Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I have moved all the blog posts and will start actively blogging on the new site:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Parable of the young son

I decided to write this up as its own parable.

Once there was a man who worked at an insurance company as a programmer. He was an expert in statistics and computer science, and ran ever more complex actuarial studies on a massively parallel super-computer.

One day, his young son asked him what he did all day when he went to work. He thought and thought about a way to explain to him what it was he did, and he simply could not think of a way to explain what he was doing in a way that his son could comprehend. So he told him what he considered the most basic and actual truth about it:

"I make money."

Satisfied, the son went on to play. Months later, his mother happened to take him up to his father's office so they could go to lunch. Starry-eyed and excited, the son tagged along. When they arrived at the father's desk, he asked, "where do you make the money?! Confused, the father answered, "Well ... right here." The son answered, "but, where do you melt the metal? Where do you stamp the designs? Where do you keep all the money after you make it? I want to see!"

Laughing, the father pondered how to answer. How to explain that he got paid for his work, and his paycheck was electronically deposited into their bank account? He said, "Honey, it isn't like that." And they went off to lunch without another explanation.

Now the son is grown, and he still doesn't understand what his father was doing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Parable of the two young music students

Once there was a great music teacher who only took a few of the most gifted and promising students. One of his students was a very disciplined young man, hard-working and eager to please. He had not at first wanted to play, but he realized it was something that pleased his mother, and because he desired to please her, he worked at his studies very hard. Every morning he would wake before dawn, practice his scales and finger exercises, and slowly perfect certain passages in the grand classic he happened to be working on. All marveled at his dedication and devotion. In the evening, when others of his peers played outside, he again pulled out his metronome and worked at perfecting the most difficult passages.

The great teacher recognized his discipline and talent. There was technicality and even a clean perfection to his playing that was rare.

The great teacher had another student who was also quite gifted. Although his parents balked at the trouble and time and expense of bringing their son to the lessons, he begged them and insisted against their wishes that he be allowed to take lessons. He too woke up, and from an instinctive and raw appetite he played every chance he could get. He imitated songs he liked from movies and recordings from all styles, and was constantly making up songs and trying his hand at everything he heard. In fact, often his parents would argue with him to stop playing so much because his obsession was intrusive and bothersome. His obsession was anything but discipline, because he would often ignore his other chores and duties, even his personal hygiene, in his insatiable need to constantly play.

In the lessons, the teacher had trouble getting this other student to discipline himself to practice the finer points of playing more difficult passages. However the music teacher was gracious enough to realize that a different approach must be taken to lead this student to greatness. In fact, although in certain ways this student's playing was undisciplined and even a bit sloppy, there was a joy and life to his playing which hinted of true greatness. There was a truth and presence and ease to his playing, a natural musicianship that was indefinable.

The disciplined student went on to a prestigious music academy, where he played Mozart and Bach at music juries where teachers scribbled criticisms as he played. He did indeed receive the highest grades. Occasionally he played at recitals, and eventually he became a piano teacher and a professor of music at the academy. The other student travelled around the country, playing small concerts at bars and outdoor festivals.

Often what looks like success is only a prison made of fear of the opinions of others. True love counts the opinions of others as nothing, and though imperfect and humble of appearance, is impelled by real desire.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thoughts to my mystified friends

This is a note to the mystified reader who wonders how an otherwise intelligent guy ended up not only as a Christian, but as a person seemingly obsessed with some kind of controversy about some fine point of faith that seems frankly irrelevant.

I am not out to convert you. I might be out to convince you, but there isn't a person on earth who doesn't hold some kind of opinion and who doesn't want to be persuasive. There is a difference between respectful persuasive intelligible dialog, and weird angry evangelistic fervor. I'm posting this as a public service so some of you who don't get this can understand where the heck I'm coming from. It is supposed to be respectful and persuasive.

First, I do not believe the earth is 6000 years old. I do believe in Biblical inerrancy (the whole Bible is true) but you have to understand that there is room to think straight within that world. Look at it like this: if the story of the creation of the universe and all of life was written initially in the language of ultimate science, and was fully accurate, no one in antiquity could have even begun to understand it. Even today we couldn't understand it. However, it was not written this way.

Here is a way to understand this. My father was the manager of a large insurance office when I was young, and was an expert in worker's compensation claims. As a child, I asked what he did when he went to work. He said, "I make money." I pictured him melting down copper and pouring it into little molds making coins. When I went to visit his office, asked to go see where they make the money. They laughed, and I was confused. Was he lying or inaccurate? Was he trying to mislead me? Of course not. He simplified his answer because he could not explain worker's compensation and the complex machinations of his office and how they used an IBM mainframe computer to run actuarial numbers or whatever to a 6 year old. I completely misinterpreted his answer in a literal way that wasn't even close to accurate.

Genesis 1 is a one chapter rundown of the creation of the universe and all of life on earth. Not only is it meant to be intelligible to mankind in antiquity, but it is only one chapter. It sets the stage for a much more focused and larger story, and the larger story is really the point. Let's face it, the details of Genesis 1 don't even make sense. It says there was evening and morning, and even vegetation, before there was a sun and moon. That just doesn't make any sense. Does this mean I don't believe? No, it means I am a 6 year old trying to understand the creation of the universe, and I am getting a 6 year old answer. The fact is, the universe exists, and was somehow created. The actual details of what really happened in what order in concert are still way beyond our comprehension. Thus, I put Gen 1 in a right perspective. It is true, it is even literally true, but it is an explanation of an unspeakably complex thing written in a way that is minimally intelligible to all people from antiquity forward.

This brings up another point for my mystified friends. Belief doesn't mean you can't doubt things, you can't think for yourself. There is a place to say honestly, Genesis 1 sure is weird in its details, but I still believe it. You can put things on the 'I don't get this' shelf, without throwing the whole idea of belief and faith out the window. You say, I have trouble believing that a perfect and good loving God could have ordered his people to commit genocide down to the last Canaanite man, woman, and child, when they entered the promised land. I have trouble with that too. I don't get it. I don't even like it. In fact, it makes me sick, and I have some serious questions for God when I get up there. It calls His justice and mercy and goodness into question. I would be a fool to cover this over and pretend I just 'believe' without having doubts about this. I DO have doubts about this. However, I still believe. Where John the apostle says 'God is love' and that 'in this is love, ... that God loved us ... " and all of that, I believe it. Some of this weird stuff, I don't get, and I think I am allowed to believe and to hold out with some doubts. Any Christian that won't own up to having doubts is not very well grounded in the truth of their beliefs.

In fact, one of my favorite guys these days, Peter Rollins, has this byline on his blog: 'to believe is human; to doubt divine" - go check it out:

Here is another thing for my mystified friends to understand. This is such a huge point. When you think of Christians, or the Christian community, you think of the absolute buffoons on television or whatever. No one I know or love is like that. You think that the Christian church is all wrapped up in right wing politics and a weird and harsh form of American patriotism. I lean to the left politically, and I'm concerned for the environment, and I don't poo-poo climate change! Yes, and there are MANY others. There is a huge world of extremely intelligent and extremely large-minded people in the Christian community. There are people on the very cutting edge of culture and thought, who are the people you really ought to be listening to. Can you imagine if all Germans were judged by their association with Naziism? It is no service to anyone to judge or ignore or write off THE GERMANS because of WWII. It is no service to anyone to judge all of christendom by the Spanish Inquisition, Robert Tilton, and that crazy church down the street. There is a gargantuan world of people with great free-thinking principled lives that are part of Christendom that you would probably love to sit down with for a few hours to sip coffee and really talk to.

