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faith2Here’s a good question. In the face of someone who knows does not know much about Christianity, how would you share the gospel of Jesus Christ?

My answer has been the same for some time. I simply tell my own story, my “testimony” as they say. Because I was just like the person to whom I am speaking, in one way or another, at one time or another. I did not come out of my childhood and into my teens as a saint. I was narcissistic and self-absorbed. The world revolved around me, so much so that I married at 18 and divorced five years later to pursue a career in the theater. My world, my dream, my everything. The story goes on, too long for a post/homework but needless to say, it’s interesting how God breaks through the fog, even we don’t recognize it as fog. I came to faith through the Word of God, through reading the Bible and asking a lot of questions. I tested for truth and certainty in my soul. I have followed the Christ ever since. I am alive today because of that surrender.

But, I did not have opportunity to tell my story this week.

Nor do I consider this a strategy or a plan or a way of delivering the message. Effectiveness for the listener is not based on my delivery.

The message of the Christ, promised to the Jews for centuries as the Messiah, is all about redemption, about relationship to God and how that relationship works. Back then, it was about substitution and blood sacrifice. In the time of Christ, it was also blood sacrifice, but once for all eternity, in a space that has no time.

The conversations in the Hillsong class have given me a desire to dig again into the Bible and to seek understanding of the patterns and context in a way that I never have before. I am grateful, however, that my first introduction to the things of God was from the Bible and as a result, I have read through it many times. I am familiar with the stories, the essence of Scripture, but not enough about the pieces that bring vibrancy and connections.

I am feeling solid in my faith which is really important in today’s political climate in which believers, wrapped in Christ, yet still at odds with one another and often in a very unloving and ugly way.

” . . . I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” II Tim 1:12b

In a way, it is a pattern in my own life that I cannot seem to shake, or perhaps I am not intended to do so. I am the daughter of immigrants and I did everything I could to “fit in” and be All-American. Yet I never really succeeded. I was never quite American enough, but on the flip side, never quite Latvian enough either. I wasn’t protecting and preserving my heritage enough. In college, I was in a sorority, accepted but only to a degree, I simply could not balance the game of wealth and privilege no matter how hard I tried. And in college, by marrying young, I ostracized myself from my single friends. Eventually, I ended up in New York for acting school, thinking I would finally really belong, but even there, one foot in and one foot out. When I had my conversion experience, I felt the divide even further. How could I be a believer and creative artist? Back then, there were no avenues for that.

The longer I was a Christian, the more I tried to walk and talk the way I thought I should, the well-spoken yet conservative believer who “loved the person but not the sin,” and who carried her faith as a badge on her sleeve. I was on the inside now, I thought. I knew all the phrases, I knew all the leaders, I knew all the praise songs, I even knew how to speak in tongues. I had arrived.

But that secure space began to crumble over the years. I grew tired of editing my words (for all along, I was) and not mentioning that I enjoyed reading books that others in that world found objectionable (even demonic) or listen to music that had a beat, or go to movies not on the accepted list.

Then I went into faith-based counseling and discovered the depth and power of forgiveness & breaking strongholds of all kinds. I found beauty in other church traditions. I experienced liturgy. I found I had been in a microcosm of Christianity and not the Church universal.

I began hearing other voices like Rob Bell, Phyllis Tickle, and Brian McLaren. I read about the Emergent Church, and Progressive Christianity and Post-Modernism. It was all so freeing and interesting and I reveled in the hashtag, #LoveWins.

But of course, I didn’t quite fit there, not 100%. Lo and behold, I was back in the middle. I loved and respected many of my more conservative Christian friends but I also loved my progressive ones. In any case, I was pulled slowly but surely out of the Christian Right.

I realize now that this series of classes is nudging me to fill in my theology. To not worry about fitting in or being in or anything like that.

I am an amalgam.

I am politically left leaning (especially now in this Donald Trump era); I am thoroughly grounded in my love of God and Christ and the atonement; I am surrendered to a sovereign God who can break through and “save” whomever and whenever God so pleases; I am learning to love and be content with my now, given by God to me (both the sorrow and the joy); and I am not going to assume that I know God’s intentions for¬†others who are “not like me.” I will lose validity with some people of faith and I will lose some validity with activists. But I will stand.

