God cares, do I?

The last lesson of the truth project was by far the best. In most of the other lessons, Dr. Tackett outlined a divisive cosmic battle between those on the side of God’s truth and those who believe the “pernicious lies” of the world. The Truth Project approaches truth from a religious right, Us versus Them worldview. In this lesson, titled “Community & Involvement: God Cares, Do I?” Tackett finally got to a central truth of Christianity – God commanded us to love one another.

The central premise of the lesson is that because God cares about the needs of the people, we need to care about others as well. When Jesus was asked, which is the greatest commandment, he responded, “‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

The Heart of God

Here, at last, The Truth Project zeroed in on the heart of God. Though God is exalted above all others, He especially has a heart for the needy and the lowly. God cares about those who are considered the least among us.

Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly;
    though lofty, he sees them from afar.

Psalm 138:6

We learn about the heart of God when we look at Jesus. Anyone who has seen Jesus, has seen the Father (John 14:4-9). Jesus was gentle and humble. He did not use his equality with God as something to use for his own advantage. Instead, he took the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Seeing others as God sees them

Tackett said that we should see others as God sees them and recognize that we all have eternal significance. He quoted C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Everyday, we interact with people who are full of incredible potential. We should take each other seriously and remember that we are all on a journey of eternal spiritual significance.

In this lesson, I finally saw what was missing in the other lessons – love. It was moving to see the tears in Tackett’s eyes when he spoke about God’s love for ordinary people. I wish that The Truth Project had made the love of God the central theme and not just the last word.

My Critique of The Truth Project

One of the discussion questions asked, “do you have any closing comments about our twelve weeks together and the ground we have covered?” I’m glad they asked. While The Truth Project includes a lot of scriptural content, for me that did not make up for the errors in their teaching.

Either/Or, Us versus Them Thinking

The purpose of The Truth Project is to contrast the truth claims of God with the lies of the world. In lesson one, Dr. Tackett presented a list of supposedly opposite words that illustrated his binary thinking about the battle for truth: Unity vs. division. Diversity vs. unification. Roles vs. jealousy. Responsibility vs. blame. Authority vs. rebellion. Delegation vs. tyranny. Freedom vs. bondage.

The truth is, not everything is black or white. Not everything is knowable. Diverse communities can be unified by common values. While submitting to authority is generally a desirable thing, when those in authority abuse their power, rebellion may be necessary.

I couldn’t help but notice that there are words in Tackett’s list that are not opposites. When he suggests that “roles” are the antithesis of “jealousy” and “responsibility” is the antithesis of “blame,” he seems to be attributing motives to people he does not know. In doing so, he does not acknowledge the complexity and diversity of human thoughts and behavior.

The Truth Project leaves no room for a both/and worldview. You either believe like Dr. Tackett or he claims that you believe lies. One of the best examples of this was the lesson on science in which Tackett made his case against evolution. The study guides says that “fallen man ignores the plain evidence of objective scientific inquiry and promotes the atheistic philosophy of evolutionary theory primarily because he is determined to do as he pleases without answering to a higher authority.” Here again, Dr. Tackett ascribes bad motives to people he does not know. Many Christians simultaneously believe that God is the Creator and believe scientific evidence.

Comparing human institutions to the Holy Trinity

In several of the lessons, Tackett spoke about social institutions that he believes reflect the divine design of God – the family, the church, the government, labor, community, and the relationship between man and God. For example, Tackett believes that families were designed by God to be triune in nature. He equates the relationships and roles of husband, wife and children to the Father, Son and Spirit, based in part on Ephesians 5:22-33, which says that wives should submit to their husbands.

I take issue with The Truth Project’s claims about the divine design of social institutions because it glosses over the sinful nature of man and the fact that God gave mankind the freedom to exercise dominion over our world. Where are the biblical examples of social institutions that reflect God’s perfect unified nature?

The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All individuals fall short of the glory of God. All families fall short of the glory of God. All governments fall short of the glory of God. All churches fall short of the glory of God.

Thinking Christians can fix the world

Finally, The Truth Project promotes the idea that if Christians just take a stand against the lies of the world, we can fix it. Tackett says that if believers want our government to be based on biblical principles, we must carry on the “experiment” of our Christian forefathers.

In The Truth Project’s worldview, I see legalism at work – the belief that we can earn salvation by obeying God’s commandments and that keeping God’s laws is an end in itself. Legalists sometimes err by making up their own rules and pretending that they are God’s.

The legalist focuses only on obeying bare rules, destroying the broader context of God’s love and redemption in which He gave His law in the first place.