Finally, the whole point of this blog, the scandal of grace, is that most people outside the church, and a lot of people inside the church, don't get that the point of Christian faith isn't to trick you into being more moral. It is about believing that even when you are not perfect, not moral, not successful, even then you are deeply and truly loved and cared for. When you have problems and grief, there is somewhere to go with that. It is about a love and a joy that cannot be taken away, about significance that cannot be lost. It is about being freed from having to engineer your own significance and success and fulfillment. I have to say, if I am trying to persuade anyone of anything, it is to invite you to try jumping in, the water feels GREAT! Don't let legitimate doubts about a few weird things in the Old Testament prevent you from experiencing what C.S. Lewis called being "Surprised by Joy." If I said anything to you, I would say, I really love walking in this way. I still have plenty of problems, plenty of frustrations, plenty of failures, but I also have an assurance that it will all work out and that God is truly with me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Justification Equation

I was listening to an excellent teaching by R.C. Sproul, and he came to a point where you can hear him cracking the chalk against the blackboard decisively with this equation:

Faith + Works != Justification ('!=' is programmer shorthand for 'not equal')
Faith = Justification + Works

How the dust was flying! You can hear people starting to cough. You gotta love him!

He is talking about assurance, as in, being assured that you are really a Christian, really eternally and forever under grace, eternally out of condemnation. If we add works to the wrong side of the equation, we remove the possibility of assurance. Assurance, he says, is a crucial element of our sanctification, and I would have to agree with this.

If we have come to a point, and it is settled, that Christ has truly justified us, that our sin cannot ever come between us and God, and that it is out of our hands to spoil that, we enter a new dynamic. No longer do we labor. No longer do we strive. No longer do we worry. What we DO is no longer part of the equation which leads to justification. Thus, what we do becomes motivated from a very different place. We no longer act from fear, no longer perform based on an attempt to justify ourselves.

We always couch this in religious terms but I believe this is true across the entire spectrum of human experience. Just as Solomon writes:

“And I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 4:4, NASB.

All men, believers or not, religious or not, in their field of endeavor, strive for significance and skill as a means to significance, a means to self-justification. Even as we talk, make jokes, do business, work, recreate, form important relationships, we strive for significance with each other. In our minds, significance is earned by our deeds, our cleverness, our greatness in business or debauchery or pleasure or skill with words or music. I must craft my own importance because it is up to me alone to do so. I am constantly on the lookout to be more clever, more successful, more insightful, happier, with better pleasures and appreciations, to prove my significance.

In Christ, this is completely turned around. We are justified as a gift. We are declared significant carte blanche. We no longer need to become great at anything to prove our significance - we simply ARE significant. We are declared just. Any attempt to water this down, to obscure it, to blunt it, only takes us back to the fruitless land of doing things to prove our worthiness.

The flesh rebels at this. The flesh wants to act, to do things, to prove significance. The flesh doesn't rebel at the law, it loves it. The question isn't law or sin, the question for the flesh is really which law to revel in. Either a law of religious leanings, or a law of partying, or a law of violence, or whatever. Every community has its rules for belonging and honor, its rites of passage. You can feel yourself recoil at the idea that you need do nothing to be significant, to be justified.

However, under this new dynamic, under a decisive declaration of justification, we act and work and do things from a wholly different impulse. Under grace, whereas works are no longer necessary, works appear as fruit:

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23, NASB.

So, we can come around and say, am I acting from faith? It is the right belief, a real assurance of justification, that leads to the right fruit. Works exist in both equations, but if you put works on the wrong side of the equation, you nullify grace. Do you see that? If you have faith in the work of Christ but still have the notion that you have to do stuff to earn justification then it nullifies Christ's work because you are still the one justifying yourself. This has drastic consequences to your works, because they are motivated by self-justification and not as the fruit of love.

When Christ justifies us, all of our human endeavor comes from a wholly different place. We joke differently, because we do not need to pose as a clever person - we already have an assurance that we are completely justified.

Do a mental experiment with me. Just pretend that no matter what, I mean NO MATTER WHAT, you were the very apple of God's eye. If you just got out of an orgy and smoked illicit things and did every debaucherous selfish act you could think of, you could immediately still pray and God would send you a million dollars dropped right out of the sky. How would you live? Would you still orgy-ize and smoke things? Would you keep asking for a million dollars?

Let me pose this to you: it really IS like that. We really have passed out of judgement, and as Peter says,

“... seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” 2 Peter 1:2, 3, NASB.

A million dollars is nothing more than a burden to manage, and a facade of fake wealth. You can't eat a million dollars. Jesus fed 5000 with a few fish and loaves. Money is nothing but a tool, and it is far from the only tool of provision. Sin is unfulfilling and rotten. So since we are justified no matter what, we are now free to look at the world with a right mind, a free mind. If EVERYTHING is permissable, and EVERY RESOURCE is available to me to do so, then the only question is, what greatness, what humble peace, what sweet loveliness, does my justifier have in mind for me today?

Here is my advice to you my esteemed reader: put works on the right side of the equation. As Peter says,

“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;” 2 Peter 1:10, NASB.

Be assured that you are justified by Him, you are significant already in the eyes of God. Live from this position of strength.

Monday, September 20, 2010

John the Baptist and Jesus

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.” Luke 1:5, NIV.

Here we have a pretty obscure verse that shows us something very profound. John the Baptist is descended from the Levitical priesthood, and thus represents the Law. Both his mother and father were full blooded descendants of Aaron. Aaron was selected as the first priest, so saying they are descended from Aaron is saying they are high-pedigree priests:

““Then bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the sons of Israel, to minister as priest to Me--Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons.” Exodus 28:1, NASB.

They are known as Levites because Aaron was descended from one of Jacob's sons, Levi:

“Then the anger of the LORD burned against Moses, and He said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently. And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.” Exodus 4:14, NASB.

““And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the sons of Israel, to perform the service of the sons of Israel at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel, that there may be no plague among the sons of Israel by their coming near to the sanctuary.”” Numbers 8:19, NASB.

However, Jesus is not descended from the line of Aaron, but from the line of Judah.

So, when John baptizes Jesus, we have Jesus submitting to and fulfilling the law. John baptizes as one who represents and is under the law, for repentance from sins. As we look through John's ministry we see that it has to do with declaring the need for repentance, thus representing the law.

However, John himself says that he is subservient to Jesus:

““a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Mark 1:3-7, NIV.

“John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given him from heaven. “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. And so this joy of mine has been made full. “He must increase, but I must decrease. “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. “What He has seen and heard, of that He bears witness; and no man receives His witness. “He who has received His witness has set his seal to this, that God is true. “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” John 3:27-34, NASB.

So we have the one who represents the law, preparing and making the way, and pointing to Christ, saying publicly that he is less than Christ. This is a picture of the law acting as a tutor to lead to God's work of grace, and of the law being less than grace.

“John *bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” John 1:15-18, NASB.

What this says to me is that the idea of law being an agent which cannot produce righteousness but which leads one to grace, is a message that God spoke even in the grand sweep of long Jewish lineage over thousands of years. The message of grace is His message, His primary message, a message He planned from the very beginning, and which He is using the Jewish nation and the grand sweep of history to teach us.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Love is eternal because it does not depend on attributes

This is a response to an absolutely fascinating post by a guy named Peter Rollins. You can and should read his original post here:

It really got me thinking about some of the foundational aspects of grace and love, so I wanted to post my response on my own blog as a matter of record.

I really enjoyed this. I heard a radio DJ in Vancouver BC read the jacket notes after playing Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, talking about his Idee Fixe - that it was about a love so great that it pined eternally and forgave everything. I can't stand Berlioz, but I walked on clouds for days thinking that this is the kind of love God has loved me with. It is ironic that for most of us, the great love of God seems to be a vapor compared to romantic love, whereas romantic love is actually only a shadow or icon of the love of God for us. It is also another reason why in Christ we leave the universe of requirement and enter the universe of grace. Under law we maintain relationship by maintaining the necessary attributes to prevent rejection. Grace goes beyond accepting relationship based on adherence to certain traits, and enters into love based on pure identity. We become His sacred x, his pearl of great price for which He sells all else.

