Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Discovering The Way, The Truth, and The Life - Christ's call for us to be different

The earliest Christians were called "Followers of the Way" which indicated that they not only made a profession of their beliefs but, they lived in a manner that reflected those beliefs. In other words, their daily lives were their testimony of their convictions, which was modeled for them by Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul, who authored much of the New Testament, used the term "The Way" as is documented within the book of Acts. Jesus Christ himself not only asked people to believe in him but, to follow him. He did this when he first met those who would be his disciples to indicate how they were to leave their former lives and start anew. He even referred to himself as "the way, the truth, and the life". The Way wasn't merely an evacuation plan into the next life but, also a transformation plan for the current one (I think it was Brian McLaren who said that). The message was/is clear: We are supposed to be different. Distinct from those around us. Not because of what we say but, by how we live.

Much of what Jesus taught is captured in how he lived out Holy Week or the days leading up to his crucifixion on Good Friday. It was a series of events that was the ultimate demonstration of living the Way in service, forgiveness, and self-emptying. There is more but, you get the idea - Jesus was and is the way and he showed us how to live. This means that there are not only lessons, but expectations for his followers packed into the week leading up to Easter and the rest of his life. Jesus was also really clear on the expectations when he said things like: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" or "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.". The other similar directives he gave us, the parables he told, and the stories of him go on and on. They all point to the way.

Generally, the world doesn't love its enemies nor deny itself. This is especially evident in the current political discourse. The following is far too often the case: We are really most concerned about our own opinions and believe that others have little to teach us. The idea of challenging ourselves to think differently escapes us because we are most comfortable with maintaining the status quo and less interested in gaining new perspectives. We insist on being heard rather than listening because we want to educate others on our point of view rather than us having to take the risk of gaining new perspectives. We are quick to label others (i.e. liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, left, right) instead of respecting them and their uniqueness. We command respect but, have little time to show love and respect for others (this is especially true if "the other" lives different, looks different, or believes different than we do). We are more concerned about our own lives than helping or lifting others because it's easier to blame others for their circumstances as this approach alleviates us from responsibility. We insist that others compromise instead of offering ourselves to compromise. We are overwhelmingly more concerned about protecting ourselves and our possessions than in protecting or aiding others. We are quick to anger when we feel that we are being encroached upon instead of being patient and forgiving.

Obviously, these things aren't true for everyone. But, how many of these things could just as easily be said of Christians? We already know that much of society has lost its way because Christians talk about it all the time. We say that God has been taken out of the schools and government, etc. We say that society is declining. But, the truth is that many of today's Christians live largely the same lives as the rest of world. We are not often distinctive in the way we live... not really. Certainly not like those early believers. In fact, It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish believers from non-believers.

A pastor friend of mine told me the story of his first assignment as a senior pastor of a church. The church was a different denomination than his seminary so, he asked the natural question: "what do you believe?". The answer he received helped convince him that he was making the right decision. They simply answered: "Come see the way we live!". That must've impacted him deeply because he's been a pastor within the same denomination for over 40 years now. He believed then as he believes now: the mark of a Christian is the distinct manner in the way they live their lives. Note: this man and his wife have modeled the way of Christ in ways I can hardly comprehend. They once provided a room in their house for a convicted murderer to help him get back on his feet. They did the same for a pregnant drug addict. These may not be the calling of every Christian but, they provide a beautiful example of transformed hearts and the belief in living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Changing the tone of our discourse and how we treat others should be easy by comparison.

Along with our worship, the days leading up to Easter provide a great opportunity to reflect on a life well lived; the life of Christ who modeled the Way and is the Way. This week doesn't need to serve as a measuring stick where we judge ourselves on whether we can live up to the unattainable. We all fall short and understand that we will continue to do so. But, certainly we should challenge ourselves in some manner to be different than the world around us and more like the Christ we follow. Jesus Christ's service, forgiveness, self-emptying and love of enemy offer an excellent place to begin. Let us all pray that, by living the Gospel, we can be seen as a beacon to the world that a different way is possible. Let us encourage others to be different than those around them... but, only by first doing so ourselves. Peace. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday - God Doesn't Always Tell Us What's Next

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”. Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.~ Mark 11:1-11

When Jesus told his disciples to retrieve the colt of a donkey, they knew what he wanted but they certainly would have had a question about why. I imagine the people who questioned the disciples wondered the same things. It would seem to the be the natural progression of the conversation and my guess is that, by this point, the disciples had figured out that Jesus did not often tell them what was coming next! He seemed to use situations like this to teach his followers to trust him and that things are often not as they appear. So, I try to imagine how they would have answered the question if asked why Jesus wanted the colt. I think they would have answered the question with a shrug and perhaps said something like "You know, he doesn't often tell us what is going to happen next." and went on their way. 

