Monday, September 19, 2016

The Power of Being Present

As I continue in my personal journey of physical weakness and disability, I'm more convinced than ever that being present in solidarity with others is more powerful than brute strength. This is fresh on my mind after having just spent a day with two people (separate situations) who are in great emotional pain over loss of a child - not through death but through other very painful happenings in their lives that has brought deep loss to both families.

Because of my physical injuries of 3-4 years ago, I am unable to walk without assistance. This puts significant limitations on what I can do to help others with anything that requires physical strength and mobility.

However, it seems that my presence is desired anyway; I'm learning that nonjudgmental loving presence is powerful in its ability to put inner strength and hope in another person even without the issue being "fixed".

This underscores to me a reality that is growing in my understanding of God, which is that His power largely takes the form of presence, a loving presence without judgment. The prophet Isaiah said that God would come as Emmanuel, God with us! God's incarnation demonstrates that He in solidarity with human frailty; His crucifixion tells us that He is in full solidarity with human suffering; His resurrection and ascension and then outpouring of His very own Life/Spirit tells us that He continues to dwell among us in ongoing solidarity with everything we go through and that He will never leave or forsake us!

It is this loving peace-filled presence of God that brings strength and hope and motivation to continue trusting Him in the face of crippling fear and discouragement. Because God's love is free of any coercion and manipulation, He won't intervene and force things to go well when it violates pure love; but He can be and is present in all the beauty and power of pure self-giving love which empowers us.

A wonderful reality is that, as bearers of His life and love, we can bring His presence into situations in our little corners of the world with the understanding that our mere presence gives courage and hope to those who need it!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Unexpected Source of Energy on Which the Cosmos Thrives

The longer I walk with the Lord Jesus and look at His way of living and dying, the more I'm aware of how utterly upside down (to us) God's kingdom ways are. I read a short article by Kenneth Tanner, The Great Humility that Redeems the Cosmos, which expresses well how wonderfully different God's ways are from ours:

"The gospels upend every human (perhaps every rational) notion of strength.

The cosmos—superclusters of galaxies, delicate wildflowers on countless meadows, the waves of every ocean—thrives on one source of energy, a hidden force of charity that does not seek its own, a Person with an unremarkable face, who came not to be served by his creation but to serve. 

When I talk about this personal force of love I often describe it as some of the first Christians did. They call his passion for everyone and everything an Extreme Humility.

The biggest challenge presented to humanity by his gospel is our mistaken bedrock belief that what drives the universe is an unbridled might that rules by fiat. This is after all the only form of power we humans recognize: brute force, cunning strategy, ruthless competition, and, above all else, "winning."
It goes against everything that man has built and everything that man has ventured to accept the idea that the real power that sustains all movement and all life, that binds all things together—from subatomic particles to intergalactic distances—is a self-sacrificial love without measure.
"If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it."
Jesus is not just talking about your life but is describing how *everything* works.
The losers in this scenario do not "win" but instead come to participate forever in the life of him who lays down his life for the life of the world and in so doing—by a great humility—redeems the cosmos and makes all things new, makes all things well.
This belief is not going to get you anywhere in the world that humanity has made but you can serve that world—this world that Christ loved before it loved him—by embracing this sacred path of humility and renouncing all the other ways and means and kinds of power.
All of them. Political. Military. Intellectual. Physical. All.
It is telling that almost every news story that compels the urgent attention of Christians these days can only do so because we have denied that we serve a Lord that rules by a mysterious humility that conquers all hearts by self-giving."

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Everywhere and Always...Always and Everywhere

Many times in Scripture we humans are admonished to not fear; and the reason given for not needing to fear is that "the Lord is with you."

Fear is one of the most, if not the most, paralyzing emotion that humans experience. It paralyses us and keeps us from taking action needed for the sake of Jesus and His love of others.

