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.
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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.

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When your faith is bigger than the Bible…

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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

 

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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.

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Your Idea of Sin Sucks

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I was hoping to visit a new church this past Sunday, and looked up an old church I use to attend when I first moved to the city several years ago. I was really disappointed to see that the founding pastor had left and that the church seemed to have gone in a different direction. I decided to browse through their website to try to get a feel for what the church was like now. The new pastor had a little welcome video, so I watched that. The guy is old school Baptist and used to teach at a prestigious — well, at least a well-respected, conservative — Bible college. And his video reflected exactly what you’d think. Lots of church language that punched all my sensitive buttons and made me rethink whether I wanted to visit this place afterall. What clinched it though, was when he talked about his desire as a pastor for “sin to grow sour in our mouths” … I just felt my spirit cringe. And that was it. I was done.

I can only imagine what their version of sin would be. And this is the relevant point. From time to time I get asked that basic question: What is sin? And if you’ve grown up in the church, or spent any amount of time in church at all, you’re probably likely to start with the Ten Commandments. And from there you’ll soon find yourself spinning out into dozens and dozens of other little commandments until you end up with a list of about 613 new rules. (In case that number doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s the number of commandments in the Hebrew Bible – what many in the church world like to call “Old Testament Law.”)  So much for Christian liberty and being free from “the Law.”

As a gay Christian with lots of gay, lesbian and transgender friends, I could only imagine what that pastor would tell us were sins in our lives that needed to be repented of. So yeah, the next thing I checked out was the section on their website about what they believe, and looked specifically for their statement on homosexuality. And sure enough, they take the old traditional stance that it’s sinful, part of the corrupt human nature, and can be cured — or at least controlled — by prayer, accountability, and counseling. In other words, an ex-gay program. #ChristianFail

To be honest, the very fact that he even was talking about sin in his introduction video kinda turned me off. Did I really want to be part of a church that focused on sin?

Sure, as a Christian I know that sin-consciousness occupies a big part in the teaching of the church. But in my opinion, sin is best addressed by focusing on love. We don’t need sermons or lectures on the things that are wrong with us or the things that we need to change to make us better people or more pleasing in God’s sight. Nobody needs fingers pointed in their faces — go and sin no more! The Church would be better served by helping us have a closer walk with God — and the sin part will take care of itself.

If we call ourselves Christians and are actually concerned about what commandments Jesus said we should follow, we’d quickly realize that there is only one law or rule we need to focus on. And that is the law of love. Jesus broke that into two parts, loving God, and loving each other. And, as a friend recently pointed out, he added a third part too: loving our enemies. Seems to me, everything is covered in that one overarching law. So if we can learn to love, sin won’t even be an issue.

So, what is the definition of sin anyway? The Biblical languages have several words for the various types and shades of sin, but I’d say they all boil down to anything that contradicts the law of love. As simple as that. That might be why Jesus never saw fit to hand down to us another set of tablets or lengthy lists of do’s and don’ts.

If you’re doing something or saying something or maybe even thinking something that is hateful or harmful to someone else, that is sin.

And frankly, when it comes to sinning against God, I think that pretty much covers doing anything harmful or hateful to each other. God is concerned about how we treat each other. And yes, I’m sure there are other acts that are offensive to God himself, that might be considered “sinning against God” — but truthfully, at this moment, I can’t think of one. Even our anger or shouting matches at God, our doubts or our “blasphemies,” don’t seem to trouble God that much. He’s a big boy. He can handle it.

Likewise, if we do something harmful or demeaning to ourselves, that is sin. It breaks the law of loving ourselves. We are made in the image of God, and that image deserves some respect. Jesus said we were to love our neighbors as ourselves, but if we don’t love ourselves how can we love our neighbor? So inherent in his command to love others is the command to love ourselves. I guess that would be the fourth part of that single law of love. (The Church could sure stand to spend some time teaching on how to do this in a healthy way, instead of beating us up all the time. Just a thought.)

So then: Love God. Love each other. Love your enemies. Love yourself. Anything that contradicts that is sin.

With that basic definition in place, we no longer need a never-ending list of do’s and don’ts. We also no longer need someone telling us all about our sins — or really, things they find offensive about us, things they want us to change.

The Golden Rule suddenly takes on a whole new importance in that light. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the same as “love your neighbor as yourself.” Likewise, the flipside of that is “don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to yourself.” Everything that falls under that definition is sin.

And frankly, that means someone pointing their finger at me, telling me that my love for another person is sinful, is an act of sin itself. It is contrary to the law of love. So, Is it a Sin? Is it a sin if I bad-mouth my boss? Or get wasted Saturday night? Is it a sin if I sleep with my boyfriend or girlfriend? What about watching porn? Does it violate the law of love — loving God, loving others, loving myself? Is it hateful or harmful? Then there’s your answer.

So, my two cents worth to those occupying pulpits across America and around the world is to focus on teaching us how to love God, love each other, and love ourselves better. And leave creating a new set of Stone Tablets to the One who can write them with his finger.

