A Quick Thought about Fred Phelps’ Passing

Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church hate group, died after making life miserable for countless people.

I don’t know where he stood in relation to Jesus or where he now stands in relation to heaven and hell.

I do, however, think it was probably a terrible thing for him to finally face God only to discover that He loves all the people you spent a lifetime hating.

May God have mercy.

The Most Overlooked Lesson of the Gospels

There’s no one in the Christian world who doesn’t love describing their critics/enemies as Pharisees–implying, of course, that they themselves are the Jesus-es of whatever righteous crusade they’re on. It’s a weakness in all of us, myself included, but I think that we tend to miss a pretty important lesson in the gospels themselves:

The people who always thought they had the biblical worldview were always wrong about God.

I don’t think the Pharisees started out wanting to put their traditions above God. Does anyone? They strike me as people who wanted to obey God’s law because they knew, from Scripture, that that’s what it meant to be a follower of God. And when you’re surrounded by pagans on all sides and are ruled over by people who don’t worship your God, that devotion becomes all the more crucial to maintaining who you are.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because modern evangelicals carry the same weight on their shoulders (although they tend to ignore the fact that they’re the most powerful religious group in the most powerful country in the world). Everyone is convinced that they’re always on God’s side and it’s always someone else who’s at fault.

But doesn’t Jesus warn us against this attitude time and time again?

Isn’t this the very thing we need to take note of in every instance in which Jesus has a fight with the religious leaders of his day?

The Lord’s opponents weren’t pagan. They were trying to maintain a biblical worldview and live in accordance with the Scriptures. That’s what made it so hard for them to see their error, because the more you’re convinced that you’ve got everything right in your interpretation and praxis, the less room you’re going to have for repentance.

There were a lot of reasons the Pharisees missed the point of their own Scriptures, but I think for now, we should take stock of ourselves instead of judging them too harshly.

When it comes to dealing with Jesus, the people who are most convinced they’re on God’s side are often the ones who are most incapable of seeing the danger they’re really in.

Why I Write What I Write

One of the signs that you were born to be a writer is that when someone asks you why you like to write, you don’t have an explanation, only a comparison. I write for the same reason I eat, drink, and sleep; I can’t live if I don’t.

But I write what I write because I know what it’s like to be exhausted, tired, aggravated, even enraged. I know what it’s like to have been a part of Christian culture for so long that there are numerous times where I have trouble finding a reason to stay. I know I’m not the only one.

I’m not the only one who is baffled by the way the church has singled out gay people for attack while maintaining, with an actual straight face, that they don’t think homosexuality is any worse than any other sin.

I’m not the only one who is tired of evangelicals refusing to consider that the scientific discoveries of the past couple of hundred years may actually be true because, heaven forbid, they’d actually have to rethink their interpretation of a Bible verse.

I’m not the only one questioning why I should continue to belong to a culture in which both conservative and progressive leaders equate their political beliefs with biblical values, who engage in fights not to love or to change minds but to reinforce the tribal barriers that keep us from fulfilling Jesus’ prayer for our unity, who in spite of their incredible political strength are convinced that they’re the ones being persecuted because a store clerk didn’t say “Merry Christmas” to them.

Despite all of this, I’ve stayed because Jesus is beautiful and I’ve seen what happens when he gives grace to people who are as miserable as I am.

I’ve stayed because when I’m not so busy pointing the finger at other people, I know deep in my heart that I’ve been a nightmare to other people, too, and there’s not much difference between me and the people I like to criticize.

I’ve stayed not because I overcame my doubts with perfect answers but because I’ve started to realize that Love, not answers, is what I was made for and what I should be seeking.

There are plenty of people who think it’s time to leave.

I hope that when I write, I remind them of reasons to stay.

Sharing in the Beloved’s Doubts

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.”
There was a satanic edge to their accusations.

