Love: The Fine Print

The “perfect storm” of thinking hit this afternoon, thanks to Blue Like Jazz, Coart’s Sunday School lesson on doing good works, and just some random stuff that’s been simmering on the back burner for a while….

Getting a grip on the concept that God loves us unconditionally seems to mystify a lot of Christians (including me). Once gripped, the idea undermines a lot of the theology I grew up with, shoving me uncomfortably into a pile of ramifications I’d rather not face.

Don Miller describes his experience as a counselor at the Wilds of the Rockies one summer. (He doesn’t name the camp in his book, but I’m assuming there can only be one fundamentalist Christian camp in Colorado where a sheltered, homeschooled female counselor would be headed to BJU in the fall.) After living for several months as part of a hippie commune in the aspen forests in the Catskills, he marched into the Wilds sporting long hair, a beard, a mere backpack of personal belongings, a pipe, and bad personal hygiene.

Quickly he realized that while the Wilds folks were kind and willing to put up with his oddness (as long as he hid the pipe, cut his hair, and shaved off the beard), they used “unconditional” love like a commodity:  If you met community standards, you were accepted. If you violated those standards, acceptance was withheld until you came back in line. [He’s sure it was well-intentioned.]

That got me thinking: 
Why do we Christians so often “love” people with strings attached? 
Why do we use love as “a means to an end”? 

Christians always feel like we have to point sin out to people. We take that command to “rebuke, exhort” given to Timothy and make it the singular hallmark of Christian ministry, instead of love (cf John 15; I Jn 4).

It seems that within “churchianity” love must always come with stipulations and a higher purpose.  We “love” homeless people or outcasts or “sinners” or “worldly” people so that they will come to Jesus, start living right, realize their sin, etc. We do not love them as they are, without condemnation… and thus our love is manipulation.

And they know it.

Consider this:
The Scripture clearly identifies the Holy Spirit as the source of Jesus’ power for earthly ministry (see Acts 17) as well as the spiritual force behind the good works that Christians do. He and His people tap into the same source. [If you want to quibble with my theology here, talk to Coart. I’m directly quoting what he taught in SS this morning, and he got his material straight from the WCF and the NT.]

Jesus’ earthly ministry was marked by far more compassion than condemnation. Yes, He violently hurled the money changers out of His Father’s house because they were defaming God’s very character by using His name to fleece people. He also excoriated the Pharisees for adding their own man-made rules to God’s Law. (ouch)      He did point out a few people’s sins to them rather directly (such as the woman at the well) and sometimes subtly (the rich young ruler).
But the great bulk of Jesus’ ministry was physical, earthy, patient, effective, and compassionate. He healed; He fed; He encouraged; He loved; He called people to repentance in a way that was both authoritative and gracious.

In John 14 (I think… or maybe it’s ch 16), Jesus says the Holy Spirit “will convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.”  That’s His job — He convicts people.   He takes the Word in all of its power and smashes through our walls and self-defenses, laying bare our hearts before the searchlight that reveals our sin. And during the life of Christ on earth, the Spirit was the convicting force in Jesus’ ministry.  You can be sure the Holy Spirit had already been working in that Samaritan woman so that when she met Jesus at the well, she got into a much more life-changing encounter than she’d bargained for.

I think we Christians believe that the convicting work of the Spirit is our rsponsibility– that unless we lay it all on the line and make sure people understand what we don’t approve of in their lifestyle, we are muddying the Gospel.  That somehow, loving a person as they are right now isn’t going to work unless we lay out the contract details in advance:

“To whom love is given, much will be required.”

For unsaved people, our contract demands refusing to drink, smoke, or cuss with them.  Usually if said unsaved one “rejects” our offer of the Gospel, church attendance, or other indicators of spiritual life, we give up. At the least, our humanitarianism is always tinged with the mystical purpose of “drawing them to Christ.”
Unrepentant sinners need not apply–why waste love on someone who doesn’t have any intentions to return it? (If there were hope for them, God would make that person stop sinning… right?)
And definitely no homosexuals. Good God, no. Of course, there’s not much chance of that happening anyway – I can’t even get my raised-in-church Christian school students to read literature written by gays without condemning the author and refusing to listen to anything he’s written. *whew* [I’m glad there’s enough good literature written by “straight” people that I can still get some decent educating done.]
If it’s a homeless shelter we’re talking about, then the people who want a bed & a meal tonight need to sit through a Gospel sermon first. We can’t let them take advantage of us, you know.      And all medical missions clinics had better hire a minister on staff to preach to those needy folks sitting out in the courtyard waiting for their long shot to see the Western miracle-workers.

