Category Archives: Faith
I had a strange dream last night . . .
It appeared that I was summoned as a visitor to a sublime and dreadful courtroom scene. A preacher (whom I recognized, but will not identify to protect his guilt or innocence) sat forlornly at the defense table, while the prosecutor’s table was empty. Instead of one judge, there were a number of men, dressed in strange robes that resembled bedouin clothing more than that of modern judges. The gallery, of which I was a small part, was quiet – acting almost fearful, as if we were not really wanting to watch the events that would unfold before us.
The heavy tone of the room was broken when one of the judges cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. __________, you have been summoned to stand before this tribunal before your death, rather than following your death, for a very special reason. Your record of service in the name of the one who sits on my left is impeccable. You have devoted the better part of your life to promoting the good name of Jesus and furthering his church. However, it was determined that you have recently become guilty of hypocrisy, and of a type that borders on treason against the kingdom. You will now stand and respond to our questions, for the purpose of ascertaining whether you will be returned to earth to continue your mission, or if you are to be removed from an earthly life altogether. Let us proceed . . . ”
Another of the judges spoke. “Mr. ___________, for the record, let us clarify. When you began your ministry, you professed to speak only of things spoken by Jesus, and written by myself and my partners on this tribunal, is that not correct?”
The preacher, pale and quivering, nodded and mumbled a quiet “yes.” Apparently he was aware of the identity of his interlocutors, although their specific identity was still hidden to the rest of us.
“Thank you.” Replied the second speaker. “Now, based on that confession, we have some questions we would like to pose to you to determine if, indeed, you have been faithful to that promise.”
“Is it not true” spoke a third judge “that as a young minister you spoke often and lovingly about the need to openly identify the Lord’s church through clear references to his name, or title?” “Yes, I did” replied the accused. “Then, why, here in these later years, have you chosen to identify your assembly as “_________________”? (name redacted for privacy reasons). “Well, it became obvious to me that by using the name under which I was first serving, that many people were put off, and refused to give my message any hearing. I wanted to lead as many as I could to my Lord, so I had to change the name on the building in order so as not to offend.”
At this comment the character seated in the middle of the group of judges raised his eyebrows, but remained silent.
“Let it be entered into the record that the accused withdrew any reference to the name or title of our Lord because such a reference was embarrassing and he believed it to be a negative influence” spoke the third judge. The other judges nodded in agreement, “So be it.”
The second judge once again spoke. “Mr. _________, you have stated many times in your early ministry that the record we who are seated before you must be listened to wholeheartedly, and obeyed faithfully, is that not true?” Another nod of the head and a mumbled “yes.” “Then, your proclamations in these later years are very troublesome. Just to name a few – you caused a serious defection in your congregation when you insisted the addition of practices into the worship service which are clearly not present in our writings, and you openly ridiculed certain other practices which are clearly given. You devalued the leadership qualities of men while encouraging women to step outside of their blessed and holy giftedness. You have even gone so far as to recently suggest that marriage vows can be exchanged between members of the same sex, provided those vows remain faithful. How do you answer?”
“That is easy,” the preacher said tremulously. “Modern scholarship has unequivocally determined that many words attributed to my esteemed judges did not, in fact, come from your pens. As a faithful minister I could not preach what was not the word of God. I could not continue to promote a false and dehumanizing gospel. Once that veil was lifted from my eyes, how could I return to chauvinistic and homophobic traditions?”
The gasps from the gallery drowned out the whispered conversations among the judges. The first judge rapped the bench with his gavel, ordering silence.
“So, Mr. ____________, are you telling these judges that the accumulated wisdom of over 2,000 years has been ‘unequivocally’ overturned by your ‘modern scholarship?” A quiet wave of laughter spread through the gallery. The preacher did not answer, but dropped his eyes. We in the gallery could see his face turning red.
The third judge who had spoken earlier resumed the questioning. “Mr. ____________, these are serious allegations, but throughout the history of the church on earth, many similar serious issues have plagued the Lord’s people. God’s grace is certainly able to cover a multitude of misunderstandings – but we are not here to issue your final judgment, only to determine your fitness to return to your ministry. Far more troubling are some of your more recent lectures regarding the very nature of our Lord’s saving sacrifice.”
