Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Picture Frame Makes a Difference

Many years ago, I discovered that the frame around a picture makes a big difference. Framing, as well as painting, is an art. The color and design emphasize certain aspects of the painting and causes the person viewing the painting to focus on particular parts of the artwork.

As I'm rethinking different parts of the picture of God's story and His love for His creation, I'm learning to re-frame that picture, and it is helping me a lot. The Lord is using many means to help me re-frame the story. One means is through the writings of authors I have discovered, one of which is Richard Beck. In his very interesting and wonderful book, The Slavery of Death, he presents why he believes that humanity's predicament has more to do with our mortality than with our morality. In other words, our fear of death is the better framework for the picture of humanity's basic problem than is sin.

Beck says: "Death, not sin, is the primary predicament of the human condition. Death is the cause of sin. More properly, the fear of death produces most of the sin in our lives."

As I have read Beck's work and looked into some of the theology of the early church fathers, I've come to appreciate this framing of humanity's problem over the framing that many of us in the western stream of Christianity have been given. Many of God's people in church history and today as well understand humanity's need to be more a need for a Deliverer than for a Judge. In other words, we are born mortal and fearful of death rather than sinful. Sin is the result of fear of death which has us hopelessly trapped and in need of a Deliverer.

This in no way denies that we all sin, but it sees sin as the symptom of something more profound.

In a society in which lack of food is not a threat to physical life for most people, the fear of death takes on the form of neurotic anxieties, such as fears related to self esteem or having significance and acceptance from others. In our desire to be immortal, we attach ourselves to causes or organizations or religious groups that will last beyond our lifetime; or we place our hopes in our children's success as a way to ensure our success; we compete for positions and for recognition...etc.

I can see advantages to framing humanity's primary problem in mortality and fear of death rather than framing it in moral behavior. I'll share 3 reasons I like this framing:  first, it highlights God's graciousness and compassion towards humans.  The legal framework emphasizes God as angry Judge who demands that law-breaking humans be punished; but God is loving Creator and Father who in great compassion for His creation comes in His Son to rescue humanity from the grip of this fear of death by defeating it in His flesh (Heb. 2), forgiving and healing and reconciling us back to Himself to live in fellowship with Him; in that living fellowship we are empowered to walk free from anxieties that drive us to sinful practices.

The second reason I think framing the story of man's predicament in mortality is better is that it doesn't pit Jesus against God. In other words, it doesn't present Jesus as taking our side against God's anger towards humans; but rather it shows that God and Jesus have always been of one mind in unconditional, unchanging love for weak humans and that they are in agreement about our need for deliverance from the one who holds the power of death over us: (Heb. 2:14,15) "By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death."  (2 Cor. 5:19) "In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them."

The third reason I believe framing humanity's predicament in this way is good is that it sees humans through a more compassionate lens and moves us away from our tendency as western evangelicals to see people primarily as sinners who ought to know better and so should be judged and condemned. Rather than seeing ourselves and others as primarily law-breakers of God's holy law, we see humans as born fearful and driven to sin because of the desperate need to escape death in its many forms. In my own experience, since changing how I frame the picture of humanity's fall, I find myself slower to judge and condemn others because I now see them (and myself) as captive to a fear that only Jesus can deliver us from. This awakens compassion and desire to help people know that there is freedom from the fear of death.

(Much of the way we frame God and His story is rooted in our beliefs about the atonement. If you're interested in viewing an interesting presentation of the eastern and western views of the atonement, you can go to this link:  The Gospel in Chairs.) 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What Matters Supremely...

Deep down we all want to be fully known and still loved. J.I. Packer says the following:

“What matters supremely is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it — the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me, and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment therefore, when His care falters.

"This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort — the sort of comfort that energizes — in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love, and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based...on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly, great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see, and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself.

“There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.”

For this truth to transform us, it's important to actually embrace it, accept it and practice it; one way to practice accepting this love is to pause a few moments during your day (doing this regularly) to listen for the Father's affirmation of you. For example, you could take these words of J.I. Packer and turn them into a personal statement by God to you, saying something like this:  

"(Your name), what matters supremely is not the fact that you know Me but that I know you. You are engraved on the palms of My hands, and I never stop thinking about you; I'm thinking about you right now. You know Me because I knew you first and continue to know you. I know everything about you, the good, the bad and the ugly, and I still want you as My friend; I want this so much that I went to death to win you for Myself..., etc."

