Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reflections on Mary, Martha, and Laz

Lazarus is dead. In fact he’s been dead four days or so when Jesus finally arrives. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus was told that he was. It wasn’t some head cold or allergy with which Lazarus was dealing. Folks wouldn’t have sent word to Jesus for that. No, Lazarus was severely ill, and Jesus had been summoned to heal him.

But Jesus hadn’t gone. He had tarried for a day or two before heading back to Lazarus. What he found when he arrived was two distraught sisters who lash out at him, accusing even, that his delay had resulted in Lazarus’s death. They were hurting, and so were a great number of their friends. The sisters even accost Jesus saying “If you’d been here, this wouldn’t have happened!” As if to say, “What took you so long!”

As it turns out, Jesus raises Lazarus and returns him to his family; there is much rejoicing. But through the story, we learn that Jesus knew Lazarus was terminal, that he was going to die, and He took his time getting back to Lazarus on purpose. In fact, God allows these three good friends to travel this road so that God can be glorified through the raising of Lazarus.

We find also that even though Jesus knew the plan and the eventual outcome, that this is to be a demonstration of God’s power, He is moved with compassion for the sisters. Even though it is God Himself who has sent this family through this valley, His heart goes out to them.

And so we see that God may well send us through experiences that are hard to bear, that we must endure. But when He sends us through them, He is with us; He feels for us. It can be that through our pain God will be glorified, and God is with us as we bear it.

He is near.

What's a Little Water Worth?

The Christian life has never been intended to be expressed primarily in church buildings. Oh, don’t get me wrong, worshiping with one another is something Christians do, and rightly so. But despite our penchant for doing church, structuring staff, and making sure our various rituals are completed, they form a significantly small percentage of what Christian life entails. In fact, I suspect they aren’t nearly as important as we seem to think they are.

The Christian life, it seems to me, is more about who we are, what our desires are, where our life focus is. These others, assemblies, staff, rituals, are all tools to remind us or to move us closer to where we are meant to be. As tools, they are not the substance of life, and we endanger ourselves if we allow them to become the substance.

Throughout Scripture, God makes it clear that he expects his people to do what he says, to pay enough attention to him to form themselves into his likeness. But event in the expectation of doing, there is always an expectation of being. This expectation is deeper and much more substantive than doing. When God gives Moses the Law there are aspects of it that appear harsh and stringent to us moderns. The whole idea of an eye for an eye simply seems out of place in our world; we perceive it as barbaric.

What we fail to realize is that this measure of justice was a limitation on the prevailing standards. Even in the world today, we see Man’s sense of justice seems to be “I will pay you back more than the damage I have suffered from you.” This sentiment isn’t really new. Lamech vows that he will avenge himself seventy seven times. He thinks himself to be one bad dude.

And so an eye for an eye is a step in the right direction. But there are other indications of a different standard to be used. The cities of refuge is one such example. These cities were places where fugitives could flee to and be safe from revenge. The care that is expected to be taken of the alien and downtrodden among God’s people tells us that his compassion extends to those who are not ‘his people.’ A reading of the Minor Prophets tells us that in addition to worshiping the wrong gods, God’s people were not acting toward each other as God intended them to live. It is both their false gods, and their false hearts that are the problem. And it is the heart from which both false worship and wrong behavior arises.

It becomes apparent as we watch Israel and Judah being prepared for exile that we get a fuller picture of what God expects. He expects that our hearts, that our very beings reflect his care, his compassion, his love for Creation. He expects that his followers will live and become like him.

It is with this background that we read Matthew 25 (see also Matthew 10.42) and we find the Judge saying either enter my kingdom, or depart from me. These sentences are not couched in language of false worship and false gods, but speak to peoples’ hearts, eyes, and motivations. It is in this passage that we read that a cup of water, given to insignificant people, is capable of securing for us a life with God. That cup of water, if drunk by us, separates us from God, but if given out of a perceived need, ushers us into the very presence of God.

