One Woman’s Search for Truth

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(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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Some thoughts on Holy Week

jesus-holy-weekSome thoughts on Holy Week from my friend John Tully.

A brief word about Holy Week.  For many of you of a Protestant or Reformed heritage, Holy Week may not carry much significance.  For the Church universal, Holy Week is the most solemn of days.  It might be compared to the High Holy-days that Jews observe in September – October (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Holy Week is a reminder of the last week of Jesus’ life.  The week begins with an eruption of symbolism in Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem.  It is an eruption because the ruckus Jesus is stirring compels the leaders of the Jews to ask Jesus to tell the crowd to be quiet.  Jesus, riding on a donkey or the foal of a donkey, mimicked how a victorious (Jewish) king would return to Jerusalem in peace.  These leaders were afraid that the unruly crowds would foment a riot thus forcing the evil Romans to quash the melee and who know what else.

In John Chapter 1 we read that Jesus is the Word who was in the beginning with God “and the Word was God”.  “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.”  You recall that in Genesis God created all things by “… and God said…”.  Jesus was the Word God spoke when he brought all things into existence.  I say all this only to emphasize that Jesus never spoke an idle word — for him to speak something could spell disaster if he did not guard what he said.

The next time we see Jesus he is in the temple turning over the tables of the sellers and money changers.  As he does so he quotes from Jeremiah 7:9-11 [again not speaking idly]: ” ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘” My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:13 NIV)  Jeremiah prophesying for the LORD says: ” ‘Will you steal and murder commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe” — safe to  do all these detestable things?  Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you?…’ ” (Jeremiah 7:9-11 NIV)  As you see, Jesus took very seriously the scripture.

As the week continues a deeply tragic and symbolic event unfolds before unseeing eyes and deaf ears.  At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:35-36).  Those who wanted Jesus dead were in a tight schedule.  Jesus had to die before Passover which is why he was subjected to the “kangaroo court” in the middle of the night — time was of the essence.  Then they trotted Jesus off Pilate to condemn him to death.  As Jesus is hanging on that cross, the Passover lamb was being slaughtered — parallel dramas unfolding before their eyes.  This is mindboggling and yet goes unnoticed by the “rulers, teachers, scribes, Pharisees and elders”, those who should be sensitive to such “scriptural” things.

This Passover lamb was first slain by Moses in Egypt.  Its blood was to be painted on the doorframes of the Hebrews’ houses so that the angel of death would see the blood and “pass over” that house.  It is this same imagery to which Paul refers: “… For Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.  Therefore, let us keep the festival.” (1 Corinthians 5:7b-8a NIV)  Jesus’ blood does for us what the Passover lamb’s blood did for the Hebrews in Egypt — the angel of death has “passed over”.

All of what Jesus went through that week would mean absolutely nothing if he did not rise from the dead on the first day of the following week.  His resurrection confirms everything he ever said or did.

I guess this has not been such a “brief” word.

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.

A Law Worthy of Song. A closer look at Psalm 119.

The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous …they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. (Psalm 19:9-10)

Psalm 119 is one long and strange poem dedicated to the beauty of God’s law and one man’s struggle to keep it.  We can understand poems dedicated to a lover, a sunset, or a work of art, but to a set of laws? I have a hard time imagining even lawyers composing such poetry, unless “if the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” qualifies as a poem.  But I wonder if our own myopic view of God’s law is to blame because we have come to see it only as set of restrictions and punishments. But that’s not how God sees it.  For him, it is a way of life, a kingdom whose subjects live in right relationship with God, their neighbor and with creation.  The DNA of this way of life is contained in two  simple commands:

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Leviticus 19:18 Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus was asked what he thought was the greatest commandment and in his answer he brought these two together:

Matthew 22:37-38 Jesus replied: “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.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This is the way of life Jesus taught.   This is the way he lived.  It is the way he expects us to follow.

God’s law, as only a set of rules, will never inspire a poet.  But the law as a new way of living, where the harmony of creation is restored as humanity is brought back into right relationship with God, neighbor, and all creation, has the power to move this poet.  The struggle to have that dream realized in our lives. The fight to love God, when we are wired to love ourselves.  The challenge to love our neighbor as ourselves, including our enemies, even when we care barely love our families. The discovery that Jesus stepped out of heaven and fulfilled this law for us, died for our failures, rose from the dead so that this vision might be realized in our lives, and poured out his Spirit that this way of life might spread virus-like though our world. That’s the stuff of epic poems.

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psalm 119:97)

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth. (Psalm 119:103)

May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.  I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight. Let me live that I might praise you, and may your laws sustain me.  I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. (Psalm 119:173-176)

Bold, Desperate and Shameless Prayer. Why praying for the Holy Spirit matters.

The Holy Spirit comes with tongues fire and a rushing wind on the church at Pentecost. (Jean Restout)

Fear rushed upon the poor man as he frenetically searched his cupboards for bread to serve his unexpected guest. It was midnight and not a morsel of food could be found.  Driven by the impending shame,  he slips quietly out the back door, rushes to his neighbor’s house and frantically bangs on the front door.

“Go away.  We are already asleep and the doors are locked!” an angry groggy voice sounds from inside the house. The man continues to pound and when the door opens he brazenly asks his irate neighbor for a loaf of bread. The desperate man does not return home empty handed.

This is what prayer should look like. Desperate.  Bold. Shameless.

Jesus goes on to say in Luke 11.

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

But this begs the question.  Just what are we desperate for? We can remember times when we were driven to the point of desperation and we pounded on the doors of heaven.  There was an illness, an accident or an exam that caused us to drop all inhibitions and lift up bold, shameless prayers.  But for most of us these moments are too few because we are too wealthy. We have too many options.  Credit cards if the money runs low.  Medications if I am feverish, anxious or nauseous. These can all be blessings from God, but they can dangerously mask the deep dependence we fear. There is a deeper need beyond health, economic security and family peace. The question is whether we have the sensitivity to perceive it.

So we return to the question: What are we desperate for?  Look closely at what Jesus points to.

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:11-13)

We are desperate for the Holy Spirit, but we don’t know it.  I didn’t. That is until God began to maneuver me into places of powerlessness. I became a husband and without the Spirit of God I will continue to be the selfish, self-centered, arrogant 20 something  I was when I got married. I am a father to a son and four daughters.  I can’t make them follow Jesus, let alone model Jesus to them. Only the Spirit will kindle their faith as he did mine. I am a pastor and have found that all the preparation and planning means absolutely nothing unless he shows up. I cannot heal, open minds, convince someone to believe the gospel or make someone change.

Slowly, God has exposed my weakness while revealing the superior power of His Spirit. Gradually, my desperation has grown and with it prayers for the Holy Spirit. He is the breath animating our dusty bodies. He is the rain craved by drought stricken cornfields. He is the heat that ignites the flame. The truth is inescapable: we need him and we need to ask for him boldly, desperately and shamelessly.

The other day I shared my desire to pray consistently for the Holy Spirit with my friend John Tully. He graciously handed me a copy of a prayer adapted (to fit our evangelical tradition) from the “Act of Consecration to the Holy Spirit” which he prays every morning. Think about using it your times of daily prayer.

O Holy Spirit, divine Spirit of light and love, I consecrate to Thee my understanding, my heart and my will, my whole being for time and for eternity.  May my understanding be always submissive to Thy heavenly inspirations; may my heart be ever inflamed with love of God and of my neighbor; may my will be ever conformed to the divine will, and may my whole life be a faithful imitation of the life and virtues of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and Thee be honor and glory forever.  Amen.

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.