…..we’re so good at making sure people understand they’re sinners before they feel the love.


Seems like we’ve gotten our job description mixed up with the Holy Spirit’s, doesn’t it?

Now, I hate to be misunderstood, so read carefully:   
Some of you (if you’ve read this far) think I’m saying “all we need is love” (like the Beatles song) and then all the sin in the world will just go away.  I’m not saying that.

Our God never leaves us in our sinful, broken condition (Isaiah 59). His love is all-encompassing, given freely without strings and without our earning it. But it is also efficacious. The kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom 2) and we are changed.

If I love someone, I won’t let him/her drive off a cliff or beat their head against a wall until its bloody (metaphorically speaking). By nature, sin destroys and damages. It shatters lives, wounds relationships, and costs an incredible amount of effort to “fix.” So I’m not suggesting that the Bible passages about exhortation should be ignored. If I love someone, I’ll probably end up confronting them … and getting rebuked myself when I’m the one doing the sinning.

I’m just saying that the conservative Church has earned itself the (well-deserved and harmful) reputation for judging first and asking questions later … when (according to our Head) we ought to be known by our love.

It’s the love, not the guilt-trip, that changes lives.

Blue. Jazz. Grace.

Been reading Blue Like Jazz these past few days. Picked it up because a couple friends recommended it to me, other people say it’s the devil incarnate, and someone who doesn’t like it told me we can have a discussion about it once I read it. Since I happen to think highly of said friend, I’m working my way through.

I really appreciate Donald Miller’s honest evaluations of what Christianity looks like to “the outsiders.” His stories about Reed college in Portland, the most anti-God college in America (according to the people who study that kind of thing), struck me deeply. One girl told him she figured that if Christianity were all wrapped up in a single person, it would dislike her and condemn her.  Thus, she viewed God with the same attitude and wanted nothing to do with Christianity (later she came to know Christ).

God wooed His bride with grace, love, patience, and forgiveness … not condemnation.  To call Christians to love people instead of instantly pushing them toward some kind of change is not to deny that sin is real and must be addressed. But it seems like most of us judge first and love later (if ever).

I know people have criticized Miller’s book for a number of reasons, including its lack of theological “depth” and bent toward an Arminian view of salvation. The first criticism seems off-target to me — Miller isn’t setting out to write a theological treatise, so people shouldn’t criticize him for what he “leaves out.” If you want to read a systematic theology, go buy Reymond or Grudem.

Miller’s stories with their punches of truth wrapped in layers of rich humanity struck a chord with me. Over the past few years, I’ve sensed a growing desire to connect with the “outsiders”: the marginalized … the hopeless …. those who still think they cannot be saved (to quote the Smashing Pumpkins) …  the people who think God is irrelevant because evangelical Christianity seems to be wholly populated by Republican, judgmental, white soccer moms and their husbands and children.

I think Mike the Cussing Pastor was my favorite character.  You’ll just have to read the book yourself to figure him out.

I’m not done yet with Miller’s book, so I suppose he could spring some shocking horror on me in a late chapter. But at this point (3/4 through the book), I think we ought to give Miller a hearing and downright revel in his idea of Grace.

“I love to give charity, but I don’t want to be charity. That’s why I have such a problem with grace.”

Either way, we’re screwed.

Been thinking again. You’d better duck. 

Unconditional love is striking for a number of reasons (not the least of which is its divine origin, for I am convinced that the selfish human heart is incapable of truly loving apart from an infusion of Grace, common or otherwise).

