I Give Up

I have found an area of agreement with Paul. And it feels, well, ok.  (See this post for why that is more than a little surprising).

I’m a Presbyterian now so I guess that makes me part of the chosen.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  If you grow up unchosen, as I did, at some point you have to “give your life to Christ”.  It’s a public thing.  Basically, you respond to a song at the end of a church service, with everyone staring at you, knowing good and well that attached to every staring eye is an empty stomach.  You’re the only thing between all those people and the buffet line.  It’s a little intimidating.  Suffering for the gospel starts early for the unchosen.

I accepted my invitation one night after dinner at church camp (I’m clever that way; not a hungry person in the crowd).  I was nine years old.  I came forward to strumming guitars and a room full of people singing I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.  When I got to the front, someone asked me if I wanted Jesus to be Lord of my life.  They way I figured it, some grown up was lording over virtually every part of my life anyway.  “Yea, sure,” I said.

Paul talks alot about the Lordship of Christ.  Perhaps Paul and I should have talked before I made my fateful decision that night.  Because this Lordship stuff is tough.  In part because Paul says that Jesus is the Lord of everything.

For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones of powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.  He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.  And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy.

Everything?  Talk about a control freak.  Geesh.

It seems to me like there ought to be some things that are just off limits.  And as to what those things are, I’m open to negotiation.  My church life?  Jesus, take the wheel.  My family life?  I get that.  My free time?  Yea, sure, some of it anyway.  My work life?  We can talk about that.  My finances?  My priorities?  My body?  My speech?  My thoughts?  Everything?

Everything, says Paul.

This Lordship stuff is tough but I think Paul is right on this one.  I think Jesus wants to be Lord of everything.  And I’m not there yet.  In fact, it’s difficult for me to even imagine how life under Lordship would work.  It’s difficult for me to imagine a life in which I completely give up control of decisions involving my finances, my family, my work, even my thoughts.  Maybe I’m the control freak.  But just the thought of that makes me very uncomfortable.  Like most folks, I value my independence and my self sufficiency.  Giving that up makes me nervous.

But whether I knew it or not, the decision I made nearly forty years ago, was to give myself wholly and unconditionally to God.  And that means making him Lord of my life –every part of it.  As Paul says in the fourteenth chapter of Romans:

For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9

So, Paul, I’m with you on this Lordship stuff.  I think you’ve got it about right.  That doesn’t make it any easier.  And I still think you’re wrong about some of the other stuff.  But I’ll save that for later.

An Open Letter to Paul

I have a confession to make.  Over the last 10 plus years of teaching sunday school, I’ve spent little to no time on a large section of the New Testament.  Basically, I’ve chosen not to give Paul any airtime.  I just don’t care for the guy.  And that’s wrong.  I admit it and I’m here to make amends.

But first, let me explain myself (and get in a few more digs).  First, I’ve got an authority problem.  As in, who is this guy and why do I have to listen to him?  As I understand it, Paul was born two years after Jesus’ death.  Ok, fine.  I suppose you can claim to be an authoritative expert on the teachings of a man you’ve never met.  Particularly if you do everything you can to soak up the first hand knowledge of those who did know Jesus really, really well, like his disciples.  Except, in Galatians, Paul tells us that he’s never spent any time with the disciples, except for a brief visit with James, Jesus’ brother.  Ok, so you’ve never met Jesus and you haven’t bothered to learn from those who knew him really well, but I’m supposed to base most of my religious life on your writings?  You’re losing me, dude.

Paul claims — I mean tell us — that he knows Jesus personally because Jesus spoke to him directly for a five year period (after Jesus’ death) while Paul was in Jerusalem.  Believe it or not, I’m ok with this.  I think Jesus probably did speak to Paul this way.  I think Jesus speaks to a lot of us in this way.  In fact, like Paul, I had my own five year period back in my mid twenties, where I was convinced that Jesus was interacting with me in a real and personal and very significant way.  So I have no doubt that Paul could have had this same sort of experience.  My problem is not that it didn’t happen, but that even if it did happen, it doesn’t make Paul all that unique.  Paul may be divinely inspired but I’m not sure he’s any more divinely inspired than a lot of other people who have interacted with God in real and personal ways.

And that’s my other problem.  Interactions with God are, by their very nature, unique and personal.  God interacts with us when, and how, God chooses.  It’s different for each of us.  So is our interpretation of those interactions.  The messages that we take from those interactions is subject to our own bias, prejudice, and misunderstanding.  At least I know mine are and I have no reason to believe that Paul wouldn’t be subject to the same limitations as I am.