What’s a little water worth?

It may be worth your soul.

What Is Salvation?

The question of when someone is saved, or who can we say is a Christian, comes up from time to time in my circles. The ensuing dialogue usually includes points concerning faith, repentance, baptism, Calvinism, free will, grace, and a few other topics. The discussion seems to revolve around a point in time, a place where, on one side, someone is not a Christian, and on the other side, one can safely be said to be a Christian. This is important, it seems since it directly affects fellowship, communion, membership in a local congregation, and participation in assemblies.

This question has been debated for centuries, and I don’t presume to settle it in this short essay. I do however, believe that it has taken a lot more ink, blood, and hurt feelings than it deserves. It seems to me that salvation is not so much about having completed a complete ritual, but is rather a state of being in which we live with, in, and for God. It is, quite frankly, being allowed by God, through our submission to Him, to have a relationship and a character that displays the image of God in our lives.

Jesus calls people to return to God, to recognize in Jesus the presence of God, and to submit ourselves again to God’s leading. It is in submitting to God’s leading that we can be said to be living in the Kingdom. We tend to put labels on the various aspects of submitting to God. Repentance is one such aspect. While it can be described as a point in time, the import of repenting is not when one does it, but the fact that it is done. It isn’t so much that we can anticipate all that God may ask us to be or to do when we decide to follow Him, but that we submit to Him when He does ask us to be or do particular things.

Paul’s version of Jesus’ call is to transformation. This is really the same thing as repentance. While we can logically tease apart the difference between the two concepts, they are in reality the same. If we have submitted to God, we are being and will be transformed. The only way to be transformed is to return to, and submit to God. Salvation is not primarily an event, but a process, and returning to how we were made to be.

In some discussions of salvation history, we talk about “now and not yet” to describe our living in God now, but looking forward to our eventual complete restoration to and with Him in the future. Salvation can be described as a now and not yet concept, but the not yet does not invalidate the now in which we live in a submissive relationship with God. It is important to understand that we are not saved by living in a relationship with God, nor are we placed in a relationship with God by being saved. The two concepts are identical. We cannot be saved and yet not have a relationship with God, and we cannot have that relationship without at the same time being saved. They are the same; they are different ways of describing identical ideas.

It is important to note that the now does not invalidate the not yet. The history of time is moving toward a completion in which God’s plan for the Creation will be finished or in which it will be returned to its original state. It is this ultimate state that is not yet. But the idea of not yet embodies some uncertainty. If we are not saved yet, is it possible that we may at some point be unsaved? I think that possibility is entirely possible given the history of God’s working in the world. We know that God’s promises to Israel included a not yet clause. Normally the formula is similar to “I will be your God, and you will be my people if you keep the commandments that I have given you today. If you don’t keep the commandments, I will remove you from before me.” These conditions are repeated so often through the Old Testament that it is hard to miss. We argue over God’s promises to Abraham and David, saying that God’s promises are always kept. What we fail to realize is that God’ promises include the conditions attached to them. While it is true that a descendent of David’s in on The Throne, it is also true that David did not have that in mind when he received the promise. The promise to have a king in Israel forever was conditional as God’s discussion with Solomon makes clear.

But the Old Testament is not the only place we find God’s conditions. We find passages similar to those found in the Old Testament in the New. For instance, Deuteronomy 28.1-2 says:

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” (NIV)

There is a similar passage in 1 John 1.7:

“…if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his son, purifies us from all sin.” (NIV)

The two passages carry the same ideas. If we submissively live with God, if we follow him, if we allow him to nurture and guide us, he will remain with us and allow us to remain with him. If we elect to follow our own desires, our own egos, our own rationalizations of what’s good for me, we separate ourselves from him, and he no longer lives with us. We are no longer ‘saved.’

