Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas and the Gospel


The Gospel, Matthew tells us is at least in part that Jesus came to save his people from their sins. In most Evangelical circles this is the case and it is interpreted as a legal or juridical saving. Essentially, people have sins and the payment for those sins is Jesus coming.

Pretty short sighted if you ask me.


The context of verse 21 is the promise and directives to Joseph about what God is up to, and Joseph's responsibilities in that working. For some reason we miss the connection between this statement and the prophecy on which it is based. That prophecy, according to Matthew, does not use the name Jesus, but Immanuel. The implication is that Jesus will save his people from their sins by being God With Us. God has decided it was time to live with his people, and in so doing restore (save) them to full community with himself.


Being saved from sins has a number of connotations including the strictly juridical one. While it is true that we are "saved from our sins," the restoration of community with God is much farther reaching than that. In fact, the juridical view is essentially a consequence of having God elect to live with you.


There are others. Jesus tells us that his mission is to proclaim liberty to captives, sight for the blind, and setting at liberty the oppressed (Luke 4). We are saved from the sinful behavior of others; and we are set free from any perception that our flaws may make us something less than fully acceptable to God. To be saved from sins is to have a door open that others attempt to close because we are not "like them."


Jesus makes a few references to trees and fruit; that the fruit of a tree will reflect the quality of the tree. In making these sorts of comparisons, he draws our attention to the sorts of lives we live. For his hearers who considered themselves the people of God, these are challenges to live as though they actually understood their God. The attitude addressed here is the opposite of the Evangelical juridical one. Israel lived as though being the people of God was the entire point and that therefore they had it made. In the juridical sense, they were already selected and nothing could change that.


Jesus' comments about trees, fruit, wells, and water lead us to the conclusion that "saving us from our sins" includes as perhaps the most important point, saving us from a desire to live lives not in keeping with the God we claim to know.


"Saving us from our sins" then has a much more expansive import that includes God living with us, inviting us to live in community with him, a community characterized by mercy and grace among members, and members who want and who come to live lives of giving rather than getting. We are offered, literally, Heaven on Earth if we would just accept it.


The coming of God as human ushers in a worldview often missed by Evangelicals and other denominations. We often remember that we are "saved" by this baby, but we too often miss the invitation this child offers.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Freewheeling

Merton never disappoints. Here's an excerpt from "Love and Living," a collection of individual writings collected after his death in 1968:

"Life consists in learning to live on one's own, spontaneous, freewheeling; to do this one must recognize what is one's own—be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid."

This short passage is pregnant with meaning and spiritual insight (would we expect anything less?). Let's start with the last few words: "…make that offering valid." The offering of ourselves, of our lives is our calling. We offer ourselves to assist the re-creation of Creation; the reconciling of Man to God. The validity of our offering is measured in how closely we mirror the work of God; to what extent our motivations are based on knowing who we are rather than a slavish obedience to perceived external rules and expectations.

To have something to offer, we must know what or who it is we offer to the world. Do we understand who we are in God, or do we focus on our failures? Do we give too much credence to our being sinners and fail to own our very calling as God in the world? The only people who can most authentically give themselves are those who know and accept their own inadequacies and know that those shortcomings do not disqualify but rather enhance our abilities to minister in the world. Only those who are comfortable with knowing this about themselves can let go of them and fully give themselves to others.

As we live the life we are called to live, we do become more spontaneous and freewheeling. We need not spend time checking to make sure others will agree or appreciate who we are, our calling, or our motivations. This does not mean that we willy nilly insult others, but it does mean that we come to understand more fully what life is about; what the real priorities are; what the real work of God is.

Living in this way can be scary, especially if our focus on our calling has been on keeping the right rules or of doing church correctly. In fact, as long as we see "church" as it is normally practiced as the focus of our calling, we have not fully recognized who we are.

Want to live life in a freewheeling sort of way, or does that still seem too dangerous for you?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Anne Rice

The preacher this morning read a Facebook post from Anne Rice in which she says that she's quitting Christianity. Not God, not Jesus, just the troublesome, overly structured, overly restrictive, and often bigoted institution called Christianity.

