Archive for the ‘love’ Category
Read: Matthew 7; Revelation 7; Genesis 12; Ephesians
I had a short, interesting 'conversation' with someone on Twitter tonight. I'd like to tell you he was a thoughtful fellow, but after one exchange he unfollowed me. Luckily for me, the conversation was picked up by another person who thoughtfully engaged me for more than a few tweets and we became sort of friends.
The original tweet, written by a self-described 'author and campus pastor' (whatever that means) went like this: "Proximity breeds compassion. If u don't understand people of a different skin color ask yourself if your friends and church are all the same." Well, I took exception to this tweet because it's based on a profoundly ignorant and unnecessary premise that a person's lack of understanding is necessarily due to a person's associations or, put more negatively, if a person has all the same color friends at play or at church then one probably doesn't understand people whose skin color is different. Ugh. I'm not sure a person can possibly be more ignorant about race relations than this person.
And what's worse is his follow up to my response. He wrote: You're going to be miserable in heaven. Look around: you live in a multiethnic world. My point was ways to understand others.
Clearly. Maybe instead of approaching things negatively he should have said: If you don't understand people of a different skin color go hang out with some of them. But instead, he chose judgment which is not very Jesus-like.
So, because I don't spend my evenings and weekends with people whose skin color is different from mine, I'm going to be bored in heaven. Even though Jesus will be there and I'll be fellowship with people of all sorts of backgrounds…I'll be 'miserable.' Somehow I doubt it.
Anyhow…what about 'race' relationships? I wonder if the best way to forge relationships, compassion, and understanding is to force a relationship where one does not exist? I wonder if that's what Jesus had in mind when he created the multi-ethnic church of Israelites and Gentiles, men and women, black and white, and so on and so forth? Or maybe the people Jesus wants me to understand are the people that I happen across each and every day of my life? I'm thinking of the little children in my classroom–disabled children, black, white, male, and female. Or maybe he was thinking of the white folks my wife and I ran into at a restaurant this evening? Or maybe it was the black men I used to work with many years ago in a small shop? Or maybe it was the black women I went to graduate school with? Or maybe it was the African man that I hosted in my house for dinner and conversation about 2 months ago? Or maybe it was math teacher who happened to be from Iran?
You see my point is this: I don't think Jesus requires us to force anything as far a relationships are concerned. Why would he? He was fairly consistent about his commands for us: Love people. Love people whoever they are, wherever they are, and whatever skin color they are. Love people. If you don't understand people of a different skin color, don't ask questions, love them. Go and love them. Or, better, whenever 'they' happen across your path, love them. If 'they' are laying in a ditch, love them. If 'they' ask for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The point is that the Christian is defined by his/her love for other people–and it makes no difference who that person is.
If you have to force something, you really need to ask if it is love. If it isn't love, you really need to ask yourself if you are of Messiah.
And this works both ways, my friends because guess what? In all likelihood my pasty white Ohio winter skin is different from your skin color too.
Really it's that simple. Or, here in the seventh chapter of Matthew he says it this way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Do you see that? Do you hear it? Jesus is saying something like this: Along life's way you are going to come across a lot of people. They might be black; they might be white. They might be an Israelite; they might be a Samaritan. They might be purple; they might be pink. They might be a man; they might be a woman. But it doesn't matter who you come across if you belong to Jesus, treat all people with the dignity and love you hope to be treated with by others. Jesus isn't saying we have to go out of our way to force relationships because what he is saying is that if you are a Kingdom person you won't have to force relationships. You won't have to because you will already be in a relationship built upon a foundation of love. Relationships will happen naturally and easily. We can simply move from place to place, from person to person, without fear or awkwardness, loving them all as Jesus calls us to do.
So here's a final point. I don't think Jesus is saying we have to go crazy in this life trying to understand every single person and every single ethnic identity. In some cases, this will be virtually impossible. On the other hand, what he is saying is this: don't do the world like the satan, don't do the world like Herod, but instead go and be kingdom people. When you are a kingdom person your life will be markedly different and people will notice as much without you having to actually announce it. So go! Be my disciples and be marked by your pursuit of the kingdom of righteousness, be marked by your love for your enemies, be marked by your willingness to do more than is asked of you, be marked your prayers for those who persecute you, be marked by your inconspicuous love for others, and be marked by being willing to do for others (love) what you would have them do for you (love).
Do you see? Jesus called us to be different and when we are different…things will be different. We will love people without them having to call attention to their skin color and without us having to announce that we love them. A few months back, a man from Liberia, Africa came to my house. He sat at my table. I served him a bodacious Mexican cuisine that my wife and I prepared. Afterwards he sat in my living room and I served him a cup of hot tea. We talked about Liberia. We talked about his work. We talked about Jesus. When it was done, we prayed together.
We were like old friends who were meeting again for the first time–two friends who had no past, but certainly shared a future. He loved me and accepted my hospitality. I loved him and shared with him whatever he asked for. But you know what? It makes no difference because at the end of the day, he didn't eat with a white man from the USA and I didn't eat with a black man from Liberia. Two disciples of Jesus sat, ate, shared, enjoyed fellowship, and loved each other. And that was enough. I'm certain that in heaven, I won't be miserable because it will be just like that day: unforced, unrehearsed, pure love in Messiah.
In his book Simply Jesus, professor Tom Wright lays out for his readers his case that the Bible is, ultimately, a book about Jesus.
“So if, as the Jewish people believed, they were the key element in God’s global rescue operation, it was doubly frustrating, doubly puzzling, and doubly challenging that the Jews’ own national life had itself been in such a mess for so long. By the time Jesus went about Galilee telling people that God was now in charge, it was close to six hundred years since Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the greatest superpower of the time. And though many of the Jews had come back from exile in Babylon and had even rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, they knew things weren’t right yet. One pagan nation after another took charge, ruling the Middle East in its own way.”
In particular, the Jewish people believe that the Temple was where their God was supposed to live. The Temple was the place on earth where ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ actually met. They saw ‘heaven’ as God’s space and ‘earth’ as our space, the created order as we know it, and they believed that the Temple was the one spot on earth where the two overlapped. But the Temple seemed empty. God hadn’t come back.
So where did the hope come from? How on earth do you sustain hope over more than half a millennium, while you’re watching one regime after another come and go, some promising better things, but all letting you down in the end? How can you go on believing, from generation to generation, that one day God will come and take charge?
Answer: you tell the story, you sing the songs, and you keep celebrating God’s victory, even though it keeps on not happening….This is the story of the Exodus…This is the story Jesus’s hearers would have remembered when they heard him talking about God taking charge at last….When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, chapter 6)
He makes similar, and yet somewhat concluding comments, in another book How God Became King:
That is to say, when Jesus died on the cross he was winning the victory over ‘the rulers and authorities’ who have carved up this world in their own violent and destructive way. The establishment of God’s kingdom means the dethroning of the world’s kingdoms, not in order to replace them with another one of basically the same sort (one that makes its way through superior force of arms), but in order to replace it with one whose power is the power of the servant and whose strength is in the strength of love.
…Jesus, after all, has come to Jerusalem and found the Temple no longer the place where heaven and earth do business, but the place where mammon and violence are reigning unchecked, colluding with Caesar’s rule. Jesus himself, the evangelists are saying, is now the place where heaven and earth come together, and the events in which this happens supremely is the crucifixion itself. The cross is to be the victory of the ‘son of man,’ the Messiah, over the monsters; the victory of God’s kingdom over the world’s kingdoms; the victory of God himself over all the powers, human and suprahuman, that have all usurped God’s rule over the world. Theocracy, genuine Israel-style theocracy, will occur only when the other ‘lords’ have been overthrown.—205-206
So we live in a world much like the world of the Israelites: Fractured, chaotic, rising powers and falling powers, messiah’s everywhere, promises for luxury, means to ends, terrorists, power, influence, intrigue, Hollywood, and celebrity. There’s also the constant bombardment of sin and the war against the flesh.
The church often does its best to imitate and mirror the world and so we do silly things like publicly declare our political affinities on Facebook and Twitter. And we rant (self?) righteously about the influx of Syrian refugees because clearly Jesus told us to be more careful about our own safety than about who we love. And we are, of course, concerned about salvation—our own, to be sure.
