Scared to Heaven

Most churches don’t preach fire and brimstone anymore. Some of you may not even know what this is or what it sounds like. In some old movies, like Pollyanna, you can get a taste of what it was like to sit in the pews and be scared to death of going to hell. Even though most sermons don’t sound like this, many sermons, books and devotionals are filled with subtle legalism, causing people to think they aren’t good enough, aren’t doing enough and need to work harder at being Christians.

Jesus didn’t operate that way – he loved people into believing, rather than trying to scare them. Paul knew this. In Romans 2:4, he tells us it’s the kindness of God that leads us to desire him and his kingdom, not images of devils, flames and torture. In The Passion Translation, Paul asks, “Do you realize that all the wealth of his extravagant kindness is meant to melt your heart and lead you into repentance?” The footnote says the Aramaic word for kindness can be translated sweetness! The New Living Translation puts it like this: “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”

Even though most people don’t have to endure the scare-them-to-death strategy of evangelism anymore, we still need to beware of anything less than the total grace Jesus offers us through his saving sacrifice. Dr. Daniel Thimell, in Trinitarian Conversations Volume 2: Interviews with More Theologians (You’re Included), reminds us that “Grace is the basis for our life in God, not our works” and “The gospel invites us to look away from ourselves to what God in Christ has done.”

God’s kindness, sweetness and patience may not be as gripping and attention-getting as fiery, angry preaching, but it’s much more effective and more soothing to broken, hurting souls. May his kindness and sweetness envelop and comfort you.   

Divine Awareness

God, are you there? Are you listening? Can you hear me? Many prayers have begun this way, especially in movies and books, to show the character’s doubt or disbelief in God. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t wonder if God listens, because you know he does. We can be sure of this because of the many times we are told to pray, by even Jesus himself, and the many examples of prayer in the Bible. We can read of answered prayers and the times God has spoken to his people.

I read an enlightening little book called Whole Prayer by Walt Wangerin. In it, he says “God’s listening precedes our praying, so that we pray into a divine and merciful awareness, already waiting and knowing what we are about to say.” I found this encouraging for those times (I must admit) when it seemed I either wasn’t communicating very well with God or I wasn’t hearing anything back. Even though prayer is so simple children do it successfully, it can sometimes seem difficult and even uncomfortable.

To know we pray into a divine awareness can change our perspective on this mystery of prayer. He’s not just listening, but actively aware of us, already knowing what’s on our minds and in our hearts, and not just knowing, but understanding in a deeply intimate way. He doesn’t disconnect with us when we finish our prayer, like we’re on some kind of cosmic telephone call, and then wait for us to start praying again to reconnect. His awareness of us doesn’t end, has no limits, is divinely merciful, compassionate and loving. We don’t need formulas, positions or rules. Prayer is his mind to our minds, his thoughts to our thoughts, a more incredible experience than a Vulcan mind meld.

We don’t have to wonder if he’s listening if we remember we pray into his divine awareness. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be as aware of him as he is of us?

Not Merely Communication

Verbal communication is unique to humans. We communicate differently with the various people in our lives. I speak and share differently with my daughter than I do with the postal clerk. We don’t talk to babies the same as we would to a coworker. We seem to know instinctively how to communicate with people, but we sometimes have trouble knowing how to pray effectively.

Prayer is normally thought of as the way to communicate with God and it is. It’s how Jesus kept in constant contact with his Father and it’s how he told us to do the same. But it goes deeper than just casual communication, doesn’t it? Talking to God is more like communing or having communion with him. Dictionary.com says commune means “to converse or talk together, usually with profound intensity and intimacy” and intimacy is defined as “a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group; a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding.”

Jonathan K. Dodson, the founding pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas, wrote in an article that communing with God cements us together. “Prayer fosters this bond [of closeness] with God, cementing our souls with him through shared delight in the gospel of grace.” I like that idea, being cemented to God.

I can’t give you three easy steps to deeper communion with him, but I do know it takes time, solitude and silence – good ways to start. Speaking with God is unlike any other communication we can or will ever have, but it’s not rocket science. Just start talking – and keep talking (listen too) – and trust the Holy Spirit to take you deeper.

Life Redeemed

I don’t think about redemption much and I would guess you don’t either. Sometimes you’ll hear of a sports team or some other competitor playing for redemption of a previous loss or error. And we might be given a coupon to redeem at a store, usually in the hope we’ll do more than purchase just the item from the coupon.

