Just Ants Under the Magnifier

AntLife is a test. And God is the Great Examiner. He places us in various circumstances and situations to see how we’ll conduct ourselves in the midst. He watches to see whether we pass or fail. If we do the right thing in a given situation … for example, if we don’t get wasted on Friday night, and if we do help that old lady across the street, always tell the truth, never steal anything, don’t have sex with the wrong person or at the wrong time, memorize our weekly Sunday School Bible verse, never drop an F-bomb, and give enough money to the church or charity, etc., etc.; then we get a higher grade … a passing grade, and we get to go to Heaven when we die; where there will be no more testing going on. That’s pretty much the way it is. The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.

And everything you just read … is 100% cockamamie bull$&!*. (By the way, does anybody know what “cockamamie” actually is?)

In fact, the Bible (when taken as a whole) doesn’t say that, and I don’t believe that, although I’m also pretty sure that that still doesn’t settle it for many. Honestly, I myself have often thought … and even said in the past, that life is essentially a test. But if it really were so, doesn’t that sound a bit boring and sterile … or worse yet, kind of cruel? Who’d be up for that? Really? It brings to mind that mean kid with the magnifier frying ants on the sidewalk … where God’s the mean kid, you & I are the ants; and he’s just watching, waiting, and toying with us to see how much heat we can take before we either burn to a crisp or run away as fast as we can.

And honestly, isn’t that exactly how many of us have viewed life and God in our experience? And if so, is it any wonder that most of us spend the greater portion of our existence running to get away from him as fast and as far as possible … just like the ant on the sidewalk, bolting for the tall grass with his hair on fire (literally) to get away from the mean magnifier kid? And if so, who could really blame us? The story’s as old as Genesis. And make no mistake, it’s my story, too.

But is it actually so? Is life truly like that? If we are to believe so, then we must also assert that this overseeing God is a blatant hypocrite. After all, isn’t it he who commanded that we “do not put the Lord your God to the test,” as stated in Deut. 6:16 & Lk. 4:12? You’d also have to assume that God is a lot like the kid on the sidewalk … mean, aloof, uncaring, cruel, heartless, out of touch, and just kind of jacking with us. To be sure, life is very often unbearably difficult (gross understatement), and certainly feels like a test … or like a magnifier beating down on us in the hot sun. But who’s actually holding the glass? Well, if you believe in this kind of stuff, some might say the devil … or some incarnate force of evil. If you’re political, you might say it’s Obama … or John Boehner, or “the Man.” And maybe it is one of those or many others we could cite, but I’m pretty sure it’s not God. I think God is actually more likely to be the mean kid’s dad who sees what’s going on and puts the little brat in time out while he (Dad) gently picks up the injured, exhausted, and bewildered little ant, and sets him free in the cool grass of the lawn … hopefully to live a full and meaningful little ant life. After all, would a God who wishes not to be tested himself, then turn around and inflict the same on another? I think not. I certainly hope not! Furthermore … and here’s the real crux of the matter … he has no need to do so anyway. He already knows we’d fail the test … just like the ant couldn’t possibly outlive or outrun the heat of the magnified sun. The task at hand (and the mean kid holding the glass) is just too big … too hard … too monumental … too cruel for him to overcome. And God knows the same of us. He already knows we’ll fail the test miserably. In fact, he outright tells us so … right there in Psalm 103:14! “… he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Life, and all it will throw at us is just too big, too heavy, too hard, too overwhelming, and too hot for us to prevail. We absolutely, positively will fail in one or more of the major areas of life … marriage, parenting, sexuality, finances, moral purity, ethics, compassion, and so on. We will succumb at some point in our journey to envy, greed, lust, anger, gossip, selfishness, faithlessness, discouragement, fear, and many more. And not just once or twice. We’ll fail these “tests” over and over and over again … more times than we can count! And God already knows that about us. What need has he to test us of what he already knows?

Then what to make of it? What to make of him? Thankfully, he provided that answer on an incredible cheat-sheet that he provided for us before this great examination began. Just before he confided how he remembers “how we are formed … that we are dust” (i.e. vulnerable to all manner of storms, drought, wind, flood, heat, cold, disease, calamity, being trampled under foot, etc.); he also offered the following: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us for our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him(and why?) … for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:8-14).

And that … unlike the first paragraph of this piece … is no bull.

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Is Jesus In Any Way Like P. Diddy?

