Sunday, March 22, 2009

God Is The Same

Question put forward on Facebook: "How do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament?"

The God of the OT is the God described as "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness" (Exodus 34, Psalm 103).

The God of the NT is the God who killed Ananias and Saphira.

The God of the OT is the God who had mercy on Ahab-- the worst king of the northern tribe of Israel-- and didn't judge him when he repented. (I Kings 21)

The God of the NT is the God who does not forgive the one who has all of Jesus and rejects him (Hebrews 6; Hebrews 10:26ff)

God is merciful throughout the Bible.
God is judging throughout the Bible.
God is love throughout the Bible.
God is vengeful throughout the Bible.

Even as it is said of Jesus, so is God the Father: The same, yesterday, today and forever. He never changes.

Only our ability to respond to Him changes. Praise God that He sent His Son, so that we longer have to respond in legalism and judgement, but can now rest in repentance and His forgiveness!

Christian Pacifism 101

The strongest argument for Christian pacifism is the New Testament. The simplist argument is Jesus said "love your enemies" and then described that loving includes not harming, not killing. To love someone is to do good to them; to kill someone is the opposite of doing good (See Mark 3:4).

The reason why Jesus and the others didn't get preach against soldier's killing is because, for the most part, they didn't. They acted as a police force in Judea, not a military killing machine-- the Romans who did that work were sent elsewhere.

The NT as a whole argues against the whole miltary machine. Revelation-- getting back to topic-- is an excellent example. The whole book glorifies martyrs-- those who submit to death rather than have their faith be compromised-- and assumes that those in the military machine are those who kill the martyrs. It's a pretty fair assumption. But even if one disagrees with that assumption, we have to admit that those who participate in the society of the Beast-- the military empire-- and those who participate in Babylon-- the commercial support of empire-- are condemned. If we accept this as Scripture, we have to take it seriously and not just dismiss its radical notions.

BTW, the basis for saying that the early church was anti-military isn't based on Roman records but on Christian documents. We have martyrologies of soldiers becoming Christians and then were killed because they refused to participate in warfare. We have early Christian authors saying that participating in the military in unacceptable for a Christian. To see these sources, you can find them in Eberhard Arnold's excellent book, "The Early Christians."

Strength And the Christian Life

Discussion on MennoDiscuss: What do you think evangelicals mean by the sin of "trying to live the Christian life on one's own strength."

I think what evangelicals mean by this second esoteric phrase is trying to live the Christian life without the Spirit is wrong. The fact of the matter is that it isn't so much wrong as impossible. If a person tried to love their enemies, sell their possessions and give to the poor, do religious acts only for God's reward not man's, etc, it's just not human. So we have to have God's strength to help us do as Jesus asks.

The problem comes in when they say that we are doing something wrong by doing what we can. Look, if I can, on my own, not say hateful things about my brother or sister, then why shouldn't I? Is that a sin? We should admit that we can't do it on our own, that we need God's help, but to not do what we can... of course we should.

Evangelicals On Legalism

A post on legalism originally here:
And then posted on MennoDiscuss here:

The text from the article first, and then my response:

Few subjects have as much variation among believers as our interpretations of personal holiness. Many Christians interpret the freedom we have in Christ very liberally. They tend to run with their freedom and often pay little heed to Christ’s commands. These people focus on the love of Christ and the community of the Church rather than God’s holiness and doctrine.
At a deeper level, it is very easy for us to have a simple view of holiness because it requires little of us - if all we understand of the Christian life is freedom, our view is likely informed more by the world than by Christ. The sacrifices to which He calls us do not resonate with a “freewheeling” Christianity. A low view of sin and righteousness can mar our witness by blurring the distinctions between the Church and the world and open us up to the temptations of the enemy.
The opposite extreme is represented by legalism - the view in which personal holiness is of paramount importance. These folks go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of worldliness and take very seriously God’s call to “Come out from their midst and be separate. . .” Very little in their lives is free from rules and traditions, and they often spend a great deal of time and effort to follow them strictly.
Legalism becomes grievous sin when we believe that we have within ourselves the ability to attain God’s favor. Even when well intentioned, we cannot live up to the required standard. This leads us to judge others and ourselves by the “severity” of our wrongs rather than by God’s standard (that all sin is equally offensive to Him and destructive to our relationship).
A strong devotion to holiness does not have to be legalistic, however. Just as we dishonor God in pursuing righteousness on our own, we honor Him when this pursuit is borne out of love for Him. Jesus’ statement, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments,” sets personal holiness as an outcome rather than a condition of belief. His concern is not with individual sins but with sin (that is, whether we pursue Him or pursue ourselves).
Does the Lord want us to live in righteousness? Absolutely. Did He fulfill the law and set us free? Completely. But His command was neither “keep the Law” nor “be free”—He confronts us with something much simpler and yet so difficult that we can’t hope to live up to it outside of the Spirit’s enabling: “Follow Me.”
Spirit-led holiness motivated by love is perhaps the most distinctive marker of the faith; it is a picture to a dying world of the hope of forgiveness. Such an attitude is vital if we are to have the impact God desires.

