Not against religion

I just can’t take it anymore. The next time I hear someone say “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship,” well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I won’t remain silent any more.religion.jpg

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said this myself! I’ve said lots of things. only some of them have been recorded.

But I’m a paid religious professional. You could assume I am responding defensively. I don’t think that’s it.

This last time I heard the “relationship, not religion,” talk, a few days ago from a Christan band member at a concert, I finally realized what’s wrong with the comparison.

They’re getting religion wrong.

The word “religion” occurs famously one and only one time in the Bible. That’s once in the King James Version, the NIV adds a few more. But the KLV, NIV, and NRSV all agree that James 1:27 includes the word “religion,” and the verse – I’ll share the NRSV – says this:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The band man – I didn’t catch from the video exactly who was speaking, defined religion as being about rules and laws and guilt and shame.

If that’s religion, I’m against, it too!

Oddly, the same person who prefers to think of being a Christian as about relationship, not religion, recognizes that relationships can be harmful, but not that religion can be good.

Maybe he hadn’t read James?

That’s more likely than that he is opposed to caring for widows and orphans and learning to keep oneself unstained by the world.

 

 

I don’t always agree with me

Tom Wright, I believe, said something like, “I believe I’m right 2/3 of the time. The challenge is that I am never sure exactly which 2/3 that is.”

I’m pretty sure I agree with him about this. What I mean by that is that I recognize I am not right about everything.

On the other hand, everything I think I understand or believe, I also believe I am right (or correct) about. One can’t affirm that one is right about something and at the same time claim to be wrong about that, after all.

Global DisasterBut, then, I’d also have to admit that I don’t always agree with me.

That is, when I consider the way I understand and believe some things now, I can see how my perspectives have changed over the years.

This may be news to some of you, but I do not see the world, understand the world, believe exactly the same things about the world, as I did when I was, say, 25.

I don’t always agree with me.

Thankfully, I have learned to give myself some grace in this, because sometimes it is hard to grasp. On some things I’ve changed quite a bit.

The biggest challenge I feel in all of this is I often wonder how the 54 year old me would communicate with the 25 year old me. This is a challenge because the way I remember the 25 year old me, I wouldn’t (then) have wanted much to do with me (now).

Many of the changes I have experienced as growth would have seemed, to the 25 year old me, as compromising my faith. Or maybe even abandoning it.

So, as I have aged, I have changed in these two ways:

  1. some of my beliefs have changed
  2. I have more grace for understanding, or at least remaining in relationship with, those with whom I disagree.

I would really, really like to think I’ve always extended such grace to others. But since I’m not so sure the younger me would have extended it to the older me, I really can’t say.

Do you always agree with you?  Do you have grace for those with whom you disagree? Do you have grace for yourself on things (beliefs, perspectives, opinions) on which you have changed?

Is God like this?

When I climb the stairs in our house to check on our kids, I usually don’t announce myself. It’s not that i want to catch them doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I would just as soon catch them doing something they should be doing.Man-Walking-Up-the-Stairs 2

In fact, I would prefer the latter.

But I still show up unannounced. And regularly, I surprise them.

And sometimes, they are (or one of them is) doing something they wouldn’t be doing if they knew I was watching.

I recalled one time, having just surprised them, that children learn much of their understanding and ideas of who God is and what God is like from their early relationship with their parents.

Which has made me reconsider my stealthy approaches.

I don’t want to give my children the idea either that God is sneaky or that God operates by surveillance. These seem to me to be training them to live by shame, or the avoidance of shame.

I don’t get the impression that this is God’s primary posture towards us. In fact, in Genesis 3, right after the incident with the serpent and the fruit, God is walking in the garden, we are told.

NOT sneaking up on the humans.

And the man and women hear God coming and hide.

God calls out to them, giving them the opportunity to approach God, to come to God, to enter a conversation with God. And God does NOT shame them.

I’m going to be more careful  abotu how I approach my children.

 

 

 

Who am I to tell you…?

question.jpgCan I admit to you here how much I hate being treated like I don’t know what I’m doing?

Except, of course, when I am admittedly a novice or rookie.

But: I’ve been at this pastoring thing for almost 30 years! So when someone approaches me – especially when they condescendingly share that it’s from the Holy Spirit – that I need to change this or stop doing that or start preaching this other way/topic/etc., I really, sometimes, want to scream.

