Yamaka

I saw something offensive on the golf course a few days ago that will stick with me for awhile – something that flies in the face of so many things we hold dear in our culture.

I was playing a par-three course in Denver that’s surrounded by a retirement community.  It’s cheap, plays fast, and they take really good care of it – a great place to practice your “short game.”  I was by myself and playing faster than the couple that had started a few holes ahead of me.  From a distance it looked like a man teaching his wife to play golf – his arm around her as she swung the club, very loving and patient, albeit slow.  As I caught up to them I realized it was a very old man and his son.

I got frustrated because they were playing so slow.  Each time the old man swung, his ball would go about 15 yards or so.  I waited forever on the last hole, but the longer it took, the more I was changed.  The son would help his father, bent almost 90 degrees at the neck, out of the cart, take his hand as he walked him to his ball, and hold his shoulders as his dad tried to swing.  I think it took 6 shots to get to the green, 195 yards total, and another 6 shots to finish.

As I waited, leaning against my 5 wood because I can’t hit a 5 iron that far, I thought about what it must take to be that patient, that concerned, that present.  I thought about what a hurry I’m always in, how I’m never that present with my own father, much less anyone else.  I thought about how offensive this was to the “me first,” “get it fast,” “what’s the next thing on the list” stereotypical Western values that we all hold onto so tightly.  I had one of those rare moments, reminded what really matters.  I felt at peace.

The old man and his son putted around on the green for a bit, then left.  I teed up my ball and swatted it – 15 yards or so – which really pissed me off, like it was some sort of anomaly.  I’m a shitty golfer, always have been.

I had a good second shot and 2-putted, which isn’t horrible.  As I walked off the green I passed the young man who had been helping his father.  “Can I tell you something?” “Yeah,” he said with a totally checked in peace on his face.  “I really appreciated watching you with your dad.  That changed me.”  “Oh,” he said surprised at the awkward/blunt confrontation, “Thank you.”  I felt like he needed to know that his submission to something higher than himself didn’t just affect him and his dad.  Few people could have seen what I did and not been affected.  We think our lives, lived in front of others, good are bad, are benign.  As awkward as it was, he needed to know, and I needed to say something.

As we parted company I noticed that he was wearing a black Yamaka, I didn’t see it before, I was a long way off, and he had dark hair.  Forgive me, I’m none too savvy on Jewish customs, maybe I should to refer to it as a “Kippah,” or “Yarmulke.”  Either way, I walked back to my car, popped the hatch on my crappy white minivan, put my clubs in the back, and thought about strength and humility for the rest of the day, wondering why, as an Evangelical, I don’t think about it more often, especially in those places where I really suck.

Action Required

Imagine yourself a Black man somewhere between the ages of 17 and 50, being pulled over by a police officer, believing that the chances you’ll be shot in the next 15 minutes just went up astronomically.  That police officer will most likely follow protocols, asking you to do some really simple things, things a 4 year-old could do.  But now your mind is in “fight or flight” mode – you’ve lost some ability to behave rationally – following simple instructions just got harder.  How will the officer respond to your agitation, or your lack of compliance?  What if he’s racist?  What if he’s scared?  Or both?  You don’t know.  I can’t imagine what that’s like.

I appreciate our police force.  I live in Denver – you can’t not have an armed police force in a city like Denver.  I appreciate their courage and commitment to keep myself and my family safe.  I know from time to time there will be accidents, very unfortunate ones.  I understand that it’s common for white cops, especially those in urban areas, to have some fear of Black people.  Especially now.  The guy that just pulled you over might be as scared as you are.

However, of the unarmed people shot and killed in 2015, 40% were Black.  There’s something going on that transcends “accidents.”  You might be tempted to offer some statistics about the crime rate among Blacks in the US, blaming them for this outrageous statistic.  You might be outraged about the outrage, citing the very rare occasion when a Black cop shoots an unarmed white man and nobody says anything.  But if you’ve been responsible to study the statistics, and fail to see the injustice here, regardless of what’s underneath – racism, fear, or both – you should be outraged at yourself.

Everyone’s Problem

Ask most white people about racism in our country and you’ll get something akin to “We put that to bed,” or, “I love MLK.”  I’ve never gotten anything like that from a Black person.  From their perspective, systemic racism is alive and well in our country.  The more I study this issue, the more I find it to be true.  Either way, there’s a huge chunk of our population that feels powerless.  Now add fear.  So many of these people believe that there are armed government employees who, for whatever reason, are likely to shoot them for the slightest infraction.

Regardless of where you stand, understand the negative effect this will have on our world if unarmed Black people continue to die in outrageously disproportionate numbers at the hands of our police.

If we don’t deal with injustice, we will very quickly find ourselves victims of it.

