Shouting From the Back Forty

Aug 6, 2021

I’ve been stuck in a yo-yo of inertia … indecision … needing to pursue a destination, an “I will know it when I see it” target obstructed from view by a muddied line of sight. I lean to the right, peering through the mist, and then to the left, to no avail. My instincts drive me to seek the path forward, and my mind is wired to push ahead, but there’s still no clarity, and little progress made. It’s a combination of closed doors, subtle hints, a relentless and repeating “nudge,” and my own desperate calls to the Almighty for answers. Today I asked Him to simply open my eyes, my ears, and my mind. I needed something obvious … maybe a reading that sparkles off the page. Or a hearing that answers the question.

Before I tell you what this is all about, let me tell you how He responded to my request. It had been a while since I’d read it, and I don’t know why I chose it (yes I do), but I grabbed Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. The sparkle burned quite bright. I wanted more … maybe to hear something from Willard, a man whose 1997 work The Divine Conspiracy had impacted my entire experience and understanding of the Christian life. Willard’s insights had always been a clarifying muse, a comforting mentor, and a welcomed assurance that I’m on the right track and getting closer.

I went to YouTube and selected something from a video series called Hearing God (Willard wrote a book by the same name that is fantastic). Of course. I randomly (uh huh) selected Part 3, and hit play. His words:

 

“I want to focus on the main points because we can go off in many many different directions, and the main thing that I want to try to impress on us for the last session is how the gentle voice of God comes to us.

Now God can do anything He wants to, and often there are wonderful events that occur. But, do you know the Christian life as a disciple of Jesus does not happen just in wonderful events? It’s day-to-day life with Jesus that really matters. That is where character is developed … in day to day life with Jesus.  And all of the things that Jesus teaches us to do in the scripture.

I want to spend most of my minutes now on the Sermon on the Mount.

As you see from your outline, all of the things that He tells us to do, we learn by increments of fellowship with Him, and that is nowhere more important to understand than with reference to the Sermon on the Mount.”

 

I was thrilled. God had answered me! You see, it is my concern about The Sermon on the Mount and its common (and mistaken) interpretation, that has captured me in this back and forth yo-yo of inertia. I know what I know, and cannot unknow it. I also see what I see, and can’t un-see it. And neither of what I know nor what I see are what most church leaders teach and preach about the Sermon on the Mount, whether they know it and see it … or not (or are willing to admit that they know it and see it).

I’ve heard it again and again; the Beatitudes as a list of bless-able behaviors. There are only two authors I know of, Dallas Willard and C.S. Lewis, who write about the Beatitudes as the good news of present access to the Kingdom of God through Christ. This access through Christ makes for a blessed state of being without regard to the condition of a person’s character, status in society, or mental and physical capabilities. When you believe in the Son, the King, you are in the Kingdom of God. Period.

We haven’t had a solid church home for almost a year now. Why? Because we’re slowly giving up. Every church we’ve been a part of since 2005 has shifted away from its focus on “Christ first.” Somewhere along the road, the pastors lost their mojo. They no longer demonstrate their belief (nor appear to give it much thought) that He is the beginning of all things, and all things fall into place in Him, through Him, for Him, and by Him. I see almost no evidence in the messages, very few in the leadership decisions, and in too few of the public actions. I know that’s harsh, but I’m not exaggerating. It leads me to wonder if they fear those of the cancel culture and politically-correct. Could it be that in their distracted state of busyness, they’ve forgotten their first love?

As one of our much-loved pastors of old used to ask each Sunday, “So What?”

Here’s what: the church has placed an increasingly greater emphasis on dogma, performance standards, self-righteous models of moral behavior, and superficial compliance with deadening norms of outwardly righteous attitudes that obliterate authenticity and true connection. I hate to say it, but the church showed a high level of competence in virtue signaling long before it became a huge trend in the culture.

The worst part is that the primary topic of transformation into the image of Christ is now rarely discussed. And if it is, the word “transformation” is used to mean specific changes in behavior that are pursued from the outside in, hammered into place by legalistic systems of assess and judge.

Forgive my bluntness, but …

I’m sick of it.

