Thursday, June 22, 2006

Digging For Hidden Treasure

Most of you, I’m sure, have heard the parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. How everyone agreed with everything the tyrant said or did. The people were so afraid of him they didn’t dare disagree with him publicly. Then when he paraded his new suit, which supposedly only wise people could see and anyone who was stupid could not, one young boy had the nerve to shout out loud, "The Emperor is naked!" The bystanders repeated what he had said over and over again until everyone cried, "The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It's true!"

I have been a Christian for over 50 years; receiving Christ as a child. I grew up going to a Bible church in Dallas, Texas. Bible churches are very close to Southern Baptist theology in their beliefs. They seem to be a sort of a Dallas phenomenon – closely aligned with the Dallas Theological Seminary. After 25 years, I was steeped in a conservative fundamental theological point of view and proudly claimed to be a “fundamentalist” before it came to have the negative connotations it has today.

Twice a week, each Tuesday and Wednesday evening, I teach Bible study for my church and also a sister church in Dallas. Recently I was trying to decide on a study topic. I was standing in line at the grocery store checkout and noticed on a kiosk a book that had been important to me in my formation years. The title of the book was Know What You Believe by Paul E. Little. I bought it because I thought I could use it to build a study-guide to teach some foundational doctrines to my people. When I got home, I eagerly opened it to begin writing my outline only to realize how very far I have moved since the “good-ole-days.” I simply don't believe the same things I believed when I was a young whipper-snapper - most of us don't. Our beliefs change with time and maturity.

Today I would describe my ministry, as I have come to understand it, as being directly linked to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus explained His mission in Luke, chapter 4, starting in verse 16, reading from the New American Standard Version:

16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 "The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD."
- Luke 4:16-19

Like Jesus, my job as a minister of the gospel is to set those who are oppressed free and to release the captive. I want to show light to those who cannot see. I am here to preach the real gospel – that is the good new about God’s free gift of grace.

Over the past 30 years, I have had to ask difficult questions. Like the boy who pointed out that the Emperor was naked, I have just been pointing out some of the obviously naked lies we have been told. Not all of my ministry partners have understood. But ever since I saw the Emperor going up the cathedral steps naked as a jay-bird, I’ve had difficulty in just taking the preacher’s word for it.

Not everything they told me was wrong: They told me about a Savior. His name was Jesus. God, His Father, had sent on my behalf to die at Calvary. They told me that salvation was mine by faith. They told me that I could have a personal relationship with God. They told me many other things that I have since verified in my heart through the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

But most recently they have been proclaiming a message that I do not recognize. Some of them are so busy proclaiming their prosperity, they don’t have time to minister to those stricken with AIDS. Some of them are blindly holding up their tradition, and are failing to give sight to the blind. Others are spending such an inordinate amount of time keeping people in bondage, they would never set them free. If you are like me – you are tired of this charade put on by the church.

The church does not exactly have a pristine record. It was the church that sent warriors to the Holy Land in the 12th century to kill for Christ; it was the church that instituted and sold indulgences to save the dead; it was the church that taught anti-Semitism and sponsored the Inquisition between the 15th and 16th centuries. The church has led the way in the extermination of “infidels.” Through their influence and in the name of Christ, people were condemned as witches and burned at the stake.

They have taught that blacks were inferior to whites, backed the institution of slavery and later the Jim Crow laws that kept segregation in the south for almost 100 years after the Civil War. They have opposed all kinds of scientific advance on the basis of Christian doctrine including astronomy, biology, archeology and medicine. They don’t like abortion for any reason; are not friendly toward women’s rights and are in opposition to the ordination of women. In the past, they took the lead opposing mixed race marriages and gender reassignments. They have most recently have made it clear that they are firmly entrenched against same-sex marriage, claiming that this somehow threatens to destroy the institution of marriage and the family.

