One Woman’s Search for Truth

open-book-on-top-of-pile-of-books

(Testimony shared by Nicole Gallo at Pacific Union on May 12, 2013)

When I really began to take my faith seriously, I decided to get to the heart of what I believed by searching for truth and wisdom. Having gone to church all my life, but also having always attended secular school, there were a lot of arguments about truth. Most of the arguments were between Christians and non-Christians, but there were also many disagreements among the many Christian denominations as well. Some of these included the debates about the age of the Earth, Creation versus Evolution, how to approach others about what we believe, who we should pray to, even how we should pray. The list of controversies is nearly endless.

So I decided conduct a search to get to the heart of the matter about life as a non-Christian versus life as a Christian. I tried to go into the matter with an open mind, though I know that the Bible was at the center of my search and God’s truth was written on my heart. What I found didn’t answer the questions that people have been debating for centuries, but they did help me achieve a focus in my faith and make a lot of those questions fade into the background.

I came across one book that does a great job of describing what life looks like for people living in a first-world nation without God. The book is called Letters from a Peruvian Woman, which describes the experiences of an indigenous Peruvian woman who is captured and brought to France in the 1700s. Worship had always been at the center of the woman’s life, though she worshiped pagan gods, primarily the Sun. She studied French society, constantly trying to figure out what or who the people worshiped. This is what she described.

Upon making the slightest inquiry, one needs neither skill or insight to discern that their unbridled taste for the superfluous has corrupted their reason, their hearts, and their spirit, that it has built illusory riches upon the ruins of the necessary, that it has substituted a veneer of politeness for good manners, and that it has replaced common sense and reason with the false sparkle of wit.

The great pretense among the French is to appear lavishly wealthy. Genius, the arts, and perhaps even the sciences all relate back to ostentation, and contribute to the destruction of fortunes.

What seems criminal to me, is the superfluous born of the imagination being left unchecked that cannot be maintained without failing to meet one’s obligations to humanity and justice; in a word, the kind of which the French are idolaters and to which the sacrifice their tranquility and their honor.

Every day I hear the young people indignantly contesting among themselves the glory of having invested the most subtlety and skill into the maneuvers they employ to obtain the superfluous objects with which they adorn themselves.

What contempt would such men not inspire in me for the entire nation were I not also to know that they sin more frequently for lack of a correct understanding of things than for lack of forthrightness. Their frivolousness almost invariably excludes reasoning, and among them nothing is serious, nothing is weighty. One must appear rich. That is the fashion, the custom, one follows it.
(Letters from a Peruvian Woman)

In the society she observed, she saw emptiness of spirit, greed, falseness, pride, deception, frivolity and ultimately, selfishness, which is not at all dissimilar to what she would see in today’s American society. Nothing was sacred except for money and power. There was nothing about life that centered on virtue, morality, or caring about others. There are many people in the world, rich and poor, who worship things of no intrinsic value. Solomon researched and wrote about this kind of life in Ecclesiastes, and found it all to be, in his words, meaningless.

Then I searched for the purpose of the Christian’s life. It was perfectly described in a portion of the book, Life of Pi, when a young Indian boy was searching for God, and his path took him to a priest, who told him about Jesus’ life. This was his response.

That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die. That is tantamount to letting part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?

Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.

The Son who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with his followers who don’t get it and his opponents who don’t respect him- what kind of god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what.

This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god- and in a hot place, at that- with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps, and laments. What kind of god is that? What is there to inspire in the Son?

Love, said Father Martin.

And this Son appears only once, long ago, far away? Among an obscure tribe in a backwater of West Asia on the confines of a long-vanished empire? Is done away with before He has a single grey hair on His head? Leaves not a single descendent, only scattered, partial testimony. What would justify such a divine stinginess?

Love, repeated Father Martin.

I had tea with Father Martin three days in a row. Each time, as teacup rattled against saucer, as spoon tingled against edge of cup, I asked questions. The answer was always the same.
(Life of Pi)

The heart of the Christian message is love. A love that started with God and with Jesus Christ’s life and sacrifice. We are continually commanded in the Bible to love, as demonstrated by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love on another, as I have loved you. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Therefore the conclusion of my search was that at the heart of what I believe is to love as God loved, and as Jesus loved. The exceptional thing about that is that you don’t have to be rich to love. You don’t have to be powerful to love. You don’t have to be exceptionally intelligent to love. Love is something that we all can have in full supply, no matter how much we give away. It is enough to end all arguments and controversies. Love is worth living and dying for, as was exemplified by Jesus Christ.