DiddyJesus took with him Peter, James and John … and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus … While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” … When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” (Matt. 17:1-8)

Above is part of the account of what we call the transfiguration of Jesus. It’s always been a very strange event in the life of Jesus to me. Here he is, going along day-by-day teaching about love, mercy, kindness and grace and such, mentoring us to love and serve the poor and downtrodden, healing people with all manner of ailments and disease … withered hands, leprosy, blindness, deafness, paralysis, fever, internal bleeding, etc.; turning plain old water into the best wine to ever fill a stone water pot, and sparing a young marrying couple significant social humiliation in the process; feeding thousands of hungry followers with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, etc. Then one day out of the blue, he pulls his three closest buddies aside to hike up a mountain, where before their eyes he’s turned into some kind of bleached white spooky apparition. Then he’s visited by the ghosts of two big-time Old Testament prophets. Finally, as if that were not enough, they hear a voice from heaven bestowing upon Jesus the ultimate divine stamp of approval, followed by the simple directive to “listen to him!” Let’s be honest, the whole thing’s kind of weird. It seems a little out of place and out of character for Jesus, doesn’t it? After all, notwithstanding that whole walking on water thing, he was generally not given to a lot of showboating. But this little stunt on the mountaintop comes off as just a little P. Diddy to me … a wee bit self-exalting … maybe a little self-important?

Or does it?

I won’t claim expert knowledge on this event, but I do have a thought or two about it. Yes, as I’ve heard explained by scholars much more knowledgeable than I, it was obviously intended only for the eyes of Jesus’ three best friends … his innermost circle of trust. And he did make sure to take them to a very private place for this revelation … (very un-P. Diddylike now that you mention it). And furthermore, he did instruct them to keep this thing on the down-low until after he would be raised from the dead (another revelation that would have rocked their worldview even harder, as if what they’d just witnessed wasn’t enough already). And yes, there is the obvious insight that the God of the universe had just endorsed Jesus as his own son, and as such, declaring him the Messiah … the savior of the world.

But did God do something else a little less obvious? I believe he did. In addition to all of the above (and more, I’m sure), I believe God revealed not only Jesus to Peter, James and John; but God revealed himself as well. After all, he called Jesus his son … i.e. the bearer of his nature, his legacy. In other words, God was saying that this man before you is who I am. What he is like, I am like. What he does, I do. What he says, I say. Whom he loves, I love. How he loves, I love. When he gives mercy to a woman humiliated by her own naked adultery (Jn. 8:1ff), I give her mercy. When he touches a leper with his own hand (as nobody else would dare to do) (Matt. 8:3), I touch him. When he offers his hand in friendship to “tax collectors and sinners” (considered the most repugnant of bottom-feeding scum in their day) by sharing a meal with them (Matt. 9:10ff), I offer them my hand in friendship. When he welcomes a “sinful” woman (often biblical code for prostitute) to wipe her tears from his feet with her hair (Lk. 7:36ff), I welcome her as well. When he elevates a lowly adulterous Samaritan (the most despised ethnic group by 1st century Jews) woman by daring to speak with her in public (culturally forbidden), I elevate her as well. When he clears the temple of hypocritical religion pimps hawking mercy and forgiveness to the poor for money, I clear it too. He told you repeatedly that he came here to seek and to save what was lost … the sick, the poor, the cast-asides, the dirty, the messy, the imperfect, the broken, the ugly, the addicted, the ashamed, the fearful, the thief, the victim, the violator … that he did not come to condemn. Neither do I condemn. When he welcomes you, regardless of what state or ethnic or social group you find yourself to be in … even if you don’t believe in him, I welcome you too. You see, contrary to what you may have assumed, and to what many religious “leaders” and “teachers” may have led you to believe, he actually doesn’t hate you. And neither do I.  He would sooner die than live without you. And I would sooner watch my own son, whom I love with all my heart, die to save you than to live without you. You see this Jesus … this man before you? This is who I am. Listen to him. Hear him. Pay attention to him. He is me.

And what were the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth after God suggested that we simply listen to him? “Get up … don’t be afraid.” Hmm …

P.S. No ugly cheap shot at Diddy intended here … Jesus likes him too. It just seemed like a fun little analogy.