A fourth judge now entered the conversation. “Mr. ____________, your declaration to speak only the words of Jesus has been duly noted. Yet, you have repeatedly and clearly stated in recent sermons that the sign of solidarity with our Lord is no longer a necessary act of obedience to him. Baptism into our Lord’s death, a symbolic lowering into his grave, and a triumphant resurrection from that grave is, to quote your most recent offering, ‘something that is beneficial for the life of the believer, but cannot be made a requirement for salvation.’ Do I quote you accurately?”
Once again the preacher said, “yes,” but his mood had changed. Rather than meek submission, he was growing irritated with the line of questioning, and his ire was beginning to show. “Listen, I learned from my conversations with people from many different churches and even different religions that there are a lot of wonderful people out there, people who do not believe in baptism, but believe in Jesus. People who are good, moral, upstanding individuals with whom I could not find anything to question. Once again, I could not find any words that were clearly written by you all that would keep those people out of heaven.”
Finally the character in the middle of the group of judges raised his voice, along with his arched eyebrows. “I must disagree – for did not my inspired apostles record my very specific words, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved”? Did not my inspired apostles speak clearly and repeatedly throughout my new covenant about the sacredness and importance of the new birth into my blood and resurrection? Did not my apostles make it clear that there are most decidedly two groups of individuals, one who trusts in my words of promise and obeys my commands, and one who because of willful rebellion refuses to accept my authority and/or my clear instructions?”
As the final words were fading into the background, a thick and heavy silence fell upon all the assembled – far more thick and heavy than was at first.
After what seemed like hours, but what could have only been a few minutes, the first judge spoke once again. “Mr. ________, you have been accused of hypocrisy and actions that are treasonous to the church that you have pledged your life.”
“It is the decision of this court that . . . ”
Just as suddenly and mysteriously as my dream started, it came to a terrifying end. What was the verdict? What would happen to this well known and popular preacher? Would he be allowed to return and continue his ministry? Would he be sent back to correct his errors? And why was I given this privy information?
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Rest assured, brothers and sisters, the failure does not lie with the source.
I will not go to sleep comfortably any time soon . . .
This is kind of a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the church becoming so focused on not offending someone that it loses its sharp message. Related to political correctness is a belief that the church is to measure its success based strictly on numbers. That is a false assumption, but it drives virtually every mission that the church seeks to promote.
I have been a part of the Church of Christ for all of my life – and a paid minister for much of that life. I can attest that whenever a new mission is being evaluated, or an old mission is being reviewed, one of the most important questions that must be answered is, “How will this help us grow numerically?” The question may not be asked in such bald terms, but whether it is blatant or more covert, the question is still there. If we are going to invest dollars in a mission, we want to see numerical results.
This eventually leads to the problem I discussed yesterday – if we want rear-ends in the pews we cannot preach or teach anything that might offend large numbers of our target audience. If we are a large, up-scale, predominantly white and affluent congregation the talk of greed, avarice and selfishness must be banished. If we are poor, lower-class and predominantly dependent on government aid we cannot discuss that issues of envy or resentment. If a large percentage of our congregation is borderline obese forget hearing a sermon on gluttony. If we live next door to a military base do not even think about hearing a sermon on the evils of military aggression and the need to obey Christ’s call to lay aside the weapons of destruction. The point is the overwhelming majority of the content of our sermons and lessons is determined not by the content of Scripture, but by the location of our church buildings and the make-up of our congregational membership rolls.
Believe me, I have been both perpetrator and victim of this mentality. Much of my job security has revolved around the stability, if not the growth, of the numbers of the ministry I have been associated with. I have been all too much a promoter of the “we have to have more and more people here” kind of thinking. But, I have also been burned by the same mentality. You are not invited to speak at all the brotherhood soirees if your only claim to fame is that you drive people away from your building.
I don’t think Jesus was all that hung-up about numbers. In fact, he was just as willing to see the slackers and the hangers-on turn around and leave him as he was to see the faithful follow him. He lamented the fact people would turn their back on him, but he never promised to bring in donuts and coffee if they would stay.
What Jesus was vitally interested in was the quality of the life of the disciple. If you said you were “in” with Jesus, he wanted to make sure you understood what that “in” meant. The cost of discipleship varied with the person, and Jesus would not expect the same effort from a 75 year old convert that he might expect from a 25 year old convert. But he would expect the same amount of love and commitment.
