Sunday Sermon – I Must Confess….

“No old woman!  You are accused of heresy on 3 counts.  Heresy by thought, heresy by word, heresy by deed and heresy by action, 4 counts.  Do you confess?”  (Monty Python).  No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, but most of us don’t need the Inquisition to remind us of our failings and shortcomings.

Following on from last week’s post about judging, I felt a natural progression to today’s subject ‘Confession’.  Whilst I am not talking about sitting in a dark wooden closet with a faceless priest on the other side of a screen, the Catholic church have certainly latched on to something with the act of Confession.  I am not an expert on the efficacy of saying multiple Hail Mary’s, but the bible is certainly supportive of the practice of confessing or sharing our ‘sins’.

“Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed” (The Message).

First of all, I find the word ‘sin’ has a lot of baggage with those who have been put off the message of Jesus. There is too much emphasis on sinners and going to hell, on which I have some big questions, but I’ll leave that for a Thursday post.  Sin is a really short word used in scripture for all the ways we have messed up our lives or the lives of others, usually because we put self first.  The sad thing about the impact of these messes we create is the impact they have on our own lives.  According to this verse, in the book of James, the impact of confessing or sharing these messed up things is to enable us to live together ‘whole and healed’.

It is no accident that the secular world of psychology puts huge emphasis on encouraging people to share their deepest secrets and hidden fears, shame and guilt among other things.  It would seem that James was on to something important when he exhorted his readers to get it out in the open.  But why would this simple practice have the ability to make us ‘whole’ and ‘healed’?  And what prevents us from eagerly sharing everything to garner these powerful results?  This is obviously no magic formula, but there appears to be a lot of evidence in both religious and secular circles that there is much to be gained.

I don’t know about you, but I find it so much easier to talk about others’ faults and failings than my own.  Time and again I find myself sitting on messed up stuff that I would rather take to the grave than tell anyone about.  OK, I haven’t robbed a bank recently, nor have I let down the neighbor’s car tires.  But there are hidden attitudes, feelings, unhealthy thoughts that, frankly I would be ashamed to share with most of you.  I don’t need the Spanish inquisition to tell me what makes me feel bad, but I might need them to get it out of me!

The thing that stops me sharing is the very thing I shared last week about the judgment culture we have created that causes me to worry about what you think about me.  If I fear that you will reject me, think worse of me, or perhaps even share my hidden failings with others, then I will simply keep these things to myself.  When I went through a particularly dark period in my life and almost destroyed everything good that had happened to me, I found the relief and healing that James talks about.   It didn’t happen overnight, and it was not an easy road to travel, but involving others in my shame and guilt was a key to restoration.

Now, I am not talking about willfully wronging others and then using confession as a get out of jail free card.  Nor am I advocating the kind of confession that implicates the one listening in some proposed fault of theirs,  “I need to confess my resentment towards you for the way you have treated me!”  A step in our being made whole could very well involve forgiveness, but the simple act of confession should, in itself, open the door to breaking the hold of some of the most powerful negative influences.  At times, we can all be held hostage by the effect of guilt over what we have done to others, shame over the poor choices we make.  We harbor resentments, blame, hurt and crippling anxieties.  I am still learning how to do this myself, still affected way too much by what others might think, but I urge you to join with me in taking the plunge and find that person, or persons with whom you can open this door to healing and wholeness.


Thought Provoking Thursday – The Bible, Fact or Fiction?

OK, Thursdays is for provoking thought!  In other words, I might say some things that you find controversial or at least a make you think!  Hopefully, today’s title is a good start!

First of all, let me be really clear.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ because that is how I encountered God.  The bible has been truly inspirational in my quest for knowledge and as a guide to living a better life and creating a more meaningful story.  My question is;  just how do we view this famous piece of literature and why are their so many different interpretations as to what it purports to say?  Was the universe created in a literal six days simply by God speaking it into being?  Is the writer of Ecclesiastes’ invitation to ‘Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ an exhortation to guide us in our daily living?  Why do we not insist on women being silent in church, or demand they wear head covering in all public gatherings?  And why do some believe that the locusts of Revelation 9 are really Apache attack helicopters described the best way John knew how?  Why does it matter?

