Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Closing Reflection for December 20th

This is the fourth Sunday in Advent, a period when the Christian world anticipates the coming of our God in human flesh as a child. It is important to remember that if we claim to embrace this child, we must also prepare to embrace his cross.

The reading for today is John 15.9-14:

Even as the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you: abide ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you.

This passage has been somewhat challenging for me as I am not sure that people can be commanded to love. We can command behaviors, and so I can command you take out the trash, or wash the car, or be nice to your sister. But I wonder if we can command character and worldview.

I know that we can say the words, "I command you to love" and we can make loving your neighbor a requirement. Indeed, Jesus in this passage does just that. It seems though that there must be more to this statement than we see on the page. If you act lovingly toward your neighbor because I have commanded you to do so, are you actually loving your neighbor? I suspect not. Rather, you are responding to command.

This becomes problematic when we read Paul and his explanation of why the Law didn't work for Israel. Among a couple other things, Paul makes it clear that Israel sought salvation – thought they could secure it – by abiding by the law's dictates. Paul says they were wasting their time because they failed to embody the expectations of the principles behind the Law. Israel had been commanded to do things – even to love their neighbor – and had attempted to do so by keeping the Law. According to Paul, Israel failed because their hearts weren't right even though they may have done the "right things." Israel didn't love God even though they accomplished the demands of the Law.

If folks comply with rules because they are commanded to do so, they do not live according to the real expectations of the command. In short, they aren't loving their neighbor, they are assuaging a god. That isn't what God is after.

Jesus in this passage says if we love him, we will keep his commands, and that we will know that we love him if we find ourselves keeping those commands. It is imperative that we understand the relationship here. While we can learn loving behavior by practicing, just as a child can learn not to run into the road because mom says not to, the goal is that our behaviors arise from the love we already have – that we have nurtured and have allowed God to nurture within us. This is mature behavior just as adults don't run into the street because they know the danger of so doing – not because they have been commanded not to.

Jesus' command here is less a command and more an urging or an invitation to live freely. Verse 11 tells us that Jesus wants us to have complete joy. Loving, and living as God would live, is the most freeing way to live, and will result in joy for the mature Christian. Mature Christians though don't love because they have been commanded to love. Rather, they love because they can do nothing else. They have experienced life in and with God, and they allow themselves to be transformed into the likeness in which they were made.

One last illustration. It is easy for me to tell a husband that he must love his wife, and even suggest ways of showing that love to his wife. But the suggested ways are not the goal – love is the goal. No matter how many times the husband performs a suggested behavior, if he doesn't love his wife first, she will know and the behavior becomes wasted. I can tell a husband he must love his wife, I can tell him that if he doesn't, she will leave, and I can assign tasks to demonstrate his love for her. But I cannot create or force that love by commanding it. That love must come from within the husband and the same is true for Christian love. We can be commanded to love, but we cannot be made to love, and that is an important distinction and is at the core of this passage.

We know that we love God because we do the things he has told us to do. It isn't that doing the specific things give rise to love, but rather that we do the specific things because we love. Our lives are evidence of the love that already exists. That love cannot be commanded in any effective sense because commanded love isn't love.

The challenge is to determine by ourselves for ourselves why we do things. If we do them because we have been commanded to do them, we either remain children or we misapprehend the will of God. Honest examination of our motivations is important to understanding where we are, and our real relationship with God.

Why do you do what you do? Because someone has commanded you to do them, or because you have been transformed?


Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent

Advent is that season marked by the four Sundays prior to Christmas (in the Western tradition). Normally associated with the coming of Christmas, the season can quickly lose its significance amidst the hubbub of the holiday season. Just as our larger society – and we too – allow the glitter, social, and commercial aspects of Christmas to overshadow the central spiritual aspects of the holy day, Advent has itself become more of a festive season, looking to a naturally exuberant birth of a new child. Advent though isn't all anticipatory of a celebratory birth but has mixed with it both the anticipation of the Second Coming, and somber reflection and self examination.

Only the first reading (Jeremiah 33:14-16) for the First Sunday of Advent (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C) speaks to the birth of Jesus, doing so as the familiar Branch of David. Even this reading expands the purpose of this birth to include justice and righteousness and the enduring provision of someone to sit on the throne of Israel. In this prophecy of the coming of Jesus we begin to grasp something larger than simply a baby being born. No, there is reason behind this coming and while we aren't told specifically, there are inherent warnings and expectations for those who would look forward to this birth. This coming will establish a King who will rule with justice and righteousness both good things for the people of Israel and the people of God. The implication is one of salvation, but the flip side of salvation is judgment and punishment for those who do not support justice and righteousness.

The second and third readings (Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13) begin a more plainly self-reflective theme for the season. The Psalm passage is very clear that the writer wants to be found as one of those "…who wait for you…" comparing himself with those who are "…wantonly treacherous." The psalmist asks to be forgiven and then led in the ways of the Lord. During this period of Advent, we are called to remember the steadfast love of God and at the same time, commit ourselves to learning His ways.

The Thessalonian passage continues the theme of learning the ways of God with Paul wanting to supply "what is lacking" in the faith of his readers and his prayer that God will increase their capacity for love for all people. This passage ends with looking toward the next coming of Jesus at which time their hearts will be blameless and they will be holy before God. It is important to Paul that his readers conform their hearts and minds to the love of God so that they will be ready when Jesus comes back.

