Prayer for Truth that Set Us Free

O Gracious God, you have taught us that if we know the truth it will set us free. But sometimes we can’t handle the truth. We don’t like what we see in the mirror sometimes if we’re really honest with ourselves and with you. Our history as a nation and as individuals is not perfect by any measure. We have not always loved you with all our hearts. We have not always acted in loving ways toward our neighbors. We don’t even love ourselves some times.

Like St. Paul the very things we know we ought to do are not the things we do, and so we need to humbly throw ourselves on your mercy and beg forgiveness.

It’s not easy to know what the truth is, Lord. It can be so subjective and so bent out of shape by personal biases—and we all have them. And that makes it hard to trust and communicate. It makes productive dialogue difficult when we argue to win or to defend ourselves instead of seeking truth together.

Even the Good News of Christ gets distorted when we are afraid there isn’t enough for everyone – when we try to keep your grace only for ourselves and those we think are worthy. Truth is we fear judgment from you and others; so we try to make ourselves look better than we are. We think we have to earn your Grace, Lord; and that pseudo-good news won’t set anyone free.

Help us never to forget, O God of all creation, that the Good News of Christ is meant to set us all free—no matter who we are or what we’ve done. You sent Christ to show us that you are a God who says that if we dare to confess our sins you are “faithful and just and will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” You teach us that even if our “sins are like scarlet they will be as white as snow.”

Help us now O God to accept the truth of salvation through repentance so we are set free from sin and guilt – set free to share the good news of your eternal love with the world. May it be so.

[Scripture references: John 8:32,I John 1:9, Isaiah 1:18]

When All is Lost, It’s Not!

HolyLent
“Turn, O LORD! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” – Psalm 90:13-14

My Lenten encounter with Psalm 90 has taken a very humbling turn. Focusing on this Psalm during these first few days of Lent has shown me how very little I know about the Psalter, and that is not a good feeling. Maybe I “knew” more about the theology, structure and purpose of the Psalms in my seminary days, but I am embarrassed to admit how little this part of the Hebrew Scriptures has informed my own theological journey over the last four decades.

In particular Psalm 90 has reminded me that like the Pentateuch the book of Psalms is divided into five books. That may not sound terribly relevant to most casual readers of the Bible but it is. The divisions of the Psalms correspond to different historical contexts and the ensuing theological issues God’s people were facing at different points in the long relationship the Hebrew people had with their God. The fact that Psalm 90 is the opening chapter in Book IV of the Psalter is therefore significant as is the fact that it is the only Psalm attributed to Moses.

The plea for God to turn (repent) and have compassion on God’s servants in verses 13-14 is always relevant because we fallible humans are always in need of God’s forgiveness. But this plea is more than a generic mea culpa. Book IV of the Psalms addresses a huge theological crisis for the Hebrew people. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the Hebrews off into exile in 587 BCE the Hebrews lost what had been the three most important elements in the foundation of their faith for hundreds of years: their land, their monarchy and their temple. Book III ends with the plaintive lament asking why God has abandoned them. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (89: 46, 49)

It is in response to that desperate plea for compassion from God that Psalm 90 begins by imagining a response from Moses and a time before Israel had land, temple or monarchy, but only God to rely on. One ancient manuscript calls this Psalm “A prayer of Moses the prophet, when the people of Israel sinned in the desert.” That reference is to the golden calf affair in Exodus 32, one of the few other references in all of Scripture where God is asked to repent. In that case Moses begs God to repent of God’s anger toward his rebellious children when they melt down their jewelry to fashion an idol to worship because they can’t wait even 40 days for Moses to come back down from his summit meeting with God. God is so angry that he plans to destroy the people right there in the desert, but Moses convinces God to repent and to keep covenant with his children even though they have broken their promises yet again.

Now in exile the Psalmist is asking God to turn/repent of the judgment on Israel’s sin that has resulted in loss of land, temple and the supposed security of an earthly king. The prophets have tried in vain for decades to warn the people of Israel about placing their faith in the false gods of political power and materialism. Amos is perhaps the most direct and reflects the tenor of those warnings that went unheeded: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked. So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:4-7).