First of all, a slice of history.  In the 16th century, a rather seismic event took place in christendom known as ‘The Reformation’.  You may recall Martin Luther and the advent of Protestantism emerging as a reaction to the state of disarray that existed in the Catholic Church at the time with warring popes, indulgences and theological schisms.  One of the key outcomes of this movement was a transference from papal based to bible based authority.  This is also what led to the bible being made available to the masses and a whole new church movement.  The protestant movement also gave rise to denominational splits as never seen before as the ‘authority’ of the bible was interpreted in hundreds if not thousands of different ways.  And herein lies the problem.

The bible is, in fact, not so much a book as a library of books.  These books cover many genres of literature, styles of writing, languages and purposes.  There is the poetry of the creation account, the visions of Revelation often referencing the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.  There are the songs of Psalms and the wisdom of Proverbs, the stories of Jesus and the doctrinal teachings of Paul.  Diverse cultures, races and very different ages influence the way in which these writings are presented and all of them need re-evaluating against what we now know in this scientific age.

Let us take the creation account.  At the time of writing, there was no knowledge of evolutionary theory, relativity, quantum theory and hey, as far as they knew, the earth was flat and the sun popped up in the East and went to sleep in the west.  I have no problem personally with the idea that science is merely man’s quest to uncover the mysteries behind the creation of the universe, nor do I struggle with the contemporary writer’s poetic depiction, but I believe it is beyond me to give you any idea of what actually happened back then when none of us were around.  I’m also OK if God made a big bang when he did it, but frankly it doesn’t matter to me.  One thing is for certain, the world as we know it today is very real and very wonderful to behold.

In many of the books of law in the Old testament there are injunctions to put to death those who sow different crops in the same field or create garments from different materials.  Surely we are not meant to continue these practices in civilized 21st century society.  When we move on to accounts of the life of Jesus himself we find that much of what Jesus says is fiction.  What you say, heresy!  But step back a minute.  Jesus told stories, parables…fiction to illustrate truth.  And this is where I think we have strayed from the intention of this marvelous collection of writings.

In many ways, we have treated as fact what is meant to lead us to truth.  Because this library is full of metaphor, parable, allegory, poetry, prophecy, vision, law and history, this is not a book of facts but an inspired guide to uncovering truth.  This truth, in some ways, will never be completely found, as God cannot be confined to the pages of a library of books.  This truth can be seen from multiple different perspectives and often in conflicting expressions.  My mistake so often has been to imagine that my  interpretation of selective portions proves that my way is ‘the right way’.  One of the most powerful causes of my own disillusionment with church has been our tendency to become more and more splintered around issues that are not central to the overall message of the Bible.  Perhaps we can all agree that the inspired message of this library of scripture is that God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us.  Every one of us is entitled to a unique experience just as in any relationship.  We would do well not to dictate to others what that relationship should look like but allow the inspired words we read to change our own story for the good of the world around us.

In conclusion, and answer to my own question, the Bible is neither fact nor fiction, but an inspired reference library for the pursuit of the God of love.

Topical Tuesday – We Are All In the Same Boat

I have just fixed signs to the windows of our coffee houses in DFW declaring that a ‘No Open Carry’ zone is in operation when you enter.  For me, this rather pacifist oriented Englishman, the return of the OK Corral to Texas (Open Carrying of guns is now legal) is perplexing and raises some disturbing potential scenarios.  Couple this with the almost simultaneous Executive Order of the current US President to introduce stricter background checks for gun owners and you might wonder where all this is going!

I believe the issues behind the whole gun control debate are deeper seated than whether guns should be openly available or not.  I believe that there is a point of tension that exists around the protection of individual freedom and the protection of the community as a whole.  For many, the idea of imposing rules that limit accessibility to firearms is just the thin end of the government wedge that will ultimately lead to government control and abuse of power.  I get that, I really do.  There are plenty of examples of nations where individual freedoms are so curtailed that basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the ability to criticize the government are all but a chimera.  But on the other hand, the freedom to pursue our own individual lifestyle has to be weighed against the reality that we live in community.