So far, I haven’t scream in the face of anyone who has so intended to bless me.

You see, that’s the problem: in most every case (if not EVERY case), the intent is to bless, not to curse. The condescending tone belies the fact that, and I have to believe this, most everyone is really just doing the best they can.

Sometimes, someone else’s “best” includes advising me on something I have compiled a good bit of experience, prayer, reflection, and study on. So it hurts.

On the other hand: there are areas outside – even WAY outside – of my expertise on which I readily offer unsolicited and probably suggestions and insights.

Hopefully I don’t do so with any condescension in my voice.

Because, more often than not, I’m just doing the best I can.

Knowing When

as in: Knowing when to say what you’re thinking, and when not to.

Call center operator

I called 6 times before an actually person picked up. The message I received the first five times indicated I had called outside of business hours.

Business hours began at 8 am. I started calling at 8 am.

I cannot tell you how ready I was to lay into this unwitting employee when she finally answered the phone. A variety of versions of the script was rolling through my head.

Even so, that was secondary. What really mattered was the point of the call: getting a medication question answered for someone important to me.

The person who answered, as it turns out, was incredibly helpful and understanding not only in helping me solve the problem, but also in helping me understand the problem.

So much so, in fact, I decided not to bother with my lecture about being available to answer the phones the very second posted business hours begin.

Punctuality is a pet peeve of mine, and leaving an answering service on 4 minutes into the work day is not a good business practice.

Taking really good care of customers (or patients, or congregants, or visitors) IS a good business practice. It’s more important than punctuality.

Had I begun the conversation with rage, frustration, anger, condescension, it could have derailed the purpose of the call.

I think it is also a metaphor. Our denomination, the United Methodist Church, is on the precipice of division. Incivility dominates our denomination at least as much as the culture around us.

At least some of this, I believe, is because we don’t let less important things go in favor of more important things.  We are all sometimes Martha, and distracted by too things. (Luke 10:38-42.

Are we in Sync?

I saw and re-tweeted a request for prayer for Belize this morning. Our Church is sending a team on mission there in April, so it caught my attention.

That I was invited to pray for Belize wasn’t blog-worthy. The other point the tweet shared was. Apparently much of Belize has been evangelized, but there is much religious syncretism there. Syncretism is, simply put, the blending of practices and/or beliefs of at least 2 different religions.

So today Belize and the challenges of religious syncretism are in my prayers today. But I cannot prayer for such a thing in one area without it raising my awareness in others.

Which brings me to the tour of the U.S. Capitol last July. We had a great time on the tour provided by the office of Senator Jerry Moran (we were with my in-laws who live in Kansas).  Near the end of this tour, our group huddled in the rotunda so we could hear our tour guide. She invited us all to look up and see the impressive painting inside the dome itself. Painted by Italian Constantino Brumidi in 1865, she explained that the painting is called “The Apotheosis of Washington.” She translated this for us as “George Washington goes to heaven.”usa-us_capitol3.jpg

Which is, I explained later, so as not to embarrass her, technically true. But apotheosis carries much more meaning than simply “goes to heaven.”

Apotheosis was a term used by Roman Emperors in the early days of Christianity. Specifically, apotheosis was the word for the claim that after a Caesar died, he became a god.

I have never heard anyone claim that George Washington became a god. I have, however, heard the founding era in our history glorified in ways that, frankly, concern me that religious syncretism is not a danger only in other countries and for other people.

While we pray for the challenges of religious syncretism in other nations, let us also be wary of the danger of religious syncretism in our own.

Overwhelmed: Putting God on Trial

overwhelmed4forworship

We are some MESSED UP people!  The good news is that the Bible clearly establishes that we are messed up in the same ways people have always been messed up, and that God both loves us anyway, AND has already done everything necessary to deliver us from our sin and to begin our healing of our messed-up-ness.

What God wants more than anything else is for all of creation to come back into line with the way God dreamed it up and spoke it all into being in the first place.

Scripture seems clear to me that the way God intends to do this is by forming a people. Calling people out of “the world” and forming them together into a people who will live as “a city set on a hill,” “a light on a lampstand.” Maybe the world that God calls us out of is our world, our limited world, you may remember that one of the messages from the Book of Job is that your world is not the world. Peter also wrote about calling us out of the world, in that sense, in 1 Peter 2, and then writes that we are

a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. [Peter says that] You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

We are messed up people, and we are God’s people! We are God’s marketing agency, the plan through which God intends to share this incredibly good, healing, redeeming, saving message with the world!