Sincerely in HOPE of the Gospel,

J. Mark Horst, President

This is reflective of a common evangelical viewpoint, and I think it's really confused. Perhaps the author knew better, but didn't write well, I'm not sure.

He certainly starts out well-- focusing on obedience to Jesus' commands, saying that there is a place between complete freedom and a law based on tradition. And he ends okay as well-- talking about following Jesus and obedience as being Spirit-led.

But in the middle he certainly sounds anti-nomian (in opposition to any regulations). As if any individual sin we do doesn't matter at all in God's eyes-- God is ready to overlook that-- as long as we have prayed the right prayer or whatever that gets us into Jesus.

It is an issue with evangelicals that as long as you've done the right entrance exam ("sinner's prayer", baptism, four spiritual laws, whatever) and you're in the right club (name church here) then it's all going to be okay because salvation is based on "grace" not "works". What evangelicals are scared of is the accusation that they are saying that unless a person DOES something they can't be saved, which is the original Lutheran idea of "works"-- salvation by doing something. This has been taken more broadly as meaning salvation by NOT doing something as well. As if we could murder someone without repentance and not be saved (no one actually believes this, but you could put almost any other sin in place of "murder" and it would work).

The fact is, the NT does demand of us a certain lifestyle. Jesus is, in some ways, more strict about how we should live than Moses-- we can't look at another woman, not just not have sex with her. If we have a habitual lifestyle of sin, then we do not enter God's kingdom (I Cor 5-6). So to help other brothers and sisters not live that way, and to stricly avoid sin is not legalism, it is a part of our salvation.

The problem of "grace/faith not works" is the problem with just about any one line theological statements: The definitions of the words change over time and people don't remember what the original idea was. So theology becomes as much as a fad as music.

Biblical Legalism

A question was posed on a forum in MennoDiscuss about what the Bible says about legalism:

Biblically, that which we call legalism I think is discussed in the following ways:

a. Enforcing a law without regard to the needs of the other person. "I require mercy not sacrifice" Matthew 12

b. Insisting that one become a part of the law of Moses in order to be a follower of Jesus. This was the main discussion in the book of Galatians.

c. In matters not determined by Jesus, enforcing one's opinion or interpretation as legally binding. Romans 14

However, Biblical legalism is not a matter of not having a code to live by, because Jesus affirmed that we were not to murder, commit adultery, defraud, dishonor one's parents, etc. As well, he gave more laws such as to love one's enemies, to not be a hypocrite, to not judge, etc. There is a code for us to live by, and to say that all followers of Jesus obey Jesus is not legalism in a biblical sense.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lust For God?

Is it possible to take sexual energy and direct it toward God? In other words, instead of using the sexual energy on masturbation, etc, is it possible to focus it on God?

Okay, a tricky one.

Sexual energy comes from a combination of hormones and brain activity that we can call lust. This lust is focused on a physical being and is tied into the sights, smells, actions and personality of that being. I don't think it can really be focused on God. It can be used for God-- in a marriage, of course. But the energy and the build up of pleasure hormones in the brain can be redirected-- with difficulty-- to act for God's kingdom, especially service.