The dictionary says the word redeem “implies releasing from bondage or penalties by giving what is demanded or necessary.” This can describe what Jesus did when he gave his life for us, to redeem our lives from the slavery of sin and death. It doesn’t stop there, though many people think it does. Redemption is ongoing and the state in which we live. We are redeemed, every day, now and forever.

We also live in the state of already and not yet. We are still awaiting our final redemption, when we can trade in these old, tired bodies for new ones (Romans 8:23, NIV; it’s interesting to read this verse in different translations). I’m looking forward to attaining some superpower abilities.

Living a redeemed life is being aware that we are not our own, we are bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV). Our bodies may be falling apart but they are gifts from God and he calls us his temple. We are meant to honor him with these bodies, all the while looking forward to the time our redemption will be total and complete.

Life Restored

When we think of restoring something, it’s usually a painting, a house or maybe an ancient artifact – all things that have seen better days. It takes an expert to accomplish the restoration of an item to its former glory, especially if it’s something of value or very old and rare. But some things can’t be restored, not in this life anyway. Many things have been ruined, lost, destroyed, mangled beyond repair, including the lives of countless people.

A classic story of restoration in the Bible is Job’s happy ending. After losing everything he had, including his sons and daughters, all was restored to him. He got back his flocks and then some and had seven more sons and three more daughters. Job 42:12 tells us God blessed him in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning. Wouldn’t it be great if all of our trials had such good outcomes?

We will probably never experience restoration like Job, but then we will no doubt never go through the same kind of trial he had to endure. But just as Jesus cleans up for us and refreshes us both now and in the future, he also makes restoration to us. He won’t necessarily restore lost wealth and belongings and I wouldn’t want to be having more children at my age, but we can count on other kinds of restoration now – relationship with him which restores to us peace, hope, grace, mercy, assurance of his love, strength to endure, and probably things I can’t even think of. But never doubt what we’ve all lost will be restored and then some. We can’t even imagine what he has for us when the fullness of the Kingdom is here – that’s how much he loves us.

Life Refreshed

You know how certain bath products promise not only cleanliness but also that you’ll feel refreshed? Jesus does and will do a lot more than clean up after humanity. He’s also in the business of refreshing, not just in the future, but now as well.

In Acts 4:19 (NIV), Peter told his fellow Israelites to repent and turn to God, so their sins would be wiped out and times of refreshing would come from the Lord. And David of course, knew all about being rejuvenated by God. Psalm 23 tells us David found rest near quiet waters and his soul was refreshed in green meadows. Does anything sound more relaxing and refreshing than that?

A life refreshed in Jesus is one we can all enjoy, even those of us who don’t like mornings or Mondays; even when we’re exhausted and at the end of our rope. I’m not saying we won’t still feel tired and stressed, but when we turn our thoughts to Jesus, he will transport us in the Spirit to a resting place in his luxurious love and an oasis of peace near the quiet brook of bliss (Psalm 23, TPT).

In case you’re interested, I’m still cleaning up messes, but I’m looking forward to when all the messes are gone and we won’t have to deal with them anymore. In the meantime, I’ll be scrubbing on the outside but near the brook of bliss on the inside.

Life is Messy

It seems there’s always something to clean up. It also seems I’m usually the one who has to do it. Cleaning the house, washing the dishes, taking care of spills and accidents – it’s all part of life. I won’t even mention all the messes involved with babies and children. Cleaning up after them also fell to me. Sometimes I like to think I’m in good company though, as I share this chore with the greatest mess cleaner in the universe.

Humans made a mess right out of the starting gate of the paradise God created for us and we’ve continued to mess up everything since then. Over the centuries, many have tried to set things right, coming up with this solution and that, sometimes making small improvements and sometimes making it worse. We keep trying but we’ll never solve the world’s problems on our own. Only one person can do that.

Jesus will perform the ultimate cleanup of all our messes. He will make everything right – absolutely everything. “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4, NIV).

For all of us who get tired of cleaning up, we can look forward to the time when there will be no more messes of any kind because Jesus will have done it once and for all. In the meantime, I’ll just have to continue cleaning up, perhaps with a new perspective.

Jesus Intercedes for Us

Thinking about Steve McVey’s statement of how God relates to us from a posture of forgiveness made me wonder about Hebrews 7:25 which says Jesus lives to intercede for us. This might be another one of those verses we read through and believe we understand what it means. But as our old friend Inigo Montoya reminds us, I do not think it means what you think it means. Some, or even many, probably think of Jesus standing before God the Judge, begging and pleading on our behalf that the angry God won’t yell “Off with their heads!”

If we start at the beginning of what we know about God, we must remember he is love, which means everything he does emanates from love. And then when we remind ourselves that Jesus’ work was finished on the cross, it makes no sense that he would need to constantly plead for our forgiveness.

