Our Moral Compass: You Are What You Believe

When Emma and I were returning from Jacksonville on Monday after Christmas, we made a wrong turn. The GPS on my phone instructed us to stay to the left on I-95, but we couldn’t get to the left because there was a barrier preventing us from merging. This forced us to take a wrong turn as the GPS rerouted. The new route instructed us to take the next exit and travel down a back street for a couple of miles. Emma looked at me and said with confidence, “I don’t believe this GPS, we should’ve just gone straight.” This was really funny because neither Emma nor I had any idea where we were, and her suspicion was completely irrational because the GSP always get us to where we need to go, even when we misread the map and make a wrong turn. Sure enough, we made it back to I-95 and safely home to Cocoa Beach.

I sometimes think, “I don’t know how I ever traveled without GPS on my phone.” Back in the day, I would print maps from MapQuest, and then later I had a Garmin GPS that hung from my windshield. Do you remember those? You could change the voice giving directions to Austin Powers or Snoop Dogg. Now this technology is on our phones and will even warn us of road hazards up ahead. GPS has become so integrated into our lives and the apps on our phones that we don’t realize how much we rely on it.

Pilots, archaeologists, moving companies, farmers, loggers, civil engineers, surveyors, geologists, mining companies, and even Navy SEALs all use sophisticated navigation equipment, and all this advanced technology is grounded in a simple device called the compass. Do you remember the hand-held compass? There was one in the Red Ryder BB gun I got for Christmas as a kid. They were typically round and had a little needle under a glass cover bouncing around on a pin that could point you north. This is a magnetic compass, which you can build with a needle and a cork in a bowl of water.

Another type is a gyrocompass. This compass does not use the Earth’s magnetism to show direction. Instead, a spinning gyroscope works in conjunction with the Earth’s axis of rotation to point to true north. This type of compass is often used on ships and aircraft. We also have the solar compass that uses the sun as a navigational tool.

And then there is perhaps the  most important compass of all when we are trying to navigate life, the moral compass. It’s a compass that points to our True North and keeps our steps on a good and trustworthy path. As we know, a good compass helps us travel with confidence in the right direction, and if it doesn’t, we need to throw it out and get a new one.

Today we start a new year. Many of us are hopeful, maybe even optimistic, about getting a fresh start, about recalibrating our habits and routines to become better people and experience more joy in life. But if this going to happen, we need a reliable moral compass, and there is no better time to check our navigational tools than at the beginning of a new journey.

As we know, there are four cardinal principal points on a compass (north, east, south, and west), and I think it will be helpful to return to our scripture reading this morning, taken from Ephesians, chapter 1, to see how it can help us understand the four cardinal points of a good moral compass.

Although there are many points on the Ephesian compass, the cardinal points help us understand our place in the world and our relationship with God. More precisely, they help us know who we are and who is directing our steps. The apostle Paul starts by providing the north and south points on our compass by saying that we are (1) chosen by God, and (2) we are children of God. Remember that the Earth’s axis is formed by the north and south poles. The planet rotates on this axis. So, metaphorically speaking, being chosen by God and being a child of God are pivotal points on our moral compass. If we get this wrong, the compass will not faithfully guide us.

First, we are chosen, and not just chosen but chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world” (v. 4). This means that before you were ever born, God destined you for good things like love, peace, and joy. God also destine you to be part of His great rescue plan for the world. This is part of your God-given purpose and identity, and if you don’t understand and claim this truth, then you will not be able to make good decisions that help you live into this destiny.

You have heard me say that the biggest problem with human beings these days is not that they think to highly of themselves but that they think too lowly of themselves. Indeed, modern psychology has taught us that most people who are full of pride are really overcompensating for insecurity. They worry that they are not good enough or smart enough, and that if people see this they will devalue, abandon, or reject them. So, they pretend that they are better than everyone else or smarter than everyone else to hide the fact that deep down inside they feel inferior. This deep-seated fear masked by projection has a way of breaking a person’s moral compass, and when they unwittingly follow this broken compass is leads them astray into thoughts and behaviors that hurt other people and keep them from experiencing true happiness. So, it is crucial that we get the north cardinal point right from the very beginning, that we know who we are and what destiny God has prepared for us.

As we start a new year and face an unknown future, we must remember that from the foundations of the world we were chosen by God, that it is God’s will that we live a good life and experience good things as we are trying to make the world a better place. And when we doubt our value or place in the world and start getting down on ourselves, we need to return to this constant north point—God has chosen me for good things.

