My way or the highway

Have you ever noticed how the church talks about the concept of “absolute truth?”  For the most part, we use that term as a weapon.  We wield it like a giant spiritual baseball bat to bludgeon anyone who does not agree with us.  If you think differently than what our doctrine clearly states, you are wrong.  And we wast no time or effort in quickly convincing you of that fact.

The funny thing is, I always think of what I believe as absolute truth, not what you believe.

I never stop to consider that those who disagree with me feel as strongly about the “absoluteness” of their truth as I do of mine.  So we let something that should unite us divide us instead.  Instead of rallying around what should be obvious to all, we instead polarize, demonize, and politicize.

It seems we Christians love to look backwards.  We look at the way things have always been done and elevate our traditions to the level of absolute.  Then when anyone dares disagree with us, they become an enemy who must be silenced.  Our truth is better than yours, so we protect ours by eliminating yours.

Why do we have to proclaim truth in such a negative way?

The good news seems more like bad news when it makes you right and me wrong all the time.

In John 14:6 Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the “…way, the TRUTH, and the life…”  So, as His follower, my definition of truth must begin and end with Jesus.  His words, His actions, His example gives me a road-map to follow in my pursuit of truth.  If it looks and sounds like Jesus, then it is truth.

Jesus certainly didn’t beat people over the head with doctrine or dogma.  He didn’t use the truth of who He was as a weapon against the infidels.  The Pharisees did that.  They were the ones excluding and judging, condemning and executing.  They were the ones enforcing every letter of the law, while forgetting mercy.  The Pharisee’s concept of absolute truth said the woman caught in adultery should be stoned.  But Jesus – the truth in human form – said, “neither do I condemn you.” 

So what am I saying?  Am I saying we are wrong to believe in absolutes?  Have I become some sort of relativist?  Some postmodern who believes that all truths are equally valid?  No, I believe in absolutes.  I believe in the absolutes Jesus taught, and they are not that complicated:

I believe that love overcomes evil.
I believe that mercy triumphs over judgment.
I believe we will be judged by how we treat the poor, the oppressed, and the helpless.
I believe “love your neighbor” transcends race, creed, nationality, and bigotry.
I believe loving our enemies is better than hating them.
I believe in returning good for evil, love for hatred, mercy for wrongdoing.
I believe we are never so tall as when we stoop to embrace a leper.

Yes, I believe in absolute truth.

I believe we are all absolutely depraved, and that Jesus came to absolutely redeem all of us to Himself.  And I absolutely don’t get to decide what that looks like.  He is the Redeemer, He gets to decide.  He has redeemed even people I might not like, agree with, or understand.  He is more than capable of revealing the truth of His love to the world He came to redeem.  He doesn’t need me to swing Him around like a blunt object used to beat sinners into submission.

Besides, love is a much more effective weapon anyway, and that’s the truth.

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I’m Burning for You

In the Old Testament, the Jewish people had a system of sacrifices – set in place by God – as a way of gaining forgiveness for their sins.  Twice a day the priests would offer an a lamb as a burnt offering for the sins of the people.  We see in Christ the fulfillment of this system as He became the final sacrifice.  Once and for all Jesus satiated God’s need for justice by offering Himself as the permanent sacrifice for our sins.

But there is another sacrifice.

One that we do not like to talk about as much.  One we don’t even like to think about because it costs us something.  It’s the sacrifice of ourselves.  You know, like Romans 12:1

And so, dear brothers and sisters,I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. (NLT)

God has offered His own Son for me as a sacrifice, and now He calls me to climb on the altar for Him.  In gratitude for all He has given me, I am now called to give all to Him.

Check this out, I just noticed this the other night as I was reading about the regulations for sacrifices in Leviticus 6,

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions regarding the burnt offering. The burnt offering must be left on top of the altar until the next morning, and the fire on the altar must be kept burning all night…the fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must never go out. Each morning the priest will add fresh wood to the fire and arrange the burnt offering on it….Remember, the fire must be kept burning on the altar at all times. It must never go out.

