Beyond The Pale

Thoughts on Kingdom, Grace, Culture, and Church

Beyond The Pale - Thoughts on Kingdom, Grace, Culture, and Church

Think You “Get God”? Think Again…

 

Getting god wrongOne of the common threads running through the Bible is the consistent habit we humans have of assuming we have God figured out…only to be surprised that we don’t.

This happened a lot…

But of course, now we really know God, don’t we?

I mean most Christians will enthusiastically say, “no, of course not.  ”His ways are higher than our ways”   but then go on to wax lyrical on heaven, hell, the “end times”, salvation, redemption, and the nature of God with the certainty of a first grade teacher explaining sums to a six year old.

This is perhaps no more evident than in Acts 1.

Let me set the scene…

The disciples are thrilled because not only has Jesus come back from the dead, he’s hanging with them and answering questions. Finally they are “getting” God! They are finally understanding what the big plan is!

Then they walk out outside for a moment and after a couple more questions he suddenly, and with no warning whatsoever, disappears off into the clouds.

Gone!

I’m sure as they stared up at the sky someone muttered the 1st century equivalent of “WTF?”

Why?

They had NO IDEA that was what was going to happen. They really thought they had things figured out.

But they didn’t…

In fact a couple angels had to appear just to bring them out of shell shock:

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”  Acts 1: 6-11

The last question the disciples ask Jesus just before he leaves, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” so demonstrates their ignorance that Jesus doesn’t even address it, but rather he redirects them back to what God’s plan is.

In that question though, there are some things we can learn for our own understanding.

What the disciples got right

The disciples knew that restoration was what Jesus was about.  There was a tear in the fabric of reality that separated heaven and earth.  This tear was causing death, disease, strife, war, and every other horrible things wrecking humanity and creation.  The disciples knew Jesus was ultimately here to fix that.  To bring healing and restoration.

Restoration and healing of the world unfortunately has taken a back seat priority in most churches.  Once an intricate part of the Good News Christians shared it has now largely been regulated to simply being a tool for creating the opportunity for people to “accept Jesus.”  If such an “opportunity” is not possible, interest in restoration drops off precipitously.

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What the disciples got wrong

Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven but the disciples were hearing “God is going to restore the Kingdom of Israel”.

Now understand, Israel was already a Kingdom with a king. That’s not what they were really wanting.  No…

They wanted to see Israel not only out from under the colonial thumb of Rome, but on top.  

They wanted God to validate and affirm before all the earth

Israel is right!

Israel is special!

Israel has a destiny different from other nations!

But God, by raising Christ from the dead was instead affirming Jesus, his Way, and his Kingdom which proclaimed to everyone on the earth

You are all loved!

You are all special!

You all are invited to be citizens in a new Way , a Kingdom of Heaven!

I understand the difficulty the disciples faced.  Nationalism and tribalism held a powerful sway over society then as it does so today.  Though they probably won’t admit it, most Christians struggle to see the Kingdom of Heaven beyond the passport they carry.  Americans so intertwine the two you will have some churches that will recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a church service.

Try to figure that one out…

Hey, if it makes you feel any better, the Apostle Peter, who had the “Keys of the Kingdom” given to him by Jesus still struggled with nationalism and xenophobia in his later years.  He had to be given a vision by God three times before he would even bother to enter the house of a non-Jew (Acts 10) and Paul had to rebuke him for acting like a non-Jew in front of the Gentiles but then acting Jewish in front of the Jews (Galatians 2)

See, there is hope for us!

Conclusion

Even the disciples, who hung out with Jesus both before and after his resurrection, they often failed to connect the dots on what God was actually doing.  That should make us pause, and proceed cautiously and humbly, as we interact with the world and each other.

Jesus told us what to do though…when in doubt:

* Love God

* Love People

Then you can be certain you are part of the Big Plan!

Peace,

Steve

The Gospel According To Jon Stewart

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It’s been a busy couple weeks at work so last night I finally sat down on the couch and watched the last episode of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  In his 16 years on the show Stewart took the comedy/parody news show occupying a cheap seat in the basic cable nether-sphere and turned it into a cultural phenomenon that a large portion of Americans (and the world for that matter) went to for honest news.

Loosely translated, in a world plagued with bulls^*t, Jon Stewart was the cure!

So it was a sad day when Stewart signed off, but he was not able to get away before his friend Stephen Colbert gave him a tribute that brought him to tears.

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Shouldn’t that be what Christians are known for?  Not simply trying to get people to confess a certain creed or belief… but known for a faith that transforms, restores,and equips people around us to be the best God made them to be?

