Archives For Forgiveness

Any Name But That

August 18, 2014 — 7 Comments

jesus nameThis week I read one of the clearest descriptions of the gospel I have ever heard. It appeared in an article written by the most (how do I put this mildly?) daunting professor I have encountered in my Doctor of Ministry studies. “Intimidating” would also work . . .

But his brilliance and rapid fire delivery of thought-provoking concepts is not the reason for me mentioning him here. It is his ability to cut through the confusion, and express simply the essence of the good news, the Christian hope, the gospel.

I’m not pandering to him, mind you, because my grade for his systematics course was filed long ago. It is simply that Joel Biermann said extremely succinctly, something that I have always attempted to emphasize in my own ministry.

The Gospel is the good news, but it is not just any good news. The Gospel is a word of liberation and encouragement, but it is not just any word of liberation and encouragement. The Gospel is a wonderful event and a joyful experience, but it is not just any wonderful event and joyful experience.

In other words, when it comes to defining the Gospel, it is vitally important that we move past vague ideas or general notions and grab hold of the central thing. The central thing is Jesus.

This is a truth too many fail to understand. Sadly, this is true for some “inside” the Church as well as outside of its doors.

Goodness is good. Generosity is wonderful. Encouragement is precious. Courage is noble. Love is (almost) divine.

Yet none of these are the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus. In him the world discovers every good thing from the hand of God the Father, our Creator.

Jesus is indispensable. Without his holy name, the “faith” would simply be a praiseworthy “religion.” Without Jesus, it could instruct how to live, but it could not redeem.

It is precisely this point—the name of Jesus—that makes the Gospel objectionable to some. “Care for the sick,” some say, “just don’t mention that name.” On other lips we hear “The Church does lots of things that benefit the community, but please don’t mention that name that offends people.”

They arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life. . . .”

And someone came and told [the High Priest], “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people. . . .”

And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter five).

C.S. Lewis knew quite well that Christianity is all about Jesus. Without him, the person Jesus the Christ, whatever passes for the “Church” would merely be a noisy gong. Lots of “religious” talk would remain . . . but the Gospel would be absent.

“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him, it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story. The things He says are very different from what any other teacher has said. Others say, “This is the truth about the Universe. This is the way you ought to go,” but He says, “I am the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.” He says, “No man can reach absolute reality, except through Me. Try to retain your own life and you will be inevitably ruined. Give yourself away and you will be saved. . . .”

“Come to Me everyone who is carrying a heavy load, I will set that right. Your sins, all of them, are wiped out, I can do that. I am Re-birth, I am Life.” (1950 essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”).

In the same way as the apostles, C.S. Lewis, my seminary professor, and all of those who have entrusted themselves to the grace of God in Christ, know the name of Jesus is not optional. In fact, it is all about the name.

For it is Jesus, and him alone, who is the alpha, omega and the whole of the Gospel.

Clay Hearts

November 18, 2013 — 6 Comments

clay heartHonesty compels us to admit that we have clay feet. We are merely mortal, and our origin from the clay of the earth is a reminder that we are imperfect.

Stumbling due to our feet of mud is one thing. Far worse, we earthen vessels also have hearts of clay. Our affections are fickle, and too often we fail to fulfill our vows to those who have made themselves vulnerable by entrusting to us their own love.

I doubt any of us have been untouched by the pain of transient love. The ideal we long for . . . the vision we dream about . . . and the lasting intimacy we pray for often seem so very fleeting.

Saddest, to me, are those relationships that have lasted many years, where the once glowing light has dimmed and the comforting warmth has dissipated.

That is the story of a remarkable, Oscar-nominated animation I would like to commend to you. Head Over Heels is a unique 10-minute claymation film about a broken marriage and how it comes “unbroken.”

C.S. Lewis did not marry until late in life. The personal experience of marriage, of course, modified some of his bachelor perceptions about the holy estate.

Nevertheless, having been married for thirty-seven years myself, I continue to be amazed by just how perceptive Lewis was throughout his writing life. Consider the following from The Four Loves.

