God’s Big Tent

WHO will enter the Kingdom of God? Who can be saved — another way of expressing the question. I believe to some extent most of us are ‘hopeful evangelical universalists’. We believe in the God of love who sought to find his lost people, his lost creation. God covered the earth in a large tent, something like a tabernacle in the wilderness. God’s presence is that tabernacle, and according to the Bible, that presence has been poured out on everyone (see Acts 2).

Everyone who came into creation came spiritually and organically through Christ. All have been made in the image of God and God has particular love for every one of his children (see John 3). If that is true then let’s consider the following scenarios of children within God’s eternal care.

A child who tragically dies in infancy. My mom lost a child who had died even before she was born. Will these children be damned forever or brought lovingly into God’s Kingdom? The Bible doesn’t tell us but I believe they are with the Lord because I believe in a loving God. Now some Calvinists believe that it is possible these children will be damned because they are not part of what Calvinists term ‘the elect’, those favored by God for salvation. The term ‘age of accountability’ doesn’t enter the equation since there is none given in the Bible, only inferred by religious interpretation.

What about a mentally impaired person who knows not the right response to an offer of salvation from a well-intentioned evangelist? Maybe he or she can mimic the correct answer but certainly not from understanding. Again we are hopeful that God will welcome these people into salvation.

Next we consider a person who has grown up in India under Hinduism teachings. We say we don’t know. Very conservative people say they are not the elect by reason of God’s choice. See, these are theories and theologies and I believe they are wrong. Even if Romans 1 speaks about natural revelation, God is a free God, free to love; free to bring whomever God wants into the Big Tent. People who don’t even know they are God’s children will have such a revelation at some point.

Now we observe an eighteen-year-old woman who was severely abused by her father and at this point in her life cannot believe in a ‘loving heavenly father’ and will not accept God’s son. Never having been brought into a loving relationship with the Savior she dies in unbelief. Does God stop loving her and count her unworthy of his eternal grace? We hope not.

And all the good Samaritans of this world? These are people who have done such good that aligns with God’s will but haven’t confessed Christ. I have hope for them as well as the victims of wrongs like slavery, abuse, children who through neglect were allowed to die of hunger or disease, Jews and Russians who were cruelly executed. I read the other day about an execution in our ‘sane’ country where, in the opinion of some, any chance for salvation was killed in the execution of a criminal. Even Jesus wasn’t willing for that to happen.

If we are God’s children we are hopeful for everyone, even our enemies. I mean it’s even possible for Trump supporters to be saved. We’ve no reason to wish eternal torment on anyone if we are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.

God’s tent is big, as big as the universe. Oh, it may be that some will deliberately walk or run from that tent, like the prodigal did, but even in that scenario the door is left open. If you read the end of the book of Revelation you will see that the door to the Kingdom is left open.

The big tent of God, the presence of God in Christ whose birth we celebrate, is the assurance of our hope. The Bible says in John 1:14 that ‘God came and tented among us.’ He walked and talked with us and thus the whole world, extending the invitation farther and farther and even into eternity.

God is hopeful too. He wants all his creation to be restored and he wants to reconcile the whole world to himself. God wants all to be saved. And since God is not a robot or mechanical manager he has the freedom to relate to all people, even after death. That’s God’s freedom and desire.

I don’t want my tent to be any smaller that my Father’s tent-house-mansion and Kingdom. Like God I desire all to be saved. And that’s scriptural. So I am what some would term ‘a hopeful Christian universalist’.

And that’s Good News for the world, as the angels proclaimed.

PARADIGM SHIFT

Distinguishing Between Straight-Up Advice and Paradigm Shift | Jane Friedman

Some of you may remember this picture. Depending on how you look at it, do you see a young woman, or an old woman? It’s a change in perspective. Same picture, different perspective. That’s what happens in faith. Same God, same Bible, same Lord, but…a different way of encountering the message depending on how we have grown up and what’s been emphasized.

If you have grown up with stern authoritarian figures you may be a controlling person yourself and you may take notice in the Bible of God’s sovereignty and control and gravitate towards passages that emphasize such. But if you tended to be loved and affirmed then you might have a tendency to see the dynamics of a loving God as you focus on certain scriptures. This is a generalization but it’s how many people approach the Bible.