The fourth reading (Luke 21:25-36) is one of warning and encouragement; one that calls the readers to examine themselves, to make sure they are ready, to make sure they are awake. This reading is the most strident of the readings for the first Sunday and is the one which most clearly demonstrates that Advent is not just a season of birth announcements and celebration. There is a reason this birth is coming and we are in danger of deluding ourselves and those around us if we fail to consider the reason behind this coming and all the comings (past and present) of our God.

Epiphany (January 6th) is often called "Little Christmas" because it too celebrates and recalls the revealing of Jesus in the world. Advent is likewise called "Little Lent" because it calls us to reflect on the purpose of this coming, on our preparation to receive this coming, and our call to live in this coming. To live in this coming is to receive the gift of a Savior-child with all of His demands for self-denial and love for others. If Jesus has come to save and relieve, we accept this coming as our charge to bless and soothe those around us as we live in His life.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Encouragement

This Youtube video in entitled "encouragement" for obvious reasons. Published by the Foundation for Better Life, the idea is that we should encourage others so that we can all have better lives. So far so good, but there are other nuances in this commercial that may be more instructive for believers. The video shows a small boy plunking out "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on a concert grand piano. Clearly he isn't supposed to be on stage in front of this black tie crowd. The crowd is nonplussed and somewhat incredulous that this kid would have dared to do this. After all, this isn't what they've paid to see and hear. Perhaps they have been hoodwinked and they don't like it.

The maestro strides on stage, coming up behind the kid who is still plunking. Reaching around the boy, the maestro says "keeping playing" takes up the tune. The maestro's hands embellish and create a masterpiece of music dependent on and using the simple tones as the structure around which the now grander music is received with wonder and applause by the audience. The audience at first only sees the boy, but their eyes are opened and they come to see the magnificence of the greater artist.

Encouragement, yes, and a picture of grace as well. Can you see God in this commercial? As we incompletely attempt to live His life in our life we are often seen as amateurs, as children trying to do something that only those more capable can do. We try but we speak and behave amiss as we plunk out our tune. Others may think we imperfect, that we don't know what we're doing. And then, in the midst of our stumbling, bumbling attempts to play the tune we have heard before and which is in our minds, God comes and through us – building on our imperfect attempts – creates a masterpiece of intricate and beautiful music for the world to enjoy.

Which are we? Do we see others who are not as pretty, not as polished, not as capable trying to plunk out the Christian life as we come to expect more sure performance, more finesse in living this life? Can we see God working through and with them? How do we see ourselves when we don't think we're doing well, when we think others don't appreciate us? Can we trust that as we plunk out our tune as best we can, God is around us creating a wonderful concert for those that have eyes to see and who receive our lives as ministries to them?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Purpose of the Church?

In most Evangelical circles, I suspect the initial answer to the question in the title would be “preach the Gospel.” After that though, we might hear someone offer the alternative of “relieve suffering.” While I suspect that the real answer is somewhere in the middle where both the spreading (not necessarily preaching as we understand it) of the Gospel, and relief of suffering together make up the mission – or the purpose of the church.

It is true that the disciples were told to preach the Gospel, and Paul was specifically selected as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, and either congregations or other Apostles sent other men to preach and establish the church throughout the known world. Preaching then is clearly a part of the church’s purpose.

Preaching though is only a part, and cannot be said to be the primary purpose of the church. When Jesus told us what his mission was, he said it was to “proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, preaching relief to people.” After convincing a new group of people of Jesus’ Messiahship, he then moved to teaching and urging transformation. Was this transformation the production of more preachers or was it something else? It was clearly something different than equipping preachers. Paul’s teaching of transformation contained two aspects. The first is a complete submission to God, and the second grew out of that submission. This second was the development of God character and the practice of blessing those who were on the fringes of society.

We are challenged in fact in at least one place where we are told that it isn’t sufficient to say “go and be filled.” No, that simply won’t do. We must feed those with whom we come in contact. James tells us that pure religion isn’t preaching, but caring for widows and orphans. Good thoughts toward those less fortunate than ourselves isn’t proof of faith, but meeting with them, touching them, feeding them. These are proof of faith. The fruit of the Spirit do not include oratory skills, debate techniques, or even book knowledge, but love, kindness, and compassion. This has always been so. Micah tells us what God wants from his people: mercy, justice, and humility. Israel wasn’t castigated because she lacked preachers, but because she lacked leaders who trained her people in the finer arts of giving of self to others.

How then is it that we pay more attention to developing and sending preachers rather than helping others in need? Why do we build edifices to showcase oratory and allow us to practice worship, and yet short change the care of the less fortunate? Worship, according to God, is not what we call corporate worship but rather lives given in service to others. Somebody has said that this is our spiritual act of worship. This serving of others is, after all the core meaning of ministry.

We are told that we need worship edifices to draw people to God, but God seems to think that his people, shining light in a dark and broken world by giving to others will draw people to him. In fact, our own studies validate this truth. Why do people come to God, and why do they stay with a group of people? Because they see Jesus, and they connect with others who reflect him.

Can people be brought to God through debate? Absolutely. Paul used that art to good advantage to make an opening. Then he instructed his churches to love people in the midst of this dirty world. Oddly enough, Jesus did the same. He would skirmish with the Pharisees, but revert to actions that cared for people. Jesus tells us that we can tell he is Messiah because of the works he does. This has less to do with the flash-bang aspects of his works than it does the healing and compassion demonstrated in them.

