Spirituality · Uncategorized

What difference does it make?

Some time back, someone whom I love and respect whose spiritual views are very different from mine asked me what difference my faith made to me. I gave her an inadequate and inarticulate answer about hope. Once in a while that conversation comes to mind and irritates me. I’m not promising a magical answer here, either, but I want to address a few things that I failed to convey then.

A lot of people claim that God makes their life better without qualifying the statement. Others seem to work really hard to qualify it, pointing to his supernatural influence as the thing that got them a new job, perhaps, or a clean bill of health after an illness. I am not here to disagree with them; I’m not in their shoes. Usually, though, that’s not how I feel about my interactions with the divine.

So, how does my faith enrich my life?

  • The most important thing I can say is that it doesn’t fix my life in the short term. I can’t objectively judge what God has effected in my life because his hand is not always visible to me. So maybe he has made my life easier and better in ways I’m not aware of, but I still struggle to not let depression get the better of me, to motivate myself to do the stuff of daily living, to build relationships and show love. Bad things happen and will continue to happen. But you know that desperate feeling that life is not as it should be? That restless, almost angry stirring that says you should be feeling another way that you try really hard to suppress with worldly distractions? I still have that feeling a lot and still occasionally try to buy or exercise or plan or volunteer my way out of it. But I know that it won’t work. And this is where I find comfort: I believe that I DO know where that feeling comes from and what will ultimately fix it. I will continue to experience it here, but I don’t seek its resolution in the same unhealthy ways I might if I didn’t believe the way I do. I’m also not destroyed when I recognize the futility of those efforts because I already knew they were futile, but I believe that the thing I’m missing IS obtainable after death. Waiting still stinks, though. 🙂
  • This seems off-subject, but to relate the meaning that faith holds for me, I need to address two things about Christianity which often concern people: the biblical assertion that Christ is the only way and the related concept of Hell. I understand why these topics upset people – they absolutely ARE upsetting. My view of faith is dependent on God’s goodness and I don’t believe these apparent hang-ups are obstacles to that goodness. These views likely won’t sway people who don’t already have Christian sympathies and they aren’t unique or revolutionary, but maybe they will be another perspective for someone struggling to reconcile these facets of the religion with their faith. To be clear, though, I may be way off-base. I am not the one who defines goodness, so while I seek truth and have feelings on the matter, I’m no authority.
    • Many of my more conservative friends will passionately disagree with me, but while I believe Christ is the only way, I don’t believe that looks the same to all people. I think it entirely probable that acknowledgment and acceptance of Christ can even happen when the person doesn’t know him by that name. This is not a post-modern or universalist assertion. But I think Christ affects us all individually, quite outside of human religious constructs. I think it is presumptuous to assume that Christ couldn’t reveal himself in a completely different way to someone whose life experience and soul is different from mine. Bottom line: I don’t know, but I do trust God’s goodness.
    • Hell is one of those things that is still largely mysterious to me. I haven’t read anything in the Bible that gives me a solid grasp. What I do believe is that God created humanity and the world we live in. I believe that he cares about that creation and hates what hurts it. I trust that if my soul is so polluted that it would threaten the goodness of his creation, he won’t allow me to continue beyond this life. I also believe that separation from God would be unbearably painful.

Thank you for letting me define the fruits of my faith in a small way. Feel free to weigh in, disagree, agree, whatever floats your boat – as long as you keep it kind. Happy Tuesday!

Uncategorized

Raisins of the Spirit

A week or so ago, I heard a passage that never fails to provoke in me simultaneous feelings of peace and longing. Acts 2:44-46: And those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread together with gladness and sincerity of heart.

“…with gladness and sincerity of heart” grabbed me that day, because my own heart was feeling neither. I was tired, irritable and didn’t want to be there. Unfortunately, this has been a common theme for me of late. I’ve been aware for some time that I am not bearing fruit for Christ; raisins, maybe. While I haven’t felt particularly called to a new undertaking, I have absolutely been called to serve in other, perhaps humbler ways, like showing my family and friends love and generosity. They know that I love them, and while I still go through most of the motions of serving them, my heart hasn’t been in it. It feels like a gargantuan effort.

My husband and I are expecting a baby and I’ve recently transitioned to full-time stay-at-home momhood. These are both incredibly joyful things, but I do recognize the part that these major physical and emotional changes probably play in my current feelings. Nonetheless, I stubbornly refuse to relinquish these things to God. I don’t WANT to serve. Well, no; that’s not entirely true: I want to serve me. While I know that serving Him is infinitely more rewarding, it often feels difficult. What I’ve been mulling over is why it feels that way.

