Customers And Disciples

An old joke says that a salesman died and was given a chance to visit both heaven and hell before choosing where to spend eternity. The devil gave him a tour of hell, where everyone was singing, dancing, and having a good time. Next, St. Peter showed the man heaven. Its inhabitants sat idly on clouds, playing harps.

“Hell looks like a lot more fun,” the man said. “I’ll go there.”

The next morning, he was ushered in. As the door opened, there was nothing but flames and torment. “What’s going on?” the deceased salesman asked. “This isn’t what I saw yesterday.” The devil replied, “Yesterday you were a prospect. Today you’re a customer.”

Religion does something similar. Early on I was told that God was merciful and ready to extend forgiveness with no requirement on my part other than to believe. Only after I acknowledged assent was I given the nearly endless list of dos and don’ts. I was told how to act, speak, vote, and think … what to read, watch, hear, and say … where to go, what to do, who to make my friends.

For a time, I bought it all. Finally, however, the bondage of that man-made system became clear and the freedom of truth broke through.

Today I simply try to live a life pleasing to my heavenly Father – a disciple of his only begotten son, who is my example. I guess you could say I took my business elsewhere.

 

Like Son, Like Father

Regardless of what one believes of Jesus, among the things he said was this: “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the father.” What an outlandish statement.

People debate constantly about the nature of God. Does he want us to destroy our enemies, or love them? What are the absolutes, if any, that he considers sin? Does he torment unbelievers for eternity, or give everyone a pass in the end? The dialogue gets heated to the point of rudeness, all in the name of seeking truth.

I’ve noticed that Christ’s followers almost always promote the side of him that fits their belief of God’s character. One group focuses on Jesus forgiving a woman caught in the act of breaking a law punishable by death. Another reminds us that he angrily rebuked the insincere and toppled a greedy commercial enterprise.

Though there are certainly those who disagree, my personal belief is that Jesus identified more with the humble than the proud. I think he leaned heavily toward mercy rather than judgment. That he chose grace over toeing the line. Peace instead of conflict, whenever possible. And I’m absolutely convinced that he looked to the heart and preferred seekers to the religious. But maybe I’m jaded by my own assumptions.

If we want to know what God is like, the suggestion of the one who claimed to be his son is this: “Look at me.” Sadly, it’s not so easy, but it’s a place to start.

The Human Touch

There aren’t a lot of people outdoors at 5:00am in the bedroom community where I live. Perhaps a few with early morning occupations, the occasional party animal coming home, and me – a runner.

One particular day while trotting along a more major street before dawn, a garbage truck came toward me. We were the only signs of life in sight. I waved as it passed, and in response heard two friendly taps on the horn: “Beep beep.”

With nothing more profound than that, we both continued on our way … me finishing a workout while the truck went to its next stop. But there was now an important difference. No longer were we simply a runner and a truck driver. We had become two living beings, with a human connection.

This illustrates one aspect of the life of Jesus. To him, every person was significant. They had stories. There was depth behind their life situations that deserved exposure and reflection.

Today we hear sermons about “the woman at the well”, “the rich young ruler”, and “the woman taken in adultery.” While the points made may be helpful (or not), the bigger lesson is that Jesus engaged with these individuals. He touched them at their exact points of pain and need. He gave them opportunities for reconciliation. He expressed love.

Somewhere in south Florida there’s a guy who happens to drive a garbage truck for a living. No doubt, like all of us, there are many facets to his life. I can only hope that early one morning he felt a little more human, momentarily linked to another human by a couple simple acts of acknowledgment. I know I did, and it was good.

 

Unsystematic Love

Religious scholars speak of what they call systematic theology. This, according to them, is how one arrives at right thinking about the spiritual realm. God, however, who owns the spiritual realm, asks us to love Him, one another, and even ourselves. The two concepts don’t seem to be in harmony.

Can love be expressed by a system? Can I prove I love someone by spending just the right number of hours with that person, saying the perfect phrases, behaving in a certain manner? Or is love more spontaneous, dynamic, and organic?

A certain woman was known throughout town for her sinful lifestyle. One evening she broke all the rules by crashing a dinner party at the home of a man who by outward appearances was among the holy. There she showed great compassion for Jesus, who happened to be present, by washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. The pious man of the house objected, and was then scolded by the Son of God for his lack of insight.

These days I care less about knowing all the answers and more about loving God by extending mercy and grace to others, providing a listening ear or some act of assistance. I’m aware that this may be seen as at least misguided, and perhaps heretical, by those who have their ducks in a row. I have no defense. I can’t systematically explain my current location on the spiritual journey. Maybe it’s better not to.

 

Personal Memorials

The Bible records several times when God reminded the Hebrew people who He was by using these words: “I am the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” How strange.

Freeing a small nation from slavery is noteworthy, but certainly God could have touted greater achievements: what about creating the entire universe from nothing, for example? Instead He chose a feat that those listening would find highly relevant to them.

It’s common to think of the Almighty as … well, just that. Theologians use pompous words, which they call “attributes”, such as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. (All powerful, all knowing, everywhere at once.) Others might call Him “awesome” or acknowledge “the big man upstairs.” While these descriptions are well and good, they don’t seem to be too important to God Himself.

Apparently the King of the Universe prefers a more one-off approach. He wants to be remembered for His presence in individuals and small groups. He’s the Lord who provides breath each morning, the love of family and friends, daily provision, and a long list of other perks large and small. He’s the Lord who brought the very people He was speaking to out of the land of Egypt. And although He’s much more of course, being remembered for His personal touches appears to be good enough for Him.

 

Timely Note: Tomorrow we celebrate Memorial Day in the U.S. My deepest appreciation is extended to the men and women who sacrificed their lives to preserve freedom for our country. I think of them each time I enjoy the benefits of civilized society. May the loved ones left behind accept my thanks.

