Feb 10 2011

The Kingdom is for Children

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite hymns is Children of the Heavenly Father, by Karolina W. Sandell-Berg:

Children of the Heavenly Father
Safely in His bosom gather
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given

This hymn—as it should—echoes a prevalent theme in the Gospels: Jesus (and Heaven) is for children. Sitting in the pew with all of the adults, in my clip-on tie and shiny black shoes, it was always reassuring to hear Jesus say things like, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them (Luke 18:16).”

The story goes like this: People were bringing their children to Jesus, so that he could bless them. However, the disciples, in their well-intentioned cluelessness, began turning them away. I understand this, I really do. Kids can certainly be a bother, especially when we’re being selfish. The disciples were doing nothing that many other adults have done.

From W.C. Fields’ famous “Go away kid, you bother me” to “children should be seen and not heard,” it’s easy for kids to get the notion that they are 2nd class citizens. The adults drink coffee and discus religion and politics, while the children make too much noise and need too much assistance. If we’re being truthful, we must admit that children are a lot of work and can be very distracting. I suspect that often, Sunday School programs are set up for this very reason—to keep children occupied elsewhere—not because there’s a true desire to teach them anything (if you’ve ever read through Sunday School curriculums, you’ll have to agree with me—there’s not a lot of real meat in there).

However, here’s Jesus, telling the disciples, “don’t you dare send these children away, for the Kingdom belongs to them.” Serious? The Kingdom of Heaven is for children? Furthermore, he says, that adults must become as children in order to even enter the Kingdom. Whoa! Jesus just turns the whole social order, as it involves children, upside-down.

Another story, found the three synoptic Gospels, tells of Jesus teaching about the Kingdom. He picks out a child from the crowd, and again says,

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:1-6).

I get the idea that children don’t necessarily need to be converted; that is, they believe in Jesus easily, and they seem to a fast track into the Kingdom. It is the adults who need to be converted from their adult thinking and attitudes. Fancy doctrines and theology are fine; however, real theology appears to be one which says simply, “I believe in Jesus.”

The Kingdom belongs to such as these.

  1. What did you believe as a child?  Why?
  2. How does one who has “matured” become as a little child?


Feb 8 2011

So, what do you want from Christianity?

Here’s an interesting question: What do you want from Christianity?

A long time ago I heard someone describing becoming a Christian as an act of “enlightened self-interest,” where we are motivated by what we hope to get out of it rather than a commitment to serve God and others. Looking at the Gospels, it seems that Jesus never turned people away for wanting something from him; in fact, it was those who didn’t want anything from him that he turned away. Even Peter’s great statement of faith, “where else would we go? Only you have the words of life” (John 6:68), speaks of Peter’s need for these words of life. So, this enlightened self-interest does not appear to be a bad thing.

Considering this, plus the fact that Christianity has, at least for many people in the west, become a consumerist endeavor—one in which we pick churches and even religions on what we perceive we need—then the obvious question becomes, “what do you want from Christianity?”

In answering this question, we could go a number of different ways. However, reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there are two primary responses: a life under the law, with a list of requirements to fulfill, or a life of freedom. Many people, for a number of different psychological and bad theological reasons, choose a life under the law. A relative few, it seems, choose a life of freedom.

Two Gates

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Almost never do you hear this verse taught in the larger context of what Jesus is saying in Matthew chapter 7. He starts off by saying, “Don’t judge others.” Then, he speaks of the Father giving his children good gifts, merely for the asking, and teaches them what we know as the Golden Rule: treat others like you’d like to be treated back “for this sums up the law.” Immediately following verses 13 & 14, Jesus talks about false prophets, and how to recognize them by their fruit.

It seems here that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples a different way from that of the law; we don’t get by working, we get by asking. Good trees naturally produce good fruit. Take the narrow road, not the widely traveled one.

Works, or grace?

I’ve always heard the explanation of the two paths as “choose holiness, not sin,” and yes, there’s something to be said for that, even though this does not seem to be Jesus’ emphasis here. Paul says we were set free not to sin, but to live in freedom, which is not to sin.

But, which gate leads to a life of works-righteousness, and which is the gateway to freedom and grace? Is it possible that we’ve confused our gates?

If Paul’s thinking accurately represents the Gospel as Jesus intended it (which I believe it does), then what leads to destruction is relying on ourselves, and what leads to live is receiving grace as a gift—which seems to follow Jesus’ line of thinking in the prior verses.

The Question

So, the question remains: What really do you want from Christianity, a life of self-reliance and works-righteousness, or a life of freedom that comes from grace?


Sep 6 2010

When God Ran

My former pastor and continued friend, Ken Blue, calls the parable of the Prodigal Son The Greatest Story Ever Told. I am guessing that of all of Jesus’ parables, this one — found only in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32) — has to be the most well-known. I knew is well as a child, hearing it in Sunday School as well as in church, both as the Gospel reading for the day and as a few sermon topics.

It is a truly great story. It has everything (except for a love interested): family issues, a great deal of sin, inner conflict, sibling rivalry, a change of heart, and a happy ending. (Well, sort of — the elder son still has issues at the end of the story, and as I’ll deal with in an upcoming post, it’s up to the audience to determine how that resolves.)

As with most people (as is obvious from the popular title of the story) as a child I was focused on the younger, prodigal son. The prodigal is the obvious focus, as this is who we follow in the story; we really don’t know much about what the Father and the good son were up to while the prodigal sowed his wild oats.

The story begins like an old Vaudeville joke; imagine George Burns: “A man had two sons…” Jesus, of course, was a great storyteller, and no doubt had the crowd’s undivided attention as he began (actually, this is the third in a series of three stories about the recovery of something presumed lost).