I know that I can’t manage gladness and sincerity of heart through plain old willpower. Fruit of the spirit flows from my connection with God. And it does take work to maintain or reestablish relationship. I’ve never been particularly good at that, even in my people relationships. Over and over again, I fall short. I pray often, but seldom with the kind of abandon necessary. What do I mean by that? If you’ve been there, you know. I hold back from God. Get down on my knees and commit to repentance? Hmmm… maybe tomorrow. The passage above is a perfect example. I read about the disciples of the early church selling all their possessions and giving to others and I think, that sounds incredible. I mean, I don’t know that I want to sell everything I own, but I’d like to have that. Honestly, it sounds more like wishful idealism than a real possibility. How sad! Like the rich man who couldn’t quite bring himself to give everything (Luke 18-30), I hoard my demons. Neither have I been stimulating reflection through Bible study or any other study. It is time to put these things right.

God, please forgive me for stumbling again and again. Please grant me the love, humility and courage to seek your will instead of my own. In Christ’s name, Amen.

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Fruit and Good Judgment

Both the New and Old Testaments include sobering, no-nonsense warnings about false prophets and how to avoid them. The one that I suppose I’ve read most often is Matthew 7:15-20.

15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

I may be absolutely wrong, but I’m not aware of any passage that addresses judging a teaching by its fruit; rather, the teacher is to be judged this way. Is that just semantics, or is this an important distinction?

I’ve recently started reading a book called “God and the Gay Christian” by Matthew Vines. Matthew is a gay man who shares the results of his journey to understand scripture as it relates to homosexuality. This is an issue I’ve avoided, because, quite frankly, I’m not sure I like what the Bible says about it. This is not the kind of Christian I want to be, so it’s time to try to understand it better. I’m not sure where this particular book will take me but I want to be open to and objective about both the conservative and liberal arguments.

One of Vine’s opening arguments in favor of homosexuality in a Christian context is that the teachings against homosexual practice have yielded bad fruit. He goes on to address specific passages, but this initial idea intrigued me and I feel like it applies to more than just this issue. I’m trying to test it and having a difficult time. I don’t want to over-paraphrase, but I think it would be fair to say that Vines believes that trying to change or repress homosexuality in an effort to live a faithful Christian life often yields bad fruit: a tortured soul and body. He supports this argument in much greater detail, but I’m going to leave it at that for this post. So… does this hold water?

First, I tried to compare it to other teachings that might yield similar fruit. I think most people can feel pushed to the brink and even over the edge by repressing desires. The question, though, is whether the desire is good. Most would agree that feeling suicidal because you’re desperately trying to resist the urge to hurt another person doesn’t mean you should go ahead and give in. On the other hand, repressing the desire to reach out and help someone in need can drive us crazy, too, and for the most part, we should seek opportunities to do that. The problem is that it seems to me a teaching can yield lots of different fruit, depending on the student and the implementation. But when I looked at passages about fruit, as I mentioned above, it isn’t the teaching at issue, but the teacher: Matthew 7:20: “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” But what are those fruits? Are the fruits of a prophet the teachings themselves or the fruits of those teachings? We know, for example, that a prophet should confess Christ (1 John 4:2) and that the things they say should come to pass (Deut 18:22). Those things alone could be fruits. So could the prophets’ personal traits. Galations 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Presumably, a teacher can be God-honoring and exhibit the fruits of the spirit, but also occasionally perpetuate a bad teaching. We are all sinful.

So, if you made it this far, I would really like to know what you think. Can we judge a teaching by its fruit? Does Vine’s argument work?

Happy Sunday!

Prophets Project · Uncategorized

Prophets Project – Ezekiel

If you’re following our joint prophets study, Crystal and I recently finished the book of Isaiah and are now blogging through Ezekiel. She suggested that we focus on cross-references, which is not something I’ve spent much time doing before. It should be interesting. 🙂

Ezekiel, so far, is mind-blowing. When the book opens, he is an exile in Babylon and warns his fellow Jews about the tribulation to come as a result of their disloyalty to God. His visions are so strange. I took the time, though, to create those visions (as specifically as possible based on his descriptions) in my mind. That sounds simple, but it taxed my feeble brain. Nonetheless, it enriched the reading tremendously.

