Saturday, April 22, 2006

It is far more difficult to love a man than it is to love mankind.

How bad does a person have to be before I decide that even God could not love them?

In your mind, line up Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and throw in some anonymous child molesters, rapists, serial killers, and parents who torture their own children. Don’t forget the woman who sold her baby for her next hit of crack. And let's include the two guys who abducted and raped a teen girl, then chopped off her hands with an axe and left her to die. Imagine they have never expressed a single regret for what they have done. In some cases, the crimes that horrify us may be their proudest achievements.

As they step up to be judged, it seems simple to most of us: a bullet, a deadly syringe or prison for life are clearly merited. Some may struggle a bit more with what punishment is appropriate. Sadly, such judgments must be made in this world. We agree on certain activities as being criminal behavior. And we agree that it is appropriate to punish criminals, although we may disagree on what that punishment should be.

Here is what hits me so hard that I feel as though I may vomit: God has made it clear that he wants me to love the sorts of people I have described. I am commanded by God to love my enemies, my neighbors, and those who persecute me. I am called to become more like Christ. I can despise the sin, but I am to love the sinner.

There is part of me that desperately wants to have an exception clause for people that have done things as heinous as the people I asked you to mentally line up. I am aware of that same part of me wanting to make exceptions for people who have hurt me more personally. Their crimes don’t have to be nearly as horrific as those that the line up committed. They need not be crimes at all. It can be enough if I feel I have been wronged. It can be enough that they wound the very pride that I have asked God to free me of.

There have been times when I have felt that God asks too much when he asks me to love someone. There have also been times when I felt it was impossible that God would still love me.

Those are lies. God does not ask too much of me. I ask too little of him. I must ask him, in faith, for the ability to love others. And God will always love me. God is love. God is infinite. How foolish to think that there is anything I could do that would have the power to negate his very essence.

I thank God for who he is. I thank God for calling me to be more like him. I thank God for loving me.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Words seem destined to take on meanings that distort what the original author meant.  The word I have been thinking about lately is “gospel”.  English has changed enough over the centuries that the old English phrase “god spel” which meant “good news” was turned into a single word:  gospel.  The original word in the Greek text of the New Testament is written euangelion in the Latin alphabet. Euangelion is the root of the words evangelize and evangelical.  The gospel is the good news about Jesus. Telling others the good news is to evangelize.  One who believes and shares the good news may be termed an evangelical.

Somehow, before I was a Christian, “gospel” didn’t mean good news to me at all. It meant true, as in “you can take that as gospel” when one wished to be emphatic about an assertion.  Occasionally, I might hear someone argue in favor of the bible and assert “it’s the gospel”, seeming to mean that it is unequivocally true.   A lot of the quotes I heard from the Bible seemed to say that we were bad enough that God would send us to hell for some pretty gruesome, eternal punishment.  The only way out was to “repent” which I interpreted as “stop doing bad stuff”.  I can’t remember a day in my life where I wasn’t pretty aware that I was thinking and sometimes doing some pretty bad stuff.  I suppose when I was 3 or 4 years old I may have not been aware.  But I don’t remember those years at all. Some of the “bad” stuff seemed pretty nice at the time and I didn’t want to quit.  Other bad stuff seemed genuinely bad, but I didn’t seem to be able to stop it, no matter how hard I tried.  Of course, I tried my best to rationalize that maybe it wasn’t really all that bad.  I would always have been quick to say “nobody is perfect”, but it was more of a defense of my own frailties than it was a recognition of the sinfulness of all people.  It was pretty much the same as saying “everybody does it”.

So the gospel seemed like pretty bad news.  God was going to eternally punish me for my sins.  Some of the sins didn’t seem to be sins; in fact they were some of my favorite things to think or do.  Others were “imperfections” that every human on the face of the earth seemed to share to one degree or another.   When people declared that the Gospel was true, it seemed to me that they were declaring that I was indeed doomed to an eternity of hideous pain.

I don’t think I ever felt certain that God did not exist.  I said I was an agnostic.  I was, however, very hopeful that God did not exist and that the “gospel” was indeed false.

For many years I struggled with the feeling that “witnessing” or “sharing the gospel” meant telling other people that they are sinners and that they will suffer eternal pain unless they get their thinking and actions right.  Even after I put less emphasis on the actions and more on proper thinking, it still felt pretty brutal to let someone know that despite the fact that they shared that screwed up thinking with every human on earth, they needed to change or burn in hell.