About a year ago during COVID, we began watching online services of a small church down the hill. During our first in-person visit, the pastor told us of their plans to merge with another church. Okay. I get it. I’ve been involved in many mergers and acquisitions during my career. Mergers are disruptive and stressful. But I liked his preaching and his story, and wanted to give things a chance. I was willing to go through the pain of a merger if their focus was to be “Christ first.”

Over the next few weeks, I received several email updates about the merger effort and their progress in “agreeing” upon things. I wondered what they were “agreeing upon.”  I feared their focus might have shifted, becoming about things that are “not primary.”

In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard quotes Leith Anderson:

 

[1] [Leith Anderson] notes, While the New Testament speaks often about churches, it is surprisingly silent about many matters that we associate with church structure and life. There is no mention of architecture, pulpits, lengths of typical sermons [or sermons!], rules for having a Sunday school. Little is said about style of music, order of worship, or times of church gatherings. There were no Bibles, denominations, camps, pastor’s conferences, or board meeting minutes. Those who strive to be New Testament churches must seek to live its principles and absolutes, not reproduce the details.’

Willard goes on …

Those details simply aren’t given. Now you might ask yourself, Why does the New Testament say nothing about all those matters to which the usual congregation today devotes almost all its thought and effort? Answer: Because those matters are not primary and will take care of themselves with little attention whenever what is primary is appropriately cared for. Pay attention to the “principles and absolutes” of the New Testament church and, one might suppose, everything else will fall into place-in large part because “everything else” really doesn’t matter much one way or the other. To fail to put the focus on those principles and absolutes, on the other hand, is to wander off into a state of distraction, which is where most of our local congregations actually are. They wind up majoring on minors and allowing the majors, from the New Testament point of view, to disappear.

Of course, we do not think we are distracted. The things we are investing our efforts in seem absolutely primary. These are usually things that make up being a good and proper … whatever-Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist … or just a “good Christian” as understood in the particular place. But the people on location have actually mistaken the vessel for the treasure. Paul gives us a crucial distinction: “For God, who said, `Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7).

 

Focusing on rules and proper behavior, the externals, without recognizing that a bad tree cannot produce good fruit, only stifles our movement along the journey of transformation. The fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians is not produced by our own propriety to be righteous … our own efforts to be “good.” It comes from a supernatural change to our internal being, our character, with fruit produced through our trust-fueled yielding to the Spirit, laying ourselves open and bare to His work. And even then, speaking from my own experience, the Spirit works outside of our awareness, especially during the darker seasons of life. It is during those times that His work is the deepest, done in secret, leaving us with nothing but our decision to trust Him. I’ve had periods where the only thing I heard from Him was “I will never leave you, nor forsake you,” over and over.

So then, does this mean there is nothing for us to do? Are we without any responsibility? No, not at all. Our “responsibility” is to follow after Christ, to seek Him first, to love Him and obey His commandments, to take on His yoke. Wait … hold on. The word “responsibility” is really misplaced here … a better word might be “compulsion,” we can’t help ourselves in doing these things. We want to focus on Him, to know Him, to dig deep, and to keep on digging … forever. To run after Him with confidence in His love for us, like a child who runs into the arms of a loving parent. And then when for whatever reason we can’t bring ourselves to do those things, He carries us.

He longs for us to long for Him.

Our connection with and our abiding in Christ is a relationship. We trust Him. We choose to submit ourselves to that mysterious process of being transformed, restored to our true and intended identity in Christ. We live, as Willard describes it, in a relationship of incrementally increasing intimacy; an intimacy that changes us from glory to glory into our best selves. Only in that journey will our behavior become more and more in line with Christ ‘s … and we won’t even notice it (it will be a natural outcome). No more performing, pretending, gritting our teeth and bearing it. We will be moved from liberation to liberation, freedom to freedom, restoration to restoration, healing to healing. He leads us back to wholeness.

This is important; most of us are dis-integrated by life in this world. Jesus re-integrates us into wholeness. It is the entire point of the Gospel; God’s process of restoration and reconciliation, bringing us ever and ever closer to Him. It does not stop at salvation.

It begins at salvation.

Do you now understand why I bristle when I hear another “Beatitudes as requirements for blessedness” sermon?

