Friday, February 27, 2015

Truly I tell you, you can't control Heaven.

Currently our church is studying the SEVEN LAST WORDS OF JESUS FROM THE CROSS. This is my second of seven reflections on how each relates to me. We call it, LOVE'S LAST WORDS, because Jesus, full of love as he died, mustered up all his strength to say seven things that would change the world forever. 

BLOG #2 of 7: HEAVEN.

Flashback part 1: (January 25, 2015).

Him: You're going to Hell!
Me: Who? Me? What? You don't even know me. 
Him: If you love the world you don't love God. You're going to Hell.
Me: (Internal talk: Wait. Breathe. Just talk to him) What's your name?
Him: Luke
Me: I'm Tony. How about getting to know me before condemning me to Hell.
Him: If you don't repent, you're going to Hell. 
Me: Ok, but you know anything about me, Luke....  I love Jesus, bro! 
Him: Not if you're part of Hollywood, you don't. 

I was working production in Los Angeles on the SAG AWARDS, a live telecast celebrating actor's achievements in TV and Film  I've done it for three years, and it's a blast, with a great group of people to work alongside. I had to run an errand for the production coordinator during the celebrity red carpet arrivals. Since all of the production crew must be dressed to the nines, too, "black tie," I fit in with the rest of the tuxedo wearing A-listers. I darted out of the theater on the side street and ran into a group of  "protesters."

I had never been the "victim" of this type of harassment. I've seen them before doing their thing, and tried to start conversations (to no avail), read articles how they show up at funerals,  gay pride parades, and set up at city centers and the like. But never have I been the one being condemned.

OK, so hold up for a second. 

Let's talk about Heaven.
How do we "get" to  Heaven?

Ask that question of ten people and you might get ten different answers, even from smart, churchy, seminary, theologian-type people.

Some possible answers you might hear are:
  • Accept Jesus in your heart 
  • Repent of your sins and turn to God
  • Believe Jesus died for your sins
  • Believe Jesus is God
  • Believe Jesus is the only way to Heaven
  • Live a good life, be a good person
  • Acknowledge your immorality and confess your sin to God
  • Follow Jesus
  • Get saved and be baptized
  • Stop sinning and get baptized
  • Acknowledge you deserve Hell and ask God to rescue you from that punishment
  • Humble yourself before God and he will lift you up
  • Raise your hand, come to the altar, pray the sinner's prayer
  • Have faith in God, it's simple
  • Just pray
  • Get right with God
(and I guess, according to the protesters, ya just add "or go to hell," on the end of each of these to add some punch).

Me: I'm a pastor, Luke.
Him: Just because you're a pastor doesn't mean you're going to Heaven.
Me: Um. ya. You're right, but I know Jesus, like really know him!  I know the gospel. 
Him: If you did, you wouldn't be a part of this.
Me:This? What do you mean?
Him: Debauchery, greed...
Me: Luke, you're condemning me, judging me harshly and you just met me. You don't know my heart. 
Luke: Anyone who loves the world, cannot be a friend of God. All those people in there are going to Hell, and I'm here to tell them that. All these Hollywood movies are sending people to Hell.
Me: Dude, I have friends in there. I love the people in that building. What makes you think yelling at them is going to help them? And have you seen any of the movies we're celebrating tonight?
Him: It's all blasphemous
Me: What? Boyhood? Birdman? Stories about people finding themselves, looking for hope and purpose
Him: God is the only hope, without him, you're going to Hell. 

Wow. At the heart of what he was saying, there was truth. But clouded in horrible judgement and misconceptions.
I tried. I really did. I had to walk away. Our conversation was going nowhere.

What the heck? 

No wonder so many of us are confused, discouraged and exhausted by even thinking about Heaven (and Jesus), let alone trying to have a conversation it.

To any and all who've been treated poorly by anyone claiming to represent Jesus: I'm sorry. Not all those who represent Jesus are like that, and before you write Jesus off, get to know him-he will rock your world. (Do people still say that?).

Jesus said seven WORLD ROCKIN' things from the cross.  

