My answer to the question of God’s grace

Okay, confessed heretic that I am, I have openly admitted I have little to no faith in the biblical description of God’s grace. Such grace, in the Pauline sense of the Greek word, charis, is God’s gift of forgiveness in exchange for human faith in Christ’s broken body, shed blood and sacrificial death upon the cross. Why? Such grace is unmerited because, by rights, we have all sinned before God as evidenced by our violation of God’s righteous Law given to the Jews, and we all deserve to die for our sins. At least this is my own best interpretation of Paul’s biblical letter to the Romans. Such grace makes two rather implicit assumptions as we read about Paul’s own faith in God’s grace: 1) God’s wrath is justified according to the Law, and 2) God’s justifying grace comes to us ONLY IF, by faith, we believe Christ’s blood sacrifice is enough to fully bring closure to God’s wrath. First, there is the matter of God’s justice; then comes the matter of God’s mercy. Paul writes of this mercy using the word, charis, meaning grace..

Foundational to these two assumptions made by Paul in his own soteriology, or study of how we become atoned with the God from whom our sin separates us, is this: God is so angry with us that nothing less than a bloody death of torture on the altar of crucifixion can relieve that anger. God is so pissed off at human nature as he has created it to be that we must all suffer unless some scapegoat is provided to suffer in our stead.

Where did such a foundational understanding of justifying grace ever get started? Where in the world did we ever come to believe God is a God of wrath, and we must all “earn” his grace or else?

As best I can understand using the help of Christian anthropologists and Genesis scholars such as Alice Linsley, the Kushite people from whence the biblical Abraham came had only one pre-scientific way of explaining why bad things happened in our world: the gods must be angry. How else could the ancients have explained human illness, suffering, death, or even the forces of natural disaster? Yes, indeed the gods must be angry. Their wrath brought forth great human suffering. If you’re interested in further information about this , you may try reading Alice’s blog sometime: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2014/04/index-of-topics-at-just-genesis.html

How then, according to the ancients, could humans ever act to appease the gods? What did the young biblical Abram learn in his own family of origin about satisfying the gods’ angry demand for punishment? The answer is to be found in the ritual sacrifice of a favored animal, the outpouring of animal blood upon the ancient altars unearthed by our modern Archeologists in the area of Abram’s childhood, the Mesopotamian lands we now call Syria, Iraq and Turkey. And while this same Abram/Abraham came to be the father of monotheism upon discovery of the One we call God, he brought with him to Canaan these foundational assumptions: 1) this Holy One is justified in being angry, and 2) by use of a blood sacrifice, we can have faith this anger will end and mercy, or grace, thus be received from the Holy One.

The Hebrew word, hen, carried forth the notion that God gives grace as a favor when what we really deserve is punishment, mercy when what we really deserve is justice. Justifying grace, then is really just justice with God’s mercy attached. The Greek word, charis, that follows then connects the “saving faith” of Abraham with Moses and so on through Gamaliel with Saul/Paul. We may think in reading scripture that Abraham totally cancels out Abram, Peter cancels out Simon, and Paul cancels out Saul. But, perhaps unfortunately, human nature as God created it does not work that way. But I digress.

I no longer believe in the grace Paul wrote about through his Hebrew connection with Father Abraham. I no longer place my faith in hen as Abraham understood the term, or in charis as used by Paul. As to the question of what “saved by grace” really means, my answer is best explained using the Greek word, agape, originating with Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus did not speak of God’s grace but rather God’s agape love, unconditional love, the kind that casts out fear and that brings about God’s Kingdom of shalom. Agape is what happens from within our souls, connecting to God’s own soul or Holy Spirit, when we decide with our minds to love the people we do not like. Those who are even our enemies. In fairness to the biblical Paul, he used that term, agape, as well to connect with Jesus. “But God demonstrates his own agape for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” — Romans 5:8. It is this connection that supersedes Paul’s earlier connection with Abraham, whose faith is in God’s own charis as earned by someone else’s sacrificial death.