Well Anne, welcome to the club.

In another Facebook post, Anne says she doesn't want to be anti-[fill in your favorite political hot potato] and apparently she thinks that at least some form of Christianity requires that she be anti-something. And she's right. Some otherwise fine Baptists apparently have no trouble telling the world that "God hates fags," and some Catholics don't think Protestants have a prayer.

We could go on. In my little denomination we have folks who are against any number of things and expect the rest of us to go along with them. The problem is that from my perspective, they're out to lunch. Whether it's what women can do in church, or what sorts of music can be used in worship, or what sorts of otherwise moral things can go on in church facilities, our little groups can often get wrapped around the "thou shall nots" a bit too tightly.

And so Anne, I welcome you to the post-Christianity group of Jesus followers.

While I don't know how Anne's dropping out is going to look in her life, it is important to note that acknowledging that ""church" is not necessarily the same as following Jesus" does not let one off the hook of being in the group of Jesus followers with all their mess. If we are Jesus followers, we are in the mess with all the other Jesus followers. Our job Anne isn't to write them off as though they're silly little people. Oh no – our job is to love them – even those folks who think God hates fags, or can't fathom drums in the church band.

You see Anne, if you're a Jesus follower, you have to love people – even the bigots. Oh you don't have to hold up signs with them; you can say you don't agree with them. But you have to love them. All of them, not just the ones that make us feel good about being around them.

Anne I would invite you to come visit the group of Jesus followers with whom I meet. Oh, I don't want to show off how smoothly they can perform church or that they have given up all those anti-somethings. I want to show you how broken and confused they can be and yet accept each other in that brokenness. Do they do this perfectly? Not by a long shot. But God has placed me with them and I love them because we have a common aim behind our human egos and mistaken ideas about God and His creation.

These people I believe bear the image of God and it is no small honor to be accepted among them.

So Anne, come on and drop out of Christianity with me.

But we can't drop out of Jesus' community of imperfect, frail, and oftentimes blundering followers.

Where’s the Church Building?

This past Saturday morning was spent at the Children's Home in Albuquerque. The summer clean up was in preparation for the two week nigh annual open house and barbeque at the home. This day there were about sixty people from a local congregation helping weed, move rock, and generally spruce up the entire campus. Great folks all, and I'm sure they were a bit sore come Sunday morning.

One of the people who came to help was a boy of about seven years who helped clear some of the larger weeds from a fallow section of the campus. As we worked on removing Russian Thistles, he said that tomorrow is church. Having sixty of his fellow church goers on campus, in turn assisting a Christian organization accomplish tasks too large for the staff to do by themselves, I observed that he was in church right now. Understandably, his retort was "where's the church building?"

As I was readying a short instruction on "church" and community, someone yelled that it was time for the group picture across campus and my interlocutor took off to have his picture taken. I guess pictures of such events are important but I missed the chance to broaden this young man's understanding of church as something more than Sunday morning meetings.

It occurs to me that even this well meaning group of Christians, who have elected to put their faith to work still struggle with teaching what church really is. Somehow this seven year old had gotten hold of the idea that church was done at a building on Sundays. I don't suppose he's much different than many adults who also seem to think that a building on Sunday morning is the place where the church does its thing.

This is a tragic occurrence because it results in an artificial and inaccurate understanding of our common faith. We can see this in major church splits when one side or the other will sue the opposing group for anything from the property, to the cash in the bank, to the parsonage. There are myriad reasons used to justify this behavior but one commonly used is that "we aren't suing brothers and sisters, we are suing the legal entity called the Main Street Church." It never dawns on them that this obfuscation doesn't excuse their behavior. This artificiality also allows us to argue over things because they have to do with the "church." At least one Baptist church of which I'm aware had an argument when they decided to add a drum set to the band. This apparently was going too far, changing the music from sacred to well, pedestrian. Not that anybody objected to drums per se – just not in "church" thank you very much. Christians go to church together on Sundays and then argue with and sue each other on Monday because apparently on Monday, we're not in "church."

