Ground Zero Revival: Unexpected Love

By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.
- Hebrews 11:11, NRSV

Who, what, why, where, when, and how? We just discussed nones and dones last week and the fact that they really do need some answers, and that we need to answer them as authentically as possible.

There's a catch, though. The nones and dones aren't the only ones who want answers. We do, too. We sometimes ask, "What's this whole thing about?" For whatever reason, we may not ask it very loudly, but we do ask. I'll lay your mind at ease right off the bat. That's perfectly all right, perfectly normal, and 100% in accordance with how God built us. We can ask God why, and we can even yell at Him, plead with Him. Just look at the Psalms, they’re full of real, raw emotions. God doesn't want us putting on a mask. Masks are a way we lie to ourselves and telling Him that same lie isn't going to make Him happy. The reason He's unhappy isn't that you just hurt His feelings. It's because you're not dealing with yours, which never leads to the wholeness, abundance, or close community for which He created us.

Even further down this whole path lie our struggles with and questions about how it's all connected.

I follow the author and investigator, J. Warner Wallace, on Facebook. He's posted a lot of statistics on people leaving churches. By now, you know how much I love data. Data tells a story and the church needs to tell a more compelling one, so data is where we start.

Have you seen those 10-year challenges on social media? They compare 10-year differences via pictures.

There is one Pew Research Report posted by Wallace that replicates this. Pew stated that from 2009 to 2019 there has been an 8% drop in the protestant-identifying population of the United States. The number of overall dones is growing, too. In that same 10-year span, Americans who said they attended church at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percent, while those who say they rarely or never go to church rose by the same 7 percent. On the graph, it looks like a big "X" of declines on one side and increases on the other.

They're not going to a different religion or a separate denomination in the Christian religion. They're just cutting themselves off, and with much more regularity as the age demographic gets younger. If you were born between 1946 and 1964, there's a 75% chance you call yourself a Christian. Women are more religious than men, although both sides are faltering. The thing is, the faithful are remaining faithful. Church attendance is staying steady if you come more than once a week. That means if you attend weekly or more, such as Bible studies, you're very likely to continue doing so.

By comparison, if you were born between 1981 and 1996, there's only a 49% chance of that. According to Champaign, Illinois organization Empty Tomb, Americans gave 3% of their disposable income in 1968 to churches as part of a tithe. That's not 3% of their total income, that's just their disposable income. In 2016, the “disposable income” tithe percentage is now 2.2%. So let's just be extremely real here for a second.

What we're seeing is people on the periphery leaving the church. They’re gone like a vapor, just a ghost that got up and vanished.

The people who are already steady are sticking around. They aren’t always keen on investing where their membership is, but they are solidly living into their membership with their presence, that is for certain.

Here’s the problem. The people who need to hear the Good News of Jesus are more likely to hear crickets than Colossians according to this report. 


A Different Story

All the data I have shared with you to this point, it’s been pretty bleak. Now, let me flip the script for you. United Methodist Communications recently released a survey that found the willingness to visit a United Methodist Church had climbed to 42 percent in mid-2019. This survey included U.S. adults who were looking for more spirituality in their lives and who were aware of our denomination, which is why the United Methodist Church advertises. Two years prior in 2017, that number was only 28%. That's a substantial gain in interest.

Of that 42% group, half of them said they would visit within the next three months, or right about now. There's a higher likelihood that those who would be willing to walk through the door would be millennials than Generation Xers. So that’s 21% of the total who would come to a United Methodist Church, coming sooner rather than later.

Of the 79% who said that they weren't ready to visit, 10% of those said they would reconsider if someone they knew extended an invitation. Hint. Hint. Hint.

Among those people who are willing to attend, the number of respondents who rate the denomination favorably is climbing. They know who we are, 95% of seekers polled saying so, they know our logo, and they know our denomination's tagline, "Open minds, open hearts, open doors."

They overwhelmingly believe that the tagline is appealing and personally relevant to them. If this was a dating website, we'd call that a highly-favorable match. 

But what happens when the expectations they have for that first date aren't met? What if no one answers their questions, or when the answer isn't what they expect, it also comes out of a place that lacks grace? What if they experience imperfect humanity when they're looking for perfect divinity? It’s a lot of what ifs, which is why I preach a great deal on the need for love, the need for spiritual disciplines, acts of mercy, acts of piety. They all point to relationship.

We don't and won't know everything, as I pointed out in last Sunday's sermon. But we do have a Holy Spirit to guide us. We have an example to follow in how God drew and guided Abraham and Sarah through their lives, through their mistakes, missteps, and mishaps into the completely unexpected love of the child Isaac. They hung their whole existence on God's in-birthed persuasion that they would someday see descendants as numerous as the stars. Two thousand years later, this chapter of Hebrews speaks powerfully. It opens our thoughts to the trust required to sustain and find God's unexpected love in the lives of two people who were desperate to find it. Four thousand years after these two people of faith, we have a mission field that is full of individuals cut from a similar cloth.