A contemporary prophet and biblical scholar, Walter Brueggmann, describes the current crisis in American Christianity in unsettlingly similar terms: “The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” It’s the same message we get when Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 6:19). From Moses and the prophets to Jesus, the word of God is constant and true, and we still don’t have ears to hear.

That’s why we need Lent every year (or more often). It’s time to ask for God’s compassion on our misplaced principles and values, on our false gods of comfort and prosperity and selfish pride. As individuals, as a church and as a nation Lent is examination time. What do we need to beg God to forgive us for? Where in our lives do we need God’s compassion? And the Psalmist reminds us loud and clear that there is nothing that will truly satisfy our hunger but God’s steadfast love. Even when we lose everything we treasure and value–land, temple, monarchy or whatever our personal versions of those things are, God’s love is constant and eternal. And because it is, even in the exile of fear, loneliness, failing health, economic or political chaos “we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Thanks be to God.

“How Can We Love Our Enemies?” Matthew 5:38-48

“God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” I heard Dr. Fred Craddock preach on this text once, and he observed most of us would not be so generous toward the evil and unrighteous. He said if he were in charge the rain would fall on the good farmer’s field and stop abruptly when it came to the property line of the evil farmer. He went on to say if God were really just that every golf ball hit by a Sunday golfer playing hooky from church would go straight up in the air and fall at the feet of the golfer.

This whole passage from the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most challenging in all of Scripture. And in particular Jesus telling us to love our enemies has to be high on the list of those things we wish Jesus hadn’t said. But those words are much needed in our bitterly divided nation and world today.

Before we dig into the practical problems of how in the world to live up to these teachings of Jesus I want to set the context by sharing a quote from Dallas Willard, a teacher of spiritual formation. Willard says, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Let me repeat that: “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Those words are especially true of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is describing to his followers what it looks like to live as faithful disciples and citizens of his kingdom here and now in a world that teaches the very opposite. In other words, too many Christians focus on what Jesus did for us on the cross but not enough on what he requires of us as his disciples. That is a little strange since it is Jesus’ high standard of ethical living that got him in trouble with the authorities who killed him.

And so Jesus begins by repeating what previous Scriptures have taught about living in the worldly kingdom. “You have heard it said…” Don’t get mad, get even! Revenge is a natural human reaction, and I’m guessing most of us have been there in one degree or another in recent days or weeks. “You have heard it said, an eye for and a tooth for a tooth.” Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Let the punishment fit the crime. In fact, at the time those words were written hundreds of years before Jesus they were designed to limit revenge; so victims would not demand two eyes for an eye, or a whole mouthful of teeth for a tooth. As someone has said, if we follow the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth philosophy to its logical conclusion, we end up with a world full of blind, toothless people, and the cycle of violence and pain continues forever.

So Jesus reminds his disciples of the ancient law and continues, “But I say to you…” Look out whenever Jesus starts out with that phrase; brace yourself for a zinger. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If anyone strikes, you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” O, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! We can’t do that! You can’t be serious. How can we possibly love those responsible for horrific acts of death and destruction? You don’t mean for us to love ISIS, or that creep who murdered and raped Reagan Tokes, or our political enemies do you? And you can fill out the rest of your list of those we find it hard if not impossible to love.

Let’s look at the big picture of how our understanding of God’s will changes and grows. God doesn’t change, but our ability to grasp the enormity of God’s grace and love increases as we grow in faith both as individuals and as a faith community. We’ve already seen how that process unfolds from the days of Moses to Jesus, but let’s look at some other examples of how God surprises us throughout the Scriptures. I found this wonderful summary of that process in a Facebook post from Bixby Knolls Christian Church:

“In Deuteronomy 23 we read that the people of Moab are bad and not allowed to dwell among God’s people. But later in the Old Testament we meet Ruth the Moabitess (who becomes the grandmother of David and one of the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus).
Jeremiah 25 tells us that people from Uz are evil, but then comes story of Job, a man from Uz who is the “most blameless man on earth.”
No foreigners or eunuchs allowed, again from Deuteronomy, and then comes the story in Acts 8 of an African eunuch welcomed into the church.
God’s people hate Samaritans, but Jesus tells one of his most famous stories where a Samaritan is the hero and the model for what it means to be a good neighbor.
The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people toward openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance and affirmation.”

