Thursday, July 30, 2009

Join the Jail-break or Join the Break-in?

“How do we help people know and live the life of a Kingdom catalyst, and that they can join with the Father for his reign to break into the world? This is the kind of "discipleship" that I need and want to pass on to others.” ~ Steven Hamilton

Steven Hamilton posted these words in the comment section after the Monday Memo, and they go right to the heart of discipleship. This week’s Monday Memo suggested that there’s an important difference between seeing ourselves as “born again” or seeing ourselves as “born from above.” The text in John, chapter three, can support both translations. Most translations favored by evangelicals give us “born again,” but the New Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic translation, renders the idea “born from above.” I find it interesting that historically Catholic Christians have been more engaged in world affairs than Evangelicals, who largely see the work of Christ as a divine rescue mission--saving us from hell and securing heaven--which has encouraged Christians to retreat from worldly things. (OK, I know this is a generalization, but I stand by it--generally)

Have you ever considered what would happen if Jesus came to your home town tomorrow morning? What things would he set straight? Where would he turn his attention and activity? Of course, we have some idea of what he would do; the gospels are a record of what Jesus did when he came to town. Many people think that the arrival of God meant judgment had come, and in some measure that’s true--Jesus brought the judgment of God against sickness by healing the sick. He brought the judgment of God against demonic oppression by setting people free from demonization. He brought the judgment of God against hypocrisy and discrimination by welcoming the outcasts to his dinner table.

In the day of his visitation, Jesus did more than demonstrate God’s verdict on injustice, he invited others to follow him. He invited others to join him in his Father’s work. (see Matthew 10: 1-10; Luke 9: 1-6 & Luke 10: 1-12 for starters). This means that when God came to earth he immediately pressed people into working along side of him, literally doing the same things he did. He is still doing the very same thing today: breaking into our world and inviting others to join him. This is the answer to Steven Hamilton’s question about discipleship.

Hamilton uses the phrase, “Kingdom catalyst,” that is, a person or thing that precipitates an event or change, and in this case the change is the in-breaking of the kingdom. If we limit the work of Jesus to a guarantee of going to heaven when we die, then we will be concerned with breaking out of this world. Who could possibly hear a call to discipleship in that? If broaden our understanding of Christ’s work to see him opening the way for heaven to come to earth, then we will be concerned with the in-breaking of God’s rule and reign (“as it is in heaven”) into our world here and now. If God is going to show up personally, then discipleship is the logical response--it means getting on board with what he will do when he gets here!

Anyone who looks forward to the “jail-break” from earth to heaven will not be concerned with life on earth--except for the kind of evangelism that invites others to join the getaway. When we look forward to God breaking into a captive earth, then our activities here and now take on new meaning. We need to ask ourselves if our gospel is an invitation for others to join the jail-break or join the break-in.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Monday's Meditation: "Born Again" or "Born from Above?"

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1: 12 – 13) These famous words come from the opening of John’s gospel, the very same gospel from which we draw the idea of being “born again.”

John’s gospel is famous for the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in chapter three. Jesus told Nicodemus that the born again experience was necessary to see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). A more literal rendering of the phrase “born again” is actually born from above. Jesus said, "You must be born from above." Nicodemus understood Jesus’ meaning in terms of a second birth, as the context shows, but the author of the fourth gospel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit chose his words carefully: while affirming the need for a spiritual rebirth, the words born from above point to the source of that birth—it comes from above. It comes from heaven.

Jesus, whom the scripture describes as “the firstborn among many,” opened the womb of heaven. Now everyone who is born from above has the life-giving Spirit of Jesus. The nature and the power of the resurrection dwell in each new child of God. This is no mere formality: the reality is that because the womb of heaven has been opened by Jesus each believer has the potential to bring heaven to earth. Those who are born from above carry heaven’s DNA with them here on earth, now.

If our view of the new birth in Jesus Christ is limited to going to heaven when we die, then the power of being born again is only effective when we die. If, however, we understand our new birth as being born from above, it means that heaven is breaking into earth as soon as we turn to Jesus. The presence of the Holy Spirit and the resurrection power of the Spirit are available to each new child of God right away. Is heaven breaking into your world?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday's Meditation: The Handshake of His Presence