If you’re staying with me at all on this topic, let me now try wrapping up with this amended statement of faith on my own part, heretical as it may sound to many of you: I believe we are saved by God’s free agape and not by his earned charis. The latter term, or grace, means God must change (by the enormous power our faith has to change God’s own mind, I presume) from One of wrath to One of peace, from One of justice to One of mercy, from One of punishment to One of forgiveness, from One of taking from us to One of giving to us, from One of merited spite to One of unmerited favor. In my own mind, God was never like that in the first place so has no need to change or relent. Only the gods of those like the ancient Mesopotamian culture from which Abraham came were like that in the first place. We no longer need place our faith in such grace (or such divine grace in the hands of our own human faith). It is now, through Christ, enough to accept God’s agape love for our salvation. Agape that has always been and always will be, for everyone, free, no strings attached, no blood required, nor even any human faith required. Agape saves us from our fear of God and from our belief in God’s wrath and righteous indignation. We are, IMHO, only justified, unified, atoned, reconciled, saved by God’s unconditional love.

So am I still a heretic?

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Another question about God’s grace

Awhile back, I posted some thoughts of mine related to God’s empathy. In case you missed it, or don’t want to scroll down now and retrieve it, I simply tried therein to make the case for God’s empathy being the fullest expression of God’s love. I expressed my own faith that God in Jesus Christ gets who I am and what it’s like for me to live inside this human body from cradle to grave. God feels my feelings. God understands, and forgives, my misunderstandings and sins.  That basically informs my statement of faith.

What then goes unanswered is whether or not I have any faith in God’s grace.  And then raises the question: what is God’s grace? What is God’s unmerited favor?

Happened to read through Romans 4 this morning during my private meditation time. This is a piece from the Bible’s New Testament where many Christians today still base their own statement of faith. Romans 4 and the chapters that surround it inform Paul’s statement of faith, from which we have largely borrowed throughout the centuries of Christian religion. In summary, it goes like this: God’s grace is what is given us in exchange for our faith that God is now over His otherwise justified and endless wrath thanks to Jesus’s blood and tortured death on the cross. And, if you don’t believe Paul, just ask Abraham.

Paul uses Abraham, in Romans 4, as Exhibit A in arguing his case for God’s grace. Abraham is the foundational base for understanding God’s forgiveness of sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike. So let’s consider Abraham for a bit. In fact, a bit more than what Paul himself is apparently willing or even able to do.

First, though, Paul himself was born Saul to a rather prominent Jewish Pharisee living in the Grecian town of Tarsus, making him a Roman citizen. By all appearance, Saul was sent away to Jerusalem for his formal education under the tutelage of Gamaliel. Not bad. Compare this today to Harvard Law School here in the States. However, what was lacking in the curriculum was any course in what today we might call Cultural Anthropology, or Ancient History, or Biblical Archeology. Therefore, here’s something Saul did not learn from Gamaliel, so Paul could not know.

Abraham was born Abram in the land of Ur, located in ancient Mesopotamia. The word “Chaldeans” was a neo-Babylonian term used to describe and situate Ur, but the basic culture of Ur was Mesopotamian. There, a religion was practiced that used animal blood sacrifice and death as the means of appeasing the angry gods. Want salvation from the wrath of the gods? Kill a treasured child or make other animal sacrifice as an offering to the gods. This we now can understand from Archeologists who have unearthed from that region several ancient altars used, per Anthropologists, for rituals aimed at satisfying the wrath of the angry gods.

Per Paul’s own understanding at the feet of Professor Gamaliel in Jerusalem, Abram came to have faith in a single God in the heavens who was maker of all the earth. He came by faith to follow what he understood to be God’s inner compass in his own mind, directing him to leave Ur and settle in the land of Canaan to the south. There, Abram trusted in God’s grace to mean that God’s wrath would be appeased so long as somebody’s blood was poured out at the altar of sacrifice. That’s the grace Abraham trusted in. That’s the grace Paul also trusts in as he writes his epistle to the Romans. Paul’s Abraham-inspired (Romans 4) statement of faith is that we are saved from God’s endless wrath by trusting that Christ’s blood poured out upon the cross of sacrifice was finally appeased. God no longer hates us enough to want to punish us with torture we all deserve for our human error. What we must all now do is have faith in that same God’s grace since Jesus was slain for our iniquity.

Are you following me here? Grace, as defined by Paul (since Jesus himself never spoke of it even once), was what God gives us in way of love and forgiveness in exchange for some scapegoat’s bloody torture and death upon an altar (cross of crucifixion). Such grace is what we must have faith in if we are to appease God’s justified wrath and punishment. It follows from Abram who became Abraham upon his penile blood-letting in the act of circumcision, but who was then by faith willing to kill his own son as a blood offering to this angry God. Centuries later, it follows from Moses who required the animal blood smeared upon the door way as sufficient payment for God’s Passover grace in Egypt. Kill some animate object and offer up its blood on the appropriate makeshift altar, and God will only then provide grace. The purpose of this grace is then to save us from God’s wrathful punishment. Thanks to the blood of Christ while tortured to death on the cross, we are saved by our faith in God’s grace!

