Basics of Christianity: #11 – End or Beginning?

Why are you reading this?  How did you get where you are?  Is it all by chance that you ended up on this page, or could there be a reason that things worked out  for you to be where you are right now, reading this post?  Is he way more dramatic or would God use an average guy like me to tell you about him, on social media no less.

I remember as a twelve-year old, my newly divorced mom would drag my little brother and I to these prayer meetings she attended,  mostly because I couldn’t be trusted to stay out of trouble if she left me behind.  But, one time she did leave me behind and, true to form, I found trouble.  That evening I was supposed to babysit my eight-year old brother but I knew that eight-year olds were plenty old enough to take care of themselves, obviously.

With a directive to stay in the house and a threat that I would beat him up if he told on me(I wouldn’t have, but he didn’t know that),  I left my brother behind and went out with my friends.  An hour later, we were crossing a busy highway when I saw a gap in traffic that wasn’t actually there, and I ended up running into the side of a car that was going fifty miles per hour.  I don’t remember this part, but my friends told me that I was limping around, screaming in the middle of the road, as horrified drivers swerved and slammed on their brakes.

Had I been an instant faster, this page and this post would not exist. The smallest things we do or don’t do can change things forever.  If I had been an instant faster across that street, none of my children would exist and every influence they have had or will have on situations or people throughout their lives would never have happened. Who knows how many others would not be born, all my future grandchildren and great grandchildren and so on, possibly all because my foot slipped slightly on the gravel before I started my sprint across that busy highway.

Is it all chance or did God work everything out for you to be you?  Don’t you feel like you were always meant to be?

Is it chance or did God find a way for me to write this series?  Is it chance that you are reading it?  Today, right now, is God talking to you?  Is it possible that he would use a semi-struggling sinner like myself to tell you about Jesus?

Is this a special page?  Am I a special author?  I don’t think so, but I believe God will use anything and everything to tell us what he wants us to know.  The apostles were nothing special as men go.  But, God used that unlikely group of men to spread the word about his son, the same word that is being spread around the world two thousand years later despite all odds.  The same word I am spreading with this page.  God can use anything for good and letting you know about Jesus is the greatest good–for you.

God does not want to condemn you.  He never did.  He always wanted to free you from judgement, and take away your shame.  But, it is your choice.  Jesus paid a terrible cost for your sin because he chose to do so.  Is that so unthinkable?  It is good news;  hear it that way.

Your call.  You are the only one who decides what you believe.  What feels true to you?  Think it through, but pay attention to your feelings.  Use your head, obviously, but make this choice with an open heart.

A.J.

 

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King of Hearts

Remember playing “king of the hill”?cropped-cropped-000_00891.jpg

After the snowplows cleared the school parking lot following a big snowstorm, they would leave behind a gigantic wall of snow probably 30-40 feet long and ten feet high.  As a boy, I remember fighting my way to the top many times only to be thrown headlong from my pedestal within seconds by wicked usurpers to my throne. I would have their heads–if it weren’t for the fact that as soon as they threw me from the peak, I was no longer king.  So, I would turn and fight my way back up dodging the plummeting bodies of newly deposed kings as I went.  Kids would get hurt every time–and we loved it.

This mayhem is what I imagine going on within us when we allow money, or our homes, careers, sports teams, vacations, or our grown-up toys to become king in our hearts.  Even the people we love do not belong on the throne.

“In the deep heart of the man was a shrine where none but God was worthy to come. Within him was God; without, a thousand gifts which God had showered upon him.”  A.W. Tozer

There may be nothing wrong with these things or loved ones that we value so much but when we try to crown them king, it is high-treason of the heart.  There is a place within us where only God belongs, and when we allow anything else to enter that place, it is nothing short of idol worship.  Something is deeply wrong when we value our gifts more than the Giver.

As the creator of all hearts, only God is worthy to be King in any heart.

A.J.

 

 

 

Basics of Christianity: #8 – Beyond

 

 

So that’s it?  Jesus is dead.  End of story?

In the words of Jacob McCandles; “Not hardly.”

He is just getting started. Those last four posts were  a super-condensed version of the Gospels, Jesus’ human story.  Not one of the four Gospels end with Jesus in his tomb.

There are many recorded appearances of Jesus after his tomb was found empty. He appeared to a woman named Mary at his tomb, to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, to at least twelve in Jerusalem, to at least eleven in the same house a week later, to seven at the Sea of Galilee…

Most believe that Jesus only appeared to a few people here and there, and only to his disciples.  Paul tells us though, in his first letter to the Corinthians that he appeared to over 500 people at once.  In that letter, Paul basically tells the Corinthians that if you don’t believe Jesus showed up alive–go ask the witnesses.  There are hundreds of them.

