The best theological statement ever

“God is great. God is good. And we thank Him for our food. Amen.”

 

Did you say that grace before meals as a child? My sister and I did, many times.

That remains one of the best theological statements I’ve ever heard.

God is great

According to the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible, God created Earth. Whether he did it in six literal days (he rested on the seventh) or not (a day is like 1,000 years, the Psalmist said), God created everything that exists.

Including you and me.

Every religion that believes in God believes that God is great. He is much bigger than we are.

Many people, however, struggle with this. We don’t like to acknowledge that we aren’t in control of our own lives. There are forces at work beyond our control, beyond what we understand.

Science teaches us new things as we discover truths that have always existed.

Still, there remains plenty we do not know – about the human body, about the oceans, about the universe – about so many things. We continue to learn and discover. It’s exciting.

All of those things we learn and discover had to come from somewhere. There had to be a beginning. The fact that God has no beginning and has always existed is something we will never understand.

God is great.

He created the atmosphere, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis. Whether he directs such storms to hit certain places or just “allows” them to develop, I can’t say.

Either way, humans cannot control the weather. We can prepare for it. We certainly clean up after it. We are at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves.

Is this all we know about God? That he is great and powerful? That he allows pain and suffering? Do we think he sits on a throne in the sky and directs earthly forces to do things?

In some religions, yes.

In Eastern religions, God is nothing more than a force, something out there that is unknowable but that we have to please – not knowing whether we’ve ever done enough to reach nirvana, or whatever the afterlife is called (assuming there is an afterlife).

In Western religions, God is personal. In some of these, he still is distant and judgmental. Again, we never know whether we’ve done enough to earn our way to heaven.

God is good

This is a major selling point of Christianity for me, and why that table grace is so powerful. The God of the Bible is good. No other religion can say that about their God.

In the Old Testament, God chose Israel to be his people. He challenged them to think differently and live differently than everyone else. Frequently, Israel did not want to be different. For example, they wanted a king just like every other nation. God said he is their king; they don’t need an early ruler. Israel insisted. So God gave them kings, who ruled over them in the way we know kings rule.

Kings thrive on power, not on serving their people, right?

Still, God did not give up on Israel, but redeemed them over and over. You can read the Old Testament as God judging and punishing Israel; I read the Old Testament as God forgiving Israel again and again, even though the nation did not deserve it.

God was good to his chosen people.

Next, God did something no other religion’s God has ever done, before or since. He transformed himself into a human being and walked the earth, to show us how to love our neighbor and then to die for our sins.

Since when does God himself suffer and die?

That was the ultimate act of being good. In the Old Testament, God required frequent sacrifices of animals to pay for the screw-ups of each man and woman from Israel. I think it became a ritual, so that the sacrifices didn’t mean much any more – even though animals had to die.

So, God himself died instead. Once, to take the place of all present and future sacrifices. Then God raised himself from the dead, proving that our sacrifices were no longer necessary.

Many of us just celebrated this on Sunday, which was Easter.

God is good. He wants the best for us. Perhaps he allows suffering in our lives so that we will turn to him for protection and guidance. If we lived life happily ever after, why would we need God, or a force, or anything else bigger than ourselves?

Why some people suffer more than others, I can’t say. Why I was born in the United States, the wealthiest country that has ever existed, instead of, oh, Sudan, I’ll never know.

We take so many things for granted. We think God owes us.

We have more going for us than we realize. God owes us nothing.

But he has given us a gift. A friendship with himself, starting now and lasting forever. All we have to do is accept it.

God is good. God is really good. The God who created the human body, the oceans and the universe wants to be our friend.

And we thank him … for a lot more than food, actually.

God is that good.

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“We,” not “Me”

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I exercised my Constitutional right (the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments) and voted in Ohio’s primary today. (The Democratic and Republican primaries both took place today. Which ballot I filled out is not the point – just that I did fill one out.)

“Who will be our next president?” I was asked this morning, before I voted.

“I have no idea,” I responded.

That’s why we vote.

Especially this year – an unusual year when the media and the political parties cannot tell us who the Democratic and Republican nominees are yet. Our votes actually matter this year.

The candidates – in both parties – give us a wide range of choices. This is how the process is supposed to work.