If you’re a religious person, especially one that gives some weight to the Bible as I do, there’s another layer to this.  There’s an episode in the Old Testament where God sends messengers to His people, begging them to cease whatever injustices they’d embraced, and if they didn’t listen, they’d be punished.  Really punished.  They didn’t listen.  They weren’t slapped on the wrist, or infested with frogs, they were removed, all of them, to enemy countries, to places where they’d now be the victims of injustice.

If we do nothing, this problem will actually go away, sort of like forest fires go away – when there’s nothing left to burn, problem solved.

I dare you – attend an event hosted by your local Black Lives Matter chapter and get to know a few people there.  Listen to them.  Engage.  I know, the internet’s crawling with all manner of vitriol for this movement, but don’t listen to what others say about BLM, go hang out with them and judge for yourself.  I have, and I’m none the poorer for it.  My wife and I have made friends with BLM Denver activists.  We marched with them in the MLK marade this summer.  The most violent think BLM did during the marade was to break off from the main route, beat the mayor to the stage, and call the city to account.  He turned his back on them.  Symbolic.

These are good people, they’ve got something to say.  Hang out with them.  They’re not perfect, and yes they’re angry, and scared, but they’re doing something that we should all be part of.

My problem is that I land squarely on one side of the issue.  I’ve rubbed elbows, heard stories, mourned, lamented, and considered opinions of the people who agree with me.  If I’m to figure out my role in all of this I need to know what I’m talking about.  So I’ve been reading, watching videos and hopefully soon I’ll be rubbing elbows with people from the other side.  There are stories there, and ultimately, people.  Sure, I’ve come across some stupid stuff, there’s stupidity on both sides, but I think there’s truth on both sides as well.

Ultimately I’ll have to do something, something costly.  Problems like this will cost something to rectify.  I’m not going to excuse myself from responsibility with “Cops just hate Blacks – there’s nothing you can do,’ or, “All lives matter – BLM just needs to shut up.”  I just hope that when I get to that point of action, I have the maturity and courage to do something, and lead others to the same.

What Anger Does at Sundown

We should never live in fear, especially if we believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God.  There are however a few sins in The Bible that have such gnarly consequences that we should do our best to avoid them.

For example, Jesus said, “If you get in the way of someone who’s decided to come to me, it would be better for you to have a huge rock tied around your neck and thrown into the ocean.”  That’s a good one to avoid.  Sad that so many don’t.

Here’s another that should frighten us into obedience but we typically miss it’s meaning.  Paul’s letter to the new church in Ephesus says “Don’t let the sun set on your anger.”  Some Bible translations have it as “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry,” which is a bit of an unfortunate paraphrase of the Greek text, implying that you have to resolve everything before you go to bed.  What happens if you get in a fight with your wife while you’re getting into bed?  That never happens…

Immediately following this commandment comes “Don’t give the Devil a foothold.” Regardless of whether or not our anger is justified, we’re going to have to put it to bed at some point, or forfeit control of our life to something else (or someone else depending on what you believe).  But you don’t have to believe anything to know this to be true.

We’re all guilty of this at some point.  It feels good to feel anger, to be “right,” so we hang onto it. Many religious people live live this way, trying so hard to get God’s approval, to not be “that guy,” to be “holy” at the expense of everything else.  That kind of life truly sucks – live it long enough and things like anger will be attractive.  Consider the people who support the Orlando shooter, quoting scriptures and condemning the dead.  I’ll guarantee you those folk are living some pretty angry, un-Godly, shitty lives.  Pray for them.

I’ve attracted an Evangelical Christian to my blog – someone from my own camp –  who’s been trolling one of my posts.  She can’t utter a word without an insult.  You know you’re angry when even the things you write reak of it.  We all know someone who’s so beat up and pissed, who’s been holding on for a long time, for whom anger has become a part of everything they do.  That’s what happens when “the sun goes down” on it.

There’s a window, a period of time that we’re given to deal with our anger, and if we don’t resolve things within that window, ie, “while the sun still shines” as St. Paul puts it, darkness grows roots and becomes a living part of us.

This is one of the reasons I’ve remained Christian.  It’s clear in the scriptures that I have no business living in anger for any significant period of time.  I think God has grace when I decide to suckle that teet longer than I should, but it’s patently “un-Christian” to stay there, and utterly destructive to my life and the lives of the people I love.  What’s worse, the anger that I’ve entertained for too long is nigh unto impossible to get rid of.  There’s still grace, like there would be if I jumped off a cliff, or had seconds at Casa Bonita, but that doesn’t trump the consequences.

Another reason we hang on to our anger is because our culture values “venting,” talking about the injustices others have perpetrated against us – over and over again, while our well-meaning friends say “man, that’s really hard,” or, “I can’t believe they did that to you,” instead of something akin to “That really sucks, tell me how you feel, what’s your plan for letting it go?”  “You need to let it go” is anathema in our culture.  We don’t value resolution or reconciliation nearly as much we should.  Anger’s a lot easier to get rid of than we’ll typically acknowledge, unless, again, it’s hung around for too long.

