Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Trapped Eternally in Heaven

When I was a teenager I chose Heaven over Hell--but just barely.  As a new believer I had conflicting ideas about eternal life. The people who led me to the Lord told me I could go to Heaven by trusting Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins. I honestly hadn’t given the issue much thought; since there were only two choices Heaven seemed like the better alternative. Heaven didn’t sound very exciting, but Hell sounded worse.

Someone told me in Heaven we would spend all eternity worshiping God. This presented a problem because most of my time in church was boring. Could it be true? Would heaven consist of an unending songfest directed toward the Almighty? One of the verses Amazing Grace gave me cause for concern:
    “When we’ve be there 10,000 years
           bright shining as the sun
     we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
           than when we’ve first begun.”
With some measure of guilt I tried to imagine myself enjoying this 10,000 years, only to find that we had just begun. It was not appealing.

Here's a question: What if you got to live forever but you didn’t like the life you got to live?

Popular images of heaven include the idea that we will inhabit celestial mansions, waft upon fluffy light clouds and worship eternally. These images are certainly better than eternal torment and suffering, but do they really represent the stuff we would choose to do forever, especially given the activities and tastes we choose right now? Even as a Christian, if I spend my entire life indulging my personal tastes, why would I want to focus on Someone Else for eternity? I would be trapped in heaven eternally.

Unless “heaven” and “eternal life” are not the same things.

Jesus himself provided a reliable definition of eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Nothing about clouds, harps, or heaven. Eternal life is knowing the Father and knowing Jesus. The Father has given Jesus the authority to grant eternal life, and Jesus’ definition is simply that we would come to know the Father and the Son.

So when does eternal life begin? If we can adjust our view to what Jesus revealed, the answer, of course, is now. When we first turn toward God, we are entering into eternal life. When we turn away from our selfish choices and orientation toward Jesus, we are entering into eternal life. When we grow in our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are growing into eternal life.

When does a child know its mother? At birth? From within the womb? As a teenager? The answer is “all of the above.” Earlier in the same gospel Jesus tells us that we cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God unless we are “born from above.” (John 3: 3 – 8) His choice of birth imagery is instructive: a child begins to perceive light and dark before birth. A child intuitively knows its mother’s voice and heartbeat before birth. Yet after the trauma of labor and delivery a child is characterized by what it does not know: the entire process of growth and maturity could be considered “getting to know” its parents.

This process of growth and knowledge continues even beyond childhood. Most adults realize that with each passing decade they come to “know” their parents more and more. I knew my father more fully after I became a father. Our life in God is made possible by Jesus Christ. That life has its beginning when we are born from above. John’s gospel reminds us from the very beginning we are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” (John 1: 13) As we are born of Him, his intention is that we would spend every moment of eternal life growing in the grace and knowledge of Him.

So what about heaven? As we begin to experience eternal life through our walk with Jesus, he begins to work heaven into us even now. I may not know the details of what heaven looks like, but I have come to understand that heaven feels exactly like the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruit of coming to know the Father and the Son, through living in the Spirit each day (see Galatians 5: 16 – 25)

I’m no longer troubled by the thought of heaven. Whatever it looks like and whatever he has for us to do, I can rest my relationship with him. As I cooperate with the Holy Spirit he is making fit for heaven.  I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I get there because I’m learning to enjoy it now.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Us