I grew up in a loving family though not affectionately so. I was a first born child among three. I grew up as a controlling person, fun but anxious to please and control. Maybe I controlled situations through humor. But enough psychoanalyzing me. Anyway I eventually became a Calvinist. Yep, a strict view of the God who is sovereign and controlling of every molecule, and a God who won’t tolerate sin. Yes, God gave his Son to die for sin and that initiative by God called for strict obedience and lots of expectations of others.

Eventually stories like the Prodigal Son caught my eye and I discovered I had been like the older son, doing and believing everything rightly. I yearned for the love that the prodigal received and looked for that loving God in the scriptures. And I found that God. Ah, the paradigm shift. Then I started to read books by Brennan Manning and Larry Crabb and others who saw the love. And so I began to absorb all the relevant scriptures about love. Those were the ones that began to stand out to me.

And now I look at people differently, at God and at the Bible differently. And I am now, wait for it, reading about Christian Universalism which is Christ centered, honoring of Biblical authority and focused on the love of God. I have discovered that just maybe there is a way of hope for God’s creation whereby the love of God changes everything. There is a DNA built into the creation that needs to be connected to its source- the God of love. God is love. The eternity is filled with love. Sin is its absence. The absence of God. I don’t want to be absent of God.

One more thing. We have all grown up using different Bibles and thus different translations. And even though I have been to seminary and a pastor for a million years it was only recently that I happened on translations and scholarship that allowed me to see that there are words which when translated a certain way convey a different meaning than I had ever encountered. I like these translations because they fit into the new way I see God’s love. Yep, I am biased towards love and against punishment. Words like hell, gehenna, hades, sheol, and ‘eternal’ have all been written and translated from greek and latin in ways that influence how we believe.

But more of that another time. So let’s get to loving. God knows we need more of these days.

CRYSTAL CLEAR

So here’s the thing. There are so many things in Bible interpretation that are ambiguous: Atonement, baptism, prayer, as well as the meaning of faith and works.

Even the Reformers couldn’t agree and they split over the issue of communion (The Lord’s Supper). Even Paul said he had to ‘work hard’ so as not to be disqualified from salvation. (1Cor. 9:27)

And the issue of eternal punishment is not clear. Is it annihilation or fires or worms or darkness or is there a possibility that somehow God will bring all his creation back to himself?

I know that many Christians believe that non-believers or disobedient people may be tortured in everlasting torment. But that is mostly from presumptions we make having been brought up in a certain way. Listen, Christian people are not even certain what happens to the people who have never heard of Christ. They say things like ‘well they are not the elect’ or ‘God will do the right thing’. And what about the Jews and little children who are not of accountable age? And what does accountable means? I believe we are manipulating God into a box where we have taken away God’s freedom.

Is the eternal destiny of humanity so clear that some people can be so certain as to who is in and who is out? Doesn’t God judge the intention of the heart? It seems so in the Sermon on the Mount.  And do all our discernments about judgment make us judges ourselves?

And what about those men who crucified our Lord? Were they really forgiven? It all makes me dizzy. And then I know people who say that our little minds can’t understand how God works.

Well, I do. Amidst all the ambiguities of this faith one thing is Crystal Clear: God’s love for us. There is no doubt that God’s love is huge, beyond huge. When my mother use to tell her granddaughter that she loved her, her granddaughter would respond, “I love you more”. That’s what God says to us time and time again and especially from the cross. “I love you more.” And not for one moment do I think the love of God stops when our hearts stop beating. I’ve said before that everything I see now is through the lens of the Christ crucified for us.

We westerners (and you can check this out) have the propensity towards retribution and payback. Our idea of justice is that God will pay bad people back.  It’s probably why I like Westerns so much. But God’s idea of justice is….well, look upon the cross. There we see God’s idea of justice for humanity. We see Jesus loving, suffering, forgiving and dying for love. Death cannot prevent that kind of love from getting through to God’s creation. Never mind Jesus preaching to the imprisoned souls, whatever that means. Just think that God’s love fills eternity, all of it, forever and ever. If God’s love can continue in the ‘saved’ person’s life then why can’t it do remedial work in the other’s lives? Who knows? There might be remedial work to be done in the ‘saved’ lives. And it will be out of God’s love, not vindication or retribution. Yeah, that’s what I believe.

SHOCKING GOOD NEWS

For the longest time, my Christian faith has been in the God who loves the world but, as God, has to decide on who gets into heaven and who is damned forever. It just made sense that in a JUST world the good and bad, the faithful and unfaithful end up in different eternal places. For the longest time I was a Calvinist believing that even before creation God had decided who was in and who was out.