Three times the Lord tells Moses to remember that the fire must burn all night, that the flame must never go out.  The offering is to sit on the fire all day and all night, until it is reduced to ash.

Put these images together and think about it.  God calls me to offer myself as a “living sacrifice” to Him.  That sacrifice is to burn until it is completely consumed.  The fire is to never be extinguished.  I’m supposed to sit on that altar, allowing God to burn everything away, until there is nothing left but Him.  The refining fire of the Holy Spirit is to be constantly applied to my life.

How many of us are truly willing to burn until we are consumed?

Most Christians today prayed a prayer, gave up some bad habits, and went on with life as usual.  We do our duties – attend church, tithe, or teach Sunday School – and get on with our lives.  We thank Jesus for dying on the cross for us, never thinking that He might call us to hang there with Him.  We sing songs about His sacrifice for us, and it never crosses our mind that He might want us to lay on that altar as a sacrifice for Him.

Are you willing to burn?  Are you willing to have the fire of the Holy Spirit kindled beneath you until there is nothing left?  Are you willing to have the refiner lay waste to all your impurities and until the world’s enticements mean nothing?

What if that purifying process takes the rest of your life? 

It might mean giving up things we hold dear.  It might mean giving up our entertainment.  It might mean losing everything.  It might mean a change of career or a change of life.  It most definitely will mean a change of heart.

How many will join me in climbing up on the altar and allowing God to apply the heat?  Sure, there will be times we are tempted to climb down and cool off.  It goes against our nature to burn.  But it’s the only way to become who He truly wants us to be.

He became a sacrifice for us.  Are we willing to become a sacrifice for Him?

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I am a failure at Christianity

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago called “What if you feel like quitting?”  I wrote it after I saw someone arrive at my blog after typing these words into a search engine: “what to do when you feel like turning away from Christianity?”

Well, the other night I noticed another search that resulted in a visit to this blog.  This time the search was this: “I am a failure at Christianity.” 

The emotion and hopelessness of those words have haunted me for three days now.  Someone, somewhere sat down at their computer in a moment of despair and typed those words, hoping to find some solace or comfort.  I have tried to imagine what prompted their resignation.  What failure or sin caused this sad admission?  I have prayed for that person in the days following, and I feel like I must respond.

There are two emotions that hit me as I think about that sentence, “I am a failure at Christianity.”

The first is compassion on the precious person who wrote it.  I pray you will find hope and forgiveness.  I hope you will find a way through Christ to get back up and keep going.

The second emotion I feel is anger.  I am angry at a church culture that has made it possible for someone to feel like a failure at Christianity.  I am angry that we have reduced the incredible grace of God, his undeserved favor, into a set of rules to keep and sins to avoid.  I am angry that we have created an atmosphere where those who have trouble keeping our rules feel less than worthy of Christ and less than deserving of His grace.

You see, it’s actually impossible to fail at Christianity.  If it were possible to fail, that would mean we have something to do with our own redemption.  If it were possible to fail, that would mean there is something more than the cross that is necessary for salvation.  If it were possible to fail, that would mean my salvation has more to do with me than it does with God.

None of those things are true.  We are saved by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ.  We most definitely do not deserve it.  God has acted completely out of His own love for us.  He has offered us forgiveness completely apart from anything we can do to earn or deserve it.  The Bible tells us in Romans 5 that Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners.”  That’s the good news, plain and simple.  And the love and grace that saved you once is the same love and grace that continues to save you every minute of every day.

The only way we could ever fail at Christianity would be to not accept it. It’s a free gift, and the only way to fail with a gift is if we will not take it.

So to the person who wrote those words, I encourage you to believe.  You are actually at the very place God wants you to be.  We are all failures, and it’s only when we are finally able to admit that fact that we are able to receive His mercy.  When you confess your failure and cry out to God, that’s when forgiveness starts to flow.

And to the rest of us, I encourage us to evaluate what we believe.  Do we really believe in grace?  Do we really believe salvation is a free gift from God, and that there is nothing we can do to earn it?  I think many of us in the church see the sin and degradation around us and feel like we need to take a stand against it.  But look at how Jesus treated sinners.  It was always with love, mercy and compassion.