Jesus didn’t have much longer to live, and the precious minutes he had left was spent in humiliation. His enemies had gotten the better of him, his followers were powerless to do anything about it. The crucifixion would turn out to be all part of the plan, but no one could see that in the middle of it.

It was the greatest few minutes that Jesus’ opponents ever had. They taunted him. Insulted him. Used his execution as proof that he’d been a liar all along.

“If you were the Son of God, then God would save you.”

It was a direct assault upon Jesus’ own identity–and it wasn’t the first time he’d heard it.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is baptized by John and hears this message from heaven: “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Following this momentous encounter, Jesus entered the wilderness, where he went through a series of trials that were all designed to test what he’d just heard.

“If you were the Son of God … then you’d turn these rocks into food.”

“If you were the Son of God … then you could throw yourself in danger and God would save you.”

Satan’s lies were more powerful than we often acknowledge. They have a hint of biblical truth to them, even if they were being distorted. Didn’t God promise His people that He would save them from danger? Hadn’t He fed His people in the wilderness and described abundance as a sign of his blessing? (Plus, what was so wrong with having a meal?)

But they weren’t divine promises. They were devilish arrows, aimed at Jesus’ own heart. “If you were the Son of God,” they all seemed to say, “then why is your life like this?” It’s the same lie Jesus heard from the cross, this time from people who had supported his execution because they thought they were upholding biblical values by doing so.

If you were the Son of God, they yelled, then why are you on a cross?

Jesus had come dangerously close to this line of thinking in the garden of Gethsemane, not long before his execution. Having left his disciples to pray, Jesus refocused himself to fulfilling the divine command but also begged God for this “cup” to be taken from him.
He is the Son of God. Is there no other way?

Christians have long seen the crucifixion not as a tragedy but as a victory. It is in this moment that Jesus disarmed the spiritual forces of evil. It’s in this moment that he using his own blood to make a new agreement between God and mankind: not only would they be forgiven of their evil deeds but they would also be transformed into new people. (The prophet Jeremiah put it this way: “the law would be written in their hearts.”)

When Jesus suffered for our sins, he also went through a crisis of identity.

The devil never gets tired of throwing that stone.

The Beloved had to struggle with the possibility that he wasn’t. The Son of God had to continue to trust in his God in spite of every circumstance, through every agonizing moment.

And he demanded that his followers pick up a cross and do the same.

There are several things Jesus could have–and likely did mean–when he told us to deny ourselves and take up a cross and follow him. It would mean losing one’s life for the Gospel. It would mean being an enemy of the empire. It would mean being ridiculed and derided by the popular religious leaders of the day.

It would also mean going through our own crisis of identity and questioning our faith.

Carrying a cross means there’s going to come a moment when you question everything about yourself and your faith. This may be part of what the apostle meant when he wrote that we share in Christ’s sufferings as well as his life.

I’m a son of God, you think. Why is this happening to me?

I’m a daughter of God, you reason. Why isn’t He showing up like He used to?

This crisis manifests itself in varying degrees to different people. For some, it’s a medical or financial crisis. For others, it’s a loss of dear relationships. For others, it’s unemployment. For many of us, it’s the eventual crisis of faith that every saint has to face.

I used to have more doubts than I do, and I don’t mean the small type. I mean the type of doubts that get you to question where God even exists and if the Resurrection happened. These are the type of doubts in which you start to hate Him a little bit because there are passages in Scripture in which a literal interpretation makes Him out to be a monster. How could the enemy-loving Jesus worship the same God who ordered the slaughter of Canaanite babies?

I used to think these doubts could either lead to stronger faith or atheism.

I didn’t realize that they are what carrying a cross means.

I didn’t realize that when people shared their darkest questions about the faith, they were showing me what it looks like to be a saint.

Jesus died on a cross to end humanity’s war with God. He died so we could made into something new. He died to show us the divine love of which we are all recipients, in spite of the fact that we’ve done nothing to earn or keep it.And when he died, he showed us that one of the ways to know you’re beloved by God is when people are constantly telling you the opposite.