What will it take to get God’s people out of our comfortable buildings with multiple staff that command the vast majority of our wealth, and instead put that same wealth directly into helping others who are less fortunate than ourselves? When will we learn that participation in ministry isn’t about Christmas programs but about the actual serving of others? Church work is fun – and clean and safe. It is also done for those who are themselves clean and safe. Are we growing Christians who expect professionally done “worship” services, or are we growing Christians who worship God through their lives, through getting dirty with people in the messy parts of this world?

This ministry to others is important in good times, but becomes even more critical in economic down times. Should we be investing in worship facilities and staff for our comfort, should we be creating more preachers, or should we be directing more and more of our wealth to those who have none? When it comes to being God’s people in our community and the world, which of these activities should take priority? Which of these would Jesus urge us to do more and more?

I support more ministry to people who are in need rather than more ministry to us. Organizations such as World Concern which is primarily a relief organization, but whose work results directly and intentionally in more followers of the Christian God. These people, and others like them in other relief organizations put their transformed lives to work with the poorest of the world’s poor and oppressed. In our own backyard, we might select the Albuquerque Christian Children’s Home or the Rescue Mission. Both of these intentionally and directly provide relief to people on the fringe of our society, daily directly affecting the welfare of children and homeless people, pointing them to that same Christian God through compassionate and faithful modeling of Spirit-filled lives.

Let’s help them continue to impact the world and our community for God.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Luke 22.39-46, concluded

...continued....
This leads us to a second instructive aspect of this text. Jesus urges the disciples to stay awake and pray that they not fall into temptation. Then he moves away from them, leaving them to pray. What happens when the physical Jesus leaves their presence? When they lose sight of him, and they can no longer hear his voice, the disciples fall asleep. Rather than praying that God keep them from temptation, they succumb to it. Apparently they have full stomachs and they are tired and so taking a short nap while Jesus is off doing whatever it is he’s doing makes sense. The problem is that napping is not what Jesus had asked them to do, and it isn’t what he asks us to do. The disciples are to remain in prayer even when it is not apparent that Jesus is around. So are we. Scripture asks us in another place, “will God find faith on the earth when he returns,” asked in the context of prayer. Separate from whether prayer “works,” prayer is an indicator of our faith. If we believe there is a God out there; if we believe he hears and responds to us, the expectation is that we will speak with him.

Jesus asked his disciples to pray that they not fall into temptation. This is another way of wording Jesus’ own prayer that the will of the Father be done rather than his own. Praying not to fall into temptation is essentially the same as praying to be in the center of God’s will even if it doesn’t look like that is the place we want or should be. Later in the evening and after a short show of bravado and violence, the disciples are going to abandon Jesus to the arresting mob. They will all run, one even losing his clothes. True enough, some will follow from a distance and witness the evening’s and early morning’s trials. But one of those will end up denying any association with Jesus three times with increasing frustration and anger.

It is important here to note that he does not tell them to pray for what they want or even for the salvation of the world, but that they not fall into temptation. Our prayer is primarily to be the same. While we are encouraged in other passages to ask for what we want, that wanting must yield to the will of God. It is critical that we understand the difference between being in the will of God and God actively willing whatever is befalling us at the moment. Primarily the will of God is summed up in Micah 6.8 – we are to be people who love (extending) mercy, who act justly (toward others), and who walk humbly with God (even when we don’t quite get it). When we have allowed ourselves to be transformed, we can see more clearly the will of God but even if we can’t, we rest in the belief – the knowledge – that God knows what he’s doing. We avoid the temptation of judging God and we live in his will and presence.

The example of Jesus in this passage provides us a window into the way of life for a God follower. We are called to works of goodness, we are called to tell others of God, but our primary calling is to remain in the will of God even when it may seem that he isn’t listening or even there. Our ability to and habit of prayer are intended to keep us in step with God and they are direct indicators of our faith in his existence and his faithfulness to us.

Luke 22.39-46

This passage recounts our Lord’s agony in the garden. Having left his disciples in the garden with instructions to pray, he has moved away from them to speak with his Father. He returns at one point to find the disciples sleeping rather than praying, and he urges them to pray that they not fall into temptation. His own prayer takes the form of pleading, of searching, that there could be found some way that he would not need to endure the crucifixion. His last comment on the topic though, is that it should be the Father’s will that takes precedence rather than his own.

There are two aspects of this passage which are instructive for us. The first is Jesus’ agony over the Father’s will. It is clear that Jesus does not want to go through being scourged and killed, and he is in agony or distress over his immediate future. Despite having come to this world knowing this was intended, despite sharing in the divine essence and will, despite knowing he would return to the Father, Jesus asks that the plan as it now appeared could be changed. Even in the midst of his inner turmoil, Jesus places his will – his desires – his fears, to the will of his Father.

In some aspects, this reminds us of David’s all night vigils for Bathsheba’s son. In sackcloth and ashes, emptying his emotional and physical reserves, David begs that God’s mercy would prevail and the child would live. After the child dies, David brushes off the dirt from the floor, gets up, takes a bath, and gets on with his life. David had an intense desire to have that cup removed from him, but accepted the judgment of God when it came.

