Saturday, June 27, 2015

To Forgive is Manly

In his wonderful book, Beauty Will Save the World, Brian Zahnd says that beauty always has a form to it; it's something that is expressed and can be seen. Through his non-violent, non-retaliatory death Jesus re-centered the world around an axis of love rather than the axis of violence and power; this forgiving love of enemies in the shape of the cross is the most beautiful form.

At the end of the chapter the author challenges followers of Jesus with these words and a story:

"Jesus was not trying to give the world the best version of Caesar's kingdom; he was giving the world the kingdom of God!...Jesus refused to be drawn into any of the many heated political controversies of his day. Political controversies were simply irrelevant to what Jesus was doing in giving the world a radical new alternative...

"The only institution that can claim the title of 'Christian' is one that is actually must take up the cross and follow Jesus in the most demanding of Christ's ethical imperatives - loving and forgiving enemies. The principalities and powers of this world simply cannot do that. They belong to a structure organized around an axis of power; their entire orientation is one of retaliation, and their only paradigm is vengeance. Only the  church empowered by the Spirit and organized around an axis of love can forgive enemies...Quite simply, we are disciples of the one who would rather die than kill his enemies."

The chapter ends with a story about a young pastor, Dritan Prroj, in Albania who was murdered on his way to get his two children from school in 2010. This happened because of a blood feud that had begun five years earlier. According to the 'law' of the blood feud, if someone is killed, the family of the victim can avenge the death by killing another male from the other family. These feuds can wear on until all the males of one family are dead. Whole villages are paralyzed in this region because the men of entire extended families don't dare leave their homes.

However, Pastor Prroj, who was living in hiding, decided he could not live this way and would live openly; and he and his brother agreed that if one of them was killed, the other would not 'take blood' in revenge. "They would simply allow the cycle of violence to die with them in a deliberate imitation of Christ." Because he had helped lead large aid programs for flood victims in his region, Prroj was well known and respected as a man of peace. There was wide media coverage when he was killed; his death helped "expose the false 'honor' behind the demonic philosophy of blood feuds."

Two weeks after the murder of Dritan Prroj thousands turned out for a rally in the capital city of Tirana for the purpose of naming and shaming the evil practice of blood feuds. Many carried signs that read: "TO FORGIVE IS MANLY"

This story illustrates the power of forgiving love to break the cycle of violence and is how beauty took form in this particular time and place through Christlike followers of His.

"This is the church showing the wisdom of God to the principalities and powers....This is the cruciform in its most radical form. It is in the axis of love expressed in forgiveness that the axis of power enforced by violence is exposed as ugly..."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Messy Transition: Changing Priorities

Transition times are always messy and confusing and require changing priorities. What worked formerly or was practiced in the past has to make room for other more effective life-giving ways in the new age. This doesn't always mean a total abandoning of former things but it does imply re-prioritizing; using Phyllis Tickle's metaphor of a 'rummage sale' (see previous post here), it means that a lot of stuff we've collected over time needs to be looked at and sorted through to determine what should be kept (and the degree of importance given to that) and what should be tossed.

Last week (see here) I wrote about the overarching need in the church for reprioritizing Jesus over Christendom. In this post I want to mention three more areas of changing priorities that I see happening in the Christian community particularly in America. This is not exhaustive nor is it in any particular order of importance, but this may help spark conversations about how God is moving in our times and how we can move with Him.

First, I see a prioritizing of compassion over belief systems. In the Age of Belief (which we are transitioning out of) we have placed a high premium on having a correct belief system and adhering to that at the expense of people. There is a shifting of priorities to compassionate action. This doesn't eliminate a need for Jesus' followers to adhere to a few simple basic beliefs about God and Jesus, but it means we never allow our belief systems to become more important than people, particularly those who are disenfranchised, for whatever reason, to whom we extend mercy and understanding and help without condition.

Second, there is a move towards prioritizing the kingdom of God over the American empire. Ever since the Roman church agreed to partner with the political system in order to win more adherents to the faith (this was the beginnings of Christendom in the 4th century), we have confused God's kingdom with worldly kingdoms; and in the US Christianity has become increasingly enmeshed in political parties with the hope of remaining a dominant power in our country. The kingdom of God is political, but its politics is not built on the politics of this world nor does it operate with the same value system. I'm seeing a move away from blind patriotism that equates America with God's kingdom.

