Dear Church Leaders: Get Real or Go Home

If I have to see one more article on “why millennials are leaving the church,” I think I might scream. Well, not really. Those dramatic days are (mostly) behind me. But really. The younger generation has always been leaving the church … I remember hearing the same lament back in the 70s when I was just a kid.

The thing is, as much as I grow weary of seeing post after post, blog after blog, on the topic, there’s always a bit of truth to them. The church NEEDS to grow, needs to change with each generation. It’s not a matter of staying “relevant,” like some kind of marketing gimmick to attract the newest set of consumers. It’s real life. Society changes. Culture changes. The needs and demands and focus of each generation will be different from the last, and if the church doesn’t address those changes, if God isn’t presented as having answers to those changes — or even being at work IN those changes — then why should anyone bother to listen to what is coming out of the pulpit?

For me, it’s not just the sermon topics — as if pastors and preachers needed to act like John Stewart engaging hot topics in the news. And it’s not the liturgy or worship style — whether we’re singing 200 year old hymns or the latest repetitive ditty from the latest pop Worship CD. For me, it’s about substance. Real, spiritual substance. And all the questionnaires and “10 Reasons Why” articles seem to indicate that too. People want the real thing. We’re tired of talk. We’re tired of show. We’re tired of what passes for “faith” these days.

Give us the real thing, or please, Please!, shut up and go home.

What that “real thing” is could be parsed out in several components: from genuine worship, genuine prophetic messages from the pulpit, to genuine love expressed in the pew and outside the walls of the church.  But the foundation of them all is genuine spiritual reality — power — behind our religious experience. And it begins with our church leaders. So let me start there.

The church is anemic because of anemic church leaders.

Leaders more focused on numbers and popularity than on maturing in their “call” and fulfilling that call. Leaders addicted to power and titles rather than actual ministry. We have become imitations, fakes, charlatans, stepping into the shoes of the original apostles who moved with genuine authority because they were in touch with the reality of their call. As a result, the church is sick. Sick because we feed it junk food, full of artificial ingredients that can never replace what it was designed to operate on: authentic spiritual ability.

So, as a fellow member of the Church, sick from the “form of godliness without power,” let me challenge you. If you’re genuinely called by God to serve his people, then …


Dear Apostles:
If you wear this label, you don’t need to hear that your role did not cease to exist after the first century. God has placed you in the church (Eph 4) to be a pillar. But here’s the thing: an apostle is an emissary, a messenger. An ambassador. Empowered with full authority of the Crown to deliver messages and revelations from the Royal Throne. And it is accompanied with full spiritual power. Look at your forbearers, Peter, John, James, Paul. They spoke the living words of God, they plowed hard ground and produced a crop, they not only planted churches and birthed new congregations, but they fathered and mothered those congregations. They had an encounter with the risen Christ, and their inspired words changed the direction of the church forever. You, when you speak, do your words carry divine power? When was the last time you brought forth new revelation from God for the people he entrusted to you? Are you delivering canned sermon after sermon, spouting recycled messages you heard growing up in church? Have you seen the risen Christ — has Christ appeared to you and delivered this charge to you personally? Has he given you a commission and a message to shape his people for this generation, for this time and place?  If not, then please go back to him who sent you and get a fresh assignment from the King, … or just quit and go home.

Dear Prophets:
I see so many of you on Facebook and social media. You wear the title like a prize and seek special pulpit time at conferences. Yet what do you deliver except sound bites and feel-good pabulum that do nothing for the people. If all you are saying over and over again is “This is the year of your break-through” or “your time of waiting is over” or some other quotable nugget that might be found in a Stephen Covey book, then … please go back to the Throne and get a real message. People are hurting. People are seeking guidance in this hectic world. People need to hear from God, and that is your job. Generic positive, encouraging words are nice. There’s even a place for them in the church. But they are not prophesy. Get a specific word from God for the specific situation, be able to assert “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” … or sit down and shut up.

Dear Evangelists:
Your job no longer exists in tent crusades or hopping from church to church, collecting your love offerings. Your job is in the streets — and not shouting into a bullhorn on the corner. Your job is in the housing projects or in corporate board rooms. To the individuals hungry, seeking something beyond this physical existence. Your job is to help them answer the longing of their hearts for connection to the Living God. You don’t need a business card for that. You just need a heart.

Dear Pastors:
You have the hardest work of all. Tending the sheep is the highest calling. But are you more concerned with what suit you will wear next Sunday, or if your bling will reflect in the light, than you are with going after that stray parishioner who’s having a hard time right now? Do you answer your phone at 3:00 in the morning when one of your flock just lost a loved one in a car accident, or is in the hospital for emergency surgery? Do you make time in your busy schedule to have coffee with the lonely guy who just needs to talk with someone? Are you too busy to actually love on — to physically touch — the people God has put in your care? If so, then maybe you are not really called to be a pastor. Maybe you are a teacher, or just a preacher, or (God forbid) just an entertainer putting on a show.  Please, if you believe God has called you to pastor his people, then go back to the Throne and ask for a heart that loves the people. Be there for them. Like Jesus said to Peter, “if you love me, tend my lambs.”  Or, please … stop talking and go home.

Dear Teachers:
You are entrusted with the words of God. You are entrusted with life-changing truth. You cannot afford to just wing it Sunday morning or Wednesday evening with a lesson out of the denominational quarterly. Your life will probably be filled with drama and all kinds of real-life experience. You will undergo tragedy, and you will have questions, many of which you won’t find ready answers for. You will spend much time seeking God, reaching out, exploring the heavens, asking for light. Why? Because how can you teach what you do not know? How can you lead people into deeper understanding of who God is and how they connect with him, if all you know are the clichés and bible stories from Sunday School? Like the prophet, you need fresh revelation from the Throne, to “bring out new treasure as well as old” (Mt 13:52). Don’t be complacent. Don’t get lazy. A vast treasury is yours to plunder — for the benefit of those who sit at your feet.

Dear Bishops:
You are a pastor to pastors. You have been entrusted with over-seeing, super-vising, the flocks and those who lead them. Red robes and collars are yours if you want them. Honor will not be denied you. But your work is not done. It is not time to simply sit at the head of the table or on the platform. You too must answer the 3:00 am phone call. You too must be in the dirt with the shepherds under your care. Who can they talk to but you? And you too must invade the Throne Room for daily wisdom, fresh guidance and instruction from the Chief Shepherd so that you can administer God’s people according to God’s current plan and wishes. Do not get soft. Do not get comfortable. A life on the road may be your inheritance. But “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18:30). Your inheritance includes the riches of relationships with an unimagined number of children who will love and honor you.  If you stay faithful.

Dear Deacons:
You were not called simply to sit on committees and to vote. You were called to serve. You are the arms and legs of the pastor, the extended strength of your congregation. You are the table-servers, the ones who clean up the mess. You tend the physical needs of the community. You feed them, you clothe them, you are God’s answer when they cry out to him to meet their needs. Make sure your heart is in the job or do not accept the title. It is dirty work. It takes tough hands and small egos. And you too must be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” honorable, and able to fulfill your responsibility (Acts 6). People are counting on you … and so is their God. But what reward awaits you when you see the King! “I was hungry, and you fed me! I was naked, and you clothed me!” And that’s better than any title in this life.


There is no such thing as a pew-sitter in God’s Kingdom. Everyone has a role, everyone has gifts to use for the benefit of others. But those called to specific functions in God’s family have a divine obligation and duty which cannot be fulfilled without authentic spiritual empowerment. And if the church has become stale, artificial, having only the appearance of ritual and religion without moving in the Divine Flow, if people are leaving because all they see is empty words without action, without heart, and without power, then the fault lies first and foremost in church leadership. We either need to get real, or shut up and go home.

photo credit: “The Apostles preaching the Gospel, ” Fr Lawrence Lew, OP via Flickr, cc.

This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.

What’s so Wrong with Being a Christian Slut?


Okay, maybe NOW I’ve actually got to write this thing. I’ve been putting it off for months, writing about Christian sexuality. It’s such an important topic, but honestly, it’s so loaded with inherited moralistic and church tradition baggage — plus, the theology is incredibly subtle — that I didn’t want to open that particular can of worms. People are already questioning my salvation, LOL.

But today I saw one more post on Facebook. A friend shared an article about some guy who didn’t want to start PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis: taking an HIV anti-viral med to prevent becoming infected) because he didn’t want people to think he was a whore. See, there’s this whole “#TruvadaWhore” meme thing going around. I think it was originally a joke; kinda like, “yeah, I can sleep around now because I’m on the meds.” Some even wear the term as a badge of honor, feeling the empowerment of embracing their sexuality. I’ve seen the t-shirts.

And that’s what my friend was saying: “What’s wrong with being a whore? Why do we blindly accept someone else’s value judgements without thinking about them for ourselves?” truvadawhore

Many gay men have suppressed their sexuality for so long they finally reach a point where they realize it is their body to enjoy as they want and it’s none of anyone else’s business. They’re reclaiming sex as a valid way of interacting with another person they’re interested in — even when not married or in a committed relationship.

And that’s where the Christian morality comes into play. Because we all know that sex outside of marriage is fornication, and the bible clearly says that’s a sin. Right? Or is it? So let’s crack open this can of worms and see where we end up.