The younger son, according to Jewish law, would get a lesser portion of the inheritance when the father died. Rather than wait around for this, and obviously not placing any value in his relationship with his father, requests his share of the inheritance now. Essentially, he says, “Our relationship is as good as dead now, so let’s quit pretending.”  The father, rather than just kicking him out into the cold, agrees to the son’s demand.

The prodigal takes off and starts to party. He breaks as many commandments as he can, until suddenly he finds himself stung out, broke, homeless and hungry. He’s got a part time job feeding pigs, perhaps the worst job a good Jewish boy could imagine.

He realizes that there’s food back at his Father’s place, and he devises a plan. At this point, he still isn’t looking for relationship, nor is he looking for forgiveness. He just wants food. He knows his father’s business, and figures that his father may hire him on and let him sleep in the barn; at least he’ll be inside.

The amazing thing about this story is that if you read it a certain way, the prodigal remains a jerk throughout the story. As a child, I’m not sure I understood this part; in fact, most people don’t seem to. Most people imagine that some kind of repentance happened, that the prodigal’s “I am no longer worthy” speech indicates humility and that he is mourning the loss of relationship. However, the son’s speech could just be a clever attempt to diffuse his father’s presumed anger so he can make his pitch: “Hey, I know I blew it, so don’t preach at me. I’m not asking to rejoin the family, just let me be one of the day-laborers.”

I was a good kid, always afraid of getting in trouble or having my parents mad at me. I was, for the most part, Charlie Brown. I couldn’t really imagine why any son would act like the prodigal; that part of the story was a mystery to me. I understood, however, that the father in the story symbolized God, and that even if I did run off and do bad things, God would always be my father. He would never stop loving me, and it didn’t matter whether I was truly repentant or not; all that mattered was that I knew where my home was.

To some people, whether the prodigal really repented or not is of great importance. God will forgive you and welcome you back, but only if you’re really, sincerely sorry. Any attempt to scam God, and you’re out on your ear. You’ve got to really know that you’re a sinner, and that God by rights should be dangling you by your feet over the fires of Hell.  If you can manage to scrape together enough sincerity, God will turn back into the loving Father-God.

In truth, it doesn’t matter. Pay close attention to the father’s response — he doesn’t even listen to the prodigal’s speech! As soon as he sees his son, before he can even hear him, the father is running down the road to embrace and welcome his son home. It didn’t matter to the father why his son was coming home, only that he was within reach.

You see, the father never disowned the prodigal; the son may have wandered off, and he may have imagined that he was an orphan, but in reality he never lost his place in the family. We remain children of God by His love and grace, not ours.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38,39 NIV)

Questions:

  1. How have you viewed the son’s repentance? Have you ever considered whether the son was sincere or not?
  2. Have you ever identified with the prodigal?  If so, how did you view God’s attitude toward you?


Aug 4 2010

My First Bible Memory Verse

I recall rehearsing for my first Christmas pageant, though I don’t recall the pageant itself.  I don’t have any idea how old I was, but I was possibly three or four. All of us in my Sunday school class had speaking parts; that is, one line Bible verses. We simply were to take turns walking up to the microphone, saying our line, and walking back to our seats. I was naturally quite nervous, and I can recall sitting on my bed while my parents helped me to rehearse my line, over and over:

“God loved us and sent His son. First John, four ten.”

Obviously my practicing worked, as I still remember it.  The full version is this:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (NIV)

This verse, coincidentally, makes a point that I made previously: It is not our emotions concerning God that is important so much as knowing the truth that God – not just Jesus, but God the Father – loves us. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not inappropriate to display or vocalize our emotions. However, our emotions are capricious; they change quicker than the weather in Oregon and are, therefore, a notoriously bad gauge of truth. The fact that we feel love for God tells us absolutely nothing – the fact that God loves us tells us everything.

Many people have the mistaken belief that Jesus is the “good God” who loves us and the Father is the stern, hard to please God who is just one sin away from zapping us. In truth, while knowing the Father and the Son are separate persons within the Trinity (more on this later), the purposes and emotions of Jesus and the Father cannot be separated. As Jesus so aptly put it, “The Father and I are one. (John 10:30)” Jesus also said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)” We know what the Father is like by knowing Jesus. When we see Jesus reaching out to children, the poor, the sick, and the sinners, we see the true heart of the Father.

This means that the God of the Old Testament – the one who obliterated Sodom – is the same God who is revealed to us in Jesus. How can this be? The writer of Hebrews put it like this:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Heb. 1:1-3a)

In the Old Testament, God was revealed through men. In the New, we finally see the “exact representation” of the God of the Old Testament. As the New Century Version puts it, Jesus “shows exactly what God is like.” If we know God’s love as expressed in Jesus, we can then begin to see that same God in the Old Testament. Really.

Putting it another way,  reading the Old Testament is like looking at God through a dirty, distorted piece of old glass. Seeing Jesus in the Gospels provided an unobstructed view of God as he really is, a God motivated by love, compassion and grace. If we are shown two photographs of the same person – one faded, dirty, and blurry, and the other in high resolution color – which one would best tell us what the person looks like? There may be some details in the faded photo that are missing in the good one, but first we’d see what the good photo shows us and then look for that person in the old photo. We should start with what is clear, and then use that to understand what is unclear.

What is clear about God is, as my first Bible memory verse said, “God loved us, and sent His son.”

Questions:

  1. What is the first Bible verse that you memorized? At what age?
  2. What has been your image of God, as expressed in the Old Testament?