In my own world this plays out in a number of ways – what women can and can't do in worship, what sorts of religious items can be on the stage, or even whether the praise team should have microphones and where they should sit or stand. All these discussions take on an air of more gravity because they have to do with "church." If we would learn that "church" isn't primarily Sunday morning, we might begin to get our priorities more in line with God and quit beating each other up because we've been wronged or think we might be.

Maybe.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I Love You Because God Loves Everybody

Barbara Brown Taylor remembers that explanation when she asked early in life why the Christians on campus kept saying they loved her. This is her reaction as recorded in An Altar in the World, "This may sound small, but I decided that was not enough for me. I did not want to be loved in general. I wanted to be loved in particular, as I was convinced God loved."

I think most people feel the same way. We want folks to love me, for me, not because some third party loves everybody. The problem is that all too often we behave as though we're doing something because God does it, or because God wants us to do it. That seems to me to miss the point of being Christian. We are called to be transformed into the likeness of God and that means that our behavior - our loving others - becomes more and more what we do because we love them. Eventually, our faith, our way of living is supposed to be ours in the fullest sense.

Taylor follows up immediately with this, "Plus, I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have." If we cannot see people as they are, in the midst of their lives, struggles, fears, and desires, how do we propose to see God in them? Yes, everyone is made in the image of God and so God is there to be seen, but his appearance changes depending on the particular incarnation with which we are confronted at any moment. Unless we are sensitive enough to incarnation, we cannot say that we really see God in it.

God doesn't love you because He loves people; He loves you because well, He loves you. If we are God followers, then that is why we love others - because our tranformation does not allow any other course.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hebrew Prophecy

While reading the Prologue to Walter Kaufmann's translation of Buber's I and Thou, I stumbled across this interesting little gem: "…Hebrew prophecy wasn't meant to be fulfilled." As one of his examples, he uses Jonah's story. While there are clearly prophecy's which are meant to be fulfilled, it is just as true that many prophecies of doom include an "unless clause." God provides an out because He doesn't want to follow through with the promise of doom.

The grace and patience of God, as Paul tells us, are intended to give us time to come to our senses. The care of God for his creation prompts Him to warn us time and again to return to Him. This is key, as Kaufmann points out. God is more interested in people who want to follow Him than in any particular ritual or religious practice. It isn't always critical to get the details "right," but wanting to follow God is critical – even if we do so imperfectly.

So, give yourself and others a break, and rest in the grace of God.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Leadership and God II

This post is in reply to a comment on a previous post. It's too long to fit a comment box, so I have made it it's own post.

There are a couple observations that I would make concerning Psalm 51 and Dale's writing. The first is that Dale is correct when he emphasizes that God is faithful. If Jesus promised that He and the Father would abide with and in the believer, then we believe they do - but it isn't two people, it is God through His Spirit that lives in you. Dale is also correct that we might take having the Spirit for granted. True, but this simply makes our point that we have the Spirit.

We do have examples of God seemingly abandoning various peoples. Revelation warns of congregations' lamp posts being removed, and Israel was apparently without God on a number of occasions. These eventualities though are the result of peoples' actions first - not God's. Israel lost focus of who she was made to be, and lost her character. So too with the congregations in Revelation.

When God "leaves" a people, He does not leave them....but waits for them. God may have "left" Israel, but He went with them into exile. In fact, it was He returning to them that resulted in Jesus arriving in Bethlehem. Paul says that God still waits - not just for Israel but for the world. The Temple Cleansing story uses a snippet of text from the Old Testament about God's house being a house of prayer. That snippet is actually a return-from-exile passage that applies not just to Israel but to the whole world. Even when oppressed by Rome, Israel was not without God at least she was not outside the (potential) grace of God.

Can we lose God? I think that is possible, but it requires a complete abandonment of Him by us. God does not, as Dale said, "get up on the wrong side of the bed" and decide to play with us. He has promised to be with us, and He will remain with us for a very long time - through thick and then unless we reject Him. And it takes a lot to reject Him apparently.

