TOO MANY RULES

signs

 

Remember the old song about signs everywhere telling us what to do. In case you don’t, here are some of the lyrics. (The Five Man Electrical Band)

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read?
You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat
You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat
You ain’t supposed to be here
The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside
Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray”
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all
I didn’t have a penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine”

We might also write down the same thing for religion. Everywhere we look we see another rule, ceremony, code, law and maybe even a secret handshake tell us what and how to believe within the Christian faith.

Keep this in mind. A passage from Romans 10:4 ‘For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.’

This means that anything and everything the law was meant to do in bringing humanity into right relationship with God has been culminated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. According to the Apostle Paul anything but Christ being the way to our righteousness is ANOTHER gospel, one that isn’t true. He wrote this to the church in Galatia where people were insisting that ‘real’ followers of Jesus ‘had to’ be circumcised.

So I got to thinking one day that ‘religion’ of any stripe is too heavy a burden to bear. And within Christianity, according to some estimates, there are 33,000 Christian ‘organizations’ around the world plus many thousands of other religious sects and cults with lists of dogmas, doctrines, rule and regulations too numerous to list.

Now some folks need all those burdens, and boundaries to feel safe. In truth there are people who are willing to give up their freedom for a sense of security. And not in any good way do some people stay in an abusive relationship to be safer from harm that may occur by ‘breaking free’.

It may be why some people join very fundamental religious groups in order to have life that is defined for them in order that they don’t have to make their own decisions.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s why Adam and Eve became nervous in the Garden just living in love with their creator, making decisions from their place of communion with God. Freedom and love can be so risky.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, within the first five books, there are 613 laws and commandments on how to live with God and one another. They were, due to the immaturity of the chosen people at the time, necessary. In the New Testament Jesus announces that there are basically two commandments: to love God with all your self and to love your neighbor as yourself. He further says that all the laws and the sayings of the prophets are summed up in those two commands. Paul wrote that the entire law is fulfilled in keeping one command, LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. (Galatians 5:14) See also Romans 13: 9. And let us not think that this command to love neighbor as self is a walk in the park.

To love God fully means placing our trust in Christ, nothing more and nothing less and loving neighbor is a process of maturation in Christ to the point where we are willing to give up our lives even for the people, close to us, who annoy us most.

But and read this carefully: love comes from freedom, not rules. We are ‘freed’ to love. Here’s an illustration I heard once upon a time. If I bring home flowers to my wife and she is so surprised and asks me why and I respond by saying it is the rule of the Bible to show love. I can tell you this. It’s not going to be pretty.

So let’s take a look at what freedom is. Jesus came saying to the people who wanted to follow him, ‘If you hold to my teaching your are really my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ (See John 8) Jesus is telling us that whatever we need to know about life in the Kingdom of God, right here and now is known simply by trusting him for everything. That’s why he says later, that is the way, truth and life (all meaning the same thing) and that no one is really able to come to the Father (live in the Father’s loving kingdom) except by trusting in Christ to be and show us the way there. And the commandments of Jesus, as John writes, in 1John are not burdensome. They are simply the truth of life in the Kingdom. But not even those commandments are the way to life. Jesus is. And trusting in Jesus is the best that we can do and life will follow.

And Jesus is not like some fuhrer setting up a system that kills. That’s a thief who steals life. Jesus gives life abundantly and if we don’t experience the abundance and joy then it could just mean that we are carrying too heavy a load.

If we look at Matthew 11 we find Jesus saying to the crowds, and I write from the Message Paraphrase; 28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” MSG

Now there’s a relationship of love that leads to a joyful responsible life. Jesus invites us to step into a life where we ‘want’ to do God’s will, not where we ‘have to’. “In the will of God, the kingdom of God there is no need for do’s and don’ts, no need for tables of commandments, tablets of law. In this kingdom everything will be regulated by inner rebirth and inward inspiration under the rule of Christ’s spirit.” (Ebehard Arnold wrote in 1935)

When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus (John 3) about a new birth he said, ‘The wind blows where it will- that how it is with the spirit’. The spirit of the living God moves here and there directing as God wills for each life, no two lives the same. And so when one person discerns the will of God in a particular way, another maybe differently understands the workings of God. That’s how it is with Freedom born of a relationship of love and inspiration.