Following Jesus means discipleship.  It’s the path to Christlikeness--and yes, the astounding news of the gospel of the Kingdom is that we’ve been called to look like him.  I’m gratified when Christians begin to realize spiritual formation is possible.  They begin to pursue their destiny in Christ.  But there is a second part to our destiny in Jesus:  we have been called to not only be disciples, we’ve been called to make disciples as well.
You might think: “this is a no-brainer, you’re talking about evangelism.”  But it’s not so easy.  For many, the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 16 - 20 has been a call to evangelism.  The problem is, evangelism in North America has consisted chiefly of proclaiming the gospel of “Go-to-heaven-when-you-die.”  The substance of most evangelism focuses upon the price Jesus paid for our redemption and the new birth required to receive his free gift.  When there is a new decision for Christ, the follow-up may encourage converts to find and attend a local church, but that is not making disciples.  
Other believers, the kind who readily embrace spiritual formation, focus on the call to become like Jesus.  They embrace the disciplines capable of changing their lives without looking beyond their own welfare in God.  But what if the task of making disciples is central to our calling to become like Jesus?  What if we are called to the kind of evangelism that causes us to say, "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of  Christ"? (I Corinthians 11:1) How would that change our walk with God?  How effective would our "evangelism" become?
Jesus modeled every aspect of life with God.  Sometimes we miss one of the most obvious aspects of his example: he called and trained others.  His personal influence drew them closer to the Father, and after three years of intensive life-sharing he released them into the care of the Father and the Spirit.  His command at the end of Matthew’s gospel and the evidence of the book of Acts reveals that he expects us to do the same.  Here’s a question to begin the week: whom has God given me to disciple?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Three Transformations

Becoming a follower of Jesus requires at least three transformations: we must be born from above; we must acquire his character; and we must imitate his works.  Most believers North America have a grasp on the first, a hope of the second, and almost no concept of the third.

What does it mean to do the works of Jesus?  How we answer the question reveals our understanding of what it means to live “in Christ.”  Jesus had a high view of his followers.  He believed in them more than they believed in themselves.  He gave them extravagant assignments during their three years together on earth.  And as Jesus prepared to leave, he charged his disciples with the impossible.
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14: 12-14)
The first disciples were up to the task: they found themselves so transformed by the new birth that they were, in fact, a new creation.  Heaven’s DNA had altered their very being.  As a result they demonstrated the character of Christ to a degree not possible by their own good intentions or human effort.

The first disciples were up to the task: the record of the Book of Acts is that the first followers of Jesus were startlingly like Jesus, in thought, word and deed.  The history of the early church is filled with descriptions of ordinary people who declared the message of the Kingdom of God--as Jesus had done--and demonstrated the coming of that Kingdom with powerful actions--as Jesus had done.

The first disciples were up to the task.  In the intervening centuries the people of God have sometimes lived up to the charge left by our Lord, and sometimes have changed the task into something attainable by human effort.  I believe every generation should wrestle with the challenge Jesus left us.  The first disciples were up to the task.  The obvious question is whether we are up to the task as well.   That’s something to consider on a Monday, and for the rest of our lives.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Checking Jesus at the Door

A while back my friend attended a Christian college. He needed to fulfill a general education requirement in the social sciences, so he signed up to take a psychology course called “Mental Disorders.”  He expected some consideration of the Christian view of the human psyche but the very first day in class set him straight: “There are certain psychological problems,” the professor intoned, “That cannot be fixed by prayer.  That’s what we will be talking about.”  Prayer, Christianity, faith, the Bible or Jesus were never mentioned again during the semester.  In effect the professor said: “Enough with Christianity, let’s get down to how things really work.”

Poor Jesus.  Each day, at workplaces all across North America, he gets checked at the door.  I’ve begun to imagine high-rise office buildings where Christians can stash Jesus in a cloakroom off the lobby before getting on the elevator and heading up to their law offices, accounting practices, engineering firms, insurance companies, and investment bullpens.  Most of these businesses probably have a Christian fish in their logo.

In his essay, Jesus the Logician, Dallas Willard points out the separation between Jesus and the real world:
“There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron . . . How could we be his disciples at our work, take him seriously as our teacher there, if when we enter our fields of technical or professional competence we must leave him at the door?”
What about it?  Is he the smartest guy ever, or what? And if he’s so smart, why wouldn’t he have something to say about how to get the job done?

Yes, we respond: Jesus can remind us to tell the truth and be kind to small animals--but what does he know about estimating the raw materials required for this construction site?  But what if Dallas Willard is right?  What if Jesus was--and is--the smartest guy alive?  What will he say to us as everyday followers?  Was the Apostle Paul merely engaging in flowery speech when spoke of Jesus, “In whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:3)

The calling of a disciple is to make life application in Christ.  Jesus was a carpenter, true--but what if he was a doctor?  Jesus is looking for someone today to demonstrate the answer.  What if Jesus was a marketing executive? Or a car salesman?  Or a wife and mother? These are no idle questions. They go to the heart of our life in Christ and our calling to put him on display in the human situation.  When my friend’s (Christian) psychology professor exempted the life of God from consideration of the human psyche, she set herself on a course to ignore the surest reality in her field.  Willard recommends the Christian faith because it helps you integrate with reality.  After all, who created the human psyche?