When I looked at the cross references, the ones that most intrigued me were those that referenced other Old Testament prophets. Some of the imagery Ezekiel uses, which seems so unique, is paralleled in Jeremiah and Daniel. Interestingly, these three prophets were contemporaries. Were they aware of each others’ prophecies? Were some of these images already relevant or particularly meaningful to that culture? The answers to those questions interest me because I’m always looking for evidence that points toward the supernatural. I know that it is difficult to validate matters of faith and that what seems like strong evidence to me can be argued six ways from Sunday. Doesn’t matter. I’m still always on the lookout and can’t seem to help it.

A few other things that caught me. In chapter 3:1-3, God instructs Ezekiel to eat a scroll with His words written on it. The scroll contained “…words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” (2:10), and yet tasted “…as sweet as honey.” (3:3). This is so interestingly dissonant to me. It reminded me of “…the bread of adversity and the water of affliction…” of Isaiah 30:20 and speaks, I think, to the idea of refinement through fire and that pain and suffering can be blessings, if they cause us to repent.

Again in chapter 3: Compare and contrast verses 16-21 and 22-27. Ezekiel is told that it is his responsibility to warn people who are behaving wickedly and give them the opportunity to repent. If I apply this to my own life… well… I stink at it. Telling someone that they are in the wrong is a very difficult thing to do. To complicate matters, verses 22-27 tell us that Ezekiel will only be free to speak to the people when he is speaking directly and specifically for God. So, how confident can we be correcting the behavior of others? Cross reference with Matthew 7:3 and any number of other New Testament verses. That isn’t a rhetorical question, by the way. I’d love to hear what you think. My takeaway is that I have to be careful and prayerful, but if I truly believe, the only loving thing to do is to communicate what I know. Scary and hard.

In chapter 4:12-15, God tells Ezekiel how he should prophesy and includes an instruction to eat his food baked on “…human dung.” Read for context, but there’s no getting around the ewww factor here. Anyway, Ezekiel argues with God, saying he’s never “defiled” himself in that way and God concedes. Now, we’ve seen God respond this way before, but how crazy. First, crazy that Ezekiel would argue with God (at least at first blush), and second, that God would (hope this isn’t too blasphemous) give in. Now, I’d wager that, in fact, many of us know what it is to argue with God, but seldom do I feel like I’m in the right. It’s a reminder, though, that if I feel called to do something and don’t want to do it, it is good to seek further guidance. So often, I have ignored good impulses, when perhaps there were other ways to fulfill those calls.

Okay, I promise that I’m winding down… so much good stuff this week! Just a couple of parting thoughts. In 6:9, God states that He has “…been broken” by the disregard His people have shown Him. I know I’ve talked about our ability to affect God before, so I won’t elaborate, but wow. Powerful words.

Finally, I think that 7:19 is so very relevant. “They cast their silver into the streets, and their gold is like an unclean thing. Their silver and gold are not able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord. They cannot satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs with it. For it was the stumbling block of their iniquity.”

Even though I know that satisfaction is not possible except in Christ, I look for it here all the time. I try to satisfy my hunger and fill my stomach with that which never can.

God, let our desire, our hunger, lead us to you. Amen. Continue reading “Prophets Project – Ezekiel”

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Hell – Accepting my Confusion

Hell is a sticking point for so many people. And why not? It IS distressing and it IS difficult. I never know quite how to respond when someone raises the issue. “How could a loving creator allow his children to suffer eternally?” And actually, not all Christians understand hell that way, but that is beside the point for this post. I can’t give you a neat, it-all-makes-sense-now explanation for hell; but as inconclusive as my current stance is, it has brought me a certain measure of peace (anyway, as much peace as one can feel when the issue at hand is hellfire ;)) that I hope will encourage someone else.

I don’t know what hell looks like. I do believe it is real. I believe it is separation from God, which we can freely choose. I believe that it is terrible. Some theologians and Christians might argue even those points and biblical references to hell are difficult to understand. Scripture has inspired many well-researched theories about the nature of hell and there are so many cultural and historical factors that color our perception. Just one example might be the compelling translation studies about our present understanding of the word “eternal” versus the way it was used in the Bible.

I think the hardest thing for me about these kinds of theories is separating what I WANT to be true from what IS true. Objectivity is never easy in spiritual matters, but it is especially difficult for this overly emotional bleeding heart. :). Bottom line, I think there are things we can know about hell (and to study it is fascinating), but there are things we are simply not given.