Personally, when I hang on to anger, it’s because I’ve become convinced that whatever injustice I’m experiencing is something I’d never do.  Christianity blows that to bits as well – there is no sin that can be committed against me that I haven’t committed myself – not in God’s eyes at least.  See Jesus’ sermon on the mount, specifically His thoughts on the really bad sins and who’s guilty of them.  By indicting us all, he’s not trying to be mean, or make us feel guilty, he’s inviting us to let go of our self righteousness so that we might grasp the life He wants for us.  The belief that I’m just as guilty as anyone else has brought more freedom to my life than I can say.

Ultimately, The Bible doesn’t give us any kind of a timeline, or instruction on how long we can stay angry before it causes problems.  I say best to dump it as quickly as possible.  Or be mad for 24 hours then do something about it.  Or, give yourself until sundown?

If you can’t get rid of it, get some help.  Find someone who is at peace, who’s somehow managed to deal with their anger (in a healthy way – some people merely act like it’s not there).  Tell them you want to kick it, vent if you want, then do as they say.  While that’s going on, pray like hell for God’s help.  That’s a prayer I’d guarantee He’ll answer.

 

 

The Holy Finger

I always chuckle a bit when I think of our Western concept of “The Finger.” We all have 10 fingers, and refer to each one as “a finger,” with two exceptions.  We call those “The Finger,” even though there’s two of them. This has little to do with what I’m writing about today, I just think it’s funny.

Anyway, there’s an episode in the New Testament where Jesus does something with his finger in a way that’s deeply insulting to the crowd he’s addressing.  The story goes like this:

A crowd of religious leaders, seeking to put Jesus on the spot and expose Him as a fraud, offers up a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. This particular sin, at the time, was considered to be one of the worst a person could commit. They declared, “Our law says we should throw rocks at her until she’s dead, what do you think?”

Jesus knelt down and began to write in the sand with his finger. I’m not sure if he used “The Finger,” but he might as well have. There’s a lot of speculation among Biblical scholars about what Jesus was writing, but that’s not what the author of this passage wants us to think about. He goes out of his way to use the phrase “His finger” and expects us to ask the question “what does Jesus’ finger have to do with the story?

As He wrote, with His finger, these leaders kept bothering him for an answer, so He stood up and said something akin to “you’re not righteous enough to condemn this person,” then bent down again to finish whatever it was that He was writing as the formerly self-righteous crowd dispersed.  See the whole story here.

This passage is written by one of Jesus’ Apostles and can be found in the New Testament’s “Book of John.” If you read the entire book, you’ll learn early on that John believed Jesus to be God in human form – “God in the flesh, fully God, fully Man” as He’s so often referred to throughout history.

Let’s go with that idea for a minute. Let’s say that Jesus was God, and these religious leaders, who confessed to be sold out to God – heart and soul – are standing in His presence.

They know by heart another story in their scriptures of God doing something with His finger, an episode where God writes their law, ironically enough. So here they are, God’s holy army, standing next to Him in every sense of the word, and here He is, again, writing something with His finger, just like He did in the presence of Moses on Mount Sinai. Any one of these leaders would have given their left arm to stand next to God while He writes, but all they want to do is discredit Him, and kill someone.  They’ve somehow become convinced that they have the right.

Jesus knows they don’t understand who He is, nor will they get the insult He’s hurling at them, but their hypocrisy makes Him angry.  Hence the “gesture.”

In the Old and New Testament stories, it’s the people who think they’re in good standing with God who really make Him angry.  They’re also the ones who wouldn’t recognize God if He were standing right in front of them.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that they stand take heed lest they fall.

Apostle Paul from his first letter to the church in Corinth

 

Self-righteousness, i.e. the idea that the way you live has given you favor with God, is one of the most toxic beliefs a person can embrace.  It’s also something that’s doing a ton of damage in our world today.  You’ve met these people, they love to look at the sins of others while swimming in their own.  They search the world to make a convert and when they find one, to use Jesus’ words, they “make them twice the son of Hell” that they are.

Jesus and the rest of the New Testament give ample warning about all of this, but it frequently falls on deaf ears.  It feels good to think I’m right and you’re wrong.  It gives me a sense of power, makes me feel like God.  But it also strips away the ability to hear God, to see Him, and ironically, to do the stuff He wants us to do while avoiding the things that He truly hates.

Some (painful-for-me) Thoughts on Letting People off the Hook

I’ve learned something recently, something that I know will change my life if I can get my head around it, something I wish I would have realized 20 years ago, but nobody was talking about things like this when I was 30.  If I could fax my younger self I’d say without hesitation – master this.

Brene Brown, in one of her recent books “Rising Strong,” relates some powerful advise from a friend:

Steve said, “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.” His answer felt like truth to me. Not an easy truth, but truth.