When in the early New Testament churches leaders made rules and regulations for other’s conduct Paul wrote that they didn’t need to submit to the rules of an old way of life where folks were saying, ‘don’t eat this’, ‘don’t touch that’, ‘observe days of Sabbath’. (See Galatians 2:16-23) I like how the MESSAGE puts it, ‘don’t tolerate people who want to run your life.’

And there are a plethora of religions and people who want to do just that. I recall as a teenager, of the Christian slogans was ‘I don’t drink, dance or chew or go out with girls that do.’ Well, I pretty much broke all of those rules.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of freedom. The gospel has no moral code that defines our relationship to Christ. Because we are God’s new creation in the new Adam we live solely out of love and union with God, governed only by the word of Christ dwelling in us and constrained only by his love for us. When churches or other human tell us how or what to believe or live we respond that have no other King but Jesus. When our own flesh desires, or commands our obedience we say again that we have no other King but Jesus. Because remember we can be just as enslaved to sin and its wages of death as to some other cruel master.

THE GRACE OF AMBIGUITY

Ambiguity is defined as uncertainty. It is the nature of humans to dislike uncertainty. It’s risky and even fear producing not to know the answer to life’s deeper questions such as ‘is there a God?’, ‘why is there so much suffering?’, ‘why am I here and where am I going and who cares? Is the Bible true, and why don’t the Jehovah witnesses have the same Bible as I do? ‘Am I going to be judged? And what about all those different religions?’ And then, ‘what’s for dinner?’ And did I make the right decision? And on and on and on?

An ethicist once asked Mother Teresa if she would pray for him for clarity in his life. Her response was, ‘I have never had clarity. I have had trust. I pray that you will have trust.’

I once saw a cartoon where the pastor of a church was sitting behind his desk and behind him on the wall was a poster showing the steady decline of attendance in the church. His assistant pastor was standing in front of him and said, ‘Maybe it would be better if you didn’t end every sermon with ‘but the again what do I know?’

Why do we need certainty? Trust implies a degree of uncertainty. The apostle Paul once wrote in Romans 8 that in the midst of the suffering and groaning in the world, we ‘hope’. But he says that hope isn’t something we have. It is something we long for with perseverance. And in Hebrews 11:1 we find these words: ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.’ This is true trusting. And many of those whom Paul writes about never received what they hoped for, at least to the point of their deaths. They share in those things with us now.

Ambiguity involves trust and hope more than absolute certainty. Recall what Jesus said to the disciple Thomas after Thomas saw the wounds on Jesus’ body. ‘You believe because you see. How much more blessed are those who believe without seeing.’ That is the nature of ambiguity and trust.

Now some Christians and religious groups feel they need to be certain that they know the way to God. But Jesus is the only one who knows that way for he IS the way the truth and the life; he invites us to trust him to bring us into the Kingdom of the Father right here and for all eternity.

We would be more relaxed in our Christianity if we just allowed the ambiguity to exist and instead trusted God, say, the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in the times of Nazi Germany. Here’ is the way he describes his faith and life not long before he was executed by the Gestapo.

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me;
I come out of my cell
Calmly, cheerfully, resolutely,
Like a lord from his palace.

Who am I? They often tell me,
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me,
I carried the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one who is used to winning.

Am I really then what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, melancholic, and ill, like a caged bird,
Struggling for breath, as if hands clasped my throat,
Hungry for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds,
Thirsty for friendly words and human kindness,
Shaking with anger at fate and at the smallest sickness,
Trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Tired and empty at praying, at thinking, at doing,
Drained and ready to say goodbye to it all.

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at once? In front of others, a hypocrite,
And to myself a contemptible, fretting weakling?
Or is something still in me like a battered army,
running in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? These lonely questions mock me.
Whoever I am, You know me; I am yours, O God.

 

The last line sets the tone for our life. Though we don’t often understand much. What we do trust more than anything is that God knows we are HIS.

And the Bible. The Bible is not a rulebook. It is a relationship book. It is more like a book on the languages of love than Robert’s Rules of Order. And being a book of relationship it is filled with grey areas that are left up to the individual or group to discern what God’s will is for any given moment. The Bible is a history of God’s love for his creation and creatures and his longing for us. Love is never black and white and to want it to be so is to live by the knowledge of good and evil rather than in communion with God. And we know how that played out back in the Garden.