Some today are calling for the Constitution of the United States to be re-interpreted and if need be amended to reflect the "Christian" values they say the founders intended from the beginning. This would include the death penalty for adulterers and homosexuals. These people really scare me. Just as Marx Brothers assessed in A Day At The Races, “They may be honest, but you gotta watch ‘em” which I feel sure is giving them too much credit.

Within myself, I struggled with my own sexuality for 38 years; believing that I had somehow at some point chosen the wrong sexual orientation. Because I followed the reasoning they had given me, I was asked to believe that I was an abomination before God. I knew that I somehow had to get my sexuality under control, but try as I might, I was simply unable to stop my attraction to those of my gender. But sex seemed like an addiction to me; its allure could be found everywhere I went. Was I really such an embarrassment to the Lord? It appeared that God had made a big mistake because my libido was enormous.

Then one evening in 1979 as I was teaching a Bible study from the book of Galatians, I read:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
– Galatians 5:16
The group asked me to explain what Paul meant by “walking in the Spirit.” I had to admit I didn’t know, but from that day until now, I’ve been trying to find out. Its the answer to finally put to death the deeds of the flesh. Why didn’t those preachers all those years ago tell me what it was? When I asked them about it, they did a little shuffle. It was like they didn’t want me to know or they didn't know themselves. I suspect the latter. I would have to look into it for myself.
After all the years of hiding who I was, I finally came out in 1985. Those who knew about it told me that if I were really serious about the ministry, then I would have to change my lifestyle. Some even told me that I couldn’t possibly be a Christian and be gay – that I was on my way to hell, but the interesting thing was that my "walk by the Spirit" began to happen at about the same time - and the His testimony in my heart did not condemn me in any way for my sexual orientation. Hmm! Could it be that I had been lied to?
I don’t have much memory of living without the Lord in my life because I had received Christ at such an early age, and because of that, it was pretty difficult to swallow any suggestion that I was not saved, but the critique challenged me nonetheless because I was very biblically oriented. I needed to understand from a biblical stance how I fit into the Kingdom of God.
Clearly I was certainly not going to get any sympathy or affirmation from the my fundy church friends and pastors. Today the rhetoric has gotten so loud and the pressure so intense that no card carrying conservative fundamentalist could possibly take a stand in support of the gay issue. If I was going to get any answers; if I was going to get at the Truth, I was going to have to dig for it myself. So to start, I was led to the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 6.
19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
– Matthew 6:19-21
How do you “store up treasure in heaven?” Jesus was speaking of a relationship between the treasure and the heart. What is the treasure, anyway?
One good Bible study method is to take a key word, like the word “treasure,” and look it up in a Bible reference book – a concordance. Find out how many other places in the Bible it is used and how it is used in the various contexts. It turns out that the word “treasure” in this case is the Greek word thesauros. And according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it means
1) the place in which good and precious things are collected, like a storehouse -or-
2) the things laid up in a treasury, collected treasures.
The word is the same in Latin and is the root of our English word thesaurus, which, according to Webster, is a book where you’ll find a collection of synonyms and antonyms stored. Its second meaning is the same as the Greek, a treasury or storehouse. This is the beginning of understanding of what Jesus meant when He spoke of treasure.
Here’s another passage where Jesus uses that same word:
44 The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."
– Matthew 13:44
In this passage, Jesus explains that the treasure is so valuable that it is worth trading everything you own to obtain it. Now I have my suspicions about what this treasure is, but I turn to one last passage to help me understand. Jesus is speaking to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 12.
33 "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. 35 The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. 36 But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
– Matthew 12:33-37
Notice again in this passage the relationship between the treasure and the heart. Jesus has added character descriptors to the treasure, which remember according to Webster, is a storage vault. It is described as either a good or evil treasury that can be identified by the good or bad fruit stored in it. But, “What is this treasure?” Verse 34 tells me that the storage location is the “heart” and releases the words that come out of people’s mouths. And the explanation given in verses 36 and 37 is that these words will either condemn or justify the person using them on the day of judgment. The treasure isn’t the words themselves, but the words reveal the character of the treasure – whether it is good or evil – and they apparently provide the evidence that forms the basis of a decision to be made concerning each individual on the day of judgment. Does this sound like something we should be concerned about?
