Growing Beyond the Formulas

formulas1aI just saw a cute meme on Facebook. Sounds almost like the beginning of a joke, right? But I really liked it. It was tasteful, unlike so many of the religious-themed ones. It had a message I liked.  And it was simple. But … It was also simplistic.

As far as memes go, this one was probably as true as any of them. General encouragement, general principle, general instruction. Generally helpful.

But the problem is that it was just that: general and simplistic. It could not address my specific situation. It reduced a complex and free-flowing relationship with God and our circumstances into a formula. And God is bigger than that. And so are we. And so is life.

I do believe that God intervenes in our lives in powerful ways. But I also know there are times when it feels like he’s left us hanging out to dry. Like he doesn’t see our problems. Like he is ignoring us, and we’re in it all alone.

I don’t think he’s doing that at all, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

And the thing is, sometimes it is absolutely the right thing for us to be going through: the trouble, the hard times, the rough circumstances.  Diamonds aren’t polished by speaking nicely to them or setting them in red velvet. They’re polished by grinding, by cutting. And if you don’t think God wants to add a little polish to your life, well, then what is he involved in your life for?

What little I know about God, I’ve learned from the bible and interpreted through the lens of life experience. Theology isn’t theology until it’s lived out.  And ya know? When you begin opening yourself up to God, when you lift your eyes off the immediate circumstances, and you focus your thoughts and your praise on the One who sits above it all, holding it all in his hands … sometimes that power enters your life in dramatic ways. And sometimes it just lifts your spirits so you can plow through those circumstances.

formulas3In those moments, by all means, hold on to the general truths – of God never leaving you, of his great and loving plans for your life, of the certainty that he will ultimately work things out for your good.

But trying to force a specific outcome by quoting a promise given to someone else in Scripture and may not be applicable to you or your situation at all, just confirms that you’re trying to operate outside your own personal relationship with God.

From Abraham waiting years for the promised son, to Joseph sitting in Pharaoh’s prison, to Moses tending goats on a mountain, to David waiting 15 years for his rightful throne, to Elijah running away to a holy mountain because he heard bad rumors, to Paul spending years in the wilderness and then more years as a disciple before really being ready for his apostolic call – it all depends on who you are and where you are in your journey.  It takes time. It takes a little suffering. It takes experience. It takes a little maturity – born only from that experience.

Dropping 10% into the offering plate and claiming your multi-fold return may or may not trigger a spiritual tidal wave that washes away your debts.  Quoting healing scriptures and trying to lay hold of your atonement-rights doesn’t always bring the healing you’re looking for. Claiming your authority as joint-heirs with Jesus, and the fact that you sit “in him” at the right hand of the Father, may or may not bring the change to your job, your relationship, your health, … your situation … that you’re trying to “manifest.”

formulas2aGod doesn’t listen to formulas. God cannot be manipulated. “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” Do you think you can make God perform by quoting his own words back at him, or by stroking his ego? He is not a genie, he is not a coke-machine. You don’t plug in your quarters and get your selection.

He is a person. He responds and reacts in relationship. And sometimes, because he is in relationship with you, he will lead your through tough times. He will allow you to sit in a dungeon cell for a while. He may leave your “thorn in the flesh” in place. Why? Because it’s good for you. Because a spoiled child is of no use to anyone.

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. Or that he is indifferent to your suffering. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to be blessed. Perhaps he wants to expand your understand of what “blessing” is – and what it means to be a blessing to others.  (Ever gotten unwanted advice from someone who’s had an easy life? Yeah. You gotta earn your cred.)

I believe in God’s power. I believe God wants us to be happy. I believe he put us on the planet to enjoy our lives – hey, he put Adam and Eve in a garden – AND to be a benefit to others. I believe God does work out all things for our ultimate good. And I believe God wants a one-on-one, intimate friendship with each and every human being – and that includes you, even while you’re going through the muck.

By all means, do your part. Give up part of your pay check for the good of others. Lend a helpful hand to your neighbor. Plant seeds of peace and acceptance; be nice to each other. Lift your voices to the heavens and thank the One who holds the Universe together. Memorize scripture. Recite it to yourself to strengthen yourself, to remind you of who He is and who you are. Especially when you’re going through periods when none of it seems to matter.

You matter. And He is interested in walking through life with you, helping you become the person you were designed to be. And that doesn’t happen by working spiritual formulas or reciting isolated verses as though they were magic incantations. The Word of God is what the Spirit is speaking to you at the moment, specific to where you are right now. And you can’t manipulate that.

Our spirituality, our maturity, has to grow beyond the formulas. Beyond the clichés. Beyond the biblical sound-bites. Learn who He is, who you are, and how you two work together. That kind of spirituality will rock this world.

