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Out of Focus

Words are a powerful weapon; they can be used for either good or bad, but words burn deep into our psyche and shape and fashion society whether we like it or not. When influential people twist words or use them to focus on the wrong thing, life tends to get out of focus.

Some time ago, a senator grilled a potential government appointee on his religious preferences (even though the Constitution forbids any kind of “religious test” for government service). During the interrogation, the senator kept focusing on the fact that in this person’s faith certain people groups were condemned to Hell. If this was a one time thing, I wouldn’t be writing this article; however, the news media is also focused on this idea: the exclusion of certain people groups by Christianity to Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus.

Unfortunately, they’re focusing on the wrong thing.

The Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23.” ALL. Including Americans. Christianity isn’t about excluding certain groups or religions; it’s about showing that nothing we do will meet the standards of a Holy God.

But the major focus of the Bible (and Christianity) isn’t how badly we’ve all messed up–that’s the starting point. The focus of Christianity is God’s unconditional love and that He has provided a way for ALL to be saved. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” This gift is available for ALL, regardless of color, race, ethnicity, language, religion, or location. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 ” And it isn’t about turning everyone into Americans. (Christianity is actually the counter-culture to America.) You can be a Christian and retain your ethnicity, your language, your culture, something most other religions don’t allow. Other religious services look surprisingly the same in different cultures, but Christian services are as diverse as the cultures they represent.

It is the idea of unconditional love – love that accepts everyone no matter what – that seems to frighten the media and government. Because this type of love is completely inclusive, it frightens those who want to dominate or exclude or stereotype or limit others. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name. John 1:12 ” This kind of faith, that doesn’t limit believers to a specific people group, that doesn’t depend on what I do or who I am, that’s a powerful force that can’t be controlled by government. And what the government can’t control, it has a tendency to fear. It’s why religion and a free press are the first things to go in a repressive regime.

But this isn’t a blog about freedom of religion. It’s about unconditional love as the center and foundation of Christianity. The reason so many people are confused about what Christianity is truly about is because Christians are such a contradictory people. We mess up; we don’t get it right 100 percent of the time and those who judge our God based on our actions don’t always see the loving Father who cared enough for His children to die for them while they were still sinners. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8.”

Christianity isn’t about hate and exclusion. It’s about everlasting love and inclusion.

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True Love

Valentine’s Day isn’t just about flowers and chocolates.  It’s about the giver understanding the receiver’s heart and the receiver understanding the giver’s heart.  What may appear to be an “unromantic” gift to an outside observer could, in fact, be a sincere expression of the deepest love.

For those of you who gave or received Valentine’s gifts, don’t worry; I’m not going all Scrooge on Valentine’s Day. I’ve had some very romantic ones. But there is more to love than just meeting society’s expectations one day out of the year.

My husband didn’t get me flowers or chocolates for Valentine’s Day this year; he got me an ankle brace. He didn’t get flowers because, even though I adore flowers, my allergies were acting up and the flowers would have exacerbated my already compromised immune system.  He didn’t get me chocolate because he knew I was trying to lose weight for health reasons and chocolate would sabotage my struggling efforts. His love found expression in the ankle brace.  Lightweight, discrete and comfortable. Two weeks ago I severely sprained my ankle for the second time in as many months. My dear husband knew that hobbling around in an air cast not only drew unwanted attention, but wreaked havoc with my high-strung ADD personality. His unusual gift gave me freedom and comfort.

But you could have gotten that yourself, some may say. The point is I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to get out in the cold and wet and struggle through Walmart in an air cast. I merely shed my limitations and gained my mobility again to race at breakneck speed through my already busy day, thanks to the thoughtful and timely intervention of my  husband.

Plus, when I got home the kitchen was clean and the laundry folded and put away. If cooking is the way to a man’s heart, a clean house is the way to a woman’s. Coming home to a clean house is better than a pedicure!

i-love-us

Object Lesson One: Just a Box of Junk

It looked like nothing more than a box of junk, the kind of thing a kid might keep under the bed, filled with odds and ends, bits of paper and plastic, string and beads.

Instead, the owner transformed this simple junk into magical objects filled with wisdom and fun. The owner was a young church leader in charge of the jovenes (teenagers and unmarrieds) and his particular skill set was using everyday objects, a little sleight of hand, and a dash of science to teach simple object lessons about faith in Jesus. I sat spell bound, even though I’d seen better “magic” acts. What made this spectacular was the enthusiasm and the wisdom with which this young man performed the simple tricks and the humble way he used them to draw interest into his message – faith in Christ.

