Forgiving the North Side

The guy who cuts my hair normally wasn’t available. When I looked at the schedule online, I didn’t see him listed for several weeks, so I sought out the woman who had also cut my hair a couple of times in the last year and who had done a great job. I was dismayed to learn that she is no longer working at the barbershop near my home, but instead across town on Kearney Street. And thus I found myself driving to the North Side.

Everyone in Springfield knows that there is a North and South Side of the city. This was once codified, when the two towns were formed, as North Springfield and Springfield, and then they merged sometime after the Civil War. The train tracks were the natural divide, with poor workers living on the north and the merchants, doctors, and lawyers living on the south. Division Street happens to be on the parallel that divided the north and south in the Civil War, but Commercial Street is where Springfield was separated.

I grew up on the North Side. Not just the North, I was out in the country north of town. I went to Pleasant View elementary and middle school, and Hillcrest High School. A friend asked me recently if I knew I was poor growing up, and I told her that I did. We had a nice enough house, but we almost lost it to bankruptcy. I regularly stole food to get by. I didn’t have the opportunities a lot of my classmates did, and I was different enough from them that I was bullied and beaten as well. This is not an unusual tale on the North Side.

So when I have to go back there, it is with ambivalence. I am conflicted because I was hurt there, but when I drive out in the country north of town, I also love it. I love the trees and the rolling hills, and the solitude, and there were good memories too. Playing in Matt Wilson’s backyard, biking to the bridge near Fellow’s Lake with Megan, those rare opportunities when I was invited to Cody’s house. Matt Hudson’s class in high school, and working with Justin on IT stuff. Walking through the woods and across the hills behind our home. It was beautiful there.

But there was so much pain. My parents’ divorce. The concussions and spilled blood. Friends who committed suicide or overdosed or died in car crashes.

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A Hypothetical Plan: Annual Jubilee

I’m reading a book right now that talks about The Politics of Jesus, and right now I’m reading about jubilee, or the period forgiveness of debt in ancient Israel.

I know there are some fellows who are doing this on a massive scale through the Rolling Jubilee, but as I was walking across campus just now, I began to think about it on a more local level.

What if churches began practicing an annual jubilee by raising money and then paying off the debt of a member?

Come talk about it on Google+

A God in Stormy Seas

This morning at church we sang a song that really keyed in a mental image for me from a TED talk I watched a few weeks ago. Given the context of today’s sermon and everything I’ve been wrestling with over the last few months in regards to passion, purpose, and work, it all came together to be really powerful for me. Rather than write, trying and failing to communicate what I was thinking and feeling, I thought I’d record a video.

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Moving Away From The Middle

I’m finally reaching a conclusion on the subject of God’s alignment and what that means for me as a Christian. I’ve been thinking about this subject pretty consistently for three months now, and my views have changed quite a bit since I began.

When I began, I assumed the following setup for alignments, recognizing that the divisions and contrasts it set up don’t always work in the real world. Nevertheless, I felt this was relatively accurate and reasonable:

Alignment Axes

The more thought I devote to this topic, the less accurate this seems to be.

On Law and Chaos

The axis above sets the dichotomy of Law vs. Chaos. In the context of this series, it is assumed that Law = God’s Law. We’re talking about the Law built into creation by its creator, the law set forth in the Bible, and the law of God that will be made manifest with the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Opposing it is, presumably, Chaos: Satan and his followers, the devils and demons of hell, the antichrists and distractors of this world. Everything that seeks to displace worship from God and direct it to something else would serve Chaos, because it detracts from the Law. Veering from the Law to anything else creates chaos in the sense that it is unordered.

Or so I assumed, but that thought process broke down once I actually thought about it. In observation of the world as I understand it, neither this assumption nor the axis above holds up.

Another way to define these two terms are as Order and Chaos, with God and the Law representing order. As I look at the world around me, both the physical and the spiritual, I can’t escape an important and undeniable fact: there is no such thing as chaos.

Satan and the angels that followed him were created by God as creatures of order. Even when the universe was formless, God was there representing order. God created everything from nothing, and that includes the angels, both those that follow him still and those that rebelled.

