Monday, January 23, 2012

Lent 2012


Last night I was exploring the web and came across what appears to be the Christian version of The Onion. The website offers a Word of God for Today and yesterday’s was taken from Isaiah 1.15a: “No matter how much you pray, I won’t listen….” (CEV). So you get the idea of the website.

When I mentioned this Word of God to a few friends, the immediate responses included appeals to God's eventual relenting, his compassion, and other soft and warm concepts about God and our relationship to him. This is common among Christians, emphasizing the goodness and graciousness of God rather than his wrath (with some notable exceptions in the popular media). God is good, and patient, and compassionate no doubt. However, the God in Isaiah is the same God in John.

This seems like it may be a problem with us Christians from time to time. We get comfortable living our lives, secure in the idea that either God doesn’t notice or that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We go to church, we tithe, we even give extra money and time to other causes. We staff mission trips, teach Bible classes, and maybe even attend Christian schools. We don’t cheat on our taxes or our spouses, we don’t actively hate others, and we don’t carouse on the weekends. We are in fact, pretty good people, secure in the notion that God is with us and he likes us. A pretty comfortable life, actually.

Lament is not something us moderns like to do and sober self-reflection of our imperfections is often avoided at almost any cost. We dismiss the moment by encouraging ourselves with comforting phrases that speak of acceptance and coverings. What is it about us that we seem not able to sit with our failings? Is it possible for Christians today to spend time acknowledging and accepting the fact and behaviors of our “bad selves?”

There is a psychological principle that asserts that mature people can incorporate the negative side of themselves and their experiences into their whole being. In fact, in many cases it is our running from those negative thoughts and beliefs that cause psychological pain and dysfunctional behaviors. Psychologists and therapists help their clients examine, re-evaluate, and accept the shadow aspects of their lives.

Read God’s Word again. Can you see yourself as the one addressed in this verse? Can you acknowledge that your own attitudes and behaviors have been below par? Can you hold that reality longer than a few seconds? While holding that thought, can you review your attitudes and behaviors, identifying habits and views that are not God like? Can you do this without succumbing to the temptation to compare yourself with others or defend yourself because someone else did something to you? Can you pause in this moment while being aware of your own imperfections and open your heart and mind to God? Can you offer him your imperfections one by one – out loud – and then sit and listen for his response?

In about a month we will enter the Lenten season, a period of reflection prior to Easter. Our Lenten reflection is supposed to be a personal examination of our part in the tragedy of Good Friday. The Word of God for Today with which I began this essay seems a good entre into this reflection. Mankind’s and God’s People’s behaviors and attitudes reached such a depth of disgrace that God was prompted to turn his ear from them – from us.

The period of Lent is forty days, a long time for this sort of self examination. The purpose is not to belittle, humiliate, or beat up ourselves. Rather, it is a space – acknowledged by those around us – in which we and they can participate in checking the direction of our lives without giving in to the immediate desire to dismiss our misdirections in favor of more positive thoughts and feelings.

God’s more harsh treatment of his people serves a purpose and that purpose is to have them stop, think, and return to him and the people they are made to be. He says as much on more than one occasion, wondering out loud it seems why his people missed all the signs he sent to them. Even in this God’s Word for Today, the same purpose is ultimately served. Even in his not hearing, he encourages his people to wake up, to return to him, to accept his character as their character. That will never happen though if they don’t slow down and examine how they have missed the mark of being his people.

Let’s take this God’s Word for Today and prepare to enter Lent ready for some sustained self-reflection, accepting our shortcomings; accepting our part in the death on Friday afternoon. An honest, sober, and sustained period of self-cleansing, openness to the working of God, and being shaped will set our hearts more ready for the coming of Easter.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff


God loves you, he knows you are human, and he knows you are imperfect. He can live with that because he wants you to be transformed into his likeness. God knows that being transformed is a process that occurs over time.

If God wants a people who live in his image; in the way they are made (and he does), then he is able in his patience to wait for you and to cover you with grace while you make mistakes. Scripture in fact tells us just that. God is patient not just with his people, but with the world. Just as God wants you to be transformed, he also wants all people to come to him. His patience and covering grace is part and parcel of the process he is willing to allow for you to grow more perfectly into his likeness.

