“God loves me. Jesus loves me. God sent his son,” she declared, if a little woodenly.
I smiled and agreed. It’s comforting to hear those words from one’s child. But I wondered at the same time, what does that mean to a three-year old?
On one hand, it means everything. Mom and Dad love me. My brother and sisters and grandparents love me. Of course “God” loves me! Of course “Jesus” loves me! Of course “God” wants to give me wonderful things — who wouldn’t??
This kind of childlike trust and acceptance is after all, exactly what Jesus said he wants.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” ~ Matthew 18:3
But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean very much! According to famous psychologist Jean Piaget, a three-year old inhabits the illogical Pre-Operational Stage of Development and will for several years to come. It won’t be until she is approximately 12 years old that she’ll be able to begin to grasp abstract ideas, such as an invisible but real God. It will be many years after that that she’ll begin to grasp through experience what true, unconditional love and sacrifice are.
So basically, at this point, Sunday School is indoctrination. Indoctrination that some say will serve the purpose of planting a seed — but which I hope will be one of many factors nurturing the seed planted already — divinely — there. (“Indoctrination” has come to refer to a religious environment that does not allow the learner to question or criticise beliefs — but originally, it meant simply to teach.)
But in order to develop a deep spiritual life and a faith that will survive the unavoidable storms of life, my daughter will need to progress past Sunday School to wrestle honestly with her hopes, doubts and questions about the reality of a dark, dying world bathed brightly in the healing, transformative light of an eternally loving God.
Unfortunately, it’s not a given. Many adults never do progress past Sunday School — past rudimentary, exclusive Christian belief — and spend their lives justifying why they are more “holy” and beloved than others because they act, or do not act, in certain ways.
I know I’m not alone in having believed once that I needed to earn love and acceptance — from my parents, the people around me, and from God. It was never true. I was always loved and accepted for my true self. My parents tried vehemently to warn me against certain life choices purely because they loved me and did not wish to see me hurt. And they felt my pain when I was hurt.
As a parent now, I understand that. I also try vehemently to warn my children against destructive life choices. And I feel every ounce of their pain.
So does God. But, just like a good parent, he doesn’t walk off the field when we make poor choices anyway. He walks with us.
I came late to my ten-year old son’s football game recently, to see that his team was, once again, significantly behind the other. Tears leapt to my eyes, and certainly not because I was disappointed in the score, but because somehow seeing him losing only highlighted the strength of my love for him.
It was a powerful moment, and I feel that in those moments, we catch glimpses of how God feels about humanity. We feel his joy at our successes, his sorrow in our pain, his quiet, steadfast presence in our loneliness and abandonment.
What I felt in that moment was how much God loves us when we are losing.
There is nothing more transformative than seeing that we are loved when we don’t deserve it.
To him, we are not losing, but growing. And to him, there is no deserving it.
So lose sometimes, dear one — but grow! Allow some of your false exterior, the one we all carry, to be sloughed off as you see that yes…
God loves you. Jesus loves you. God sent his son.
For always. No matter what. Without condition.
This, you can never lose.
~ by Jeannine Buntrock
This message of Good News is proclaimed to a congregation on mission with Jesus “Outside the Walls “of their Church bldg., literally.
The Gospel proclaims God, Father, Son and Spirit as the God who calls human beings to participate with Him in a special and gracious way that He provides in the power of the Holy Spirit. It reminds every member of Jesus’ Body that, even like God’s great leaders such as Moses, we can often keep giving God excuses as to why we don’t follow through on what He says. In the Light of His provision and grace Revealed in Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, our Father’s command comes to us through the Apostle Paul all the same, “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.”
Check it out!
*picture courtesy of buildingabrandonline.com
There is an obscure short story by Edgar Allan Poe called “The Oblong Box,” and recently I had my beginner composition students write a literary analysis about it. The story is told from the first-person perspective of an unnamed narrator who must travel by boat from South Carolina to New York. He’s pleased to find out that among the other passengers, there’s an old artist friend and his new wife traveling. The narrator has never met the artist’s wife, but in past conversations the artist has regaled her beauty and goodness, so the narrator is looking forward to being properly introduced. The trip is delayed a few days (due to unforeseen circumstances, says the captain), but finally the narrator boards the ship, only to find his artist friend in a foul mood, the artist’s new wife looking decidedly plain yet flirting wildly with the other men on the boat, and the pair accompanied by a large oblong box addressed to his wife’s mother in New York. The narrator assumes the large box contains a painting, a replica of “The Last Supper,” though the contrast between the new wife’s appearance and what he had been told by her artist husband has him stumped. The narrator later learns [spoiler alert] that the artist’s dead wife is in the box, and the woman pretending to be his wife is her maid. The deception was necessary because at the time of the story, passengers would refuse to sail on a ship that was transporting a dead body. After a turbulent storm sinks the ship enroute, the crew and passengers must flee to the lifeboat. The artist refuses to leave the oblong box and instead, he ties himself to it and jumps overboard with it to his death.