This sounded great, so I tried it.  Massive fail.  I don’t have it in me.  I’ve built an entire world around judging others, comparing myself to others, using the “laziness” of others to make myself feel good, labeling people based on what they have or haven’t accomplished in their lives.  I tried to lay it aside but it’s become part of me.

It feels good to tear someone down.  It makes me feel valuable, ironically, when I take someone’s value away.   But ultimately I have to put myself under the same microscope, which is especially hard these days.  I”m a washed up, has-been pastor, now a stay at home dad.  Not much in my life to tout.  All the judgments, all the “can you believe that guy” thoughts that I’ve used to create my little accomplishment-based caste system have come back to haunt me.  In spades.  Over and again I come up just as short as everyone else.

I spend more emotional energy ripping myself apart than I care to mention.

Sadly, the only way out of it is to take Steve’s advice and let as many people off the hook as I can.  But it’s nigh unto impossible when I’ve spent my life in an activity that’s brought so much meaning, and is such a powerful salve for my carefully hand-crafted crappy self-view.

I will say that I’ve gotten a little better at it.  I’ve been trying to think of other things when I see someone driving like an idiot, or making excuses – clearly not “doing their best.”  Irresponsibility, selfishness, arrogance, sloppiness, people that don’t vote the way they should, people who try to hurt me – all used to be opportunities for a “boost,” now I see them as an opportunity to let myself off the hook, to live a better life.

I know.  There are lazy people in this world, people who don’t give a rat’s ass about anything, selfish people, folk who need to get their shit together, etc., etc.  But there are also stories behind why they approach life the way they do.  Painful stories.  Consider “Dave,” who, as a child, would do violence to himself to get his checked-out mother’s attention.  As a college student, everyone tried to figure out why he didn’t bother to shower, or study, or come to class.  He was sent to a psychiatrist who bothered to look deeper, and show him some compassion.  He found the deeper story.  The kid was doing the best he could.

There are a million ways to pass judgement without feeling like you’re passing judgement.  There’s only one way to believe that everyone’s doing their best.  As hard as it is, I’m convinced that it’s  the surest, most complete way to follow Jesus’ commandment to “judge not” anyone, including yourself.

If you’re someone who struggles like I do, it’s a quick path to freedom.

The Most Misunderstood Thing about Faith

Most Church folk don’t define the word “Faith” as the Bible does, at least not according to a passage in the “Book of Hebrews” (a book in the New Testament, most likely authored by the Apostle Paul).  This letter to Jewish Christians gives the most clear Biblical definition you’ll find, but it’s one that, ironically, requires a level of faith most people don’t have.  I didn’t ether, until I was recently asked to preach a sermon on this passage, then it hit hard, which is somewhat embarrassing given my education and background as a pastor.  I should have seen it a long time ago.

This definition of faith will make you mad if you hail from a camp that has some level of respect for the scriptures.  Typically, especially on Sunday mornings, we’re taught to think about God and faith differently – drastically so.  St. Paul is cognizant of how “out of the box” his thoughts are, so he takes great care to unpack things so his audience will have an understanding of faith that’s almost guaranteed to lead to something good.  The stuff he’s peddling is intended to change your life. It’s been changing mine.

Hebrews chapter 11 says:

Without faith it is impossible to please God.

Everyone can quote that part, but define “faith” as some combination of “believing the right things about God,” “doing what you’re supposed to do,” “Living a moral life” and/or “Avoiding sin.”  Very few people can quote the following from the same passage:

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”

Or this:

“Anyone who comes to God must believe a) He exists and b) that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”

These two statements are rarely preached because they have a significant aspect of “there’s something in it for you.”  As churchy people, we don’t like that, although we rarely pursue anything unless it promises some significant aspect of “there’s something in it for you.”  When we think about what God wants, we think in terms of reverence, respect.  No questions asked.  Here it states that you can’t please God unless you believe that you’ll get something out of the deal.  If you’re choking on this paraphrase, I get it, but read these three passages again, very carefully.

God isn’t pleased with you unless you have FAITH

To have FATH, you must

(A) Believe that God exists
(B) Believe the things that you’re hoping for will come to fruition
(C) Believe that if you follow God you’ll be rewarded

The author then goes into detail about the lives of people who had this kind of FAITH.  One of the most popular to his readers would have been the guy who started it all – a guy named Avram (“wanderer”), who’s name God changed to Avrahim (“father of many”). We call him Abraham.  Everyone knew his story – Abraham was a hero, but started out a normal ancient middle-Eastern man with normal ancient Middle-Eastern hopes and dreams.

In his day it was considered a huge blessing to have a large family and a good piece of land.  We don’t think that way today, we hope in terms of more “modern” things – huge house, sweet job, big paycheck, etc.  these things are not only enjoyable, they communicate something about the bearer – strength, smarts, savvy, etc.  Abrahams’s hopes and dreams would have been different than ours, but they had the same meaning, the same weight.  There was nothing spiritual about Abraham’s hopes and dreams either, he didn’t hold them because of some religious obligation.  You might say they were “selfish.”

