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January 4, 2016

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I sat in church for the first Sunday of the year, yesterday, and feel this so bad it hurts.

THIS!  This is what I want for the new year.  Dear God, please,
“Wake me up inside.”

“…Call my name and save me from the dark
Bid my blood to run
Before I come undone
Save me from the nothing I’ve become

Bring me to life

Frozen inside without Your touch
Without Your love, Darling
Only You are the Life among the dead.”

One of our pastors spoke in his own simple eloquence, about us determining whatever it is God wants us to do and who He wants us to be.  I know the answers to those questions, what I lack is the inner life to do it, to be it, to live it.

I feel dead inside.

I feel frozen inside (no Disney jokes, or songs, PLEASE).  I’ve become less than worthless, I am nothing, I am negative.  I look backward and see chaos, madness, sadness, destruction, sin, loss, debt.  I look forward and see the labor required to dig out, and it’s hopeless.

I admit it.  I did it to myself.  Partly.  I starved myself spiritually, only having the meagerest of snacks maybe every other day, but I knew I was missing out on the banquet.  I did it to myself because I feel kind of abandoned by God.

Say it all you want, if you’re one of those conservatives you’ll believe that if I feel the abandonment, it’s because I abandoned Him.  That may be true.  That the spiritual “snack” was there at all says maybe God was there sustaining me through the spiritual “drought.”  Or maybe like Cain from Genesis, I offered what I thought was the best I had to give, from a heart that was as good as mine could be, and still felt rejected.

I’m going to try something different today.  And maybe, this year will be different.  I’ll let you know, if I live to tell about it.  If He is “the Life,” maybe He’ll share.

On the positive side, I feel “only mostly dead,” which, if you’ve ever seen The Princess Bride, means there’s hope, but “it’ll take a miracle.”

Saint Patrick’s Day Muse: When Red Messes Up the Green, White, and Orange March 17, 2015

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Today is Saint Patrick’s Day.  It’s the day when people wear green, drink awful green food-coloring beer, and eat green eggs and ham and other green things.  In America, it is, anyway.  And it used to be a day when if you didn’t wear green, the other schoolkids would pinch you.

I’m not wearing green today.  Not a stitch.  I will probably have no green beverages, unless it’s lemon-lime Kool-Aid.  My wife will no doubt see to that one.  I hope there are green beans, and not green eggs and ham, on the table.  Well, at least I hope the ham isn’t green.  I like food coloring in Kool-Aid and cake frosting.  That’s about it. I didn’t even bring Key Lime yogurt today, although that’s a nice thought.  OK, some food coloring is ok with me in my yogurt too, just don’t overdo it.  There are food manufacturers who use thousands of tiny bugs shells and eggs to make food red.  I don’t mind, but tell me I’m eating a bug, don’t hide it.  Generally, if I want a bug I’ll buy it, dry-roasted and covered in chocolate or garlic salt or something, and I’ll eat it.  Trust me.  I’ve had crickets, and even worms.  They were weird.  I did not eat the mealworms.  Ugh.  I wonder what they use to make stuff green, when there’s an abundance of plant material that could be used for both reds AND greens.  Like for instance, strawberries, those are actually red.  I bet there’s a natural way to make beer green, using plants and not animals or “mystery carcinogenic green dye substance # 1138” or “soylent green.”

I wonder if they did the traditional, annual “Pollute the Chicago River” in Chicago, this year, and “Pollute the White River,” in Indianapolis, and “Pollute the City Waterway” in whatever other city they used to do that in that I wasn’t aware of.    It’s OK, add a little bleach and the water looks crystal clear again.  You worry that bleach is poisonous?  That’s actually just a vicious rumor.  It’s only toxic from overexposure, concentration, or in incorrect combination with other compounds, and we would think that a normal American would read the label and follow instructions about things like that..  But we meant to say, add a little “Water Clarifier Compound 2999.”  It’s natural.  We chlorinate our water in almost every city, and some bleach is made of chlorine.  Unless your water filter gets that, you’re probably drinking it now.

I didn’t set out to write about food coloring although that’s a very interesting thing to read up on.  I recommend it after you decide I’m never going to get to the point, and you quit reading my blog.  But I do have a point.

Saint Patrick’s day is a celebration steeped in Irish history.  The legends aside, Saint Patrick is credited with bringing the Bible, and the Christian faith, to Ireland.  So is Sir William of Orange.  Little did they know, while doing the Lord’s work of evangelizing, that Saint Patrick would become a Catholic Icon and Sir William would become a Protestant one.  But they did, and then the factions of Christianity began a history of conflicts that were more about power and money than any religious pursuit.  If you in America were ever pinched as a child for not wearing your green, that’s a Catholic persecuting you for looking like a Protestant.  Or an idiot bullying you for not conforming.  How far we’ve come from Jesus.  Or even Paul and Peter and Apollos.

