Losing Focus

I’ve tried several times to write about this cultural moment, and my paralysis is perhaps best exemplified by my problem even finding  a suitable shorthand name for all of this – because it is about so much more than Chick-Fil-A, and even the ongoing culture war in America.  This moment is a symptom of several chronic ailments, both for the culture and for the Church.  I am inclined here to focus on the ailments of the Church, particularly because I think we (the Church) need to start with the log in our own eye before we start to pick at the eye of the culture.

What distresses me most about the Church in this situation?  That most Christians I have heard, seen or read regarding this moment are more concerned about defending their First Amendment rights than the Kingdom of God and the gospel of that Kingdom.  Lots of talk about defending our rights, and no one (in my circles) asking how we can show or express the Kingdom in this situation.  Too few are asking how we can invite the people we are treating like our enemies to come to the Kingdom, or even thinking about the Kingdom.  I think that reflects that our Kingdom citizenship is far less prominent in our minds than our present circumstances.  Do we take it for granted?  Do we not understand its appropriate prominence in our lives? Or, worst of all, is Christ (and his Kingdom) an accessory for us, rather than our identity?  We are clearly more concerned about making sure that our understanding of The American Way carries the day than that Jesus Christ would be known and loved.  Our attention is on building American Christian Empire, not the Kingdom of God.

What distresses me almost as much about the Church is how stupid and hateful we sound.  I have encountered multiple Cultural Warriors in the last week who, on the surface, would seem to be on the same side as me, and after listening carefully to them, I am seriously tempted to move across the aisle.  I believe there is a logically-consistent, Biblically-grounded rationale for not following the cultural tide toward redefining marriage, but it is rarely articulated.  Instead, we speak out of our emotional insecurity, our visceral distaste for sexuality that doesn’t look like ours, and our patchwork of proof-texts and half-learned lessons from sermons or Bible studies.  Our presentation is an overheated, blustery drawing of a line in the sand – rather than an attempt to reason with the person who disagrees with us, so she will see the consistency of our position, or to persuade the person, so he will be drawn to our alternate vision of what is and can be.  Our responses don’t actually seem designed to win anyone to either Christ or our side; they are sledgehammers, or cannon fire, intended only to beat back our “opponents”.  I cannot see how this is ever a response suitable for a follower of Jesus.

We are fearfully consumed with anxiety about winning, even as we claim to be the people who are standing up for Scripture.  These two things cannot fit together!  The Bible study group I meet with each Friday morning has been discussing the Revelation of John for 4 years, and the passage we were reading this morning from chapter 20 reminded us vividly that Christ has won the victory over Satan, and sin, and death.  He does not need us to fight his battles (this is quite literal, in fact: if you look at Chapters 19 and 20, Christ gathers his faithful in a way that is pictured as an army, but it is only Christ who fights the foe!).  If we believe that Jesus is Lord, then he will complete his victory in his time, and the truth will win out.  So why are we trying to conquer enemies, instead of trying to invite those who dwell in darkness to see the great light of Christ?  Or, if we will insist on seeing them as enemies, when will we start treating them the way Jesus told us to treat our enemies?

How Do You Like Them Apples?

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I wrote last year about my apple trees, which had primarily climbing trees for Zach. He’s not climbing those trees this year (probably because he’s grown so much; he’s moved on to an evergreen – cedar, I think – in the front yard), but something else is happening. One of the three trunks had blossoms, and now apples are starting to grow. There are at least 20 that I can see, all roughly the size of one knuckle of my thumb. Another year, and another way this tree becomes a blessing to our family!

Lawgiver, or Friend?

Lest this seem to come out of nowhere, I want to flesh our an idea that we talked about in worship this morning, as we continued our journey through the New Testament letter 1 John:

Have you ever thought about how you mentally frame God’s commandments?  The language of “command” automatically starts our minds down a specific pathway, one where God makes the rules and hands them down to us, and we receive them and follow them or else.  And…there is something of that pathway that we need to take seriously.  God is Sovereign, and is the one who establishes the code of conduct he desires from his people.  These aren’t the Ten Suggestions, and this isn’t the first step in a negotiation.

And yet…might we also need to notice that God has something like a “dual role” with his people?  Consider that in the introduction of his first letter, John writes:

that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3 ESV)

The tone of that passage is very different from the thought-world of God as Commandment-Giver, isn’t it?  Fellowship is the translation of koinonia, a word which speaks of close relationship and sharing, mutuality and partnership – and this is the word John uses to describe the relationship he has (and his readers can have) with the Father and the Son.  So, what do we do with the tension between these two ways of understanding God?

Most commonly, people resolve the tension by disregarding one side or another.  Some try to explain away one of the two sides, but others simply “forget” one side, and frame God as either Stern Lawgiver or Welcoming Friend.

Why can’t God be both?

In the third chapter, John’s description of the Divine-human relationship resumes:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1 ESV)

This image is the resolution of the tension between Lawgiver and Friend.  What’s more, I think it reveals the desire of God for the ongoing movement of his relationship with us.  Within the parent-child relationship, there is intended and expected hierarchy, and there is mutuality.  There is (at least at the beginning of the relationship) a clear expectation of superiority of understanding and wisdom, and there is tender-heartedness, and the hope that maturation will bring friendship between the parent and the child.