As to the criticism that it seems specious to define love as only that which loves always without defining attributes, this is actually the strongest idea in the piece. If love depends on attributes, it is not love but earned credit. If it does not need attributes but is based entirely on identity, then since nothing can be earned, nothing can be lost, and it becomes eternal. This is why, when Paul lists his huge list of unpardonable offenses in 1Cor 6 (aberrant sexualities and slander and greed and such), he follows immediately with "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable." The relationship which is defined by admiration of attributes is subject to a perfection of behaviors, but the relationship which is defined by grace is defined by pure love based on direct identity.

Thanks again, loved the ideas in this one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Letter to the North American Church

There is an event called "Eighth Letter" where writers are encouraged to write a letter to the church in North America.

A site listing many other contributions can be found here:

I think it is a cool idea and I think anyone who is following my blog knows what I would say. However, on reflection, and after reading around the blogosphere about what people think the North American church needs to hear, I came to some thoughts about the matter. So, here is my letter:

Dear North American Church,

I have heard SO MANY terrible things about you! Everyone I talk to, Christian, agnostic, and atheist, seems to think that you are the most flawed institution ever. I am certain that you are the root of all prejudice, hypocrisy, greed, heresy, small-minded ignorance, and petty fear. You are too inward, too materialistic, graceless, homophobic, too easy on sin, you avoid hard issues like eternal hell and damnation, you're seeker-sensitive instead of Christ-sensitive, you're culturally irrelevant, and on and on and on. You are hopelessly out of touch with real scientific truth, and are full of morons and stupid people who won't even acknowledge the obvious truth of evolution. Most of you probably believe the earth is 6000 years old and flat. In fact, the AMERICAN part of the North American church is the worst; the Canadians are a little better. The Mexican church isn't really part of North America is it? It's more like South America, they are there for youth mission experiences. Since they are kind of third world, their weird supernatural voodoo religious leanings are OK since myths are a help to primitive peoples. Maybe at one time you, the REAL North American church, were great, except for all the killing of native Americans and such, but now you have descended into a morass of complete and hopeless evil and worthless impotence and irrelevance.

I am here to criticize this criticism on your behalf. Yes, it is a bit surreal, but I am going to go with it. I am a little tired of all the self-proclaimed prophets and apostles constantly prattling on about their little soap-box issues, which may or may not be valid points, as if their criticism is the problem with THE ENTIRE CHURCH.

Here is a news flash: the church is full of sinners. After Christians come to Christ, they are still sinners in need of mercy. You, the North American church, are full of people who don't really know what they are doing. Every single one of them. Including your members who so easily criticize what you are trying to do. Your best pastors have trouble juggling multiple competing issues and directives in a balanced way, and not every pastor is perfect. So even if they have a clear and right mandate from the Holy Spirit, they are not perfectly executing on it. Is there not grace and patience for that?

The old zeitgeist was that you were hopelessly culturally irrelevant, were not enough about relationship, and were not seeker sensitive. The new zeitgeist is that you are trying too hard to be seeker sensitive, are too hipster, are too frank about sexual matters perhaps, and are not reverent and even liturgical enough. The church should be more timeless.

Here is the real point; when your leaders criticize this way, they begin to define themselves by their criticisms, and the times when they need to be more seeker-sensitive or culturally relevant, or timeless and non-hipster and reverent, they have been so vocal against the idea that you can't really step into that paradigm. If they would shut up they might have more options in following the leading of the Holy Spirit as things develop.

So, if your vision and the mandate you believe you have is to be seeker sensitive, then for God's sake be seeker-sensitive. Perhaps listen to this criticism and see if there is any way you might improve, but realize that God terribly loves you and is far more committed than the critic to seeing your vision and ministry succeed.

If your particular congregation is middle class and affluent, and is basically inward and not into helping the poor, you come under fire from the people who say that your problem is that you are callous and inward and unconcerned about the unfortunate. Well, maybe you are truly guilty of this. Your members did not join you because they were fired up about helping the poor now did they? Are they going to hell for this? Are their wounds and concerns and problems any less? Maybe you want to lead them to more concern and work for the poor, to be less busy toward some lesser concerns. But they have families and children and jobs and it isn't so easy an issue. Is there grace enough to let them fail and to lead them into true relationship with the Father and into true concern for all people, including the poor?

Here is the point. The real message of the church is grace. It doesn't mean there aren't problems in the church. It doesn't mean the church is doing it right at all. Look at it like this: my wife is fantastic. She isn't perfect, but I am not going to be happy about it if someone is going to go on and on and on delightfully pointing out her flaws so they can look smart. They don't look smart when they do that. They look like a self-aggrandizing malicious fool. And this is what most of these criticisms of the church look like.

So, to the critics who lead the church, I say, stop it. These are all difficult issues in a very difficult modern environment, and we are more than ever under fire. If you want the church to be like this or like that, say so with respect for the dignity of the church. Hipster seeker-sensitive churches or liturgical churches or whatever may not be your style, but they are doing what they think is best. Maybe you think that most churches in North America don't do enough for the poor and prisoners and such; how can you best influence them? Personally I think most churches don't emphasize grace enough, but you know what? They mostly believe in grace to a certain extent, and I would like to be able to helpfully and GRACIOUSLY speak into their environment in a way that they can receive it.

Almost all North American Churches:
1. Care about seeker sensitivity somehow, and want to welcome non-Christians
2. Have a degree of timeless reverence
3. Have a concern for the poor and downtrodden
4. Believe in holiness and repentance
5. Hold to the essential doctrines of the faith
6. Truly believe in the grace and mercy of the Father
7. Are locally and globally missional, to some extent

So, to the leaders in the church, if we are going to speak into churches, we need to realize that no pet idea or doctrine is going to cover every congregation completely. The very impulse to get down to the beating heart of the best criticism of the church is damaging. The first thing to realize is that God loves every human, however flawed, and God especially loves His church. He calls it His bride. He knows about the flaws. He also loves that certain people have enough passion and thoughtfulness to think about the church in such broad terms. However, the idea that it is somehow helpful to go on pinpointing what is wrong with the church, setting ourselves up as some kind of infallible judge, is harmful not only to the church, but also to the criticizer. Sure the church has a degree of "cognitive dissonance", but honestly is this confined to the church? The commands of Jesus are meant to be almost impossible to keep. Why is it shocking that people 'claim' to follow Jesus and do a poor job of it? Of course they do a poor job. We are all sinners, flawed and lazy and incomplete and misguided in many ways, in need of a savior. He is here to forgive, to bless when there is no merit for it, and to lead us truly and with grace and dignity to better pastures. It does no good for us to turn around and stand our ground and yell at the sheep for being lost or out of the pasture. We completely miss God's heart for His church this way. Instead, speak grace to His church, with a sensitivity to His heart for His bride. We cannot see what the church is like until we at least try to see the church with His eyes, and His eyes are full of love and hope.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

worshipping when you're wounded

I decided to post my sermon notes for this message so I can get some comments back and new ideas from everyone. It is kind of a loose amalgam of blog post and brief speaking points, but I'm throwing it out there anyway because I'm out of time and I have to go to work. Sorry for the fact that some of this is as yet half-baked.
1. Introduction to grace and suffering

We have come to characterize the Christian life as a response to the initiative of God. God tremendously and strongly loves us, and we begin to learn to respond in kind. Our response to God's initiative of love is our worship. There is another factor, however. When we are having trouble, when there is affliction or injustice or chronic hardship in our lives or in the lives of others, how can we intelligently interpret that as God's initiative of love and grace? In other words, if God is gracious and loving and wonderful, why am I having such problems? Why am I hurting? Why am I so wounded? How can so many of the NT authors reflect this idea:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance." James 1:2

"... we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations ..." Romans 5:2

They must be crazy or delusional, because no one in their right mind rejoices in tribulations. I want to show how the right thinking about grace can make this truth really live and breathe for you, and how you can interpret grace and worship into your real life with all of its disappointments, problems, hardships, and afflictions. Beyond being delusional, the NT authors found a source of strength and joy which no circumstance on earth could overcome. This is certainly the same frame of mind and the same power which God wants to show us how to walk in now. Affliction is absolutely guaranteed for 100% of humanity, but our response to it is the real wild card.