Picture taken during our trip to Israel in 2013 at the traditional site of the donkey colt event.
We often don't know what God is doing next. The mere riding into the city on a donkey was an act of humility by Jesus and was foretold by the prophets. But, the shouting of support from the crowd is probably what the disciples focused on because it was an obvious triumphant move by Jesus. After years of struggle, they had finally arrived at the moment they had all imagined! The throwing of cloaks on the on the ground and the waving of palm branches were all signs of great victory. People finally saw Jesus the way the disciples did: as the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God (I find it interesting that, after entering, Jesus just turned around and left). Afterward, I'm sure the disciples were wondering what was next but, the gratifying sounds of the crowds surely replayed in their heads and whatever was next had to be good, they thought! They wanted Jesus to show his power and who he really was... it would be an incredible day of reckoning! Not quite. Not yet anyway.  

The disciples didn't see nor suspect that Jesus' next entry into Jerusalem would be described as anything but triumphal. He would be arrested and dragged by soldiers to a tainted trial followed by a brutal beating and execution. Sorry for the blunt language but, I'm just stating the facts. The disciples reacted like we all would when we expect things to go really well then have everything collapse around us. His crucifixion seemed like the end of the road and the ultimate defeat. It wasn't until a few days passed [Easter morning] before they understood that there was indeed a triumph that was greater than the throwing of cloaks on the ground and palm branches being waived (by the way, the crowd that shouted "Hosanna!" was likely many of the same people who shouted "Crucify him!" less than a week later!). We need to understand that God's blessings will very often come to us in ways we can't comprehend, understand, nor foretell. This may be especially true in times of difficulty. How often do we go into situations laid before us expecting success in a way we would define it (perhaps with fanfare, glory and palm branches) then, when when things become troublesome and difficult, we start to have questions? We often wonder why God sometimes chooses this topsy turvy path because we don't understand the meaning of our journey. Easy paths and accolades feel nice because they fit into our definition of what we think we want or need. But, these things can pale in comparison to the what God ultimately delivers when we simply follow him in faith without having to know what is next.  

Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Look, your king is approaching, he is vindicated and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.~ Zecheriah 9 (written approximately 500 years before the birth of Christ)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Fish Can't Climb Trees - Why Finding Our True and Authentic Self is Important

Christians understand that God dwells inside of each of us; his very essence literally indwells every person walking our planet. In fact, there is reason to believe that he lives within every creature he has ever created. His endless ability and desire to create has resulted in humans being specially "made in his image”. The last four words of that sentence carry major implications and deep meaning because his image means we are a reflection of him and of who he is. If God the creator is reflected in you, me, and everyone else, what could that mean for us? This is a good thing to contemplate. If God, as the Bible describes, is love, light, and life, what am I to be? What does this mean in how I am toward myself and others who also bear his image? The reality that we reflect the One who dwells within us has changed me more than anything. The Indwelling Spirit of God defines who we are in a deep and very authentic way. This internal existence of God within us all is also the basis of the command that Jesus gave us to “love one another”. By doing so, we are loving both his creation and him. More on that later as there is a lot within this matter as well.

There are many religious and spiritual traditions that seek the Indwelling Spirit. My experiences with the Quaker and Benedictine traditions have helped me understand and appreciate the ramifications of having God live within me. The tradition of silent contemplation of the inner light of God or "open worship" has been central to my spiritual life for many years. Benedictines practice Lectio Divina or Holy Reading of scripture in order to seek God's guidance. Previously, I hadn't considered that we might be able to hear God "speak" to us through these contemplative practices. Perhaps his communication isn’t an “audible voice” but, a feeling or knowing. It is the “still, small voice” as described in the Bible and I've had experiences in my own life where God did communicate with me in this way. I'm certainly not unique in this.

I've had the experience of receiving, perhaps inaudible, answers to heavy problems I was facing. In a place outside where I could take you today, while praying and asking God for direction, his answer was quick and concise. It was very clearly God and his message to me was this (paraphrased): “You are holding back and not following through on dedicating your life to me. You are letting your own life prevent you from being all-in.”  That is a paraphrased summary of the message but, effectively describes what I needed to hear at the time. At that point, there was no way that I could disregard what I had just "heard". I felt a new energy to follow through. But, God doesn't just communicate; he isn't only a voice. He is an active participant in forming who we are - our true selves. We have to be all-in for this transformation to be complete. We have to be committed.