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The Three-Legged Stool

three-legged_stoolI’ve been thinking a lot about three-legged stools since Mark’s sermon this past Sunday. They are superior to the four-legged bar stools in my kitchen which are never flush to the ground.  They rock.  They squeak. Their legs work themselves loose.  Three-legged stools are unique in their stability. Mark, of course, was not talking about carpentry so much, but the three legs that provide stability to our spirituality. Jesus identifies them in Matthew 6 as: giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. The long-term commitment to and deliberate practice of generosity, self-denial and prayer are the keys to a deep, rich, and strong spiritual life.

I have to admit that this grates against me for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, I am an American and as an American, I don’t associate spirituality with a set of practices. I see spirituality as a collection of experiences. I associate words like spontaneous, mind-blowing, unplanned, emotionally-charged and free-form. I think of settings like a concert or a gathering of people where God “suddenly shows up.” It feels more like a “high.”  I don’t tend to think of spirituality as a set of practices that are consistently followed for a long period of time.

Second, the whole idea of working at our relationship with Christ seems to be at odds with the whole concept of grace.  We teach at our church that God accepts us  not based on our performance, but on what Christ did for us. He became a human being.  He lived a perfect life for us.  He died our death. He rose from the dead. He offers eternal life to those who receive this gift by faith. Jesus does the work.  We receive the gift. So why should we do anything?  Wouldn’t giving to the poor, prayer and fasting turn into an attempt to make ourselves look good to God and to others. Didn’t Jesus die to save us from all this work?

There is some truth to this objection when you consider that Jesus’ fiercest opponents, the Pharisees, practiced all three legs of the spiritual stool religiously. The Pharisees gave at least 10% of their income. They fasted as often as twice a week. They prayed publicly.  And yet they hated Jesus and he rightly called them hypocrites. So what was wrong? It wasn’t the behavior, it was the motivation.

Matthew 6:2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and on the streets, to be honored by men.  I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:16 When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.

In other words, they were praying, fasting and giving to the poor for the same reason a wide receiver thumps his chest after scoring a touchdown or an actress wears a tight revealing dress on the red carpet — to be noticed, to be praised. Such religious practice is worthless because it is just a show. As Jesus says, why look for God to reward you, you’ve already received the reward you were seeking.

We all know religious types who are motivated by a desire to look good.  Religious showmen are plenty and Jesus rightly condemns their hypocrisy.  But he doesn’t condemn the practice, rather he calls us to do them with a new motivation.

Matthew 6:3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

CS Lewis in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, said that humans are wired with a “great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.” That, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. We all seek to be praised and affirmed. The question is, whose approval are we seeking?

I attended the Celtics-Knicks game back in January and I was struck by the crowds’ scramble to get noticed by the fan-cam and be broadcasted on the jumbotron. There we were, 60,000 people desperately wanting to get noticed.  Perhaps the mark of the shallowness of our spirituality is our obsession with celebrity.   We worship those who are obnoxious enough to grab headlines or catch the camera-man’s eye. It has infected the church.  Pastors like me want bigger churches that will afford more attention and gain more accolades. We want to publish books.  We want to speak at large conferences. We want to get on TV. We want to be praised, but we are seeking it from those whose rewards are worthless.

Jesus is not denying our desire to be noticed or praised even. He is calling us to seek the praise of the one whose love is far more rewarding.  Those who are satisfied by the accolades of other people will miss out on this deeper spiritual blessing. For there is one whose love and rewards will last for eternity, far longer than the 15 minutes that the camera or going viral can offer. This deeper spirituality is driven by a desire to hear the words Jesus heard from his Father, “well done good and faithful servant.”

Jesus wants us to pray, give to the poor and fast. But he wants us to do it for his sake and the praise he offers. But, as it is with all good things, this praise comes with a cost.  We must do these things secretly. Give and don’t tell anyone about it. Pray regularly but do it when no one is around. Fast often, but don’t complain about it.