But Abraham had a problem.  He was old, and his wife Sarah was even older, way past her child bearing years.  So Abraham had to reconcile these huge desires with the fact that they would never come true.  Maybe that’s why God picked him and promised to deliver the things Abraham was hoping for.  The guy who thinks it’s all over will do some crazy shit if you prove to him it’s not.

Everyone laughed at God’s promise, so when Sarah had a son they named him Itzach (laughter). While it’s common to name our kids “Isaac” today, it would have been weird to name a kid “laughter” back then.  But that’s how crazy this story is.

So, as St. Paul puts it, Abraham decided to make God the boss “by FAITH,” believing that a) his hopes and dreams would be fulfilled and b) that he would be rewarded for following God.

Faith and Expectation

Most people attempt to align their lives to God’s desires out of a sense of obligation, duty, sacrifice, shame, and many times, fear.  Some of those people manage to live very “holy” lives, but in my experience they’re not very much fun to be around, much less listen to.  Many fail, and with that failure comes more shame and bitterness towards church and the idea of God.  You want to avoid that kind of faith.

People who believe that they’ll “get something out of it,” that there’s a reward somewhere in there – something in the shape of the things that are running amok in their hearts – are far more likely to be holy, and happy, and be the kind of people who are willing to take great risks (there is no holiness without happiness and risk).  St. Paul’s list of ancient Jewish heroes all lived with great expectation (they lived “by FAITH”), and as such did amazing things.  Whatever reward they received helped them to trust God, which helped them to follow Him even more recklessly.

Expectation is a fundamental part of FAITH.

I try to make my kids clean the kitchen after meals, although I usually skip it because it’s miserable.  The whining really gets under my skin so I tend to avoid it.  Things go much better however if I promise treats or TV when they’re done.  A friend of mine says that’s wrong, “you’re only teaching them to expect treats after work.”  Most psychotherapeutical types would say that I’m teaching them to trust me, and that, over time, they’ll learn to do the things they need to do without treats.  They get “something out of it” on both ends.

Our hopes, dreams, and desires are very powerful things and as such can be powerful motivators.  We can expect God to meet us there as He invites us to do his stuff.  Either way, there’s something in it for us.

There’s one problem though.  I’d like to have a private jet, but God hasn’t delivered yet.  I’d like to look like Daniel Craig.  I’d like to have 100K people follow my blog.  I’d like to be independently wealthy.  Silence.  Abraham didn’t get what he wanted either.  He was promised more kids than grains of sand on the seashore.  He was promised a huge spit of land, a really good one.  He only got one son, a crazy life, then he died.  But even in death, because of whatever reward he was given, and because that reward was in concert with his hopes and dreams, he saw something beyond death, something that gave him hope even as he drew his last breath.

Death is not the end of anyone’s story.  If there is a God, by definition there’s more.  If God put these very powerful desires inside of us, we can expect that he’ll deliver.  He won’t deliver on the corrupted versions of our desires – greed, lust, injustice, etc..  He’s got His eyes on the good desires underneath – intimacy, significance, peace, adventure, mystery, pleasure, etc.  So God granted Abraham a part of what he wanted, enough to open his eyes to the fact that God can do whatever He wants, and for some reason He wanted to fulfill Abraham’s desires.  The heroes of the ancient Jewish scriptures had their eyes opened in similar ways.  As such they were burdened by a very powerful hope and lived a life that was very pleasing to God.

St. Paul is forcing us to ask the question “What am I dreaming of?  What am I hoping for?”  I’d caution you to use some care as you explore these questions, to dig deep into what you want and why, and get used to the idea that God knows what you want better than you do.  But I’d also caution you to expect great things from God, not religious things, or things that seem boring, but at least a glimpse of things that are tailor-made for what’s living raucously in your heart.

A Revisionist’s Take on the Wrath of God

god

Years ago I sat in a bar with a friend who had been raised in a conservative Evangelical home, who now questioned everything, attempting to transcend the cultural views of Christianity and religion that had become so stifiling and irrelevant to his life.

“I don’t believe in an angry God” he said. “God is love.” His statement made me uncomfortable. At the time I was a dyed-in-the-wool, conservative Evangelical, with quick answers and little patience for people that didn’t believe as I did. I had a rare moment of respect for his process, stirred my drink, and let him talk.

He was bucking up against the idea of a “vengeful God,” one who spends most of His time angry, meteing out retribution and punishment to the unfaithful hordes of our world. I agree – that’s a horrible view of God, but the idea of God never getting angry is what made me uncomfortable. God might not be angry all the time, but I have a hard time believing that He doesn’t lose His shit every now and again.

