Seeing the Bigger Picture…

A certain tweet caught my attention earlier today. It was quoting the famous theologian, John Calvin, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” This bugs me.

It bugs me because it implies that part of the Christian’s duty is to defend God – to pick apart “liberal” arguments about who Jesus was/is, the truth of Scripture, or Christianity’s exclusivity. I will say that part of our duty is to be critical of not only the arguments of those who disagree with us, but our own as well. But this does not mean we must constantly go on the defensive mode every time our beloved doctrine (whichever one that may be) is questioned.

It’s not a new thing to say that as followers of Christ our lives ought to reflect His; it’s what it means to be Christian (“little Christ”). And yet I find it quite strange that many of my fellow Christians (and oftentimes myself) aggressively defend our “close-handed” beliefs (beliefs that we must not let go of). Jesus didn’t play the religious game and that’s why He was able to win arguments in His encounters with the religious elite. If life is a game, He changed the way it was played back to the way it was supposed to be played all along.

What did He have in His life that we’re lacking? Well, besides a direct line to God’s office, He had what Scripture calls wisdom. He saw through the arguments of His religious peers not because He was like some Harvey Spector on steroids, but because He constantly saw the bigger picture. In the grand scheme of life, our little religious bickering about how perfect the Scriptures are or aren’t, about how the Trinity works or doesn’t work, or about how God will only admit into heaven those who have faithfully believed in Jesus or if He’ll make some exceptions – none of it matters.

What matters is the bigger picture: Knowing and sharing the love of God. In Luke’s gospel, a rich ruler tells Jesus that he had upheld the commandments of God since he was a kid. But what does Jesus tell him? “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” (Luke 18:22). Jesus told this rich man – and all those within earshot – that striving simply to live out the commandments of God, to live out the law, was not enough; it is to live as justly, graciously, and generously as God. Simply, it’s to live like Him.

I am not saying we are all like the rich ruler who had everything and yet lacked what was most important. But I am saying we run the risk of missing the point – missing the bigger picture of life – when we “bark” to defend our Master. I believe God created man and not the other way around – so to describe God in a “What we would do” manner is to degrade Him. And last time I checked, our Master was flogged, stripped, and crucified and His “faithful” dogs ran with their tails between their legs.

God is a big guy who can clearly defend Himself if He wants to. What often troubles our inner religious selves is that God doesn’t want to defend Himself; He wants to defend us. Why else would He sacrifice His own Son – His own spittin’ image – on the cross?

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” – John 15:13

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Shut Up and Lead…

In a post I wrote a month ago, I talked about my frustrations with biblical scholarship – lack of heart-felt belief underneath the opinions, focused more on their arguments than encouraging one’s faith, etc. In that post I said that when it gets right down it, poetry still speaks clearer to me than scholarship. After reading poems from Taylor Mali and subsequently writing a few of my own, I’d have to say I feel as though I’m just now beginning to find my stride as a writer.

Four years ago, almost to the day, I read Blue Like Jazz for the first time and found myself itching to write. Donald Miller speaks with such brutal honesty that I no longer felt uncomfortable putting words to paper – words about my pain, my sins, my errors in life. With the content of that book and also the way in which it was presented, Don made himself a relatable person. He wasn’t teaching, preaching, or pounding anything into our heads; He was simply revealing deep, possibly embarrassing parts of his life. Like the Navy SEAL he writes about in BLJ, he sat down beside us, got cuddly-close, and showed us being a follower of Christ doesn’t have to be an intimidating or militant or dogmatic experience. It just requires you.

Every last bit of you.

When I read Don’s blog a couple days ago, I liked it. He brought out an ever-important and often-ignored point: Jesus doesn’t require the best of the best to lead His people; He requires the willing. He requires those who don’t want their lives to be about their names, their books, their arguments, their ministries; He wants those men and women who realize they aren’t blessing the world with their presence, but instead simply want to serve, to lead, to guide people in God’s ways. Jesus does not want religious bickering.

It didn’t take long, though, to find many on the blogosphere explode with emotional responses to Don’s post. I read a couple and must agree, there were some points that Don didn’t seem to address. But what I found lacking in almost all of these responses to Miller is what he was really talking about: leadership. Jesus’ 12 disciples were not by any means the kind of people society would want leading them, but He changed them around and look what happened: We have church today because of their work then.

Yes, scholarship is helpful; yes, opinions matter; yes, the intellectuals and theologians have done so much in keeping the faith strong. But one only needs Jesus and to be led in His ways. When Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, they left everything and followed Him; they came to Him empty handed, with nothing to offer the world but their service. And He taught them how to serve.

I’ve been briefly reading up on some major issues going on within our own government. Disagreements have gotten so bad within the White House that there might be a government shutdown, which says to me that things stop moving forward until an agreement is reached. Imagine what would happen if Christianity got so caught up in our disagreements, our arguments, our religious bickering that everyone stopped until an agreement was reached? Who would be left to lead?