In this passage, Jesus behaves similarly. As long as there was some chance of changing the plan, he would pray and seek the face of God, but when the answer came, he submitted himself to what the Father wanted. This is instructive for us as followers of God. We are called primarily to submit ourselves to the will of God, even if that takes us through agony and seeming abandonment. Scripture intimates unbounded blessing for God’s followers and many people attract masses of followers offering the riches of God in exchange for faithful performance. It is almost as if Scripture has somehow lost touch with reality in a fallen world. We seem to have erased those parts of Scripture that just as forcefully intimate hardship not just because we are human, but because of the faith we proclaim.

If we are to minister to people who subsist in garbage dumps, we (well, someone) are going to have to wade into the dump. If we are going to care for people who have been abused and abandoned, we are going to have to take the risk of being insulted and challenged. If we are going to run an AIDS shelter – or an H1N1 clinic, we will need to accept the risk inherent in those actions. If we are going to live and love in this world, there are risks of doing so. People around us need caring human interaction. Jesus touched those who were hurting and those who had physical illnesses. If we are going to touch them, we have to be with them.

In some cases (although not nearly as often as we might expect), aid workers contract various illnesses, suffer their ravages, and die. Sometimes people who reach out to others are killed by those they seek to help.

In other cases, God-followers seem to fall victim to the vagaries of life. Some contract rapid moving cancers, some are shot by home invaders, some are killed by drunk drivers, some mothers lose children before they are born and some parents lose children after enjoying them for what seems an all too short life. These instances engender questions of why, of the goodness of God, of all the trite promises we express and receive about the blessings of God. How can these things be if God loves us?

It is at precisely this point that our commitment to the will of God is tested most fully. The problem we often have is that we confuse the expectation. Just as Jesus did not want to endure the cross, we are not expected to simply brush off the tragedies of life as though we are unbothered by them, as though we do not have an investment in others, as though we do not care about this life. The key to learning from the passion of our savior is not the specific will of God in any case, but Jesus’ and our willingness to trust God through the hurt, shock, denial, and wondering of whatever we endure. We need not wear fake smiles, throw parties in the midst of loss, or pretend as though everything that happens is alright with us. Jesus did not so act and we are not expected to either.
...to be continued......

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Balloon Fiesta Glow



Albuquerque's 2009 Balloon Fiesta came to an end this morning with winds too high for the mass ascension. Last evening's winds were also too high to conduct the Glow, but there were about twenty balloons that inflated before the winds proved too much. Here are some of the brave balloons being inflated. Had a good time with Ann, Cindy and Malia, Zach, Misty, and Sharon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Great Communion

This past Sunday there occurred in Albuquerque a historic event. Oh, not quite as historic as putting people on the moon, or even overhauling the medical system in the most prosperous country on the planet, but historic in a minor sort of way. At three o'clock in the afternoon, and in loose cooperation with multiple other venues around the world, there was assembled members of three of the denominations originating in the American Restoration Movement. This is not the first time various members have "crossed the aisle" to worship with others, but it was the first worldwide intentional such undertaking.
At the Montgomery Church of Christ, members and clergy of the Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ assembled for the express purpose of sharing communion with one another. The auditorium was comfortably full (estimates range from low-500s to about 600 attendees) when the service began with a review of Restoration Movement history by the event coordinator and an invocation by one of Montgomery's members. From there, the communion service unfolded with a mixed vocal choir, a Christian Church bell choir, and various clergy (male and female) from area churches. Congregational a capella singing was appreciated by all in attendance with one Disciples pastor opining that "you sing much better than Disciples!"
The communion itself came amidst a series of textual readings, and included multiple communion stations around the auditorium. At those stations, each with two servers, the congregation received communion from members of other traditions. There were more than a few tearful eyes during the service.
Comments during, following, and since have all been positive. More than one person was heard to say "I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime," and "we need to do this again - every year." Others expressed hopes of further joint efforts such as Christmas and Easter services. Perhaps the best indicator of the spirit of the day was that many people remained after the service for an hour or more to talk while enjoying cookies and other refreshments.
The afternoon was a wonderful chance to meet with other Christians with whom we seldom have "official" exchanges, but with whom we share a common religious heritage. While I'm not one to wait until someone official tells me I can fellowship others (I don't have a problem meeting with just about any Christian denomination), I do hope that this event results in broader acceptance of others with whom we doctrinally disagree over secondary questions.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Belief in....2

On the same page (180) of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, the author illustrates his earlier point by stating "In Christian speech a witness is not a reporter. The mother who talks to her child of Christ does not simply pass on what she has heard, she speaks about what she knows, the Word of Life."

This statement has a myriad of implications for faith and for faith communities. We can only get one another to this point if we move beyond the expectation of learning objective facts of Scripture, and into the pursuit of knowing God; of experiencing and seeing His working in the world. If the church is losing members, it isn't because we can't teach facts, it isn't because we can't create ministry opportunities, it isn't because people can't connect with others. It is because we do not encourage and expect one another to know God past the objective events of history.

I am not talking about emotional stories in sermons, or even well-crafted worship services that move us to worship God or bring us into His presence. Those are fine as far as they go, but they are not sufficient. The church has done these things for two thousand years and yet we continue to lose converts and our own children. We must be a people that knows God and knows how to witness to what we have seen and heard to those we seek to teach.

How do parents teach their children about God, about faith, about what they know? How do preachers and teachers reveal the essence of our faith to their hearers? Beyond this last question, how do we select those we allow to teach those in our faith communities, including our children? What do we want them taught? What expectations do we set for our teachers and preachers collectively, and for our mentors personally? It is more important we select those who know God rather than those who simply volunteer to teach facts.