Time out! Have to go and puke now!

Do you get why I’m questioning the actual meaning of grace? Can you fathom why I’m re-thinking this whole “saved by grace” doctrine in Christian religion? If so, I’ll have made myself clear that I have no faith at all in ancient Mesopotamian religion handed down through Abraham to Moses to Paul (skipped by Jesus himself who never mentioned a word about this form of faith) to the church fathers and on down through the generations.

Hopefully, you now can understand my question about God’s grace. Stay tuned tomorrow for what my faith supplies as an answer to that question.

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Safety problem or fear problem?

Have you ever had a fear problem? By this I mean have you ever spent, read “wasted,” time being afraid of something that turned out not to be a problem after all? And, if so, did you ever get over being afraid of this non-problem?

I have to ask, because I’m noticing that in this USA political election season, we are being inundated with messages in social media, TV ads, and on cable news channels telling us to be afraid. And when it’s not about opposing candidates in our elections, it’s about issues in our legislatures. Fear! Fear! Fear!

Of recent note in public media here in the States has been North Carolina’s HB 2 banning transgendered persons from using public restrooms in that State except those of their original birth gender. Besides the LOL of considering who will have the authority to go knocking on stall doors to record evidence yea or nay for each user, there has been an all-too-serious response by the good people of North Carolina fearing for their own safety and that of their children should transgendered people enter the “wrong” bathroom. The typical respondent at least in social media seems to be women worried about the safety of their daughters and granddaughters, though no doubt many men have been similarly alarmed. Fear! Fear! Fear!

To be clear, there is absolutely no LOL when it comes to public safety. Were there an actual safety problem, then the use of fear would be most appropriate. Safety problems make fear a good investment, and not wasteful spending, in terms of time and even legislation or enforcement. That said, from my own experience as a psychotherapist for 30 years or so, I do believe that sexual assaults happen in bathrooms. True enough. If I had to guess, probably something over 99% of those occur in private bathrooms at the hands of a known family member. And if I had to guess about the remainder of cases of sexual assault in bathrooms, it would be that the assailants were serial sex offenders fully identified with and dressed in the attire of their original gender. Making it likely that 0.00% of bathroom sexual assaults would be perpetrated by transgendered men or women.

What happens, of course, among victims of sexual assault is that the common condition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can easily cause phobias related to the scene or surroundings of their assault. For example, if the assault occurred in a bathroom, any bathroom, then every bathroom could trigger high anxiety or panic. If it happened in the shower at home, the shower at school or at the Y is apt to induce panic as well. Mostly, this is because there are not door locks on these public showers. Fear! Fear! Fear!

So what happens when legislative governments, for instance, start writing laws to protect people from safety problems that exist in the minds of PTSD victims such as rape victims, soldiers returning from combat, and such? How thick will our State Revised Codebooks become? And, worse by far, when the general public is sold on their having a safety problem they hadn’t even thought about before, how many hours, days, and months will be wasted fearing that which is not real? How many public dollars get poorly allocated in this process, I wonder?

Worst scenario of all? How many new victims are created when innocent transgendered individuals are now reputed to be sexual offenders at risk of raping children and adults in public bathrooms? This is what happens when individuals, and state legislators, mistake fear problems for safety problems. Fear! Fear! Fear!

And now one reason that I changed careers going from therapist to pastor as a Christian. In the Bible’s New Testament, we read where fear problems were common among the people Jesus would often hang out with. Many or perhaps all of them thought they had a safety problem. In which case Jesus may have said something very different. But on 14 occasions, if my own count is correct, Jesus was quoted as using the word translated in Greek as phobeo, the English word for “fear.” Only Jesus doesn’t say Fear! He says “Fear not!”

That’s right, fear not.

I have to wonder what Jesus would say to the people of America who are afraid, now that the word is out, that the sky is falling in terms of transgendered persons sexually assaulting people in public bathrooms. What might Jesus tell people who are in the mood to write or call their own state legislators and ask for a law like North Carolina now has?

Well, what do you think?

I think Jesus would say “Fear not!” You don’t have a safety problem after all! You just have a big fear problem, a solvable problem unlike your non-solvable non-problems, and you need to get help.

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Should the church preach about money?