The right hand is the place of honor. It’s the place of confidence. In our day, when two people shake hands it’s a gesture of trust and respect. Psalm 16 is King David’s song of trust in God. It begins with, “Keep me safe, Oh God, for in you I take refuge.” It ends with the handshake of God’s presence.
As David describes the wisdom of placing his trust in God, he makes a curious statement in verse 8, “Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” David says, in effect, that he has placed God close at hand, on his right side. David has given God the place of honor in his life, and (here’s the presence) has placed God closer than anyone else in his life.
The very last verse in the psalm declares, “you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Because David gave God the place of honor in his life, God returned the favor and sets David at His right hand.
Now, I know this is a Messianic Psalm. David is a type of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. Both Peter and Paul quote this Psalm with reference to Jesus. But the psalm can serve as instruction for us, so please allow these two Monday Memo observations:
First: those who honor God will receive honor from God. Where do I place God each day in my life? At the right hand? The left? Or far away from my hands? In the scripture, our “hands” are shorthand for our actions, for what we do. In the Bible, what we do reflects who we are. We demonstrate our respect for the Father by what we do.
Second: notice the handshake of his presence. God is at David’s right hand, and David discovers the security of his presence. In return, God places David at His right hand, and David discovers joy and eternal pleasure. When we shake hands with God, demonstrating our trust and respect, we receive security, joy, and the pleasure of his presence. That’s the hand I want to shake today.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pathways to His Presence

We’ve talked about the presence of God for the last two weeks, not as some theological idea, but as a living reality. (You can read those two posts here and here.) Let’s go after it! I’d like to suggest at least five ways to encounter God’s presence.

The first step in experiencing the presence of God is to take the Biblical witness seriously. For example, consider this list:

  • Then Moses said to him, "If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" (Exodus 33: 15-16)
  • Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139: 7 – 8)
  • For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18: 20)

These passages are well known, and that’s dangerous: it becomes easy for us to dismiss them as inspirational thoughts rather than receive them as a description of reality. If we choose to acknowledge the reality of his presence we must honestly evaluate whether our experience matches God’s statement of the way things really are. Will we allow these passages (and many others) to become normative for us? The plain message of scripture is that God is highly relational and desires us to experience an awareness of him daily. Do we really believe this?

Second, we should order our lives in ways that allow us to experience his presence. The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude stand in the forefront here. In our day, more than any other time in history, there are distractions from the moment we wake until we fall asleep. Elijah found the presence of God in a “still small voice,” or as another translation pus it, “a gentle whisper.” (I Kings 19: 12) Or take the example of Jacob, while fleeing for his life, who learned a similar lesson only after God spoke to him in a dream: "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." Jacob’s experience is instructive: he was unaware that God’s presence was all around him. Like Jacob, we must tune our senses to perceive the presence of God. Why not seriously try silence and solitude for an hour—or a day! This is not mysticism, it is discipleship.

Third, we should consider the joyful example of others. Throughout history the witness is consistent, namely, that those who have been most aware of God’s presence have experienced the joy and peace that flow from that relationship. Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite, discovered that daily activities did not have to block an awareness of God’s presence. He experienced “little reminders” from God that “set him on fire to the point that he felt a great impulse to shout praises, to sing, and to dance before the Lord with joy . . . the worst trial he could imagine was losing his sense of God’s presence, which had been with him for so long a time.” John Wesley, a buttoned-down English cleric, had experiences of God’s presence that changed his life and ministry: his journal describes not only the feeling of his heart being “strangely warmed” but later describes that God sent him “transports of joy” again and again. Wesley’s case is particularly instructive today because in North America many church leaders emphasize scholarship over feelings as the foundation for discipleship, but Wesley had received the finest religious education his country could offer but did not personally experience God’s presence. Those who would dismiss joyful behavior as mere emotionalism somehow fail to brand depression and despair as equally emotional expressions as the lack of God’s presence. The testimony of scripture is “you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16: 11) Perhaps this is why Richard Foster lists “celebration” as a spiritual discipline: we must teach ourselves how to respond with thankfulness and joy to his presence.

Fourth, we need to consider more than our individual response to the presence of God. His presence has implications for our life together as the church. Together we are the bride of Christ, and he longs to bestow his presence on the assembled church as well. It is popular in our day to embrace Jesus and shun the church. Popular, but incorrect. For example, suppose I were to enter into a relationship with you, but also shun any relationship with your spouse. Would you accept friendship on these terms? “I like you, and I want to be with you, but please keep your spouse far away from me!” Such a friendship would be in peril from the beginning, and we put our relationship with Jesus in peril if we openly reject his bride.

Simply put, if we want to experience the presence of God in every way possible, we must look to encounter his presence within the church. This is a tall order because in our highly individualistic society, church-bashing is fun and easy. We have considered church attendance and membership to be matters of consumer tastes, as accessories to our lives. We assess everything about a church service—the music, the preaching, the seating, the people—everything except whether we met Jesus there.

Finally, there is one more expression of God’s presence available for disciples today—the power of God. John Wimber, founder or the Vineyard movement, said that power of God is in the presence of God. For those Christians who embrace the possibilities of miraculous signs and wonders in ministry, the secret is not to seek some special spiritual empowerment, but rather the tangible presence of God.

