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Now is the Time of Your Breakthrough. Or Maybe Not.

 

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“God has a plan. God is working his plan. God’s plan includes you.”  Those were words printed in bold letters on a sign hung above the pulpit in a church I used to go to in Tulsa. The pastor wanted her people to know that their lives were not just stuck in the mud, that God was doing something in them and through them. God was working.

We all need that hope. We all need that reassurance that we’re part of something bigger, that our lives have significance and purpose. Or at least, many of us do. I do. And every once in a while we need someone to remind us that we’re on track.  That’s where encouragers come into play – I mean legitimate encouragers, those sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings who can offer words directly from God to those of us going through moments of self-doubt. I do not mean those false “prophets” who post memes on social media about “Now is the time of your breakthrough …” or “This is your year. This year God will bring all your dreams and plans to success.”

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general words of encouragement are great …

God does have a plan, and God does want your dreams to come true. He planted them in you, in your DNA, even before you were born. They are woven into the fabric of who you are. They’re not selfish, they’re part of the bigger picture, a piece in the cosmic puzzle, and without you fulfilling those dreams, that larger picture will never be complete.

But that does not at all mean that “now” is the time.

And while we all need general words of encouragement to “press on” from time to time, other well-meaning but misguided words claiming divine authority can do more damage than if they were never spoken at all. False prophets are dangerous. They can lead you down the wrong path or prompt you to do something way before the right time. And a good thing or even a well-meaning act at the wrong time can become a very, very wrong thing.

A couple examples …

Let me throw a couple of bible examples at you.

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… specific “prophetic” words broadcast to the public, not so much …

Anybody hanging out in a Word-based church in past few decades has probably heard sermons on Abraham “Ishmael-ing it”.  God tells old Abe that he will have a son, and makes some stunning promises about how his descendants would affect the course of history. Abe is thrilled, of course, but he is also 75 years old. He waits for it to happen, but after a number of years of waiting for his wife to become pregnant, he thinks “now is the time” and gets the bright idea to have a child with his wife’s slave instead. Ishmael is born. There are some family complications, and Abe finally has to send Ishmael and his mother away. He missed it. And the son he was promised finally came when he was 99 years old – almost 25 years after the promise.

Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph has a divine dream, two of them in fact, that he would be a great leader of his people. He’s a hot-headed, spoiled little punk, and rubs his brothers’ noses in it. They end up selling him into slavery, and he ends up in an Egyptian prison for several years. Ultimately, all that works out to make him a well-equipped leader when he finally is appointed Prime Minister of Egypt … about 15 years after the inspired dreams.

And we all know the story of “The Ten Commandments.” Who hasn’t seen the movie? Moses is the chosen deliverer of the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt. At the age of 40 he decides “now is the time,” and ends up murdering an Egyptian man who was abusing a fellow Israelite. And then has to flee Egypt to escape justice. He ends up tending goats and sheep for the next 40 years before God finally calls him through a burning bush.

The New Testament opens with stories about this exotic character, John the Baptist. He has a miraculous birth, born to elderly, barren parents, complete with angelic visitations and prophesy. He was called and destined to be the forerunner of the great Deliverer of Israel, yet he ends up living in the wilderness, wearing shabby clothes eating bugs. Then one day, “the word of God came to him while he was in the wilderness.” “Now is the time,” and he began his famous preaching.  But he had to wait, to live his life, until that time came. He had to wait until the authentic “word from God” said “go.”

Even Jesus – now there was some miraculous birth scenes. Immaculate conception, Holy Spirit impregnation, angelic proclamations – that whole scene from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” where Linus quotes from the gospel of Luke: “… and there in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid …”  Yet even Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was baptized by John and the Spirit descended upon him, empowering and affirming him: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…” Only then does Jesus’ miraculous ministry begin.