As amazing as computers are for the storage of information, your brain, which is the personal computer you were born with, is even more amazing. It goes a step further than mechanical man-made computers by introducing intuitive and conceptual ideas. The brain classifies its information into ethical categories. Often religious teaching – not always based on factual information – is strongly ingrained at an early age in the root programs of our brain and errors in this data are truly difficult to correct.
But Jesus said, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.” This is nothing but a restatement of, “garbage in, garbage out!” The lesson here is that we must sift the data that we put into our brains. We’ve probably gone for many years unsifted, which allowed many impurities into our databanks; which means we’re going to have to root out the bad stuff and not let it in anymore.
Jesus goes on to say, “that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” This is serious business that apparently has eternal consequence.
Your world view is what you may refer to as “your truth” or reality and is constantly being shaped and reshaped by input. From it we issue our edicts and opinions, our critiques and criticisms. The composition of your reality determines the content of the output; thus the character of the output yields the character of your treasure. But how does your reality measure up to the Truth?
Is there an effective method for screening data before we save it to our hard drives? The right-wing conservatives’ answer is to destroy records, burn books and ignore opinions that do not measure up to a carefully measured standard filtered through narrow minded thinkers. This would probably work except the standard is completely inflexible and never allows for questions and virtually cannot be changed. It is so rigid that it causes more frustration than it fixes.
The left-wing liberals are not any better – except perhaps they have a special appreciation for diversity, which is extremely abhorrent to the right. But they are unwilling to venture very far into the realm of the subjective – which is where 90% of the things of faith reside. So they tend to not even consider anything but objective data. This leaves the miraculous basically out of the equation. The result is that liberal religion is largely bankrupt of any super natural power.
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” (John 14:17) He tells us that if you are serious about finding the Truth, you must commune with the Spirit of Truth and obey His commands. In doing this you show your allegiance to God and He will come to you and reveal Himself to you. (John 14:21)
If this is correct, we simply have to learn how to walk by the Spirit. I will admit that this method of digging for the Truth can be a lonely venture because it is not the method prescribed by the major schools of thought. Most people seem to be more comfortable with one end of the spectrum or the other. My methodology lies between these two extremes.
1. To discover the Truth, one must first have a personal relationship with God. Paul also tells us that, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” (Romans 8:9) The Spirit has been poured out on those who have been identified as believers and those that are led by Him are the true children of God. (Romans 8:14)
2. To discover the Truth, one must be allowed to ask questions. The only way to lay a foundation of knowledge that truly belongs to the individual is through asking questions and looking for the answers using the mind, will and emotions, but using the Spirit as the deciding factor for all input. Never assume anything. We must have the active input from God in order to know what His will is. (James 1:5)
3. To discover the Truth, one must have a predetermined disposition to obey whatever commands come across the spiritual connection through revelation by faith. There is no need to bother with this process if you do not intend to obey His commands; but if we do, we will enjoy His favor wherever we go and in all we do. (James 1:25)
Are you tired of those that continually assign you to hell – who blame you and your community with the responsibility for the events of 9-11 – who claim that meteors in space will be used by God to destroy American cities because of their acceptance of homosexuals – who blame the gay community for Katrina, for tornados – or believing that God is vindictive at all? I’m tired of these lies being lifted up by church leaders; fed to gullible ignorant church-goers being led to believe that some secret gay-agenda is going to destroy the American family. They are lying! I’m sick of it and believe it or not, there are some in our own community who perpetuate these myths by supporting the liars.
Christ died so that we could be set free – free to be ourselves – free to serve Him in love and free to minister in the name of Jesus. The only way out for us to be free is to know the Truth. We cannot figure out the Truth through the exercise of logic – the only way to know the Truth is to have an encounter with the Holy Spirit. The treasure of the Truth awaits all of us who by faith come to know it. “He who has ears, let him hear.”
Rev. Bob Ellis