Let’s talk about one implication of using the Beatitudes as how-to’s, or rules, for achieving blessedness. When I think about most things, I can’t help but look for the big picture, then the parts of the picture, determine how they are meant to work together, and how each part impacts the functions of the others, especially if the part isn’t working as designed. So, when I look at the church, I see the “church” first, meaning the larger manifestation of the church in all its forms, locations, efforts, and people. And that’s about all I really know – that it’s huge and complex, yet tasked with one job: to carry out the great commission. The church is made up of believing individuals, most of whom are under the shepherding hand of a ministering leader. And then there are the schools, the seminaries, and the various academic institutions. These are the places of deeper learning and training for the equipping of the saints. Without going into an entire discussion about how the seminaries are impacting the church’s capacity to carry out the great commission, I’ll just say this: I don’t think their teaching of the Beatitudes aligns with Dr. Willard’s. I could be wrong, and I hope I am.

I’m going to bypass denominations (for obvious reasons), so now we come to the local church congregation. If the teaching at that local church is rooted in a how-to approach to achieving blessedness, human nature is going to kick in, and in a damaging way. Many people have been disillusioned by the competitive behavior and actions taken against them simply because they were perceived by another church member as either not worthy (and therefore shunned), or worthy in a way that was threatening (and therefore shunned). Who does that leave in the congregation? Right. The How-To-ers.” If everyone in the church is focused on meeting external performance requirements (which is very hard to resist when “everyone is doing it”), from where does the true Kingdom power come? Where are the vessels within which Christ resides and is allowed to poor out His strength? How can that congregation experience the Kingdom of God when they live unaware that He’s even there?

Kingdom impacts for good emanate out of a transformed life. Service, preaching, prayer, winsome ministry, healing, eternal hope, and freedom. Without transformation from the inside out, we risk becoming a group of indifferent rule followers. We can’t admit we’re not really who we pretend to be, all of our energies go toward keeping up appearances, we’re miserable, and we continue to feel alone and estranged. All of this going on at the individual level makes the larger church less impactful for Kingdom work, the only work that matters.

This morning I watched the YouTube video of this past Sunday’s sermon. The topic was the Sermon on the Mount. When the pastor introduced the message, I heard the sound of static from my gut.

I could feel it coming; fearing it would be the same teaching. And my concern was warranted. He taught the Beatitudes as a checklist of circumstantial, behavioral, and character attributes we ought to emulate (observe and copy) to be a “good Christian.” No, he didn’t come right out and say it, but it was strongly implied, and it would be difficult to not come to the one dreaded conclusion.

Uh …. Again, no.

In the foreword to The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, Richard Foster writes:

 

[2]…Then, too, his (Willard’s) analysis of the contemporary scene is quite remarkable and comprehensive. Incisively, he uncovers the pretense of the various theories, facts, and techniques of contemporary secular materialism, showing that “they have not the least logical bearing upon the ultimate issues of existence and life.” Nor does the contemporary religious scene escape his incisive eye. In perhaps the most telling phrase of the book, he reveals the various “theologies of sin management” that plague churches today, both conservative and liberal. This (The Divine Conspiracy) is a book that opens me to the big picture.

(Foster goes on later)

Here I must comment on the depth of teaching on what we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount. Most writers turn these penetrating words of Jesus into a new set of soul-crushing laws. Others, feeling the teaching is impossible to obey, try to relegate it to another time, another place, another dispensation. Those who reject these two options usually think of it simply as a loose collection of nice sayings thrown together by unknown editors—interesting to read in a poetic sort of way, but having nothing essential to do with how we live today. What, I wondered, would Willard bring to the table?

A soul-satisfying banquet, that is what. No one I have read so effectively penetrates to the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Willard’s discussion of the “Beatitudes,” for instance, is simply stunning, upsetting many of our common notions of this famous passage. The entire book is well worth that discussion alone. But he gives us more, much more—a feast for the mind and the heart.

 

In October 1983, a few days after I received Christ (I wasn’t sure what had happened), I sat in the living room of my midtown second story flat, looking through the living room window at the beautiful old trees of the neighborhood and the cars whizzing by on the busy midtown street … and suddenly … I was seeing. I mean, really seeing … seeing like I’d never seen before. Everything was so much more vibrant and present, details popping out and into my mind, drawing me into the beauty of all that was around me. Something big had happened to me, and it wasn’t just a change of mind. It was a change of awareness.