I find this story insightful when considering the importance of the grieving process. The artist, wracked with grief over the loss of his wife, could tell no one, not even his narrator friend, that his beloved wife had died. He could not grieve what he had lost, nor could he receive support from others as he made the slow transition back to a new normal. Few people would discount the importance of grieving when it comes to deep losses, such as the loss of a loved one. However, the nature of human life is one of change and impermanence, and it’s worth considering how important it is to handle all of life’s changes in a similar fashion.
The book of Lamentations shows us that the nation of Israel was no stranger to grief, longing for what was once good but had passed away. The first chapter and first verse in Lamentations reveal the grieving that took place over Jerusalem’s destruction: “How deserted lies the city, /once so full of people! / How like a widow is she, /who once was great among the nations!/ She who was queen among the provinces /has now become a slave” (NIV). This poem demonstrates that acknowledging something good and beautiful is gone is the first part of grieving.
Sometimes the change is for something just as good or maybe better. However, any change means that something is being left behind, even if it is just the familiar. If it is something that you don’t want to let go of, it is important to be thankful for what you had and acknowledge your loss as you let it go. This could be the loss of youth or the loss of a career, but any change, even good change, means that something is going to be different. And this difference brings uncertainty.
By allowing ourselves to grieve the change and impermanence we face as human beings, we are better equipped to handle the uncertainty that comes from learning to live with different circumstances or in some new way. We reach out to others for support and comfort until we find our new normal, and we permit God to minister to us through others. By allowing ourselves to feel and express our loss and our uncertainty, we navigate the waters of grief without tying ourselves to that oblong box and throwing ourselves overboard.
~by Nan Kuhlman
photo courtesy of Hande’s blog
Do you ever feel that your spiritual exercises are producing little in the way of results? However we might measure or define the word “result” we’ve all experienced times when prayer, participation in worship, meditation, or other spiritual disciplines seemed hollow and rote. I recently came across this quote regarding contemplation, but I think it applies to all the spiritual exercises:
[Any spiritual exercise] . . .is a skill, a discipline that facilitates a process that is out of one’s direct control, but it does not have the capacity to determine an outcome. The gardener practices finely honed skills . . . But there is nothing the gardener can do to make the plants grow. However, if the gardener does not do what a gardener is supposed to do, the plants are not as likely to flourish. . . In the same way a sailor exercises considerable skill in sailing a boat. But nothing the sailor does can produce the wind that moves the boat. . . Gardening and sailing involve skills of receptivity. The skills are necessary but by themselves insufficient. ~ Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, pp. 53-54
God is not a tame creature that can be called upon to perform. God is like the wind or like a garden – we pray, we come to worship, we meditate – and when the wind blows or the seed sprouts these spiritual skills make us ready and receptive to receive what God is doing. We can’t tell the Father, Son, and Spirit when to show up, but we can follow the pattern of Jesus’ life of spiritual exercise to be ready when they do.
~ Jonathan Stepp
As the daughter of a church pastor, I’d grown up attending church every week and I even attended my denomination’s university. My Sabbath and Holy Day-centered denomination changed radically when I was a young adult, and one of the things that gave me was the freedom to explore mainstream denominations. (It also gave me a large and healthy dose of skepticism when it came to any church claiming to have all the answers.)
But my last experience, the one that ended abruptly five years ago with a succession of unfriendly, corrective e-mails and Facebook de-friendings, was a bad one. My beliefs were evolving at the time — growing and expanding — but the poor people with whom I shared a Sunday School class were not ready for that. (Bless them – now that my feelings are no longer raw, I do understand.)
