Thursday, October 29, 2009

Relationship, or Knowledge?

It’s so much easier to study about about Jesus than to be a student of Jesus. We face the constant temptation to fill our heads with the details of his life and ministry. Pastors and college professors emphasize the need to memorize Bible verses or learn Greek and Hebrew. Publishers produce massive volumes of systematic theology. Popular Christian books suggest Biblical “keys to success” for our finances, healing, and any other human need. But Jesus is not a system, he is a person.

Perhaps we should give ourselves first to filling our hearts and lives with his presence. An omniscient God is not impressed with the size of our intellect, but he is impressed with the size of our heart. How can a finite human mind grasp an infinite God? St. Augustine, one of the greatest intellectuals in history, lamented that the “mansion of his heart” was too small and asked God to graciously enlarge his heart, not his mind. The Holy Spirit, who breathed out every word of the scripture, is not impressed with how many verses we have committed to memory, but he is impressed with how many verses have found their way into our everyday lives. Jesus didn't care much for religious knowledge, but he was astonished by the faith of simple people like widows and gentile soldiers.

Even though the Scripture encourages us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” we are constantly tempted to pursue human understanding regarding the words of Jesus when we should pursue his living presence. Trust is all about relationship, understanding is all about intellect. In Jesus, God chose to become a man. The infinite stooped down and clothed himself in humanity. In Jesus, God did not pretend to become a man, God became a man. In his earthly ministry Jesus did not reveal all the secrets of knowledge and learning in human history. He chose instead to reveal how it was possible to enter into relationship with the creator. Jesus chose to reveal the Kingdom of God. By his actions, Jesus teaches us that relationship is more important than understanding. We know this intuitively. We tend to forget it when it comes to our faith.

Faith does not require us to throw our brains into the trash. It does, however, require us to order our lives around what is most important, and relationship comes first. Jesus opened the way back to relationship with the creator. The good news of the gospel is that the Father has gone after the very children who have rejected him. He refuses to leave us alone. He will pay any price--even the life of son--in order to win us back again. That's a committed relationship in action. By contrast, in so much of our Christian fellowship with one another we require intellectual agreement with our favorite doctrines.

Some of us have busied ourselves with developing human descriptions of God’s action. We discuss words like justification or sanctification. We try to present the legal reasons Christians can expect to go to heaven when they die. When Jesus paid the price for reconciliation, I do not believe he was thinking in terms of “going to heaven when we die.” I believe his focus was on demonstrating God’s irrepressible love. Jesus described eternal life in terms of relationship with God: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17: 3) Of course it’s true that we have the hope of going to heaven. It’s only natural. Since God is eternal, he will naturally bring his friends with him into eternity. It's where he lives. “In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14: 2 - 3) I suspect that when Augustine prayed the mansions of his heart would be enlarged, he was asking for the work of heaven to begin in in his heart then and there.

God is the creator and sustainer of everything. He is certainly not against the use of our intellect. In fact, in Jesus are "hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 2:3) We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, mind, and strength, so we can confidently apply our intellect in the love of God. As we give ourselves to study, we should also remember that the countless of number of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation who will worship him in heaven will certainly include the unlearned and the illiterate--and they may have a thing or two to teach us about a loving relationship with Jesus.

The challenge for us as Students of Jesus, then, is to know him, and not settle for knowing about him.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Mickey Mouse or Mission?

One of my on-line friends took his kids to Disneyland this summer. He’s seriously addicted to Twitter, so with the help of his iPhone the rest of us got to experience the day as well. He spent a ton of money and dove into the whole Mickey Mouse experience. His final Tweet from Anaheim that day: “We have left the park--now what do we do with these mouse ears?”

His experience outside the park was a parable for followers of Jesus. What happens if we are so heavily invested in the church-world that we look ridiculous outside the church? It’s one thing to be a fan of Mickey Mouse inside an exclusive park where everyone is a fan. It’s quite another to represent him out in the real world. And I wonder, are foam ears the best way to do so?