More specially, God has chosen you “to be holy and blameless before him in love” (v. 4). Now don’t freak out at the sound of these words because they don’t mean what we often think they mean. Holy does not mean better than everyone else and blameless do not mean morally perfect. Holy means to be set apart to serve God’s purposes in the world. Before the planets were formed, God chose you to do your part in making the world more like He intends it to be, and to be holy means to accept this call, to allow God to set you apart for your specific role, and to serve this role as faithfully as you can. The role might be as simple as sharing the loving presence of God with your family or sharing the story of what God has done for you with a friend in crisis. Or it might be as challenging as becoming a foreign missionary or accepting a call to run for public office. But the important point here is that God has destined you to be part of his great rescue plan for this world, and to be holy means to be set apart in ways that will empower you to serve your unique role.

The word blameless points to the importance of leading a moral life. More specially, it’s a judicial term that stresses the importance of living a life committed to justice and fairness for all people. So being blameless means acting in ways that make the world more just and fair. But even followers of Jesus sometimes fall short, and the only way we can be restored to blamelessness is by asking God for forgiveness. So, we are blameless not in every action but insofar as we live under the cover of God’s grace in Jesus and seek forgiveness.

When we put all of this together regarding the north cardinal point, we start to get a clear idea of our identity in Christ: we are destined by God to be set apart so we can live moral lives that make the world more loving and justice, and when we mess-up, we are the kind of people that own our mistakes, ask for forgiveness and, with God’s help, get back on track. This identity is our true north as Christians.        

Second, we are not only chosen by God, but we are also children of God, which is a little more personal. As it says in scripture, we are not children by nature, but by adoption, which dovetails nicely with the concept of being chosen. All children are special, but an adopted child is even more special because they are freely chosen. Knowing that we are a child of God is the south point of our moral compass, an axiomatic belief that is require for our compass to work.

Now think about what this means. Do children with loving parents worry about their future? Do they wonder how they will survive? Do they even bother themselves with these types of adult concerns? No! Unless they have been seriously abused, they have confidence that their parents will provide for their needs. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “ . . . do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32). Our faith that God is real, that he is closer to us than our own breathing, that he is for us and not against us, that he is working in and through all things to accomplish our good, and that we can trust his protection and provision, all of this is crucial as we seek direction in life. Together, these faith claims, claims that we must come back to over and over again, are the south point of our compass and together with our north point form the moral axis on which everything turns.

The east point on our moral compass is the rock-solid conviction that we are redeemed. Although we sell ourselves into various kinds of slavery that rob us of our God-given destiny and put us on the path to destruction, God does not abandon us. Rather, God find us on the auctioning block and buys back our freedom. In Jesus, God pays our debt, sets us free, and brings us home so we can reclaim our destiny and get back to a joyful existence in which we are serving God’s loving purposes in the world. Knowing and believing that we have been redeemed and that God can make us useful again is an essential element in our identity and the east point on our moral compass.

Finally, the west point of our compass is the certainty that in Jesus we are forgiven. Everything ugly, shameful, dark, and destructive has been blotted out. We don’t need to carry it around anymore like a noose around our neck. We can let it go, give it God, and walk in newness of life. Many people are suspicious Sigmund Freud, but he got at least one thing right, that most of our bad behavior is driven by guilt and shame. So, if you do not truly believe that you have been forgiven then your moral compass will be broken, and all that guilt will destroy you behind your back. You’ve got to let it go and claim your identity as someone who has been forgiven.

When we put the east and west cardinal points together, that we are redeemed and forgiven, it helps us to understand the famous verse of scripture in Psalm 103:12: “ . . . as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”   

To review, the four cardinal points of the Ephesian compass are the north-south vectors of being chosen by God and claimed as children of God, and the east-west vectors that we are redeemed by God and forgiven by God. Taken together, all four establish our identity in Christ; all four guide our steps so we can be joyful and useful; all four are axiomatic faith claims from which everything good proceeds.

I want to end this morning by posing a couple of questions.

First, do you have a good compass? Do you possess the rock-solid belief that you have been chosen by God for good things? That you are a child of God and therefore a person of worth? That you don’t have to be or do anything different for God to love you, because God’s love is unconditional and nothing you could ever do would make God stop loving you or stop pursing you? Do you know in your heart of hearts that you are redeemed and forgiven? Do these convictions shape how you think about yourself and make decisions in your everyday life? If all four of these things are not in place, you don’t have a good compass. But the good news is that God can give you one that works great, and the only thing you have to do to receive this gift is to sincerely confession your sins and ask God to give you a fresh start. Before we move on, I want to give everyone here a chance to do that by offering a prayer . . . . .