Once, we hadn’t received mercy. Now, we have received mercy!

Now that we have received mercy, what are we going to do with it?

Will we let God work in us?

We want God to work in the world, right?  Do we have any right to expect God to work in the world if we won’t let God work in us?

I think this is one of the great challenges the Book of Job presents to us. Like Job, most of us seem to be wired to expect God to work in us by punishing us for doing wrong and rewarding us for doing right.

But I think the Book of Job is way ahead of us on this. I think the Book of Job wants to teach us that if we think of God as “punishing for doing wrong and rewarding for doing right, we’ve got our focus on the wrong god.

But, you may think, there is only 1 God. James agrees.

Yet, here we are; regularly challenged in our lives NOT to worship the wrong god. The 1st commandment, “You must have no other gods before me,” presumes not necessarily that there are other gods, but that we God’s people – God’s people who have already seen and experienced the mighty power of God to deliver and save – we have a “bent to idolatry.”

We get God wrong.

If we are honest, we have this tendency to fashion god in the form of a superhero, or, in some cases, a larger, more powerful version of us.

But we didn’t make God in our image, God made us in God’s image.

Idolatry is the most basic challenge of God’s people – idolatry is worshipping that which is not worthy of worship.

OT idols were easier to recognize than some of our idols: I mean, melting down jewelry and forming the shape of a calf and bowing down to it, that’s obvious. What might be less obvious: they called this golden calf Yahweh. AS IF something we create could grasp actual God.

Turning to football or shopping or porn or caffeine or fitness or tobacco or alcohol or social media in an attempt to fill an emptiness inside yourself, well, that’s just not as obvious.

Yet, for us, each of these and many other things tempt us, and, potentially fill, for some of us some of the time, a place in our souls that they were not made to fill.

Sometimes we turn to these things instead of doing the difficult work of healing relationships with each other. Sometimes we turn to them to fill a place in our souls that ought to be reserved for God.

And sometime it isn’t a substance or behavior that we turn to. Sometimes we turn to an image of God we have created, or had created for us.

Like the image of a God who loves people who do well and “strive to keep the commandments” and hates people who don’t keep the commandments. Or don’t try hard enough to keep the commandments.

Throughout this series on Job I am going to keep coming back to this way of understanding the world  and God because I believe this is why the Book of Job is in the bible. Much of the time our lives do work according to the principle of “good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people.”

But when your one of those good people, as Job was, and horrific things happen to you, You have to do something else. You have to find a way to see the world differently. Because nothing in the book of Job anywhere indicates that God doesn’t love Job or that God is happy about what Job is going through.

And, hopefully, you learn somewhere in the process, that the God who loves you and delivered you and saved you and is saving you IS greater than the god you had constructed.

To get there, Job put God on trial.

Or tried to, or wanted to, put God on trial. The reading this morning, from Job 10, is some of Job’s pining to face God as if in court. Much of the context of Job’s responses to his friends could be read this way. Here’s another part, from ch, 23:

Look, I go east; he’s not there,
   west, and don’t discover him;
9     north in his activity, and I don’t grasp him;
   he turns south, and I don’t see.
10 Surely he knows my way;
   when he tests me,
   I will emerge as gold.
11 My feet have stayed right in his tracks.
   I have kept his way and not left it,
12     kept the commandments from his lips and not departed,
   valued the words from his mouth more than my food.
13 He is of one mind; who can reverse it?
   What he desires, he does.
14 He carries out what is decreed for me
   and can do many similar things with me. (Job 23:8-14)

Several times in Job’s laments he is openly frustrated at God’s hiddenness.

Have you ever felt like God is hiding from you? You cry out, lament, shout, maybe even kick things, drive too fast or drink too much out of frustration for feeling like God isn’t hearing you.

You aren’t alone. I mean, besides you and Job, you’re not alone. In the book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes about  some Jews in Auschwitz put God on trial. They charged God with cruelty and betrayal and, like Job, found no consolation in the stock answers to the problem of evil and suffering especially in the midst of their current obscenity. Finding no justification for God’s silence before human suffering, no extenuating circumstances, they reached a verdict: God is guilty as charged and deserving of death. A Rabbi pronounced the verdict, then, announced that the trial was over, that it was time for the evening prayer.