But this particular aspect of “agape” (unconditional) love has been on my mind recently:

“Normal” human love — even well-intentioned — is always a power play. We often choose to love people because they please us, or we realize that loving someone else puts that person in our debt, so to speak. If I do something for you out of love, I feel entitled to demand certain things in return, like gratitude, appreciation, favors, or love itself.

As usual, God’s paradigm turns our natural understanding on its head.

Most of us realize that being the ‘lover’ in an unconditional sense requires giving up one’s claim to the “return benefits.” If I love someone else because of what I can get out of them, my motives are mixed and my love is not pure.
To quote Jack’s favorite Friends episode where Phoebe tries in vain to commit a truly altruistic act, all of our human love is tainted by the power-play. We see the “prize” at the end — acceptance, self-interest, or just a chance to feel better about ourselves.

Let me clarify that I’m not implying that love ought to be merely a one-way street. I John says that we love Godbecause He first loved us. His love creates in us the ability to return love, and the Great Commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”) makes it clear that He does expect that love to be returned … but He doesn’t want it from us as an obligation.
We are God’s images, and we learn to love via His example. A godly relationship follows the pattern of sweet fellowship that we see among the  members of the Trinity: love flowing both ways so that both people are richly blessed.   God’s sacrifice of Himself so that humans could experience that kind of love is deep and mysterious and utterly humiliating for me to consider.

That humiliation of being the recipient of a totally self-sacrificial love leads me to a more surprising realization about agape love:

It’s harder to be the beloved than the lover. 

Receiving unconditional love strips away my pride and image of self-worth. Whether received from God or a human, I am powerless to affect the lover’s choice. He/she chose freely to love. It’s not based on my merit. I can’t make it stop by becoming unworthy.

That realization is both an incredible comfort (security) as well as an almost frustrating reminder that — as in most things– I am not the master of this aspect of my life either.

Heh. Ironic.
Perfect love is the ultimate example of my lack of control.


let’s poke it again (Problem of Evil)

To continue a point I was working on a few days ago:

1. God is good.
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil exists.

Every religion must wrestle with “the problem of evil.:” Trying to affirm more than two of these truths at any one time shoves a person into logical impossibility. For Christians, knowing the promises of God doesn’t make the Problem of Evil any less knotty.

Many folks, unwilling to live on the precarious fault between faith and oblivion, solve the dilemma by weakening (or denying) one of the three core truths that cause the problem. Rabbi Neusner’s famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People claims that God means well but doesn’t really have the power to do anything about the evil in this world.  Open theists suggest that God doesn’t have full knowledge of the future (again, diminishing His omnipotence) — a handy way to allow evil to exist without blaming God for it (as well as a neat way to explain the paradox between free will and sovereignty). Atheists and agnostics just deny both of the first two propositions, and there you go.

Conservative Christians are too well-versed in Scripture to let go of either the idea that God is good or that He is in control (though most of us will admit to doubting one or both when the going gets hard). Instead, I have noticed that “we” are tempted to diminish the full reality and horribleness of tragedy and evil which touch our lives from time to time.

Romans 8:28 has become a BandAid which Christians try to slap onto the gaping wounds caused by real pain or tragedy. I hear people glibly quote promises, Bible verses, or sermon snippets as if simple answers will take care of everything.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not taking aim at people who have hacked their way through the deep undergrowth of life’s trials and come out with a much deeper and stronger faith, one that allows them to minister comfort and assurance to their fellow, struggling siblings in the household of Faith. (See 1 Cor. 1)

But I think that Reformed theology (especially) with its emphasis on logical doctrine and precise systematization of theology pushes folks toward that which is glib. Evil is no longer evil … not really.  Because God *does* work much good out of (or in spite of) the tragedy of life, some people assume therefore that the evil itself is not really all that bad. “It’s just a flesh wound!” they cry to the person whose heart has been ripped to pieces by sorrow and loss.  “Cheer up! Be thankful! Your life could be much worse!” echoes at the miserable soul who finds itself trapped in the dark corridors of the mind and emotions.   We rush so fast to defend God’s honor that we try to soften the blow of reality.