______________________________

If you prayed this prayer with me and meant it in your heart, then you can claim a new identity in Christ: that you are a chosen child of God that has been forgiven and redeemed.

Now that you have this new compass, the second question is, will you trust it? Will you trust this moral compass. Trusting the compass means coming back to the four axiomatic faith claims over and over again so you can remember who you are and who directs your steps. This is especially important when the world tells you different, when the world says that your life is meaningless and without purpose, that you can’t trust anyone, that you are irredeemable and unforgiven, that you are beyond repair and will never be free from your guilt. When these things are spoken over you or crop-up in your thinking, trusting you compass means counteracting these lies with the truth of the four cardinal points. Trusting your compass also means that when you are making decisions you ask yourself what would a person do who truly believes that he is chosen, redeemed, and forgiven by God, a person who is destined for good things and has the protection and provision of God? And then letting your faith guide your steps. If God has given you a good compass, then you can always trust it, even when your instincts, fears, or preferences tempt you to another path. So, trust your compass and consult it frequently.

On Caring: Lessons from an Unruly Bougainvillea

When we first moved into the parsonage, there was a Bougainvillea that had been neglected for years. Lack of skilled pruning made it misshapen and ugly. It also had lots of sharp thorns that were dangerous to little hands retrieving basketballs and toys. I talked to our landscaper about pulling it out of the ground and throwing it away. Once removed, we could replace it with three Christmas palms, which I imagined would be better.

The Bougainvillea Properly Trimmed

But the landscaper said, “Mark, the reason you don’t like it is because it has been neglected. Whoever lived here previously didn’t truly understand the plant and how to care for it in a way that brings out its natural beauty. Let me trim it, prune it, and work on it for awhile, and you decide to keep it.”

It’s Beautiful Flowers

I reluctantly agreed, and now, almost six years later, as I sit on my front porch to pray and drink coffee, the most beautiful thing I see are it’s bright purple flowers. As silly as it seems, I have deep gratitude for the beauty of this plant, which remained hidden until it was understood, pruned, and nurtured—until someone invested time and energy to wrestle with its unruly growth and bring out its natural best. I’m also grateful for all the birds it draws into it’s thick leaves and the songs they sing. It still has sharp thorns that occasionally inflict wounds, and it still requires work to keep it heathy and beautiful, but I’m so glad we didn’t uproot this bush and throw it away.

This got me thinking about how our lives are like this Bougainvillea, and how many of our relationships are like this Bougainvillea ….

Jesus said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)

A Pastor’s Journey Through Depression: Faith, Medicine, & Friends

As we celebrate Christmas and the beginning of a new year, we are expected to be happy. Unfortunately, many people are struggling with deep sadness and isolation. In this message, Pastor Mark talks about his long battle with depression, the medical facts behind the illness, how to recognize symptoms, and ways that we can all better support those navigating the darkness. Please share with others who may this message helpful.

Podcast: Search “Pastor Mark Reynolds” in your preferred app

https://youtu.be/YRvFZVRxMzo

If You Want to Love Others, You Must Begin with Prayer

Message Road Map: September 5, 2021

Last weekend was one of the busiest of my career, and on Sunday I was at church from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. The only time I left was to run across the street to Taco Bell to grab some lunch. When I got to the drive through window to pay, I saw a young man who looked pretty stressed out. I felt a nudge to offer words of encouragement, and, to my surprise, he began to explain that it was just him and the manager running the whole place. He also told me that he used to have a good paying job with benefits until he was laid off due to COVID, and now he trying to work several part-time jobs to  make ends meet.  

I felt bad for him and said, “I’m going to pray for you today, that God bless you and take care of your family,” and upon hearing these words, his facial expression changed, and he said, “I really appreciate that. I need to remember that I am blessed just to have this job and to be alive today.” By acting on the nudge and offering prayer, God was able to bless this guy through me and make his day a little better, even if just for moment.

