A Simple Truth….

If Grace is trueI once considered human freedom the most persuasive argument against the salvation of every person. My friend asked, “How can you believe God would send his children to hell?” I replied, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell. They send themselves. God simply respects their freedom.” Human freedom was the linchpin of my theology. We were saved not by grace, but by our decision to accept God’s grace. I argued that though grace is a gift, it must be unwrapped. Though God’s grace was for all people, only those who accepted the gift could enjoy its benefits. I thought God’s mercy and compassion were reserved for those who, like me, responded quickly and correctly. Grace, when rejected, was withdrawn.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 103). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I must admit that I too hinge much of my theology on human freedom. I often say that the bad things that happen to man are the result of his previous poor choices and they are not the will of God.  I rail against those who claim that everything that happens on earth is God’s will or that every baby born of rape was God’s will. I absolutely disagree that every baby that dies in childbirth is what God wanted. Free will is indeed a lynchpin of my theology. I put everything back on me. It was my choice.

I totally rejected predestination as much as my Calvinist friends cling to it. They think God has chosen them to be in heaven but generally damns most to hell.  But I did believe that somehow God hides his grace from those who don’t work hard to find it and personally accept it. I believed that God is only gracious to those who have been baptized in his name.  He would be gracious to me if I jumped through all the hoops that my clergyman put in front of me. If I didn’t do that or failed to say the right words that God would turn his back on me and  push me into hell. In other words I put condition after condition on God’s grace.

It was only after much prayer and meditation that I come to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t come to give us a magic formula for salvation that he hid away for us to discover. Jesus told us that God loves us all and the only thing he asks is that we love him back and to love each other as he loves us. Given the hell and damnation that many of us grew up with this simple lesson is hard to accept.

I have come to apply Occam’s Razor to my beliefs in this area.  We tend to try to complicate everything we touch. We add conditions and rules to everything. But as Occam said oftentimes the simplest solution is the best one.  God told us through Jesus that He loves us all and wants all of us to be with him. Why shouldn’t I accept that simple statement as the real truth? Why do I insist on taking that power away from God?

Being Afraid of God…. (Part 1)

If Grace is trueI am saddened by how many people are afraid of God, projecting their negative experiences with parents and the Church onto God. Often we’ve reinforced these false images of God. I assured Susan her Father in heaven was different from her earthly father. I could tell she wanted to believe me but still hesitated.

Susan asked me, “What if you’re wrong, and I believe you and go to hell?” I replied, “Do you really think God would damn you to hell for overestimating his love?”

Susan didn’t leave our church. In the following years, she cautiously opened her heart and mind to the notion that God could speak to her and she could experience him directly. But more than that, as her awareness of God’s love increased, she began to suspect God felt about everyone the way he felt about her. She began to believe something beautiful about God.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 46). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition

I too grew up with the fear of God’s wrath.  It frightened me even at an early age. The Susan mentioned here was a member of Mr. Gulley’s church who was struggling with the difference between God’s wrath and His grace.  She feared that if she did not fear God enough that he would send her to hell.  She was afraid that God would punish her if she gave herself totally over to his grace. Mr. Gulley had to convince her that even though something bad had happened to her doesn’t mean that God caused it to happen. Susan had grown up in churches that were heavy on “hell and damnation” and light on grace.

I know there are a number of denominations who emphasize God’s wrath. They treat God as this fearful being who spends his time damning people to an eternity of hell. Some say if you curse, drink alcohol or even dance that God will come down on you hard. To me these denominations seem to totally ignore Jesus of the New Testament and his unending love for each of us.

To me it is totally unChristian to ignore Jesus’ agape love so that those in authority can control the behavior of their congregations but that is just what seems to be happening in too many churches today.  While Jesus had some pretty stern words for the clergy of his day he also showed his love for everyone else. Especially those who sinned the worst.  I suspect that most of the “wrath” preaching is one from personal power rather than the love of God.

We will continue on with the topic of being afraid of God in the next post.

Merely Human Rules….

Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’  You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.  You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 

Mark 7:6-9

Jesus spoke these words to the religious establishment of his times. The Pharisees asked him “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”  I don’t think they expected Jesus to call them hypocrites!  I wonder what Jesus would say today to the current religious establishments? I kind of thing it would be in the same vain.