But no more. In the last few years I have discovered that God so loves that God wants to restore his whole creation back to himself. It happened this way: first I read passages like Colossians 1:15-20

15 He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (ESV translation)

Notice first of all that Christ holds the creation together and then watch this; through Christ God is reconciling all things, all things to himself, making peace with all creation through the sacrifice of Christ. That’s some powerful everlasting and far reaching love. That’s the relentless love of God, God who will not rest until all his beloved creation is restored.

Then I read in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to love our enemies and I began to think, ‘why would Jesus tell us to love OUR enemies when God sends HIS enemies to hell?’ It didn’t make sense.

Then I came across 2Corinthians 5:19

19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (NIV)

hrough Christ who fought and forgave sin, God is bringing this whole creation back to himself. Reconciling, loving, and forgiving- just like in the story of the Prodigal Son.

Now I realize that this truth, this idea may make some people uncomfortable because of the way we were brought up. But in these next blog posts I want to share with you why this truth is so freeing, so God honoring, so Christ centered, and so Biblically accurate that it is almost impossible to ignore. And it was the truth of the Christian faith for the first 500 years and now is become once again so prevalent within the Christian community.

I will be suggesting many scriptures to read on this subject that is called Evangelical Universalism or Christian Universalism meaning that Christ is the atonement for our sins, not just we who believe but for the sins of the whole world. There is a need to interpret scripture and read the ones in supposed contradiction to the Universalistic ones. There is also the need to understand just what God’s judgment is all about. We will be surprised by what Jesus says and what Paul, who was a Universalist himself, writes about what God is up to.

I welcome your thoughts on this subject, your opposing viewpoints, your questions and your prayers as we open ourselves to what I perceive as the truest meaning of Grace.

BLESSED ARE THE POOR????

There are parallel versions of the first Beatitude, words that Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples.  The first appears in Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The second version is found in Luke 6:20. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (NIV)

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are synonymous. Scholars say that Matthew, as a good Jew, would not want to use the holy name “God”. So here we have blessings for the ‘poor in spirit’ and the ‘poor’. There is really nothing blessed in being poor and living in the consequences of that poverty. So there is something else going on here. ‘Poor in spirit’ means spiritual poverty. Both mean scarcity of that which makes life flourish. So let’s consider another way of looking at these.

Some people like to think that the Beatitudes are Jesus’ challenge for people to climb some kind of spiritual ladder towards maturity; get to a place of spiritual poverty they suggest, or be grateful you don’t have a lot of material things. A friend who accompanied me on a trip to Haiti told the people that they were truly blessed because they didn’t have the distractions of material things that Americans have. Those words did not play well to the Haitian audience.

Late author and teacher Dallas Willard suggested that Jesus was probably wandering through the crowds saying to this one and that one, “You are fortunate (blessed) because the kingdom has come for you just as much as anyone else. Blessed are you spiritual nobodies. Christ has come for you too.”  Jesus does away with any sense of hierarchy or reward or even law. He is simply saying that no matter who you are or what your circumstances are at this moment; rejoice because you are loved by God. His presence, his kingdom is here for you. There is no exclusion in the kingdom of God. Whether we are poor of goods or poor of spirit we belong to God. 

We may be sick or healthy, gay or straight, republican or democrat. None of that matters. The kingdom of God is for all to enter. We might be bad or good. The kingdom is here for us. Certainly Jesus will have challenges for his disciples but these are not them. The whole world is blessed. Thanks be to God because there are people who think their circumstances in life exclude them. And in Luke you will see some circumstances of the proud and rich and arrogant that may well keep them guessing as to their place. But in kingdom reality all are welcomed, all are in for what God’s kingdom offers. That is the unconditional love of God. Even while we were enemies of God Christ died for us. Who could possibly be left out?

THIS IS NOT THE KINGDOM

Let’s be very careful not to identify our identity in Christ with the government of this world. Recall Jesus’ words to Pilate:

36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18)

Humans love power. That includes believers. The Bible calls it our flesh and says that the spirit and flesh are in a battle. To desire power is what we might call sin.

Adam and Eve wanted power, self-determination and then came Cain and Abel, one of which was willing to kill for power. And it continues.

Jesus invites us to give up our hunger for power. Read Matthew 5. He promises that there is something better in the Kingdom of God, which is always found where we place our trust in God and not in any human. Certainly I trust doctors and people close to me but not the powers of this world, not even when God’s name is invoked.

