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Posts Tagged ‘obedience’

A Demanding God

 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said,
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt sacrifice on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Abraham, the shared patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, had an encounter with God – a disturbing encounter, to say the least. Some years earlier, God had promised to make Abraham’s offspring as numerous as the stars. Never mind that Abraham was 100 and his wife was 90 at the time. Sure enough, Sarah gave birth to Isaac after having been barren. Once Isaac had grown into a young man, Abraham heard God tell him to sacrifice Isaac. Forever the obedient servant, Abraham took Isaac to a mountain, laid him on a pile of wood, and prepared to stab him to death before burning his body. As Abraham raised the knife, an angel stopped him and offered a ram in Isaac’s place.

Of the many faces of God in the Bible, the one demanding the sacrifice one’s own child is among the most disturbing. It is completely inconsistent with the loving, nurturing God I experience. It makes no sense that after God promises Abraham countless descendants that Abraham would be directed to kill the one through whom those descendants would descend. The traditional moral of the story is that Abraham’s faithfulness was being tested by God and, thus, he was proven worthy to father a great nation. While I agree that obedience and faithfulness are important, I find myself questioning whether sacrificing Isaac was actually a directive from God.

Interestingly, there are numerous passages in the Bible indicating that God does not want our sacrifices. For instance, Psalm 51:16, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” Likewise, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus twice quotes Hosea 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Even so, offering sacrifices to atone for sin and to show one’s obedience to God was a routine practice in the Old Testament.

A common thread running through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that of original sin, which is said to have occurred when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Some believe that original sin is etched into our human DNA, forever making us corrupt creatures and more deserving of God’s punishment than God’s love. When we believe we must earn God’s blessing, we may feel the need to sacrifice something to justify the undeserved gift. Many believe they will pay a painful price for anything good that happens in their lives. Do not misunderstand me; I know it is human nature to sometimes act in ways that are inconsistent with good behavior. Even so, why do we focus on the disobedience from a mythical story and ignore the consistent blessings God has bestowed on every generation since? Particularly for Christians, if we believe Jesus bridged the sin gap between humanity and God, why would we continue to feel we can or must pay for the love God so freely gives? Responses of gratitude and generosity would be more appropriate than self-denying guilt. The feelings of worthlessness – our poor self-esteem – lead us to feel the need to offer God sacrifices that God has no need or desire to receive. The sacrificial system may have derived more from our poor self-image than from God’s demands.

Sometimes we simply cannot accept our good fortune. Perhaps this is what happened to Abraham. Ultimately, God had to intervene to keep Abraham from destroying the very blessing God had given to him. We know how that is, do we not? Sometimes our subconscious guilt causes us to sabotage, or at least diminish the good in our life. When we act out of a deeply rooted sense of guilt, the outcome will not bestow blessing. When we act of out of a sense of blessing, God’s love flows through us to bless others. God’s nature is to bless, not to punish. Our human frailties punish us sufficiently already. God is accommodating enough, however, to allow our free will to sink us to whatever depths we feel we deserve. Once we are sufficiently low, God lovingly and patiently works to help lift us out of whatever hole we find ourselves in.

God’s demands are not contrary to God’s blessings. Our hearing, however, may be.

Note: this is the seventh in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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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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Weightier Matters

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Matthew 23:23-24

How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.

Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.

Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.

Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.

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An Allegorical Christmas, Part 3 

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah 11:6

“Big things come in small packages,” we sometimes say. Regarding the Christmas season, we are often referring to jewelry, gift cards, and other items that may have great value belying their small size. The Christmas story tells of another small package – the birth of the Christ child. In Luke 2:10-11, the shepherds hear from an angel: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The story of the worship of a newborn — deemed as our Messiah before the child can even speak – is difficult for some to accept. Where does this part of the Christmas story leave those who doubt its historical validity? Fortunately, as with most of the Bible’s seminal teachings, there is a profound message in the story regardless of whether we accept it as fact. In the case of the boy King, there are at least two common misunderstandings: the deeper relevance of “a child” and the nature of Jesus’ kingdom.

The deeper aspect of smallness has to do with being childlike. This does not mean being in a child’s body, but perceiving with the openness of a child’s mind. Young children have few preconceived notions about life and about others. A childlike brain is like a sponge that soaks up everything around it, free of judgment or prejudice. As we age, and certainly by the time we are teenagers, many of us have our minds made up about most things in very divisive ways – I like this, I do not like that; that person is my friend; that person is my enemy. As adults, some of us simply solidify our adolescent biases. We close our minds to other options and influences and call it wisdom or steadfastness. Truly, it is neither. There is nothing wise about a closed mind. One lesson of the boy King is that we need to redevelop the openness and curiosity of a childlike mind.

As we consider God coming to earth as a baby, we are encouraged to remember that small is not insignificant. Meek does not mean weak. Caring for others does not include being abused by them. The peaceful imagery of Isaiah – of the wolf living with the lamb, and the calf with the lion – must be perceived through the mind of a child to be believed. The story reads more like a Disney movie than an adult narrative. With our fixed vision, there is no hope for peace. We cannot imagine the possibilities because that type of imagination requires a child. “A little child shall lead them.” Yes, a little child shall lead us, but that little child is not insignificant, weak, or an easy target for abuse. That little child is a King, and we must become like little children to gain the wisdom to follow.

Come home to church this Sunday. Allegorical Christmas blessings!

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Life Notes

Where Are You?

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”  Genesis 3:8-9

After eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were so ashamed they tried to hide from God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had unfettered access to and a direct relationship with God. When they ate the fruit of that tree, which God had prohibited, Adam and Eve committed what today we call the Original Sin. It was the first recorded act of direct defiance of God’s will. They were banished from paradise and became self-conscious beings – conscious of themselves as distinct from others.

