Saturday, January 29, 2011

Repost: When God Goes Blind

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28)

All the Children

In Sunday school, we sang a song many of you probably sang, too: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” The song earns an A-plus for ethics, but only a C (at best) for theology by implying God recognizes ethnic differences and, ergo, they matter. Galatians 3.28 patently refutes this, saying status we confer on one another based on ethnicity, class, gender, and every other demographic qualifier doesn’t exist in God’s eyes. All the children of the world “are one in Christ.”

God’s universal acceptance regardless of “race, color, and creed” (as they say) is an easy purchase. Indeed, when we hear nut-jobs like white supremacists preach divine favoritism, the idea is too ludicrous to merit laughter. Yet knowing God doesn’t see our differences can't prevent our noticing them, which saddles us with enormous—practically impossible—responsibility. We’re required to master the skill of looking and not seeing, accepting without assuming. Some of us do better than others, but none of us, I think, succeeds all the time. We’re stranded in a culture built on stereotypes too insidious to mention. And when we meet people whose appearances fit certain molds, more than we care to admit, we’re apt to filter our impressions through reckless images, media-fed clichés, and, worst of all, fear-based myths. Once we get to know them better, we confess they’re not at all like we expected, meaning more like us than we first imagined. We’d spare ourselves much wasted time and avoid needless feelings of guilt and ignorance if only we could train ourselves to see less and know more. This is what God does.

Leave Them at the Door

The Early Church wrestled long and hard about who was qualified to receive Calvary’s benefits. Jewish converts believed in Christ as the Messiah, their Savior, and many had no interest in broadening their concept of Jesus’s mission to include Gentiles. Despite Peter and Paul (especially Paul) insisting Christ died for all, tensions between Jews and Gentiles proved palpable in many churches. It was equally hard for free Gentiles to worship and serve beside slaves or other lower-class people whom they were taught had no standing with deities. Granting them equal access to God with free citizens demanded a huge mind-shift for European believers. Finally, Jewish and non-Jewish societies were patriarchal, placing men as natural superiors of women. Yet with increasing regularity, spiritual gifts like prophecy, wisdom, and good works surfaced in local churches without gender preference, much to the shock and resistance of believers who couldn’t reconcile social traditions with spiritual freedom. When Paul writes unity in Christ abolishes ethnic, class, and sexual status, he’s saying discrimination serves no purpose in the Church. In essence, he’s instructing us, “When you enter life in Christ, pack up your prejudices and leave them at the door.”

God’s Prism

The world is God’s prism. As a lens refracts colorless light into all of its hues, the world reveals the vast diversity of expression concealed in God’s light. Each of us is a point in the spectrum, one of nearly seven billion that together reflect the fullness of God. This is how it’s possible for all of us to be created in God's image yet remain unique from one another. This is why Paul refutes our distinctions by virtue of our commonality—we are one in Christ. In John 9.5, Jesus says, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” meaning the fullness of God exists entirely in Him. But in Matthew 5.14, He also says, “You [plural] are the light of the world.” None of us contains all of God’s light. But joined as one in Christ, our infinite variety of ethnicity, class, and gender reveals the majestic complexity, balance, and splendor of our Maker.

The little children of the world are precious in God’s sight because God sees divine vastness in all of them. The instant we approach faith without disregarding individual distinctions is the moment God goes blind. God refuses to recognize what we see, because focusing on traits that divide us mars and dilutes God’s image. Denying anyone equal access to God’s grace oversteps our authority. Presuming anyone unfit for God’s acceptance based on what we see is the height of audacity. We were never created to resemble one another in any way, shape, or form. We were made to look like God. Instead of differences, we must see sameness. Training our eyes to go blind just as God goes blind is the only way we’ll ever see God’s total fullness and glory.

Originally posted May 5, 2009.

God refuses to recognize what we see, because focusing on traits that divide us mars and dilutes God’s image. Our differences contribute to one glorious Sameness—Unity—in Christ.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Repost: Shake It Off!

If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them. (Mark 6.11)

Out and About

The most thrilling news we’ll ever receive is God loves and accepts us without hesitation. We may hesitate to accept this, though, because years of religious and cultural misinformation have primed us to think otherwise. Our initial reaction may be, “Can this possibly be true?” Many of us are so thoroughly steeped in believing the opposite, digesting this takes time—months, even years in some cases. When we work through it, unabashed elation overtakes us. We’ve got a great story and we’re dying to tell it.

We found Christ, may have been told we’d lost Christ, went looking for Christ, and found Christ never left. We’re like the woman Jesus describes in Luke 15. She mislaid a silver coin and turned her house upside-down until she located it. It was there all along. Then, coin firmly in hand, she called her friends and said, “Rejoice with me!” Once we’re out and about, however, we’re likely to meet people who won’t rejoice over our discovery because they refuse to believe it or simply don’t care. Before letting their disdain get to us, we should hear what Jesus says to do if this happens.