Risen?

What do you make of it? Do you think me a fool for believing it?  Or, could this be possible?  If miracles never happen, then no, this is 100% impossible.  But we have already determined that one way or another a universe-creating miracle happened. Either everything came from nothing, obviously miraculous.  Or, everything came from God, again miraculous.  And… life began!  Whether it is God’s doing or chance, either way it is an AWESOME miracle.  Describe it with a hundred superlatives but words still can’t convey the enormity of the feat.  This universe’s existence is a miracle.  There is no way around that fact.  Our existence is a miracle.

So, we should know that we cannot dismiss things as impossible simply because it is not what usually happens.  Usually, universes don’t come from nowhere, made from nothing.  Usually, life doesn’t spark from inanimate things.  No one can prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and no one can prove that he did not.  On their own, our brains cannot say for sure one way or another.

Luckily for us, we have another way to determine truth from fantasy. We need to ask ourselves something.  What are our hearts telling us?  What do we feel is true?  Push aside preconceptions.  When your head hits your pillow at night, what feels like the truth?  Do you have a gnawing in your gut as if you might have missed something? Do you feel like someone is trying to tell you something?  Because if the Bible is true, someone is.

If you believe this was all a hoax, ask yourself why.  Jesus remaining disciples ran in fear the night Jesus was arrested.  The Pharisees were on the hunt to snuff out anyone who would continue the “lie” that Jesus was God’s Son.  Yet, these scared disciples go on a crusade, not only risking their lives–but giving up their lives–to make a “god out of a man”?  All but one of the remaining disciples died violent deaths rather than stop proclaiming that supposed lie.  No.  These men believed it with all their hearts, and their willingness to die should tell us something.

2,000 years later, the Church started by God through these ordinary men who somehow tapped into extraordinary courage, lives.  Through the centuries, all over the world, brilliant men and women, idiots, and millions in between have heard the Gospel and believed.

Most would suffer some degree of persecution.  They believed and would not let go of their belief despite losing friends and family, being insulted, laughed at, called fools. Millions, over two millennia lost their rights, their homes, and their property. Millions more have been beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and even executed.  The persecutions that Christians faced in the first three centuries alone were horrifying as Roman Emperor after Roman Emperor tried to extinguish the light of Christianity.  Tortures were invented specifically for Christians during those times.  Nero would have Christians coated with wax and pitch, hung by a hook under their chins and burned alive at night to light his gardens.

Even today, everything from simple insults to torturous executions, still happen to Christians.  In countries such as North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and many others, letting it be known that you are a Christian could easily cost you your life.  You risk your life to speak of Jesus, just as his disciples did in the first century.  For many in those regions today, their earthly stories end in violent deaths just as they did for Jesus and his companions.  Sad but true, look it up.

Not that we need any more affirmation, but all these things shout to our hearts that what we believe is true, that God IS, that Jesus was and is the savior the shepherds and angels proclaimed him to be, and that no amount of persecution can stop the Good News from being proclaimed and spread as long as his children need to hear it.

Stay tuned.  A.J.

P.S.   I cheated.  Half of that was from my book.  Hope it rings true, because it is.

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Jesus came to my house one day and I bounced him, turned him away, sent him packing, gave him the boot.

Strange statement, I know.  I will explain and I think most of you will understand but not all.  You may not like me after I tell this story though.  I don’t like me much when I remember it.

Many years back my wife and I had a party.  Our football team was in the playoffs and we invited a bunch of friends over.  We had an amazingly warm and sunny day for January and before the game we were outside with our beers throwing the football and probably kicking the hacky-sack around as well, just enjoying the day and the company. It was everything a party should be, good friends, cold beer, bbq, the anticipation of the game.  At the time, our backyard was a wasteland so we were in the front yard and probably spilling into the street as well.

I did not see him coming.  I guess the man asked someone whose home it was, because he came up to me from behind.  I was talking with a group of four or five of my buddies at the time and I don’t remember how the guy got my attention.  I think it was the look in my friends’ eyes that alerted me.  I turned around and there standing before me in my yard was this dirty, disheveled, sad looking man, perhaps thirty-five or forty years old. His clothes were filthy and ragged and he looked like he hadn’t a bath in a very long time.

Now you have to understand that our neighborhood was by itself four miles outside of town and not on a common route for coming and going to or from town.  My home was in the far corner of that neighborhood on a dead end street, bordering huge wheat-fields.  We never saw anybody walk onto our street from those fields unless they lived in the neighborhood and even that was rare.  In the years before or the years since I have not seen anyone walking down my street who looked remotely as poor, ragged, and homeless as the man who stood before me that day.

