The place religion holds

I was reminded this morning while watching the news that religion has yet to do any good thing in the world. It has perhaps created nice and polite people, civilized toward one another; and perhaps has also contributed the concept of charity, but it has also created murderers and monsters who commit the most heinous of crimes in the name of their God and their religion.

Religion is not often spoken about in the Bible, and rightfully so. It is used as a moral guide, a path on which to conduct the daily activity of one’s life. Take a look at Asa, King of Judah in 2 Chronicles 14:

2 Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the LORD his God. 3 He removed the foreign altars and the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. 4 He commanded Judah to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, and to obey his laws and commands. 5 He removed the high places and incense altars in every town in Judah, and the kingdom was at peace under him. 6 He built up the fortified cities of Judah, since the land was at peace. No one was at war with him during those years, for the LORD gave him rest.

Religion tells us what to do, how to act, and even how to think. But let me suggest that belief precludes all of those things. And not only precludes but supercedes.

Watching the news this morning, I learned about a woman, a “Sunday School teacher” as the news reporter pointed out, who was being accused of murdering an 8 year old girl. As a follower of Christ, I was on one hand sorrowed by the death of anyone, let alone a defenseless little girl. But there was also a part of me that was momentarily bothered by the fact that they seemed to repeat the “Sunday School teacher” in describing the accused woman. It was as if the woman was now the posterchild for all Sunday School teachers everywhere. I thought, “Now, why did they have to throw that in?” Would it have been reported the same way if that woman were Buddhist, or Jewish, or Muslim?

And I was reminded that religion isn’t what our nation needs. Religion is only and can ever only be a guide; a set of boundaries by which to live one’s life. But without belief in and the indwelling power of God in one’s life, religion is only a set of rules and will not only save no one, but will likely do much more harm than good, as history has taught us.

Am I speaking against religion? I hope it doesn’t sound that way. In fact, James who wrote one of the books in the New Testament wrote:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

So, religion does have its place. But religion must start with relationship. Invite a non-Christian to church or even broach the subject of spiritual matters with them and you’re likely to hear (as I have countless times) something like, “Oh, I’m not a religious person.” My response? “Neither am I, and neither was Jesus.”

If followers of Christ are not careful to keep passion alive in their relationship with Him, the progression goes something like this….

We have a relationship,
which often has rituals,
which can lead to routine,
which starts to feel like a rut,
until we sense spiritual rigor mortis,
and we’re left with hollow religion.

And religion is not compelling to those seeking help, and hope, and peace, and forgiveness. And if religion is even the clothes that our relationship with Jesus wears, then that relationship seems far-fetched as well.

This past weekend I watched a movie called “The Last Sin Eater”. If you’ve never seen it, don’t bother. Unless you have a couple hours to kill and absolutely (and I mean absolutlely) nothing else to do. I picked it up from the library. It was a strange story based on a Welch community living in a wooded cove. From their native land of Wales, they brought a ritual called “The Sin Eater”. Basically, whenever anyone in this small community died, they rang the “passing bell” and someone known as the Sin Eater (who was chosen from among them by way of a lottery system) would come, stand next to the body of the person who had died, take their sins upon himself, and disappear back into the woods. The story unfolds as a young girl “Cadi” listens to and believes the story of Jesus, the original “sin eater”. Through that story, she is set free from the guilt of having caused her younger daughter’s death years before, and also spreads the truth of Jesus throughout the community until finally the community’s “Sin Eater” himself is set free from his sacrifical role.

The one thing I liked about the movie was the stark reminder that rituals based on routines are woefully insufficient to make any lasting difference in anyone’s life. It is only a relationship with God through Christ that anyone is truly set free to live.

Perhaps this might be the reason why Easter (for me) this year was not an extravaganza blowout of monumental proportions. It wasn’t “the same ‘ol song and dance” as they say. It was a quiet and holy reminder in my spirit that Jesus is the only man who is God and the only One who can make any difference for eternity and for now in my life.