Move On

Jesus sends out the disciples with very specific instructions—whom to reach, what to say and do, what to pack, even how to behave as houseguests. But He also knows there's no guarantee they’ll be well received and respected. “If you meet hostility or closed minds,” He says, “Shake the dust off your feet. Move on.” Shake off the dust? Is that a harsh gesture, the Bible’s equivalent of a flip-off? Almost, but not quite. Customarily, Jews passing through pagan country take extra care not to bring anything back from it, including its dust. So Jesus basically tells the disciples those unwilling to welcome or listen to them are no better than heathens. Harsh, but it made sense then. It still does.

Keep Clean

Some believe God loves us all, but only embraces a few (namely, them). Others put no stock whatsoever in God or God's love. How threatened they all must be when we proclaim God's universal, unconditional acceptance! Out of fear and/or cynicism, they switch topics from God’s goodness to our error. That’s when it’s time to go. As we do, we leave their opinions right where we found them.

Negativity clings. That’s the sad fact hidden in Christ’s instruction. And good manners can corrupt God’s message. We gain nothing by indulging or debating those who want to soil our faith with condemnation and criticism. When we face opposition, we immediately shake it off. It may feel rude, but know it’s right.

Originally posted September 12, 2008.

Different process. Same principle.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Repost: Closer

Come near to God and God will come near to you. (James 4.8)

Getting Close

My mom recently mentioned an innocent question I once asked that taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. I was four and my younger brother and I were playing, waiting for Mom to wrap up her afternoon prayer time. Now, my mother is what Pentecostals call a “prayer warrior.” When she goes to God, she’s not leaving before she covers everything she wants to discuss. She says what she feels and feels what she says. Psalm 34.18 epitomizes her prayer life: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” It’s not at all unusual for her to weep while seeking God’s guidance for herself and those whose burdens she carries.

A four-year-old can’t understand this, which is why I asked Mom why she cried when she prayed. She replied, “I cry because it helps me get close to God.” What does “get close to God” mean? She led me to the kitchen, picked up an ice cube with a pair of tongs, and turned on our stove’s front burner. “Watch carefully,” she said. At first, she held the ice away from the fire. Nothing happened. Then she inched it forward. The closer the ice got to the flame, the quicker it melted and the less there was until it disappeared. “Getting close to God means we get smaller and smaller so God can get bigger and help us with problems we can’t fix on our own,” she explained. “Sometimes these problems make us cry. But that’s okay, because when God hears us, God pulls us closer to help us better.”

Less for More

John the Baptist explains the same principle after his disciples grumble about Jesus attracting larger crowds. In response, John compares himself to the best man at a wedding. “The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” (John 3.29) John’s attitude shouldn’t surprise his disciples. He told them, “This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (John 1.30) Yet it apparently rankles them to see Jesus succeed so quickly and raises concerns about where they’ll land after John’s ministry fades. But, like it or not, John is eager to give Jesus full rein to fulfill His mission. “He must become greater; I must become less,” he says. Why didn’t his followers get this? Although the Bible doesn’t say, one suspects the closest they got to Jesus was witnessing His baptism from the riverbank. John looked God in the face and felt the warmth of His actual presence. With that, any preconceptions, ambitions, or expectations he had melted away. Having less of himself to contend with availed him to more of God’s wisdom and power.

A Reciprocal Arrangement

Our relationship with God is a reciprocal arrangement. In James’s words, when we come near to God, God comes near to us. How close God comes solely depends on how close we get to God. If we want to narrow the distance between us, it’s up to us to step forward. On the other hand, if we’re content to remain where we are, we’ll remain as we are. God will most assuredly honor the promise to come to our aid when we need God, but keeping God on call at a distance severely limits benefits we gain by establishing a close relationship with God. We gain more from God by losing more of us and we lose more of us by getting closer to God.

It’s a mystery that’s not so hard to understand. God will always be with us. Psalm 46.1 says God is an ever-present help in trouble. And Hebrews 13.5 reminds us God promised “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” We can leave it at that, stay aloof, and God will still take good care of us. In doing so, however, we take lousy care of ourselves. We all lug around more baggage than we can carry. Our backs ache. We lose things. We’d move ahead much faster if there weren’t so much of us to deal with. When we come near to God and He reciprocates, we start dropping what we don’t need and can’t use to free up space for God. God must become greater, so we become less.

Originally posted February 27, 2009.

Getting close to God means we get smaller so God can get bigger and help us with problems we can’t fix on our own.