And the rebels don’t want to plunge the world into chaos, or so it seems to me. The object of Satan’s desire isn’t to destroy everything, but to turn worship from God to himself; failing that, he would turn worship from God to anything else. If you can’t win, deny your opponent victory. Satan wants order, he just wants his order and his law.

The setup of Dungeons & Dragons, which inspired the axes above, is that there are both devils and demons. One are the fallen angels and the other are primordial creatures of chaos that want to destroy the order of the gods and return the universe to how it was before. I’m not the type to claim that something doesn’t exist simply because I haven’t met it, but this concept of a demon seems entirely fictional to me. There might be servants of Satan set on destruction and chaos, but guiding them is a greater purpose. I don’t think the goal is eternal chaos.

Everything is ordered. From the tiniest atoms, molecules, electrons and neutrons, all the way up to governments and lungs and trees. In the movie SLC Punk there is a scene where the main character is discussing order vs. chaos with another character, and while the main character advocates anarchy as a natural structure, he is easily overcome by the logic of order. Even as a tree dies and decays, it returns into the earth to create new life. Even the process of decay has order to it.

Surely, there are constructs too large for us to see and understand, much like an ant can’t see the pattern of a tile floor upon which it moves, but our inability to perceive order doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In everything I can see, I see order. While it is conceivable that a pocket of chaos could exist within an ordered structure, it seems less likely that order could ever exist within chaos. What I mean is that, if there is a higher pattern, something larger than we can see, it must be ordered. If it were chaotic, our world would be chaotic. It must be ordered, for our world is ordered.

Even the “random” events people might point to, trying to prove that the world is not ordered, are easily explained. Order is undeniable.

So what does this mean for the axis above? In my mind, it rotates. But as it rotates, Chaos disappears, and Law aligns with Good. There is no Lawful vs. Chaotic because chaotic doesn’t exist. The entire line assumes Law. Even devils want order.

Then what of Neutral?

It seems natural to assume that Neutral continues to exist halfway between Good and Evil, but I’m not sure I accept that. On this matter, I am not entirely settled, but in examining the Bible and what I know of the world, Neutral as an ideal doesn’t work.

The issue here is God’s law and order. Within a world based upon that law, Neutrality is untenable. To clarify, holding to Neutrality as an ideal is to commit to balance. It is the Yin/Yang philosophy, which is that Good exists when everything is in balance–to move too far to one side or the other brings imbalance and subsequently Evil. Neutrality is not immorality or amorality, but it is a commitment to balance and justice.

Neutrality in this sense cannot exist within the Christian construct. Anything that detracts, distracts, or redirects from God is by definition evil. That word carries a lot of weight and baggage, so let me try and unpack this.

Picture a line, with Evil on the left and Good on the right. Each has an arrow and at the tip of the arrow is a point. Let us say that the point at the tip of the right arrow is the door to the Kingdom of God. At the tip of the left arrow is the throne of Satan and the proposed new order he represents.

The purest Good, the purest Law, and the purest Order are at the rightmost point. If someone is leaving the line at any point and going in a different direction, even if it is close to the rightmost point, even if it is only a millimeter off, it’s no good. That person has been distracted, and is likely distracting others as a result. They’re so close, but they miss the mark and do not enter the door.

Anything that is not God is against God, and therefore is evil. By definition and necessity, it is therefore separated and separate from God.

If someone is sitting on the line, not going one way or the other, they’re in the same situation. They are not going through the door, and subsequently reside in evil. There is no halfway point, no neutrality, no “good enough.”

There is no Neutral because there is no Law and Chaos. There is no alternate dichotomy. There is only Good and Evil. If you aren’t going through that narrow doorway, you are not serving Good.

But didn’t you think you were Lawful Neutral?

I did, and I began to consider God the same. My struggle has been to define God and, by doing so, to define myself. I want to know what God is so I might better understand what I must become. If God does X, I want to do X, but I didn’t know what X was. All I have are the stories and acts described in the Bible, which leave me confused on this point.

Lawful Neutral is the dedication to order and justice without regard to morality. As stated in the first entry of this series, it’s not immoral or amoral, but rather holds to a code rather than the ideal of Good.