The promise that the Lord is with us is key if we are to live and move in love towards God and others. "God is love", says the apostle John in his first letter. He also says that love casts out fear; this means that the presence of Love drives fear away. For example, if fear in the form of financial shortage visits my heart, the awareness that Love is present with me in the form of Jehovah-jireh (Provider) brings peace and the courage to keep giving and blessing others even when finances are short. If fear comes because of a difficult work situation that needs my speaking up on behalf of others, pausing to recognize that Love in the form of Jehovah-Nissi (Victorious One) is with me gives me the inner courage to say something when I would rather keep silent.

Love is with me everywhere and always!

Practicing the presence of Love is an important spiritual practice, because without a growing assurance and awareness that He is present with us always and everywhere, we are no match for fear, a reality we face daily to one degree or another.

There's a scene in the Prince Caspian movie in which the young girl Lucy is approaching strong and intimidating enemies; to her amazement they are backing away from her in fear, not because of her strength, but because Aslan is walking directly behind her. The presence of Love with Lucy drives back the intimidating forces coming against her.

Realizing God's presence with us doesn't mean the emotion of fear goes away, but as we become increasingly in touch with the reality of His real presence with us in our moment of fear, our heart is strengthened to push through the emotions of fear and to act in faith.

God came in Jesus as Emmanuel; that name  alone tells us that the greatest news about God is that He is with us always and everywhere. God's power is His presence!

"...he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'" Hebrews 13:5,6

Sunday, June 26, 2016

God's Requirements Reflect His Priorities

The life and death of Jesus reflects God's preference for humans over his own well being. Last week I wrote about God's prioritizing of humans (here). This week I will write about how his requirements of us reflect this.

Micah 6:6 is a well known scripture that summarizes what's in the heart of God; here he tells us what really matters most to him about how we live. It's in response to the questions posed in the previous 2 verses which imply that God must want religious sacrifices (prayer, fasting, offerings, worship assembling, etc). The prophet responds strongly by saying no to the religious sacrifices, but rather:

"He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God." (CEB)

Three things: "do justice"; "embrace faithful love (mercy)"; "walk humbly with your God."

There are many different directions I could go with this, but I simply want to point out that what God asks of us is all about our treatment of others and his desire that we do this humbly with him.

The New Testament backs this up with some overarching instructions: Jesus says in Mark 12 that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love others; all of the scriptures are fulfilled in this one commandment. Later Paul says in Romans 13:8-10:

"Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.'" (NLT)

God prioritizes humans; his requirements of us reflect how important people are to him.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

People are God's Priority

Jesus said, 'When you see me, you see the Father'. Through his actions and words he was and is continually reinterpreting what we humans understand about God.

One way in which God has been badly misunderstood is in his relationship with the law. Often Jesus bumped up against the religious system and its leaders because their interpretations of the law misled the people. An example of this was Jesus' teaching about the sabbath: 'the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.' His actions backed up this teaching; he would often break the religious rules about keeping the Sabbath by healing and helping people on the Sabbath.

This simple teaching carries profound meaning for our understanding of God. His priority is the well being of humans while religious systems are preoccupied with keeping the rules at all costs. The commandment to honor the Sabbath as a day of rest was intended to serve humans, not to burden us. But the maintainers of religious systems turn the Creator's loving care for humanity into a heavy yoke by making obedience to the rule the issue rather than the well being of the humans.

In his book, Jesus Before Christianity, Albert Nolan says, "Jesus was not opposed to the law as such, he was opposed to the way people used the law, their attitude to the law. The scribes and Pharisees had made the law into a burden, whereas it was supposed to be a service...They were using the sabbath against people instead of using it for them...for Jesus it (the law) was supposed to be for the benefit of people, to serve their needs and genuine interests...Jesus' attitude led to permissiveness whenever the needs of people would not be met by observance of the law, and to strictness whenever this would best serve their needs. The law was made for us, we were not made to serve and bow down before the law."