The bottom line

The button line is that just because God has a plan, just because he’s given you dreams, does not mean that those dreams start now. You may not be ready yet. In each of the biblical examples just mentioned, there was a time of preparation.  The gospel writers say of both John and Jesus that they “grew in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and with men.”  That is, they had some growing up to do. They weren’t ready to launch out into God’s promised plan or into their dream vocation right way. It took years before they were ready. And they had to wait for the divine green light: “now is the time.”  But that green light was legitimately divine, not just some positive word spoken by a feel-good, encouraging “prophet.”

God made some astounding promises to Abraham about his descendants, the nations of Israel and Ishmael. But they didn’t happen overnight. In fact, at one point, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and many of the people were yanked out of their homeland and taken into captivity to Babylon. They had their prophets claiming that God was about to rescue them and restore everything to its proper place.  But they lied. They were well-meaning, but they were wrong. And Jeremiah, a legit prophet of God, had this to say to them: “Settle in. Increase, grow. It’s gonna be a while, but I have plans for you …”

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.

This is what the LORD says: “When 70 years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise … For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…”  (Jeremiah 29:4-12)

We all love to quote that last verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…” But we almost always quote it out of context. The verse right before it says “When 70 years in Babylon are completed …”  There is a necessary period of development, of preparation and growth. There is a timetable for your dream, for God’s plan.  But “Now” may not be that time.

now3So when you hear the so-called prophets and diviners making these warm and happy claims that “this is the year of God’s favor for you, now is the time for you to step into your call and to fulfill your dream…,” take note. Listen inside yourself for the genuine voice of God. Is now really the time, or are you still in the prep stages – like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus?

Don’t get frustrated. Don’t become impatient. Don’t lose hope.

There will be a time when you get the green light from God, when the “word from God” will come to you in your wilderness. That will be the time to launch.  God does have a plan. God is working his plan. And God’s plan does include you. Your job in the meantime is to prepare, to learn, to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and men – to get ready for the right time. To wait for the appointed time.

“Now” may – or may not – be the time.  Discern for yourself. Wait for your own specific word. Don’t jump the gun – or you might just end up wandering around a mountain tending goats for 40 years.

photo credit: “High Fly,” Abhinay Omkar via Flickr, cc.

This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.

“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)

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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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Jesus in Drag

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Funny thing happened in church today. (Yeah, I know. Sounds like the start of a joke.) The church I frequently attend put on a nice Christmas program, with the choir singing some of the holiday favorites, interspersed with readings about Jesus, and a good mix of worship songs that never let our minds drift too far from the theme that Jesus is at the heart of our holiday.

God’s got an interesting sense of humor. Because, there I was, sitting way over in the left section of the sanctuary, empty seats around me, and about a half hour into the program, two women whom I thought might well be hookers, came in and sat next to me. I smiled and nodded politely — being the welcoming Christian gentleman that I pretend to be. And a few minutes later, in the middle of a choir member’s monologue, one of the lady’s phone goes off. And it’s ringing. Literally, ringing, like the old style phones. And it keeps ringing. And she’s fumbling with it, trying to shut it off. And still it rings. You’d think it would stop after a few rings — even if she can’t manage to find the mute — and go to voicemail. But no. It rings continuously for close to a minute. I thought, surely she’d just get up and leave the quiet intimacy of the sanctuary and try to deal with the noise out in the lobby. But no. Eventually, after what seemed an embarrassingly drawn out period of time, her friend grabs the phone from her and puts it under her thigh, effectively muffling it. After my initial sense of mortification and a brief moment of internal wrestling with judgmental indignation, I manage to find the humor in it, and just start chuckling. The one sitting on the phone looks over at me and starts to laugh too. Quietly, of course. And she smiles at me. Okay, “welcoming mission” accomplished.

The guy sitting right in front of me, also on an otherwise empty row, … I don’t know quite what to make of. At first glance, I thought he was one of the homeless youth we’re currently providing winter clothes for, but during the “meet and greet” — that moment all introverts dread — when I shook his hand and we exchanged names, I realized he was no teenager. He must have been in his 30s at least. And he couldn’t have been homeless because he was dressed in clean loungewear. A cut off tanktop that showed his belly (not rock-hard abs, in case you were wondering) and … I don’t even know what to call them: fuzzy pink and lime leppard print tights? Sweats? Yeah, not what they’re wearing on the streets these days.