As my thoughts progressed, I recognized that the code to which I must hold is God’s code. It is the Bible and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. If I am Lawful Neutral and my code is God’s code, then that means I am aligning myself to God. But that still left the question, what is God?

With the elimination of Chaos from consideration, and the subsequent elimination of Neutral as a tenable ideal, that leaves only Lawful by which I might define myself. I am not neutral in the sense that I am sitting in the middle of the line–I am actively pursuing God. I am pushing towards that point on the right. And with Lawful now aligned and defined with Good, that leaves only Good by which I might define myself.

God is Good all the time, and all the time God is Good. That is my guidance and definition. A commitment to the order and laws of God is a commitment to Good.

To put it another way, and to my mind a much more accurate way, I am Lawful, not Good. God is Good, for God is holy and mighty. I am not Good because the sin within me leads me astray and pulls me from that line. But while I am not Good, I am Lawful, and by making that my ideal and goal I draw nearer the Kingdom.

What about the definition of Lawful Good?

In the first essay, I hypothesized that God didn’t match with my understanding of Lawful Good. I asked the question, “If God is Lawful Good, then, how do we account for the suffering we see in the world?” I truly do believe that the suffering is part of that higher order, that grander pattern of which we are unaware.

I don’t intend it as a cop-out or a dodge. The issue is that we humans tend to fixate on ourselves and what we’re feeling. We forget that God exists outside of space and time, and we also forget that we were created to be eternal. Whether you believe in God or not, whether you’re Christian or not, you soul is eternal. This mortal coil, this diseased body, will pass after a time, but our spirit merely walks through a door. The question is: Will we walk through the door on the right, or the door on the left?

The question of whether we’re happy or content, hungry or fed, bleeding or hale, is all sec0ndary.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my job, where I ought to be in this life, and what I ought to be doing. I’m not always very happy at my job, and so I wonder if I should stay there. I wonder what God wants.

Several weeks ago while praying about it, it finally occurred to me that maybe what God wants isn’t for me to be happy. That isn’t to say God wants me to be unhappy, but maybe my happiness isn’t his primary consideration. Actually, let me put that another way: maybe I don’t know what will make me happy, and while I assume it’s one thing, it might actually be another. Let us consider the tried and true example of Mother Theresa. She lived in poverty, amongst disease and dirt, and her life was not one I particularly envy. Would we call her happy, or would she call herself that? I suppose she might, and that’s what I mean. Maybe God has a plan for me that is more important than what I think will make me happy, and my assumptions are somewhat irrelevant in that context.

(As an aside, I in no way mean to compare my work to that of Mother Theresa. In that sense, this is a rather poor analogy. It is also worth noting that since I came to this realization, about us not always having to feel happy, I have been far more content and happy at work.)

Maybe to serve God’s plan, we will have to suffer. The Bible talks about being crucified, and while we read that figuratively, it was very literal for the disciples of Jesus. What’s a little suffering if I get to walk through that narrow door? Maybe I’m going about this all wrong.

That’s what I was thinking, and so when I re-approach the concept of Lawful Good (which, having eliminated Chaos, might be better called just Good), I strike my concerns about suffering and compassion. God’s compassion is bigger than mine, and his view of suffering is wiser than mine. I look at a temporary hardship and consider it hard. God looks at it and considers it temporary.

In the face of eternity, it is hard to disagree.

How do we cling to that line and make it through the door?

It seems impossible after reading the section about neutrality. Even if we strive for Good, even if we live as good of lives as we are able and honestly aim for that rightmost point, we will fail. Our sin will pull us off target and we will miss the mark.

Give thanks that we are not saved by works alone. No, we cannot hold true to that line, and we cannot walk through that door under our own power. But Jesus forgives our sins and clothes us in his garments, such that he walks through the door and takes us with him.

Picture it as our starting point being the middle of the line, and we’re shooting for the right. We curve up or down, at times closer to the line and at times further, sometimes veering sharply away from the point and sometimes being almost on target. When we accept Jesus into our lives, when we make him our marksman, he sets his aright. No matter where we are on the chart, even if we were heading left, once we accept him we’re turned and aimed right into the Kingdom.