Not just a life…but life to it’s fullest? (John 10:10)

In his 16 years on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart championed the poor, the discriminated against, and the marginalized while speaking out against hypocrisy, corrupt power, and greed.

Sounds a lot like a carpenter from Galilee I know…

…and shouldn’t we all have a legacy like that one day?

Peace,

Steve

 

What Does It Mean To Be “Saved” Pt 5

 

Jesus savesSalvation for Christians in the West has tended to imitate our culture; meaning it has become a very personal thing.  Jesus somehow became a personal Lord and a personal Savior. Of course Christ has many titles and names ascribed to him but those are two late inning additions come straight from, and mirror, our very in “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” individualistic culture.  Everyone is responsible for themselves. As I was told many times growing up, “God has no grandchildren” 

The affect of this theology though has been reductionist view of salvation resulting in a smaller understanding of it than what God intended.

Jesus & Zacchaeus

When Jesus has dinner with  Zacchaeus which results in the the corrupt tax collector changing his ways Jesus proclaims salvation has come to the entire house:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Luke 19: 9-10

Now I admit, if you see salvation as ultimately being a determiner of your after-life destination, then Jesus’ pronouncement makes little sense.  A personal Lord and personal savior can save my personal sins and allow me my ticket to heaven…but the rest of my household are on their own.

But…

What if salvation is much bigger and better than that?  If salvation is ultimately to bring restoration to the world than Jesus’ announcement just got a whole lot more interesting!

When Zacchaeus begins instead to operate as a government official from a new nature; dealing with people in fairness, justice, empathy, and compassion than salvation moves far beyond the personnel.

* His wife is impacted

* His children are impacted

* His community is impacted

I’m not suggesting those people don’t have their own choices to make.  They, like everyone, have to choose to engage in that restoration work that Christ initiated, or to work against it.  But those in Zacchaeus’ household will be impacted by Zacchaeus’ decision to walk in the Jesus Way.  They will experience the blessing of that decision and will be in a better position to participate in it themselves.

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Paul & The Jailer 

In Acts 16 Paul the Apostle makes a similar statement when the jailer who was about to take his own life when he thought Paul and his companion Silas had escaped while on his watch:

The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.

Acts 16: 27-31

Paul’s declaration is almost better understood by Christians today because salvation is tied to belief in Jesus; and that belief can save your household as well.  As Christians we often err by suggesting salvation comes from believing in God and confessing Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.  If we believe that we are saved.

But James the Apostle cuts across that thinking by suggesting that even demons can claim that level of belief;

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

James 2: 14-19

James is saying that “belief in Jesus” that does not transform you into ambassador for a new kind of society that Jesus came to begin is not belief at all.

See, the kind of belief James is suggesting, and which Paul shared with the jailer in Phillipi, is a belief that will bring salvation to you and those around you.  Believing in Jesus means believing in the Way he taught us to live.  It’s not a lesson in good moral conduct, it’s a blueprint for restoring a broken world.

Salvation is an invitation and acceptance to participate in the restoration work that Jesus promises will bring rewards “both in this age, and in the Age to Come”

Peace,

Steve

 

Why “Hyper”-Grace And Charisma News Can’t Play Well Together

I used to enjoy Charisma Magazine.  Honest!  I was the guy who arranged for a group subscription at the church because I thought it was that important for others around me be encouraged by what God was doing in his church around the world.  True, I always struggled a bit with some of the wacky advertisements they accepted for print but dismissed those as a small price to pay to produce a quality magazine.

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But in the last few years it seems Charisma (and particularly it’s web based news page) has shifted it’s mission from promoting the Kingdom” to “defending America”.

A quick perusal of the Charisma News website reveals “where their treasure lies” (Matthew 6:21)

* Atheists

* Terrorists

* Political candidates

* Gays

The reason for these topics is, of course, these headlines evoke passions, which drives viewing traffic and promote business.

So, I wasn’t surprised when Charisma News also included, as they often do, an article warning of the dangers of “Hyper-Grace” churches.

In the piece author Joseph Matterra suggests 8 things that identify a “Hyper-Grace” church or pastor.  The list is depressing for a number of reasons. Besides being largely hyperbolic and frightfully inaccurate, the article serves as a tool to lead Believers and non-Believers alike away from the Life, mercy, and healing Jesus brings.

Christ himself warned the religious leaders of his day about doing this kind of thing:

You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Matthew 23:13

My friend Paul Ellis who blogs over at Escape to Reality is one of those “Hyper” Grace teachers Joseph Mattera and Charisma are warning about.  As a loving husband of many years to his wife Camilla and doting father of 4 beautiful children I was fairly confident he wasn’t promoting free sex, recreational drug usage, and total anarchy within the church, but to be certain I shared the Charisma article with him.