Over the years while practicing as a therapist and later on as a pastor, I experienced much talk about the importance of money in our lives. In marriage counseling, it was often the largest issue of conflict. And in churches, the same. Money touches people at a deeply emotional level. This seems true of individuals, couples, siblings and extended families, neighborhoods and counties, states, nations, regions, and……………yes, globally in today’s world of so-called macro-economics. Generating income revenue, and then spending or investing that earned money is referred to by that nowadays common term, “bottom-line.”

What’s the bottom-line effect? What’s the economic impact?

These are questions most people are acquainted with in today’s world, but they have honestly been around for a long time. The fact of this matter is that the financial bottom-line affects our emotional bottom-line. From there even our own physical health. And yet few sermons in any church have really wrestled with this issue when it comes time to preach about money in peoples’ lives. I’m wondering why that is.

This morning as part of my own private devotional time alone with God, I read through the 19th chapter of Acts. It’s the story of Paul’s two-year missionary work in the Roman city of Ephesus across the Aegean Sea from Athens and the Greek peninsula. Ephesus was an important economic hub for the Roman Empire. It was the capital of Asia Minor, a popular seaport and a city of some considerable financial privilege. Religion, as we know from all studies of history and anthropology, was big business among ancient cultures. I suppose if we had to compare its level of economic impact then with a similar impact in our own culture today, it would match up well with science in such areas as computer engineering. And in Ephesus, the leading industry when it came to putting bread on peoples’ tables involved the worship of the goddess Artemis.

As the way of Jesus taught by Paul, the visiting missionary, advanced in Ephesus, guess what declined. The local economy. And when we think of Rome’s persecution of Christians during the first century, we typically pay no mind to the central reason this happened: the way of Jesus was bad for business. It was costing people money, from the Empire as a whole and the Caesars who governed all the way down to the families and marriages that saw their incomes declining in correlation to the growth of this new Christian message and lifestyle. Acts 19 is the story of this macro event in first-century Roman civilization portrayed in microcosm. Jesus, through Paul and other disciples or apostles, was meddling big time with the bottom-line as one leading industry, Big Religion or “Artemis worship,” went into economic recession and even Great Depression. By the way, the Ephesian economy never did recover from its pre-Christian zenith if you care to study ancient cultural history.

In all our church-talk about money these days, I have to now wonder why we never have raised the question of what following Jesus will do to our bottom-line. I say “our” not just at a personal, marital, family level where conflicts may arise all the way into the therapist’s office. I mean “our” even in reference to our larger social economy. What would be the economic impact of God’s Kingdom if it were to come on earth as it is in heaven? Would the global economy be affected? And would that have a further impact, then, upon our own family and personal income and spending habits?

Use your own imagination as you read and think along here.

If the way of Jesus is actually followed, what happens to, say, the so-called “military industrial complex” as a percentage of our national economy here in the United States? Would we spend less on weapon systems aimed at killing people? Or how about the casino gambling industry? Last year this growth industry took in over $73 million. Would that change if Jesus were King instead of Caesar’s Palace?

Go ahead. Ask away in your own mind. Which of today’s most lucrative industries, those maybe producing the most jobs and putting the most money into our personal and family bank accounts, paying our monthly mortgage, making our college tuition payments, our car payment, or you name it………….which of these would drop if Jesus were to rise in our world’s actual investment strategies? How would our own financial bottom-line change if the way of Jesus and God’s own Kingdom became our bottom-line?

I told you this doesn’t make the content of most church sermons about money.

From Ephesus to New York City money matters. Do you believe that?

And if money matters, then what ……..may I dare ask?……… would Jesus invest in for a healthy economy globally, regionally, nationally, locally, and even personally?

If you care to join me in having such a conversation, I’m going to start off such a brainstorming session by suggesting he would support more jobs in healthcare, more in medical research and technology, more in prisoner rehabilitation, more in early childhood education, more in a sector I’ll simply name “international diplomacy” for the world God so loves, more in food agriculture and in more efficiently feeding the masses. Stuff like that. More money in plowshares, less in swords. That’s what I think after reading the Gospel stories.

How about you? What do you think?

You see, there’s no denying that Jesus knew about money and economics and financial investment strategies. He talked about this stuff a lot. Yet, his own preaching always reflected what amounts to Core Values of investment. Know what I’m saying?

To me, and I trust also to Jesus, it’s not a question of whether we make money or don’t make money. Not a question of whether we can either have life OR have it more abundantly. Not even that zero-sum game of who has to lose for God’s Kingdom to win. No. That’s the way the worldly kingdoms operate. In God’s Kingdom there is a win-win where, like manna in the desert, every body’s money matters. Everyone has a healthy enough financial bottom-line IF we seek God’s Kingdom first and make Jesus our Spiritual bottom-line.