3 Types of Legalism, from R.C. Sproul

Even if all families consisted of a husband, wife and children, even if the only form of government on this planet was theocratic, even if all secular schools were banished from the earth and the ten commandments were prominently posted where everyone could read them, people would still lie and cheat and steal and murder and commit adultery. And even those who outwardly appear to be righteous, law abiding citizens would still have hearts that are not right with God.

The truth is only God can transform people. God changes people from the inside out. God changes hearts.

What did I get out of The Truth Project? Not what Focus on the Family would hope, I’m sure. I choose to not look at the world as a battleground. I believe that God wants me to see the world as He see it – with grace-filled eyes.

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrew 12:15

***

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Deep and Wide

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song called “Deep and Wide.” Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing, deep and wide. We used our hands to illustrate the deep and wide part as children love to do. But as a child, even though I believed that Jesus loved me, I had no comprehension of how deep and vast that love is.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:17-19 (NIV)

Before his life-changing conversion, Saul fought the spread of the gospel. He threatened to arrest and take the Lord’s disciples as prisoners. But on the road to Damascus, the Lord confronted him asking: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” After his encounter with Jesus, Saul became Paul, one of the greatest proponents of the gospel. It was his mission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles – to the very people he had once condemned.

The apostle Paul understood the “boundless riches of Christ.” With great enthusiasm, he wrote to the Ephesian believers about the great mystery that had been revealed to him (Ephesians 3:6): that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. Because of Jesus, those who were once shut out of God’s promises were able to approach God with freedom and confidence.

As a child, I would not have understood the mystery that Paul was so excited to reveal. The word “gentile” was not in my vocabulary. There was no need for it; everyone in my small hometown was gentile. I was never excluded from the promises of God because of my heritage.

As a child, my knowledge of the love of Jesus was quite simple. He loved me because he loved all the children of the world. He loved me because he is good. He loved me because he is merciful. I was shy and self-conscious and felt like I didn’t fit in but God loved me just as I am. Even as a child, I knew that I could approach God with confidence because he knew me.

As an adult, I have seen the ugly side of humanity – the ways we fight with and hurt each other and treat others as less than ourselves. I see how we delight in building walls instead of bridges. I see how superficial we are in the ways we judge one another – on the basis of skin color or beauty or social status.

Now I see how radical the love of Jesus truly is. I see it in the way he told us to love our enemies and to bless those who curse us. I see it in the way he chose the despised Samaritan as the exemplar good neighbor – not the priest or the holy Levite. I see it in the way he responded to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees when they brought the adulterous woman before him hoping to trick him:

Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?

Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

The love of Jesus is a love that is so wide and long and high and deep that it extends to everyone. There is nothing about us that he does not already know. He sees right through to the mess inside of us and loves us anyway.

As an adult, I am rooted and established in the love of Jesus and yet I don’t fully grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is. It’s hard to find the words to describe the love of Jesus. Amazing. Unchanging. Unfailing. Ridiculous. Scandalous. Just call it what it is. Call it Grace (Unspoken).

It’s the light that pierces through you
To the darkest hidden place
It knows your deepest secrets
But it never looks away
It’s the gentle hand that pulls you
From the judgment of the crowd
When you stand before them guilty
And you’ve got no way out

Some may call it foolish and impossible
But for every heart it rescues it’s a miracle
It’s nothing less than scandalous
This love that took our place
Just call it what it is
Call it grace

Become an everyday vessel for God to use

For the past five months, I have been studying a list of steps my pastor gave the congregation of my church to help us go deeper in our faith. His last piece of advice is: “Become an everyday vessel for God to use.” A vessel is a hollow container, a pitcher or vase, for example, that is used to hold something. How do we become a container that is useful to God?

Become like clay in the hand of the potter

The people of Judah turned their hearts away from God, just as people do now. God told the prophet Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house where he would receive God’s message (Jeremiah 18:1-6).

So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel…” 

We are the clay and God is the potter. Those who are fully committed to God, who have given their hearts to the Lord, are like clay in his hands. The clay is marred. It is not the finest material for the potter to work with. Yet God can shape and transform the most imperfect materials into something beautiful and useful.

To become like clay in God’s hands, you must submit yourself to his handiwork. Give yourself fully to the work of his hands. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always (Psalm 105:4).

In God is the Potter – We are the Clay, Michael Bradley points out that the potter can only work with the clay if enough water is added to the clay to make it soft and pliable. Bradley explains that water symbolizes the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26). If you really want God to shape you into the person He wants you to be, you must spend time reading the Word of God.

When I see Word capitalized, I think Jesus. Jesus is the Word. If you want to know what God wants you to become, look no further than Jesus. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12

Painted in mercy’s hue

The potter and the clay is a great analogy for God’s transforming work; a painter and canvas are another. Danny Gokey’s song, Masterpiece, reminds me of a few powerful truths. God is moving in ways that I cannot see. What I will become is not known. It takes time to create a real work of art.