Another question: what if our devotion to Jesus only finds expression in the “safe” environment of the church building? Is it really devotion to Jesus? Jesus created his church, but he did not create houses of worship. [Author’s note: insert the usual disclaimer. “There’s nothing wrong with church buildings. I even like some of them!”] He directed his followers into the world. This should not be surprising, since he created the world and operates from the perspective that the world belongs to him. The church’s venue is all the earth. It’s his, and he wants it back. When all of creation had turned its back on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the triune God determined to take judgment on himself in order to win back the world. Jesus said it this way: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3: 17)

As students of Jesus, we have the same mission, and the church exists in mission, not buildings.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Staggering Possibilities of Imitating Jesus

God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Many of us would be thrilled to attain promise Jesus offered: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11: 28 – 30) It’s true: there is a practical, day-to-day, moment-by-moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises. I suspect that for most of us, this would be enough. But what if this wonderful invitation represented the starting point of our life in Christ? What if Jesus has something more in mind for us?

Beyond rest and peace are the staggering possibilities of living a life imitating Jesus in word, thought, attitude and deed. I believe Jesus invites us to learn from him because he intends to reproduce himself in us. He does not invite us to learn about him; he presents to each of the incredible offer to become conformed to his image.

In Jesus, God came to earth to accomplish something greater than the forgiveness of sin. Jesus also came to earth in order demonstrate the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with the Father. Jesus was fully God and fully man; to understand his humanity is to encounter the hope that Christlikeness is possible in this life. In his earthly ministry Jesus used everyday situations to shape his disciples: paying taxes, feeding the hungry, fishing, encountering a fever at home, settling disputes between people filled with pride and competition. Jesus knew that commonplace situations contained eternal possibilities: a drink of water could change a town, coins could become cities, and palm leaves could threaten an empire. Moreover, Jesus expected to leave behind a group of followers who were capable of continuing his work in every respect. His solutions transformed the most unlikely cast of characters into world-changers who operated with his priorities, lived out his example, and operated with the same authority and power as their Master.

Perhaps for some this vision is too large. If we are overwhelmed by the call to imitate the Lord Himself, then perhaps we could find a more accessible role model? We might be tempted to choose another mentor: a pastor, a friend, a celebrity, or an “older brother.” For those tempted in this direction the letter of James has a remarkable suggestion: consider Elijah. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5: 16b – 18) Who is greater, Jesus, or Elijah? Of course, we know the answer. Shouldn’t Elijah’s life of faith and practice be more attainable than that of Jesus?

“Elijah was a man just like us.” How many of us believe that? Elijah’s life story involves a supernatural prayer life capable of changing weather patterns. Elijah was a man like us? We can immediately see that in some ways this is true: he was subject to uncertainty, perhaps even bouts with depression. These similarities resonate with us, but Elijah also miraculously multiplied food, called down fire from heaven, and raised the dead. If James seriously attempted to lower the bar of discipleship by suggesting a mere human as a mentor, in our day we are still left standing and staring at the height of the bar. Elijah’s life certainly has the authority of scripture, but how are we to understand, interpret or adapt his life to our experience? What would be the response of our family or friends if we maintained that we were just like Elijah? Yet we know we are called to follow Jesus, not Elijah.

The difficulty in asking the question, “what would Jesus do” comes not in imagining a possible answer—most of us can figure out what Jesus would do. The difficulty lies in seeing ourselves as capable of imitating his actions. Over the years I have taught several introductory-level classes in New Testament at a nearby university. When we finish reading the gospels I always ask my students if they think Jesus is a worthy role model. In every class nearly every hand goes up in the affirmative. Then I ask my follow-up question: “How many of you think it’s possible to live up to his example?” Not a single hand goes up. No one moves. Who in their right mind would claim they could measure up to Jesus? It is one thing to esteem Jesus as a holy man, or even recognize his claim to be God-come-to-earth, but who would take on the responsibility to be like him? We affirm him as a role model and simultaneously deny any real possibility of becoming like him.

We must choose whether becoming like Jesus is possible in this life, or even desirable. If we decide that becoming like Jesus is not possible, could it be that we are avoiding facing the more difficult question of whether it is desirable?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Who is this, really?

One day I left my cell phone in a friend’s office. When my daughter sent a text message soon after, my friend thought it would be fun to respond to the text and pretend to be me. After an exchange of just two messages my daughter texted back, “Who is this really?” She knew my voice. Even though she was apart from me and limited to the shorthand of text messaging, she was not fooled by an impostor.

