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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.

 

 

 

Life is Serious. Right?

thPSBAH1T1I never used to take myself very seriously.  Life was all about fun for me.  I was all about playing sports, or watching sports, playing games, or making up games.  Then, of course, there was beer.

I was a funny guy who hung out in a funny crowd.  We would do just about anything for a laugh.  Sure, we had our serious moments, our hard times, but we got over them quickly, and got back to the serious business of having fun and drinking beer.

But, time changes everything.  Love and family came for most of my gang; responsibility.  We got serious.  We worked our jobs, paid our bills, and taught our children.  Most of us dealt with financial hardships, some of us had marital problems, addictions, illnesses, childrens’ illnesses or death.  Life wasn’t all beer and fun anymore.

Shed no tears for my pards and I, though.  We may be slow, but we are growing up.  I never thought I would say this about us; We are becoming mature adults.  But, becoming less of a goofball and more of a serious person doesn’t necessarily mean we take ourselves seriously.

My wife said something to me some years back, before I was ready to hear it.  She said that we would have to be the patriarchs of our family one day.  I guess that should be pretty obvious, but to a beer-loving, fun-loving, twenty-something guy — it was an eye-opener.  I was never more grateful for our parents and grandparents than I was on that day, because I was not ready.  I never thought of patriarchs as being just the oldest remaining person in the family.  In my mind, it always meant being a role model, the wisest, most trustworthy example of humility and grace that we could be. It meant leading the entire family, not just my little branch of it, through whatever tough times were in store for us.

Now, that revelation didn’t exactly set me on the path of wisdom and charity.  I got serious about being a better ballplayer long before I thought seriously about having a positive influence outside of my own little world.  I never forgot her words though.

I didn’t really believe in myself, in my ability to make a difference.  I thought that raising my kids right would be enough.  Someday, they might make a difference, meaning I made a difference, right?

Wrong!  I live in this world, meaning I meet people all the time who need a helping hand, or a kind word, or a meal, or a blanket.  Should I get my daughters to handle these things for me?  If my eyes see injustice, should I call my son to stand up for the oppressed?

I still don’t really believe in myself.  I don’t trust me.  I am, however, learning to trust the God who made me.  He is teaching me day-by-day that he can use me to make a difference in this world.  I don’t have to be the sharpest tool in God’s toolbox.  I just have to be available when he reaches for me, and in God’s hand there is no telling what He might build with me, or you.

We still have a lot of fun.  Knowing that life is serious doesn’t mean we should lose our smiles forever.  There is fun and games, love and laughter, tears and prayers in our home, and we are learning to take all of these things into the world with us.

As for being patriarchs in our family, my wife and I are both learning that the way to lead our family is by following the Real Patriarch.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Basics of Christianity: #7B – The Stumbling Block

thVA96KL9JThere is a group of arranged letters that has proven to be the most divisive in every language that it has ever been translated into.  This grouping has caused more separation or strife among people than any other word or name in the history of languages.

Jesus

Why would this be?  Two thousand years after he walked this earth, the biggest controversy of every generation since that time has been whether or not Jesus is who he claimed to be, the Son of God himself, and actually One with God.  It’s lunacy, right?  How could this still be talked about?

Why do people rise up in angry protest when that name is mentioned in public?  Why is there such a large effort to keep this name from being mentioned at all in our schools, courtrooms, or any other public meeting places, even in our streets?  Why, when I was silently reading from a Bible in a bagel place did I get a look from people like I am reading from a terrorist handbook(true story)?  Why are people afraid of, or resentful of, the people who believe Jesus’ story?  Or… why are they afraid of Jesus himself?

Sadly, I fear the answer is that they are afraid his story could be true.  Sad, because it means people are making a choice about Jesus without understanding his purpose.  Should a drowning man be afraid of a lifeline being thrown from a boat?  Grab the rope!  Nobody is going to pull it away if you reach.  Maybe people have let you down, maybe for your whole life, but God will not.  The lifeline is there, and that boat will take you where you want to go, even if you don’t know where you want to go.

This isn’t just good news; It is incredible news, news that dwarfs all other.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or how many times you have rejected this news in the past.  Truth won’t go away, if it is true.  God will not stop hoping for you.

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Back to the Gospel story.  If you missed the first post of “The Stumbling Block”.  I encourage you to read it before going on from here, but it is not essential.

His disciples didn’t understand but Jesus was walking toward something all along.  His primary purpose was not to tell people of God’s love but prove God’s love to us by fixing our biggest problem, our separation from Him.

Without a thorough study of the history of that region and time, it is difficult to understand the moods of the people.  I have already told you of the adoring crowds trying to follow Jesus everywhere he went.  But, it was a violent time, the crowds were fickle and could turn on a dime, and there was a group who knew how to play the crowds and use them, the Pharisees.