This is hard, because God seems distant and invisible compared to the people in our life.  Their reward is immediate.  God’s rewards often take time. But that is how it is with true spirituality.  You give up the lesser immediate joy for the one whose blessings last for eternity. Give, pray and fast, but do it only so God can see.  Give up the lesser high of human praise for the greater joy of hearing the Father say, “well done good and faithful servant.”

The Season of Lent, as Mark likes to say, is a “spiritual laboratory” where we try out spiritual practices that may one day become lifelong disciplines. Try giving, praying and fasting under the cloak of secrecy for the Season of Lent.  Set down the three legs of your spiritual life and look for the Holy Spirit to ween you from your craving of human approval so that you might enjoy the eternal blessings of God who loves you and accepts what you have to offer through the life and death of his Son.

Life, Death, and the Image of God. Some thoughts on Question 2 and other life questions we face.

Does a terminally ill patient have the right to end their life? These and other important questions can not be answered apart from the truth that all human beings are created in the image of God.

A man is bed-ridden and suffering pain from a disease which he has little hope of overcoming. The doctors have given him months to live.  Does he have the right to take medication that will end his life? (We will be voting on Massachusetts Question #2 in a couple of weeks.)

A young woman learns she is pregnant. She is lonely and afraid with no means of support and no man in picture to help raise the child. Does she have the right to terminate the pregnancy?

Intelligence operatives believe that a man in Pakistan may be plotting a terrorist attack. Does the government have the right to send in a drone to end his life and the lives of those who happen to with him?

These are not academic questions, but challenges that have real life and death consequences. So how do we as Christians approach them? Where would we begin to think compassionately and clearly about such things?

Before we begin, I’d like to say that the purpose of this article is not to spoon-feed you the answers, but to consider some principles to guide our thinking.  Some of these questions will have clear answers, others will not, and on those we may disagree.  The goal is to help us find a common set of principles by which we can think through and discuss ethical questions. So here goes …

Christians for two thousand years have placed an emphasis on the high value of life, our moral failures not withstanding. This impulse cannot be explained apart from what theologians call “the image of God” which is taken from Genesis 1:27.

Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created him.

Every human being, men and women, children, rich and poor, young and old, athletic and severely handicapped, moral and wicked, bears the image of God. All questions of human rights and the value of human life cannot be separated from this idea. Why?

Images are very important to the worship of God. All religions in the Ancient Near East that surrounded Israel worshiped the gods through the aid of images or idols. It was believed that a sacrifice offered before a  god’s image was the same as sacrificing to the god itself. If you spoke to the idol, you were speaking to the deity. If you attacked the idol, you were attacking the god itself. You get the idea.

What is unique about the worship of God in Israel (the setting of the book of Genesis and the Old Testament) is that God forbids them to make idols of himself. How could they worship this God without the aid of images? Why would God make such a prohibition? Because God had already filled the world with images of himself. His images were living, breathing, human beings, not lifeless idols made of wood and stone.

Here is why this is significant. Anything that is done to the image of God, is done to God himself. Any attack on human life, is an attack against God.. Any act of love shown to a human being is an expression of love for God. In other words, God takes murder, rape, oppression, exploitation, and callous indifference towards an image-bearer personally.

This is why Jesus taught us two “Greatest Commandments.”

Matthew 22:37-39 ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.

He did not separate the two commands because it is impossible to love God without honoring those who bear his image.

1 John 4:20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.

A terminally ill cancer wants to end his life. A frightened young woman wants to terminate her pregnancy. A fearful nation seeks to execute a potential terrorist by drone strike before he has an opportunity to commit terror. These life and death situations must be considered through the lens that a sick person, an unborn child, and an enemy all bear the image of God.

Here are some questions we must ask:

  • Can a person take his own life without striking out at the God whose image he bears?
  • Does not children bear the image of God even before they are born? “For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
  • Should we use weapons such as drones, which allows us to conveniently wage war and thus lower our inhibitions to go to war, when our enemies bear the image of God? Is ‘kill our enemies before they kill us’ compatible with Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemies’?

