Foolishness, Wisdom, Love

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It is Sunday morning, and I am not going to church today, because my white blood cell count is down, and I am not brave like my friend Erika who puts on a surgical mask and gets out there in the world. Of course, Erika looks pretty adorable in her mask, and I just look kind of scary. Seriously, what do you think when you see a person wearing a mask? “I wonder what sort of terrible disease that person has?” And this, of course, brings up another question, which is why can’t I get over this concern over what other people think of me???

Anyway, since I am not going to church, I thought I’d write a Stumbling Scripture Studies blog, since I’ve had a thought or two, perhaps even interesting, that is shareable. And as always, please don’t think I write these blogs just to tell you what I think, or what you should think. I am very interested in your pertinent, nice and creative perspectives. And your prayers. These Stumbling Scripture Studies, at least at this point, are a record of my own struggles in this journey.

The Bible reading track I am on is currently in 1 Corinthians chapters 2 and 3. These chapters have really captured the essence of my problem, which is the wisdom of this world coming up against the foolishness of the message of the gospel. Hey, that’s not my assessment. That is Paul’s. Time and again in these chapters, Paul states that the things of God are foolishness to the natural man, and that “If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor 3:18-19)

The point where I am in my faith is that I have resolved that I have been called to it, and that I am going to return to it however many times I run away. But it seems impossible for me to read the Bible or study my faith without looking at it through the  lens of the skeptic’s glasses. When I read this stuff about the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of God, half of me says, oh, aha, that is my problem, while the other half of me says, maybe this is because it really is foolishness. I can actually lay out that argument far more easily than the argument for faith’s wisdom. There is no argument for it. It is impossible to “witness for” the faith. When I read the scripts laid out for this purpose, it makes me cringe.

Faith, to me, is purely experiential. It can’t be argued, it can’t be taught. It has to be experienced. There have been enough times in my life that God has spoken to me, has acted in my life, that I have to open that door to him. But I think this is something anyone needs to experience for themselves. “Witnessing?” This is the only thing that I have ever been able to say to anyone that has made any sense: ask God to reveal himself to you. Say, “God if you are real, show me.” I used to say this with absolute certainty that God would do just that if given an opportunity. I still believe that. But in the many, many, many years since I first became a Christian (44 years to be precise), I have learned that resistance to the voice of God is deep.

Paul gives us a promise, however. He tells us that if we get over our wise old selves and allow ourselves to be fools, that the deep wisdom of God will be revealed to us. And I want that deep wisdom. I long for that deep wisdom. So let me be a fool.

If I should be wrong, and God doesn’t exist, and Christianity is just foolishness, what harm will be done if I am a fool? NONE. This is not to say that harm isn’t done in this world in the name of Christianity. It most certainly has been done, from early days through our own times. In this country today, the marriage between Christianity and the political right has been a spiritual disaster. It has bred a hate and intolerance that is completely out of step with what Jesus taught. It has bred a lack of caring for the needy among us that is purely Pharasaical, and which has been condemned by the Bible from start to finish. The Old Testament laws looked out for the poor, instructing landowners not to glean all from their fields, but to leave some for the poor among them to use. The early chapters of Isaiah may talk about the judgment on Israel for being unfaithful to God, but over and over again it talks about the greed of Israel and its lack of care for the poor. Isaiah says:

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Jesus, when he lived on this earth, did not hang out with the rich. He did not fulfill what the Jews of the time wanted, which was to overthrow the Roman government and restore the glory of the Kingdom of Israel on earth. He came and cared for the poor and the sick. He had compassion on those who were hungry and fed them, and on those who were sick and healed them. He taught us that the greatest commandment is that we love God with all our hearts, and second only to that is that we love one another. He gave us a very specific picture of what this means in Matthew 25: 34-46:

Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?” And the King will answer, “Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” 

Then he will also say to those on the left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the evil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they will also answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

As far as I can see, the right wing agenda falls squarely on the left hand, and it has given the world a bad taste for Christians and Christ. But this is not who Jesus was. Many of us want to hide our faith because of this perception, but we can’t. As a recent article in Sojourner magazine put it, “We must learn how to ‘come out’ as Christians.” We need to show people that we live the love that Jesus taught. It is not up to us to judge the world. If we have faith, we should be absolutely assured of God’s ability to communicate to each individual what he wants for them in their own lives. If we have faith, we should not fear that we don’t have enough to share. If Jesus could feed 5,000 people with a few fish and loaves of bread, surely we could take in some refugees!