First, it’s important to note that the bible is a book loaded with sex. And that’s how it should be. God made sexuality a hugely important part of our humanity. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It would be relegated to topics like gluttony and laziness: yeah, it’s an issue, but who really cares? So, since the bible is full of stories about humans, it’s bound to talk about sex. A lot. Like Abraham with his wife and his concubine/second-wife. Like Jacob and his four women. Like David and Bathsheba and his little harem, or Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. There was Judah, one of Israel’s patriarchs, and his adventures with a prostitute; and Samson, the hero of faith, with his multiple dalliances with ladies of the night. They didn’t seem too uptight about sexuality back then. So what happened?

When it comes to limitations on sex,
the bible is primarily focused on adultery and idolatry.

TenCommandmentsWell, let’s start with the 10 Commandments. Nothing at all in there about sex outside of marriage. In fact, the only sexual reference is to a married person having sex with someone else’s spouse. And this may be an important key. Sexual morality was originally about loyalty to a spouse — specifically, about a wife being sexually exclusive with her husband alone. Men were given a lot of slack here; even married men could fool around with other women as long as they were not married. Well, at least that’s how it was practiced. The text doesn’t say that. It simply says “don’t commit adultery.” So, let’s ignore for the moment what men in the bible actually did, and focus on the original intent: when you are in a committed relationship, your sexual activity stays within that relationship. Married couples give themselves to each other, that whole “the two become one flesh” thing, so joining your body with someone else was a betrayal. It was a form of theft. Men still had the upper hand, though. They could take on a second or third or fourth wife.

It gets more interesting in the New Testament. Jesus said if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s like committing adultery with her. Note the choice of words: adultery. In the social context of Judaism at that time, the working assumption was that men would be married. It was a rite of passage, a part of being a man and fulfilling the duty to populate the nation and take one’s place in society. Bachelors did exist, but they were a rarity, frowned upon by society. (In fact, there is no biblical Hebrew word for “bachelor” — but there are a few words for unmarried woman.) So, Jesus is presumably speaking to married men, and is saying that thinking sexual thoughts about someone else is being unfaithful to your wife, and tantamount to actually having sex outside your marriage: ie, adultery. What’s cool here, is that Jesus is now equalizing the field. Men got away with infidelity all the time — “adultery” was generally only applied to the unfaithful wife. But here, Jesus lays the burden equally on the (married) guys with their sexual fantasies.

But what if you’re not married?

For sex and the single person, we have to move on to the Apostle Paul. He’s the one who really adds the bricks to the morality wall. He’s the one who spells out that whole, “the man’s body belongs to his wife, and the woman’s body belongs to her husband” thing. Again: when you’re committed, honor that commitment.

But then he throws in lines about not having sex with prostitutes because you are the temple of the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s context, most prostitutes were temple prostitutes; they were professionals who offered sex as a form of pagan worship, and they were often in the employ of a temple. In a way, Paul is making a pun here. You are temple property, and you’re joining yourself with another temple’s property — but one outside the true faith. So sex with a pagan temple prostitute is in fact an act of idolatry — of participating in worshipping other gods. Much like eating meat sacrificed to idols. No big deal in itself. But if other people know about the meat, don’t eat it so they won’t think you’re participating in idolatrous worship. It seems to me that Paul is primarily concerned with idolatry here, with participating with foreign gods, more than about the sex itself. (What if the person you’re getting naked with is also a Christian, another temple of the same Holy Spirit? Does his argument still hold up?)

Oh, and please notice that Paul never says that sex is a “joining of two spirits,” as is often misunderstood. The phrase is “the two become one flesh”; it is a physical joining, not some mixing of your spiritual natures, so you are not defiling Christ’s Spirit who lives within you.

But, you may ask, what about Paul’s statement, “it is better to marry than to burn” with lust? Isn’t he advocating marriage as the only valid outlet for sexual urges? “Decent” unmarried women in those days were kept under the protective watchful eye of their male relatives, so the only readily available sexual outlet were temple prostitutes. Given those alternatives, marriage is the best bet. Paul knows the young men in his congregations are hot and full of hormones. And temple prostitutes are not a good idea. So, get yourself a woman of your own.

Notice also in this discussion on marriage, that Paul adds, almost in passing, “But I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am, [celibate, unmarried]. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”  Celibacy, even Paul admits, is a gift from God, a spiritual empowerment, not something that is required of everyone.

I can’t say that idolatry/temple-prostitution is the only thing Paul was concerned about here. But it also fits with the common scholarly take on Paul’s views on homosexuality. That famous Romans 1 passage used to beat up LGBT people so often — clearly in a pagan temple context: “they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Idolatry again. And the ambiguous word he uses in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 referring to same-sex sexuality, arsenokoitaiseems to involve exploitive situations: either pederasty, prostitution, or human trafficking (kidnapped “sex slaves”). Sex shouldn’t be exploitive or abusive, and it shouldn’t be linked with worshipping other gods.

Prostitutes wearing African masks as expressions of unbound sexuality. (Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon)

Fornication, Purity & Virginity

So, what about “fornication”? Isn’t it condemned in the bible? Sure. Unfortunately, that word, usually translated generically as “sexual immorality” in modern versions of the bible, has taken on a specific meaning in the Christian Church that it did not originally have. Ask most Christians and they’ll tell you that “fornication” is premarital sex.

But in the bible, that word is much broader and refers to wide range of unlawful (forbidden) sexual activities, such as incest, sex within certain family relations (step-mothers, half-sisters, aunts, in-laws, etc), sex while the woman is menstruating, and other unclean practices. Hence, Paul could condemn a man in one of his churches who was having an affair with his father’s wife (presumably his ex-step-mother, not his actual mother). That was a shocking thing to do in that culture; it was indecent, and Paul didn’t want that associated with the young faith community. But fornication did not specifically refer to sex outside of marriage as is commonly understood today.

What about keeping ourselves pure — for God and for our spouse? Yes, there’s something to be said for that. “How can a young man keep himself pure?,” Psalm 119:9 asks. The answer given in the same verse is “by living according to God’s Word.” But why do we automatically think that “purity” refers to sexuality? To a Jew, purity would be understood primarily as a life keeping the commandments — everything from avoiding pork and shell fish, to the way he cuts his hair, to keeping the Sabbath, and having no other gods besides God. It meant staying loyal to God. Go ahead. Look it up. You won’t find sex mentioned there.

Virginity was highly prized in women in biblical days — it made them more valuable to prospective husbands — but it was never a virtue or requirement for men. Still, if you choose to save your virginity and offer it as a gift to your future spouse, then that’s an excellent and honorable choice. Like taking a vow to never drink alcohol or never smoke a cigarette, it’s a personal lifestyle decision. But don’t let someone else make that decision for you. Don’t be forced into a life of frustration because you are not married and your jeans seem to be on fire.

The book of Proverbs has lots to say about sex for the young man. Beware the wayward woman, the one leaning seductively out her door, whispering “my husband is away, come in and let me entertain you.” It encourages faithfulness: “drink water from your own cistern, and don’t let your fountains overflow into the streets. May your fountain be blessed,” and “may your wife’s breasts always satisfy you.” Juicy imagery. But again, a married situation: adultery. There’s also talk about prostitutes. A dangerous liaison, she will consume all your wealth and lead you to destruction — yeah, there goes your paycheck, and you better go get your status checked. Proverbs is a book of wisdom. It’s not saying not to have sex. It’s saying use some wisdom in your hookups — adultery and prostitutes aren’t the wisest way to satisfy your urges.

And then there’s the Song of Songs in the bible. The entire book is dedicated to the joys of physical intimacy and being in love. Even before their wedding day, the young woman yearns achingly for her lover, and takes him to the bedroom. The descriptions are so steamy and explicit, in fact, that the only way the book could be included in the Hebrew Bible was that the sages declared it to be an allegory about the love of God and his bride Israel. And later Christian leaders understood it as a description of the relationship between Christ and his bride the Church. Spiritual interpretations aside, the book celebrates the pangs of desire, and the joys of physical love and companionship. But above all, it celebrates love. And this is a good qualifier. Let love be your goal, not just getting your rocks off.

Let me point it out again. In ancient Israel, adultery (for women) was punishable by death. But marital faithfulness was less expected of men, and both prostitution and “harlotry” (unmarried women engaging in promiscuous sex) were completely legal and tolerated. That, of course, does not mean they were socially respectable — just like today, unmarried women who enjoy their sexuality tend to have a bad reputation (“whore”, “slut”), while guys generally get a free pass.

Having said all that, though, I am not saying that the bible is only concerned about adultery and idolatry when it comes to sex. But what I am saying is that the strict code of sexual purity we think the bible endorses is actually more a modern interpretation.  With all the commandments given in the bible, nowhere will you find the explicit statement “thou shalt not have sex outside of marriage.”

So what then …?