One sure sign that we are becoming followers of Jesus is our ability to distinguish his voice from others. Jesus said simply, “My sheep know my voice.” Yet one hallmark among Christians in our day is anxiety regarding God’s direction and guidance. How can there be so many believers who struggle with hearing his voice?

I’d like to suggest that one reason for the anxiety of our age is that we have reduced the gospel to a forgiveness transaction, one that does not require relationship or presence. The good news is frequently presented as the deal of a lifetime: Jesus died for each of our sins, and paid a debt we could never pay. Of course that's true, but we have been taught to take the deal without entering into a relationship with the loving God who paid that price. When we embrace the Biblical image of the new birth we should recognize that the scripture is describing a spiritual reality: that of a child who grows in awareness of a parent’s loving presence. An infant knows the sound of its mother’s voice long before it understands the meaning of the words. A child understands the meaning of its parent’s words without a complete understanding all of the reasons the words were spoken. The relationship between parent and child grows over time, and with the growth of relationship comes depth of recognition and understanding.

Perhaps this week we can hear this much of the shepherd’s voice: “Please don’t reduce me to a transaction. Come to me, listen to the sound of my voice, get to know my words, and discover my heart."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lightning and Thunder: Seven Meditations

Perhaps you’re like me: from time to time I catch myself thinking, “If I only had a little more faith I could be a better disciple.” Actually, we could substitute nearly any other quality for the word faith, “if I only had a little more teaching, time, energy . . .” Most of us are keenly aware of the qualities we lack as followers of Jesus. We possess the assurance of our weakness instead of the assurance of his faithfulness.

Let me share with you a passage from Peter’s second letter that changed my life forever:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort . . . ~ 2 Peter 1: 3 - 5

When I read this passage several years ago it flashed like lightning across my heart, and the thunder still rattles my everyday life. Let me share seven meditations from these amazing words. Perhaps you could carry them with you, one each day; even a whole day is not enough time to consider the implications of each statement.

• “His divine power . . .” As followers of Jesus, our everyday life in Christ should be based upon his divine power, not our human strength.

• “has given us everything we need for life and godliness . . .” The problem is, most of us think that God did everything on the cross and now the rest of our life in Christ depends upon us. Good news: he isn’t finished dispensing his grace!

• “through our knowledge of him . . .” Road block—our western mindset leads us to believe that the knowledge of him comes through mere study. A more fruitful approach is to know him by experiencing his presence.

• “his own glory and goodness. . . ” 21st century Americans have difficulty understanding “glory,” but his glory can impact our life—and he is good beyond all measure. Better yet: his glory and goodness are directed toward us!

• “He has given us very great and precious promises . . .” Do we ever reflect upon his promises? I’m afraid that for most of us his promises are like autumn leaves: beautiful, but not very useful.

• “So that through them you may participate in the divine nature . . .” Here is where the lightning flash knocked me over. We can participate in God’s nature, right here, right now. Who knows the full meaning of this phrase? Whatever it means, it has to be good!

• “and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires . . . “ Many believers are trapped into thinking the gospel is only about forgiveness, but the good news is even better: we can be set free from the cycle of corruption!

These are the seven meditations, but there remains one further step. The scripture calls us to action as well:

For this very reason, make every effort . . .” Notice that “effort” comes after we encounter his divine power, his glory and goodness, and his precious promises. Too many disciples of Jesus, serious in their commitment to follow him, believe that their effort comes first. Instead, our effort is a response to all he has done.

For this very reason, make every effort . . .” But there is another segment of Christians who think effort is opposed to grace. For these friends we can only quote Dallas Willard (as we do so often!) “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.”