There are three biochemical aspects to love: lust, "falling in love", and affection. While sexual energy can't be focused directly on God, the second two can. I have experienced this myself, but "falling in love" with God didn't last, just like it doesn't with a human being. But when it did, I was more focused on God and ready to worship Him than ever in my life. The important thing, however, is to not focus on the feeling but on God himself. Otherwise, when the feeling goes away, you feel emptied of God. But God is always there, always loving, always supporting, even if we don't feel Him.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Common Foundations of Isalm and Christianity

This is a summary of the main letter from Muslims to Christians. I highly recommend you read the whole thing at:

From 138 Prominant Muslims to Christians around the world:

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity. The following are only a few examples:

Of God’s Unity, God says in the Holy Qur’an: Say: He is God, the One! / God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all! (Al-Ikhlas, 112:1-2). Of the necessity of love for God, God says in the Holy Qur’an: So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion (Al-Muzzammil, 73:8). Of the necessity of love for the neighbour, the Prophet Muhammad r said: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself.”

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ u said: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

In the Holy Qur’an, God Most High enjoins Muslims to issue the following call to Christians (and Jews—the People of the Scripture):

Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)

The words: we shall ascribe no partner unto Him relate to the Unity of God, and the words: worship none but God, relate to being totally devoted to God. Hence they all relate to the First and Greatest Commandment. According to one of the oldest and most authoritative commentaries on the Holy Qur’an the words: that none of us shall take others for lords beside God, mean ‘that none of us should obey the other in disobedience to what God has commanded’. This relates to the Second Commandment because justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbour.

Thus in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,

And may peace and blessings be upon the Prophet Muhammad

Responses to the Recession

I think it is time for the church to reconsider its politics.. I'm not advocating that we all try to get elected or take over the government necessarily. But I do think we might be entering a 1930's scenario where if we think things have been bad for the middle-class and poor through the 1970's, 80's and 90's, you ain't seen nothing yet. I know I'm going to hear it from those who like to keep Jesus out of politics (and I do still harbor many healthy anabaptist political hesitations myself) but I'm becoming equally angry with a church that seems more interested in building new administrative centers and benefiting from our MMA retirement portfolios (well, up until 6mo. ago at least), but seems less interested in walking the neighborhood, asking how people are doing and searching for real ways to bring hope and healing to those who know first hand what it feels like to search for scraps beneath the "master's" table. I've recently been inspired by reading about church leaders of the 1930s who searched for ways to move beyond insular spiritualism to both care for the poor AND passionately advocate for significant social change. I wonder if the coming revolt might need some committed nonviolent Mennonites who can help keep it nonviolent.
-Matt F.

I think, Matt, that you're barking up the wrong tree. I feel I can say this as a person who is deeply involved in my communities here in Portland. I personally think that the governments and corporations and banks are so full of their own self interest, especially in maintaining whatever status quo there is, that the system itself is unreliable. I believe that if we as Christians took over the system, then we would do no better than those who hold it now (or previously). Part of the problem is the structure of the system itself, whether that be the U.S. government, capitalism, the banking system, or modern labor being controlled by large corporations. What is needed is a complete breakdown of the systems-- which we will get when Jesus returns.

However, in the meantime, we need to do SOMETHING. I think the best option is to create alternative communities that can provide both an economic safety zone as well as an example to others as to how to act in God's economy. I am not advocating dropping out of the world, but rather calling on believers to have an economic change of heart. This would look like this:
a. Our economic insentive would not be to obtain more income or property ourselves, but to invest into the community. This investment would include money, but not be limited to that. It would also include property, time and labor. Thus, we could encourage others to think about every economic decision to be about the community rather than about individual gain. Each decision would still be made by the individual, but the incentive of the individual would be different. (Acts 2:44-45)

b.The economic gain would not be on the basis of reciprocity, but on a broad concept of meeting other's needs without obtaining anything back. A broad concept of need would include survival issues, but it would also include issues of respect, entertainment and inner peace. But, again, it is focused on what can give the community these things instead of individuals or nuclear family units. (Luke 6:30-31)

c. The focus of this economic return would be to provide the greatest amount of economic resourcing, not to those who have the most resources, but to those with the greatest needs. Thus, should all else fail, the basic needs of all the community-- including the poor and outcast of society-- would be met. (Luke 12:33; Luke 14:12-14; Acts 4:34-35)

d. Because all people's needs are met, the community will draw those who are poor and outcast, who are the most economically vulnerable. While this seems unsustainable, in a cash poor society, this means that the community will be wealth in a viable economic resource-- namely those able to do labor and time and who have the insentive to act in resiprocity for what they have received even if reciprocity is not demanded. Namely, a work force will be available for the community, which will make them a viable self-sustaining community. (Luke 16:1-9)