1.2 The universality of suffering
Anyone on planet earth who breathes is experienced with affliction. Certainly the birth experience itself is shocking and afflictive event. We all expect death to be traumatic, and as Billy Graham has said, one out of one people die. The minute we wake up every morning we begin to commiserate with Leo Kottke's song:

Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed
And you crawl out of bed and you crawl out of bed
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed

And there's tears in the bank and the credit card
In the back yard, in the back yard, in the back yard
If you look in the mirror it's your father's face
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed

1.3 Extreme examples of grace under affliction
Let's take a look at what Paul call's 'momentary light affliction':
“Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.” 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, NASB.

This is some pretty serious stuff. We know also that Paul had a chronic condition of some kind, a lot of people think it was his eyes:

“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Galatians 6:11, NASB.
combined with this:
“And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me--to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, NASB.

Paul was no stranger to serious chronic affliction, punctuated with bouts of acute affliction ranging from hunger, exposure, physical torture, and much much more. It is important to understand that it is this man, the same man in the same book who wrote out this impressive list of afflictions, wrote of 'momentary light afflictions.' How could this possibly be?

It is a matter of comparison. If you compare your afflictions to other people whom you perceive to have less affliction, or to previous times in life when you seem to remember having less affliction, happier times, your present affliction will seem all the more to carry a tremendous weight. It is this inner perspective, this inner comparison of the mind, that makes the affliction all the harder to bear.

1.4 Woundedness - woundedness is a special case. Affliction is a present pain, that may soon go away. Tribulation is an outward circumstance that makes life difficult. But woundedness is a result of our own sin and the injustice of others, that has harmed us on the inside. It is an internal scar that we carry with us. It is chronic, and often it is something that no talk, no counsel, sometimes even no prayer, can seem to touch.

1.5 Owning your wounds: Brothers karamazov quote: "It is Rachel of old," said the elder, "weeping for her children, and will not be comforted because they are not. Such is the lot set on earth for you mothers. Be not comforted. Consolation is not what you need. Weep and be not consoled, but weep. Only every time that you weep be sure to remember that your little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there at you and sees you, and rejoices at your tears, and points at them to the Lord God; and a long while yet will you keep that great mother's grief. But it will turn in the end into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be only tears of tender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin."

When Jesus was weeping and sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane, who was going to come up to Him and say, "cheer up Jesus! Have a positive attitude! It will all work out! Where's your joy brother?" We are not to put on some false joy when we are hurting and wounded. It is better to own our grief, to allow ourselves to really be hurt. Comfort can come, dignity can come, when we realize that the cross we bear is a real cross, and the pain we experience is important to God. when we come to a Christian assembly, and only put our best smiling face forward, and in all our relationships never reveal our wounds, we never enter true fellowship.

2. Your personal suffering is important to God
It is thus important to note, that none of this says that your affliction, your present tense difficulties, are nothing. They are real. They are true. They are pressing. They are a cross which kills. You are an unsung hero bearing under a difficult weight. As Peter says:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6, 7, NASB.

This word, He CARES for you, in the Greek, means something very strong. It doesn't mean, He has some distant and vague feeling of pity for you. The tense is this: "it is a deep burden to Him." He sees, He carries the burden of it, it is an emotional and important thing to Him. He knows that it is difficult for us to see that these things are fleeting, and a beautiful heaven is coming soon.

When I went to Auschwitz, I saw the picture of Christ dying on the cross that the Christian brother scrawled on the wall with his fingernail. It was 25 years ago, and I remember it clearly to this day. (A detail of this picture is at the top of the blog post.) It is one of the world's great canvases, created under such demonic stress of evil and torture that one cannot even imagine it. Here is a man who knew that he would die, who possibly knew that he would be experimented upon alive by Dr. Mengele, and who looked to the suffering of Christ for solace and believed. For the longest time, I would look at this canvas in my mind, and think that compared to such suffering my own problems were of no account. I have come to see that this robs me of the dignity of my own cross. The artist of Auschwitz does not serve as a club to beat me over the head and tell me that my sufferings are nothing and that my weaknesses are unforgiveable; this is a disservice to the power of this artist's courage and faith. Grace says, find inspiration that the comfort and strength you find from God in your present hardships, will continue right up to the worst evil.

For each of us, our woundedness takes its own shape, and our woundedness is very precious in the eyes of God. This is the important kernel, the core message, of this post. Grace means God cares, God loves, God sees, God understands our pain. Worship is expecting this compassion, pressing in to God's perfect heart, while in the present tense affliction still presses on us.

2.1 The importance of our unique individual suffering
- Edith Schaeffer's book on affliction, example of the guy on his death bed, and how important it was for him to persist in saying God is good from that place. He was the only person in history with his history and demeanor and particular affliction that could declare the praises of God from that place of difficulty and faith. The critical warfare is an individual's worship under fire. Our worship under affliction weaves a vast tapestry which together is a beautiful thing from the perspective of heaven. A tapestry looks like a tangled mess underneath, but is beautiful on the viewing side. Life on earth is the tangled mess side of the tapestry.

2.2 Suffering as an opporutnity
it is the fleeting opportunity of praise in the midst of difficulty which is our tiny window of opportunity to exercise real powerful faith. It is the truly deep place of fellowship with His sufferings. Also, you are going to have to walk through the affliction one way or the other, should it be with faith or without?

3. Close look at the verse:
MOMENTARY affliction: it is not forever, even chronic affliction. The years pass very quickly. Eventually and sooner than later we will be with the Lord in heaven. Just like the school child can't imagine they will ever graduate from high school, and the teenager can't imagine that they will ever really find their soul mate and get married, we can't imagine that our presence in paradise will ever be real, but it will. Then, even our most persistent affliction will be seen for what it really is -> MOMENTARY.

LIGHT affliction: we've all said, I can't go on like this. But it depends on what you're comparing it to.

IS producing for us: not at some imaginary point, but NOW.

ETERNAL WEIGHT OF GLORY: What story or movie unfolds without some kind of challenge or problem? What hero is there who doesn't face impossible odds? The most amazing stories come out of the WWII period, because it was a time of intense suffering and thus a time of big heroes and a time when people's tenacity and strength were really tested and proven. In the end, though we think it is the good times, the prosperity, the peaceful times, which will define us, it is actually the worst times that define us. This idea is only a partial shadow of the real truth, that our afflictions are creating a lasting and extremely substantive glory. Like Jesus, we will be honored and even praised and known by our wounding, our scars.

4. Conclusion:
4.1 How not to take this
God is not about putting us constantly under affliction. We are not weird medieval monastic masochists, delighting in flogging ourselves and taking ridiculous vows of poverty and silence and constant fasting. There is no glory in suffering, there is glory in grace and overcoming faith. God does not delight in our suffering. He delights in our liberation, our joy; but there is a special beauty in His compassion for us and our beautiful response under affliction. Sometimes suffering is an instrument of healing from Him, a way of speaking through discipline when we have become deaf to other forms of revelation. This is not always, and is perhaps rarely, the real source of affliction. Many times it is the result of the sins of others, or even worse, the result of our own sin. His love is not some trick message to give us a psychological crutch in times of affliction. He obviously wants us to have life and have it abundantly. There is no doubt that most if not all of us have been terribly wounded by the circumstances of life, and He has a real desire and an agenda to heal us and move us from our Egypt of bondage through the desert of transition to the abundance of the promised land. In affliction, faith says that God is yet gracious, God cares deeply for me, and there is yet hope that a greater life awaits me. There is power to have joy and truth in the present, to worship God in spirit and in truth, in the midst of our woundedness. Our woundedness, our affliction, is our big fleeting chance to worship God in faith. It is our big and temporary chance to shine as true saints, to do the thing that distinguishes us as believers, when it appears unwarranted.
4.2 How to take this
“fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2, NASB.
Jesus did not really find pleasure or joy in His suffering. He suffered with the understanding that it was for a PURPOSE, that it was for the joy set before Him. His suffering was accomplishing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. He was all about the joy set before Him. He didn't like suffering. He trusted the Father's plan and compassion; He made His request known (please take this cup away from Me!), but He submitted for the greater joy. This is also His design for us.
4.3 Prayer and ministry time; the focus is on worshipping, not for His wonderful attributes that kind of have nothing to do with you, but being cognizant of His deep burden of care for you,of the reality and dignity f your problems and woundedness.