I have a long, long way to go to meet the standards of love that Jesus taught. I need to get off my duff and do it instead of just talking about it. Following Christ without reservation can only foster that in my life, and hopefully let others know that God really does love them. It will help me to become a mature believer to whom the deep things of God may be revealed. If I am a fool, well I will be a fool who has led a better life, and been a better person, for traveling the road I have chosen, or which has chosen me.

Stumbling Scripture Studies: How to have faith

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I am currently in a discipleship program which includes doing daily Bible reading, and then writing about it in a SOAP format: Scripture, Observation, Application and Prayer. You pick a specific verse out of that day’s readings, write it down, write a little about your observations of this scripture, how it applies to your life, and then a prayer based on this scripture. These are supposed to be short, like a line or two, less than a page total, but of course mine go on and on and on. In fact, I often have trouble sticking to just a single verse, and instead write about the whole chapter or several verses. I often feel that God is speaking to me here, telling me things of value to me. I thought that sometimes I would share them, in case they might be of value to anyone else.

Today’s New Testament reading was John 12. This chapter occurs right after Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, and takes place in the same location. In John 11, I was struck by the reaction of the Pharisees to this miracle. “What shall we do? For this man works many signs. If we let him alone like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” (vv 47-48) I marveled at this reaction. This man resurrects someone who had been dead for four days, and it doesn’t occur to you that he may be more powerful than the Romans? But then I thought, well, they were right in a way. Jesus didn’t overpower the Roman Empire. He died. Jerusalem fell.

Chapter 12 continues to deal with this issue. Jesus was speaking about his coming death, but “The people answered him, ‘We have heard that the Christ remains forever, and how can you say the Son of Man must be lifted up?'” (v 34)

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19 says, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.” Hmmm. This was absolutely true for those first century Christians. These were the people who walked with Jesus, who sat at his feet when he taught, witnessed his miracles, watched him die, saw him after his resurrection. They suffered persecution, floggings, and imprisonment, and every single one of them suffered horrific deaths for his faith. This, of course, is one of the arguments for the truth of Christianity. These were the eyewitnesses. You might stretch the truth to have a good time, but would you endure persecution for it? Would you die for it?

Others, though, “the people,” they still had expectations in their minds of who and what the Christ was to be and do. They tried to put Jesus into that pre-made box and he didn’t fit all that well. They wanted a political savior who woud free them from Roman rule and restore the glory of the kingdom on earth as it had been under David and Solomon. So Jesus posed difficulties. They were the original believers in the prosperity gospel. They were not prepared to accept the suffering Messiah of Isaih 53. They were not prepared to suffer themselves for a kingdom they could not see.

Except that they had seen it. They were right there in the very place where Jesus had raised a man who had been dead for four days! How could they not believe, having seen that kind of evidence? Yet they didn’t. We might think that they are without excuse because of what they had seen, while we get a bit more slack because we didn’t witness this. But God still works. I know that I have felt God’s presence, have heard him speak to me, have seen him at work in the events in my life and the lives of those around me. I can say that those who witnesses Jesus’ miracles are without excuse, but am I not also, if I have once heard his voice? “Did I really hear that?” “Was Lazarus really dead?”

What got to me most, though, was another group of people mentioned in John 12: “Even among the rulers many believed in him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue, for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (vv 42-43) Now again, they had just witnessed Jesus raising a man who had been dead for four days! They are way without excuse, right? I mean, if I was there, I would have believed. I would have confessed! Right?

I have to admit, in my struggles with faith, this has actually been one of my problems. I love the praise of men. And women. As in, I want to be lovedand respected even. Now this is actually true for people inside the church as much as the people outside. The thing is that most of the people who love me are outside the church, as in far outside. Their attitudes toward Christianity generally range from complete disinterest to complete disdain. Yes, this is my family, and most of the people in my circle within the community. I will admit that when I hear sermons, I frequently imagine them sitting next to me rolling their eyes, or saying, “oh my God,” and not in prayer! I hear their derision ringing in my ears.

And the thing is, I get it. I have thought all of those thoughts. I can’t even say from an intellectual standpoint, “You are wrong.” Apologetics is never going to prove anything to anyone. I know because it has never proven anything to me. You have to have faith to get it. Faith is a gift from God, and when you say “no thank you,” you just are never going to get it. 1 Corinthians says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (v 18) The Jews require a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom, and the cross is nothing to them, “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (If you are reading this and you are wondering, you are called. Maybe this is your call. Just say yes and see what happens.)