 

apostles

Dear Church Leaders: Get Real or Go Home

apostles
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.

One little word that makes all the difference

flowers-in-hand_277221852There I was, minding my own business, innocently browsing through endless Facebook posts from my infinite number of friends (never been more popular in my entire life!), and I noticed that one buddy in a moment of excitement and adoration wrote out the doxology as his status.

“Praise God to whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Only he got one word wrong — as some of you may have already noticed.

I grew up in church where we sang this almost every Sunday, so it jumped off the screen at me.  And it’s always those little windows of time when you see something old in a new light that spark fresh insights.  That one little word makes a huge difference.

From whom” not “to whom.”

Big deal; who cares?

Okay, call me knit-picky, but it effects how we view God, how we view our relationship to him — how we view life.  God deserves our praise, to be sure.  And my mom taught me at a young age the incredible power that is released into our lives when we praise God in the middle of our difficult circumstances.  There’s value in that; it’s honorable to send your blessings to God.  As that cranky old oatmeal commercial guy used to say, “it’s the right thing to do.”

But we miss a powerful point about the character of God and his amazing love for us if we get that one word wrong.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows”, James tells us.  God is a generous God, a giving God. One who pours out good stuff on us, just because he loves us.  And he doesn’t quit when we mess up.  He doesn’t change his mind.  Like that powerful revelation in Exodus when he proclaims his name to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love … (Ex 34:6).

That good stuff is for us.  
And if we miss that point, we’re missing out on some jaw-dropping grace,

some amazing love,

some unheard-of favor. 

Not because of who we are, or the fact that we’re constantly buttering him up with our praise.

Just because that’s who he is.

 

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  That’s your heritage.  That’s your birthright.  We can love him all the more because of his love for us, because he is constantly pouring out blessings — even when we don’t see or feel them.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” That one little word can turn your whole day around.

 

——
photo credit: Hamed Saber via photopin cc

 

This blog was orignally posted on Cafe Inspirado, Aug 15, 2011.

 

[box type=”bio”]
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 here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

 
[/box]

What Kind of Love is That?

California Vacation-Salvation MountainWe need more.

The Christian world (in America, at least) has gone through some painful experiences the past week or so. And honestly, I’m grateful to World Vision for opening up this can of worms.  More evangelicals have posted and written and blogged apologies for their hostile brethren, they’ve searched their hearts and seen how they’ve been guilty of applying a double-standard of Christian love to their LGBT “brothers and sisters.”

And yet, even when I think I’ve moved on, when I think “great, this has all been an eye-opener for the world,” I got hit with a new feeling.  Being patronized.

I just read a blog that was well-circulated on Facebook. The writer talked about how her heart was torn when she read the piece by “Registered Runaway” about being done with evangelicalism, about being so wounded that he just gave up on the Church. She talked about how this issue has really polarized American Christianity, and that it’s become bitter and ugly and unlike the character of the Lord we all profess.  And she talked about how she wanted to keep her views to herself so as not to be another bullet in somebody’s gun fired at the other side.  And the comments by straight Christians were almost touching, “wow, she really nailed that one”, “I couldn’t have said it better myself”, “Lord, help me to live this out in your love.”  All very nice. Even touching.

Except she then stated her position. It was kindly worded, but contained those words we LGBT Christians have grown to hate. “Sin” and “not God’s best.”  “Yes, we truly love gay people, and Jesus loves them too. And yes, we even believe that they will share in eternal heaven with us.”  … BUT … “it’s not God’s best”, “God didn’t design us to live and love that way.”

And I wonder if I really want her loving support after all.

Jesus-Stones-HomosIt is really, really nice to have one less person lined up to actually throw a stone at me and my friends.  I thank God for his mercy in moving their hearts so they at least do not want me jailed or executed for loving someone of the same gender. That is progress.  That is a huge blessing, especially compared to that church in NYC whose marquis read that Jesus would endorse my stoning.  Or those in the militant camp exporting their religious purity to countries like Uganda, Russia, Peru, Nigeria, and others, who now believe that by murdering gay men in the street, by publicly stripping them and setting them on fire, they are reclaiming their country for God.

My gay friends in Asia tell me repeatedly that we have it so much easier in America – our government isn’t actively persecuting us, and even our churches don’t hate us that much.

And I am grateful.  I am grateful to live in a time like this when at least the Church is actively talking about the issue, and more and more people of God are embracing gay and lesbian believers as full brothers and sisters in Christ. (Transgender folks, well, we’ve still got a ways to go before the Church embraces you for who you really are.)

But the question keeps going through my head.
What kind of love is that?