Churches of Christ are in a major quandary these days, as are congregations of virtually every religious stripe. Some of the issues confronting the churches have been created by our opponent, Satan. Some of the wounds we are seeking to heal, however, are purely self-inflicted. Part of the problem, although not all of it by any stretch of the imagination, is the fact that for several generations now we have been measuring success by the quantity of numbers in our pews, and not the quality of discipleship in those who sit in the pews.
In an odd sort of way, Jesus may be happier with us if we had fewer congregations made up of smaller memberships, if those members were fully committed Christians. The interesting thing is, if that were to happen, my guess is the numbers of the members of the church would grow exponentially. I believe people want to be a part of genuine Christianity. I think they are just sick and tired of the pseudo-christianity that is being peddled by so many number-hungry churches today.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)
When we begin to look at the mistaken idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross the first place we must turn is the opening line of Psalm 22. I find it incredible to discover that some people do not even know that Jesus was quoting Ps. 22:1 as he suffered on the cross, (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:35) but even those who do recognize the quotation have rarely bothered to discover WHY Jesus quoted that single verse. Examining the Psalm goes a long way toward refuting the claim that God abandoned Jesus on the cross.
As I understand the most common explanation of the “Separators” (as I will call them, those who believe God separated from Jesus on the cross), we can see that God had abandoned Jesus because Jesus addressed God with his formal title, “God,” as opposed to his familial relationship (“Abba father,” see Mark 14:36). This is either an admission that the speaker is not aware of Psalm 22:1, or rejects any specific connection to the Psalm. So, recognizing that Jesus was indeed quoting (verbatim, that is) from Psalm 22:1, is there any specific reason why he would choose that Psalm? Let us turn to Psalm 22 and read.
The first thing that we note in reading Psalm 22 is that the first 21 verses are among the most specific and emotionally laden laments in the Old Testament. It is an emotionally draining Psalm to read.
In the first 2 verses the psalmist sets the tone for the entire poem – he feels utterly rejected by God. He prays, but there is no response. This is a continual prayer, not a one-and-done prayer. It is un-ending, and fervent.
In verses 3-5 he confesses that this result is radically out of God’s nature. His entire faith has been built around the idea that God hears, God responds, God delivers. But he himself has found no hearing, no deliverance. This result is shocking, and deeply disturbing to the psalmist.
In verses 6-8 the psalmist returns to his misery – he even despairs of his life – he is a worm, and no man. Everyone who sees him mocks him. It is one thing to be in physical or emotional pain, but to have all his nearest friends turn from him is almost more than he can take.
In verses 9-11 there is a return to the way he thinks it ought to be – once upon a time God took care of the psalmist, why not now? The situation is desperate, almost critical. Where is God? Why is the God who once was there, no longer there?
Verses 12-18 contain the bulk of the lament, the most graphic and specific complaints. And it is in verses 12-18 that we see the greatest connection to the events of the crucifixion. Some have even used the word “prophetic” in regard to Psalm 22, but I do not like to think of the Psalms as prophecy. The psalmist is not “prophesying” anything – he is lamenting a very real and deplorable situation in his life – one the demands immediate attention from a God that has gone AWOL.
However, in verses 19-21 the psalmist returns to his faith – almost as if he is dredging up one more bucket of brackish water to his parched lips in the hopes that he can survive one more hour, one more day.
And then, right there in-between verse 21 and 22 there is a massive change. You cannot miss it – not if you read the Psalm for the Psalm and not try to make it something that it is not. The change in tone between 21 and 22 is palpable, and theologically as well as emotionally decisive.
The reader is not told what happens, but something earth changing happens to the psalmist. From verses 22-31 the psalmist is no longer in the mode of lament. The last third of the Psalm is pure rejoicing, celebration, and worship. It will not do for the psalmist to rejoice alone – no, he must go and proclaim his great good fortune to the assembly. And, pay very careful attention to verse 24
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him (Ps. 22:24, RSV)
Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins with the plaintive cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” ends with the confession, rather the boisterous proclamation, that God never did forsake the psalmist, never did abandon the psalmist. The remainder of the psalm is one of the greatest affirmations of the glory and righteous rule of God anywhere in the Psalter.