We have a very unique opportunity to spread the gospel to people, but it starts right here and right now in our own hearts. Put your hand on your chest right now. Do you feel that heartbeat? That heartbeat is ground zero for revival. 


Forever Seeking

The thing I find so refreshing here in this text is that we realize we're not alone. I've repeated myself a lot, but I'll risk doing it again. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. People have been seeking "something" forever. Think about it. You were exploring something when you found God through Jesus. I’ve mentioned secular university studies that are saying our brains are wired for a relationship with a "higher power," and that's God. People have needed their relationship with God to be revived continually. Whether they stumble and fall isn't relevant, it's whether or not we help them get back up that counts.

Religion has become some sort of strange, dirty word in the modern age. It's not because of its definition, it's because of what it has come to represent to people outside of religion. The etymology of the word religion comes from the Latin word forms "re" and "ligare." Combined, they mean "to bind again." When we consider this binding, we need to understand what kind of binding it is precisely. It's not the same kind of binding that we use to bind criminals or pray for the binding of spiritually opposing evil forces. This isn't Satan binding the woman for "18 long years," as Jesus said in Luke 13. This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 61. "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners."

This is the healing of which Jeremiah asked after in chapter 8 verse 10. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" If we think of religion as a system of belief, we miss the point of the word staring us right in the face.

Religion is a re-binding of our hearts to God, the only healer we can ever have. The Bible often speaks of the power of God to reconcile, redeem, rejoin, reunite. Remember, when we went through the series "Re: The Elements of Our Faith?" Renew, rejoice, reveal, reaffirm, return, rebuild, re-emerge, reignite. At the heart of religion we find the pivotal element of our faith. It's the one concept that God will re-bind us to Him and to one another in a way so powerful we don't even have the scope of reference to understand it completely. It requires us living into the faith imparted to us by God.

The fact is most people we refer to as seekers are looking for that exact type of healing. 


Religion Redefined

What we have to do is take back the definition of religion. Better yet, redefine it by a love so unexpected it leaves a deep impression in the lives of those who come in contact with the church. Love like that doesn't originate with you or me. It only exists flawlessly in our union with Jesus Christ. We call him the author and perfecter of our faith for that reason.

Look at the world around us. Take a good, long look. Polarized people, butting heads everywhere. Red state, blue state. Conservative, liberal. It's a mess, and it's not helping those who need help the most. We're talking about empty people, people without hope, just as barren in their hearts as Sarah was in her womb. They need to be filled with an unexpected love that arrives only through a persuasive communion with God directly. We call what that kind of communion builds "faith," and we light an advent candle for the peace that it brings. We find it here in a crucial word in this passage.


The Greek word is "katabolen." This word is most often used in conjunction with Christ's coming to earth in human form as the redemption that enables our relationship with God. I don't believe the writer of Hebrews used the word here by accident. I think the reason that word was selected was that the conception of Isaac was a symbol of God's overall plan. It's a plan He set in place and guaranteed before creation ever started. "But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself." Hebrews 9:26b. "He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake." 1 Peter 1:20.

Simply put, the word refers to the foundational structure God put in place, by which all people can know and have a relationship with Him. All people. This supersedes everything that happened in Genesis 1. We're talking about John 1:1-5, and how "in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

If we don't strive to get a real hold on just how genuinely bound to one another we are, we will lack the motivation needed to go find those seekers. If we don't see how we can be re-bound to the relationship we were meant to enjoy with God, the ones who are so open to a relationship with Jesus Christ won't find Him. They lose, and we lose. And Jesus? Jesus weeps.

What we lose in the process is the opportunity to return to a more whole state, both individually and collectively. True wholeness in either sense only comes through God, but like everything that comes through Him, nothing is expected ever to sit still. Our faith is expected to be active. There was a great album by the Christian rock band Bride, and I loved its title. Kinetic Faith. Faith in motion. God's in-birthed persuasion was always designed to move out of us. In-birthed, but outbound. It's a transfer of the energy inherent in God's love, into our hearts, and out into the lives of other people. It erupts in an unexpected love, birthed inside the hearts of those who thought they would never see it happen. You know, I've told some people that this can happen for them and they laughed. They laughed just like Sarah laughed when she was told she would bear a son. Along came Isaac.

The thing I want to know is, will we laugh at this? I like to think that our little church has enough in-birthed persuasion from God just to smile knowingly and keep reassuring them that God will do as he has said he would do. At the very end of this verse, the writer tells us that Abraham considered God faithful to his promises. It's probably a better translation to say he was convinced of the promises by the in-birthed persuasion of God. The Greek word for "had promised" at the end of this verse is epangeilamenon, from epaggéllō. This word, when stated about God's promises, declares promises that are fitting and legitimately applicable. God never makes idle promises. He's specific with His word and crafts the details of His promises surgically.