Sometimes when I’m out on the patio for prayer, I will have a thought come to mind and know it’s from Him. And as I receive it, almost invariably a breeze will rise up and kiss my face. It is always Him. How do I know that? Because I live in the Kingdom of God, and I do my best to remain aware. He is present in the air around me.

Anyway, I soon connected with people who were involved in youth ministry, including a talented youth pastor who guided us into the great classics, taught us the methods of hermeneutics to study scripture, and led all of us into what would become a lifelong love of deep scripture study. I lapped up every drop of teaching I could find.

And I started noticing little disconnects; it seemed that something was amiss. It didn’t make sense to me, this idea of grace juxtaposed against the heavy demands of the Beatitudes. I struggled to see the harmony between the Beatitudes as “rules” and many other passages of scripture. I wasn’t able to pinpoint the issues at that point, but my voracious reading of scripture had brought me to places that had seeped into my heart and mind. Some of those places are the same as those called out by Willard:

 

“You cannot consistently say that the great passages such as Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 13, Colossians 3, and Galatians 5, for example, are for now—as everyone admits—while relegating the Sermon on the Mount and other Gospel passages to the next dispensation or life. This cannot be, simply because they actually say the same things.”

 

Being a part of the youth ministry group gave me a good foundation, but as our individual lives moved on, something was lost. My church experience changed; it felt more like a social club than a people engaged in the pursuit of Christ. I tried to find others who wanted to go deeper. Nothing. I wondered if my initial experience with the youth ministry had been something special, a gift to set me on the path. Maybe so, but I wouldn’t give up. I would find another way of satisfying my desire to go deeper. One day I was complaining to our pastor about my feelings of isolation, and he got up, walked over to his desk, and picked up a book. Handing it to me, he said, “I think this is what you’re looking for.”

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God” by Dallas Willard.

I began reading it right away, taking only a week to finish it, including three hours at a SF Giants game where I sat in the bleachers the entire time with my nose in the book. Yes, I had to read certain paragraphs multiple times to get what Willard was saying, but it was worth every extra moment. It was the food I needed, the clarity I craved, and the work that finally rid me of that discomforting feeling I’d been (mostly subconsciously) carrying about the Beatitudes. It was as if Willard was telling me what I already knew that I didn’t know I knew.

Where do I begin?

Let’s start with the problem.

Well, for many, the Beatitudes are a pretty poison. Willard tells a story at the beginning of Chapter 4 of The Divine Conspiracy.

 

[3]Once after I had spoken on the Beatitudes, a lady approached me expressing great relief at what she had just heard. She told me her son had dropped his Christian identification and left the church because of the Beatitudes. He was a strong, intelligent man who had made the military his profession. As often happens, he had been told that the Beatitudes—with its list of the poor and the sad, the weak and the mild—were a picture of the ideal Christian. He explained to his mother very simply: “That is not me. I can never be like that.”

Certainly, this man was not perfect as he stood and could have made several changes for the better. But is that what we’re supposed to do with the Beatitudes— “Be like that”? Frankly, most people think so. But they could hardly be more mistaken. More common than such outright rejection of Christianity so understood is a constant burden of guilt conscientiously borne for not being, or not wanting to be, on this list of the supposedly God-preferred. This kind of guilt also feeds a morbid streak that unfortunately persists in historical Christianity and has greatly weakened its force for good in history and in individual lives. On the other hand, pride often visibly swells in those who think of themselves as conforming to the “blesseds.”

 

To avoid this kind of sad misunderstanding, we will need help pushing back against the seemingly conventional interpretations. And, as any good academic would do, Willard starts with the context … always a good place to begin, and in these days, I’m sad to say, context is often omitted. In fact, too many times, especially recently, I’ve noticed a shrill and vehement defense of “the truth you must agree with.” Yikes!

First, the truth doesn’t need to be shoved down our throats. We want to meet Christ, to experience transformation, to connect with other believers and walk the journey together. There’s no need to quash the Spirit by promoting dogma disguised as informed and qualified, certified, credentialed, and “big seminary name” teaching. Talking down to and cajoling people to get in line with a restrictive interpretation of scripture betrays a lack of understanding about our freedom in the Kingdom of God, and an apparent need to control the thoughts and behaviors of the flock. I guarantee you, God is able to give us understanding when He wants, and how He wants; and He certainly isn’t trying to control us. I wish He would! But that plan went haywire in the garden.