Saturday, August 08, 2015

I Am His House

I wanted to quote a poem this week by George MacDonald and came across this beautiful and powerful poem from his book, Diary of an Old Soul. To get the impact of his words, I encourage you to take a little time to quietly ponder them. The form of English is a bit difficult but worth struggling to grasp:

"Too eager I must not be to understand.
How should the work the Master goes about
Fit the vague sketch my compasses have planned?
I am his house - for him to go in and out.
He builds me now - and if I cannot see
At any time what he is doing with me,
Tis that he makes the house for me too grand.

The house is not for me - it is for him.
His royal thoughts require many a stair,
Many a tower, many an outlook fair,
Of which I have no thought, and need no care.
Where I am most perplexed, it may be there
Thou mak'st a secret chamber, holy-dim,
Where thou will come to help my deepest prayer."

Amen, dear Lord...may it be so.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

To Make Converts to a Doctrine is to Make Proselytes

As I have often made reference to, I believe that part of what God is doing in the world now is breaking up the religious systems and practices that have become hindrances to people seeing Jesus and what God is like in Him. Our preoccupation with ensuring doctrinal correctness has become a stumbling block to our making disciples/followers of Jesus.

In his outstanding book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes that Hinder It, Roland Allen addresses the desperate need for preaching Jesus rather than preaching Christianity. In the following quote, he critiques western Christianity for worrying more about getting our "doctrine" correct than about preaching Jesus. Jesus ends up being relegated to a secondary place. He is the First Cause but we tend to stress the secondary causes (doctrinal beliefs):

"...We speak as if the Gospel and the doctrine, preaching Christ and preaching Christianity, were identical terms.

"There is a difference between the revelation of a Person and the teaching of a system of doctrine and practice.

"...our doctrine so dominates our mind that we can scarcely believe that men can love Christ and be saved by Him unless they know and use our doctrinal expressions. Because we find this difficult we inevitably tend to give the teaching of our doctrine the first place in our work...But the Person is greater and far excels it.

"When we fall into this error, we inevitably tend to make the acceptance of the shadow (the doctrine, the system) the aim and object of our work. In doing that we are doing something of which Christ spoke in very severe terms. To make converts to a doctrine is to make proselytes."

Jesus recognized this in the religious leaders of His day, condemning them for making converts instead of disciples (Matt. 23:15). Only as we make Christ crucified our theme and passion will others become true followers of Jesus rather than mere adherents to certain prescribed beliefs.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Washing Feet...

The quote below from Dietrich Bonhoeffer helps paint a picture of what it looks like for Jesus' followers to wash the feet of others in His name:

"In the midst of discipline, the entire fullness of the Holy Spirit wants to unfold and to ripen, and we should give it full space within us for the sake of God, for the sake of others, and for our own sake. The entire world of God, the dear Father, wants to be born in us, to grow and ripen. Love—where only suspicion and hostility reign; joy—instead of bitterness and pain; peace—amid internal and external strife; patience—where impatience threatens to overwhelm us; kindness—where only raw and hard words seem to make any difference; goodness—where understanding and empathy seem like weakness; faithfulness—where long separations and enormous changes in all relationships seek to rock the foundations of even what is most stable; gentleness—where recklessness and selfishness seem to be the only ways to reach one’s goals; self-control—where short term pleasures seem to be the only reasonable option and all bonds are about to dissolve."

In a world where hostility, sadness, strife, impatience, harshness, meanness, infidelity, brashness and self-indulgence wear and tear people down, the fruit of the Spirit of Jesus at work through us brings refreshing as did the washing of tired and dirty feet in Jesus' day.

Galatians 5:22,23 "The Spirit however, produces in human life fruits such as these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control—and no law exists against any of them."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Wisdom Gives Us Ground Rules for Growing and Relating in a Time of Transition

This week a friend of mine pointed James 3:17 out to me. I hadn't read this portion for awhile and I was struck afresh with the contrast that James makes between earthly wisdom and wisdom from God. He speaks of this in the context of the power of the tongue to bless and to curse. After stressing that earthly wisdom is contentious and jealous, James goes on to give a beautiful description of what the 'wisdom from on high' is like. Below are several versions/paraphrases of this verse, and I have highlighted the various descriptive words used for wisdom:

NET: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceablegentleaccommodatingfull of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical.  

