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Archive for November, 2016

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.

For 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.

The 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.

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?

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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.

Some 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.

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