The Weight of Teaching

Today, a stirring in my soul…seeking specifically a resolution to some of the incongruencies I was taught, which have bothered me from childhood. Maybe it’s because I am teaching this week at Vacation Bible School. The weight of responsibility is heavy on my heart as I present the message of God, the Word of God who is a Person, not a book of instruction. (John 1)

I trusted that those who gave themselves to teaching me the “good news” at VBS had resolved all the issues with which I struggled to understand. I trusted they studied and sometimes had “Dr.” or “Rev” attached to their names. Yet…

When I read the Bible, even as a child, it was so clear to me that Jesus is the exact representation, the fullness of the Father. (Hebrews 1:3) revealed by the Spirit.

How is it then, that western evangelicalism preaches that God can not be in the presence of “sin”.? Even in the Old Testament, we read that God was with Adam, Cain, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, (all their sins were grievous) and He never abandoned them.

I heard it taught to children today…you can’t belong or be in the presence of your Father if you are a sinner – and all have sinned. Oh but he loves you so much he died for you, but you still can’t belong to his family unless you follow the 4 spiritual laws or the ABC’s of salvation.

Mercifully, our Bible Story was about the Good Shepherd who left the 99 and went to find the “lost” sheep. So I asked my 3rd graders if the sheep that was lost already belonged to, and was loved by the Shepherd. These children knew intuitively what I have always known in my child-like heart – yes! All the sheep already belonged to the Shepherd before the one was lost! The lost sheep lost sight of the Shepherd. All the sheep needed to do was turn toward (repent) the Shepherd and he would no longer be lost. And when the sheep had gone too far, the Shepherd went after him until he was found.

In the Gospel stories, Jesus loved being with the “sinners” . He did not wait for people to believe in Him, He sought to save those who were already created in Him, for Him and through Him.

Did Jesus condemn anyone for being lost, “missing the mark ”? Did Jesus have to save us from his angry Father? Did God have to beat the hell out of Jesus to pay for our sin so we could be “whitewashed dung” (Jonathan Edwards) Will Jesus be eternally protecting us from the wrath of a Zeus-like monster God?

Or has God always been like Jesus? Is the Ancient of Days perfectly revealed in Jesus as the self-giving, co-suffering God who did not recoil from our sin, but absorbed our sin into Himself – from before the foundation of the world. Could it be that we were found in Jesus before we were ever lost in Adam.

Has the Holy Trinity ever been separated? If God the Father was not “in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” where was He? Indeed has any molecule in the universe ever existed outside the fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Finally, can anything in all creation, heaven or earth, can demons, hell or our own rebellion EVER separate us from the love of God in Christ? -(Romans 8.) Does His mercy indeed endure FOREVER? Or does it end on judgment day?

Did God so love the world that He gave His only Son, and whoever believes in Him shall not parish, but have eternal life …and if you don’t or if you never heard this “good news” He will roast you in eternal conscious torment forever? Or worse, will only those predestined to be saved (few are chosen) will be, and the “many” will be damned?

Notice the ancient Hebrew mysterious unspeakable word for God YWH does not allow us to close our lips when we speak His name. God is in our very breath – first and last, always available, always accessible as free as the very air we breathe – to all, always has been, always will be, “I AM with you always”

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Reduction

This past year, my “one word” was “Reduce”
I made many changes in my use of time, purged my home of a lot of unnecessary items and clutter. I focused on one ministry, and intentionally reduced screen time and social media and replaced it with increased study of the new Mirror translation of the Bible. Retirement has afforded me more time for prayer and meditation.

I also began asking the Holy Spirit to walk me through an inventory and purging of my faith (read: western evangelicalist theology), deconstruct the ideology which has been troubling me since I was a child. This journey was sometimes painful and brought me to tears – both tears of regret and tears of an emerging joy.

I came to realize that the great stain in my western evangelicalist religion is the lie of separation…that being a sinner separated me (and the rest of mankind) from God at the moment of birth. This led to a concept of substitutionary atonement mandating an even more troubling theology of the Father forsaking the Son when Jesus submitted Himself to our our darkness on the cross. The religion of exclusion, election, privilege and church hierarchy was something I just accepted but I never understood nor embraced fully. Until now, I did not have the time or resources to challenge what honored men and women with impressive credentials had passed down since the first church council. My motto was “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Besides, I love my church family and where else could I go?

