I WAS WRONG…and the world is better for it.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 NIV

All my life I thought this Scripture was just for Christians. Yes, I thought God was so focused on me and us that God was going to make things better for us. But I was wrong. This passage is not about me. 

It’s about the world. It means, if you read the whole book of Romans, that God wants to work in partnership with believers for the benefit of the world. God wants to grace the world, his creation and he wants us to help just like he has always done. God wants the creation to flourish. God wants the Kingdom life for everyone. And in the midst of all the rotten stuff in the world, God invites the church, the body of Christ, to work alongside God for everyone’s benefit. Salvation and abundant life come through Christ and by the Holy Spirit are imparted to all those who desire to know God’s love.    

The other day I came across this ‘remix’ of Romans 8:28 and it put everything in perspective for me and hopefully for some of you.

For we know that God, working together with those of us who have been touched by God’s love, is yearning to bring good out of all the suffering and evil we see around us in our world today. This is our calling according to God’s purpose: To collaborate with the Spirit of God within us, to bring His Kingdom to earth, now.” [Roman 8:28, remix]- author Keith Giles

 So when we see trouble and turmoil all around us we know that God is working with those who have experienced God’s love to somehow and at some time make it better. Hopefully sooner than later. Amen 

THE NARROW WAY

Matthew 7 reads (in the NIV) ‘13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’

This is not a doctrinal statement by Jesus about who gets into heaven. That’s what I learned growing up. If you don’t accept Jesus (the narrow way) then you are destined for the fires of hell (destruction).

No, what Jesus is saying is better expressed in the MESSAGE version. ‘13-14 “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.’

Jesus is inviting his disciples into the God life, the best life possible here on earth. That’s the life Jesus is talking about. And yes it requires discipline. Anything worthwhile requires putting our all into it, whether sports, music, business, marriage, or peace.

Try forgiving someone without holding on for dear life to the grace of God. And yes that grace requires our fullest attention. I think that’s why Paul at one point wrote that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling because God is already at work in us. God life is the life God in Christ invites us to. It’s why God reconciled us through the sacrifice of Jesus.

Those in Jesus’ time who took life into their own hands found out about destruction at the hands of the Romans. They brought it on to themselves when they refused to follow the Messiah. We bring destruction onto ourselves, our work, our life, and even our churches when we do it our way. Jesus invites us to walk in the vigorous way of faith. And it takes a whole lot of practice along with God’s grace.

HELL? NO. SOME THOUGHTS.

There are too many gray areas and misunderstandings about the concept of hell for me to accept this destiny as some kind of eternal torment. There are too many interpretations of the precise meaning of such a realm. And the God I encounter in Jesus is not the kind of vengeful tyrant who allows his creations to be excruciatingly tortured for all time. Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. What happens to people who have never heard the gospel of Christ?
  2. What about mentally challenged people?
  3. Where are we told anything about the eternal destiny of little children?
  4. There are so many people who have been abused by Christians and their messages.
  5. People who ‘believe’ but somehow live out of sync with God’s will. What happens to those prodigals?
  6. What about all the Germans who participated in the Holocaust?
  7. Jews? Are they all doomed?
  8. Who are the truly wicked people sent to eternal damnation?
  9. What about really nice people who just have never grasped the idea of accepting Christ even though they live Godly lives?
  10. When Christians fight wars and kill others are they doomed?
  11. Is hell eternal agony or annihilation? Both are mentioned in the Bible.
  12. My view of God is a loving father or mother who, because of that love, wouldn’t consign most of their creation to eternal suffering. 
  13. If there is any kind of hell, it will be sparsely populated.
  14. Early Christian scholars didn’t write about hell as an eternal destiny.
  15. Which sins are truly deserving of spending eternity in torment?
  16. I wouldn’t want to live with someone just because I was afraid they would hurt me if I didn’t. Jesus wouldn’t want that for us either.
  17. We have been taught by Jesus to forgive endlessly. Are we to be more merciful than God?
  18. If Jesus died for all of our sins, why do some people have to pay for their own sins?
  19. Hell makes God’s justice seem vengeful.
  20. If really bad people end up in eternal hell why would Jesus from the cross say, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do?’
  21. Hell, for me, doesn’t fit the grand scheme of a new heaven and new earth.