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It turns out Paul had dealt with this type of thing before with Charisma so he shared with me his 8 signs of a real Grace message as opposed to the 8 signs suggested by Charisma.

As I looked at Paul’s list I realized why Charisma had to reject the Grace message.  To accept it would bring a fundamental shift in the content they provide.  The focus would again be on promoting the Kingdom of Heaven rather than defending the Republic of America.

Articles on Donald Trump, Muslim terrorism, border control, and gay marriage would fade to be replaced by messages of hope and compassion that would inspire Christians to reflect the image of Christ in their lives.

But Donald Trump and Muslim terrorists articles drive web traffic so I don’t imagine “Hyper”-Grace will be embraced by Charisma anytime soon.

It’s just bad for business…

Peace,

Steve

5 Reasons People Didn’t Like My 5 Reasons “Sinners” Were Entering The Kingdom Of God Ahead Of Christians

 

angry christianMy previous post 5 Reasons Sinners Enter The Kingdom Of God Ahead Of Christians generated more than the usual feedback.  Many found it “sobering”, “so true”, and “I Love this”.  

Never the less others were less than inspired; “weird”, “completely got it wrong”, “wrong doctrine”.  One guy even went so far as to say my theology was like Pope Francis’ “feel good God loves everybody no matter what approach” and would eventually lead to endorsement of sex with animals.

Ok, leaving that last one in the rubbish bin I thought it might be a good idea to look at and address some of the more thoughtful and honest critiques generated by the post.  So here are 5 Reasons some folk didn’t like my first 5 Reasons:

1) They could not see a correlation between the religious pharisees of Christ’s time with Christian leaders today.

Some of the folk who stumbled over this article argued that it was wrong to draw parallels between Christians and Pharisees.  That Christians have been “made clean” by receiving the sacrifice of Jesus while the Pharisee’s wrongly “looked to the law” for their salvation.  It’s interesting though how both groups avail to some special status conferred to them by God to place themselves above others (aka “sinners”).  The Jews pointed to the fact that they were God’s chosen “sons of Abraham” whose validation from God was the receiving of the Law.  Christians instead point to their confessing Christ and how they are now en grafted into God’s family.

John the Baptist however countered that thinking when he was preparing for God’s Kingdom to begin;

“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.

Matthew 3:9

I rather suspect John could counter Christians special status in much the same way:

“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have received Jesus Christ as our personal Lord & Savior’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children who can receive Jesus Christ as their personal Lord & Savior.

What matters is are you “bearing fruit” that marks you as someone who is a citizen of God’s Kingdom?  I suggest that people you perceive as “sinners” are often bearing more fruit than you.  Which causes many Christians, like the Pharisees before them, to trumpet their presumed special status even louder!

2) They see salvation only in terms of a “one time” gift 

Some folk struggled with the post because they could not see how sinner’s could have the benefits of being “saved” when they hadn’t received Christ yet.  Like many aspects of God’s Kingdom there are two realities at work.  For example:

Is the Kingdom of God here now…or is in still coming?

Well, it’s both really.  It’s hard to explain.  Same goes for salvation.

Are you “saved” now or are you in the process of “bring saved”?

Well, there are aspects of both that are true.  I mean through Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection he “saved” everything:

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven

Colossians 1:19-20

As we “repent” (begin agreeing with God) and embrace the Way Jesus taught, we find ourselves in healthier and more fruitful relationships between ourselves and

* creation,

* our fellow neighbor,

* with God

Often (again not always) people perceived as “sinners” engage in this Way and see the fruit (the results) in keeping with God’s “Best Practices” more so than those “confessing Christians”.

So if someone sees “salvation” primarily as insurance for the afterlife they would certainly struggle with this article.

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3)  They struggle with “religious conditioning”!

As I mention in the original article, when someone has been told, often from a young age, that in order to:

* go to heaven

* have God’s favour and / or protection

* avoid God’s wrath and /or hell

* make God happy!

you must do things, say things, attend things, and avoid things in a certain way it is VERY hard to get them to see past that “conditioning” to the Kingdom Jesus came to announce.

The religious leaders of Christ’s time rejected this message because it countered the narrative they had been told about who God is and what he’s like.  Many Christians today cannot receive it for the exact same reasons.  They start with pre-conceived ideas and definitions of “sinner”, “salvation”, “heaven”, “grace”, “kingdom”, and “Christian”.  When a different understanding is suggested the instinct is to reject it.

4) People find validation and security in their current understanding and it is to destabilizing to consider they may have spent years being wrong!