Still, I could never believe God said “I love you and if you don’t love me back I will roast you in Hell forever.” Even though there were a handful of verses in the Bible about Hell and the wrath of God, it looked more like distorted visions of Dante’s inferno and for me, resulted in a schizophrenic view of God.

My journey of deconstruction actually started in 1975 when I looked into the beautiful face of an amazing creation – my first child. Her beauty and innocence took my breath away. At that moment it made no sense that what God imagined, loved and purposefully had in mind from before the foundation of the world, would come into existence separated from Him. That only by her indoctrination of the four spiritual laws , and encouragement to say the “sinner’s prayer” would keep her from eternal conscious torment in the fires of Hell…seriously? is that what the Bible really teaches? The same thought came back with successive children and grandchildren until at last I determined to ask God Himself to teach me.

This year, I read the Bible again without the lens of my theology.. I read it from page one as Dr. Tim Mackie suggests, a “unified story that points us to Jesus” rather than an inerrant rule book dropped from heaven to make us behave, or a prophesy of doom to scare us into submission. I asked a LOT of questions. I trusted that God would work out the troubling passages for me, or if not, He would move me on, accepting that I would understand later.

In the case of that troubling passage of sin separating us from God, learning that much of the Old Testament language was poetic and metaphoric rather than literal.

My main focus was to see Jesus in every story, every book. I also googled the historical setting of each book and the cultural language used to describe what happened. I listened to hours of YouTube classes on Jewish literature, the writing of the earliest church fathers, creeds and doctrinal statements of my “churchianity” from both secular and religious sources. I’m an information junky so I really had to be disciplined in that area.

The revelation of Jesus was remarkable and everywhere! From the first “In the beginning God created” of Genesis to out of the garden with humanity, clothing them, providing for them, never leaving them when they sinned. He put a mark of protection on Cain, the first murderer, He appeared and spoke with another murderer Moses, to deliver His stubborn and rebellious people from Egypt, crowned an adulterer and murderer as king over Israel (David), kept bringing His people prophets to warn them often saving them from the consequences of living against His love.

The Torah, the Psalms and prophets spoke of the coming Savor.

In the fullness of time, He became human and entered our darkness. He connected with and touched those whom His own people called outcasts, He healed the sick, offered living water to an adulterous Samaritan, forgave a prostitute caught in the act, embraced the doubters, the betrayers and forgave those who murdered Him. Finally He called a man (who formerly persecuted the very church He began) to carry the good news to the all the world.

Jesus who became more than a scapegoat or sacrificial substitution. He became sin for us, allowed us to participate in His murder, and never being forsaken by God, He took all to hell with him in dying our death, raised all together with Him in His resurrection and brought all humanity into the Kingdom of God. He there invites us enjoy the unbroken fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I found that the “gospel” is not that we need to receive Jesus…the good news is that He has already received us. He was never willing that any should perish but planned our redemption before creation!

Mankind’s only contribution was to murder the Son of God. But His love was more powerful and conquered death. His light overcame darkness. His holiness made the consuming fire of Divine love redemptive rather than retributive. As a loving Father would fiercely prevent anything harmful to his child at any cost, so fierce was God’s “wrath” against evil, not mankind.

John chapter 1 explains how all things were created through, for and in Jesus, the Word made flesh. He is the source, He sustains ALL things in Himself…

“In the last of these days He has spoken to us in [the person of a] Son, Whom He appointed Heir and lawful Owner of ALL things, also by and through Whom He created the worlds and the reaches of space and the ages of time-[that is] [He made, produced, built, operated, and arranged them in order]. He is the sole expression of the glory of God-[the Light-being, the out-raying or radiance of the divine],-and He is the perfect imprint and very image of [God’s] nature, upholding and maintaining and guiding and propelling the universe by His mighty word of power…” (Hebrews 1:3-4 Amplified)

I saw clearly that no atom or cell in the universe can be separated from Jesus or it would cease to exist. “If I make my bed in Hell, You are there” (Psalm 139)

I am now certain that I was created in Christ and I was accepted unconditionally by the Father through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit even before I prayed the sinners prayer at 6 years old. I believe all people and all creation are held together by the inseparable and most stable relationship in the cosmos – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Whom all things were created and forever exist in His divine love.