That’s God’s sense of humor for you. In a room full of familiar faces, the handful of first-timers flocked to the seats immediately by me. The professional ladies and the … party boy? … and the uptight middle-class white guy in a constant battle to keep his Christianity real. We were like a reunion of the cast from the Island of Misfit Toys. Must be something about that side of the sanctuary that intuitively drew us — check who’s over on the left side next time you’re in church — or maybe God was just punking me. But hey, I did the smiley face pretty convincingly apparently, since the ladies chatted me up a bit afterwards, asking if I was a member, and telling me how they’d often walked past the place, but this was their first time to get the courage to come in, and how maybe they’ll see me next week. I only got to nod goodbye to the guy in the pink and lime jammies, as he kinda hurried out the door and I got caught up in after-church conversation that always seems to go on in places like that.

But here’s the kicker. During one of the choir monologues about Jesus being the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Gift of Love from the Father, the woman with the neverending-ringing cell phone had her eyes closed and her hands in the air. I think I even saw tears in the corner of her eyes. And her friend was just quietly smiling. And during one of the songs, I heard her whisper “Jesus.” And the fashionable guy in front of me was clapping in beat with some of the songs and standing at appropriate moments of worship.

I don’t know what was going on in their minds any more than I know what was going on in the hearts of the guys wearing suits a few rows up and to the right of me. But God was there. The Spirit connected with hearts that reached out for him. “Emmanuel. God with us.” And I got to witness a little bit of that taking place.

Jesus said whoever welcomes the least among us welcomes him. I’m still wrestling to shed my white, middle-class, evangelical uptightness, but at this particular holiday event, I was reminded powerfully — yet again — that Jesus comes in all shapes, sizes, and packaging.

Merry Christmas!

 

photo credit:  Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr, cc

 

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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.

 

 

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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 here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

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Stupid Religion

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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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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.

 

[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.
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Money, Personal Priorities, and Changing the World

change-the-worldWe live for money. Let’s be honest. Especially if we’re American. It’s in our blood. And despite all our insistence about living a life full of meaning and purpose, about being fulfilled, and not surrendering to the rancid materialism everywhere around us … we hold on to our debit cards like they were oxygen tanks under water.

Well, unless there’s a good sale going on at Macy’s.

It’s about priorities, after all, isn’t it?

But don’t worry. This isn’t gonna be some tirade about how we all need to make deep personal sacrifices to save the world. This isn’t going to be a sermon on “sell everything and give to the poor,” or even encouragement to tithe. (“Tithing?” Isn’t that Old Testament?)  But if we’d just do a little, it would be enough.  Stuff might actually happen. The world might become a better place.

Two things happened recently that bring this to a head for me.  My friend Josh recently told me about his “adventures” helping out another mutual friend during a time of financial crisis.  This mutual friend (I’ll call him Mike), had an unexpected emergency come up which put him in deep financial stress. His rent was due, and now he couldn’t pay it. His bank account was empty.  Josh had a little extra in his account, so the burning question of the day was, Should he loan the money to Mike?

Loaning money, to friends or anybody else for that matter, is a risky business. That old Shakespearian saying proves true all too often: “neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend.”  But we call ourselves Christian, and Jesus’ teaching on the matter is painfully clear. “If someone asks to borrow your coat, give him your shirt also…”  Jesus constantly challenges us to look to God as our ultimate financial backer, and not worry about pay back.  So, many people I know routinely consider every “loan” a gift. Can they afford to “give” the money away? If so, they let it go. If they get it back, that’s great. If not, well, God saw their hearts, he saw the sacrifice, and they leave it to him to sort it all out in the end.