Jesus' approach to the law reveals God's approach to the law and shows how important human beings are to God. This not only helps us understand what God is like but it empowers us to approach the law in the same manner, seeing humans' well being as more important than strict adherence to the law. This is a challenge to us who want an easy answer to people's problems because it requires genuine care for people and discernment of what God's care should look like in a particular instance.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

God's Power: Not the Kind of Power We Wish He Had

I highly recommend Doug Frank's book, A Gentler God. He presents ways of understanding God that are wonderful and that cut across the grain of some of the church's ways of seeing God. His main point is that we need to move away from the idea of "the Almighty" to understanding that God is like the human man Jesus. The following are quotes from this book that, to me, are worth taking the time to consider and to ponder:

"Occasionally...I reach for...some kind of explanation for or defense of the ways of God...Sooner or later, they all force me to choose among five dubious alternatives: 'there is no God'; 'the Almighty is not good'; 'the Almighty could prevent evil, but it would cost us our freedom'; 'Satan causes evil'; or 'trust God, his ways are unfathomable.'

"An answer that makes more sense to me is: 'God is small - a child, like Jesus said. God simply does not have the kind of power we ourselves crave and project onto him - the power that could fix our lives by tinkering with the laws of the universe. In that sense, God is a child.

"Which does not mean that the God whom Jesus is revealing to us does nothing at all...Such a God would not only be powerless, but unresponsive and uncaring. No - God acts, but in the only way that pure love can act: God is continually present in the world, a living spirit that invades reality at every moment and at every place, that speaks as love does - in whispers, unceasingly - into each and every human heart. God's whispers may be heard in our dreams, in the voices of our friends and enemies, in the cries of our hearts, in deep silence...
jesus on cross photo: Twelveth Station passion_cross_crucificado.png
"If God cannot straightforwardly micro-manage human events so as to rescue the abused child, the tortured prisoner, the cancer victim, neither can God rescue God's very own self, incarnated in Jesus...God can and will hang on the gibbet in utter solidarity with the son, helplessly receiving the cruel blows rained down on the naked, dying flesh of the beloved.

"There is a kind of power in God's whispers. But it is the power of powerlessness. It changes things, but invisibly, unpredictably, unaccountably and, from our point of view, unreliably. It is not the kind of power we imagine, or wish, God to have."

Sunday, June 05, 2016

God Does Not Oppress Us with His Will

In his book, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul looks at accounts from the book of II Kings and presents a case for a God who values human dignity so much that He allows us to freely be who we are. In chapter one Ellul writes about the healing of Naaman, saying that God used many different agents in Naaman's life. He points out that none of the people involved in the healing (Hebrew slave girl, king of Syria, Elisha, Naaman's servants) acted under coercion from God but they acted according to their own "bent", at their own "level" and with their own "personal decision." Ellul goes on to remark, "If the story wanted to show us God crushing the will of man and forcing man to do what God wants, then things would have been very simple."

God takes the dignity and freedom of human beings seriously and will not "crush the will of man" and force us to do what He wants. He allows us to be who we are and to act according to our bent, and He takes our small free actions, combines them with the small actions of others and somehow works to produce beauty and goodness.

George MacDonald puts it this way in his book, Knowing the Heart of God:

"God does not, by the instant gift of his Spirit, make us always feel right, desire good, love purity, aspire after him and his will...The truth is this: He wants to make us in his own image, choosing the good, refusing the evil. How could he effect this if he were always moving us from within? God gives us room to be. He does not oppress us with his will. He 'stands away from us,' that we may act from ourselves, that we may exercise the pure will for good."

The marvel and genius of God is not that He is able to get things done because we finally "get our act together" but that He is able to get things done through broken vessels who never really get our act together but who freely move and act according to our bent and personal decision.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Nothing is More Amazing than...

