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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 23: Faith is a Good Start

 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  Matthew 25:34-36,40

Religious circles emphasize the importance of faith. Faith is the belief in something beyond what we can see or fully understand. It provides a broader vision than our eyes can see and a more sensitive hearing than is possible from our ears alone. Faith acknowledges that for all we know and for all the information we have available to us, there is much that is and will always remain a mystery. Religious faith acknowledges a higher, benevolent power that assures all things work together for good. Christians name that power God.

I believe developing a faith in something larger than ourselves and in purposes larger than our circle of attention is important for our individual and collective development, regardless of whether that faith is a religious faith, and regardless of whether we express that faith in a church. Developing faith is a practical way to live. Jesus, in Matthew 17, says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The implication is that a small amount of faith can increase whatever power is available in order to overcome tremendous challenges.

Faith is a multiplier. We can accomplish more with faith in something beyond ourselves than we can accomplish alone. I want to emphasize the word accomplish. One purpose for the gift of faith is to accomplish something. Not that faith, alone, is not worthwhile. The apostle Paul says we are “justified” by faith, or made right with God. That we establish a faith connection with a higher, benevolent power is one thing. We might even worship that power on Sunday mornings, but are we using the power of that faith to improve the lives around us? God’s power unites with ours, through faith, in order to co-create – God with us – a better world. I believe faith should inspire us to work for justice, to feed the hungry, to welcome strangers, to house the homeless. Jesus modeled a life-giving faith and dedicated himself to meeting the needs of a broken world. He valued his time with his Father, going away from the crowds frequently to pray, but he used that connection to renew his ability to serve. The faith of Jesus is an active, achieving faith, and that type of faith leaves a mark.

The writer of James proclaims that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). The Bible is full of stories of ordinary people who responded in faith and accomplished extraordinary things. Why would we believe anything less is in store for us? Our faith is a wonderful thing, but our faith calls us to greater things. True faith inspires and empowers us to make good things happen in our world.

Faith, by itself, is only the beginning. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 22: Unity ≠ Uniformity

 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:22-23

unityAs a young adult, I was fascinated with Eastern philosophy. A common theme was unity, or oneness. Writers spoke frequently of becoming one with God, or with one’s environment, or with others. In marriage, scripture tells us two lives become one flesh. In my western mind, I thought the whole concept of oneness was repulsive. Why would a single drop of water intentionally fall in the ocean and lose its uniqueness? I remember reading once, about marriage, that the ultimate result of two people becoming one was two half-people. Cynical, yes; but it is a reflection of the western emphasis on individuality, making one’s own way, and expressing one’s distinctiveness.

Interestingly, the point in my life when I was ready to enter into marriage was the point when I had grown tired of my individual expression. I did not like what I had and had not achieved in life, I felt stagnant and stale, and I was more than ready to give up the life I had worked to build for a chance of reaching for something better. Marriage changed my life in wonderful ways too numerous to count, but it hardly stole my uniqueness. Rather, unity in marriage provided a larger context of support where I could develop and express my individual gifts more completely. And that is the point about unity that is often overlooked: unity does not imply uniformity. Unity is about fitting one’s uniqueness into place along with the distinct qualities of others to create something greater. Think of the pieces of a puzzle – each piece has a unique coloration, shape, and place, but when the pieces are fit together as one, the result is far beyond what any one piece was capable of producing.

Striving for unity requires a leap of faith. A person must be willing to risk the self they have identified with in order to attain a larger purpose or goal. The math of unity is 1+1+1=111. There is very little logic to it, but we know two or more people working in unison toward a common purpose can accomplish more than can be accomplished individually. The power of relationship is the immeasurable wildcard. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) It is an early definition of fellowship, and it implies that a supernatural force develops from oneness.

Every trait that made me unique in my single days I retain today, so I lost nothing. Instead, I found a greater context within which to express that uniqueness.

Unity does not equal uniformity. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 21: Sin is its own Punishment

 Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you. John 5:14c

In my opinion, there are a number of misconceptions about sin. First and foremost is that sin is offensive to God. We are created in the image of God, and it is an inescapable consequence of our being that we sin. God may not be amused, but God is not surprised. A second misconception is that God keeps track of our sins and, like a big Santa-in-the-Sky, one too many puts us on the dreaded Bad Child List. Another misconception is that we must somehow be purified of our sinful nature in order to be loved and accepted by God.

hitting-thumb-with-hammerFor me, one way to view sin is like hitting my thumb with a hammer. There is no one to blame except me, and the resulting pain serves as an effective teacher to become more attentive in the future. As I noted in an earlier Life Note (July 28, 2016), sin is that which separates us from God and others. God does not abandon us in our sin, but we separate ourselves from our awareness of God’s loving presence as a natural consequence of our sin. If we believe, as I do, that God lives in, through, and with us, then God must suffer with us in our sin. If we become obese and live with diabetes or other health issues, God suffers with us. If we commit a crime that lands us in jail, God joins us in our cell. Similarly, when we suffer an illness or condition with no traceable connection to anything we have ever done, God never abandons us. So, the consequences of sin are never just borne by us, God shares our burdens with us. God never leaves us, however, nor does God love us any less passionately. It is only our awareness of God’s love that waxes and wanes.