The voice that came from him was soft and humble.  I don’t remember his exact words but the poor man asked me if he could watch some of the game, he said he could even watch through the window if I would let him.

Everyone noticed the man and every eye was on the two of us.  I was sort of in shock.  My mind was racing.  Where had this guy come from?  Why is he here?  Everything was perfect and now suddenly it wasn’t.

Everyone was silent but it was my silence that everyone was listening to. I didn’t know what to say.  I think I felt compassion but selfishly I didn’t want to “ruin” the perfect playoff party by allowing this man to join us.  My silence dragged on and it surely told my friends and wife the story of where my heart was concerning this man in need of food and companionship.

What happened was that one of my friends stepped in and rather rudely sent the guy on his way.  I was mad at my friend for doing this and in my mind I used it as an excuse for not being kind to the homeless guy, but the truth is that I was glad the man was leaving and I was glad that I was not the one to actually say the words that expelled him from my yard.

It did not save my party, however, not for me.  The heartless words came from my friend’s mouth but they were from my heart, and I felt like the heartless snob that I clearly was.  My friend should have kept his mouth shut.  It was my home and it was my place to say who was welcome and who was not welcome there, but for five long seconds I hadn’t said a thing.  My friend was surely a jerk, but my silence had spoken just as loudly as his words.  The man was not welcome, and my continued silence as he dejectedly walked away spoke very clearly as well.

To this day I don’t know what I would have said if I would have had a few more seconds.  I cannot picture myself saying no to such a humble request but honestly I had a lot of extra seconds as the man walked away and I stood there, still silent as an uncomfortable murmur started amongst my friends.

Obviously, this sad experience has had a lasting impact on me. I do not remember the man’s exact request.  I remember him asking if he could watch a little of the game through my window.  My wife remembers him asking for a beer and something to eat as well.  What I remember, and it seems to me like it might be the ragged man’s voice I hear in my head; “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.”

According to the Gospels, those were Jesus’ exact words.  I violated all three of those offenses in one memorable minute.

I’m not exactly sure what you will make of this, maybe nothing.  I am not a man who is prone to religious exaggeration, though, not a guy who thinks every idea in his head came from God.  Quite the opposite in fact.

I know there are plenty of people who will say that this is just another case of a Christian reading something into a situation that isn’t there, making something supernatural out of something ordinary.  Certainly, on the surface it was ordinary.  Not that I turned away needy people all the time, but there is nothing in the circumstances of that day that appears miraculous in any objective way.

But in my heart, I felt something, and it goes beyond mere compassion for the man I didn’t help, and it goes beyond guilt for not helping him.  I believe most of you have had experiences in your lives that have made you feel the same way, even if you were not as blatantly heartless as me.  Maybe you have swept those memories under the rug of your mind or perhaps they come to mind easily.  Is there a time when you felt someone may have been trying to show you something through some experience?

So, are you disappointed in me?  I did warn you that I was just an ordinary guy, not especially nice, or good, or smart.  Are you asking yourself; Why would I want to read any more from this heartless bastard who would turn away(or weakly, let his jerk of a friend turn away) a lonely, hungry man without so much as a morsel to eat or a sip of cool water or beer to drink?

I can’t blame you.  As I read what I just wrote and my regret, shame, and guilt from that day come flooding back upon me, I can’t say that I would want to read anymore from me.

Perhaps you can see that my words are honest, that I am not trying to portray myself as something better than I am.  I am a regular guy who makes mistakes and tries to learn from them.  Sometimes I even do, but not always. I suspect I am not much different than most people in that way, Christian or not.

Does my openness and honesty mean you should hang with me a little longer?  I don’t know.  Do we in life learn more from people who are nicer and have it all together? Don’t those people have more wisdom to share?  Or can we learn more from someone who has been in the gutter and crawled out of it but still slips back in from time to time?

Your call, obviously, but if I were answering my own question, I would say that the ones who really do seem to have it all together have gone through their fair share of gutters themselves, or trials.  Or, more often, those who seem to have it together really don’t. They may have nice jobs, houses, cars, and clothes.  Their kids may be well behaved and they have the coolest friends but inside they too are tied up in knots with their own worries, doubts, fears, and shame.  I have on several occasions found that the people who I thought had their act together were struggling with the same type of regrets, unsurety, and disillusionment as I was.  On a few occasions when I opened up to friends about my own doubts and insecurities, they expressed shock because they thought I had it all together.