The matter of faith and works and how that all plays out is a topic for another essay–know that both are necessary, in a sense. But for us to be Good, even for us to be Lawful, we must be pursuing Christ, and we must likewise be pursued by him. We are incapable of doing it on our own.

God is Good

That about wraps up my thoughts. What do you think, here at the end? Have I missed something, or is there something more I ought to consider? Share in the comments below, and thanks for reading.

For All The World

1 John 2:1-2

1My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for ((Or “He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins, and not only ours but also…”)) the sins of the whole world.

What can I write other than hallelujah.

By the way, did you know that the word hallelujah is actually a command that means, “Praise the LORD!”? It seems fitting.

This section is clearly separate from the next, so though I don’t have much to say on it, I’m going to leave this as it is. I’d originally written more, but it was mostly about the gospel of John, chapter 3, verses 16-21. We’re all pretty familiar with the concept of God forgiving our sins through Jesus, and though there would be more disagreement about God forgiving everyone (a la, “Well, what about people group X? How can God forgive them?”), it’s not something with which we are unfamiliar.

Nevertheless, it bears notice. I wish I had the time to dig into the history of who John was writing to, and when, so I could highlight why this was such an important message for them. My guess is that they were caught up in the same arguments we often are today, but in their case it was controversy over non-Jews becoming Christian, or maybe just the opposite (of Jews accepting the Christ).

Part of my goal for the OBS was to do that kind of research, but I haven’t posted in weeks because I haven’t had time, so I’ll leave it at this. It’s important to God that we understand that he didn’t just come for our people group, for the doctors and lawyers, for just republicans or just democrats, for the United States of America or any other country we’ve made up. God came for the whole world.

Life Without Sin

[podcast]https://mstublefield.com/podcasts/lifewithoutsin.mp3[/podcast]

The definition of “sin” has been a matter of great dispute throughout my Christian life (about 7-8 years now), not necessarily within the Church at large, but among the people I have known during that time. In particular, I used to have long debates with a friend of mine who leads a local college ministry here in Springfield about the meaning of “sin.” What does it look like? How does it affect us? Is it conquerable and, if so, only once we reach heaven or can it be overcome in this lifetime?

I was still relatively new to Christianity (and, to be honest, I continue to consider myself a “young Christian” and probably will for another 5-10 years), so I found his points interesting. My friend claimed that sin could be overcome in this lifetime, and his claim was founded on a differentiation between “sin” and “mistakes.” That while the first separates us from God, the latter is just a slip that doesn’t really affect anything. Therefore, one can make the occasional mistake, but not be committing an act that separates them from God. With the help of Jesus, one can be free from sin in this lifetime

1 John 1:8-10 (NIV)

8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

By way of comparison, I offer The Message paraphrase, which I find a bit easier to understand in this case:

1 John 1:8-10 (Message)

If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.

Let’s break these down one at a time.

Verse 8

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Before I became Christian, and even until some time after I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, I didn’t know what sin was. I didn’t understand its existence or implications, and I certainly didn’t know that I needed to be saved from sin. It had been made clear to me that I must follow Jesus, but the whole salvation thing was a mystery. Less than a mystery, in fact–I didn’t really think about it.

My ignorance stemmed from my lack of understanding of the Bible. I hadn’t read it, and even as I began to read it, I certainly didn’t understand. Because the Bible is a historical document as well as a religious text, there are thousands of years of study and surrounding pieces of information that are key to its comprehension.

Romans 7:7b

Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law.

In the Book of Romans, St. Paul explains in chapter 7 how sin makes us do things we don’t want to, and how it prevents us from doing the things we know are right. We cannot recognize sin without the knowledge of God and his Word, though, and that same concept is applicable to verse 8 of the first chapter of first book of St. John. It is a fact that sin is in us, but we can not and will not know or recognize this fact if the truth, that is the Word of God, is not in us. If we do not read and understand the Bible, we will deceive ourselves and think that we are free of sin.

Verse 9

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

This verse is pretty straightforward. God came to earth as Jesus to act as the sacrifice for sin, once and for all. To put it more simply, through Jesus our sins are forgiven. If sin is that which separates us from God, the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus builds the bridge between humanity and God.