And our Judeo-Christian Scriptures aren’t when it comes to non-violent responses to those who hurt us. The Dali Lama, a leader of another of the world’s great religions, wrote these words shortly after 9/11, certainly one of the most trying times in our lifetime for those who take Jesus seriously. The Dali Lama was commenting on how America should respond to 9/11 and wrote, “It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I personally believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence.”

The tragic fact that we are still involved in the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan 16 years after 9/11 underscores the truth that violence increases the cycle of violence. We’re not going to solve that eternal question today, especially on the international level, but let’s take a look at what Jesus is asking of us in our personal lives and relationships when it comes to living peaceful Christ-like lives.

It is hard to find silver linings in some clouds, but even in tragedy there are often some benefits. We see it in extended families that rally around each other when there is a death of illness. We saw it the sense of unity in the U.S. after 9/11. Patriotism was higher than at any time since WWII. That kind of unity as a family or church or a nation is wonderful, but Jesus asks us to take that sense of community one giant step further–to include even our enemies in the circle of God’s family.

The sense of unity and patriotism after 9/11 didn’t last long, and part of the division in our nation is because we differ over how to respond to evil. Some insist on an eye for an eye response and others advocate a gentler approach. Those differences have hardened into partisan political lines that make it more important than ever to love those we differ with politically. One way to do that is to pray for those we disagree with by name, and the stronger our disagreements, the more important those prayers become. Whoever you see as on the wrong side of the political fence or some other contentious issue, pray for them, and I find it helpful to do so by using first names. That makes the prayers more personal and meaningful, and I find it hard to be angry when praying for someone.

Fear of others is the biggest barrier to love. In today’s political climate immigrants of all kinds fear for their future. We can’t solve the immigration policy debate here today, but each of us can engage in simple acts of kindness, go out of our way to smile and be kind to others who are different from us. Let them experience the radical hospitality of Christ so they know they are welcome in this country.

As individuals we can also listen to those we have political disagreements with. Just this week I heard from a friend who is cancelling his newspaper subscription because his local paper took an editorial position he disagrees with. I also heard that political divisions are showing up in personal ads on dating sites where profiles include such phrases as “no Trump haters need respond,” or “No Trump supporters welcome.” People unfriend people on social media and refuse to watch news channels they disagree with. The battle lines are drawn, and important functions of government like feeding starving children, rebuilding crumbling dams and bridges, and fixing the water supply in places like Flint – things we all agree need to be done are the causalities of partisan gridlock. It seems so obvious but still needs to be said, the first step to loving our enemies is communication and sharing our common human needs. Until that happens the bigger issues that divide us can never be addressed.

Jesus did it. He practiced what he preached. He walked the walk all the way to Golgotha. He loved his enemies and forgave those who nailed him to the cross. But how can we mere mortals love our enemies, even while we deplore their horrible deeds?

I certainly don’t have all the answers–not even all the questions; but it seems to me there are two things that are necessary for us to have any hope of following Jesus down this path of loving our enemies.
1) We need to understand who are enemies are and who they aren’t so we don’t over-react in fear against all Muslims or against everyone who looks different and is therefore suspicious. There was an incident in my hometown in northwest Ohio last year where some parents pulled their children out of a middle school social studies class because there was a unit on the history of Islam. That kind of fear of knowledge is tragic. There is no hope for peace without understanding. We need to learn all we can about Islam so we understand better the complicated political and religious realities we are caught up in. We don’t dare oversimplify or stereotype.
2) Perhaps most important, we need to practice forgiveness. Someone has written that forgiveness is the key to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of our most cherished American ideals, and forgiveness is what it takes to be free of the burdens of anger and hostility that make happiness impossible.

Logan Cole is a student at West Liberty High School who was shot at school a few weeks ago by a fellow student, Ely Serna. After Ely shot Logan, Ely handed the shot gun to Logan and asked him to shoot him as well. But Logan refused to shoot his attacker because he knew an eye for an eye doesn’t solve anything. And a few days later Logan forgave Ely from his hospital bed at Children’s Hospital with buck shot still lodged near his heart. Fortunately the shot gun damaged Logan’s body, but it didn’t damage his heart and ability to love his enemy.