At the same we must ask these counter questions:

  • What responsibility do we have to alleviate our neighbor’s suffering? Can we do it without killing them and striking out against God’s image?
  • If we ask a mother to carry her baby to term, what responsibility do we have to her, who, like her baby, bears the image of God?
  • How do governments balance their responsibility to protect its citizens and punish those who kill image bearers of God (Genesis 9:6) while respecting the truth that Jesus includes our enemies in the category of neighbor and fellow image-bearers of God?

I have only begun to scratch the surface on these questions. What do you think? What questions do you have? Start a conversation by posting a comment. This is too important to overlook.

Bringing Christ to Work

Workers

Jesus never said that it was holier to be a pastor or missionary than to be a banker, a teacher, a builder or a stay-at-home-mom. Our highest calling is to serve God in the fields where he has placed us.

Walter Crutchfield had two conversions. His first was when he decided to become a follower of Jesus.  The second was when he learned that a Christian’s highest calling is not necessarily to go into full-time ministry, but to serve in the field that God had placed him.  For Walter that calling was to work in real estate.

Walter was a successful real estate developer when he came to Christ. His church helped him understand the gospel’s impact on his private life, but he struggled to make the connection between the gospel he learned on Sunday morning and the work he did during the week.  He couldn’t see how being a Christian connected to the workplace beyond his  occasional attempts to shoehorn conversations about Jesus with his coworkers.  It wasn’t until the real estate crash of 2009 that devastated the economy in Phoenix did Walter begin wonder if the gospel might also something to say about the way he developed real estate. He was knee deep in real estate bubble that built housing to suit the worst motivations of humanity: the greedy “I deserve to have it all” mentality that led to foreclosures, unemployment, and bankruptcy. He asked himself,  “Does Jesus have anything to say about the type of homes and the type of communities I build?”

Walter’s struggle is not unique. We pastors (myself included) have done a poor job of helping you understand how the gospel connects to your work life, where you spend spend the bulk of your time. We failed to answer questions such: What does it mean to be Christian executive, teacher, banker, landlord, pipefitter, stay-at-home mom or business owner? How do I bring Jesus in the marketplace?

I don’t have a lot of answers at this point, but I would like to start a conversation. Could you help us out by taking some time to watch the five minute video below by clicking on the link below?

What kinds of questions does it raise? What challenged your understanding of work? How might the gospel affect the way you approach your work? Share your thoughts with us by posting a comment.

WATCH THE VIDEO Business Declares the Glory of God by Nathan Clarke – Christianity Today – October 8, 2012 

Turning the Shark

Great White SharkAs we saw in the previous post, Psalm 119 is a poem inspired by one man’s love for the law of God and his struggle to keep it. Scattered throughout this enormous prayer are pleas to God that he might teach him to follow his laws:

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. (Psalm 119:34-35)

Really? God has done all these things for me and my life is nowhere near the example that Jesus left for us. I’ve memorized the 10 Commandments, but do not keep them. I’ve read how Jesus loved his enemies, but I struggle to love my wife and kids.  I fear people more than I fear God. I get paid to study and teach them, but I am reminded daily of my failures. That’s the problem. I know what I’m supposed to do. I just don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have more to learn about what it means to love God and my neighbor. I get what the author is praying for, but what troubles me is that I don’t obey what I already know. It’s like what the Apostle Paul once described:

… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:17-18)

Fortunately Psalm 119 keeps going, for if it ended at that point, there would no hope for me. He showed me what do, I failed, end of story. But I kept reading and then I understood what I needed.

Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. (Psalm 119:36-37)

Stu Batstone, who was one of my gospel mentors, compared my sin to a great white shark. Imagine you’ve gone swimming down at the Cape Cod National Seashore. You take in the sights:  the sun reflecting off the waters,  a colony of seals sunning themselves on the sand. Suddenly, you see a triangle moving towards you at an alarming speed. You’ve seen the reports on the six o’clock news, so you prepare yourself for a shark attack.  Who in their right mind would stand their ground, grab the fin and attempt to turn the creature out to sea? It sounds crazy and yet this is how I try to fight sin.