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Puppets Are Kinda Creepy

PuppetDo you ever feel powerless … defeated? I do. Sometimes it feels as if I’m just a puppet, manipulated by an unseen nameless puppet master with no interest in what matters to me … only in how I fit into his pointless little puppet show. I often feel powerless over my own destiny and victimized by circumstances, even though I’ve read the Tony Robbins books and heard the speeches time and time again about how we’re all in charge of our own fortunes … how our daily choices drive the steering wheel of our lives. And in my mind I genuinely believe it. But in my heart, deep down in my soul … that nagging unrelenting voice way back in there … it whispers coldly and constantly. It says things like, “it’ll always be this way … just accept your place in life … don’t dream too big … you’ll only be disappointed … you’re not meant for that … that’s for those people on the inside who’ve not been left behind … you can’t really change … you can’t overcome that temptation … your future will only be a rehash of your empty past … just accept it.” Does any of this sound familiar? And I’ve only scratched the surface. I didn’t even touch on powerlessness over fear, insecurities, inadequacies, anxiety, loss of interpersonal connection, illness, financial fears, addiction, abandonment, etc.

While praying this morning, it randomly occurred to me that I tend to address Jesus as if he were still hanging on a cross. Then it occurred to me that I almost always do so. All too often it seems the primary image I hold of him is hanging naked on that horrible cross pouring out his life for you and me. And why wouldn’t I? After all, we’re constantly reminded that “Jesus gave his life for you on the cross” or some such. Of course we’d be prone to viewing him in that state. Additionally, we’re reminded daily with crosses all around us … on the church steeple, on a hill along the highway, on grandma’s living room wall, even around our own necks. And yes, he certainly did do so. The crucifixion is indeed a powerful and appropriate image to which we may devote our attention and allegiance.

But wait. I almost forgot … Jesus didn’t stay on that cross. And he didn’t stay in that tomb. He rose again. He willingly embraced death and defeat into his own body and remained captive to it for 3 days. But … (the greatest “but” ever written into human history) … then he turned it all on its head and made death (and everything else we might fear) his prisoner by shaking it off and walking out of there … head held high. This is the Jesus I ought to envision and address when I pray … not the one on the cross. He’s not there anymore! This may sound very elementary to you, but to me it was a revelation! I’ve been living and relating to Jesus as if he’s still in the throws of what seemed to be his darkest, most powerless moment of defeat … as if he were still dying for me day after day after day. I’ve been praying to the wrong Jesus! That simply isn’t who he is now. The apostle Paul had a sense of this when he wrote the following:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Eph. 1:18-23).

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Rom. 8:11).

We were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

… Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).

Apparently, Paul was onto something … namely that Jesus is not dead. And not only is he not dead, he is willing (eager even) to live in us via his spirit in order to make us just as alive as he is … and filled with the same power that raised him from the dead. No wonder he ultimately proclaimed, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).

What does any of this have to do with creepy puppets and feelings of powerlessness? I’m pretty sure you already know.

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Uhh … no.

images

God is not …

- mad at you

- out to “get” you

- out to spoil your fun

- punishing you

- a prude (he actually invented sex)

- Santa Clause

- a killjoy

- a teetotaler

- religious

- fixated on your failings

- waiting for you to screw up … again

- eager to pounce on you

- contained in a book

- found only in a church building

- automatically absent from a church building

- negated in any way by science

- opposed to science (he invented that, too)

- unaware of you

- ignoring you

- disengaged

- passive

- unaware of your suffering

- exempted from suffering

- caught off guard

- a tree

- a mountain

- the ocean

- the earth

- a man

- a woman

- a cow

- the president

- unavailable

- surprised by your doubts

- afraid of your doubts

- threatened by your questions

- offended by your disbelief

- indebted to you

- obligated to you

- subject to your thoughts and beliefs about him

- holding a grudge against you

- toying with you

- calling you to a life of boredom and drudgery

- cold

- aloof

- deaf

- distant

- dead

- pinning you under his thumb

- hating you because you’re gay, a drunk, divorced, addicted …

- disgusted with you

- shaming you

- the one who gave you AIDS

- the one who gave you cancer

- hostile to art (another thing he invented)

- a democrat

- a republican

- a liberal

- a conservative

- a socialist

- a capitalist

- a union member

- a “99% – er”

- a “1% – er”

- a hawk

- a dove

- lacking a sense of humor (pretty sure he invented that, too)

- counting your sins

- fixated on your flaws

- rubbing your nose in your mistakes

- watching to catch you in the act

- a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Catholic, a Pentecostal, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Methodist, a Church of Christ member, a Lutheran, a puritan, a hippie, an atheist (who knew?), an agnostic  …

- a peacenik

- a warmonger

- a feminist

- a chauvinist

- outdated

- out of touch

- anywhere near being summed up by this list

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Is Jesus As Smart As Homer Simpson?