These well-intentioned Christian bloggers have made progress in their own spiritual and cultural journeys. They’ve been touched in a new way by the heart of God. They join Jesus in not being the first to cast the stone.

homosexuality-sinBut I’m still the disgusting Samaritan.

Okay, maybe not completely disgusting. Just fallen. Broken. Second class in God’s eyes. Sinner.

The eyes still have blind spots.  We can now, thankfully, fully embrace our divorced brothers and sisters. They can even be ordained into church leadership in many denominations.  They are no longer shunned, even in congregations that don’t theologically approve of divorce. I haven’t heard the words “sinner” or “not God’s best” applied to them in decades.

But LGBT believers, we’re still “not as God designed.”

I want to scream at them. Did God design us to wear clothes? (Clothes were a result of the Fall, remember?) Are you “not God’s best” because you wear glasses? Surely, God did not design us to need those.  What about single men or women, saints who live their whole lives unmarried.  This was definitely not how God intended us to live – at least if you’re using Eden as the rule.  Or honoring the Sabbath — something rooted in the Garden as part of God’s design for all humanity, yet Christians don’t bat an eye at completely ignoring this integral component of life.  I won’t even venture into other areas where we are not in full alignment with the paradise of Eden – all you have to do is compare your vision of Adam and Eve side-by-side with your own life.  How close are you to that “original design”?

“God’s best” is best left between God and the individual — not an outsider judging someone else’s life based on their own interpretation of God’s original design and purposes.

Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, and this World Vision debacle have opened the eyes of many Christians to the ugliness of hate within our sanctuaries. And many have taken steps to resist that kind of unChristian behavior. And that’s great.

But we need more. And not just we LGBT believers. You straight believers need to do better, need to walk in a more perfect love.

Because all you’ve done is find a kinder, gentler way
of saying “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
And we’ve had enough of that.

Our job as the people of God is to love. As simple as that. Love God, love our neighbor. And that doesn’t include calling someone else a “sinner.” Or “not God’s best.” Ever.

The Church will never come into complete agreement on any issue, let alone one as culturally upsetting as this one. And, speaking for many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we thank you sincerely for making progress, for stretching, for being willing to discuss matters of sexuality and identity. Believe me, we know that is a huge step for a big segment of American Christianity. And as much as we’d like you to see things our way, we know some of you never will.  It’s just not realistic. We can handle that.

But for those who truly want to act in love, please, take the next step.  Go beyond merely not throwing a stone at us. Accept us. Don’t refer to us as second-best, as sinners.  “Accept one another as Christ has accepted you,” the Apostle Paul tells us (Rom 15:7).  Even when you disagree with us, follow the example of Jesus in his dealings with Samaritans. He didn’t agree theologically with them, but he loved them, he hung out with them, he stayed in their villages. He did not make them feel second-class: he was their savior as well as the messiah of the Jews.

We appreciate the strides you’ve made, but we need more.  It would be nice to be seen as beloved children of God, as brothers and sisters sharing in a glorious inheritance, as equals and joint heirs, rather than being labeled as “that sin”. Or as “not God’s best.” It’s nice not to have one more person throwing the stones, but that’s not the same as acceptance. We can feel the difference.  And it still hurts.
—–
photo credit: “God is Love,” MythicSeabass via photopin cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
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.
[/box]

Plan B – When God’s Promises Don’t Work Out

planB_black

The morning started out like most of them do for me.  I paced my livingroom and kitchen with a cup of coffee in my hand, and tried to focus on the reality of the presence of God. A tough sell, some mornings.

And for some reason, an old unanswered question was rolling through my head again. What went wrong?  Why didn’t it turn out the way I envisioned, the way I felt God had promised me?

I was referring to my failed “marriage” of 15 years. Sure, failed marriages aren’t that unusual. And most people (I imagine) get through them without having to re-examine their whole theological and spiritual framework.  But, ya know, I’m weird that way.  When we first got together, X and I (I’ll just refer to him as “X” here, since I’m not trying to drag his name through the mud) — when we first got together, there were all kinds of divine indicators that we were on the right path, that we had a bright and purposeful future ahead of us.  There was every indication that we had the divine seal of approval, the go-ahead, a mission, and the blessing.  (Okay, if you’re not of a particular charismatic bent where you believe God speaks in sometimes very powerful and mystical ways, then don’t freak out. Just skip over that last part, and read on.)  But those things didn’t pan out.  The visions didn’t materialize, the promise of that loving and purposeful future evaporated, and instead of becoming more focused, we grew more and more estranged from each other. And then we ended it.

