy in the pews. I’m one of the unwashed. One of the irritated guys who is fed up with piety and piety playing and Christian peek-a-boo.

And so I’m not feeling all that Christian myself, with all this hostility. All this irritation. All this bellicosity. All this belligerence. I’m a pretty lousy Christian myself, for letting my anger get the better of me.

I’m a pissed off epistemologist with the emphasis on the second syllable who is not a reliably good Christian. In fact on some days—like today—I’m a terrible, no good, rotten Christian.

Furthermore, I’m telling you right now that God has not revealed anything in particular to me. In fact, I am not chosen. I am not anointed. I have not been told I have a divine vocation of any kind. I have no credentials. I have no particular insight into God, ideas about God, or what being Christian is all about.

I’m not particularly smart about this God stuff. I’m not particularly well read. You’re probably better read than I am. And welcome to it. Have a nice day with all the books you’ve read about this stuff. I’ve read a few, and I’ll tell you, I don’t know if there’s a better way to scramble your brains than to read books by a passel of pastors and theologians and Biblical scholars. So good luck with all that.

For example, John Wesley. A guy who defines perfection to mean imperfection. But who wants us to be thinking perfection all the time. He answers his critics by saying he doesn’t mean absolute perfection. (As though perfection and absolute perfection are two different things.) He really means a perfection of degrees, he says. Degrees of perfection? Can there be degrees of. Oh. Pregnancy, for example? Or God. Degrees of God? He insists on the idea of progressive perfection. Perfection in the sense that we through our own wills can have control over this. Over what? Over perfect love. Perfect what? Perfect love, when it comes to definitions. When it comes to defining perfection. What?

But then he claims that this tour de force, this effort of will, is really the Holy Spirit. Is really God’s work, not ours. And so where does perfectibility under our control come in? Who knows? He’s got us running around in so many circles that we need someone (and there is no shortage of writers who volunteer to play this role) to simplify him and explain him to numbskulls like me. And maybe you.

You can go crazy reading this guy. Reading this logically loopy guy. This linguistically fishy guy. And there are a lot of other guys like him. I just bring him up because of what I’ve run into here recently. This Christlikeness business that I’ve run into and that isn’t adding up. It isn’t. How shall I say. It isn’t squaring with what I read in the Bible and what I’ve experienced so far of God. It almost seems the upside down version of what I think I know.

This Christlikeness mumbo jumbo that won’t go away. (I mean I’ve tried to ignore it. I’ve tried to pretend. Oh. That what everybody means is innocuous. That what they mean is that we should just want to be good little Christians. We should just want to be good people after all. And leave it like that. But this would be a lie. This isn’t what people mean by Christlikeness, and Holiness, and Perfection, and Sanctification. They really do mean that we should be like God. They really do mean that we should be perfect and sinless like God on this earth in our lifetimes.)

It almost seems like someone is intentionally turning God upside down. Or us. Or maybe it’s both.

So this is what I’m talking about. We ought to speak up, for Christ’s sake. We ought to say, Hey wait a minute, Buddy. That doesn’t make any sense. We ought to stand up for ourselves and who we understand God to be. Who we understand ourselves to be. We should find our true shepherd. Because I think maybe the shepherds we’ve chosen for ourselves are leading us off the edge of a cliff.

Maybe they don’t mean to. Maybe some of them do. I really don’t know. Maybe there’s been an earthquake recently and that pleasant pasture they were leading us to has suddenly disappeared. I don’t know.

But let me tell you something. Just between you and me. I think in addition to some of us regular unwashed Christians there are also some pastors who are beginning to feel some fire ants crawling around in their pants.

I think some of the pastors are waking up and saying, How did I get cast in this movie? I don’t remember even trying out for this particular movie. I don’t even recognize the script. Would somebody please kick me in the head and wake me up? Who am I in this movie? What is my name in this movie? What’s my backstory? What’s my motivation? Would you please stop filming so I can get off this stinking set and figure some of this stuff out?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Image Of God?

It has been said that we are made in the image of God. And this image of God stuff in the Bible has been used to justify assertions about our perfectibility, the possibility of our holiness, the moral imperative that we be like Christ.

But I wonder when people think this way whether they’ve actually read the New Testament. Whether they’ve actually bought into any of the Passion. The meaning of the cross. And so forth.

If we were perfectible here on earth, this earth, in our lifetimes, there wouldn’t be any need of the Passion. The cross. That whole story. The New Covenant story.

So it absolutely gives me the willies when people who say they are Christians talk about how our job as Christians is to be like Christ.

But back to the topic at hand: the image of God. God has numerous characteristics. Some of these characteristics he shares with us, or perhaps a better word—a much better word—is capacities. And others, he doesn’t.

So for example, God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and morally perfect. He may be said, and rightly so I think, to be Righteousness Itself, Justice Itself, Beauty Itself, Love Itself, Generosity Itself, Joy Itself, and Forgiveness Itself.

None of us here on this planet today can claim to be omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, or morally perfect. (Nor should we want to. To want to have these qualities means we want to be like God. The Bible quite simply calls us to greater humility than this.)

But we can from time to time, all of us, exhibit some love, joy, generosity, and forgiveness, for example. Not Infinite Love—Love Itself. Not Infinite Joy—Joy Itself. Not Infinite Generosity—Generosity Itself. Not Infinite Forgiveness—Forgiveness Itself. We can exhibit these capacities to some very limited degree because we are made this way.

Do we physically look like God? Oh, I hope not. But I don’t know. Nobody does, as far as I can tell. So the word “image” here is a metaphor. It points us to the more real part of who we are, the spiritual part of who we are. The claim is that spiritually we are made with capacities that originate with God, capacities that we think of as Godly. Spiritual potentialities.

And it’s up to us—to some significant extent—how fully we exhibit these possibilities. These spiritual capacities.

We have choices every day. And these choices are where we exercise these capacities to some degree or not at all. And the expression of these capacities one might call moral conduct.

So what I am not saying is that we are not moral beings. What I am saying is that we are not morally perfect beings, and we do not have a prayer of achieving moral perfection here on this earth in our lifetimes.

And what I am further saying is that if our objective as Christians is our own moral improvement, we are mistaken. We are off the mark. We are engaging in an activity that is at best unfruitful and at worst damnable.

In other words, we are risking Jesus telling us that he does not know us.

Jesus has asked us to direct our action outward, not inward. Everything he asks us to do directs us toward God and toward one another. He really has asked us to develop a certain kind of relationship with God and one another. He has asked us to take care of one another, not ourselves.

And he has asked us to do as the Father is doing. And to do that, we have to be paying attention to the Father and what he is actually doing, not to what lack or imperfection there is in us.

Let’s get over it. We are flawed. We are imperfect. Let’s stop whining. Let’s stop obsessing. Let’s stop the moral one-upsmanship game. Let’s get on with the real business of being followers of Jesus. Let’s get on to what he asked us to do.