Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The price of disobedience

Lately Charles Stanley, on his "In Touch" radio broadcasts, has focused his messages on obeisance to the LORD. Now, that should be a given, but it's amazing just how many people want the blessings of following Jesus but not to do what He says when He says to do it or not to do something when He says to refrain. (Of course, while heeding the words of Scripture should be primary, at times He may use other means.) Anyway, as part of my spiritual process, He has on just four occasions brought this spirit of extreme heaviness upon me to keep me from doing something I shouldn't.

At this point, I'm about to confess something I never have mentioned before, either publicly or in private conversation: One of the major traumas in my life, if not the biggest, took place in part because of my disobedience.

As a high-schooler I had developed an interest in a girl in a church youth group -- it wasn't mutual, but I still pestered her quite a bit. (I had actually made a commitment to Christ as part of the group.)

Anyway, she attended college out of town, so one day after she left I wrote her a letter asking for a visit -- and that "spirit of heaviness" showed up, in this case for the second time (I had obeyed the first time). But I ignored it, thinking, "What can it hurt?"

I would soon find out. She declined my request and, without getting into any details, let me say that all hell broke loose; the experience left me very bitter and disillusioned for the next two years or so. Right around this time my parents' marriage, which already had been failing, finally collapsed, and it finally hit me that some of the dynamics with that girl were somewhat similar. Having some major character flaws exposed, I decided I needed to make some major changes and God began to work in my life in ways He never had before.

About a decade later the Spirit had me attempt to reestablish contact with her; I hesitated at first because I didn't want things to go the way they did before, but He overruled my objections. I remember that, when I dropped a package in the mail, I said, "If this is You, I'm expecting results." Well, I did get a positive reply and have since reconciled with her, although we're not and likely will never be particularly close friends.

But you best believe that I haven't disobeyed that "spirit of heaviness" since. In 1988 He told me not to take a lucrative job I was offered in my brother's plant; to this day I don't know what I was avoiding, but when I did turn it down I felt a sense of Godly relief. In 1999, at the beginning of my relationship with my last steady girlfriend, a single mother of three sons, I had visited her church on a Sunday morning just to check it out, and the Spirit impressed on me during the sermon, "Do NOT go to this church." (Over the next two years, the time we were together, God gave me three specific confirmations.) Well, she decided she wanted to marry me -- but also for us to attend her church as a family and would accept no explanations for not doing so. Eventually I realized (and others who knew me had already noticed) that we were "unequally yoked," and I left.

Bottom line, eternal God can take even our sins and work them in a way that gives Him glory -- the history of ancient Israel is proof of that. But there's a reason the prophet Samuel told King Saul after the latter offered an unauthorized sacrifice, "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (I Samuel 15:22). And today I'd rather do it right the first time than have Him pick up the wreckage that would result from my failure to listen to Him.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Understanding -- and applying -- the 'Gospel'

On this date in 1979, weeks before graduating from Wilkinsburg High School in suburban Pittsburgh, I received Jesus Christ as Savior and LORD during the school district picnic at Kennywood, an amusement park in the suburb of West Mifflin. In short, I became an evangelical Christian.

That had been brewing for some years, ever since I was immersed in a very strong church and had believers all around me, but it took my parents' impending breakup -- although it would be 4 1/2 years before it actually happened -- to push me over the edge, so to speak. With that "decision" (although in fairness, God came after me hard and left me no alternative), I was assured of heaven and enlisted in the "army" to bring the whole world to Christ.

In the circles in which I ran, evangelism and mission work were the primary Christian activities, and those who went away on trips were held up as the most "spiritual." Beyond that, the "normal" American evangelical lifestyle was, for men, going to school, getting a professional job, marrying a godly partner, having kids and voting Republican.

Thirty-one years later, however, my view on what a Christian should be -- and do -- has changed. I have never been on a mission trip and don't anticipate going and am not aware of anyone who has "gotten saved" because of me. I'm still single and and childless and, though today I think of myself as non-partisan, my politics do lean Democratic. So have I failed? I don't think so.

What happened? Well, eight months after my conversion I was attending a suburban Atlanta church which focused on politics to the exclusion of any spiritual goals (my first encounter with what we call today the "religious right"), and my spirit became queasy. Only finding another church just off the campus of Georgia Tech, where I was attending, revealed to me just what the problem was -- a lack of true trust in God.