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves as 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.

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“Go and Sin No More”? You don’t get to say that. Ever.

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We hear it all the time. We can argue the grace and forgiveness of Jesus till the cows come home, how he forgave the woman caught in adultery. “Neither do I condemn you.” “See how gracious Jesus is?” we say. And then some smart Christian inevitably comes back with, “Yeah, but he also said, ‘Go and sin no more.'”

And there goes the image of a gracious Jesus out the window. Like a political ad for local politician: “Jesus: not soft on crime, not soft on sin.” Might as well just go back to Levitical law.

This morning, though, a new thought dropped into my head. I’d been talking about random things with God, and somewhere in the back of my head I must have had this annoying scenario playing out. Yeah, I HAD just read that recently in one of those Christian forums on Facebook. The topic was “gays and Christianity,” as it always seems to be these days, and some guy threw that back in someone’s face: “Go and sin no more.” Annoyed me, but I walked away, not wanting to engage in that pointless discussion for the millionth time.

So I guess the thought wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it did surprise me anyway. Wasn’t expecting that. Wasn’t even actively asking God about it. But you know, when you’re just chatting with God over your morning coffee, he’ll throw things at you you weren’t expecting.

go_and_sin_no_more“You don’t get to say that. Only Jesus can say that to someone.” Just like when he said a few moments before to the crowd who wanted to kill the poor woman, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” and they all walked away, recognizing their own failings and weaknesses. Jesus was the only one there who qualified. He was the only one there without sin, so he was the only one qualified to throw a stone — and he chose not to. Now THERE’S an image of grace for you: “the only one qualified to condemn you chooses not to.”

Then, when the crowd has all gone their separate ways, he turns back to the terrified woman crouched on the ground, humiliated, embarrassed, shamed. And he says these wonderful, tender words to her. “Where are your accusers?” — Hey, look. He makes the point himself: he is NOT one of her accusers. — “Neither do I condemn you.” And then the words thrown back at us gay believers too many times: “But go and sin no more.” Well, Jesus never says the “but.” It’s not a condition or a contradiction. His grace isn’t conditional on our perfection.

Here’s the kicker. The only one who was qualified to throw the stone, the only one qualified to condemn her, is also the only one who gets to say “go and sin no more.”

The rest of us are too imperfect, too guilty of our own shortcomings. We’re in no position to judge anybody. Kinda like that thing he said to another crowd somewhere else: “First take care of the log in your own eye before you try to remove the splinter from someone else’s.” So, we’re also in no position to tell someone else to stop sinning. Ever — or at least until we’ve reached perfection ourselves.

So the next time some argumentative Christian throws that line in your face — “Jesus also said to go and sin no more” — you can respond, “the only person who gets to say that to me is the only one qualified to throw that first stone. And it isn’t you.”

Go in peace. You are LOVED — and He isn’t one of your accusers.


photo credit: Jesus and the Woman, from : The Life of Jesus Christ Bible Videos (LDS)

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher 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.

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Christian Perfection?

Holiness can sometimes look more like something out of “50 Shades of Grey” than something that came out of church.

 

BlacklightBDSMOkay. That did it. I was chewing on an idea for a post, feeling like I needed to write it “for the good of all humanity” (ego much?), and then got distracted by this latest tidbit on Facebook:  “It is therefore settled, by authority, that holiness or Christian perfection is the central idea of Christianity” (Bishop Jesse T. Peck (1811-1883).  I’ve made a half-hearted New Year’s resolution to not respond (or “correct”) every bit of stupid I run across on the interwebs, but sometimes you just gotta…

This one is just so typical of the Christian attitude that prevails in Western culture these days that it needs speaking out against.

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Bishop Jesse T. Peck (1811-1883)

It’s a philosophy that encourages comparing ourselves against others — and more dangerously, comparing others against some standard the we’ve set up as the true measure of a Christian. It’s bad enough we have all these white-washed churches lining up to throw stones at every “sinner” they encounter in the news, or start the paranoid screaming about how America is going to the dogs because of [fill in the blank]. People putting on their Sunday best — not just clothes for Sunday morning worship, but their Sunday best faces for the rest of the week where they can pretend moral superiority over others who do those “unholy” things, like go to bars, smoke cigarettes (or worse, weed!), or have sex outside of marriage. Hopefully, they’ve evolved past getting upset over tattoos or ear-piercings and choice of clothes, but who knows? In some places, those are still outward signs of inner holiness.

And all these little “standards” just act as tools to measure — judge! — other people. “He’s obviously not saved because he was out last night at the clubs — he even still smells like smoke.”  “She needs the Lord, because I heard her boyfriend slept over last night.”  “He’s dating a MAN! Lawd ha’ mercy!”  We can kinda laugh at these people. They’re living caricatures like you’d see Madea make fun of, or find in an old SNL sketch of the “Church Lady.”  They’ve made the church and Christianity a joke in the eyes of normal people.