I don’t know whether William or Patrick would have gotten along.  In Ireland the factions became so …factious, that they fought each other, shot at each other, or blew each other up with explosives.  If I have learned my history and if my vexillology research has paid off, The flag represents history and is a prayer for the country, really.  Vexillology?  Don’t vex me; look it up for yourself.  Green, for Catholicism, which came first, on the left. White in the middle.  Orange for Protestantism which came later.  What’s the white for?  It’s a prayer for peace between the factions of Christianity, who have to coexist or die trying, on their little island paradise.

What I love about America is we’re supposed to be free to practice whatever religion we want, as long as what we do in its’ practice is legal.  Or we can decide religion is irrelevant.  It’s fine.  We can speak our mind as long as we’re not bullying or threatening another person.  I would like there to be a lot less red dye in my food.  I would also like there to be no more red, for bloodshed, in the name of religion, or whatever you want to call the belief system that motivates you.  No more beheadings from the Islamic State.  No more beheadings at all, for any reason.  No more kidnapping and torture and rape, Boko Haram.  No more buying and selling of human beings, anyone.  Other people are not livestock, they’re people, just like you, equal to you.  No more persecution of Jewish people, Neo-Nazis (or anyone else).  I live in America and Israel is supposed to be our ally, for heaven’s sake.  And we’re supposed to get along with the rest of America’s citizens.  No more bashing people for being normal humans, Christ-followers.  You may have discovered something that helps you avoid, and find absolution for, what you now consider to be a “sin,” but normal people don’t have that until you teach them.

If you’re supposed to love, your hatred of people only shows that you have failed.  If you’re supposed to follow a peaceful religion and you’re murdering people because you have some misguided belief, it doesn’t make you a hero, it makes you a murderer.  If your beliefs are based on hatred of a person just because they exist, I’m sorry to inform you that you’re a failure as a human.  Please, let’s have no more bloodshed or criminal activity or oppression in the name of any religion. You can call it your religious practice, but I know it’s just cruelty and power-mongering at the least, and criminal at worst, and there’s nothing religious about it. I know tolerance is supposed to be the new “in” virtue, but I have zero tolerance for any of that.

If you want one, today’s the day:  have a green beer.  Or a plain one.  Or mix it up.  While you’re at it, buy one for the guy who symbolically represents the other color on the flag.  You may think you’re on the right side.  You may think the person on the other side is on the “wrong side.”  But please, respect the white stripe, don’t stain it or spoil it for the rest of us.  If you want a red one, just have a Jamaican beer instead.  And again, buy one for your neighbor.  Make friends.  If you can’t get along and you must stir trouble, please just go home and stay there until you learn how to cooperate with the rest of civilized society.

I would rather have a celebration than fight someone.  It’s Saint Patrick’s Day!  Yet another excuse to have a party.
You don’t have to be Irish, or Catholic, or Protestant, to learn or celebrate the meaning of the white stripe.  I think we should all strive to live out the hope of the symbolism of that flag.  See the white stripe in the middle?  The other two colors are supposed to represent you and whoever else you meet.  Live the white stripe:

Practice peace.

~ MoeJoe

The Truth in Love: A Dangerous Thing March 10, 2015

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I wouldn’t have thought this was a really drastic change of position if I hadn’t lived through it.  Swept along by a wave of peers, I missed something.  In large part I agreed with them.  And in part, I was dead wrong for it.  These peers? Well meaning Christ-Followers.  I’ve been processing this still, so if I’m repeating myself, just move along to the next blog you like.  My feelings won’t be hurt, I promise.

I’ve been accused of thinking dangerously, or maybe that my thinking is dangerous, or maybe they weren’t thinking and they thought the fact that I was, was dangerous.  My fellow seminarians joked good-naturedly that they would pray for me even back before I got here.  Some of them would be spinning in their pulpits if they knew what I think now.  Farbeit from me to think I’m special, revolutionary, radical.  I’m no trail-blazer, like a Martin Luther.  I don’t think I could even come up with 95 theses, but I have one:  “the truth in love.”  I’m captivated by the power of the phrase, from Ephesians 4:  15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

What if God’s love is more radical than even Christ-followers give it credit for being?  If we really understood it better, and embraced it more fully, I’ll bet we would reap a few benefits.  I’m only going to share two I believe are available.

Benefit # 1:  We grow and become like Jesus.  This makes us different from a lot of people in the world, and that might just make us dangerous.