Sometimes, if we are paying attention, God prompts or nudges us to do something or say something that will bless another person. Someone’s name might pop into your head, prompting you to think, “Maybe I should call him,” or “Maybe I should pray for her.” You might feel led to invite a friend out for coffee or feel a nudge to ask if a stranger if she needs help. Has something like this ever happen to you? Recently, a friend came to my mind who was having a hard time, and I felt a nudge to text him and say, “I prayed for you today. If you need a listening ear, give me a call.” Shortly after clicking the send button, he called me on the phone, and we talked for a long time. At the end of our conversation, he said, “Man, I really needed to talk about this stuff, and I feel better now. Thanks for listening.” I then felt led to pray for this person on the phone, which he deeply appreciated. We often forget that God is always already working in the life of every person around you, trying to move them toward more healing, more freedom, more peace, and more joy. And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, if we are awake to God’s presence in our everyday lives, then God empowers us to join in what he is already doing in their lives by blessing them. Isn’t that incredible?

But we must be tuned-in to what God is doing, and we must pay attention to God promptings. So, how do we do that? Well, the most important way is through prayer. Prayer is simply an ongoing conversation with God in which we both speak and listen. We can talk to God just like we talk to anyone else, and he wants us to pour out hearts. But we can also listen by meditating on scripture. God speaks to us as we read the Bible, and when we hear God’s still small voice nudging, prompting, convicting, or encouraging, we can ponder it in our hearts and reflect on it with our minds. While there are many different ways to pray, we teach the ancient practice of lectio divina. You can learn about this by picking up my free booklet on the welcome center, “New Life in Christ,” or by going to our website and checking out the page, “Connect Online.” However, you chose to pray, the important thing is that you actually do it, because it’s the lifeblood of our relationship with God.

It’s so important, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing” and to “rejoice in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ.” As you may know, I try to go to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit every year for spiritual retreat. The monks who live there take this call to pray without ceasing seriously, and they use the analogy of breathing. They say that speaking to God is like breathing out, and listening to God by meditating on scripture is like breathing in. And like breath, it is a necessity for spiritual life. This can be seen in their practice of “breath prayers.” For example, as they slowly breath in they say in their mind, “Lord” and as they exhale, they silently say, “have mercy.” Then, following the same pattern, “Christ / have mercy, Lord / have mercy.” The idea it to synchronize their breath with this prayer so that it becomes so natural they unconsciously do it even while they’re sleeping—they are learning to pray without ceasing. The main idea is that prayer is to the soul as breathing is to the body. And this is what keeps us awake, alert, paying attention to spiritual things; it’s what gives us eyes to see and ears to hear, as Jesus would say.

In the context of this message, the principle is simple: when you want to love people, when you want to live a life that regularly manifests the blessings of God in ways that help others, Jesus invites us to begin with prayer, which is precisely what HE does. Before Jesus even starts his earthly ministry around 30 years old, it says in Luke 4:1 that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Why did the Holy Spirit lead him into the wilderness? To fast and PRAY.

Furthermore, when he had to make one of the most important decisions of his life regarding who to choose as his followers, it says in Luke 6 that “[Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” It was only after praying all night that Jesus felt ready to choose the twelve disciples, not only to follow him as their rabbi, but to carry his message of salvation to the whole world after he ascended to heaven (vv. 12-16).

Every time Jesus made important decisions, regarding what to do, who to call, who to engage, who to disengage, how to reach people, and how to bless people, he started with prayer. In fact, Jesus didn’t just pray on occasion, he lived a life saturated in prayer, awake and responsive to the presence of God. And this is what he wants for us too because this is how we discover God’s will and find the wisdom, courage, and strength to carry it out.

Let’s look at all the things God does in prayer to help us bless others. First, God uses prayer to OPEN our hearts us to the leading of His Spirit, allowing us to tune into what He is already doing, and helping us to recognize the promptings to join Him in blessing others. This is our starting point, and why we are not just called to pray, but to BEGIN with prayer.

Second, as we continue in prayer, God will show us WHO to bless. He will bring people to mind and give us a desire to pray for them (reminding us that we need to pray for someone other than ourselves). And as you pray for someone, you start to see them differently—you start to see them as God sees them. And this gives you deeper understanding of their hurts, habits, and hang-ups, and, consequently, a better understanding of their needs. This evokes compassion and empowers us to listen to them without judgement (which is our topic for next week). As we see them from God’s perspective through the eyes of compassion, God cultivates a desire to want to bless them. (As a side note, this is why Jesus tells us to pray from our enemies. We often get tethered to an enemy in anger, resentment, and even hatred, all of which compels us to see him/her in a particularly bad light that makes compassion difficult if not impossible. This creates a kind of slavery that destroys us from the inside out. But if we obey Jesus and pray for our enemies, it can change the way we see them, and when anger gives way to compassion we are finally set free to live again.)