Let’s face it, if you have given money, passion, and years of your life to a certain understanding about God it is a huge decision to jump ship.  Huge!  (Especially if you are a pastor) And you will tend to respond in one of two ways…

You either are:

* like Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was so intrigued by what Jesus was sharing that he snuck out to find out more about this strange new Way he was sharing that countered his very notions about God (John 3).

or

* like most of the other leaders of Jesus’ time.  You “double down” on your present understanding and re-enforce it.  Toleration goes out the window as the need to silence this other narrative of God resonates in your ear.

I understand though…it’s hard.  Even Jesus’ disciples struggled with the Way he taught.  Some even decided they couldn’t follow him anymore.  (John 6: 60-66) As Morpheus in the Matrix says:

“You have to understand, most people are not ready to be unplugged, and most of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

If your identity and / or validation comes from your current “Christian” system, giving it up (aka “repenting”) is pretty hard to do.

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5) They confuse “Heaven” and the “Kingdom of God.

This last reason touches a bit on the other reasons.  Some people see the Kingdom of God as their heavenly afterlife reward to such a degree that they struggled over the idea that:

* a “sinner” could be there in the first place

* that said “sinner” could be suggested to be “ahead” of them

Jesus however, when talking about what happens “after”, tended to use the phrase “the Age to Come”.  Human history, continuity, and ultimate reconciliation with heaven was the focus.  That it should be on Earth as it is in heaven is really the fruit of the Kingdom of God operating in our midst.  If you see the Kingdom of God as the Way of Christ at work in the Earth and you see Jesus as inviting you to participate as a citizen in that new “Way” you will probably view the article I wrote in a certain light and be more likely to agree with it.

If, however, you see the Kingdom of God as a heavenly reward after death for a verbal confession and belief of Christ’s sacrifice and see your role on Earth primarily to induce others to that same confession and belief, well, then 5 Reasons Sinners Enter The Kingdom Of God Ahead Of Christians would certainly be a stumbling block for you.

Hope this clarifies a few things,

Peace,

Steve

5 Reasons “Sinners” Enter The Kingdom Of God Ahead Of Christians

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Jesus knew how to tick off religious folk.  Imagine for a moment going into a modern day Christian conference.  You know, one of those shiny camp meetings advertised in a flashy Christian magazine or the like. In the midst of all the powerful teaching, anointed worship, and prophetic proclamations you walk down to meet with the pastors and church leaders only to give them a message that the homosexuals, foreigners, and non-Christians were entering the Kingdom of Heaven before they were.

Ka-boom!

One would probably find themselves crucified (if today, thankfully, only figuratively)

But thats exactly what Jesus did in Matthew Ch. 21.  He enters the temple courts and starts talking with the senior religious leaders there.  He tells them this parable:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.  (Matthew 21: 28-31)

See, common sense told them the right answer.  But in the religious leaders real faith they instead prefer the man who says the right thing despite ignoring the father’s intent over the one who does God’s will but does it outside the proper framework or with the right words…so to speak.

Then Jesus drops the bomb on them just so there is NO misunderstanding:

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Can you imagine?  Jesus wasn’t just trying to make a point in order to get the pastors and elders to “up there game” so to speak.  He was actually telling them that people who sold their bodies for sex as well as their fellow countrymen that were working against Jewish nationalism to collaborate with the Roman imperialists were seeing, understanding, and entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the morally pure church leaders.

Huh??

So, with Jesus’ words in mind here are 5 reasons I believe “sinners” are often out in front of  Christians when it comes to entering the Kingdom of God.

1) The “sinners” are not bound by religious conditioning

When someone has been told from a young age that in order to:

* go to heaven

* have God’s favour and / or protection

* avoid God’s wrath and /or hell

* make God happy!

you must do things, say things, attend things, and avoid things in a certain way it is VERY hard to get them to see past that “conditioning” to the Kingdom Jesus came to announce.  Jesus comes to affirm the outcast, the foreigner, the broken, the seeking to which the “sinner” (often) says, “Hey, that’s really cool, that’s Good News.  I like what this Jesus says” but to which the Christian often counters, “Yes, thats truuuue, but…”   

2) The “sinners” see whole sections of God’s Kingdom religious leaders are blind to.

I was recently in England where I had the opportunity to catch up with a pastor friend of mine.  We are roughly the same age with similar ministry backgrounds and we both found ourselves asking why, after all these years in Christian ministry, are we only now starting to SEE what Jesus was really talking about.  It’s as if this clearer revelation of who Christ is was not the result of having studied or learned something new.

No…

Instead it seemed to be the result of scales falling from our eyes so the “kingdom” became clearer.  Like cataracts being lasered out, suddenly I was seeing colors and hues in what Christ was saying that I had never saw before.  I guess sometimes you are so immersed in a system you can only see it for what it is once you have stepped out of it for a bit and see it from a different angle..