Revival Starts Within

Our takeaway is to be a people who start at our own heart and allow God to surgically, deliberately and powerfully persuade us to trust in him, just as Sarah and Abraham trusted in God's persuasion. We have to be ground zero for the revival in our church. It's not revival that happens in a room, or a tent, or in a grand cathedral. It occurs alone, maybe in your car. It happens in your prayer closet. It overcomes you in a one-on-one encounter with God. It happens as you are filled with the Holy Spirit, and it keeps on happening when you put it into motion.

The day after Abraham and Sarah were visited by the Angels and told that Sarah would have a baby, life went on. Abraham kept on growing in his trust of God because God kept on persuading him and building his faith. God and Abraham had an extraordinarily close relationship. Like I said, God was careful and calculating about how He guided Abraham. He even wondered if he should hide the destruction of Sodom from him, knowing that Abraham's nephew Lot was among the people who would be killed. In the end, God decided to clue Abraham in.

If you read it, it even looks like Abraham is persuading God not to destroy Sodom. I'm sure it's no surprise to you that I have a slightly different take on this series of events. My take is simple.

All along, through love, God was guiding Abraham to intercede for his fellow humans. We learn that intercession is an integral part of a relationship through this example.

That only happens through a growing faith relationship with God. Abraham never acted as if he were God's equal, but he got to know God's heart enough to understand that God is just and fair, but also merciful. What Abraham didn't know is that in that close relationship with God, founded solidly on the faith God grew inside him, an unexpected love for others had grown.

It can be daunting to reach out and ask nones and dones about their faith, to talk to them about the savior they may be seeking. If you find yourself questioning whether or not you have it within you to intercede in the lives of other people, spend more time with Jesus and God. You'll find God can be undeniably persuasive. What grows out of that persuasion will be very unexpected.

Gender fluidity and God

I wrote this initially as a breakout of Genesis 1:27. It began as notes from which I was going to post a small video, and it wound up growing legs of its own. Shortly after that, it ran off into the sunset flailing wildly about in my Google Docs until it became the post you are reading now.

Without some context, this may seem very Star Wars, where it starts at Chapter IV, a New Hope. So if you're reading this, I'll link the original video and comments right here. In the previous discussion on video, I dove into the opening section of the passage, breaking down the first mention of God creating. I have to wonder how many commenters watched the video I posted or simply didn't read beyond the words "gender fluidity." If you're reading this, I implore you to watch the whole thing.

I ask this because I caught a lot of heat for that post for merely posing a question. The idea was to get thoughtful feedback on the first section as I understood it from the translation resources I have available to me. What I got instead stopped just short of pitchforks, cries of heresy, and the piling up of wood below a stake. Some of that toned down, but not all of it.

My being only a high school graduate doesn't help matters. People tend to believe they know more than you do when they have more schooling than you do, regardless of the subject matter. I found it helpful to remember that a prominent Methodist-based university was founded by a man who had no formal higher education. That certainly helped ... along with a healthy dose of humility because, well, I'm only a high school graduate. What on earth do I know about anything, am I right?

I began by stating that I was sectioning out the verse and taking it a bit at a time. That was called out because I didn't explain the entire verse all at once. That devolved further because I did not eventually arrive at a conclusion that validated the commenter's suppositions. I did my best to explain that, as a pastor, you sometimes break thoughts and concepts out in chunks. From there, you assemble the whole and draw a conclusion. To me, it's an analytical methodology that has born much fruit. Reading books like the Expositor's Greek Testament or any other significant Bible commentary will show you this is commonplace, acceptable practice.

The next complaint was going back to the original Hebrew text. I provided examples as to why the deep linguistic dive was necessary compared to just reading the English translation (which one?). To be honest, I still don't know if it made sense to the person posting, but they can't say I didn't try.

To be fair, my interpretations may very well be wrong and I am absolutely humble enough to admit that I am not N.T. Wright (high school education only, remember?). If you've read to this point and are willing to dismiss my commentary on those grounds, I'm completely fine with that. Bear in mind, however, that's why I do my due diligence asking other, more experienced and educated pastors their thoughts and conclusions. In light of all this, I believe this interpretation holds water. Your mileage may vary.

The reason I feel it necessary to detail all of this is that it points out the massively polarizing effect gender fluidity has on discussions. To be sure, this post may not receive any kinder responses from some. But I'm posting it nonetheless because if I don't, something deep in my gut will not go away.

Without further adieu, here's part 2. (Admit it, you sang that).