The possibility that we can reject God though does not mean that in our failings to live to our potential in any given moment, God withdraws from us as though He does not know that we are human; that He made us imperfect. The expectation of growth and our inconsistent movement in that direction are part and parcel of our maturing. I am convinced that if we got everything right the first time, we would not know what it is to suffer, to fail, to hurt. In short, we could not learn love - the giving of ourselves to others in as adequate a way as we can when we are humbled by our own failures. If this is how we grow, God does not abandon us as we do so.

An observation about basing theology on poetry: it's a risky thing to do. Let me illustrate by using another of David's sayings. David says he was born in sin, and many folks take that to mean that he was (and therefore we are) sinful from the moment of conception, but the language only indicates that David was born "in the midst of sin," deposited as it were in an environment of sin. Since he was born human, that is a logical conclusion, but there isn't anything in the text itself on which we can build a universal original sin argument. Similarly, Psalm 51 should be taken as a pleading to God, not necessarily a statement of likely potential. David is repenting and asking for grace here. While there is a potential that God would withdraw from him, this text says more about David's remorse and understanding of his plight before God than it does God's intent or leaning.

This psalm actually reinforces the point that God does not willy nilly leave us. The fact that David prays this prayer and lives to tell the tale is direct evidence that God did not leave him. God remained with David in this instance because of David's humility and desire to be with God. If we want to be with God; if that is the desire of our hearts, God remains with us even in our imperfections and failures to follow Him in every moment.

Does God turn His back on groups of people - nations or churches? The potential of course, is that He can and will if the people have abandoned Him. However, the implication in Scripture is that He may well remove His blessing from a nation or people, but He does not leave them. Clearly in Revelation God says He might take some lamp stands away and Israel suffered mightily under the Roman army around AD 70. But He caused Revelation to be written to those churches, wanting them to return to Him, and Paul indicates that God's delay in consummating the world is due to His grace in part, for Israel.

If God removes the "hedge of protection" from a group of people, the individuals suffer but this does not mean that God does not see them, does not hear their cries, ignores their pleas. Rather He sees and hears all their suffering and moves to refresh them when they return to Him. When God might do this with a congregation might well be when they as a group have forgotten their first love or have turned too inward rather than living as the blessing they are to be.

God then remains faithful even if we aren't, especially in the daily grind of trying to follow Him. The key is our heart's direction; the tenor of our lives. If we are moving in the right direction over all, the minor bumps do not cause God to flee from us but rather improve our chances of growing into Him.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Leadership and God

Nancy Ortberg is speaking on leadership on Thursday morning at Orange 2010 and has made a statement that I paraphrase here: "If we want people to move from poor to great, we have to be OK with them going through the messy steps between poor and great." Good observation but it isn't limited to leadership. It is just as valid within the Christian life. Too many of us suffer from the idea – even if it isn't directly stated – that we have to "be the best we can be" all the time or God leaves us. Some believe that if we "grieve the Holy Spirit," the Spirit leaves us and so we perceive our salvation and position with God as something that ebbs and flows if not comes and goes as we fail and then perform for the Creator.

Of course this is not the case as a bit of reflection will reveal. Paul urges us to "be transformed; to become like God." The use of "become" implies – no, demands – a process. A process then implies that we, even though with God, are still un-transformed and un-God like as we travel from immature to mature images of God. We are imperfect and God knows that; He does not expect perfection per se at any given moment. We are saved by the blood of Jesus not whether or not we ever mess things up.

Our God personifies Nancy's leadership principle, but as something much more personal and broad than simple leadership. If God died for us "while we were yet sinners," His patience continues to provide the grace space for us to learn, to fail, to be lifted up again on our journey into the Image in which we were made. Neither God nor His Spirit come and go as we stumble along; God has never behaved that way. In fact, when He sent Israel into exile, God went with them to Babylon. He did not abandon them. It is OK that we fail from time to time in our pursuit of the life we have been made to live.

God expects it; He knows you; His love extends His grace and patience in our failures.

Rest in that today and in the future when tempted to kick yourself or perform a bit better to make up for your failings.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Christendom’s Challenge

I am becoming increasingly convinced that Christendom's main problem is our penchant to separate church from life. We have allowed to develop a church separate from life and this is not the idea given in Scripture. The church, rightly understood is not institutional in Scripture but refers to the community of believers – who live lives characterized by the Spirit. Christians assemble for encouragement and worship, but the community is understood to exist at all times. As a result we have created rules for church life that do not reflect or only vaguely reflect the actual lives of church members.