Third, when we pray, God show us HOW to bless the people. After opening us to the leading of the Holy Spirit, showing us who to bless, and helping us to see them through the eyes of compassion, God directs us in prayer regarding what to do. As I mentioned earlier, it could be as easy as sending a text message to say, “I am praying for you,” or inviting someone to lunch. The main point is that God directs us regarding when we should approach them, how we should engage them, and the ways we can bless them.

Finally, prayer connects us to the POWER of God that makes all this possible. We must always remember that blessing someone means being a conduit of GOD’S grace. In other words, I’m not the one blessing people, God is blessing them through me. And without this power, without this divine grace, our efforts will fall flat. Furthermore, the BIGGEST blessing that people experience through us, is not the specific thing we do like sending a message or listening without judgement, but the experience of drawing close to the presence of God. God works through our specific actions to give them the most transformative and life-giving blessing a person can receive—God gives them Himself. It’s important to remember that while we can do something to make someone’s day better, God can heal their heart and save their soul.

Notice how all the work of prayer happens in us for the benefit of others! I’m gonna say that again and I want you to let it sink in: All the work of prayer happens in us, and it’s for the benefit of others. [Which helps us to understand why Jesus said that if you try to save your life by focusing on yourself you lose it, but if you are willing to lose your life in service to others you gain it. Prayer is the tool that leads to this discovery, which is the secret of a happy life . . . but that’s for another message.] God uses prayer to change us so that we can bless others and change the world. Without prayer, none of these things are likely to happen, especially since God sometimes asks us to bless others in ways that make us uncomfortable. Again, it all hinges on our willingness to begin with prayer.

So how do we do it? How do we begin with prayer? Notice I didn’t ask: How should we pray? I have done various sermon series devoted to this topic that you can find on my YouTube channel, and there are many good books and devotionals on the topic too. Furthermore, I’ve already pointed you to the ancient practice of lectio divina. But what I want to focus on this morning is how to BEGIN with prayer. And to help you, I’ve provided a tool in your bulletin. For those watching online, I have posted the handout on our church Facebook page. It’s called, “The Art of Neighboring,” and it’s a great tool to get you thinking about who God may be calling you to bless.

You can start with your own neighborhood. The house in the center represents where you live, and the eight empty boxes represent the people who live around you. Write the names of those people in the empty boxes. If you don’t know their names, then you might want to find out. Go knock on their door and introduce yourself. Say something like, “We are neighbors and I just want to take a minute to introduce myself and let you know that I’m willing to help if you ever need anything.” If this suggestion makes you nervous, you can also Google them. But don’t get hung-up on geographical location. The goal is simply to write the names of 8 people that live close to you in the empty boxes. You can also use this tool in other areas of life, for example, at work with 8 of your closest co-workers, or in your basketball league, or in your civic club. Once you get these names written down, start praying for them every day.

Since this may be a challenge for you, I want to share three things that can help.

First, plan. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “If you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail.” So, plan time every day to pray for the people on your neighbor map by setting a reminder in your phone or putting it on your calendar. Then pray for them by name. You may be thinking, “What if I don’t know them? How can I pray for someone I don’t know? Well, you can start by asking God to bless them.

Second, prepare: As you pray, ask God to prepare you to bless them. Ask God to help you notice them, to see them as he sees them. Ask God to make you sensitive to his promptings.

Third, ask God to show you how to bless them, to show you their needs, and to help you know when and how to offer acts of kindness.

In closing, I want to remind you of two things. The first is something that holocaust survivor, Corrie ten Boom said: “We never know how God will answer our prayers, but we can expect that He will get us involved in his plan for the answers.” In other words, God intends prayer to mobilize you so you can join him in blessing the world. If your prayer doesn’t lead to action, something is wrong. Second, remember that following Jesus isn’t meant to be comfortable, it’s meant to be life changing. So, when you start praying and God shows you who to bless and how to bless them, you must be willing to step out of your comfort zone. And that is the good news of the gospel today. Amen.  

What the Resurrection Really Means: An Invitation to Discovery

In 2013, I hired a guy named Casey to be the Worship Leadership for Shepherd’s Community UMC. My wife, Emma, and I became great friends with Casey and his wife, Cindy. Early on, they shared with us that they had lost a baby at birth, a little girl named Selah. Upon hearing this, I felt compassion but didn’t give it much thought until it came up in other conversations. From my perspective, their loss didn’t affect the way our friendship developed or how I saw them as people . . . until they invited me to a gathering called Compassionate Friends.