Bit by bit, I see things differently now.  I see the evidence of God’s grace in my own life and in the life of others.  Grace may be defined as “unmerited favor”.  It can’t be earned, that would make it “merited favor”.  More and more I understand this as very good news!  Now “witnessing” or “sharing the gospel” become more and more the actions of telling or showing people that I know we are all imperfect and the God is too good to tolerate that, but there is still some extremely good news that I have personally experienced.  I have come to have faith that God loves me so much that he planned a means for setting me free from what would otherwise be the consequences of my failings.

I used the term “bit by bit” because, just when I think I have a pretty solid grip on how good the news really is, I then learn a bit more about it and about God’s love for me.  And every time something painful or difficult happens in my life, I am a bit less likely to fall back to the idea that I am reaping the painful penalties for my sins.  Instead I see the pain or difficulty leading me to cling more tightly to God.  I need his love.  I need his help.  I am unashamed of the good news, because it really is good.  The gospel is so good that I hope to spend the rest of my life experiencing and understanding the breadth and depth of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

I cry out, “May God have mercy on me, a sinner”.  What great news it is that he does forgive me and cleanse me of those sins.  Once I have passed through life on this earth, I will be made completely new!  I will live forever in his presence!  Meanwhile, each day I can choose to serve God’s purpose and plan for me.

It is very good news indeed!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Earth Day

Earth Day is coming up.  I suddenly realized that I had attended the very first earth day rally (in Pittsburgh) in 1970.  There had been a modest attempt to get something going in 1969, but the big official day was first held in April of 1970.  A U.S. Senator promoted it, lots of students and environmental types met in lots of cities.  Apparently it has been celebrated every year since, although I confess I often don’t notice it at all.

I find that getting older can give me a certain amount of perspective if I take the time to reflect upon what I have seen in my life.  So although I refuse to condone some of the fruit cake ideas that have been promoted under the banner of “environmentalism”, I certainly do want to confirm that it has been extremely important for us to clean up our act.

So here are a few facts from my childhood and teen years that would tend to indicate that things had gotten pretty bad before people woke up to the need to do better:

-  Whooping cranes and brown pelicans were near extinction when I was a kid.
-   I am told that sea otters were no longer seen off the west coast of the continental U.S.
-   Lake Erie (near my home in Ohio) was declared biologically dead.  It was so polluted that literally nothing could live in it except perhaps a few microorganisms that we would prefer to be free of.
-  The Cuyahoga River, which flowed near my Ohio home and on into Lake Erie, actually caught fire as memorialized in the Randy Newman song “Burn On Big River”.  It took many days to put the fire out.  There was so much flammable toxic sludge on top of the river that pumping water from the river onto the flames could not extinguish it.  As I recall, at least one bridge in Cleveland burned up as a result of the river fire.
-  Alligators were nearly extinct in the swamps in Louisiana where I spend most of my childhood.
- Giant Condors were nearly extinct (I am not sure if they ever recovered).
- All the buildings on the Carnegie-Mellon U. campus (and elsewhere in Pittsburgh) were literally black with soot.  At night I could see light from the blast furnaces in the valley below and the air smelled weird and left a funky metallic taste in my mouth.

These items are not the result of exhaustive research.  In fact, they are simple everyday items I remember from my relatively uniformed childhood.

- Lake Erie is now a sport fishery.
- Some of the nearly extinct species rebounded.
- Alligators are now common enough to be a pest in the southern U.S.
- The air in Pittsburgh is relatively clean and most of the older buildings have been sandblasted back to their original stone or cement color.

So thirty years of pollution controls, superfund clean ups, automobile exhaust regulations, and much more have made a very positive difference.  As we are willing to spend a bit of money on it, I am sure we can do much more.  Yes, I want to make it a priority to feed hungry people and to spread the gospel.  I would just like to make it a bit less of a priority to have a lot of the kind of crap that people like me buy and consume.  I am positively swimming in a sea of possessions and I keep buying more.  Paying for pollution clean up is a weird sort of thing.  You don’t get cool catalogues which trick you into parting with your money to pay for nuclear waste disposal or sulfur dioxide scrubbers.  You don’t see T.V. ads with scantily clad women draped all over some guy who just bought a lower emissions car.  Pollution clean up is mostly done with taxes and regulations which most companies and many individuals find onerous, at least at first.  And since we are a democracy, the whole regulations and taxes thing is a very, very messy, inefficient process.   However, judging by the environmental status of African dictatorships or former Soviet block countries, democracy and bridled capitalism may be the best government and economic system we have to work with.

Take heart.  Even on this sin cursed earth, prior to Jesus’ return, progress can be and has been made.  Pray that each one of us will become just a bit wiser about how to spend our time and money.