What about Brian Golsby, the ex-convict who raped and killed Reagan Tokes, the OSU senior from Maumee a few weeks ago. Does Jesus want us to love killers and rapists? The Scripture is pretty clear the answer to that question is “yes.” We don’t have to like them or approve of what they do, but no matter how awful life circumstances has made someone like Brian Golsby and deformed his basic humanity– he is still a child of God and invited to accept God’s amazing grace.

Where does the ability to love someone who has done us great harm come from?

My favorite story about that kind of love comes from another period of unspeakable terror and suffering in human society, the Holocaust. After the war, a young Christian woman traveled around Europe proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love for everyone who would repent and give their life to Christ. Corrie Ten Boom was a death camp survivor. Her entire family had died in the Nazi death gas chambers, and yet she was filled with God’s love and anxious to tell her story. Until one night when she was giving her testimony and looked out into the congregation where she saw a face that made her blood run cold. Sitting there staring at her from the pew was one of the former Nazi concentration camp guards who had helped to execute her family. She could barely finish her talk and hurried toward the side door of the church as soon as she was finished, hoping to avoid any further contact with this awful man.

But he was anxious to talk to her and met her at the door. He extended his hand as he told her that he had repented and become a Christian, but, he added, it was so good to hear someone like her proclaim the unbelievable good news that God’s love was available even to such a terrible sinner as he had been. His hand was there, waiting for Corrie to take it in Christian fellowship. But her hand was paralyzed, frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity. The silence was awkward, and even though she knew she should shake his hand, she could not. Finally, she said a prayer. She said, “Lord, if you want me to forgive this man, you’re going to have to do it, because I can’t.”

And just then, Corrie said her hand moved of its own accord. She took the former Nazi’s hand and says she felt the most amazing surge of warmth and power pass between them that she had ever felt in her life.
How can we love our enemies? On our own, we can’t. But with God’s help as followers of Jesus Christ, relying on and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we can, we must, and we will because we are already part of God’s kingdom.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory!

Rev. Steve Harsh, Preached at Epworth United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, February 19, 2017

Prayer for the Human Family

As my regular readers know I have strong political opinions about the current situation in Washington and its repercussions around the world. I strive to make sure those opinions are theologically grounded. After prayerful consideration of the crisis over immigration policy that has unfolded over the weekend I have decided to offer a prayer for unity and compassion for everyone involved rather than add to the often polarizing debate about political positions and constitutional interpretation. The inspiration for this prayer comes from my understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture but also from a very secular source.

That secular source is from a marketing slogan used by one of my favorite breakfast restaurants, Bob Evans. (Full disclosure note: My son is a V-P in marketing for Bob Evans, but I would like this slogan regardless of family ties.) Our church has been doing a sermon series on myths and sayings that aren’t in the Bible, and I’d like to propose that this one could very well be. The slogan which is on the walls of many of Bob’s restaurants is this: “We treat strangers like friends and friends like family.”

Dear God, creator and sustainer of all creation, God of radical hospitality, you have taught us in Scripture and through Christ and faithful Jesus followers to be people of love. You warn us that it is not enough to love those who love us back, but to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. You have instructed us via prophets and parables all the way back to Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we often forget that love of neighbor extends to all the Samaritans and Syrians and Somalis longing to be free.

Forgive us when we forget that your inclusive love requires us to welcome dialogue with our political foes and to enter into those conversations with open minds free from judgment about the motives of others. Help us temper our zeal for justice with open ears that can hear the concerns and fears of those we disagree with. Help us to lower the decibel level of the discourse as we strive to treat others with the same respect we want for ourselves and those we advocate for. Forgive us when we are more concerned with being right than reaching peaceful solutions to complex problems. Gently remind us when we are more determined to win an argument than to know the truth.

Teach us your patience, Lord, and remind us to double and triple check our facts before we post or tweet or share any information that may be counterproductive to the ultimate cause of peace and justice for all of your children. Give us minds that thirst for truth and learn from history, to see the many logs in our own eyes before we judge others about the specks in theirs. We have much in our American history for which we need to repent, O God of mercy. You know us better than we know ourselves. Grant us the courage to search the depths of our own sin. Remind us of our own shameful record of injustice against people of color, women, and our LGBT sisters and brothers. Send your Spirit to help us not be shamed by guilt but to benefit from our past transgressions and from those of others so we can learn and grow in our faith from this political crisis.