Unfortunately those things seem to be in short supply to far too many “sinners” today.

For further reading, check out this post as well:  Being disillusioned is a good thing

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Who is calling the shots?

There is a principle in the U.S. legal system called “precedent.”  It’s a rule of law where a court defines a set of principles in deciding a case that can be referred to by other courts in deciding similar cases in the future.  Its official name is the Latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere – “to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled.”

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me to be a bit of a legal shortcut. Jurists standing on the work of others instead of thinking things through for themselves.  And I’m not the only one.  Justice McHugh of the High Court of Australia once remarked about precedence, “That is the way of the common law, the judges preferring to go from case to case, like the ancient Mediterranean mariners, hugging the coast from point to point, and avoiding the dangers of the open sea of system or science.”

My question is this: What if the precedent, the original decision, is wrong?  What if subsequent courts are basing decisions based on erroneous reasoning?  I wondering how many courts upheld the legality of slavery simply based on the principle of precedent?

I wonder also, how much of the faith we call Christianity is based on precedent? How much of what we practice has little or no basis in scripture, but instead in “how it’s always been done?”

Christianity is not like the court system. Precedence doesn’t exist. Just because something has been practiced for centuries doesn’t make it right, permanent or holy.  Just because you’ve been told something is a certain way for your whole life doesn’t make it so.

The only precedent that is absolutely essential to the follower of Christ is Scripture.  The Bible.  The words of God’s prophets.  The doctrine of the Jesus and His Apostles.  And that Scripture is clear: the Holy Spirit is able to lead YOU into all truth.  You don’t need centuries of popes and preachers telling you what the Bible says.  You only need the Bible and a willingness to hear the voice of God for yourself.  There is only one head of the church, and that is Jesus.  He said, “My sheep hear MY voice, and they know me.”

Let me be clear.  I am not telling you that everything you have ever been taught is wrong.  I am not telling you that all the doctrine of the church is wrong.  Tradition and doctrine are an important part of our faith.  But they are meant to guide us, not dominate us.  They are meant to provide a blueprint, not a mandate.  Doctrine is not the end, it’s the means.  All too often doctrine has been used as a club to beat people into submission or eliminate those who disagree.

Too many of us are like those ancient mariners, clinging to the coast, hopping from port to port, too afraid to launch out to the danger of the open sea.  It has been easier to let others tell us what to believe than to search the scriptures for ourselves.  It has been easier to allow traditions, rules and dogmas dominate us than to strike out into uncharted territory, following the words of Jesus as heard by our own ears and not by the ears of others.  Religion doesn’t like rebels.  It prefers those who are willing to accept the box into which God has been neatly placed.

But the Bible is full of examples of men and women who broke with tradition to follow God:  Abraham leaving his father’s house, Gideon tearing down and burning his father’s idols, the prophets who spoke against corruption in the house of God.  All were called to abandon the safety of the status quo in favor of a new thing God wanted to do through them.  There are many heroes of church history, like Martin Luther, Jan Hus and George Fox, who were willing to break off from the pack in favor of God’s truth.  Our Lord Himself is our greatest example of one who had the courage to stand against tradition when it was immoral, arrogant and destructive.

Do we have the fortitude to follow their example?

In these days, God is looking for a people who are willing to strike out with boldness for His kingdom. He is looking for those with the courage to reject the selfishness and materialism that has gripped so much of modern Christianity.  He is looking for men and women who are willing to follow His lead and show mercy instead of judgment, love instead of hatred, grace instead of condemnation.

There’s a vast ocean out there, but you have to be willing to leave the shore to explore it.

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What does desperate look like?

I heard a worship song the other day, and one of the lines in the song caught my ear.  I think it’s a song by Michael W. Smith and the line goes like this:

And I, I’m desperate for you.

It was just one sentence, but it really sparked a thought in me.  Actually it was more of a question.  What does desperate look like?  That question has been rolling around in my mind for weeks now.  What would it look like if I really were desperate for God?