No major drama. That’s not the story here. We both knew we failed. We both recognized that we hadn’t lived up to our own expectations and obligations. We knew we had vast differences  that we’d stopped trying to reconcile; it was just too much work and too tiring to continue. Somewhere along the way, at different points for each of us, we’d just given up.  Nothing extraordinary about it — it was/is a completely human story.  I understood that part of it.

But what I still couldn’t make sense of
was how all that spiritual stuff fit in.

Hadn’t God told me that he was “the One”?  Didn’t God tell us …?  Weren’t there specific promises, clear descriptions of what would happen?  And even if we blew it, what did that say about the divine side of it all? How do “alternate endings” — ends of the story that deviate from the original plan — fit with in the divine scheme of things, especially when “God has spoken”?

So, sipping my dark French roast, trying to wake up and clear my head for the day, that question rolled in again out of nowhere.

Okay, whatever; I thought.  Let’s move on. Got lots to do today.  And I cracked open my Bible (cuz, you know, it’s always a good idea to start your day out that way, right? And if you’ve got unanswered questions rolling through your head, ya never know what might jump out at ya from the pages and make things clearer.)

And there it was. Simple. Seemingly inconsequential. And it hit me like a ton of bricks.

And the LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I’m sending you to Bethlehem, to Jesse, for I have chosen one of his sons to be king …”  (1 Sam 16:1)

Not getting it?  That’s probably because you hadn’t just read the few preceding chapters in 1 Samuel the day before.  Ancient Israel had been ruled for generations by a series of Judges, inspired leaders, who lived normal lives and then did extraordinary things when the nation was in danger.  But they wanted a king, like all the other nations.  God wasn’t crazy about the idea, knowing the particular weakness humans have when it comes to power, and seeing it as a rejection of Him as their true King.  But, like an indulgent father, he gave in to his whiney children and let Samuel anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. And as confirmation, when Saul was anointed, he became a changed person. His heart changed, he prophesied, and he did some amazing things. And he was promised a lasting dynasty and a blessed future. (Seeing the connection now?) But Saul ignored some basic commands from Samuel — instructions his kingship rested upon.  His position was dependent on God’s empowerment, and it was conditional upon his particular obedience. And he blew it. Twice. And finally God had enough.

And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done a foolish thing. You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you. If you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.  But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him to be ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” (1Sa 13:13-14)

It was over. And God sent Samuel to go anoint David, Jesse’s son, as the next king.  And that “kingdom established forever” promise now went to David.

God can be pretty tolerant. He puts up with a lot of stuff from us, his kids. But when it comes to important stuff — usually involving other people he cares about, things he’s made you responsible for — he can reach a point, draw a line in the sand, and say “that’s it. You’ve had your chance. I still love you, of course, but I’m giving this job to someone else.”

Plan B-whiteboardPlan B. Alternate ending.  And nevermind about all those blessings and that glorious future he promised.  His love is unconditional and eternal. But promises, it seems, are another story. Promises that go with a particular job, role or function, depend on the performance of that function.

And me and X, well, we’d given up on that function, particularly where it came to dealing with each other.  Sure, we had a mission and a purpose in our joint venture of a life beyond the love and mutual care-giving of a committed relationship.  I’m not sure if the two were dependent on each other (the mission and the love), but the mission definitely wasn’t happening when the love part got neglected.  And, like Saul’s kingship, our reign ended with a whimper instead of a bang.

But the good news is, the story doesn’t end just because the ending changes.

That’s Plan B. It’s a message of hope. A promise (this one unattached to performance) that God will work things out for our good, even if the characters and the plot of our story get changed.

“How long will you keep mourning?
Now get up, … I have provided a replacement for you …”

That’s what hit me like a ton of bricks.  My story isn’t over (not that I ever doubted that it was; eh hem!)  Those divine visions and promises for the future for X and me were performance-based.  We failed.  We didn’t hold up to our side of the promise.  And yes, we’re forgiven.  Yes, we’re still loved.  But that story line is ended.  And I don’t need to worry about it, don’t need to fret — don’t need to mourn it any longer.  A new ending is being written — an alternate ending.  And that “established kingdom” — how ever that figuratively translates into my own personal life — is being established through another.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all marriages are mission-based, but they all may very well be performance-based. If you don’t fulfill your marital duties to each other, you can’t really expect that marriage to last, divine promises or no.  But our God is a God of second chances, of alternate endings. Of Plan B.  Hopefully, we’ll do better this time around.

I’ll send you an invitation to the wedding …

 

 

[box type=”bio”]
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.
[/box]

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?