When Dad Notices

The Trinity is a tricky thing that is really hard to understand for most people.

More on that later.

I started blogging a couple years ago. And ever since I started, I have also enjoyed following online “rabbit trails” that lead me to others’ blogs. I enjoy reading what other people are writing on their blogs. I like that little window into the thoughts and events of other people’s lives.

I stumbled upon one such blog this morning. Nevermind who it was or where it is; I simply found an immediate connection to this particular blog. The reason? The only comment in the comment section was a comment made from the blog author’s own Dad.

As a Dad myself, I constantly tell my kids that I’m their #1 fan. No one loves them with a father’s love but me and God. And no one can understand a father’s love but a father. And just like that blog I read today with the comment from the author’s Dad, touting and praising his son’s writing, I can say that I think I too have a fan in my own Dad.

Often, its my Dad who is commenting most or is most complimentary to something I’ve written. He’s biased, as all Dads are, but that’s okay with me, because I have that same bias toward my own kids.

The life of Christ was a life centered on His Father. The chief goal of Jesus’ earthly birth, life, death, and resurrection was to bring glory to the Father. That’s it. Oh sure, He came out of love for you and me, but Jesus was commissioned by God the Father to reconcile His children back to Him. The manger, the miracles, the teachings, the arrest, the trial, the cross, and the tomb were all components of the ultimate plan to reconnect the relationship between the Father and His children. And that was the entirety of Jesus’ life mission.

John 14 is an incredible place to see just how Jesus views His relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In essence, Jesus was telling his disciples (and you and I) that His whole life is about bringing glory to the Father. Read the Gospels and you’ll see Jesus intent and passionate about that one thing: the Father’s glory. Additionally, we’re told that while I’m typing and you’re reading, the Son is in conversation with the Father in heaven, interceding for you and for me, all for purpose of bringing glory to God.

All of my life, and even to this day I can tell you that nothing quite gives me the satisfaction of knowing that my own Dad notices something that I’ve done. I sense his pride and revel in knowing that he approves of things I do, say, and write. I know this isn’t exclusive to sons, but I have to guess that there really is a special bond between father and son, just as there is between mother and son, and father and daughter.

My dad is one of wisest men I know. He is strong, he is caring, and he loves the Lord and the Lord’s people. I know I can always call him with any question and he seems to always be ready and willing to help me however he can. He knows the Word of God like no one else I know and even seems to enjoy the interchanges he and I have together in the Word. He is a “churchman” and by far one of my favorite “preachers”. What makes him such a powerful preacher is (I think) that in his chest is the heart of a teacher. He is not satisfied that you hear what he knows, but that you know what he knows. And if you’ve ever sat in a church service in your life, then you know the difference between those two things.

I hope that all of my children will always be blessed by my relationship with them, just as I am blessed by my relationship with my own Dad.

Good Friday Pancakes

Here are a couple of our pancakes from breakfast this morning, Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus’ death on the cross in place of you and I.

And as I go throughout this day and Easter season, I want in every way for my mind to be concentrated and saturated with the knowledge that I (like Barabbas) have been released, and a righteous, holy, perfect man was put to death in my place.

"Something Like Scales…"

