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The Zen of Lent: He is more than a God who smites

AngryGod

Are you feeling joyful as we enter the season of Lent leading up to Easter? If so, try reading Leviticus 20, 24, and 26 where God tells his people the penalty for sexual deviance, blasphemy, disrespect, and disobedience is death. From such a reading of the Scriptures one’s ebullience can quickly turn to depression. One could also develop a distorted perception of the nature of God. You see, the Bible contains an abundance of verses that describe God as a hard person to get along with. Have you ever encountered a harsh person? Maybe it was a parent, teacher, or boss. You know the type: a real . . . jerk (yes I was tempted to use a special word from my vast secular vocabulary, but the penalty could be death). For some people the only God they ever knew growing up was the strict hard-handed God. Unfortunately many strains of the Christian church promoted this one-sided image of God, and still do today. This incomplete picture of God is the reason why many people, when they were younger, walked away from God and the church. The only God they knew was the all-powerful God who would smack them if they screwed up.

Certainly it is possible to make God angry, though I do not recommend you try. And certainly he has been known to allow his people to experience unpleasant consequences to help them learn and grow out of toxic and/or sinful ways of living. And just because we now live under the umbrella of New Testament grace through Jesus, I seriously doubt that God is entirely out of the smiting business. (Clearly a just God smote the haughty Carolina Panthers in last week’s Super Bowl.) Yet we who are fortunate to have been churched where we learned about the complete God know that he is much more than a smiter. But what about the people who walked away before they had an introduction to the God of love and grace? I believe there are millions of people in the world who have an incomplete comprehension of God. Perhaps the crushing cares of this life have made them ripe for an introduction to the complete God, the God who longs to shower love and grace on everyone who seeks his heart in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Maybe you or I could be the person who makes that introduction to one of those who ran away from the scary God before they really got to know him. Of course that would require that we not be scary ourselves.

Reflective reading: Psalms 103:8-12
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: It ain’t Sidney Poitier

Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal

If Caitlyn Jenner married Rachel Dolezal, would it be an interracial same-sex marriage? For those of you living under a rock (I’m seriously thinking about joining you), Rachel Dolezal is the white lady and former leader of the Spokane NAACP who made the news recently because she self-identifies as black. Egad, just when I thought identity-bending couldn’t get any more confusing. It was bad enough when Bruce Jenner switched teams. Back in the day I had a man crush on Jenner when I was in high school because he was a cool jock. But the recent story about Dolezal choosing to be black made me wonder what the hades is going on in American society? Well, when humanity throws me for a loop, I check out the Bible for answers.

Going way back in history, the Bible says God cautioned humanity that those who did not know God or believe in God would eventually find themselves confused and off track about a variety of things in daily life. For instance, Deuteronomy 22:5 says that a man must not wear a woman’s clothes and a woman must not wear man’s clothing because such behavior is detestable in God’s opinion. The inclusion of this warning in the ancient text of the Bible tells me that Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner and the transgender community today are not breaking new ground. There has always been a demographic with a strong inclination to change their gender identity, whether society approved or not. Apparently that fact has now expanded to race, as well. Is the desire to switch teams and become a different gender or race something natural and healthy due to a genetic hiccup in the womb, or does it indicate mental illness? Is it a disability, a lapse in judgment, or a breakdown in character?

Isaiah 5:20 says, “What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.” I find it curious that a significant segment of our population today believes that radical self-transformations like those of Jenner and Dolezal are admirable, brave, and healthy. They say it is a good thing and anyone who disagrees is evil or hateful. They are saying bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. A growing segment of our population is losing the ability to discern the difference between good and evil as well as the difference between healthy and unhealthy.

Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.” These two verses are at the root of many of our problems. We do not ask God about the way we live. That said, allow me to change direction here. What if Jenner’s decision to change gender was indeed the result of years of mental torment because he felt feminine in a masculine body? What if Jenner tried to find healing through every traditional clinical approach without success? What if Jenner asked God for help, but received none? (Yes I know it changes the dynamic if Jenner does not know God, but bear with me.) If that is the case, it is understandable why Jenner would take such drastic action as to change his gender. Given enough pain, EVERY person will try almost anything to make the pain stop. This is true of severe physical as well as mental pain. I know what some of you are thinking: God answers prayer and heals those in pain. I’m sorry, but sometimes God does not answer our every prayer and heal our body and/or mind of every ailment? The reality is that there are times when we are compelled to do whatever it takes to function without pain pushing us to the brink of jumping off a bridge.

I admit that I do not understand why God sometimes allows people to go through severe pain, and I try not to blame God. But in such situations, well, grace becomes priceless. Jenner needs our grace. As for Dolezal, I’m suspicious that her decision to change race was political or influenced by cultural forces, but ultimately I do not know her heart. Don’t get me wrong; I do not believe society should treat the decisions of Jenner and Dolezal with reckless admiration as if they are somehow leading us into a brave new world of utopian tolerance. However, extending grace and compassion to Jenner and Dolezal feels like the right thing to do.

Does Donald Sterling Buy His Beef From Cliven Bundy?

LA Clippers/Flickr/by Ytoyoda

LA Clippers/Flickr/by Ytoyoda

Maybe you’ve heard of Cliven Bundy. He’s the 67-year-old Nevada cattle rancher who recently landed in the national news when the federal government started impounding his cattle in early April, following a 20-year legal battle over cattle-grazing on federal land. For many years Bundy refused to pay the grazing fees. The conflict came to a head in the Nevada desert when a showdown between armed federal agents and armed Bundy supporters escalated to the brink of a gun battle. Eventually, federal authorities backed down and bloodshed was averted.

Those on the political right viewed Bundy as a folk hero who stood bravely against the heavy hand of an overreaching federal government. Those on the political left viewed Bundy as a moocher (oh the irony) refusing to pay for grazing fees like all other ranchers using federal land. But just as things were beginning to settle down in the Nevada desert, Bundy, while answering questions at a news conference, launched into his personal views on the plight of African Americans on government assistance, likening their plight to idleness, government subsidy (ironic), jail, abortion, picking cotton, and slavery. I don’t know if there was a legitimate moral message somewhere in the midst of Bundy’s observations on race and government assistance, but the word’s chosen and his delivery were not politically correct or helpful. In other words, he indeed sounded like a racist. This left those on the political right scrambling to distance themselves from Bundy the person without distancing themselves from the issue of an overreaching federal government. Those on the left used the opportunity of Bundy’s words to discredit Bundy, his cause, and all who supported his cause.

Skip ahead a couple weeks to April 29, 2014, and the saga of Donald Sterling, owner (or possibly a soon to be former owner) of the LA Clippers. The NBA banned Sterling from all NBA activities for life because of news that he had expressed his desire to a lady friend that she not bring black friends to Clippers games. His comments, if accurately portrayed, reflected a racist mentality. Swift public outrage led some advertisers to drop the LA Clippers. Talk of a player’s strike was bandied about. Many players, former players, team owners, representatives, sports media personalities, and fans praised the NBA commissioner’s swift and stern decision to ban Sterling from basketball. Now Sterling can only watch basketball on television. Yet this writer (always the skeptic) wonders if NBA leadership acted for purely moral reasons or because this incident stood to cost the league substantial revenue. If you have the ability to take away a significant chunk of an organization’s money, that organization’s leadership will find a way to take action to staunch the financial bleeding. This is an example of market forces (and politics) at work on a moral issue. Of course the opposite can also happen: if you promise to infuse a lot of money (with strings attached) into an organization, the leadership of the organization might be enticed to take no action or take an immoral action.

As an aside, the response of the NBA in the Sterling case is the proverbial slippery slope. In the future, what is to stop an organization from firing someone or canceling their contract because they hold unpopular views on gay marriage, global warming, suffrage (just kidding) or whatever the moral issue du jour? In such an environment it becomes easy to slip across the line from opposing a legitimate immorality to persecution of people with legitimate beliefs of conscience. Go back and re-read 1984. I guess we all need to make sure our thinking is right.

