Expanding An Old Analogy

Picture this; A master painter completes a masterpiece. He takes it outside his home because he wants to see it in the sunlight. His yard is too shady, so he takes it to the park across the street, places it on his easel and turns it towards the sun. He takes a few minutes to examine his artistry. After a thorough examination he decides that it is very good and he sits down on a bench to rest.

People start to wander by and they all stop to look and converse about the painting. Soon there are many people and they all seem to be in agreement that the painting is breathtaking in its beauty, but none of them seem to notice the artist on the bench who hears every word.

There are many people who want to know the artist and tell him what a wonderful painter he is. But, there are also many people who seem to think that there is no artist, that the painting must have painted itself somehow.

Some of these people are scientists, and they rush off to get all of their tools. When they return they take all kinds of measurements. Besides the length and width of the masterpiece, and the thickness of the canvas, they measure the brush strokes and take notes on the length and angle of each one. Each and every different hue of color is catalogued. They compile data on every single aspect of the masterpiece. Even though none of the scientists had ever painted a single painting, let alone a masterpiece, they all get together to examine the data and determine that it took a very long time but the masterpiece did, after all, paint itself.

Many in the crowd say that the scientists are wrong, that it is impossible for art to create itself. They ask where the canvas and the paint came from. They say that there must be a master painter out there somewhere and that we should find out who he is and thank him for the opportunity to experience his masterpiece.

The rest of the crowd scoffs at them, saying that the scientists have proven what they already knew, that there is no one capable of such amazing artistry.

Meanwhile on the bench, the artist sadly shakes his head. He, himself, is amazed at how foolish the scientists are and the crowd that puts their faith in them. To the rest of the crowd he determines he will introduce himself to them, accept their praise and become their friends. He will introduce them to his son. Then he will show them his greatest masterpiece; He calls it Heaven.

 

 

 

Pick a Side

I am staunchly pro-Israel.  I don’t pretend to follow the situation in the Middle East very closely.  But, like most mature adults I do try to have an idea what’s going on around the globe, although I do prefer my sports section.  That’s right; I still get a newspaper.  My dog gets the paper from my driveway every morning.  It is his only job. If I got all my news off the internet, he would be a free-loader.

Though I cannot claim to have great knowledge of the situation there, I do know enough of the history of Israel and its people to care a great deal.

In the history of our planet, there is no story like theirs.  Since the falling of both halves of their divided kingdom in the 8th and 6th centuries BC, there has never been a people so misunderstood, degraded, oppressed, persecuted, and terrorized as the Jews.  There is not even a close second.  Yet somehow through all the horrors of the last twenty-eight centuries, up to and including the Holocaust during World War II, they have kept their identity.  They are still the Jewish people, descendants of Abraham.

Wherever Jews have been, and they have been, and still are, all over the globe, they banded together, largely avoiding intermarriage with the people of the land they were in.  They clung to the idea that they were God’s chosen people, set apart to be different than the rest.  They believed that all their woes and heartaches were their penance for not honoring God the way they were taught.  Their Bible told of a Savior who would come and deliver them from all their suffering and they believed that someday that would happen.  So, wherever Jews were, they stuck together like their lives depended on it.

They didn’t even have a country for 2,500 years!  How does that happen?

The answer is; It doesn’t.  There is nothing to compare it to.  Countries come and go, and when they go, the remaining people of the conquered country meld with the conquerors.  Sometimes it takes decades, even a century or more for the conquered nation’s peoples to fully integrate with the conquerors but it has always happened, except to the Jews.

Imagine if America were conquered by another country or a coalition of them, and it’s remaining people banished to foreign lands.  Would Americans cluster together for 2500 years in whatever country they were banished to, stubbornly clinging to American customs for centuries, millenia, largely refusing to intermarry with their conquerors or anyone that is not American?  Would we call ourselves Americans 2500 years after America ceased to exist?

After World War II Palestine was given back to the Israeli people by the British government which “owned” approximately 70% of that land.  After 2,500 years the Jews had a place to call home again, a land where they were not outsiders, and they were determined to keep and defend that land with everything they had.  Remember, most of the remaining Jews in the world had just been systematically exterminated in the Nazi death camps of that awful war, over six million of them.

Today surrounded by a billion people who want them out or dead, they cling to their land like it was given to them by God.

I have little doubt that the Palestinian refugee situation is made worse by the strict Israeli security that is necessary because of the countless terrorist attacks on their country.  I know innocent children get caught in the crossfire when terrorists hide among the civilian population.  More than likely Israel has overstepped their boundaries and taken land that they could have done without.  But, considering what they are facing, I have a hard time blaming the Jews for anything they do.  Because there is zero chance, if they let down their guard, that terrorists don’t come in and kill Jews by the thousands or millions like the Nazis did.  Zero, unless God Himself protects them.