I Corinthians 13 extols the virtues of love, and proclaims, “…if I don’t have love, I have nothing.”  “I am a sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal.”  (I used the loudest-sounding translation)  For years I thought nothing of my fellow Christ-followers proclaiming the evil of sin, the final destination of unrepentant sinners.  I saw nothing wrong.  But their focus seemed to change.  I think it became too narrow.  I think it became unloving.  We went back to Jewish legalism, for people who aren’t Jewish, for people who don’t even follow Christ yet, expecting them to live by some hand-picked set of standards out of that Old Testament law code.  Sinners who are well-aware that they are sinners are rightly calling us onto the carpet for it.  It’s not loving.  It’s not gracious.  It’s not Jesus’ method.  And we don’t even live by the letter of the law we’re offering the world.  Well-meaning Christ-followers are blindly falling into it.  It’s wrong.  It’s sin, and some are still ignorant of it, or worse, in denial about it.

I hope you can stay with me, this is going somewhere dramatic.  Trust me.  This is what I’ve been meditating on:

Some Christ-followers are operating under the misconception that sin is a choice.  This has never been true.  The question that came to my mind was, “What is a sinner going to do?”  And obviously, the answer is, “we’re going to sin.” I said “we.”  It’s a radical challenge to what I have heard a lot of well-meaning people trying to teach recently, as if it were the truth. And it’s a drastic change to my prior thought process as well.

Here’s the revelation, if I dare call it that:

Hatred quenches the Spirit of God.  Hatred stops any good from coming out of your part of a situation, no matter how well-intentioned you are.  Your hatred isn’t going to change a single sinner into a not-sinner.  You can tell the truth, without love, and your true words won’t change a single sinner into a not-sinner.  Sometimes the truth alone can quench the Spirit too.  You can love, tolerating and embracing and accepting, and your love won’t change a single sinner into a not-sinner.  Sometimes just expressing love quenches the Spirit as well.  A balance of both is required.  Jesus was “the way, the truth, and the life,” but he was also very loving, which is why the people flocked to him.  Nobody but the mob is flocking to certain churches, because they don’t really “love.” They just “truth.”  And sinners who feel affirmed are flocking to churches that embrace the sin as well as the sinner –  flocking to a place where they can hear what they want to hear, nothing uncomfortable, nothing that demands “Go and sin no more,” but that’s equally wrong.  They just “love,” they don’t really “truth.”  As a Christ follower, my message is empty if I deny the sin, just as empty if I embrace and accept the sin along with the sinner.  As much as I want to teach about your sin, or their sin, I feel compelled to confess first, I’ve got a plank in my eye too.  Christ commands anyone who would follow to first repent, or turn away, from sin, and then take up their own cross and follow Him.  I have a hard time with both of these commands.

In Psalm 51:5, the writer says he was conceived in sin, and born into sin.  In Ecclesiastes 7:20 the writer proclaims “there is not a righteous man on earth, who does what is right and never sins.”  Isaiah 53:6 the writer says we’re “like sheep” and we all want to go our own way, but we’re being led the wrong direction by our selfish motives.  In Jeremiah 17:9-10 the writer says we are all crooked, “desperately wicked,” and ultimately God “rewards” us for what we do.  The story doesn’t change from Old to New Testaments.  Romans 3:23 says we’ve all sinned and none of us can even dream of reaching God’s perfect standard, His “glory.”  So we’re all sinners.  From the first time when you’re a baby and mom says “no,” and you do it anyway, or try to do it anyway, it’s sin.  But if we’re going to live by the letter of the law we should be aware of II Corinthians 3:6- the letter of the law brings death, but the spirit (intention) of the law brings life.  The letter of the law, a slavish obedience to an impossible law code, or disobeying the perfect standards of God, only bring us to eternal death.  The spirit of the law, as distilled by Jesus into just two neat commandments, gives life like in John 10:10 and John 14:6.

Guess what?  Nothing can change a sinner into a not-sinner.  We can only resist, with the power that we have inside ourselves, and that’s only if we know something is a sin and we decide we don’t want to do it any more.  It’s more blinding, more powerful, more seductive than alcohol or tobacco or any other drug.  In the flesh, we are all going to fail, and stumble into sin, even the best Christ-followers.  It’s true that we have a choice, but the choice isn’t whether we’re going to sin.  It’s what kind of sin are we going to choose?   Some well-meaning Christ-followers think sin is a choice, but it’s not.  If you believe the Bible, you should believe that we are all born into sin and we have no power to escape without the grace of God.  And some well-meaning Christ followers preach judgement and condemnation and hellfire and brimstone on certain people’s sins, while ignoring others.  Especially their own.  The only way to escape is through the truth in love, which allows the Holy Spirit of God to work on our hearts.