We cannot build that bridge ourselves, and to be honest, it wouldn’t occur to us to cross that bridge if God hadn’t chosen us to join his family. Let’s face it, a life of sin is generally a life of hedonism and pleasure, so who would choose to leave that? The only reason we know that our life is better with God is because we have experienced it, but when you’re not Christian, you simply don’t know that.

Let’s break this down further.

If we confess our sins

It is written in Romans 10:9, “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” God’s design for how this all works requires an action on our part, and confession is the first step asked of us. It isn’t enough to quietly accept Jesus yet hide it from everyone else. We must state out loud that we believe in God and follow him.

He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins

There is a particular sermon, or type of sermon, that often gets bandied around under a title like, “Mercy and Justice.” The general message is that while we often praise God’s justice and call our for his justice, none of us really want God’s justice. The just reward for our sins is death–none of us “deserve” anything better. However, because God is merciful, we are forgiven.

A good preacher will observe that God’s justice was served in the sacrifice of Jesus, who committed no sins. That the death of Jesus, upon whom the sins of all the world were laid, paid the price for all of us.

The key to all of this is that God is faithful to humanity and to his chosen people. He promised us salvation, and here it is. He promised forgiveness and he provides it. God’s justice was served in the death of Jesus, so if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then our price has been paid. God is faithful to his own plan, he’s faithful to his justice, and he therefore forgives our sins, every last one of them.

And purify us from all unrighteousness

I have a saying I coined a few years ago that continues to ring true to me

Innocence comes from ignorance,
but purity comes from God.

Through Jesus, God purifies us and sets us apart. The Word doesn’t deny that there was ever impurity or unrighteousness, and more importantly God’s purification is recognized as an active process. Too often we get locked into this mindset that “forgiveness” means that something never happened. That sin never existed. That isn’t what God is telling us.

There is unrighteousness, but God is actively working to purify and set us apart. God is making us holy as he is holy. This isn’t something we are capable of doing on our own, and it doesn’t pretend that sin never existed. Rather, it recognizes that there is impurity and it deals with that.

Verse 10

If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

I had a lot of trouble with the word “liar” in this verse, which is where the Message paraphrase was particularly helpful. It puts this passage as, “If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.” This concept of contradiction is important here.

The bottom line is that sin exists, and God’s forgiveness occurs in direct recognition of this sin. By claiming that we are capable of existing without sin, or by claiming that sin does not exist, we call God a liar because we are making a claim contradictory to his Word (by which I mean both Jesus and the written Bible). To make such a claim while one also claims to be Christian just highlights one’s ignorance of God and the Bible.

God forgives us because we need forgiven, and due to the nature of our hearts and psyches, we continue to need to be forgiven. Pope John Paul II prayed every day to be forgiven his sins, and paramount among these were the situations in which he failed to act or the times when he had done less than he should have. Every day he felt like he wasn’t doing as much as he could, and so he confessed and asked God to forgive him.

Wonderful Love in Relationship with God

As I wrote that last part, it occurred to me that this whole Christian thing seems very negative and depressing. Though it isn’t directly related to the verses I was studying this week, I want to share something wonderful with you about God’s forgiveness.

As Christians, when we pray for forgiveness, the sense is not ultimately one of failure and melancholy. We may begin that way, but God’s Spirit comforts us. As I wrote two weeks ago, God is intimately familiar with the trials and struggles we face. When we experience God’s forgiveness, it is like a terrible burden has been lifted from our shoulders, or like chains that weighed upon our necks have been broken. The feeling of freedom and joy is stupendous, and God’s loving embrace is comforting and divine.

Yes, the law and our recognition/understanding of sin leads us to sorrowful repentance, and it should, but a loving and open relationship with God alleviates our sorrow. My only reply to those Christians, or ex-Christians, who felt only the depression of sin and guilt and none of the freedom and love of Jesus is that they weren’t listening to God. I am sorry that they never had the truth in them, as verse 8 puts it, because it is there and it is wonderful. And I will continue to pray that they will quiet themselves so they can hear God calling out through all of nature and the universe for them to come home and become free again.

The Bottom Line

There is a difference between “defeating sin,” and “living without sin.” Jesus did the first for us. None of us experience the second in this lifetime.