Then and there I found my focus -- only later did I realize that my primary spiritual gift was prophecy (which has been known to get me into trouble from time to time, even costing me friends). I see attitudes in the church that shouldn't be there and try to address them. As for career -- I started out as a engineering major -- I finally realized that I had no aptitude for science and mathematics and turned to writing, which fits me quite well.

So what does this have to do with anything? It was in working on a letter to the editor to the Post-Gazette back in 1986 that it hit me what the "good news" was about: Reconciliation. We often talk about the "atonement" for sin that the death of Jesus Christ paid for and that "those who believe in Him will have eternal life" (John 3:16). But before that, we have to admit that there is a breach between not only creator God and fallen man but among people themselves -- what Billy Graham has preached for over a half-century but many of us miss because of our focus on the afterlife.

As a result, as I began to suspect in the early 1980s, following Jesus also means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, standing up for orphans and widows and encouraging the oppressed. It can mean ministering to the homeless, fighting racism, working with addicts or any other things which might be the outgrowth of a relationship with Him. It means making this life as close to the Kingdom of God as possible -- the Hebrew term "shalom," which roughly means "a comprehensive peace" -- and sacrificing your own plans and dreams for the sake of that Kingdom. At the church I attend, I see all those things being manifest and, while not everyone is called to do these things, those that do shouldn't be seen as less "spiritual."

As Jesus' "Great Commission" says, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you [emphasis mine]. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why Jesus never talked about homosexuality

Since last week I've been embroiled in an on-line controversy -- which, for those of you know know me well, is not abnormal. This time, however, it's with gay-rights and gay-marriage supporters who are trying to justify their stances using the Scripture and with whom I've figuratively gone to the mat. (My own view is that homosexuality has no business in the church due to "worldliness" and that same-gender matrimony cheapens it because it's necessarily based on hormones rather than on partnership.)

Anyway, one of my opponents, trying to paint Jesus as someone who accepted people no matter what they did, said -- correctly -- that He never brought up the subject.

The reason He didn't? It wasn't necessary.

If that sounds glib, consider His original audience: The Jewish people of that day, who simply weren't doing it. How do I know? Well, they still held to most of the tenets of Mosaic law, with the Pharisees, the lay group, out front. Furthermore, Jewish law all but required a considerable amount of cultural accountability, with everyone "in each other's business" to a degree that would chafe us Westerners, who by contrast are more individualistic. (This is part of the reason why Jesus let the "woman caught in adultery," referred to in John 8, go -- He recognized it as a setup.) And while I have no proof of this, I suspect that one of the reasons the Jews of that day hated Rome so much was due to its licentiousness, with (according to the singles pastor of my church) 70 percent of Romans involved in homosexuality -- not terribly surprising when you consider that 1) there were few women/girls around because infanticide was also common and 2) it was largely a society of leisure. This is why homosexuality was primarily considered "of the world" -- it was always a cultural distinctive, something that God's people just didn't do.

That also was the reason the Apostle Paul, whose ministry was primarily to Gentiles, did have to address the issue, most notably in Romans 1 -- many of them had participated in such. But even here, it was not so much a moral issue but also one of distinctiveness from the world of that day.

Today, however, the church of Jesus Christ has more cultural authority, making, among other things, infanticide of female babies culturally unacceptable wherever it has had influence. It's probably also the reason why homosexuality is seen as a particularly heinous sin (but going beyond the parameters of Scripture in the process). I would suggest that such is the root of the struggle over gay rights in general and gay marriage in particular, with their supporters trying to persuade the country about the righteousness of their cause. Some have even gone so far to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, ignoring that he focused on not just "rights" but reconciliation. Others claim that there were no spiritual "lepers" with Him, never mind His calls for repentance (He told the woman caught in adultery, "Don't sin any more").

In short, my argument with the people who try to use the Scripture to support their contention that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle for the Christian is that they miss the point that God is utterly holy and doesn't trifle with sin. In the book "The Holiness of God," author R.C. Sproul related the story that a seminary student asked him why God didn't zap him even though he deserved it -- a contrast from the other students who were horrified by the way he treated Israelites who had committed what appeared to be trivial offenses.

That's the point. As much as my opponents want to appeal to the grace of God, it really has no meaning unless you have an understanding of your sin.