Tag Archives: Religion

“I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means”

 

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Galatians 5:4 (NIV)

I’ve always been a movie lover. There are movies that I can watch over and over and over again and each time I do I seem to catch little things I’d never seen or heard before.  Lines from the film seem to enter conversation. For Wendy and me, one of those movies is Princess Bride. A favorite line of our is when Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

Among the community of Jesus’ followers the phrase “fallen from grace” is often used to refer to those who at one time were followers, but seemed to leave the path of faith to follow after sinful appetites. Other believers will say that this person has “fallen from grace.” In fact, these are the only circumstances in which I hear this phrase used. To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using those words. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Paul does not use “fallen from grace” to describe those who have left the faith to pursue sinful appetites! He uses the phrase to describe those who have left the path of simple faith and have pursued legalistic religiosity. In Galatia, those whom Paul described who had “fallen from grace” were those who were telling non-Jewish believers that they had to follow all the Jewish legal, religious rules.

This is a huge distinction. Walking the journey of faith is a balancing act from which you can stumble and fall in either way. Certainly you can stumble and pursue unhealthy appetites. That’s why Paul says a a few lines later: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” But you can also stumble and “fall from grace” by pursuing a path of rigid, religious rules in which you judge a person’s faith by how they measure up to your religious yard stick.

To quote another famous movie line that creeps into my conversation on a regular basis: “Daniel-san. Must learn balance.

The Path to Crazy

For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.
Galatians 3:3 (MSG)

While in college, I had two other guys with whom I began to share my life journey. We met on Saturday mornings in the Great Room of Volkman Hall right after PeeWee’s Playhouse. It was the first time in my life that I’d met regularly and intentionally with other guys just to talk about our respective life journeys. We waded into, what was for us at the time, the deep weeds of life. We shared openly about our hurts and confessed our sins to each other. For me, it was monumental.

When college was over, the three of us each took our own paths in divergent directions. One of the guys I have continued to keep up with through periodic phone calls and Facebook. As I read the chapter this morning, I struck me that the other friend went the of the “crazy” Galatians.

The third member of our trio contacted me a few years after college. He’d found his way to a group who taught him that only by following their rigid religious rules could anyone truly call themselves a follower of Jesus. He accused me of not measuring up, of not truly being a follower. It sounded insane; The kind of insanity Paul was confronting among the Galatians. Having once followed by simply believing, my friend was now convinced that only by following a strict set of doctrinal beliefs and behavioral rules could he be “holy” and acceptable to God.

Today, I’m offering sincere prayers for the other two members of my college trio. I have such good memories of Saturday mornings with my Judson College homies wrapped in blankets, listening for Pee Wee’s secret word, and moose slippers. It was an important stretch of life’s journey for me and I will forever be grateful for that time and these two companions. I trust that whatever crazy Galatians-like path my one friend followed, God has been faithful in helping him find his way back to the simplicity of Jesus’ message: faith, grace, love, and forgiveness.

Unshackled

This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. Galatians 2:4 (NIV)

As an actor, I was trained to dig into a character’s motivation and what makes him or her tick. Why do they act the way they do? What is it that he or she wants? What drives him or her to do that? The result is that Wendy and I find ourselves constantly observing people and discussing what it is that seems to motivate them. It’s not about being critical, in fact it’s just the opposite. Rather than observing a person’s behavior and immediately judging the person based merely on our reaction to his or her behavior, we try to genuinely gain a better understanding of why that person behaves the way they do.

Wendy and I were just talking over the weekend about a person we have observed who seemingly chooses to be shackled to their legalistic, religious rules. Our discussion led to  that people who choose to be enslaved to legalistic, religious rules are motivated out of a fear of what others will think. It would seem that they are so worried about appearing good, pure, upstanding, holy that they will tie themselves up in knots to keep up the appearance of propriety (and will try to force their loved ones to do the same). The result? Uptight, joyless people enslaved to rules and perceptions.