The Pharisees authority and influence over the masses was significant despite the fact that Israel was occupied by the mighty Roman Empire.  The Romans used whatever they could to keep the people from rebelling, including the Pharisees.

For some time Jesus had been avoiding the city of Jerusalem because there had been more than one attempt to kill him there.  But, as Passover(the biggest Jewish holiday) neared and tens of thousands, some say hundreds of thousands of people, swarmed on Jerusalem for the weeklong festival–Jesus went there as well, along with his incredulous disciples.  They didn’t understand completely, but Jesus had made it clear that he was going there to be killed.

We have been in this series for seven and a half posts, so let’s not miss this, or gloss over it.  Jesus’ purpose for going to Jerusalem was to die. He knew what was coming and went anyway, not in spite of what was coming, but because of it.

But, even though he went willingly, on purpose, don’t think that Jesus was okay with it.  The Bible is clear, he wanted out.  He prayed repeatedly for God to take away the coming trial.  He was in such a state of anguish, and, dare I say it–fear, that he was sweating blood.  Even so, his prayers closed with the words, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”, and he meant it.

Does that sound like weakness to you?  Okay Father, if that’s what you want me to do, I will do it.  I can see how it could, until you realize the horror of what Jesus was facing.  What could be sooooo important to both God the Father and Jesus the Son that they would allow wicked men to control Jesus’ earthly fate?

You know the answer.

Stay tuned anyway.        A.J.

 

 

 

 

The Basics of Christianity: #7A – The Stumbling Block

thX5AIB933Let’s suppose for a moment that you are the totally Holy God.  You created this vast universe, chose a tiny planet, and made it habitable and beautiful.  You populated that planet with plants and animals, and finally, some beings created in your own image.  They were meant to love you and love each other purely, as you love them.  Now, real love cannot be forced, so you gave these beings free-will.  You wrote on their hearts what it means to love and honor you, themselves, and each other… and they have run amok.

As the one in charge of all things, what do you do?

Remember, this is your universe.  You created all things with something pure and beautiful in mind, and these free-willed beings did not turn out pure and beautiful.  Yes, some are much better compared to some of the others, but not compared to you.  None of them come close to what you envisioned and required.  You are utterly Holy.  You decided that there is not a single sin that would ever be okay in your universe, that justice would always be served, so they owe a debt they can’t afford to pay.  The only thing is, you love them more than they can possibly comprehend.

What will you do?  Will you banish them from your presence forever?  Or… could there be a way to take their penalty on yourself and give them a much bigger idea of your love at the same time?

Okay, come on back down to earth now.  You are not God, and neither am I.  Perhaps, though, this exercise can help us understand a tiny fraction of God’s dilemma.

Before I give away God’s solution, as if you haven’t heard, I feel the need to point something out.  Everyone believes in miracles.  Yes, everyone.  We are here; that cannot be denied by any rational person.  No matter what you believe about how that happened, it is a miracle.  Whether you believe an infinitely powerful God created this universe and all life-forms, including mankind to inhabit that universe, or you believe all the matter there is somehow either always existed or the matter popped into existence, and formed itself into the working, functioning universe we live in, and some of that matter “came alive” and evolved over time into all the life-forms this world knows, either way it is a miracle too great for words.

Let us then skip the notion that things such as virgins giving birth, or men walking on water, or men being raised from the dead are impossible.  Each of these miracles pales in comparison to the miracle of creation.  Miracles happen.  When you understand that, you will see a new universe of possibilities.  I am not saying we should walk off a cliff expecting to float rather than fall.  The law of gravity is still in place for us, just not for God.

As I said in a previous post, while there may be much about sin and judgement in the Bible, that is not its overall story.  It is a love story, and the most meaningful demonstration of love is sacrifice.

God’s solution to our problem was to send his own Son to pay our debt.  Now, timeout here.  I know that a whole lot of folks start to fall asleep at the point where things start to sound too much like church.  There are a lot of churches out there that can make God’s idea of atonement sound as significant as one blade of grass dying, and as much fun as watching dogs sleep.  So, don’t hear my words right now: hear God’s message.

Jesus was born in a small occupied nation of the first century BC Roman Empire–to a virgin.  We should recognize that miracle as possible, even if we don’t believe it.  God could have chosen anywhere for his child to be born.  His choice was the conquered and brutally oppressed nation of Israel.

Despite the impressions you may have gotten from hearing the Christmas story, Jesus did not come into this world with a silver spoon in his mouth.  As a child he was hunted by the murderous tyrant King Herod the Great, who had heard the Old Testament prophecies of a savior who would be king.  As an adult, the spiritual leaders of his own people would take exception to his popularity with the masses and try to undermine everything he was teaching them.  When that failed, they plotted to kill him.

There are four biographies of Jesus at the beginning of the New Testament,: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  They are called the Gospels, which in that day meant “good news”. There are a few chapters in Matthew and Luke telling how Jesus came into the world.  Besides that, all four gospels focus on Jesus’ last three years.

