Theological musings, mostly about love

A new guy visited my church this past Sunday and emailed me from our website asking me to clarify some theological positions. I’ll be very honest — I hate doing that. It’s like arguing over the color of the wallpaper in heaven. It begins and ends with opinion. It’s based on nothing. Even the Bible is interpreted so differently by individuals and churches that you end up quibbling over the meaning/interpretation of it once someone brings it in to “clear things up.” It’s just not a useful thing to do. At the same time, I’m a Christian pastor and I feel like people do have a right to at least basically know what I believe. What follows is my response to this nice man’s email, unedited.

Hi [name snipped].  I’ll answer your questions concisely.

No, I do not believe all will be saved. But I think many Christians will be extremely surprised at who, and how many, are ultimately saved.

I do not believe hatred has any place in our lives, any more than we can bomb our way to peace or screw our way to chastity. Therefore I reject love the sinner but hate the sin. The dualism it presents is a big part of the problem with spiritual life. We can’t separate people from their sins, loving one part and hating the other (parable of wheat and tares). Sin isn’t just a list of bad behaviors that we can easily call out and hate. People are whole beings, and love sinner/hate sin is an abstraction that has nothing to do with human beings. I think Christians use this to shrug off our responsibility to love and that it has been responsible for a lot of evil done in the name of God.

I don’t distinguish between Christian love and any other kind of love. All real love is from God.

I do not really accept the striving to eliminate sin. As we increasingly connect to God, sin becomes less attractive and eventually repulsive. Freedom is not in striving against sin, but in no longer finding it appealing.

Should contemplation be supplemented with other disciplines? Absolutely. But we need to do a much better job with the contemplation. It can’t be taught as something just for monks and hyperspiritual people. It’s foundational and without it we will likely remain immature and neurotic all our lives, trusting only in ourselves.

I do not agree that homosexuality is fundamentally evil, nor do I agree that it is not inborn. I do concede that greater social acceptance of it has probably led more people who were sexually on the fence to claim gay identities than they otherwise would, but I am deeply convinced there are major genetic determinants for most people.  I don’t pretend to understand everything about it, and I’d be the last to deny the brokenness of human sexuality, and we see its effects everywhere. But Jesus never spoke of it so it obviously wasn’t on his agenda. That says a lot. I’m not claiming it’s all just perfect and there is no issue, only that, in any case, love is the best response.

I hear what you’re saying about Sodom and Gomorrah and I understand that sentiment (note from me to readers — this was a response to his assertion that America is a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah). My focus, however, is on the church, and on the miserable failure of God’s people to even pretend to really love others. We will never be able to beat the hell out of people, but we certainly can love them into the Kingdom.

Peace to you,


L is for Love

I am currently blogging, along with my daughter, all the way through the alphabet. Check out how the idea started, and get the rules here.

When we say God is love, and when we claim to know what love looks like, is that God or not?

The Apostle Paul went to great lengths to describe love in 1 Cor. 13 (often called “the love chapter), and passages from that chapter are used at perhaps a majority of weddings, whether or not the bride and groom are church-goers.  It seems that Paul managed to nail down a pretty good description of what love really is.

Most people — Christian and otherwise — also believe the Bible’s statement (found in 1st John) that God IS love.  If Paul’s description of love is accurate and John’s characterization of God is accurate, then logic would tell us:

If A is B (if God is love, as stated in 1 John)
and B is C (if love is patient, kind, keeps no record of wrongs, etc., as stated in 1 Corinthians)
then A is C (then God is patient, kind, keeps no record of wrongs, etc.)

This means that those who like to talk about God’s wrath  have a substantial theological problem on their hands.  No question the wrath of God is mentioned in the Bible (in both Old and New Testaments), but the problem remains.  If God is love and love is as Paul described it, one cannot change the implications of the above argument simply by stating, “Yeah, but the Bible ALSO says…”  That does not change the soundness of the logic above.