Should you hop from bed to bed just because you can? Probably not. Paul’s injunction holds true across the board — whether over-eating at the buffet, drinking too much and getting wasted Saturday night, cutting yourself or doing harm to yourself … or sexual promiscuity: “glorify God with your bodies.” Over-indulgence is never applauded. And that kind of libertine sexuality was deemed “licentiousness” in the bible: a sin of excess. “Don’t use your liberty as an excuse to indulge the flesh, but serve one another in love,” Paul tells us — but the point is that you do have that liberty. Someone else’s stricter “moral code” is not binding on you. Your conscience and your personal relationship with God is. How you express your sexuality in real life is entirely up to you. What is sin for one may not be sin for another. We are individuals, with our own individual relationships with God. If you meet someone you’re really connecting with, if things get hot and steamy, is God going to count one more sin against you? No. God is not a prude, and he’s not a sin-counter. But like the book of Proverbs advises over and over, use some wisdom, use your intuition, don’t be stupid, and never put yourself in dangerous situations. Use your head and use your conscience. Like Paul says, “All things are permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial.”

Look, I’m not saying that the bible would condone you hooking up with a new guy weekend after weekend. What I am saying is that there doesn’t seem to me to be much to support the idea that you need to wait until you’re married. There’s a wide space of territory between those two extremes, and you need to navigate it according to your own Spirit-prodded conscience.

The bible is a big book, with a collection of 66 separate smaller books, written by 40 different authors on 3 continents over a 2000 year period. It’s got a lot to say about the human condition, and each author emphasizes different aspects of the God-human interaction. Whatever position you happen to take on a topic, you’ll likely be able to pull support from somewhere in that big collection. And obviously there is plenty of room for disagreement here. So we’re back to that basic premise: you gotta use a bit of wisdom, a bit of maturity, and apply with a spiritual sensitivity. And that includes your sex life.

Sex is an inseparable part of being human. It is a gift from God, and a legitimate way of connecting personally with another human being. And when you commit to someone, you should keep your sexual fires within that relationship. But if you’re still single, there doesn’t seem to be any clear restriction against enjoying another person’s body — as long as it’s not exploitive, abusive, dangerous, involve worshipping another god, or a betrayal of someone’s bond.

condom_483906290_a8d66b83a1_zSo, use some common sense. Sex is deeply personal. It’s not just like eating a Big Mac. It will impact you emotionally, psychologically, physically, and even spiritually in some way. And randomly sharing your body with every stranger you encounter is bound to have consequences: over-indulgence is never healthy. So, when you’re in that situation, and you wanna go home with that guy you just met, ask yourself what this hookup will do to you? To the person you’re sleeping with? Don’t be too casual about it. But if you’re both single and you feel that spark, God gave you sex as an intimate and pleasurable way of connecting with someone. Enjoy it, and thank God for it.

Oh, and by all means, use protection. Use a condom. Get on PrEP. That’s part of the wisdom. And if your friends jokingly call you a whore, well, so what? They’ve got their own issues to deal with — and they’ll probably want to hear all about the details later anyway.

photo credits: “Face,” Tomasz Pletek via Flickr, cc
“TruvadaWhore,” @pupbones on My PrEP Experience
“Lust (condom),” Darwin Bell via Flickr, cc

This post originally appeared on IMPACT Magazine.

Naan Pizza for One (or Two): Bachelor Style

Naan Pizza Supreme. Looks like a mess, but man, is it good!

“I love it that you have all these random jars of interesting things in your refrigerator.”

That was Jake. We were making dinner together one night last week, and I pulled out a jar of Giardiniera. It’s basically just pickled cauliflower, carrots, celery and peppers; you know, stuff to munch on while you’re watching TV, when you want something but don’t know exactly what. I suppose it goes well on the side with a sandwich too, but … you know, if you’re a foodie, you just gotta have all kinds of stuff handy.

That explains the jar of marinated artichoke hearts I had sitting in the bottom shelf, way in the back.

So I’m staring into the fridge again, wondering what to make for dinner. It’s a weeknight, and it’s been a long day at work. My brain is fried, so I’m not really in the mood to cook anything elaborate. I’d eaten out a lot recently too, and my wallet was feeling the pressure, so a quick run out for fast food didn’t seem like a good idea. And besides, aside from the predictably bloated feeling I always get after pounding down a burger and fries, I always feel like I just paid someone to poison me. (You’ve seen those YouTube videos on the meat slurry that goes into beef patties, right? Yeah, not fit for human consumption.)

naanAnd salad? I’m a huge fan, but please, not every night. Then I caught sight of the package of naan bread I’d bought from Wallyworld. Naan is an oven-baked flatbread, famous in Indian food, and it makes a great ready-made dough for personal-sized pizza. Just pile whatever you like on top, throw it in the oven, and voila! Instant dinner.

You can find all kinds of recipes for naan pizza on the web. Me? I’m not too selective. I just start pulling some of those “random jars of interesting things” out of the fridge, along with some fresh salad-fixin’s from the crisper, and start chopping. You know what you like (it’s the stuff you probably already have on hand), so use what you’ve got.

A few quick taps on my stove to get the oven preheating to 350°, and I grab a cookie sheet from the bottom cupboard. You can bake the naan right on the rack if you like, but my pizzas tend to be piled high and overflowing, and that can leave a big mess on the bottom of your oven  — and fill your house with smoke next time you try to use it — so the cookie sheet is my safety net.

What? You don’t keep pepperoni in your fridge?

Brush a little olive oil on the flatbread, and start building.

• Some sliced onions,
• chopped red and yellow mini-peppers (gotta get your vitamins, right?),
• a handful of cherry tomatos, cut in half,
• sliced mushrooms (I am a mushroom fiend. It’s not pizza without mushrooms.) Canned mushrooms will work fine, if you’ve got ’em. I like to keep a ziplock baggie of fresh ones in the freezer cuz I think they have a better taste and texture.
• that jar of marinated artichoke hearts,
• a small can of sliced black olives,
• oh, and don’t forget the pepperoni. (That’s the protein — at least that’s what I tell myself.)
• Finally, sprinkle on the shredded mozzerella cheese. As it melts, it’ll hold all the stuff together on top.

I love me some oregano, too. Love the way it smells when it’s roasting. So I sprinkle some dried Italian herbs on top, a little garlic powder (you know that smells great when it’s cooking in the oven!), and we’re set to go.

10-15 minutes in the oven. Let the cheese melt and get all gooey. You can leave it in a bit longer if you like a crispier crust, but don’t let it brown too much.

And that’s it. Cut it in four pieces, and you’ve got manageable slices that won’t drop toppings all over your carpet while you’re clicking through movie selections with the remote.

NetflixTonight, for me: rewatching episodes from “House of Cards.” (When does Season 4 come out?) Enjoy your night in!


When was the last time you told yourself “I love you”?

love yourselfWhen was the last time you told yourself “I love you”?

Weird idea? Maybe it sounds like it at first, but we as a community are desperately in need of hearing those words — especially from ourselves. And by “we,” I mean LGBTQ people and Christian people, and especially those of us who fit in both categories.

Many of us LGBTQ people have wrestled with our identities, trying to come to terms accepting ourselves, defining ourselves, discovering ourselves, exploring our own psyches, often even seeking professional therapy. We’ve had to struggle with issues with an intensity and prolonged duration that many of our straight friends never had to deal with. And that often has left scars of self-doubt, of fear, of insecurities and a need for acceptance, sometimes even of self-hatred. Thank God, now with greater social acceptance of non-hetero identities, the younger generation doesn’t have to go through this as much. But for many of us born before 1990, the mental and emotional bruises linger for years. Looking in the mirror can be an awkward moment. So getting to a point where we can honesty, truthfully say to ourselves “I love you” can be a milestone in personal growth.

The same goes for many Christians, straight or otherwise. If you were raised in a conservative environment, you probably had years of “humility” drummed into your head. Concerns over pride and ego, or selfishness or even self-indulgence took on eternal significance. It was unChrist-like. God despises the proud but exalts the humble. So again, uttering those three simple words could be a shocking, even rebellious act.

Now throw in some sex …

Throw in the sexual dynamic, and we’ve got a whole ‘nother ball game. How many of us, especially in religious circles, were taught (or at least led to believe) that any kind of sexual expression outside the holy bonds of matrimony were sinful, shameful, and deserving of God’s wrath? So if you were attracted to someone and began dating them, if things went beyond second base, the guilt could become paralyzing. Heck, even getting to second base could trigger hours of penitent prayer, trying to persuade God to forget it ever happened and to restore your state of divine favor.

Maybe you could soften the assault of guilt by rationalizing: we love each other, we may not be “married” but we care about each other… But what about those experiences outside even that degree of relationship? What about the occasional hook-ups, when you meet someone, and the chemistry between the two of you resembles a nuclear reaction. Your heart races, your eyes dilate, your palms begin to sweat. You smile nervously, and your brain nearly explodes when the look is returned. And later that night, you find yourself in someone else’s bedroom, or even in the backseat of your car, when the hormonal tide has cleared from your mind and you face that moment of reality. This wasn’t love. This was … just physical.

Do you love yourself enough to say, “That’s okay. God doesn’t hate me, and neither do I”? Or even more boldly, “That was good. I needed that. I connected with someone, even just for that short time, and I still feel the after-glow of that connection”? No guilt. Just acceptance of your own humanity, of your human need for touch, for connection with another. And confidence that God isn’t brooding with anger over it.