It’s like the Book of Job in 30 seconds.

Put God on trial, pronounce the verdict, and then move on to evening prayer.

I invite you this morning, to put god on trial, pronounce your verdict, and move on with life.

What you’ll find is what Job found. The god you put on trial is not the God of the bible!

The gods you and I would put on trial are the gods that we have made up – the gods we have crafted in our own image, or the image of some ideal person or superhero.

The God of the bible, on the other hand, won’t fit our definitions or limitations.

Which is why, I suppose, when God appears in the whirlwind in chapter 38 through 41, God doesn’t really make an effort to answer all of Job’s questions. Rather, God has questions of God’s own to be asked.

Interestingly, I think that’s how it works in court. Both ‘sides’ get to ask questions.

But, as I processed this, I have come to believe that even thinking of putting God on trial or taking God to court can be idolatry, if it requires us to have formed an image or likeness of something that is NOT our God and worshiping it.

We want a God who has to answer to us and make us understand everything.

We find we have a God whose coming to us IS an answer.

Wanting to put God on trial means we don’t grasp the relationship that God wants to have with us!

One of the geniuses of Wesleyan Christianity, of which the United Methodist Church is a part, is the understanding that God comes to us first. Even when we think we are coming to God, or when we feel like we want to call God to us, to put God on trial or to thank God or to ask questions of God, we believe that God actually initiates all the contact.

We believe God is Creator; while God spoke the rest of creation into existence, God formed humans, like a potter forms clay. Not only that, but god also breathed life into us. And it’s no accident that breath and spirit are the same word. God breathed spirit into us!

God hears our cry, when we recognize our slavery – our slavery to sin – and God delivers us. God delivers us, leads us, feeds us, and then, after all these things, God gives us commandments. The first of which is “”You must have no other gods before me.”

Any other gods we put before God are what mess us up.

Putting God on trial, or challenging God to answer, are all things, if Job is any indication, that get us to the place of recognizing that The God, our God, isn’t any of those gods.

Our God isn’t so simplistic as “good people prosper, bad people suffer.” Our God isn’t a superhero who swoops in to fix everything you and I and others have messed up.

Our God is the One who formed us, breathed life, breathed spirit, into us, and delivered us before asking or requiring anything of us. Our God is loyal and gracious.

Last April three of us went to Panama on a mission trip. We spent several days in Santiago, Panama, working on and with a church there. We flew in and out of Panama City.

The day we flew home, we ubered to the airport a couple hours early. We found a short line ahead of us – only about 3 people, I think. But there was only one counter agent.

Ok, well, there were 2 counter agents. But the other counter agent was assigned to the Advantage program – premium fliers, whatever that category is called. He was there, but he wasn’t helping.

I suppose he was still doing his job: he was organizing the lanes for his section. You know, those poles with belts that connect them? He was making sure they were straight. So much so, in fact, that he asked one of us to please move because our backpack was infringing on where his line was supposed to be.

In line in front of us was a woman with a child, as I remember it. Waiting in line with small children can be a challenge, so I approached the person who was so meticulously attending to the straightness of his lines, and asked if he could, maybe, help some of the customers in the line that was actually forming.

He told me he had to prepare his area.

I acknowledged that, but said, “There’s no one in your line, and you’ve got it really well prepared for when someone comes. But over here there is a ine that is getting longer, and this woman with a young child could probably use your help.”

I wonder sometimes if we get the idea that God is more concerned with the form of the line, the orderliness of the boundaries, than with the people who are in the line.

In a way, I think this is what Job was pushing up against. The boundaries of “the good life” had been removed, but he was left with an image of God who was more interested in the neatness of the line than the people in the line.

It feels this way sometimes. But let me assure you this morning: God is more interested in and concerned with people – all of whom are created in God’s image – than in the neatness or order of the lines than are drawn.

Because God knows no matter how neatly these external lines are set up, we are messed up inside, and God wants to clean the mess and start the healing. Now.

Take away: What are you making up about God that doesn’t fit the biblical story of God loving all people? What are you willing to do to let go of what you make up about God that you then use against God?