The challenge of this passage continues into verses 5 – 11. The danger of these next verses is that we believe we can accomplish the list apart from his divine power, his glory and goodness, and his precious promises. Don’t be in a hurry. Take a week to meditate on what he has done. It will take a lifetime to “make every effort.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Reckoning the Time

Who can live in the timing of God? It’s one thing to agree with God’s viewpoint intellectually; it’s quite another to express that agreement in concrete action. Jesus modeled agreement with the Father by doing God’s will in perilous times. In simple, direct language Mark’s gospel reveals that Jesus launched his ministry at the very time that the Kingdom message could get you thrown into jail:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" ~ Mark 1: 14 – 15

In an atmosphere of resistance and oppression, Jesus decided that the time was right to proclaim good news. Herod, a puppet-king of the powerful Roman Empire, had jailed John the Baptist because John’s preaching had threatened the status quo. Human wisdom would have suggested that Jesus keep things on the down-low until passions had cooled. You can almost hear the counsel of the worldly-wise in Jesus’ day, “Wait just a little while,” they might advise. “Let the rich and powerful turn their attention away from preachers in the countryside.”

Instead, Jesus modeled a ministry that was directed by the Spirit. In a world overrun by a pagan power, in a world rife with political scheming and considerations, in a world where caution was the order of the day, Jesus boldly declared that good news, the best news, was within reach. The source of his good news had nothing to do with the powers of the age.

It’s only natural to look for the “best time” to engage in ministry: wait until the economy is stronger; wait until the political climate is warmer; wait until the streets are safer, until your children are older, until your savings account is fatter. But Jesus had a different schedule. He said simply, “The time has come.” He took into consideration only one factor: God’s Kingdom was at hand. His message was not pointed at some future-time, instead, he announced that the future was breaking into the present. God’s Kingdom was beginning to invade the kingdoms of the earth, and if God was on the move, how could Jesus remain still?

I believe that “the time has come” each day. Since Jesus inaugurated the in-breaking of the Kingdom, every day with God presents opportunities to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. The only important question is whether we will follow him.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Church Membership for Dummies

If you’re thinking about “moving your letter” to our church, don’t bother. It’s a pretty bad situation: we’ve been doing church for a dozen years, and we still don’t have a clue about determining church membership. Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. If you want something well thought-out, go read Dallas Willard. I’m of at least six minds on the matter, and I’m one of the pastors.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sold out for the local church. I’ll show my cards up front: “me and Jesus” doesn’t cut it. I believe Jesus has called every authentic follower into relationship with a local congregation of believers. Please allow me to be rude: I believe if you’re not tied in tight with a local church, you are just plain deceived and open to significant danger.

But here’s the thing—we just can’t figure out how to do church membership. Some congregations receive believers into their church through baptism, others ask members to sign a covenant, and still others require a catechism class and confirmation ceremony afterward. But none of those methods do it for me. Perhaps one is as good as the other—or perhaps one is as bad as the other.

The closest we can get to membership at our place is that we know it when we see it, and we know it when we don’t see it. I guess that’s pretty thin, theologically speaking. All across the U.S., church membership rolls are swollen with names of people who haven’t ventured into worship with their co-members in years. Their official pastor wouldn’t know them if they both met in a fender-bender. That’s thin, too.

Some of the New Testament models are challenging. The church is described as the God’s house, God’s field and God’s temple, and that’s just in one chapter (I Corinthians 3)! The New Testament images of the church are vivid and many. These passages convince me that the church membership is vital to a believer, like a heart or kidney. But none of the images help me determine a membership model.

Where’s the balance? Here are some examples I’ve witnessed:

  • I’ve visited Pentecostal churches where church attendance is the standard. They literally take attendance and post it publicly. And why not? Corporate worship is vital to spiritual health. And yet . . .
  • I visited a church in the Amazon basin of Peru where the local pastor asked me to visit a “backslider” and urge him to return to the fold. Turns out the guy was a baker who used a mud oven to ply his trade. He was a backslider because he skipped church two Sundays in a row to build a roof over his oven before the rainy season set in. At least the pastor noticed he was missing. And yet . . .
  • I’ve visited large churches where the pastor and staff would have no idea whether or not I had attended in the last two months, much less two weeks. At least there’s freedom in a place like that. And yet . . .
  • I’ve visited churches where new members sign agreements regarding doctrine, attendance, commitment or giving. Correct doctrine seems pretty important, doesn’t it? And I have no problem with measuring commitment by time, energy and money. And yet . . .

But I’m rambling. Trouble is, I can’t leave this alone because I know it’s so important. I’d like to get to the place where we settle it to our (and God’s) satisfaction.