Last week I blogged about his amazing, scandalous forgiveness that just seems unreasonable, and in some circumstances unfair. If I had to rank these seven sayings, his first two are just out of the gate, life altering.
  • Father forgive them (his accusers, mockers, murderers), for they do not know what they are doing.
  • Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Jesus was murdered for claiming to be God. 
 He was called a blasphemer He broke society's rules. Big societal NO-NO's like ....uh...working on the Sabbath (Saturday), and touching people who were bleeding or sick (a religious regulation that kept people oppressed and ostracized, away from God, even).

Jesus also forgave anybody and everybody. So y'know, murderers, prostitutes, whores... Swindlers and extortionists, people who stole money and manipulated hard working money earning civilians the equivalent of Enron. And Jesus would hang out with them and forgive them.  Then he would send them out on his behalf to recruit others.

And I'm sure he could stomach a Hollywood mucky muck or two, as well. He even forgave HIS OWN murderers in the very act! Who does that?

Man, we royally miss the the point, don't we? I'm not just talking about those unhappy campers hurling the fire and brimstone. 

I'm no different. It's our human propensity to separate and segregate others. Why do we do this? Because we are prideful and entitled. We flat out don't like people because they are not like us, or they don't think like us, or act like us, and even because "they" don't look like us. 

This isn't just happening on red carpet fashion shows. 

It's happening both in the church and on the street.
We love to say who's in and who's out, don't we? 
We love to CONTROL who's in and who's out. 

But Jesus won't stand for that.

His interaction with the criminal on the cross is evidence of that. Jesus would have nothing to do with our rules, our systems, our formulas, or our divisive ways especially when it came to who was in and out. Jesus was fully human, yet fully God. He lived totally outside of our Earthly laws. 

He lived a life of love and was killed for it.

And he hung, innocent, between two criminals, one turned to him, belittled him and mocked him. This criminal was dying and bleeding just like Jesus but he  demanded Jesus rescue him if he truly had the power of Heaven he claimed.

There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” -Luke 23 38-39
The other criminal, nailed to the cross for his crimes as well, (of which are never fully "itemized" but could have been  murder, theft, rape, or all of the above), recognized his actions justified his punishment.
 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”  -Luke 40-41

This criminal humbled himself. He knew he was wrong, and notice Jesus didn't have to hurl insults at him.

He looked at Jesus and simply said, "Remember me when you come into your Kingdom." Jesus looked right back at him and said, "Truly I tell you, today you'll be with me in paradise."

See ya in Heaven buddy! You're goin' with me! YOU'LL BE WITH ME. 

(Notice: The most important part of Heaven is being WITH JESUS).

Many people have been miffed, rattled, encouraged, and stimulated Jesus' interaction with the criminal for centuries. Why?
  • This criminal didn't get baptized
  • This criminal only had a few hours, if that, to "get right" with God. 
  • This criminal  didn't specifically ask Jesus for "forgiveness," outloud.
  • This criminal didn't raise his hand, or come to an altar
  • This criminal didn't profess his faith or even confess his multitude of sins one by one
  • This criminal didn't hear a sermon 
  • This criminal never said the sinner's prayer, or shouted Amen

YET, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise
 (Luke 23:38-43). 

I just love this because it is so messy! I love messy! Messy can put is in our place and turn us upside down!

Any attempt we try to convey a list of rules, a formula, or overlay any specific one way to get to heaven, OTHER than simply COMING TO JESUS, is just....wrong. Even saying "coming to Jesus," requires an explanation. 

Yes, the criminal realized he had deserved punishment and he recognized the greatness of God. (All this is a bit implied in what he said," but the only words he said to Jesus were "Remember me, when you come into your kingdom."

Was this an acknowledge of his faith?

Maybe so. And I think it was a simple faith. So simple it is even hard to nail down and describe, difficult to understand, maybe even unfair in comparison to the faith of others.  (Listen to a podcast from our church's lead pastor here).

Doesn't this make you squirm? It does for me.

We want absolutes, especially when it comes to Heaven. But honestly, if we want assurance of Heaven, it's works in our favor it's not dependent on US, on our good and bads, etc

The only absolute we have, in regards to Heaven, is that JESUS is the KEY and he HOLDS the key! Heaven is about being WITH HIM!

So what do you think about Jesus? What do you think about Heaven?

Jesus is obviously not going to let your criminal history, past, sins, bad choices, fill in the blank negative blah blah blah prevent you from being with him, and being with him in Heaven.