I love the Psalms for many reasons. A few years ago I stumbled across this truth:  The Psalmist almost always ends up at the place of faith and soul-healing, but often after passing through dark and troubled waters. He doesn’t mince words, reduce true evil to an illusion of evil which the knowledge of sovereignty magically wipes away. Many of the Psalms are gritty and honest as the writer lays out his grief before the Lord.

My point?

Simply this:  Think before you speak.  Romans 12 says we should “weep with those who weep” in addition to rejoicing with the joyful.

When you find yourself in a position to minister to someone in trouble, first listen and mourn.

Don’t rush to admonish — the time for your exhortation will eventually come. [I’ve rarely met a conservative evangelical who needed help on that score. *grins*]

Real Grace floods into situations that are full of real Evil. 

We don’t have to play the game on “easy” because we’re afraid Grace will lose. 

poking the Problem of Evil

Just some thoughts I’m thinking…

I think Christians gloss over the “problem of evil” far too quickly.  Consider these typical quick answers to the very difficult question of why an omnipotent, loving God allows evil in His world:

We wouldn’t understand God’s goodness if it weren’t for evil.
Bull-hockey. If God needs evil around in order to display His goodness, He’s not all that grand.  Even if I were amazed by His ability to bring good out of evil, I would always know in the back of my mind that God was incomplete apart from the existence of evil … which diminishes His goodness.

Because God works all things together for good, the bad things that happen aren’t really all that bad.
What an insult to the person who is hurting!
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, even knowing He would be raising Lazarus from the dead. Life sucks sometimes … for real. And it’s not “whining” to admit it.  Death is a curse, not a blessing. Sickness is the result of the fall. Broken relationships are evidence of sin, not healing. Just because God does work good doesn’t mean that we’re somehow supposed to convince ourselves of a dreamworld where evil isn’t really all that bad.
In fact, I *hate* stories where the bad guy is all cleaned up and sympathetic and wishy washy.
Solomon says in Ecclesiastes that wise men live with the curse of understanding how bad things really are.

Because God is in control, whatever happens is the best possible alternative. 
I’ve got mixed emotions on this one. I understand the massive gravitational pull of the doctrine of sovereignty (especially in Reformed theology) toward this current universe being the best one because God wouldn’t let anything happen that shouldn’t.
But Voltaire was right to rip Leibnitz’s “this is the best of all possible universes” theory to shreds. Stupid idea.

I think many people run around saying nice-sounding things to hurting people because it makes the counselor feel better.  None of us really wants to live life in the dangerous fault line between faith and uncertainty, wondering whether the next earthquake will shake our foundations to the core.  But I think the issue of evil doesn’t neatly tie up into a package with no loose ends… no matter how hard people try.

The Gospel does not come with a  long list of pre-qualification steps, external requirements, or other demands upon the sinner. It simply offers eternal life for those who believe what is in essence a simple message: that Christ died, was buried, and rose again as a vicarious sacrifice for sinners.

I’m kind of noticing that Christianity (at least in the Southern parts) puts a lot of external demands on people before it will acknowledge them as Christians. And so I see people trying to clean themselves up before having anything to do with religion

Or Christians who shy away from reaching out to the hurting and needy in the Church itself because they’re afraid their actions (love) will be misunderstood as “putting a stamp of approval on someone’s sin.”

Man, that is *bad* theology right there….

McLaren: The Final Word. (Maybe)

Just finished Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy.

We kicked off this conversational review here, and then dropped in for a quick update a couple days ago. You might want to read those first. 

After finishing his initial exposition chapters, I expected to skim the bulk of McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, but I found his later chapters to be provocative and insightful.

I think at this point in my life, I am more interested in reading/listening to people who think differently than I do rather than soaking myself in works that reflect my own viewpoint. McLaren offered a surprising mix of agreement and disagreement with my perspective on the Church and her mission. I can’t really quantify what exactly I agree with and what I would reject. I think his thoughts need to marinate in me for a while . . .

Overall, I think McLaren is essentially on the mark with his critique of what my friend Sam calls “churchianity.” The religion of Christianity is not equivalent to the Kingdom which the Triune God is hard at work creating on this earth.  Our Christian “religion” continues to alienate folks, including many of our young people.