Does it honestly need to be said yet again that the hallmark of Christianity — at least as defined by Jesus — is love? Love of God and love for each other.  Is it loving to judgmentally comment on a person’s clothes as a reflection of their relationship with God? Is it loving, or even truth, to turn up our nose at someone because they’re in an open relationship? Do we reflect the heart of God when we dismiss someone because they have a fondness for leather or BDSM in their personal life?  How much less so over stupid stuff like clothes, entertainment, if-what-how-often they drink or smoke, have piercings, their hairstyles, their sexual orientation, or … you name it.

All that stuff is just stupid. Holiness is the degree to which we reflect the heart of God. It has nothing to do with outward appearance, although it should certainly bear outward fruit. The heart of the Father — the fruit of the Spirit — is mostly inward stuff that works its way out in normal, everyday action: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. It’s how we think and how we act. Holiness is how we treat each other.  And frankly, if the guy who not two hours before was tied to a chair, wearing a leather mask, and getting mental and physical sexual release through being flogged (I’m deliberately painting an image that radically flies in the face of traditional views of “Christian perfection and holiness”) — if this guy stops to help me with a problem that is crushing me, or shares a kind word with me when I need it most, he IS being holy.  And you can keep your “saintly perfection” for yourself.

Okay. All this venting really relies on my old-school interpretation of these ideas of “Christian holiness.” They are the “white-washed tombs full of decaying flesh and bones” — tidy and well-kept to some on the outside, but putrid and repugnant to any who dare get close enough for a closer inspection. It’s the stuff I heard in churches growing up and saw in the lives of my friends’ religious families. It is the stuff that has caused most genuinely-seeking individuals hungry for “realness” to turn away from all forms of institutional Christianity. It smells of fakeness and entrapment, of oppression and death.

Give me people who care enough to help me fix my car, or who make sure I have groceries in my cupboards. Give me people who check up on me if they haven’t seen me for a few days on Facebook. Give me people who encourage me, ask me out for coffee or a beer, who want to be part of my life. Give me people who will actually mention my name to God at random times during the day because they’re thinking of me and honestly want God to touch me. Give me that kind of holiness. Because that’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what many people I know — outside of the church — are looking for before they’ll take on the label “Christian” for themselves. Realness. Real love.

“It is therefore settled, by authority, that holiness or Christian perfection is the central idea of Christianity.” Despite my New Year’s intentions, I couldn’t help myself. I commented on that Facebook post: “huh. I thought it was love — loving God, loving others. Guess maybe I’m not holy enough.”  And maybe I’m not.

photo credit: “Blacklight BDSM” by Beo Beyond on Flickr. cc. 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher 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.

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Good News? What’s So Good About It?

laughing-jesusAll the religious/political hooplah that’s been in the news so much recently has left many people with a bitter taste in their mouths when it comes to Christianity. And understandably so.

Images of shunning people and public shaming  (à la John MacArthur), denying their very existence and resisting their legal rights (à la Southern Baptist Convention on transgender people), labeling them broken in need of repair because of their natural sexual orientation (à la Texas GOP platform), and the radical claims that LGBTQ people, simply by insisting on equal civil rights, are a threat to the Church and “the American Way of Life” (à la Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council, Franklin Graham, Pat RobertsonFocus on the Family, and other groups about LGBT people) … all these negative portrayals of a faith that claims to have LOVE as its central principle, have left most religiously unaffiliated people with an extremely negative impression of the followers of Jesus.

Such is the inevitable result of mixing faith with the politics of domination and control.

It’s obvious to many people that this approach is completely antithetical to the teaching of the Prince of Peace who allowed himself to be crushed by civil authority rather than to impose his own power over it.

And it’s left a lot of people asking a very important question:
If this is all nonsense, then what actually is the Gospel?

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 of God 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 … Something Good

And there it was — the good news. And these religious folks, these people who had read and memorized 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 receive it. That’s the good news!

So why do we make things so complicated, so religious, so legalistic about our relationship with God — even after two thousand years — when it’s so simple?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim freedom …”

What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?
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 clubbing last night, or had too many drinks — or that you had a drink at all? Or that the person you love is the wrong gender? It’s all garbage.

To use the language of Old Testament law, 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 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).

The great news flash of Jesus is this:
none of these rules has ANY intrinsic spiritual value.

Not one of these rules 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, loving God and loving your neighbor. Free.

And 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!

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in Cafe Inspirado, in Nov 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.

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Stupid Religion

StupidReligion_3949650938_c226a78f72_b

 

I just had another one of those conversations.  The conversation I seem to have a lot these days with my Christian friends. Gay and straight. About what it means to be a Christian.

Am I still a “good Christian” if I don’t go to church? Am I a good Christian if I cuss, if I have sex with my girlfriend or boyfriend? And of course, that one question that seems to preoccupy the evangelical world right now: Can I be a good Christian if I’m gay?

Franklin Graham, the hostile son of that epitome of Christian kindness Billy Graham, thinks not.  And he’s spouting his morality-driven view of Christianity in all the media.  For him, and for many in the church world, Christianity is defined in terms of do’s and don’ts. Rules. Outward behavior.