homer-simpson-d-ohs-the-simpsons-26576388-300-225This is the piece I’ve been afraid to post … the one that’ll probably get me excommunicated … or at least bounced out of our local Christian Bingo club (that’s ok, I hate Bingo). It could easily get me fired from most churches. (Thankfully, I work for a different kind of church). Worst of all, it could (and probably will) get me “unfriended” by some of my beloved Facebook peeps. (And to think I was so proud of all those 611 friends I’d acquired. For the first time in my life, I actually felt like I got to sit at the cool kids’ table). Why is it that my sometimes-too-fertile mind gravitates so naturally towards the controversial and divisive themes? Why can’t I just write about, oh I don’t know, sports? I LOVE sports. I could probably make a few bucks in sports writing, but do I set my aim on that? No. Instead, my brain latches onto these nagging polarizing ideas about things like just who Jesus really is, and what did he really mean when he suggested that it might be a good idea to simply love one another regardless of race, age, gender, physical appearance, social status, sexual orientation, political leaning, etc. Well, I’m not going there today either (though that’s never a bad idea). Instead, I’m going after the Holy Grail … the big kahuna … the … aw, never mind … enough metaphors for now. I’m going after John 14:6 … perhaps the most divisive and controversial verse in the entire Bible. This is the one that sends (some) Christians into vein-popping rants of dogmatic religious exclusivity. It renders many atheists and agnostics virtually apoplectic with angry charges of narrow-mindedness, unbending rigidity, and self-righteous intolerance. It sends members of other religions into fits of rage over how pompous we Christians can be to think that we’re the only ones who’ve found the path of true life and enlightenment. That covers just a few who wrangle endlessly over this controversial quote of Jesus. Here it is: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.” Disclaimer: before I go a single step further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I believe that every word of that statement is absolutely true and correct.

This verse has been used as a proof text of the theory that only Christians who have subscribed to a very specific formula of spiritual / religious conversion (the same one to which I myself have subscribed), will be “saved” or united with, or “in” with God. This fact inevitably raises the (very legitimate) question of what about the others (those not quite orthodox enough for those of us on the inside, or those who’ve never even heard of Jesus, making a specific submission to discipleship of him obviously impossible). But many (including me) believe that he may have hinted that there are others in his fold of whom we’re not aware. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16). Who are these “other sheep” to whom Jesus referred?

This raises some hard questions for us … is Jesus God, or is he merely our God? If he truly is God, then that means some things … and not just for those (non-Christians) whom many of us (Christians) believe to be on the outs. It means some things for us on the inside, too. It means we can’t control him, contain him, predict him with 100% accuracy, lead him, box him in, oversee him, out-think him, fully comprehend his nature, or accurately estimate his size, his power, his intellect … or even his love. And that’s a darn good thing for all of us. The best we can really hope to do is to attempt with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength to simply trust him. If Jesus truly is God, then he is by definition … GODI AM THAT I AM … yes, that God. And there’s little doubt that that’s exactly who he thought he was. He said so right there in John 14:6 … “I AM the way …” and again in John 8:58 … “before Abraham was, I AM,” as well as in many other instances throughout the Gospels. If Jesus then is God, (and I do believe he is), we might do well to step out of the way with our theological / religious certainties and predispositions and simply let him be so, because he’s certainly going to be much bigger (and probably much less predictable) than our presuppositions about him.

And if he, being God, wishes to bring others (from a different faith tradition, different geographical location, etc.) into the fold, under the umbrella of his grace, does that mean then that following him specifically as a Christian (in our commonly known tradition) is of any less value? Of course not. If a faith is not worth keeping, then it was not worth having in the first place. Why would we wish to forfeit the gifts of grace, freedom from guilt and shame, hope for something that transcends this day-to-day world, etc. simply because Jesus might be bigger than we currently understand (or even demand) him to be within the confines of our own specific pattern of faith?