And add to that all the things we use to separate others... and ourselves... from heaven.
  • Religions and/or rule following
  • Political parties
  • Hollywood parties :) 
  • Ethnicity or race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Denominational affiliations
  • Social economic status
  • Education
  • _____________________
  • Not even a past of refusing, mocking or working against Jesus (The apostle Paul, St. Paul, was a famous "Christian killer," who experienced Jesus, miraculously changed and ended up telling everyone about this amazing grace, writing most of what we know as the New Testament). 

And for that reason, I'm glad. Because I'm just like that criminal. 

I feel so thankful. 

Because Jesus looks at me, a guy who's far from having it all together, who's messed up a lot, and says, "You'll be with me." 

And I'm sure of it. I'm just a simple person who's simply said YES to Jesus , and  he welcomes me, whether I'm in a suit or in rags. 

No matter who believes it or not.

If you're someone who follows Jesus and wants others to know him, to understand Heaven--then just love people and talk to people about this story. 

  • Talk to them about the thief on the cross, don't leave that out. He had no good works, no great life to show God. 
  • Share the love of Jesus. Our God who would die for us. Share who Jesus REALLY is, the things he did and said, and be careful not to put our judgements on who is in and who is out. 
Can we just do this with out picket signs?

Let's leave the deciding the "who's going to Heaven and who's not" work to Jesus, he's a bit better at it then we are.

I'm pretty sure when I get to Heaven, I'll be surprised by who I see there. And I'm sure, many will be surprised I got in, too. Heck, even I know it's a gift and miracle I get to go! (Thank you Jesus!).

And I hope..really hope I get to see Luke, my picketing protester, in Heaven. That he would truly understand the amazing, scandalous love of Jesus, that would even include him, too.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Father, forgive the BULLIES, for they don't know what they are doing.

Currently our church is studying the SEVEN LAST WORDS OF JESUS FROM THE CROSS.
 I am inspired to write seven blogs reflecting on how each relates to me. We call it, LOVE'S LAST WORDS, because Jesus, full of love as he died, mustered up all his strength to say seven things that would change the world forever.  BLOG #1. FORGIVENESS

I’ve tried three times to contact him. I googled him.  He lives two hours from where I live in California (which is ironic because when I knew him we both lived in Illinois). He has an email because I found it on his website, for his job, in which he is well known. I emailed him twice. I messaged him on Facebook once, but I haven’t heard a thing back.

Let me back up.

It was October, about a year ago. I was called in as an “emergency grief counselor,” to comfort and pray with high school students, like a priest, through the unthinkable. One of their peers took his life. Students questioned, sobbed, and even confessed their own depression, self-hatred, and temptations to end it all.

I prayed. I listened. I sat silently, as words don't always help in these situations.
 If you’ve read my blog posts before, or know my story, suicide and its destruction is a companion I know far too well. I tried to keep my own emotions at bay, but as I left the campus, I erupted and nothing could stop it. I almost had to pull my car over for fear of running off the road as I couldn't stop crying.
Sadly, my reaction this October day was tied to a completely different tragedy from my past. The pain these students carried in their self worth issues, rivaled my own pain, that had marked me some twenty-five years before.

Like many, my middle school and high school years were marked with awkwardness. Those already tough times of coming into one’s identity, crowded with questions, family challenges, and puberty is hard to make out alive, let alone normal. But my story included some of the most deeply cutting, evil moments of bullying. (Of which cost me lots of money in counseling, but that also saved me in so many ways). 

We humans can be downright awful to each other. And from age 13-17 I incurred some scars. I have had much healing and I'm glad that those days are in the past. But there are times, like this day in the car, when I am teleported back in time against my will, to relive and remember those moments. And it can still hurt, and hurt bad.

I hear the names I was called in those dingy hallways like it was yesterday. I can see the hateful faces that pressed me up against a locker or two. I'm glad I didn't have the guts to follow through with my own suicidal temptations.

One bully in particular, in sixth and seventh grade, left me significantly bruised (in more ways than one). His name is hard to forget. After all these years, I never thought of ever looking him up. Why would I? I wanted to get as far away from him as possible. Although, I admit, I dreamed of a day when I'd have my revenge. I hoped I would be bigger, smarter, and more condescending then him so I could make him feel small, as he did me.

