Tag Archives: Doctrine

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

The Activating Ingredient

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthian 13:1 (NIV)

As I’ve mentioned in recent months, I’m making my way chronologically through all of Paul’s letters. This is in conjunction with a year-long study my local gathering of Jesus’ followers is conducting of the book of Acts.

One of the patterns that is repeated over and over again in the book of Acts is an action or event that is followed by an opportunity to teach, testify or pray. The action always precedes the teaching or testimony. “Do” then “Teach.”

I thought about this as I read Paul’s famous discourse on love. He begins by acknowledging that religious actions void of love are empty, impotent, and useless. Love is the action. Love is the activating ingredient. Love is the “Do” that opens the way for meaningful conversation, interaction, and Life-giving moments.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back over my entire spiritual journey. As I put on my 20-20 hindsight goggles, I confess that I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong. Oh my, have I missed some things. Simple things. Basic things. Things I should have seen long ago.

I was taught, and embraced the notion, that moral and doctrinal purity were “the most excellent way.” I and my Protestant tribes have been so worried about avoiding a doctrinally errant “gospel of works” (i.e. you earn your salvation by doing good deeds) that I believe I elevated the importance of belief and right-thinking. In so doing I diminished the activating ingredient: Love. And, without the activating ingredient, my faith is….

I’m reminded of James’ letter to believers (a letter Martin Luther hated and wanted struck from the canon of scripture). James is echoing the same sentiment as Paul. He just says it in a different way. If I say I have faith and I believe all the right doctrines, but I don’t have the activating agent of love motivating me to “Do” unto others, love my enemies, forgive those who’ve sinned against me, welcome the outcast, take up my cross, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give my coat as well, and et cetera, then my faith is void of Life. And, that which is void of Life is dead. I and my right doctrine are dead on arrival.

Lord, have mercy on me. I’ve still got so much to learn, and “Do.”

A Tyrant, My Faith, and Possibility

“I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations.”
Jeremiah 25:9 (NIV)

On my spiritual journey I’ve had the opportunity to worship with, and serve among, a wide variety of denominational groups. Methodist, Regular Baptist, American Baptist, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Reformed denominations to name the major ones, though the list expands to everything from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal when you consider a vast number of smaller experiences and events. I’ve observed along the way that most institutions dedicated to the notion of following Jesus, along with their respective followers, are reductionist in their faith.

Take the little town where I live, for example. The town was settled by one group of Jesus followers who were led to America from the Netherlands by their pastor. Not long after settling the group split. With time, the two groups split again. Most often, divisions were predicated on some minor disagreement in doctrinal belief. Eventually, some groups aligned with one denominational institution while others joined another. Rinse and repeat. Eventually there are over twenty different shades of the same belief system; Small groups of seemingly homogeneous people who have boxed themselves in their respective neighborhood church entrenched in their firm belief that the way they dot the “i” on their doctrinal statement or the music they sing on Sunday is the correct way.

The problem with this systemic pattern, I’ve come to believe, is that eventually my understanding of God’s designs and purposes get reduced right along side my insistence that my particular corner of truth is the correct way. It’s so easy to get lulled into believing and accepting that God’s official stamp of approval is really only good in my particular box. God can’t possibly bless or be at work in the box across the street where they dot their doctrinal “i” with little happy faces. [cue: rolling of the eyes] (“Goodness, where’s their sense of holiness and propriety?”)

As I journey through God’s Message time and time again I’m always struck at how expansive God’s purposes and designs really are. In today’s chapter, God calls the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” and when I read the book of Daniel I find God going to great lengths to reveal Himself to the pagan monarch from “outside” God’s people, to humble Nebuchadnezzar, and to draw the Persian king in. In other words, God is working outside the box and outside the defined lines of “God’s people.” God uses and cares about an evil, arrogant, murderous tyrant who is so deceived as to believe himself a god. God expresses a genuine desire for Nebuchadnezzar to know Him.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the different shades of denominational institutions I’ve experienced and the ways in which I saw God at work in and through each and every one of them. I’m also thinking about specific individuals with whom I shared each of those stretches of my faith journey; Individuals who isolated themselves within their denominational box to the point of believing that God could not, would not possibly bless those outside their particular box.

Lord, have mercy on us.

The further I get in my own journey the less reductionist, and more expansive my faith has become. I realize that the eyes of my heart are in the process of increasingly seeing that the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reaches further, has far greater design, and pulls in far more people from every walk of life than I can possibly know or imagine.

Who can possibly be saved?” Jesus’ disciples asked Him.

With man, it is impossible,” Jesus replied, and then He continued: “But, with God all things are possible.”

I don’t want my faith shrinking into the belief that it’s impossible that God would dance in the lives of others simply because they are different from me, hold to different traditions, have radically different views on religion/doctrine/life/economics/politics, or live a very different life style than mine. I want my own faith dancing and growing into the possibilities that God is dancing with the Nebuchadnezzars of my day (and in my life) as His Great Story continues to be revealed day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

Inclusive Thinking Among Exclusive Thinkers

…for my house will be called
    a house of prayer for all nations.”
Isaiah 56:7c (NIV)

I was raised spiritually among various “holy huddles” of Jesus followers who were proud of their correct doctrinal interpretation of the scriptures. I remember one professor at Bible college who proudly showed us a video-taped debate of him arguing with a scholar of another denomination. He almost cackled with glee as watched himself intellectually corner and badger the poor old man until it seemed like his opponent was going to take a swing at him. I remember being amazed and appalled watching a teacher who said he loved God with all his heart taking joy in belittling and administering a intellectual beat down on another. Of course, my professor justified his actions because he had already excluded his opponent as a heretic who was going to hell. He simply took on the mantel of God’s theological inquisitor.