Frequently, it is our suffering that motivates us to make needed changes. When life is pain-free and comfortable, we naturally try to maintain the status quo. When we hold to the status quo too tightly, however, we do not grow. The Gospel is an invitation to grow toward Christ, to become evermore Christ-like. Paradoxically, our sin – at least the pain of separation it causes – motivates us to grow in ways that help us better experience God’s presence. God neither wants nor wills our sin or suffering. But whenever  we hurt, God crawls into the hole – or onto the cross – with us. Contrary to how it may feel at the time, God never runs from our suffering, God runs to it. And in our times of darkness, we find ourselves craving an ever nearer experience of the divine. We are motivated to transform those actions that separate us from what is good – our sin – and grow toward a life more expressive of loving union with God and others. Because sin is its own punishment, God neither has to keep track of our sin, nor specifically punish us for it. The price of sin is automatically included in the cost.

Sin is its own punishment. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 20: The Enemy is Within

 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Luke 4:1-2

When I was growing up, there was a popular comedian named Flip Wilson. He would do something he knew he should not do and say, “The devil made me do it!” It was funny because everyone knew it was his own lack of self-control that was to blame. Today, there is significant disagreement about whether the devil is an actual being with power to lead us to evil acts. Because I have not had personal experience with a power outside of myself encouraging me towards evil, I tend to believe there is no such separate entity. I believe we use the devil as an excuse for something within that we are unwilling to acknowledge, like Flip Wilson, or we blame the devil for something exterior to us that we do not understand. Having said that, I know people who feel they have had an encounter with an outside, evil spirit, and I respect their opinion and experience.

enemiesThe issue at hand is not whether there is evil in the world, but where that evil originates. I am not so naive as to believe there is no evil in the world, but where does our evil enemy reside? Do evil acts come from people who are selfish, ignorant, or whose motives are malicious, or do they originate from some external, spiritual being bent on our destruction? Clearly, I lean towards the former explanation. The latter simply gives us a reason to let ourselves off the hook when our behavior does not line up with expectations.

I believe the source of all evil – the birthplace of every enemy – is the misguided perception by individuals that we are separate, independent beings. Once we learn to recognize and honor our absolute interconnectedness with others, we will have no enemies – only reflections of our own internal conflicts. There will always be those who do not have our best interests at heart, but we will recognize them for what they are – immature, narcissistic, and misguided. They are fellow humans fighting their own internal demons, not necessarily evil incarnate. They need understanding and help (and sometimes avoidance), not hatred and scorn.

Our sense of an enemy stems from our lack of understanding of the significance of the other. We fear who and what we do not understand. As we begin to realize that what we see exterior to ourselves is largely a mirror reflecting our internal struggles and unfinished business, we begin to accept responsibility for our part in the evil that manifests in our world. We are connected to all that is, and all that is is connected to us – intimately and securely. The good news is that we can do something to change our external world by changing our internal world. The bad news is that wherever we go, our enemy goes with us.

The enemy is within. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 19: Worshiping ≠ Following

 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also. John 12:26

Twenty-one times in the four Gospels, Jesus says, “Follow me.” Clearly, Jesus sought for followers. In order to follow, we must commit to two types of action, especially when the leader is not physically present. First, the follower must learn the values and priorities of the one he or she professes to follow. Second, the follower must actually act in ways that are consistent with the priorities of the leader.

New Testament Illustrations for use in Bible society publications Series 2 Illustrations by Annie Vallotton .The book of Revelation _ Le livre de l'Apocalypse

In the case of Christians, sometimes we confuse following Jesus with worshiping Jesus. Do you know how many times Jesus asks us to worship him? Zero. Follow me = 21; worship me = 0. Therefore, worshiping ≠ following. I find this bit of math interesting and telling. Jesus does mention the importance of worshiping the Father throughout the Gospels, but never once says we should worship him. Jesus apparently was more interested in our actions on his behalf than in our praise. Jesus laid out a mission and vision for life that he wanted to insure would outlive his days on earth. It had nothing to do with enhancing his personal glory; it had everything to do with tending to and expanding his flock.

I believe this tells me that going to church on Sunday mornings – an act of worship – is not sufficient to claim myself as a follower of Jesus. I am not saying that attending worship does not have value or that it cannot help us grow as followers of Christ. Worshiping is not enough, however, at least not by itself. A good church can help us understand what was important to Jesus, but it is up to us to act on that knowledge. Some of the most spiritual, Christ-following people I know choose not to attend church on a regular basis. If going to church on Sunday mornings does not motivate us to follow Jesus into our world, we may be missing the point. We might as well stay home. I believe our churches need to be more than houses of worship. They also need to serve as an inspirational call to action to make our world a better place for everyone within it.

