2013 Favs: God Made In My Image

I want God; not my idea of God. C.S. Lewis

My god doesn’t …

I don’t believe in a god who …

How many times have we heard this?

I ask you, if God is God; if He made everything, everywhere, including us, then what does it matter what we think of Him? All these quippy little assertions are at base the expression of an underlying belief that God is the clay and we are the potter. They lead directly to what George Barna jokingly described as a nation of “310 million people with 310 million religious expressions.”

I believe this is the root of the “I don’t believe in religion; I believe in Jesus” phenomenon. If you can subtract Jesus from 2,000 years of Christian teaching, why then, you can create a Jesus who fits you and your prejudices, your wannabes, and your wannados right down to the ground. You can create a phony, basically useless Jesus who doesn’t demand conversion, never asks for repentance and would not think of chiding you for your “understandable” little sins.

You can create your own personal feel-good Jesus, who inevitably will be a Jesus without the cross. The only problem with that, of course, is that this jesus is not god. He is not Christ. Jesus without the cross is not Christ. Jesus without the cross was a First Century itinerate preacher and miracle worker who died 2,000 years ago. He’s the shorn and nonsensical little nothing that the film-flammers who attack Christianity try to make Him out to be.

Dietrich Bonnhoefner had a phrase for this. He called it “cheap grace.” Here’s what he said:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The Christian culture in which so many of us live is a sham and a flam, a product of cheap grace gone wild that is drummed into our minds by the steady beat of media promotion. Today, we not only have cheap grace, we have competing cheap graces whose followers are focused on defeating one another in the culture wars rather than following Christ.

We have the cheap grace purveyors of the right who tell us that all that stuff Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed, throughout the Gospels, doesn’t mean what it so plainly says. They create a morality-free zone surrounding anything to do with business and commerce, exempting the most egregious assaults on the common good from any application of 2,000 years of Christian teaching.

Then, on the other side of the cultural divide, we have the cheap gracers who proclaim that any standards of personal morality are in fact violations of personal freedom and assaults on tolerance and love. They carry this to the point that simple disagreement with such actions as abortion, serial marriage, same-sex marriage, and the commodification and sexualization of women and children is attacked and labeled “hate,” “homophobia,” and, bizarre as this sounds, sexism.

These competing versions of cheap-grace, god-made-in-my-image faux christianity have become the public face of Christian teaching. Their followers attack one another with a ruthlessness worthy of Caiaphas, and a pragmatic amorality that would be the pride of Machiavelli. Their total lack of respect for Jesus Christ and the Gospels is only equaled by their pretentious self-righteousness.

These are mean people. They are mean with the meanness that any thinking person would expect of someone who has turned their back on Christ in order to twist His message into a club to beat their political opponents with.

Why they do it is obvious: To gain power, fame and money.

How they manage to succeed at it is more subtle. Anyone who honestly read the New Testament would pick up on the fact that what these people are giving us is the stone, not the bread; a snake rather than a fish. Yet millions upon millions of “Bible believing” Christians not only fall for this crass twisting of the Gospels in the name of self-justification, they abandon the real Gospels to follow and teach it themselves.

Why?

Are they that stupid? Can’t they read the Bible for themselves and see that these are lies?

I think the answer rests in the fact that they can read the Bible; they just don’t like what it says.

The story of the Gospels is not built around some “follow me and I’ll make you into little Ceasars” sort of promise. It is in fact quite the opposite. When Satan tempted Jesus, he offered Him all the kingdoms of this world and Jesus turned him down. What Jesus did instead was set Himself on the path that led to the cross.

These sham teachers of phony gospels of their own devising are offering us the same deal that Satan offered Jesus. The difference being that many of us are taking the deal. Follow them, and you can have any kind of sex you want with whomever you chose. Follow them and you can kill your own children, reduce other human beings to things to be destroyed for your pleasure and feel holier than thou for doing it.

Set your foot on the broad and smooth path of the phony jesus these liars give us and you can lie, steal, cheat, hoard, destroy whole economies for your personal gain. You can push most of the world into death-dealing poverty and back it up with armies you supply from your factories and go to church on Sunday and be honored as great people of a phony god.

Wide is the way that leads to perdition, and it seems that in today’s world it is most often paved by the self-righteous hypocrisy of following false gods of our own creation that we have cast in our own image.

This is cheap grace, and it always seems to end up giving those who choose it a license to kill.

Bonnhoefner also talked about another kind of grace. He called it “costly grace.” I tend to call it “real grace,” but that’s just me and my simple-minded way of looking at things.