This is exactly what Paul was touching on in today’s chapter. Experiencing the spiritual freedom to follow Jesus’ teaching without jumping through the legalistic hoops of Judaism, Paul now had to confront the uptight, joyless legalists who wished to put, and all other believers, him back in shackles. “No thanks,” I hear Paul saying and my own soul echoes the sentiment. I walked the path of legalism for several years and it twisted my soul to the point that love, joy, and peace were wrung out of my life – the very things that matter most.

To the legalistic, religious, rule following Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The discussion Wendy and I had led us to feel sorry for our shackled friend. “We need to pray for them to experience real freedom,” Wendy said. Indeed. And, so we are.

Shift Focus

Shift FocusDo not gloat over me, my enemy!
    Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
    the Lord will be my light.
Because I have sinned against him,
    I will bear the Lord’s wrath,
until he pleads my case
    and upholds my cause.
He will bring me out into the light;
    I will see his righteousness.
Micah 7:8-9 (NIV)

As a person in leadership, I am aware that I often stand in a public spotlight. As a person who doesn’t exactly hide my faith, I am equally aware that people are going to weigh my words and watch my actions. I long ago gave up trying to be the person I suspected everyone else wanted me to be. I am quite sure that I have given plenty of evidence for any who wishes to accuse me of hypocrisy. I am painfully aware of my mistakes and shortcomings.

My heart resonated with Micah’s verse this morning:

I have sinned…I will bear the Lord’s wrath.”

Guilty as charged. Perfect? By no means. Hypocrite? By all means; More often than I’d care to admit.

But then, Micah shifts focus:

until he pleads my case
    and upholds my cause.
He will bring me out into the light;
    I will see his righteousness.

Salvation is not in Micah being a better person. He doesn’t write: “until I attain moral perfection,” “until I become righteous,” or “until I become a better person.” Salvation is not in what I do, but what God does for me in spite of my flaws and my failures. Salvation in the Light of God’s righteousness. Jesus never said, “seek righteousness,” He said, “Seek HIS Kingdom and HIS righteousness.”

Today, I’m reminded that My hope is not in my human struggle for elusive moral perfection, but in having God step up be my Advocate despite my glaring imperfections.

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Free

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Colossians 2:21-23 (NIV)

Many years ago I had a friend who was a marriage and family therapist. About once a week he would show up in my office between sessions to take a break. We enjoyed our conversations and one day he began to talk about the fact that he spent one day each week counseling in a small town nearby. The town had a strong reputation as a pious, religious community that upheld very strict standards of behavior. From the outside, the community appeared the image of perfection. My friend the therapist, however, told a different story.

“It’s the sickest community I’ve ever experienced,” my friend said. “There’s so much social pressure to appear morally perfect that they stuff all of their troubles and imperfections deep inside and try to keep them hidden. In the darkness of secrecy they grow like an infection until they wreak all sorts of havoc on their lives and relationships.”

That conversation came to mind this morning as I read Paul’s words above. Along life’s road I’ve dwelt among many groups who fit his description of moral legalists trying desperately to tame their moral troubles with long lists of “do’s” and “don’ts” that allow for some kind of public moral measuring stick. In my experience, I have found the testimony of my friend, the therapist, to be quite accurate. The more we try to keep up moral appearances, the more spiritually sick we become. It’s what Jesus described in the legalistic religious folks he encountered: “You’re hopeless…You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.”

Last week on Independence Day I thought about how grateful I was for religious freedom. Today, I find myself thankful for spiritual freedom. They are two very different things. Jesus didn’t come to make us more religious, He came to provide us spiritual freedom. The former will never be able to provide the latter.

Religion, Commerce, and the Soul

cover-Time-19870406-66703A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.