If you’re not familiar, Compassionate Friends is a support group at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL for parents who have lost children of all ages. My first encounter with them was around Christmas time when I was asked to deliver a message for their holiday gathering. Casey, Cindy, and Emma were also asked to lead worship, so it was an opportunity to serve together. Upon arrival, I felt like a fish out of water. How could I possibly speak to this group of people when I didn’t share their unique loss? I was fearful of having no credibility or unintentionally offending them with presumption.

I am happy to say that all went well that night. However, the greatest blessing for me was the opportunity to gain a better understanding of my friends, Casey and Cindy. Prior to that night, I really didn’t get it. I did not understand the full significance of their losing a child, and how this event deeply shaped them as people. As I stepped into their world and watched them interact with others who were suffering a similar heartbreak, I began to understand an important part of their identity.

Has this ever happened to you? You thought you knew almost everything about someone but were missing something important. something that you could only discover by stepping into their world.

 

Resurrection as Disorienting

Well, this happened to the disciples too in their relationship with Jesus.

According to the gospels, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to die and be raised from the dead by God, but by all accounts, they just didn’t get it. It is not that resurrection was a completely foreign concept (it already had a history in their native religion, Judaism), but when Jesus talked about it they did not understand the significance of what he was saying. It did not seem to affect how they saw Jesus or how they lived their lives . . . until they discovered an empty tomb.

This was a confusing, disorienting, and terrifying discovery. Since we know the whole story as recorded in scripture, we tend to see the resurrection as the solution to all life’s problems, but this was not the case for the early Christians. Their experience of the empty tomb did not function as a solution but created a whole new set of problems that, up to that point, they did not have. At first, they did not understand what was happening—they did not get it.

 

The Original Ending of Mark

It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples. We forget that no one in the ancient world had their own copy of the Bible. We forget that there was a time when the early Christians did not have the New Testament because it had not been written yet. Furthermore, we forget how these books came to be, one at a time, and that even after they were written the early Christians had limited access to a few handwritten copies passed around in house-churches. For these reasons (and many more), it’s difficult for modern people to read the gospels from the perspective of their original audience. However, there is much to be learned by this imaginative effort.

For this article, I am most interested in the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel to be written. At the time of composition, there was no Matthew, Luke, or John. Furthermore, the oldest manuscripts of Mark end at chapter 16, verse 8. If you have a study Bible that is informed by modern scholarship, the textual notes will alert you to this fact as well as the two different endings that were added later.

For whatever reason, after the Gospel of Mark was written, the early church was not satisfied with its original ending. Thus, a short addition was added in which the women tell the disciples about the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus appears to them. As time went on, this ending did not satisfy either, because the early church came back and added an even longer ending, which made it sound more like Matthew and Luke.

Remembering that there was a time when the earliest Christians only had one gospel, the Gospel of Mark, let us try to hear the original ending without filling-in the blanks with the additions or other gospels.

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. [THE END.] (Mark 16:1-8).

Do you see why the church may have found this ending inadequate, especially since there were no other gospels to fill out the story? The truth is, we probably do not like this ending either. However, there is much to be learned if we try to imagine that we are hearing this gospel for the first time, that this is the only gospel we have, and that this is the only ending we have. What could this teach us about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection?

 

Resurrection as Invitation

As mentioned above, the empty tomb by itself does not answer questions, it raises questions. According to the story in Mark, it evokes fear, amazement, and confusion, leaving the women stunned and asking, “What in the world is going on here?” The empty tomb and the claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead created a problem for the earliest witnesses. It apparently raised so many questions and evoked so much fear that they refused to tell anyone about it!

Knowing their initial response, the man in white apparel gives them further instruction: Go and tell the disciples, and then go to Galilee, because the risen Jesus goes ahead of you and “there you will see him, just as he told you.” If they want to see the risen Jesus, they must leave the empty tomb and go to where he is—ahead of them.

Importantly, Galilee is not a town or a city, but a region. It is the region where Jesus spent most of his time serving the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, and rejected. So, the angel seems to be saying: There is only one way for you to begin to understand the empty tomb, one way to begin to understand what resurrection might mean, one way to trade your fear for wisdom—to personally encounter the resurrected Jesus for yourself. And the only way that you can do this is to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve who he served. If you do this, then you will encounter Jesus and will finally start to get it. By serving the friends of Jesus, you will come to know in the deepest part of your being that, somehow and in some way, Jesus is still alive and at work in this world.

As it was with the disciples, so it is with us.