 

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Art by Favianna Rodriguez

Art by Favianna Rodriguez

But while he [the prodigal] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. [Luke 15:20]

It’s not that I didn’t know what compassion means. And yet, despite reading or hearing the prodigal story hundreds of times, I never put the father in this state: “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” [dictionary.com]

I had always read longing and forgiveness into the father’s response, that he ran to the son out of love and joy. However, I finally see, compassion means that the father was struck by the extent of his son’s calamities and he did the only thing he could do for the young man: show him love and acceptance. The son had punished himself enough already.¬†

The results of the son’s disastrous choices were all over him. Where he had left the family home as a gallant young “prince” among men; he had returned as a slave. And although he would never again be landed (since the he wasted away his inheritance), he was still a son. Life would not be the same in that household: from that point forward, I am guessing the son would have to serve both his father and his brother. He would have to work. And if he wanted an independent life, he would have to create it for himself, save money and rebuild. The one thing he would have was safety and hopefully, a willingness to be instructed.

When I was so sure I knew my way, I too floundered. I wasn’t given my inheritance (for there was none really, in my family’s poverty), but I knew how to work hard and support myself. But I spent all of my money unwisely. I indulged my fantasies without examining them. I looked at the “good life” and yearned for it. And since I couldn’t have it in reality, I tried to have it in reflection: dress that way, spend that way, play that way, drink that way. But of course, the “way” continued to be a pretend world.

I was on a downward spiral. And although I never hit rock bottom as so many must before they turn back or step out of the maelstrom, the direction I was heading is so clear to me in in hindsight. Drugs, alcohol, and carnality were my daily bread. I was not a slave to them yet, but soon. From this, like the prodigal, I turned and tried on the arms of God. I am one of the lucky ones.

But I still have that personality. I still make impulsive choices, I can still spend recklessly, and I indulge both my whims and my children. I still have an addictive personality and can become somewhat obsessed with an idea or incident or food or whatever. I even catch myself yearning for the mega millions jackpot, as though money alone would solve my woes.

It took me a long time, really, to become a true believer, a Christ follower, a Christian even. I could never quite believe I’d done it, given up that other dream of fame and fortune and notoriety in the Big Apple. For the longest time, I went through the motions of extreme faith from “not quite authentic” manifestations of the charisma to dancing and laughing and anything else that would keep my mind occupied and keep me busy. I just kept adding and adding to my plate.

But today, I see that my plate is being stripped away. And I am getting back to the truth of me. And I know my God has compassion for me now just as He/She did when I came to the Spirit quite raw. I am not that other kind of prodigal anymore. I am shedding the layers of “shoulds” and working toward the inner sanctuary of my heart to a me I have never revealed before or known. She has been lost for a long time.

 

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What is the take away for doing something 40 days? Whether it’s in fasting or in temptation, there’s something here about forty days that should be considered, should be pursued. It’s a whole lot of waiting: more than five weeks of consideration. I wonder what would happen if I waited (prayed, contemplated, meditated) forty days before I initiated a plan or a major decision?

Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12-13a; Luke 4:1-2a
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

There are other scriptural examples of 40 days: the flood (Genesis 7:17); Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9); Spies in the Promised Land (Numbers 13:25); Goliath’s challenges (I Samuel 17:16); Elijah’s flight and fast (I Kings 19:18); Jonah warns Nineveh (Jona 3:4); Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection (Acts 1:3).

All of these 40 day increments are wrapped up with important events, usually before something major would happen.

So, let me put this in perspective (for myself, if nothing else). If I claimed this 40 day waiting period starting today, that would mean on Friday, September 14th, I could begin: I would know whether to go forward or not. If I seriously pursued my quest for those 40 days, I would know. It’s like a promise, I think.

Don’t misunderstand me. I get it that this period should be led of the Spirit and yet, I have a feeling. If I laid out my heart’s desire, my plan before God and then repeated my request each day, I believe I would have an answer. I would also have a bit of a struggle along the way. Based on the stories, a truly authentic 40 days is laden with challenges. Satan (or however you want to call that negative voice/power in our lives) tempted Jesus the whole time just like Goliath tempted the Israelites. Goliath mocked them and taunted them: Dare you! Double dare you to come out here and fight me (on his terms of course). Satan does the same thing. The forty day challenge puts the entire experience on God’s terms.

Apparently, 40 days are just long enough. They take the person just beyond that point we can do it on our own. Forty days include the extra mile.

What do I really want to know? What game-changing decision do I want to contemplate? What would be the best news ever?

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It’s one of my struggles in the church as I go through this period of change in viewpoint. I’m in process. So I edit what I say around certain people who I assume will be offended. I don’t want a confrontation, or the backing away, or the widened eyes. And yet, how else does the “conversation” begin?

Galatians 2:12
Before certain men came from James, he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

Actually, the key problem may be my assumptions about the “other.” Isn’t it these presumptions that keep me quiet? How can I really know what others think unless we talk about it.