This “extra-marital” guilt thing even applied to physical self-gratification: masturbation. They used to call it “self-abuse”. Abuse! Really? How is that not supposed to make you fill sinful and dirty? They’d tie religious language to it: “if you lust after a woman in your heart, you’ve already committed adultery with her…” The mere thought of sex was equivalent to breaking one of the top 10 commandments! If you were raised in a religious family, your early teen years were most likely fraught with guilt and shame.

We can debate the morality of sex outside of marriage — whether in a relationship, just a hook-up, or just jacking off — another time. But the fact that sexuality is such a powerful part of our humanity, such a big part of defining “self”, of who we are as human beings, it can’t NOT take a toll on our self-esteem.

Let me throw in a Jesus-moment. The second great commandment he gave us was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s pretty much impossible to do if we don’t, in fact, love ourselves. That is, treasure ourselves, treat ourselves well, bring happiness (including sexual pleasure) to ourselves. Are we not worth it? And the Apostle Paul, when talking about married life, says that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…. No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, …” Huh. Not so sure about that “no one ever hated himself” part. But even Paul says that loving our own bodies is obviously important to a strong relationship.

Here’s the thing. The sex part is integral, but it’s secondary. The main point here is that too many of us, whether from struggling with our LGBTQ identity or just our Christian ego, do not even like ourselves, much less love ourselves. And this is crucial. How can you love someone else, how can you love your neighbor, and how can you love your lover, your spouse, your significant other, if you don’t have a healthy love for yourself? What are you bringing to the table? And can you even know how to love properly if it doesn’t begin with you?

Here’s the truth: without healthy self-esteem and self-love, the thing you’ll feel for someone else is dependence, not love.

selflove_memeYou FEEL like you love that person, you may feel the passion, the desire, the motivation to do good for them, to give them things, to express your heart — your feelings — to them, to show them how important they are. But what are you really feeling? You can become LOST in them, in those feelings. You are preoccupied, even obsessed, with the very thought of that person. And your world would come crashing down around your head if they ever left you. Is that a healthy view of self? Is that even really love?

Because you’re worth it!

You are significant. You have gifts and talents of your own. You’ve got a style, a way of thinking that no one else does. Without your unique expression of life on this planet, we are all a little bit poorer. All those “feel good” memes on social media have that kernel of truth to them. You have value — all by yourself. And the trick is to tap into that, to actually believe it.

it is NOT a healthy thing to try to spiritualize it: “yes, in Christ I have value.” That’s just more religious brainwashing. God did not send Jesus into this world so that you would have value. He sent Jesus into this world BECAUSE you have value.

And no, it is NOT a healthy thing to try to spiritualize it: “yes, in Christ I have value.” That’s just more religious brainwashing. God did not send Jesus into this world so that you would have value. He sent Jesus into this world BECAUSE you have value. You are loved and you have value in God’s eyes just as you are. (Being “in Christ” definitely changes your life, but it is not the sole grounds for your worth.)

Get out a pad of paper and a pen, if you must. Write down only the good things about yourself. The things you want a potential lover to see in you, to appreciate about you. Now, YOU be that lover. Appreciate yourself, love yourself for those reasons. Oh, and incidentally, all those negative things you’re probably mentally lining up in the opposite column on that page … yeah, there may be some truth in them, but most likely they are exaggerated way beyond reality by your own insecurities. You can love yourself, faults and all (cuz who doesn’t have faults?). So say it. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I love you. You are awesome.”

You’ll need to have this perspective if you’re to ever hold on to a healthy relationship with someone else. And it’s especially important if you’re single, when you spend those long hours at night longing for your One True Love. When you tell all your friends, “pray for me; pray that God sends me a husband or wife.” When day after day, you’re home alone, making dinner for yourself, spending the evening in watching Netflix. No, it’s NOT depressing. When you begin to love yourself, those moments can be remarkably peaceful and comforting. You can settle in on your couch or go out to your favorite restaurant alone — and enjoy it. Because you enjoy your own company. Because your love makes you complete by yourself.

Okay, I know it’s not as simple as that. If you’re like me, you’ve probably got years of history telling you the opposite. But once you tap into that realization that you are love-worthy, and begin to feel that way about yourself, your life begins to change. Things around you look differently. Even your sex life (yeah, I keep harping on that — cuz it’s a big part of who we are) … even your sex life, whether alone or with someone else, can be fulfilling — as an act of love for yourself. Of simply making yourself feel good, just as you would your future lover. Guilt-free.

It’s important. We need it. We need to love ourselves. How else can we fully love another person? And how else can we turn that love around to touch the world?

photo credit: “Hug of an angel,” Christopher via Flickr, cc


And then God struck …. Not.

Minutes after the US Supreme Court handed down their ruling overturning bans on same-sex marriage, posts were already going up on Facebook and across the blogosphere about “Spitting in the face of God” and “God’s impending wrath on America.

*Sigh* Really? Of course, this kind of reaction is not surprising. There are a surprising number of people who are invested in preserving tradition and a strict moral code that does not allow for love between two people of the same gender. It’s a religious thing, not a rational one. Not a civil one. Not a constitutional one. And frankly, not a godly one either.

But there it is.  Wrath. Christians who on most days of the week boast about living in God’s grace, now suddenly focused on the doom about to be unleashed on this now pagan America.

But let’s forget about the bantering back and forth about “WWJD?” or what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality. We’ll never agree on that anyway. We will always read and interpret the Bible in ways that agree with what we already want to believe. Let’s just look at our own history in Europe and America, and judge whether God is still in the wrath-inflicting business.

When Europe was filled with terror over religious wars in the previous centuries, with people being brutally tortured (Spanish Inquisitions, Holy Wars, Crusades, etc), did God hurl lightning bolts at Rome or London or Castile? Did comets plummet to the earth, wiping out vile Europeans? Or during the Holocaust in the 1930s and -40s, with millions of Jews (“God’s chosen people”), Gypsies, gay people, and others were exterminated, and their ashes literally rose to heaven as their bodies were incinerated — did God inflict his wrath?

In our own illustrious American history, with the genocide of Native Americans, with centuries of slavery, with witch hunts and burning people at the stake, oppression of women and racial minorities, of anti-Semitism, of Islamophobia and homophobia, of lynchings, of gay-bashing and public violence… What about our neglected poor, and those who fought so hard to make sure the poor among us would NOT have food or shelter or medical treatment? Yeah, Social Security is part of our national existence now, but it was strongly resisted when FDR tried to bring it about. Same with Medicare and Medicaid. Just look at the fight over Obamacare, or the hostility directed at “illegal aliens”.

The Bible is full of examples (and commands!) concerning treatment of the weak, the helpless, the widows, orphans, the poor, the aliens in the land. The prophet Ezekiel even declared that that was the reason for God’s punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah — for the citizens of those cities’ lack of concern for the vulnerable among them, while they fattened their own purses and stomachs. Greed, gluttony, selfishness, and turning a blind eye to the needs of others is what irks God. (Ezek 16:49)

Jesus came along and turned a spotlight on these concerns close to God’s heart. Love for our neighbor became a motto. “What you do unto the least of these …” was a standard against which we would ultimately be judged in the next life.

And about “imminent judgment” for sins committed, Jesus pointed at examples in his own day, and said “NO! Those people hurt by disasters were no more sinners than you” (Lk 13:4). And when his own disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven upon those who rejected God’s Good News (listen up, Mike Huckabee!), Jesus smacked them in the face: “You don’t know what Spirit you belong to”  (Lk 9:54).

If America were to invoke the wrath of God — whether by drought or famine or hurricane, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster — it would not be over passing laws that allow people to love and celebrate each other. If anything, we’d fall under his curse for our neglect of the needy among us, the minorities, those illegal aliens who come here looking for a better life. He’d judge us for being the wealthiest nation in this history of this planet, yet 1 out of every 5 children in this country go to bed hungry. We drive our Lexuses, we buy bigger houses, we pad our 401K plans, and our neighbors can’t feed their children. Our grandparents can’t afford their medicines. Our youth are living on the streets, kicked out of their homes by angry parents.  Surely we deserve God’s wrath — but not for marriage equality.

Thankfully, God doesn’t seem to be in the wrath-hurling business. Grace is his trademark characteristic. Love extended to the unworthy, the undeserving. And judgment — by HIS standards, not ours — reserved for the Great White Throne in the next life.  And anyone who is predicting the coming wrath because their traditional moral values no longer hold force in this country, only proves that their traditions were built on sand. They don’t know the heart of God. The same words of Jesus apply today as well as then: “You know not what Spirit you are of.”


[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook. [/box]

Faith, Anticipation and Expectation – When you don’t know how to pray or what to believe

anticipation, faith, expectation

We are a “Faith” generation. Many of us who surfed the wave of “Word-Faith” teaching that swept explosively through the Church in the 1980s and ’90s have since found our balance point in life. As with any fresh movement of the Spirit, there were excesses, misunderstandings, and actions out of spiritual immaturity unchecked by the wisdom and experience of older saints. But millions of believers around the world found a new vitality with God that had been absent so long in their traditional church upbringing. I was one of them.

Life teaches you — if you let it. If you have “eyes to see and ears to hear”. We grow; we learn. Part of my journey was learning a comfortable “fit” for faith in my life. I discovered over time that I couldn’t simply express a desire to God, flip the switch of faith on in my heart, speak the word, claim the promise, and watch the results roll in. It didn’t always work for me. And for someone who takes the Bible very seriously, that was a problem.

