Tag Archives: God’s Forgiveness

Merit Badge Religion

Most of us think that in some way we must do something to earn God’s love and forgiveness in order to become a Christian and qualify for heaven after we die.  I like to refer to that as “Merit Badge” religion and  it has little to do with what Jesus taught and lived.  When I was a Boy Scout leader, the boys who won the coveted rank of Eagle Scout were those who won a large number of  merit badges and completed a useful project for the community. It was what they knew and what they were able to do that won the award.  “Merit badge religion” is the result of the church being taken over by the American culture.   In this culture we attain superiority  by competing well: by being the most knowledgeable and highest educated; by improved morality and improved behavior.  We worship success in our culture  and believe that we get what  we deserve  by what we work hard for and therefore are worthy of.

We have transferred these same principles to our churches.  So to have the right informed knowledge about God; to  know the Bible through deep study  and to  behave morally and ethically according to its perceived teachings;   and to practice the  correct rites  of worship,  communion,  baptism,  plus giving our money in acts of  stewardship we will competitively qualify for heaven . We earn it.  It  is by what we know and what we do  that qualifies us.    And therein is the problem .Note I refer to it as “religion”  not “Christianity”

 

Our Christian spiritual lives and our churches are too often  based on this same sort of religious meritocracy. For example:

  • Being able to recite Bible memory verses
  • Going to church every Sunday
  • Attending Sunday school
  • Having the “correct beliefs” by understanding and defending the church’s creed
  • Being a “good” person
  •  Praying
  • Being baptized in the “correct” way
  • Taking communion
  • t These are admirable, I will concede, but none will earn us a seat at the Lord’s table in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus makes it very clear that ONLY GOD’S GRACE can do that and it has already been given to us.  All we need to do is be aware of God’s saving love and forgiveness.   It is freely given and there is no way God’s Grace can be earned.

The problem with “Merit Badge” Christianity is that it bases our entry into God’s Kingdom on what we do  and as the New Testament says and Jesus proclaimed it is all up to God’s grace.   “Merit Badge” Christianity says we must work, labor, sweat and learn, and do more to gain a place in God’s Kingdom. The opposite is true! God gives us his Kingdom. Nothing we do on our own can gain us entrance.

Jesus did not say “Blessed are the brightest and the best”

He said:   “Blessed are the poor for to them is the Kingdom of God”.

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Questions for God

If you had one question that you would like God to answer what would that question be?    My hospice Social Worker posed this question to me this week and I must admit that I did not have an answer.   She did, and told me what her question would be .   I will respect her privacy and not reveal it,  but it was a good question.

I was reminded of a patient I had as a hospice chaplain.   This patient (who I will call “Chuck”) was experiencing the ravishes of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).   The disease had struck him at a young age in his late thirties’  and had moved rather quickly in his case.     He had lost all movement ability except his head and was confined to a nursing home.  He was bitter about his life.   On one of my visits I remember him saying “Chaplain,  when I die and see God, I have just one question I want to ask.   I asked him what his question would be and he replied with a single word:   WHY?

Like many people do, Chuck was blaming God for his disease.    How often people blame God for the bad things that happen to them but fail to thank God for the good things in their life!   I myself do not think that a God of love who wants relationship with his children would cause harm to them.  Instead I believe in a God who weeps with us when disease and harm befalls us and encourages us and is there giving us strength to deal with the pain that is our lot as humans beings.  And I think that scripture backs me up in both the Old and New Testaments that God is a God of love and forgiveness:

For example:Read Psalm 27 and 34.   Read Isaiah 35:3-10    Read Matthew 11:28-30    Read II Corinthians 4:16 -5:2.  Read Revelation 21:1-4

I haven’t decided what my question will be.   What is your question?   I would love for you to share it with me and with those who follow this blog.

 

Mercy or Retribution?

It’s true!   People do some terrible things to each other.   Many of us have been harmed by words and actions of others.  Words can assault us and injure us as much as physical blows and others actions may cause harm or death to our loved ones.  Those who harm us are often the victims of our  hatred, our wrath and our retribution. .  We ourselves often strike out  with words that hurt towards those we love, even if they are short of actual body blows!   We want to get even. We want Retribution!