Five years away from church did not leave me dying on the vine, however – with all that we are able to access over the Internet and in books, and with like-minded people to talk to, my spiritual life grew in leaps and bounds. I was doing just fine, and for the most part, so were my kids.
I didn’t want my kids to go to church and learn the things that I had had to de-program myself from in adulthood. I wanted them to skip that part.
But then I read Franciscan priest Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life and learned that kids do much better in the long run spiritually when they are permitted to experience the first half of life in all its indispensable muck and glory. No one gets to the second half of life without first making mistakes in the ego-driven first half.
That started me thinking.
And then this summer, my 8-yr old daughter attended a Lutheran summer camp because my stepdaughter was a counselor there. My daughter came back enraptured by the experience, singing all the songs I remembered so well, and talking about how great God was. She absolutely loved it.
And I realised, okay…it’s time.
But where to start? I looked around at the people I knew and there were two fellow homeschool moms who had heard my not-always-completely-orthodox views and they hadn’t run from me screaming! They attended the same church. It looked like it had a terrific program for children. So I thought, let’s try there.
And we are. So far, so good!
As for me, I’ve learned a few things since the last go-around that should improve my chances of this being a good experience.
- It’s best to focus on common ground. Just because I find something exciting and paradigm-shifting doesn’t mean that everyone around me is going to have the same reaction. We all have our reasons for holding to certain views and they are sensitive and complicated. It’s not my job to try to shift anyone’s views. I’d learned that the hard way before by thinking that something that was so wonderful and had changed my life would change another’s. But it didn’t. All it did was tragically destroy the relationship. I don’t believe this is something a God who prizes true relationship over all else ever wants.
- I don’t have to agree with everything said in church to attend there. I teach a weekly literature class to 8-10 year olds and something we are beginning to do is look for “signposts” in literature. One of the signposts is called the “Again and Again,” where repetition of an element occurs for a thematic reason. In church last Sunday, I saw the theme of the “angry Father God” repeated a few times, subtly, and mostly in the song service. I thought to myself – there it is, the mythical angry, retribution-hungry Father God: Again and Again. Another signpost is “Contrasts and Contradictions.” I thought to myself, there it is, God the Father characterised one way; Jesus another: Contrasts and Contradictions. But…the moment I stopped assessing (and there was a distinct moment) was the moment I felt my heart soften. And I thought to myself, what does God want? For me to feel smugly “right,” or for my heart to be softened by the people around me, pouring out their hearts to him in their fashion? The answer was clear. Which leads me to…
- I’m not right about everything. In truth, I’ve never felt that I was right about everything. I am aware that as humans, there is so much we don’t know and don’t understand. We could all use a lot more humility in our dealings with one another. One of the quickest ways to damage or even destroy a relationship is to say, I’m right, you’re wrong. I dabbled briefly in the anti-tradition “unfundamentalist” movement, and honestly, I found it to be just as legalistic and excluding as much of evangelical Christianity. It seems that the more people feel they are right, the more they get the relationship aspects wrong. And again, what does a loving Triune God value most?
So we’ll see how it all goes. As long as I live, I will miss the sight of my dad behind the lectern. As imperfect as my own upbringing in the church was, there is a great deal of it I am so glad not to have missed. I am optimistic that the same will be true for my children.
~ by Jeannine Buntrock
Theological Them: Idolatry is putting something or someone in the place of God – Father, Son and Spirit.
Christ Connection: The children of Israel needed a mediator to intercede on their behalf. Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and sinful humanity; He intercedes on behalf of His people.
Missional Application: God calls us to intercede for people who need Him, appealing to His character and His will as we pray for their salvation.
*photo courtesy of av1611.org
Theological Theme: God’s goodness is expressed through His sustaining grace toward His people.
Christ Connection: Moses struck the rock instead of the people, and water flowed for the people’s salvation. Jesus is the Rock who was struck for our salvation, the Rock whose living water satisfies us forever.
Missional Application: God calls us to testify to His goodness in providing for us.
*photo courtesy of pastorgraphics.com
A hijab covered her hair completely, but I could see she was beautiful. Big hazel eyes surrounded by long lashes that curved up naturally without the help of mascara. Zahra was in one of my classes, and when prompted to write about what she would do if she could do anything in the world, here’s what she wrote: “I would like to be a model or a designer of wedding dresses if money and religion were not factors.”