 I even fantasized about being on one of those outrageous talk shows like Maury Povich or Jerry Springer, where people confront their baby daddies, cheating girlfriends, and extortionist grandmothers. I imagined inviting him there on false pretenses like you won a million dollars or you have a secret crush from high school who's now a celebrity. Then I would turn the tables on him and shame him in front of America for the things he said and did. And I’d gloat in hearing the crowds boo him and stir a riot where they all beat him over the head with metal folding chairs.

Yes, I’ve had those thoughts. And yes, I thought, at one time, it would make me feel better. I'm not proud of that. But that October day, this twenty-five year old pain resurrected in me and with it a new opportunity for forgiveness was birthed, and a new narrative began.  All because the words of Jesus, from the cross, echoed in my mind in a new way.

Jesus was bullied. Jesus was hurt, stabbed, spat upon, beat up, bruised, ridiculed, forgotten, mocked, whipped, and mutilated beyond human recognition. And the first thing he says from the cross, out loud, is a prayer of forgiveness. He tells God to forgive those whipping him, mocking him, pulling out his flesh, and nailing him to the cross. He forgives those who are killing him!

I was overwhelmed in my car with this fact: God is a forgiver! God forgave me for everything I've ever done, and will continue to shower me with grace for the rest of my life. I was like the one nailing him to the cross, I was the one mocking him, and he had forgiveness in his heart for me.

Every time we sin, every time we steal, kill, destroy someone with our thoughts, words, and actions, we have no idea what we are really doing. We have no idea the pain we are causing, and the dishonor we show not only God, but every victim of our our actions.We have no idea the years of pain we inflict on people through judging, deceiving, bullying, divorcing, cheating, betraying, _________(fill in the blank).

(And God knows this. And God has compassion on us, even while though there are consequences for our actions, and for those who exercise their free will to hurt others. God is a just God. He will discipline fairly and in a righteous way)

It wasn't easy, and it still hurts. But I knew, in some way, I had unforgiveness in my heart toward my bully, and I knew I had to deal with it. I'm still not sure how this all happens, and it truly is a process, but a new freedom came to me in my car. I realized he didn't really know how it was going to affect me. He had his own fear, insecurity, or pain that caused him to hurt others. And it was time for me to reach out to him. So I did.

I still haven't heard back from him, but if I do,  I will tell him how his bullying actions hurt me.  I won't shame him. I won't guilt him, but I'll say I forgive him because I want to, because God helped me to forgive and heal. And I'l tell him I'm actually still in process of learning to let it go and I'm still healing twenty-five years later.

Believe it or not, I'm still learning to believe God loves me. I'm still trying to accept he made me in his image, and I belong to him. I'm not all those names I was marked with years ago.  It's crazy how things can have a lasting affect on someone. But I've done the same things. I've hurt others in the same way. In fact, there might be some out there that are still in pain because of things I've done, who need to forgive me.

So I pray, we can be a people who forgive, because God forgives us.

God loves us, and that changes the way we relate to others.

GOD LOVES YOU and I hope you will be encouraged to take a look at the hurt you carry, or the grudges that way you down, by starting with the cross. If you have UNforgiveness toward someone, or plot revenge in your mind or wish evil against any person , or have hate for anyone in your life who has hurt you...then you aren't free, and you don't understand the saving love of God. (And please know this can be a long process for some).

Start with JESUS, the man, the savior, the one died FOR you, AND FOR the one who hurt you.  The only way we can forgive is to know the forgiveness of Jesus.

 Colossians 3:13
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

  • Have you seen the movie Unbroken? There's so much more to his story. And it was all about forgiveness.  It humbles me when I want to hold grudges on those who "hurt" me. 
There are countless examples of people who have forgiven murder, abuse, adultery, and the like because the power  of God is at work in their lives that is supernatural, enabling them to do what seems unreasonable.

I want to be unreasonable.

Forgiveness doesn't mean we become best friends, or even have to stay in contact with those who hurt us. (Sometimes it's better we don't). Forgiveness is about our heart and mind, how we think and feel. We can forgive. Even if it takes a lifetime to do so. It is worth it. That is why I had to reach out to my bully, and I hope he can know the love and forgiveness of God.

Father forgive my bully, for he did not know what he was doing.

How about you?

FATHER FORGIVE ____________________.......

Need more help? Read this!