And ya know, to some extent, I would agree with that. But only to the extent that “behavior” is defined as how we treat other people.

Christianity, at least for most Protestants, is defined by our faith in Jesus, and then how that faith translates into real life. More than just simple head-knowledge or believing something to be true, it is the transformational power of relationship with the Living God that defines us – proves us – to be true followers of Jesus. In a word, what makes us “good Christians.”

And that’s what I’ve come to conclude, after living my entire life in the church, growing up in a conservative evangelical home, going to an evangelical, charismatic seminary, and wrestling with God to sort out my own relationship with him.

Any so-called religion that does not result in a growing relationship with the Living God is a fake.

And any religion that does not transform you to treat other people around you in a better, more loving way is garbage.

If your religion – even if you can pull up all kinds of Scripture to justify your actions – results in alienating or hurting people, guess what?  You don’t know God, and you are not practicing God’s ways. You are not walking in the way of Jesus.  Period.

Because, at the core of it all, Jesus did not come to give us another book of holy rules to live by.

God is love, and the one who walks in love, lives in God, and God lives in him. … The one who claims to love God but treats his neighbor badly is a liar. – 1 John 4

A friend messaged me today on Facebook, in dismay over the cruel and cutting comments he received in one Facebook Christian group. They were targeted against “the gays,” of course, and our so-called delusion that we were saved.  My friend was puzzled how they could be so mean yet claim to have the truth.  For me, it was the same old, tired, story.  Stupid religion.  Words, Bible-knowledge in the head that never transformed the heart.

And this isn’t just a Christian thing.  Americans in general love to pick on Muslims and claim the actions of the radical fundamentalists are obviously not the actions of a Loving God – it’s a fake religion.  I’d have to agree – not about Islam in general, but about the hateful actions of radical fundamentalists.  And Jews, I’ve seen the reality of throwing stones and cold-hearted shunnings of the ultra-conservative against those who do not dress appropriately or honor the Sabbath as they believe it needs to be.  Even Buddhism, that religion known for its peaceful focus, has militant sects.  And my New Age/New Spirituality friends who have helped me see God in new and expanded ways … I see hearts seeking contact with the Universe, but sometimes in manipulative ways, trying to re-establish links with our own divinity in order to get what we want out of life.  And we Christians are no different. We have our militant sects, our KKKs, our Westboro Baptist Churches, our Franklin Grahams, even our seemingly Biblical messages coming from Assembly of God pulpits promoting a cultural agenda instead of offering the life-giving words of a Loving God.

Where is the personal transformation that comes from the faith? Where is the reflection of the God who sacrificed himself so that he could establish a better connection with humanity?

StupidReligion-274835316_3c95528b66_zI saw just a few days ago another post on Facebook by well-meaning Christians, trying to encourage holiness and morality in our “easy-believism” faith.  They quoted Jesus, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And their emphasis was on keeping the laws of morality and purity, of “cleaning-up” the life of the Christian.  And my first thought was, “and what were Jesus’s commandments?”  “This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35; 15:12,17)

Funny, Jesus didn’t say the world would know us by our clean-cut looks, our short hair, our modest clothes, or our sexual abstinence. He didn’t say our church attendance was the fulfillment of the law.  He said it was Love.  Period.

“But we do love you,” many Christians say. “That’s why we are trying to get you to stop living your sinful lifestyle.”  Or, in other words, “we love you, sinner, but we hate your sin.”   Haven’t we debunked that view enough already?  You cannot truly love someone while you are throwing stones at them. That’s not the life Jesus demonstrated for us.

If your religion is not transforming you to love your neighbor – to treat your neighbor as you want to be treated – then you are deceiving yourself. The truth is not in you. And you do not know the God you claim.

It’s really that simple.  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet do not do the things I say?” Jesus asked.

My friend today did not know how to respond to those harsh words wielded by “good Christians.”  Honestly, he didn’t need to respond. Sometimes battling words accomplishes nothing. No one listens. No one is changed. But for his own reassurance, I suggested this.

Stupid-religion-facebookcomment

It really is that simple.

Love God. Love your neighbor.

And that “love neighbor” stuff isn’t just some vague, undefined feeling: “oh, yes, we love those sinners.” It’s your heart transformed by the power of God into loving action. It’s how you treat them. It’s what you say to them.

All the rest, all the verses from the Bible you can quote and hurl at people to prove your point that what they’re doing or how they’re living is wrong – all that is just religious technicalities. It is law. It is death. There is no life in it.

Without real love, all you have is a stupid religion.

 

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photo credits:
Angry God, Matt Katzenberger – flickrcc
Church Rules, Debby and Gary – flickr, 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 here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

 
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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.

 

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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.

 
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Big Problems Just Mean a Big Life

big-problems_3537904106People with small lives don’t have big problems.

That was the nugget of wisdom that fell out of my mouth during a talk with a couple of friends about the $h!t-storms they were experiencing recently.