State and local issues

We vote on more than the presidential race, of course. Perhaps even more important, I saw candidates on the ballot for various judgeships, county and statewide races, and a local tax request from the city I live in.

These local and statewide candidates and issues will have a more immediate impact on my quality of life than the next president will. I’m convinced of this. Even though the local issues don’t get near the publicity the presidential candidates do.

Our local tax request is for roads, police and parks. Other municipalities seek ballot approval for residential or commercial zoning changes, fire departments, ambulance service, libraries, garbage collection, Sunday liquor sales and/or government general operating expenses.

Local school board races and taxes weren’t on today’s ballot, but we certainly do get to vote on those at other times of the year.

These issues are vital to our daily lives, and they require money. How much are we willing to pay for them? Who do we trust to lead our government and local courts?

Minority rule

Since a majority of us do not vote, a small fraction of U.S. citizens decides how this country functions, locally and nationally. When more of us get involved, our government runs more effectively. That’s what a democracy is: rule by majority. But a majority has to vote for that to happen.

The U.S. Constitution, however, provides certain rights for each citizen, whether or not we vote. The First Amendment, for example, states:

 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

 

While giving individuals the right to worship, speak, write, assemble and petition as they desire, this Amendment implies respect for other people. There are ways to do these things without rioting, or worse.

If I have the freedom to worship as I please, so do you. If I have the freedom to speak my mind on an issue, so do you. We do not have to agree. But we MUST respect each other, or the process breaks down.

When we assemble, we do so peaceably, according to the Amendment. When we seek redress of our grievances, we respect the outcome – win or lose. That, again, is why we must vote – so that the people we elect to redress our grievances respect us as citizens.

Right?

Respect

This is the cause of the deep divide in the United States today. It’s all about “me,” and not “we.” We do not understand (or do not care) that our actions, all of them, affect others.

The Fourth Amendment talks about unreasonable searches and seizures. The Sixth Amendment talks about a speedy and public trial. The Fourteen Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” These amendments also give certain rights to individuals.

All of us have the right to get involved politically, as much or as little as we desire. All of us should vote. Some of us might run for public office. (With the sharp criticism and downright hatred we see out there, why would you want to? Today’s public servants have bigger hearts and thicker skins than we realize.)

“We” must include all of us. We must respect our differences.

Religion and politics

Religion is not a democracy; Western religions, in particular, are monotheistic, which means people worship one God. The Christian God wants the best for us; if we read the Bible closely, we will see this. But Christianity, like other religions, is not a democracy.

Tension arises when Christians try to take over the political process. It doesn’t work; indeed, it cannot work.

But Christian principles can work in “secular” society. Respect for authority, respect for other people and respect for oneself are all themes in the Bible. All of these themes are desperately needed in American society today.

So, I voted today. As an American. With principles that might be Christian, but that I think should apply to all of society as well.

That doesn’t mean I’m trying to impose Christianity on you. If you choose to worship another way, or not at all, that’s your right. But many of the principles I try to live by should apply to you as well. Respect. Caring for our neighbors. Providing proper police, fire and ambulance support. (If we didn’t break so many laws, perhaps we would not need so many police officers.) Electing a president who has the best interests of the country as a whole in his/her heart – not just your group, but the interests of all of us.

Majority rule

Other elections are coming up this year. School elections. The general election in November. Perhaps others.

Let’s get involved. All of us. And when each election is over, we must live with the results.

Moving to Canada is an idea for quitters. My way or the highway is not the American way. If you don’t like the results, work to change it for the next time.

In the meantime, even if we don’t like the results, we must live with them. That’s the way the United States thrives.

Doing what matters

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If Jesus were to walk the earth, especially the United States, today, where would He go? What would He do? Who would He spend His time with?

I ask myself those questions every so often. I don’t think most Christians understand the answer.

Jesus on Earth

To figure out where He would go today, let’s see where He went when He did walk this earth. We find the story of Jesus’ life on Earth in the four gospels – the first four books of the New Testament in the Bible.

He spent some time talking with the Pharisees, Sadduccees and scribes – the religious leaders of His day. They frequently asked Him questions, mostly to try to trap Him (for example, washing hands before eating, Mat. 15:1-9; asking for a sign in the sky, Mat. 16:1-4; Jesus’ authority, Mark 11:27-33; paying taxes, Mark 12:13-17; the resurrection, Mark 12:18-27; the greatest commandment, Mark 12:28-34; picking wheat on the Sabbath, Luke 6:1-5; healing a man’s hand on the Sabbath, Luke 6:6-11).