This is the whole key, I think. In the last couple of weeks I have come to see it as the answer to everything, that last paragraph. It is not an easy answer to accept, and yet it is also the easiest answer of all. Well, one thing for sure is that I have been called. From the age of nine, raised in a completely non-religious family, I was seeking for this God who was calling to my heart. Since I found him, I have tried to get away, and I always get called back. It’s happened so many times now that I have decided to quit trying to escape and to try instead to hang on. It’s a bumpy road sometimes, but I am still here.

One other point, about Jesus’ kingdom not being of this world. That does leave us in a quandry if we require evidence. But are we really most pitiable? I don’t think so. I am a mystic at heart and I love to see the transformative power of God at work in my life, and in the lives of the people around me. Even when it’s hard. Even when it hurts. It is beautiful.

Father, thank you for calling me and keeping me. Let me walk the streets of your unseen kingdom in this world. Take my hand and guide me, show me where to go, where to look, as you prepare my heart for what you would have me do. And give me the strength and courage to do it. Thank you, Lord.

Amen.

My prayer for Understanding

One of my previous blogs is about to disappear, and in the interest of saving it I am copying some of my previous posts into this blog. This post was from March 1, 2016

img_2646This is what I have been praying for lately. Understanding. As I wend my way once again through the verses of the Old Testament, I ask God, how am I to read this? What is this to mean for me? And also, what answers can I give to those who question you, your existence, your goodness, your love?

Two of the most valuable teaching series I have heard in my life were at Faith Fellowship, many years ago. The best one was on Deuteronomy. Pastor Gary Mortara lifted that book right out of history and plopped it down in the middle of our lives. It was no longer just the story of the ancient tribes of Israel preparing to enter the geographical areas God had promised to them as a home. It was the story of each of us, of me, of God preparing me to enter my own Promised Land, the land that God has prepared for me in this world, where the paths lay that will lead me to the highest place he has for me. God’s admonitions to the nation of Israel became his admonitions to me. His commands to the Israelites to kill off all who might lead them astray were commands to me to kill off everything in my own life/heart that might prevent me from sticking to the path and claiming my own Promised Land. This sometimes difficult Old Testament book took on a new life that lit my soul.

Well, I didn’t make it into the Promised Land at that point. I used to read the Old Testament and see all the unfaithfulness of the nation of Israel and say, tsk tsk, how awful they were. I have to laugh at that arrogance now! Now I tend to read it and say, yeah, that’s me. I probably would have done that same thing, or something equally unfaithful. Once I came to that understanding, reading the Old Testament became personal. I am a microcosm of the nation of Israel, and all of God’s dealings with them, all of his words to them, are to me.  Is that the whole purpose of the Old Testament, the fullness of its understanding for me? I don’t know, but I do think it is probably the most important.

Today, a part of my Bible study was in Psalm 119. I highlighted verses as I read it, and when I looked at what I had highlighted, I saw that it was my own prayer:

(124) Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love, and teach me your statutes. (125) I am your servant, give me understanding, that I may known your testimonies. (132) Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name. (133) Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me. (147) I rise before dawn and cry for your help; I hope in your words. (169) Let me come before you, O Lord; give me understanding according to your word! (171) My lips will pour forth praise, for you teach me your statutes. (174) I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight. (176) I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”

And then after it, on the same page, I saw a verse I had previously highlighted, which stood out to me as the answer to this prayer, in Psalm 121:7-8 …

“The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forward and forevermore.”

Here is one lesson to carry away from the Old Testament. God’s love is pretty sturdy. You read about the grumbling, whiny, complaining, faithless nation he loved, and yet he still loved them. Individuals who were completely beloved of God were terrible sinners. David committed adultery, and covered that sin with murder. Yet God loved him. I have been a terrible sinner in my life. It took me quite awhile to recognize that, although most people would be able to see it in a second. Yet God apparently loves me quite a bit, based on his relentless pursuit of me! Our hearts are crazy things. I am just beginning to understand that a lot of the problem with these hearts of ours is that they crave something that cannot be found in this world.

I’m on a journey, seeking the high places. I’ll send you postcards on the way. You can pick them up right here.

Tap tap tug tug

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It’s happening again. It’s this dance that is both boring and dizzying. And embarrassing, humiliating, humbling. I am feeling this tap tap on my shoulder, this tug tug on my heart.

It’s God. Or perhaps it is just my desire for God.