Josh did have that little extra in his account that month, so he was able to help. But it would sting. It would deplete the “emergency reserve” he was trying to build up for himself.  Should he do it?  Could he afford to lose it if Mike never paid him back?  Time passed, and Mike, the needy friend, started getting eviction notices for overdue rent.  Josh wrestled with the decision for a few days, but during one sleepless night, he arrived at a decision. All night long, as he wrestled with the options, a phrase from the bible kept going through his head.  “Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good …” (Acts 10:38). If he called himself a Christian, if he really wanted to follow Jesus’ example, he should choose to “do the good thing.” And in this case, he decided, that meant helping out the friend in crisis – regardless of the risk and potential loss.  Maybe that isn’t the right answer every time someone wants to borrow money, but Josh felt like it was the Holy Spirit speaking to him about this specific case.

And he did it. He tapped his account and paid his friend’s rent.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story goes just the way you’re probably anticipating. Mike never did repay him, and it’ll take Josh months to save up enough to rebuild his emergency fund.  But he saw the look of relief on his friend’s face when the eviction notice got torn up, and knew he’d done the right thing.

Was he a sucker or a saint?

sanctuaryThis week, our church had its quarterly public meeting to open the books to the congregation. “Here is how much came in, here are our expenses, and here’s where the money went.”  And sadly, all too frequently, the weekly expenses outweigh the giving of the congregation.  And things have to be cut and staff doesn’t get paid.  The harsh truth came out in a single statement. “Our average weekly attendance is __, and if every one of our regular attenders gave just $20 a week, our budget would be completely met.”  Twenty bucks a week?  Not $20 more, mind you, just $20 total.  Never mind even mentioning “tithing.” Never mind special pleading from the pulpit, or sermons on promised prosperity to motivate believers to open their wallets.  (Do we really need sermons on Sunday solely for the purpose of raising enough funds to keep the doors open on Sunday?)

Bottom line:  Church functions and community services were being pinched because our own people weren’t taking ownership of them.

Here’s the simple truth:
The work of the Kingdom of God is done by the people of God. And that includes financial support. If the money doesn’t come in, the work doesn’t get done.

Even Jesus, with his miraculous powers to heal the sick, raise the dead, and speak the liberating truth of God’s love to unexpected people, even he was able to do ministry because people supported him financially (Luke 8:3).

That 20 bucks sticks in my mind.  It’s not so much, not such a big deal for most of us most of the time.  We all go through periods when every penny counts, but for most of us, those periods are short-lived, and we generally have the luxury of affording our daily Starbucks fix.  Or maybe it’s an iTunes fix or getting that latest smart phone.  I honestly do not believe God begrudges us those little pleasures.  He’s not stingy. He’s not an old curmudgeon, demanding we forego our caffeine for the sake of “the poor.”  But what does it say about our heart, about the condition of our “spiritual but not religious” priorities, when “good” isn’t being done because we won’t take financial responsibility for the work of the Kingdom?

What about the family next door whose kids live on peanut butter and grape jelly because mom isn’t bringing in enough money to put decent meals on the table – even if she had the time?   Could we add a couple of extra items to our grocery basket and quietly leave a bag on her doorstep?

starbucksThere’s that homeless guy who hangs out on the corner near work. Bet he’d appreciate a cold drink from the drive-thru on these sweat-soaking summer days.  Or a cup of soup when winter rolls around.  Will that break me once in a while?

Or when we see those commercials on TV about starving kids, and how “for just pennies a day …”?  Yeah, we can’t bankroll every charity with a good cause, but maybe just one …

Jesus spent a good deal of time talking about money. And if we call ourselves his followers, maybe we should work on this area a bit more.  Luke 16 records two parables he told, “The Shrewd Manager” and “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” both lessons in spiritual principles of money handling: “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home.”

The alternative is a world of suffering people untouched by us, and a less than rewarding future for us who ignored them.

I admit it. I live for money. I hate even saying it. But most of my waking hours are spent earning it and then consuming it.  What would happen if I altered my spending priorities just a little?  What if I made “giving” my priority — using more of my earthly resources to benefit others — and my daily latte became the optional “if I can afford it” item?  What if we all did?  Would the world hold Christians in such low esteem if we put our money where our mouth is?