The earliest followers of Jesus understood that their beliefs had no authority in the world unless the presence of God was demonstrated after they proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom. In addition to forgiveness and reconciliation, the miracles of healing and liberation from demonic oppression regularly authenticated the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Those who heard the message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God could also witness the presence of God in their midst.

This list is not complete, but here are five ways to start pursuing his presence: take the witness of the Bible seriously; order our lives in a way to let him in; embrace joyful thanksgiving as a path to his presence; look for him in the church; and understand the connection between his presence and his power. Here ends the “lecture,” let the “lab” begin!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Revelation, Explanation, & Response

Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for this was revealed to you not by man, but by my Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 16:17) With these words Jesus confirmed his identity as the anointed One, the Messiah and Christ. Simon Peter had correctly answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus declared that Peter’s answer came not by human reasoning but by direct revelation from God Himself. What I find challenging are two specific verses that come just after this high point of revelation.
Verse 21: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Even though the disciples had received revelation of Jesus’ divine identity, there was still more to be explained. The revelation brought them to a place unattainable by human wisdom, but Jesus had more to say, more to teach. Revelation, by itself, was not enough—they needed Jesus to explain what it meant in practical terms. I believe the Father still provides moments of divine revelation today, but just like that day at Caesarea Philippi, we need the revelation explained. Our own understanding is never enough.
Verse 24: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus had even more to say to the disciples. After they recovered from the shock of what the Christ would suffer, Jesus explained they, too, had a destiny that involved the cross. Like Jesus, the disciples would have to choose to take up the cross and follow him. If revelation needs explanation, then after the explanation we must respond: am I “in,” or out? God’s revelation is not FYI. It demands a response from us.
What a day that must have been for the disciples: revelation, explanation, and response. God deals with us the same way.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Substitutes for His Presence

A week ago we considered whether we will settle for merely learning about the presence of God or we will seek to experience his presence. He is available to all who seek him: "The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth." (Psalm 145: 18) We need to call on him; God has designed our hearts to seek after him. Something is released in us as we pursue him. Sadly, there are substitutes for his presence as well. Sometimes we settle for something less, even those of us who want to be his followers. Let me suggest two of these substitutes among Christians. We find them hiding in our everyday lives.

The first is religious activity. Activity is something we control. We can choose when to begin, how much to do, and when to stop. We can look back upon our own efforts and pronounce the pleasure of God. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most “church work” has the character of human activity as opposed to the presence of God. How many of us return home from a church gathering and say, “I encountered the presence of the Living God.” Indeed, how many of us even attend such activities with the expectation that we will encounter him? Our use of business models for marketing and meetings are especially dangerous in this regard. We feel affirmed because we have drawn big crowds for God, even if he declined to attend.

Jesus ministered to crowds of people as well, but he also attended feasts with his friends, who sometimes happened to be tax collectors and sinners. They hung out together with no other objective than simply being with each other. They were people who valued his presence and truly longed to hear his voice. Yet we sometimes confuse work with friendship. Friends may in fact work together, but the difference between professional colleagues and friends is that friends share mutual affection and desire to spend time together apart from any “useful” task. When our religious activity is over, do we leave Jesus at the office?

The second great competitor to God’s presence is our theology. We often confuse knowing the truth intellectually with encountering the truth experientially. In our day understanding is overrated and personal experience is underrated. Our attempts to honor the Lord with our minds have sometimes caused us to become suspicious of any experience with him in our hearts. Make no mistake: Biblical revelation is important. It should be used to interpret and mediate our personal experience, but in the last two centuries Christian scholars have focused on rational exposition of the scriptures almost to the exclusion of personal experience with God. In the academy, and many pulpits as well, personal experience has been downgraded to anecdotal evidence and treated with suspicion if not outright hostility. Even a useful tool such a Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws suggests that our faith requires only facts and faith, but not feelings. From the very beginning of their new life in Christ, converts are warned about the dangers of emotions. No one shares with babes in Christ that the first and greatest commandment includes loving God with our hearts as well as our minds. This has resulted in Christian congregations who have no real expectation that God himself desires an intimate relationship with them. Just as Thomas a' Kempis said, "I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it," we must not mistake intellectual argument for relationship with God. The man who has experienced the goodness of God is never at the mercy of someone who has an intellectual argument against it. The Apostle Paul warned, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (I Corinthians 8:1 ESV)

Finally, consider these famous verses: "
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28: 18 - 20) Jesus never intended for us to be disciples or to make disciples apart from the personal experience of his presence. To make disciples apart from the active presence of Jesus is to make disciples who look like us, not Jesus.

Amazingly, opening ourselves up to the presence of Jesus is not any different from developing a friendship with anyone else. He goes where is welcomed. He stays and develops friendships with those who order their lives around him. What, then, can we do to teach ourselves to recognize and enjoy the presence of God? Check back next Thursday!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Monday's Meditation: What's Next?