I totally believe Jesus when He says, “you must be born again.” I believe Him so much that I think we really are born into God’s family. We don’t choose our family; our family chooses us. I wouldn’t let my six-year-old run away from home. I would go after her; and yet my 23-year-old has left home, married and started a new family. I’m all in favor of that!

I’m convinced that being a part of a church should be authentic, natural and organic. We should just know. Robert Frost said that home was a place where, “when you have to go there/They have to take you in.”

That’s as much as I’ve got. Perhaps the rest of you can set me straight. I’m willing to listen

Monday, October 5, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Hearing His Voice

Following Jesus requires hearing his voice. We have the record of his life, death, and resurrection in the four gospels. We have the record of the early church and the record of letters to those churches, but we need more than the historical record. We need to hear his voice. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10). These famous words offer an abundant life to those who hear his voice and follow him. The tenth chapter of John’s gospel contains an image of Jesus as the good shepherd. Three times Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice.” (vs 3, 4, & 16)
Here is a Monday meditation: do I know his voice? How does Jesus speak to me, personally?
The scriptures provide revelation and direction to all believers. The words of the Bible are true and sure. But how do I hear his voice to me, personally? If Jesus wants to lead me to a safe place where I can experience the fullness he has planned for me, how do I know where to go and what to do? It’s true that the scripture can provide insight and guidelines: how to avoid sin and enter into joyful gratitude, but how will I know specifically where to go, and when? The answer lies in our ability to personally hear his voice today, and each day.
It’s Monday. When the craziness of the business day begins to settle into the routine of a new week, here are some questions to consider:
  • Do I really know his voice?
  • Apart from the Bible, how does Jesus speak to me?
  • How are his voice and the promise of abundant life connected?
My prayer is that you will find a quiet place to listen.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Don't blame me, I didn't say it.

If you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else. You should pick someone who is widely respected and is recognized as an authority: the kind of person that would make others think twice before they disagree. I think I have a quote like that. Here goes:

Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have never decided to follow Christ.” ~ Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, PhD., and professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy. He is the author of numerous books on spiritual formation. His work, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God won Christianity Today’s book of the year award in 1999. He would win every year he writes a book except the people at C.T. feel the need to share with others.

Christians in the United States are more charitable than any other demographic group. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we divorce, go bankrupt, cheat on our taxes, engage in extra-martial sex, and generally live life at the same level as everyone else in society. Christians—those who take the name of Jesus Christ as their prime identity—do not follow him in any significant way. We have taken his name, but we have not taken his yoke.

Worse still, a large section of the American church has presented the gospel message as exclusively a matter of going to heaven when you die. While this is a wonderful benefit of following Jesus the fact remains that the gospel message proclaimed by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles was the “gospel of the Kingdom of God.” In most churches this phrase is altogether foreign even though there are more than a hundred New Testament references to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is hard to miss in the New Testament, but we have somehow found a way. It’s right out in the open: for example, the first request of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Closely related to the message of the Kingdom of God is the need for Christians to heed the call to be Christ-followers. The Biblical word for this is discipleship, an idea that is nearly always omitted in evangelistic presentations. Our outreach efforts highlight the promise of heaven to exclusion of following Jesus. In his book, The Great Omission, Willard points out that following Jesus and teaching others to do the same is the mission of the church. This is accomplished through discipleship:

Eternal life is the Kingdom Walk, where in seamless unity, we “Do justice, love kindness, and walk carefully with our God.” (Micah 6: 8) We learn to walk this way through apprenticeship to Jesus. His school is always in session. We need to emphasize that the Great Omission from the Great Commission is not obedience to Christ, but discipleship, apprenticeship to him. (The Great Omission, p. xiv)

Is it any surprise that our churches are filled with people who do not demonstrate a significant difference from the rest of society? Is it possible that by concentrating exclusively on “eternal life,” the American church has largely gotten the message wrong? We are a church that has made following Jesus optional, while the words, “follow me” were the very ones Jesus used to call the disciples.

Of course, Dallas Willard didn’t make this stuff up. Willard knows that if you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else:

A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"

"All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."

Peter said to him, "We have left all we had to follow you!"

"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life." (Luke 18: 18 – 30)

Jesus connected eternal life with the call to come and follow. Do we dare to do the same? I’m just glad that I didn’t say it. He did.