But then, I hear my inner voice remind me that I’m not quite sure where I’m going with all this new information about Emergents and Missional Churches and Hipster Christianity. There is so much excitement in these frameworks as believers become more inclusive, more committed to the needs of others, more relational. A part of me enjoys confronting the “sacred cows” of the institutional church but I also don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Peter got a taste of the “new way” when Cornelius [Acts 10] called Peter to his house just after the Lord had given Peter those three visions of the sheet coming down from heaven filled with foods that Jewish law had always prevented him from eating. He was shocked. And yet, when Cornelius’s men appeared, he understood the vision and he went to the house, entered and even ate there. But that was before the gentile explosion. It was one thing to “let in” a few gentiles here and there but Paul was starting to bring them in my hundred and thousands. Maybe it was all happening too fast. I don’t really know.

Perhaps we all suffer from these fears now. The new stuff sounds good, but what about the traditions and the old ways? Haven’t those ways always worked before? Hasn’t the church always survived?

I’m not so sure. Has the church survived or has it merely continued to splinter off into a variety of cells (denominations) because of disagreements and revelations. The proliferation of denominations got so bad at one point that people thought they could solve the problem by having “non-denominational” churches. But soon, even those groups splintered and they created churches by affiliation (Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, Community Churches) and then a single church would develop “campuses” with closed circuit video of the pastor. Big was better, Megabig was best.

But that trend is now being confronted with smaller is better and may tiny (like house churches) is best.

Who knows? What is the church? What is the Body of Christ?

There cannot be only one affiliation or denomination or cell group that has the inside track of what it means to be the Body of Christ. There is but one litmus test: Christ crucified and risen, accepted by the believer as the propitiation of sin. The rest is interpretation.

I think it’s time for me to stop worrying about what people will think and just talk to them. The conversation must trust that Christ is the glue that holds us all together. The conversation opens the doors to our hearts and minds. It doesn’t have to be about “changing” someone’s mind, just connecting.

I have written before about the “sacred other;” if we entered every conversation with this in mind, our differences of opinion would not separate us. We would be free to enjoy the many colors of Christ.

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Back in the day, freedom in Christ for a gentile meant “no circumcision required.” That was huge. But what about today? Unlike the first century, most of us are gentile believers. Are we demanding that new believers conform to a standard of our own devising?

Galatians 2:4
This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.

Jesus had made it pretty plain during his three year ministry that his primary focus was the Jews. Those who followed him initially understood that the long-awaited Messiah was turning their laws, their norms, and their world upside down. He was transforming their structures.

But the gentiles who accepted Christ were different. They weren’t really transforming what they believed before, they were walking away from it. Following Christ was making something new.

I have a friend who has been a Christian all of her life. Every time the doors were open, she would say, her family would be at church. They were committed, active, and devoted to Jesus and the work of the church. Most, if not all, of her friends were in the church. She understood evangelism as primarily the work of bringing others to faith in Christ and therefore into the body life a church. They had committees, choirs, youth groups, singles groups, fellowship suppers, and holiday traditions. The church folks were loving and friendly. Come into our life, follow us as we follow Christ.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this picture until someone doesn’t quite fit into the mold. Or when someone asks, “is this all there is?”

Was Jesus different on the days he went to the Temple from the days he spent with prostitutes and tax collectors? Did he say, don’t forget to go to Temple on Saturday so you can start following all the laws and rules?

When Paul taught the Galatians, the Corinthians, and all the others throughout Asia, the message was simple: Christ crucified for the sake of all sin and resurrected in power of the Holy Spirit. We are all covered by his act of sacrifice if we accept the Truth of who He is. We are free to be new, to be in relationship with God, to follow a new way, to witness to others about the power of this transformation.

The key to growth as a Christian is fellowship. There’s no doubt about that. But, is the institutional church still that venue? Is passing the peace or saying hello to one another during the obligatory greeting time fellowship? It’s pretty easy to attend a mega-church and greet ten to twenty people, but really, unless I make a leap and start attending a smaller venue, I could be home watching a tele-preacher.

There is nothing more wonderful than to share in the worship and faith of God with people you know. Isn’t that why we have celebrations at home and invite our families and friends? It’s more fun, it’s more meaningful.

Am I getting off the subject of freedom in Christ? Not really. In Paul’s day, the freedom included the breaking of the long-held tradition of circumcision. Perhaps the new freedom in today’s world is to transform what it means to participate in the Body of Christ.

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It takes me ten minutes to figure out one verse out of Romans 7. Sin, sin, sin . . . law, law, law. Does it matter anymore? Is sin just a “church” word?

Romans 7:7
What then do we conclude? Is the Law identical with sin? Certainly not! Nevertheless, if it had not been for the Law, I should not have recognized sin or have known its meaning. [For instance] I would not have known about covetousness [would have had no consciousness of sin or sense of guilt] if the Law had not [repeatedly] said, You shall not covet and have an evil desire [for one thing and another].
[Amplified]

I’m not sure how much more I can write about sin. I looked back over my other meditations and there are already quite a few, What is Sin?, and Sin is EOE, and if anyone wants to read other blogs on sin, have at it, there’s reading for a full day.