Just for comparison, consider Psalm 73. The first 14 verses follow the same pattern as the early verses of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist complains bitterly and confesses that “…my feet had almost stumbled, my steps has well nigh slipped.” (v. 2) But, he did not stumble, his steps did not slip, because in v. 15 there is another one of those massive shifts, an “epiphany” if you will. The psalmist in Psalm 73 entered into the sanctuary of God and realized how wrong his earlier thoughts had been. We are not told of the circumstances of the shift in Psalm 22, but the result is remarkably similar. Psalm 22 and 73 and two examples of this transformative type of Psalm. They communicate through their words, to be sure, but their structure is critical to understanding the message of the psalm.
Why have I gone to such lengths to discuss Psalm 22? Because, when you remove Psalm 22 as a declaration of utter abandonment, it makes no sense whatsoever, especially no theological sense, to use the opening phrase as a declaration of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross. If the psalmist was not abandoned, how can this verse be used as evidence that Jesus was abandoned? Do the “separators” believe that Jesus was so ignorant of the Psalm that he was quoting that he did not know it was a raucous anthem of the presence of God and ultimate deliverance? What kind of theological illiterate do some of these individuals think that Jesus was?
There is a literary method of using one small part of a whole to refer to the entire body, it is called “synecdoche.” Many scholars believe that is exactly what Jesus is doing here with this Psalm as he quotes the first line on the cross. He is quoting a poem, or the first line at least, that ends in triumph. True, only the first line is quoted in the gospels, but that does not in and of itself mean he did not later quote more of the Psalm. Those who knew the Psalm would know how it ended, whether he finished the Psalm or not.
I have no way of knowing whether or not that is Jesus’s intention. We only have the first line, and we certainly cannot read Jesus’s mind as he suffered on the cross. But this much is clear – he is not quoting a Psalm of abandonment and rejection, but a Psalm of great faith and worship.
Two more quick points and I must cease. First, I believe it is noteworthy that both Matthew and Mark drew attention to the quotation of the Psalm NOT because of the content of the opening line, but because everyone in hearing distance MISUNDERSTOOD what Jesus was saying, and they believed he was calling for Elijah to come and rescue him. It is as if the evangelists were drawing specific attention to the fact that even in his last few minutes on this earth, Jesus was still being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Sadly, that misinterpretation continues even today.
And, finally, I cannot leave Psalm 22 without making the point that canonically, the lament (and therefore the great rejoicing) of Psalm 22 leads directly into the most beloved of all Psalms of God’s presence – Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.” This was not an accident of just throwing some poems down on the table and seeing which came up first. This structure is intentional, and the juxtaposition of Psalm 22 and 23 is profound. God not not abandon. God does not desert. God does not forsake. Indeed, God, the LORD, is my shepherd. I fear nothing, need nothing, but am tenderly loved and cared for.
He did not abandon any Israelite psalmist, and he certainly did not do so to his own Son, Jesus.
Next installment: The misunderstanding of Habakkuk 1:13
There is something deep within the psyche of the modern, born-again, “praise God and pass the contribution plate” Christian that cannot leave bomb-proof, unassailable, “put the atheists in their place” kind of scientific evidence alone. (How is that for incorporating generic identifiers?) What is mean is this – you cannot hardly turn on your computer today without someone, somewhere “proving beyond a shadow of a doubt” that some such thing once doubted is now finally, beyond any shadow of a doubt, proven to be real or historical or some such thing. It might be the age of the earth, or the hypothesis that humans shared living quarters with dinosaurs, or the exact, precise, down-to-the-minute day and time that Jesus was: born, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and/or will come back to earth. The number of things that science can supposedly prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” is truly staggering. And, call me a skeptic, but I wonder if even a fraction of the claims are even remotely scientifically accurate.
Let me illustrate with a couple of stories. It is very definitely true that during certain times within history, Christians would travel great distances and pay money to visit “relics” of saints. So, pieces of holy objects such as the cross or Noah’s ark, or bones, hair, blood – you name it – from all sorts of “saints” started showing up with quite startling frequency. It is said, for example, that if you had every single piece of the wooden cross upon which Jesus was said to be crucified, gathered back from all the sales of “genuine cross relics” dealers, you could take those tiny little shards of wood and rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Not bad for two beams of wood.
As a very real example of devotion to “relics” today stop and consider the veneration given to the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth of Jesus. Never mind it has never passed a test that dates it older than the middle ages, many believe it to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.
