Resetting Your Most Important Relationship


[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]R[/dropcap]elationships are probably the single most important thing in life. And they’re impossible unless the people in them know themselves and each other. Kinda basic, right?

Okay, now without getting all churchy and religious, the single most important relationship you’ll ever have in your life is between you and God — because it affects everything: the way you see the world, how you view yourself, what gets you through difficulty and hard times, influences how we treat each, even how we live on this planet. How you see yourself is important. And how you see God will in turn influence how you see yourself.

And most of the time, we get it ALL WRONG. Religion and the Church have basically done us a great disservice because they’ve painted pictures of God that usually alienate us from God.

Case in point: just talking about God, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Chances are, it’s something based on images from Renaissance art, or Hollywood movies, or (even worse) fire and brimstone preachers. Church can really mess you up sometimes if you let it. And, frankly, a lot of those preachers don’t know much more about God than you do — I mean really, his personality and character, his heart, not just Bible facts and head-stuff. If they did, we’d see a lot more water-into-wine miracles happening all around us, a lot more Hanukah lamp-oil generation, and a lot less public stonings.

So let’s try to undo some of those mental images that have been drilled into our heads, and start over.

Let’s start over

Introductions are important. When you’re meeting someone for the first time, that first impression can either launch or kill a new relationship.  So let’s let God introduce himself. Scrap the images we’ve been carrying around most of our lives about what God is like, and let him tell you himself. What does God want you to think about him?

Famous first words — everybody knows them: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Book of Genesis, chapter one, verse one. And we could camp out here for a while, but I am especially moved by the next sentence. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

There’s an image for you. “Hovering.” The Spirit of God was hovering over it all, over the mass of chaos and emptiness. And out of that mess, he brought order and life. Good life. (And if you happen to be going through some chaos in your own life right about now, that simple thought may hold the key to keeping you sane.) This is who God is. This is how he introduces himself. The hovering one.

The English language doesn’t do this justice. The word used there is a rare one in Hebrew. It only occurs 3 times in the entire Hebrew Bible, and those other references paint a powerful picture of what’s going on here. The image is the protective action of a bird, caring for its young, wings spread over them in the nest, fluttering. In fact, that is a better translation than “hovering”: fluttering. The other reference in Deuteronomy describes this protective love God has for his people: “In the desert God found Jacob, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions” (Dt 32:11).

God introduces himself, as soon as he steps onto the world stage, as the protective, caring one. His Spirit flutters over the empty stuff of time and space, and embracing it between wings of love, transforms it, nurtures it into his beloved creation. This is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.

After he transforms the empty void of space and time into a paradise, he creates humanity and places us in it. A garden. This is significant too. God is not a stingy God; he is not austere, harsh and severe. He created an extravagant garden for us to enjoy. The ancient Jewish rabbis described it as God first setting an elaborate banquet table, and then when it was all prepared, invited us as the guests of honor. And even the Apostle Paul says that God created all things for our enjoyment – that’s the heart of a loving parent. And then we see God walking and talking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, enjoying their companionship, sharing in the good things he created for them. We were created for this: for fellowship, for relationship, for love, with the God of Eternity.

This image is reinforced later in the Biblical story when Moses is dealing with the harsh realities of leading a strong and stubborn people. He confronts God and demands a greater revelation of him. Kind of like “If these are your people, then I’m gonna need to know you better so I can lead them better.” He wants to see God face to face. Of course God knows this would kill him; Moses would vaporize in the unfiltered presence of full glory. So God puts him in a cleft in the side of a mountain, covers him protectively with his hand, and then passes by, declaring his name, revealing himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Ex 34:6).

God describes himself in the way he wants to be perceived and understood by us. Compassionate. Gracious. Overflowing with love and faithfulness. Loyal. Forgiving. And Just.

How have we missed this? How have we turned this loving, protective, caring, compassionate and gracious God into something other than that? How have we turned him into a vindictive, white-bearded and cranky old man, catching us in every fault, counting every sin, every failing and mistake on his eternal abacus? Maybe it’s human nature. We know God is perfect, and our imperfections are glaring in comparison. We think he must be angry or displeased or at the very least disappointed by our shortcomings. Or maybe that’s what we’ve heard so often from angry pulpits. But, as King David once noticed, God knows that we are but dust, he knows we fail. And he loves us anyway. He eagerly accepts us back into his presence — full of grace, compassion and love.

Religious people just don’t get it

God’s own people – religious folks, ones claiming to know him best – may be the worst at misunderstanding him. Jesus one day stood with his protégés in the Temple of Jerusalem, surrounded by religious people, some hungry, some self-satisfied. And he called out with aching heart, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you were not willing…” (Mt 23:37). As he faced rejection by the people he came to love, Jesus again and again showed the heart of the Father, even in the very choice of his words. He longed – and continues to long – to gather us under his wings of love. Yet we are so often not willing. We don’t get it. But this is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.

We may have missed this introduction for ourselves. Or maybe our impression of God got skewed because of the way he was introduced to us by over-zealous preachers wanting us to live holy lives – or at least “holy” as they understand the term. Now, just like back in Jesus’ day, religious people are often the ones who understand the heart of God the least.  And if you’re gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, someone who may not fit traditional models of “holy” lifestyle, chances are you were on the receiving end of a slanted misrepresentation of this God. But there it is, in black and white, in every translation, in every language, the clear description God gives of himself.  Not what we’ve been told. Not how he has been portrayed. Not the Angry One, or the One who rejects us.