Peace to everyone who reads this.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

homosexuals and gossips

This is a response to a list of 'problem' verses that seem to indicate that Paul doesn't really mean it when he talks about grace. My friend Kim Dickson (who is a wonderful Christian woman, and with a beautiful spirit of free dialog and exploration for truth) posted this verse in the midst of a lengthy dialog. It is part of a legitimate question about whether the Bible really does teach grace the way I am describing, and I am glad to explore it. Here is the verse:

"Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

The question at hand is, how does the idea that a slanderer or an adulterer (and all those other obviously sinful people) should not inherit the kingdom of God fit with Paul's message in the following verse?

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:1-4, NASB.

If there is therefore no condemnation, if we are free from the law of sin and of death, then how come greedy people and slanderers are not going to heaven? Perhaps Paul is schizophrenic, or crazy, or he just forgot about the grace message when he was writing this other thing. Let's get one thing straight: this is not a Jim McNeely issue, it is a "we haven't quite bothered to understand how Paul's mind works" issue. If we are coming to this trying to prove some doctrine wrong or some other doctrine right, instead of coming in search of actual truth, we will get nowhere. We must come to a unity in interpreting Paul's thought that does not twist scripture to our own ends. Are you willing to listen, to think, to change your mind? Are we all involved in a reckless and ruthless search for the real truth here? Are we going to go on being lazy about this?

If we go with the idea that Paul is not schizophrenic, and that there is a unity of thought to his writings, we need to look at Paul's general message and Paul's intent and circumstance in writing to the Corinthians. In the book of Romans, Paul had never been to Rome, the nerve center of civilization at the time, and he wanted to make sure he outlined a full explanation of the gospel from beginning to end. The Corinthian letters are different; Paul had spent a lot of time with these people, and he was writing a pastoral letter to address some specific and thorny problems. Corinth was a very carnal city and not only were there a lot of temptations there, several within the church tended to succumb to these temptations.

Now, the verse we looked at in Galatians is very useful to solve our problem:

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13, NASB.

Like the Galatians, the Corinthian believers are also called to freedom. If someone is a Christian, born of the Spirit and standing in grace, fruit will begin to bud and form such as love and joy and patience and kindness and such.

Under the law, the freedom of grace looks like license to sin. Under grace, sin looks like a really dumb way to spend your freedom. Paul is saying, you can tell when someone is posing, when they really aren't under grace, when they simply do not get it, because they are drawn to the forbidden! Under the law, if you say, you can't have sex with THAT, the fleshly part of you says, wow, that sounds EXCITING! I want to break out of this prison of prim properness and really live! Grace says, go ahead, you are allowed to do anything, do as you wish, you are eternally loved. You come into your right mind and say, REALLY?! Actually, I don't think I want any of that, gross! I'm actually really blessed right now, and sin takes me to places I don't like. I prefer to be happy and honorable and to live with dignity - why not?

This is all too simplistic though, right? It can't work without a threat. There has to be some kind of consequence for sin! Are we preaching some kind of universal salvation? Let's take another look at this same verse, but this time, let's include a tiny bit of context:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God. All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-12, NASB.

Notice that last sentence which I included this time. "ALL THINGS ARE LAWFUL FOR ME!" We don't need to thumb over to some other book or context to see this, it is in the same direct stream of thought as our 'problem' verse! It is the very next verse, nestled in the whole section on how terrible sexual sins are! What are these things that are lawful? What is he saying? The simple context would indicate that he is talking about fornication, idolatry, homosexuality, coveting, drinking to excess, swindling, etc. But didn't he just say that those who do these things should not inherit the kingdom of God? Is Paul crazy? All of the sudden he is saying you can do anything, but you might want to avoid sex with goats because it isn't profitable!

I want to pause here and note something. If your idea of salvation, your idea of what the Christian gospel really is, leads you to chop off this last verse, then you are really really really not getting it. The mindset of grace just looks at things differently. For example, look at a verse like Romans 6:23:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23, NASB.

If you think, "SEE! Wages of sin is death! We should stop sinning! Wages of sin is death!" You are totally missing it. The law is about earning favor by your behavior, you earn WAGES. Grace says, "SEE! Free gift! Free gift! eternal life!! WOO HOO its FREEEEEEE!!"

Here's another example:

“No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” 1 John 3:6, NASB.

Under the law, you think, "SEE! stop sinning or you don't abide in Him!" Whereas grace says, "SEE! abide in Him, and sin falls off of you easily! Abide in Him! Know Him! It's great!"

Look again at our problem verse. What is the difference between the swindlers and revilers and fornicators and Christians? Is it primarily that they stopped reviling? NO, we don't have the power to just stop doing these things and the specifics are peripheral anyway. Grace is an umbrella term for a supernatural work of God in a sinner's life. Forgiveness is included in the package. So is washing. Because forgiveness is real, it allows you to see how rotten your sinfulness is, and to actually really want cleansing. This is heart-level change, born of a supernatural work. It includes justification AND sanctification, and it includes the idea that GOD DID SOMETHING in the midst of a troubled soul. There is a supernatural God-initiated change in a person. Law wants to strip the supernatural from the equation. If someone has this supernatural work of forgiveness and cleansing, there is no question it will be obvious in their life. There will be a great joy, and the interest in the things the law forbids will drop off.

So, it is not the specific behaviors themselves which prevent an individual from entering the kingdom of heaven. It is the disbelief in grace, the fascination and love for the forbidden. It is the dependence on self, the lack of the supernatural. It is the heart which seeks earnestly that which is NOT heaven. It is the heart which, led on by the exciting forbiddenness of evil, finds heaven and its freedom boring.

There is an issue of identity going on here. It is not individual behaviors which are at issue, but what you are. There is a difference between having a drink and being a drunkard. That difference has everything to do with your stance on the grace of God. He says, SUCH WERE some of you. We need this leeway because if we are going to minister among real sinners, (like, for example, ME), we are going to need some wiggle room to say they were washed but they still get their feet dirty again sometimes. We need room for people who used to BE drunkards or revilers to have some successes and occasional failures, to have an open door back to success. People whose heart is changed may have minds and life patterns which drag somewhat behind. We need room for some people to have a lot of failure. Legalists are willing to dismiss people for far less than God is. If someone fails once or fails 100 times and they come back, wanting to change, then there is a washed part of them in there that is struggling to show some fruit. Some fields that have particularly good soil may grow some great fruit, but they also grow great weeds; they need more attention, more patience, more work. If we do not have the same cloud of misfits and scoundrels and sinners delighting to hang around us like Jesus did, maybe we are not speaking forth the same message that sounds like beautiful music to their ears. If we don't like hearing about forgiving 70 times 7 PER DAY, we are going to be very uncomfortable with the kind of people God is really interested in.

If the way we read this makes us want to chop off the "All things are lawful" clause, then we are not getting it. If we focus on certain sins in this list, like homosexuality, while ignoring others, like coveteousness or reviling, we are not getting it. It is not the specific behavior, it is the MASTERY over a person that is at issue. We are not looking for specific instances of behavior in order to boot people out, we are looking for clues to the inner master of a person that says, they really may not be one of us. There is a difference between being 'unrighteous' and being under grace but stumbling. Our efforts to help and forgive aren't going to work because they need stronger medicine than a smiling welcome and general acceptance. Grace takes a different shape for them, the Father heart of God has a different plan to truly bring them into the fold in a way that they really belong.