Therein lies the fate of Israel.  It won’t be decided by the leaders of adversarial countries.  It won’t be decided by the strength of their own resolve or their military might.  It won’t be decided by the American president or people.  Israel has a leading role to play in the future of our world, and I would not want to stand against them in that future confrontation.  Because God will decide the fate of Israel.  Standing against Israel will be standing against Almighty God himself.

A.J.

Basics of Christianity: #9 – Grace and Obedience

DSC_0432You don’t have to be good to get to heaven.

Does that statement surprise you?

Aside from Christianity, every other major religion in the world depends on man working their way to God, justifying themselves in some way.  Each person must do something, reach some level of goodness or higher-consciousness to eventually make themselves worthy of whatever reward is supposedly there for the taking.

This makes sense to us, for we are used to working for what we get; If we behave we get ice cream, if we get good grades we get to go to the water park, if we work hard we get a raise or promotion and a nicer house, car, and toys.  The flip side is the same in reverse; don’t behave and you don’t get ice cream, bad grades make you stay home on water park day, don’t work hard and you get fired, no raise or promotion.

Reward and punishment, the merit system.  We have been playing by these rules our entire lives. It is what we know, it makes sense to us even if we don’t necessarily like it.  Therefore, this idea of heaven for free does not compute easily for most of us.  There must be something required of us, some sacrifice– give more to the poor, fix a single mom’s car, quit drinking, help little old ladies across the street, give up our golf day to feed the homeless… something.  There is a cost for everything, so the ultimate reward cannot be free.

But Paul, who calls himself the worst of sinners(he persecuted, imprisoned, and executed Christians before his own conversion) tells us in no uncertain terms that our salvation has nothing to do with our own efforts.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.  Eph 2:8-9

If it isn’t computing yet, let me make it crystal clear; Heaven is not earned–it is a gift.  You don’t have to be good.  I know!  Crazy, isn’t it?

There is not a never-ending line of holiness hoops you have to jump through.  Your good deeds do not have to outnumber the bad.  There is only one thing required of you; faith.  You have to believe that Jesus aimed his earthly life towards that cross for you, that he purposely laid down his life to pay your debt to God–to free you from guilt, to free you from shame, to free you judgement.

Not by works… entire Christian denominations miss those three little words and hence try to put the crushing weight back on the believer that Jesus died to take off.  The believer is saved by grace alone, not by the good things he does, not by works.  Look at that passage again.  From front to back and top to bottom these two verses say it six different ways.  Salvation is free to all who believe, all who have faith.  Not a single one of us can boast that we earned what Jesus did for us.  It is a free gift of grace.  All you have to do is reach out and take it–you have to believe.

Completely free.  But, once we believe, if we don’t want to live like Jesus told us to live after what he did for us, then there is something wrong.  If we Christians think that floating in an ocean of grace frees us to stay as we are and live like he did nothing for us, then we have missed the point and we are definitely not listening to God’s Spirit within us.  Or, we never truly believed in the first place and God’s Spirit does not live in us.

Someone who sees grace as permission to sin has missed grace entirely. Mercy understood is holiness desired.  Max Lucado

We Christians are called to live differently.  From cover to cover the Bible tells us how we should behave. We are supposed to stand out as lights in this dark world.  Why? Not to get to heaven, our ticket is punched.  Then why, if we know beforehand that we will be forgiven, should we behave like God wants us to?

Love

If we truly love Jesus because of his great love for us, then we will want to do what he asks of us.  Our lives should steadily change, and God has put his own Spirit in our hearts to help make that happen.

Thus, if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him.  But trying in a new way, a less worried way.  Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already.  Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of heaven is already inside you.  C.S. Lewis

Belief in the Gospel won’t suddenly turn you into Jesus Junior, growth takes time.  But your heart is changed.  Jesus calls it a hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Our old ways of life will not satisfy us anymore.  We have far more important business ahead of us.

A.J.

 

P.S.    We have only one or two more posts to go in this series.  I hope you have been enjoying it.  I have.  If you just jumped in, I encourage you to check out the rest.  It is the Gospel in plain language.  You can find the first post in the series if you scroll to the bottom of the main page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will I Ever Learn?

I was attacked recently by one of the people closest to me…

Via email.

It was bad.  I was ripped this way and that, up and down, and then told by this man that he was done with me.  It was a stress induced, guilt-ridden, preemptive attack.  He was positive I was going to mercilessly attack him for something he did, so he struck first, mercilessly.  I was accused, judged, and sentenced, all without seeing this man in person, although I tried to set up a meeting.