Intellectually, we know God is omnipotent – all-knowing – and omnipresent – present everywhere – so there is no logical way for us to hide from God. Even so, in the Genesis story, God calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” While Christians disagree about the factual nature of the stories of the Garden of Eden and Original Sin, the recorded experiences are intriguing and enlightening. Today, humankind remains a self-conscious species. We go to great lengths to display our individuality, emphasizing that which sets us apart and deemphasizing that which we share in common.

I believe the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegory, recorded to help us understand our human condition. Our perception is that we are separate beings – independent from each other and independent from God. That perception of separation is an illusion, and that illusion is the source of most, if not all of our suffering. When we understand we are interconnected, we realize we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. We get serious about solving society’s problems once we recognize them as our issues and not someone else’s problem. Intolerable conditions like starvation, homelessness, war, and many preventable illnesses will be eradicated once we take responsibility for the care of our neighbors, as we do for ourselves.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of separation and deny their communion with God by hiding. Today, we convince ourselves the universe is here to serve us, and we act accordingly. God, desiring our return to fellowship, calls out “Where are you?” Intuitively, we know God has plans for our lives that are inconsistent with our desires. We know God specializes in uncomfortable and insecure paths. Therefore, we hide by pretending not to hear. Obviously, we cannot hide from God, but we do have the free will to ignore God. Either way, we perpetuate the illusion of separation – separation from God and separation from each other. God’s love perpetually calls us back to unity.

Come home to church this Sunday. God is calling, “Where are you?”

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A Disturbing Intruder

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  –James 2:14-17

A gift of grace is something positive received that is not earned or deserved. I often consider God’s grace to be like something nice I do for another who cannot respond in kind. Certainly, there are aspects of God’s grace that fall into that category, such as salvation. There are, however, gifts and graces from God that may not be so free. In his devotional, Seize the Day, Dr. Charles Ringma writes: “Grace always calls us to a response. God’s action toward us is never meant to leave us as we are, but is a challenge to move us forward. Grace is thus never a convenient gift, but a disturbing intruder.” 

I love the life God has granted me. I am comfortable and relatively secure, certainly more so than most others in this world. I am not motivated to change my life, even for the better, if it means risking my comfort and security. While I give God the glory for my many blessings, is that enough? The writer of James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, people of faith cannot retain their blessings by hoarding them. I am reminded of the lyrics of an old folk song: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more!” Gifts of grace are meant to change us and move us forward. When we commit to making the lives of others better, our own lives also improve because our gifts multiply by being shared.

Certainly, we have the free will to determine the purposes for which we will share what we are given. Indeed, we have a responsibility to pass along our gifts in intentional and responsible ways. But our gifts are to be used for purposes beyond our own selfish desires. In that respect, as Dr. Ringma writes, gifts of grace may not be such a convenient gift after all, but a “disturbing intruder.”  They are like doors inviting us out of our comforts and into new experiences in community with others. Acknowledging and being thankful for our gifts of grace is important, not because we hope to be loved more (which is not possible), but so that love and grace can flow through us to others. Like a faucet that must be left open for water to flow, grace is made new by flowing through us. Our cup remains full, even as the waters of love and life flow to others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Accept the invitation of this disturbing intruder.

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Christian Values: Peace

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Matthew 5:9

The importance of peace in Christianity can hardly be overstated. Of the many desirable characteristics the Bible encourages, only three are referenced more frequently, according to research done by Ben MacConnell on Christian values. In both the Old and New Testaments, peace is a repeating theme. Often, Scripture describes the process of attaining peace between tribes or nations. At other times, one individual is encouraged to make peace with another. Perhaps most challenging are the passages calling us to find peace within ourselves, as well as to make peace with God.

We cannot understand peace without considering security, for the two are inseparable. Through the ages, nations have invaded other nations in order to protect or to enhance their security interests. Invading countries want more land, more resources, or more access to strategic locations. Anytime our security is threatened, our sense of peace is also threatened. Likewise, when someone threatens those in our charge, such as our children, we are likely to react in less-than-peaceful, even violent ways. A certain level of security is prerequisite to peace; and where our security is, there our heart will be also.

Some consider peace to be the absence of tension. Tension threatens our security, and thus, our sense of peace. Most of us do not like tension in our lives and strive to eliminate it. Indeed, excess tension is a common cause of physical and emotional maladies. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer discusses the tension between reality and possibility. He writes, “…we must learn to hold the tension between the reality of the moment and the possibility that something better might emerge.” Parker believes we too often settle on less-than-desirable solutions to conflicts because we desire a quick release of the tension. Rather than taking the time and doing the work required to attain a mutually beneficial resolution over the long term, we seek the quickest and easiest way to peace, even if that peace is short-lived. Unresolved sources of tension tend to recur.

At its core, finding peace is an individual pursuit, and what we depend upon for our security is where we will find our peace. If we seek security in money and material possessions, we will always feel insecure because those types of treasures are easily lost to us. According to Matthew, it is the peacemakers who will be called the children of God. Based upon the life and teachings of Jesus, a peacemaker does not simply strive for the absence of tension. A true peacemaker finds his or her security in God, and then works towards solutions to problems that honor the dignity, interests, and worth of all involved. Security in God comes from the belief that God loves and values us as we are; and that reassurance is sufficient in and of itself for a strong sense of inner security. Peacemakers recognize that true peace is not a short-term endeavor. They understand their individual efforts may actually increase tension for a time, and ultimately may only contribute a small portion to the overall goal of bringing peace to the world. Even so, working for peace is what children of God do, and external peace necessarily begins with internal security.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your peace in the Prince of Peace.

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