 

[box type=”bio”]
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.
[/box]

Jesus Loves You. Have a Condom.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]A[/dropcap] group of us were sitting around talking, waiting for the weekly men’s group to begin. I was new to the church, still getting a feel for the place, but the pastor’s approach to living out the faith intrigued me. It was an odd place, a challenging place, but there was something powerfully different here: all that old “churchiness” I’d become accustomed to was strangely missing – and when talking about the church to friends, I was already beginning to think in terms of “we.”

As a few of us chatted there in the lobby, I noticed sitting on the table in front of me was this plastic bucket filled with condoms. All kinds of condoms. Colored, textured, lubricated, plain. Definitely not your father’s typical church supplies. As part of the church’s outreach (to use a little Christianese), we had opened our building as a site for free HIV testing twice a week. Despite the adamant message of the abstinence-only crowd, everyone knows a condom is the best defense against HIV. But in MY church?!

Yeah, I get bent out of shape easily sometimes. And I threw one of my “you can’t be serious” looks at the pastor as he walked in. But he was dead serious. And since I knew I was on a journey of “radical acceptance” and opening myself up to allow God to use his Church in ways he wants (even if it raises some eyebrows), I was eager for the theological justification. Too bad I didn’t get it. The pastor’s position was simple. While as believers, we maintain a Biblical standard for purity in intimate relations — marriage and fidelity — we still need to love people enough to help them stay safe even if they don’t live up to our standards. Nutshell theology. Good for the soul, but not really satisfying to my analytical mind. So as I picked through the bucket, marveling at the assortment of glow-in-the-dark colors, I started wrestling with the arguments and implications. Another mind-stretching experience.

Would Jesus be handing out condoms at the Oklahoma Gay Rodeo Association? According to my pastor, of course he would. But I could already hear the protests of my conservative evangelical friends and colleagues, rolling in disgust in their pews. Isn’t this tantamount to condoning sin? I don’t know. But what does Jesus think?

Did Jesus ever overlook a moral shortcoming in order to save a life? Images of scenes from ancient Middle East started flooding my mind. Isn’t this the same argument about working on the Sabbath? Isn’t it better to allow people to rub grains of wheat in their hands in order to satisfy their hunger, even though Sabbath laws forbid it? Or, could pulling your ox out of a pit in sheer mercy and compassion justify overriding the Sabbath restriction against it? And David, before he became king, entering the tabernacle and stealing the holy bread there to feed his hungry men — doing what was unlawful. Jesus justified him, applauded him. Here was a man who understood the heart (and priorities) of God (Lk 6:1-5; Lk 14:5).

Didn’t a tablecloth containing all kinds of forbidden meat lower from heaven to Peter in a vision, with a command to eat and call nothing unclean that God has made clean? Grace overriding definitions of sin. Because it’s about people, not rules. (Acts 10:10-15)

That scene of the Samaritan woman at the well also presses itself into my mind. She’d been married five times, and was currently living with a man not her husband. Yet because Jesus spends time talking with her (a scandalous action back then), God’s salvation was brought to her entire village (John 4). And he never once rebuffed her for her disreputable lifestyle. That other woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned by the righteous people of the day … Jesus steps in and saves her life. In this case, he does correct her: “go and sin no more.” But he doesn’t look at her offense. He focuses on saving her life. The correction comes later, when she was in a more receptive position (John 8:3-12).

And that famous parable of the Good Samaritan who takes care of the man, beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road to die by the holy people of his day. Are we, the Church, not the Priest and the Levite who walked by, not wanting to dirty ourselves even to save a life? We’d rather preach to him, tell him God loves him, all the while pointing out his faults in an effort to change him. But we won’t kneel down in the dirt with him to offer him the help he actually needs at that moment. Who ultimately was the good neighbor? Jesus’ words: the one who showed mercy. “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:30-37).

Condoms, oddly enough, are never mentioned in the Bible. I can’t find any single passage in Scripture that specifically states that doing something which might appear to condone sin is acceptable if done out of love. But there are plenty of examples where Jesus himself does this. Love overrides Law. It is the “Ox on the Sabbath” principle.

Am I completely comfortable with this? Not entirely. It may be a little while longer before you see me at the Rodeo passing out condoms, telling people Jesus loves them. It’s still a little too far from my traditional, conservative upbringing to adjust so quickly. But I am completely convinced that this is the kind of attitude and thinking we need to embrace if we’re going to be a light in the 21st century. It’s what Jesus would do. And if we’re too afraid of being stretched into new patterns of radical love and action, if our traditional ways of practicing the faith never grow beyond our comfort zone, what kind of demonstration of God’s love and power is that?

The world seems to be falling apart, people are dying. They need God, and we the Church have failed to deliver. This is the kind of out-of-the-box action that demonstrates who we really are. This is the message people need to hear. God loves you. We love you. Our greatest desire is for you to have an intimate relationship with God. In the meantime, be safe. Here’s a condom.