I think most of us are pretty much the same. We’re all nice, kind, considerate people… and we’re all selfish and heartless jerks.

^^That was an excerpt from my book.  I was thinking about calling it Blue-Collar Christianity or the Blue-Collar Gospel but both those names are taken. ^^

I am interested in your thoughts.  My “Basics” series is a very condensed version of the book.

Thanks,  A.J.

Shameless

Let’s live a day without shame. Can we, for one day, see ourselves as God sees us?DSC_0429

There are soooo many people out there who reject the Gospel as truth, not because it is too hard for them to believe, but because they are ashamed to admit to themselves that there is a God and that they have not lived a life that honors him. To those people I would say; The Bible is clear–everyone has dishonored God, even the most saintly of us. If you are locked up by shame, then you have missed the whole part about being God’s beloved child.

We need to stop thinking of ourselves as unworthy of Jesus’ sacrifice and focus on the fact that He, along with the Father, chose the cross because we are worth it to them, regardless of what we have done. God the Father treasures you and aches for you to come home. Jesus values you so much that he would go through hell on earth to bring you home, and if it was needed, he would do it again. And God’s own Spirit is longing to enter our hearts and show us how to be more than we ever believed we could be, for God’s glory, not our own.

He has amazing things to show us, but we can’t see it if we are hanging our heads in shame. He has places he wants to send us, but we can’t see the road if we are staring at our shoes.

We are treasured by the One True God. Let’s hold our heads up. One day without shame could lead to another…

A.J.

I said something like this in a recent post. I felt the need this morning to drive that point home.

Basics of Christianity: 7D – The Stumbling Block

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Here we are, at the crossroads.

People can skip along the seemingly happy path of Jesus’ life, tra-la-lalling along as he laughs with his disciples, feeds the masses, teaches the people of God’s love, heals the diseased, and calls out the hypocrites.  The sky is bluer than blue, the grass greener than green, the meandering stream is crystal clear, flowers are everywhere, and the birds are filling the valleys with song.  We skip even higher and faster as our smile widens to world-record dimensions, then… we fall flat on our face, loosening our teeth and smashing our nose.

Dazed, we start to swear, before we remember that Jesus is right there,  “What the hellll…p me up please Jesus,” we slur through smashed lips.  “Who put that big ugly block in the middle of our heavenly path?”

But, it is not a block that we stumbled over.  It is an instrument of torture and execution devised by the Roman Empire of ancient times.  It is a cross, and strangely, Jesus is not at all surprised to see it here–on his path.

The cross is what makes us stumble.  It is the fork in the road.  Do you doubt that?  I guarantee: people will click on this post and bail on it right here because I mentioned the cross.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.. 1Cor 1:18

It isn’t the virgin giving birth that people can’t believe.  That is nothing compared to creation itself.  It isn’t all the miracles–blind men seeing, paraplegics walking, dead men living.  That is all child’s play for the God who set the universe in motion.  Our reason for not believing that Jesus is who he claimed to be is not that we can’t believe in miracles, it is that we can’t accept the gruesome picture of Jesus on the cross, knowing it was our sin that put him there.  So we deny it.

I get it.  It is a hard thing to think about, even when you believe it is ultimately the best thing that could have happened, for you.

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The details are gruesome and I will skip them for the most part, but it won’t be tame.  The Gospels themselves skip the details, but then, the people of first-century Israel had seen these things before.

Pilate had Jesus flogged, or scourged, hoping it would satisfy the bloodlust of the Pharisees and their supporters in the unruly mob.  First-century Roman floggings were notoriously brutal, and often the recipient of these floggings did not survive.  Yet, despite the ghastly sight of a freshly scourged Jesus standing next to the Roman governor, and the very good chance that he would not survive without a miracle, the Pharisees would not relent.  They screamed at Pilate, “Crucify him!”

Jesus would not make a case for his life, and the crowd made Pilate nervous.  In Matthew, it says that an uproar was starting.  Finally, after repeatedly trying to get the Pharisees to back down, he surrendered Jesus to their will and ordered his soldiers to crucify Jesus.  So, after the soldiers, inconceivably, beat him yet again, they marched Jesus to a hill outside Jerusalem’s walls.  There, Jesus laid down on a cross and allowed himself to be nailed there, feet and hands.  The soldiers then wrestled the cross upright somehow and presumably dropped it into a well-used hole.