In the Old Testament we are told not to trust in chariots. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” Psalm 20:7.

And recall that when Jesus was about to be arrested, his disciples wanted to fight for him.

52“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to Peter. “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Are you not aware that I can call on My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  (Matthew 26)

That’s 72,000 angels, certainly enough power to overcome the soldiers who were there to arrest Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is, as Dallas Willard wrote: A DIVINE CONSPIRACY, whispered from one person to another letting people in on the divine subversiveness against worldly powers and principalities. It comes through trust and love, not through the exercise of power. God desires a relationship of love among the people called by his name. And there are people in this world who don’t know his name but are living in his spirit of love, sometimes better than believers in God.

Wherever God’s love catches on we can know the Kingdom has found a foothold, a beachhead.  Politics won’t carry the day. Only love can do that. And God brought that love to us, not on a Jetliner or Army Tank or even a Police force. He came in a little out of the way place on the margins of society, and that’s where God is still found. We call his name JESUS.

CHRIST AND THE HERE AND NOW

The Kingdom of God is not about going up to heaven. It’s not about having a bar code stamped on us allowing us entrance into the pearly gates. The Kingdom of God is about life, all life. God is in this life and wants this life to be better for all people. Jesus came to be the way, certainly, but to also show us the WAY TO LIFE in our daily living, in personal and societal issues.

We are not about saving a soul without regard to how that soul lives right here and now. And when the fullness of the Kingdom comes it will come here to this earth and it is what we are to aspire to as we live from day to day.

I am currently reading a fantastic book called HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON about John Lewis, written by Jon Meacham. Run; don’t walk to get this book. Lewis knew and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and as he did so, there were many times Lewis, a pacifist, was beaten bloody and jailed for believing and living like Christ makes a difference in this world.

Let me share a quote from the book:

“In a passage inspired by Rauschenbusch, King was to write, “The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.””― from “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope”

I am so inspired by this man’s life and how he trusted God, prayed and lived his life as a disciple of Jesus. In these times it does my heart good to see that people are wanting to make a difference that will last for all eternity and hopefully impact the lives of my children and grandchildren in the years ahead.

God rest the soul of John Lewis and let his witness for Christ live on.

We need that witness now more than ever.

CAN I GET A WITNESS? (AND A BOOK RECOMMENDATION)

By God’s grace in Christ I am a follower of Jesus. The Lord is central to my life here and for all eternity. And as weak a follower as I might be, I trust that I belong to my God.

I want to be a witness for Christ. I want my life to reflect the goodness of God to all God’s creation. The word ‘witness’ originally meant ‘martyr’ and though I have not given my life (literally,) I do want to shed my ego, my selfishness, pride and such to be a more loving example of what following Christ means.

The church as the body of Christ, made up of people wanting to be like Christ in loving and just ways, is a witness too. Like Jesus we want to be loving, compassionate, and just as we care deeply for all people especially the brokenhearted. We want to be fair. We’d like our next generations to grow up with a sense of goodness and love. And we want them to be provided for. I understand all of that.

But something has happened. We have lost our way. We want to be #1. We want our nation to be #1. We want to be strong and make America great. And in the process we have dealt unfairly with the poor, the people of color and the immigrants at our border. Oh, I understand we don’t want too many of ‘them’ coming to America but my own great grandparents came here for the same reasons as others have for coming.

And what grieves me deeply is that we are losing our witness for Christ. Riots in the streets. Lawlessness. Violence. And the example that we are following as Christians is a leader who is lacking in Christian virtue. He is speaking to the basest qualities of our natures. He is a man without a moral compass. His arsenal contains vitriol and incendiary language for those who oppose to him. He is selfish and causes many Christians to take up the sword against those opposed to him and against each other. This can’t be.

Our leader is pharisaical. He aligns himself with religious purposes but inside is full of selfishness. He claims to be pro life but only so he can win the evangelical vote. That is a tarnished witness on the part of evangelicals who side with him on that issue. I am pro life too but pro life for everyone affected by poverty and hunger, oppression and racism and I am pro life for people in other countries that our leader calls ‘shitholes’. That’s not right. It’s not what Christ would do or say.

Some call our leader a ‘Cyrus’ after a pagan that instituted policies on behalf of the Israelites. But as a Christian I cannot be racist, unjust, unloving, and claim that being pro life aligns me with God’s will.