Some of what I have written can be argued against with certain Scriptures but I submit there are interpretations of those scriptures that are very different and theologically sound.

If hell is anything, I see it as a sidebar where the judge tells my attorney, Jesus: ‘After all considerations, all will be well.’

In closing let me extend an invitation to come to Jesus, and follow Jesus. Let Jesus teach you and guide you into the way of eternal and abundant life with the God of creation and into a life of loving others even as we are right now being loved. This is the meaning of faith.

Remember this. It is Satan who wants to keep us away from God. But as Paul writes to the Colossians in chapter 2:

‘13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ (13-15) Bible Gateway NIV

LEAVE IT

A year ago we adopted a beautiful 40-pound rescue dog that had been abused. After three trainers and the cost of my first year in college, we are on the road to a mostly well-trained 4-year-old that lives with our 16-year-old Lucy. The new one is named Rhys, after the Phillies’ first baseman. And besides, I like one-syllable names to more easily call her.

The one thing we sometimes have difficulty with is Rhy’s desire to get to other dogs behind fences when we are walking her.

Then one day I heard an owner say to his dog, ‘Leave it” and the dog obeyed. So I thought I would try the same with Rhys and sure enough, she obeyed. Maybe it’s a universal command or she had learned it in her first home.

I began to think that it’s not a bad command or invitation for humans.  Seems we get ourselves involved in too many things or in places and relationships that we need to stay away from. It’s kinda like ‘Be still and know that I am God.” (from Psalm 46)

Certainly, Jesus left certain situations to go off by himself to pray and rest. And he invited his disciples to come with him to rest. (See Mark 6:31)

So where are you too involved? What are the situations and who are the people that you find it difficult to say ‘no’ to? 

One piece of advice for all of us.

LEAVE IT.

GOD IS NEVER DISAPPOINTED IN YOU

Disappointment means that you and I haven’t met God’s expectations. We have let God down. Not so. Jesus is the Word of God who tells us we are loved unconditionally and that God doesn’t have expectations of us. Only anticipations of what we are becoming. Recall Paul writing to the Philippians that God who began a good work in us through Christ will bring it to completion. Recall that love never keeps a record of our wrongs.

I remember being on retreat in a desert community where we took a lot of time to be silent in the presence of God. During that time, in my spirit, I heard God say to me, ‘George, you are my little boy and I love you just the way you are.’ I have to bring that to mind often because there is so much that happens on my journey of faith that might make me disappointed in myself but if God isn’t disappointed in me then I certainly have to let go of any self-doubt about who and whose I am.

When God’s grace grips me in my realization of how much I am loved, I can then extend that love to others.

God loves us where we are and then anticipates where we will be by God’s grace at work in our lives.

And think about this: if God isn’t disappointed in us, we don’t have to be disappointed in others who don’t meet our expectations.

WE ARE GOD’S BELOVED CHILDREN

I’ve been reading Luke 4 about the temptation of Jesus. Just before he goes into the wilderness to face the devil, he is told by God, “You are my beloved Son.” And then twice, and probably more times, he is confronted by the devil with the words, “If you really are the Son of God then act in the way the world most wants you to act… show your power; excite the people; gain popularity. And according to Matthew’s Gospel even the crowds at Jesus’ crucifixion said, ‘If you are the Son of God then come down from the cross.’ Those voices, and those words, haunt Jesus, who knows he doesn’t have to prove anything to the devil or the world, let alone that he is God’s beloved Son.

We face the temptations of voices in our heads, from family and friends, and the world’s crowds asking, ‘Are you sure you are the child of God?’ ‘Are you really God’s beloved?’ If you were wouldn’t you fit in better with this world by listening to those voices? If you were the child of God you would be smarter, sexier, richer, better looking, straighter, more sober, more religious.

But no matter who you are at this moment, you ARE THE BELOVED CHILD OF GOD.

The whole world is beloved by God before there is any addition of goodness or being better on our part. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world he gave his only Son…we ARE the beloved of God.