 

Simply Christmas

The message of Christmas began as something quite uncomplicated. An angel appeared to a few ordinary humans and said “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.”

Sadly, this good news has been made extremely complex. Theologians created systems for something that is not systematic. Scholars dissected and debated, confusing everyone and causing all meaning to be questioned. Others started movements, attached dos and don’ts, suggested conditions, and placed great burdens on their adherents. The man-made hurdles are endless.

In the midst of this, I find myself wondering … What if I could forget all the additions to the very basic message? What if nobody had ever told me I had to pray the magic prayer, live a certain way, associate only with people of one belief system, listen to lectures on a regular basis, read the right books, attend various meetings, hold specific political views (which vary, depending upon the leader I’m following), do certain activities while abstaining from others, etc.?

What if all I knew was that I am a regular guy who sometimes works long hours trying to eke out a living in a fallen world full of blessings, trials, wonder, and horrors. My life consists of good days and bad. Friends and family members who sometimes laugh also face financial trouble or bravely fight unspeakable disease. We all struggle with the “why” questions, wondering if there is any lasting happiness or meaning to this life.

And, like the men on that first Christmas, during one night that started off as any other night, an angel—an ANGEL no less—appears to me and says “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.”

Good news … Great joy … For all the people … A Savior. And none of the baggage that’s been added by man for 2000 years.

Maybe it really is just as simple as that. Merry Christmas.

 

(Thank you, Ronel, for sharing the meditation that revved up this line of thinking in my soul.)

 

Far Beyond The Image

My wife, Linda, recently took a trip to Alaska. She brought back hundreds of pictures of glaciers, whales, and beautiful scenery. When showing them to friends and family, a certain phrase comes frequently to her lips: “Compared to the sights I actually saw, these photos just don’t do them justice.”

The Bible teaches that mankind is created in God’s image. It’s easy to unconsciously think that the reverse is true. For example, I have two hands which can be used to accomplish tasks. If that’s indicative of His image, perhaps the Almighty has something like hands as well. Rather than only a pair, however, He likely possesses quadrillions of them, giving Him the ability to do much more than I can ask or think. Viewing God as merely some sort of divine superhero might cause me to miss that.

Likewise, I have a mind that solves problems, a voice that offers advice, the ability to place myself in different locations, etc. These could all be glimpses into some attributes of God, but what miniscule percentage of His infinite capacity do they represent?

To say that humans are created in God’s image is biblical and an amazing gift. We must not, however, envision God as being a reflection of humanity with any of its limitations. Such thoughts are grossly misleading. They just don’t do Him justice.

 

Careful For Love

As a young child in Sunday School, I learned songs designed to introduce me to the Christian faith. One of them went through a few scenarios and encouraged me to take care. “Be careful little eyes what you see,” it said, along with “Be careful little feet where you go.” Other stanzas mentioned ears what you hear, and tongue what you say.

But the song didn’t stop there. It also gave a reason for me to act certain ways. “For the Father up above is looking down with love” it said, “so be careful little _____ what you _____.”

Here’s the sad part. In all the times I sang those words I never pictured a loving God looking down. Instead, I envisioned a mean, scary, angry God watching my every move and just waiting for my little eyes, feet, ears and mouth to do wrong. Then He would be disappointed and punish me in some way. I can’t say whether this was the intention of whoever wrote the lyrics, the goal of the church system, or just my own personal misconception (though I have suspicions). Nonetheless, that’s the way it was.

Only after decades on the spiritual journey have I come to see the compassionate side of God. I now understand that my failures are detrimental to my own well-being, and that’s why they hurt Him as well. These realizations motivate me to be circumspect in how I live. That’s a tune worth singing.

 

A Story For One

The Bible contains a book called The Acts Of The Apostles, which details major events occurring after Jesus’ resurrection. Scholars accept and teach that this work was written by the apostle Luke. But to whom it was written might be the bigger story.

In the opening lines of Acts we find that the author created this fairly long account for the sole benefit of a man named Theophilus. Little is known about him, so those details must not matter. What I find astounding, however, is that God inspired a devout follower of Christ to write a very significant piece of literature all for the benefit of just one person.

Modern culture promotes more as better. People of influence seek bigger venues and larger audiences. This mindset has crept into the spiritual realm, where even leaders who say they don’t aspire to “mega” still compare the sizes of congregations and budgets.

God, through His servant, found a solitary, needy soul and told that person a story. One life was worth all the effort. I’m left asking myself to what greater lengths I should go for those whose paths cross mine. E-mails, phone calls, visits, assistance of all types – these could be responses to divine inspiration, even if only one fellow journeyer is touched.

The apostles did a lot of great things. Thanks to Luke, I know about their activities, and so did Theophilus. Apparently that was pretty important.

 

Ugh. Amen.

The amazement that prayer provides a means for mere humans to communicate with God Himself is almost lost in the technicalities that religion has placed upon it. Books and teachings claim to reveal secrets for getting through to the Almighty, but only if we strictly adhere to their formulas. Church leaders have made prayer part of the art of oratory. How sad, and how wrong.

The bible gives clear examples of prayers that penetrated God’s presence and caused divine intervention. Here are a few:

… the Lord has heard your cry of affliction …

… and God heard the lad crying …

… so God heard their groaning …

… I complain, and He hears my voice …

Other scriptures tell us the types of people who get the Lord’s attention. Specific mention is made of the destitute, the needy, those in misery, the humiliated, and more.

Many of the above describe me. How about you? If so, your life is a miracle. Somewhere in the heavenlies, your situation is in the hands of the living God. You didn’t need a robe, special education, or a new vocabulary. All that’s left is to say “Amen.”

 




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