Let’s be honest here. Do we really believe that the love that voluntarily … intentionally died for us (we who did not earn nor deserve it) would be withheld from literally billions of others simply because they were born in the “wrong” geographical location to physically hear the story of God’s amazing love manifested through the greatest man who ever walked the very same earth that they walk? And while I’m at it … if this Jesus would (unfairly) restrict access to his grace to only a select few (relative to the whole of humanity), is that really the kind of savior you’d wish to follow … one who would arbitrarily, knowingly … intentionally leave billions of souls to fend for themselves when he possessed the wherewithal to reach and save them too? If you were Jesus, would you wish to diminish the power and scope of your own brutal butchering of a death by restricting its effects to only a select few who just happened to be born in the “right” country or into the “right” family? Certainly if we finite humans are able to deduce that there’s an inherent unfairness and incongruity to all of that, don’t you think an infinite and all-knowing God is smart enough to figure out the same? Isn’t he the source of our own power of intellect and reasoning to begin with? And before you conclude that, yes indeed, Randy’s gone off the deep end; please know that I’m well aware that among others, the Bible does say that “there is no other name given under heaven whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). But does that fact mean that someone who just happens to have been born in, oh I don’t know … a jungle in Borneo, or a remote island in the south Pacific and never heard of Jesus is thereby disqualified from his infinite grace … the grace that reaches from the east to the west and as high as the heavens (Ps. 103: 11-12)? Does Jesus really not know that they’re there … and that they need him just as badly as we do … really? Did he just wake up one day and blurt out, “D’oh!” … ala Homer Simpson because he forgot all about those others out there in the hinterlands? Is our God really that disconnected from his own creation … is he really that unaware? And if those good folks are, for whatever reason, not worth his effort, then how long is it until he decides that we’re not worth it either? Thank God, I just don’t think that’s who he is. And if I’m wrong, what have I lost? The idea that Jesus actually loves all of us is not going to make me abandon him. On the contrary, it only makes me love him more, and identify more closely with him; as I believe that he made all men in his own image, and in the process imbued them all with infinite worth. Now that is a God I can believe in … and trust. And does any of this make Jesus any less God than I already believed him to be … by no means! It only makes him more of who he actually told us he wasGOD. If God is not God of all of us, then is he really God of any of us?

And if he did indeed die for the entire world (as he himself claims in Jn. 3:16) … even for those who may never in this life understand it as directly as we think we might, doesn’t that make him even greater in our eyes? Wouldn’t that fact be an even grander and more moving testimony to the power of his love … the depth and breadth of his grace? Or do we simply wish to hoard the riches of such an immeasurable gift to ourselves … those of us who are in the know … in the club? I know, I know … some of you want to stone me right now. I can’t believe some of the stuff that comes out of this brain myself. Sometimes I’m tempted to kick myself out of the club! But I have to admit that it does inspire me to think that my God, Jesus, is just that big … that his grace is just that big … that his love for all of us is just that big and just that far-reaching! What a savior!

And yes, I can already hear the blowback. But Randy, doesn’t this water down the faith and make it all just a little too easy? Well, I suppose it does … if you believe that following in the footsteps of the most radically courageous, loving and controversial man who ever walked the planet is easy. Or that “taking up your cross” (an instrument of brutal humiliation and death) and following him on the path to Calvary is easy. I’ve been trying to do this discipleship thing for over 40 years now, and I’m still holding out hope that I might someday begin to get it right. Easy? Not so much.

But Randy, isn’t this idea just a little “too simple?” Actually, yes. It’s as simple as Jesus (i.e. God in 100% human flesh) being betrayed by a trusted friend, subjected to a mockery of a “trial” by men whom he himself made, whipped unrecognizable with a cat-of-nine-tails, crowned with 2 inch thorns, spat upon by angry strangers, carrying an 80+ pound cross beam for 1.5 miles on shoulders ripped raw to the bone by said beating, being stripped naked … publicly for even greater humiliation, hung on that same cross beam with the entire weight of his body suspended in air by only 3 nails … 1 through each wrist and 1 through both feet, and further mocked and spat upon until finally … mercifully dead. Our hope was purchased and our redemption was achieved 100% by who he is and by what he voluntarily did. And while there was nothing easy about any of that, it actually is that simple.

But Randy, doesn’t that brutal voluntary sacrifice you just described account only to those of us who verbally make a proclamation of faith in him, repent, become baptized, and accept him as our personal Lord and Savior? Well … and here’s the part that’ll probably get me stoned and unfriended … I don’t actually know. Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught all my life. But to borrow the words of C.S. Lewis, “… God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (Mere Christianity). In other words, just how big is this God whom we call Jesus?

Well Randy, if he’s really that big, and his grace is really that far-reaching, then do I really need to follow him … do I really need to love him? Well, of course you don’t have to if you wish not to do so. He’ll respectfully give you the freedom to make that choice. But knowing all you do about him, how could you not love a God who loved this much, gave this much, who’s this big … this gracious … this courageous?

But Randy, Jesus said to “enter by the narrow gate” because the path is narrow that leads to life, and the path is wide that leads to death (Matt. 7:13). Yes, he certainly did. And yes, his path certainly is narrow. But what he did not say here is that the narrow gate is exactly as we have defined it and come to understand it in our own religious tradition. Though he did say at another point that “I AM (there are those 2 words again) the gate …” (Jn. 10:9). And was it not this same Jesus who said in the parable of the unbalanced workers wages, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money (or my own grace)? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:15). Interestingly, it was shortly after this teaching that Jesus foretold his disciples of his impending death on the cross and resurrection (the very means by which he paid the “wages” for our sin).