Image result for fish climbing tree

That experience changed God's role in my life forever. From that point, I would be more deliberate in making him my true center... where he belonged all along. Previously, I had believed myself to be a little smarter than other Christians. I kept God, his Son, and Spirit at a distance by loving him only up to the point that he started interfering with my life. I thought this was a practical approach to faith in God when in actuality it is no faith at all. I thought: "how can I put God first and still be a dedicated husband, father, friend, and provider?". Logic told me that I couldn't but, our logic is sometimes wrong. I had spent my whole life missing the point.

If God created me in his image and I deny that reality by resisting him, I can never be whole. Why? Because by not fully submitting to God, I am holding back and can never be my true self - the self that he designed and created. Think about that. What did your creator intend you to be and how are you potentially hampering that intended outcome? If God created us to reflect him in our own unique way but, we try to limit what role he plays in our lives, because of our own doubts, preconceived ideas, prejudices, and biases, we are not letting him take hold of who we are. If I don’t let him take hold of me in this way, I am certainly less than I am capable of being. As a result of going "all-in", I'm a better husband, father, friend, and person. A simple example of how God's intended design is supposed to work is illustrated in a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”. Maybe that is a weird example but, you can see where I'm going. Being what we are intended to be, as designed by our Creator, is simply the best approach we can take to a fulfilled life.

After my experiences in listening to God's spirit within me, I began to understand that I needed to let go of the world and quit with the incessant attempts to balance God in my life; to simply be what he intended me to be. Finding our true selves isn't just walking up to an altar and saying a prayer or saying "I believe". Our fulfilled life as a Christian begins when we dedicate ourselves fully to Jesus Christ. It is a conscious decision to follow him, committing to centering our lives upon him, and allowing him to help deliver fulfillment in our lives. One thing is certain, if we ask him to make the changes in us that he wishes to see, it will happen. I committed to God that I would follow him wherever he would take me; to be what He wanted me to be. I committed that there would be no more limiting how much he would interfere in my life. I asked him to change me into what he designed me to be. He has been doing exactly that. You know, sometimes those changes in me have hurt; changes often do. But, I couldn't be more complete nor more fulfilled. I'm no longer a fish trying to climb a tree. I'm who God created me to be and I'm getting pretty good at it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Within the Stillness is Emmanuel

We are in the third week of Advent. The word Advent comes from the Latin for “to come”. The symbolism of the season is our waiting, our expectation for Emmanuel (Emmanuel is Hebrew for "God With Us"). We are in the season of “waiting for God to come and be with us”. Contemplative Christians like to wait in expectation for God within us - to lead us. Many Christians believe this indwelling spirit occurred first at Pentecost when the spirit of God rested on the apostles.
The eight nights I spent in Israel was a great occasion for me to celebrate our contemplative manner of worship. Whether at the Mount of Beatitudes (where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount) overlooking the Sea of Galilee or the 1600 year old Church of the Holy Sepulcher which contained the traditional sites of Calvary and the tomb of Christ, I spent much time in silence. Whether I was standing in the ruins of a the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus proclaimed he was the Bread of Life, or where I sat in a cave near a wide open sheep field in Bethlehem, the site that celebrates the Angel of the Lord delivered the good news of the coming Christ to the lowly Shepherds, it is near silent there. In these moments, I communed with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit...and found truth. Truth being holy silence.
We don’t all believe the same things. But, we just choose to concentrate on the what we have in common. One of those those commonalities is our pursuit of the truth as communicated to us by God (in scripture, contemplation, people, circumstances). But, between all those truths that we are taught, we find silence. Silence is the foundation from which all truth comes - stillness was there first. It is the blank page on which the words are written. The fabric that holds the pattern. Everything springs from, and is contained in, the stillness.
Creation itself came from the silence: Genesis 1:1 talks about “the Spirit of God hovering over the still waters”. Later in scripture, the Israelites waited in expectation for the arrival of the Messiah during a long period of silence lasting centuries - they were waiting for the Advent of Emmanuel. Emmanuel, the Messiah, our Christ, was born during the "silent night" after this long period of quiet waiting. Let’s use this season to remind us of the importance of quiet or silent anticipation of God with us, Emmanuel. But also let us celebrate the silence that exists within (and between) each of those within the body of believers.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Saved by a Lamb (Why Good Friday is Good)

My blog is usually written with the believer as its intended audience. This entry is meant to shed light on what is the basis for much of Christianity for those that don't share our beliefs. As followers, our behavior sometimes seems strange to others. Hopefully, through being reformed by the Holy Spirit, we continue to evolve in a way that our value system is somewhat in contrast to the world around us. This should never mean that we think ourselves to be perfect nor superior. To the contrary, we should always completely understand that we are not. Without this central understanding (a contrite heart) we would remain estranged from the one we profess to follow.