A few of those events took place in church (the synagogue in those days).

However, Jesus spent most of His time with tax collectors and sinners outside the synagogue walls. He did not attend church Sunday morning and Sunday and Wednesday nights, a men’s group on Monday, a couple’s study on Tuesday, an outreach ministry on Thursday, and a weekend conference at a retreat center.

Not that those are bad things; indeed, all of them are good. But He did not fill His schedule with them.

He preached in public (the Sermon on the Mount, Mat. 5-7). He explained the kingdom of God in parables (four soils, weeds, mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, pearl and a fishing net – Mark 13). He healed many people (for example, leprosy, Luke 5:12-16; a paralyzed man, Luke 5:17-26; raising a boy from the dead, Luke 7:11-17; He cast out demons, Luke 9:37-43).

Jesus spent a lot of time with His 12 chosen disciples, teaching them all kinds of things about God the Father and Himself.

He performed miracles. He fed 5,000 people (John 6:1-15); walked on water (John 6:16-21); healed a blind man (John 9:1-12); and raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44).

He talked about His death (John 12:20-36), then was crucified and resurrected (John 19 and 20).

OK, that’s an overview. So, what would Jesus do today?

Jesus today …

I think He would spend most of His time walking the streets, going from city to city and town to town, spending time in homeless shelters, businesses, at football stadiums and rock concerts – anywhere people gather who need to hear what He has to say.

Should we follow that example?

For many years I felt that my “calling” was to serve God at secular newspapers. Christians routinely celebrate people who enter the “ministry,” meaning they work full-time for a church, religious organization or as a missionary. That’s not a bad thing, but that has not been my calling.

Again, where would Jesus go? To the church or a mission field?

What is a mission field? I attended a church a long time ago that had this banner on the altar:

 

Every heart with Christ is a missionary. Every heart without Christ is a mission field. Which are you?

 

I like that a lot. I don’t need to be ordained by man to be a missionary. Jesus did not attend seminary. Indeed, people were shocked that He spoke with authority even though He was only a carpenter’s son and had no advanced religious education (Mark 1:22).

Some Christians today want Jesus to become a politician. They are looking for the Christian solution to all the problems this country faces.

I get that. Jesus talked about social issues – feeding the hungry, adultery (let’s deal with that before we even get to homosexuality – right?), judging others, healing the sick and injured, the rights of children, serving others …

Jesus also talked a lot about the kingdom of God, describing to all who would listen what God is really like.

That’s why I call my blog “the liberal conservative.” Social issues like these often are the domain of liberals. Explaining who God is remains the focus of conservatives.

America needs both. Jesus did both.

Jesus did spend some time with the religious leaders of His day. Often, however, He warned the rest of us about their hypocrisy and deceit (Mat. 23:1-12).

Jesus ‘in church’ today …

If Jesus visited your church this Sunday, what would He see? What would He say about your congregation?

Certainly, there are wonderful churches who preach the Bible and everything in it. Jesus would love those places.

But, in general, I fear for the church today. Many churches tell us what we want to hear. Many churches are little more than a social club.

What’s the point?

We must stand out

In the Old Testament, God gave His chosen people a whole bunch of rules and regulations to live by (see Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Why? Because God is a tough taskmaster?

No. Many of those laws and rules were for the benefit of the people – and still would benefit us today.

I believe that the overriding principle, however, is that God wanted Israel to be different from everyone else. He wanted them to live differently, and to worship differently. When Israel rebelled and wanted God to give them a king, God told them that they did not need a king; they had God as their leader. Israel insisted, so God relented. He’s like that. He’s not going to force Himself on us.

But Israel paid a huge price. As we do today.

How are Christians different from everyone else? Why would a non-Christian want to join your church? Do we have something attractive that others are seeking?

What would Jesus Himself say about that?

Jesus’ message to us

Jesus gave people outside the church the benefit of the doubt every time. He did not judge people. He condemned their sin and challenged them to “sin no more” (John 8:1-11), but he loved people.

One exception: the religious leaders of the day, who knew the Scriptures and should have known better. He called them blind guides, thieves and hypocrites (Mat. 23).