This is the world. And this is the church. We keep trying to wrangle power unto ourselves or sell ourselves to the ones we think offer us the best chance of being safe or whom we think we will share their power with us so we can continue to be the church and American. We do this because for some strange reason we have allowed ourselves to think that being an American is more important than being a Jesus follower. We think loving the right people is more important than loving all people. We think as long as I am blessed I can be thankful. We, even the church, keep pointing to the American Dream and American Government as the solution to the world’s woes.
The Bible steadfastly points to Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, the King as the solution. It’s not without significance that while the world points to everything but Jesus as the fix to what ails us, Jesus continually said: I. Am. The way.
And for the apostles, writes Scot McKnight, “it was all about King Jesus.”
So, Thanksgiving. This is what I was asked to speak about today because we are approaching that time of the year when we make a point to be thankful. It is that time when we, Americans, gather together with family and friends and enjoy the fruit of our labor and the company of our people.
It’s also the time when we will forget about what really makes us human because we will spend some time the day after Thanksgiving being thankful for nothing except that which is green and or plastic.
But I digress. I want this sermon to be uplifting to you and I’d like to answer a specific question: for what can we, the church, be thankful? Or maybe I should phrase it this way: What can I say to you this morning that will sustain your hope and enable you to give thanksgiving in the midst of all that we see in our world—all the violence, hate, death perpetuated as it is by the leaders of this world.
If you pay any attention to things at all then you know full well that the world is not quite happy right now. There’s a lot of grumbling and complaining and fighting and war and terror and politics and disease and confusion and tumult and chaos. Everybody is fighting something or someone somewhere. It’s all very disheartening.
Everyone is seeking power.
I see nation rising up against nation. I see brothers rising up against sisters. I see children rebelling against their parents. I see Republican Americans rising up against Democrat Americans. I see one Christian denomination rising up against another Christian denomination. It’s all very disheartening.
It’s all very stupid. Especially when the church imitates it.
Can you imagine if Karl Barth sat down to write Church Dogmatics and began with an exceptional account of how wrecked his life has been by sin, how disturbed his family is/was, and other unsavory and sordid details of his confusion, pain, and suffering and then told us the story of how God redeemed it, made it whole, and eventually used that life to change the lives of countless other equally shattered and broken people?
Neither can I. But maybe if he had, Church Dogmatics, as much fun as they are to read, would be even more fun. (I confess I have not read through the entire Dogmatics, so maybe he did I and I don't know it.)
To be sure, God for the Rest of Us is not Church Dogmatics. Most will probably be thankful for this. But it is another book among a collection of books that continue to be published by Christian publishing houses who are convinced that the every day readers in the church want to read stories about how terrible the lives of their favorite preachers have been. Preachers used to be paragons of untouchable virtue and holiness. Not so much anymore. It's kind of a newer trend where we get insights into practical Christianity via the growth process of (insert favorite preacher's name here). We get to read about their struggles, their families, their suffering, their pain, their doubt, their heroics, their rise from the squalor of outcast kid who doubts his way through Bible college on to having some sort of an epiphany and their subsequent rise to become super-hero pastors of super-mega-giant churches that are doing everything right that most other churches do wrong.
I hate to be this way, but this is the trend. I don't see it slowing down anytime soon because evidently there is a market for it. Evidently, people are buying this stuff. When I think about my own 'rise to stardom' in the world of churchianity, I usually end up sitting around wondering why it is that some people suffer so much and end up writing books and others of us suffer so much and end up reviewing those books. Sometimes, I suppose we come off as bitter.
This is partly what you get though when you read God for the Rest of Us. I'm not, necessarily, suggesting this is a bad thing. Those who read this book will figure that out on their own. To be sure, I think people should read this book because despite my conviction that the preacher should not be the focus of his sermon or an illustration (I learned this in elementary homiletics classes) in this case what we learn is that Antonucci is not some stuck up snobbish preacher unwilling to get close to people or to have people close to him. I like that this is a man who has been through the mud a time or two and yet somehow or other found Jesus. Or maybe Jesus found him. Or maybe Jesus dogged his footsteps until he turned around and asked where the Master where he was staying or the Master informed him he was coming over for dinner. Maybe its a little bit of all of it. Maybe Jesus follows us long before we ever follow him. I don't know. My point is that while I have grown somewhat weary of reading stories about the preachers who have struggled and suffered so much prior to Jesus (and sometimes after Jesus too) and share it in their books, churches, and t-shirts, church curricula, and DVDs, there is something to be said about what these preachers have learned from these experiences.
I think this book is, partly, the evidence of what Antonucci learned through his experiences.
While some Christians seem to go out of their way to protect God from the unseemly and untidy and unwashed heathens in this world, Antonucci goes out of his way to demonstrate that it is precisely 'these types' of people in whom God is most interested. Jesus did say 'it's the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' OK. So Antonucci has a vision one day, or a calling, and he packs up the family and moves to Vegas where he, following the lead of Jesus, starts to befriend and minister to all the wrong people–you know, people who would never fit in in our comfortable, white-washed, stained glass, middle-class suburban campus style churches. And a church starts to grow–and the Lord 'added to their number daily those who were being saved'–right in the middle of Las Vegas.
And if this story is true, and why shouldn't it be and how can it not be, it is utterly remarkable and unnerving the people that Jesus loves into his church through his people.
I heard a young preacher say something once that was utterly brilliant. He said, we cannot build relationships if we don't start them first. Oh, he had me hooked after that because I know that I am a somewhat strange person when it comes to relationships. Antonucci agrees: "The way to change a life is not by judging people but by embracing them. Not by pointing out their sins but by pointing the way to hope" (19). I mean, how simple can one get? He goes further (and I've read variations of this before, so it's nothing new, but I think it sets the tone for what the book is about): "What's so disturbing is that what Jesus was known for–amazing grace–is the exact opposite of what Christians are known for today. We're known for judgment and condemnation. We're known not for what we're for–loving God and loving people–but for what we're against" (19). It's really hard to argue with this.
When I was still a preacher, here I go breaking my own rule, I was one time ripped a new one in a board meeting because I helped a friend with his taxi service. The reason I was ripped? Well, you see, I picked up drunks from bars, I drove people to a local gambling facility, and every now and again I picked up and drove 'exotic dancers' home. You'd never believe some of the conversations I had with people in that car. But it was too much for the uptight members of the board–after all, I was a preacher and I shouldn't be seen in such places or with such people. (It's a true story. It wasn't too long after that that I left the church.) I think God was teaching me to love people. I should have stayed at the church because I ended up not being very loving towards those board members who seem to want to stifle and criticize me.
Love even the judgmental. God is for church boards.
I don't know what is so difficult about loving people right where they are and then allowing God to do the hard work of changing them. But let's take it a step further and suggest that it is our goal to change people, "If our goal is to change people's behavior, to get them to repent, is fear really the best way to do that?" (156) Spend enough time trolling the blogs and you will see that there are a lot of Christians who believe just that. Spend enough time with Jesus and you will see that it will never work because even those who are won over by fear will not last long. Maybe the voices of those who spend more time with Jesus ought to be the voices heard the most by those who think of God as someone who could never love them. Our lives are shaped and we thrive by love. Fear motivates me to nothing, but love? "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). What else need be said?
God is for us, and if he is, who can be against us? Yes, this is spoken in particular to Christians, but isn't there also a sense in which we can say that God is for all people? God is patient and not willing any one should perish. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. All. That is a huge, huge word that is too often left out of our Christianese dictionary. We need to embrace it. We need to embrace all people. And seriously who cares if we embrace people and they take advantage of us or persist in their sin? Will God find fault with us for loving all people?
Ask yourself: Will God judge the church more harshly for loving all people with great love even though they might take advantage of us or for only loving some people who treat us kindly? I think it would be better to ere on the side of love than discernment. God can do the judging, we are called to do the loving.