I could relate to Zahra as at one time my church culture did not permit women to wear make-up. For some, the issue of make-up is unimportant, and some suggest that it is society’s message to women that they don’t look acceptable without some modifications to their natural appearance. However, make-up has always been a form of art to me, wearable art, and I love dabbling in it. During the period of time when make-up was considered vain in the church culture I was a part of, I felt sad and judged, as if part of me were wrong, lacking in good character and displeasing to God.
Since that time, my church’s culture has changed dramatically, but I haven’t forgotten the important lesson I learned from feeling as if something that I found beautiful, fun, and joyful was displeasing to God. When we feel as if parts of ourselves are unacceptable to God or that what brings us joy does not bring joy to God, it breeds insecurity. We find it hard to trust a God who might not like us as we are. In our struggle to make ourselves conform to a false standard, we lose some of the beauty and joy that God intended us to have in this life.
One of my favorite stories from author and theologian C. Baxter Kruger is the story he tells comparing the gift of life given to us with the gift of a bicycle given to a young boy. He makes the point that the father who gifted the bike to the boy doesn’t expect him to go around thinking about his father as he rides, trying to make the father proud. Instead, the father wants the boy to enjoy the thrill of the ride and the fullness of the experience. Similarly, God doesn’t gift us with life and a variety of creative desires and then deny us the expression of that joy and beauty. God wants us to “ride,” and this includes enjoying the expression of beauty and creativity as it has been placed in our unique hearts.
I hope that Zahra knows that her God loves beauty and wedding dresses, and that her desire to create beauty is an expression of Divine creativity placed in her heart. I still enjoy make-up, and looking at my colored nail polish gives me great pleasure, regardless of any societal pressures. I’m sure that God is pleased that I know I’m loved and accepted, celebrating the distinctive expression of beauty and creativity that has been placed in my heart.
~by Nan Kuhlman
photo courtesy of islam.ru
Or, at least grace is given, from Jesus, to consider them better than you! Right? Right? Right?
I know. It almost doesn’t seem like that kind of grace is true for us after seeing or participating in all of those political rants on Facebook this year (and received even in my mailbox today!). But thank Abba Father for helping us to receive this grace, through Jesus, in the Spirit, and written by the Apostle Paul in scripture:
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit [through factional motives, or strife], but with [an attitude of] humility [being neither arrogant nor self-righteous], regard others as more important than yourselves.” Phil 2:3 (AMP)
I’m not saying, and the Apostle Paul isn’t saying, that people aren’t sometimes bad and don’t make bad decisions that suck. They do! We do! You do! Paul did! All do! Paul considers himself to be “the worst of sinners”, 1 Tim 1:16, (as you should be regarding yourself, right?!) Paul is just admitting that, after an encounter with Jesus and receiving Who Jesus says he is, we see that we all suck badly enough with our sin nature that we rebel against God (and you really can’t get worse than that – I don’t care who you are! Can you?)
If for some reason you can’t receive that, then can you at least receive that however far you perceive yourself to be away from Barack, Donald and Hillary in your supposed sin and ethical behavior, you are wayyyyyy to the infinite power closer to them than you are to Jesus, WHO NEVER SINNED! Hmpf! It’s ONLY in Jesus’ humanity that your humanity is perfected, AND, you’re not Him and he’s not you! He sends the Spirit so that we, you, sinners, might be conformed to him, not just in his humanity, but in ours! As Dr. Gary Deddo says “What Jesus does for and to us, the Holy Spirit works out in and through us!”
So, if you’re going to give us a Christian political rant, have at it! But have mercy (the kind you want the political leader to have on others! Ha!). We should be able to sense some of Christ’s humility in your rant, not simply political hate, if you’re a Christian! Can you at least get a word or two in about Christ? It is a “Christ”ian rant, if it’s coming from you, right? Politics are tainted with darkness, so why not leave people with a witness of the hope of Christ in politics, the Light the darkness cannot overcome?
And in case you’ve forgotten Who Jesus is (and we DO forget), he is the Son of Abba Father, who sends the Holy Spirit, through Jesus, bringing Jesus to our remembrance! Yes! Ask Father for the Holy Spirit before your next political rant, because there’s nothing more God would rather give you than the Holy Spirit! Luke 11:9-13.