This is not new theology; it has been evidenced by God from the very beginning. Adam and Eve were not thrown out of the Garden because they sinned, because they didn’t do something quite correctly. God removed them from him because they listened to someone other than God; they were no longer submissive to him. Their sin was not a “something” they did, it was an attitude they allowed to develop within themselves. When we no longer wish to live as God has made us to live, we separate ourselves from Him and we are lost, unsaved, cast away. The good news is that our God is merciful and we can come and go, apparently, a number of times. Well, until our hearts and minds become so seared, so calloused, that we can no longer see in Jesus the essence of God; we can no longer be enticed by the goodness of God to submit to him.

Salvation is not then, primarily an event. It is rather, a state of being, a state of living in which we submit ourselves to the leading of God, denying ourselves in order to be shaped by God and minister to his creation. Salvation really is Life, lived as we were created to live it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Radical Church

As learning to live out of the image of God transforms the way we live and see one another, it must also transform the way in which we do church. I come to worship fully cognizant of my relationship to and in God and therefore my worship becomes more personal and more relational. I not only worship God by myself, but within the community of believers with whom I share the image and relationship with God. Just as a more fully understand the real spiritual connection I have with God, I come to our assemblies with the same mind of God and I see my brothers and sisters as God sees them. I see them as a shepherd would; as sheep who need nurturing and safety. In a real sense, I join with God and our assemblies become opportunities for me to share Him with the others here, regardless of their station, their challenges, or their failings. I see them as God sees them, and my worship and our assembly becomes ministry to them.

Because I live my life in this same way, in recognition of my relationship with and to God, and I see others as God sees them, my worship and our assemblies are transformed from something particular done on a particular day, to an extension of my life in this world. The assembly becomes an opportunity to worship our God and encourage others in the faith. I become less concerned with what I want to see happen, the style of the activities, the form of our sharing together, and I become more concerned with enlarging and enhancing our mutual and one another’s life in and with God.

Our assemblies become a sharing of both the worship and presence of God, and a particular aspect of our life in community with one another. As community expands into other areas and days of our lives, it enhances and nurtures our joint worship of our God together. These people here are truly part of my community, my communion with God, and I approach them at assembly times as I would at other times. We become open with one another, and we learn to accept one another in worship as we do at other times. As a result, we allow ourselves to live even more in the image of God, lightening both our and others’ loads of life and church.

Life, our being, our selves, become consistent wherever we are, whatever we are doing, and with whoever we are with. Psychology tells us that people who can be themselves wherever they are, are the most contented people there are. Living through the image of God allows us to be who we are, and who we were made to be, and it allows us to live like Paul, content in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.

Natural Christianity

The previous post, Radical Christianity?, posited the idea that Christianity isn’t as radical as we sometimes want to make it seem. Rather, Christianity is the most natural and normative way to live since we are made in the image of God. If we can grasp the idea that it is this image in which we were made that actually defines both who we are, and the most natural drives and cares we have, we gain a different perspective on Christianity and the Christian life.

Christianity becomes not something strange to which we must convert people, but a natural way of living that frees us from chasing unnatural things, and allows us to share with others a way of life that satisfies, and a God that blesses those who can see the blessings. Rather than a God that seems to have lost control of humankind and who seeks to judge people if they don’t jump through the correct hoops, we see a God that made us, and we can see (and experience) ourselves as most contented and happy when we live in concert with the insight that God tries to give us about Him and us. Jesus’ life and words were a revelation of God, but they were also a revelation of how we were made to live. Living life becomes less an imitation of God, and more of living more fully who we are.

Paul urges Christians to imitate him as he imitates God, and so imitation of God is not a bad thing, but it is only a beginning point. Paul urges us to be transformed into the likeness of God so that we will know his will, and apply it without thinking about it. We see a progression from imitation to living in faith and experience. As we imitate God, we learn that we are most contented when living in the ways we see Jesus having lived, and we sense the satisfaction that the experience of this contentment gives us. We sense that this way of life is most natural for us.