The morally superior attitude of many who responded to the words of Bundy and Sterling made me uncomfortable. Why? Because they view those who engage in this loathsome sin as irredeemable, people who should be completely discarded. But the Bible tells us it is possible to renew our minds. People can change. With God’s help, a racist can eliminate racism from his heart. And yet many who decry Bundy and Sterling come off like these two men have no hope of mercy and forgiveness.

As for Bundy and Sterling, they have encountered a hard reality about modern society: “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.”

Kingdom of Heaven California Style

MC900156825 (1)Having lived in California all my life, it is easy to forget about our peculiarities here in the land of odd. Just recently, I was reminded of our strangeness by the following newspaper headline: “Painted gnomes bring smiles in Oakland.” The gnome article in the San Francisco Chronicle states: “The gnomes are colorful hand-painted figures on 6-inch brown wooden boards, often screwed to the base of utility poles. Some are waving. Some wear kilts. A rare few are accompanied by mushrooms.” These little gnomes are popping up all over the city of Oakland. Far be it from me to pooh-pooh whimsical expressions of urban art. On the other hand, California abounds with unhealthy expressions of strangeness as demonstrated by an article I saw in the newspaper about a naked woman who injured her fiancé when she ran over him with a car. (I wonder if that little tidbit will make into the wedding toast or onto Pinterest.)

Yep, California can be strange. It also has a plethora of ethnic diversity. California is like a mission field right here in the U.S.A. (Perhaps that is why California is the number one importer of clergy.)California attracts free spirits, nonconformists, entrepreneurs, fortune seekers, job seekers, sun seekers, fun seekers, fame seekers, creative types, a fair number of “normal” people, and folks simply looking for something different in life. We have all types of people, from surfers to loggers. They come like moths to the flame. Of course, the old adage applies quite appropriately to California: “Wherever you go, there you are.” If a person had problems before arriving in California, they will still have problems after.

Still, California is an enchanting and beautiful place despite our idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately, a 2009 Pew Research study placed California in the bottom 12 states for people who say religion is very important in their lives. That means millions of Californians have embraced lifestyles without God, lifestyles that apparently offer some measure of satisfaction. I see a lot of Californians hopping from new idea to new idea, which is not always a bad thing. But Hebrews 13:8-9 is especially poignant for Californians:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. Your strength comes from God’s grace . . .”

The author of Hebrews was likely speaking  primarily to Christians, but if my fellow Californians could just cut through the fads and get a little taste of God’s grace expressed in Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven would import some odd but beautiful souls from the Golden State.

Mixed Messages

Message in a BottleRecently, I saw a young woman walk out of a store wearing a blue sweatshirt that had two words emblazoned on the back: “Love Pink.” It was probably a reference to the breast cancer awareness movement, or it might be that the young lady really likes the singer Pink. Or how about this, maybe she just loves the color pink, but if so, why was it on a blue sweatshirt? I’m so confused. What did her message mean?

Oh, oh, here’s a good one. I recently saw two bumper stickers on the same car: a COEXIST bumper sticker next to an ARMY bumper sticker. Aaargh! What are they trying to say?

We live in a world of quick ambiguous communication that can lead to misunderstanding. Compounding the problem is our flawed nature that can cause us to misunderstand and mischaracterize each other. Many hurts and conflicts arise because someone misunderstood a comment or action of another. Of course there are times when the other party intentionally snubs us or hurts us and their intent was communicated quite clearly. That is why I love this short clip on grace from the movie The Tree of Life:

This type of grace cannot be expressed into the world by human will alone. It can only come from God, though God often uses us to spread it in the world. Christ was the perfect manifestation of God’s grace towards us. Of course, there is a choice involved with grace: We can choose to live by grace or our base instincts, what the video clip calls nature. Grace is counterintuitive, but God loves it. If we got nothing else right in our Christianity, living by grace would go a long way in the Kingdom of Heaven. But I’ll admit: It is very hard to replace instinct with grace.