This is what we do in Anawim, with minimal assistance from our (more) wealthy friends in other churches. And, actually, I just read of a similar report in the latest issue of the MMN publication (forgot the title). In Argentina, many were losing their jobs. Since they didn't want to just be sitting around waiting for their next opporunity, many in the Mennonite church decided to create a food co-op, which provided for the entire community.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Asking for Money

If you were called to be a missionary today, would you ask for money? -Jake Ray on Facebook

My wife and I have been "missionaries" among the homeless for 15 years now, with my wife working one day a week on minimum wage. But we NEVER asked anyone for money. The Lord is our employer and so He pays our wages. We do not ask the government or the church to pay that which is His responsibility. When we get donations, it is because the Lord stirs people's hearts through the Spirit and He provides abundantly.

The church has a huge number of resources, both financially and otherwise. And I don't believe the NT teaches tithing, and even if tithing were great (50% or more) I think that most churches don't have their priorities correct. Jesus commands us to give to those in need, especially those doing His work (Luke 12:33; Matt 10:10; Galatians 6:6-10). But the churches seem to think that their main responsibility is a huge salary for their pastor and a huge building. God's people need to re-prioritize toward those in need, without judging, without hoops.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Homelessness in Gresham

Anabeth asked how homelessness in Gresham differs from Portland and who is involved in helping them. "I am wondering about the situation in Gresham regarding people living outdoors as I am only more familiar with what is going on in Portland. Can you please tell me a little more about it? Do we know approximately how many people are living outdoors in Gresham- have the numbers increased the past couple of years b/c of Mayor Potter's ordinances? I know that Eastside Foursquare Church there has done some things- are they empowering people?? Is it My Father's House that was just built for housing people living outdoors in Gresham- though I know that obviously not everyone is helped in a situation like that, people are still left out and my question for them is still about how their services are being played out- are they empowering or patronizing?"

There are basically three services for street folks in Gresham: Zaraphath Kitchen which has a meal six days a week, Anawim (showers, clothes and a meal one day a week) and My Father's House for homeless families. EastHill has been out of the loop for a number of years, but they are trying to re-organize their assistance. Right now, they are filling out Zaraphath so that there are meals every Sunday, and they want to provide socks-- which is what Anawim has done for years. But maybe this means that we can provide socks for the SE group instead.

Gresham is a different street experience than Portland. There is a lot more room for camping in tents and there is less dependence on services. The police are more consistantly active in kicking the homeless out of the city and there are people hired by the city to throw away people's tents and gear if left behind. So the homeless are more hidden. The only place they are alowed to hang out is Gresham Main Park, but even there they are carefully monitored by the police. Sometimes the police are abusive and in fact at least four homeless I know have successfully sued the city of Gresham for police brutality. Many more have been abused without suing. For all of these reasons, not very many people have moved from Portland to Gresham.

Homelessness has grown in Gresham, but mostly it is young people who have increased the numbers. When we talk about the homeless, the numbers are all guess work, but I'd say there's about 200 chronic homeless and someone has quoted to me a statistic of 200 young people on the street (That number might be a bit high-- they might be including those who hang out with the "gutter punks" but still sleep at home). A large number of these people live on the Springwater Corridor bike trail.

Recently there have been three groups wanting to advocate for the poor in Gresham. But I noted that all three of these groups were full of middle class churches and leaders who wanted to help the homeless but who weren't interested in having the homeless own the services. That is the kind of system we don't need in Gresham. We have a lot of strong, ready-to-work folk who would do work to support a service as long as it was a service they asked for. This was one of the main purposes of this community meeting-- to get the homeless involved in the conversation of how to serve the homeless. To get them to own the service from the ground level so they would own it and participate.

I'd say that My Father's House does empower, but they aren't dealing with the chronic homeless at all. They help families in crisis, which is great. But I note that Gresham-- East Hill in particular-- is willing to spend literally millions of dollars for My Father's House, but the chronic homeless get nothing but tickets and abuse. I think it is long overdue to have some services for all the homeless in Gresham, but I also think that to do it rightly, we need to draw upon the willing help and resources of the homeless.

Okay, you asked a lot of questions and got a long answer. Hope that's okay!