To worship is to revere, adore, or pay homage to someone. For many of us, worshiping is primarily an intellectual, non-self-sacrificing act, and that is not good enough for Jesus. Jesus wants our mind, yes, but not without our heart and body. A mind can think great thoughts and still accomplish nothing of value. A mind that guides the work of the heart and body into the world can accomplish great things. Jesus called for human verbs, not nouns – he was faith in action, and acts of faith are what he seeks from us.

Worshiping is not necessarily following. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 18: Exclusion Leads to Implosion

 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples – for there were many who followed him. Mark 2:15

I am not fluent in astrophysics, so forgive my pseudo-scientific musings, but there seems to be agreement that our universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. There are elements within our universe, however, that are contracting. Black holes are former stars that have died and imploded into themselves, retaining all their mass, but in an infinitely small space. Anything near a black hole is sucked into that hole and cannot escape, not even light.

black-holeSome churches remind me of a black hole. They worship what seems to me a very small God, and they exclude large swaths of humanity from those they say are redeemed. They believe themselves to be God’s “chosen ones,” and everyone else will burn in Hell. They identity certain words that must be said, rituals that must be practiced, rules that must be followed, and they are certain in their knowledge that they are right and everyone else is wrong. These churches, not unlike a black hole, suck everything into themselves so that nothing good can escape, not even love or light. I believe this type of exclusion would cause Jesus to roll over in his tomb (if he were still there).

Jesus was inclusive and rejected no one. In fact, much of the criticism he received had to do with the choices he made in followers. He hung out with sinners and those usually excluded from recognized social circles – prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen, adulterers, lepers, and foreigners. In fact, the only group he consistently criticized was the religious elite – those who sought to exclude others from their pious circles. This was the group that made the rules that determined whether a person was deemed worthy of God’s blessing. Jesus, while firmly within that circle of worthiness, preferred to hang out on the fringes where he could invite those standing outside in – ever expanding the reach of inclusion into God’s family.

Spirituality, in general, and Christianity, specifically, calls for an ever-increasing circle of invitation and inclusion. Inclusion is what love requires, even when those we include create discomfort, and even when we may not approve of the lifestyles, beliefs, or practices we allow in. Whenever we question if someone is worthy of inclusion into our family circle we should ask, “Who would Jesus exclude?”  The answer is that Jesus did not exclude anyone. We also need to remember the “circle” does not belong to us, anyway. The circle belongs to God. Whenever our reading of scripture leads us to exclude, we should read more carefully Jesus’ examples of inclusion. Otherwise, we risk creating a spiritual black hole where the mass of our being collapses into itself. No love will enter and no light will escape. The universe God created is expanding its reach. Are we expanding with it?

Exclusion leads to implosion. How did I miss that?

Ever yours, Greg.

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 17: The Power Behind Powerlessness

 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

powerlessnessOur pain is exacerbated by feeling powerless over it. Physical or emotional hurt is one thing, but when there is nothing we can do to ease that pain – that we are powerless over it – our level of misery increases significantly. When we work in a hostile environment, or when we live in abusive surroundings, we may not see many good alternatives. Further, we may believe the status quo is preferable to the unknown. While this holding to what is known may seem a logical choice, unpleasant as it is, that is exactly the attitude that prevents us from stepping out of the old and into a new existence. Positive change requires us to give up whatever illusion of power we may believe we have over our current situation.

The condition of powerlessness is an illusion, however, or at best is only a partial truth. The fact that we cannot exercise control over a situation does not mean there is no power at work for our good. Scripture and experience assures us that all things work together for good. Powerless situations may actually prove to us that the power we thought we had was imaginary. In reality, we are not nearly as powerful over the flow of our days as we believe. Certainly, we have influence over the impact our environment has on us, but time marches relentlessly on in ways we can do little to change. I remember a Superman movie where something disastrous happened and Superman made the earth reverse its orbit long enough to turn back time so he could change the outcome. We have no such power; we can only change our outlook. Experiencing powerlessness, however, forces us to rethink our view and understanding of the world. It is only when something we have held to be true and good is shown to be false that we open our mind to other, higher possibilities. It is only when life has become unbearably unpleasant that we willingly let go of the old and open ourselves to something new. We are creatures of comfort and familiarity, and we go to great lengths to preserve both, even at our own peril.

Powerlessness is an illusion, though, because the power of God’s Spirit flowing through us is always at work. Indeed, without that Spirit, life is not possible. It is our spiritual oxygen. We will not knowingly experience the power of the Spirit, however, until we let go of the illusion that we are in control. As long as we feel in control, we are not open to perceive a higher source of control. It is only in our powerlessness that we experience God’s power.

There is power in powerlessness. How did I miss that?

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