The outrage and exasperation expressed by those who oppose the President’s executive order to impose slightly greater background checks has to be motivated by this underlying fear, as it is otherwise a major overreaction, given the limited change this order will make.  The motivation for stricter laws in this case comes from a very real desire to protect the wider community from the small minority of people who should not have access to firearms. It also stems from a desire to curb approximately 30,000 deaths a year in the US from those firearms.  It is very similar to the laws already in place that prohibit drunk driving, speeding and other automobile related offenses.  I don’t think anyone is proposing we should allow people under the age of 16 to be let loose on the road or indeed those who are old enough, without some form of ‘background check’ and test as to their suitability to drive.  Motor vehicles have the potential to be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands, so too with guns.

The underlying issue comes up time and again as the tension between individual and community freedoms is tested by each new advance.  In my own native country, the use of cell phones while driving is outlawed entirely except in hands free mode.  In Texas, we still rely on the goodwill and good sense of our fellow motorists not to text while driving.  Official statistics suggest that texting makes an accident 23 times more likely!  How many of us would argue that imposing a legal sanction for doing this would be a good idea.  And yet, there is resistance to every threat to individual freedom that must surely come from an inherent fear that the government is in a process of removing those very freedoms!

So, in essence, this boils down to a clash of 2 competing ideologies that can be summed up as follows.  ‘Every Man for Him/Herself’ or ‘We are All In the Same Boat’.  I am a big believer in the preservation of individual freedoms….provided they don’t impinge on or threaten other members of the community.  I am a supporter of a government at local or national level that seeks to protect the rights and freedoms of those who live in the community and particularly those who are in greater need of protection.  I am not in favor of government control that takes away my ability to influence a change in that government or if it begins to abuse its power.

I believe it is sensible to create laws that protect us from drunk drivers, second hand smoke, irresponsible gun owners; the list could be long.  On the other hand, I don’t think the ability to purchase raw milk or have water without fluoride added has any detrimental effect on those around me.  Why do we baulk so readily at sensible measures proposed to protect us from the dangerous few?   And yet, we pass laws that prevent us making individual choices that have no real impact on the community at large such as the purchase of raw milk or cannabis?  Whether it be fear or corporate influences, I long for the sensible application of laws that release me to enjoy my basic freedoms and yet protect the community as a whole.  After all, We are All in the Same Boat!


Sunday Sermon – No Room To Judge

Hi, my name is David and I’m an Alcoholic.  Although alcohol has never been a victim of my addictive personality, there are many things that have.  I openly confess at different times in my life to having been in the grips of nicotine, video games, TV shows, food and a host of other predilections I could name.  One of the reasons I believe Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful in the lives of so many is its philosophy of leveling the playing field.  There is no room to judge because we are all addicts here, and no one is better than their neighbor.

Have you ever noticed just how often we do judge those around us, whether it be close friends or family, or just the jerk who tries to run us off the highway – here I go again, yes, that happened yesterday. Again! I am going to suggest 3 good reasons why this is not only counter-productive, but actually damages ourselves and those around us.

Reason 1 – For those of us who profess faith in Jesus, there is a well known statement by Paul in the New Testament when he says – “Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift.” (The Message)  In simple terms, we have all failed to live a perfect life and needed rescuing.  Even more compelling, our standing with God has been restored not by any effort of ours, but by the actions of this Jesus who did what he did for every single being who ever lived, lives or who will live on this earth.  By the way, for those of us who think we have some special, more elevated standing in the hierarchy because we go to church, this was the result of no effort on our part, but it was all Jesus…for everyone!  Later on, this same Paul says “The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.” (The Message).