Drama and trauma with friends. Bosses. Legal issues. Relationship issues. Money issues. Crises that just seem to happen out of nowhere, that blindside you. And you’re stuck there, confused, steaming with anger, wondering where the heck God was, and what he was doing – or if he was doing anything at all.  Does God even care?

“Is God cruel?” my friend asked.

This is real life stuff.  Stuff happens. Life happens, and it isn’t always pretty. And we shouldn’t expect it to be.  Even with God on our side, we should not expect everything to just fall into place easily, readily, smoothly, and think we’re just gonna experience happiness, peace and joy all the time.  It’s just not realistic. Nor is it good faith.


And a scene from the life of Moses suddenly took on new relevance. I don’t remember if it was in The Ten Commandments movie or not, but there’s this scene after Moses has his encounter with the Burning Bush, and God commissions him to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go!”  The Hebrew people had become so populous in Egypt that the Egyptians feared they were becoming a minority in their own country. So the politicians decided to implement a form of immigration control: first, kill all the newborn Hebrew baby boys. Then enslave the people (to keep them under control). And after Moses passes on God’s message to the top dog, Pharaoh, to let the people leave to get on with their purpose, Pharaoh responds by ordering that straw no longer be given to the Hebrews in order to fill their daily quota of brick-making. Now they had to go scrounge for straw themselves – and not miss their quota: “not one brick less!” (Exodus 5-6)

And the Hebrews do what we all do. Gripe. At the slave-drivers, at their foremen, at Pharaoh, and even at Moses.  “Why have you done this to us? You have made us a stench in Pharaoh’s nose, and now given them a reason to exterminate us. May God judge you for what you have done” – this from the Israelites to Moses. And you know Moses had to be thinking, “this is what I get for trying to help.”

So Moses gripes to God. “Lord, why have you caused all this trouble for them? Why did you even send me here? Ever since I went to the king to speak in your name, he has treated the people worse than before. And you have done nothing to help them!”

Moses expected great things. He had this moving encounter with God, gotten his marching orders, received a new purpose in life, a new mission. He was gonna be the savior of his people.  And it all just got worse. It all went downhill from that point on.

And most of us will experience this in life. We get a moment of inspiration, we discover a new found purpose and meaning to life. We may even have had a fresh encounter with God that has revitalized our spiritual life.  We’re on fire with new life, new excitement, new mission, new energy, new purpose. Everything seems to make sense now: “this is what I’m on this planet to do!”  And then … everything begins to fall apart. Nothing works out the way we planned. All the scenarios we played out in our heads about how things would happen, how our life would go, how events would transpire … all come crashing down around us. And we’re left traumatized and in shock.  Shaking our heads to clear the confusion – what just happened? Did I make all this up? Was this just some fantasy, some delusion?  What happened to God? Why is all this crap happening to me?!

And here’s God’s response: “Now you will get to see what I’m about to do. By my mighty hand and my outstretched arm, I will compel Pharaoh to let my people go.”

In other words,
the bigger the problem, the greater the power.

The deeper the crap, the more amazing the outcome.

Little problems don’t require divine intervention. We can handle them ourselves. What bragging-rights does that give God?  It’s the big stuff, the stuff too big for us to handle, that requires the supernatural, the miraculous.

People who are content with little require little. Those who are happy to have small lives, to just have a convenient job, to pay their bills and have a comfortable home where they can just relax and watch the football game on Sunday afternoon – what need do they have of mighty displays of the miraculous?

My gut feeling when talking with my friends about the startling amount of difficulties they were experiencing was that they were destined for bigger things. Big trouble means a big life.

That doesn’t mean that every little situation was going to work out wonderfully. That did not mean that suddenly things were gonna start falling into place.  Even knowing God was working in the process does not mean it was gonna be easy.  In fact (unfortunately!), it often means the opposite.   But it’s the big picture where things begin to make sense. It’s in the looking back afterwards that we get to see the divine power at work, doing things beyond our control, even beyond our imagination. And it never is how we expect. God never works in ways that we could have predicted.  That’s way too small for him, way to restraining. And way too small for us!  We deserve bigger things. For those who want it, for those who feel it deep inside their gut, we have bigger things in store, bigger destinies. Destinies that touch the world around us.

Those who don’t want that kind of big life probably won’t experience these kinds of big difficulties.  They’ll have challenges appropriate to the size of their dreams.

And for Moses and the complaining Hebrews, they got to witness the amazing hand of God – to the point that we’re still talking about 3500 years later. And they even made a movie about it.  Beyond that, here’s a little nugget: they not only got a new freedom and vision for themselves, they get to see a new side of God they hadn’t seen before. “I appeared to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as El Shaddai, God Almighty. But I did not make myself known to them by my holy name, Yahweh, “I AM”.  This name is for you, from now on …”   Oh, and by the way, “I have heard their groanings, I have seen their troubles, I remember my promises, and I will deliver them …”

That’s the message to those going through some deep doodoo right now. It never happens like we expect. And we gripe and moan about it. That’s okay. That’s human.  It’s the end results that count.  The bigger the problem, the greater the solution. The more resistance, the more spectacular the outcome.  Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8:28, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose…”

To doubt God, to ask where he is in all the stuff that’s going on, that’s human. It’s okay.