At the end of this journey, it was beautiful to read the closing sentence on the last page – “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with ALL, amen” Stunning!!!

Happy New Year, with Love.

Appetite for Grace

Appetite is a trigger word for me because I have struggled with an eating disorder most of my life.
Over 70 years of living has brought me to a variety of tables, physical and spiritual, laden with food and drink. Some spiritual food appeared healthy but was toxic and dangerous to my soul, including some junk theology. I would sometimes binge (and purge), on some rich and temporarily satisfying ideas, sometimes snacking and grazing from multiple “tables” kept me going. I needed a constant supply so I could apply myself to important spiritual work.
My first spiritual meals were spoon-fed when I was a child. Some I’ve had to prepare myself and have served (sometimes force-fed) to others. Hunger and thirst is designed by God to prompt us to take action. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness has been something Jesus called “blessed”…and I worked hard at being blessed and blessing others.
At 70, my body can’t handle the way I used to eat physically, nor handle the expenditure of energy I did in younger days. I’ve become a lot more aware and intentional about new ways of thinking about food versus what I’ve always done. I’ve rediscovered the satisfaction of simple in order to prioritize the important over the urgent. Today I carry a 13 year recovery chip signifying freedom from my eating disorder one day at a time.
Hopefully aging has made me a bit more self-aware emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically. In “retirement” I am creating space for a more contemplative and healthy way of nourishing my soul.
“The Reign of Grace” message series at my church has been a tasty meal. I do have a hard time with the word “reign.” To me it implies authority and authority can (and has been) abusive depending on whose reigning. The authority attributed to God that I was taught became oppressive, and demanding. I was raised on sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and sermons about a Holy God who could not be in the presence of sinners so God had to abandon and punish Jesus on our behalf. He then wouldn’t have to send all humanity to a place of eternal conscious torment… just the ones who didn’t ask Jesus into their heart. This, I was taught, is how God “so loved the world.”
So I said a magic prayer to “accept” Jesus and promised I would be a “sunbeam and shine for Him each day”. I would share this “good news(?)” the grace of God with everyone – ’cause if a person didn’t say the magic prayer before they died, they were going to hell.
I swallowed this whole because over hundreds of years, wise men who loved God and wanted to spare people from going to Hell preached this good news, and thousands of people were “saved”. Itinerate preachers traveled all over the world. Some filled (and still fill) stadiums of “sinners” who need to be saved from the wrath of God. Prestigious seminaries turned out myriads of preachers and teachers who had earned lots of letters behind their names mastering the theology of The Bible, an infallible, inerrant document passed down through the ages as THE “Word of God”. So as a child, I learned not to question such high authority but in my childlike heart (where the spirit of Jesus actually did live) I believed the God I loved looked more like Jesus, not an “angry god of wrath”.
As a youth I abandoned the whole idea all together because I then was taught that God also pre-determined which people would be “saved” and which he would send to conscious eternal torment. As a young adult, I intuitively knew this had to be a myth invented to scare people into churches so clergy could build monuments to themselves. I didn’t think even Jesus believed in THAT god.
In 1975, everything changed. I became a mother. Now I held in my arms a beautiful little girl. Along with the joy of this precious gift, fear set in immediately!
Fear pushed me back to “what if the church people were right?” Love for my daughter led me back to reading the Bible all over again just in case. Just like choosing food for her by reading labels, avoiding processed food, eating real food from organic farms and grinding up grass fed meat -pre-processed food was out, whole unprocessed was in. I knew I must do the same spiritually. Her eternal destiny might be in jeopardy. Pre-processed theology was out, Greek lexicons were in. I wanted raw spiritual food so I could grind it myself.
I absolutely love learning. Unlearning is harder. One must constantly research and ask questions in order to clarify what constitutes truth. To continue the food metaphor, in the seventies, health food markets were scarce. No google, no Whole Foods, no Home Chef. There were a few “health nut” writers but they were mostly discredited by the establishment #followthemoney.
And so it was with western evangelicalism in the seventies and eighties. New translations and paraphrases were emerging, but most were being interpreted through the same lens of the same “angry” God, willing scapegoat, elect, eternal bliss or fire and brimstone theology. Teaching that was processed & passed down from a legalistic hierarchy of church authoritarianism established to control people through fear.
Unfortunately, my all or nothing character defect drove me into some extremes of my own that I am still putting through the grinder. But the centrality of Christ’s finished work is my rubric.
God the Son became FLESH , not a holy book. He willingly submitted Himself to a womb, and thus to the whole of humanity. HE was touched with every human emotion, temptation, torture and final death for every man woman and child who ever lived or ever would live. Fortunately we have accurate eye-witness accounts that are trustworthy and happily we have apps that give us lexicons and grace messages to help us interpret them.
Birthing a child opened my heart to a love relationship I could never have comprehended. Motherhood created a hunger for truth that continues to bring me to the banquet table In remembrance of Him.
The reign of grace series has reinforced a more third century Eastern Orthodox view of Jesus which has set my heart aflame with a more Christ-like perspective of our good, good Father. “The Word became flesh” in Jesus’ humanity. Words on a page written by men inspired as they were, could never express the fullness of God, His triune being, His love for mankind, and the lengths to which He would go to restore His image in me. Jesus is son of man, and exact representation of the Father lived out in flesh and blood. I am beginning to see that a theology about God that doesn’t look like the life of Jesus can not be Christian theology. God was in Christ, (not forsaking Him EVER) reconciling the cosmos to Himself from the foundation of the world. Of course it is a mystery how it all was accomplished, if I could understand all mysteries then I would be a god. But today, after sitting at the Encounter table I am fully satisfied with the meat and fruit offered to me today. Grace, grace, God’s grace is a Person, not a theology. Grace that is greater than any darkness or distortion that veils the loving face of God the Father in me. Thank you Jesus.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