This morning in my quiet time in the Word, I was reading in Acts 9. The “prescribed” reading was only from verses 1-19, but I just couldn’t stop there. I was enjoying so much the telling of the birth of the early Church and specifically the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. And like never before, my eyes tripped over the words “something like scales”. This was the description of what happened to Saul’s blinded eyes (God has caused his blindness for 3 days) when Simon came (sent by God–go figure) to heal Saul and restore his vision. We’re told that “something like scales” fell from Saul’s eyes. What can this mean? Well, file all of this under “best guess” because even Luke (the author of Acts) wasn’t quite sure what to call it and he was a doctor! Luke’s best wording was “something like scales” as in “I’m not quite sure, but it reminded me of scales.” And in our era of “Biggest Loser” and our obsession with weight, we might imagine two bathroom scales falling from Saul’s eyes with a metallic sounding “clunk” on the ground. But the scales that were more likely falling were like that of a fish. And believe me, I know a thing or two about fish scales. I grew up in Cape May, NJ which is the 2nd largest fishing industry town on the East coast. And not only did I grow up fishing (I caught my first fish while sitting in my stroller next to the ocean with a toy fishing pole, no joke), but I worked for 2 summers at “A & J Fish Market”. Yep, I know fish scales. I’ve been covered in them. And let me assure you that scales don’t just fall off. I’ve even had to pick scales off of my skin after a long shower in which I scrubbed and scrubbed. So, perhaps that is why I was intrigued with the idea of “something like scales fell from his eyes.”

To all those who have yet to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world, there is something undoubtedly covering their eyes; “scales” so to speak. These scales might be disguised as many different things. Scales can be self-absorbtion, intellect that can’t “logically” reconcile the concept of faith in the unseen, the pursuit of earthly gain, the desire for notoriety on any level, pain of loss that would cry out “there is no God”, or any other number of things. But no matter what it is, the fact remains that God calls to each of us, just as He did to Saul who was the most well-known Christian-hater there was at that time. God pursues people. But not all people either know that He is pursuing them or ever pursue God to the point of total embrace of His love, grace, forgiveness, and power.

So, while I was reading in Acts this morning, I heard God asking me for permission to point out the scales when they arise in my life. To be sure, I am a follower of Jesus and this decision is life-long. I have found Jesus to be true, to be real, to be alive, and to be everything that surpasses anything I would ever need or want. In Him I have forgiveness of the wretched person I am, I have peace even when life is pelting me with questions and trials, and I have hope for today, that He will use even me to touch the life of someone else with His love. And beyond hope for today, I have hope for all of life’s tomorrows, including eternity. I will spend it with Him, just as He intended from the beginning.

To those who might ever read this and find it far-fetched or confounding, I suppose I would say that God alone can release the scales from your eyes. And I don’t say that in a condescending or judgemental way. If you know me, you know that I know I’m no better than anyone. I simply have seen what kind of person I am and have seen that that person needs a Savior. And I have found that Savior in Jesus. And no matter when or where, I pray that every person might come to know Him even better than I do.

An update on my nose…since you’re wondering.

Just in case anyone caught my mention in my obnoxiously long post a couple days ago about my unexplained swollen nose, I thought perhaps an illustration might help….

I’m thankful that today it seems to be subsiding. But still, I have no clue what happened to it that it would have swollen like that. Weird. A question for the ages, I guess.

In a related piece of my history, I had my nose broken in high school. Imagine a freshman Jerry Varner, skinny as a stick and under the normal intimidation of being a freshman in high school. Tommy Reid was one of our basketball team’s star players and we were in the same gym class. It was the section of the semester where we learned basketball, and in a gym class game, I foolishly agreed to play zone defense, only seconds after learning what zone defense was. So, Tommy Reid enters my zone, jumps for a rebound, and true to Tommy Reid form, came down with the ball with elbows flailing. One of the elbows came around and landed squarely on the bridge of my nose. For the next few days, I wore a metal “I” on my face to hold my newly reset nose in place. My almost immediate and unwelcomed nickname? Robo-Nose.

For the record, Tommy Reid felt really bad about it and was really nice to me.

All this over some postcards?

Now, after reading/digesting/cogitating on this one, you might land somewhere different than where I did. And I just want to acknowledge that that’s okay. I think anyone with Jesus in their heart and a love relationship with Him goes to heaven—no matter what they think about the issue of Saddleback’s recent small group promo postcards.

Take a second, and look them over by clicking here. And if you’ve got the stomach for it, read the comments that follow the postcards. At this writing, there were 33 comments so far.