Reason 2 – It occurred to me, when I shone the spotlight on my own tendency to judge others, that deep down, my motivation was to make myself feel better!  We seem to think that robbing someone else of their dignity somehow enhances our own.  If I can identify weakness or fault in others, somehow it makes me look better by comparison.  In effect, all we are accomplishing is a cover up of our own deep seated inadequacy.  Acknowledging our own humble failings and rejoicing at the good in those around us actually releases us to enjoy our own self-worth and fully accept who we are.  From there, it removes the damaging barrier of superiority and releases us to enjoy deeper relationships with those around us.

Reason 3 – The environment we create through our judging of others rebounds back on all of us as we struggle to hide our failings and build a defensive wall.  It was Jesus that said “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment.”  It occurs to me the more judging is inherent in our culture, the more we fear our failings will be judged.  This leads us to hide, cover up and avoid admission in order to preserve our standing in the community, be this family, workplace, church or any other human tribe.  Our fear of being judged by others deprives us of one of the most powerful weapons in finding freedom and healing.  Admitting when we are wrong and acknowledging our weakness.  This brings us back to the power of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Admitting we have failed, that we are no better than the person next to us and that we need help from each other and ‘a higher power’ gives AA adherents a proven path to healing.

It is far too easy for those of us who profess faith in Jesus to imagine that we are somehow superior to those who don’t.  We might do well to reflect on the words of Paul.  “There is no partiality with God!”

How Can You Possibly Believe That? Understanding Your Enemy.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just want to switch off, exit the room, turn off the TV. How can anyone possibly hold those beliefs, think that what they are saying has any basis in rational thought! These days, be it climate control, gun control, immigration, or gay marriage, we find ourselves on the opposite end of an argument we just can’t fathom! This becomes even more disconcerting when we realize there are millions of people who seem to hold the contrary view that seems to us irrational or even outrageous!

My son made me think the other evening, when he used these words during a discussion, ‘Dad, that may be your opinion…’. We were discussing one of those thorny issues that has at least 2 sides, and he was playing devil’s advocate. I like that phrase; it implies what I am thinking or saying is good and pure, but what he has to say is tainted with evil! But as I thought about his comment, I realized that in so many situations, I consider myself right and anyone on the other end of my verbal punching bag to be wrong.

In so many discussions, what we are talking about is not based in fact, may not even sport an ‘established truth’, but consists of opinions expressed as fact or truth, but is merely an opinion. I realize that none of us have a monopoly on what is right or true, but how often do I argue as if I did? A recent discussion with a friend who works in the Oil industry on the science of climate change made me step back and question where I was actually deriving my ‘facts’ on the ‘science’. My initial response was to dismiss his debunking of human induced climate change because he worked for an oil company. Then I realized, that I had gleaned most of my information from the media and not from the appropriate scientific research.

It seems to me that we would better serve those we disagree with if we could step back and attempt to understand their position.   Perhaps, as in the case of my friend, we may have to admit to not knowing as much or understanding the issues as well as we might think.

Much of religious belief and the source of so much religious strife derives from opinions formed on the basis of established ‘wisdom’. But really? What do we actually know from religious texts, teaching handed down, historical accounts? Much of what I know can be attributed to what I have been taught or told by people I like or with whom I agree. Have I really entertained the ‘dark side’ of the argument or allowed its day in court?

I have recently sought to listen more carefully to the arguments of others. This entails not only hearing the words, but seeking to understand the motives and reasons behind them. Perhaps life experience has taught them something other than my own experience. Certainly they have received their ‘established wisdom’ from somewhere else. It is possible that they may be influenced by fear, real or imagined, or perhaps they possess information I do not have access to.

I may disagree wholeheartedly with the proposal to bomb Syria as a response to the bloody massacre in Paris last year. But do I have an alternative response that satisfies the outrage and fear engendered by this violent intrusion in the lives of those directly affected?

If I could step back and spend more time understanding those with whom I disagree, I just might learn something that would bring a more balanced approach. At the very least, I might actually foster closer relationships with those I think I don’t like. Heaven forbid we might find common ground and a mutual expansion of our vision of the world and the people around us!