Third, I believe that slowly but surely there is a prioritizing of unity over division among God's people. On the surface it appears to be the opposite as we hear and read all the attacks against one another on the internet and in other venues. However, I'm sensing some fatigue setting in over this and am seeing the attempt by some to do some healthy debating that doesn't label the other person but accepts that they have valid reason for thinking differently. While this will take a long time yet to become the norm, I believe that it is coming and that we will learn how to do the hard and self-giving work of "achieving disagreement" rather than assuming erroneous things about one another.

All of this seems healthy to me, but it is very confusing and disorienting to our systems and our collective psyche. As I expressed previously, my prayer is for grace for God's people to walk through this mess in humility and love shown in genuine listening and learning without discounting another because they think differently. The Lord is with us to help us!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Transition from Prioritizing the 'Sail' to Prioritizing the 'Wind'

One of the shifts happening now in the church (see my post here about the historic transition we're going through presently) is the movement away from Christendom to simpler, more creative ways of encountering Jesus in community. In other words, through the centuries of organized religion, we have collected a lot of practices and beliefs that aren't all necessarily bad but that are often barriers to encountering the living Lord. This shift is taking the form of disillusionment with institutional Christianity and the exploration of simpler means of encountering Him and sharing Him.

In his book, Selling Water by the River, Shane Hipps contends that Jesus (the River) is accessible to all people and that unfortunately our religious systems and structures have become barriers to this access to Him. In the chapter about "wind and sails" Hipps shows how Jesus went out of His way to disregard the boundaries that religion had established. In His first miracle of turning water into wine Jesus "sets the stage for his way of operating in the world. It frames his entire ministry."

In this miracle, what's astonishing is not only that Jesus changed the chemical composition from one liquid to another but that He flagrantly broke the ceremonial rules which insisted that wine not be put into vessels that were dedicated for ceremonial washing. This is exactly what Jesus did - he had the servants use the  jars that were for ceremonial cleansing rather than use the empty wine jars. By doing this, He was mixing wine and water thereby defiling both and causing the people to be unclean.

Why would Jesus do such an offensive thing (and continue doing this sort of thing throughout His ministry)? Hipps says that it was because He was always trying to get people beyond the banks of the river and into the great expanse of the river of God's love.

"Religions have a tendency to get stuck. Institutions aren't made to stay limber...Thus the trajectory of any religion is always to become brittle. A basic law is at work in most things we humans create: whatever the intended purpose of our creation, when overextended, it can reverse on itself...when it (Christian religion) becomes overextended, the impulse is to preserve the institution rather than the message...Jesus consistently undermined the natural inertia of institutions. He was the embodiment of pure, unbridled creative force. Creativity is often disruptive. It has little interest in preservation; it is about making new things and making things new."

Jesus is not against religions. The author says that Jesus is the wind while religions are the sails. His own conviction is that the Christian religion is the sail that best catches the wind but adds the following, "We must never make an idol of the sail and thereby miss the wind. But it is also a mistake to say the sail doesn't matter. Without a sail, the wind is difficult to catch..."

"It is not the sail, but the wind we are after." Jesus continually broke the rules and boundaries established by religion so that people could get to Him; this is happening in our day as more and more of God's people work to make Jesus (the Wind and the River) more accessible to all people.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Grace for a Time of Messy Transition

In his book The Future of Faith Harvey Cox looks at the patterns in church history to suggest where we are headed as a people now. The following is a very simple summary of the three great eras of church history as outlined by Cox:

1. The Age of Faith: first 3 centuries of Christianity. "The faith of the earliest Christians was oriented around this hope for the new world of shalom that Jesus personified. Their emphasis was on community rather than creeds or clergy. The first three centuries of Christianity demonstrated theological variety, spiritual fellowship, and an anti-imperial stance.

2. The Age of Belief: from the fourth to the twentieth century.  “…faith became identified with creeds, orthodoxy and ‘correct doctrine.’ The imperialization of the church under Constantine also resulted in the glorification of bishops and widespread ecclesiastical corruption."

3. The Age of the Spirit: began about 50 years ago and is continuing now to shake the foundations of the previous era of hierarchical, patriarchal, and institutionalized religion. We are presently in the midst of the dismantling of fundamentalism (close-mindedness and clinging to non-negotiable beliefs) within Christianity. This age is characterized by the “growing interfaith movement, the de-westernization of Christianity, liberation theology, and the tsunami of Pentecostalism.” In general, religious people are becoming "less dogmatic and more practical . . . more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrine."

