how to trust God instead of preaching at people: Acts 26

Acts 26.  A lot of people say that you should never talk about religion.  Hardly a day goes by without reading in the press or hearing someone say in withering tones: RELIGION IS PRIVATE!!!  DO NOT EVER MENTION IT TO ME!!!   EVER!!! Their energy makes me shrink back in alarm.

The problem, of course, is that when you feel streams of living water flowing through your heart, it’s very hard not to talk about it.  Also, when you do know God, and He is a part of your life, it feels weird NOT to talk about Him.  It would be like going through your day zippering your lip every time you wanted to mention your children or spouse.  You can do it, but it feels awkward.  Also, there’s that thorny issue of when God gives you a specific message to pass on. Jonah jumped on a ship in order to avoid passing on to the Ninevites God’s message that they were doomed – and we all know where that led.  Who wants to end up in the belly of a whale?  The prophet Jeremiah once tried not to pass on a depressing message he was supposed to give the Israelites.  Jeremiah 20:9.  It didn’t last very long.  Here’s his agonizing cry:

But if I say I’ll never mention the Lord
or speak in his name,
his word burns in my heart like a fire.
It’s like a fire in my bones!
I am worn out trying to hold it in!
I can’t do it!

I feel his pain.

Of course, sometimes if we want to tell other people off, or air our opinions, or explain in minute detail how they’re ruining their lives, that kind of stuff can burn in our hearts like a fire, too.  How do we tell the difference?  How can we tell when it’s a message from God that’s burning like a fire in our bones, and which is a message from yours truly?

As always, the Biblical answer lies with the cross.  Jesus, for instance, would agree with all those people who say not to talk about religion.  Jesus had equally withering words to say about religion.  Remember the Pharisees?  He called them whitewashed tombs, bleached on the outside and full of dead men’s bones on the inside.  Matthew 23:27.  The problem is that religion tells you that if you Behave in a certain way, you get a gold star.  All religions preach the same message: do X, Y, and Z and you will be acceptable.  You can work your own way to heaven, Nirvana, or wherever it is you want to go.  You can do it all by yourself.  Pull yourself up by your own bootstrap and then you can give yourself a pat on the back.  Jesus says that’s a lie. He says that pathway dooms its followers to hypocrisy, coldness and ruin.

Jesus came to give us Himself instead.

For instance, Jesus told his disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.”  Mark 16:15.  He didn’t say to preach religion.  That’s because the Good News is actually NOT a religion.  It’s a relationship with God based on God’s perfection not ours.

The problem, of course, is that we humans all too often DO preach about ourselves.  We may pay lip service to the idea that we’re imperfect, but most of the time we’re struggling to prove we’re pretty fine.  It’s not only a turn off, it’s untrue.   2 Cor. 4:5. We’re all a mess.   So how do we learn the secret?  How do we learn to share the Good News, not religion?

The Bible would suggest we ask what is loving.  For instance, it’s not loving to force our opinions on people.  It’s not loving to demand our own way. It’s not loving to preach at people.  It’s not loving to be rude.  It’s not loving to be boastful.  It’s not loving to approach people with an agenda.  1 Cor. 13.

Sigh. We know, we know.  But how do we DO that?

Do you see what just happened?  Even as I was writing this blog, religion crept back in.  I asked the wrong question.  I asked how we could love the way we’re supposed to.  That is religion.

The good news is that we can’t love like this.  We’re too… human.  Only God has love like this.  Only God IS love like that.

That’s why God doesn’t ask us to behave in a loving manner so we can be acceptable to Him.  He already loves us.  He just asks us to accept His love.  It’s that easy – and that impossible because it means sacrificing our pride.  We have to admit we need His help.  We have to admit we can’t earn our way to heaven.  We have to admit we’re whitewashed tombs.  We chafe at that characterization, but there’s freedom in truth.  When we stop pretending and accept who we are, we’re ready to receive God’s love.  We ask for forgiveness.  We become thankful for the cross instead of mystified by it.  And all that God is comes inside us and begins to change us from the inside out.

That’s why when it comes to sharing the Good News, we can let go of our agendas.    We can let go of the lie that it’s our Job to change Other People.  God spoke to us.  He wants us to trust that He loves every other person the same.  He will speak to them all – whether through the rocks, trees, clouds, movies, books, newspaper, television, his Holy Word, or us.  It’s all in His hands, not ours.

God asks us to start trusting Him.  Look at Paul in this chapter.  God uses Paul’s chains to give him an opportunity to share his conversion story – yet again.  The chapter opens with Agrippa saying to Paul: “you may speak in your defense.”  As the Scripture says, we are to always be prepared to give a gentle respectful answer to everyone who asks us the reason for our hope.  1 Peter 3:15.  Agrippa asks.  Paul gives him an answer.  Paul is courteous.  He is respectful.  He’s gentle.  That’s because Paul is on to God’s way of working.  Paul says here that he hopes everyone who hears him will come to faith.  That means that Paul knows perfectly well that while Agrippa and the other authorities may be listening to him with a hard heart, there might be a servant somewhere stopping for a moment to lean on his broom in the shadows of a column.  That servant might be listening with an open heart.  He might be weeping.  Paul has realized that in God’s eyes that servant “getting it” is worth all the kingdoms of the world.