If you look at the lower right hand corner of this photo, you will see the tractor that has been methodically traversing this barren field across from our home for 5 days. We wake daily to the sound of it’s engine early in the morning, and observe the cloud of dust surrounding it’s implement, breaking up the earth’s crust in it’s wake until quitting time.

What has me stumped, is the need for so many trips across, back and forth, side to side, diagonally, back and forth, over and over?

Well I looked it up on motherearth.com and after sifting through pages of instructions on farming, I learned about “harrowing” which, after plowing, breaks the ground into dime-sized pieces that will allow the tiny seeds to push up their tender shoots unimpeded, simultaneously allowing water to evenly soak into the earth. Harrowing takes numerous treks across the field in order to refine the soil.

So why am I suddenly interested in this familiar activity now, after watching this same scenario for almost 14 years?

Well, for the first time in these 14 years, that large field across from me has lain fallow for awhile. The routine was interrupted. Instead of the plowing, harrowing, rowing and planting of cilantro or parsley, cabbage or bok-choy, we have had weeds and dirt out our front windows, with the accompanying invasion of more dust than usual inside our home. Usually, the first thing I see through my windows when I walk out of my upstairs bedroom is the lush plants that seem to pop up over night after the tractors do their work. No such loveliness for months!

This brings me to the point of my post. When I am engaged in my Fourth-step inventory (part of ongoing 12-step recovery work) I experience it as a breaking up of fallow ground. The methodical plowing up, turning over and harrowing work of inventory can take a miserably long time, each time. When I work this step thoroughly, I often ask myself the same question – “why is it necessary to go over all this ground again and again?” To be rigorously honest, it is sometimes a tiresome process. Each time, however, I am reminded of a precious Bible promise in Hosea 10:12, “Sow with a view to righteousness, Reap in accordance with kindness; Break up your fallow ground, For it is time to seek the LORD Until He comes to rain righteousness on you.” I dare not let the ground lay fallow for too long.

Recovery is not about rehashing the past to blame, justify my actions or defend myself. It is about seeking God and allowing the seeds of His righteousness to have a soft and fertile field in which to grow and bear the fruit of His Spirit in me so that others may taste and see that the Lord is good.