 

[box type=”bio”]
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 find him always skulking on Facebook.
[/box]

Enlightenment is Not the Goal

enlightenmentMy buddy Jill made a profound statement on Facebook the other day. It was in response to an article about how wimpy liberal Christianity is because it offers little that can’t be found in liberal secularism. But the point is equally valid for “Bible-based” churches as well:

Unless there is something distinctly profound, ecstatic or unqualifiedly transcendent that happens in the religious space, why bother? Just go to brunch.

I had one of those moments today in church. In fact, it’s a regular part of my Sunday experience. The powerful, palpable presence of God. It warms the air, surrounds you like a comfortable quilt on a chilly morning, brings peace to your restless heart and wrestling mind, and puts all the whirling chaos of life back into proper perspective. And if you don’t have that, why bother?

And it was during one of those moments soaking in the divine presence that I was reminded of a simple truth. We were — I was — having an encounter with a very personal God. A person, not a force. Not some cosmic consciousness or the energy that permeates the universe. A person who speaks my name aloud, whose name I know. God is everywhere, in all things at all times, and no place escapes his presence. God is in all, but that does not mean that all is God. We were created in his image, and we can have his Spirit living in us, but we are not divine. We do not occupy the Throne of Eternity. As the book of Job reminds us, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” We are the creation; he is the Creator. He is immanent in all his creation; he holds our hands in all the stages of our lives; but he remains transcendent, above and beyond creation, distinct from it because he created it and it all exists because of him.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” scripture tells us, and “the whole earth is full of his glory.” But the universe is not God, nor is God the universe.

For the hungry soul searching for truth, dissatisfied with the drivel and hypocrisy of established religious institutions, there is sweet beauty in the simple image of the God who created us walking in Eden in the cool of the day, calling for Adam. Calling for us. God in search of man. Revelation so profound and powerful, yet simple and beautiful.

The purpose of life is not to attain spiritual enlightenment. Neither is it to achieve prosperity or personal success. Inner peace, clarity of mind, even human unity and universal harmony are not the highest pursuits of our existence. The goal is relationship. The Living God and us. The Creator of all is not just “Universal Father” but also “Abba” — a personal, intimate and tender relation — the One who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, calling them by name. The great “I AM”, the Eternal One, is also the personal “God of your fathers, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” Not only does he call us by name, but he calls himself by OUR names! He has established an irrevocable bond with us that is so much deeper and more personal than just the sharing of energy and essence. The personal intimacy of our relationship is woven into the very fabric of the universe. If we will just listen, our very souls cry out, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

That is the highest truth. That is the greatest revelation and personal achievement: an awareness of the Lover and being the Beloved.

At the end of our days, when our spirits unwind from our failing bodies, we will not just be reabsorbed back into the energy of the universe, or even rejoin the “higher mind”. No such impassive future awaits us. But we will be reunited with the One who loves us with an everlasting love; “I and Thou”, distinct and separate, but in an inseparable union. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither things present nor things to come, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And what greater existence could there be? What higher truth could we want than that?

You Might be the Center of the Universe, Afterall

Some days you just feel like crap.

Sometimes you feel like your life is going nowhere, that you’re stuck in some barren wasteland of a place, no one is paying any attention to you, your future looks bleak and hopeless. You may even feel like your life is cursed, that God has abandoned you, forgotten your name, and moved on to someone else. You feel done, finished, wiped out. And all you wanna do is scream.

Most of us have been there — and probably a lot of us are still there. But hey! Snap out of it. The game isn’t over yet, and the universe is about to stop just for you.

Here’s the Story …
I was reading through a familiar story about a guy who had three strikes against him, but who won in the end despite all his disadvantages. He was blind. He was a beggar. And he was stuck in a dump of a town that had a really bad history. And stranded there, all he could do was call out for help. But life didn’t pass him by; he was not forgotten by history, and in fact, his name is now famous, known around the world — well, at least in the church world, anyway.

One day Jesus and his crew were on a trek from the north country down to the big city of Jerusalem, and they had to pass through the town of Jericho. Everyone knew Jericho. It was on a main highway from the fertile Galilee to Jerusalem, and on the East-West route connecting the Transjordan region with the Judean hill country. Joshua and the refugees from Egypt had marched around it a thousand years before, and (as we all know) its “walls came tumbling down.” A curse was placed on anyone who dared rebuild that city (Josh 6:26), but it was situated at the mouth of one of the largest freshwater springs in the area, so curse or no curse, that little bit of real estate was not going to stay abandoned for very long. And Jesus and his team were passing through it on their way to some important business about to become the first Easter holiday.