If we are hurt we want to hurt back as much or more as we are hurt.   When we or a loved one are hurt, the adrenalin hits our bodies and prepares us for “fight or flight”.  Our blood pressure goes up.  Our breathing increases.  Our heart rate increases.  and the desire for retribution is very strong!   And yet as Christians we are faced with a problem.   Jesus taught his disciples that we should  forgive and not get even. That we should “love God and our neighbor as ourselves, and makes he makes it very clear by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan immediately after that teaching that our neighbor may be someone we hate and has treated us badly and hates us also.   Loving God  and hating our neighbor is therefore not an option according to Jesus.  If we follow what is often called the Great Commandment  to love God and neighbor (because it sums up all “the law and the prophets” including the Ten Commandments) then  love and forgiveness is the only option for a follower of Christ.   It is a simple but difficult command.

And how do we go about loving God anyway?    Love is relational.   We can say  “I love you God”—but how do we show our love to God in action?   Love is an action word!   Again we go to the great commandment and find out we show our love for God by loving our neighbor no matter how much he or she has hurt us!   That’s tough!   But we are commanded to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves!   Even tougher!  If we are to show our love for God in a concrete way the choice between retribution or forgiveness, mercy or getting even, is obvious.  The choice is love and mercy and forgiveness.

In my Sunday School Class we have been studying the Beatitudes. We have been aided in our  learning by a book written about Mother Teresa and the Beatitudes.   You guessed it!   I have to teach the class about the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” this coming Sunday.

As you know, Mother Teresa and her sisters worked in the worst part of Calcutta in India.   They opened a House for the Dying among other things they did there.     People were dying in filth and squalor covered with their own feces on the streets of Calcutta every day. At first she borrowed a wheelbarrow to get them to the house where they could be cared for and loved and cleaned up and as she put it “at least die a human death”.   She viewed what she did as following this Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful” and as showing her love for God by showing love and care to those who were dying alone, in their own feces, on the streets of Calcutta.  According to Mother Teresa you show love to God by loving God’s children—and that includes what Mother Teresa called “the least of these.”

She took to heart the Parable of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 35-40,  where Jesus is assuming the personhood of those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, suffering, in prison, etc.   To those who reached out to him in God’s love he says “You did it to me”.

Listen to Mother Teresa’s own words:   “Whatever you do to the least of these my brethren, you do it to me.”  (Matt. 25:40)   “If in my name , you give a glass of water, you give it to me.  If in my name, you receive a child, you receive me.  (Mark 9:37)   He has made that a condition also, that at the hour of death we are going to be judged on what we have been and what we have done.   He (Jesus) makes Himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, the sick one, the lonely one, the unwanted one, the rejected one.

He says “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”  Not only for bread, I was hungry for love.  “I was naked” not only for a piece of cloth, but I was naked for that human dignity of a child of God .  “I  was homeless”  not only for a home made of brick, but I was homeless, rejected, unwanted, unloved, a throw-away of society, and you did it to me”.  (end of quote)

Mercy is what you show when you don’t have to!   Mercy is unearned.  Mercy is forgiveness and love and care when you don’t deserve it.   Richard Rohr says “you don’t know what mercy really is until YOU need it.   God shows you mercy every day as God forgives for the many actions we take that drag the name of Jesus in the mud.   God loves us even as unloving and unlovely as we can be.   God shows us mercy and God’s love  in that forgiveness.  God does not demand retribution.  And as we follow Jesus and  forgive others who hurt us and do not practice retribution against our neighbors we become capable of receiving God’s mercy.   It is as simple and as difficult as that.   “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”    Amen.

Be the Change!!

 

There is something scary about “change” for most people!     We are creatures of habit more than we like to admit, and if change comes about in our lives we tend to resist it, and we often fear it.    Even though the current situation, (the status quo) may be painful to us—-at least we know where we are, what to expect, and how to cope with the pain the situation causes,  because we’ve been living with it—-and therefore we are very suspicious of any “change for the better” that might be suggested.   We say, what if it only makes things worse?

We see this fear of change in the lives of women who are abused by their husbands or significant others.  For example, in the  NFL Ray Rice case, where the woman who was knocked out cold by Rice in an elevator and dragged out by her feet, went ahead and married him.   Eventually, I predict,  she will either die at his hands  or have to find some way get away from her now husband—-because he is not going to change and she will be unable to change him.   And yet she remains with Rice.    I suspect either fear of Rice or fear of change is the reason, although there is no way for me to know for sure.

In our churches we see fear of change as one of the  major reasons that attendance  is dropping and churches are closing.    Many churches have actually closed rather than change the way they go about doing church  that speaks to the needs for involvement in the community and electronic social media practices of a new generation of Millenials.   In essence,  the closing churches choose to  die rather than change!