Two online commentaries and present this perspective: “Jesus’ intercession on our behalf is not a matter of placating an angry Father who wants to destroy us. It is not a matter of continually chanting prayers on behalf of His people. It means that He continually represents us before the Father so that we can draw near through Him, and that He defends us against Satan’s accusations and attacks” (enduringword.com). He intercedes “now in heaven; not by vocal prayer and supplication, at least not as in the days of his flesh; or as if he was supplicating an angry Judge; nor as controverting, or litigating, a point [in] the court of heaven; but by the appearance of his person for them; by the presentation of his sacrifice, blood, and righteousness” (biblestudytools.com) [emphasis mine].

Even though these commentaries try to put the intercession of Jesus in terms we can understand, it is still a mystery. It’s also a huge subject and I make no claims to be an expert, but for me, reading Jesus’ prayer for the disciples and for us in John 17 helps me understand in words how it might go within the Trinitarian discourse. It’s a beautiful prayer for unity, joy, holiness and protection. The Passion Translation puts it beautifully and I recommend you read it with the perspective of our living Savior always interceding (NIV), sticking up for us (MSG) and continually praying for our triumph (TPT).

Forgiveness and Confession

I guess I’m a little bit old-fashioned (nothing wrong with that) as I like a lot of the old traditional hymns. They usually have lyrics with good theology and deep meaning, as well as interesting back stories. It’s also amusing that some of them use the music from drinking songs since many people singing them would already know the tunes.

I have no objection to contemporary worship songs until the theology veers off course (or phrases are repeated until they become mantras), as in the one we sang at church the other day. I was unfamiliar with it and don’t know the name, but one of the lines asked God to forgive us (the congregation or church, not sure which) for losing sight of the awesomeness of God (I think). I was distracted by the plea for forgiveness.

Before you get excited, let me explain why this bothered me, or rather, let Steve McVey, Trinitarian theologian, author and speaker, explain: “To confess my sin doesn’t mean I’m asking for forgiveness. Somebody’s going to mention 1 John 1:9, that’s what always pops out. That’s not to say I won’t confess, I won’t admit. ‘Confess’ means to agree, to say the same. I’m going to acknowledge it when I’ve sinned, but I don’t do it to get forgiveness, I do it because I’ve already gotten forgiveness. There’s a big difference between the two.

“1 John 1:9, if I can give an amplified explanation or paraphrase, might read like this: Since it’s the nature of the believer to constantly admit it when we’ve sinned, so is it the nature of God to constantly relate to us from a posture of forgiveness, keeping us cleansed of all unrighteousness. My part is that I admit it. What else am I going to do, lie? He knows. His part is to keep me in that state of constant forgiveness because of the work of the cross. What else is he going to do? It’s finished” (From an interview in Trinitarian Conversations Volume 2: Interviews with More Theologians (You’re Included), published by Grace Communion International).

As I like to say (and say often) on this blog, the words we use when talking about God are important. By using certain words and phrases, we can easily misrepresent him and who he is. Understanding that we don’t have to always beg and plead for forgiveness acknowledges the finished work of the cross and helps us live in the reality of his goodness.

Pollyanna’s Bad Rep

Some of you may remember the 1960 movie titled Pollyanna. It was based on the 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter and starred Hayley Mills. Pollyanna is an orphan who is sent to live in a small town with her grumpy aunt. Before he died, her dad taught her to be positive and always look on the bright side of things by trying to find something good even in bad situations. They called it the Glad Game. Even if you haven’t seen the movie or read the books, you are probably familiar with how the name Pollyanna has been used as a negative descriptor of someone who is too positive and cheerful and refuses to accept reality.

I read the books (the sequel is called Pollyanna Grows Up) a few years ago and was struck by how many times this little girl extended grace to the people of the town, to the point of transforming the dispirited New England town into a pleasant place to live. Rather than denying reality and living in a happy bubble, Pollyanna’s “sunny personality and sincere, sympathetic soul” (Wikipedia) personified the biblical principle found in Philippians 4:8, where we are told to think on good and beautiful things. Another biblical exhortation she exemplified is to be cheerful at all times (2 Corinthians 13-11-13 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, MSG). Proverbs 17:22 says a cheerful heart is good medicine.  

When she was mistreated and put down, Pollyanna cheerfully showed grace to others, without letting the negative attitudes she encountered pull her down. If I could always be like this, as she was: “Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God” (Philippians 2:14-15, MSG), I would happily take being called a Pollyanna as a high compliment.