This poor guy, sitting in his sweat, caked in dirt, probably stinking to high heaven, heard the commotion of Jesus’ entourage, and started raising a ruckus. He wanted some attention. He wanted some help. He was sick of where he was, and he wanted out. The crowd around him, preoccupied with the celebrity coming through town, did not appreciate the disruption. He was told in less than friendly terms to shut up and stop making a nuisance of himself. But the guy persisted. And Jesus stopped. Jesus turned around and told his crew to get him. Now that he had been recognized, the crowd changed its tune. “Cheer up. On your feet! He’s calling you.” The man threw his cloak aside, jumped to his feet, came to Jesus, and told him what he wanted. And Jesus gave it to him. Immediately, the man was healed of blindness and joined Jesus on the road (Mk 10:46-52).

So what?
Here’s the point to that little drama. We all sometimes feel like we’re stuck in a rut, that life and our destiny has passed us by. And we may even feel like we’ve earned it, like we deserve to be there, that we made God angry at us, and this is our punishment, our curse. And now we’re in such a bad place we can’t even see our way out of it. We’re blind, we don’t even have any idea which way to go or what to do next. We feel like we’re rotting right where we stand. Our life is over. It seems hopeless. But Jesus stopped for that man. Even with all the things pressing on his mind, Jesus stopped to pay some attention to that insignificant, washed up, dirty and stinking, little man. And the future changed in that instant. Not only did that man get his sight, but his life was handed back to him. He got a new purpose, a new journey. And to this day, Bartimaeus’ name is recited by kids in Sunday Schools around the world. All because he called out and Jesus stopped.

It Ain’t Over
It ain’t over till it’s over. And it ain’t over. You may feel stuck in your Jericho. You may feel like you’re done, the game’s over, you’ve used up all your chances and you might as well just sit on the ground and scream. But Jesus stopped in that cursed town. He stopped for a single person. He interrupted his urgent schedule to breathe life back into a seemingly worthless individual. And everything changed. The man threw his coat aside, he dropped the baggage from his past, embraced his future, and a new stage of his life began.

You may have to do the same. You may have to call out — even to the point of becoming a nuisance to those around you who think they have their acts together. But you won’t be ignored — not by the guy who has the power to restore your life, your vision of the future, your purpose. You may have to stop being so passive. You may have to exert the energy to throw off that heavy cloak you’ve been carrying around, that old stuff that weighs you down and ties you to your past. There may be something required of you to help take those first steps into your new life. But “cheer up. He’s calling you.” You’ve caught the eye of the King of Creation — and right now, that makes you the center of the universe. And your story is just beginning.

Good News? What Good News?

laughing-jesusWeird thing happened last night at church. A bunch of us got together for our weekly Bible study, and, it being the night before Thanksgiving, only a handful of people showed up. And we talked, and joked, and laughed like we normally do. And then it was time to get down to business. Leading the group, I started praying. And I was still laughing while I prayed. Even as we all lifted some of the concerns and requests up to God, I described the various situations to God as any of us do in a group of friends we enjoy being around. Real issues, real stories, but told from the comical side, sharing the joke with God.  Laughing in the Throne Room.

And it struck me: I’ve never in my life seen a preacher laughing while praying in church.

How ridiculous. Why are we always so serious, so “religious” about talking to God? Laughing, expressing our humor with God should be the most natural thing in the world. And I think it’s because even after all these generations of being a supposedly “Christian nation”, of being the most overly-churched, overly-exposed people to the Gospel in the entire world, we still have it ALL wrong. We still have very little idea what that “Gospel” is really all about. But then again, religious people are almost always the last to grasp the simple truth.

What Good News?
When Jesus first started doing public ministry, way back 2000 years ago, the very first words he said were: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). I was rereading this a few days ago, and I was stumped by the phrase. “Believe the good news”? What good news? Mark, the gospel writer, never explains what that is. Of course, it had to be related to the Kingdom arriving, but what did that really mean? Well, we have four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and each describes the same events from different perspectives. Like four people at a party, each will remember and highlight certain things that were particularly important to him, bringing out details that the others may have overlooked. So I flipped over to Luke’s account to see if he could fill in the missing details: what good news?

Jesus went to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue … The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words” (Lk 4:16-22).