What do you do when you stand on a verse that reads “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it”, or “whatever you desire when you pray, believe that you have received it and you will have it” — and then it doesn’t occur? Any wise saint will tell you that you can’t pull verses out of context at will and make them work for you. Every verse has its place in the entirety of Scripture, and unless you’re reading it in that whole spectrum of light, you’re bound to go astray. Jesus said “if you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask what you will …” (John 15:7). And that about sums it up. Your prayers, your wishes, have to come from a position of being one with Jesus. They have to line up with his will. Isn’t that what “in Jesus’ name” really means? You can’t ask for something in his name if it’s not something he wants or approves of. Like when Peter healed the paralytic who had been bedridden for 8 years: “Jesus Christ heals you. Now, get up and make your bed” (Act 9:34). As a believer, you are entitled to use his name, but it’s Jesus’ power, his authority, so you gotta have his permission first.

With that nugget of truth in hand, it is difficult for me to ask for a specific thing in faith unless I know specifically that it is God’s will for me at that moment. Even with things that I know in general are his will. I know, for example, that it is God’s will that we be well, healed, strong and healthy. I can cite you a handful of Scripture passages to back up that assertion. But how many times on his way into the temple had Jesus passed by and not healed the same crippled man later healed by Peter and John in his name (Acts 3)? How many times have I prayed for healing (for myself and for others) and the healing did not manifest? There is a right time and place, a right state of heart and position in life — even for those things that line up with God’s general will. So, in my experience, I learned that simply “claiming a promise” was not always sufficient. I needed a direct word from God on the matter before that “claim” carried any weight.

Otherwise, expectation can get you in trouble sometimes.

That was the problem with my faith. I could define what I wanted — you know, go to God with a specific request for a specific outcome. Like going through that period of my life when I switched career paths and had to reinvent myself. I’d apply for jobs I wanted, and because I was confident of God’s blessing, I expected to get them. But many of them fell through, and I was left to deal with the bitter disappointment and the shaking of my faith.

Too specific an expectation without a direct leading can really mess you up.

But when I stopped trying to force specific outcomes, when I did the leg work but left the results in God’s hands, that allowed God to move me in directions he wanted me to go, and I would be excited and surprised by the unexpected places he took me. That slight difference in perspective made all the difference. When I did not have a definite word from Heaven, I switched from expectation to anticipation.

We used to sing this little ditty in church years ago, and I love it to this day. “I anticipate the inevitable, supernatural intervention of God, I expect a miracle. I expect a miracle. I expect a mir-a-cle.” (Yeah, it comes across better with music. :) ) It always summons up images for me of the Israelites as they’re leaving Egypt, chased by the Egyptian army, and blocked by the Red Sea. They didn’t know what God was going to do; they didn’t know how he was going to save them. In fact, most of them were sure they were going to die. But a handful of brave souls had faith in the promises of God. They did not have faith for a specific result, but they waited eagerly (sweating profusely, I’m sure), anticipating SOMETHING supernatural.

And that’s the key. Without a definite leading from God, we shouldn’t “expect” definite things — but we should “anticipate” his inevitable intervention. We may not know what it is, but we know he’ll do something. “Holy Anticipation” is putting your faith in GOD, trusting in his love and faithfulness — not trying to dictate a desired outcome.

A “Facebook friend” of mine who pastors a large church in Washington, DC wrote today that the theaters they’ve been holding services in for 13 years are now being closed down. He wrote of his mixed emotions as one chapter of the church’s life closes and another is about to begin, not knowing yet what God is up to. He says, “Despite the sadness and craziness, I have a holy anticipation about what’s next. I’m [only] sure of two things. I’ll grow as a leader through this — and I embrace that challenge. And we’ll grow as a congregation. It’s not the way I would have written the script, but it’s good for us. We’re gonna follow the cloud and the cloud is moving!” As much as my limited spiritual experience tells me, he’s on the right track. He isn’t projecting the next step. He isn’t claiming a specific new site for his church — at least not yet. All he knows right now is that God is doing something — the cloud is moving — and he is anticipating a miracle.

Our faith can be expressed in both these ways. Expectation is appropriate when God has instructed us what his intentions are for us in a situation. But when we don’t know, when we are in a bind and just looking to God for a solution — like the Israelites, trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea — that’s the time for faithful anticipation.

For most of us, those are the moments we most often live in: uncertainty about the specifics yet. But those are perhaps the moments of our greatest faith, and we need to just hang in there, waiting with excitement and open eyes, so we can see the amazing thing God is about to do!

… And now, just because I’m feeling a bit musical this morning, here’s a bit that kinda sums it up …

photo credit: Joris Louwes via Flickr, cc

This piece originally appeared in Cafe Inspirado.
[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.


When your faith is bigger than the Bible…

Living with uncertainty just may be the mark of a genuinely in-touch spiritual life. When your thoughts, your perspective of the God and the universe, go beyond the limits of what you’ve been taught, when you begin to think outside the lines, it can be a very scary thing. But it can also be a sign of profound growth. And you might be in touch with God in a way that you weren’t before. Something could be happening to you – and it could be a really, really good thing.

I’ve noticed this a lot in the past decade or so. And mostly, it’s made me uncomfortable. REALLY uncomfortable. There were these preachers that I’d respected years ago, who suddenly got a “bigger” view of God — well, in my mind, it was just a different, even heretical, view of God. They talked about how hell didn’t really exist, how the love of God extended to ALL humans, not just the chosen 3% of all humanity whoever lived who happen to call themselves Christians. And that God would never condemn those people to eternal torment because of their ignorance of the incarnation. Some of these preachers even began to adopt lingo from other religions to describe this God who created all humanity, words and images from people who experienced God differently.

But that was weird. That’s not what my bible teaches.

At least not how I was taught to read it.

Over the past few years, my own views of God and faith have shifted a bit, became “looser.” Grace was bigger. Love was bigger. The Cross was bigger than we could ever imagine. If God himself could come down and take on human flesh, then allow himself to be killed — the death of the Creator of the Universe! — that had to be bigger than our traditional religion was describing it. It had to have universal ramifications.

But I couldn’t talk about it much. At least not outside a circle of a few close friends whom I could trust not to start gathering stones for my execution. Thanks to social media, I’ve become aware of more and more pastors and teachers whose views are evolving. And now, instead of being scary, I find it exhilarating. Something is happening. Something is up in the spirit-realm, and we might very well be in the middle of another kind of revival, a move of God’s Spirit, a new expansion in God’s revelation.

Okay, I know I just spooked a bunch of you reading this. You probably always half-suspected that I had one foot out the door of evangelical orthodoxy and already on that slippery slope that leads to eternal damnation (that hot place more and more people are coming to doubt exists).  But hold on for a few minutes. I’m not asking you to agree, but maybe you’ll consider the possibilities.

Progressive Revelation. That’s kinda the technical term for it.  That our understanding of God expands over time, as the Spirit reveals a little bit more of the character of God as time passes, as culture progresses, as we as faithful people open our hearts a bit more.  This is not something new. It happened all through the Bible.  Let’s take a quick look at a few examples.

A quick history lesson

Adam and Eve had a very intimate friendship with God. They knew him (her?) in a way the rest of humanity never would. They experienced him one on one, in the flesh so to speak. But that changed suddenly. And it was like the unrestricted access, the unfiltered view of God, got shut down. Suddenly, God was distant, not readily accessible. Cain and Abel offered up sacrifices (well, “offerings” as we understand the term. There is no indication they were blood sacrifices for sin). We don’t know that Adam or Eve ever did this when inside the Garden. This was something new.

Abraham, the father of our faith, came along millennia later. God speaks to him, and he is constantly making altars to God and worshipping. And there is even this gruesome scene where he cuts up animals in a covenant-making ceremony, and God symbolically passes through the body parts in the form of a smoking pot. No sin offerings are even mentioned. Sacrifices — financial as well as bloody — are part of Abraham’s faith walk, but they seem to flow from custom, from tradition he was familiar with, not from any specific instruction from God.  But when Moses 400 years later leads Abraham’s descendants out of Egyptian slavery, God gives him a set of specific instructions about sacrifice. “This is how you will approach me. This is how you will atone for your sins. This is how you can appear before me without being struck down by my awesome holiness.”  And we end up with a clear statement that defined our faith and theology from that time to this day. “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.”

Pretty clear. Written on stone, written on leather scrolls. Read for centuries after. Yet when King David comes along and commits some horrendous crimes (adultery, murder), he could pour out his soul to God with a new understanding that defied the written Scripture that he knew so well. “Sacrifices do not please you or I would offer them. My sacrifice is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51).  He knew something intuitively that contradicted Scripture. He could approach God and receive God’s forgiveness without blood sacrifice. His broken, repentant heart was sufficient.

Stop for a second, and let that sink in. That is HUGE. David had an intimate relationship with God, one that marked him in history as “a man after God’s own heart,” and he KNEW inside his gut that killing some sheep would not set things right between him and God. Only his honest communication, his genuinely sorrowful heart could move the heart of God.