God wants us to relax into Him.  That’s Christianity.   It’s peaceful.  And when we get that, when it finally sinks in that we CAN’T earn our way anywhere, we start to lean over our own brooms and weep.  There’s such freedom in accepting the truth. And when we finally give up our religion, who knows what doors God will open to share the Good News of His love?  Every day becomes an adventure – in trusting not ourselves, but Him.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 24, 2013

no pointing fingers: Acts 25

Acts 25.  In “Silver Linings Playbook” every character is delighted to use the insanity of Bradley Cooper’s character to make themselves look better.  “Okay, sure, I may be a little, shall we say, OFF sometimes,” each character implies.  “But am I BIPOLAR?  Hardly.  Am I CRAZY?  I think NOT.  Have I ever tried to MURDER someone?  Nope.”

Each person in the movie wants to put herself in a position of moral superiority.  But the movie implies that when we do that, we’ve become blind to the point of craziness ourselves.  Instead, we are nudged to ask: how can we love other people – and by extension ourselves — without judging?

It’s a good question.  How can we?  All too often we echo St. Paul’s indignation in this chapter of Acts at being unfairly accused.  “I am not guilty!!!!”  Acts 25:10.

The only way we can get indignant about our innocence, however, is when we are very, very selective about which of our actions we choose to look at.  We’re geniuses at this kind of selective morality.  We hone in with laser-like focus on those few areas where we have even a chance of claiming perfection.  Like sharpening our pencils, for instance.  We’re pretty good at that.  Or are we?  I came across ten unsharpened pencils this morning and had to stuff them in a drawer.  Okay, so maybe that’s not a great example.  Perhaps we can say we are terrific at walking out the door without forgetting our keys – whoops.  Scratch that one, too.  When it comes down to it, the list of what we do perfectly is miniscule.  But that doesn’t stop us from revisiting it like a favorite song.  Even worse, we find ourselves engaged in the unattractive task of turning around and judging others for not having a sparkly (short) list that looks exactly like ours.

Why?  Why do we care?  Why do we want to look so good anyway?  What’s our problem?

I’m not sure we know.  I mean, I know we can come up with reasons.  We can count on all our fingers the list of why.  We want to earn love, respect, promotions, honors, degrees, acclaim and admiration.  Fine.  But why do we want all that?  Let’s go deeper.  Why do we even WANT the moral high ground over anyone?  Why this drive for perfection at the expense of others?

The Biblical answer is that we all want to be like God.  Sound familiar?  It’s the refrain the serpent used to trap Eve: if you eat from that apple, you’ll be like God.  But why did Eve fall for that?  Why didn’t she say: “who cares?  I don’t WANT to be like God.  God is God.  I’m good with being Eve.”  Or better yet, why didn’t Eve say: “God loves me.  God walks with me and my man in the garden in the cool of the day.  I’m already made in His image. And that’s good enough for me.”

I don’t know.  But she didn’t.  And neither do we.  We DO want to be like God – or at least to be like what we think He is like.  We do want to be perfect – according to our own definition of perfect.  We want to walk to heaven on our own two feet – or roll our wheelchairs – or hop on one foot.  Whatever.   “I can do it by myself,” is one of the first things we say as toddlers, and we’ve been saying it ever since.  We spend our lives pushing away the helping hand that we all too often need.

It’s a lot of work pretending to be perfect.  It’s exhausting pretending we don’t need  any help.  It’s also doomed.  So we resort to a few other tricks.  We point fingers at others to try to distract everyone from our own faults.  We rarely fool others when we do this, and we certainly don’t fool God:  “You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing your misdoings?”  Romans 2:3 (the Message).   Well, we did actually.  But if God really is the all-seeing all-knowing one, it’s not the best strategy.

God longs to help each of us.  God is love, and love by definition is a verb of giving. But God makes it very clear that a condition for His help is that we have to stop pointing our finger at other people.  Isaiah 58:1. Why?  Why is it so important to stop pointing out that we’re not bipolar, psychotic, sex-addicted or a jailbird?  And if we are any of those things, why do we find ourselves coming up with another list of Nots?

The answer is that those it’s irrelevant.

The ground at the foot of the cross is level.  If we humble ourselves there, we find God lifts us up and sets us on our feet.  God let the fingers point at Him on the cross, so He could extend to us instead the hand of forgiveness.

All we have to do is accept it with thankfulness.  And when we can’t do that, or don’t want to, and find ourselves judging others with vile abandon — God’s hand is still there.  His hand is always waiting.  We can feel the press of His fingers all day long.  God’s fingers nudge us in the direction of giving up the moral high ground and taking instead the mantle of grace.  It’s the only playbook worth reading from.  Because it’s only when we’re standing on level ground that we find our true balance.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 23, 2013