So, yes, there are parts of the book that made me uncomfortable. For example, I don't know about his list of apologies on 112ff, but I suppose if my apology will lead someone to Jesus, then I'll offer it. What do I care? What matters most: my squeamishness at offering apologies for things I never did? Or someone else seeing the Love of Jesus? I like that he takes the time to open up lengthy passages of Scripture for us and walk through them. In particular, the story Jonah, the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, and the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 were well told. I like that he made reference to The Count of Monte Cristo; I dislike that it was the movie version. I like the stories of redeemed lives and how God took broken people and made them whole again. I like how he is honest about who he is and where he's from because even though I get a little tired of the personal 'how I rose from nothing to start a church and write books' stories, I think in this case it grounds the reader: Antonucci understands well the depths of God's love for all people–not just the few we think ought to be saved. God is for everyone. You name the category, the sub-category, or whatever: God loves people. That's the point. God loves people. So should we.
I am glad for that because this also means he was and is for me. That says a lot.
He ends the book with a worthy challenge for those who read it: Whom Do You Least Want to Love? That's all I'll say because I want you to read the book (so does Antonucci) and I want you to answer the question. I have to answer the question too because I suspect there are a lot of people I find it difficult to love. And yet God loves me. I must change.
Notes are appended at the end and there's a nice appendix titled 'My ABC Book of People God Loves." It just may shock you to see the people God is for, but it may also affirm that you are on the right path in your own choices of who you love. Good reading here. I recommend this book for all Christians who struggle to love people who are different. I recommend this book for all Christian who think it is their job to change people or to judge people. I recommend this book for Christians who are more in love with discernment than they are with Jesus. I recommend this book for Christians who truly believe that God does not want anyone to perish.
Get this book. Read it. Think on it. Then go love someone–maybe someone you never thought you could love.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase God for the Rest of Us Tyndale House Publishers (Trade Paperback $15.99) Amazon (Kindle $9.99 Pre-order) CBD (Paperback $12.99)
- God for the Rest of Us on the internet
- Author: Vince Antonucci On Twitter
- Where Vince hangs out with People Jesus Loves: Verve
- Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
- Pages: 255
- Year: August 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people, people whose lives are a trainwreck, seekers, the saved, the lost, the helpless and hopeless, the loveless, the judgmental
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of Tyndale Blog Network.
- Page numbers in this review are based on an ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
I waited all day. All day it was cloudy, foggy, rainy and just plain miserable. I waited and waited–hoping against hope that the sun would come out and burn away the dreariness of the day. And at last, it happened. The sun came out, the mist faded away, and the day became clear.
It was a glorious thing and after the sun came out the day only seemed to get better.
Spent the evening at the church. Talked to an old friend who was one my youth sponsors when I was a younger man–he and his wife were a blessing to my family when I was learning how not to be an idiot and again when my wife was sick. Back at home, I was told by my wife that the son of some friends of ours had died. He was 45. I had the privilege of baptizing his parents when I was still a preacher. I am sad for them. Very sad.
In Bible study, we spent some time talking about God's Word, the 'importance of learning and keeping God's teaching.' It was an interesting study of Proverbs 3:1-7.
My son, do not forget my teaching,
but keep my commands in your heart,
2 for they will prolong your life many years
and bring you peace and prosperity.
3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and man.
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
There's a part of me that thinks Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was reflection on the words found in Deuteronomy–especially that first sentence where he admonishes his son to 'not forget his teaching.' I agree with the teacher tonight that Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was thinking about the Scripture, the Law. In Deuteronomy, it was the king's task to do this very thing: "When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of the law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees" (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).
In an interesting twist, Solomon forgot nearly everything the Lord said the king was not to do, but I suspect he may well have done this thing: I suspect he did make a copy of the Law. I suspect that much of what is written in Proverbs is a reflection on that Law that he read and copied. I could be wrong and I have no proof, but I have a suspicion. These seven verses in Proverbs 3 kind of reek of Deuteronomy 17 and other chapters.
I like the lesson we had tonight because it spoke to some of the things that I too believe about the church and the Scripture. I think as a church (generally, not specifically) we do not do enough corporate reading of Scripture and I'd like to see that change. Maybe. We were warned by the prophet that a time would come when there would be a famine in the land for the word of God (Amos 8:11-12).
What I was thinking about, though, was this passage in Proverbs. It could be that it's merely an English phenomenon that the word 'heart' appears in three strategic places in these seven verses, or maybe not. I don't have time right now to dig deeper, so let's assume that the word 'heart' really is there in Hebrew. If it is, then here's the progression of the verses:
3:1: "…keep my commands in your heart…"
3:3: "…let love and faithfulness never leave you, bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."
3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart…"
There's a lot I could say here, but I want to just say this much: maybe the path to being able to trust in the Lord with all of our heart and leaning not on our own understanding begins by keeping the word of God close to our hearts, by keeping love and faithfulness close to the heart as well. Maybe we can trust God more when we know God better and that we know God better when we spend more time with him–in his word and by drawing near to him in love and faithfulness. Maybe the key is to replace our own understanding with an understanding that is far superior in every way.
Whatever else might be said, there is a connection here in these three verses between the Word of God, the Love of God, and Trusting God–and not just trusting, but being able to trust. I think the connection is easy to see. When we go through dark times in life, it seems to me that those who know God best are those who are able to walk through the valleys without fear or without losing hope. The people who have spent the most time walking with God through his Word are those who, it seems to me, practice love and faithfulness the most. And isn't it interesting that those who do these things are the very ones who never blink when the valley is dark and the mists of March cloud the day?
I'm not perfect by any stretch of the word. I have failed more than I care to remember–and many of my failures are indelibly etched into my brain. Sometimes these failures cause doubts and fears and even worse days than mere days. There is way through, at least I have found it so, and that is by being in the Word of God and walking with God constantly. There is a way to have those failures erased and that is by allowing the Word of God to cover over them, to rebuild our hearts cell by cell, to scratch out the sorrow and bitterness and once again be clothed with love and faith.
It's a rough thought I have written tonight. I might need to think about it some more, but there's a kernel here for all of us. There's a reason why God gave us the Bible. It's not a riddle book. It's not merely a story book. It's not rules and law and this or that. It is God speaking to us, telling us about himself and who he is, and what he is about, and his hopes and dreams for us. I don't understand it all and I don't try to. But for those who have ears to hear, Jesus said, let them hear. Sometimes the best we can do is just to listen to what God is saying and learn just a little about him that might help us through a dark time that is even less understood than the God we don't understand.
Read. Write. Trust.
Sounds like a perfect recipe to me.
Jesus said a lot of things that we are aware of. Jesus said a lot of things we are not aware of. John tells us the whole world doesn't have enough books to contain all that Jesus said and did. I'm not surprised; although, I'd certainly like to have a little more. We like to play games with Jesus' words and conveniently forget those things he made explicitly clear to us.
Christians are a strange tribe. We like to shoot our own wounded goes the old cliche. We like to point out the flaws of those we dislike and conveniently disregard Jesus' most important command to us when we encounter someone who troubles our sense of right(eous)ness. We like to think our sense of righteousness is the thing that matters and trumps the faith of others and our relationship to them. As I have reflected on my experience with the church, via the internet, I have come to think that maybe a little line in a song by Pearl Jam makes a little more sense to me:
I'm ahead, I'm a man
I'm the first mammal to wear pants, yeah
I'm at peace with my lust
I can kill 'cause in God I trust, yeah
It's evolution, baby
—Do the Evolution
That is, we think that so long as I am righteous, as long as I am singing in the choir, as long as I love Jesus, it's OK for me to do or say whatever I want–even if it is hurtful or hateful to others. I don't have to love someone from whom I am different because I love Jesus. And let's be honest: Christians are professionals at this game. We seem to think we can trample anyone who gets in the way of our righteousness. We seem to think it is our calling as Christians to point out the hypocrisy and sins of other Christians. We seem to think that if they offend us, we are permitted to have a word for them via blog or FB or Twitter or radio or otherwise. We seem to think if Christian 'A' offends Christian 'B' then it is the god-given responsibility of Christian 'C' to point out how heinous Christian 'A' is so that all those hopeless sinners won't think Christians 'B' and 'C' are somehow like Christian 'A.'