So here is what is going on. There was someone in the Corinthian congregation was actually having sexual relations with his step-mother:

“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.” 1 Corinthians 5:1, NASB.

This whole section in 1 Corinthians is really addressing that particular problem. There is some crazy crazy stuff going on, and Paul says, don't think that the response of grace is to smile and coddle him and pretend it isn't happening. Probably the guy isn't really a believer and is playing you all as shills; go ahead and have the freedom and the huevos to boot him out the door. We're under grace - that should be scary to sinners trying to take advantage of us! He is saying, guys, do a little tiny bit of fruit checking, and take some minimal action. Grace doesn't mean you can't do this! This is grace in practice in the real world.

Paul writes a second letter to the same Corinthian believers, about the same guy he told them boot out, imploring them to invite him back into fellowship:

“But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? And this is the very thing I wrote you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not that you should be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you. But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree--in order not to say too much--to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. For to this end also I wrote that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. But whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes.” 2 Corinthians 2:1-11, NASB.

In the end, grace dictated tough love, and tough love worked. It wasn't easy, it was scary, and Paul, moved by the Spirit, really cared more than anyone realized for the welfare of the one disciplined. Grace does not mean there is no discipline, no sorrow. However, grace is quick to sieze on success, on hope, it finds the lost coin and has joy in the reconciliation. In fact, we are not the arbiters of grace; we serve a great and deeply loving Father who longs to see these lost ones reconciled back to the joy and felowship of the community of those who walk in His awesome grace. I'm so grateful to be there!

Ann Rice's anti-conversion

This is my reaction to one of the numerous articles about Ann Rice's departure from the Catholic church. Read the article here:

I am so sorry to constantly stir up trouble. This is not an attack on Jim Mann, whom I know and respect. However, the tenor of this is typical of just about every evangelical church in America:

Quoting the article:
"Jesus warned us 2,000 years ago that the Bible’s message would be offensive to the world. Heck, it offends Christians, too. The reason for the affront is the mirror-like aspect of God’s word, revealing our deepest flaws and all our ugliness apart from God. The Bible calls us to change our thinking. It calls us to change our actions. That’s where we get the term “conversion.”"

Ann Rice 'converted' to Catholicism. She is rightly rejecting a lot of the catholic church's graceless legalistic weirdness. As protestants, we reject a lot of it too. She rejects the pro-life stance; I have a problem with that, but no evangelical right-winger seems to be able to allow that there might be noble reasons why people want to think that way, and that it is possible to have a respectful dialog. See this blog post if you haven't:

I don't think the Bible calls us to 'convert' by primarily changing our actions. It isn't primarily about confronting us with our ugliness. For goodness sakes, who wants to 'convert' to that?! Yea, I get to be confronted about how rotten I am! I didn't know! If I make an impossible promise to change my behavior and follow the world's most monumental moral code then I can be a Christian too! That sounds awesome - NOT!

The message of Scripture, of Jesus and Paul and the writer of Hebrews and John et call, is the message of GRACE! We are converted from the world of earning favor and being good, to the world of being loved by God first. The part that is offensive is not that the Bible presents a higher and more unobtainable moral code. The part that is offensive is that we are asked to no longer manipulate our own significance by superior behavior, skills, or intelligence. It allows God by grace to establish our significance, and revels in His power and truth to establish us and even appear to be righteous.

These kinds of articles about Ann Rice or whatever are just more fodder for non-Christians to dismiss the church. I'd like to see what Ann Rice would think if given a chance to hear that Christianity is based on a loving Father, on truth, on grace and enduring mercy and forgiveness. I'd like to ehar how she would react if told that she is the pearl of great price that God desperately wants, and that that love is the engine for inner and moral change. I can promise you she didn't hear that hammered home in the Catholic church, and she wouldn't hear it in most protestant churches either.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The deeds of the flesh

In dialog with a friend, Kim Dickson, she did my work for me and brought up some passages that might seem to contradict grace. I am going to work through these one by one. However, before I do, I want to think through a bit of groundwork.

First, as Christians, we believe the Bible. The whole message of scripture is the right message. This is not a situation where we should be saying "they believe these verses but we believe these other verses." We all believe all the verses. I believe that the perspective of grace ties all the message of scripture, Old Testament and New Testament, Romans and James, together in a way that a more legalistic perspective does not. I am going to look at these passages that way - in context, according to a perspective of grace, and against the framework of Paul's thinking in Romans, Galatians, and his other writings, and against Jesus' teachings.

Here is the passage I want to look at first:

"The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." Galatians 5:19-21

Now, this is a perfect example of the whole point; Galatians is the proof-text for the message of grace. It almost isn't fair to start here, because the entire book is making the point that I am making, and making it probably much better than I could make it.

In Galatians, Paul is hopping mad at the people in the church at Galatia:

“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:6-9, NASB.

And again, even more forcefully, here:

“You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain--if indeed it was in vain? Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” Galatians 3:1-5, NASB.

What is the gospel he is talking about?

“... knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. “But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. “For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me. “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”” Galatians 2:16-21, NASB.

What 'Law' is he talking about? THE LAW! No idols, no sabbath work, don't murder, don't commit adultery, the WHOLE LAW. Somebody show me where is talking about some other law! You can't, because he is not. By the works of the law no one shall be justified.

Then he says, "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." When you come under grace, you no longer have personal obligation to live under the law, and righteousness springs from a new well. I always say, you cannot have Christian virtue that is of the natural - Christian virtue requires supernatural manifestation. It is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit as much as prophecy or words of knowledge or speaking in tongues might be.

Notice how he ties in the idea that the life he now lives he lives by faith in Christ, 'WHO LOVED ME'! The inception of our Christian walk is that Christ loves us, would rather die than live without us. And he brings up the crucial point that if righteousness comes through the law, it nullifies grace. Our ongoing walk, our present behaviors, today, are completely wrapped up NOW in the propitiatory death of Christ. When he talks about nullifying the grace of God and Christ dying needlessly, he is saying the same thing as when I say "the blood of Christ plus nothing" saves us. If it becomes the blood of Christ plus not having idols, or the blood of Christ plus not committing sexual sins, or the blood of Christ plus not having habitual sin, then the blood of Christ is nullified, and Christ died needlessly, because it wasn't enough to save us.

This isn't my idea, or some weird twisting of Paul's message, this is the general message of the entire book of Galatians. This is what they were violating, this is what he is addressing. What I am saying is truly the general point of the book as a whole. Skip this and you skip the real context of the 'problem' passage. Interpret the 'problem' verses in a way that puts people under law and you commit the exact error that Paul is so hopping mad about.

Does grace advocate sexual sins, and idolatry, and habitual gluttony and smoking and orgies? Of course not!!! Let's quote the entire passage here:

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:13-23, NASB.

This, in context, paints an entirely different picture doesn't it? It's like a politician who gets quoted from an interview entirely out of context of what he was saying, making it look like he is saying something completely different.

When he says the deeds of the 'flesh', he means the deeds of the natural man, the natural mind, the non-supernatural person who is trying to do good by the law. He says, we are called to freedom! Use freedom to walk in the fruit of the spirit, not the flesh. If you try to live by the law like the Galatians, by the flesh, the flesh will win, and you become Jimmy Swaggart - you preach one thing and live something else. We do not live by NOT doing the deeds of the flesh, we live by being free, and walking in the fruit of a supernatural day-by-day experience with the Holy Spirit. This passage is all about fruit checking. Does this person seem to have any evidence that there is freedom, that there is supernatural fruit, is there an inner love and joy and peace, or is there anger and selfishness and strife and immorality? The solution to these evils is not to come under law, but to come under grace. So, if one is not under grace, and shows fruits of such, yes, they are headed straight to hell. It isn't a judgement on the behaviors, so much as it is their choice to live under the umbrella of obligation and law.