Plows, Furrows, and Hebrew

As translated in the NRSV, we read, "In the image of God, He created them." The Hebrew for this is "Besalem Elohim bara otow." Here's where we encounter our first issue because both the NIV and NRSV use the pronoun "them," but the KJV uses the pronoun "him." So you're wondering, which is it?

Actually, you're probably wondering why you should care about this at all. Stick with me, though. The difference between "them" and "him" is crucial. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance links "otow" to the word "eth" which appears 846 times in the Bible. That's a lot, right? When we look at one example that is right around the corner from Genesis 1:27, we find 2:15 where the word is rendered as "him." Them? Him? Who cares?

You should that's who.

Genesis was written by a man at the comparative dawn of Hebrew history. This was an extremely patriarchal time in their culture. As such, it's essential to look at the difference in pronouns.

Both the NIV and NRSV, to varying degrees, use gender-normative pronouns. That's not a bad thing, by the way. Still, when you look into a resource like Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, you find that the pronoun should refer to the subject of the original verb. The original verb is "created," and the subject of that original verb was "ha'adam" or Adam - the man. The reason that difference is significant is that in Benner's Ancient Hebrew Lexicon, you find the pronoun should read as a "plow point."

Now, what could be more "him" than the rather phallic symbol of a plow point? This is much more important when you look at the third section of creation in this verse, which is "zakar uneqebah bara otam"... Male and female He created them." This pronoun, "otam" refers to the plural subject of "zakar uneqebah." "Zakar" means, "the one in the family that remembers and passes down family history through story and family name." In a patriarchal society, that's the man who passes along the family name. "Uneqebah" will be broken out in a moment, but combined, this is why "otam" is translated as "they."

Long way around the barn, but we're almost there. 

"Otam" and "otow" are two different pronouns from the same root. "Otow" is the plow. So you need a patch of land for a plow to have some purpose for being, right? Enter the word "uneqebah," which is translated as "female." That word in Hebrew means either "pierce" or "hole." Now you know what the plow was for, right? Because if I have to spell this out further for you, I'm afraid we might go past the boundaries of good taste in polite company.

So here we have a plow, and a corresponding target to pierce. All about genders, right?

But what about those who actually have both sexes? As I asked in the ensuing mess from the original post, who made them? Wouldn't they be here if God made them? "Plow and hole, and self-plowing hole he made them" is how this should read, especially if we're talking about physical genders alone. This omission is the first clue that we're not talking about genders.

Still, many believe this is speaking strictly of genders, so let's travel down that rabbit hole. In the past, hermaphrodites have been called an abomination based on this passage. In modern times, most of the world accepts that they're not. We know that there are species in nature that have both sexual reproductive organs. In fact, some species can shift their gender as needed to match the procreative need. Natural-planned gender fluidity is part of God's toolbox.

The conclusion is that hermaphrodites are not an abomination. They were made just as fearfully and wonderfully as single-gender humans by a loving creator.

More than skin deep

Now that we're done in that rabbit hole, we get to the meat and potatoes. The real problem here is that I have to go to this length at all to explain it. Clarifying that this isn't about penises and vaginas should be something we should openly want to consider. We were made for interlocking like a plow and a hole; that much is true. But to think that the Imago Dei in which we were created for interlocking is strictly about genitalia is to really miss the mark. And two other critical parts of what we are.

First off, God doesn't have a penis, nor does He have a vagina. We use masculine pronouns because of our patriarchal origins. Still, we should use gender-fluid pronouns instead if we want to be accurate. It tends to freak some people out when you do that, though, so I'll just keep using masculine pronouns.

If you don't believe God lacks flesh and blood reproductive genitalia, just go up to His throne and ask Him to show you what it says on His driver's license. I doubt that will work out for you; personally, I think that a being not bound by flesh has zero need for genitalia. The only reason we have it is that it's necessary for our little training exercise we call life on earth.

Think about it. He's a being who can create something from absolute nothingness, which is what the word used for "create" means in Hebrew. That word is never used with anyone else but God. Seeing as God can do that, why does He need anyone or anything else?

Second, we get gender-focused on the "plow" and the "pierce" without taking into account the variety of actual genders. That construct is only mentioned once here, and we fail to focus on the words "He created," which is said not once, not twice, but three different times. That is what we in the business call "comparative importance."

Kidding. I don't know if people in some business call it that or not. But it is vital to compare the mentions of creating. 

By my count, we should talk about the majestic miracle of God's creation three times more than we do the human sexuality we inaccurately zero in on. Yet, we keep having to have this discussion like we're the kid in the movie, "Kindergarten Cop." You know, the one who has to continually remind Arnold that boys have penises and girls have vaginas.