I have lots of questions and will continue to study the issue, because I’ve found that prayerful persistence can bring clarity. That being said, I’ve felt less confusion and doubt about hell lately. Because God’s goodness has been made so very apparent to me in other areas of my life, I’m able to have some trust. I know not everyone is in that place; however, if you are someone who is seeking God and feeling a pull in his direction but the hell issue trips you up – maybe set it aside for a while. I’m not saying you shouldn’t wrestle with it and even come to some conclusions about it, but see if you can trust Christ with the small stuff first and you might find yourself more able to trust him with the rest.

Ecclesiastes 12:7: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

Spirituality

A Difficult Question of Morality and Accountability

I find it very hard to fault people for their thoughts, feelings and inclinations, even when they are clearly wrong; probably because I haven’t learned to control my own thoughts. And I can’t deny, part of me feels like it isn’t possible. I am ashamed of this meagerness of faith. I do believe that right thinking is a gift that God bestows in increasing measure as we grow in Him. This train of thought, though, has me wondering about sin and accountability.

The Bible tells us that our thoughts can be sinful, just as our actions can be sinful. Matthew 5:28 is a good example:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

This verse has always been hard for me. How does one keep things from occurring to them in the first place? I don’t believe that Jesus would tell us not to do something if we had no ability to abstain from it. Again, I think we have to rely on God for help.

But what about people who have diminished capacity, or some other circumstance that brings their accountability into question? For example, I’ve known people whose childhoods were full of painful abuse and neglect. Consequently they lacked understanding of appropriate behavior in some way or another. Impulses and desires learned in childhood don’t always go away with age. One person in particular that I’m talking about has these disadvantages coupled with decreased capacity. I don’t know what his developmental age is, but I know it doesn’t match his physical age. Now, as an adult, he knows what he is not supposed to do, knows that at least in name, those things are “wrong.” He still does them, or at least tries.

I don’t know much about Catholicism, but the Catholic acceptance of an age of accountability has always intrigued me. I don’t know if this idea is biblical (if you know any applicable scripture, please share), but I vividly remember changing – a sort of transition from childhood – when I was 11 years old. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but it is an oddly distinct memory for me. My question is this: What if, developmentally, some people never reach that age of accountability? Is the evil they do really their own? And what if they don’t turn to God in their lifetime because they simply have no concept of God? Or must we assume that every single person has the capacity to know God? That simply by virtue of being, they already do? John 1:9 could be read that way, I think:

There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.

These are tough issues for me. I have a hard enough time with absolutes, but when they concern what goes on in someone’s head… well, that’s harder, still. I can’t know what happens in anyone else’s brain. Very often I can’t even follow what’s going on in my own! But the Bible does use words like “every” and “all.”  My views and beliefs are becoming more specific, but accepting the things that are black and white is an ongoing struggle.

I’d love to know how other people think and feel about these things – please feel free to share! And if you have scripture that might help clarify a related biblical position, it would be very much appreciated. Thanks for reading and have a GREAT weekend!

Spirituality

All or Nothing?

Yesterday, I told you that I have a hard time with black and white. Continuing in that vein, I’d really appreciate some perspective on a passage from Acts. I’ve included the scripture selection at the bottom of this post for reference.

First, a little background. If you’ve been reading the blog, you know that I started attending a Bible study that is reading through and discussing the book of Acts. Since I was a late-starter, I decided to catch up and read the first five chapters. Acts begins with Luke recounting the ascension of Jesus. He proceeds to give us the history of the early Christian church. After Jesus ascended, his disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and went out to teach and preach, performing good works and miracles. The number of followers increased rapidly and Luke tells us that Christ’s followers lived communally in that no ones’ possessions were their own. They divided all that they had amongst each other according to need and lived simply.

Acts 5:1-11 introduces us to Ananias and Sapphira. The couple sold a possession, but instead of dedicating all of the proceeds to the cause, they reserved some of it for themselves. Peter confronted them, saying that they lied not “…to men but to God.” When confronted, Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead.

So, what are we to take from this? Is “all or nothing” the moral of this story? I feel like there are a few things left unsaid here. Notably, what was their ultimate fate? Would it have been better for Ananias to give nothing? I wonder – can any of us truly say that we give our all – no holds barred – to anything? I don’t want to read something that isn’t there – the Bible never says that God struck them down or in any way directly caused their deaths, but I feel like that’s the implication. What do you think? I’m really very interested to hear some opinions or educated commentary. Thanks!!

Acts 5: 1-11

Lying to the Holy Spirit

 1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. 2 And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? 4 While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
5 Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. 6 And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.
7 Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?”
She said, “Yes, for so much.”
9 Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. 11 So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.