Matthew 6:25-33. That will preach

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What’s so amazing about…………….empathy?

I was one of the millions who enjoyed Phillip Yancey’s best-selling book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” when it came out years ago. I was one of even more millions of people who enjoyed Michael Apted’s well-directed movie, “Amazing Grace,” when it came out years ago portraying the story of William Wilbeforce. And, Lord knows, I’ve enjoyed hearing or singing the classic, great hymn of the Church by that same title over the years.

Over far more years than I’ve been around this planet, those who follow the historical Jesus have touted the word “grace” as if it explains Jesus to a tee, and fits everything we need to know about his Gospel as proclaimed by his life, death, and resurrection.

So it may come as a shocking surprise to you that I now ask with total sincerity this question: what IS so amazing about grace?

Questioning the word “grace” is something of a taboo among those who purport to explain the Christian faith within our world. I can’t recall many who even tried that taboo, let alone got away with it. So today I’ll rise ONLY to say that I think it may be time to shift our Christian vernacular a few notches from where it’s been. Let’s experiment with placing “grace” back on the shelf for awhile, and get out the word “empathy” to substitute in its place.

“Empathy” is probably living somewhere in your vocabulary. You may know that it means, simply, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The English word “grace” carries multiple meanings, but within our Christian faith it typically means, “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”

Unpack these two words a bit with me today.

Assuming you have known the love of another in your life, really “known” it beyond any doubt, ask yourself if that was mostly because you felt another’s unmerited favor and blessing?…….or was it mostly that you felt your feelings being shared and understood by another? Going a step further, do you find it more amazing when someone else understands and shares your same feeling, or when someone else gives you something you really haven’t deserved?

It seems fair to me to assume you may have answered either way on these questions. But now it’s time to share my own answer.

Going back into my childhood, I’ve never truly understand the word, “grace.” To me it always felt patronizing, like a tall person bending over to pat me on the head just for being a kid. It was candy I received without having to even ask. Yet, it always came with a mystery. Why are you giving me that candy or that pat on my head? If used to describe love, I’d call it a mystical love. Beyond my comprehension. And, now speaking to others as an adult nearing 70 years of age, it’s still mystical. Grace, to me, is a mystery rather hard to understand or explain to others. It suggests a kind of top-down love that is vertical, bending, or stooping over.

For me, “empathy” is what’s most amazing. It’s the most loving feeling in my life that grants me the reassurance that I’m not alone. Somebody else actually “gets” who I am. Understands what I feel. Shares my experience. Back in my childhood, empathy was the adult who didn’t bend and pat….. but the one who instead knelt and hugged. Empathy was eye to eye. It was horizontal and not vertical. It was love shared far more than just love provided. It was mutual. And, unlike grace, it was such a “merited” favor as to seem, at least to this child as well as adult well up in years today, simply……………amazing.

So here’s my statement of faith as a Jesus follower today. “I believe in God not because of God’s grace bending down to pat my head and offer me free candy I didn’t even deserve, but because of God’s empathy kneeling down as Jesus Christ to give me a hug and to understand my joys, sorrows, pleasures, pains and that whole experience of being me from cradle to grave and beyond.” The reason God loves me most is because God knows me best. And the reason God knows me best is Jesus. Jesus is God’s vertical love made horizontal. Eye to eye!! God’s love for me isn’t some mystical experience that transcends my ability to comprehend it. God’s love for me is some visible experience that immanently hugs me with total comprehension. Grace may be surreal, but empathy is totally real all the way through. I feel it in my bones because Jesus actually “gets” me “eye to eye” and we hug each other. And to me that’s far more amazing than anything I can feel in my head because God “gives” me something from above called grace.

The Greek word charis from which we get our English “charisma” is used multiple times in the New Testament to convey God’s unmerited favor and “grace.” But it was never spoken by Jesus. Never. It wasn’t how he went about winning friends, influencing people, making disciples. Ever. But as for the word we call “empathy,” that is simply what Jesus did. From the children on the ground to the thief on the cross, Jesus empathized. Eye to eye. Horizontal love. Not because God “gives” it so much as because God “gets” it. God gets us. From our ground. From our cross. God gets you and me. God, through Jesus, empathizes with us.

And that, to me, seems especially ……….amazing!!!!!

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