It takes many passes over the fallow ground of my heart in order to accomplish the rich environment for a good harvest, especially if I have let the ground of my heart harden. But I can trust my Heavenly Gardener to break up the fallow ground enough to finish the work He has begun in me.

I have learned over the last 20 years of recovery that this breaking is always painful, always longer than I anticipate but always for my good. (Romans 8:28)

Heros

Somewhere between a book of my acquaintances and a notecard of my friendships, a space exists for which I have no title. My Facebook page says I have upwards of 900 “Friends” but in actuality, this accounting includes family and friends I have never even met! I would love to have a page appropriately titled for those people in my life who have influenced, awed or genuinely earned my respect, but are not necessarily those with whom I have intimate contact. I often wish I had more interaction with some of these people, but whether distance, opportunity, lifestyle or just priority scheduling  interferes with my wishes, they remain extremely important to me.

One person in particular is a woman I have known for at least 25 years. I first met her and her husband when I was the Director of Children’s Ministry at my church. They volunteered every year of their two children’s preschool and elementary career- and then moved on to middle and high school volunteers with them as well. Her husband ran his own commercial real estate business and she was a “stay-at-home” mom. She is every bit what we Evangelicals call the Proverbs 31 woman. She led prayer groups, supported missions, volunteered in the community, had dinner on the table every night and loved her Savior, her Church and her family and friends with understated passion. Her children were well-mannered, respectful and successful in their pursuits. Her daughter is very much like her, choosing the very lifestyle she observed growing up.

From my perspective, I would describe Debby as “devoted”. She has an innate beauty about her that was never enhanced by makeup or extravagant clothes. Her speech is slow and self-depreciating. She has one best-girlfriend whose name is almost always said in the same sentence when talking about her. Their families are closer than any blood relationship I know. Even their daughters are best friends.

Debby would probably say that of course we are friends! Yet, although I see her on an almost weekly basis even today, we have never enjoyed the pleasure of one another’s company outside a church event. I don’t think she is even on Facebook or Twitter, but her husband is my Facebook “friend”.

A few years ago, Debby’s husband was diagnosed with cancer. True to her consistent, devoted and unassuming character, she served and loved Jim with true devotion. She prayed, graciously accepted the help of her church family when needed and lived fully and optimistically through the days of treatment. She even cared for her grandchildren on a regular basis during that frightening period. Perhaps the only clue to her worried mind is a touch more silver in her hair, but there is no doubt her faith in God carried her through.

To describe the invaluable relationships  in my life like Debby,  I think “Hero” or in her case “Heroine”  is not too far off the mark. She is definitely one whom I admire for her consistent testimony of faith, her devotion, her courage and commitment to God, family and community. There are others, particularly in my Faith Community for whom this category applies.  I am greatfull that because of our shared faith, I will have all eternity to continue developing genuine friendship with my “Heros”.😊<<<<<<<

Retirement Options

I’m thinking that I might be in a good place to evaluate the last three years of “retirement”. I put the quotation marks around the word because the context of retirement is so variable. Many look forward to traveling, having more time for a hobby they enjoy, or volunteering for worthy causes. I considered all of these as I neared the final work-day.

I always thought of retirement in terms of what I observed growing up in a lower-middle class white family in Southern California. My Grandfather worked for a large manufacturing contractor for over 40 years and retired with a nice pension. My Grandmother raised two kids with a violent alcoholic. In those days, domestic violence was never mentioned…neither was physical and sexual abuse of children.

Upon retirement, they bought a small mobile home in Orange County in the late 50’s. Grandma spent her time cooking, sewing, gossiping with the neighbors and looking after her Grandchildren when called upon. My Grandfather quit drinking, had a beautiful garden, smoked a lot, and listened to the Dodger games on the radio. Mostly I remember the silence between them.

As I was growing up, we went to Sunday dinner at their house after church. I loved my Grandmother, avoided my Grandfather for good reason, and rarely visited them after I left home at 18. I rarely visited my parents either, until my daughter was born.