Watching him demonstrate his routine for the youth group, I realized how often I dismiss people or ideas as “valueless” or “timewasters” or “unimportant” just because they don’t fit my preconceived ideas. I wonder how many of my students I have overlooked because they didn’t fit in, didn’t “sit up straight and pay attention,” insisted on doing it their own way, or just because they “looked” like they couldn’t do the assignment? How many adults have I ignored simply because I didn’t have time for their “nonsense”, “whining”, or “babbling?” How many times have I felt the sting when someone felt the same about me, dismissing my ideas, my interests, my skills as “pointless”?

There is a lesson in this humble box of junk for all of us. Life means variety. Life thrives on difference and individuality. Trying to force everyone into a single mode, a single mindset is anti-life. “Isn’t that exactly what religion does? Force everyone into a single mindset?” some will argue. And they are right. Religion, philosophy, government – all these do try to force people into a single mindset because people are easier to control that way. However, faith in Christ is not religion. People have taken various aspects of it and turned it into a religion, not faith in Christ. “Oh, you’re just splitting hairs,” some will accuse.

No, I’m  not. Religion follows a set of specific rules which burden its followers. But faith in Christ follows two principles: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. And love your enemies/neighbors as Christ has loved you.

And that, my friends, leaves us wide open to all the billions of ways to express that kind of love because we are all individuals. Love isn’t a burden. True love sets us free to be enthusiastic, creative, joyful, different.

Mind blowing Love

A lot of people, including Christians, have a mistaken idea of sin and its consequences. Most view sin as a stumbling block that prevents God’s love from reaching us, or as a breaking of law that requires God to punish us.

Yes, sin has consequences, but the true tragedy of sin is often overlooked. Sin separates us from God, not the other way around. You see, God’s view of us doesn’t change. He sees us the way He has always seen us, as sinners, imperfect, impure. Even the best of us fail to match up to His standards, so we are all in the same boat—lost. When a person accepts Christ’s matchless atonement, God sees us through the forgiveness of Christ’s blood which washes away all sin, making us pure, forgiven, perfect. Those are the only two ways God views humanity and all our efforts, actions, strivings, and longings can’t change it.

The tragedy of sin isn’t that it changes how God views us; the tragedy is that sin changes how we view God. Sin reorders our priorities, warps our sense of right and wrong, infects us with a debilitating cancer of doubt and disbelief. It transforms us from people who can see clearly to people who “see through a glass darkly.” Our view of God changes from someone who “loves us with an everlasting love” to a mean and vindictive, capricious omnipotent being out to get us.

Have you ever had a friend who did something bad to you? Perhaps you forgave the friend because you felt the friendship was worth keeping, but your friend continues to avoid you, justifying his actions by assuming you wouldn’t forgive him, or that his actions were just “too terrible.” After time, the friend begins to tell other people how bad you are and that you abandoned the friendship. Hits a bit close to home, yes? Magnify those attitudes by the factor of God’s greatness and you begin to get a glimpse of what sin does in our lives, how it fractures the relationship on our side. The longer we wallow in sin, the harder it is for us to ask forgiveness and seek out the same God who is constantly pursuing us with love and mercy.

Romans 5:8 says it plainly and simply, “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He didn’t wait for us to “get good, get clean, get better.” He chose to love us when we were fractured, messed up beings without any value or worth. Christ’s atonement didn’t make us better; it made us forgiven. So even when we still mess up, still don’t get it right, still make wrong choices, He sees us as forgiven—not by our actions, but by His.

Happily Ever After

A comment by a student of mine this past year, coupled with our anniversary this weekend, prompts this blog:

“Mrs. Parsons, how long have you been married?”

“Thirty-three years.”

“How can you stay married to someone that long?”

“If you do it right, it’s easy.”

At first I was a bit disturbed by the student’s assumption that marriages don’t last long; then I realized that according to movies and television, relationships are as changeable as shirts; and most of these students have blended parents—sometimes multiple times over. I have lived long enough to see long term, stable marriages become the exception rather than the rule, and the faerytale principle of “and they lived happily ever after” diminish from an assumed expectation to something that only happens in books.

Thirty-three years and four children later, we’ve fallen under the “happily ever after” category. Unlike the movies, however, “happily ever after” takes a lot of hard work, teamwork, and sacrifice.   I’m not saying those three things always spell a happy marriage because life tends to take a toll on even the most resilient folks. Yet there are a few sure fire ways to do it right.

I married my best friend. Contrary to the current American belief that relationships are formed based on looks, the best ones start with looking for character. Bruce and I spent a lot of time getting to know each other before deciding to get married. Since our courtship was pre-cell phone days while living in two different states, we wrote a lot of letters (daily, seven days a week for two years). We spent a lot of time finding out our common interests, likes, dislikes, what we thought of children, marriage, work roles, and whether we laughed at the same jokes. By the time Bruce proposed, he was my best friend.