For example, a group of people, who aren’t like other people, decided long ago to march across a bridge in Selma, Alabama, in a peaceful attempt to assert their rights as humans, and got the holy hell beat out of them for it. That makes me angry. I think it would make God angry too.

Or let’s say, hypothetically of course, that there are some kids who are dying from hunger on the other side of our world – a lot of kids. Imagine there’s this huge country, full of people who claim to be “God’s people,” who could wipe out global poverty in one very quick swipe. But it never happens. Another funeral.

Refugees, child abuse, dirty politicians, racism. Injustice. I’m not saying our world’s all bad, but there’s plenty for us to get mad about. If we’re mad, imagine how mad God is – He sees a lot more than we do. He sees it all.  The idea of God being mad all the time makes sense to me.

But I also think that God gets mad at things that might not make us mad. If there truly is this thing living somewhere that’s beyond our ability to comprehend, who can make the cosmos, do whatever He wants, etc., He knows more about this place than we do. We’re like kids to Him, we don’t have the full picture. If God exists, and if He’s just, He will, by definition, get mad in ways that seem unjust to us.

Jesus, who seemed to think He was God, got so angry that He cleared out the temple with a whip. Some say He didn’t actually hit anyone, the idea of God getting that angry doesn’t settle well with us (unless it’s a story in the Old Testament, then it’s OK).  There’s no way to clear out that many people, some of whom were there to make money, without causing some pain. On another occasion He issued a threat. “If you make it difficult for people to come to me, it would be better for you that someone tie a huge millstone around your neck (a rock so big that only a donkey can move it), and be thrown into the sea”  (Oops.  Hope that doesn’t apply today).

Jesus’ anger is fascinating to me. He didn’t get angry like the God of the Old Testament got angry, but He also did’t seem to have any issues with the Old testament, or the stories of God therein. He was a Jewish man living in the first century, the scriptures were just as central to His life as they were to everyone else’s.  He didn’t get angry with all the people who were sinning their brains out. He had some things to say on a few occasions, but his followers were less-than-model-citizens at best. The people He did get angry with were the ilk who believed they were “in” with God – so righteous, so moral, so obedient, always looking down their noses at the “sinners.” Oops.

The God of the Old Testament revealed Himself to be someone who has rules that don’t always make sense to us, and, on occasion, punished people for breaking them. Then God pays us a visit in the New Testament, everyone expecting Him to be like the God of the Old Testament. But He’s not – peace and grace for the “sinners,” wrath for the “righteous.” So the righteous returned the favor, removed His clothing, beat the holy hell out of him, then put his dying body on public display saying, in a nutshell, “If you were God, you wouldn’t allow this.”  But He did. His followers and authors of the New Testament claim that His death is the reason why sinners now get an unprecedented break, and why “come to God” is now the most important thing to God. He get’s really mad at people who don’t understand this, especially the people who read their Bibles “religiously.”

Come to me all you who are weary, and I will give you rest ~ Jesus

Are you a “sinner?” Are you someone who has a lifestyle that the “righteous,” religious people frown upon? Go to God, He’s waiting. He’s not mad at you.  He knows more about what you want than you do.  He’s on your side.  Good. News. Are you a religious person who thinks morality is the most important thing, always telling people, first and foremost to get their shit together, doing things in God’s name that He would never do? Has morality become more important than God Himself?  Oops.

…You don’t love me anymore. Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did when you loved me; or else I am coming to you and will punish you ~ Jesus

I surrendered my life to Him years ago – I made Him the boss. Sure, I’ve changed some things, embraced some aspects of morality that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s so ironic that I still sin my brains out.  I can be an outright jackass on occasion, ask anyone in my family.  And God, who should be heating up the lightening bolts, instead walks beside me, speaks to me. Heals me. I have yet to meet anyone who drank the Jesus Cool-Aide who regrets it.

I do however know tons of “righteous,” “It’s all about morality,” “Sin management” people who are truly and utterly miserable, who seem to love doing things that, according to their own Bible, make God really angry.

Fear God? Really?

scared

The Bible seems to teach that we should, on some level, be afraid of God. One passage in particular, one that gets plastered on Sunday Morning church billboards all over the country, literally reads “Fear God.” Some people see this and hear “Don’t screw with God or He’ll screw with you.” Some see another opportunity to forget religion altogether.

If there is a God, ie. something that’s a) capable of creating our world and b) in charge of the whole thing, there should be some level of respect, not just for the work that he does on a day-to-day basis, but for the fact that he a) knows more than we do and b) can do whatever he wants – make it rain, hurl lightning bolts, destroy the cosmos, etc. So maybe there should be some fear, sort of the way we would fear Superman – as nice as he is you don’t want to get on his bad side.

But I don’t think the Bible’s admonition to “Fear God” means “Be afraid of God,” or “Don’t piss him off.”