Because we now live in the image in which we were created, it becomes natural to live it, and it becomes easier to tell others about it. We no longer need to depend on personal evangelism efforts, or academic debate, or logical reasoning, but we can express our hope and our experience from human perspectives, to humans who are missing the very thing that we live out of day to day. Evangelism becomes peer-to-peer example and discussion with those who are on this planet with us rather than brow-beating and debate winning. It is also in this context that we can be honest with ourselves and others, and admit that living out of the image of God is not always easy; it was not easy for Jesus. But it is the most rewarding and satisfying life that we have experienced.

As we live without having to perform, but rather being shaped over time, life becomes more positive, our outlook more outward, our behaviors and actions more focused on and considerate of others. We become less worried about ourselves and our stuff, less about getting ahead, and keeping up. We become content with where we are and yet can focus on addressing the injustices and challenges of people who are less well off than we are, and who don’t grasp the meaning of life as we do. We become truly free to live out of who we are, and that provides greater and greater freedom and satisfaction.

Now that’s radical.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Radical Christianity?

We hear a lot about radical Christianity these days. Whether from the Emergent church world, or from social religionists, people like Brueggemann, and others, we hear that true Christianity is radical – that it goes against the grain, against the status quo. If we really buy into Christianity, our lives would be counter-cultural. Sometimes we get the idea that if we were real Christians, we’d live in communes - maybe in the forest, dress like monks, and cease most interaction with those outside our community.

I know that is an extreme caricature, few people would advocate eliminating outside contact, and most don’t espouse communal living. Most advocates of this style of spiritual living aren’t arguing that you can’t work on Wall Street and be a Christian, but they do want us to think about others (and the environment) first, rather than buying the latest Lexus. The picture created is that true Christians have a different set of priorities, different views of what is important both eternally and in the present. And I think that’s a good thing – they are on to something. And so we paint a picture of Christianity being radical – almost alien – to ourselves, or to the way most people live.

While I can agree that Christianity does look different than what we normally see portrayed on TV, or perhaps even at the office, I’m not sure that real Christianity is that much a radical departure from who we are, nor is it alien to our human being. Rather, Christianity is a return to who we were made to be and as such, is completely “normal” for humans. Christianity isn’t as radical as we sometimes think it is, although I understand the idea of transformation. It’s just that I see that transformation as being the completion of a cycle rather than something entirely new.

Humans were designed, were originally made, to be the image of God. A rather simplistic explanation of this image bearing is that we are spiritual beings, being in that way different from all other creatures and like God. While that may be true, it does not go far enough. Bearing the image of God, as the created design for humans is the bearing of God’s character within us. We are like God – we bear His image – in that we hold within ourselves the drives and values that mirror God.

I will not argue that we have not become distracted, corrupted, lost in our humanness. But being lost – misguided – does not destroy the image that we bear at our core. It is generally understood that the happiest people on the planet are not those who are chasing the latest and greatest. It is not the famous and rich that are happy. Rather, those people who are most often said to be the most contented, the most well-adjusted, are those who are almost the opposite of the popular ones. These people don’t spend their time chasing stuff, or fame, or recognition. They generally are described with at least two characteristics: satisfaction with who they are and what they have, and giving spirits. The happiest humans it seems are not those that reflect the epitome of society we see on television. Rather, they are those who reflect what Christians know to be key attributes of God.

You will notice that these people are not necessarily Christians or particularly religious, but they are the most contented. This should not be surprising to us since they have somehow made contact with the image in which they were made. The transformation of people through the Spirit is a transformation that changes us from prideful, self-centered people into disciples that submit to others, that seek others’ benefit above our own, and who learn to be content with what God has given to us and made us to be. In short, Christian transformation is a return to that existence and view of life with which humans were created from the beginning.

In this sense, Christianity is anything but radical, it is not alien to humans. It is rather, the very expression of who we were created to be. It is not some artificial form of behavior, of doing church, of relationship building. It is rather, the most natural expression of life that we could find.

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