No, there won’t be a global-church-wide shutdown like our government’s (at least I hope not), but that doesn’t mean certain people who are called to lead won’t venture away into the religious arguments and scholarly debates. Yes, Paul was a scholar who argued a lot, but we would be wise to realize he argued because in many cases, his life literally depended on it. Here in America, we don’t face the same challenges he faced. And while he did a lot with this theology (as scattered as it comes out in Scripture), he did more with his leading. He did more with his serving. He saw people hurting around him and did something about it. He brought them to Jesus.

A couple nights ago Tony Overstake, leader of Cross Training and a pastor at my church, gave a message about two things: compassion and action. In Scripture, especially in Jesus’ ministry, these two walk hand in hand; He had compassion and then He healed. He led the people in need. We are a people in need. We don’t need the arguments and debates; we need Jesus. We need His love, His guidance, His Being. Those stupid fishermen that Jesus picked out at the beginning of His ministry are the ones who sacrificed their lives bringing just that: Jesus. We don’t need Pharisees; we need fishermen.

Many have asked in response to Don if he might be exalting heart above head; that we need more of our hearts than our heads in order to follow Christ. From what I’ve read of Don, he says we need our hearts above our intellectual arrogance. There’s a difference. Jesus commands us to love God with all our hearts, souls, strengths, and minds – not our intellectual arrogance. If anything, our arrogance is part of the problem. It needs to die. Throughout Scripture we’re encouraged to explore God’s wisdom, God’s knowledge, and to seek His understanding; but we’re not encouraged to lord our opinions about that wisdom, knowledge, or understanding over others. That isn’t leadership; it’s idolatry.

Poets speak closer to my heart not because they speak solely with their hearts; but because so many thoughts are packed into so few little words. The two poems I’ve posted (here and here) took roughly an hour and a half each to write. It wasn’t just my emotions leading my pen; it was my mind making sure each word was right, each syllable was deliberately placed, and each letter had a purpose. Religious bickering tends to disregard the content and quantity of one’s words, and yet Jesus said, “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned,” (Matt. 12:37).

Our words, just like our lives, cannot be careless. There is too much pain, too much suffering, too much sickness in the world for us as followers of Christ to sit with idle hands and flapping jaws. Scholarship is very helpful insofar as it helps us love God with our minds; but scholarship is not a prerequisite to follow Christ. If anything, we’re to come empty handed, ready to work.

Religious Drama and Rob Bell…

Religious discussions often frustrate me. It’s not religion in general, nor is it discussions of religion that I have a problem with. Rather, it’s the drama of modern-day debates about beliefs and theologies and doctrines that irritates me. Earlier today I read a blog about Rob Bell and his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Justin Taylor, the author of the blog, gives his view of Bell’s beliefs (or how he understands them anyway) and then essentially states where he stands in it all.

That doesn’t bother me.

Bloggers do that all the time.

I’m doing that right now.

But when I hopped onto Twitter and noticed that Rob Bell was trending, I thought I’d take a look as to why. And what I found was very irritating, even appalling. Most people who posted about Rob Bell had cast him off as destined for hell because of his beliefs (as if they had a say in his fate). One post even went so far as to say, “Rob Bell, when you feel the flames of hell tickling at your feet… then you’ll believe.”

Simply disgusting.

There were some who defended Bell and still others merely posting a link to the blog I read and those few tweets helped give a little balance to the whole controversy. And yet it still bugs me that we as followers of Christ feel entitled to cast someone into hell because his beliefs don’t align with the rest of ours. I’m not defending Bell’s theology; that’s a different discussion. But what I absolutely hate is the need to make a huge dramatic scene about someone’s beliefs… especially when they aren’t new.

Rob Bell’s seemingly-Universalist beliefs have been known for a while; he just wasn’t as hard-lined about them as he is now. (I must add that it is not entirely clear if Bell believes in Universalism; see here.) To my understanding of Universalism, it says we’re all going to heaven no matter what we believe. This doesn’t really excite me in any way. If I believe that hedonism is the real path that we should all follow, then by practicing what Christianity regards as sin, I’ll be able to join those Christians in heaven? It does not make any sense. But this is my opinion.

What I am more frustrated with, though, is the whole need for a controversy. Why do we feel the need to draw a line in the sand between those who are “right” and those who are “wrong”? Didn’t Jesus affiliate Himself on a regular basis with those who were “wrong”? Didn’t He say that He came to call sinners to repentance? And yet we say goodbye to Rob Bell and people like him because he has a “sinful” theology. It smells like hypocrisy to me.

According to his video, which the blog also posted, Rob Bell is – in his mind – preaching a loving God. And yet we have the nerve to say he’s going to hell? Whether he is or isn’t a heretic is irrelevant; what is relevant is the fact that the decision of his salvation does not belong to any one of us. We’ll say, “Well, the Bible says that Jesus is the Way,” but the Bible also says “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged,” (Matt. 7:1-2). Condemn yourself if you want to condemn others.