Along the same line Phyllis Tickle describes the times we are in now to be like a great "rummage sale", something that the Church goes through roughly every 500 years, during which we struggle and argue (as would any family preparing for a garage sale) about all the stuff that has collected over the past 500 years related to God and Jesus. Some want to dispose of certain elements within Christianity and others want to keep them...and so the fight goes. Tickle says these transition times in history are very, very messy and that it takes several decades to sort through the mess until there is general consensus among God's people.

One major issue that always arises with these paradigmatic changes every 500 years is the question of where the church's authority lies. In the latest "re-formation" of the church (Luther being a key figure), the authority shifted from the Roman Catholic pope to the scriptures ("sola scriptura"). In the present transition, the authority is changing to something else which isn't clear yet; but there are reasons (another topic for another day) why scripture on its own can no longer act as our sole source of authority now but rather will be one of the key pieces of what will turn out to be the grounds of authority for God's people.

If this is so, then we as followers of Jesus must grapple seriously with the issue of the role of scripture for us collectively. This is happening now with many serious scholars debating and researching and praying and studying in an attempt to discover improved ways of handling the scripture so that it can play its role along with the Holy Spirit in leading us in this critical age. Some recommended material in this regard are books such as:
* Disarming Scripture 
* The Bible Tells Me So
* The Bible Made Impossible
For those of us who have been raised and trained to view the Bible as more or less a 'flat' book and without any flaws, these books may be hard to read with serious consideration. But I suggest them because they are written by followers of Jesus who value the scriptures and desire to help God's people sort through many questionable issues that are in scripture so that, on the one hand we don't ignore these questionable parts and, on the other hand we don't toss the whole Bible out because of the questionable parts. 

If Phyllis Tickle and others are correct that this transition will take many decades of struggle, I pray for grace for God's people to walk through this mess and to do so in humility and love for one another expressed in genuine listening and learning without discounting someone because they think differently. This isn't easy and takes the work of the Spirit in and among us.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Hard Yoke of Judging and the Light Burden of Loving

As those created in the image of God, we desire to judge. This is part of what it means to "govern" or "have dominion", according to the creation story in Genesis. God's intention was that we would judge as He does: based on unconditional and impartial love (represented by the tree of life).

But when the first humans took the bait of the tempter and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they opted for an alternative way of functioning  from the way God had set up for them. The tree of knowledge was attractive to them for various reasons, one of which was that it represented a way to make decisions based on their subjective and limited knowledge and wisdom. All they would have to do is to trust independently in their own thoughts and feelings and desires and not have to take the time and effort to consult a Person outside of themselves for knowledge and wisdom (which requires getting to know that Person which in turn requires dependence and time and effort). It wasn't that they didn't want God in their lives, but they saw this as a way of doing God's work more easily and efficiently.

The world system, the flesh, and the devil all agree that this is the way to govern and judge. As those who have given up personal independence to live and operate under the Lordship of God the Creator, we are faced everyday with the choice to make judgments and decisions based on one of these two trees - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the tree of life. The 'flesh' - that which wants to function independently of God - pulls us to make decisions according to what we subjectively believe to be 'right' or 'wrong'.

Most of us are unaware of how much emotional and intellectual energy is spent on fleshly judgments being made in a day. (Much of this happens in our hidden and often unconscious thought life and it seeps out into the open at times in judgmentalism of others.) Greg Boyd says, "Of all the sinful burdens that we place upon ourselves in our fallen state, none is weightier than the presumption that we can judge others."

Sizing others up to determine what's right and wrong about them is a hard yoke to bear; the light burden of dependence on God is loving others. Just as God's first and last response to all humans is that of love, so we are called to love all unconditionally and impartially, which turns out to be an easy burden! So in any given day when we are required to make decisions that affect others, our posture should be that of attentiveness to God and His love for the person(s) and acting accordingly.

Proverbs 3:5 sums up the two ways of functioning beautifully: "Trust God from the bottom of your heart (tree of life); don't try to figure out everything on your own (tree of knowledge)..." (The Message)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

What Does it Mean to Love the Truth?

The apostle John's writings indicate to me that he was a lover of truth. His gospel and epistles focus on the word "truth" which is repeated many times. John says in his third epistle, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth."

There's a difference between being a lover of truth and being one who simply knows true information or correct doctrines. I believe that one thing that defines John as being a lover of truth is that he loved and knew Truth personified, the Lord Jesus. John's writings about Jesus are very personal writings. Much more than simply giving data and facts about the Man, John shares from a deep personal relationship with Him.