But Randy, aren’t you really just trying to be provocative here for the sake of attention and self-promotion? Well, not so much. What I really want is to know who he really is, and to share my explorative journey with anyone else (regardless of faith tradition … or lack thereof) who wishes to honestly examine these (often difficult) questions with me. Jesus said to “ask, seek, and knock” (Matt. 7:7). I can only assume that he was not afraid of what we might find, should we choose to take him up on his challenge. As for divisive provocation, I find that kind of pompous self-aggrandizement utterly disdainful and repugnant.

But Randy, you must not really love him, because you’re going against what the Bible teaches here. Am I? Really? I’m not 100% sure that that’s true. And to be fair, I’m not 100% sure that it’s not. But one thing I am sure of … Jesus had a very large and worldwide agenda. It was he who said “… when I am lifted up (on the cross), I will draw all men to myself” (Jn. 12:32) his words not mine. Yes, I do love him. In fact, I love him more right now than I did a few hours ago before I wrote this piece. If you take a long hard honest look at him, chances are you will too. Just don’t tell your Bingo club.

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Evil: Why Doesn’t God Just Stop It?

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

- Epicurus (341 – 270 BC)

The above is a quote accredited to Epicurus (though it likely predated him). It’s sometimes called the Epicurean paradox. As a 40+ year Christian, I have to admit that I’ve been at many times riveted by it … and not in a good way. It has often caused deep tremors in the bedrock of any theological certainty I thought I might possess. You see, my theology (and resulting world view) rests upon a few critical premises. Among them are the following: A: There IS a God. B: He is good. C: He is all-powerful. D: He cares about me (and you) in a passionate and personal way. And E: His will is good and will ultimately prevail. At first glance, the paradox would seem to drive a stake right through the heart of these treasured ideals, killing them (and by extension, God himself), much in the same way one would dispatch a powdery-white, red-eyed vampire in a silly chick flick. (By the way, is that still how they do it)?

This Epicurean paradox is prevalent within atheist and agnostic thought. (Spoiler alert: this piece is not a hit piece on atheists and agnostics. If that’s what you’re looking for here, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The fact is I’ve been lucky (or blessed) enough to encounter a growing group of atheists and agnostics over the last couple of years. And with few exceptions, I’ve found them to be very sincere, fervent, inquisitive, intellectually engaged, often given to much kindness and compassion, and well-meaning people. I will not be clubbing them about the head and neck with that all-too-familiar Christian browbeating stick today … or ever for that matter. That doesn’t mean that I agree with all of their philosophical or theological conclusions. I certainly do not. But neither do I wish to treat them as adversaries. I simply view them as fellow seekers of truth. It’s been my experience that what we Christians too quickly define as contempt from these folks isn’t necessarily contempt for us personally, as much as a great sense of disillusion … even grief for the fact that so many of us seem to share so little in common with our supposed Lord, Jesus, whom many atheists / agnostics hold in high regard. They just wish we, his followers, would reflect a little more of his nature (characterized by immeasurable doses of love, compassion for the poor and vulnerable, grace, kindness, mercy, and an unquenchable thirst for truth), and a little less of our own (often characterized by selfishness, judgment, foolish knee-jerk rejection of scientific enlightenment, and blind stubborn dogmatism, etc). In short, they often see inspiring things in Jesus, but rarely see him or these qualities in us. We simply miss the mark … just as the apostle Paul noted in Rom. 3:23. Sadly, I count myself among those who all too often miss our objective, so I can’t automatically discount their skepticism).

Now back to the paradox. Riveting as it is, I think it also “misses the mark,” or perhaps stems from a flawed premise.