What would the world look like if we all did just a little?  No huge sacrifice. No guilt-inducing sermons from the pulpit. No quitting our jobs and joining the Peace Corp, Vista or World Vision.  And no need to respond to every request for help that comes our way.  Just a little, here and there.  Just a little bit more.

We all don’t need to be missionaries, visionaries, millionaires or martyrs to change the world.  We only need to do just a little.

 

 

[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.
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Gay Pride: WWJD?

Well, it’s June. And for many LGBT people it’s a month of celebration, of parties, of activism and awareness. In the U.S., President Obama once again officially proclaimed June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.  Of course, June has been “Gay Pride” month since the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, and there are parades and festivities occurring this month all around the world, from Omaha to London to Tel Aviv to Shanghai. Cities across the globe have cordoned off streets and beaches for the concerts and parties. The parades have become the public arena for corporate floats, aspiring politicians, community activists, churches, and everyday citizens demonstrating for civil rights and social acceptance, as well as those out just for a good time.

And then there’s the other side. The drunkenness, the public display of nudity and sexuality, the flaunting of common decency in the name of shock value “because we can”. Many of the events are family-friendly, but many have come out of the seedy, dark underground where practices not really suited for prime time are now being aired defiantly. It’s Mardi Gras with a rainbow flag.

Like a lot of things in our world today, Christians even remotely interested in such events are faced with a dilemma. Do I go?  Do I participate? Or is this something that should be completely avoided?

I asked a few of my Christian friends for their opinions, and as expected, received answers ranging all along the spectrum, from adamantly opposed, to strongly supportive, and even apathy and uncertainty in between. Regardless of the value or lack of value in supporting the cause of civil rights, is it appropriate for Christians to associate with these kinds of events and these kinds of people? As one friend quoted the Bible to me, “what partnership does righteousness have with lawlessness; what fellowship has light with darkness?” But as another friend countered, “how else is the light to shine except in darkness? The light shines, and darkness has not overcome it.”  But I think even that whole imagery misses the point.

Everyone will have to answer that question for themselves, according to their own motivations and conscience, but I thought it would be helpful to ask that popular question, “What would Jesus do?”

I think everyone will agree that Gay Pride celebrations are generally not for the timid or faint of heart. There are strongly motivated people out there — those advocating their liberty, those voicing opposition, and those just plain ole acting up. And it should go without saying that followers of Jesus probably shouldn’t be active participants in lewdness and debauchery — however your conscience defines those. But large-scale public celebrations — especially this one — are filled with hurting and hungry people. And that to me is the key to solving the dilemma.

Jesus went wherever people needed him. “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. I have not come for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:30-32). “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance” (Jn 10:10).

This motivation drove Jesus to some very questionable places and caused him to associate with certain types of people that the more religious would never even talk to much less hang out with. His behavior and choice of companions so outraged the religious that they called him a drunk and a glutton (Mt 11:19). They accused him of being demon possessed. Why? Because he loved people.

And let’s be clear about one thing here: while Jesus would not have been condoning out-of-control behavior, he was no stranger to parties and enjoying himself. Remember his first miracle? It was at a wedding reception, where celebrating people were busy getting drunk. And what does he do? Give them more wine to celebrate. (John 2). And he was frequently seen at banquets and dinner parties, hanging around tax collectors, corrupt officials, prostitutes. The Pharisees of his day called him on it: how can you associate with such unclean people? Religious people, of any generation, seem to share the same attitude.

But Jesus saw something, he knew something, that they did not. He understood the heart of God.

Would Jesus go to a Gay Pride parade? You bet he would.