The pharisees used to do that back in Jesus day.  They held people to that impossible standard of behavior, “the truth,” while at the same time treating others without any regard to mercy, or “love,” which was why Jesus was so upset.  He quoted the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  And he specifically told the pharisees, I paraphrase: “On the outside you look great, all freshly whitewashed, just like a tomb.  But on the inside you’re ugly, full of evil things, corruption and rot.”  (Matthew 23:27)  Those pharisees were ignoring their own sins of hatred and pride, while pointing out other people’s specific sins with all kinds of judgement and condemnation.  Sound familiar?

The more I consider it, the less I think of myself, because personally, I am good at the above, because I suck at love, but I know all about truth.  I can hate all day long, and I can use the truth to defend my stronghold and crush the opposition with words, thrown like stones.  I can judge and condemn, just like everyone else.  It’s easy.  I can get all caught up in my fancy proofs of whatever the thing is that I don’t like, either because it’s not my choice of sin, or because no one knows I’m another definition of “sinner.”  There are plenty of sins to habituate.  I’ve picked mine, you’ve picked yours, they’ve picked theirs and we all point fingers at each other.  I have an audience.  They think I’m so good because of the whitewashed outside.  And from there, the mob mentality is too easy to just join in, grab the big rocks along with everyone else, and start flinging.  Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you should follow me.  I do it wrong, in my own way, all the time.

That woman “caught in the very act of adultery” was a test case for Jesus.  He let the accusers think on their own hearts and decide if they were sinners themselves.  And he said, after they all left, “where are your accusers?  I don’t condemn you either, but go and sin no more.”  She was about to be stoned to death for her “sin.”  Jesus dismissed the mob though, and then quietly talked with her about her choices.  And Jesus said it was “sin.”  It was the sin of adultery, big enough it made God’s top ten list back in Exodus.  What’s “adultery?”  Any kind of sexual relations outside of “marriage.” And what did Jesus say was “marriage?”  Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7 have Jesus quoting Genesis 2:24, validating the text like it’s his own personal stamp of approval. “Marriage,” sorry to say, as defined by God and verified by Jesus, consists of a man and his wife, nothing else.  Anything else is “adultery.”  So I’m not discounting what she did, or what anyone else, including me, does, that God says is wrong, as if that wasn’t sin.  I’m saying we should teach things differently.  We have to dismiss ourselves from the mob mentality, drop our rocks, consider our own thing that we do that’s wrong, and turn away.  I think we lead by example, and who wants to follow a rabid mob that operates based on its’ own standards, judging harshly and without any mercy?

Jesus’ first message to everyone was that we needed to “repent,” which meant to turn away from sin, and go toward God.

I’ll still agree with the mob that sin is evil.  I still agree with the mob that unrepentant sinners go to eternal torment and hopeless separation from God.  But I think we need to shift our message to something different.  Let’s understand, before we preach against one form of sin or another, that we all sin.  That’s the truth, and it makes us more gracious.  It puts the speaker on the same level as the audience.  No denial here:  there is such a thing as “sin.”  Anyone who reads Romans 3:23 will tell you that, and it hasn’t changed from Old Testament Jeremiah 17:9 to Romans 3:23.  The heart is crooked, no one can fix it for themselves.  Only when we get to Romans 6:23 do we realize there’s any hope.  It’s the gift of God, further clarified in Ephesians 2.  We should be teaching that, instead of just the condemnation, the straining of gnats of other people’s small misdeeds, while we pass the camel of our huge self-righteous judgmental hatred.

Romans 9 is quite clear:  Israel’s standards are out of date after Jesus’ sacrifice.  The law isn’t going to save anyone, it’s only going to convict us.  Once we decide to follow Jesus, we can look into what’s important.  I for one don’t want to go back to Israel’s standards.  They had over 600 rules to obey, from clothes to food to how and when to party.  Do I really want to invest the time to figure out how to do, or not do, all of that?  Might be fun to figure out the party schedule.  But I don’t relish the idea of trying to do all the rest.  But until we decide to follow Jesus, there’s no point.  There’s good news from Romans 10:4-13.  Once and for all Jesus paid the price for my past, present, and future sin.  And if I want to follow the teaching of Romans 10:14-15, I should be an ambassador teaching that forgiveness is available through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Not only forgiveness for yesterday, but also the strength to repent, and choose not to sin, for today.  I’m so happy that forgiveness is available, even for a failure like me.  I mess it up every day.  That whitewash I show on the outside is a whitewash.  Ignore it.  It’s nothing.