Of course one could argue that John was in error, and that God in fact is NOT love.  Or one could argue that Paul described love wrongly — that love is actually vengeful or spiteful, or mean-spirited, or even murderous, under certain circumstances.  One would be hard-pressed to argue this, of course, since no one in their right mind would attempt to work vengeance, anger, wrath, or violence of any kind into a comprehensive definition of love.  And even if one did dare to argue this, it might be difficult to convince love-struck fiancées to include the notions of wrath and vengeance into their wedding vows.  Any attempt to do so would meet with precisely the rejection that it in fact should meet, as everyone knows that wrath, vengeance, and violence are antithetical to any kind of loving relationship.  It is embarrassing to even feel the need to point this out.

Add to this that Jesus:

a. Called God not only Father, but Abba, which — translated — means something much closer to Daddy.  This is how Jesus understood God, and seemed to want us to understand God as well.

b. Told the parable of the Prodigal Son, where his expressed intent was to show us the loving heart of God for his children.  Difficulty in fitting wrath, anger, violence, and retribution into this picture should give one serious pause in ascribing these qualities to God, and one must find other ways to deal with the plain fact that those kinds of qualities are in fact attributed to God.  How does one reconcile this?

c. Specifically invited us to make the comparison of human parental love with the love of God for us, and specifically said that God will be far MORE of what we already understand as loving to us than any of us would be inclined to be with our own children.

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!  (Mt. 7:9-11, NIV)

Jesus here assumes that we already know basically what love looks like and how we should respond to it.  Love is self-evident, and for those to whom it is not, we can always return to 1 Cor. 13 to get a pretty powerful working picture of love in action.

The biggest problem we encounter in dealing with issues like this is the readiness of some people to say, “Perhaps that’s not all love is,” or “Perhaps the love of God is not the same basic thing as the highest forms of human love.”  This is senseless.  It is ridiculous to postulate that 2 + 2 does not equal 4 to God.  If it does not, then God is completely beyond our ability to think about in ways that actually tell us anything.

Parents, you love your kids, right?  Is there any place in the picture where your love for them justifies your killing them or harming them in any way?  Isn’t that the place where your love would actually STOP?  How then is it possible that when we apply this to God, somehow it’s okay if God kills as long as he has given enough warning first?  To me, this seems like saying that as long as 2 + 2 = 4 for a really, really, really long time, it’s reasonable to think it will one day equal five.

I’m not writing this post to suggest what you are supposed to do with the tension this creates.  I don’t know all the answers.  But I know some of the questions, and this one is worth paying attention to:  When we say God is love, and when we claim to know what love looks like, is that God or not?

View Kyra’s L post (also, coincidentally, about love)

Love, or correct beliefs?

“What matters more — love, or correct beliefs?”

This is the question one of my Facebook friends posed on his page recently.  (It received well over 100 comments).  Part of one of my responses:

People all over the planet could by and large agree on what love looks like. Saying we have to have correct beliefs to know what love is is like saying we have to all have the exact same view of the sky before we can agree that it’s up there.

To me this is self-evident, and I would have the same opinion even if I were not a religious man, but since I in fact AM a religious man, there are a few New Testament texts that are so definitive on this matter that I cannot help but feel that most people who come to a different conclusion can only do so by bringing their own agenda to the table.  The Apostle Paul said:

1st Cor. 13
1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.

This is not just some passage that happens to talk about how love is a good thing.  This passage is making the specific claim that everything hinges on love, that this is what it all comes down to, that nothing else we do matters without it.  We could easily insert, “If I am baptized in the Catholic Church, or pray the sinner’s prayer in a Protestant church, or believe all the correct things about Jesus and the Bible and every Christian doctrine, but have not love, I am nothing,” and it would not be in the slightest bit out of context.

The Apostle John said:

1 John 1:8
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Again, not simply that love is a great ideal and we should try hard to do it, but that love is the very essence of God and that the test of whether or not we know God is that we love.