It’s strange that churches bearing the name of Jesus should fear change, as one of the greatest advocates for change was Jesus of Nazareth whom they claim to follow.  Richard Rohr, in his Good News According to the Gospel of Luke:  Spiritual Reflections. sees Jesus as a revolutionary and an advocate for radical change.  He says the blatant contradiction between the message and actions of the church and Jesus’ message and actions  are what is holding the church back here and around the world:

We preach a self-absorbed gospel of piety and religiosity, not a lifestyle gospel.   Luke (in his gospel)  is preaching a lifestyle gospel, not a Sunday-church thing at all.   Luke is talking about living the gospel seven days a week.   His gospel is so radical that if you truly believed its message (of Jesus) it would call into question all the assumptions you currently hold about the way you live, how you  use time, whom you relate to, how you marry, how much money you have.   Everything you think and do would be called into question and viewed in a new way, because Jesus is Lord and Jesus is Love.”

Marcus Borg, in his book Jesus, Uncovering the life, teachings, and relevance of a religious revolutionary  also portrays Jesus of Nazareth as a revolutionary who was non-violently seeking to overthrow the  economic, social, political and religious domination system of the Roman world during his time.  Jesus did this on behalf of the poor, the sick, the people at the bottom of the social scale.  He challenged the religious domination of the priestly-temple system of Judaism to change.   Jesus’ teaching that God is a God of love and forgiveness were direct challenges to the need for a temple and sacrifices and priests as there was no longer a need for priests and sacrifices and the temple to relate to God and receive God’s love and forgiveness.   Human beings can relate directly to the God of Love that Jesus proclaimed, so they don’t need a priest and sacrifices to be forgiven.   Revolutionary!!   Jesus  turned the “pecking order” of his society on its head with his teaching that “the greatest among you will be the servant of all”. These are the major   reasons he was killed by the Romans at the insistence of the Jewish religious establishment.       Change is dangerous, as well as being scary if you are living the change—i.e. “Being the Change” as Jesus was doing.  Those in power do not yield easily if the change means the loss of their power.   Jesus didn’t just advocate systemic change—-his life and his teachings mirrored that systemic change. He described and lived his  life as it would be lived in the Kingdom of God that he proclaimed was here in the world.  It  was a revolutionary change from the status quo.   Jesus was “Being the Change“!!

One of favorite quotations is from the wisdom of  Ghandi, the Indian leader for the independence of India from Great Britain.  Ghandi says:  BE THE CHANGE.!!

Ghandi, in his wisdom,  is saying that it’s not enough for us to speak for change—-No!   Our message and our actions must be the same.    In order to bring about change you and I must change.    Change is not something that happens because people talk about it, debate it, fear it, advocate it or demand it—-change comes about when people live the change!  

What do you think needs to change in our society today?  What do you think needs to change in our churches?   Are you just “talking” about it or are you willing to “be the change”?    The change won’t happen unless we are willing to “Be the Change”!!

Seeing God in our Mirror

Look at yourself in your mirror?    Do you see God there?   You are made in the image of God.   That’s God you see!!   But you say, “That’s not God, it is just meThe same old me with warts and all.   I have all these problems and faults and bad habits, and on top of it I’m having a bad hair day.  Just last night I went on a hateful tirade about politicians!    I swear at times!   I am critical and analytic  and unloving and scared and  weak willed and fat—-and how can you say that you see God in me?”

True—-all of the above are faults and problems most of us exhibit at one time or another and that’s just a few of the many—but there is one thing that we are forgetting!!  That is that God, with unconditional love for us as his children, has forgiven us and we can thus stand before our mirrors and see God in ourselves.   It’s not because we have done anything to merit this—-it is due to God’s grace and love for us.

Now look at a homeless person.   That person is also God’s child.   He is made in the image of God.   The mirror he looks in reflects God also!   Despite  the dirty clothes, the unwashed smell, the unshaven face and the unkempt hair.   As he wearily makes his way along the street with a backpack and a black plastic bag holding all of his worldly possession—- can you see God in this person?   He is the recipient of the same unconditional love  and forgiveness of God just as much as you are.    We are all in the same position—-loved and forgiven by God through no efforts or merit of our own.

So—who are  we to  judge this homeless person or to judge each other?   As Jesus said:   “Judge not, that you be not judged, for the same judgment that you give will be meted out to you.”  What wonderful things might happen in all of our lives if we could just manage to see God in all of the people around us—-and in ourselves!    Amen.