Our mistake is putting our “faith” in how we expect God to do things, rather than “trusting” that he’s gonna work it all out in the end.

That’s the real mark of a vital faith, a solid spirituality.  “We’re gonna get through this, and God is gonna make it all work out for our good. And in the process, we’re gonna grow, we’re gonna become better and stronger, and we’re gonna see a new face of God we’ve never known before.”

So as hard as it might be to do in real life, our game plan when going through the deep doodoo is pretty simple: Don’t focus on the immediate situation. Don’t lose heart over the immediate circumstances. Don’t get lost in the details of the small picture. The grander scheme, the big picture, is where it all makes sense. The more complicated the situation, and the uglier the mess, … the more clearly it indicates a bigger outcome, a more beautiful and purposeful life.

Small lives don’t require a divine “outstretched arm and mighty hand”.  Big lives do. And that’s where you’re headed.
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photo credit: B Rosen via photopin cc
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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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Being a Gay Evangelical

Gay EvangelicalsI grew up in the church. I even remember my first day being dropped off in the church nursery, and I kicked and screamed, terrified as my mother left me to attend the service. I think I was three.

My parents were God-fearing people, and not just in the churchy way. We didn’t have the Sunday newspaper delivered because that would be causing someone to work on the Lord’s Day. We didn’t watch TV on Sundays, we weren’t allowed to play loudly outdoors on Sunday – it was a day of Rest, after all. And, of course, like all good Christians, we went to both morning and evening services, and the only reason we didn’t go Wednesday nights was because my dad worked the B-shift. Getting up in the morning to get ready for school, I’d see my mom sitting on the living room couch, reading her Bible and talking to her Lord. My dad got up later, and his morning was spent literally on his knees at the side of his bed, his Bible open in front of him.  We had our weekly Bible memory verses magnetted to the refrigerator door, and it seemed like my dad would quiz us on them whenever he saw us.  These were believers.

We all were.

But one of us was a traitor – or least it felt that way to the quiet, introverted, sensitive and intellectual boy that I was.

anita-bryant-newsweekOur church was not a fire-and-brimstone kind of church, even if a lot of the messages seemed geared toward getting us into heaven. And I can’t recall actually hearing a sermon on the evils of homosexuality, but it certainly was talked about in the church. These were the days of Anita Bryant, defender of the faith, and of Harvey Milk, though I wouldn’t hear of him for 30 years.  These were the early days of the counter-culture “Gay Liberation” movement, and of the reactionary movements within the church to prevent homosexuals from holding teaching positions in public schools. In fact, I remember having this confrontation with my parents because I refused to sign a petition to our Congressman circulating in the church, demanding that he vote against allowing these perverted individuals from having influence over school children. Everyone in my family had signed it. I refused.  I was nowhere near “out,” I was still terrified that anyone would even suspect my secret attraction, but there was also no way I was going to become my own enemy. I wouldn’t be a part of persecuting people like myself.

And of course I’d heard over and over again that homosexuals could never inherit the kingdom of God. We made religious heroes of murderers and swindlers who’d turned to Christ. They had powerful “testimonies.” Every sin, every sinner, was redeemable. Except the homosexuals.  It was sad, because God loved them, but even Christ’s blood would not save them. They were irreversibly bound for hell – unless they stopped being gay.

And yet I maintained my faith.  I could not defend it Scripturally, I had no theological skills to bring to bear, but I knew in my heart that I had a relationship with God. And even if he hated the fact that I wanted to kiss another boy, I never doubted my salvation. I knew Jesus lived in my heart – it was more than just the sinner’s prayer that bought me eternal fire insurance. I had, as they taught us to say, “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The fires of hell did not await me. Of that I was confident. But that didn’t mean that I was comfortable with myself. I had no answers. I believed the Bible, and the Bible was pretty clear (even if it seemed contradictory: I believed, therefore I was saved – except for the fact that I was gay?)  And I did what so many of my gay evangelical brothers and sisters did (and some still do): I prayed. And prayed. And prayed. I rebuked Satan. I bound the demon of homosexuality. I fasted. I tried to brainwash myself, to reprogram my attraction. I read books (I had to sneak them because they’d be a dead giveaway). I read the love and sex advice column of my Campus Life magazines, glad to read of anyone sharing my struggle.  And once in a while, as an early teen, I’d get the schizophrenic simultaneous feelings of disgust and camaraderie when I’d walk past the old fire station, converted into a hippy, Gay Lib headquarters.

And when my friends would pull out their Penthouse magazines, in moments of sinful weakness when I would look at them with them, I’d focus on the men in the shots while my buddies ogled the naked women.  And then, ashamed of my perversion, I’d ask God’s forgiveness afterwards.