I want to suggest some characteristics of being a lover of truth:
  • An ongoing and growing relationship with Jesus who is Truth personified; i.e., not settling for facts and doctrines about Him but asking His Spirit for encounters (whatever that may look like for each person) with Him and an understanding of Who He is and what He's like, how He feels and thinks about His creation in general and of me in particular.
  • A holy desire for truth that is strong enough to be willing to 'unlearn' whatever you need to in order to continue to mature in knowing and loving the Truth. We should never be content with what we have learned. This can be painful for us because it disorients us to discover that something we were so sure of a little while ago isn't aligned with the full truth of the Kingdom of God. It takes great courage and humility and desire to love the Truth.
  • Walking in the Truth; i.e., not being hearers only but doers of the Truth, obeying and imitating Jesus in our daily living.
We can't manufacture artificial desire but we can place our hearts and minds before Him and ask Him to awaken desire for Jesus to such a degree that we will embrace Truth even when it cuts across the grain of how we presently live and believe. May we, like the Apostle John, find great delight in loving the Truth and having many "children" who love the Truth.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

GK Chesterton: Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Badly

Scripture is full of stories that show us that God doesn't expect great and perfect works from those who follow Him. However, it's common for us to have illusions of grandeur and perfection; i.e., we believe that the measure of approval we will get from God is dependent on how much we do and how close to perfection we can do it.

Over and over we read of those whose small sincere and often faulty obedience was all it took for God to do great things. The point of these stories is that it's God who does the great things with our small and inadequate actions because of His great care for humans.

One such story is that of the young boy's offering of his loaves and fish to Jesus (John 6). This was a poor inadequate offer on the boy's part in the sense that it didn't come close to meeting the need represented by the crowd's hunger. But Jesus, unperturbed by the tiny bit of food and caring that the people were hungry, unhesitatingly accepted the "foolish" offering and used it to satisfy the hunger of the large crowd.

Jesus feeds more than 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. (Matthew 14:13-22, Mark 6:31-46, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-13): Slide 7Often in our lives we labor under feelings of inadequacy or guilt that we aren't fasting or praying enough or doing great things for God, but this kind of heavy burden indicates that our focus is more on how much and how well we're serving than on His desire and His ability to take our small and feeble offering and multiply it into blessing for many.

In our fallenness we are prone to look inward at how well we are performing for God rather than to look up and away from ourselves to Him and to how desirous and able He is to do much with the little that we give Him in faith.

Religion requires perfectionism; God asks for trust. Perfectionism focuses on my offering to God and on getting it right (self-rightness); trust focuses on God and how perfectly He did it in the Lord Jesus. Perfectionism attempts to compete with God's work; trust responds with utter dependence on God's self-giving work.

We've all heard the saying, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well." G.K. Chesterton reworded this to say: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." This isn't advocating sloppiness or carelessness but simply acknowledging that God desires our inadequate offerings of love and that we must not allow perfectionism to paralyze us because we can't "do it well".

I want to be increasingly like the young boy who didn't allow self-conscious fear of inadequacy keep him from giving what he had at hand, trusting that Jesus would do well with it. He had his eyes set on Jesus rather than on the inadequacy of his lunch.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Injuries Hinder Our Ability to See God Correctly

As I struggle to regain the ability to walk normally, I'm spending a lot of time doing water exercises. The pool that I visit is at the local YMCA, and as soon as I get into it, the first thing I do is walk across it a couple of times before doing other therapy exercises.

I've been doing this for some months, and since the start I've felt like the floor of the pool was not level. I couldn't imagine that such a new and well-made pool would have a floor that was uneven so I continued to walk it as though it was level. Nevertheless it felt so uneven to me that it was hard for me to shake that idea.

Recently my sister took me to the pool and got in with me. I asked her to walk across it and tell me if it felt even to her. She walked it and assured me that the pool floor was level.

That was my confirmation that the problem wasn't the floor but my disability, particularly the injured leg that keeps me from walking properly.

This is an example of how easy it is for us humans to misread God. In areas where we suffer from emotional or mental or spiritual 'disability', we easily misread or misjudge the truth because it feels so wrong, so "uneven." Consequently, we continue to walk according to our personal 'injuries'.

Man walking on road - Close up of a man walking on road
Our brokenness as humans causes us to misjudge God's goodness. Our notions of Him are often distorted because of our 'disabilities'. Only in Jesus can we get the full and true version of the Father. As we place our faith in Him as the perfect reflection of God, we can "exercise" according to what He shows us in spite of our internal injuries that would guide us to exercise incorrectly.

