Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Heart of the Father

(with thanks from my friends at www.sepsocal.com for the analogy)

The human heart is a marvel of engineering -- beating about 70 times a minute, over 100,000 times a day on average. Its four chambers collect blood from the veins, push it to the lungs, collect it, then send it out to the body again, in a double thump-thump beat that is recognized as a sign of stability and comfort.

The heart's chambers are also a model of how God deals with all of us as his beloved children.

The task of the first chamber is to gather up from the rest of the body the tired blood that no longer contains life-giving oxygen. That blood needs new life -- new energy -- and can only receive it by returning to the heart for renewal. The second chamber pumps that blood into the lungs. That 'old' blood is buried, in a sense, in the life-giving oxygenated sacs that take away the carbon dioxide and renew the blood as the carrier of life.

The third chamber receives this renewed blood from the lungs, collecting what has now been filled with the 'breath of life.' And the fourth chamber powerfully propels the life-giving blood out into the body, distributing that renewal wherever it is needed.

These four chambers represent our spiritual rebirth. The first chamber shows we must "Return" to the heart of the Father, who has called us out of the lifeless existence we have without him, and that he accepts us in his grace. The second chamber says we must "Let Go" of the old, death-bound idea of independence from God, change our attitudes toward him ('repent', in biblical terms) and be buried, as it were, in the waters of baptism. The third chamber tells us to "Be Filled" with the Holy Spirit and be prepared by his work in us for greater spiritual service. And the fourth chamber says we aren't just called to enjoy this ourselves, but our calling is "And Go" into the service of God, giving that same life we've been blessed with to others we meet.

Those four double-beat terms are a reminder to us, just like our heart beats constantly with a double-beat life-giving rhythm, of the infinite love of our life-giving God who wants all of us to "Return" "Let Go" "Be Filled" "And Go". Our Father calls us back to himself, urges us to give up our lives of sin and selfishness, be renewed by the Holy Spirit's life-giving presence, and then spread his life-giving message of grace to all his other children who are starving for that new life.

Next time you feel your pulse, or hear a heartbeat, stop and appreciate those four chambers beating so faithfully on your behalf, and hear the voice of our Father calling out to us: "Return -- Let Go -- Be Filled -- And Go." I don't think I'll ever hear a heartbeat the same way again. Will you?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who Goes There?

This morning I read about a poll of 1,648 adults in the fall of 2007 who believe that at least half of Americans will "make it into heaven" according to a story in Religion Today. Which proves that, among those who expressed opinions, you and I have a better than even chance of making it. --That is, if you believe opinion polls have any effect on God's decisions.

But that poll opens up a bunch of other questions. For instance, where do people go when they die; why do you call it heaven; and how do you get to wherever the good place is? And do all Christians automatically get into the good place, or is there more to it?

Heaven is described in the Bible as the place where God lives, or the place of his immediate presence (1 Kings 8:30, Deuteronomy 26:15, Matthew 6:9, etc). Stephen "gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand" (Acts 7:55) Because of these verses, we could say that 'being with God' is the same as 'being in heaven.' To make matters more immediate, Paul said in Ephesians 2:6 that we are already "in the heavenly realms" with the Father and Jesus. So in some sense, because we are "in Christ", we are already "in heaven!"

So if you're here, and you're also there, where do you go when you die? Paul said he wanted to 'go and be with Christ' in Philippians 1:23, so he believed that after death he would be where Jesus Christ is. He's not clear in that passage whether he meant immediately in the sense of time as we know it, or whether he meant after Christ's return, when the living and the dead will meet the Lord together (1 Thess. 4:15-17, 1 Thess 5:10). And the timing is really a less important issue than the togetherness. However it turns out, we get to be face to face with God forever (1 John 3:2) and I don't think we'll be disappointed!!

But who goes there? If the people in the poll are right, not even all the Christians get to go. But I don't think they are -- for one thing, we know that salvation is a gift, not to be earned (Eph 2:8-10, for instance) so it's not the 'best Christians' who get to go, but everyone. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (John 1:29) not just for the most obedient; and he reconciled the whole universe to the Father (Col. 1:20). The 'whole universe' would include you and me, even on our worst day.

Some nights you and I don't sleep well anyway. So I sure wouldn't lose any more precious sleep worrying about whether or not we get to be with God forever. He's already decided he wants us there, and I intend to let him get his way. How about you?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Religion Can Be a Bad Idea (Part 2)

Religion can mess up your life. Now, there are a lot of people who say they 'got religion' and it helped them. But I'm not talking about people who reform their habits when presented with a choice of 'change or die,' nor about people who appear to learn (usually late in life) that it's better to be nice to others than to be greedy and nasty.

Because when I'm speaking of religion, I'm speaking of a man-made set of beliefs that defines what a group of people are told they have to believe and live by -- a method we humans invent to claw our way up to God and jackhammer our way into his house, rather than walking through the open front door. I use a somewhat sarcastic description of that concept to try to drive home the point that it's a human-devised method, not the one God designed in the first place.