Passion is important, but it must be shaped by maturity and molded by having experienced God. Our teachers must be those who have a personal rather than institutional need to tell the Story. Their need arising as a "well of living water" from within them rather than a wanting to teach, wanting to lead, wanting to be selected. As communities of faith, we owe it to one another to insist on teaching and preaching that reveals God from a life of experience - teaching that instructs in the Life of God rather than simple textual parsing or memorizing of historical facts.

Belief in....

Am reading "The Spirit of Early Christian Thought" by Wilken. This is a very enjoyable read that seeks to describe the development of Christian dogmatic belief. There are two valuable passages on page 180. This post refers to the first, which reads ""It is...the things believed, not the act of believing them, which is peculiar to religion...." (quoting John Henry Newman).

Faith isn't simply believing that something happened; that someone lived. Rather faith is believing the precepts, the implications, the values of the thing believed in. That last word is critical in understanding faith. We don't simply believe Jesus lived; we believe in the life He lived, the message he brought. We don't simply believe that we have memorized the message He brought - we actually believe it, we own it, it transforms us, it becomes us.

In this way, the Christian faith is not a thing to be learned from a distance, but a way of life to be entered. Faith isn't the recitation of a creed (although creeds can be helpful), but is the embodiment of that creed and the message of the things accepted in the creed. This is why we can say "faith without works is dead," or again, need reminding that the fruit of the Spirit is love. If we say we believe and yet don't live as Jesus lived, there is real question concerning the reality - the validity - of our faith. If we do not enter the faith life with our eyes, our hearts, our minds looking toward identity with God, we enter something less than that to which we are called.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Convicted Civility

Listening to Heard on Campus (available through iTunes) this week, the concept of convicted civility was mentioned to characterize the way in which committed Christians are supposed to view people of other faiths or no faith. As part of a discussion about Christian cross-denominational engagement of culture, the idea in such dialogue is not to abandon – or to ask others to abandon – the central tenets of yours or their faith. Rather, Christians are encouraged to own their faith and yet engage in dialogue with others without condemning or castigating others.

It seems convicted civility is an excellent way to characterize the way Christians are called to engage non-Christians in discussions of faith, culture, and policy. This stands in stark contrast to some “calls to arms” we often hear from folks that often demonstrate textual knowledge but precious little understanding of the Faith as we are called to live it. While it is true that we can find such street corner haranguing in Scripture – Jonah comes to mind. But before we too quickly seize on Jonah as an example of this type of preaching, let us remember that Jonah had an attitude problem that needed correcting. Rather than Jonah being an example of God’s preferred approach to spreading His word, the story ends with a reminder of God’s care and concern for all people.

As an alternative model, we can consider Paul’s interaction with the Athenians. As we have the story, Paul does not stand in the middle of the Areopagus and condemn the Athenians. No, rather he engages them where they are – using aspects of their religious traditions as entrĂ©es to spiritual discussions. Paul does not abandon his understanding of the faith, but he engages non-believers on their terms and where they are.

Convicted civility also seems to be line with the character suggested by the lists of gifts of the Spirit we find in Scripture. Especially germane are goodness, patience, humility, and kindness. People we are told are generally attracted to good people, and relationships formed with good people are stronger than those based on intellectual arguments and fear-based theological premises.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Passing Her Up

We have just returned from Pepperdine where one of the treats is the few thousand folks singing a capella in the fieldhouse at the evening keynote. The fieldhouse at Pepperdine is a standard college gym with wooden bleachers on two sides and a wide main floor. During the evening events, it is common for folks to come in at various times between the hour-long pre-keynote singing session, or during the keynote hour, while the crowd continues to sing much like a church service. It was during this period of singing that a few middle-aged and older women came in, and having decided where they were going to sit, turned into the bleachers below me and headed up.

One of these ladies had some not inconsiderable trouble with one of her legs - it just didn't seem to want to lift her foot over the next higher bleacher level. Her foot would hit the seat and she would resort to climbing the bleachers on all fours. It didn't take her long to reach my fourth or fifth-level and I reached out my hand to help steady her. She grabbed hold, seemingly appreciatively, and continued to wrestle that foot further up. I was able to help her to the next level, and when my arm had reached its limit, another hand came from above me, took her arm, and helped her further. And then another, and another until she reached her friends. All of this seemed spontaneous, as though helping this lady was the most natural thing for this now cooperating organism of multiple people. It seemed and still does seem that we could not have not helped her with her climb.

It seems that this is exactly the sort of organism into which the church is called to transform. What might happen if we simply instinctively reached out to help each other with our climbs, passing one another and being passed up closer to our God? All too often we are too busy or too disinterested or too distracted to help one another. Sometimes we want to question whether someone needs our help and ever so slightly our defenses come up to keep us from being taken advantage of; of being made the patsy. This kind of living that remains unaware or uninterested in the troubles of others keeps us from simply and beautifully reacting as one for the sake of one.

Do you instinctively reach out to help others or do you question their legitimate need? What might your world look like if we could lose the tendency to protect self and simply aid others?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Rejoicing Over the Defeat of the Egyptians

I have come to enjoy APM's Speaking of Faith series. Here's another little gem from another of their podcasts...

We all know the story of the Exodus, the crossing of the split-apart Red Sea on dry ground. The climax of that story comes when the Egyptian Army is engulfed and destroyed by the sea being released to collapse back upon itself.