Lewis discusses the importance and glory of passion consecrated by marital vows, but he does not pretend that it does not wax and wane. Nor does he imagine that even between wife and husband, a focus on the passion in their relationship is without potential hazards.

Discussing erotic love (one of the four he describes), Lewis warns:

But Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon. And this is just how he claims to be honoured and obeyed. . . . Of all loves he is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn “being in love” into a sort of religion.

Theologians have often feared, in this love, a danger of idolatry. I think they meant by this that the lovers might idolise one another. That does not seem to me to be the real danger; certainly not in marriage. The deliciously plain prose and businesslike intimacy of married life render it absurd. So does the Affection in which Eros is almost invariably clothed.

Even in courtship I question whether anyone who has felt the thirst for the Uncreated, or even dreamed of feeling it, ever supposed that the Beloved could satisfy it. As a fellow-pilgrim pierced with the very same desire, that is, as a Friend, the Beloved may be gloriously and helpfully relevant; but as an object for it—well (I would not be rude), ridiculous. The real danger seems to me not that the lovers will idolise each other but that they will idolise Eros himself.

I believe Lewis has identified something profound here. The utter familiarity, the nakedness of our souls, that is part of any genuine marriage precludes anyone sane person from idolizing their partner. We, after all, are more familiar than any other human being with their feet of clay.

However, if we succumb to the snares of Eros, cast wide across television, literature, cinema and internet, we doom ourselves. True love will not cohabit with this counterfeit.

An uncritical attention to the physical seldom results in happiness. As Lewis so accurately says, “For Eros may unite the most unsuitable yokefellows; many unhappy, and predictably unhappy, marriages were love-matches.”

The good news, celebrated by Head Over Heels, is that even when love fades away, there is still hope. Just as clay-footed human beings can experience resurrection, so too our clay-hearted relationships can be restored and blaze with renewed joy.

How Precious You Are

March 23, 2012 — 7 Comments

God loves you.

It doesn’t matter how loveable, or unloveable you are, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether you praise his Name or deny his existence, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you love him. You can even hate him . . . but he still loves you.

Doesn’t make sense to our fallen human reason, but it’s true. One of the amazing revelations of the Christian Scriptures is that God loves each and every one of the people he has created.

Every human being is unique, and each is precious to God. Whether you feel like it or not . . . whether you feel undeserving or (far more dangerously) you think you are a pretty “good” person . . . you are precious to him.

I find it intriguing how some manmade religions and philosophies consciously downplay the uniqueness of each person. What is clearly evidence of God’s infinite creativity—the glorious diversity of men and women the world over—is seen as something odd. A cosmic fluke to be remedied when all essence returns to the amorphous and undifferentiated “whole.”

The elimination of what makes you and me precisely who we are, seems to be the goal of some of these worldviews. But deep within each of our souls we know that this pursuit is wrong. It’s alien to the core of our existence. Loss of identity is, in a phrase, not that for which we were created. You and I were made for a different purpose. And our distinctive personalities (and even our quirks) in this one-time-in-all-creation combination, are no accident.

In his treatise on why suffering exists, C.S. Lewis offers a powerful glimpse into the singularity of our souls. He argues that Christ’s sacrifice was no generic or blanket wonder. Rather, it was a divinely individualized miracle. Listen to Lewis:

The signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why, He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.

For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction. The Brocken spectre ‘looked to every man like his first love’, because she was a cheat. But God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.)

I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism. And I think I just may address that distinction in my next post.

Christians may cease reading here.

A personal and sincere note to any unbelievers reading this column. I’m not writing this to offend you, or to push any of the buttons that may be holdovers from your days in restrictive or destructive religious settings.

If you’ve never believed, I encourage you to tune out the voices (on both sides of the issue). Go directly to the primary account(s) of Jesus’ life and read them. (There are four “Gospel” accounts of his ministry, but I encourage you to first read the Gospel according to Saint John.) Any of your Christian friends would be eager to offer you a copy of the Bible for no cost, but it’s also available for free download at various sites. For example, here you can download an entire Bible in English Standard Version (ESV) for free.