We share the same faith. I know it sounds trite and corny and definitely not PC; however, a shared faith becomes a stable foundation for any relationship. We followed the same code of right and wrong, had the same source of strength and support, and came closer together through worship of the same God. Instead of dividing our household, our faith undergirded and protected our relationship.

We laugh together. From the very start of our relationship, laughter has seasoned and cemented our love. Bruce wanted someone to appreciate his sense of humor and I needed someone to keep me from being a dour and too serious person. Together we can laugh and share jokes even when everyone around us doesn’t get it. And after 33 years, we’ll see something, shoot each other a glance and burst into giggles without a word as if we’re reading each other’s mind.

In today’s world with the hateful rhetoric of women’s rights, male bashing, and hatred of marriage, I’d like to state “for the record,” that marriage can be delightful. I am my own person and Bruce is his own person. We didn’t “give up” our personalities and one doesn’t dominate the other. We have a shared partnership that grows sweeter and more wonderful each year we are together.

We hold hands and we’d rather spend time with each other than anybody else. We definitely don’t fit the stereotype of married couples in today’s society and that’s okay. Maybe that’s why we are still married and living “happily ever after.”

Surrender–humanity’s real issue with Christianity

Over the years I’ve heard lots of reasons given why people reject Christianity; some have basis in legitimate issues, but most are flimsy, tissue paper excuses that come apart under close scrutiny.

It’s always amazed me that the very people who poke fun at Christianity have a tendency to believe equally incredible philosophies; perhaps because it is easier than admitting the real reason people wrestle with Christianity.

Surrender. At the heart of the gospel is man’s need to surrender everything he is to accept the gift of salvation. People struggle with the concept of surrender; we see it as weak, as conceding defeat, giving in or giving up. Surrender reveals the fallacy of our belief that we are the captains of our souls, the masters of our fate. (Invictus, by William Ernest Henley).

Yet there is nothing weak in admitting we need help in the midst of impossible circumstances. No matter how accomplished a swimmer, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, one is still powerless to save oneself. Nothing we have is worthy of bringing us to God’s notice, and that is an uncomfortable truth to admit in a culture that prides itself on self-determination, independence, and the ability to overcome.

Surrender is also the great leveler. Our innate desire is to be better than others, to separate people into groups or categories of differing levels of ability or worth. Surrender makes kings equal with beggars and that chafes our souls as nothing else can. We cannot tolerate the idea that everything we have accomplished is worth no more or less than the filthy rags of a Skid Row bum.

Too long conditioned by our culture to see surrender as a negative quality, we miss the blessings of surrender. A couple of years ago, my husband and I were struggling with health issues, which took a financial toll on our family. We were getting by, but there was nothing left over to celebrate our 30th anniversary. Some dear friends decided to gift us an anniversary trip to Alaska, complete with cruise, plane tickets, and hotel accommodations. It was an overwhelming gift. The only thing we were required to do: surrender in the face of such love and friendship.

Terror Unmasked

Fear drives humans. Fear of hunger drives us to work for food. Fear of death drives us to take unprecedented measures of protection and avoidance of risk. Fear of failure and rejection causes us to design defensive barriers and wear masks lest we betray who we really are.

The true terror, however, comes from unconditional love.

Unconditional love sees us naked and defenseless, bares our inadequacies and failures, depicts the ugliness of the human soul and still accepts us. Unconditional love finds us, not worthy, but desirable; for who we are, for the uniqueness of the creation due to the nature of love. It simply is. Unconditional love defies human understanding, goes beyond human boundaries. It meets us at our most vulnerable, at our most unlovable, and still takes us in.

Humans dare not face the reality of ourselves; we cloak our faults in excuses, hide behind noise and activity and busyness. Bring us face to face with the silence of ourselves and we run terrified. Unconditional love forces us to see ourselves as we really are; to admit the awfulness of the human condition and the lack of anything good in and of ourselves, and finds us acceptable not in spite of those faults, but because of them

It is a truth that is hard to bear. It is a truth we find unpalatable, and therefore unacceptable; so we run from it screaming and hide behind false philosophies and vague, confused ideologies.

In so doing, we lose the most precious treasure of the cosmos. For unconditional love finds us as we are, accepts us and by its very nature transforms us into the people we always desired to be. Humans cannot change on their own. We want to be as we perceive ourselves, but are unable to complete the transformation without outside help. Unconditional love demands transformation; not for approval, not for acceptance, but for our completeness. It takes the raw materials and transforms coal into diamonds, sand into pearls, humans into enlightened beings

Unconditional love is vital for the evolution of humanity. Without it, we are and forever will be completely lost.

 

 

 

 

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