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Jesus admonishes the religious leaders in Matthew 23  as well as John 9 that their biggest obstacle to what he has to say to them is that they are blind and they are actually leading people away from the Life he came to bring:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, blind guides!- Matthew 23: 13-16

Often it seems the “world” sees sections of God’s Kingdom that remains invisible to large portions of the church

3) The “sinners” were receptive to the Kingdom’s ambassadors (John & Jesus)

John the Baptist came preparing people’s hearts to receive  Jesus’  announcement that God was reshaping society.  The sick, the poor, the powerless, the marginalised and others on the fringes were hearing that the current way society was ordered, a system of power being reenforced through violence, was being replaced by a society of compassion reenforced by mercy and forgiveness.  Then the Good News got even more good.  This new way of ordering society was open everyone.  It was not open only to rich or the powerful.  It was not to be exclusive to a particular nationality or ethnicity.  There no moral litmus tests to be passed in order to gain entry.

No…

In order to participate in this new Kingdom, you simply had to be “born again” so you could “see” the Kingdom.   The religious leaders of Jesus’ time however were to vested in the current system to entertain notions of a new one…especially a system that offered a place to people they despised.

In the end, those “Men of God” chose to reject the messages of both John and Jesus

The “sinners” on the other hand where much more enthusiastic and receptive to real Good News…

…and the same goes for today!

4) The “sinners” often produce more Kingdom “fruit” than the religious leaders.

The parable Jesus confronts the Pharisees with in Matthew 21 presents a conundrum for many Christians today.  How do we respond to

* a Muslim helping to end human trafficking?

* an atheist couple who are addressing poverty needs in their community?

* a person perceived to be “immoral” who volunteers their time to help the handicapped?

These “brothers” may not be saying all the right things (Matthew 21:29) yet they are doing what the Father has asked.  This is in contrast to the person who says all the right “Jesus” stuff on their lips and speaks the “Christian lingo” but actually do nothing to really heal the world and advance that Kingdom defined by compassion.

In Matthew 25 when Jesus rewards his followers for the works of compassion they did for others, they are surprised that it was Jesus who was receiving those works of compassion all along.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

I think one day we will all be shocked by who Jesus says was really doing what he taught!

5) The “sinners” saw the Kingdom as a gift God was offering to them now without condition rather than a reward later for good moral behaviour or “correct” belief.

More than 25 years of Christian ministry has shown me that most Christians see the Kingdom of God as a place we go when we die.  Sure we can, through God’s grace, experience glimpses of it here and now at times, but mainly are job on Earth is to get people “saved” so that when they die they can go to heaven.

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When Jesus though is asked by a Pharisee when God’s Kingdom is coming Jesus answers:

 “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you! 

Luke 17:20

But cosigning the Kingdom of Heaven to the afterlife rather than the “here and now” offers the present religious establishment some tempting options.  It allows them to:

* dangle heaven’s entry as a carrot enticement for good behaviour and / or         “correct” belief to the church’s congregations.

* invest themselves into the present power systems economically, nationalistically, politically, and socially without the guilt that they are in any way in conflict with God’s Kingdom

* ignore humankind’s original mandate to govern this planet in a way that reflects God’s image on it.  Christians can treat the Earth like a motel room we are in for just a few nights and not care to much if it gets a little trashed.

In contrast, the “sinners” have a great interest in a “Heaven” that we can bring to Earth now.  That we can choose to bring healing to ourselves, our communities, our cultures, and our planet now is a message that they are much more open to.

Conclusion

When Jesus said the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom of Heaven AHEAD of the chief priests and faith leaders he meant it.  He knew those folk often could see God’s Kingdom, longed for God’s Kingdom, desired God’s Kingdom and were open to God’s Kingdom in a way that the church leaders of that day couldn’t even understand.

But things are changing.  As C.S. Lewis is fond of saying, “Aslan is on the move.” 

Peace,

Steve

Lessons I Learned Watching The Book Of Mormon

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As far as musicals go The Book of Mormon is quite possibly the hottest ticket to be had in both New York and London. Written and by directed  Trey Parker & Matt Stone, the Tony Award winning story of two Mormon missionaries sent to Africa is full of the all the satire, irreverence, and social commentary one would come to expect from the creator’s of South Park.

I had the opportunity to see the show in London on Saturday evening and honestly, I don’t think I have laughed, or winced, as much in any show ever. The laughs came of course from the brilliantly clever writing. (and I have a rather soft spot in my heart for the brilliantly clever)

And the wincing?  Well, some of that I suppose came from the “over the top” ways in which The Book of Mormon confronts issues of sex, race, violence, and poverty.  But mostly my wincing came from watching my own religious upbringing being played out in front of my very eyes.