The implications of this are huge. Primarily this means that you aren’t damned just because you aren’t perfect. You aren’t automatically lost if you sin. Just the opposite in fact – your imperfection is the result of training and shaping. Your failure in any given instance is part of the plan.

Now, does this mean that you can run out and do whatever you want because “it’s part of the plan?” Well of course not. This is not a new question though. The epistles of John address this question specifically and that answer is absolutely not. Why? Because the Christian faith says the whole human is made in the image of God, and that having Christian faith means we are intentionally moving toward transformation and a fuller image of God. If our lives are aimed toward that transformation, we will not routinely live opposite to it.

Training failures are expected and accepted. Wholesale abandonment of being transformed is another question all together.

Living in the presence of God – as though God is here, now – with an intent toward his image is what God expects. Not perfection. Not sinlessness. Not complete knowledge. Intent, movement, and when required, correction back toward the right path is what he expects.

God has not left us alone with this transformation. The Spirit serves as our promise that we have God, the Spirit helps us express ourselves to God, and the Spirit assists us to shed our covering of pride and defensiveness, and prompt us toward that intentional transformation.

Brother Lawrence sets us an example of acknowledging our short comings, giving them to God, and moving on with living the Life. In the book which records his letters and teachings, we find him giving his imperfection to God to handle without further worry or doubt on his part.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Give it to God and rejoice.

Who Are You?


So, who are you? Who does God think you are and who does he want you to be? In the last post I suggested that people are made in the image of God – that they are the image of God. Having been made in that image, we are not crafted in perfect likeness of God but with an imprint of his character. That imprint drives our desires and values if we live in it.

God sees you as his creation, as his child. He loves you and wants you to grow in his image so that you can live a life most satisfying and sublime. We know he loves you because John tells us that the sending of Jesus was due to God’s love for you. Even while we were sinners, we are told, Christ died for us. In both the Old Testament and the New we are told that God’s intent is to gather all nations to himself. This statement tells us that God indeed loves the world and wants all people to live with him.

God sees in you himself; his own image being perfected and shaped through your life on this planet. God is not in a hurry nor will his patience run out. Rather than making you have compassion, God allows it to develop within you. Compassion develops as you experience situations that call for it. At first you will not be compassionate due to your own pride and defensiveness against those who seem to invade your comfort and space. God is aware that you are imperfect and that you will miss some situations. Learn this: that is OK; it’s expected; it is not damning. Over time you will encounter other situations calling for compassion and you will begin to learn that extending it does cost time, resources, and space. But you also come to learn that by giving yourself to them, you become more free and less constrained. You learn not only that compassion is right, but that it connects with that image buried inside you which confirms this, and living a life of compassion opens the world to you. You slowly come to see the world as God sees it.

In short, you eventually come to identify so much with God that it is no longer you who lives but God lives in and through you. Slowly the over-stated selfishness, defensiveness, and pride we have come to practice give way to patience, goodness, acceptance, and compassion for others.

While we are walking this path of being transformed. As we surrender to the promptings of the Spirit and in accordance with who we come to know as God, we live as God’s people have always been meant to live. We live individually and communally as God’s people who embody his image in each of us and in our communities. While neither is perfect and both remain on the path of transformation, God wants us to be his economy and his example in the world. When people see us – individually and communally – they are given the opportunity to see God. As they see God in us, they are either attracted to God or repulsed. Those who are attracted move toward and are accepted by the people of God in their imperfections just as we were. Those who reject God are blessed by God’s people because they too are made by God and bear his image. We exercise God’s grace and patience with them just as God did with us and has throughout history.

Who are you? You are both the treasure of God, blessed by him with knowledge of him and his presence. At the same time you are his image in this world. You are in fact, God in this world. The blessing is not insignificant and the call to presence in the world as God is the greatest call you can have.

God loves you. Let him show you how you were made to live.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

God's Purposes


God created Man to live on the Earth, in the image of God. Since we know God is spirit rather than physical, that image cannot be our form and it must be something else. Since Adam and Eve were barred from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, I suspect our intellect isn’t what constitutes that image. 