Centuries before Jesus was born, as a test, Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. This was after having lived until his old age without any children. Abraham and Sarah had longed for a child and finally were blessed with one only to have God make this dreadful demand upon them. However, being a faithful follower, Abraham took his son to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. Abraham's only comfort was believing that God would then resurrect Isaac. On their way to the sacrificial alter, Isaac asked his father what they were going to sacrifice that day (because they had no animal in their possession as would normally be the case). Abraham answered with some very insightful words that had a much deeper meaning than even Abraham understood: "God will provide himself a lamb". God did miraculously provide a lamb that day and instructed Abraham to not harm Issac. The lamb that God provided was a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus which would occur thousands of years later.

The blood of a lamb would play an important role in Jewish history in later years, still well before Jesus.  What is celebrated as Passover in Judaism (remember, Jesus was Jewish), commemorates a time when the Jews were freed from the bondage of slavery in Egypt and the unblemished lamb's blood was spread on the doorways of their homes in order to mark those who were to be protected from the angel of death. Death "passed over" those homes on whom this blood was shed. These slaves were protected from death by the blood of the lamb sacrificed.

Sacrifice had become a central tenant to the daily lives of these people as a way to attempt reconciliation with God for their sins (ancient sacrificial alters can still be seen in the ruins of Israel). In that culture, animal after animal was sacrificed in order to attempt payment or ransom for their transgressions and to please God. So, the system of sacrificing unblemished animals became the norm. But, we know that in a crazy mixed-up, broken world, there aren't enough animals to make up for all of the bad stuff.  So, it was somewhat for naught and the Jewish people were still enslaved. This time by their own rebellion against God. Their sin.

The circular rock formation is an ancient sacrificial alter in Israel.
I took this picture in 2013.

The Jewish people were in a condition that all of us are in: the lack of understanding that the Creator of the universe was to remain the center of our universe - our world, our lives. Like our sun is needed to keep the gravitational order of our solar system, God's own "gravitational pull" is required to keep the order of the entirety of creation. The moment we attempt to become the center, which we have done since the beginning of time, the whole system fails (imagine Mercury trying to keep the orbital order of our solar system and the catastrophic failure that would result).

Man had gone astray. But, biblical prophets (like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel), foresaw a time when man would be reconciled to God. The prophet Isaiah (as can be read in Isaiah 53) had some striking visions approximately 600 years before Jesus was crucified: "But he was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." (the "stripes are the whipping which was typical during a Roman crucifixion). "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." The iniquity of us all was to fall on one person, Jesus. On God himself fell the ransom to be paid.

Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist yelled out to the crowd: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!". Approximately three years after this encounter, The Lamb of God, Jesus, was crucified in Jerusalem during the Passover celebration. So, at a time when the Jewish population was celebrating their release from the bondage and oppression of slavery, the blood of the Christ was shed. The foreshadowed blood of a lamb was the atonement for all who believe. The atonement was exercised that day and God himself, the perfect and unblemished lamb - the only One who could pay the price for a world gone astray, bore the brunt of it.

The time of year (Passover) that the crucifixion occurred is important because of the meaning of the Passover celebration.  The lamb's blood that was shed and displayed on the homes of those who believed, provided a means of escaping bondage and avoiding death. The tradition of Jesus' time during the Passover celebration was similar: sacrificial offerings to offer atonement for sin - to be reconciled to God. God's sacrifice of his Son ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son") offered an escape from death and a release from bondage for those who believe.  Jesus himself said "...everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin". The Apostle Paul explained that "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord".  Let's be honest for a minute, we all have committed sin. God, through his undying and overwhelming love, offered to pay the ransom for our shortcomings and an escape from bondage and into everlasting life. This escape was made possible by the death and resurrection (the literal conquering of death) that occurred on the following Sunday; the Easter resurrection. Like the sacrifice, the resurrection that Abraham anticipated for Issac many centuries before was merely another foreshadowing of the Sunday celebration of Easter.