The comments were a range of reactions, but one thing was clear: not one person who was responding/reacting to the postcards was a non-Christian. What I mean by that is, every one of them was coming from a “biblical” perspective, citing Scripture to back up their stance. Fair enough.

And while I have commented in Josh’s blog before, I decided to steer clear of commenting on that one. Instead, I chose to bring my thoughts to my own blog and in doing so, try to link you to me, me to you, you to it, and it to us.

First off, Saddleback is a big church. I’ve been there. It’s big. It’s big in just about every visible sense. Lots of people, lots of building, lots of staff, lots of resources, lots of guts. It’s big. Now, big isn’t necessarily good. The Third Reich was big and look what it accomplished. Auschwitz was big. So, don’t think that I think that big is necessarily healthy or even good. But let’s just acknowledge the fact that Saddleback is big. Rick Warren is big. Doug Fields is big. Josh Griffin is big. Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry is big. Purpose-Driven Life is big. It’s all very big.

And in the bigness, the leadership and/or creators of the postcards on Josh Griffin’s blog have a certain amount of bravado in which they operate. I’m not sure bravado is the right word, but it sounds good in my head, so I’m using it. Honestly, what I mean is that when you’re that big and prominent, you have to know (and they do) that most everyone is watching. And I’d also like to point out that edgy promos such as the small group postcards have likely added to their bigness. In a word, Saddleback is an envelope pusher. Love that or hate it–its true. They are innovative, forward-thinking, and even (dare I say) progressive. But from what I’ve seen, not progressive in the way that word has been used; not in a way that is rocking the boat for the sake of rocking the boat. But instead, progressive in a way that is willing to pass or fail, but no matter what, is going to try.

So, if you have read or scanned the comments in the comment section below the small group promo postcards, there are some that are scathing, and some that are gentle, and some that are diplomatic. But I’d like to draw us back to the point that every person who comments proports to be speaking the truth in love for the most part. Some comments even quite devoid of love all together are touting that they are speaking the truth in love. Those are the comments I found most dismissable, since they seem to be authored by self-sanctioned rock-throwers. It’d be laughable if it weren’t so sad.

We’ll give an account of our actions–every one of us–to God and I wonder if we might hear something like, “I sent you out into the world to love all people into my arms. Instead, you argued over postcards.” Now, I know I’m leaning a little toward overdrama here, but if we as followers of Christ can be more passionate about loving people back into the arms of Christ than we are about correcting each other…well, I’m pretty sure we’d be better off.

And I guess some reading this would throw a yellow flag and say, “Hold it right there, Varner. We’ve got to call sin what it is!” I agree with that, but I honestly can’t find anything in those postcards that constitute “sin”. Off-color? Maybe. Distasteful? To some. Out of line? It’s debatable.

My question I guess is: #1: Did the postcards work? Did they have the desired outcome? Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not a “by any means necessary” kind of pastor. I feel like I have a good grasp on boundaries. I’m not saying let’s offer teens free pot for coming to our worship services. But since these postcards are debatable in their appropriateness (evidenced by the many comments), can we simply call the issue one of those “non-essentials” and move on?

After all, Saddleback (in sending these postcards) has stayed quite true to its form: edgy, gutsy, and (usually) successful in its endeavors. But as one who has heard both Rick Warren and Doug Fields speak, they speak more about their own failures than their successes. This tells me 2 things: they’re relatable and they’re human.

For the record, when I first saw the postcards (especially the last one), I laughed. I thought they were funny, clever, and I wasn’t offended by them. Personally, I don’t think they’d be right for MY ministry context, and so I wouldn’t use them, but again–this is Saddleback we’re talking about. Not that they get any special treatment from God, you’ve just got to understand that this is many times the “envelope-pushing” they do. That’s my opinion and I totally respect every person who formulates their own opinion, especially those who try and use Scripture as their guide.

This is just a long post, but I can’t apologize. If you’re still reading (and there’s no gun to your head) then you obviously don’t mind. If you’re not still reading, then I don’t even have to finish this sentence.