Heart trusts you for certain
Head says it’s not working
I’m stuck here still hurting
But you tell me
You’re making a masterpiece
You’re shaping the soul in me
You’re moving where I can’t see
And all I am is in your hands
You’re taking me all apart
Like it was your plan from the start
To finish your work of art for all to see
you’re making a masterpiece
Guess I’m your canvas
Beautiful black and blue
Painted in mercy’s hue
I don’t see past this
You see me now
Who I’ll be then
There at the end
Standing there as

Your Masterpiece

God is the painter and we are the canvas. God paints us in mercy’s hue – the color of love. He sees the potential in the ordinary canvas. With every stroke of his loving hands, he adds something beautiful to our hearts.

Fill me up, Lord

In the introduction to Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr wrote that the first task of life “is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second task is to find the contents the container is meant to hold.” Many people, even religious people, never figure out what the container is supposed to hold.

The premise of Rohr’s book is that we grow spiritually by stumbling and falling. “Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”

I have found that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the real source. He said, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them (John 7:38).” The Lamb will guide them to springs of living water (Revelation 7:17).

When you recognize your own sinfulness and need for redemption and throw yourself on God’s mercy, he fills you with living water, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit infuses the believer with grace. God’s grace gives you the power to become the person he wants you to be.

A work in progress

I know what it is to be painted with mercy’s hue. I have been forgiven for falling and stumbling and making a mess of things, over and over again. I know what my container is meant to hold – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I have been filled with God’s grace and want to extend it to others.

And yet, God is not finished with me. I am not a masterpiece. The words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart are not always pleasing to God. Sometimes, I want to hide my imperfections or to retreat in shame. But I think that having the courage to be real is one way to be an everyday, ordinary vessel that God can use.

Reading List

Psalm 105:4
Jeremiah 18:1-10
2 Chronicles 16:9
Matthew 5:16
Acts 13:36
Romans 12:11
1 Corinthians 15:58
Ephesians 2:8-10
2 Timothy 2:20-21
1 John 2:1-2; 3:1-2
*****
Photo Credit – By Creator: Euphiletos Painter – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57852656
Per Wikipedia, the image is a “Panathenaic ampora,” a large ceramic vessel showing runners, awarded to a victor in one of the Panathenaic Games, c. 530 BC. This vessel would have been filled with oil from the sacred olive groves in Attica.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Look Beyond What You Can See

My church recently studied the First Epistle of John in a sermon series on “Living Deep.” At the end of the series, my pastor handed out a list of fourteen steps to help us go deeper in our faith. Step four on his list is “Pray and look beyond what you can see to the deeper realities of God’s work.”

Look beyond what you can see

I have presbyopia. My old eyes need help seeing things that are far away. It is much easier for me to focus on close objects. My mind’s eye also has trouble imagining the future. When my mind is not occupied with work or ordinary daily activities, I tend to worry about the crisis or scandal of the moment. I get discouraged because it feels like evil is winning.

I am limited by what my eyes can see and by what my mind can conceive. How can I look beyond the chaos I see to the deeper reality of God’s work? My pastor said, pray and look beyond. Pray for insight. Pray for wisdom. Pray for understanding. Pray for hope.

According to 1 Corinthians 2, God’s wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit reveals deeper spiritual realities to those who love him. The Spirit explains spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. Not everyone can accept these words. Not everyone can understand these words. But the person who has the Spirit understands spiritual truths because he has been shown the mind of Christ.

However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:9-10

The deeper reality of God’s work

The prophet Jeremiah wrote that the Lord has plans for us – plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us a hope and a future. But even though God promises to make all things work out for the good of those who love him, he doesn’t promise that there will be no trials and tribulations along the way. Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance builds character, and character produces hope.

Now I see things imperfectly. Someday I will see everything with perfect clarity.

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:11-13

Mahatma Ghandi had the right perspective: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.”

Ghandi looked beyond what he could see to the invincibility of truth and love. This is the deeper reality of God’s work. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

When I despair, Lord help me to remember that love never fails. Love always prevails.  Always.

Reading List:
Jeremiah 29:11
John 8:32; 10:10
Romans 5:1-21; 9:16
1 Corinthians 3:19
2 Corinthians 5:15
Ephesians 2:8-10; 4:24
Philippians 4:13
1 John 3:19-24

Shadowboxing My Way to Maturity

Sometimes we feel so validated by our inner voice of conscience, so sure of our internal convictions, that we confuse our own voice with the very voice of God. In rereading Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, a passage about the deeper voice of God brought tears to my eyes. I hear a voice that sounds a lot like risk, trust, and surrender but I keep pushing it away because there is too much safety and security in my protective shell.