Most of his accusations were baseless.  Those that may have held merit were twisted to make me look worse than I should have.  But, my guilt or innocence regarding the matters he accused me of is not why I write today.  You see, in this situation, my bad behavior really began when I received the email.

I was seeing red; I was so angry.

Would it shock you to hear that I seriously considered finding him and knocking his lights out?  I guess it probably would, considering the type of stuff I write on this site.  Would it make it any better if I told you that it wouldn’t be the first time one of us punched the other?  That’s right.  We have had many physical altercations, he and I.  He is my brother.

You may think that putting this out there will add to this problem.  Considering he says he is done with me I am not sure that is possible.  But, right now, most of the people I know, including my brother and his family don’t know about this page.  For now, it is anonymous.  This may shock you folks–so brace yourself; My name is not really Average Joe.  It is an alias.

Don’t worry.  I didn’t show up at my brother’s house and ask him to step outside.  I didn’t even go tit-for-tat and blast him with an email counter attack.  Instead, I responded very kindly, refusing to go down that low road.  Now, that may sound very mature to you, very Christian, but it is the heart that matters and my heart was on a looooow road.

I am pretty sure if they knew the situation and saw the email, my family, my friends, even his friends would come in on my side and think that a bit of righteous anger is justified in this situation.  I wonder where Jesus would come in, though.  Would he say, “Yeah, A.J., go ahead and bust him in the mouth.”?   Would he tell me never to talk to him again?  Or, would he tell me what he has already told me, that I need to forgive him?  How many times?  As many times as he has wronged me.  How many times has God forgiven me?  As many times as I have wronged him.

It probably speaks to the condition of my heart but I find that anger is easy, and forgiveness difficult.  For a while after the email, I went back and forth between anger at my brother, and concern for him.  That kind of animosity doesn’t come from a healthy heart.  My needle is pretty well pegged on concerned right now.  I guess that means I am beginning to forgive.  As for my sin of anger, that has been forgiven too, for I am covered by grace.

I love my brother.  Nothing will change that.  He is a good Christian man who is not hearing God’s voice right now, the voice that is telling him how much he is loved.  Please pray for him.

Thanks,  A.J.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Tough Day

I wish I had the knowledge to show the world how to stop our own from killing our own.
I wish I had the words, to comfort the families, the friends, the communities of murdered children.
I wish I had the influence to change the way we teach our kids, love our kids, and lead our kids.
I have none of these things in abundance, not enough to make a difference nationally or globally.  Not many of us do, but we can make a difference in our own homes, in our own neighborhoods.
It can be hard; we get so busy and have so many things on our minds.  It can be easy to think our kids’ issues will work themselves out.  But, clearly, sometimes they don’t.  A happy toddler can turn into a worried seven year old, who turns into a confused eleven year old, who turn into an angry teenager, who turns into a dangerous adult.  Dark thoughts usually turn into dark actions at some point.
I will tell you, though, it is hard for you to show your kids the right path if you don’t know what the right path is.  We parents need to figure it out or we will lead our kids the wrong way.
Some parents, especially single parents aren’t equipped to deal with their own troubled children.  Some of them could use some help.  That is where we are supposed to come in.  We can know the neighbor kid needs love and guidance if we know the neighbor kid, if we talk to him or her, if we smile and say good morning when the kid is heading out for school.  Sometimes, all it takes for a confused and lonely kid to find the right path is to see that someone cares.  How many of us can name all the families on our own street?  I can’t.
I don’t blame myself or any of you for school shootings or any other crimes that others commit.  People are responsible for what they do.  I am saying that we can make a difference, and I truly believe that many of you are.  Some of us never get out of our chairs though.  We decry the injustice of our world but never make a difference in the lives of kids who grow up to commit these injustices.
Believe me, I am speaking to myself more than you.  Kids that I don’t know walk by my yard all the time, and I hardly notice.  If one of them is troubled–I wouldn’t know because I don’t look up from my rake half the time.  These days, I am afraid kids will get the wrong idea if I am too nice.  We don’t want to be known as that creepy guy who talks to all the kids, but the alternative is being that grumpy guy who doesn’t.  Which is better?  Which do we think God wants us to be?
Now, more than ever, kids need to see loving, kind, and joyful people doing loving kind and joyful things, for them, even if it’s just a smile or a few kind words.  You never know, it could turn into a friendship that helps a confused kid see life as a gift, all life.  Then he may want to know the Giver.  That kid may help other kids…
How do we start?  First of all–eye contact, and a smile.  That’s my plan.  It is a seed that will grow if watered.        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.

Visitor

thX5AIB933

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.