The church talked about the power of the Blood, how only Jesus could change someone and save them. That was fine for murderers, adulterers and drug addicts. But that power didn’t make a dent in my particular affliction.

aids-activismAnd then AIDS hit.  Everywhere we turned around, gay people were getting sick in horrible, grotesque, concentration-camp kind of ways. And many in the church-world were less than loving about this. This was God’s punishment on willful rebellion. This was what the Bible meant by men “receiving in themselves the due recompense of their error.”

I couldn’t shake it. Nothing I did had any affect. The attraction was persistent. But the sheer terror of public persecution kept me from ever acting on it. Even going to a state university where you’d expect a wild, liberating environment of young adults free from parental restraints for the first time, even there the fear of ridicule and shame kept me from seeking out people like myself, the still silent underground.

I didn’t give up the fight until I was in my late-20s.  By then, I’d fallen in love with a guy who was completely “out” and completely comfortable with himself. He even introduced me to his parents as his boyfriend – something that nearly paralyzed me with dread.  But by then, understanding it or not, reconciling my faith with it or not, I knew I was never going to change.  Still struggling with my own cognitive dissonance, the opposition of my faith with my reality, I decided to at least begin living the life I’d dreamt of my whole life: having a boyfriend, someone who loved me as much as I loved him.  The rest would have to sort itself out along the way.

And it actually did. Like so many other things of a spiritual nature, truth seldom comes while we sit in our closets praying for revelation. God often speaks and moves while we are moving.  Sitting on the bus on my way to meet my boyfriend’s parents, I hung my head in sorrow one more time. “I’m so sorry, Lord. I know you don’t approve of this, but I have to do this.”  And with a clarity as though spoken by someone sitting next to me on that bus came four words that changed the course of my life: “I’m not accusing you.”

I would learn years later that this was not an uncommon experience among my evangelical and charismatic brothers and sisters. We believe that God speaks. And sometimes he speaks very, very clearly. I’ve since met many gay and lesbian believers who had encounters similar to mine. In a moment of utter frustration and futility, after we’ve wrestled with this demon for years, and we’re often on our knees, throwing ourselves in abject failure on the mercy of God, unexpected words of peace come. “I made you this way. Your prayers were never answered because I never wanted you to change.”  Or, in the words said to that great apostle, “Saul, Saul, why are kicking against the goads?”

Did the answers suddenly fall into place? Did I – we – finally come to peace with the Bible passages used to clobber us so often? No.

For most of us, that would be a continuing journey, learning to harmonize Scripture (or as some fundamentalists prefer to say, learn how to twist Scripture) in a way that would allow us to maintain our evangelical beliefs and yet still be true to ourselves.  I spent years in seminary and grad school studying theology – not for that reason, of course – and still had no satisfactory answer. Until one day after I’d long since given up on chasing those rabbits, and it occurred to me to “go back to the basics.”  All that theologizing, reading all those religious books that parsed out every condemning verse in the Bible and explained it in a non-condemning way, juggling text with context, was exhausting. And for me, unsatisfying.  Yes, if cornered in a debate, I could argue the theological points and defend my position. But that didn’t mean I was convinced. They were just defensive weapons. But something inside me lead me to believe that the truth could be found in the very Scriptures I was taught in Sunday School and on my father’s knee.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  John 3:16.  Start with the Gospel of John.

 

Back to the Basics

So I read it, probably for the millionth time in my life.  And the words poured out, over and over again. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” “Whoever believes in me, even though he is dead, yet shall he live.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”1 …  Simple truth. I believed. And it wasn’t just a mental thing, some words I confessed or a creed I would repeat.  Jesus said whoever believed in him would be saved. Period.  How do you argue with that?  It’s the bedrock of evangelical Christianity.

Then came the Book of Acts.  It’s the next book in the Bible after John. And it is chock full of stories about the early church after the ascension of Jesus, wrestling with “The Law” and what it means to be “saved.”  Non-Jews wanted to join this Jewish messianic movement, and the apostles just didn’t know what to do with them.  Did they have to convert to Judaism first? Did they have to get circumcised? Did they have to observe the Sabbath – one of the cornerstones of God’s Covenant with Israel? What about the rest of the Law, the Torah? In order to embrace the Jewish messiah, the Son of Israel’s God, did these non-Jews have to embrace the commandments of Israel’s God? And all through the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit moves in ways that answer definitively: NO!  Peter has a vision, and God commands him to “call nothing and no one unclean whom I have made clean.”  The Holy Spirit descends on Gentiles and they not only are “saved” but they even speak in tongues as those in Jerusalem had.  Peter, and later Paul, both argue the same point: if relationship with God could be earned through obedience to commandments, then the Cross of Jesus was meaningless. “Christ died for nothing.” “Why do we put God to the test by burdening the Gentiles with a yoke that we Jews ourselves have not been able to bear? We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, and they are as well.”2

The unavoidable conclusion:
Relationship with God – salvation – comes independent of keeping Biblical commandments – the Law.