Rob Bell’s beliefs are part of a discussion. Joining that discussion means keeping our own judgments about those who disagree with us to ourselves. We can state our beliefs, we can explain why we believe them; that’s encouraged in conversation. What isn’t encouraged is casting our judgment onto those who believe something different. That’s what causes a lot of wars. People die in wars. Why should we keep the religious drama going when we want to live?

In regards to the discussion, I must say that I believe Jesus and Jesus alone is the Way to eternal salvation with God. I have believed that from day one, was aggressive about it early on, but now realize that an aggressive gospel such as that of Jesus is a contradiction in terms. Jesus’ gospel is there whether we deny it or embrace it. He doesn’t want us to follow Him because a few preachers screamed at us that we’re going to hell if we don’t; He wants us to follow Him because we want to follow Him. He wants our hearts. He wants us to choose Him.

If there is a stance I’m taking, it’s this: I have made the decision to live my life according to Jesus and His teaching. Whether or not Bell’s theology is right or wrong doesn’t matter to me; that’s Rob Bell’s decision. I should decide whether I agree or disagree with his beliefs, but I cannot determine his eternal placement.  Nobody except Jesus will decide if I’m going to be with Him in heaven (or the resurrected world – see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope) or cast down to hell. According to the words of Jesus, the same will apply to Bell. But Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the Judge (Matthew 25).

Face Down in the Bloodied Mud…

Urges to write overwhelmed me during yesterday morning’s message from Danny O’Neil, my pastor. At Calvary Fellowship, we’ve been going through a series of messages highlighting the plain and simple aspects of the Christian faith. Actually the series title is Christianity, Plain and Simple. Last week, Danny talked about religious noise and how it bogs down the beauty of Christianity as a whole. And this week, he brought into the discussion the ongoing debate revolving around evolution and the origins of life. His main point: scientific theories such as evolution or the Big Bang Theory do not contradict the essential elements to the Christian faith.

What I couldn’t help but think of after hearing that was all the different subjects prevailing (or plaguing) Christian discussion in modern-day times; inerrancy, the Trinity, Christology, etc., etc. There is one common theme that I can’t ignore in each of these issues: where do you stand?

Much of Christianity is segmented into small little groups as if they were NFL teams; the Reformed Calvinists, the Radical Lutheranists, the Anti-Noninerrancyists, the Mars-Hillians, and on and on they go. We create neat little logos with neat little phrases about why our team is better than yours and throughout it all, we constantly remind people of where we stand.

No, it isn’t just Christians that do this; many religious or anti-religious groups do this as well. But the undertone in each of the groups is the same: where do we stand? Do we believe that every word of the Bible as we have it was literally breathed out by God or is there more complexity to it? Do we believe that all of creation was created in six days or millions and millions of years? Do we believe that the gospel message is the Bible as a whole or quite simply the cross of Christ? This is where my heart was led during Danny’s message yesterday.

Everything unravels when we come to Christ’s cross; all our pretentions, our religious affiliations, our “right” beliefs. It all falls apart when we see His flesh torn open, when we smell His blood pooling at the base of the cross, when that deep chill runs up our spine and freezes our heart because we realize that none of the religious differences matter; what matters is Jesus.

You might say, “Well that’s where you stand and now you’re going to start up an expansion team for the Christian Debate League that takes a few phrases from a major theologian and then argue against all the other teams.” Having the cross of Christ as the only thing that matters to the Christian faith, however, is nothing new.

Paul says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” – 1 Cor. 2:2. It was clear to him that the urge to divide and ridicule the other groups was not a primary tenet of Christianity; it’s not what the cross means. As Danny went through his message, I couldn’t help but think of where I might stand. It was only a few moments before I realized that I do not stand on any side.

Seeing His body bloodied and beaten and ripped apart beyond recognition and knowing that it wasn’t any religious group He was dying for, but rather my sins, my failures, my greed, my pride, my ego, my ambitions, my arrogance, or just simply, me – it makes my knees quiver. It causes my heart to stir and tears to fall and before I know it, I’m face down in the bloodied mud beneath Jesus’ cross. My hands clench the red-stained earth in anger, in frustration, in grief, in a whole wave of emotions that is too much for my body to physically bear and therefore causes it to shake. I’m barely able to breathe. My teeth grit and grind at the thought of each nail being hammered in to His arms and legs, each whip gouging into his skin and ripping it off the muscle and bone. Thinking of what Christ went through to break the chains around my ankles and wrists does not compel me to pick a side to stand on; I can’t stand at all when I come to the cross.

No matter how many words I could ever write about religious divisions, they will always be there; as long as sin prevails, so will our little teams. But what we can never forget is that before we had any power to prevail over anything at all, Christ prevailed over death. Most – if not all – of our religious or theological differences, as my friend Brad always says, come down to a choice. And when it comes to picking a religious division with its neat little slogan and its neat little logo, I choose those of Jesus: His crucified body and His words, “It is finished,” – John 19:30.