I fear Jesus would give the same message to many churches today. Many people reject the church today, thinking the church represents Christ. Many churches do not.

That’s why we need to read the Bible for ourselves, and find a church that preaches that – and only that.

Many churches today are not worth Jesus’ time. But the people who live in this country definitely are worth His time.

Since that’s the way Jesus would live, that’s the way we should live too.

The story of my life in one word

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If you could sum up your life in just a few words, what would your headline be?

As a newspaper copy editor for about 30 years, I had lots of experience writing headlines. It’s not easy. I had to summarize each reporter’s article in four or five snappy words that enticed the reader to want the details the story offered.

What is the story of your life? What headline captures your story?

I can summarize my life story in one word. It’s not a word even those close to me would choose for me. But it’s who I am.

Loneliness.

Lonely people by definition do not share their feelings. Just the fact that I acknowledge this, perhaps, makes me no longer lonely. But I am still, in many ways.

Here’s another question that might be easier for you to answer. What is the first verse or passage of Scripture that connected with you? What verse first captured your heart, drew you in to the Bible and all it has to offer?

That verse for me is this one: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart Thou will not despise, O God.”

David wrote that verse in Psalm 51, which he penned after committing adultery with Bathsheba. I did not commit adultery, but when I was 15 years old, I heard that verse for the first time – and understood David’s point immediately.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, O Lord; take not Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing sprit.

“Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways, and sinners will come to Thee …

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart Thou will not despise.” (Ps. 51:10-13, 17)

I did not “memorize” those verses; instead, I internalized them. I learned them because they changed my life. God, don’t leave me here. I am lost, and I need You.

I have never learned how to share my feelings. My dad is the youngest of six siblings – much younger than his oldest siblings. His dad was distant, his mom died when he was young, and his stepmom didn’t want him around. So, he withdrew into himself.

I have done the same. My parents are still together, still strong, but not talkative. We don’t hug, especially my dad and me. When I was a college student, I told my dad that I love him. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I knew then and I know now that he loves me, but it was hard because we had never communicated on that level before. Ever.

Growing up, we made out-of-state moves in the middle of second grade and just before ninth grade. With low self-esteem, I didn’t know how to find friends I could trust – because I couldn’t trust myself. As a teenager, I was grasping for something to hold on to, and finding only emptiness.

Until my parents sent me to church camp after ninth grade. The counselors and even the other campers accepted me for who I was – not because I did anything to earn their love, but just because I was there. This was a new feeling for me. They made it clear they noticed and accepted me because Jesus Christ notices and accepts them, and shows us all how to do that for each other.

I wanted what they had, so at the close of camp I asked Jesus into my heart as Lord and Savior.

Once camp ended I still had to face reality, but I wasn’t alone any more. Even so, it wasn’t an overnight change for me.

I had no close friends in high school. I did not date. I got good grades and hung out in my room most of the time.

When I got to college, God eventually brought me to a decision point: There is no middle ground with Me. Either you are all in, or you are out. So, Bill, are you going to follow Me, or are you not?

I pondered this. I realized that God wants the best for me. He is not an unknowable force, and He is not a mean God who demands servitude in exchange for favors. He sent His son Jesus to show me how to live, and then die for my sins. How could I reject that?

So, the faith that I accepted about six years before now became real.

And yet, the journey had only begun. This is not a fairy tale where the frog kisses the princess and they instantly live happily ever after.

I’ve been married 31 years. We have three sons. I tried to get to know my sons’ hearts as they grew up. I think I did pretty well.

But I did not spend the quality time with my wife that I should have. When we became empty nesters, we realized we didn’t really know each other all that well.

As I said at the start, lonely people by definition do not share their feelings. Neither of us share our feelings with each other much. And yet … God wants the best for each of us, and for both of us.

How do I share my feelings in such a way that she hears me? How do I listen in such a way that I hear her story? How can our broken stories combine into a beautiful tapestry?

Loneliness is a difficult obstacle to overcome. It’s a common ailment, but those of us who suffer from it rarely acknowledge it – because if we did, we might not be lonely any more.

Assuming someone is out there to listen.

Not just for a moment. But to listen.

Not on a Facebook post, where no one listens. Not in a text while we’re driving. Not while the TV or radio is on.

Listening is a lost art. Just ask a lonely person. He or she will tell you that.

If you can get him or her to talk.