This issue is significant for individual Christians but also for the church at large.  Christian books pour forth daily, dealing with every conceivable life issue: marriage, family, business, personal discipline.  Many of these well-meaning treatments look to “the latest” results of research, science or technology and attempt to baptize secular learning with Biblical window-dressing, much like the Christian psychology professor who presumes that the faith is unable to speak to her discipline.  If, in fact, all the treasures and wisdom of his age are hidden in Jesus Christ, shouldn’t he be the first place we look? Why do we turn to  “objective” sources of research or academia only to apply a Christian wrapping paper after coming to our conclusions?

How can we make application in Christ?  How can we discover the hidden treasures of wisdom in him?
  • Recognize Jesus the Wellspring: Jesus is our model. Not a “spiritual model,” or “ethical model.” He is simply the source of all wisdom and knowledge.  Those who recognize the Source will turn to him first and ask for revelation from him before examining other sources.
  • Trust the Biblical record: In my opinion the downside of Biblical scholarship in our age has been distrust of the scripture’s inspiration.  To recognize the God-breathed nature of the Bible does not limit the text to one and only one meaning, but instead opens it up to the possibility that the infinitely intelligent and creative God has placed more and more in the Bible for us to discover.
  • Look for the Living, Resurrected Lord: Jesus, the smartest guy who ever lived, is alive today.  Not only alive, he is accessible: he promised that he shows up whenever two or three get together in his name.  He--and his wisdom--are not remote.  His treasure-trove of wisdom and knowledge is, among other things, mediated by his Spirit and found in the communion of the believers who assemble in his keeping.
  • Look for His witness in so-called “Secular” Wisdom: Proverbs depict Jesus as the Wisdom of God, dancing daily in the Father’s sight, rejoicing in the creation of the world (Proverbs 8).  Jesus is Lady Wisdom in the marketplace. Jesus, the wisdom of God, delights in the Father’s creative genius whether that genius is discovered in worship or in Wall Street.
What we must not do is check Jesus at the door.  He is, in fact, the Wellspring of wisdom and truth beyond our imaginations.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Settling for Later

What if heaven sent us a gift but we tried to give it back?

When Jesus trained and released his disciples, he provided a remarkable level of equipping: “He gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9: 1 - 2)

Even among those who welcome the signs of the Kingdom (which include among other things healing, cleansing, and freedom from demonic oppression), there is a tendency to consign the powerful manifestations of the Kingdom of God to another age.  “The day will come,” we might be tempted to say, “when he will wipe away every tear from our eyes and set the captives free.”  And we would be right because the fullness of the Kingdom is only realized at the end of the age. Theologians call this the tension between the “already” of the in-breaking of the Kingdom and the “not yet” of its completion.

What has troubled me in recent years is our habit of settling for the “not yet” when Jesus clearly gave us a task that requires heaven to break in now.  Jesus instructed his followers to seek the Kingdom and order our priorities around heaven coming to earth.  We live in the tension--the conflict--of this present age and the age to come.  But we are ambassadors of the Kingdom; it should be our native tongue.  The challenge--the temptation--comes when we settle for the “not yet” as an explanation for our inability to carry out the mission.

I have a friend who came upon an automobile accident just moments after the collision.  A baby was thrown from the car.  He scooped the infant into his arms and began to pray for the child’s life.  He cried out until the EMT’s arrived, but the baby was dead.  Overwhelmed by the trauma of the event he holed up in his apartment for days, sick over his inability to represent the Lord in a crisis.  He was not angry at the Lord: he was dissatisfied with the level of Kingdom authority in his life.  “You deserve better, Jesus,” he prayed for days.  “You deserve better.”  He emerged from his apartment with a determination to carry the Kingdom with him, because he was disciple.  Since that watershed tragedy his ministry has been marked by the consistent in-breaking of the Kingdom, marked by signs and wonders.  His theology was unchanged, but his expectation had grown large.