The one story that just always leaves me shaking my head that so-called intelligent people will accept it is the story that EVEN TO THIS DAY gets retold regarding NASA, a special clock, and the missing day of Joshua 10:12-14. As the story goes, in order to go to the moon, NASA had to develop a clock with incredible accuracy. It was so accurate, so the story goes, that the developers made it go BACKWARDS in time to verify its accuracy. They kept going back, back, back, until, LO AND BEHOLD they discovered a missing 24 hour period in the age of the earth – Joshua’s missing day!! Are you kidding me?? Intelligent people cannot see through this? But they can’t, because (1) they do not want to see through it because it purportedly proves a point they want proved and (2) what self respecting American patriot would question the National Aeronautics and Space Administration?
Has anyone who believed this story ever wondered why NASA did not just keep going back to find out PRECISELY how old the earth is with their wonderful clock? Has anyone ever heard of a clock that can tell time BACKWARDS? Yet, this story gets repeated ad infinitum by otherwise intelligent people and, because they tell it, it gets believed by an entire new generation.
Those who demand bomb-proof, unassailable, “beyond any shadow of a doubt” proof only prove one thing – how fearful and shallow their faith truly is. God did not allow the Israelites to know where Moses was buried lest his grave become a shrine. God did not allow Noah’s ark to survive lest it become an idol. God did not allow the ark of the covenant to survive for the exact same reason, as with the cross, the tomb, and anything else related to critical events in the Bible. Those relics are just raindrops in the overwhelming ocean of world history. We do not know nor can we calculate the day of Jesus birth, death, resurrection (beyond the “first day of the week”), or ascension, and we certainly cannot figure out the day of his return. Those who claim to be able to do so are charlatans – or are the mistaken minions of such charlatans. They either have an agenda to push, or a book to sell. Be very careful of such spiritual snake-oil salesmen.
Just stop and think – seriously think – about one question. If you cannot believe that God can raise his Son, his incarnated self, from the grave, just exactly why would having a piece of the cross on which he was killed prove that fact to you? And, if you can believe that God did, in fact, raise Jesus from the grave, why would you need to prove Joshua’s “missing day” to buttress your faith? There are occasions when I fear that Karl Marx’s statement that religion is an opiate for the people to be far, far too accurate for my comfort level.
But, if you still want to believe in all this new scientific evidence that proves everything from the age of the earth to the exact location of Moses’s 70 palm trees please let me know. I have a piece of Jesus’ cross that I would love to sell to you.
Question – What do you get when you cross a bad scientist with a poor theologian? (Hang with me here, this is not a bad joke!)
Answer – An atheist
I just finished reading a book in which the author stated, unambiguously and quite proudly, that he can prove that God exists. Foolproof, airtight, with not the slightest chance that there could be a mistake proof that God exists. I was quite in awe until I read what his “proofs” consisted of – a long list of arguments that have been put forward for centuries. A long list, I might add, that has been particularly ineffective in proving the existence of God, except for those who already believe in God. If you already believe in something, it is quite easy to prove it exists. It is when you try to convince someone who is utterly certain of the falsity of your proposition that your “proofs” tend to get shredded. I happen to believe in God, so I also happen to appreciate many of the “proofs” that the author put forward. I also know atheists who laugh out loud at the supposed “iron-clad” arguments that are set forth. Now, disbelief in one proposition does not equal proof of the opposite proposition, but still, poor arguments deserve to be destroyed.
Notice in the famous picture of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel. God and Adam reach toward each other, but there is a gap – an existential difference between the two. God urges us as humans to seek for him, but still, we are flesh and he is God, and we will always be just a hair short of fully understanding the nature of God. John even said of Jesus, the incarnate God on earth, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11)
I am one who happens to believe that good science and good theology should not be enemies. They are different fields, and ask (and search for answers) to entirely different questions. Good science attempts to answer the questions “what” and “how”. Theology attempts to answer the questions “who” and “why”. That is why I suggest that when you mix bad science and bad theology all you end up with is an atheist. A good person, no doubt, but someone who has placed their trust in something that is not God.
I feel very strongly that if you have to prove the existence of your god, you have a very small god. In fact, if you CAN prove the existence of your god then you have succeeded in creating an idol larger than any god – yourself. Step back and work through this – if your science (whatever it may be) can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your god exists, then your god is smaller than your science. That is to say your science can explain your god; ergo, your science is bigger, more complex, and more profound, than your god. You have just made your intellect your idol – you may worship a “god,” but just like the story in Isaiah of the man who cuts down a tree, cooks his food with half of it and fashions a god out of the other half, your god is still a thing of your creation (see Isaiah 44:9-17). You can manipulate it, define it, examine it, and ultimately prove that it exists by some physical test.