We DO realize sexual organs are temporary, right? Hard as it is to fathom, one day, there will be no use for them in our lives. Eventually, we will get new bodies that can withstand being in the presence of God Almighty? The continual physical-only focus makes me believe we really don't understand that.

So let's focus on God for a bit, OK? We Christians like to talk about people being the image-bearer of God, so what does that mean? I broke out for you earlier that definition, but let's look at God in action. Many refer to God as "The Father." I mentioned that already, but it bears repeating that we have a history of looking at God as a masculine man. But He's not only that.

He's a warrior, but He's also a nurturer. To our stereotyped roles, He's a Dad when He breaks shields and shatters spears. You can hear the Dad in Him when he says, "I've had enough, all of you stop your bickering and recognize who the real authority in this joint is." (Psalm 46)

But He's also Mom, gently loving Israel back to life like the dew on a lily, talking about his fragrance and beauty. (Hosea 14)

God is vastly more complicated than any of us give Him credit for, and so is Jesus.

The same guy who flipped tables over in the temple also wanted to be Mother Hen to Jerusalem and cried about the rejection he felt.


Defining Gender Fluidity

The Oxford Online Dictionary defines gender fluidity as someone "who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender."

Guess who doesn't identify as having a fixed gender? God. One second, God is like a lion or a leopard to the people, then He's the nurturing dew. Believe it or not, by definition, God is gender-fluid.

What I just said is going to get me a lot of hate, and I realize that. I'm OK with it. God knows no singular gender identification. He shows the gender qualities of both our stereotypical male or female at any given time, whenever it suits His will. You can call what I just said heretical or apostasy all you want, but it's backed up in scripture, and it is accurate.

The problem stems from marginalizing societal perceptions that run quite deep. I remember growing up as a kid and listening to young boys calling other boys sissies. In fact, there was this one time I recall a couple kids getting into a fight and one of the boys using a pretty good snap kick that landed hard on his opponent's thigh. Someone in the crowd shouted, "Hey, only sissies kick!"

They may have believed that only sissies kick, but if you're allergic to bloody noses, a good kick is a solid choice.

Later on in life, we learned to marginalize lesbians as "butch" and made fun of their penchant for being manly and wearing their hair short and wearing flannel. Societal norms said women should be feminine and not masculine, and men should be masculine and not feminine. Let the marginalization of those on the periphery of that statement commence. It's not tough to trace this issue. This was patriarchically birthed in the belief God made us that way when Moses wrote of that problematic plow and a hole in the 27th verse of the first chapter of Genesis.

But He didn't make us that way at all. He made some boys soft and some girls tough. Some people are broken in ways that make them identify with different gender roles because they need to protect themselves. They wear flannel like armor and crop their hair close because they don't want to be targeted.

Or perhaps they just rock that look. I'm not into pigeon-holing anyone, so why don't you ask the butch ones their reasons directly?

Here's the thing. I can sew my own clothes, I'm pretty handy with a needle and thread and a sewing machine. That earned me some critical comments when I was young about being girly. These days I can also make a holster. I made the chaps and the chinks I wear riding my horses, and the cross-draw black powder pistol rig I made for myself is one of the more attention-getting pieces I own.

God made some of us with more masculinity than others, and they just so happen to have vaginas. God made some of us more feminine than others, and it just so happens they have penises. They refuse to say they are male or female, and I, for one, am OK with that. They live on a gender basis with no bias, which allows them to go from the necessity of being more hard-edged to more soft-edged whenever the need arises. And ain't that beautiful?


A Creeptastic Crusade

Some folks have their hearts set on roping the sexuality of everyone on the planet into an unhealthy categorization spiral. It looks like, "God loves you, or God hates you based on whether or not you agree with me. Especially when we talk about your sex organs, which I just so happen to enjoy doing more often than you might feel comfortable with. And by the way, even though it's your sexual organs and your relationship with God, I'll be the judge of whether or not you're using them the way they should be used, and relating to God in the way you should be relating to God."

Seriously, they won't give that crusade a rest.

For whatever reason, these folks fixate on the penises and vaginas of the marginalized and then make the lives of these people a living hell.

You can't help but wonder what is in their own background that makes them so interested in the plumbing concerns of another human being. Are they really trying to overcome their personal issues by making other people overcome those issues for them? Didn't Jesus mention something about "Twice the sons of hell" that aptly describes that?

The whole intensive focus is really creepy and kind of worrisome if you ask me.

They feel someone can indeed have life and have it more abundantly. But there's a sharp deviation where they will only allow that if those people don't dare step out of a narrow scope. The rub is that's biblically accurate up to a point. It ceases to be valid when that scope has been approved and sanctified by them, instead of leaving that scope to Jesus and God.

Who are they, other than a group lead mostly by men who believe they are the only ones that can define gender roles? Men who feel they have cornered the market on controlling the thoughts of God almighty - who has no gender and accepts no higher authority, by the way.