Valjean being freely released from thievery by bishop in Les Miserables
"Nothing is more amazing than the patient, gentle charity that God displays to His creatures. There is something adorable in the compassion of God for mankind which looks like a voluntary blindness to their evil...The Bible is full of instances of this in His dealings with both nations and individuals, where His justice seems to move with tortoise pace, constantly pursuing but seemingly on purpose to be a long while catching up with the one to be punished, as if to give him every allowance possible to infinite mercy. Now, the more we are with God, and the closer our union is with Him, and the more deeply we drink of the interior sweetness of His life, the more we shall catch something of His gentleness and compassion of spirit which will destroy our proclivity for harsh judgments and take away the keenness by which we discover evil in others..."

- Paul Billheimer (Love Covers) -           

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Aiming at Love in the Pursuit of Knowledge

In recent years I've had a growth spurt in knowledge and understanding of God, resulting in mindset shifts which have in turn resulted in more freedom, joy and love - unlike what I have ever experienced before in Him.

There is something seductive about gaining knowledge, even spiritual or theological knowledge. It has the power to delude the learner into thinking he/she is superior to others. This was what the tree of knowledge of good and evil was about - pride and superiority. Paul says in 1Corinthians 8:1 that knowledge "puffs up" while love "builds up."

Would to God we followers of Jesus would all be growing in knowledge of all sorts, but if love is not our goal in the pursuit of knowledge (even when it's the knowledge of God), we are unwittingly feeding pride and superiority. Aiming at love while growing in knowledge is what it means to live from the tree of life, Jesus.

As I continue to grow in knowledge now, I try to see myself in Christ Jesus, He being the One dispensing the knowledge, feeding me. There are times when I sense His quiet voice within me saying to pause reading or studying; and I'm learning that even though it may be wonderful and good material, if He is slowing me down, it's because He knows how much and how fast I should go in order not to be led down the road of spiritual arrogance where I would see others as inferior to myself.

Eating of the tree of life is about growing in love as we grow in knowledge - that is only possible with Jesus' leadership. The goal of all learning is to love - to receive the love of God and then to give that love away to others. If I'm not growing in love and tenderness towards others as I'm growing in knowledge, it may be a sign that I need to reevaluate why I want to grow in knowledge and turn again to the Spirit of God for help to aim at love.

"Let love be your greatest aim." I Cor. 14:1 (TLB)

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Thorough Housecleaning

The big message of the book of Hebrews is the superiority of Jesus over all else. In light of this, it's not surprising that the writer would write words like these:

His voice that time shook the earth to its foundations; this time—he’s told us this quite plainly—he’ll also rock the heavens: “One last shaking, from top to bottom, stem to stern.” The phrase “one last shaking” means a thorough housecleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered. Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God. For God is not an indifferent bystander. He’s actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and he won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God himself is Fire!
 (Hebrews 12:26-28 The Message)

The contrasting of the old systems with Jesus (who fulfills all that the old systems were struggling to portray) shows the need for a shaking that will undo the old order so that the unshakable Kingdom can be established. The beginnings of this shaking happened with the birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus. But until He comes again to set up His Kingdom on earth, there will always be systems that get in the way of the beauty and superiority of Jesus.

Sometimes these systems are made up of religious practices that we have engaged in for so long that we confuse them with Jesus; sometimes they are our own internal mindsets/strongholds that have been constructed in us and adhered to for so long that we believe they are true.

But I believe the Spirit of God is fiercely jealous for Jesus and will do something in His people before the end of this age unlike what we have seen before. This will require a shaking of all that can be shaken; and because it will mess with that which we have been so certain of, there will be confusion and disorientation in the Body of Christ.

A few years ago I asked the Lord to shake all that could be shaken in my life and walk with Him, and He has been doing that. I see this happening all around me with many followers of Jesus.

In the midst of the disorientation, "let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." Gratitude to the true and living God will help steady us, and when we feel the ground shaking beneath our feet, we'll find that rather than falling into a bottomless pit, we will fall into Him, the unshakable One who is superior to all else!