And where were most of these Biblical passages that condemned me as a gay man, that told me I was an abomination in God’s sight? The Law.  The Law condemned homosexual acts (at least male homosexual acts), and for whatever reason and no matter how you dissected the historical context, this prohibition was part of “the Law” from which I was set free. My salvation had nothing to do with my ability to keep that rule.

And then, after Acts, came Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, that primary book of salvation.  Justification by faith alone. Paul himself arguing strenuously that we are saved by God’s grace, received by our faith. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith, apart from observing the law.” “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight … But now apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.”3

Roman-RoadIn Sunday School, we’d been taught the “Roman Road” – the way to win souls to Jesus just by using verses from the Book of Romans – and now that Roman Road was once again proving my salvation.

It was a process that occurred over several weeks once I’d started. John – Acts – Romans.  Then later, Galatians: really just recap of Romans.  Reinforcement: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by believing what you heard? Having begun with the Spirit are you now being made perfect by the flesh, by keeping the Law?”4

You foolish evangelicals! Having begun in faith, having confessed the power of the Blood shed on the Cross by the Son of God himself, having claimed over and over our “freedom from the Law,” our Christian liberty, our ability to eat pork and shrimp, to wear clothes of mixed fabric, to cut the hair on the corners of our head, to be circumcised or not as irrelevant, to completely ignore Saturday as God’s chosen Sabbath and instead use Sunday as the Lord’s Day. We who boast in our salvation attained solely by the grace of God and received by faith – independent of keeping any commandment – why have we insisted that fellow believers who call on the name of the same Lord are denied access to the Kingdom of Heaven simply because they do not keep that single law? Who bewitched us?

In honesty, it’s more complicated than that. The same Paul who preached salvation by grace and faith apart from law, is the same man who wrote harsh words about those who used their new spiritual liberty as a way to indulge their fleshy desires. Homosexuals are targeted by these two or three sentences written by Paul, but Paul lumps those who gossip or overeat, who get drunk, or who accumulate wealth – the greedy – in the same group as those perverse homosexuals.  There is a whole list of sins specified that would exclude participants from God’s kingdom.  But we conveniently ignore them as we graze at the Sunday buffet after church, or we talk about Sister Sally and that affair she’s having with the associate pastor.

There are tons of books out there which deal with these difficult passages, which explain them in ways that make sense (basically stating that the word translated as “homosexual” actually refers to sex-trafficking and the like). Feel free to look them up.  For me, this debate is now as significant as the ongoing discussion about whether women should be allowed to preach in church, or whether they may even go into a church without wearing a veil or hat. Trivial. Or the word God whispered to me in a moment of doubt: insignificant.

The bottom line is that the belief that gay men and women forfeit their salvation is as groundless as claiming we’d be kicked out of heaven for not being circumcised.
Or not wearing a hat.

Getting back to the basics of Christianity, answering the deep cry in the heart of all of humanity, “What must I do to be saved? What does the Lord require of me?” – once and for all settled that theological dispute in my head, that faith-reality disconnect.  And it is simple. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).  Everything else is a distraction.

Similar Routes

That was my journey. That was how I finally came to terms with being an evangelical believer who also happens to be gay.

Other LGBT Christians likely take different routes in reconciling their sexuality with their faith. But I think we share a similar process. We come to accept ourselves first, the unchangeable reality of who we are as gay men and women. And that often takes many, many years. Often, it takes a direct word from God himself to bring us to that point: “I have not rejected you; I still love you, and you are mine – just as you are.” Then we’ll try to make peace with Scripture. Some will take refuge in the academic approach. Answers can be found through history and literary analysis. But some may bypass that route entirely, and end up dismissing Scripture from their lives in some way. They’ll maintain their faith, they’ll cling to God, to Jesus, to the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, and they’ll be devoted followers of Jesus. But they’ll shed their evangelical label like someone rescued from a cult. They’re now “ex-evangelical” or “post-evangelical.”  And that’s absolutely fine. Jesus never said you had to accept the Bible to be saved, literally or not. He said “Believe in me. Follow me.”

But there are many of us who still cling to our evangelical heritage and identity. We still hold to the authority of Scripture, and honor its place in our lives. In Scripture, we still read the Good News, God’s love letter to us – even to us gay believers. For me, that came about by focusing again on the core of Christianity as taught by my evangelical parents and teachers: by getting back to the basics.  The Gospel of John, the Book of Acts, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Believe and receive eternal life. The Law plays no part in salvation. We are reconciled to God, and our relationship with God is based on his grace received by faith.

With that simple truth as my foundation, I still call myself a gay evangelical.


 

1. John 3:17, 11:25, 14:6, 3:36, 5:24, and lots of others
2. Acts 15, 10:9-29, 10:44-46, 15:10-11
3. Romans 3:23, 3:28, 3:20-22, and all through the book
4. Galatians 3:1-3

If you’re feeling rejected or beat up by your church of family, here’s a short list of “Rescue Passages” to remind you that God does love you and has a place and purpose for you in this life.

 

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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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