John Polkinghorne, a Christian and a scientist, writes these words:

The tapestry of life is not colored in simple black and white, representing an unambiguous choice between the unequivocally bad and the unequivocally good. The ambiguity of human deeds and desires means that life includes many shades of grey. What is true of life in general is true also of the Bible in particular. An honest reading of Scripture will acknowledge the presence in its pages of various kinds of ambiguity.

Regard Abraham and his uncertainty about his role as the Father of many nations. Jacob wrestled with God. Moses never really knew what he had gotten himself into. David’s ambiguities pervade the Psalms not knowing at times whether God would save him or leave him to die.

Perhaps we can learn from Jesus’ own ambiguity in Gethsemane when he asked his Father to relieve him of this dreaded death but conclude, ‘Thy will be done.’

Let me conclude by saying that ambiguity is a gift from God, an opportunity for trust and yes, even impulse at time. It is an occasion for prayer, prayer to trust, a prayer to seek God, a prayer to never grow complacent in the boring black and white of law but rather in relationship to Jesus Christ.

By the way, I love the words of U:

 

I have climbed the highest mountains

I have run through the fields

Only to be with you
Only to be with you.

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her finger tips
It burned like fire
A burning desire.

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For lyrics©Universal Music Publishing Group

 

 

 

 

 

THE GOOD LIFE

What is the good life? The life of joy and peace? Jesus offers us this life, his pulse beating through our hearts. Here are some of his final words to his disciples for their preparation to live:

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. (John 15)

Jesus, the savior and the moment-by-moment teacher of life has given us everything we need for our joy. He has forgiven our sins. He has given us the gift of his commands, which leads to life. Some folks look at obedience to anybody as a challenge to their own rights but Jesus offers to instruct us how to live and not just as a dead teacher’s good advice but as one who is alive and with us right now. Recall his words to his disciples just before he leaves them. “I will be with you always.” (Matthew 28)

See nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even death. (Romans 8)

Jesus offers us the way to life through his words and his love. Just as he has kept the Father’s commands he offers us the way to salvation through keeping his words. He is promising us that we will be joyful people who attend to his words.

I hear someone once say that the commands of God are like guardrails keeping us safe on the road of life. Others say they are like prison bars keeping us from being free.

Fish live in water because it’s their environment for life. If they should choose to jump out onto the sand they would soon find out that freedom leads to death in this scenario.  I once had tropical fish in my office and one morning upon entering the room I noticed that one of the fish decided to be free- on the office carpeting. Free and dead was my little friend.

Have you ever played soccer or seen it played, or maybe basketball or for that matter any sport? Without boundaries and rules these games would be just chaos, no fun for anyone. So it is with life. Jesus offers us boundaries and rules to make the ‘game’ fun. You can condense all those commands into just two if you like. Love God as much as you can and love your neighbor as you love yourself.(Matthew 22) That pretty much says it all.

But because we are weak in the flesh we need more acute instruction. And so Jesus instructs us about things like anger and lust, worry and giving etc.

Jesus says that the freest place to be is within the Kingdom of God. You and I were made for the Kingdom. I know that atheist folks say ‘hogwash’ to that but what do they know, really? How do they know what they think they know?

Jesus comes along as the smartest, wisest, most loving man in all of history and invites us to live with him, according to his commands and tells us that the reality of God’s kingdom is the one thing you and I can count on. And who’s to say he is not right? Some folks blame their unbelief on years of religious oppression and cruelty, which Jesus never endorsed. Such history is lived outside of God’s kingdom, which is righteousness and peace. And the rules that Jesus lays out are meant to realize that peace and justice and goodness.

For example when Jesus tells us not to be angry he is inviting us into God’s reality of love and forgiveness. So when we learn how not to be angry (which can take some time for most of us) we begin to see life with God’s eyes and love with God’s heart.  Jesus shows us God.

One of the disciples once asked Jesus to show them the Father because they still couldn’t figure this kingdom stuff completely. Jesus said to them that after all this time of his presence with them they should be able to see the Father.