True, I wasn’t a Mormon missionary, but being a Christian missionary wasn’t far from.  Many songs from the show resonated with my own experiences as a missionary sent into the world with the best (if sometimes misguided) of intentions. Of course, I wasn’t as full of myself as Elder Price (Ok, some may disagree :) ) or as needy and insecure as Elder Cunningham, but much of the same youthful zeal and desire to save the world was what propelled myself and many of my peers all those years ago seemed wrapped up in songs I was hearing.

Songs like:

Hello: The Book of Mormon’s opening number satirizes the scripted delivery and sales like nature of religion.  Real relationships are not cultivated.  Instead a strategic plan of veneer is designed to open a door to people emotionally so the missionary can fill it with their religious product.  “Hello, have you heard of the Four Spiritual Laws? You haven’t, well let me share with you…”

Two by Two: The eager young missionaries await to hear what part of the world they will be assigned.  Although Elder Price wants to be sent to Orlando, he get Uganda instead.  Nevertheless he is enthusiastic because God is going with him.  Christian missionaries are not much different.  They get “called” to one place and if they don’t like it they hear a “call” somewhere else.  They will often “wait on the Lord” for “direction”.  Many times it is like a cat chasing their tail.  These days I would tell Elder Price, “If you want to go to Orlando, go to Orlando.”

You & Me (But Mostly Me): The enthusiasm (and narcissism) of youth is revealed as Elders Price and Cunningham set off on a missionary adventure that they believe will be so incredible that “it blows God’s freakin’ mind”.  As a young Christian missionary I know I was out to save the world.  Sure others had tried, but they hadn’t seen me yet! :)

ELDER PRICE:
I’ve always had the hope
That on the day I go to heaven,
Heavenly Father will shake my hand and say:
“You’ve done an AWESOME  job, Kevin!”
Now it’s our time to go out…

ELDER CUNNINGHAM:
My best friend…

ELDER PRICE:
And set that world’s people free!
And we can do it together,
You and me-
But mostly me!
You and me-but mostly me
Are gonna change the world forever.
Cause I can do most anything!

Hasa Diga Eebowai: Elders Price & Cunningham arrive in their assigned African village and are instantly confronted with a society wrecked with AIDS, poverty, female genital mutilation, and warlord violence.  The village deals with their hopelessness by swearing at and blaming God.  The missionaries are more offended at the villagers apparent blasphemy than the atrocities around them. As Christians, we often erroneously think God is offended more at his own name being insulted than the abuse of his children.   God is much less distressed at a person who has endured unspeakable misery telling him to F&^k off than at the misery that caused the reaction in the first place.

MAFALA:
In this part of Africa, we ALL have a saying- whenver something bad happens,
we just throw our hands up to the sky and say HASA DIGA EEBOWAI!

ELDER CUNNINGHAM:
Hasa Diga Eebowai?

MAFALA:
It’s the only way to get through all these troubled times.
There’s war, poverty, famine… but having a saying makes it all seem better!

There isn’t enough food to eat!
Hasa Diga Eebowai!
People are starving in the street!

UGANDANS and MAFALA:
Hasa Diga Eebowai!
Hasa Diga Eebowai!
Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Turn It Off:  Elders Price and Cunningham begin to get discouraged but previous missionaries come to their rescue.  They teach them a little trick that they learned to overcome those negative thoughts and doubts…they “turn them off, like a lightswitch”  In most of the Christian circles I come from difficult questions and doubts are not encouraged.  If the pat answers are insufficient you are encouraged to just remain silent and go with the flow.  To “turn it off” so to speak.

ELDER MCKINLEY:
I got a feeling,
That you could be feeling,
A whole lot better then you feel today
You say you got a problem,
well thats no problem,
It\’s super easy not to feel that way!

When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head,
Don’t feel those feelings!
Hold them in instead

Turn it off, like a light switch
just go click!
It’s a cool little Mormon trick!
We do it all the time
When your feeling certain feels that just don’t feel right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light
and turn em off,
Like a light switch just go bap!
Really whats so hard about that?
Turn it off! (Turn it off!)


Spooky Mormon Hell Dream: After Elder Price leaves his companion and his mission he dreams he is in hell having “broke the rules”.

SATAN:
Minions of Hades,
Have you heard the news?
Kevin was caught playing hooky!
Now he’s back
With all you Cath’lics and Jews
It’s super spooky-wooky!

ELDER PRICE:
I’m sorry, Lord, it was selfish of me
To break the rules, please I
Don’t wanna be in this
Spooky Mormon Hell Dream!