Religion has been the cause of a lot of evil in this world. The Crusades, for instance. The Inquisition, for another. The Islamic conquest of North Africa and parts of Europe during the 6th and 7th centuries AD, for another. Anybody remember Northern Ireland being torn apart by religious rivalry? And it all goes on today. That's religion for you. A set of rules to determine who's in and who's out. And the 'out' guys usually get slaughtered.

It goes from the macro level to the micro level. Some churches teach that you can't use dice to play Monopoly (and some don't play that nasty, selfish game of acquisition at all!) because dice are used for gambling. They use a spinner on a card to point to a number that tells you how far ahead to move your game icon. (Don't tell them what other people use spinners for, or icons either, for that matter.) Then there are movies, dancing, and microwave ovens. I'm serious.

Dear friends, God never designed any of that as our relationship with him. He created us to be relational, like he is (Genesis 1:26) and called us to be in his family even before he made us (Ephesians 1:3-8). He sent his Son into the world to reclaim the world (Eph 1:5 again) and did it not because we were good enough to be his kids, but precisely because we weren't good enough nor ever could be (Romans 5:6-11).

Yes, he has told us some ways we should love him, and various ways we should treat one another. But they all get back to two real rules: Love God with all you are; and love other people like God has already loved us. When those two rules seem to conflict -- like thinking you should kill someone else because you love God -- it's time to think through the problem again and see if there's a different solution, because I'm pretty sure you could find one!

May you live in peace and joy today and every day, through the love of God.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

'Religion' Can Be a Bad Idea (Part 1)

Is Christianity a religion? Would you define yourself as being religious? There may be more than one answer...

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, source of the online 'dictionary.com', has eight definitions for the word "religion". The first two fascinate me:
1.a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2.a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.

If we think of Christianity as a religion, these definitions will work -- mostly. But when I think of Christianity as a relationship between an all-knowing and all-loving and all-powerful God and his creation (which includes me) these don't work at all. The above definitions begin from a human perspective: what we decide we can believe and practice. The Bible starts from a different perspective: who God is and what he has done, and then who we are as a result.

Relationship is the basis for Christianity. The Christian doctrine of the nature of God describes a relational being, who created the universe in order to interact with it, and has loved us (that's a relationship) from before the world began (Matthew 25:34, Ephesians 1:1-4, etc). God's love for every human being is the defining principle for the whole universe -- everything else comes from that beginning point.

Religion, as it is often practiced, becomes a way for humans to create a relationship with God; we define how we should act in order for God to show us favor and interact with us. What's worse, it becomes a way for us to define who is 'in' and who is 'out.' But God says that he created a relationship with us before we could 'act right': "Even when we were God's enemies, he made peace with us, because his Son died for us." (Romans 5:10; in fact, all of Romans 5 talks about this principle.)

This makes me think about marriage, another relationship. The Amazing Joanne and I have worked out some basic rules, or practices, in how we're going to run the household and such. We're not slaves to the rules -- from time to time we have to change the rules to fit into new realities (like when she's gone for a couple of weeks). The rules only work because they all come from a decision to love each other, and we'll keep loving each other even when we have to face new circumstances and create new practices to adapt to them.

So, do you want religion -- a system that starts with us and tries to relate to an infinite God -- or a relationship that starts with God and provides an infinite love for us? (To Be Continued.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

First things first

The apartments where The Lovely Joanne and I live are being pressure-washed today so they can be painted. Apparently if you don't wash the gunk off the outside first, the paint doesn't stick, then you get this peeling mess that looks worse than acne.

The same thing is true of humans. If we try to paint ourselves with good behavior, it won't stick. Trying harder just makes us more tired. Saying "I'll try harder next time" makes the people around us even more tired! But in our relationship with God, it doesn't start with our behavior -- or even with our hearts -- it started with his own actions for us. He cleaned us off first, through Jesus Christ; and the 'new paint' goes on as a result.

Rather than telling us that we have to behave ourselves, then believe him, then we can belong -- God started by changing the situation all on his own. He tells us that we belong to him, and asks us to believe it; and only then can our behavior be changed. It looks like this (with thanks to Ted Johnston for these three B's):

Belong: Colossians 1:12 says "giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." And in verse 20, it says "and through [Jesus Christ] to reconcile to himself all things..." So the whole creation, and with it all humanity, has already been brought back into God's love and given a place of acceptance, through what Jesus already did. Colossians 2:13 says "when you were dead in your sins...God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins..." and that was before we did anything!
Believe: Our belief doesn't cause this to happen, or qualify us to receive it; it already happened on our behalf, when we were definitely un-qualified! Our belief only changes our thinking to help us see what is already true. Colossians 1:21-22 continues "Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your own minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death..." and once we fully embrace that truth, we can rejoice and thank God.
Behave: In Colossians 1:10, we're told that this life of being re-united with God does have an effect: "And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work..." But that fruit only comes because we are already adopted into God's household; it's never a means to convince God to adopt us, because he already has. We start making a decision every day to live like what we truly are -- God's dear children.

"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Colossians 3:1). First things first: we do belong; we need to believe it, then and only then can we behave like it.

May we all learn to live within that truth.