Second, the push to “agree” on the interpretation of scripture as it pertains to church doctrine, policy, role expectations, behavioral norms, gender-based segregation of leadership opportunities, etc. can hinder that scripture’s power, turning it from a life-giving force into a legally binding energy draining damper. It’s like building the walls of the playground, setting boundaries that keep us from entering the mystery of God, while shunning those who dare to ask questions.

Listen.

Are you listening?

The Word is living. It is active. It is sharper than any two-edged sword. It draws us in; it changes us; it speaks to us in new and different ways every time we return to it. God uses it to speak His love into us, disclose Himself to us, and to draw us into an ever-deeper intimacy with Him. He uses the Word to woo us, not to rule us.

But, we poor pathetic humans: we just have to have some say. That human propriety, the need to be considered good or virtuous, the desire to score points with God … Danger, Danger Will Robinson! It is pride. We all have it, but we are also accountable to God for our terrible habit of disguising it as righteousness. Does it really make sense to set up a bunch of standards for behavior and an approved “signs of virtue list” that people will then use to measure themselves and others? Or to believe they have something to offer outside of their dependence upon God? Or that God owes them blessings for their good deeds and behavior?

In the meantime, outsiders, the curious, come to our churches, our places of worship, desiring connection and authenticity, but too often they leave feeling judge and discouraged. That’s a loss that must deeply grieve the Father.

Yet, hope remains. The Sermon on the Mount is the good news! The fantastic news. The best news any human being could receive … ever. And we need set some context.

We start with Jesus. He had spent several days teaching and healing, meeting the needs of the sick and destitute, the tormented, the insane, the paralyzed, and poor … attracting people from all over, even from as far away as Syria.

Notice that Jesus wooed the people to Himself. He touched them with supernatural acts of mercy and kindness, showing them that God is present – even with them. Jesus had gotten the crowd ready to hear. And as the time drew near for Him to speak, they were ready to listen, so Jesus moved to a higher place so that they could hear and see Him well.

It’s important to see this: the people there in the crowd were the lowest of the low in society, and they had just been touched by the heavens through Him. His shift away from healing them to teaching them was to point out that they were “blessed” because The Kingdom of God had just reached out and touched them with “Jesus’ heart and voice and hands.”

That was the situation. Jesus was teaching; the Beatitudes are His words. Yet, strangely, as Willard points out, many of the mistranslations of the Sermon on the Mount gloss over the fact that Jesus was even there on the scene! What’s going on here? Well, these mistranslations are attractive to us, fueling our human sense of propriety. But In the process of fomenting pride in those striving for blessedness, those of us without merit are left out in the cold. Willard asks, “And where does that leave God’s free will to bless us because of our need, or because He chooses to?”

Jesus begins teaching. The first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is commonly presented as praiseworthy. Obviously, that doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone want to be poor in spirit? And where else in scripture does Jesus require that someone be poor in spirit to be blessed? I love this … as a corrective, Willard paraphrases the verse this way:

“Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’—when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.”

Again, Jesus was not teaching them a recipe, like a list of quid pro quos, for “getting blessed.” He was telling them that as they are clothed in Christ, they ARE blessed. At that present moment, not the next day or after they’d qualified via adherence to some rule, the Kingdom of God was there, and accessible to them despite their lack of spiritual credentials, qualifications or abilities.

 

[4]Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit.” He did not think, “What a fine thing it is to be destitute of every spiritual attainment or quality. It makes people worthy of the kingdom.” And we steal away the much more profound meaning of His teaching about the availability of the kingdom by replacing the state of spiritual impoverishment – in no way good in itself – with some supposedly praiseworthy state of mind or attitude that “qualifies” us for the kingdom. This amounts to substituting another legalism for Jesus’ ecstatic pronouncement of the gospel.

 

I don’t expect that everyone will agree. Really … that’s more than fine. But stay curious, ask questions … knock and the door will be opened to you.

Next time …

The Wedding Feast: Dispensing with the “Outside In” and Embracing the “Inside Out.”

 

[1] Dallas Willard. Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ (Kindle Locations 3352-3361). Kindle Edition.

[2] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.[3] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.[4] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (p. 106). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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