Two Things Helping Me Stay Productive

Most of the stuff I write is spiritual to some degree, so I’m departing from that trend for a bit to share two tips that are helping me to use  my time more productively. They’re not original, and they seem like common sense once you read them. For anyone who’s looking for ideas on how to make the most out of your schedule, here are two things that are helping me:

1. Move your desk. My home desk was tucked in a corner, where there’s not a whole lot of light. I didn’t really enjoy being there because it was too dark, so I’d move my laptop to another part of the room with brighter lighting. The problem? I could also see the TV from where I was sitting, and who wouldn’t rather watch Netflix than do homework? My solution, and it’s worked so far, was to move my desk in front of a window. Not only is the lighting better, but the view is much more interesting, too.

2. Keep your goals reasonable and, if possible, short. When I look at my to-do list, I’m going to be discouraged from the moment I start if that list only has one item on it: “everything.” List out your specific goals and then mark out a half hour or hour each night to do one of them. No, you won’t get done right away, but if you keep to your schedule, you will get done and you likely won’t be as exhausted or stressed when you’re finished as you otherwise would have been. It’s helped me not only to stay organize but also to know that I can, in fact, complete what I need to get done. (It’s also pretty nice giving myself the freedom to stop for the night, especially when I’m already tired from work.)

Those are my suggestions, dear readers. What are yours?

What Happens when Jesus Shows You God

Reading over the Transfiguration stories in the gospels, I noticed something peculiar about them today. In other places in the Bible when a man or woman has an encounter with either God’s glory or an angel, their first reaction is usually fear for their lives.

When Jesus’ glory is revealed, though, the three disciples with him aren’t afraid at all. Yes, Peter starts babbling like an idiot, talking about building tents, but you never once get the impression that he or James or John are afraid that they’re about to be destroyed by God.

This is a huge departure from Moses, who could only see God’s “back” and not be killed. It’s a stark difference from Isaiah, who was convinced he was doomed because he caught a glimpse of the heavenly temple.

These disciples saw Jesus for who he really was, and not only did they survive the experience, I would submit that they were able to live more fully because of it.

Because what Jesus in all his glory reveals to us is not a God who hates us and can’t wait to use His heavenly might to destroy us all.

What we see in Jesus is a God who actually likes us, who dispels all our worst fears of what He might be like.

We see a God who loves having dinner with all the wrong people and whose capacity for forgiveness can never be measured. We see a God who enjoys it when kids climb all over him and is impressed by people’s faith. And as Jesus shows us a God who likes us, we in turn realize that it’s not only possible to obey this God–it’s actually possible to like Him, too.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have to wrestle with the harder parts of Scripture that, to our minds, suggest God is otherwise. This is the reason people have such a hard time with Joshua–because the God in that book doesn’t seem like the type of person who would tell His followers to love their enemies. What this means is that we must first rely on Jesus, who reveals God better than anyone else, and then wrestle with the Scriptures with that knowledge in mind. We trust that God is good because we know Jesus is good, and we go from there.

This is why I say that the disciples were able to live more fully as a result of this encounter, because you can’t love a God whom you’re not sure is good. You’ll never trust Him if you’re convinced you’re putting your faith in someone who’s evil or some sort of psychopath. Yes, you’re supposed to love Him, but is He actually lovable?  Jesus showed us the answer to that question is, “Absolutely. And if you need any help proving it, just look at me.”

When I have trouble trusting Him, my first inclination shouldn’t be to rely on some clever apologetic or avoid a particularly hard passage of Scripture. It’ll be to ask Jesus to show me, again, that He is good and to do so by showing me Jesus, to confirm once more that the God I’ve been commanded to love is absolutely lovable and good.

My prayer is that by seeing Him, my fears will be diminished by the knowledge that He is even better than I could have imagined.