And then there’s the whole persecuting Christians thing.  I get it that he eventually gave that up.  Good for him.  But, seriously?  One day you’re stoning Christians — or at least watching passively as Stephen is murdered — and the next you’re calling yourself the father of Christianity and telling us all how to live?  I got a problem with that.  It’s like the guy on the corner downtown.  One day he’s high on crack and the next day he’s passing out religious tracks telling me I’m going to hell because I wasn’t immersed.  Whatever.

And then, there’s the biggie.  I think you’re just too darn conservative.  I think you listened to story after story about grace, and redemption, and reconciliation and forgiveness and some how came away thinking it was all about homosexuality, adultery, alcohol and dancing.  I don’t get that.  Unfortunately, lots of your followers do.  You’d be amazed (but hopefully not proud) to see how many people seem incredibly dismissive of Jesus’ message of grace but are more than willing to lift high your banner opposing gay marriage (you do talk about gay marriage, don’t you?).  Whether you intended it or not, I think a lot of your writing has given people cover to be less than graceful and I think that’s unfortunate.

So there you go.  I’ve been wanting to get that off my chest for years.  I’ve had my say.  Now it’s time for you to have yours.  The next few weeks, you’ve got the floor.  I’m going to do my best to give you a fair shake.

What’s in a Name?

Sunday School starts back up next week.  The start of a new year always causes me a little angst.  Partly, because I know that I will walk in to a room of nearly 30 kids, some of whom I’ve had in my class for years, some of whom will be there for the first time, and I won’t know the names of most of them.  I’m bad like that.

I used to work for South Carolina’s United States Senator, Fritz Hollings, a great man and a masterful politician.  Senator Hollings never forgot a name.  Ever.  And people loved him for it.  That he was able to call them by name made them feel incredibly special even if they didn’t care much for his politics.

Names are powerful.  Sometimes they can make us feel important (or maybe just old) — who can forget that first time someone younger calls us “Mr.” or “Mrs.”?  But names can also make us feel small — like when we’re kids and our parents call out our full names:  “James Benjamin Alexander, come here!”  Uh oh!  Sometimes names can make us feel bad or just plain hurt.  Kids learn this early — “doo-doo head” and “dummy” in the early days and then “geek”, “goober” or maybe “dumbass” later on.  Faggot. Asshole.  Liar.  Words can hurt.

Sometimes names describe us:  When I was younger, I was given the nickname “Friendly”.  Today, most folks who know me well just call me “Ben”.  People younger than me or who don’t know me as well might call me “Mr. Alexander” — suggesting a distance between us or at least a lack of familiarity.  And then there’s the extreme:  If I get a phone call from someone wanting to speak with “James B. Alexander”, I don’t generally return the call.

Names also define the nature of relationships and tell what we know about people.  The guy we used to call by first name becomes “Judge” or “Your Honor” when he’s wearing a black robe; the man or woman wearing a white coat might be called “Dr. Smith or Dr. Jones”; my school teachers remain Mrs. Cavan, Mrs. Carter and Mr. Byrd — and not Betty, Barbara or Robin.  Some names define the really special relationships.  Names like “sweatheart”, “sissy” or “honey”.  Or, my favorite name, “daddy”.  Hearing those names let’s us know that all is well with those very special relationships.

The names we give God have that same power — the power to tell others what we know about God, to describe the uniqueness of our relationship with God, and to let everyone know that all is well with that very personal relationship.  And God has many names.  No, really.  There are literally hundreds and hundreds of names for God in the bible.  (Here, this will get you started:  http://www.smilegodlovesyou.org/names.html).  Names that describe what others have come to know about God through experience.  Names like Yaweh.  Emmanuel.  Living Water.  Refuge.  Day Spring.  Fortress.

When I pray, I usually mindlessly revert back to the names for God that I learned as a child:  Heavenly Father, Lord, Merciful God.  But these names really have little meaning for me now and, to some extent, they may even hinder my relationship with God as they tend to refer to the authoritative God and, to be honest, I’m not so good with authority.  They certainly don’t reflect the uniqueness of the relationship I have with God or the totality of what I know about God.  I have experienced God, at one point or another, as a Teacher, a Counselor, a Life Line, and, to some extent, a Savior.  Someday, I want to be able to say that I have experienced God, and know God, as my Comforter, my Clarity, my Friend. My Abba.  And to feel comfortable calling Him by those names.

My goal for this new year in Sunday School is to learn the names of all the kids in the class.  I want to call them by name so that they will feel important and special.  But more importantly, I hope that together, we will learn new names for our God as we experience God together.

So, I’m curious.  By what name have you come to know God and does calling God by that name help you remember the uniqueness of that experience or that relationship?