The wounds and pain of the scourging, the beatings, the crown of thorns mashed onto Jesus’ head, and the loss of blood all combined to weaken Jesus considerably before he ever made it to this bloody hill.  So, within a few hours he was near the end.  Still the Pharisees mocked him, trying to justify the unjustifiable.  Yet, Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Throughout Jesus’ earthly life he was connected to God the Father; they were one.  However, in his final moments, Jesus did not seem to feel the Father’s presence.  Matthew says he managed a loud voice to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  John, the only one of Jesus’ disciples who wasn’t hiding behind a bush somewhere, records Jesus as saying, “It is finished.”  Then he died.

I believe there is a perception out there that Jesus was, or is, weak.  Let me ask you this; What requires more strength; to endure horrible suffering to save those you love–or to crush your enemies, ending your own suffering while knowing it will cost your loved ones their lives?   Laying waste to your enemies, knowing you can’t lose–or sacrificing yourself to pay their debt.  Do you see sacrifice as weakness?  A debt was owed, and Jesus stepped in to pay it.  A stronger thing was never done.

The Gospels are the beating heart of the entire Bible.  This is what it is all about.  It is not about a surly and vengeful God wanting to condemn us.  It is about a God who loves us so much that he would do anything to save us.  It is about Jesus loving us so much that no matter how badly he wanted out, he walked towards it all, fully knowing what was in store.

Stay tuned.  We are not done yet.   A.J.

 

 

 

Basics of Christianity: #7C – The Stumbling Block

Supposedly over 80% of all people believe in a creator God.  You may not, but for most it is not a stretch to believe that much.  People can believe that God can create all the matter the universe consists of and order it in a way that it can function and continue to function for as long as He wants it to.  They believe that he can populate his universe with all kinds of plants and animals and plan it out so each of these living things can survive, for a time.  Finally, most people believe that God can create us and allow us to live as we feel inclined to live here in his universe, again, for a time.  But, when we get to Jesus, things fall apart.

The Bible itself calls Jesus the “stumbling block”.  He is where the road splits.  When we get to Jesus, we must make a choice, and it might be an unpopular choice.  The ones whose approval we crave might take the other road.  Maybe we are not sure if we believe as they do anymore but we are comfortable with them, we know what it’s like to travel with them.  It may not feel right but at least it doesn’t scare us.  There is something about this other road though; It does feel right.  We are drawn to it.  We look up that road and long to see where it leads.  We may have to go on without our gang though, which seems terrifying.

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They came for Jesus in the middle of the night; a detachment of soldiers and officials sent from the Pharisees, carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons.  Jesus didn’t sleep that night, so he would have heard and seen them coming long before they arrived.  It was dark, he could have escaped, could have run.  Instead, he walked towards them and asked who they wanted.  Why?

They hauled Jesus to the compound of homes where the chief priest lived, and hastily arranged a sham of a trial, while the guards beat him.  The Pharisees had many false witnesses testify against him, but Jesus himself kept silent.  Caiaphas, the high priest, seemed to be getting frustrated by Jesus’ lack of response.  The trial wasn’t going as he had planned.  Trying to have him executed by the testimony of unreliable men would  give the wrong impression.  Finally, though, Jesus did answer a question.  He told them that he was the Son of God Himself, a capital crime, and unforgivable blasphemy in that place and time… unless it was true.

Jesus, knowing the Pharisees were having trouble making their case against him, gave them exactly what they wanted, sealing his own fate.  Why?

The Pharisees were not allowed by the occupying Romans to execute anyone, so they marched Jesus to the palace of Pilate, the Roman Governor.  With a large unruly crowd at their back, the Pharisees shouted their accusations.

Pilate tried to set Jesus free, having a clear sense that Jesus was not your average man, and certainly not a criminal.  The crowd made him nervous though.  They were in a frenzy, spurred on by the chief priests and other Pharisees.  Still, Pilate wanted to free him, and if Jesus had only defended himself against the accusations of the Pharisees, it seems as if he would have.  Instead, Jesus seemed resigned to take an unspeakably horrific punishment and death, punishment which he did not deserve.  Why?

It is the “why” of all this that makes men stumble over Jesus, because we are the why.  Our shame over the idea that we put Jesus in that position causes us to deny it altogether. We must get past the shame though, because we are missing the point.  We are looking at it backwards.  Instead of shame, we should be feeling an incredible sense of worth, because we are the why.  We are the reason for it all.  That is how much God loves us, how much Jesus loves us.

Too good to be true?  That is for you to decide; No one can decide for you.

The next post will be difficult, if you think it could be true.  It is whole lot easier though, if you remember that You Are The Reason Jesus would go through it all.      A.J.

P.S.  The first eight posts of the “Basics” series are further down this page.