On top of that, they still think they're allowed to assign God a gender, too. And man, oh, man. They get pretty tore up when you call God a She. For the record, calling God a She or a Mother is not new. It's been part of mainstream orthodox Christianity for quite some time. However, it made the patriarchy a bit nervous, so it fell out of favor.

The real tragedy here is that there is something about penises and vaginas of other people that make these folk forget about the heart of the marginalized. That's what's at stake here and what we should be paying attention to. Not because I think so, but because that is where God's focus is.

Look, we were made in the complete image of God. Nowhere in the Bible does God specify His physical nature because He doesn't have one. Instead, he embraces whatever the situation calls for. And perhaps we should follow suit.


The Embrace

We should embrace the softer side of our characters, and we should not shame effeminate men and masculine women. Maybe if we'd have adopted that outlook that a long time ago, the whole situation wouldn't have devolved into such a hellish mess of harming and suicide. Perhaps unity would have been achieved. You know, like Psalm 133 tells us that God loves so much among His people.  
If your be-all and end-all definition of gender is based on that passage in Genesis 1:27, then I see it like this. People who are gender fluid might be the only ones who are actually living in the image of a non-gender identifying, gender-fluid God.


What if it's a test?

The fact that this whole thing has boiled over brings me to one more point. If you've read this far, and God bless you for sticking around, here it is. What if God put all this into play to see if we would seek to reconcile in love like He gave us in the example of Jesus Christ? Or if we'd alienate one another like a bunch of self-righteous ... well ... tools?

Here's the thing. We're putting so much emphasis on physical gender when Paul actually challenged us to place more emphasis on our spiritual nature. Galatians 3:27-28 tells us, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

How can we read that and then throw it out the window so quickly unless there is some preconceived notion we refuse to get past.

I'll admit we're free to refuse to see God's sacred nature in everyone because of what the outside looks like. But in doing so, we deny the basic tenet founded in the first part of Genesis 2:27, namely that everyone is made in the image of God. Blinding ourselves to that because of patriarchal gender-prejudice doesn't make it false any more than sticking one's head in the sands of presupposition will make it true.

We must wrestle with how God has treated people concerning willful gender denial in the past. This is spoken of by no one less than Jesus himself, who acknowledges that some people have no gender. He talked about this in a direct relationship with his teaching on marriage. "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." Matthew 19:2

I guess some folks just can't accept what Jesus said, as much as they say they can.


The Heart of the Matter

What all of this comes down to is pretty simple. It doesn't matter what gender stereotype we dress like, who we identify as. Nor does it matter whether we reassign genders of our own volition or have been reassigned by someone else entirely outside of our informed consent. This is all circumcision of the flesh, as Paul put it, and not circumcision of the heart as described in Romans 2:29. Paul didn't manifest this focus out of thin air, he brought it out of Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16 (circumcise the foreskin of your heart), Jeremiah 4:4 (remove the foreskin of your hearts). If you want to place yourself under one law, you put yourself under every law, according to Paul. What's worse, you are telling Jesus Christ that his sacrifice is absolutely useless. By all means, if that is your stance, stick by it. But be prepared to own the unpleasant rejoinder that comes with it from God.

As for my personal belief? I want to do my best to look at humans as God looks at them, by their heart (1 Samuel 16:7). I stick with the grace offered me on the cross as a man oppressed by his own sin in need of a savior, because that reconciles me with God. That gets me to the relationship He wanted with me all along.

In light of that, I will not re-enslave others, nor will I suffer them to be re-enslaved, nor will I be quiet about that re-enslavement. Ever. I'm going with Jesus to the marginalized, whether you're with me or not, whether you like it or not.


And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
- 1 Peter 5:10

First of all, let me say that the "little while" of suffering to which Peter was referring is not my sermon time, contrary to what my congregation may think.


But you know, I could say that the suffering we encounter in life is divisively theodical in nature and I wouldn’t be wrong. Theodical comes from one of those fancy-pants pastor words, “theodicy.” Theodicy is not the story written by Homer (that’s The Odyssey). Theodicy is the study of and attempt to answer why God lets bad things happen to good people. Job, Joseph, Jeremiah, and even Jesus had some fairly terrible things happen to them. Even people without “J” as the first letter of their name suffered. Paul, Peter, and a host of others did, too. We all want to know one thing. Why? If God is the God of all grace and has called us to eternal glory, why does he sometimes do it by dragging the people in his church through 50 miles of mud bog and thorns? Why are we to live in the middle of Babylon if we have been made to be victorious overcomers as I pointed out last week? How is suffering supposed to leave us strong, firm and steadfast as promised? 