A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business.”
Acts 19:19, 24-25 (NRSV)

Back when I was in high school and college there was a crazy period of time when there was no shortage of scandals centering around a group of prominent American televangelists. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the couple that the media couldn’t seem to get enough of, but there was also Jimmy Swaggart and others who leveraged their television ministries into personal profit machines and media empires. A closer inspection of these ministry moguls produced plenty of odd and salacious fodder for the tabloids. Many televangelists fell in a strange train wreck of disgrace that was too compelling to look away.

I was reminded of the uncomfortable tension between faith and commerce this morning as I read today’s chapter. There were two groups of people described who stood in stark contrast to one another. I had never really noticed this in my previous journeys through the Book of Acts.

First, there are those who had vocationally practiced different types of exorcism, magic, and spiritism who became followers of Jesus (v. 18-20). Upon their choice to place their faith in and follow Jesus they abandoned their spiritually dark professions and burned down their old lives. This, of course, meant that would have to begin new lives and careers. This is a picture of Jesus’ consistent admonishment for people to repent (literally, to about face and go the opposite direction) and follow. Old things pass away, new things come. There is a spiritual rebirth evidenced by their willingness to experience a huge financial loss and, in faith, walk away from that which was spiritually dark to begin a new path following the Light.

Next, there is Demetrius and the guild of silversmiths tied to the temple of Artemis. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and Artemis of Ephesus was a popular fertility idol, her long body covered in breasts (or perhaps their bull testicles, scholars aren’t quite sure). Not unlike the media empires of the televangelists, the Temple of Artemis was a tourist attraction and a lucrative, religious cash cow. With the trending of Jesus, His message, and His followers the business of Artemis idols, trinkets, and souvenirs  was taking a huge financial hit. The local metal workers union was not happy. The response of Demetrius and his fellow merchants was to create a public riot and threaten bodily harm to the followers of Jesus along with their forcible expulsion from Ephesus.

I consider one group has a spiritual transformation that results in a willingness to suffer financial and vocational loss. Then I think of the other group who are hardened to preserve their finances and vocation at all costs. Finally, I think about the disgraced televangelists from my youth. I’m not sitting in judgment of them, rather I ponder if spiritually I’m not more like them than I’d care to admit. I wonder if they didn’t start out with sincere hearts that were hardened over time by their lucrative, religious cash cows and personal empires.

Today, I am doing some soul searching. Which example in today’s chapter am I more like, and what is the condition of my heart? Am I willing to suffer temporal loss for eternal gain, or will I cling tightly to that which is temporal at the sacrifice of my soul?

Status Quo

source: pictoquotes via Flickr
source: pictoquotes via Flickr

They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” Acts 4:16-17 (NRSV)

Along life’s journey, I have had the opportunity of finding myself in leadership of different groups and organizations. As a leader, I am always looking for ways that things can be improved. I want to be effective and for whatever I’m involved in to have a positive and lasting impact. Often, this means I have to fight against the entrenched attitudes of others.

I have found that there will always be individuals who are motivated by a need for a sense of safety and stability. These individuals can easily equate sameness with safety. If things remain exactly the same then the anxiety produced in their spirits by the fear of change is reduced to acceptable levels. Sameness becomes tradition which is zealously protected. When personal authority and power is attached to the tradition, the desire to shun change and maintain the status quo becomes even stronger.

I was amazed reading today’s chapter that the priests and temple leaders gave little thought to the fact that a well known person in their community, a man who had been lame his entire life, was healed and dancing in the streets. They were not the least bit concerned about the miracles which were taking place or the thousands of individuals in whom God was working with life changing power. Their only concern appears to have been maintenance of the status quo and their vice grip hold on power.

Today, I’m praying that I never become one who fears change. Jesus said, “you don’t put new wine in old wineskins, otherwise the skins will burst and the wine is lost.” I want my heart and mind to remain fresh and pliable so that any new thing God is doing will fill me with Life rather than cracking and bursting my spirit because of some false sense of security to which I cling. I want to be part of whatever new thing God is doing in our midst.