Now compare that with the God of the Bible. Since we were just in Isaiah, let us stay there. Read Isaiah 40:9-31 (for just one passage). Now – how do we “prove” a God such as this exists? To what do you compare something that is incomparable? By what standard do you measure something that is beyond measure – or even comprehension? The folly of the peanut scientific mind is that it thinks it can define, measure, describe or explain that which cannot be rationally bounded.
Writing in the early 11th century A.D., a theologian by the name of Anselm formulated what is often referred to as the “ontological argument” of the existence of God. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a positive argument, but the expression of the impossibility to create such an argument. It goes something like this – If I can conceive of something bigger than God, that thing that I have imagined must be God. But this is a logical impossibility, as God is the most comprehensive being that can be conceived. God, therefore, is “that than which nothing bigger can be conceived.” God is bigger than any science, any scientist, and even any proof of his own existence.
We need to give up this infantile attempt to figure out a “bomb-proof” argument or proof that God exists, and simply get back to worshipping the God that scoffs at all our puny little attempts to control him.
“And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, RSV emphasis mine.)
One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)
One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.
Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”
Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”
It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.
How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.
I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.
I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.
First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.
Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.
Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.
This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.
As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.
And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human. The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.
Mystics are not popular people. Mystics get arrested, shot, hanged, burned at the stake, crucified. Oh, there are mystics who say popular things from time to time, and occasionally you will find a group of people who popularize the teachings of a mystic, but with very few exceptions mystics are just not very popular. Mystics see things that the overwhelming majority of people cannot see, and for that reason they are considered dangerous. Dangerous people must be removed, so that the rest of us can be comfortable.
Jesus was a mystic. The apostles Paul and John were mystics. Peter was a clumsy mystic, but he was a mystic. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Ezekiel preceded them in a long line of Divinely appointed mysticism. These were not mystics because they retreated to the desert and slept in caves and ate exotic bugs. No, Jesus and Paul and Isaiah were mystics because they were able to see with the eyes of God.
Mystics do not see what is not there. Mystics do not call people to a life that cannot be lived. Jesus was a mystic not because he was obscure and bizarre and said incomprehensible things. Paul was not a mystic because he was blind for three days and then went into the Arabian desert. Isaiah and Jesus and Peter and Paul all saw the kingdom of God with a clarity that eludes those who think that mystics are weird people that sane people should stay away from.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted” and “The last shall be first” and “The kingdom of God is among you.” Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” and “When I am weak, then I am strong.” John saw the heavens open and the new city of God descend upon the new earth. These are mystical sayings and events, but they are not delusional. Mystics say that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the child shall play over the den of the viper not because these things are false, but because they are of a truth that only mystics can see. True reality is much more real that what most humans accept for reality. That which confronts us daily is not reality, it is a mirage of the devil’s making. We surrendered reality in the garden. The mystics see reality. Realists see only a distant shadow of that reality.
Mystics call for mankind to lay down the weapons of war. Realists say that is impossible, because realists cannot see peace, nor do they really want to see peace. They want to see war, because war is raw and passionate and “real.” Mystics do not see any division between races and nations. Realists want to keep nations and the human races separate, because separating the races creates animosity, and animosity will ultimately create war. Mystics call for equality, and that is something that realists simply cannot accept. Equality would lead to peace, and that is simply too high a price for realists to pay.
Mystics are some of my favorite people. Even when people cannot be fully described as mystic, there are times when the heavens open for them and they catch a glimpse of the real, and for that crystalline moment they are transformed into mystics. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a mystic, although as with most mystics, I think he has been greatly misunderstood. I think Barton W. Stone had moments that bordered on mystical. I think David Lipscomb was the same way. They looked beyond the concrete and they saw the real – the kingdom as it will be, not what mankind has turned it into.
Fact is, I would rather be called a mystic than a realist. I don’t want to see the world the way it is. I want to see the world become what it should be. I want the Kingdom be among us. I want to see the lion and lamb gambol together. I want to swim with Great White sharks and not fear the teeth.