And of course it is not of little consequence to the Christian faith that Jesus was part of this exchange:

Matthew 22:34-40
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[b] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

There’s Jesus — the one Christians claim founded our faith — saying specifically that all the Law and the Prophets (everything you have ever understood religion to be about) hang on the command to love.  Jesus nowhere says beliefs are irrelevant, of course, but here he certainly does put beliefs in their proper place — behind love.

This just seems to me to be so indisputable that I believe it must serve as the very foundation of scripture itself.  God IS love.  No matter what we accomplish, we are nothing if we fail to love.  Love is what all of this is about to begin with.  Therefore, everything else in all Christian scripture must be interpreted in light of these strong words.  Anytime anyone interprets anything in Christian scripture as contrary to love, that is due either to a bias that the reader himself brings to the text, or even to bias the writer might have had that is evident in the text.

To some this might sound heretical, but everyone who reads sacred texts does this.  When King David prays for the death of his enemies in the Psalms, for example, very few people assume that we also should pray for the deaths of our enemies, since Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.  Instead we read David’s words in scripture and assume that they are there to give us an honest look at the human heart, so that we too can openly express our emotions in prayer.  In fact, would Christianity be any worse off if we refused to believe that ANY of the violence in the Bible expressed truth about God?  Just asking.

Finally on this issue, those who think correct beliefs are most important are making a serious mistake.  As Richard Rohr says, every point of view is a view from a point.  I am tired of the cliche of the “church that teaches God’s Word and not man’s.”  In reality, every pastor in every church teaches his/her perspective and opinion of the Bible.  That is the reason there are 30,000 Christian denominations.  By the way, nearly all of them will say that they are a church that “teaches God’s Word and not man’s,” yet they often believe vastly different things.  This point I am making is so obvious as to make it ridiculous for me to even have to write it down, and yet there are those who would seriously try to argue that there could be any such thing as a church that does not teach its own opinion of the Bible, but instead just teaches “God’s Word.”  This, of course, is simply a way of admitting that one does not see any difference between his/her opinion of sacred scripture and the opinion of God himself.

It cannot be correct beliefs that matter most, because there is simply no way to ever know if we are “right” enough.  Of course beliefs matter, and they often matter a great deal, but beliefs take a back seat to love.

At least that’s what I believe.

Not crazy about Crazy Love

I came late to Francis Chan’s Crazy Love party.  I heard about it a couple of years ago, and more and more people I love and respect were beginning to talk about it.  Which is why I have been hesitant to be in the least critical of the book.

I finally gave in and decided to read it about nine months ago.  I loved the first few chapters.  I didn’t think they were revolutionary or anything, but Chan didn’t write as if he was saying something revolutionary.  He wrote with an earnestness, reminding us of basic but important things, like the big, huge, amazing love of God, our constant vulnerability to death and other unexpected things (how small we are), and God’s right to run the world the way he chooses.

So far so good.  But after the first few chapters, the tone of the book began to change.  Crazy Love moves into a discussion of what is wrong with Christians today, taking on the perennial pastor’s-favorite-topic — apathy and lack of vitality in the expression of American Christian faith.  As a pastor myself for 15 years, I do not dispute that the American church is languishing and have no problem with Chan pointing out the problem.  It is the solution that bothers me.

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My Eulogy

Words I'm Trying to Live Into Before I'm Gone

dead rose - eulogy

If you don’t know that a lot of famous people have been dying lately, you’re living under a rock. With all these people dying, I’ve been reading a lot of tweets and posts in memoriam. It got me to thinking about what I want to be said about me after I am gone. I hope my eulogy goes something like this:

Dave was the guy you knew would always tell you the truth, and the one who seemed to usually be able to cut through the crap and get down to what a problem  was really about. He faced a lot of challenges, especially as he got up to around 50 and then beyond, but he took it in stride and kept going, kept pouring his life into others, and always found a way to see his life as a gift from God.

And his life was a gift to all who knew him, which is the way he always wanted it. And the closer people were to him, the more they respected him. You knew he was the real deal. He didn’t try to be anything he wasn’t and was always honest about who he was, even when it wasn’t pretty.

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