I recently had a hallway conversation in which those involved all grew up in congregations that didn't observe Easter, but in which everyone in the pews did observe it. We all received new clothes, the women wore new hats, and church on Easter morning looked like a fashion show. While "the church" couldn't observe Easter – everyone in church did.

This duality between the church and those that make it up has resulted in any number of odd behaviors, especially but not exclusively in my denomination. We have sometimes vocal "experts in the law" concerning what is correct behavior in and for the church. Churches can't contribute to orphanages, but everyone in the church can send their money to an orphanage if they choose to do so. We can all individually support a missionary, but the church's money can't be used for that. All of us are going to observe Christmas, but we can't have poinsettias on the church's windows because "the church doesn't observe Christmas."

But it isn't just "low church" groups that suffer from this malady. High churches with their priest class who must be available to administer the sacraments suffer from the same problem. A simple communal meal demonstrating community and the faithfulness of God has grown into a highly scripted rite with special precautions for flakes of cracker and drips of wine.

The Roman Catholic Church has in recent years debated the appropriate style of "church music" even though their members listen to and better connect with various kinds of music. In my fellowship we worry about singing a capella in church and then drive home with the local Christian pop station on the radio.

Another ripe issue for both the Roman Catholic and my group of believers is "women's roles." We quickly acknowledge that women are indispensable with various skills at home, but we limit their practice of those skills "in church."

It is clear that we have missed the point. God wants a community, an economy rather than a group of club members who know the correct handshake, meet in a special place. and practice specifically church rites. Being saved and living the life of God is intended to be the primary result of our being in fellowship with God. The things we do when we are together are to be directly outgrowths of that community life, not completely divorced from it.

Until Christendom figures this out, we will continue to strain gnats and swallow camels, continue to tithe mint and cumin, and miss the weightier parts of being God people. This is our problem and is the single greatest failure of congregational and denominational leaders. We simply cannot allow our members or our church rules to continue to create artificial separations between church and life; between us and God.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Shepherds’ Sending 28 March 2010

The Shepherds' Sending this week was Matthew 21.12-16, the first half of which reads like this:

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers."

These two statements, "My house will be a house of prayer," and "you have made My house a den of thieves," did not simply stand on their own to those first hearers. Rather, when they heard them, there were two texts that flooded their minds. Taking the second first, it comes from Jeremiah 7:

"Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!'--only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel."

This passage gives a larger context to Jesus' statement. When I was growing up, we learned that the people in the Temple who were selling pigeons and what not were cheating their captive audience of pilgrims who needed to buy the right elements for their sacrifices. That's why, we were told, the phrase "den of thieves" was used. We can see though that while they may well have been cheating pilgrims, this statement is a statement of doom on those who should know God, who should know better how to live God-lives and yet who do not. There are two things which are repeatedly indicated as having special concern from God…worshiping Him only, and caring for other people. These are so closely intertwined that Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, answered with both Love God, and Love your neighbor. We cannot do one without the other. Jesus' hearers know this is a judgment on them and their reaction in the second half of our passage will make that clear.

"My house shall be a house of prayer" comes from Isaiah 56:

Thus says the LORD: "Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil." Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. "And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant--these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered."

The import in this chapter is not just a "house of prayer," but a house of prayer for all people, especially the social outcasts, the imperfect, the shunned, the sinner. God will bring not just the scattered people of Israel to Him, but other peoples as well – all as one people to His house of prayer.

Let's pick up our text where we left off:

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant, and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, "'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise'?"

They became "indignant." Seeing the healings God is doing among the outcasts, at hearing praise for His work from children, these religious, arrogant, and blind leaders have contempt for the goings on. Jesus' answer is essentially "can you not see what children see?" "Are your hearts so calloused that you cannot see God working right in front of you and rejoice?