There It Is
And there it was — the good news. And these religious folks, these people who had read their Bibles all their lives, were amazed at what he was teaching them. Jesus didn’t just read to them, he “began by saying to them”, so he must have spent some time elaborating, explaining, telling them familiar truths in a way they’d never heard before. He opened their eyes for the first time in their lives to the true heart of God, hidden in words they already knew so well. And this is it…

That religious prison you’ve been living in all your life — you’re free from it. That view of God you’ve had all these years, the God who counts your sins, the one whom you try so hard to please but keep failing — here’s a different view. See the Father in a new way: not through laws and rules and religious lifestyle, but in simplicity of a loving relationship. Don’t be blind anymore to the true character of God. Open your eyes and see. That oppression you’ve been living under, the frustration of constant failure to live up to other people’s expectations and rules and regulations, trying to force you into a mold of “holiness” — you’re released from all that. Oh, and by the way, the time has come, your King is here now, and that means you NOW live in a time of God’s favor. You’re accepted, you’re loved, unconditionally, just as your are, right now, independent of your ability to live up to all these legalistic standards. It’s a whole new world, a whole new age. You are completely free from all that old stuff, and you already have God’s blessings and favor. It’s yours now. And you don’t have to do anything to have it except believe it. That’s the good news!

So why are we so serious, so religious, so legalistic about our relationship with God — even after two thousand years — when it’s so simple? In a single word, the heart of the good news is freedom. Freedom from ANY rule or protocol or standard of behavior required to enjoy the company of the Creator of the Universe in your normal, day-to-day life.

Real Life
But what does look like in real life? Simplicity itself.

You know those rules people told you about, things you had to do to please God? Or those things you weren’t doing, and that’s why God wasn’t pleased with you? Throw them all out.

You know how you were told you couldn’t wear too much make-up because it would displease God? Or how your hair was too long? Or that that tattoo you had on your arm was a sin? Or your dress was too short, or your ear was pierced too many times? Or how you went dancing last night, or had too many drinks — or that you had a drink at all? It’s all garbage. To use the language of the Old Testament, that shirt you are wearing was made from two types of fabric: you’re a sinner. You cut the hair at the corners of your head. God is displeased. The tassels on your shirt are not showing in public — you failed. You walked too far on the Sabbath. You must die. You didn’t bring your whole tithe into God’s house — you are cursed. You ate shrimp for dinner last night — you are an abomination. You had pepperoni on your pizza — you must be outcast and shunned. Or — hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen — the person you love is the same gender as you. You are abhorrent to God, and your blood is on your own hands. Rubbish. It’s all garbage.

That’s why the Apostle Paul, who used to be one of the biggest legalists of his time, could say, “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. He canceled the written code that was against us and that stood opposed to us, with all its regulations. He took it away, nailing it to the cross. … Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink …” (Col 2:13-16).

News Flash
The great news flash of Jesus is this: none of these rules has ANY intrinsic spiritual value. Not one of these can make you holy, and none of these has the power to make you unholy. The good news is that you are free from all these regulations and standards. And anyone who tries to impose these on you again as a way of pleasing God is a liar, a prison-keeper, someone who wants to put you in chains — against the very Declaration of Freedom Jesus himself proclaimed.

You are FREE from the prison of religious rules and restrictions.
You are RELEASED from the oppression of other people’s expectations of your life as a way of having a relationship with the God who loves you.
The true image of your Father is RESTORED – one who accepts you, loves you, without any condition. And that blindness which kept you from seeing his true nature, which always made you think he was angry with you — it’s gone.
And on top you your total freedom, here’s the bonus. You walk in God’s FAVOR, whether you feel like it or not.

You were poor because all this freedom was kept from you. You walked alone in the misery of your life because religious people all around you told you that you had to take on the burden of all these rules and laws of “godly living” in order to have the blessings that are already yours.

This is the good news. You are FREE. You are FAVORED. And when you walk in that simple, uncomplicated relationship with the Father who loves you, you will slowly begin fulfilling “godly standards” automatically. You won’t want to kill or steal. You won’t want to disrupt the beauty of someone’s marriage by having an affair with one of the spouses. You won’t want to gossip or bad-mouth your boss or that irritating co-worker because you know in your heart how hurtful that is. You’ll start feeling compassion for your neighbor who’s trying to deal with screaming kids. You’ll be concerned about that old woman down the street who can’t afford groceries. As you walk in the freedom of God’s love, your heart will be transformed. Any code of behavior that God is concerned about will be written on your heart, and you’ll do them naturally as you grow. No rules. No one telling you what you must do. Just natural living. Free.

The good news is it’s already done. The time has come. Your King has arrived – and he wants an intimate relationship with you! You can have peace with God, you can have the wonders of his friendship, and it all comes without a rulebook. The good news is you can tear up that old rulebook and throw it in the garbage where it belongs.

Anything else is worthless. It’s nothing more than legalistic prison. You are free. You are released. You can see God as he is. And he is already pleased with you: you already walk in his favor. Because of Jesus, there’s nothing you need to do except believe it.

And that’s good news worth celebrating!