All you church people, let me challenge you first, like I did myself:  Love first.  Then speak the truth in love.  Don’t leave out either part.  If you do, the audience will miss out.

If I’m nothing without love, I’m nothing without the truth as well.  But with the truth in love, expressed with grace, I bet I’ll see Benefit # 2:  “The power of God  that leads to Salvation” that Paul wrote about in Romans 1:16.  Even he put the love first, before he started talking about what was sin and what to do about it.  And after I decide to follow Jesus, Jesus boils it down to a really simple standard without all the nit-picky laws:  Love God wholeheartedly, and love others as I love myself.  I don’t think you can go wrong with those two rules.  I think if we really followed them, we might see other people deciding to follow Jesus, too.  And we all have to figure out how to love God on our own, although we can encourage each other.  That’s why there’s a church and you should go.  Yes, it’s full of us hypocrites- we’ve all stumbled at some point, on the journey of life, while attempting to follow Jesus.  Me included.  But if you come and encourage us, we all might become better Christ-followers.  A good church is welcoming (love) and challenging (truth).  Maybe you think the church isn’t welcoming.  Maybe your church isn’t challenging.  Maybe you aren’t going to a church at all.  I invite you: come and see.  If the first one isn’t welcoming and challenging, maybe the next one will be.  I hope you find a good one.

II Corinthians 5:

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin (Jesus Christ) to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

In the Dark (Short Story) July 2, 2014

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I wrote a short story for my lovely writers group meeting since I had the quite rare opportunity to actually attend.  The assignments are supposed to have a word count limit of 500.  This summer has been a working one, without a great deal of time to write or do much else.  I’ll be working again from the middle of July to the end of August, probably, so I’ll likely miss at least one more meeting before fall.  It was great to see friends I have missed for several months, as we all shared our stories and poems on the theme, “A House and the People who Live in it.”  I originally wrote it without the final section.  I thought to stop after the word “invitation,” but I decided I didn’t like that, leaving the reader in doubt about my character’s choice.  Since you know there was a draft ending there, maybe you can tell me if you think one way is better than the other.  For me, I decided it would be better without that loose end.  So here, without further ado, is

In The Dark         7/1/2014              Michael N. Johns

     In the house, all shadows and pitch and palpable darkness, he saw them all, as if in the morning light.

     His wife.  He watched her dance playfully in her sleeveless summer dress, full of magnificent beauty and curve and subtle power.  She saw him notice and smiled that closed-lipped half-embarrassed smile she always gave when he admired everything about her.  He felt himself reacting to the vision.  She blew him a kiss, and then he felt as though he were riding a bullet train that now made an emergency stop.       

     And she was gone.

     His head hurt.

     He shook it off.  The cheap beer sweated from the heat, on the small, sturdy table beside him.  He took a sip, then closed his eyes, knowing he’d regret opening them.  Damn.  He saw his beautiful daughter now.  Innocence and blonde curly hair and those passionately deep blue eyes that reflected whimsical skies- now clear, now cloudy, now violent, then clear again.  She lay in the grass, reading.  She turned.  He heard her voice asking for a glass of lemonade, and then, felt the sickening lurch once more as she dissolved into thin air.

     Nausea and pain gripped his abdomen.  He felt weakness from his shoulders to his knees, grateful he was sitting.  He felt the tears and running nose, and fought it all back.  His eyes closed reflexively from the combat.  Damn.

     He kept his eyes down, staring at his hand.  He saw his wedding band, yellow-gold, Cheshire grinning, just as quietly manic as the Lewis Carroll character.  Another sip of beer, keeping his eyes focused on the ring.  He heard the carnival music, and it was his black-haired son, asking for another cotton candy and money for the roller coaster.  He didn’t have to look, to see.

     Why?

     They weren’t real but he heard them, saw them.  For God’s sake, he smelled his wife’s perfume.  She always dabbed, just a little, in that spot that made him want, like wildfire wants air.  It had been years, but they were still there.  And still gone.   He had helped pack the bags, sending them to a vacation trip while he stayed home to work.  And then he heard the news reports.  The rest was a hazy blur, but he didn’t want to focus.

     The other metal glinted at arms’ length, on the table beside him.  Beckoning, stark obsidian reflected in the clouded moonlight.  It was an open invitation.  He considered the objects on the table and, this time, again, selected the beer, lifting gently by the top of the neck.  He himself rose from the chair and then began to slowly dance.  Dancing to the door, he reached into his pocket and retrieved his wallet.  He took the cash and flung it into the air, and then his wallet followed.  Then he walked outside, lay in the grass, considered the moon, wished he had some lemonade instead of this cheap beer, and cried.