My Dad retired early due to advancing Multiple Sclerosis. He had worked at a large Aircraft company for 30 years, and his union provided for him abundantly. My mother worked periodically, but her mental illness prevented her from enjoying any career opportunities. She was a compulsive cleaner, with a debilitating germ phobia. She was one of the first to be prescribed a new wonder drug called Prozac. They also purchased a mobile home, after retirement – first in Orange County and then in Hemet, CA. They became very involved in their church and traveled as often as my Dad’s illness permitted. They had great friends and a lot of fun. When my sister and I started our families, they enjoyed the kids whenever we visited. My mother was especially close to my daughter and indulged her much more than the other grandchildren.

Out of the blue, my mother took her life. My dad was beside himself with anger and grief. He met a retired Army nurse and married her not two years after Mom’s death. She took great care of him, and they spent most of their time watching TV and going to doctor appointments.

Well I certainly did not picture myself in a mobile home watching TV all day, nor did I have travel destinations in mind for my retirement years. I did not want to emulate any part of my family of origin. I did not, expect that I would be a full-time caregiver for three of my grandbabies!
I actually have the best “retirement” job ever. I still have a significant ministry in my church, and the wonderful opportunity for what I often refer to as a “do-over”. I’m having a blast actually, and very much enjoying this season if my life. I feel blessed to be part of influencing the next generation, while enjoying the fruit of my own parenting.

My kids will probably never know or experience a “pension”. They certainly are not counting on Social Security. Statistically, they are the first generation in American History whose standard of living will not be better than their parents, nor will they live as long! I’m sad for that. Hopefully I can leave them enough to help out with college expenses and a bit of a nest-egg for their retirement years. They are sure providing me with a rich retirement of my own.

“Only” Ten – the sting and benefit of Relapse.

Today I am 10 years “sober” from acting out in my primary addiction. I say primary because I have had a life-long addictive cycle of binging and purging on activities, food, substances and people. But my primary default behavior is self-pleasure, whatever form is handy.

Addiction is usually thought of as alcohol or drug dependency, maybe adding gambling or sexual addiction (fastest growing addiction, btw). Some confess to food addiction but have no idea how to recover even if they are passively in the slow suicide of diabetes, tobacco-related heart disease, cancer or starving themselves to death. . Maybe the latest patch, pill, diet or surgery will give a quick-fix?

In my experience, and those with whom I associate, no quick and lasting fix exists. Only the slow, step-by-step, one day at a time, cinch by the inch plodding yields the reward of honest sobriety. Oh there are plenty of “top that testimony” dreamers out there, many who have been “delivered” by the laying on of hands or spiritual visitations. No judgment here – well maybe a little. Maybe some envy thrown in…

And then there are those who proudly say they have or can stop on their own. Trouble is, they can not stay stopped for very long.

Relapse was the key to my own recovery. I’ve been told that relapse starts long before the actual event. For me it began as I was entering my fifth year of recovery from addiction. Expected and required of Christians, especially of those in professional ministry, I mistakenly assumed God would magically take the obsession away if I had enough faith to believe God for healing. If I prayed enough, read and studied the Bible enough and served others enough, surely I would be healed and free. Disappointment over my powerlessness to be sin-free was the obsession behind the shame that drove me very close to ending my life.

So with 4 years of relatively joyful recovery I grew complacent. I went to my weekly meeting, but only to do my duty – not to work on progressing through the principles. I allowed “small” compromises in what I viewed, with whom I spent time, and more importantly how I allowed resentment to grow as I judged the motives of others.

So my 10-year celebration of honest sobriety collides with the shame of relapse more painful than I care to admit. Yet, the vivid memory of working two years to earn a sixty-day chip strengthens my resolve to never again compromise my relationship with Jesus Christ (the One and only true Higher Power) and to stay actively accountable with my Sponsor and recovery group. I have come to believe that after my relationship with God, sobriety is my most important priority; for without sobriety I have no capacity for honest relationship or purpose.

Recovery is work, and the work never stops. For me it took several meetings a week, medication and weekly therapy. I had to make the daily decision to surrender to whatever sobriety required. It’s work, but sooo worth it.

Tonight I am grateful to say, “Hi, my name is Connie and I am a child of God in recovery. I celebrate 10 years clean and free from addiction and compulsive behaviors. I am also careful to remember that I am always vulnerable and tempted to slack off. The thought of relapse puts me in the right frame of mind again no matter what is happening in my life.
“Thanks for letting me share.”