Even if you are reading this and don’t consider yourself a ‘believer in God’ please know you are loved by God and invited to trust Jesus not so you can ‘get into heaven’ but rather by trust to experience Christ’s life in the here and now. ‘Later’ will take care of itself. Jesus told everyone he met that the Kingdom, the reign, the love of God is here, right now, for everyone. Read Acts 17 sometime where Paul tells a bunch of philosophers that indeed we are all the offspring of God; and something else so wonderful – we have the DNA of God. Sure.

Read John 1:1-4: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been madeIn him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.’ 

Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s DNA love.

 Lent is a time for reflection and self-examination; not so that we feel shame for the wrong things we have done but so we can know, in the depths of our souls, that Jesus went to the cross to prove the love of God for you, and you, and you and me. So whatever your place in life right now know that you are loved and invited to share in the greatest life ever lived. I know that’s what I want.

SCARS

When I was a young teenager I went to a friend’s house while her parents were away for the weekend. Other friends joined in the ‘party’. We raided the liquor cabinet and proceeded to become inebriated which is a euphemism for ‘drunk’. Yep, we were having a good time until….I decided to do something foolish which is another word for just plain stupid. I pretended my bike was my horse and I was going to run with it and jump on. I jumped. I missed. I fell onto the hard asphalt road. And to this day I have a scar on my knee. I have other scars, some of which I don’t want to reveal in public but suffice it to say that each scar reveals a teaching moment, a healing moment, and a grace moment.

Scars can be teaching moments. You see the scar. You remember the event and what you learned perhaps through your own foolish ways or as the object of someone else’s foibles.

Scars evidence healing for many people be it physical or emotional. Sometimes the wound isn’t forgotten, isn’t healed and the scar has yet to make its appearance. It takes a long time for many people.

I believe that God has the incredible loving power to restore that wounded body or soul to wholeness and to cover it with a scar of his loving-kindness. Wounds have a God-given restorative power, even the emotional ones.

I’m remembering the apostle Peter who almost drowned through his foolishness. The greater wound was that he betrayed his loyalty to Jesus. That wound went deep, plunging Peter’s soul into the darkness of tears and sorrow. But Jesus later healed the wound, gently caressing that soul and restoring Peter’s place in the fold. Peter would always remember the wrong he did but even more, he would recall the grace of his Lord.

We need to help one another clean the wounds and allow the scars to form. The scar is God’s grace. Yeah, we can see the scar as a remembrance but more so as the Spirit’s work of restoration, reconciliation.

And yes there are times when God, by his word or spirit, comes to us like a skilled surgeon to cut deep into our lives to reveal something that is harmful to us; and as the divine surgeon, he lovingly cuts with precision to allow the healing to begin. That would be the loving caring discipline of God, not the abusing punishment of a mean vindictive creator.

Above all let scars be reminders of what God’s love has done or will do. And don’t forget the scars in the hands of Jesus, reminders to the world of the healing love of God.

WHAT I AM LEARNING ABOUT GOD

Some people say that God’s ways are unknowable, mysterious beyond our small minds’ comprehension but I say we CAN know God and his ways. Maybe not everything about God but certainly more than many people think is possible.

Let’s look at a verse that some suggest demonstrates our inability to know God.

Isaiah 55:8  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Here’s the context for these words. God is speaking about his own mercy and how he will abundantly pardon the people for their transgressions. So I learn that God wants us to know his love and how he will reconcile us. That surprises a lot of people who have learned only a judgmental and punishing side of God.

I am learning that God’s essence is love and that love is never changing but that God’s experience changes as God relates to the creation and especially to you and me as God’s beloved.  Malachi 3:6 says, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Some use the first part of that verse to say God is immutable, never changing. It’s God’s love that never changes. Read the story of Israel and see how God accommodates the people at every turn. Read how Moses changed God’s mind about the destruction of the Israelites. (Exodus 32:14)

I am learning that God’s power is not coercive control but rather a loving, persuading influence on the creation.

I am learning that God wants to partner with us as God did with Adam and Eve and Abraham. Let me put it this way. God needs us and looks for us. Read Genesis 3:8,9  “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” No matter how you look at the verse it is plain that God looks for us as the father did for the prodigal son. (See Luke 15) As the shepherd searching for the one sheep or the lady for one coin so God longs to bring us back to God’s love.