I suggest that perhaps there’s a better question to ask than “why is God seemingly unable or unwilling to ‘prevent evil?'” Interestingly, Epicurus did ask a better question right there in the middle of his larger question … “then whence cometh evil?” Ahh, there’s a good question. The larger question seems to indict God as if he himself were the source of the evil in question. But is he really? Last time I checked, any evil I’ve ever witnessed (or yes, engaged in) came not from God, but from … uhhh … us … humans … uhh … me … ouch. So if I’m to believe the Epicurean premise, evil is the responsibility of God; because he’s the one whose power, will, or very existence is questioned in the face of evil … evil which he neither created, nor engaged in. The paradox seems to me to rest upon the suggestion that it’s God’s responsibility (perhaps even his very purpose) to prevent evil. But is it? There seems to me to be a fatal flaw in the original question itself. And that is that it completely absolves us (humans) of our very significant role in the entire process; mainly, that it is us who willingly and knowingly choose to engage in all of the evil in question. I suppose it is easier to make that logical exclusion and pin it all on God, than to simply own it and admit that we could really use a little (or a lot of) help down here as we struggle with our own nature … one in which we wage a daily minute-by-minute battle with a nagging ever-present impulse toward wickedness that lurks just beneath the surface, relentlessly tormenting us to near insanity. I suppose that God could ultimately prevent this evil. All he’d have to do is hook us all up to that huge celestial Shop-Vac in the sky and suck our brains out of our heads (and our precious freedom of will right along with it); thus transforming us all into a pack of empty-eyed, lobotomized, mind-numbed, robotic zombies. I’m pretty sure that would do the trick.

But maybe there’s a better way. Maybe there are some better questions we can ask ourselves as we wrestle with a very real dilemma.

I contend that God is not responsible for evil, because he himself has not committed it … nor willed it. But we certainly have. And one amazing fact about God is that he loves us, the creators and purveyors of evil, so much that he did voluntarily intervene and take it upon himself … even into himself … literally … to pay the very high price for it … even to the extent of offering his own son as payment. (Apparently this evil deal (or sin, as it’s also called) is a pretty big deal to this ostensibly aloof, incapable, impotent, unwilling, and malevolent God). For not only did he take it upon himself to pay for sin … the Bible clearly indicates that he did so even while we were still engaging in it (i.e. while we were still thumbing our collective nose at a loving God … before we ever thought it might be a good idea to alter the reckless, self-destructive … and yes, evil course which we chose (and so often continue to choose) to follow with all the abandon of a runaway train) (Rom. 5:8). And we want to pin it on God???

If you, like me, are one who wrestles with this apparent paradox, I’d like to re-center this question by placing it in the hands of those of us who actually are guilty. Here are a few better questions to consider:

1. Are we willing to prevent evil by abstaining from engaging in any behavior that violates God’s law (or if you’re not a God follower, your own moral compass)? Need an example of violating your own moral compass? How about this one? Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone against your own better judgment and used another person for temporary sexual gratification … (if not just in your mind) … despite the fact that your heart and motives were not pure? Anyone? Just me … really?

2. Are we willing to never indulge ourselves in even a single fleeting moment of envy, gossip, rage, vulgarity, lust, imposition of our will over a weaker brother, selfishness, dishonesty, etc.) … ever? If we really wish to eradicate evil from the face of the earth, this is what it would take.

3. Are we able (and willing) to prevent evil (or at least address the results of it) by extending ourselves, our time, our finances, our energy to express grace, love, and healing to the victims of man’s evil (i.e. the hungry, abandoned, lonely, sick, orphaned, homeless, naked, enslaved, etc.)?

4. Are we neither able nor willing to extend grace and mercy to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45)? Then why call us human?

5. Why do we, the creators and purveyors of evil, seem so hell-bent upon pinning our own moral refuse on a God who neither wished for, nor participated in, the evil that we now expect him to clean up and prevent? In the end there’s a monumental irony here, and that is the fact that God did voluntarily take it upon himself to inject himself directly … personally into this boiling cauldron of wickedness that we call our world … our life, thereby taking the responsibility for all of it upon himself … even though he was not required to do so. And in doing so, he willingly provided the very blueprint … the perfect model of true humanity … the best example that we ever have or will see. And did he stop there? Not this God. No, this God took it a step further and willingly chose to pay … and pay dearly … out of his own pocket … with his own blood,  for our chosen, intentional, seemingly infinite capacity for evil. And what’s more; he chose to do so BEFORE we ever even thought to stop and ask him for help … while we were still hopelessly floundering in the throws of our own self-inflicted addiction to self and mutual spiritual mutilation! (I know this language sounds a bit dramatic, but the question itself poses a very dramatic and far-reaching dilemma).

6. Lastly, and this may be the most compelling question of all: WHY would this omnipotent, eminently willing, infinitely benevolent God, incapable of telling a lie, and whose mind imagines NO evil whatsoever … CHOOSE to love me (and you) enough to gladly do all of this on my behalf … in light of all the myriad varieties of evil that I myself have intentionally imagined and enthusiastically engaged in? Now there’s a question worth pondering.

In defense of Epicurus, he was no doubt a brilliant man. And he did live about 300 years before the revolutionary divine earthly intervention of Jesus Christ, so I’m going to cut him some major slack on that point. But unlike the former very compelling paradox that bears his name, producing primarily despair and doubt; this most compelling of all questions (#6), if honestly pondered and believed, yields only hope. And that for me is a very good reason to call him God.