He’d use whatever means he could to show people how important they are to the Father. He might march in the parade or ride on one of the floats, waving at the people. I doubt he’d be wearing a feather boa or buttless chaps, but he’d certainly have a booth out on the fair grounds with big signs telling people that God loved them. He’d be shouting into the crowds (in a very undignified way), “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He’d say, “Come to me, all who are hungry, and let me give you what you’re seeking. Come to me, all of you who are thirsty, and I will give you water to drink that will fill your souls and overflow out of you to water others.” He’d be reaching out, with arms extended, “You who are tired of church, you who have been damaged by religion, come to me. Let me love you, let me show you who God really is.”

Jesus loved people, and he’d go wherever the people were. To love them. To bless them. To help them. And simply to enjoy their company.

Of course he’d be at Gay Pride celebrations — where so many Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual and Transgender people have been rejected by our religious organizations, our churches, hurt by family, told they are hated by God, told they are going to hell. Is there any other group of people more needing of the love and acceptance of Jesus?

Would he be among the conservative church goers there, the Westboro crowd, holding up protest signs that say “Fags go to Hell”, or hurling insults at those dressed in feather boas or sexually-explicit costumes? Would he be among those throwing stones? Did he EVER do that in the Gospels? No.

Today, at any Gay Pride parade or picnic he went to, he’d walk up to such “scandalous” people, wrap his arms around them, kiss them on the cheek, and say “You are SO loved by the Father.” Some people would reject him, now just as they did 2000 years ago. But those who hunger for a relationship with God would hug him back, and follow him to some grassy picnic area where he’d tell them stories about how the Kingdom of God is made up of people such as themselves.

And from such people — the regular joes in jeans and t-shirts drinking their beer, the militant activists venting outrage at oppression, the same-sex parented families wanting to raise their kids in an accepting world, the male dancers in tighty-whities, the biker dykes, the rodeo cowboys, the drag queens with giant hair and 4 inch heels, the bears, the twinks, the lipstick lesbians, the bisexuals fighting for a place at the table in either community, the questioning and uncertain boys and girls trying to sort out who they are and what they want, the transgender men and women rebuilding their lives to match their true identities, the confident, the weak, the strong, the broken, the whole, the off-balanced, the healthy and those struggling for recovery — from all these people he would raise up followers who would know the grace of God and see a face of God that those who grew up in the church may never see and may never experience.

Not everybody at Gay Pride celebrations is hurt or damaged, of course. And only a small percentage of those gathered at these events will be acting in outrageous ways. Many people will be there just for the festivities and entertainment. Many of these will be fellow believers — gay and straight. And Jesus would be sitting at their table, sharing hamburgers with them, blessing them, listening to their stories and encouraging them. He’d laugh with them, cry with them, and remind them that he’s always with them and will never abandon them.

Should a Christian, gay or straight, attend Gay Pride events? That, of course, depends on your motive for being there. If you’re there to throw stones, or to hold up signs and shout protests through bullhorns, it’s best if you stay home. The love of God is not reflected in your actions. The pain you’re inflicting and the division you’re trying to cause do not reflect the heart of Jesus. But if you’re there to show love, to support, to encourage, to speak life into people, then by all means, Go!

When I think about Jesus, any question of whether it’s appropriate or right for a person of faith to go to Pride events melts away. People are there. So the Spirit of God is there. All we need to ask ourselves — all we should be imitating in our own lives — is What would Jesus Do?

 

 

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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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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!

Party at Levi’s House

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. (Mark 2:15)

Your church’s effectiveness and how close it aligns with God’s heart and priorities can be measured by the number of sinners you’re attracting.

Jesus drew people by love, by radical acceptance. Not by judgement, or by calls for repentence and holy living. Not even by preaching profound biblical truth. People were amazed at his words of grace. They were amazed at his teaching with authority — not like the teachers they were accustomed to. And the only way one can preach with authority, with God’s power, is by being in touch with God’s heart. And the loving, longing heart of God attracts people. All kinds of people. The worst kinds of people.

You’re wondering where the power is? You’re praying for explosive church growth like in the New Testament?

Well, how may “sinners” are in your services? How many are you attracting?

Something to think about …