If you once believed, but have laid your faith aside, I don’t want to offer guilt. Instead, listen to this promise of grace. Just as the father of the Prodigal Son was always awaiting the return of his child, the same joyous welcome home awaits you. If ever you desire to return home, know with certainty that he’ll welcome you again, not as a servant or second class citizen, but as his son or daughter. And you’ll hear the words from that parable proclaimed over you: “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother [or sister] was dead, and is alive; they were lost, and are found.” (Luke 15:32).

Readers of C.S. Lewis possess differing opinions on the film adaptations of the Chronicles of Narnia. One element from the latest film that is presented quite faithfully, is Eustace’s transformation into a dragon.

“He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

With his brilliant insight and typical mirth, Lewis reveals for us a powerful dynamic of human existence. Two, in fact.

First, what we are inside—our genuine essence or spirit—will ultimately be revealed. This is true for most of us during this life. And, it will be experienced by all humanity as we stand before our Creator.

Second, what we desire—the longings upon which we focus our hearts and energies—shape that very essence. In a sense, Lewis is saying, we become what we covet!

What a wonderful lesson for us. It resounds with echoes of the Scriptures.

The title of this column suggests that we beware of the dragons to which we are particularly vulnerable. They vary from person to person, of course. And, they frequently shift, dependent on our biological age circumstances.

Martin Luther alludes to this in his broader comments about temptation and spiritual maturity:

To feel temptation is therefore a far different thing from consenting or yielding to it. We must all feel it, although not all in the same manner, but some in a greater degree and more severely than others; as, the young suffer especially from the flesh, afterwards, they that attain to middle life and old age, from the world, but others who are occupied with spiritual matters, that is, strong Christians, from the devil. But such feeling, as long as it is against our will and we would rather be rid of it, can harm no one. For if we did not feel it, it could not be called a temptation. But to consent thereto is when we give it the reins and do not resist or pray against it. (Luther’s Large Catechism).

Lewis reveals vividly what becomes of us when we surrender to our dragons. It’s not a pretty sight. And, sometimes it’s terminal. It would have been so, in Eustace’s own case, had not Aslan come to him with his healing grace

And so it is with us. No matter how dragonish you and I have grown, we can be healed of the affliction by the same Aslan, who is known in our world by a different name . . . Yeshua (Jesus).

Discerning Good

December 7, 2011 — 4 Comments

Some years ago a comedy program used to scan their audience during applause and segment transitions. They would stop on a random individual and superimpose an absurd comment below their image on the screen. It was quite funny, and my favorite adage was “who are you to judge this man?”

Our society has certainly grown timid when it comes to judging the (mis)behavior of people. It seems you can’t make any observations about others without having some misguided soul—too dimwitted to understand they’re guilty of the very thing they condemn—declaring that you shouldn’t judge others.

Actually, the Scriptures repeatedly tell Christians they are supposed to judge the difference between good and evil (actions and people). Jesus asks the crowds on a number of occasions, most notably in response to his parable about the Good Samaritan, which of the choices were right and which were wrong.

Followers of God are not only enjoined to do good. They are also directed to avoid doing what is wrong. Psalm 36 describes the disposition of the wicked: “He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not reject evil.”

C.S. Lewis provides an insightful juxtaposition of good and evil. “If we find a man giving pleasure it is for us to prove (if we criticise him) that his action is wrong. But if we find a man inflicting pain it is for him to prove that his action is right. If he cannot, he is a wicked man.”

The Church has a responsibility to call sin “sin.” And to influence people to choose better paths which will lead to healing and wholeness. Helping people make choices which lead to life rather than death is the essence of the Great Commission.  So, far from being something we should avoid—discerning or judging is an activity central to Christian life.

The key is remembering that our judgments should always be given in love. Genuine compassion for the victims of sin (which include the perpetrators themselves) is a hallmark of Christ-like judgment.