God revealed to us through faith, which is his divine persuasion, that we could do amazing things. Then the road to those amazing things often takes a hard left turn and if we didn’t actually get thrown out of the vehicle by that, we darned near did. It challenges our trust, and certainly our faith. How do we reaffirm that God actually said what we heard Him say after something like that happens?


I’ll give you an example. 


Authority of the Word

As a little boy, I was called at the age of 9. I recall opening the Bible that I received from Trinity Lutheran Church in my bedroom one day and, with no one in the room, I began preaching out of Isaiah 49. Really, all I was doing was reading, but I read with authority, and I’d never seen anyone preach like that so I didn’t know where it came from. Certainly not my pastors, who were very traditional pulpit preachers. I felt passionate and I had fire. I felt the power in those words moving inside me. I felt the power in what was said even though I didn’t understand it. I had absolutely no clue the impact that this chapter of Isaiah would have on my life. All I knew at that point was that the word made me feel safe and secure in a time in my life that was very insecure because everything around me was unsafe. I felt God saying, “This is what you will do for me.”


Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.

But God had to have messed this up, right? I mean, it was His choice to place me in a family that was very broken that would eventually lead me to be a very broken man. In my family, it would be an understatement to say I experienced many not-so-good things. It was deeply broken because the people in my family were deeply broken going back quite some time. They call it a generational curse. So I ask you if God was going to really use me, why would He choose to place me there? Everywhere you look there are these expectations that pastors don’t actually have a past. You launch a rocket from a launchpad, not a quagmire of mud, right?


God had to have gotten this very wrong.


Why did He not place me somewhere that I could really be of use to Him, or in a place where I could be protected until needed? Isaiah 49 said that the servant of the Lord was a sharp sword hidden in God’s palm, and a polished arrow hidden in His quiver. What I experienced was hardly a polishing. It was more like a continual 30-grit  grinding of mental, physical and emotional abuse. If I was so awesome and blessed with the destiny to be a vessel of so much power, then who got my travel orders screwed up? I want names and answers, as somebody made a big mistake because my path was a mess from the jump. 


Stones in the Process

James S. Hewett said, “Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.” There was honestly only one thing that got me through that time of grinding and moved me through it to polishing.  


A lot of people in our midst have suffered injustices in this world, and while we will spend time talking about that someday, what I am breaking out here today is, how do you trust God when bad things are happening in your life? How can we reaffirm His great love for us when we see so little of that love around us? When things aren’t going your way? When your truck is forever at the mechanic? When the roof blows off your house during a storm? When you have problem after problem after problem after problem crop up?


It’s really not surprising when we start looking around for our own solutions because we don’t think God is answering us, or at least he’s not answering us as fast as we would like. There’s a catch, though.


If we put the problems we face into the context of the problems faced by the people of Peter's time, we’re actually getting off really easy. The vast majority of us are not persecuted like they were, or even like some churches are in our modern age. But still, our perception (there’s that word) is all too often our reality. Our context matters to us, and even if we can’t compare our issues to those of others, that still doesn’t make our issues go away. So WHAT will? WHAT gets us through the grindstone of life to come out on the other side. WHAT makes us polished and flawless arrows that will fly true and WHAT makes us swords that will cut surgically? 


That WHAT question is important to ask because it holds a promise (there’s THAT word again). We find the promise of peace in that “WHAT” question. Our anxiety levels could sure use a healthy helping of peace. 


The whole focus of 1 Peter is talking about finding hope in hopeless situations. Finding God’s pattern in the past and understanding how that power plays into our persistently stepping into our faith. That's the same faith God gave us and the Holy Spirit's work happening in it to create that new “authority inside” of us. 


What’s odd here, though, is Peter saying, “After you’ve suffered a little while,” … um, Pete, let’s talk about exactly what your definition of “a little while” is, shall we? This “little while” has been going on for what seems like forever. Suffering has been evident EVERYWHERE for much longer than just a “little while," Pete. In my own life, it's been over 40 years, Pete. Four-tee-years, Pete. That's a "four" and an "oh" as in "Oh my word, this has been going on forever, Pete." This is not a “little while!”


Or is it? 


Shifting Views

Peter is actually right. Our perception is that suffering has been happening for a long time, but if you look at God’s timeline from God's perspective, this actually is just a little while. When we start to look at God’s promise from God’s perspective, a funny thing happens. We begin to see things through God’s eyes, and that shift causes us to see that it really is just “a little while.” 


The fact is, lifting ourselves out of our perceptions and into our purpose requires faith in the promise, just like we’ve been talking about. And today, I’m going to start unpacking how we go about doing precisely that. 


The answer, as you may have guessed it, is to use our spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and communion to let God build more faith in us.  Remember, the growth of faith comes from practicing our spiritual disciplines in acts of piety and acts of mercy and over the next several Sundays we’re going to talk about each of them. Let’s launch this with the spiritual discipline of prayer. 