Because, let's be honest, the salvation of the world depends entirely upon such scenarios taking place rather frequently, rather loudly, and rather lengthily. I'm an intervention specialist and one of my main responsibilities is to help my students who have behavior issues decrease their Meltdown Level Events in frequency, duration, and intensity. I'd like to be have such a job in the church. I'd like to help people learn the valuable lesson that it's OK with Jesus if we mind our own business and worry about our own sins more than we worry about those of others. I promise you that the church will not fall apart if we suddenly stop worrying about others' sins and calling them out publicly on them.
I wish I could help some Christians reduce the frequency, intensity, and duration of their hatred of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe even help them love a little.
I'm not gonna mention what provoked this post except to say that if we think it is our responsibility to dredge up everyone's, anyone's, or someone's past in order to point out how mean and horrible and terrible they are then we ought to make certain we dig up our own past too because I have a suspicion we, too, are guilty of something heinous and despicable. I have a feeling that those Christians who feel it their responsibility to harass other Christians by dredging up the past are going to find Jesus a difficult task master at some point in their own lives. You know, that whole mercy, love, forgive thing….
Ask yourself, you dredger-upper of the past: in what manner does your 'work' advance the Kingdom of God? In what way does it correspond to the grace of God? In what way is your rebuke helping to turn a brother or sister from sin? In what way is your rebuke restoring them to fellowship? If they have repented 77 times will you demand yet one more? Does it make you feel really good about yourself? Does it help your google-juice? Does it feed your ego? Do you delight in doing something even Jesus doesn't do? How does your effort reflect obedience to Jesus' command to 'love one another'?
In my opinion, Jesus has no use for such people and if he does then I'm not certain I understand Jesus just yet because I don't recall that Jesus dispensed to anyone the spiritual gift of Spiritual Historian. If Jesus can audaciously say something in the present like, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone," then who on earth are we to think he also said something like, "Appoint people in the church to continually dredge up the sins of other christians and expose them to more ridicule in the public arena"?
If I recall Jesus' words correctly, and I think I do, I recall him saying, "Love one another." He gave it as a command. Seriously, as a command. Seriously, christians of the world, did you skip that part that said, "Love one another."
I sincerely love Jesus and the church, but I am beginning to understand at a wholly new level why so many people are opposed to being involved with Christians or Jesus. It's because of the way we treat one another. Sometimes Christians are among the worst people on earth. Sometimes we deserve God's wrath simply because we choose to ignore his command to love one another. I can think of no other way to say it: we ignore his command. Jesus gave us one command, one task, one thing to do: Love One Another and we cannot get it right. Ever. Never.
Jesus said Love. What's so difficult about that? All we have to do is love one another. That's it.
Maybe it's time to give it a try?
God have mercy on me, a sinner, because I have left undone the hard work of loving those brothers and sisters of Jesus. God have mercy on me, a sinner, because I have loved my own righteousness more than my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I grew up believing the untenable notion that Jesus never smiled or laughed. I'm not sure why I believed such a thing. I suppose it's perhaps because there's no explicit statement in the Bible that says, "And on that occasion, Jesus laughed." But surely Jesus laughed, right? Surely this one who gives his Spirit to produce the fruit of joy in our lives knows how to belly-laugh or chuckle or at least smile.
All that stuff about Jesus being fully human and all that surely means that his 30-some years on earth produced at least one smile or fit of uncontrollable laughter. Was he tempted to laugh at inappropriate times like, say, when Peter tried to start a rebellion and managed only an ear? Did Jesus laugh when Paul said something to people who were pushing for circumcision that he wished they emasculate themselves?
"He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision" (Psalm 2:4).
Perhaps we church folk would find worship and prayer and bible reading much more palatable things if we imagined that every now and again Jesus laughs–that maybe some things written in the Bible are meant to evoke a chuckle from us. I remember once a friend of mine who is a preacher in the Anglican tradition messed up the words of the liturgy during the Lord's supper. He made a self-deprecating joke and we all enjoyed a laugh. I wondered way back then, in a blog post I wrote somewhere else, if this was inappropriate.
I have been partaking of the Lord's supper since July 1983 and I have heard laughter during communion once. Was the Passover always a solemn occasion? Was there never laughter? Is church on Sunday's the saddest freaking place on earth? Shouldn't churches be filled with laughter (at least some of the time)?
So I'm thinking about laughter because I do not want to go back to a church and find myself mired in a way of doing things that is the same as the way of doing things that pervades the world. I want to laugh and be joyful. Furthermore, I don't want to think of Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven staring down at us hapless humans with a perpetual grimace on his face. Surely we do not have to wait until we are dead to enter into the Master's joy (Matthew 25:23).
Here's a few things I imagine make Jesus happy.
I imagine it makes Jesus happy when we finally, after many years of bondage, finally realize that he loves us–unconditionally loves us for who we are. It has taken me a long time to realize what this means in my life, but I think it makes Jesus happy. I think he smiles when the proverbial scales come off our eyes and we sit up with a start as if beholding a rainbow or a parrot or a lion fish or a bride for the first time and spit out some stumbling, fumbling word like, "Wow!"
I imagine it makes Jesus happy when we are peacemakers. You know this world is so disgustingly full of hatred and strife and anxiety and fear and war and violence and oppression and, well, insert your own synonym. And people fight and war against one another. There's competition and jealousy. And there are hurt feelings. I think it makes Jesus happen when we genuinely seek peace. I think Jesus is happy when we lay down our weapons–whatever they might be–and seek to live in peace with one another. I think it makes Jesus happen when someone stands in the gap and helps others pursue a course of peace instead of war.
I like to believe it makes Jesus happen when we love our enemies. I've said it before: hate is too easy. We can hate anyone for any reason at any time. Hate is part of who we are and what we do. Anyone can do hate. But what happens when we struggle our way through our feelings of disgust and distrust and angst that prevail when someone hurts us or crushes us or hamstrings us or goes behind our back with a knife and come out on the other side full of love and mercy and compassion? What happens when we turn the other cheek or go the second mile or give up our shirt and our pants? I think it makes Jesus laugh. I think it makes him happy.
I am also inclined to think that Jesus is happy when we, Christians, love one another. I grew up in a tradition that, while not explicitly condemning those in other denominations, made it rather clear that because we 'baptized correctly' and others did not…well, you get the idea. I have spent the better part of the last five years mixing it up with people are not from my closed-door tradition. Thank God for Anglicans who ministered to us–they were not so much Anglicans as they were Jesus's disciples who loved me and my little flock and ministered to us and brought about much healing.
I confess it has been a hard lesson to learn. I love my tradition and cannot wait to get back to it soon. But I have learned to love people from all sorts of traditions. I think this makes Jesus happy. I think it makes him smile. It seems to me that there's enough discontent and divisiveness in the world that we hardly need the church mirroring it or perpetuating it, yet that's what we often do isn't it?
So I ask: why do we find it so difficult to love one another? I mean some of the stuff I see and hear from pulpits or on FB or in blog posts is just appalling. Jesus did not say this: "A new command I leave you, a new command I give you: agree with one another." No! He told us to love one another. Jesus did not say, "By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you all hold to the same theological construct." No, he said the world would know us by our love for one another. But if all we show the world is that we know how to fight and argue and carry on and bicker and back-bite and tear each other apart on the internet then to whom does the world think we belong? Because it isn't Jesus.
I have to wonder why it is the way it is. I have to wonder why we are not engaging in things that make Jesus happy instead of the things that surely must just make him sad. I don’t even know if Jesus gets angry. I think it’s sadness mostly—all that work on the cross, all the suffering, all the Son of Man stuff and for what? So that the church could behave in a manner only slightly worse than the world in general? Aren't we supposed to be different?
One more thing I think makes Jesus happy is this: when we give up power. It’s true. Jesus was among his disciples as one who serves, as one who washes feet, as one who gave his life as a ransom for many. I question a great deal of what I see in the church—especially the so-called mega-churches because it is not service I see but the ongoing want to power. It’s the constant struggle to be on top, to be noticed, to be adulated and congratulated. It’s the race to be the loudest and the proudest and to have our name heard more than the name of Jesus. Churches are very good at making names for themselves; not quite so good at making a name for Jesus. Isn’t there something wrong with that?