Take a moment to make a list of all the things you are afraid of – the negative things that fill your mind throughout the day, the things that “stress” you out (let’s be honest about stress, it’s a cutesy, contemporary moniker for fear – plain and simple). We worry about what others think of us, we’re scared of not performing well at work, or losing our job. We’re “stressed” about how our life will turn out – will we get the happy ending that everyone else seems to be living? Money, kids, marriage, money, health, politics, money, economics, terrorism, global warming, guilt, shame, money. Fear. We live with a ton of it.

I think what the Bible is getting at is something more akin to “If you want to be scared of something, if you want to fill your head with “what if?” be scared of God. Be scared of this thing that a) can do whatever it wants and b) loves you without condition – even if you don’t believe in him. “Fear not” or some derivative, occurs so many times in the Old and New Testaments. It’s also one of the many commandments Jesus gave to his disciples. To “Fear God,” is to ultimately be at peace.

Jesus dealt with a ton of fear about God and what happens to people who step out of line. In His world it was believed that suffering was punishment for wrongdoing, and wealth was blessing for right-doing. The “sinners” ran around scared to death, wondering when their punishment would come. The “righteous” lived afraid of stepping out of line and losing their wealth as a result, while looking down on people who weren’t blessed, like they were. Either way – “stress” everywhere.

While Jesus never did anything but honor and uphold the Jewish scriptures, He seemed to believe that this era of focusing on right and wrong was over. Something new had arrived, but you couldn’t be part of it and be scared of God at the same time. Fear had to be removed. It’s no surprise that Jesus’ messages were full of “fear not,” and “trust me”

But Jesus also said “repent,” something that’s typically translated as “stop sinning” – a truly horrible translation (“Repent” in both Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew means “turn”). Typically, when Jesus said “repent” he included the phrase “because the Kingdom of Heaven is here” (which was something his Jewish audience was expecting to arrive any day now). “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven is here” basically means “Turn from your current agenda, leave it, drop it, there’s something better – right in front of you, and you can have it. Trust me.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think God has his rules (I get alot of complaints from conservative religious folk about how I forget to talk about rules, morality, etc – this is for you). God wants us to live a good life, and there are rules for that, even if you don’t believe in God. But I know people who have done a great job being part of this new thing that Jesus talked about. They’re people who live with courage, respect, great influence and great (non-material) wealth. And yes, there are rules that they follow, but they don’t follow them to stay in God’s good graces, or to avoid lightening bolts, or hell. They follow the rules to live. Really live. They’re not obnoxious, irrelevant, offensive religious people who talk about nothing but morality and what everyone should be doing or not doing. They’re people that other people love being around (we all love being around people who are truly living). They “fear God” but not as you might think.

To “fear God” means to trust Him, to respect what He is, to ultimately believe that He’s got something for us – something that transcends religion, something that’s more akin to the life that we’re all dying to live. If we do it right, our “fear” of Him will replace the scads of other fears that we carry with us all. day. long – the fears that are keeping us from the Good life that God so desperately wants us to live.

If you know the story well, you know that He literally went through hell so we could have it.

Fear God, turn aside from all that other crap you’ve been carrying, for the life you so desperately want has arrived.

The Best Place to Buy Strength and Courage

I have a friend who’s father disowned him. My friend was studying to be a lawyer at the time but (to make a very long story short), decided to go in a very different direction, one that wouldn’t bear much money or prestige. So his father, not knowing what to do, kicked him out of the house.

My friend had recently become acquainted with the teachings of Jesus and decided to apply them to this situation. On one particular occasion he broke into his father’s house, shined every one of his shoes, then left a note, something akin to “I really want to be your friend.” He bombarded his father with this Jesus stuff – no preaching, no “you’re going to hell” – just merciful acts that required a level of strength and courage that few can muster. It took a really long time, but it worked.

Put that in your Bible.

This guy, in many respects, is my hero. Knowing him has changed my life. We have alot in common – lots of past hurts – but we’ve lived different lives. Whenever he runs into something difficult, he tends to chose the path that requires strength and courage. I tend to take the easy way out. It’s no surprise that he’s stronger and more courageous than I am, despite the fact that he’s really, really skinny.

I used to think that strong people were born that way, but knowing him has convinced me otherwise. Strength and courage aren’t inherited, they’re built in moments that really suck, places that are scary. We might not “win” or “prevail” when life dumps something miserable in our lap, but we’re guaranteed to come out the other side a changed person if we can somehow manage to hold fast and engage the suckiness.

We’ll change if we run away too. Weakness and fear are built in those moments when we (understandably) find some reason to excuse ourselves from the hard stuff. Ironically, it’s just as hard to stay put in the difficult moments as it is to live in weakness and fear.

One thing that we all have in common is the hardship that seems to be constantly nipping at our heels. Life isn’t fair, nothing good is easy, there are no good pursuits that don’t require some level of sacrifice, pain, and courage, blah, blah, blah. We’ll never be left wanting for hard times.