I prefer the conclusion that the image in which we were and are made is the character of God. Man is made with his most innate desires and values matching those of God. Throughout Scripture we are called to become like Christ, we are pointed toward the fruit of the Spirit, we are told to imitate God. I believe we are urged in this direction not because it is so foreign to us, but because they actually describe how we are made to live. If we raise our children in our image or likeness, it isn’t that we have two feet or that we can work logic questions. Most importantly, raising our kids in our image has more to do with the way we see the world, other people, and life values. This makes most sense to me and fits with the larger story in Scripture.

But in our creation we were not formed totally given over to those values. This I believe is because God doesn’t want people who are hardwired to do only what he wants. Rather, God wants people who are compassionate because they want to be compassionate. In fact, compulsory compassion isn’t compassion. We can only learn patience by being in situations that require patience and being given the choice about whether to be patient or not. We are here to learn and to live like God among others also made to do the same.

In the Old Testament we see this process evidenced. God routinely reminds Israel that he has chosen them but not because they are anything special, but in order to demonstrate the graciousness of God. He chooses Israel not to be a great kingdom but to his presence in the world – a nation what would live his image among the nations. Israel’s job was to introduce others to God and to be an example of God’s care and interest in the world. When Israel is condemned, it is for one of two reasons. Either they have decided to follow other gods, or they have failed to live in the character of God. Interestingly, when God condemns other nations he doesn’t do so primarily because they follow other gods, but rather for their behavior arising from arrogance and meanness. When any country is condemned in Scripture there is some aspect of having not lived in the image in which they were made. 

It’s important to note that even though God chose Israel, that did not keep him from wiping them out, from sending them away from him, and killing them. Staying with God is not something God makes or hardwires Israel to do even though he wants a nation of his people. This is in keeping with our premise that God wants a nation of people who actually want to be his people rather than people who have to because he makes them. He is on record promising to recall them back to him eventually. God does bring Israel back to him on a number of occasions. His final promise though is to call all nations to himself, not just Israel.

This promise to bring all people to himself brings us full circle from the Creation. Man – all people – are made in God’s image and were made to live in that image. This final promise of God to bring all people to himself, rather than just one nation, ushers in a worldwide people living in the image in which they are made to live.

When God says he has chosen Israel, it isn’t because God is only interested in Israel. Rather, Israel’s purpose is to bless the world by ushering them into the presence of God. This purpose because God really does and always has wanted all people to live as he has made them to live. The choosing is not an exclusive choosing but a choice for a specific purpose. That purpose is the rest of the world.

In the New Testament we have the same theme. Jesus’ condemnation of people isn’t so much that they have chosen the wrong god, but that their lives do not reflect the image of God. Additionally, the Jewish leaders are castigated not because they had the wrong God (they clearly had the correct one), but because they failed to internalize the life of God. A simple reading of the Sermon on the Mount and the latter epistles of Paul and John are instructive here. An early heresy seems to have been the Gnostic dualism that threatened to separate body from soul, justifying debauchery for believers. This simply cannot be according to John and Paul if we are to live as though we are the image of God (and we are).

God has sent Jesus for a number of reasons. One of which is to demonstrate God’s love for the entire world – not part of it. We are told that God so loved the world; that Jesus’ coming was so that the world might be saved through him. We are told that whoever believes in Jesus will be accepted by God. This belief isn’t so much an intellectual decision but a recognizing of God and a desire to live in that same way. To believe in Jesus is to identify with Jesus for your own life.

Another reason Jesus came to live among us was to provide for us an object lesson about the life we are called to live. This life is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit; of living as God would if he were in your body. This living though isn’t about being made to; about having to so live because God makes you or will kill you if you don’t. Rather it is living this life because we actually buy into it. We come to own the same values and desires of God for those around us. Life becomes in fact, less about ourselves and more about others.

When we read Scripture, we must understand particular passages in light of the overall story. If our interpretation of a particular passage doesn’t fit with the larger purposes of God, we must have sufficient discipline to review our understanding of those passages.


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