One of the things I love about Isaiah’s prophecies, the thing that is often overlooked by many in my holy huddles, is how incredibly inclusive it is. Over and over again Isaiah speaks of all nations experiencing salvation and those who are marginalized being graciously brought into the fold. In today’s chapter, that includes “foreigners” and “eunuchs” who were two constituencies excluded from worshipping in the temple. Isaiah promises them love, hope, and acceptance by God.

Today I’m thankful for the example Jesus continually showed in choosing, loving, and embracing those who were marginalized and excluded in this world. I’m inspired by the inclusive vision God shares through the prophet Isaiah. I am, once again, motivated to worry less about holy huddles of perfect doctrine and concern myself more with the simple law of Love Jesus gave us – the one He said summed everything up nicely.

My Butt Ain’t That Big

God’s Message to his anointed,
    to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand…
…I’ve singled you out, called you by name,
    and given you this privileged work.
    And you don’t even know me!
Isaiah 45:1,4 (MSG)

Yesterday, over coffee with a friend, I was sharing my experiences of attending a fundamentalist Bible college one semester. My friend asked me where the college was and I told him where it was located.

He looked at me in surprise.

I never knew there was a Bible college there!” he exclaimed.

Shhhhh!” I whispered, lifting my finger to my mouth. “They don’t want you to know they’re there!

I was jesting, of course, but the truth of the matter is that throughout most of my life journey I’ve found many followers of Jesus, and especially many of the denominational institutions, are an exclusionary bunch. Membership requires strict adherence to a rigid set of doctrinal beliefs and/or public adherence to a list (sometimes formal, sometimes not) of moral and puritanical behavioral rules. If you don’t tow the line, you’re not welcome. Many will go so far as to say that if you don’t tow the line then you’re not only not welcome in their church but you’re also not going to be welcome in heaven either.

The further I get in my spiritual journey, and the deeper I get in my relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more I’ve come to see this exclusionary religious model, adhered to by so many proclaimed Christian institutions and denominations, as antithetical to God’s actual Message and example.

In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah gives a message about Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire in the middle part of the sixth century B.C.. Cyrus was not Jewish. He didn’t claim to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. In fact, Cyrus had a reputation of a “live and let live” policy for allowing the nations he conquered continue to pursue their local religions. It was quite progressive in his day. Cyrus was not one of “God’s chosen” people, and yet God through the prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus his “anointed” whom He has “taken by the hand.” God has “singled Cyrus out” and “called him by name” even though Cyrus has no knowledge of this.

This morning I am reminded that the Creator, and Almighty God, does not live inside the box of my personal doctrinal and religious parameters. I am responsible to follow the path to which I am called, to follow Jesus’ teachings and example, to live out the comprehensive law of Love, to let God be God, and leave judgment to the Judge who is infinitely beyond all that my finite mind can think or imagine.

The Judgment Seat of Christ is a huge chair.

My butt isn’t nearly big enough to fit on it.

 

Priests, Protestants and Me

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take Aaron and his sons with him, the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
Leviticus 8:1-3 (NRSV)

Aaron was Moses’ right-hand man, and it was Aaron and his sons who were chosen to be the priests in the sacrificial system of the ancient Hebrews. In today’s chapter, God through Moses takes Aaron and his sons through a ritual of ordination to become priests. It is a long ritual filled with metaphor from their priestly vestments to a little dab ‘ill do ya of blood on the ear lobe.

A priest is a mediator between God and man. A priest stands in the spiritual gap. The priest represents God to humanity and represents humanity before God. A priest is spiritually elevated and ordained to handle and serve the sacrifice, to carry our prayers into the presence of the Almighty, and to bestow forgiveness and absolution to the common sinner.

Among Christian institutions, the priesthood is one of the major differences between Roman Catholicism (and Greek Orthodox and Anglican) and the Protestant denominations. Protestants believe that since Jesus death and resurrection there is only one priest and mediator, and it is Jesus:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. Hebrews 4:14

“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all….” 1 Timothy 2:5

Three of the four gospel writers report that when Jesus died the curtain in the Hebrew temple was torn in two. That curtain separated people from the area of the temple where God resided. Only the priest could enter. When the curtain was torn, the way was made for anyone to enter into God’s presence. Jesus was the sacrifice, the mediator, and the priest who stands in the gap.

In my Protestant circles, we think very little of the role of a priest anymore. I have, however, observed along my journey that Protestants often like to unwittingly bestow priestly powers on our pastors and spiritual leaders. It seems there is something innately human about doing so despite what we say we believe.

This morning I’m mulling over my own understanding of the role of priests, the work of Jesus and what that means. The ultimate sacrifice has been made. The curtain is torn. The way is open for me to enter into God’s presence. I need no other emissary, or representative, or priest. I need only approach.

Will I?

 

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