The sick, the hurting, and the hungry are queuing up because their need is now.  Should we teach them to be content with the “Not Yet?”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Guys Like Us

“The Bible itself teaches that we are to understand it in terms of our own experience when it says that Paul, Barnabas, and Elijah were human beings like us . . . It means that their experience was substantial like our own . . . We must pray for the faith and the experiences that would enable us to believe that such things could happen to us.” ~ Dallas Willard, Hearing God
Lately my friends and I have been discussing the need to appropriate the Biblical experience into our own lives.  Apparently James wasn’t kidding when he said, “Elijah was a man just like us.”  But my friends and I have all recognized that Elijah, Paul, and even Barnabas seem way too spiritual to serve as effective role models.  We might as well try to imitate LeBron James.
Over the years I’ve asked believers in many settings whether they thought they could live up to the example of someone like Elijah. No one has ever told me yes. Who could attain to a life like the Apostle Paul’s? No takers. I have finally found a minor character in the New Testament who is approachable as a role model.  The book of Acts gives him ten verses, eleven if you count the shout-out he gets from Paul years later. His name is Ananias. He’s just a guy who has a daily time with God. Praying, listening, and reading the scriptures.  And God speaks to him. Ananias is no super-star of Christianity.  He’s just a guy living in Damascus who loves God and is respected by his friends.
You can find his story in Acts 9: 10 - 19:
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" 
"Yes, Lord," he answered. 
The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." 
"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." 
But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." 
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
The God of heaven chose Ananias to set Saul of Tarsus on the path to become the Apostle Paul. He was just a guy. The kind of guy we should feel we could imitate with confidence.  Take a look with me at what kind of experiences an everyday disciple in the first century had with God :
  • God spoke to him in a vision (v10): Yes, visions should be normative. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost redefined the role between Creator and disciple.  At Pentecost Peter boldly tells us what kind of age has come: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2: 17)  Peter isn’t just quoting an ancient prophet, he’s describing how God speaks to his people in Christ. God still speaks in these ways, but the average North American Christian is actually suspicious of these divine avenues.
  • God gave specific instructions (vs11-12): Ananias knew where to go and what to do, because he heard from God.  How many believers today know God’s specific will for their lives day-by-day? My experience as a pastor has taught me, sadly, that most Christians are confused about God’s will for their life and important decisions. Day-to-day most Christians do not even expect to receive specific instructions from the Lord.  Ananias was apparently part of a church that trained and encouraged every member to expect to hear from God--and act on it!
  • Ananias dialogued with God (vs13-15): It was a dialogue from the heart. He was not a robot, he shared his fears and concerns.  I don’t believe Ananias argued with God.  He addressed him as “Lord” because he recognized who was Master.  His submission was so complete he even surrendered his fears to God.  True service to God does not simply come from those who have heard from God, but from those who also feel they have been heard by God.
  • God affirmed the mission (vs15-16): The Lord did not merely shake the windows or stamp his foot, he gave Ananias a picture of the future. This man Saul was God’s chosen instrument, and Ananias knew it even before Saul knew it.  Part of our confidence to do the will of God comes from knowing his purposes and plans, and God is gracious to supply such vision more than we are aware.
  • Ananias obeyed (vs17-19): Dreams, visions and revelations are worthless apart from obedience.  God does not share information “FYI,” he shares information “FYA--For Your Action.” Ananias’ actions were filled with faith and the assurance of God’s commission.  He facilitated the in-filling of the Holy Spirit; he was midwife to God’s healing grace; and he was a minister of the gospel in baptizing Saul.  Ananias was in every way a full partner with God.  He was just guy in Damascus.  I'm just a guy in Kentucky.  What are you?

Surely we could aspire to the life of Ananias! Yet the Biblical witness affirms that we are human beings--just like Paul, Barnabas, or Elijah! Perhaps we would be surprised to learn that our potential is even greater than any of these examples--we are called to become conformed to the image of Jesus Himself.  But that’s another post for another day.