Today's text contains both a statement of doom for those that think they know God but who do not really see what He is about and therefore become indignant at what He does, and a call from exile for all who have been estranged from God. Holy Week includes two pillars – judgment and salvation. Judgment for those who think they know best and yet do not really know God, and salvation for those who simply respond to God and live as He lived.

This second pillar of salvation has as its background exile and estrangement from God, and then its relief not just for "God's People," but for the whole world – whoever would respond to, and conform themselves to Him. This is the great return from exile - the Creation is returned to God at His invitation, to join Him in His house of prayer for all peoples.

This season of Lenten reflection asks each of us to consider whether we really know God. Do we know His desires; do we know what He is up to; do we participate with Him in everyday life? Or are we like Israel's shepherds who do not know God. God describes them in the last part of Isaiah 56:

His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. "Come," they say, "let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure."

Shepherds and guides who are supposed to take God's message of hope and care, are concerned only for themselves, not knowing God, and not living as God has made them to live. This is a warning for those who would lead God's people, but also for all would be followers. Leaders must know God and what He is about, and encourage others to move in that direction. The rest of us must be seeking God, returning from our own exile, to the life we were made to live. How do you live? Do you live in God, or essentially for yourself? The answer you give to this question will determine whether the power of God on display at Easter is for you.

All Scripture quotations from ESV.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Promises

Many of us Christians, as many of us humans, seem to think that our time in history is THE time in history. Whatever may have gone before may be useful for learning, but wasn't quite as important as the time in which we live. It may well be interesting to dream of the future but it does not exist and it will be us that create it. This attitude is understandable since we are living now, not living in the past and can't live in the future. This view is unfortunate because living as though our time is the only time that matters tends to separate ourselves from our own histories and separates ourselves from actively participating with people who will come after us. Such thinking adds to an ego-centric and essentially hedonistic life style.

This is a dangerous view for Christians not because we know a God that will punish us in the future, but because it separates us from the greater plan of God in which we are both beneficiaries and active participants. Participants though in a different light than we normally perceive ourselves. One with deeper and more profound meaning than simply "being God's hands and feet in the world."

We have all made promises and have had promises made to us by others. Despite Scriptural encouragements to simply let our yes be yes, and our no, no, we still phrase our intentions with the words "I promise to…." Even wedding vows include such words as though saying "I promise" makes our intent any more sure or our word any more reliable.

This is not necessarily a bad situation since Scripture itself refers to the promises of God. We often refer to the more formal promises as covenants between God and people. The Bible is full of promises including those to Noah, Abraham, and David to name some well known ones. The Noah covenant is a promise to not destroy the world by flood again and the rainbow is recognized as the seal of that promise throughout Christendom. David's covenant includes the promise that a king will always be on the throne of David and in Christendom the fulfillment of that promise is Jesus as king of the people of God. Most of us know at least two promises to Abraham. The first is that the world will be blessed through his offspring and we understand that to mean the blessing of Jesus coming into the world to save us. Another promise to Abraham is that his offspring will number as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. Abraham, who was married to a barren woman was going to be the father of innumerable host of descendents. When we think of this promise we think of the Jewish people and the Arabic peoples in the Middle East.

Paul's discussion of the descendents of Abraham though turns the idea from physical descendents to spiritual descendents "It is not a Jew who is one outwardly, but he who is one inwardly; these are the descendents of Abraham. And so we see the promise to Abraham able to accept as its fulfillments the entire world if they would but come to God. We welcome our inclusion in Abraham because it represents our salvation; the inclusion of the Gentiles in the family of God.

And we should. We do ourselves – and God – a disservice though if we only consider that our participation in Abraham is simply something we receive. We serve a faithful God, a God who keeps His promises not just to us, but to Abraham. In a real sense we are evidence of, we are in reality, the faithfulness of God to Abraham. We participate in the steadfast love of God by our faithful being in God. We are the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and are offered by God to Abraham as His fidelity. We do not just receive the blessings of Abraham, we are the blessing of Abraham. You are the real spiritual and physical evidence of God's faithful remembering of Abraham.

The other promise to Abraham, that the world would be blessed through him is of course ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, but we participate in this promise as well. Again, not as recipients of that blessing (although we are), but as people who implement that blessing daily to those around us.