Touch our hearts O God in ways that empower us to live up to your high expectations for us. May your Spirit burn within us with a compassion for families that are separated, for students and business travelers stranded in foreign lands, for everyone who fears for their uncertain future. Let us not become so embroiled in the political struggles of our own nation that we surrender to 24/7 news fatigue. Do not let us lose sight of the fact that millions of human lives are at stake and will be impacted by our own action or lack thereof. Do not let us belittle our own significance with a false humility that can silence the voices of the many crying in the wilderness. Do not cease to remind us that we are to treat the stranger in our midst as we would treat our own family and friends, that radical hospitality is not an unreachable ideal or a clever marketing slogan but Gospel Truth.

Lord, there is much fear consuming our nation and world. There is fear for safety and security, fear of political impotence and fear of excessive power. Help us acknowledge and face all those fears with the confidence of your children who know that only perfect love casts out fear. You are the unshakable foundation of our faith and the only true source of perfect love. Without you we cannot imagine how the overwhelming crises of our world can be resolved. But you are the God of exodus and exile, of crucifixion and resurrection. No political crisis has ever silenced your voice. In the tumult and chaos of protests and partisanship, whisper again to us the assurance once more that neither powers nor principalities, death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from your love. Thanks be to God.

Preaching to the Choir

What’s wrong with preaching to the choir? Someone commented recently that she thought most political ads at this point in the campaign are just “preaching to the choir.” Whoever the intended targets are most political ads are a terrible waste of money that could be used to actually do some good, and I just want them to stop! I plan to vote early this week and how I wish that would somehow trigger a magic switch somewhere in cyber space that would exempt me from hearing or seeing any more hateful negative ads.

But my friend’s comment got me wondering about “preaching to the choir.” We all know it means unnecessarily trying to persuade people of something when they are already convinced. Anyone can sell a product or an idea to those who have already decided to buy, I get that. But consider “preaching to the choir” more literally. With all due respect to musicians who faithfully give of their time and talent in church or elsewhere, I would argue that choir members need to hear the Gospel just as much as anyone else, preachers included. In fact I’ve known both choir members and preachers who need to hear God’s Word more than other folks.

That understanding of what preaching to the choir or those already converted reminds me of something Dr. Everett Tilson, one of my seminary mentors often told us many years ago. He said, “You can’t understand the Scriptures until you are willing to stand under them.” Both the judgment and grace of God are for all of us, saints and sinners alike and we need to hear it early and often, especially in campaign season. As St. Paul put it, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And “all” means all, no exceptions, no deferments. Christ died for all of us fallible human beings, and we are in great danger if we ever forget that. When we are tempted to judge others as more sinful or less worthy of God’s love, we are treading on very thin ice.

Humility is a very basic requirement of faith. As any regular reader of mine knows, Micah 6:8 is my default summary of what is required of a faithful follower of God, and the final item in that verse is “to walk humbly with your God.” (See my 10/4/15 post “Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning” for a discussion of that text in more depth.) The same advice from a negative perspective is given in the familiar adage that “pride goes before a fall.” But if you check out the biblical source of that proverb, the consequences of pride are much worse than a just a fall. What Proverbs 16:18 says in full is “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is such a serious problem that it comes in at number 4 on the Roman Catholic list of seven deadly sins.

Wouldn’t you think with all those dire warnings there would be less ego and more humility around? But just the opposite seems to be the case in our selfie-crazed society. Dare I say especially in campaign season there is a plethora of hubris in the air? One of the big problems with pride is that it often gets expressed not by building ourselves up but by putting others down so we look better by comparison. If truth be told most of our visits to eye doctors would include a reminder that part of the trouble with our vision is that we can’t see the logs in our own eyes because we are too busy criticizing others for the tiny specks in theirs. (Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:42).

I could go on showing off my biblical prowess by proof texting many other references to pride, but that doesn’t seem wise at this point. An image of stones and a glass house comes to mind! And yes, in this age of digital transparency where all of our actions can be captured on cell phone video and all of our tweets are fair game for public exposure, we all live in glass houses, including the choir. The prescribed antidote for pride is a regular reminder for all of us that the peace of mind and heart we crave never comes from the fame and recognition worldly values tempt us to pursue. It comes only to the humble who know that “the greatest of all is servant of all.” (Mark 10:44).

