Sunday, January 17, 2016

Have we crucified the cross?

Do you remember playing with Chinese fingers traps as a kid? I can't be certain when or to whom but I'm pretty sure I made one of my cousins cry when they placed their fingers inside only to realize to their horror that they couldn't get them out. Ah, the joys of being an older child.

If you don't remember, these toys they are small tubes woven out of something fiberous - usually bamboo. The trick is once you put your fingers inside and try to pull them out the tube constricts. The more you pull the tighter the trap gets. It's only by relaxing and pushing your fingers together that the trap can fall off. By the way if you didn't know this secret and I spoiled the surprise I sincerely apologize and would also like to know what it feels like to be seven years old. :)

As I stated in my last post I believe the gospel of Jesus is very simple. I understand it as God coming down to man to demonstrate empathy and compassion on us while we experience the growing pains of life. I believe Jesus teaches unconditional love that comes straight from the heart of God the Father and that His love is complete in removing the stain of all sin from our lives.

I have been away from the Sunday church gathering for four months now. One verse I have had thrown at me over and over is Hebrews 10:25 which reads "Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching." I suppose the intention behind telling me this is that I'm doing something wrong in missing church and that I'm disobeying God.

This is the problem I see with how people use the Bible today. We pull out passages and then correct people with no regards to the context - both the exegetical context and the heart context of the person being chastized. I wonder if we behave more like Pharisees who Jesus said, "bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they will not move them with one of their fingers." Do we preach another gospel? The gospel of sin management. Have we crucified the cross?

When I read the entire chapter of Hebrews 10 there are a number of things that stand out to me. The chapter opens with the author saying that animal sacrifices are not only insufficient for the removal of the consciousness of sin but actually serve to remind people of their sins annually (verses 2-4).

The author then goes on to say that God knew this system of religion wouldn't ease the conscience of people and needed to come in human form (verse 5) and do away with this empty religion and replace it with a one-time act of sacrifice and empathy (verses 9-10). This one act is all sufficient for every wrongdoing a person has committed, is committing or will ever commit (verses 14-18).

He then speaks of how Christ is now our high priest, serving over the house of God right now and we can draw near to him with a heart of full assurance that our conscience is clear and our faith is secure (verse 21-23). We also are to think about each other and how we can encourage each other in love and good works (verse 23).

It is in this context that we hear the instruction to not forsake one another. It is not a blind, heartless dictate that means we need to do this or burn. It is not about evoking guilt in someone but drawing out faith, hope and love. Especially love.

One more interesting thing stands out to me. Right after the verse about gathering together the author warns about willfully sinning after receiving the knowledge of truth. Here's how verses 26-31 read:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

What does it mean to fall into judgment if we sin willfully? I've grown up with this passage taught to mean we are to control our feelings and temptations and not sin. And if we keep on doing the same sin we can kiss our salvation goodbye because we are willfully not changing.

Do you want to know the receipt for creating an addict? That's a key ingredient. Throw some shame and guilt over a person's feelings and you'll close the loop of the shame cycle, driving them to any sort of addiction: drugs, alcohol, sex, you name it.

That cannot be the correct way to interpret this passage because Jesus told his disciples they were to forgive not just seven times but seventy time seven (i.e. never stop forgiving). It can't be habitual sin that the author is speaking of.

So what is the willfull sin that causes judgement? What is the sin that tramples the Son of God underfoot, that treats the blood as common and insults the Spirit of grace?

It is one thing and one thing only. It is the thing the Pharisees did which Jesus referred to as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. It is the same thing Eve did in the garden of Eden that started this whole chain of events. And I believe it is the same thing Christians are preaching today. One word. Mistrust.

Unless a person comes to the knowledge in their heart that God is good and can be trusted they can never experience freedom. Ultimately there is one question we all need to answer in our own way and own time. Do I choose to trust God or do I choose to trust myself?

I have come to understand that trusting in myself is the same as trusting my own intellect and mind. To the extent that I can direct my thoughts, build mental models and control my actions I am acting out of my own strengths and skills. I can manage my sin through sheer willpower. I'm in charge.

But when I trust my heart, namely trust my emotions, I am powerless. Emotions appear to be irrational. They come out of nowhere. We can't predict them and we can't control them. They just happen as a result of what we experience. We can't control them but we can decide how to respond to them. And we don't always respond in the most beneficial way. And that's okay!

This is where the cross comes. By Jesus coming and entering into our pain he is telling us that it's okay to respond to our emotions inappropriately. Just like we as parents are training our children to process and respond to their emotions, so to is God training us to respond to our hearts. And we are going to get it wrong. And we need to be okay with that. God certainly is.

There's a reason Jesus said that to enter into the kingdom of heaven we need to become like little children. Children make mistakes and are loved. Mistakes are just choices that lead to consequences. Nothing is unrepairable. When we fear making mistakes we can't learn.

We are so wound up and fixated on getting it right we end up squelching the very life we were given to live. But when we are humble. When we just take life as it comes, trust that our hearts are being shaped, learn and above all trust that God is loving us, then and only then can we experience life as God intends it.

So back to the Chinese finger trap. Maybe it's time to stop pulling on the trap, just relax and let it fall away.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The simple gospel

I've been in a two year process of deconstructing my faith. I've been doing some deep soul-searching to understand what it is I really believe. I've been raised in an evangelical, charismatic tradition my entire life and have always felt I understood the gospel of Jesus. And then something wonderful happened that transformed my head knowledge into heart knowledge. I no longer believed in God's love with just my head; I believed in God's love with my heart.