We have every tool imaginable to make churches grow so do we really need Jesus? We can grow congregations, but I think only Jesus can grow a church. It’s because we like power. We like control. We like the applause and the people knocking on our door asking what our secret is. We like the money.
It sounds harsh. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m still a wee bit jaded after my encounter with the church. I don’t know. But I cannot imagine for a minute that our proclivity to activity designed to exalt the name of the church makes Jesus smile. Maybe it’s time to just quit everything we are doing and just get back to Jesus.
Maybe our goal should be to make him happy and not ourselves.
I started reading Mark's Gospel last night. Burned through 8 chapters and enjoyed it immensely. I should finish the book tonight if all goes well. Mark is without a doubt my favorite of the four Gospels.
Another thing I cannot help but notice when I read Mark's Gospel is that there is an overwhelming sense that everything Mark writes is designed to evoke a response from us. There is a question that is being asked by the author that stretches from the front of the book to the back: What are you going to do with Jesus? Or, perhaps, How are you going to respond to Jesus when he invades your world and disrupts your life? Because disrupt it he will–either for better or worse–and we will be confronted with a choice to do something about this strange person who seems to appear out of thin-air and walk onto the world's stage: "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan…After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God" (1:9, 14).
Everything is going along for people in those days and then Jesus comes along and starts making a mess of things: he is binding up strong men, turning children against parents, driving demons out of the land and ruining animal herds, and rattling the theological cages of the religious elitists: "Who is this man?" people ask. Winds obey. Demons obey. Storms are calmed. He doesn't fast. Disease flees. He eats with dirty hands. He speaks in riddles. This is the fellow who dares to talk about the nature of the kingdom of God? He cannot even tell the difference between someone who is dead and someone who is sleeping. Yet he teaches as one with authority, he heals, and he forgives sin. Worse yet, he eats with sinners and tax-collectors.
And react people did. They tried to trap him. The laughed at him. They begged him to leave. They begged to go with him. They accused him. They thought he was out of his mind. They ignored him. They trusted him. They listened to him. They were amazed by him. They pleaded with him. They took offense at him. They amazed him. They took advantage of him. They demonstrated faith. They lacked faith. All that, probably more, in just the first eight chapters.
So it gets me thinking every time I read Mark: how would I respond to Jesus if one day he just showed up in my neighborhood or my school or my funeral or my wedding or a party I was hosting or while I was rowing a boat across a lake? I wonder what I would do. I wonder how I would respond? I wonder how I would feel if I met a person who just looked at me and loved me for no other reason than the fact that I am me.
Because that is who people met when they met Jesus.
It's pretty sad when I read more about unconditional love from an author who makes no faith claims whatsoever than I do in books by authors whose sole purpose is to tell their readers about God's unconditional love. Or maybe it's not. Maybe I needed to read it some place else in order for it to really cut me deep.
So I was laying bed last night–rather, this morning between the hours of 2:30 AM and 4:30 AM–utterly unable to sleep. I kept tossing and turning, flipping and flopping, changing positions, sighing and groaning, praying and gasping–I just could not figure out what was going on and why mind would not just shut down for a few minutes so I could catch the sleep so fleetingly eluding me. It was that book the Myth of the Spoiled Child and the word 'unconditional' that kept stretching my eyes, pounding my heart, and infuriating my mind. It wouldn't leave me alone.
I do not lay claim to having many, if any, of those particularly queer moments when God speaks directly to us with words, dreams, or pictures, but I think last night that's exactly what happened. Here are a few of the sentences that kept dragging me down:
Children don't just need to be loved; they need to know that nothing they do will change the fact that they're loved. They require reassurance that their 'lovability' isn't in question, which is another way of talking about self-esteem. By contrast, on conservative critic of self-esteem not only complains about 'unearned praise' for children but expresses distaste for how 'today's parents' are like to express 'enthusiasm for their children's very existence.' (Kohn, 136)
Unconditional love corresponds to one of the deepest longings, not only of the child, but of every human being; on the other hand, to be loved because of one's merit, because one deserves it, always leaves doubt; maybe I did not please the person I want to love me, maybe this, or that–there is always a fear that love could disappear. Furthermore, 'deserved' love easily leaves a bitter feeling that one is not loved for oneself, that one is loved only because one pleases, that one is, in the last analysis, not love at all but used. (Erich Fromm, as quoted by Kohn, p 136-137.)
This is why I was awake all night, but not just this. This of itself merely tickles me. It doesn't leave me so speechless as when I read this and remember what the Bible says about the way God loves us.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
…nothing…in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)
Here's what kept me awake: I suddenly realized that God does, in fact, love me unconditionally. I had an epiphany of His love: I did nothing to earn it and can do nothing to lose it.
I've been reading this book called The Myth of the Spoiled Child by Alfie Kohn. I'll be reviewing it on this blog soon so I won't spoil much with this post, except to say that if what Kohn is saying is true, and at this juncture of my reading I'm leaning towards that particular assessment, then I may well have to reinvent myself as a teacher of students with disabilities. If what he has written is true, maybe more parents, teachers, and administrative specialists in schools ought also to read it; slowly.
The thing about life is that we are always at a juncture of knowing and learning. There are many folks among us who stand at said junctures and say something ridiculous like, "Well, I know; therefore, I need not learn." They are making a commitment to stasis, to static. Everything is fixed, nothing will change. Everything is stable and there is no upsetting that balance.
Others stand at the same juncture and say something lucid like, "Well, here I am. I'm not sure. I'm uncertain. I do not know. Teach me." These folks are making a commitment to a certain level of functional chaos; to imbalance. Everything is fair game, there is no balance. These folks have made a lifelong commitment to learning which necessarily means they are willing to change–at any given moment, on any given subject.
It used to be said, it might still be said, that it is a woman's prerogative to change her mind. I think it is a human beings' obligation to change our minds, our hearts, our lives, our views, our entire being. What would the world be like if we were born with a set of beliefs or values or ideas and those were the only beliefs, values or ideas we ever had? What if we lived in a world where learning was nothing more than the compulsory memorization of meaningless points of historical trivia? What if criminals were sentenced to summary execution which was summarily carried out and were never, ever given the chance to change?
This leads me to question the very nature of education. Is education merely about learning facts and dates and numbers? Or is education about learning to think in such a way that our minds might actually be changed and our lives irrevocably altered? What is change? Who is to say what change is and what it means? Who is to say how much change is required or how much effort should be invested in making changes? Who is to say what standard should be applied to measure whether change has occurred or not? It's all very confusing and rather unpleasant to think about this late.
Yet, I am rethinking everything I have learned about what it means to educate and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to be a teacher; what it means to be a human; what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Maybe I have those in the wrong order.
Some of you know, because I updated my Facebook status, that I have spent the last hour or so sitting on my patio with a nice cup of hot tea and a nice book of Wendell Berry. I had no idea what would happen.
I scribbled in my journal a few words, incoherent; illegible. I listened to rattling cicadas, barking dogs, chirping birds, clapping leaves, and tried to discern the flapping of the butterfly’s wings as the marvelous, glorious swallowtail flitted by scarcely able to control its trajectory because of the breeze waltzing through my backyard. I sipped my tea, breathed the summer air, and slowly, deliberately, lovingly caressed the pages of the book with my eyes.
I can’t read poetry straight through like a novel. Instead I skip around from page to page and read wherever the page stays open long enough for me to fix my gaze. I did so today and then I saw it, devoured it, made bare words my flesh and bone. Wendell Berry surprised me with words that quelled my anxiety, squashed my inner turmoil, and rushed new life into my failing heart.
“The way of love leads all ways
to life beyond words, silent
and secret. To serve that triumph
I have done all the rest.”
–Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir
That’s enough. I just want you to know, or hear, again from love. Maybe you needed to hear from love as much as I do and did.