Elder Price lives in the same fear that many Christians live with (and one that I lived with previously).  Underneath the smiles, the good news, the missionary zeal, and talk of unconditional love lives the threat of a God who will send you to an eternity of hell if you don’t do things in the correct way or with the right belief.  Just for the record, God doesn’t do that but there are many Christians that think he does.

I Believe: Elder Price casts doubts aside and doubles down on his faith reaffirming everything he believes whether it sounds plausible or not.

It was supposed to be all so exciting.
To be teaching of Christ across the sea.
But I allowed my faith to be shaken-
Oh, what’s the matter with me?

I’ve always longed to help the needy.
To do the things I never dared.
This was the time for me to step up.
So then why was I so scared?

A warlord that shoots people in the face.
What’s so scary about that?
I must trust that my Lord is mightier,
And always has my back.
Now I must completely devout
I can’t have even one shred of doubt!

I believe-
That the Lord God created the universe.
I believe-
That he sent his only son to die for my sins.
And I believe-
That ancient Jews built boats and sailed
to America.
I am a Mormon.
And a Mormon just believes.


As a Christian missionary I often felt it was the power of my belief that granted me the favor and backing of God.  He would stand with me IF I did not doubt.  That’s why many Christians struggle to express doubt.  They feel it is the Kryptonite that will weaken their super powers and make them vulnerable to Satan…or Rob Bell.  As I understood God more I realized I have his backing because I am his son…I don’t have to DO anything.  Unfortunately Elder Price, and many Christian missionaries, live in a world where they have to prove something to God…often with disastrous consequences.

The Book of Mormon, despite its perceived irreverence, ends on a positive note. The missionaries realize they have the power to help this village and it wasn’t in the way they originally thought.

But isn’t that how God works?  We think he cares about one thing, but Jesus showed he cares about something a whole lot different.  That was the message Elders Price and Cunningham came to realize.

Perhaps you will too!

Peace,

Steve

 

England’s Coast to Coast 2015

 

IMG_0572Hi all, I’m back.  For those of you thinking the blog had gone silent for a couple weeks well, it had.  For the last 2 weeks I’ve been leading a small group of people including two families on the Wainwright Coast to Coast trail across England. Beyond the Pale readers know I did this trip originally in 2012 with my son Gabriel as a father – son “coming of age” event.  That trip went so well I thought I might see if others, particularly parents and teenagers, would be interested in doing the journey as well.  Through the International school I work at a couple families expressed a desire to go so on July 2 a group of seven of us boarded a British Airways flight from Hong Kong and off we were.

For 14 days our little group averaged almost 15 miles a day on the 200 mile trek through the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors.

They realized very quickly it wasn’t easy…

IMG_0804

There was rain, mud, wind, sun, cold, heat, and blisters to deal with all while climbing and descending mountains and hills. There was the relief of arriving at a beautiful bed & breakfast every evening mixed with the anxiety that after a night’s sleep we got to do it all over again.

But it’s in challenging times like this that people learn a lot about themselves and our little group was no exception.

I can speak for myself that I learned that leading a group is a whole lot different than walking a journey by myself.  Rather than an internal reflective time that I experienced on previous walks, my thoughts on this recent trip were instead consumed with:

“Can this person make the walk today?”

“Has dinner been ordered for the group tonight?”

“How do I arrange transport if someone can’t make today’s leg?”

“Where can I get medicine for a sick team member?”

“How can I encourage the team member who is getting discouraged?”

And a myriad of other thoughts along similar lines.

IMG_0795

But that was the job… to “pay it forward”.  To give folk who would not normally take up this type of challenge the chance to experience it for themselves, and for some of them, with their teen-age children.

The responsibility of leading a team made it worth it when about half way through one parent came to me and said, “Thank you for organizing this trip. We could never have experienced something like this unless you were guiding us.”

Yeah, it was worth it!

But, that’s just an update on why you haven’t heard from me in a bit…but Beyond the Pale is back…and should be podcasting soon as well!

Why We Should NOT Dump The Confederate Flag (at least right now)

It has happened again…Confederate-flag-South-Carolina2

The racial wound that Michael Brown’s tragic death in Henderson Missouri had inflicted on our nation had only started to heal when it was ripped open once again by Dylan Storm Roof and his senseless rampage in a South Carolina church that left nine African-Americans dead.

And as Americans scramble to make sense of it all, it seems their collective anger has found a target;

the Confederate Flag!

Yes, my Facebook news feed has been filled with article after article rallying the nation around a frenzied response to the Charleston shooting.  A response that focuses its fury on that symbolic representation of America’s slave owning days;

the ol’ Stars and Bars!