By the way, that bit about the glass houses isn’t biblical, but it’s close to Jesus’ daring those of us who are without sin to cast the first stone. (John 8:7).

Humbly yours, as one who can’t sing a lick, but I know I belong in that chorus who need to stand under the Scripture.

Intimacy and the Meaningful Life, Genesis 3:1-8

One childhood game that seems to have survived from one generation to the next, even in this age of multiple electronic devices, is hide and seek. All of my grandchildren have enjoyed that game at some point in their childhood, including one who cracked me up by hiding her little brother in the clothes hamper and then proudly announcing to us that she put Ryan in the hamster! The game is fun – but only up to a point. The late great preacher Fred Craddock told a story about a great hiding place he found at his grandparents’ farm. He hid under the front porch of the old farm house and proudly told himself “They’ll never find me here.” Minutes went by, which began to seem like hours. The seeker ran by the front porch several times without ever looking under it, and Craddock says he suddenly found himself saying, “They’ll never find me here!!!”

The solution to that problem is figured out even by young children who start making subtle or not so subtle noises to reveal their presence. As adults however it is often much harder to be “found” when we are hiding from each other and even from ourselves. Why do we do that? To be able to live out the other qualities of a meaningful life we need the confidence that comes from being fully known and affirmed by one or more other people and ultimately by God. That’s intimacy.

Intimacy is a tricky word in our culture. It is laden with overtones of sexuality. We talk about undergarments as “intimate apparel.” Being intimate with another person is often code for having sex. For that reason I struggled with whether should use the Genesis 3 account of the fall for this sermon. We know the story: Adam and Eve disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And suddenly they realize they are naked and make loin cloths for themselves. Next they hear God walking in the garden and they try to hide themselves.

This story is a way to explain why human life is full of sin and difficulties, but the reference to nakedness has confused people for centuries about “original sin. I want to suggest this story is really about a loss of intimacy. In order to understand that I invite you to make a mental leap to a deeper understanding of nakedness beyond the literal meaning. On an emotional and spiritual level nakedness is about being vulnerable and defenseless. It’s about being uncovered and unhidden in the eyes of God. Adam and Eve were playing hide and seek with God and of course they were quickly found. When it comes to God that old adage is especially true – “you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Adam and Eve are afraid and try to hide from God, but not because they have no clothes. We know that because they have already made their figgy loin cloths before this encounter with God. Their nakedness is of a much more serious variety. They are ashamed and afraid because they are naked and defenseless before God in their disobedience to a direct order. They now know the prime evil, which is not about sex, but is alienation from their creator. They are afraid and ashamed. And so they try to hide from God, which of course is foolish. We live in a cyber society where our location is tracked 24/7 by GPS and countless apps in our phones that are smarter than we are. We leave a trail of where we’ve been and what we value every time we use a credit card. But from day one there has been an even more powerful force in our lives that knows where we are and what we do all the time. It’s not GPS but G-O-D. We cannot hide our mistakes from God. Just ask Ryan Lochte how well trying to cover up a stupid mistake with a lie can turn into an international incident! We all make mistakes because we are all fallible. And yet how much time and valuable energy do we spend trying to hide who we are from God, others and even from ourselves?

My friend Mebane McMahon recommended an excellent book on intimacy to me and I highly pass that recommendation on to you. The book is “The 7 levels of Intimacy” by Matthew Kelly. Relax, I am not going to try to cover all 7 levels of intimacy today and can only begin to scratch the surface. But the fact that Kelly identifies 7 levels and has written a whole book on the topic is an indication of what a complex subject intimacy is.

We like to simplify complex topics, which is one of the reasons that it is tempting to just equate intimacy with sexuality. But being in a relationship, even a sexual one, does not guarantee the safety and security we feel in a truly intimate relationship where we feel loved and affirmed unconditionally. We can all be lonely in a huge crowd or sitting in a church service if we are hiding from God and others.