Consider these words from Jesus in John chapter 8-So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Continuing in Jesus words means that we listen to what he has to say and that we obey his teachings because we have confidence that he knows best for us. If you want to learn to play piano you listen to your teacher. If you want to learn to be an electrician you study hard and listen to your mentor. If you want to do anything well in life then you listen to your instructor. Well, if you want to learn best how to live this life, how to be happy, loving, and righteous and the best person you can be and be free then you listen to your teacher, Jesus. He knows. He really does.

Freedom in the Christian life means that you don’t have to live in sin. We are freed by Christ to live the good life a life that is meaningful, purposeful and eternal.

It means that when you wake up in the morning you wake up in the Kingdom of God, with God, knowing that no matter what happens in that day you are not in the least removed from God’s love and presence brought to us by Jesus who himself said to us that he would be with us forever.

And get this. The apostle John writes in one place that the commands of Jesus are not hard. And Jesus himself tells us that he wants to connect up with us and give us responsibility that is in actuality quite easy. (See Matthew 11) Easy meaning that it fits us well. Of course there are to be problems and suffering in this world. Jesus faced it all but he has given us the tools to face insurmountable odds. At one point he says, ‘my peace I give you, not as the world gives.’

He knows everything about life, our lives, and the life of this universe and eternal life and invites us to entrust our lives into his care, guidance and to live by his rules.

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best advice ever on how to live this life in the Kingdom of God. It’s three chapters long found in Matthew 5,6,7.

They are words from the very WORD of God to teach us that anybody can live in the Kingdom of God and that by listening to/reading his words we can have the best life ever.

What I sometimes find is that people misunderstand what the rules are. They think it’s about smoking, dancing, drinking and the like. No. His rules are avenues into our hearts. That’s why Jesus says that it is not enough not to kill someone. It’s about loving everyone especially those who are closest to us. We don’t have to work hard not to kill but to love is another story, another adventure if you will. This day or the next you will have opportunity to test that truth as you encounter people who aren’t always on your wavelength so to speak.

Now if we choose to live outside the Kingdom life it would like stepping out of bounds on the basketball court, like riding our cars with no gas (I want to be free of higher gas prices). I’m sure you can think of all sorts of analogies like jumping off a roof thinking that you can be free of gravity. Sure you can be free but you will be broken if you are into that kind of thing.

Jesus offers us the kind of freedom that allows us to love, to be kind, forgiving, and compassionate and in love with God. The Kingdom of me is about selfishness, anger, resentment, retaliation…it is a way that leads ultimately to the death of the soul. Maybe that’s why Jesus once said (Matthew 7) that the way to life is narrow and few find it. Perhaps for the most part people are into the ‘me’ life. The ‘I did it my way life’. I have to admit that on the surface it is mighty appealing and I am known to have walked that way often. But it is not the real life, real meaning the life that God has prescribed for you and me. It’s fleshly satisfying and fleeting. I want a life that endures, that is built on solid ground. It takes worth but then again what good thing doesn’t?

 

 

 

 

Freedom

Romans 8:21  ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ ESV

Here’s my take on what Paul is writing in these verses. Yes, creation is groaning. The world is groaning but one day it will experience the same freedom and new life that the children of God are experiencing today.
This is the reality of the Kingdom of God. The creation will take its cue from those who enter the Kingdom of God right now. Jesus said that the truth will set us free if we stay connected to him and to his word.(John 8)  It is the only way to be free of the shackles with which this world wants to imprison us. In John 16 Jesus tells his disciples that while in the world there will be tribulation we don’t have to be afraid because Jesus has overcome the world. Overcome in the sense that darkness and death do not have the final world. Fear is not the final word. The word of God in Jesus is the final word. The Kingdom of God is the final word. Resurrection is the final word. LIFE is the final word.

Jesus said to a hurting world that he had come to give life abundant (John 10) which means that we are fully embraced into the love of God by the words and works of Jesus.
We are free. Really. No matter what scene the cosmic powers of darkness may put before you eyes, God places the life and light of Jesus before us so that as we look into him we may experience the glory, the radiance of our God. And as Paul will later write, ‘if God is for us who can be against us.’ So, children of God, let’s set a good example to help free this creation from its bondage to decay.
That’s like a New Year’s resolution- if you are into that sort of thing. My life will not be darkened by the world but will rather be that light set on a hill, light that comes from the glory of God.