But don’t go it alone. I have another friend who recently faced a horribly difficult situation – worst case scenario – but for some reason felt that he had to figure out everything by himself. It didn’t work. To navigate the hard things alone is to fail. Every time. Mentors, therapists, honest friends, strong people, cheerleaders, etc. come part and parcel to a not-miserable life. You won’t make it without them.

If we want to have anything resembling a decent life we’ll have to get used to difficulty – let it in, stay put, give it permission to shape us into the kind of people that know joy, peace, hope, influence, etc, regardless of what’s going on around us. That’s the life we want for our kids. It’s the life that God wants for us.

Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying.
Nelson Mandela

Whatever it is inside that locks us to the ground in hard times has to be challenged, like a muscle. It can’t be worked out in a gym where everything’s safe and predictable, a place where we call the shots – it’s only stretched and shaped in dark places. The more we work it out, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to stay put, to do what’s right when everything goes wrong. The better life we’ll have.

Why your brain is screaming for peace

As I was driving down 23rd avenue on a Tuesday morning, yelling at the car in front of me for driving just under the speed limit, I realized that I’m not just a person who struggles with anger, I usually have an angst-charged thought traipsing around in my brain. In the car that morning, driving almost the speed limit, I finally admitted to my almost fifty year old self that there are few moments during the day when I’m at peace. I think about someone who’s wronged me. I think about how to gain the upper hand in a confrontation, sometimes rehearsing what I’ll say in my moment of truth. I think about how things aren’t going my way or the mountain of tasks that life before me, the outcomes of which, most of the time, lie outside of my control. It’s no wonder that the only thing that sounds good at the end of the day is a drink and a couple hours of TV.

I spend the majority of my day starving my mind with thoughts, ideas, fantasies, make-believe scenarios, and stress. Lots of stress.

My brain has been living in a war zone for years. It knows that when I wake up in the morning the sirens will wail and the bullets will fly – bad attitudes, screaming kids, coffee, to do lists – so it’s wired itself for survival. The more crap I throw at it, the more it adjusts itself. The more non-peaceful things I feed my brain, the more non-peaceful my brain thinks it’s world is, the more non-peaceful it becomes.

I know others who live in the same world I do, but their minds have an entirely different experience, and have wired themselves accordingly. Their minds are at peace. They might run into the occasional hardship, but “hard” is not how they see their world. Their minds don’t start the day at DEFCON 1 like mine does.

The Science of a Stressed Out Brain

If you could dumb down our understanding of the brain a bit, you might divide it into two sections. One section, the “fight or flight” (FoF) part of the brain, and the other, the “rational” part. If a brain finds itself under constant duress, with FoF constantly firing, that part of the brain becomes the strongest and will begin calling the shots, seeing every. single. thing. as a threat. If, on the other hand, the brain experiences significant moments of peace, FoF gets a chance to rest while the rational part is allowed to take over, which is what it’s supposed to be doing anyway. It’s impossible to be at peace when FoF is locked and loaded, and the rational part, asleep.

People who have experienced some form of consistent abuse, folks with PTSD, and/or those who live in constant fear of the future, what others think of them, etc., tend to view their world as an inherently unsafe place – that’s the world that their brains have wired themselves for. These people will have an extremely difficult time soaking in the life, beauty, and relationships that surround them. They’ll have a hard time getting along with others. They can’t sleep. The part of their mind that’s built for a good life has been told to stand down while the part that’s built for war has hunkered the entire being deep in the trenches – completely on the defensive.

We can tell these people to “get over it,” or “think differently,” or “go to church,” but as long as their minds are on red alert, nothing will change. What they’re in dire need of is peace. Tons of it. But we tend to treat people like this (especially when it’s us) with anything but peace. We usually take the opposite tack.

I’m surprised how easy it’s been to stop bombarding my brain with war, to be the gatekeeper for the kinds of thoughts I let through the “door.” The peaceful/good/hopeful/pretty things of my life are just as much of a reality as the hard stuff, so why not spend more time ruminating on the things that will ultimately cause my brain to think it’s living in a different place – not a war zone, but a place of peace?

I’m also at a point where, when I meet someone who can’t relax, who’s usually angry, who has a hard time getting along with others, or who doesn’t seem to care about anything, I’m not asking questions about their character, or going through my usual list of things I think they should be doing to become the person I think they should be. Instead, I find myself moving towards compassion, asking what’s going on in their mind – what’s so taken over their reason and rationality that they can’t live the kind of life I know they’d rather be living?

Peace is our job, not only in our lives, but in the lives of others. Ironically, the more I invite peaceful thoughts into my own life, the easier it is to bring peace into the lives of others, and vice versa.

“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what other people consider to be right. If possible, as much as you possibly can, be at peace with everyone.”

The Apostle Paul in His Letter to the New Christians in Rome