So much for the authority of written Scripture. He had a revelation that was bigger than Scripture — and it eventually became part of Scripture.

Then a few hundred years later, the Israelites do stupid stuff, they abandon their relationship with God and hook up with other gods. They end up being conquered and exiled from their home country. Guess what? No more temple to offer sacrifices. How were they going to maintain their faith, their connection with God? Thankfully, their prophets got a new revelation — or maybe it wasn’t new. Maybe it was just a new awareness of the “other” side that David and the mystics knew all along. There were other ways of having relationship. “Obedience to God’s instruction was better than sacrifice,” and a life of compassion and fidelity to God was better still: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Besides, God had already revealed periodically along the way that their mechanical, insincere sacrifices had become repugnant to him. He hated them. He hated their long, babbling prayers, their fasts, their religious holidays. He hated it all. All the outward religious behavior. He wanted their hearts.

Okay, centuries later, the Jews have returned from their exile in Babylon and have resettled in their promised land. The temple is rebuilt, sacrifices re-commence. Jesus comes on the scene, and he is constantly debating with the religious leaders: “You’ve got it all wrong. This stuff is not important. Your tithes, your sacrifices, your rules, your ‘holy’ lifestyles mean nothing.” And he tries to change their way of thinking, their way of viewing God — from a somewhat distant, Almighty God, the King of the Universe, the Father of all Israel, to a more personal relationship with God the Father of us as individuals, to Abba, Daddy. And this was revolutionary. It shocked and disgusted the conservatives. It was a shift in their religious view, and most couldn’t handle it.

And it wasn’t just about relating to God on an intimate level. Jesus tried to renew their perspective about how they lived,  what they did. You know those rules in Scripture that said not to work on the Sabbath — possibly the most significant law in the Hebrew faith next to devotion to God alone. And Jesus overturned it all the time. He healed people on the Sabbath. He allowed his disciples to grind wheat to satisfy their hunger on the Sabbath. “If your ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, won’t you break the rules out of compassion for the animal and pull him out?”  And, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath — it was intended for your benefit, not to burden you.”  And he did this in other areas as well, from the way they washed their hands, to whom they could hang out with. Jesus taught them something beyond what was written. He broke Scripture, contradicted what was written. He reinterpreted it BIGGER than they had imagined. He gave them a new revelation.

Oh, sure. That was Jesus. He was the Son of God, so he had the right to do that. He could add stuff to the bible.

But then his disciples did the same thing. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, non-Jews started flocking into the new Jewish church. They liked what they heard about Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ view of God, and they wanted in.  But the bible clearly stated that to join the faith, you had to be circumcised. And these uncircumcised non-Jews were considered “unclean”. You couldn’t eat with them, or even enter their houses. The early apostles wrestle with this. And then one day Peter has a vision. God shows him all the animals that the bible clearly stated he was not supposed to eat, and then God tells him to eat them anyway. God tells him to break Scripture. The vision really wasn’t about food — although it is used as one of the justifications why Christians can now eat bacon and shrimp in direct contradiction to the bible. It was about those gentiles, those non-Jews who wanted to join the church. They didn’t need circumcision, they were not unclean. “Call nothing unclean that I have made clean,” God told him.  And, of course, the apostle Paul follows suit a bit later, declaring that the whole Law of Moses — the bible as they knew it — was no longer binding on Jesus’ followers.

BAM! They got a bigger revelation of truth. A new look at the character of God that was in direct contradiction to what was written in the bible.  So much for “The bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  Nope. The vast depth and richness of the character of the God who created the universe could not be limited to a handful of scrolls. He is bigger than that. He’s got bigger plans than just that. And his love for all humanity is his #1 personality trait. Everything else is subject to revision, change, in order to fulfill his great love.

Yeah, so?

Okay, that was kinda a long history lesson. The key point to walk away with is that even in the bible, the great heroes of faith were continually getting a bigger view of God that surpassed what was previously written. Their perspectives, their revelations, were consistent with the character of God, but definitely contradicted the plain, black and white reading of the bible.  So why should that suddenly stop?

Why are we — who hold so tightly onto the sanctity and authority of Scripture, who pride ourselves in our knowledge and adherence to the bible — why are we shocked, scared, when we suddenly get a new, bigger view of God that goes beyond what is written in that book?

If that “newer, bigger” view of God seems inconsistent with the character of God — specifically, his #1 characteristic: Love — then yes, we should be skeptical. But that “new perspective” in reality may be just a fresh take on a view of God already described in the Holy Book. And if it lines up with the description of God that Jesus showed us, then perhaps we should give it some attention.  Maybe, little by little, we’re recovering some glimpses that Adam and Eve had before the great cut off.

That doesn’t mean we have to swallow every new doctrine or teaching or insight someone has. But Jesus promised that God’s Spirit would lead us into all truth. Doesn’t that mean that there still must be truth to be lead into beyond what is written on the pages of the book?

Fresh insights means a new move of the Spirit

I’m getting this subtle feeling more and more recently that we are experiencing a new wave of fresh insight into the character of God. One that challenges traditional views of the afterlife, of heaven versus hell, of eternal judgment and punishment, of who is “in” and who is “out”. Of whom God loves and wants to show himself to, and whom (if any) he wants to leave behind. I’m still walking delicately with this stuff. I’m not likely in the near future to burn a bible from the pulpit. But I think, like all those heroes of faith described in the bible, and like Jesus’ own followers, we are still getting fresh glimpses into the vastness of who God is and what he is like — and what great extent he will go to include people in his redemptive plan, his love. God’s plan is bigger than us. It’s bigger than what can be defined and limited on a few hundred pages in a leather-bound book. And he’s still showing it to us. To those whose hearts are listening, receptive, willing.

So if your view of God is expanding in new and scary ways, it doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your faith or that you suddenly have to leave the church. It doesn’t mean you’re now some other religion. It may just mean you’re in touch with the next move of the Spirit. Something is happening, and you are a part of it.

photo credit: “Unio Mystica,” Hartwig HKD via Flickr, cc


[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.


Your Tithe Doesn’t Belong to Your Church

Wow, do we have it wrong!

I bet when you hear the word “tithe” or even “offerings,” your thoughts go immediately to pictures of a plate being passed in church. I’ve heard it from pulpits myself, “the tithe belongs to the church … your offerings can go to other places (like the traveling evangelist passing through), but your tithe stays here.” The common understanding among many Christians is that a 10th of their income belongs to God — and that means to the church. (Whether that’s 10% on your gross income or your net is a matter of conscience — and obviously, if you choose the cheaper way out, well, what does that say about you?)*

But here’s the thing: that was not where “giving” in the New Testament went. It didn’t go to build new churches; it didn’t go solely to pay the bills of some institution. It went to people. Poor people, in fact.

But let’s back-track a bit. Where did this idea of your obligation to the church come from? If you’ve been in any independent Charismatic church in the last half-century, you know very well the over-quoted verse in Malachi 3:10.

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

It’s a favorite of preachers trying to motivate their congregations to reach into their wallets and purses, and give … give … give! until it hurts. Because God will reward you beyond your capactity to contain it all.

In other words, “give so you can get back.”

It’s a teaching made popular by Oral Roberts back in the 1940s when he realized that most people gave their tithes out of guilt and obligation. Preachers taught their flocks that they had to support God’s work, but Oral saw it in a different light. He saw it as an opportunity for blessing. “Seed-faith,” he called it. You sow like a farmer, and you expect a harvest, a return on your investment. “Give as a seed you sow, not as a debt you owe.”  It turned obligation into optimism; people began giving because they wanted to. They wanted their harvest.

And that’s great. If you have the faith that God wants to reward your generosity, then who can fault that? But on any other topic, most Christians are united in the belief that God cares about what motivates us as much as he does what we do. Why we do something is as important as the thing itself. Because God judges the heart. Outward actions can be deceiving, can be put on for show, can be the action of hypocrites eager for public approval but whose hearts are made of stone. God knows the difference.

And that’s exactly what Jesus taught. Right before his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, he advises his disciples to watch how they give, how they pray, and how they fast (Matthew 6). Do it in secret, he says, so that no one can pat you on the back, and your Father in Heaven who sees what is done in secret will reward you. It’s not that you nullify those actions if you do them publically (didn’t Daniel in the Bible pray 3 times a day with his windows open?), but Jesus declares that doing things “to be seen by others” reflects a corrupt attitude. And by doing so, you’ve forfeited God’s blessing. You have your reward — other people’s attention — paid in full.

Alms-giving was a religious fundamental in Judaism. Along with prayer and fasting, it was one of the main hallmarks of godliness. (Hence, Jesus addressing these three specific issues in Mt 6.) So much so, that “acts of righteousness” (or just plain ole “righteousness” for short) became synonymous with alms-giving. And it still is today. And, in fact, it’s a hallmark of the faithful in Islam too — it’s #3 in the “Five Pillars of Islam” (Profession of Faith, Prayer, Giving, Fasting, and Pilgramage to Mecca). But “giving” was well understood to mean “giving to the poor and needy” — charity, alms-gving — not dropping cash into the synagogue or mosque coffers.

tithes_2876749931_25fd3ac42d_zHow did we Christians get it confused? How did what was so clearly understood by the Middle Eastern faithful as taking care of the needs of people around us get turned into mostly supporting a church organziation?