How would my life change?  How would my desires change?  How would the way I spend my time, my money, and my attention change?

The fact is, no matter how many times we may have sung that song in church, most of us are not really desperate for God.  I’m looking in the mirror and what I see reflected back is not a desperate man.  At least not enough to let it interrupt our lives or our plans.  We are not desperate enough for God to take us out of our comfort zone or our status quo.

The dictionary defines desperate as “utterly reckless or risky.”  How many of us are living lives of reckless pursuit of God?  How many of us are really willing to risk what we have, or even who we are, in pursuit of His glory in our lives?

So what does desperate look like? 

Just off the top of my head, here are a few things that might change in my life if I were truly “desperate for God”:

I’d be less concerned about my own needs.  A desperate man doesn’t cling too tightly to anything.  He’s willing to sacrifice anything to get what he needs.  A desperate man isn’t really concerned with his own safety or security.  He’s willing to go anywhere and do anything to achieve his goal.

I’d  be less worried about obstacles and difficulties.   A desperate man is on an all-out quest, and he’ll let nothing stand in his way.  He’ll run through walls if he must to get where he’s going.

I’d spend my time and attention differently.  A desperate man usually doesn’t sit on the couch vegging out, he leaves that for hopeless men.  He doesn’t seem to notice the distractions around him.  His focus is clear, his intensity is razor sharp.

Most churches don’t really teach desperation these days.  It’s more about having my needs met.  It’s more about finding programs that fit my family’s lifestyle.  Desperate people don’t build big buildings.  They’re too busy with more dire times and urgent needs.

I admit, I have a long way to go, but I guess you could say I’m desperate to be desperate.  I want to abandon all for the call of the cross.  I want to give all in care for the poor and needy.  I want to forsake all for the glory of God.  And I guess desire is the first step toward desperation.  Or maybe it’s surrender.

What would desperate look like for you?

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A chip off the old block

Lately I have been reading Exodus.  In particular, I have been reading the beginning of Exodus and the plagues God sent on Egypt as punishment for Pharaoh’s refusal to let His people go.

Have you ever wondered what Pharaoh was thinking?  How could he not have gotten a clue?  If I were Pharaoh, I would have given in after the first two or three plagues.  I never would have made it through the lice, let alone fiery hail falling from the sky.  How could he have stubbornly held on so long and lost so much?  Even Pharaoh’s own advisors came to him and urged him to let the Israelites leave.  “Our whole country is destroyed,” they pleaded.

In his own pride, Pharaoh thought he could outlast God.  In his own fear of losing his slaves he was willing to hold on at all costs.  In his own stubbornness he was willing to hang on to the destructive status quo, even when it was obvious things were about to change.

I’m thinking there’s a little Pharaoh in all of us.

How many times have I clung to that which God has told me to release?  How much pain and suffering must I bear until I am ready to let go?  I stubbornly hold on to those secret sins.  I refuse to let go of the fears that have held me back.  I run in the other direction from His call when it threatens my status quo.  He tells me to take care of the poor, yet I spend far too much on myself.  He tells me to be holy just like Him, yet I keep messing around with the world.  He tells me to walk by faith, yet I continue to hold on to my security for dear life.

I don’t want to be like Pharaoh.  I don’t want to foolishly hold on at the expense of my own destruction.  I want to let go and become who God wants me to be.  Sure, releasing those things to which I have clung so tightly is scary.  Giving up my preconceptions, my comfort zone and my convenient excuses requires dying to myself, and death is frightening.  But it’s something I must do if I’m going to be obedient to God and really follow Him.

Some might think God’s grace releases me from this responsibility.  I believe His grace is what makes it possible.

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It’s not about the dollar

I live in Nashville, TN.  Over the last couple of years, I have noticed a new development.  We have homeless people at many intersections selling a “homeless newspaper” called The Contributor.  I don’t know much about this newspaper, who puts it out, what the purpose is, or where the money goes.  Frankly, I’ve never bothered to find out.