“The greatest insanity of all is to see the world as it is, and not as it should be.” – from Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
It is not a popular concept anymore, if, in fact, it ever was. What if I’m wrong? In today’s world there is no right and wrong. But, there again, what if the people who think this way are, despite their assertion to the contrary, wrong?
What happens then?
It is frightening to pay attention to many speakers, preachers and Bible class teachers in particular. Imbued with the “sage on the stage” mentality they view their conclusions as unassailable truth, when, in fact, often times their conclusions are nothing more than guesses, educated or not. This is especially so when such conclusions are buttressed with the quotation from a passage of Scripture. The truth of Scripture is somehow magically transferred to the the presenter, baptizing the false statement and absolving the presenter of any sin. Of course, the error is more frequently than not compounded by the fact that the passage of Scripture is taken out of context, but hey, if we are proving the truth of our flimsy argument and absolving ourselves of sin, what does a little context have to do with anything?
But, I return to my question – what happens if I am wrong? (Let’s speak in first person singular terms here, just to avoid the temptation to be judgmental.) Or, perhaps to be more truthful, what happens WHEN I am wrong?
When was the last time you saw, or heard, someone actually, sincerely confess error? I don’t mean confess around the error. Politicians and other public figures have mastered the art of first-person-once-removed confession. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by the allegations made against me.” Notice there is never any regret at being wrong, only that certain individuals might be offended. In some rare instances the figure might admit that the allegations are serious, but on the other hand, “there is no evidence to support the allegations.” Never, “the allegations are absolutely false.” It is just that there is never any evidence to support the allegations. My lawyer is too good to allow any evidence to show up.
Enough with the politicians. They are far too easy a target. What about your preacher, your Bible class teacher – what about you? When was the last time you heard your preacher stand in the pulpit and say, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I might be wrong here” and fully, truthfully meant it?
Here again I am not talking about the massive flood of “I used to think this about (you name the hot-button issue of the day), but now I think this…” That is mere pandering to the masses, and that in and of itself is conduct unbecoming a minister of the gospel. Any minister who changes his mind concerning homosexuality or bending gender roles or the role of the Holy Spirit just to climb aboard a bandwagon has sold his soul to the devil. I am talking about a genuine confession of error in life or in doctrine that affects a person to the core of his or her being.
I am talking about a Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul kind of transformation. A confession that moves a person from persecutor to persecuted, from trying to take life to being willing to surrender one’s life for the sake of the same cause. I am talking about being absolutely convinced of the truth of a concept to the absolute conviction of the error of the same concept. I know it happens, but, how does it happen and what are the consequences?
To make the argument that I am always right, that I am flawless in my interpretation of Scripture, that I know the absolute truth to every question of translation, interpretation, and application is absolute heresy. No one can be that perfect. We may share in a measure of perfection, we may taste perfection from time to time, but even the most secure of our conclusions comes with the tinge of reality that I am human, my intellect is fallen, and there is always more information out there than I can access or grasp.
Does that mean we throw up our hands and give up? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Absolutely not! I may not know with divine certainty why baptism is essential for salvation, why men and women are created equal but with different roles, why certain practices are pleasing to God while others do not please him, but that does not mean I surrender my God given intellectual gifts to try to understand those questions – nor to search for greater certainty that those “truths” are indeed true. And it certainly does not absolve me of confessing when I am wrong about any conclusions I offer as being true, but are not.
If I had one saying that could describe my philosophy of learning it would be this, “If I am wrong, please point out the error of my way, as I do not want to believe any error, nor do I want to teach any error. But please use evidence beyond personal opinion so that I can test the validity of your conclusion, as you have obviously tested the validity of my conclusion and found it to be false.”
Two people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints on any issue cannot both be right. Homosexuality cannot be both acceptable to God and a sin. A congregation that forbids the public leadership roles to women and a congregation that allows women full leadership roles cannot both be pleasing to God. Christians cannot both affirm the uniqueness of male/female genders and affirm the rights of individuals to “change” their gender. Baptism cannot be both essential to salvation and an optional act of choice. Man cannot have both free will, and be subject to eternal predestination.
These concepts I hold to be true. If I am wrong, please let me know why, and where I can learn a better truth. Don’t expect me to just give up if you disagree with me, but if I am wrong I want to change my beliefs and behaviors to conform with the truth.
What happens if I am wrong? . . . Maybe my topic is not important, maybe it is eternally important. But the question itself should never cease to guide my search for truth.
Thanks for flying with me in the fog…