Engine or Caboose?

Prayer was never meant to be a last resort, even though we sometimes use it that way after we've gone digging for our own solutions. Instead, it was always meant to be the most powerful first resort we could actually possess. It’s one of the ways we allow Jesus to perfect the faith his Holy Spirit placed inside us.


Think of prayer as our baseline communication with God through the Holy Spirit. 


The Bible is chock full of people praying, otherwise, it would just be a history book with some nifty ideas thrown in. Jesus, for example, prayed deep and powerful prayers. In one instance, he told his disciples that some demons could not be exorcised except by prayer. It's no doubt that his disciples prayed, but did they pray as deeply and as widely as Christ prayed? We have evidence that they didn’t in the same way we have evidence that we don’t, either. 


The Bible also tells us to pray anytime. Ephesians 6:18 says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests; with this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”


Psalm 116:1-2 says, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live.”


So we see here that we are to pray all the time and for as long as we live. Why? Because we’re in a flesh suit all the time. We’re suffering all of the time. The answer is to go straight to God with it, all of the time. Why? Because he hears our voices when we need His mercy, when we need His peace and when we need His reaffirmation. This is where we find that guardianship of our hearts called peace. It comes from the same place the peace that passes all understanding mentioned in Philippians 4 comes from. Peace there is brought by the vehicle of prayer, petition, and thanksgiving. You get it? Prayer is a vehicle to peace, which comes solely from God.


A deep breath

That peace helps to alleviate a LOT of anxiety. Prayer enables us, through faith in the power of God, to have peace that will transcend the toughest times that we as Christians can face. In Peter’s time, they had it rough. They faced persecution at many turns and would for centuries to come. There was a spiritual war going on around them. There’s one going on around us as well. 


“Really? What persecutions do Christians really face?” Many ask that. Maybe you ask that. I know I've asked that. The answer is spiritual persecutions. Be sure of that. The devil doesn’t like to lose, and he works double hard not to lose. So we have to pray doubly hard to win. What is essentially stopping us from doing that and making headway into God’s good and perfect will for us? Our own selves, mostly. But if we could discover that reaffirmation in prayer, there would be powerful forces unleashed for God’s glory that would outwork, outwit and outlast the devil. 


That little 9-year old me that I told you about grew to be a man (as evidenced by me writing this to you now, obviously). There were many times that life got really difficult. Not just challenging, but mercilessly difficult. It hurt too often, too hard, and too painfully to keep going. I’ve said before that a young boy should not go to bed praying God would spare him from waking up in the morning. In the end, though, I always woke up. I wondered why, but just kept going. I just kept praying. Through it all, I came to the conclusion that if God and Jesus loved me, well, that is enough to just be willing to try, just like Bob when he was asked to catch me in last week's message. That little boy prayed hard, and right now he’s standing before you preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as he was called to do. 


Life still hurts. Life still isn’t easy. And I still pray. 


Get busy

The 49-year old man that was that 9-year-old boy would tell you to pray. Pray hard, pray often. Discover new ways to practice prayer. Pray with your family, pray with your friends, pray with and for people you don't even know and always pray that the Holy Spirit would open up opportunities for you to serve others in prayer. This guides us into the men and women God designed us to be. Prayer takes that grindstone of life and adds the polish to create a flawless finish to our faith. 


That flawless, reaffirming finish on our faith is how we get really good at our purpose. It’s how the trials we go through are endured so that the promise of “joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness,” all due to the divine persuasion of faith, come to us and through us. 


In her book, Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot wrote about her husband Jim Elliot. Jim was a missionary to Ecuador who was martyred in 1956 in the jungle by a tribe he and his missionary team was trying to reach. 


Jim was a constant journal writer and one of his journal entries addressed his concern about the impact his life would have on others. He wrote a prayer that said, “Father, make of me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.” Jim Elliot’s impact continues on even though he died so long ago after having prayed that at the young age of twenty-nine. Imagine how prayers like that could impact our lives and the lives of those around us. 


One of Elliot’s comments echoed a nonconformist preacher named Philip Henry who was the father of Matthew Henry, the noted Bible commentator. Philip said, "He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep (like Jim did with his life) when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose (His glory in Christ after he was killed)." We undergo the suffering Peter talked about for “a little while” because we cannot lose the promise given us from God of being made strong, firm and steadfast, even if that means after our deaths. 


The truth is, you cannot stay a stone all your life. It’s your choice whether or not you become ground down by the grindstone or polished up by the process. Among the other spiritual disciplines, prayer is the fork of faith in the road between your perception and your purpose. That fork of faith is where we find God’s reaffirming promise when we wake up in the morning just like that 9-year-old boy did.


You know which fork he took. Which one will you take?