A final note: all of this talk about sin, ransom, and personal shortcomings should NOT result in the believer's focus continuing to be on themselves - in guilt. While we do need to recognize our own frailty, the bulk of our focus should remain on the goodness of God that is demonstrated through this magnificent story. I believe that when we do this, and by having confidence in the redemption, we then let the Spirit continue to shape us into our true selves and thereby glorify the One who made us.

"Then I saw a lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne"~ Revelation 5:6.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Do We Know What Jesus Looks Like? (It May Not Be What We Expect)

The Old Testament Book of Isaiah is sometimes referred to as the "fifth gospel". The traditional Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John describe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Similarly, the Prophet Isaiah spoke of Jesus, but he did so 600 years before the Virgin Mary gave birth to him.

Isaiah 53:2-7 
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 

Understandably, we focus a lot of attention on the latter verses of this passage which describe Jesus' crucifixion and our salvation bought by it. Much of the foundation of our faith is summarized there. But, the first few verses describe some very important aspects of Jesus as well. Unlike the traditional Gospels, Isaiah included a brief physical description of Jesus within those first couple of verses. Here, Isaiah describes a Creator God that came to earth, not as a handsome and majestic man with whom people were in awe. Rather, it details a humble person without beauty nor majesty; One who has an undesirable appearance. How many of us would do choose this appearance for our Lord (or for ourselves) if we had that option? The challenge of reality seems to cause us to attempt a type of recreation of the Creator (see related post: Making God Fit). 

We get an idea of exactly how we desire to see Jesus merely by looking at the movie portrayals of him. Those images seem to reflect the misguided importance we place on physical appearance. Most of the actors portraying Jesus in these movies have physical attributes that are more acceptable to us: well proportioned, handsome, and without any significant physical flaws (separately, but just as relevant, why do we insist that Jesus was light-skinned? As a middle-eastern Jew, he was quite certainly dark complexioned). 

Clearly, we feel better when Jesus is portrayed a particular way. But, it is worth asking the question whether we would be as accepting of an uncomely Jesus. What if he was disfigured? Would we hide our faces from him? Maybe our response wouldn't be this apparent. But, is it any wonder that our misplaced emphasis on physical beauty costs us so much (personally, psychologically, monetarily, ethically, societally) when God himself shows us the way by placing the emphasis elsewhere? 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

What Would Jesus...uh, Legislate?

I've researched the Indiana Religious Freedom law and am still unclear of its repercussions. I've read it and don't fully understand it. Getting unbiased information is nearly impossible and both sides are relatively convincing. On one hand, I become suspicious of most single interest groups. On the other, I don't trust what some people define as "religion".

If you've read my blog, you know that I am a follower of Jesus Christ. To that end, I am attempting to understand what Jesus' position would be on the matter. All I know for certain is that his choices for company look a lot different than that of many who purport to follow him. Even the Apostles weren't too good at recognizing who his followers were. For example, they thought the "rich young ruler" was a perfect fit for the group. They were wrong. Certainly, as he pointed out, the religious elite of Jesus' day didn't know how to follow him. So, who fits and doesn't fit, I'm always hesitant to say. One pattern I think continues to hold true...his choices sometimes aren't ours and he usually sides with the downtrodden. Similarly, I try to error on the side of inclusiveness and love for others.

So, does this legislation legalize the mistreatment of anyone based on religious conviction?  I don't know. I hope it doesn't. That would be wrong. I've seen that this law is already in place nationally since 1993 and passed with overwhelming support of both parties. Whether there have been negative repercussions of the law, I just don't know.

I do know that there are some credibility issues at stake. One side claims that blatant discrimination will occur here. Some within that group are acting with real aggression toward an entire state populated with many people who have no interest in this legislation. The other side is acting on the fear that their religious liberty is at stake. But, Jesus himself asked for no similar government protection even to the point of his execution.

I hope both sides are wrong. To some degree, I'm certain that they both are; neither side has a corner on the entire truth nor have they an impeccable track record of righteousness. I'm sure this will be read by some as support for the legislation - while others will guess that I'm against it. I tend to side with the great Christian Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer that said "Politics are not the task of a Christian". Even more, I side with God and whatever bunch of misfits he chooses as his followers. But, I can't count entirely on my own judgment to determine who they are...or will be.