So it is, that God gives commands, because he loves us as children, and knows the world (and us) better than we do, and wants the very best for us.  In fact, God knows the world and us perfectly, and God’s commands are given in light of that knowledge.  God’s commands (and I do not soften the authoritative force of that word in any way) are also invitations into a quality of life which God desires for us and with us as we enter into ever-deepening koinonia with him.  The commands do not cease to be commands, but as we mature, perhaps we begin to understand the heart behind them.  When God gives us commands, he gives them out of love, and out of the desire that through following them we will be able to relate to God in more mature ways.

I am blessed that I am able to think of my father and mother as friends.  I cannot recall if the idea really occurred to me when I was 11 (like my oldest son is now); even if it did, I surely did not imagine the depth of our relationship today.  At 11, most of our relationship was still governed by the rules of the household which they set down; I cannot think of the last time one of my parents felt the need to identify a command for me to follow.  Some of this is because I have internalized the rules of my parents’ household, and they have become an invisible part of our relationship – might this correspond to the Jeremiah prophecy of the new covenant?

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 ESV)

God’s commands may remind us that God is Sovereign and we are not, but they should not be a burden which we rail against.  At the same time God rules over us, he loves us, and offers us the best path to wholeness and maturity, both within ourselves and in our relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have invited us into their fellowship.  Lawgiver and Friend.

So, what am I leaving out of this conception?  What have I missed?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What Only God Can Do

The Spirit of God showed up in our worship gatherings yesterday in a manner which I have seen occasionally, and which still always catches me by surprise.

Our focus in worship was celebrating the love of God, in particular through the lens of 1 John 3:1-3, which shows us how God’s love causes God to call people his children, and to make it so.  We are made part of the fellowship (koinonia)of God and of Jesus the Son, which begins the process of changing us into something entirely beyond our imagination – the image of Jesus himself.  We talked about the joy of being adopted by God into his family, and the way adoption is such a beautiful human way to emulate God.  We even remembered the joyous adoption of a little girl into one of our families in the last two years.

But what I did not remember – until Tony and Cristina reminded me after worship – was that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of that blessed adoption of Alicia.  Totally unplanned on my part.

We also talked about the power of God to set us free from the brokenness of the world in changing us into the image of his Son, which begins now but will be completed when we see Jesus:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 ESV)

Celebrating being set free and changed also came up after the service, when Fred Stockmeier pointed out to me that yesterday was the 67th anniversary of the day he was set free from a prison camp near the end of the Second World War.  Again, I had no idea – but the Holy Spirit of God knew what a perfect day this was to celebrate being set free, and to give thanks for being adopted into the family of God.

The most high-minded plans I ever make to try to craft worship with movements and coherence and thematic unity can’t hold a candle to the movement of God beneath it all, gathering us into this place together, young and old, to let the Word speak into our lives and bring us into his story.

May I never forget it.

Rescued From Life

Note: this is an adaptation of part of the preaching from our Easter worship gathering.  Sorry, if I’m irritating you with recycled content.  Oh, and if you want to see the entire worship celebration, with loads of music and celebration and lifting up Jesus, you can go here

Jesus didn’t come, and live, and die, and rise, just to save you from hell.

He also did it to save you from an ordinary life.

It’s true.  “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  That’s Jesus, in John 10:10

He wasn’t talking about the future, about heaven.  He was talking about right now, in this lifetime.

Because Jesus is the Risen King, and you can believe it and act on it, you can have a life that is above the ordinary.

What characterizes our ordinary lives from which Jesus sets us free?

Bondage to Sin.  We church people talk about how people who don’t know Jesus are trapped in sin, but how many of us who have said we believe in Jesus still fall into the same traps again and again?  Eventually, we might not even be bothered by our failings; we tell ourselves that “nobody’s perfect” and this is our personal proof.  I’m just giving Jesus something to perfect at the end.

But Jesus wants you to be free.  Do not doubt that.  How will we be free from sin?  Francis Chan illustrates the solution in a great way in his book Crazy Love: “Imagine going for a run while eating a box of Twinkies.  Besides being self-defeating and side ache-inducing, it would also be near impossible – you would have to stop running in order to eat the Twinkies.

“In the same way, you have to stop loving and pursuing Christ in order to sin. “

If we know Jesus the Risen King, we can pursue him in love, and as we run to the one we love, we are free!

Ordinary lives are also Burdened by Circumstances.  Jesus told us “In this world, you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world”.  Some people come to Jesus hoping that the trouble in their lives will go away.  But Jesus basically guarantees that even when we follow him – and maybe especially because we are following him – we will have trouble.   But because Jesus is King, we know two things about our troubles.

First, Jesus will be a Righteous King, and will pay us back or reward us for our frustrations, our hardships, even our persecutions.  In Luke 6, Jesus says “”Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven;” and Second, Jesus our King uses our trials to shape us into his image.  As Paul put it in Romans 5, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Finally, ordinary lives are Beholden to Self; that is, we feel the need to create our own meaning, our own impact on the world, our own legacy and purpose.  Sadly, even the most high-minded of these efforts are prone to devolving into self-centeredness and ego-maintenance.  But in following Jesus the Risen King, we are invited to give ourselves to his purposes, and to enter into the greatest Story in the world, in which the Holy Spirit moves in us to enable people to see Jesus for who he is, and invite them into the community of his people, and love the people in the community so that they may be transformed and made whole by King Jesus.  We get to enter into the Story of people made whole, and we ourselves are made whole as we let go of our agenda and accept Jesus’ agenda.

Set free, in all circumstances and situations, to be strengthened, healed, and made whole by Jesus and his family – that’s the way more than ordinary life that Jesus offers to you and me.

Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that, today?