Well, there’s that nice phrase in that Malachi passage, “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” And what’s the storehouse? The Temple — err, the church, I mean. Right? But wait: “so that there may be meat in my house.” That’s talking about food. Okay, yes. Part of the Israelite’s tithe (in grain, meats, produce, oil and wine) went to support the priests and Levites — the religious workers. So the analogy would be that your tithe goes to support people in ministry. But the storehouse was also the local food-pantry for widows, orphans, illegal aliens, and other assorted needy people. They, along with the Levites who had no other trade except priestly work, could come to their local storehouse to get food.

“Bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Dt 14:28,29)

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul did a little guilt-tripping on some of the congregations he founded. He was trekking across great distances, preaching, teaching, raising small congregations in the places he visited, and sometimes he had to foot the bill by himself. So he would use popular images to defend his right to financial support: A soldier does not serve at his own expense; you don’t muzzle an ox when it’s working at the mill; a teacher should share in the profit of his students, etc. He felt a bit abandoned. Except for his friends in Philippi, the other churches weren’t consistently supporting him (Phil 4:15). So yeah, there is that. People who surrender their lives to the work of God should be supported by the people of God.

But Paul wasn’t out to line his own pockets with gold — he had little good to say about those who preached the Gospel for personal gain. Look at Paul’s other teachings on giving, especially our favorite ones promising God’s blessing when we give. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) is ALL about Paul encouraging the Corinthians to support the poor believers in other jurisdictions. He devotes two full chapters on this, using God as an example who scattered his gifts abroad and gave to the poor. Christ who was rich became poor for our sakes, so that we might become rich. Just as God cares about and gives to the poor, so should we. It’s all about sharing our wealth with those in need. This wasn’t so that some could live a life of ease at the expense of hard-working folk, but so that there would be enough for all.

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little'” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

And then he adds a little sugar to his appeal: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. … You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.”

Taking care of the poor and widows was so important, that the early church under the first apostles created the office of “Deacon” in order to oversee the daily distribution of their food-pantry (Acts 6), and the people shared their possessions with anyone who had need (Acts 4:35). That was the mark of truly godly people — their generosity and support of the needy.

The church was never meant to be just a place where you sing a few songs and hear a good sermon. It was also meant to be a local storehouse. Literally.

But over time the church lost its concern for the physical and material welfare of the people, and focused almost exclusively on their spiritual condition. And giving to God, as a result, followed suit. Alms-giving which was once so closely associated with righteousness, became “giving to the church,” and shifted from caring for people to providing for the needs of the organization and its ministers.

The nature of tithes and offerings changed because the church’s priorities changed. (When was the last time you heard a sermon about God blessing you with prosperity for feeding the hungry or the homeless?)

I’m not suggesting that should you stop supporting your local place of worship. The work of God won’t get done if you’re not putting your money where your mouth is. And as Paul argues, ministers are in fact worthy of our support. But God’s promise of blessing is to those who care for the vulnerable among us. And unless your church offering envelope has a checkbox for programs specifically geared toward these social concerns, you might want to consider holding back a bit of your offering and giving elsewhere. Or maybe meeting those needs yourself. Neglecting the financial support of people who need help, and reserving your tithes and offerings exclusively for “giving to the church” would mark you as un-righteous not only in the eyes of other religions, but in the eyes of early Christians too.

* Side note: Whether “tithing” is even a Christian obligation is a matter of hot debate. Some claim it is a remnant of Old Testament law that the Christian has been set free from, and our only obligation is to “give” as our heart leads. Others will say that because Jesus mentioned tithing (once) in a discussion with some Pharisees, he obviously condones its continued use in the church today. But this is a topic for another time …

photo credit: “Who needs hope?” Keoni Cabral on Flickr, cc,
“Tithes & Offerings,” RayBanBro66 on Flickr, cc.


[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.


Why I Keep Dog Food in my Car


A few summers ago I was driving back to work after having lunch with a friend, and I saw this scrawny yellow dog hoofing it across a busy intersection. It was a hot afternoon, and the dog caught my attention because it was tagging about 100 feet behind a couple of people who’d crossed a minute or two earlier, panting and looking thirsty. What really sucky pet owners, I thought, letting the dog cross by itself.  The light was red, so fortunately the poor dog didn’t have to dodge oncoming traffic, but I was still cringing inside. I kept an eye on it – and the people – watching to see if they’d stop and wait for the animal to catch up. But they didn’t. And the dog still padded after them (or at least in their direction) on the hot pavement.

My animal-loving instincts kicked in and I quickly realized that the dog was just following them, looking for company, maybe hoping to be rescued, taken home, fed, and loved. So I made a quick detour around the block and turned down the street to follow the dog. It went up on a few neighborhood lawns, sniffing things, but obviously had no real place to go. I drove farther down the street and pulled over. I got out of my car and knelt in the grass by the sidewalk, waiting for the dog to come my way. Sure enough, she came over and sniffed me, wagging her little tail. No collar or tags. She was scrawny, I could feel her ribs when I pet her, and she looked a little desperate (to my emotional mind), lost and hungry.

And I was at a complete loss of what to do. I couldn’t take her home with me and the city animal shelter was located at the opposite side of the city. I had some bottled water, so I poured some out for her, but that was it.  I hated the idea of calling Animal Control on her; they’d pick her up and if no one claimed or adopted her, she’d end up being euthanized. But in the end, that’s what I did. Better to be taken care of, kept in a cool place with water and food, with a little hope, than to continue wandering through busy streets on hot pavement.  I explained the situation, gave them my location, and they said they’d send someone over immediately.

I decided then and there to carry a container of dry dog food and a bottle of water in my car at all times.

This morning I took my dogs to the local park for our regular weekend stroll. Actually, I only took one of them since the other was being particularly rebellious this morning and didn’t want to have his collar put on.  “Ok, fine. I’ll take Ziva, and you can stay home.” When I got to the park, my heart sank. I try to go early, when no one else is around, so I can let the dogs run free, unleashed, but today there was a guy sitting on the near-by bench with a big Rottweiler on a short leash. Great! That thing could eat my little Chihuahua in one bite. And Ziva is still learning complete obedience. Sometimes she’s a bit slow to respond when I call her to me. So … not a good situation.

I walked in the other direction, hoping the guy would move on, but instead he kinda walked the big monster around in small circles around the bench. Then I noticed his stuff. Looked like he had some bags with him. Homeless. Or maybe just “on the road.” Ziva and I walked in the other direction to avoid a potentially violent doggy situation, but I kept looking over my shoulder. He walked near my car, then back again. Something tugged at me. He wants to say something to me; he needs something.  And sure enough, on my way back, putting Ziva into the backseat of my car, he called across the short distance between us, asking if I had a cigarette I could spare. I yelled back, “sorry, I don’t smoke,” got in my car and drove home.

But I know that tugging in my gut when I feel it. That nagging feeling that I should do something. Not a guilt-inducing, “help the under-privileged” kind of feeling, but a sense of compassion. I want to do something for this guy. But what? I didn’t have any cigarettes, but I know smokers. A cigarette is often a substitute for food, so maybe the guy is hungry. I pulled out my wallet. Empty. I don’t use cash.  Great.

Then it occurred to me. The dog food and water.

I dropped Ziva off at home, and made a few quick changes. That dog food is a year old, so I dump it, refill the container with fresh dry food, and pull a new gallon of drinking water out of the cupboard. After a quick stop at a nearby ATM to get a couple of bucks, I drove back to the park. Yeah, he’s still here.

rottweiler_5830118982_94997b6000_bAs I walked in his direction, he starts talking to me. Guess he recognized me from a half hour before. And he begins to tell me his story, how he’s just waiting for his girlfriend to pick him up, doesn’t know when she’ll get there, she’s helping her grandmother and taking some cats to the animal rescue. I listen, not quite believing what he’s saying, and make small talk a bit (you know how hard that is for an introvert?). Meanwhile, the Rottweiler is quietly growling at me, and images of having those vice-like jaws clamp onto my arm, and blood pouring down my hand flash through my mind. But I know dogs. I hold my hand out to the dog, palm down, a foot away, waiting for her to sniff me and see I’m no threat. The guy, Jeff, he tells me, chides her reassuringly, telling her it’s okay, that I’m a friend. She allows me to pat her.  They both look hot. It’s not yet noon, but the sun is shining, and sitting there on the bench with no cover, I could tell they were uncomfortable. So I offer to help him move his stuff under the shade of a tree close by, and he seems inappropriately grateful. Why? They’re just a few plastic packing containers (now that I see them close up), a blanket, food and water bowls for the dog. But they’re heavy. This guy, maybe 20 years old, obvious isn’t “on the road”; he’s been kicked out.  He pulls out a photo album from one of the boxes and shows me pictures of the dog, while explaining how his phone is dead so he can’t call his girlfriend to see how much longer she’ll be.  When I offer him my phone, he explains that she’s with her grandmother, and the woman doesn’t really approve of him, so it’s best not to disturb them. Umm. Okay.