Here is part of what he said:

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Cheap grace is a sham and a phony. It is a lie we tell ourselves. Costly grace, the grace that comes from following Jesus even if it’s unpopular, even if it means picking up your cross and following after Him, is what can and will heal our culture and save our world.

According to a survey conducted by the Barna Institute, America is drifting more and more toward the cheap grace of God Made in Our Image; the ultra personal god who follows our teachings instead of asking us to follow his.

God made in our image will never ask us to do anything costly. He will always understand our transparent justifications, even of the most heinous crimes. What he can never do is cleanse us, re-orient us and change us into what we were meant to be when God first made us. What we will never see by following him is eternal life. There is no redemption in making an idol out of yourself, in worshipping a self-made, all-agreeing comfortable little kitchen god that you create out of your longing to never be wrong, never sacrifice, never make a tough choice.

Only God, the real God, can redeem us, make us new and lead us into life everlasting. The price of following Him is the same now as it has always been. It is the costly grace of the cross.

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Love Jesus and Hate Religion? Count Me Out.


I am not one of those people who “loves Jesus but hates religion.”

I am a pew-sitting, mass-going, catechism-following, Roman Catholic.

Based on my deeds, I’m not worthy to be called a Christian, much less a Catholic, and yet the Church took me in and accepted me as a completely new person in Christ. I’ve never encountered that kind of love and forgiveness anywhere else. Ever.

The Church, which is made up of fallen people living in a fallen world, is not perfect. But it is a direct conduit of the grace and forgiveness of Christ. Every mass takes you to the foot of the cross where you can lay down your worries, stresses and failures and be made new again in Christ.

If Jesus was going to be at the Cox Convention Center here in Oklahoma City, I imagine there would be lines of people, trying to get in. What we overlook is that Jesus is at our parish church at every mass, and that we can reach out and touch Him and be healed any day of the week.

Sixteen years of campaigning for office, filing bills, making speeches, battling over issues; of the chaos and ruthlessness that is politics, has taught me a few lessons. The most important is that, left to my own devices, I can and will do terrible things.

I learned that the hard way; by doing terrible things and then having to live with the remorse afterwards. When I follow my own “personal morality,” I can convince myself of most anything. When I follow my own lights and do what I think is right without any reference to the God who made me, I can be a monster.

It is a crushing thing to come face to face with your own sins, to see without the varnish of self-justification the harm that you have done. But it is also a gift, because from that knowledge of what you really are and how useless your “personal morality” really is, comes an understanding of who God is, what the Church does, and why you need them.

I work with people who campaigned for public office and were elected based on their Christian witness. They waved the Bible and held up their personal morality as the primary reason why people should vote for them. They attacked their opponents for not being as Christian as they were. And it worked. They were elected.

The problem with this is they were deformed by this process, deluded into believing that they really were holier than their opponents and most of the rest of the world. They came to believe that everything they did was of God just because they did it. In short,  they believed their own publicity and they became their own Gods.

They are sophisticated idolators whose God is their political party, their ambitions, and ultimately, themselves. They are the Pharisees of our times, and, believe me, they can cut your heart out without an anesthetic while quoting a Bible verse that they have taken out of context which they claim makes them righteous for doing it.

Before you condemn them, remember this: It can happen to anyone. In the same situation with the same pressures and temptations, it would almost certainly happen to you. Jesus said it best, “There is no one good but God.”

That’s why I would never be a person who “loves Jesus, but hates religion.” I find the greatest moral and spiritual freedom I’ve ever known in simply doing my best to follow the two-thousand-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church.

The Church is not perfect, but it is the repository of faith. For fifteen hundred years, the Eastern and Roman Catholic Church was the voice, the only voice, of Christianity in the world. Despite its human failings, the Holy Spirit has protected it so that it has handed down the full faith of Christ, the whole Gospels, intact and unblemished from one generation to the next for 2,000 years.

If you believe in the Trinity, you owe it to the Catholic Church. If you believe in the Bible, you owe those scriptures to the Catholic Church. If you believe in the virgin birth, the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting, you inherited those beliefs from the Catholic Church.

I believe what the Church teaches. I believe in my own sinfulness. I know for a fact that I cannot be holy, Christian, or even a good person on my own.

Being Christian is not a matter of saying “Holy, Holy” and waving your Bible around. It is not wearing a t-shirt that says “My boss is a Jewish Carpenter.” It most certainly is not using “proof texts” taken from the Bible out of context to justify doing whatever you want.