I confess I have a singular television pleasure (Pawn Stars doesn’t count): The Office. I cannot help myself. If you have watched The Office you know how incredibly absurd Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, is, but you are willing to look through him because even in absurdity there can be wisdom.
Blockbuster Video, the place I call my Office, has previous seasons of The Office on DVD and I can and do watch them while I am working. It’s not a matter of sitting around with popcorn and Coke on a couch. It is a matter of hearing the dialogue–which is often all you really need when watching the office. There is some physical humor, but it’s not really the most important thing. I prefer to say I am listening to The Office.
On the DVD’s one can access deleted scenes and every so often I do just that. I did just that after several episodes during season 2 and in particular I watched the deleted scenes after episode 8, “Performance Review.” Sometimes the best wisdom comes from the places we might easily overlook and I think it is easy to overlook the wisdom of Michael Scott. Here’s what Michael said in one deleted scene:
Michael: What is an office? Is it a group of people? Maybe. Is it an idea? Of course, yes. Is it a living organism? Exactly, yes. And any single cell organism has to have a spine, and that’s me. But the spine is always controlled by a brain, and that is Jan. But the brain needs a heart, and that is me again. So ironic. You know what? The heart is smarter than the brain. But the brain is so effing hot.
I know that won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched The Office, but all you need to read is the part couched in between the absurdity and the vulgarity. It’s kind of like the High Priest making a statement and having no idea what it means, how true it is, or what the ramifications would be for the entire population of the earth (John 11:49-50). But there it is. He said it. The ridiculous and absurd Michael Scott: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” It’s easy to overlook the utter brilliance of this sentence because it is surrounded by typical Michael and because it is only found in the deleted scenes files. I can’t believe this paragraph didn’t make the cut.
The thing about The Office is that, in my opinion, it’s not really about the office at all. I’m no sentimentalist, but I know that what attracts me to The Office is not Michael’s wisdom, Dwight’s antics, or Toby or Stanley or Angela or Kevin or anyone else in The Office. I watch The Office because of Jim and Pam. There it is, I confess: I watch The Office because the love story between Jim and Pam is majestic, grand, beautiful…in my opinion, it’s the only reason to watch The Office.
So I’m a sap. I’m captivated by this love story. The cat and mouse. The come and go. The give and take. The near and the far. The love story that is the central story to The Office is perfectly written. It is a story that perfectly illustrates what Michael said in the deleted scene: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” The heart finds a way. I wish I could tell you that while I sit here and write this I am not crying. I can’t. I’m thinking about the last year of my life and how I have played the mouse to Jesus’ cat, how he has been near and I have been far, how he has given and I haven’t taken. I can’t tell you how I am waiting for our break-up to be over and how I’m anxious to kiss once again for the first time. My heart cries out: Yes! My brain still dwells in the land of Meshek and Kedar. My brain is in the way, even if my heart knows the truth. I want to skip ahead to episode 4 of season 6. Again. But there are many episodes in between.
The story of Jim and Pam is a love story that captivates the heart and the mind. I have watched the relationship grow and grow…anyone who watches The Office knew from the very first time they watched the show that Jim and Pam were in love. We waited and watched and hoped and imagined the day when Pam and Roy would break-up and Jim would be the one and Pam would be the one. We never knew how they would come together. Jim got transferred. Pam was a little stand-offish. Roy got in the way. Jim had Karen. Pam went back to Roy. There was tension. There was chasing. There was flirting. There was danger. There was awkward situations and grand announcements. There was the Kiss. There was the fight. Still we hoped. We even hoped the friendship wouldn’t get in the way! We dared to think that in the end Jim and Pam would be one. We knew they loved each other, but how and when would they be together? At one time Pam told Jim she couldn’t imagine her life without his friendship, but Jim wanted more. We suspected Pam did too, but so much clutter was in the way.
So we watched. We waited. We wanted to see each episode unfold and what new twist or turn their love would take. We feared for Jim lest Roy find out and bash in his face. We wondered how long Pam would hold on to Roy. So we watched. And waited.
And then it happened…
There in the midst of the absurdity of the office, love blossomed and bloomed. There in the midst of every sort of dysfunction and sin, a pure love became. There in the midst of every sort of suffering and turmoil and trial and misery and uncertainty, love reached out its hands and took hold of two hearts and bound them together as one. There in the midst of friendship, surrounded by idiots, suffering, pain, and the every day tedium of mindless work: two people found each other and love won. There in the midst of the 6 billion inhabitants of this planet, two people looked across their desks, their eyes met, and they saw the person they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. There in the midst of the murkiness and drudgery that is life, love was revealed and exposed and confessed and announced and bound and consummated.
There, of all places, love. There, of all things, love. There, of all people, love.
Do not our hearts long for this? Even when our minds rebel and scream and shout and rage against all that is right and good and pure and holy do we not know love? Are we are not all desirous of love? In the end, Paul said, all that really matters is love because all that remains is love.
I know it’s only television. I know it isn’t real. I know that love doesn’t really work…but then again, it does, doesn’t it? Isn’t that why I watch the show? Isn’t it because love is that way, it is like Jim’s and Pam’s? Isn’t it because we know that is exactly how it is, even with Jesus? That is exactly how love becomes. Love grows in the soil of adversity. Love becomes in the midst of the near and the far. Love takes hold in the midst of absurdity and uncertainty. Love is two becoming one.
And ours is a love story. In the midst of all that life is–the wrath, the uncertainty, the unholiness, the unhappiness, the tedium, the dysfunction, the crudeness, the awkwardness, the turmoil, the trials, the suffering–in the midst of it all, there is a love story. Many will write this off as mere fiction–the product of someone’s imagination, entertainment via cable television; and nothing more. But some of us are in on the secret…some of us are privy to the mystery…some of us have been given the key…and we know it is true. Despite out misgivings and our fears that the break-up and tension will never be resolved, that Jim and Pam might never get together, that there are too many obstacles in the way, we are guided by our hearts and our hearts tell us the truth. And we know the episodes that follow. We know there is a marriage and we watch all the previous episodes knowing and waiting with anticipation for the episode when finally, for the first time, the marriage takes place.
We are people who will endure season after season of disappointment because we know in the end, there is a love that will find a way and a love that will not be broken. No chicane will stand. Love wins. And season after season of disappointment will not disuade us from believing.
Then an entirely new life begins.
“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”–Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
I am, and have been, reading Mere Churchianity by the late Michael Spencer, aka the Internet Monk. I really do not think it is possible at this point to write how much I love this book. Michael had a way with words and it continued in this book.
The funny thing about the world is what the church is and what the church does. Churches are strange creatures and, likely, more often reflect the character of the preacher than that of the Head, Jesus. Frankly, I do not know which I dislike more: the church or preachers. Having been a preacher myself for the better part of fifteen years I am erring on the side of caution and disliking the church more.
Preachers are not far behind though.
There’s a relatively new congregation in my community. They are putting the finishing touches on a nice, shiny new building. They are also having a big fair to attract new people–I’m assuming children who will be brought by their screaming parents. Whatever.
I know of another church that proudly announced on its marquee: New Contemporary Service–as if that is the honey needed for the flies. Whatever.
I know another church that, now that there’s a healthy and substantial flow of cash, is fixing a hole in a roof–as if fixing a hole in a roof will suddenly convert the world to Jesus. Whatever.
I can be critical of the church now–as if I was soft on it before. I haven’t had a church home for nearly a year. I’m not altogether happy about that; nor I am altogether sad either. Like I said, church is a funny thing and laying low for a while has given me an opportunity to spy. I’m not so sure I like Big Church (as in Big Oil, Big Money). Church is way too much of a chore, far too much aggravation, and not nearly enough of what I am looking for. That’s not arrogance; that’s reality. What I’m looking for is a church that has a big sign out front that simply says: Friends of Jesus, Friends of People. Welcome.
Here’s what Michael Spencer wrote, “There is little need for large churches stuffed with satisfied audiences. There is a great need for a movement of disciples going into the overlooked places of the world to see and serve the Kingdom of God” (101). I could not possibly agree more. But this will not be the experience of the church so long as the church is comfortable inside itself.