The Gospels say that Jesus, with a group of friends by his side, went from town to town teaching the people about God, and healing the sick, and the lame.  Blind men were receiving sight, paralyzed men were walking, dead men were raised, and the people were being told that God loved them.  Though Jesus never softened the requirements of God’s law, he told the people of a Father God who longed to forgive them, not condemn them.

Modern day preachers can sometimes make Jesus sound weak and boring, but the Gospels tell a different story.  In the Gospels, we hear of Jesus being followed around by huge crowds who press around him so tightly that he would sometimes speak to them from a boat offshore so he had room to breathe.  He was dynamic, revolutionary, magnetic.  The people of his time couldn’t get enough of him.  At times, they wouldn’t even leave him to find something to eat for fear they might miss something important.

There was, however, one group of people who had heard enough from Jesus, the Pharisees.  Jesus brought out their hypocrisy for all to see every time there was an exchange between himself and them. The Pharisees were considered the spiritual leaders of the people and enjoyed their exalted status so much that they planned to kill Jesus rather than listen to him, or allow others to.

What they didn’t know was that their plan would play into God’s plan perfectly.

Stay tuned.  We are getting there.   A.J.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basics of Christianity: #6 – Incomprehensible Love

th1HPGL53NFor many of us, the words have lost their meaning; God loves you.  We have heard it so many times.  It’s on every other church’s billboard.  The weird lady around the corner won’t stop telling you, not to mention your great-aunt.  Okay, okay, my great-aunt.

But, stop for a second.  If you can calm your busy soul and relax your mind a bit, you might be able to look at those words differently.  Let all preconceptions about what that statement could mean melt away.  Try to forget the annoying guy with the “God Loves You” sign outside the mall.  Forget for now, the Christians you have known who have told you that God loves you, but showed no signs that they themselves cared at all.

Look at it for what it is, a simple three-word statement.  God loves you.  The magnitude of that statement cannot be overstated, if it’s true.  The Bible says that God’s love surpasses all knowledge. It is indescribable, beyond measure, incomprehensible, and the best part; it won’t change.  It doesn’t matter what you have done, or left undone, It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do tomorrow.  You can’t make God not love you.  Unfailing seems to be the adjective most used to describe God’s love for us.  Love without fail.

I have a pretty good idea what runs through our minds at this point.  But, what about that time I said those mean things to my friend, or that time I took advantage of my boss’s trust in me, or that time I didn’t help that poor girl on the highway?  What about my constant angry thoughts, or my jealous heart, or my lustful eye?  How could a perfectly Holy God still love me?  Often, we have such a hard time forgiving ourselves, that it becomes impossible to believe that God could possibly love us.  

There’s this guy in the Bible named Jesus.  I mentioned him once or twice.  He told a story to the people of his time to illustrate God’s love for us.  It is the story of the “lost” or “prodigal” son, who coldly asks for his share of his father’s estate.  Jesus portrayed him as a selfish, ungrateful, greedy hedonist, yet the father never stopped loving him and watching for his return. The sins of this son couldn’t be worse in the eyes of Jesus’ audience, so the unbelievable mercy and forgiveness of the Father would have jumped out at them.  If God could forgive that….

The religious teachers of that place and time were telling the people of a harsh and stern God that was eager to judge and condemn.  But, from Jesus they were hearing of a Father God who loved them so much that he would forgive anything if they would just turn to him, and trust him.

We should not overlook the image of God as the Father.  Even an earthly father can forgive his selfish, disrespectful child, so how can we think our sins could keep The Father from loving us, his children.  

We are humans in what can feel like a finite world.  We have only seen so much goodness, only so much mercy, only so much love.  So the god we try to imagine is only so good, only so merciful, and only has so much love to give.  But, the God of the Bible has a capital G.  He is not weak in any way.  We have to stop trying to put limits on The Limitless God.  If there is a God capable of creating everything, then obviously he has limitless power.  So, why should we try to put limits on this God’s love, or forgiveness, or mercy.

For his children, the inventor of love feels “a love that surpasses all knowledge” and it is unfailing, endless.

No doubt, Christians can be weird when trying to tell people of God’s love, though their hearts are often in the right place.  But, I hope you can look at the words a little differently now.  Because, if you believe it, the knowledge that “God Loves You” beyond all you can fathom will change everything, and it can get you through anything.

This is awesome news, if true.  God loves us and wants to forgive all, but there is one giant attribute of God that needs to be satisfied, his Justice.  Though he loves us beyond measure, his Justice demands a price for sin, all sin.  So, God himself is seemingly at a crossroads.  He is the righteous judge of all mankind, and as our Creator, that is his right.  But, he is also that Father waiting on the porch for his wayward child to come home.  God Almighty… has a dilemma.

Stay tuned.     A.J.