The shark fin is the sin I can see. I’m selfish. I have a temper. I’m self-absorbed. I’m lustful. I know I shouldn’t do these things, but when I try to turn it, my strength fails me.  Why?  Because there is shark weighing hundreds of pounds attached to that fin lurking just under the surface.  My problem is not that I occasionally do bad things. I have a heart that is diseased. It loves and desires all the wrong things.  When the Lord’s Prayer teaches me to pray “your will be done,” I turn to heaven and pray “please do my will.”

Therefore, my problem goes deeper than a few bad habits that are visible above the surface that can be reformed with some good advice. We can stop ourselves from watching explicit movies, but can we stop lusting? We can learn to be generous with our money, but can we stop ourselves from putting our needs ahead of others? We can attend church on Sundays, but can we stop our hearts from being more excited by a touchdown than we are by the gospel? No. We need God to turn our hearts, for the shark is far bigger than we know.

The writer of Psalm119 understands this. He knows that he needs God to instruct him how to love other people, but he also realizes that he lacks the strength to turn the shark . So he prays, “turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish things.”  In other words, God, I need you change the things that I love.

When we pray, let’s go deeper than worrying about what is above the surface. Let’s ask the difficult questions: What do we love more than God? What are the worthless things that have attached themselves to ours heart? Let’s confess these to God and pray that he will turn our hearts so that his love will capture our hearts and turn our actions towards Christ.

What Gilbert taught me about gratitude

Gilbert Paille on his front stoop, his favorite spot. (Photo courtesy of Jon Borden)

There is a semi-professionally looking sheetrock patch job next to my front door and it has Gilbert’s name on it. Several years ago, we were part of disaster recovery team that went down to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to repair homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Gilbert was the team’s master carpenter and I was his underling, barely qualified to pick up heavy stuff. He proved not only to be an excellent contractor, but also a patient teacher, Thanks to his tutelage I learned the basics of hanging sheetrock and mudding.

I visited Gilbert three weeks before he died of liver cancer to thank him and to report on my handiwork. A smile flickered across Gilbert’s face as I described my work.

“Yaw! I gave many guys their start in construction,” he said in his trademark Cannuck accent.

“They must be some of the most rewarding experiences of your life.” I replied trying my best to encourage him.

“Naawwwww Man! It was frus-TRAAAYYYYTTTT-ing!”

Gilbert’s response startled me. Was it that agonizing for him to watch me handle a screw gun in Mississippi?

“Why Gilbert?” I asked bracing myself for the answer.

“We lost so many,” he whispered with eyes full of pain. “I would go down to Steppingstones (a residential rehab program in Fall River) and take guys out on construction jobs to teach them the trade. But so many disappeared after they received their first paycheck, the temptation was just too great. So many I never saw again.”

“So why did you keep doing it?” I asked.

His face softened. “Because I was grateful. When I pray, ‘I thank God for the gift of life’, I mean it.”  And he did. You see, Gilbert recently celebrated twenty four years clean. God had literally picked him up out of the  gutter and had given him second life. It was a gratitude created by God’s grace that made him who he was. It was a thankful heart that gave him the strength to minister to hopeless cases. For he had been hopeless, but God had set him free.

I went home wondering why I lacked Gilbert’s sense of gratitude. I think it’s because I managed to limit my sins to the socially acceptable variety. I never hit the same level of desperation, but I should have. In Luke 7, Jesus visited the home of a religious man named Simon the Pharisee. Simon was suspicious of Jesus and wanted to see if Jesus was up to par. During the dinner party, a prostitute burst into the room and rushed over to Jesus. To Simon’s horror she began embracing Jesus’ feet and allowing her tears to fall on his dirty feet. She wiped them dry with her hair and poured perfume on them.

Jesus did not stop his sinful woman, all the while he is looking intently at Simon reading his thoughts. He has one question for the indignant Pharisee. Two men were forgiven a debt owed to their master. One debt was smaller and the other larger. Which man would love the master more?

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward this woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins are forgiven – for she loved much. But he has been forgiven little loves little. (Luke 7:43-47)

Unlike Simon and unlike myself, Gilbert never forgot how much he had been forgiven. He was forgiven much and therefore in gratitude he loved much. More than sheetrock, Gilbert taught me gratitude. Thank you Gilbert and thank you Jesus.