For far too many people church is what we do on Sunday with little regard for actual discipleship created by Jesus. Comfort is the key. The role of the preacher, at least so far as I can see, is to preach the world of God with such power of the Spirit that the comfortable people become agitated and the agitated people are comforted. The Scripture is, after all, a double-edged sword.
I’m still looking for a church that is all about Jesus–by that I mean, of course, that there is a deliberate focus on what Jesus is doing, who Jesus is, and how these two things collaborate and inform, shape and conform, empower and reform the steps we take as disciples of Jesus. I’m looking for a church that is not satisfied.
I am not looking for a church that ‘meets my needs.’ Only Jesus can meet my needs. I’m not looking for a church where I can get helpful hints for living a better life or having a better marriage or anything of that sort. I’m looking for a church where Jesus is the first and last word each week and where Jesus is the substance we meet in the middle. I’m looking for a church where the preacher insists and expects that I open my Bible when the Scripture is read. I’m looking for a church where the preacher, the elders, the communion, the worship–everything–says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When I go to church I do not need to see myself, I need to see Jesus.
Well maybe I’m going on too much about this. It’s easy to be critical of the church and terribly difficult to jump in and be so much a part of the church that these complaints are overwhelmed with love. The church cannot be what I want the church to be, the church can only be what the church is and is becoming by the grace of God. And in this I believe is the lesson Jesus has been teaching me for the past year: love the church regardless of what the church may appear to be in your myopic vision. Love the church like Jesus does.
Simply put, what the church doesn’t need is me and all my bitterness, whatevers, and criticism. What the church needs is Jesus.
“We are created by love, to live in love, for the sake of love…By worshiping efficiency, the human race has achieved the highest left of efficiency in history, but how much have we grown in love?” (Gerald May, quoted in John Eldredge, Waking the Dead, 48)
I’m thinking about this love—and especially as this love relates to the church; to Christians. Commenting on 1 John 5:1, author Morris Womack writes:
“If love is one of the familial traits in God’s family, then each of his children will love God and love the brothers and the sisters in God’s family. You cannot love God without loving your brother. You cannot have one without the other. John reminds us that the way for us to become children of God is (1) by loving God; and (2) by carrying out his commands…[T]he conclusion we expect is: therefore if you love God you will love your fellow Christian.” (College Press NIV Commentary, Morris Womack, 1, 2, &; 3 John, 116-117)
And yet…and yet…Eldredge asks, “Why is it so easy to get angry at, or to resent, or simply to grow indifferent toward the very people we once loved?” (Waking the Dead, 113). John made it perfectly clear in his letter, “…everyone who loves the father loves his child as well…This is how we know that we love the children of God of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands” (1 John 5:1b-2).
Why is love so difficult for us? I mean, as I read blogs and the comment sections of blogs I am led to believe that the family of God is one great big, gigantic dysfunctional family. Why? Because we can’t and don’t and won’t love our brothers in Christ—no matter that we are commanded to. But it is one thing to lament the lack of love and quite another to offer solutions. It is one thing to see others as the stumbling block (“I can’t love them”) and quite another to see ourselves as the stumbling block (“I won’t love them.”) I wonder which is worse.
Ah, therein is my problem. I have no solutions. I don’t know how to convince people that they not only should love their brothers and sisters but that they can. That seems to be what grace does in our lives. That is, enables us to do something, love, that previously we could not do and would not do. I don’t know how to convince myself that I should love. Hey, sometimes it is hard to get over hurt. It is one thing to want love to win and quite another to go out of my way to make certain that is a reality.
Someone else wrote: “Brotherly love is proof of love of God; but the reverse is also true.” (Smalley, 268) Ouch. That hurts. Brotherly love, love God, love people. It makes my head hurt thinking about the various peoples that God calls me to love and the various peoples that God, by virtue of his command, calls to love even me. I can’t imagine the horror some people experience when they read in the Scripture that they are, by virtue of their new birth in Christ, obligated to love so-and-so; or me. I am probably more amazed at the people who have willingly, sacrificially, unconditionally, without an agenda loved me; warts and all that is. Yet I complain when I am commanded to love so-and-so.
Eugene Peterson wrote in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:
“A primary task of the community of Jesus is to maintain this lifelong cultivation of love in all the messiness of its families, neighborhoods, congregations, and missions. Love is intricate, demanding, glorious, deeply human, and God-honoring, but—and here’s the thing—never a finished product, never an accomplishment, always flawed in some degree or other. So why define our identity in terms that can never be satisfied? There are so many easier ways to give meaning and significance to our human condition: giving assent to a creed or keeping a prescribed moral code are the most common in congregations.” (313)
Don’t you think that is too much pressure? Quite frankly it would be much easier if we did have a set of rules that would measure our success; indeed, many think we do. But the Scripture is rather clear that the measure of our success is determined by our love for one another and in no other way. There’s an easy way and the right way. The easy way is rules; the right way is love. And Peterson is right: love is never a finished project or product. There is always some obstacle we have to overcome along the way. Love always wins when we are brave enough to love.
I don’t think I’m searching for anything out of the ordinary, although, to be sure, love is out of the ordinary. It is not what we are accustomed to in this life. So when we get involved with the Jesus life we are shocked that this is what we are called to do. Love one another. Love one another. A new command I give you, Love one another. Jesus said it three times on the night he was betrayed. Three times! I suppose that shocked his disciples that night. Love one another. Pshaw! What sort of kingdom is going to grow, overcome the world, and remain when the cornerstone of that kingdom is love for another?
I’m not looking for anything out of the ordinary, although love does not come naturally to us. To love the people of God causes us all sorts of revulsion and convulsions and indigestion. Yet that command is not rescinded: Love one another is what Jesus left us with. He could have said any of a billion different things is the ‘new command’ he was giving us. And yet…and yet…our story, his story, is defined by love. No matter how complicated it becomes the command never changes: Love one another. Jesus either had a sense of humor or he was serious. Could be both. But while not excluding the former, I am inclined toward the latter.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
Yeah, right. That’s going to work.
The Love of God in Christ
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
“But Paul’s vision of God’s love, rising here like the sun on a clear summer’s morning, shines through all the detail that has gone before…God’s love has done everything we could need, everything we shall need. As Paul continued to explore the meaning of the reconciliation that has taken place between God and human beings, he delves down deep into the depths of what God had to do to bring it about….When we look at Jesus, the Messiah, we are looking at the one who embodies God’s own love, God’s love-in-action.” (NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, pt 1 chapters 1-8, 86)
Paul has spent a great deal of space telling the world, telling the church at Rome, telling anyone who would listen exactly how terrible is the predicament of man. It is bad. One might say that if it was bad in Paul’s day, it might be worse now. I doubt it. All bad such as Paul is speaking of is relative to the age. That’s not to say bad is relative, it is to say that the nature of the depravity is relative to the age. I agree with many who think that there is something terribly amiss in this world, in our culture, and in the church in general. I am not so pessimistic to think it is beyond redemption-in fact, I think that might have something to do with Jesus and why he came in the first place.
That’s what I love about Romans 5:6-11. If one were to read Romans and suddenly stop at the end of Romans 4, one might be left despairing and hopeless although, to be sure, Paul has dropped hints and given us glimpses of the beauty of what God has been planning for humanity such as chapter 3:23-24: “…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” And perhaps also this in chapter 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into the grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” But these hints in these places are hints. Here in Romans 5:6-11, Paul blows the lid off the whole thing: Here’s what God did despite all that I have written about in the previous paragraphs! And we are stunned. We are stupefied. We are knocked down; thrown for a loop. Our entire world is shattered by these few sentences concerning God and his actions.
How can we not be bowled over by such statements? How can any single one of us, any of us, read such passages of Scripture as this and think that it means anything but what it says at face value? In the midst of all the wrath, in the midst of all the sin, in the midst of all the hate we have for God, in the midst of all the pride and boasting, in the midst of all the immorality, lying tongues, open grave throats, in the midst of all the convoluted ways we have chosen to live precisely because of our free-will-there is God. There is God! Standing at the dawn with his arms opened wide welcoming home all those who lived in the manner Paul described in chapter 1 is the God who loves. There is God! I don’t know about you, but when I read how God demonstrates his love (which leads me to understand how he really, truly feels about me) I am stunned into silence, humbled, humiliated; wrecked.