However, just because the claim, “Jesus is alive,” strikes us as true does not mean that we have it all figured out. What is interesting about deep truth, wherever we find it, is that it creates a weird experience in which we believe that something is true, but we are not exactly sure how it is true. Why? Because the most profound truths of the universe are beyond human understanding, beyond human categories, language, and explanation. In this way, the dawning awareness that something is true serves as an invitation to a process of discovery in which we gradually get glimpses of what this truth might possibly mean.

According to the Gospel of Mark, this is what the divine messenger does for the women who discover the empty tomb, at least in the original ending. He doesn’t answer all their questions or give them miraculous knowledge. Rather, he invites them to a way of life in which they can (1) come to believe that the resurrection is in some sense true, and (2) enter a process of discovery that will help them see how it is true. In my own experience, when we gain this kind of deep insight through personal experience, how something is true can be surprising. It might be true in a way we never expected.

 

Challenge

When Christians say that Jesus was raised from the dead, they are saying that Jesus is still alive and at work in the world today. He is still out ahead of us with his friends, abiding with the poor, outcast, rejected, and vulnerable—with those who suffer. If we want to encounter the risen Christ, if we want to understand him and his resurrection, then we must go where he went, do what he did, and serve the people that he served. We must step into his world and see it as he does. This is the only way that anyone can make sense of the resurrection and truly come to believe it. Just like I could not really understand Casey and Cindy until I stepped into their world and served their friends, I cannot truly come to know Jesus and his resurrection until I imitate his life in ministry to his friends. It is in their eyes that we meet the risen Christ, come to believe that he is still alive today, and get glimpses of what this might possibly mean.

The resurrection is an invitation to a way of life that ends-up being a process of discovery.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as I learn the stories of Jesus, empower me to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve the people he served so that I may come to believe and understand his resurrection.

 

(This post is the fourteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Dying to Live: Suffering for a Higher Purpose

A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.

Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.

 

Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose

All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.

But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.

First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.

I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.

Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.

In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.

The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.

Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.

As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:

  • God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
  • Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
  • God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
  • God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
  • Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.

These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.

 

The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope

All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.

It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.

True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.

 

Challenge

Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?

We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.

 

(This post is the twelfth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Suffering, Confession, & Repentance

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  (Mark 1:1-5)

 

A Call to Repentance

The gospel of Mark begins with the announcement of good news to a people enduring great suffering. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative. Rather he jumps right to a message that the people needed to hear: you do not suffer alone; God suffers with you. This is communicated by evoking a prophecy in Isaiah of a suffering servant sent by God to save his people, and by suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The appropriate response upon hearing this good news is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which seems odd. Why would the first message to a brutalized people be a call to repentance? At first glance, this may seem like victim blaming. What exactly are the sins from which they need to repent?

Remember that when Rome burned in 64 C.E., Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and a mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on every door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Jesus follower. If a believer was identified, either by admission or because of someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified, then those living there were required to name someone else living elsewhere. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day.[i]

As they were subject to unimaginable horror, some people acted out of character, doing things that they deeply regretted. Some denied Jesus by denying their faith. Others betrayed friends to save their own families. Resentment and hatred poisoned their hearts in the face of unjust violence.

These are some of the sins from which they needed to repent because they created heavy burdens of shame. Seen in this way, repentance was a gift from God insofar as it provided a release from these burdens through the process of forgiveness. They needed to forgive themselves, as well as their family, friends, community, and enemies to move forward, live full lives, and be transformed into the image of Christ, the suffering servant.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah makes all this possible because he baptizes the repentant with the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers us to find freedom through repentance and forgiveness, both of which are miracles of God’s grace.

 

Suffering, Self-Discovery, and Forgiveness

In my own experience, suffering functions to peel away layers of old beliefs, thoughts, and patterns of action that cloud a true understanding of our pain. So often we don’t really know the source of our pain or what drives it because our understanding is distorted by false assumptions and stories we tell ourselves that are simply not true. Suffering can initiate a process of self-discovery that strips away the things that deceive so we can get to the roots of our suffering, which is the only place where true healing can happen.