Does your gospel ask you questions? Some people turn to Jesus for answers—and we need answers! Heaven or Hell? That requires an answer. Who can forgive me for all the wrong I’ve done? That’s kind of important as well. But after the question of our eternity is settled, after the problem of sin-management is addressed, what more do we have to do with the gospel?
Recently a friend of mind randomly asked people, “Hey, you’re a Christian: do you ever wonder what Jesus has in mind for you next?” Fewer than 25% of those he asked had ever considered that Jesus might have something “next” for them in this life. In other words, three out of four believers couldn’t see the connection between their faith for “salvation” and their everyday life. Their faith pointed them only to heaven.
It’s probably no surprise that the Apostle Paul had a different perspective: “Not that I have already obtained [resurrection from death], or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12) In four little letters, just one common word, “that,” all of our future days on earth, all of “what’s next” are contained. Paul understood that Jesus paid the price for his sin and that Jesus had secured a place for him in heaven. But wait, there’s more: Paul understood that Jesus had laid hold of him for some purpose in this life as well. Jesus had a grand mission for this world, and wanted to partner with Paul to achieve that mission. In our day, if our gospel does not ask the question, “what’s next?” then our gospel is too small.
As you look at your “to do” list today, you may want to spend a few moments in prayer and ask the Lord, “how do I fit into your plans to restore all of creation?” Be careful, though: Jesus may actually have something for you to do.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

His Presence, Tangible.

One of the shortcomings in the church today is the lack of God’s tangible presence. What good is it to have a theology that asserts God’s presence is everywhere if there is no evidence of it? Has God gone on vacation? Has he left the building? These are important questions for us individually as disciples, corporately as the church, and these questions also go to the heart of whether we can put the wisdom and power of God on display for the world to see.

The Biblical narrative opens and closes with God’s tangible presence in the midst of his creation and his people. The first two chapters of Genesis are marked not only by his creative activity, but his personal presence in those activities: God personally forms humanity from the dust of the ground, kisses the breath of life into the first man, instructs and guides his children as he walks in the garden with them. The final chapters of the book of Revelation depict the restoration of all things and again highlight the intimate nature of God’s personal interaction with his creation. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21: 3)

Nor is he absent from the world in the stretch between Genesis and Revelation. God visits Abraham, makes covenant and even eats a meal with him. Jacob finds himself in hand-to-hand combat with none other than the creator of the universe! God talks with Moses face to face the way friends speak to one another. He reveals his presence in the cloud and the fire around the people of Israel. As Solomon dedicates the temple, God manifests in a cloud so thick with his presence that no one can remain standing or perform the duties of worship. Ezekiel saw God’s traveling throne. Isaiah saw the temple filled with God’s presence and glory.

In the New Testament the presence of God becomes something even greater: the Incarnation. From the beginning of John’s gospel we are told, “God arrived and pitched his tent among us.” This marks even greater intimacy and presence: God not only interacted with the world he created, he became part of that world. The reality of his presence also encases Matthew’s gospel like bookends. In the opening verses we learn, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’--which means, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1: 23) The final words of the gospel are: “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 20) Along with instructions to his followers, Jesus gives the promise of his presence. In fact, his instructions require the experience of his presence.

The activity of the Holy Spirit also constitutes God’s living, tangible presence in the world as well. Jesus spent most of the final Passover evening instructing his followers to tune their eyes and ears to his presence mediated through the Spirit. When he tells his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me,” (John 14: 18 – 19) he is indicating that the presence of the Holy Spirit is equivalent to his personal presence. Even when he was still physically available to be with his disciples in the 40 days after his resurrection, began to give them instructions “through the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1: 2) After Jesus ascended into heaven he appeared to the Apostle Paul personally, years later. Paul tells us his gospel came by direct revelation from Jesus himself. (Galatians 1: 12)

Unfortunately, scripture also reveals that it has been the habit of God’s people to be afraid of, or unaware of, the presence of God. As the people of Israel followed Moses in the wilderness, the smoke and lightning that accompanied God’s presence caused them to plead with Moses to act as an intermediary (Exodus 20: 18 – 21). The miraculous works of Jesus brought people face-to-face with the reality that something greater than Moses was in their midst, and the reality that God was breaking into their well-ordered world brought alarm instead of acclaim. Religious observance always runs smoothly when divorced from God’s presence. God’s presence, on the other hand, usually upsets the tables, shrines, and instruments we have set in place. As C.S. Lewis remarked about his Christ-figure, Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He’s not a tame Lion!”

So the Bible teaches that God is omnipresent, but forget that: do you experience his presence?

If there is any hope for transformation as a follower of Jesus, we must be able to recognize and experience his presence. We must not settle for anything less than the experience of his presence. We must, in the language of advertising, accept no substitutes. Can you think of any substitutes for the presence of God? I can think of at least two big ones, but that's for another day!