The Ill-mannered

A recent article about pregnant women caught my attention, probably because our first grandchild is due in September. The headline was this: “What Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman” by Marlena Graves. Here’s a sample of inappropriate things people say to pregnant women:

So, who’s the father?
Boy, you’re getting fat.
You look like you’re about to pop.
I love seeing the new mother glow and nice round breasts
Was this a planned pregnancy?

Such comments are often delivered as an attempt at humor. However, regardless of the context, some of these comments are crass and insensitive. I get it. Still, a sense of humor is essential when we are on the receiving end of offensive remarks. It’s hard enough to get through this life without turning into a grumpy old wretch. A sense of humor does not excuse bad behavior or inappropriate comments, but it does help as a coping mechanism. Of course, there are times when amusement at poor manners is not appropriate and a more direct approach with the offender is necessary. Just be aware that not all offenders can be politely embarrassed into changing their behavior. They are simply oblivious to their faux pas and unlikely to understand why their comments were not . . . appreciated. Even if we confront them, I doubt we can correct a lifetime of missed lessons about etiquette. Hence, for our own mental health, we need that sense of humor.

I was born and raised in California, though I have family in rural Georgia. When visiting my family in Georgia, I become keenly aware of the difference in manners and customs between folk from my neck of the woods and people raised in the South. Those of us from California are often very laid-back, whereas people from the South have more expectations about proper behavior. Thankfully, people from the South are also very forgiving once they learn I’m from California.

I once heard a comedian assert that our culture has become so comfortable that we now make up reasons to be upset and offended. He used this example: While experiencing the miracle of flight, an airline passenger gets enraged when the flight attendant announced that the aircraft Wi-Fi was not operating. Really? It should be a minor annoyance, not something that raises our blood pressure. Good manners and civility are necessary for a culture to survive and thrive, but I wonder if we have a tendency to overreact these days.

It is possible one reason so many people accuse Christians of being judgmental is this hyper-sensitivity to anything that falls outside our standards of polite behavior and speech. Quite frankly, not everyone was raised by parents who insisted on good manners. When we have dealings with the ill-mannered, it’s an opportunity to express grace instead of going to our default mode of incredulity and offended feelings. If we really want to make an impact, perhaps we should focus our insistence on good manners towards children and young adults.

As a sensitive man (I know, it’s an oxymoron), I realize there are serious aspects to life and faith, but I wonder if we make them more problematic than necessary.

Abandoned

Does God ever abandon people? If necessary, yes. Now before you demand that I turn in my saint light card, let’s take a look at the Apostle Paul’s teaching about God’s response to people who don’t worship him as he is or, at the very least, thank him. It is found in Romans 1:21 and 24: “Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like . . . So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired . . .”

For some people that’s an open invitation to party time. But if that verse doesn’t strike you as a harsh response, think about the implications. It means indulging debase passions to the point of enslavement to those passions. Who, in their right mind, would want to give more control to their sex addiction, or their eating disorder, or their insobriety, or their cat-hoarding? (My personal demon.)

What’s the solution? Worship God for who he is, not what we want him to be. Also, be thankful to God for all he has done. A grateful heart can stimulate the grace of God to action. And it is God’s grace that protects us from ourselves and holds our demons at bay.

Some in our culture reject God and religion in the name of personal freedom. They are like hedonists and bohemians. It’s ironic, in a tragic way, that ultimately they will not get the freedom they desire. Here is what Romans 1:29-31 says are the outcomes when God abandons people to their debase desires:

“Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy.”

Well, that’s definitely not the high-society bunch . . . or maybe it is. It sounds like something out of the Lord of the Flies. Here’s my point: We can’t take God’s grace for granted and it is his grace that not only forgives but also assists us in defeating chronic sins in our lives. To that end, it is very important to reject the temptation to reinvent God.