There is apparently a Midrashic story that says at the moment the Egyptian army was engulfed and it was clearly to be destroyed, that the angels in Heaven began singing and praising God for His deliverance of Israel. But God, instead of letting the praise continue, held up His hand and stopped the angels' singing.

Why would He do that? The reason, given in the Midrash, is that God does not want rejoicing when creatures, made by His hands and at His command, suffer as did the Egyptians. I don't know if the Midrash says God sorrowed over their deaths, but He did not rejoice over it. God's value, God's care for the Creation is not diminished by the Creation's faults.

I find it interesting and somewhat arresting that we find this story in a Jewish relgious corpus. But it isn't a unique concept for the Jewish people. I have previously brought a very moving prayer to your attention, written by Holocaust survivor, that seeks blessings on enemies because of the good that came of the horror he suffered. You can find that prayer here: http://robersonblog.blogspot.com/2006/05/renovation.html

This reminds me of a story in Winner's book about one of her friend's fathers. When asked what was the most important thing in life, his response was "to learn forgiveness" (or something like that - I don't have the book in front of me). Winner says that she had asked many people this same question and all had had to think, and then when answering would say two or more different things as though they wern't sure. Contrastingly, this man answered immediately and definitively - learning to forgive was the most important thing in the world.

From where did this notion of his come? How did he come to pick this virtue, and how had he come to own it so surely? The same way that prayer writer did; this man too, was a Holocaust survivor. Perhaps for his own sanity, perhaps because he had to, perhaps because he had come to know God through the suffering of the Holocaust, he had come to realize the same truth.

In forgiving - in real forgiving - it seems there is no room for rejoicing over your foe's defeat. There is only room for forgiveness.

How are you doing with that?

If you haven't yet found Speaking of Faith, their podcasts are available through iTunes. Highly recommended.

Rumi's Reminder

Listiening to a Speaking of Faith podcast on Rumi, the following story was told:

There is a statement in the Quran that goes something like this: "I have given you the reminder, and I will protect it." Spoken by God, this statement is routinely applied to the Quran itself. God has given us the Quran, and He will protect the Quran. One day, Rumi was sitting with his students/friends, and he recited this standard interpretation of the Quran statement. Then he said, while that is all well and good, there is another way to understand the phrase. The Reminder in Rumi's version, is the desire to know God. 

In Islam apparently, there is no Original Sin, but rather a humanity that forgets who they and God are. The Rumi version of our passage addresses that theological point by tying together our forgetfulness, and God's implanting in us a drive, an urge that He will ensure remains, to remember.

Hebrew Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God, and Orthodox theology tells us that we are indeed made in that image, that character, and that our journey is to develop that image into the likeness of God. That image results in there being something, however small and unintelligble, inside us that drives us to find God. Thomas Merton has said that we will "return to a place we've never been."

That is because God has placed in us the reminder, and we long to remember.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Perception

My wife and I were lying in bed the other night when she commented that the brightness of the moon coming through the window was a wonderful Spring event and provided a pleasant calming affect at bed time. As the window through which the light was coming was on my side of the bed, I observed that it wasn’t the moon, but a neighbor’s security light that was casting the radiance across our floor. At that, my wife said “then close the blind; it’s too bright and will keep me awake.”

There’s a saying in my profession and shared by many others that asserts that “perception is reality.” There are even people who specialize in perception management. This is the idea that what others think about you becomes true in their minds, and we are able to modify their behaviors toward us by adjusting the perceptions they have of us.

My wife’s mood and attitude changed solely on the basis of her perception of the source of the light flooding our bedroom. For the few minutes she thought the light was caused by a Spring moon, she enjoyed it and would have been content to sleep contentedly with the warm moon shining on us. When she realized the light was caused by a cold, stark, security light, the light immediately became an intrusion and a hindrance to peaceful slumber. One moment it was peaceful; the next is was almost jarring.

The light though hadn’t changed; it had always been caused by the neighbor’s security light. The only thing that did change was my wife’s perception of the light, illustrating that there is some truth in the saying that perception is reality as far as it defines our acceptance of and interaction with our surroundings.

This same phenomena is true regarding Christian understandings of God. If we read Scripture so that, or if we are trained to see God as an aloof task master who has created arbitrary hoops through which we are expected to jump in order to gain His acceptance, we align our religious thinking along those lines. Christian life becomes essentially a test to see if we can determine the correct rules, adhere to them, and convert others to the same rules. Worship activities become central because the rules for them can be measured and objectively assessed. We can convert others to our understanding of the rules and correct behaviors we tease from Scripture.

If we see God rather as a loving, giving God; if we read Scripture in such a way that we perceive God as a compassionate God who wants us with Him, we develop an understanding of reality that is quite different from the one we have just discussed. We see a God that isn’t wrapped up in finite rules, issuing test scenarios that we must negotiate correctly. We see a God whose compassion and intimate knowledge of us causes Him to accept us with our faults and with our wrong or immature understandings of Him and ourselves. Worship activities become almost a secondary response to such a God, following upon the reality of changed lives and transformed hearts. Our relationships with others become characterized by understanding and acceptance more than attempts to define and enforce divine rules.

As a result of this last perception of God, we are freed to join in God’s compassionate love for, and nurturing acceptance of ourselves and others. Only when we understand God as One who accepts us with our faults can we accept ourselves with those same faults. When we can, we no longer need to hide them or pretend we don’t have any failings. It is only after we have learned this about ourselves that we can most fully enter the lives of others and accept them where they are. Only then can we introduce them to a God that is loving rather than demanding. Only then can we pass to others a perception of God that is similarly freeing and life-giving.