However, this itself is a painful process. When our illusions and defense mechanisms are stripped away, we are required to face the fullness of our suffering. This is experienced as a kind of death—the death of ego. Many try to shorten this process by rushing forgiveness, as if it were a momentary decision of the will: “I forgive you. Yes, yes, all is fine now.” But all is not fine because forgiveness has not really happened. Rather this is an exercise in denial that sweeps the wrongdoing under the rug and prevents authentic forgiveness, which includes naming and condemning the offense, grieving losses, processing resentment, converting bitterness into compassion, and reassessing the boundaries in the relationship. Although denial may appear to work for a little while, over time it proves to be another deception that must be stripped away by suffering, so we can get in touch with deeper currents of anger, pain, and shame. Healing from brokenness and betrayal, the kind inflicted on us by others and the kind we inflict on ourselves, is a process that takes time. It cannot be rushed. And part of this process involves the confession of sin and repentance.

This is hard to hear when you’ve been the target of mistreatment or abuse. We must be very careful not to blame victims for offenses inflicted on them by others. (See the comments below on appropriate and inappropriate guilt.) But even truly innocent victims sometimes discover that they need to repent from their reaction to the offense. For example, some retaliate with violence, repaying evil with evil, while others nurse resentment for years.

These examples illustrate a more general truth: it’s hard to focus on our part in wrongdoing when our part is very small. Except in extreme cases of victimization, we usually bear some responsibility in the conflict we experience with others. Sometimes our part is easy to see because we’re mostly to blame, or at least a 50/50 participant. But when the offense of another is pronounced and obvious, it can eclipse the small ways that we may have contributed, making it appear as if the other person is 100% to blame.

Imagine having a difficult conversation with someone where you honestly spoke the truth in love. He gets furious and retaliates by mistreating you for months, trashing you behind your back to anyone who will listen. Resisting the temptation to repay insult for insult, you remain loving and continue to act morally. Then, one day, after a particularly nasty attack, you lose your temper and send an email in which you speak more truth, but this time it’s in anger not love. You’ve had enough, and your primary goal is to hurt him in the same way he has hurt you. Your enemy then takes the email and makes it public to continue hurting you. The wrong doing of this disgruntled man is so obvious and prolonged that it is easy to saddle him with 100% of the blame. By highlighting his gross wrong doing, you can eclipse your own small part and act as if you’re totally innocent. But if you want to be healed and spiritually transformed, you must own your part, even if it’s so small in comparison that it’s hard to see. Indeed, even if the other person is 99% to blame, you still must confess and repent of your 1%.

 

Understanding Confession and Repentance

But what do we mean by confession and repentance? Neither one of these spiritual practices can be reduced to a fleeting memory of wrongdoing acknowledged by an obligatory, “I’m sorry.” Many of us know from experience how these words can be used to avoid the natural consequences of bad action.

In contrast, true confession is about making a searching and fearless moral inventory. By seriously reflecting on the full scope of our wrongdoing, we gain a better understanding of the nature of our offense, what causes and motivates it, and what negative consequences ensue for everyone involved. Having done this, true repentance requires us to feel the pain we have caused others through genuine empathy, so when we say the words, “I’m sorry,” they are heartfelt. After connecting with the pain we’ve caused others, true repentance also requires us to fully accept the consequences of our actions, to become willing to make amends, and to commitment to addressing the roots of our problem so we can make lasting positive changes. Taken together, confession and repentance expose the character defects that drive our sin, putting us in a position to receive healing and liberation.

It’s important to note that repentance is not about self-hatred or beating ourselves up. Just as we seek to be compassionate with others, we also seek to be compassionate with ourselves. Just as we seek to forgive others, we also seek to forgive ourselves. This means that while we should accept the appropriate guilt that we deserve, we should not accept inappropriate guilt that we do not. This requires good boundaries because some people will try to blame us for things we haven’t done or manipulate us into assuming a disproportionate amount of the blame. But honesty cuts both ways. Just as we should not try to hide or deny our contribution (no matter how small), nor should we accept blame that does not belong to us, or the false narratives spun to legitimate the offering of inappropriate guilt.

 

Challenge

True repentance is an exercise in honesty, a gift from God in the larger process of forgiveness that can heal our pain and set us free for deep spiritual transformation. So, if you are suffering today because of sin, either your own or someone else’s, then remember that God has given us a way out. It takes time to work through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, but if you stay close to Jesus and get the help you need, your pain will not last forever. As you heal you will experience fundamental changes that will serve you well on the path to freedom, peace, and joy.

How your pain changes you is partly dependent on your willingness to deal with it in God’s way.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, help me to be honest about my own wrongdoing so that I can truly repent and be set free. Forgive my sin, heal my pain, and empower me to forgive others.

___________________________________

[i] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2017), 131.

 

(This post is the tenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

_____________________________________

[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.

Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or excluding LGBTQ persons. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”