When I was much younger and even more naïve than I am now I had no idea of the difference between sex and real intimacy. I still believed the fairy tale notion of finding one true love that would meet the need I couldn’t even yet identify as intimacy. When I fell in love in college with the woman who became my first wife there was a popular song, “The Theme from a Summer Place,” that seemed to capture what we were expecting and hoping to find in our relationship. The song lyrics say this about that summer place:

“There are no gloomy skies
When seen through the eyes
Of those who are blessed with love
And the sweet secret of
A summer place

Is that it’s anywhere
When two people share
All their hopes
All their dreams
All their love.”

Isn’t that what we all hope from in our most significant relationships – whether they are sexual or not? Someone with whom we can share ALL of our hopes and dreams and love. And yet how often are we disappointed because most relationships don’t live up to that ideal? Ironically, when I recently googled the movie for which that song was written, I discovered that it is all about broken relationships and extramarital affairs, things that happen when we start looking for love in all the wrong places.

Intimacy, like all the marks of a meaningful life, requires work and a lot of it. That’s because love is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can learn to control how we deal with feelings and impulses, but we can’t determine when they appear, often in unexpected and uncomfortable situations. Intimacy with others and with God requires conscious choices and actions. Like Michael Phelps or Simone Biles have to work hard and dedicate themselves for years to their goals for Olympic gold, intimacy is a quality of life that requires discipline and determination. Too many relationships fall short of gold medal status because we lack the discipline to work on the relationship when it gets difficult and uncomfortable.

The same is true of having an intimate relationship with God. Jesus’ followers are called disciples and that word comes from the same root as the word discipline. All disciples of Christ in 30 A.D. or 2016 must make a choice to follow Jesus each and every day. It’s not a one and done deal. The forces of worldly temptations for material rewards or cheap pleasures all pull us every day toward the wide and easy road that leads to destruction.
I decided to use the Genesis 3 story to talk about intimacy primarily because Kelly points out in “The 7 Levels of Intimacy” that shame is one of the greatest enemies of intimacy that must be overcome. Chapter 3 of Genesis, commonly called “The Fall,” describes what happens when Adam and Eve disobey God and get caught. Unlike a game of hide and seek, the stakes here are existentially higher. Eve and Adam make the classic mistake we often resort to when we screw up; they play the blame game. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Instead of simply confessing their transgressions and asking for forgiveness, they continue to try and hide, and the consequences are severe. Because of their disobedience they are evicted from paradise – where everything they needed was provided in abundance. Instead they are forced to grow their own food and survive by the sweat of their brow. The pain of childbirth is greatly increased for womankind forever and she is made subservient to the rule of her husband. And finally they are made aware of their own mortality. Ouch!

Pretty gruesome stuff if the story ended there, right? Unfortunately many of us get stuck in our spiritual development with that image of a judgmental God, and when we do we cannot ever achieve true intimacy with God because we are afraid of the consequences if we have to come before God naked and defenseless. Worse yet, the shame and guilt we all carry in some degree also gets in the way big time when it comes to human relationships. If we are using up a lot of psychic and emotional energy playing hide and seek from God, we simply to do not have enough gas left in our tanks to create and maintain an intimate relationship with other people, no matter how much we love them or they love us.

But here’s the Good News – the Judeo-Christian salvation story doesn’t end with Genesis 3. The rest of our Scriptures tell a glorious story of redemption. Like a parent ticked off with disobedient children, God puts Adam and Eve in time-out. He stations Cherubim to guard the gates of paradise so the naughty children can’t sneak back in. But like disappointed parents or partners or true friends, God can’t and doesn’t give up on the wayward ones. Genesis doesn’t say this, but I’ll bet this is the first time it was ever said, “This hurts me more than it does you.” And so the other 1986 chapters of the Bible tell the story of God’s persistent, faithful efforts to redeem and restore an intimate relationship with humankind. Why1986 chapters? Because we are slow learners. We keep trying to play hide and seek to cover our nakedness while God bails us out of one mess after another.

Intimacy is the key that unlocks the gate to paradise and salvation. Intimacy with God is the truth that sets us free to be open and vulnerable and honest with ourselves, with others and with God. This truth is described repeatedly in different ways in the Bible, but it boils down to the same basic ingredients – trust, honesty, confession, and forgiveness and grace.