I am learning that God weeps and suffers with us. God has emotions. And don’t worry about God’s emotions getting the best of him. God can be trusted with those emotions. God suffers with us. That’s clear in Jesus. And in the Old Testament, we read from Isaiah 63:9, “In all their distress he (God) too was distressed,
and the angel of his presence saved them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.”

Now let’s go to 1Corinthians 13 and I am using the Voice version to give what I believe is an accurate interpretation of verse 12 “For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things, as when we stare into polished metal. I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face. In that day, I will fully know just as I have been wholly known by God.”

Paul is writing about the selfless nature of love for the community at Corinth and such love is so magnificent that we cannot understand it fully but one day we will when we see Jesus face to face. To me that incomprehensibility is clear. (I’ll give us all time to figure out that last sentence.) Paul wants the church to know that love is the essence of who we are as the Body of Christ.

More to come.

Grace and Peace

IF YOU BELIEVE IN SOMETHING YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND (PART I)

Some of you may recall lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”:

When you believe in things that you don’t understand

Then you suffer

Superstition ain’t the way

I am trying to understand more and more of the mind and ways of God, especially the extent of God’s love for God’s creation. I think our beliefs need to make sense. Relationships make sense, for the most part, when one tries hard to understand the heart and mind of the other.

God is a relationship when you consider the Trinity. God is relational, loving us from God’s essence, which is love. I want to understand that love more fully and some people tell me that one just cannot and they point to a couple scriptures that I will take up in PART II.

I believe God wants us to understand God. The Bible isn’t an instruction manual or a blueprint. It’s a love story about the relentless pursuit of the loving God who wants to live with us, enjoy us, and partner with us for all eternity. You might need to read THE SHACK to get the full import of that relationship if the Bible isn’t clear on it.

Consider these words from the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians:

“I ask the God of our Master Jesus Christ, the God of glory – to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers…” (1:18)

And we know this is what God wants, for God sent the Son into our world and lives.

(See Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15)

As I read the Scriptures in 2022 I want to come to understand God more fully. I don’t want my faith to be superstitious. Rather I want to grasp how deep is the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:18). I want the solid ground to stand upon as I follow my Lord.

Next time I will share a couple of scriptures where it ‘seems’ that God’s ways are beyond our understanding. It’s surprising.

FORGIVENESS: HOW GOD’S KINGDOM COMES

The Bible certainly contains scriptures that speak about repenting and confessing before we are forgiven. 1 John 1: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

But there is also a sense, a reading of scripture, that God forgives humanity before we ask. Take Isaiah 44:22: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me for I have redeemed you.” (NIV); in Jeremiah 31:34 God announces the New Covenant saying he will remember sins no more.

One of the clearest passages is in Colossians 2 in which Paul writes to the Gentile church, “13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (ESV)

In Colossians 1: 20 we read that God made peace with his creation through the blood of Christ shed on the cross. Paul also writes that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them (2Cor. 5:19). I don’t think God could approach us without first making peace with humanity

This all has implications for why we forgive others their transgressions against us even if they have not asked for forgiveness. This is the miracle of God’s grace and love at work in the cosmos. We are acting as children of our heavenly Father. In Matthew 5 Jesus tells his disciples to love even their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. (Matthew 5:44)

When we forgive another we die to ourselves, our egos, and trust any judgment to God. That’s how the Kingdom works. We are not told to forgive others for psychological or even emotional reasons. (Though it wouldn’t hurt in that regard.) We are invited to enlarge our own hearts for more of God’s grace to take up residence within us. That is life in the Kingdom.

Recall how Jesus unconditionally forgave others from the cross. He forgave Peter even before their meeting on the beach. That’s how love works. That’s how our lives best work even though it goes against the grain of our own defense mechanisms.

Christmas might be an appropriate time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action. It’s a good time to say, ‘yes’ to God who in Christ loves us so much that his Son was willing to die for us. It’s a good time for us to ‘be like our heavenly Father’ and let go of the sins of others. There may be consequences for their sin but those are not ours to choose. Our choice is to love as God has loved us.

A Blessed Christmas to all.