I must admit my reaction to these guys has been, “Well, they found a new way to panhandle.”  I have given them a dollar a couple of times, but most of the time I just look the other way or drive on by.  Why?  I ask myself, “How do I know where the money goes?” or “How do I know the guy isn’t just going to buy booze or drugs with the money?”  And I guess on the surface those are legitimate questions.  I don’t want to be guilty of blindly supporting something that is only enabling their dysfunction and addiction.  I generally do want to give money to a place where I know it’s going to be used wisely, and that’s why I support my local rescue mission.

But I’ve been thinking and questioning my heart lately.  It’s only a dollar.  I won’t really miss it.  And what if the money is going to something legit?  What if the money is really helping to develop productive work in those who would otherwise be standing on a corner with a “will work for food” sign?  What if it’s really helping homeless people overcome their dysfunction and return to society?  I wouldn’t know because I’ve never bothered to ask.  It’s been easier to just look the other way and be safe in my assumptions.

You see, it’s not really about that homeless guy selling The Contributor.  It’s not about the principle, and it’s not even about the dollar.  It’s about me.  It’s about how easy it is for me to write something and someone off that I don’t know anything about.  It’s about my safe zone.  I’m willing to live with my preconceptions because they protect me from having to climb into the world of a homeless guy and find out what he and his newspaper are all about.  It’s easier to drive on by than to recognize that it’s not just a homeless guy holding that newspaper, it’s a human being.  A human being Jesus died for.

Maybe I’m right.  Maybe The Contributor is just another clever cover for panhandling in 2011.  Maybe the guy is going to take my dollar and go buy something cheap and numbing.  And maybe I’ve been hiding behind words like responsibility and accountability so I just don’t have to get involved.  Maybe this is what God told Israel in Zechariah 7,

Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion, everyone to his brother.

So I’m not going to stop making excuses.  I’m going to give the guy a dollar any time I have one in my wallet, then I’m going to pray for that guy and trust that God will use my dollar to make an impact in his life.  If I’m going to be wrong, I’m at least going to do it with my eyes and heart open, my head upright and not buried in the sand.

After all, maybe it’s Jesus standing on that corner.

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We had better think twice

The only thing that made Jesus angry was religion.  More specifically, empty religion practiced by those who thought their adherence made them better than everyone else.  A religion that took great pride in its moral code.  A religion that made Him guilty of sin by His association with those who didn’t keep the moral code.  He called the Pharisees, “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Those are strong words.  Check out Matthew 23 for a few more choice words.

The only thing that made Jesus violent was the corruption of the temple of God by greed and gain, by buying and selling in the place reserved for worship and reverence.  He saw how they profited from those who were simply trying to worship God, and it angered Him to the point of physical force. By His actions, Jesus showed how seriously God takes those who would take advantage of the poor and vulnerable in the name of service to Him.

How must He feel about what He sees in His temple today?  We have turned the church of Jesus Christ into a program to marketed, a product to be sold, a religion to be practiced.

Our world is full of those who have turned away from God Himself because of our exclusivity and judgment. How angry must He be at the pride of our religion and the arrogance of those who keep the rules, thinking themselves better than everyone else?  We have created a religion in the name of the One who came to loose us from the bonds of religious obligation and give us direct access to the Father.

How must His righteous indignation rise at the corruption of His body through buying and selling?  How must He feel when we neglect the poor and needy He came to serve, yet build monumental buildings in His name?  How angry must He be when we threaten a single mom with a curse if she doesn’t tithe, then then use that money to pay her pastor a six-figure salary?  How must He feel when we trade His name like a product?  I wonder, does it make Him weep to see our tacky bookstores full of items like the Jesus Pez Dispenser and “Testamints”?

He overturned the tables of the moneychangers.  He fashioned a whip and attacked those who bought and sold in the name of God.  He exhibited his anger at those who took advantage of the common man in the name of worship.  And we think ourselves immune to that anger?