Since that time I've been trying to understand why I didn't see and experience this before and why those around me haven't seemed to experience this either (or perhaps they have but I was unaware of it). Now that I've had some time in solitude I think I found a key to something that might be missing to our understanding in what it means to be "saved."

Bear with me for a second as I sketch in broad strokes and forgo some details. I think one of the main points of the Protestant Reformation was the rejection of the papal system and the authority of the Catholic church. It's my understanding that this happened because of certain abuses the church was committing. The Protestants rejected the authority of the church and placed authority on scripture alone (sola scriptura).

I think this is what brought about higher institutions of learning for theological study. If we hold the Bible as authoritative we need to understand it clearly. So we train people how to interpret Scripture; how to read Greek and Hebrew, the historical context surrounding the original audiences, literary styles, etc. We in the Protestant and evangelical community place a lot of emphasis on exegetical study of the Bible; eisegesis is strictly forbidden.

Just a quick aside. Exegesis means "to draw out" while eisegesis means "to read in." When we exegete something we detach ourselves as much as possible and try to understand the author's meaning as objectively as possible. When we eisegete something we interpret what the writer means in light of our own experiences and context.

Given this backdrop of the authority of scripture and the importance of exegesis it makes sense why when we go to protestant churches we have educated speakers reading and interpreting the Bible during the service. We as Christians believe that belief in Jesus is what leads to salvation. From what I understand we think that belief is coming to the conclusion that a set of propositional truths concerning Jesus is truth. How are you going to know what truth is if it isn't adequately explained? Makes sense, right?

Here's where I start my questions. Bear with me as think this through.

We come to the Bible with the view that exegesis is the proper way to believe in Jesus but where in the Bible does it actually say that this is true? That proper exegesis is the way to know Jesus and be saved? Didn't Jesus himself speak to the contrary? In John 5:39-40 Jesus speaks these words to the Pharisees: "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life."

The teachers of the law were the best interpreters of the Hebrews scriptures around. And yet they missed understanding who Jesus was and what he came to do. I wonder if we evangelicals are doing the same thing today.

I had a relative recently tell me that he's concerned that we're losing our respect of the Bible, that we're beginning to pick and choose what we like and don't like. And if we lose the authority of the Bible we lose our faith because that's what our faith stands on.

Did you grow up with this song in Sunday School? The B-I-B-L-E. Yes that's the word for me. I stand alone on the word of God. The B-I-B-L-E. Good luck getting that melody out of your head now...

I'm think I'm beginning to understand where the disconnect between head and heart lies. It's true we as Christians place trust in the authority of Scripture. There's a vivid picture of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 that describes the foundation of the city as being the names of the 12 apostles. I believe this is a symbolic picture that the teaching of the apostles are foundations to the teaching we receive today. But there is something more foundational than the teachings of the apostles. There is a cornerstone which is a foundation to the foundation of the apostles.

Look at what the apostle Paul writes at the end of Romans 9. He's wrapping up a large discussion about faith versus works. Romans 9:30-33 reads:

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written:

"Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame."

The Gentiles were not experts in the scriptures and yet they obtained righteousness by simple faith. But the Jews who were well-versed in holy scriptures did not obtain righteousness. Why? Because the did not pursue it by simple faith. They were white-knuckling their righteousness through their righteous acts. The stumbled over the stumbling stone.

Who is the stumbling stone? The stone that builders rejected? The cornerstone of our faith? It's the person of Jesus. Not scripture, not the words written about Jesus, but Jesus himself and what He did on the cross.

I've thought about the cross of Jesus and why this needed to happen. Why does God need to pay a debt to Himself? He's God. Couldn't he just forgive people? Wouldn't that be more glorious and further demonstrate that He is God and we are not? People seek vengeance. People forgive imperfectly but not God. Couldn't he forgive without all that bloodshed?

I'm not sure this is spelled out in the Bible but one idea makes sense me. Perhaps God needed to come down as a man to empathize with us. Maybe He just needed to show us that there's no animosity or anger on God's side. Maybe Jesus came to demonstrate to mankind that God can be trusted through an act of surrender to evil.

Let's face it. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We all do things to cause pain to ourselves and others. We hurt and are hurt. This life is marred by pain. How could we trust in a God that didn't experience our pain? How could we relate to a God that we felt didn't understand us?

When I was in my depression it felt like no one could understand what I was going through. The pain was real and I felt alone in it. I didn't want it to be there but it was there notheless. I could quote scripture until I was blue in the face but nothing made it go away. I didn't need empty promises. I didn't need sympathic looks. I needed someone to crawl down in the hole with me, feel what I felt and tell me it was okay. You're not alone. You're not abandoned. Ya, this sucks! The reality around you just plain sucks right now. And I love you. I'll sit with you in this. I'll be with through this. You don't have to change anything about your circumstances or attitude. Just know that I'm here with you, feeling what you feel.

To me this is what the cross of Jesus means. It's God telling us He gets it. Life is hard and painful and there are no easy answers sometimes and it's okay. He just wants to be with us through it. Not to change us, not to make us presentable to Him but just to be with us. As Brennan Manning says, "God loves you as are and not as you should be because you're never going to be as you should be."

I think this is the core of faith out of which everything else springs. Doctrine won't save you. Theology won't save you. The onion-skinned paper of your Bible won't save you. Salvation is your heart becoming awake to the unconditional, amazing, unrelenting love of God for you. It's not a one-time moment in time. It's a continual experience of God's love washing you and filling you over and over again. It's a dance between you and God that continues through joy and pain, happiness and sorrow, peace and anger. It's going on right now and it will never end.