Just as my sister and my therapist and others can reassure me that the pool floor is level, so those around us who don't have the same emotional or mental or spiritual disability that we have can be a help to assure us that God is like Jesus no matter how much our subjective experience may tell us differently. With that assurance we can align our 'exercises' with Truth, and over time the crooked part in us becomes straight and in agreement with that which is true/level.

Psalm 27:11 (NET) Teach me how you want me to live; lead me along a level path because of those who wait to ambush me!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Macro-skies, Micro-self and God's Presence

Greg Boyd has written a book on practicing the presence of God (Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now), and one of the features I like so well about it is that he includes a number of practical exercises that the reader can do in becoming more aware and awake to the reality that God is with us every moment.

One of these practices is what he calls "standing in the middle of infinity", and I want to share this practice with you. Boyd says the following:

"...Over the last century science has discovered that we live in a mind-boggling universe that is virtually infinite above us as well as below us. Above us, the universe is unimaginably large and expanding at ever-increasing speeds. It contains billions upon billions of galaxies, each spanning hundreds of millions of light-years and containing hundreds of billions of stars, many of them much larger than our sun. The universe below us is equally unimaginable as we are discovering particles so tiny they could pass through light-years of solid steel before they'd likely collide with another particle. There is, in fact, as much 'small reality' beneath us as there is 'large reality' above us.

Check out this magnificent view. It looks like this man is standing on ...
...we can think of ourselves as situated in the middle of a virtual infinity extending beneath us into incomprehensible smallness and above us into incomprehensible vastness. To remain aware of the awesomeness of the God whose presence engulfs me, I find it helpful to remember this fact as I experience events around me."

Here is the exercise Boyd suggests: "Sit in a comfortable public place and simply observe events around you...try to remain aware of the virtual infinity extending above and beneath you and everything you observe...

I find it helpful to zoom out past innumerable gigantic galaxies as I observe things while I also mentally zoom in on a particular tiny segment of what I'm observing (a blade of grass or a pebble, for example) and envision a veritable universe of particles  flying around inside the tiny segment...I then remind myself that however far out and far down my mind may go, God is present there...

The incomprehensible greatness of God's glory expressed in the unfathomable vastness of reality above us and unimaginable smallness and complexity of reality below us is exceeded only by the absolutely unlimited, unending, and unwavering perfection of God's love, revealed on Calvary...

As you engage in the discipline of situating yourself in the middle of infinity, therefore, be sure to remain aware that you are surrounded every nanosecond by the infinite intensity of God's burning, perfect, Calvary-like love."

The language of Psalm 8:3,4 (from The Message) captures the essence of what Boyd is talking about:

                               I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
                                     your handmade sky-jewelry,
                              Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
                                    Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
                              Why do you bother with us?
                                    Why take a second look our way?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Something to Think About and Discuss...

In his book, "Christ, the Sum of all Spiritual Things", Watchman Nee says something wonderful about what God has given us in Christ Jesus. I'll quote from him and then suggest a question for discussion with others. Nee says the following:

"There is nothing more important than to know the Lord...Knowing Him requires a spiritual seeing ...everything depends upon Christ, and not upon us...When we first became a Christian, we were inclined to do everything ourselves, fearing lest nothing would ever be done or matters would fall to pieces if we did not do them...Later in having seen the Lord to be our life, we know that all is of Christ and not of us. Consequently, we learn to rest and to look to Him...

"What we need to comprehend before God is that in our experience...(it is) not that He gives us light, but that He is our light; not that He leads the way, but He is the way; not that He gives us a life, but He is our life; not that He teaches a truth, but He is the truth. What Christ gives is His very own self...

"Christ does not come to sanctify us, He comes to be Himself our sanctification. Our sanctification is not a thing, an action, or a behavior. Our sanctification is a person, even Christ...

"Thank God, Christ is our redemption as well as our redeemer. He is our sanctification as well as our sanctifier. He is our righteousness as well as our justifier. He is our wisdom as well as the One who makes us wise. Christianity is none other than Christ Himself."

The question that I suggest worth taking time to ponder and to discuss with someone else is this: if we truly believe that Christianity is more about getting to know and trust a Person than about adhering to particular doctrines/beliefs, how might this change the way we live and how we relate to others? I believe that if the implications of this are carefully and prayerfully thought out and talked out with others, we could be surprised at how it might shape and reshape our mindsets about what it means to be followers of Jesus (both individually and collectively).