Being Christian is first of all, going to the cross and knowing that you, like the good thief, are a sinner, not that you have sinned, but that you are, and always will be a hopeless, helpless sinner. It is knowing that you deserve to hang on that cross instead of Him.

Being Christian is, first and foremost, humility before God in the face of your own sins. Secondly, it is doing what Jesus told you to do. I don’t just mean doing the parts of what He commanded that fit in with the group of people you run around with, or that will get you a better job or make your life easier. I don’t mean picking out a few sins that don’t tempt you in the least and then condemning other people for doing those things.

You are not made holy by pointing out other people’s sins and condemning them. You are made holy by seeing your own sins and turning to God in humility to ask for forgiveness that, if you are honest, you know you do not deserve.

From my own life as a sinner, I will tell you that while you can come to Jesus anywhere you are, just exactly as you are, you cannot maintain a lifelong walk with Him alone. You need direction from centuries of Christian teaching, community and fellowship.

You can’t love Jesus and hate religion. If you try, you will inevitably end up loving a Jesus who is not Christ the Lord but a mirror image of you. Without the Church, and its stubborn insistence on following the whole Gospel of Christ, including the parts of it that various power brokers find inconvenient, you will revert to type and become your own God, following your own rules and justifying your sins, not with conversion of heart and trying to change, but with lies, obfuscations and the arrogance of self.

We can convince ourselves of anything. I know, because I’ve done it. Because I see other people do it every day of my working life.

We need to be with other sinners who, just like us, are trying and failing, then trying again, to follow Christ as they walk through their days in this life. We need the Church.

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It’s the Last Week of Session

It’s the last week of session.

What that means to me as a person is that I make arrangements for people to keep my mother entertained, kiss my family goodbye with promises of all the fun we’ll have “when it’s over,” and pack up my Timbuk2 messenger bag in much the same way I pack a carry-on bag for an ocean-crossing flight.

I know and my family knows that I will come home long after they’re asleep and wouldn’t be fit company for civilized people even if they did get to see me. The fights and conflicts I encounter this last week of session keep me so jazzed that I can’t converse or even think about anything else for days after it ends.

The last week of session is every bit of conflict and angst that the entire process has engendered, stuffed into a few days’ time. It beats me up emotionally, physically and spiritually. Not only is the work load overwhelming, but this is the time when all the ugliness comes down.

The last week is when leadership passes the bills with the hidden zingers and out-front corruption. It’s a week when crony capitalism takes over and we do the really big deals for the special interests. It’s a week full of “Swahili moments” when legislators refuse to hear that what they do affects millions of people. This is when we make the laws that make the rich richer, the poor poorer.

After seeing the things I see during the last week of each legislative session, I always feel as if I need to have my mind washed out with soap. Fighting and losing these fights year after year wears at me, leaves me half sick with indignation and anger. It takes a while after the session is done to get over it. I know I’m going to have to go to confession to cleanse myself of the anger I will bring home from my job. I do every year.

So I pack my messenger bag with my personal version of legislative survival gear, including things to use as a distraction when the tension gets so great that I have to pull back from it for a moment. Surviving this job requires that you learn how to take a break in place, sometimes in front of the television cameras. It’s a trick of the mind, of absenting yourself from the fight while still being engaged in the fight. I can’t begin to tell you how to do it. You just learn how, or you don’t make it in this job.

The last week isn’t a fashion show. I wear my most comfortable shoes and least binding clothes that can pass muster as “professional.” I usually start the week in slacks and end it in jeans. The “professional” part comes from the ubiquitous three-button blazer I pull on over the jeans and shirt.

That’s not exactly Vogue photo quality, but this is Oklahoma where most of the male legislators show up for work in cowboy boots and Stetsons. My sandals, shirt, jeans and jacket never cause a ripple in this crowd. We all know the work load in front of us. Besides we spend so much time together that we’re kind of past that.

In addition to packing a messenger bag to the point that its weight makes me walk lop-sided, I always, no matter how long the hours, pray the Rosary each day. I ask God to use me for His purposes and to not let me do anything really stupid. Then, I trust that I am under His protection and head out for battle.

I have no idea if I’ll have time to blog this week. I probably shouldn’t even try since there is no way to predict what I might say in the midst of a week of full-bore legislating.

So, I guess I’ll close off for a few days with the same promise I make to my family: I’ll be back, and we’ll have a lot of fun when it’s over.

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