Some may say that this is too small and technical a point, who can understand it? I say, if you don't care about this, you miss the entire point of being a Christian. Christian virtue is about changing the source of the flow of motivation and thought to a free and desired and Holy-Spirit born joy. Any other source, whether it is obvious like a prostitute or concealed like a pharisee, is destined to failure. Notice that Paul looks at the deeds of the flesh that he lists as 'evidence' - they are ways to check fruit, but not the means by which one obtains the favor of God. We do not decide in the flesh, because our Sunday School teacher said so, that we are going to have peace and joy and love, and eschew orgies and selfishness. It simply doesn't work that way. One either comes under grace, and bears the fruit of that, or one comes under the flesh (law), and bears the fruit of that.

It is all about grace, and this passage, in its full context, proves that. I say, jump into the water of real scandalous full-blown grace, believe in the Father's love for you despite all that you have done or will do. The water is FINE!!!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The idolization of the 'changed life'

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:8-10, NASB.

Discipleship, sanctification, the "Lordship of Christ", the evidence of "changed lives" - these are all euphemisms for a graceless Christianity. Notice that when people speak of the "Lordship of Christ", what they mean is that through their own obedience they 'MAKE' Him Lord - not that He actually IS Lord. I guess that poor Jesus cannot make Himself Lord unless I perfectly repent. What power I have! I conjure and control God with my 'holiness' - until I fall off my little pony! If the main sign of true Christianity is a "changed life", then if those who otherwise consider themselves Christians still stumble, still struggle, still crawl off of the altar of being a "living and holy" sacrifice, then is that evidence circumspect? Of course it is, because human beings will always consider their last failure the truest evidence of what they really are, and this kind of thinking just reinforces the idea that perhaps they are not really a Christian. That just leads them into further failure, and closes the door to God, discouraging them from going to the throne of grace in their time of need. How do you think the Father feels about that whole dynamic? I don't speak for Him directly, but personally, it angers me to no end.

On the other hand, we have the actual teachings of Jesus, and Paul, and the apostle John, et all. We have numerous parables and stories depicting the tender Father-heart of God. We see Him doing miracles to prove He has the power to forgive. We see Jesus persevering with making Peter the cornerstone figure of His church, even in the face of heinous rejection and betrayal. In this case, it is JESUS who is Lord - even terrible rejection and betrayal and abandonment by all of His closest disciples could not stop Him. He raised Himself from the DEAD, and came back with mercy and grace in His heart for them. I think that for them, the first disciples, the 'Lordship of Christ' would mean something very different than the half-hearted dim-witted drivel that most people who throw this phrase around mean.

Many modern Christians thus make virtue and their own changed life an idol, a graven and false image of God. 'Holiness' seems to be the chief end of their beliefs, not grace and mercy, not worship, not a free relationship with the true living God to whose throne we can go boldly in time of need. Grace for them is only a springboard into gracelessness. It is just as ridiculous and hopeless and pointless as it sounds. You can tell by your prayerlessness that you are sitting in that place - you have the picture that 'God' always sort of hates you and you certainly don't REALLY like Him either, He just makes you feel really bad about yourself all the time. Why would you PRAY under that dynamic? No wonder that people fall away from such nonsense. It is such a bad and colorless idol! If you want to worship an idol, why not make it a fat smiling Buddha who will let you have some fun! Then you can at least enjoy yourself for a short time before you spend eternity in hell. Maybe this is a bad example, but you can bet that everyone who chooses to be outside of the church definitely believes it; and they are more right than they know!

The language of graceless Christianity enters subtly through the back door even for many who otherwise profess to believe in grace. "We must move on from the need for mercy to a 'deeper walk.'" "Yes, Christ loves us, but we must strive to become more and more holy and make Him Lord of our lives and [blah blah blah blah blah]." "I need to die to self because the mind set on the flesh is death." What they are really saying is this: "I need to take every scripture out of context and twist it to make me and everyone around me feel much much worse about our tepid relationship with Christ. Guilt-inducing conviction indicates that the Holy Spirit is really moving." I'm sure they mean well, but what they really mean is, if you don't show evidence of a truly changed life then you probably aren't a Christian. What starts with grace continues with law and obligation.

So, does this mean that we reject virtue altogether? Does sanctification, gradually increasing righteousness, discipline and holy living, have any place? Of course, don't be ridiculous. Here is a news flash: really giving over to Him in belief in His grace and His empowerment, IS DEATH TO SELF. It means I am no longer in charge of making God accept and love me. It means I give up responsibility for being good and significant. It means I give up the secret idea that I can manipulate the favor of God by a limited and flawed and short-lived repentance. Eventually you get worn down enough by the circumstances of life to realize that you can't repent very well, and that in fact you don't even WANT to keep going that way any more. It is at that point you are ready for the power and joy of knowing Him. It is a JOY to surrender everything, even our own responsibilities. However, the power to change, the power to grow in holiness, the power to sustain a true behavioral change, is not an obligation, and it is not the basis for the Lordship of Christ even for me personally. Such change and such behavioral shifts are a GIFT, a fruit, a wonderful consequence of a growing and ongoing relationship with a God who loves me like a very good father. When we shift from the universe of law and obligation over to the universe of grace, when we set our minds on the things of the Holy Spirit, love and joy and peace and kindness blossom. It is a GIFT!

Grace and mercy and the everlasting acceptance and love of God really are good news! It is so HAPPY to believe all of this, and doubly so because it is BIBLICAL and it is TRUE. It is solid and sustainable to think that we will fail, but God will forever accept us and lead us to greener pastures, and feed our hunger for righteousness. Changed living is not the foundation of Christianity, grace is. There are terrible consequences when we worship idols, even very virtuous and seemingly benign and safely harsh ones. Jesus, on the other hand, is full of grace and truth:

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” John 1:14, 17, NASB.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Boldly to the throne of grace!

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:15, 16, NKJV.

This is an awesome verse from the first section of the book of Hebrews, in which the author is going on and on and on about the excellence and superiority of Christ. He talks about His deity, His superiority over the angels, the power of His word, and His incarnation - that He became flesh. And so we come to this little gem.

He is a High priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses! He knows what it is like to be tempted, weak, and confused. He knows, He has been there. God has assumed flesh and understands!!! This was one of the points of the incarnation. He was in ALL POINTS tempted AS WE ARE. Temptation to greed, compromise, laziness, gluttony, sexual things, slander, covetousness, murderous anger, He understands it all. This is a tremendous comfort, He is never shocked by our weakness.

Now, here is another thing to notice: He was without sin. Him. HE was without sin. The obvious point of the verse is that it is clear that no one else is without sin. He experienced our weaknesses, but whereas we sin, He does not. The implication is that it is known that WE SIN. Whatever else the writer of Hebrews is talking about anywhere, being diligent to enter rest, getting discipline, being of faith, whatever, you can bet that he knew that he was talking to SINNERS. Ragamuffins, scoundrels, chest-beaters, beaten down bruised reed type of people. Weak, tempted, and NOT without sin.

If he meant that it was all in the past, but that now in Christ we are largely sinless, then why would he be going on talking about going boldly to the throne of grace? He is talking about NOW, real sin in our current experience. Otherwise we would have no further need of the throne of grace. Well, I don't know about you, but I find that comforting and a pretty helpful thing!

And here is the kicker, Jesus uses this experience, this knowledge of being weak, not to rub our noses in His success and our failure, but to foster sympathy. When we are weak and tempted and actually fail, He thinks, I know what it is like, I know the power of forces that led you to failure. Therefore I sympathize, therefore I have arranged for grace!