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Drowning in the Deep End

One aspect of life over which we assert no control whatsoever is the historical era in which we’re born. If you’re reading this, (and you’re less than 2000 years old), it’s a safe bet you’re aware of a certain Savior who died on a cross to secure our forgiveness. Even if you don’t believe it’s true, it’s likely you’ve at least heard of Jesus.

Yes, I’m stunningly adept at stating the obvious, but there is a point here. Imagine we were born before Jesus came and purchased our forgiveness. To again state the obvious, we wouldn’t have grown up with the knowledge of a Messiah through whom God created a way to be reunited with Him. We’d still be shouldering the burden of our own sin … with all the guilt, shame, fear and hopelessness that accompanies it. You’d think the overwhelming weight of this fact alone would be the point of this piece, but it’s not.

The point is this … God didn’t have to do it. In order to let that sink in, I’ll say it again … God did not have to send Jesus … the Messiah, the Savior, the light of the world, the Prince of Peace, the Lamb … of … God. It was a voluntary act … not a requirement, not compulsory, not an obligation … a choice. He could more easily have just left us alone … to our own devices … coping with our sin in whatever manner we invented. (I should just stop here, but no …)

See, we grew up in a time when it was always a fact … always a given … that God had sent His son to die for our sins. If you grew up in church, as I did, you heard it so repetitively that your ears grew virtually numb to it. I’ll sadly admit that I’ve heard my own thoughts whining like a spoiled teenager, “Yeah, I know, Jesus died for my sins. Tell me something I don’t know!” Have we been swimming in the deep end of the grace pool so long that we’ve become anesthetized to a staggering reality … so long that we’ve essentially adopted an entitlement mentality about this colossal truth? Have we grown immune to the magnitude of the simple fact that God did not have to send Jesus … to forgive us, to redeem us, to lift us out of the pit, to save us?

He chose this.

And to state the glaringly obvious yet again … if He chose to do this, then it only follows that He could have chosen … not to. Which begs the question, exactly what was God choosing when He sent His beloved to … us?

As I understand it, He knowingly chose to allow His son … His son … to leave his home in Heaven, (a place of absolute safety, security, harmony, comfort, love, purity, peace, glory, and abundance), and come to … us (floundering in a quagmire of greed, pride, gossip, lies, discord, addiction, murder, adultery, incest, politics, drunkenness, slavery, corruption, disease, theft, abuse, lust, hunger, war, and death) … a very dirty place filled with very dirty, very lost, very rebellious people … most of whom wanted very little to do with Jesus or his God.

Here’s a brief itinerary of the trip Jesus signed up for: he traded a throne in a palace for a manger in a barn; exchanged adoring angels for cows and sheep … (ala trading Buckingham Palace for a sewage-filled slum in Port-au-Prince); humbled himself in obedience to parents he himself created; subjected himself to earthly laws; took a job as a carpenter (a humble laborer … not a lofty priest or overseer); physically touched victims of the putrid disease of leprosy … (previously unheard of); washed the filthy feet of fishermen; fed the hungry; restored the hopelessly insane to right-mindedness (others simply shunned them); befriended hookers, adulterers, thieves, and foreigners (both male and female); endured constant harassment by arrogant detractors (whom he created); suffered the indignity of betrayal and public arrest via the sarcastic kiss of a supposed friend; endured bullying and mockery in an open trial; took punches in the face from soldiers he created; was spat upon repeatedly (anything more degrading than that?); was stripped naked in public and paraded through the streets like a prize; was whipped unrecognizable with a cat-of-nine-tails; scorned further with a crown … of thorns (likely pounded into his head to achieve deeper penetration); paraded again through the streets for more public taunting and spitting; and finally nailed to a tree … naked (subjecting a crucified criminal to the ultimate indignity of having to relieve himself in full view of the gathered masses, as he’d likely be suspended for 24 to 36 hours) until finally … mercifully … dead. This is the trip that God knowingly allowed His son to take … meaning that Jesus is not only the means by which we attain forgiveness … he’s also the assurance of God’s desire to give it in the first place. The very fact that God chose to send him is a staggering testimony to just how driven God is … to forgive.

So with this in mind, I ask two simple questions: 1. If God was not deterred, even by all of this … then just how much does He love you? 2. How badly does He yearn to forgive you? After all, to state one last obvious fact … He doesn’t have to. He never had to. And in another era, we’d totally “get” that.

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