Personally, I think Paul beats this idea to death. I get it, honestly. Without the law, we wouldn’t know about sin. And without sin, we wouldn’t know that sin kills our body, mind & soul (eventually), and without knowing we die from our sin, we wouldn’t know we need grace (a savior) just to survive.

When Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matthew 5:48], he actually meant that. It’s the only way to have an intimate relationship with God.

Oh, if anyone thinks I don’t mean that. Think again. That is the whole point. We can’t be perfect. Everyone breaks the law. We break the laws of God, we break the man-made laws of the land. We can’t even get the basics right: “love your neighbor as yourself.” If we did, there would be no orphans, no homelessness, no poverty, no starving people, no unemployment. There would be enough for everyone. The earth can supply our basic needs. But, human as we are, we want more than that. The evidence of our lawbreaking is everywhere.

Lawbreaking crosses cultures and religions. People who love Allah or Buddha or Brahma or Vishnu or Shiva (or any of the 300 million gods and ancestors that abound in this world), still break the laws, mandates, and guidelines of their faiths. There is always a cost. For some faiths, the cost is higher than another.

In reality, the Judeo-Christian faiths have the highest cost: death. It’s the reason for all those sacrifices. Jews only stopped sacrificing animals because they lost their holy place. But their law clearly states that blood sacrifice is a necessary substitute for breaking the law.

And the same is true for Christianity. The only difference is that the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ came to be that sacrifice for all. This is the point that Paul was driving home, again and again and again.

So now that Christ Jesus made this sacrifice, I am asked to confess our sins to him. My sins still require the covering of a blood sacrifice. This is weird stuff really. It all seems so archaic.

But what would our world look like without any of it? No laws, no rules, no order? Anarchy doesn’t work. Instead, some kind of order rises up, and usually, in these situations, it’s the biggest, strongest dog in the pack.

Who is my pack leader? Who is my Master? Who is my Dictator? Who is my Savior? Who is my King? Who is my sacrifice? Who indeed? I gave my answer thirty years ago, before I even understood the full impact of my decision. But I thank God that I can say I am a slave, by choice, to Christ Jesus. Handmaiden of the Lord.

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When we enter into relationship with Christ Jesus we are also entering into an agreement to be a witness to the acts of Jesus in our lives up until that moment and as events unfold in the future. Much like the cusp of the New Year… we look back, but we also look forward.

Acts 26:15b-16
” ‘I am Jesus, whom you [Paul] are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. …”

When I started on the Way, I was a little embarrassed. I wasn’t comfortable with the trappings of being a “Christian.” There was a whole new vocabulary and depending on the types of believers around me, there were expectations about behaviors. Sometimes, the whole thing just didn’t feel real. Was I really going to carry a bible around with me all the time and wear a cross around my neck and give homage to Christian holidays? Was I really a person who would stop saying Jesus Christ! when I banged my toe or hit my fingers with a hammer? Was I really going to go to church every Sunday or even extra days throughout the week? Would I pray in public? Would I raise my hands and dance in the aisles or would I kneel in a pew and cross myself? Would I pray for people over the phone? Would I ask people to pray for me on the Internet?

Which of these outward expressions would really witness to my faith in Christ?

None. Not really. Somewhere along the way, I realized it was my transformations within that would dictate my outer expressions. And even from the very beginning, there was a powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. No matter how I stumbled, there was a wooing that would bring me back to the Way.

I experienced private joy when I walked around my apartment for an hour singing the only Christian song I knew, Jesus Loves Me. There were intense times of forgiveness of my father who died and abandoned me at a young age, and forgiveness of people who had hurt me, and forgiveness of myself for the hurts I had caused others (my mother, my first husband, my brother, my friends). There were testing times too because I wanted to see if God really cared about me as an individual. He did. He does.

Now, what of tomorrow? What will be my witness be for tomorrow? What more will the Christ do in my life? Perhaps this is the reason I write now… to capture today so I can be ready for the next hour, the afternoon, the evening, and then tomorrow.

Yes, I am on the Way. It is a long path that winds ahead. I can look back on that path and see where I took some “long cuts” (opposite of a short cut) and I can see where the path was wide and easy as well as the places that were narrow and difficult. When I turn to look ahead, I can see there are curves ahead that prevent me from seeing very far into the future. But I do see that there is a path. And when I look around, I can see the footprints of others. I am not alone on the Way.

Yes, it’s all good. I am comfortable in my Jesus shoes at last. I am content.

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