Despite his story of his girlfriend’s imminent pickup, I talk to the dog a bit. (Yeah, I know. Weird.) “You hungry, girl? Thirsty? I know it’s hot out here.”  “Oh, I fed her this morning,” he says.  “Hey, I’ve got some dog food and water I keep in the car for when I’m out with my dogs, if you want.” I offer it casually. “Okay, that’d be great. I’ve got some dog food here, but I want to save it for later.” “Cool, no problem.”

I walk back to the car, smiling. I fetch the dog food, and pour it in the dog’s bowl. I hand the fresh gallon of water to the guy so he can peel off the seal and know that it’s safe. He’ll be needing this as much as the dog, I’m thinking. The dog wolfed down the food, almost finishing it before he can fill her water bowl. I honestly hope she did get her breakfast this morning, but somehow I doubt it. After throwing a ball around a bit for the dog to chase, and making a bit more small talk with the guy, I make my excuses. “I’ve gotta get going. Hey, I don’t have any cigarettes, but maybe you can buy yourself some while you wait,” as I pull the cash out of my wallet.  The gratitude on his face was confirmation enough that he needed just a little bit of human kindness in his life at that moment.

And I headed home. I’ll check back tomorrow with a fresh batch of dog food and water to see if he’s still “waiting”.  Reminds me of that scene in the bible where Peter and John run across the lame beggar on the streets: “Silver and gold have I none. But what I have, I give you.” I can’t save the world. I don’t even know how to rescue a stray dog on the street.  But I’ve got some water and some dog food in my car. And a prayer that God keeps them both safe and gets them to where they need to be.

photo credit: “Homeless Youth,” Elvert Barnes on Flickr, cc
[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.


Review: “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Kittredge Cherry & Douglas Blanchard

The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision.
Text by Kittredge Cherry. Art by Douglas Blanchard.


It’s a bit shocking at first – at least to an evangelical believer, even a gay one. The title itself almost slaps you in the face, first luring you with familiar religious tones, then almost sneaking in the punch: “The Passion of Christ: a Gay Vision.”  Half of you wants to be outraged; the other half is intrigued.  Your first instinct is to flip through the pages, looking at the artwork, with that same reaction: offense and curiosity. “You can’t do this to Jesus. That’s not how it was.” But as you look more closely, you see Immanuel – God with us – portrayed in very human, very modern, terms. And that’s as true to the Gospel story as any classic Renaissance painting of Christ’s passion.

And if you’ll take a few extra moments and actually read a few pages, you’ll quickly fall into a devotional mood. Kittredge Cherry first explains each panel of art, pointing out the symbolism you might otherwise miss, tying the image more closely in with the biblical account it portrays, and then leads us in a moment of quiet reflection and prayer. Far from being outraged, you end up being grateful for this new spiritual experience, this new opportunity to appreciate the work of Christ, and to spend a few moments in awe-inspired prayer. “Help me to make this part of my life.” This might be one of the most interesting devotionals you’ll have on your shelf.

Cherry first began writing commentaries on Blanchard’s images during Holy Week in 2011, and they remain a great way to meditate on the final events of Jesus’ life – at any time of year – just to gain a fresh take on the well-worn story. This collection brings the story to life in a new way with vivid artwork and inspirational writing.

Dallas-born artist, Douglas Blanchard, began working on the 24 panels of his version of the Passion shortly before the attacks of 9/11. Sickened by the results of mindless religion, the terrorist attacks drove him more deeply into the project, motivating him to look beyond the surface of the faith-stories into the real meaning underneath them. And while the images convey meaning many LGBTQ people can relate to, contrary to the impression the title might lend, Jesus is not portrayed as an obviously gay man. This is no radical repainting of the Christ-story in a politically-hostile, socially-oppressed gay context. Aside from one of the closing shots of Jesus ascending to the Father, there is no real hint of Jesus’ sexual orientation at all. He is simply a young, white male, beardless, athletic and urban – the deliberate attempt by the artist to link Jesus with contemporary life.

The whole point of the series, Blanchard says, is to reflect the message of God in solidarity with us. So instead of depicting Jesus with traditional solemnness and glassy-eyed passivity, holy and unapproachable, the Christ in these paintings is fully human, accessible, someone who draws people to himself instinctively. And in fact, just to prevent the pictures from being taken out of context, Blanchard painted a faux frame around each, complete with title and sequence number.

But a few examples will work better to describe this book than a short review.

Blanchard1 The first panel presents Jesus as “The Son of Man,” the human one, identifying with us as one in our sufferings. He’s painted with Job and Isaiah, biblical figures associated with profound suffering. And Cherry’s devotional meditation is powerful:

“And the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

Jesus was one of us, a real human being. He loved everybody, including his enemies. And yet some say that LGBT people don’t belong in the story of Jesus Christ. … The Holy Spirit inspires each person to envision God in his or her own way. This is the story of a Jesus who emphasized his humanity by calling himself the Human One or Son of Man. He doesn’t look very gay. Young and attractive, he can pass for straight. He is fully in the present, yet feels kinship with the ancient prophets, Job and Isaiah, who understood suffering. He wanted to serve God by healing people and setting them free. Here we remember his last days, his death and resurrection. Jesus was a child of God who embodied love so completely that he transcended history and even death itself. But while it was happening, people didn’t understand. Like many LGBT people, he was rejected by society. They locked the liberator in prison.

Jesus, show me how you lived and loved.


Blanchard2Or panel #2, “Jesus Enters the City.” Cherry writes,

“Look, the world has gone after him.” – John 12:19

Everyone cheered when Jesus called for justice and freedom. Crowds followed him into the city, shouting and waving. Their chants were not so different from ours: “Yes we can! Out of the closet and into the streets! We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Jesus was a superstar making a grand entrance. But he did it in his own modest, gentle style. He surprised people by riding on a donkey. Some of his supporters, those who had mainstream success, urged him to quiet the others – assimilate, don’t alienate. Tone it down. Act respectable, don’t demand respect. Stop flaunting it. His answer: I’m here to liberate people! If the crowds were silent, the stones would cry out! It was that kind of day, a Palm Sunday sort of day, when everyone shouted for equality and freedom. But was anybody still listening?

Hey, Jesus, here I am!


Panel 3 depicts Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple, and Cherry leads us to ponder:

“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” – Matthew 21:13

Jesus acted up when he saw something wrong. Nothing made him angrier than religious hypocrisy blocking the way to God. He got mad when religious leaders made people pay to attend worship. … Everyone gets God for free. …

Jesus, thank you for your anger.
Give me the courage to act up against injustice.


When Jesus preaches in the temple, and we are led to pray, “Jesus, teach me, touch me!”

At the last supper, the modern Jesus is seen in a sport coat, surrounded by a multi-racial group, from a wide range of ages. An elderly black woman dressed in church clothes and a hat sits next to a young white man in a t-shirt; a young black man with a cigarette stands behind an older white man in a business suit. A young woman in a cocktail dress and heels holds hands with a guy in jeans and a leather jacket. And Jesus stands there, embracing them, hands on their shoulders, with the wine and matzah sitting on the table before him.  “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” … And we respond, “Jesus, thank you for feeding me!”

Jesus prays alone in a back alley somewhere, the modern Gethsemane. “Guide me, God! I put my life in your hands.” And when he is arrested, we are led to pray, “Jesus, how should I respond to hate?”

There are some provocative images in the book. When Jesus is before the soldiers, we see him sitting naked, handcuffed, with his back to us, as modern soldiers hold a knife to his throat and dogs snarl at him from the side. We see him hanging naked from a pipe as he’s beaten, and blood drips down his back, buttocks and legs. Is this any more graphic or irreverent than what actually happened? “Jesus, be with all who suffer … and with all who cause suffering.”  And when he is crucified, we are prompted to pray, “God, help me find meaning in the brutal death of Jesus.”  Then follow images of his resurrection, his appearance to Mary, his eating with friends at Emmaus (“Come and travel with me, Jesus. Or are you already here?”)

At Pentecost, “The Holy Spirit Arrives,” painted as a woman in flowing golden gown and wings, descending among a group of black and white men and women, a person in a wheelchair with raised hands in the foreground. “Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle a flame of love in my heart.”

Blanchard3Perhaps the most controversial painting in the series would be #22, “Jesus Returns to God.” Blanchard deliberately avoids traditional religious language, and translates “the Ascension” into its plain meaning. Here, the shirtless Jesus, wearing blue jeans, is lifted into the sky in the arms of a handsome angel who appears to be kissing him, holding him tightly with one hand on his butt.  It is definitely a homoerotic image — but it suggests the intimacy that exists as “mortal human flesh was made radiant by becoming part of God.”  If one were to squawk at this book, this would be the gasoline used to light the fire.  But within context, and with an anticipated LGBTQ readership, even this image conjures the complex feelings we have integrating our sexuality and our faith. It is true to who we are. And if Jesus took on flesh to walk among us, and identifies with us in our complex humanity, what could be a more potent and suggestive image of the intermingling of his human and divine nature than this?

And that provocative painting might be a good summary of my reaction to this startling work by Cherry and Blanchard. I was reluctant at first, wary to have my faith sensitivities assaulted. But I ended up feeling richer for the experience. As much as my conservative evangelical upbringing might have wanted to cringe at the beginning, I found a deeper truth in the art and commentary that forced those overly-sensitive scruples to shut up and just appreciate the mystery of it all.

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.