As the Holy Spirit grants you growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, be political because you’re Christ-centered, not just mentioning Christ because your political-centered! Ha! Proclaim Jesus as the Sovereign of the world and don’t just be concerned with the sovereignty of this or that nation!
Perhaps you think I’m overly spiritualizing things, but I’m actually not! Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” – John 8:12.Whatever spiritual means, it means God in flesh and the ordinary things of life! To say Jesus is to say “flesh” and “Spirit”. Therefore, Jesus IS the spiritual Light on politics, in flesh, and politics really matters, and we ought to wrestle with and talk about it, and all subjects, in the Spirit.
As Christians we’ve not become so poisoned with hate, so sin and policy-centered, that we can’t (or won’t?) write a political rant that leaves us more with the Christian hope than hate for a human brother or sister (political leader), have we?! If we’ve become like that, we need more grace to become more Christ-centered in our spiritual journey. Can’t you use at least 4 of your 150 characters to characterize Jesus and (dare I suggest) request P-R-A-Y-er FOR the political leader as Christ holds them, rather than praying for them to “go to hell” as we hold them. Haha
By the way, if you aren’t claiming to speak or write in Christ’s name, or as one in whom His Spirit dwells, then of course this post wasn’t written for you except as a witness to you of Christ – Who loves and has mercy on you too! (wink wink) And who knows (God knows!) maybe Barack, Hillary and Donald REALLY ARE BETTER THAN YOU, considering Who they know versus Who you know! Hmmmm…
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. ~ Luke 14:26-27
Jesus says that the way to belong to a family is to hate your family and the way to enter into the life that Jesus offers is to hate life itself and to take up a cross – that is, to embrace death by execution – in order to follow Jesus. Luke has already said, back in chapter 9, that Jesus has “set his face” toward Jerusalem because the time has come for him to die. And now Jesus is telling us, his followers, we must also set our faces towards this destiny, take up our cross, and follow him.
The temptation comes now to try to wriggle out of it – does “hate” really mean “hate”? Does a cross really signify death? Is Jesus really God in the flesh speaking to us or are these perhaps merely the suggestions of a somewhat mentally unstable self-proclaimed prophet? And here’s where Luke becomes a really annoying writer. Just in case it isn’t clear, he drives the final nail in the coffin and quotes Jesus saying “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Darn it! Jesus, I can hate my family, but don’t tell me I’ve got to give up my golf clubs, my car, or my playstation 4! I don’t think any of us are really in the process of giving up all our possessions.
Or are we?
In a very real and legally binding sense we are all in the process of giving up all our possessions. We are all in the process of leaving our family. We are all on a narrow road towards a narrow door – a doorway called death, through which we may pass but none may come with us and none of our possessions – not even the clothes on our back – will be coming with us.
When you think of it in this way – and this is certainly not the only way to think of what Jesus says here – but when you think of it in this way there is actually a sort of very dry humor in this gospel lesson. It’s almost as though the following conversation is taking place outside a movie theater:
A 12-year old boy walks up to the ticket window and says “What’s a ticket to Star Wars worth?” and the clerk says “about 197 million dollars, that’s what it cost them to make the movie.”
“What?! I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Oh, well, what do you have in your pockets?”
“Six dollars, a golf ball I found, and a piece of string.”
“Good news!” the clerk says “we just set the price at six dollars, one used golf ball, and a piece of string.”
What Jesus is offering us is of staggering, unbelievable value – beyond anything we could ever afford to achieve. Jesus is offering us life – and not just existence, but an actual life that is worth living, a life that fulfills the very purpose for which we were created – and even though the value of that life is beyond all measure or estimation, Jesus lists the price as exactly the one thing we that we happen to have: the price is one death, no more no less.
And in his graphic description of that death in today’s parables, Jesus is just reminding us that it’s going to happen to us whether we want it to or not. There’s no escape, there’s no dodging it, there’s no getting around it. We’re going to have to turn away from family, give up our possessions, and go to the cross of death with Jesus. The question is not “whether?” but “how?”
Will the cross be forced upon us or will we take it up ourselves? Will we be dragged to Jerusalem or will we, like Jesus, set our faces toward it? Will we embrace the family of God or worship our families instead? Will we be dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom or will we count the cost, see the value above all else, and follow Jesus willingly into the Kingdom? Because one thing is certain: the only thing worse than crucifixion is fighting against crucifixion.
~ Jonathan Stepp