In two ways then, through the promise to Abraham we become not just recipients of the promises but we become the enactment of those promises. We are both the faithfulness of God and the blessing of God for the world. During this season of Lent, consider how you have been offered to others as the fulfillment of God's promises for others.

Salvation

Those of us who are Christians are familiar with the idea of being saved, but I remain unconvinced that we really understand what salvation means. To fully grasp the idea of salvation we need to look at what God is doing from God's point of view rather than ours. While that may seem a daunting, even impossible task, doing so will help us understand what God means when He refers to saving a people, or offering salvation to us.

We often hear of those who have "come to Jesus," and we often encourage others to "accept Jesus as their savior." Neither of those are wrong as much as they are incomplete at least in the way we routinely practice them. These two phrases are often used interchangeably with "being saved" so that our salvation becomes a single point in time event seemingly divorced from anything that may follow it. We find ourselves referring to people who have been saved but who have not learned (or who are not learning) to live as saved people. Some theological ideas confuse the question further by insisting that faith is all that matters regardless of one's life style. We have successfully divorced salvation from transformation to such a degree that Christian lives do not reflect God and the public has plenty of reason to ridicule not just us, but our faith and our God.

This duality – of being saved but not transformed – grows from a misunderstanding of salvation itself. We humans like to break things down into steps, finding discrete differences in closely related concepts and statements when in fact those steps and concepts are not intended to be discretely separated.

A reading of Scripture using God's view rather than ours results in a different understanding of salvation than many of us use or have contemplated. Salvation as we see it is a discrete event that may or may not be followed by transformed lives. Such an eventuality is foreign to salvation as seen from God's view. Salvation from God's view is a gathering of people back to Him, that people being those who conform themselves to Him. The gathering and the conforming are the same thing; they speak to the same reality. It is impossible to be saved and yet not transformed, or in the process of being transformed.

Salvation is not simply a result of being baptized or asking God into our hearts even though we often individually and collectively treat it as such. Being baptized or asking God to enter our hearts represents a larger undertaking, one that surrenders ourselves to living the way He would have us live – for the rest of our lives. Salvation from God's view is a restoration of us to Him in heart, in motivation, in practical behaviors. It is not primarily a legal edict although an edict is involved.

When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, His response is "Love God with all they heart, mind, and strength; and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." His interlocutor approves of this answer and says this is the greatest concern. In turn, Jesus tells this man that he is not far from the Kingdom of God. Notice Jesus does not say "far from salvation" or even "far from believing in me." Rather, this person is not far from "the Kingdom of God." This exchange gives us a good idea of what the Kingdom of God means. In practical terms it is acknowledging God, and caring for other people. The questioner asks for the greatest command and Jesus responds with two commands. The questioner accepts the two and treats them as one, approving of Jesus' answer and acknowledging his agreement that these two – together – are the most important concern for God followers.

While stated as commands, these are not performance measures, but descriptions of the kind of people in the Kingdom. These are folks who's ways of life reflect the character of God, and these folks are "saved," to use our phraseology.

Jesus' desire was not that people would "be saved" but that they would conform themselves to God. This is what is meant by "Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven." What happens in Heaven isn't the point as much as bringing that economy to Earth. Living in that economy, living out of the image of God in which we are made, that is salvation from God's view. If we are not living in that economy or at least desiring and moving in that direction, the reality of our salvation is questionable at best


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lent II

Isaiah 58 is a reading for Lent. Buried in this chapter is a discussion of a favorite Lenten practice – fasting. The discussion describes the fasting God expects, and it makes our timid and small efforts at fasting appear pitiful in comparison. Lent isn't so much about fasting – at least the way we usually practice fasting during this season, but is more about self-denial and reflection. Many of us give up something relatively easy to give up during Lent and think this satisfies the perceived obligation, but this sort of fasting isn't the fasting expected by God.

Verse 5 describes the kind of fasting, or penitence that we normally consider appropriate during both Lent and at other fasting times. This verse reads: "Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?" (ESV) That sounds like what we often consider fasting and penitence – self denial, and the practice of individual rites of fasting that demonstrate that we are fasting.