However we perceive God, He does not change. Just as the light outside the window didn’t change, even so, the perception of it created its own reality. We can to a large degree shape our own reality based on our perception of God and what He is up to. That perceived reality will color our views of ourselves, others, and our calling.

How’s your perception?

Comment on Perception

The following is (most of) a comment I received in response to the last post on Perception. I expected that the expression of the concept in such an open manner would cause some folks to think that reality is whatever I happen to think it is at the moment, I elected to post my comments without explanatory notes. Well, one of my friends from another site makes that very observation. That's a good thing because it prompts me to address some of the limits of perception in response to his comment. Below in standard font are his comments, and in italics are my responses. This gentleman is kind and knowledgeable in Scripture; I have no reason to question his faith, salvation, or commitment to God or Scripture. It is apparent though, that we do see things a bit differently perhaps. Of course, regular readers of this blog won't find that surprising. 

“It appears that your "perception" of God and scripture is no different than many others. It may be different in wording or actual commitment levels but that is your interpretation of the Word. 

It almost appears as if you are saying that God accepts you, no matter how you live your life. Kind of the old, God loves me as I am, thing. However, that is a dangerous approach to spiritual truth when it come to Gods will for our lives. Not to mention that it is very difficult to support this view of Christianity with scripture.” 

I’m glad that you included that “almost,” because that is an accurate reflection of what I believe. It is that you can almost live your life however you want and God will accept you. We might posit that there are two kinds of sinners – those that did bad stuff before they were saved and now no longer do, and those that did bad stuff before they were saved and yet still do bad stuff. For the purposes of this discussion, it does not matter the relative severity of these behaviors; the answer remains the same – God will accept you if you attempt to follow Him. We all get things wrong and we all do things on purpose that are not in line with God-character. If I expect God to accept me, I must allow Him to accept you.

I do not believe it is difficult at all to support in Scripture. I would point first of all to 1 John, where we are told that we aren’t supposed to sin, but if we do, the blood of Christ covers us. Without getting into the background of 1 John, or a discussion of Gnosticism, that truth does support that there is really very little you can do to remove yourself from the acceptance of God.

That does not mean there is nothing you can do to separate yourself from God, but there are precious few things indeed.

“I appreciate people who are intelligent. I really do. I can't imagine having to live this life with people who can't participate in an intellectual conversation. I have tried. It doesn't work. I said all of that to set the stage for what I am about to say... You and I have mixed it up a couple of times on the [Deleted by HR to protect the guilty]. I have seen instances when "retranslation" of the bible is the only correct way to do things. I think some people are too smart for their own good.”

I try not to “retranslate” for grins and giggles, but rather extrapolate and interpret specific passages in light of the whole of Scripture and its description of God. I believe it is vitally important that we understand God (that is what we are called to) and then interpret Scripture in light of that understanding. I admit this must be a reflexive undertaking – read Scripture first, see the picture, and then re-read Scripture in light of that picture. It is true that I shy away from dogmatic applications of seemingly absolute passages. I shy away from them because they generally do not fit the rest of Scripture – or in many cases the context of the passages themselves.

“I do not know if I will ever understand how you, and others like you, reconcile your beliefs with scripture. God does love us and accept us as we are, but we are meant to change our life as we grow as a Christian. Knowledge is a wonderful thing. But it can be a two edged sword as well. Saying we believe in God isn't good enough. There actually has to be evidence of it in our lives.”

Oddly enough, it seems that we agree on this one. I whole-heartedly agree that simple knowledge isn’t enough. The expectation is that we evidence changed – no, transformed – lives. We are called to become like Christ, the fullness of God. That is precisely the reason I try to find God rather than distinct rules in Scripture. God is up to something broader than giving us a written code.

“There is actual sacrifice involved when we accept Christ as our savior. We should die to ourselves. We are not the same. It is not our life to live. We were redeemed with a price. That price was our Lord and Savior being beaten, humiliated, nailed to a cross, and His side pierced. He was killed for me and you. He earned and paid for our life. 

Your approach to life as a Christian, although it is very comforting, is completely wrong. Of course, that is just my opinion.” 

Since we agree to a large extent, I’m not sure how I can be completely wrong – assuming there is some correctness in your view. Perhaps we are both completely wrong, or maybe we simply have different emphases in our view of God. Maybe we’re both a bit right and a bit wrong.

“I have concern when reading your open dislike of accountability in the scriptures when it comes to marriage and homosexuality among others. Your opinion of abortion leaves some questions as well.”

I suspect that is because these are emotional trigger topics, and that I express myself differently than you. Perhaps I understand the question being asked differently. Maybe I see the solution to be based more on understanding God and the realities of existence, more so than on finding the applicable rule. I admit that sometimes I perceive the implications of Scripture differently than the more common view would allow, but I believe my understanding to be in line with Scripture.

That however, is not to say that I devalue Scripture, or that I don’t believe we are called to higher levels of existence and behavior. I try though, to live in that higher plain with the view that I see God has demonstrated time and again. That view is one that acknowledges that you and I are imperfect and will continue to be; that we do not understand God entirely; that despite our beliefs that we have it “right,” we probably don’t. The view of God in Scripture is one that does accept those who seek to follow Him, as they are. He then calls them to an imperfect, but transforming/transformed life that will itself be punctuated by failures.