He describes himself as the one yearning for relationship with the humans he created. Hovering – fluttering – over us, turning chaos into a place of safety and beauty for us, gently caring for us as a bird sheltering its young under loving parental wings. This is the Eternal Father, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love, full of forgiveness. The God who longs to walk with us, like he did with Adam and Eve in those early days of creation.

If we miss this introduction, this self-description by God himself, we can walk through our day to day lives seeing God as someone other than he really is. We’ll live our lives under false impressions, and miss out on the most important relationship we can ever have.  So let’s start over. Let’s let that loving, caring, compassionate, hovering God re-introduce himself to us personally. And turn our chaos back into a paradise.  That’s worth a reset, isn’t it?

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church 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 blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Politics in the Pulpit?

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]M[/dropcap]ore crazy preachers on T.V.

Why does that thought occur more and more frequently in my head?  Maybe the American election season has something to do with it.  And with Election Day looming closer every day, the impulse for preachers to push their people in one direction or another will likely only increase.

I was kind of disheartened—shocked, actually—the other day when I read a Facebook comment by a ministry “personality” I really respected. He’d earned his name as a heavy-weight by talking about miracles and the Kingdom of God in real life—and I like that. Real life stuff.  But out of the blue, he made a comment about fiscal policy in democracy, and how once a people realize they can vote benefits to themselves from the public treasury, the democracy will collapse leading to dictatorship. Granted, this wasn’t directly pointed at either political party. At least not overtly.  But the fact that he was even making a political comment at all …  I just stared at the screen in disbelief.  No. Freakin. Way.

Yes way. In fact, just a few nights ago, Stephen Colbert featured a pastor on his Colbert Report whose expressed goal is to be allowed to make political statements from the pulpit. The group he represents is encouraging pastors across America to deliberately violate the law by endorsing one of the presidential candidates and then send recorded copies of their sermons to the IRS.  They hope the IRS will take them to court so they can challenge the law which now forbids political endorsements from tax-exempt churches.  Their argument is that there should be no government intrusion in the life of the church whatsoever. But obviously, they do not feel the reverse is also true. The church may, perhaps even should, intrude in the affairs of government. They seem to be arguing for the “separation of church and state”—but apparently want it to be a one-way street.

Fine. That may perhaps even be a valid constitutional position.  But the church has a long, and very ugly, history when it’s dabbled in politics and attempted to influence government—Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, burnings at the stake.  And I find nothing particularly “Christian” about that at all.

As Americans, everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion about social issues and to try to influence legislation. But should any of this come from the pulpit?  I can understand how some pastors may feel the compulsion to protect their flocks by taking action against what they perceive to be immoral forces at work in the world—I understand the pastoral instinct to protect.  I can also understand the compulsion to stir up your people to combat an injustice.  But I do not understand the motivation, the hostility, the provocation in stirring up dissent, and dividing people against one another.  As though people who have different cultural or political views are somehow less American or less godly.

It may be true that religious leaders have often played important roles in the great social movements of history. Faith can be a catalyst for positive change in society. But the fact that in each of these movements men and women of faith and integrity arduously fought on opposite sides of the cause, shedding innocent blood and quoting Scripture and the divine will of God as their defense, ought to make us question the legitimacy of mixing faith and politics. Politics was never described in the Bible as a means for achieving spiritual goals. As the Apostle Paul said, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual forces”. And Jesus himself stated at the very birth of Christianity, before his death, that his Kingdom was not of this world, that if it was, his followers would fight—and indeed the angels themselves could be enjoined to battle for the cause. But this is not who we are. This is not what we are to be about. Especially as pastors and shepherds of God’s flock.

Did Jesus speak out against the decadent Roman culture? Did Peter or James or John or Paul stir up the flock for political action, or call for change in the social order?

“I must be about my Father’s business.”

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish his work.”

“This is my commandment: Love one another.”

“Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”

“Go, therefore, into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”

“These signs will be the mark of those who believe: in my name, they will cast out devils, they will speak with new tongues … they will lay hands on the sick for healing.”

THIS is our job, this is our mission.  To make disciples. To love. To heal. To set captives free from the bondage of sin and death. To proclaim the FAVOR of God.  To call for repentance, that all people should return to God, and then announce that holy reconciliation has occurred: Mankind brought back into full fellowship with God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Anything else for a minister is a distraction. A waste of time. A hindrance to the purposes of God. And if I may speak boldly, it is prostitution.  Men and women of God are called to higher purposes: the salvation of humanity, and the maturity of the saints.

As citizens of a great republic, we may well have the right—even the civic duty—to voice our convictions and to vote according to our consciences. But as pastoral leaders, we must never dare to place the divine stamp of approval on a political position or platform. Jesus never authorized us to act for him in this arena.  Not once.  His instructions are clear.  And they are already more than we can handle, already more than enough for us to do.  The pulpit is a sacred space and the pastorate is a holy calling. When we step behind a pulpit, we are now acting as messengers of the Living God, charged with proclaiming life-giving words to His people. Puny human politics have no place there.

Let congregations—even pastors—march on Washington when their consciences compel them. But don’t wave the banner of the Cross in your crusade.  Endorsing one political candidate over another is not a holy fight.  And, as shepherds of His flock, commissioned with a sacred trust, if that’s where our energies and efforts are devoted, then we have lost our first love. We have gone A.W.O.L. from our duty, and abandoned our calling. We walk in two worlds, and we must never confuse the two.

Does Jesus endorse one political party over another? Do politics belong in the pulpit?  Not according to my reading of Scripture—or my understanding of ministry.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church 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. You can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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