Not only have we now split into 39,000 different versions of Christianity but we probably also have that many or more different “human rules” for being Christians. Being that is the case I’m pretty sure that Jesus would once again say You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 

When asked to sum up what it means to be a follower of Jesus he gave us two simple commands. He knew that we get distracted easily and run off on tangents so he kept it simple.  He said it all boils down to two simple things. Love God and love each other. How did we screw up such a simple command.? How did we end up with so many different versions of his church?

I would also include all the creeds and doctrines generated after Jesus’ death and resurrection as being human rules and traditions.  The church leaders throughout history just can’t seem to see how simple he meant the church to be. They insisted that we also believe hundreds of other things. Just look at the creeds and such they invented. The Nicene Creed is a perfect example.  While I am attuned to many of the statements in that document I  know it is made up of “beliefs” that have little to do with actually being a follower of Jesus is about.

When creeds and such are used as a way to separate the church into different factions, as they often are, they are more destructive than they are helpful. Let’s just concentrate on what Jesus told us to do and love him and each other.  When we honor Jesus with only our words (lips) but not in our hearts (action) then we are worshiping in vain.

I’m not saying that human traditions and belief have no value to us. They help us understand the history of the church and what some of the previous followers thought about God and that is very helpful. But when those traditions and beliefs get in the way of the two loves we must understand that they are not from God but are someone’s meager attempts to describe an indescribable being.

If God is Love (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my collection of snippets from the book by Philip Gulley entitled If God is Love.

The Psalmists boats, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hate. I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22). Hatred, when directed at those we have judged wicked, becomes a sign of religious devotion rather than a grievous sin. The enemy is not loved, but destroyed, not prayed for, but preyed upon.

We can protest religious hatred and violence are sins of the past, but to do so we must ignore current Christian visions of the future. How do we explain the tremendous popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books? These books, which have sold millions of copies have spawned two movies, portray a future in which Evangelical Christians are saved while everyone else is destroyed. They proclaim a Jesus with a sword in hand atop a charging steed, initiating a violent end.

Our violent religious past and expectations of a wrathful future impinge on Christian behavior today. David Beneke, a leader in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, discovered this reality shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He was suspended for eighteen months from his duties and required to defend himself before a variety of denominational panels. His sin was not something as radical as believing in the salvation of all people. His crime was joining with Muslim, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh religious leaders in a prayer service at Yankee Stadium. He was accused of praying with “heathens”. He said “This ordeal reveals the hard side of Christianity”.

If fairness, similar stories abound in other religious traditions. This arrogant exclusivity plagues all the great religions. Adherents of each faith hate the “other” — Christians hate heathens; Muslims hate infidels; Jews hate Gentiles. For many, religion is how we decide who to love and who to hate.

As I have said many times Jesus melted down the Old Testament laws into just two: Love God and Love your fellow man. Hate was not in this mix. Why do so many current day religious institutions base so much of their practices on hate? One thing I love about reading Philip Gulley is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He certainly didn’t in this example. 🙂

If God Is Love… (Part1)

I am going to start a series of posts around quotes from some of the many books I have read. One of the favorites is the book “If God is Love” by Philip Gulley. Here is the quote for today:

When Jesus redefined kinship, he was challenging their exclusive circle by declaring that anyone in any place who did the will of God regardless of social standing or religious affiliation, was his brother or sister.  Kinship is not a matter of racial, religious, or cultural conformity. It was the by-product of a commitment of the will of God — to love and care for all.

The theology of love begins with the assumption that all people are God’s cherished children and deserving of love. “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars, for they do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen”  (1 John 4:19-20). Jesus demonstrated his lover for outcasts, those many considered unlovable. Regrettably, many Christians have been unwilling to adopt the ethic of Jesus — a theology of inclusion, acceptance, and love, We’ve been unwilling to love and accept our enemies. We haven’t even be excited about loving our neighbors.

We should all be getting out of our church pews and into the community to re-affirm that we do indeed love our neighbor. We must show the Lord’s love in our lives if we are true followers of Jesus Christ. To hunker down in our church building  against the big bad world and wait for the second coming is not what Jesus preached. Jesus was a lover of the unlovable and we should at least attempt to do the same. If we are only willing to allocate those two hours a week on Sunday mornings to God then maybe we should occasionally skip the pews and get out in the community and get our hands dirty!

I must admit that I feel closer to God when I do community service than when I am sitting in a church pew.  And that is how it should be.