Those that are separated from God are those who push Him away; those that have no love for the Light, who seek to further Darkness. Others, who seek after God even imperfectly (to greater or lesser degrees) are nurtured and accepted by God. I hope and believe that about me and I must hope and believe that about you. As a result, I must also hope and believe that about others even if they do stuff that I think is incompatible with Christian living.

Finally, I don’t have an open dislike of accountability. I do however find that God usually turns out to have a bit more grace and mercy than He does wrath. I simply try to extend that same grace and mercy to others and at the same time try to comport myself to what I understand to be the higher standard.

I believe my friend, that you and I are much closer than you perceive.

Blessings

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Man of Sorrows – Are You One?

Isaiah speaks of one who is a man of sorrows, and who is acquainted with grief. This phrase is often tied to Jesus' scourging and crucifixion. In fact, the notes in one of my study Bibles limit their commentary to these two closely-linked periods in the last days of Jesus' physical life. It seems though, that this phrase likely has a broader meaning including at least the disappointment and frustration experienced by Him as he moved to Jerusalem and lamented her reluctance to accept His welcome, shelter, and life. I suspect we could also extend the thought to Jesus' reaction to Martha and Mary after the death of Lazarus. Or perhaps when we're told that the people wander like sheep without a shepherd, we get a glimpse of the sorrow of God.

It also occurs to me that if we follow our God as we say we do, we also should be people of sorrow, and acquainted with grief. If not our own, surely that of others. I speak here not of the mourning with others or of sharing sorrows with a grieving widow, or a now childless parent, but of more mundane or perhaps all too often routine experiences of life.

I see people almost on a daily basis who are not happy, who are angry, who are afraid of various people and things. Couples who are arguing with one another and who can't seem to quit, or individuals who are so angry they push everyone else away. If these were normal ways of living I suppose it wouldn't be so bad. The problem though, is that people need people. Oh there are some that claim they don't, but that claim simply doesn't stand up to the evidence – or their desire to be alone is itself an accommodation to some underlying fear or hurt.

It can be frustrating to see people who so much want to be accepted, seemingly go out of their way to defend themselves and in so doing push those closest to them away. Causing further anger and frustration in those around them, they keep themselves imprisoned in their own frustration and isolation.

Scripture provides clear (OK, not so clear for those of us who like to major in minors, and argue over details) teaching on how to solve most of life's interpersonal (and intra-personal) strivings and hurts. It is simply to trust God – even if it looks like He doesn't know what He's doing, and live concerned primarily for others' well being. We are told in Scripture that God will set us free. This freedom is not just from the penalty of sin, or the demands of an ancient law. No, it is freedom from ourselves, from the need to look out for Number One; the freedom to give to others no matter the circumstances.

I used to phrase this freedom as "God has your back, now go do God stuff," but that isn't quite right. The most appropriate way to visualize this idea is to understand that as we mature, we actually come to see the world as God sees it. We cannot really, be overly concerned with ourselves because we know that the best approach to life is to focus on others – just as our God does.

Not surprisingly, modern psychology understands the same principles. Since our minds are created by God, it seems reasonable to expect that the findings of psychology (if not every interpretation of those findings) support the teaching of Scripture. Psychological dysfunction is largely due to some sort of defensive behavior and the world view underlying the behavior. That world view is often one that is based in fear of some sort. Fear of our safety, fear of being abandoned, fear of being made fun of, fear of being embarrassed.

Nor is it surprising that the psychological cures (other than medications, directly) for many if not most maladies include engaging with others, asserting your own needs, and changing thoughts and stories from those that keep us isolated to those that draw us into competent associations with others. These treatment aspects eventually lead to a world view that says "I'm safe, competent, and valuable," and that facilitates an understanding that I can acknowledge a hurt and yet let go of it at the same time. Psychology seeks to nurture the same sorts of people that Scripture describes – those who are free to both be themselves and allow others the right to be flawed people. Admitting and accepting my own failures and yours, and not letting them come between us is key in both psychological health and Christian faith.

God wishes for us this type of freedom, this type of world view, and it is frustrating and sorrow provoking to see folks who simply don't know or who remain so unsure of themselves and their world that they cannot grasp and follow through with simply letting go of their defensiveness. It becomes more sorrowful when we realize that we are not big enough to simply move them into brighter light, into a world that isn't so demeaning and mean.

A Man of Sorrows? Yes, that appellation fits both our God and His followers who see the world through His eyes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mudhouse Sabbath

Lauren Winner has written an appealing little book about how Judaism can influence Christian practice. Brought up Jewish, Winner has converted to Christianity. Her conversion though, hasn't wiped her memory of her Jewish background, or prevented her from determining where Jewish practice might well inform and deepen Christian practice. Written as a first-person account, the book isn't really biography as much as personal observation. One of her observations involves the Jewish use of a Mezuzah to mark a house or room as that of an observant Jew. She parlays that into re-using a junk sign affixed to her door to indicate to all passers-by that in her house lives a Christian.

What might happen if believers took their faith from inside their homes to the trim of their homes? Might it embolden us to live lives outside that are more Christ like? Might it help us to become less afraid or self-conscious about our faith when speaking in public - assuming we could do so without being belligerent about it?

Winner has some other twists worth reading in her little tome, and it would be worth your time to check it out.

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