The Church in our 21st century, Evangelical expression has grown fat and comfortable in her neighborhood of (fading) Modernism. Yes, yes, there have been cosmic battles between liberal and conservative theology, vast disagreements over methodology, and a spectacular opening salvo known as the Reformation.  But our emergent understanding of the world is now postmodern, not Modern. We are too steeped in our own modernist context to be able to critique its faults. Somehow McLaren mustered the necessary objectivity to stand apart from the Church Modern to envision the Church Future. (Some of you will find the word “objectivity” ironic in that sentence about a man who is attempting to encourage a postmodern incarnation of the Body.)

I am tired of doom and gloom preaching; me-centered theology and mission (“Come to Jesus! He’ll make you feel better!”); narrow-minded judgmentalism; and a refusal to work now for the world that will exist 500 years from now (because deep-down, even the Reformed seem to live a Left Behind theology of Christian vocation and mission).  (Was that a narrow-minded judgment? LOL)

Is McLaren right?

I don’t know. But one thing is certain: postmodern Christianity (the good kind) will be as markedly different from what we see now as the Protestant Church was to Medieval Catholicism.

It’s going to be a wild ride….

thinking about The Table

Awhile back Coart and I were acquainted with a guy who studied at the Reformed Episcopal seminary in Texas. He was an interesting fellow, brimming with ideas about music, art, theology, philosophy which shook the little pillars of my worldview. I haven’t heard from him in quite a while; we need to track him down.

Anyway, since meeting Mark, we’ve been curious about the REC. I don’t know much about the denomination other than it’s been around more than 100 years. They’re Calvinist Episcopalians. (If you remember your Anglican history, you’ll recall that the Church of England adopted Arminius’s view of salvation and theology in the 1600s, offering yet another reason for the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell to view the Anglican church with disfavor.)

Being the curious folks that we are, we tracked down a congregation while on vacation in Phoenix and visited their Eucharist service last evening.

There’s not a whole lot to tell about the service itself; we worked our way through a long liturgy that included candles, vestments, and many Scripture readings (which are chanted instead of read). The rector’s sermon was what one expects from an evangelical pastor, with perhaps a bit more historical theology thrown in (a brief discussion of Trinitarian heresies). The small group of believers were very friendly.

But what stood out to me most was the Eucharist itself.

EucharistAfter so many years in conservative Protestant circles, I find myself longing for something “more” in worship practice, especially at the Lord’s Table.

Our fear of Catholic transubstantiation has led us to evacuate Communion from any real meaning in our lives …. other than, perhaps, an excuse for a guilt trip once a month for our inherent sinfulness. If your mom welcomed you to Christmas Dinner each year with a review of your recent failures, I doubt you’d get much pleasure out of the meal. No wonder many Christians stay home on Communion Sunday. 

NCC is the first church I’ve ever attended that treats the Lord’s Supper as a celebration instead of a judgment. Even Mt Calvary, whose silent meal followed by soulful singing, was far more focused on judging yourself for sin instead of on the Grace of Christ which frees us from that sin.

I think the Lord’s Supper does impart grace to the taker. Now I’m not talking about “saving grace (ie: I don’t think taking communion saves you). But in another sense, the grace is salvific — if we recognize that salvation is a process and not a point in time. The Gospel which translates me from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His dear Son (Colossians 1) is the same Gospel which works itself out over a lifetime of sanctification and miraculous transformation from sinner to “new creation.”

I think that kind of Grace is imparted to us at the Table. This sacrament of the Church (it seems to me) must be more than a simple memorial of past events.

An illustration: Protestant views of Communion seem to treat the event like a visit to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: A really meaningful opportunity to increase my appreciation for America’s veterans who sacrificed themselves for Freedom.

But let’s be honest. I might miss something by never seeing the changing of the guard at Arlington (I haven’t), but that doesn’t mean I can’t come to a deep and real appreciation for the military’s sacrifice. Basically, I can take it or leave it. Should I never pass by Arlington again, I will die a complete and “total” American.

I have a hard time treating the Lord’s Supper like a mere memorial with no real affect on the believer who partakes of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  …. There’s something wrong with that picture….There must be something more.

RameyLady speaks her mind


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