At just the right time God did the most inconceivable thing: No eye had seen, no ear had heard, no one could even imagine what God had planned for us; many still find it impossible to believe. Yet God was not even willing just to say ‘I love you.’ For God it was not enough to give lip-service to his great love for us: He demonstrated it. He made it visible. He made it concrete. He put his love on display for all to see. He so loved the world that he didn’t bother to ask anything of us. He so loved the world that he sent, essentially, himself. Paul will later express this love as such: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (8:31-32)
Have any of us plumbed the depths of love this God has for his rebellious children?
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians)
Is it possible to read Romans 5:6-11 and be anything but overwhelmed? Is it possible to read these verses and be anything but destroyed, thrown down, overwhelmed, unraveled, and undone? Is it possible to consider that God loves us quite in spite of ourselves and be anything but humiliated and humbled? And so Paul can rightly ask in these verses: If God loved us this much while we were yet sinners, then ‘how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life?’ Or if God demonstrated his love for us while we were yet rebellious, then how much more ‘having been justified by his blood, shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!’
I’ve been thinking about these verses because it seems to me that this God is rather amazing. Paul hasn’t written, in these particular verses, about the pride of men. He has written about how utterly confounding is this God who loves and forgives and heals and justifies and resurrects despite the worst man has to offer. “You see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
So there it is again: Hope! Forgiveness! Healing! The love of God towards a people who are decidedly against him. He continues, time and time again, to astound us and reverse all our conceptions of himself. We hate, and he loves us. We run away, he chases after us. We curse, he blesses us. We sin, he forgives us. We deny he exists, he shows Himself in Jesus. We kill him, he Resurrects! We can’t really make out this God can we? We cannot really, truly comprehend a God who goes out of his way to make himself real to us, who so desires that we be his people and that he be our God that he will be crucified to make the point and to make it possible, who is so wildly in love with us that he himself will deal with our sins instead of asking us to. He makes a way where no way exists. He creates a people where none is. He extends mercy where there is none.
I’ve been thinking about this God who loves us quite in spite of ourselves. I’ve been thinking about this God who loves us. I’ve been thinking about this God who thought it necessary to demonstrate his love to us, and did so in the flesh; in Jesus. If there is anything that dispels pride in humans, it is this amazing God who loves; the God of grace. This is the God we need to preach and share and adore. This is the God who saved us in Christ.
The best irony there is is that God loves us. In spite of all the worst that Paul wrote we are, in spite of all the devastation we manage to conjure up because of sin, in spite of our creative habit of inventing new ways to die and kill and run away from God-in spite of it all: He still loves us. The Hound of Heaven dogs our every step and won’t relent; pressing in on every side.
Dare we imagine a God, dare we submit to a God-this God of the Bible, fully come in Jesus Christ? Dare we love such a God who dared to love us?
Soli Deo Gloria!
I’d like to share a thought or two on the subject of Christian Unity. I am a preacher by calling, and as such, lately, I have been preaching a series of sermons to my congregation on this ever so strange idea of Christian Unity or as I prefer to call it, essential oneness. I have been preaching this series of sermons because my congregation has been going through some difficult times lately and we needed to be reminded of what Scripture says about our oneness in Christ.
It’s no small thing for a church to be one in heart, mind, and ambition. If you think about what Christ did when he brought us together it is really quite remarkable. He pulls people together who are different races (although we all belong to the human race), people of different colors, people of different nationalities, people from different religious backgrounds, people from differing social backgrounds (‘rich’ and ‘poor’), men, woman, young, old–the list could go on–and he throws us all into one great big bag that he calls ‘church’ and says: “Find a way to make it work.” Find a way to make it work?!? Seriously? Seriously.
Jesus knew, knows, what he is doing; doesn’t he? I mean, no two people come into the church with the same history or motivation or even theological ideas. For that matter, no two people ever even retain those original theological ideas. As few as 10 years ago, I would never have considered an Anglican preacher to be among my best of friends–simply because of theological ideas. You know what, today I can; and I am glad for it. The problem we have, I think, is that we in the church are far too concerned about the baggage that people carry with them after they become Christians. We sort of seem to think they ought to drop it all right away and get on board the Jesus train. When it takes longer, we get frustrated, irritated, angry, and begin to lack patience; love might slip.
That is, we think that people need to be remade into our image. You know what I mean, right?
That’s when problems creep into the church–when we forget to love. So we believe things like this:
- Those people who are not maturing at the same rate as I am are bothersome.
- Those people who are not thinking like I am theologically are weaklings.
- Those people who do not see things the way I see them are troublemakers.
We think that anyone who is not ‘like me’ is, clearly, not a Christian at all. Or worse. You know what the problem with all this is? We are not being remade in the image of other human beings! That’s the glory of it all! I don’t have to stack up against other humans, because they are not the template; they are not the standard; they are not the goal. Jesus is. Paul wrote in Colossians 3 that we are being recreated in the image of our creator who is Jesus. And none of us is there yet. We are all still on the way. Only those who fail to recognize this ‘on-the-wayness’ lack the courage to be patient with others. Those who think all baggage must be left at the door are those who do not believe Jesus came to ‘save the sick’ and the ‘sinners.’ We might sing ‘just as I am’ but there are a lot people who don’t believe it for a minute. They think it is something more like ‘you better get the way I want you or even Jesus won’t help you.’
So, then, what does all this have to do with unity in the body of Christ? Well, consider these words from Paul’s pen to the Ephesian church:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Be patient with others. Be humble–they may be more advanced than you think. Work at unity in the body. It won’t be easy: work at it. And here’s the thing, if we have a proper view of ourselves (humility) and a proper view of others (patience and bearing with them) then working at unity in the body will be our goal. But if we are not working at maintaining peace, then are we working at war? Even a casual indifference (not working towards unity) is an example of not working at maintaining unity in the body. We must work at unity in the Body of Christ. Work. We cannot afford to not work for peace in the Body because if we don’t work at it war will break out among us.
Growing up is the goal: the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Along with self-sacrificing efforts at unity comes maturity in Christ as we are patient with one another and understand that God has apportioned his grace to us. Unity in the body and maturity in the individual somehow go hand in hand. Then there’s that grace word again! It’s so intrusive isn’t it? So how do we ‘make it work’?
It’s not complicated. He says three times: Bear with one another in Love. Speak the truth in Love. Build up the Body in Love. Do you think we can overstate the case for how much we must love in the Body of Christ? Do we have enough room to love? Can we humble ourselves and love? For the sake of the essential oneness of the Body of Christ can we love one another? Can we recognize that all of us are ‘on the way’ and none of us has arrived?
It’s that love thing. It’s that grace thing. It’s that patience thing. It’s that humility thing. Paul wants us to grow up, yes, but he is saying to the people that growing up takes time. It is the goal. It is the point. But it is not accomplished overnight. And it is not done in isolation. Maturity is an ‘all’ issue. We work together in unity so that we might worked together for maturity. We do it! We won’t become mature on our own. We need each other and this is why we are patient, speak the truth in love, bear with one another, think of ourselves in humility, understand that grace has been poured out in Christ, he gave us teachers and preachers and prophets, and this is why we should make every effort to maintain peace in the Spirit.
Do you really think for a minute that people can grow up and mature in Christ when there is fighting and arguing and carrying-on happening in the church? Do you think God will tolerate new babies living in a hostile place, in an environment of warfare? I don’t think so. How can people who persist in immaturity think for a minute that God is going to entrust them with babies who need to grow up in their faith? Not. Gonna. Happen.
So we must work at unity in the Body of Christ for the sake of our maturity. Christians need an environment where healthy interaction can take place and folks can grow up in their faith–into the Head who is Christ. Love will go a long, long way towards this goal. If we truly desire unity in the Body of Christ, love is the place we must start. Apart from patient, humble, bearing-with-one-another love–maturity is not likely to happen.
Soli Deo Gloria!