Now, if we are thus to come boldly to the throne of grace, does that mean we sin, and go through our obligatory guilty period, until we have enough repentance under our belt experientially under our belt that we can prove that it is OK to pray again and maybe expect favor, as long as we have excuses and promises of change ready? That isn't coming boldly!!! You think you can 'repent' better on your own without God's help? How is that working for you? When we sin, our place of healing and forgiveness and change IS the throne of grace. It is, after all, a throne of GRACE!! The only place you are going to get forgiveness and absolution and real repentance and true change is the throne of grace. You want to change, you want to repent, you want to stop certain behaviors? Where else do you think that is going to happen? It happens there, at the throne of grace. Go boldly confess freely, admit everything. It is, after all, a throne of grace!

Now here is a great thing. The seat of ultimate justice, the seat of ultimate power, the center of judgement, is also a throne of grace. If God ministers grace from His throne, you can bet that the justice that you fear in your conscience is dealt with completely. It is not a fake coping mechanism to make you feel good, a psychologist's pill to cover over your turmoil with a narcotic fog. It is truth. There may be consequences in this physical world, but the tables are turned. In all actual truth, in REAL LIFE, the ultimate seat of judgement has extended mercy and favor, and in the end that will stand forever.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Prodigal Son 6. Unapplauded Love

The story of the prodigal son:

As usual, I was thinking the other day about the prodigal son story, and I remembered a particular insight that I really wanted to share. As Henri Nouwen observes, we may identify with the younger prodigal son, or we may identify with the disapproving elder son, but God is calling us to a place where we identify with the father; the further along we get living in the kingdom of God, the more we walk in the father's shoes.

The father in this story bears a particular burden, in that he loves his sons in a way that they do not comprehend nor do they respond in kind. He makes extreme sacrifices, even to giving away half of his life's wealth, only to see it thrown to the wind to the one he entrusted it to. Still he loves. No one applauds him for still loving, no one notices that he has the world's biggest heart. He has entered a phase in life where he loves his sons for different reasons than that.

Notice that it does not seem that this icon of a father, this father who so selflessly loves, the icon of fatherhood, is able to turn out perfect and moral and well-behaved children. This is actually profound; The father, who really represents God Himself, cannot and does not control his children, and as you would imagine, they tend to get into trouble.

This is not his greatest burden, however. Let's reread this portion of the story:

“So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” Luke 15:20-24, NIV.

Notice this: no one else was watching to see if his son had returned that day. He was alone in his concern, in his hope. No one else ran to kiss him. No one else did anything except marvel that he still cared for him that much. We can imagine the servants looking on, puzzled, and thinking, "the fattened calf, NOW, for him?!"

Here is another great example of a man with this father's heart, who stood alone in loving his son, the story of David and his son Absalom. Here, after Absalom had betrayed him badly, and had almost stolen the kingdom right out from under him, and forced him into exile, was his response upon learning that in the ensuing melee, Absalom had been killed:

“And the king covered his face and cried out with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who today have saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines, by loving those who hate you, and by hating those who love you. For you have shown today that princes and servants are nothing to you; for I know this day that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.” 2 Samuel 19:4-6, NASB.

Joab his advisor, and the whole nation, were irritated at David for so mourning the death of his enemy; but David did not view him so. David stood alone in loving his son, in mourning his passing.

So the heart of a father is helplessly compelled against all reason and against all counsel to always love. Others stand ready to condemn, to judge, to be done with the boy, but the father never thinks so. Even the father's child who is the very object of his love does not understand at all; the prodigal in the story imagines only judgement, and David's son actually tried to exile him and kill him! Indeed, David had a heart after God's own heart, which is not always easy or full of rainbows and cotton candy! The father always hopes, always forgives, and is always moved by a powerful longing and hope and will to bless. It is a lonely and often sad position, but a powerful one. So is God always towards us, towards you, towards me, and so do we become more and more as we mature in Him. Condemning voices may arise against us, true voices, persuading counsel that is compelling and right, but God is more powerfully compelled by His compassion and concern. As we learn His heart toward us we begin to have this same heart towards others. This is the true heart of the pastor, the true heart of the husband and father, this powerful and sometimes irrational love that never never grows cold or runs dry. We cannot expect others to understand, it doesn't work that way, the heart of the parent towards a child is different than every other relationship.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Prodigal Son 5. The Responsible Son

The story of the prodigal son:

Sometimes, did you know, other people get blessed instead of you? Sometimes other people much less deserving than you prosper and are honored. Sometimes, God likes to forgive and bless other people to whom you would rather see "justice" meted out. Sometimes God just will not do the right things on the right schedule!

Let's take a look at another parable:

““For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. “And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ “They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’ “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. “And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. “And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ “But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? ‘Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.”” Matthew 20:1-16, NASB.

The guys hired early in the day are upset because somebody else got blessed, someone less deserving than them. We all have such a sense of exacting justice about what authorities should do for us! Jesus is teaching here, the kingdom of God is about blessing people who don't deserve it; if you don't like that kind of thing, heaven is going to be a very uncomfortable place for you!

The elder brother in the prodigal son story has the same syndrome. He has an exact sense of justice concerning who should be accepted, who should be blessed, and who shouldn't. Doesn't he have a point? If you think about it, the dynamics of this scene are absurd! No one could be more irresponsible than his brother; he took his entire inheritance, and burned through it in perhaps a few months. Then he returns in shame and rags, and his father doesn't even scold him at all! In fact, he celebrates his return! The elder son, solid and faithful, was never celebrated, but here is this fool who is dressed up, and there is the tent full of music and dancing!! They're DANCING!!! Yet here he is, he never left, he never did anything wrong, and yet he was never celebrated, never the center of attention. No one danced, no music was played in celebration for him, for consistently doing the right thing.

Should he sin all the more that grace might increase? Shouldn't he do some dramatic wrong so he can also get a party? What good is the father's answer here - "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours." That's it? It doesn't even feel like anything is different for him after that speech; nothing feels like it is really his, and he is still stuck here with nothing except the responsibility, and no stinking party, not even a goat. He is angry, he gets no reward for his hard-earned responsibility and his brother gets fattened calves and music and dancing for his foolishness. The world is turned around, his father is a fool!

In Numbers, we have the strange story of Balak, who tried to hire Balaam to curse Israel:

“Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.” Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.” So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab. And he took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce, whom the LORD has not denounced? “As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, And shall not be reckoned among the nations. “Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!” Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!” And he answered and said, “Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”” Numbers 23:4-12, NASB.

If you read the context, here is a group of people who have been forced to wander in the wilderness for many years, whom the ground swallows up, who have been disciplined and punished and who complain bitterly about all of it. Yet, even unknown to them, God defends them against enemies, and calls them blessed! I wonder if the Israelites would agree?! This is the same spirit as the elder brother; they and he do not see that they are blessed, and the blessing they have and will have are not recognized by them, they do not perceive their position and give thanks. Thus, when someone else is blessed, the brother becomes angry, because what he sees is that this person IS blessed while he IS NOT.

What we really see between these two brothers is this: they both resent their father. They deal with that resentment differently - the younger acts out and parties and squanders, and actually leaves. He is brash and foolish. The other, in his resentment and quiet angry responsibility, stays and smolders. Neither likes the way the father handles things, it is just that the older brother is able to maintain a veneer of respectability while the other wears his discontent on his sleeve. The only difference is how they act out or handle their discontent and ingratitude.

Here is the thing to learn from this: can we look on God, our Father's blessing and mercy and grace given to someone else, when we ourselves do not feel celebrated or recognized for the moment, and rejoice? Do we like to see others celebrated? Are we envious when others are noticed, received, forgiven, paraded, honored? Can we walk in the quiet knowledge that we are loved and cherished by our father when that is manifested in a common and undramatic, daily sort of way? We will be very uncomfortable in heaven if we can't dance and enter the celebration with all the angels when the Father bestows blessing and honor and grace on another sinner. Heaven is all about grace, and that means there is going to continue to be a lot of blessing flowing to people who do not appear to deserve it. We can choose either to rejoice and celebrate, or to resent and sulk. The father's will is for all of us to rejoice and dance. Isn't He wonderful?!