Jesus is jealous for His body.  He is jealous for His bride.  He is a loving and protective shepherd who will not abide for long with those who lead His sheep astray, even when it is done in His name.

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Those pesky motives!

Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me?  When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?  ~ Zechariah 7:5-6

In these verses, God is rebuking a people who seemed to follow the letter of their religious tradition, but they did it for all the wrong reasons.  They didn’t fast because they were seeking God, but to appear holy.  They didn’t feast as a way of giving thanks and glory to Him, but for their own benefit.

So let me ask you a question:  Do you serve God for your benefit, or for His?

It’s a hard question, but a necessary one.  I’m thinking about my own life, and how often my relationship with God is more about me than Him.  It’s about what He’s going to do for me; about how often I’m looking to Him to meet my needs.  It’s very easy to slip into self-focused Christianity, a brand of religion that resembles a self-help seminar.  It’s a faith that encourages me to follow God because it promises me peace and contentment.  There is very little challenge to my status quo in self-help Christianity.  This type of religion is rampant in the church today.  And, unfortunately, it’s rampant in my heart too much of the time.

It’s pitiful really, how self-centered we have become.  A friend sent me an email advertisement the other day about a new book promising to  show you “how to unleash the power of faith as your greatest professional advantage.”  I wanted to weep.

But there is an antidote to our narcissism, and it’s in verses 9-10 of Zechariah 7:

Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.  Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.

Notice how it’s all outwardly focused?  Justice, mercy, compassion. They are all shown to others.  When we are looking to meet the needs of the fatherless, the oppressed, the immigrants and the poor we don’t have time to self-obsess.  When we are looking for ways to bless our brother instead of take from him, we are loosed from our selfishness.  My worship of God becomes less about myself and more about Him.  I’m no longer looking for affirmation or fulfillment, because those things are natural outgrowths of doing His work.  I no longer seek to have my own needs met because my mind and heart or so focused on meeting the needs of others.

Until we get to that point, all our church services, worship bands, sermons, books, cd’s and everything else are meaningless.  If our worship ends when the song is over and we walk out of the building on Sunday, it has accomplished nothing.  It’s nothing more than a self-centered emotional high meant to give me a good feeling.  It only takes on meaning when it moves me to do His work: showing justice, mercy and compassion on others; caring for the orphans, aliens and poor.

Our Lord came, not to be served, but to serve.  He calls us to walk in His steps.  He came to “preach good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to those in prison,” and He calls us to follow His lead.

He came to give His life for those who didn’t deserve it, and He calls us to join Him.

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What if you feel like quitting?

One of the things I check regularly  is the section that tells me what search terms are referring readers to my blog.  In other words, if someone types “idolatry” or “grace” into Google, I want to know that they made it to my blog.

So last night I was looking at the incoming search terms, and one of them stood out.  Someone did a Google search for “what to do when you feel like turning away from Christianity.”  I have mixed emotions about that search.  I’m both happy and sad that person is thinking those thoughts, asking questions, wondering if what they’ve been told about God is all there really is.

That’s the purpose of this blog.  It’s the purpose of my book “The Church Must Die.”  I want people to think about what they believe, and why.  I want to speak to those who are fed up with what they feel is a bloated, ineffective, irrelevant modern church.  I want them to realize there is so much more to Jesus Christ than what we’ve made Him out to be.

I want the disillusioned, the discouraged, the downtrodden to realize there is something more.  I hope they can read these words and begin to grasp the enormity of God’s grace, a grace that goes beyond rules and regulations and dogma.  I hope they will understand there is a place of safety and love within the true body of Christ, the remnant of those who are willing to love like Jesus loves.  I hope they will find true meaning in giving their lives for a God who gave His life for them.

It’s okay if you feel like “quitting Christianity.”  The religion we’ve built on the name of Jesus is something He never intended.  It’s okay if what you see today seems like a sad reflection of the majesty of Almighty God.  Look away from man and look to Him.  Don’t judge Jesus by how I act, how Christians act, or even how you act.  Judge Him on His own merits, they are more than sufficient.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s time we all quit Christianity and just started following Jesus.

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