Ephesians 4 puts it this way: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Intimate relationships are those where we trust each other enough to speak the truth in love. That’s different than brutal honesty that flows when we allow our emotions to rule our tongues. It’s different than “telling it like it is,” without regard for the other person’s feelings or perspective. Balancing honesty with the sensitivity and compassion of love is sorely lacking in many social media postings and much of our political discourse, but it is absolutely necessary for the most important relationships we have with loved ones and with God.

That kind of openness and honesty is not a New Testament creation – even in the Hebrew Scriptures where God is often portrayed as a judge to be feared there are glimpses of grace. The prophet Isaiah in the very first chapter has God speaking to his rebellious children and says, “Come now, let us argue it out, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” In other words, don’t play hide and seek – come to me, no matter what your sins and they can be forgiven. My favorite New Testament verse about the power of confession is in I John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” No sin is bigger or wider than God’s mercy; so what are we hiding from?

I wonder how different Adam and Eve’s story would have turned out if they had known that simple truth about intimacy. We’ll never know – but what we do know is the sacred truth that sets us free to live meaningful lives. That doesn’t’ mean it is simple or easy to live it. The world still is playing one giant game of hide and seek based on deceit, manipulation and false pride. But God will provide us with the faith and courage and discipline to play a different game–to stop hiding and trust God enough to confess each time we fall short of the gold medal. God will pick us up and dust us off to try again, but we have to be brave and honest enough to ask for help.

So my friends, church is not a place to play hide and seek. It’s safe to be real here without fear of judgment. So blow your friends minds – tell them next Sunday you’re going to church to be intimate with a few hundred of your friends!

God as Puppeteer or Quarterback?

An important question about the nature of God was raised in a Bible study I am in last night. We are studying Exodus 2 and came to the scene where Moses kills an Egyptian who is abusing one of the Hebrew slaves. The question raised was, “Did God want Moses to kill that Egyptian?” Some argued yes, because it was necessary for the rest of Moses’ preparation to be a leader. Others said there are numerous stories in the Hebrew Scriptures where God tells people to kill someone. (Note: those stories were all written by the victors/killers who were interpreting God’s will from their perspective and likely to justify their actions. Jesus preached and lived a very different Gospel.)

I reject the puppeteer model of God’s control of our lives, and I do not believe it was God’s intention for Moses or anyone to kill another human being – sort of goes against the 6th commandment don’t you think? Rather I think God is more like a quarterback who has to call audibles and change the play a lot when circumstances require it. God takes our mistakes and makes the best of them, using them to teach us. In Moses’ case his homicidal outburst was the vehicle God used to get him out into the wilderness where God could work on him and get him ready for the work ahead.

Leslie Weatherhead’s great little book, The Will of God (based on a series of sermons he preached in London during World War II) is one of the best discussions of this topic ever. Weatherhead describes three dimensions of God’s will – God’s intentional will – what God really wants to happen; God’s circumstantial will – what God makes of the situation when human free will changes the game plan; and God’s ultimate will – what the eventual outcome is. In Moses’ case God’s intentional will would be a peaceful resolution of the conflict Moses witnessed and liberation of the enslaved Hebrews; God’s circumstantial will or Plan B was to use Moses’ escape into the wilderness as a time of spiritual formation and preparation, and God’s ultimate will was to empower Moses once he was ready to lead the liberation of God’s people. The ultimate result is the same as the original intention; it just took a different path and about 40 years to happen.

It took that long because Moses wasn’t ready. I heard Rev. James Forbes preach on the Exodus many years ago and still appreciate his insight into that issue. Forbes said we know Moses’ wasn’t ready for leadership when he killed the Egyptian. He had the motivation; he was angry about the suffering of his people, but he let his anger consume him. What God needed was the compassion for those who suffer, the passion for liberation, the fire in the belly, but the maturity not to let that passion consume him. Forbes said that’s part of the significance of burning bush story in Exodus 3 where Moses finally hears God’s call. The bush was burning but it was not consumed.

When that happens, our will is in harmony with God’s playbook, and God’s ultimate will is done. No one knew that better than Jesus who prayed the prayer we all must pray, “Not my will but thy will be done.” Amen.