In the world, in our neighborhoods and even inside ourselves our witness is being erased to the point that we even begin to think that what our leaders are doing is all good.  When Germany rose to power in the 30’s the churches for the most part sided with Hitler for strengthening the economy and making Germany a world power to the extreme of rationalizing a take over of the neighboring world at that time. We cannot go in that direction.

We are disciples of Jesus, not of any political leader. We take our cues from Jesus. We are not some kind of exclusive club that determines its membership by allegiance to the current leader. As Christians we don’t make policies. We live by what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments; loving God and loving our neighbor. We are not doing that. We are hating each other, mocking, marginalizing and making it very difficult for others to see Christ in who we are or what we do.

There are serious problems within our country. The prophets of the Old Testament were not afraid to point them out in Israel and ask for forgiveness from God. Jesus saw how law and order along with a lack of love had replaced God and he pointed it out and called for repentance and love. His first words were, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’

And no we don’t condone the violence we see in the streets but we don’t condone the injustice that leads to such violence and we don’t condone the language and actions that come from the leader of this country.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that when Christ calls someone, he bids that person to come and die. Not make others suffer and die.

The greatest witness we have for Christ is to love one another, to love the least. Even within our churches today there is such a lack of love and respect as evidenced by churches splitting over politics. This can’t be. Let us speak our minds but let us speak the truth in love.

And finally I need to point out a remedy I see for people on the conservative side. Listen, the Democrats are not going to destroy America in four years. So I say, with a degree of seriousness, get rid of the current leader and then in four years choose someone who reflects the goodness of this land, who represents the best of who we are and not the worst. I know that these words won’t please my democrat friends but it’s my practical solution. And then in 2024 let there be a good contest for the soul of this nation.  

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

And finally, the content of this blog in no way reflects the opinion of the leadership of Eagle Bend Community Church in Colorado.


A LETTER ABOUT LOVE AND RECONCILIATION

Some churches I know are deeply divided over the issue of gay people of faith being included in the life of the church and particularly with regard to gay marriage.

I want to suggest a way to some peaceful, loving reconciliation in this matter. Church folks need to learn how to listen with love to the stories of people on both sides of this topic. Some of my straight friends get defensive for the same reason they don’t like Jehovah Witness folks coming to their door. The former are afraid they won’t be able to answer and will be pushed into a corner or made to look ignorant of their own faith. That’s why all this works better in small group gatherings.

This topic needs a voice.

I propose a Reconciliation Team within the churches that can bring different sides together. This team needs to be diverse to allow for diverse opinions. We need never to be afraid to hear brothers and sisters who differ from us on Scripture, Theology, or Life Choices.

It’s like the Jerusalem Council that met regarding the Gentiles. (See Acts 15) The earliest Christians differed on Bible matters, commandments, and loving flexibility as regards the Gentiles who wanted to become Christians. The Council compromised and decided that new converts did not need to keep the Mosaic Law of Circumcision. And this was a significant decision because it was the stipulation for the Covenant people with their God. (See Genesis 17) And many people did not believe that law could be nullified. But it was. See, changes do come.

Christian Ethicist David Gushee has written a book called, CHANGING OUR MINDS in which he suggests several ideas for churches confronted by this matter of gay inclusion and marriage.

One of his suggestions is that we STOP JUDGING PEOPLE. (See Romans 14 and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) Judgment does not come from love. It comes from not seeing the log in one’s own eye. It’s looking down on another. It would be like telling people in the northeast they are sinning because they eat Lobster and Pork. Oh, no. Let’s not go down that road.

The other suggestion he makes is for a church to go through a deliberate time of dialogue and discernment where we have the conversation about homosexuality and the will of God. Such conversation will impact many areas of faithful life.

Paul writes to the Ephesians that we should speak the truth in love. Speaking and listening to what we understand as God’s truth and doing so in ‘regard for the other’ is what that means.

Some churches have made conscientious decisions about homosexuality according to their best prayerful understanding of God’s will. Whichever conclusion they come to is not without consequences. And the leadership of the church needs to reach out to people who by their own conscience have a different belief. But I sincerely believe that no decision by any leadership can be made without lots of input and conversation. And resources are readily available.

Right now Christ’s body is torn asunder and needs a loving spirit and intention to bring healing. The church is for everyone. Maybe I should say the Kingdom of God has come for everyone. No one is disposable.