But here’s the problem…

It’s nothing but scapegoating!

The tribe is angry and harmony has been broken. There needs to be a sacrifice!

A sacrifice we can pile our anger on

A sacrifice whose death can restore balance to society.  

A sacrifice to help us make sense of the senseless

A sacrifice we can blame and will act as a cathartic salve to our collective wound.

Fortunately we’ve evolved past tossing a virgin in a volcano, there are no messiahs to crucify or heretics to burn, and we’ve (mostly) progressed past accusing the foreigners and running them out of town.

So what can we do to make us feel better about ourselves over the tragedy in Charleston?

We have to get rid of this damn flag…”

Now I understand what the flag represents and the pain it’s continued use by the State of South Carolina (and Southern states in general) causes in many Americans, particularly among African Americans.

But consider this:

The current flag of the United States can inflict just as much pain and dread. Under it’s banner (albeit with a few less stars) we stole the land of the native American inhabitants, massacred them in droves and confined the remnant to mostly worthless desert land.  Their proud cultures stripped from them only to be replaced with malt liquor and casino gambling.

The same could be said of the Canadian flag, the Australian flag, and we probably shouldn’t even get started with the Union Jack whose colors waved proudly over a quarter of the world’s stolen lands in imperialistic glory.

Honestly, there probably isn’t a flag flying in the world that doesn’t have some form of blood and/ or atrocity on its hands.

dylann roof

The Confederate flag though no longer represents a country.  Instead, for many, it represents a period of time…a point in history many Americans would rather put behind them.  It probably doesn’t help that after the Civil War the Southern states  actively acted as a hindrance to the civil rights movement rather than a catalyst for it.  What if those self same states who are now known for Selma and Brown v. Board of Education  had instead taken the lead in tearing down segregation,  promoting affirmative action, and cementing voting rights for African-Americans?

Makes you wonder if then the Confederate flag would have flown proudly over the South Carolina state capitol as a symbol of hope and reconciliation.

Alas though, it was a path not taken.

But when in a moment of anger and frustration we vent our collective blame on a scapegoat it keeps us from having the real dialogue about the real issues that seem to keep producing the Dylann Roof’s in our society.

Should South Carolina dump the Confederate flag from it’s State Capitol?

Absolutely!

But not now, and not like this…

Peace,

Steve

Tony Campolo Comes Out As “Gay Affirming”

gayaffirming

“Are you gay affirming?” I was asked not long ago.

The question caught me off guard.  It was in regards to the Bread & Wine group I run in Hong Kong and the inquirer wanted to know whether it would be a place he could recommend for gay Christians. Most folk who have known me in a ministry capacity know me as a “grace” guy and slow to judge…but honestly,  I hadn’t been asked this question before.

Like many pastors from a evangelical / charismatic church background, I had been wrestling with this issue for years.

Likewise Dr. Tony Campolo, Christian speaker, writer, and activist, has been asked this same question too…and a LOT more frequently than I have. Although firmly evangelical he has often drawn the wrath of his more conservative brethren because of his progressive positions on social justice issues.  However he has also been guarded in his affirmation of same-sex relations being accepted in the church and so has received rebuke from gay Christians who have wanted some of his social justice positions to extend to them as well.

Well, Tony has finally come out.

In an official press release he says:

 I have done my best to preach the Gospel, care for the poor and oppressed, and earnestly motivate others to do the same. Because of my open concern for social justice, in recent years I have been asked the same question over and over again: Are you ready to fully accept into the Church those gay Christian couples who have made a lifetime commitment to one another?

While I have always tried to communicate grace and understanding to people on both sides of the issue, my answer to that question has always been somewhat ambiguous. One reason for that ambiguity was that I felt I could do more good for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters by serving as a bridge person, encouraging the rest of the Church to reach out in love and truly get to know them. The other reason was that, like so many other Christians, I was deeply uncertain about what was right.

It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.

Tony’s journey in many ways mirrored my own.  I had the good fortune to have my evolution on the issue much less visible and much less public.  But it’s been pretty much the same.

Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo

It pains me to see people who want to pursue their faith and journey with Christ obstructed by churches and faith communities who either verbally, or with spiritual body language, communicate the message “Your kind are not welcome here unless you change.”

I trust that as people draw closer and deeper into the Way Jesus taught us many things in our lives will just fall away.  Gay, Straight, rich, poor, white, black, Democrat, Republican, male & female…

…but lets let the Holy Spirit deal with what those things are.

Christ said his followers would not be known by how jealously they defended the faith, but instead for the compassion they treated each other with.

So when out of the blue I was asked the question. “Are you gay affirming?”  I am happy to say my knee jerk, off the cuff answer was yes!