There are certain things that will trigger it, and oddly enough they are generally to do with the Bible. I have a friend on social media, an old friend of my son’s actually, who posts photos of her husband with a Bible on the table in front of him, a pen in his hand, a notebook to the side. Yesterday I went to breakfast with my family, and there was a young man in the restaurant with the same, Bible open on the table, well used and underlined, a pen and a notebook. I couldn’t help myself. I kept turning to look at him. There is simply a very visceral reaction that occurs when I see these things, a deep, deep longing, a desire.

Sarah Bessey writes:

“I open my Bible, just like my father did every morning of his life. I know that this very morning, he was also in what he still calls ‘the Word.’ And I am my father’s daughter. I am in the Word, just not quite in the same way anymore. I spend these moments reading Isaiah and I pray. I write and I refill my cup, I bow my head over these sacred words that i love all the better for the wrestling to release them from the prison I built for them…. I cling more to the Bible now than I used to; I lean more heavily on the stories and promises, on the visions and the hope. I am challenged and changed in ways I never was when I took every word literally — now that I take them so seriously. Now the Bible places a demand on both my mind and my heart; now I finish with my hands open and prayer in my throat, a fire in my bones and worship rising up, and the ferocious appetite to be transformed, even more, into the likeness of Jesus, into the heart God has for humanity.”

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah what are you saying? How did you do this? How do you divorce the oft times viciousness of the ancient tribal understanding of God from the reality? Where do you draw the line? What is God and what isn’t?

And if it is not all true, why oh why would we spend so much time and energy on it? If there are cracks in the foundation, how can you build on it?

I am still angry. I feel kind of like a wife who is continually lured back into a relationship with a husband who is just slightly abusive. What is it? Why is it? I have been down this path before. I have said, no, no, no, I don’t want to go. Yet I have been slowly drawn back. Each time, though, there has been that little bit of extra distance. I have never forgotten the betrayal, so that when I see the signs again I may choose to not give attention to them, but I can’t just ignore them. They are big, black, glaring spots on my field of vision.

I don’t see the point really. It’s just that this desire keeps stirring in my heart, and desire is beyond reason.

Let me love

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Part of my daily Bible reading is from a schedule that my church follows. This morning I was supposed to read 1 Corinthians 12, but for some reason I got carried away and kept right on going into chapter 13. Now this is a beautiful chapter, for sure, one of the most beautiful in the Bible. You will find it on posters and greeting cards, coffee cups and plaques. It is regularly read at weddings. And as a result, it has become kind of … well, boring. How many times have I come to this chapter in the Bible and thought, oh no, not again. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol … blah blah blah.” Then what did I do, skim over it? Because I read it this morning, and I can’t believe that I have ever laid eyes on these words without them making their place deep in my heart. And yet I know they haven’t, because they don’t seem to have made a dent in my behavior, or my consciousness of my behavior.

(4) Love is patient and kind; does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13

I had to confess this morning to committing all the “nots” listed here, frequently and with gusto. The good parts, well, I have some of them as well. Bearing, believing, hoping, enduring, yeah I can do that. But not always without dipping into the pool of resentment, or more to the point, not always without feeling like I should be resentful. The world kind of teaches that these days. Or maybe I am misunderstanding something? Especially as women, we don’t want to be doormats. We want to be strong women!

Well, I think it takes a lot more strength to keep on loving, to keep on giving. It takes a hugely strong character to not be envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable or resentful. Or a gossip.

I believe the greatest relationship killer in the word is defensiveness. I can see it so clearly in others. We love each other. We know we love each other. I know you love me, and you know I love you. So why can’t we look for the love in the words spoken to us? Why on earth would I act as though you are out to attack me all the time? Most of the time, those who love us are not attacking us with their words. We just for some stupid reason choose to filter them through this net of, what, self-hatred? We are defensive, so we feel attacked, so we get angry, and then we actually do attack. Then the other person feels (is) attacked, gets defensive, and attacks back. How can relationships survive this kind of thing? Too often they can’t. These incidents build up like poison in the system if they are allowed to continue. And most of the time, no offense was ever even implied to begin with. It’s amazing how we can create offense out of nothing.

If only we could put the above verses into action in our lives. If we love fully and genuinely, without malice, without envy, boasting, arrogance or resentment (i.e., defensiveness!)…. If we learn to receive love instead of being irritable and looking to use the words of those who love us to justify our irritability….

Some people may be naturally like this. I am not one of them. I don’t think it would even be possible to be like this without a supernatural assist from the Lord. So that is exactly what I am praying for.

Lord, let me love!