ESV: 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere

HCSB: 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.
TLB: 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure and full of quiet gentleness. Then it is peace-loving and courteous. It allows discussion and is willing to yield to others; it is full of mercy and good deeds. It is wholehearted and straightforward and sincere.  

MSG: 17 Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced.  

NRSV: 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  

YLT: 17 and the wisdom from above, first, indeed, is pure, then peaceable, gentle, easily entreated, full of kindness and good fruits, uncontentious, and unhypocritical.

In today's climate of change and paradigm shifts, this passage provides us with a great set of 'ground rules' for growing and relating with one another as we work through differences of views. May we desire and seek for God's wisdom as we would for hidden treasure (Prov 2) and therein grow in our understanding of God and of one another together.



Saturday, July 11, 2015

Jesus' Good News of Peace - God is Not Against You!

As a young woman I loved praying the well-known prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. It is a wonderful and profoundly fitting prayer for the days we are living in:

The first words from the risen Christ to His fearful and failing followers were, "Peace be with you..." He should have scolded them and pointed out their failure and weakness. Imagine how startled and relieved they must have felt to hear His words of comfort after their utter failure to be loyal to Him in His darkest hour.

But Jesus is always different than what we expect.

When He spoke words of peace to His followers after His resurrection, He was sowing seeds of love, forgiveness, faith, hope, light, joy in hearts that were full of fear, offense, unbelief, hopelessness, darkness and sadness. He was loving and forgiving them without demanding to be loved and understood. In so doing He won their full allegiance and willingness to follow in His steps.

This is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus. Every human longs for inner peace. To be His follower is to be an "instrument of peace" to those among whom we live, giving them the good news of the risen Lord that God is not against them but is for them no matter how they have failed.

Lord, make us instruments of Your peace in the days we are living in...Amen.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Devoted to Jesus or to Our Beliefs about Jesus?

I used to be certain about my beliefs about God, but as I have continued to grow in Him, I have become increasingly uncertain about many beliefs I used to hold tightly. I have discovered that God won't be held captive to a set of beliefs; this can be seen clearly in Jesus who was continually confounding the religious leaders of His day by acting and speaking in ways that did not fit their belief system.

When I first began loosening my grip on what I had been so sure of concerning God, it scared me because my sense of security was based on being certain, not on God Himself. Now after a few years of exploring outside the confines of my inherited belief system and discovering that God is unbelievably wonderful, I am experiencing a level of peace and joy unlike what I had in the past. He is my certainty, not my beliefs about Him. This allows me to continue to keep changing in my beliefs and to be at peace with uncertainty.

Oswald Chambers had strong words concerning our tendency as evangelicals to be more devoted to our beliefs than to Jesus Himself. "...a Christian must be consistent in his relationship to the life of the Son of God in him, not consistent to strict unyielding doctrines. People pour themselves into their own doctrines, and God has to blast them out of their preconceived ideas before they can become devoted to Jesus Christ."

"...When we become simply a promoter or a defender of a particular belief, something within us dies. That is not believing God– it is only believing our belief about Him. Jesus said, “…unless you…become as little children…”. The spiritual life is the life of a child. We are not uncertain of God, just uncertain of what He is going to do next. If our certainty is only in our beliefs, we develop a sense of self-righteousness, become overly critical, and are limited by the view that our beliefs are complete and settled. But when we have the right relationship with God, life is full of spontaneous, joyful uncertainty and expectancy. Jesus said, '…believe also in Me', not, 'Believe certain things about Me.'"

Our devotion to unyielding doctrines and beliefs about God cause us to look more like the Pharisees of Jesus' time than like Jesus. In these days of significant social change in our culture we have a great opportunity to demonstrate what it means to be devoted to Jesus and His ways (serving those in need, giving to the poor, befriending those we consider unlovely and unworthy, embracing the "other" without judgment) rather than to defend our beliefs about Him and shut people out of the kingdom.

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!