But verse 6 tells us we're wrong if we think God wants this kind of fasting: "Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?" (ESV)

Fasting in this passage is much more broad and demanding than our normal understanding of it. In this passage, fasting isn't focused on God, or our own penitence. Rather, this fasting is other-focused, and directly affects community. Self-denial in this passage is the sacrificial giving, not to church treasuries, but to those who need help.

I say fasting is sacrificial giving because of the wording of verse 10: "If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday." (ESV)

Did you get that? "Pour yourself out…" That is sacrificial giving to others. This echoes Paul's "if I pour myself out…." which means that he has given everything he has – his life's focus, his efforts, his riches – for the sake of the Gospel. This is fasting as God understands it – as God expects it. How are you doing?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lent

With the waning of Mardi Gras, the Lenten season begins. Lent leads up to Holy Week and the triumphant resurrection of the Lamb of God. This period of self-denial isn't about not eating meat or giving up chocolate or even fasting. The idea behind Lent is to participate in the suffering of Christ, remembering that it is our sinfulness and tendency toward self-fulfillment that required His death, and continue to vividly demonstrate the need for that death. The purpose of this season is not to trumpet what I have given up for this period of weeks as though meeting this seasonal obligation is somehow meritorious. It isn't. What may gain some benefit for the observers of Lent is the personal identification with our Savior and our guilt. This remembering of guilt is not for self-flagellation, but to help us remember our debt to, and toward the end of Lent, our participation in the Life of God despite our sinful tendencies.

Throughout history, spiritual directors have highlighted the discipline of simplicity, of being satisfied with enough for ourselves and others with whom we live. This simplicity evidences our trust in the sufficiency of God to provide what we need and allows us to more effectively minister to those who do not have sufficient supports. In this same way, self-denial during Lent allows us to practice this trust in God in a small way. If Lent "works" for us, we should enter Holy Week with a greater understanding of our reliance on God and a willingness to live with less while relying on God.

This fuller understanding of Lent makes it clear that there is likely nothing we are going to give up during this season that will actually challenge us physically, but it does place a claim on us to give up something more significant than chocolate or meat. Rather, it might well be a choice to give up some leisure, rising an hour earlier and spending that time reflecting on our place – and our security – in God through the death of His Son.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Manifestation of God

Epiphany is observed in the Western Christian tradition on the 6th of January. It marks, generally, another "coming" or revealing of Jesus in the world. For this reason it is often called "Little Christmas." Epiphany as a revealing includes aspects of three events in the life of Jesus. The first is the arrival of the Magi to honor Him. This is the closest of the three to a Christmas relationship for the observance and is likely the reason its other name is Little Christmas and a small gift exchange is often observed on this day. A critical aspect of this day is that in visiting the Babe, the Christ was manifested to Gentiles. This day then marks the fact that Jesus came to the entire world and not just Israel.

The second theme in Epiphany is the marriage at Cana, specifically but not limited to Jesus' first miracle. As his first miracle, the changing of water to wine revealed Jesus' power in the world. As such, it serves as another manifestation of Jesus to humans. It is appropriate that a wedding provides this setting because both God and Jesus are pictured as husbands or bride grooms. As such, they pursue humanity seeking to join with us in a most intimate way. This caring for people at a wedding party reveals our God as seeking to "marry" us and give us great gifts.

The third aspect of Jesus' life normally associated with Epiphany is His baptism. At His baptism Jesus tells us that He is baptized to "fulfill all righteousness." He is revealed as the one in whom God is well pleased and to whom we are urged to listen. Two imprimaturs are given to Jesus in this event. The voice of God says He is God's Son, and a dove lands on Jesus as evidence of Holy Spirit power within Him.

The baptism of Jesus is one of the stories that we find in all four Gospels, and it gives us an opportunity to remind us of God as we emerge from the bustle and haze of Christmas and begin a new year. Rather than looking back a couple thousand years to the birth of a child, Epiphany allows us to look forward to life with an empowered and legitimate Messiah with whom we are invited to live into the future.

On the 6th, read the stories referenced above and reflect on what it means to you that your Savior is active in the world and asks you to join Him.

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