There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self, of soulful “Beatrice.” – Richard Rohr

Discharging my loyal soldier

Rohr wrote about how Japanese communities helped soldiers return to civilian life after World War II. Faithful soldiers were first thanked for their service and then were told, the war is now over. We need you to return as something other than a soldier. The communal ritual gave the returning soldiers the closure they needed to move on to the next phase of life. Rohr called this transition process “discharging your loyal soldier.”

Similarly, to grow spiritually in the second half of life, we must transition from an egocentric to a “soul-centric” worldview. We have to let go of or “discharge” the ego-driven “loyal soldier” that served us well in the first half of life. While the loyal soldier plays an important role in early life, giving our lives shape and purpose and stability, at some point, he starts holding us back from the life we were meant to live.

Who is my loyal soldier? What persona has served me so well in the first part of life? I would describe my loyal soldier as a dutiful Guardian, the name David Kiersey calls the Sensing Judging personality type. “Guardians are the cornerstone of society, for they are the temperament given to serving and preserving our most important social institutions.” Guardians are concerned with rules and procedures and right versus wrong, with making sure that people do what they are supposed to do. Guardians police social behavior by laying out the should’s and should not’s.

In his book, Please Understand Me II, Kiersey used the phrase “preoccupied with morality” to describe the Guardian personality type. I am not flattered by that description. I see the sinfulness in myself and I see how much I have struggled to do what I know to be right. I see that when I try to attack evil, I produce an ugliness in myself – anger, impatience, condescension, hypocrisy. And most importantly, I see the beauty of forgiveness and grace.

I have learned to let go of my innate compulsion to control or dictate what other people do and to let God do the work of changing people.  I am free to be something other than a finger-pointing Guardian of morality. I am free to be the grace dispenser I was meant to be.

Shadowboxing with myself

Rohr said that your persona represents how you choose to identify yourself and what other people expect from you. But we also have a shadow self – the parts we don’t want other people to see and that we don’t want to see in ourselves. He said that we never get to the second half of spiritual life without engaging in the inner work of shadowboxing with this false self.

Growing spiritually means letting go of the false self. For me, the self that filters and censors herself is a false self. The self that protects people from hearing anything critical, even when it is for their own good, is a false self. The self that avoids offending fellow Christians when she knows that God is on the side of justice and mercy – this is my false self.

Unfortunately, the work of confronting our own faults never ends. I am learning to face my faults, my contradictions, my fears. Just as David did long ago, I’ve invited God to shine a light on my faults.

Search me God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).

Getting out of my foxhole

Early in life, I learned to go into self-protection mode when I felt threatened by too much attention or too much social stimulation. I was socially awkward and easily embarrassed so I withdrew into my protective shell, my foxhole. If I kept quiet, I wouldn’t say the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time. If I didn’t approach other people, they wouldn’t reject me.

In contrast to the analytical, thinking me, my Protector is the sensitive, feeling part of me. My Protector is considerate of other people. She has empathy. She doesn’t want other people to feel bad. She doesn’t like to criticize. She respects the fact that other people have a right to their own opinions so she avoids controversy and conflict.

Now, I find that the self-protective mode that served me well in the first part of life keeps me from being obedient to the deeper voice of God. No one can hurt me. I don’t have to prove that I am worthy because I know that God loves me just as I am. I have experienced the power of God’s grace. My protector has outlived her usefulness.

I no longer want to be silent about my faith because I am afraid of offending someone, whether it is atheists or other Christians. When I hear Christians complaining about welfare recipients, I want to speak out on behalf of the poor. When I hear Christians say that we should live in fear of gays or Muslims, I want to talk about God’s love for all people. When Christians say that we should turn our backs on refugees, I want to ask them, what would Jesus do? But instead of speaking up, I hide in my foxhole and avoid confrontation.

I hear the voice of God calling me to be a voice for justice and mercy, to be a voice for genuine Christian discipleship. He has shown me that my purpose in life is not accounting; it is loving other people as I love myself. My purpose in life is not making sure that everyone follows my rules. It is seeing to it that no one misses out on the grace of God. I hear the voice of mercy with tear-filled eyes.

I hear the deeper voice of God telling me to bravely, courageously, and gently speak up. He did not give me a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). The thought of obeying this call is frightening. It means going against what feels comfortable and safe. It means stepping out of my foxhole and possibly into the line of fire, even from fellow Christians.

I will be honest, fear has held me back all too often. Rohr wrote, “once you have faced your own hidden or denied self, there is not much to be anxious about anymore, because there is no fear of exposure – to yourself or to others.”

I’ve said goodbye to my loyal soldier. Now it is time for me to get out of my foxhole, to say hello to the voice of risk, to surrender to the voice of mercy and love.