Thursday, September 29, 2011

Telling Time

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
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 our 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.
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 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. What kind of person tells suffering, mourning captives that freedom is within their reach? The source of his good news had nothing to do with the powers of the age and everything to do with the in-breaking of God’s time into their time.
It’s only natural to look for the “best time” to engage in ministry: wait until the economy is stronger; until the political climate is warmer; until the streets are safer, until your children are older, until your savings account is fatter. Wait. 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. The Kingdom of God does not wait on the future because the Kingdom is 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? It's still true today, and we are called to imitate his example. If God is on the move, how can we remain still?
Jesus is serving the best wine now because he dwells in the now. “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 know what time it is.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Our Role in Perfecting the Love of God

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” With these words begin one of the most startling messages ever shared: God gives his love to us and wants to perfect it in people like you and me.
Decades after a teenager named John laid his head on Jesus’ chest at the last supper we hear from him the wisdom of a lifetime. From the wellspring of revelation he tells us two astounding things: God’s love can be “made complete in us,” and, “in this world we are like Jesus.”
Can we drink in those two possibilities? They are the meditation of his lifetime. John is the one who followed Jesus to the base of the cross. John became the son of Mary and cared for his adopted mother until her death. John saw the love of God with his eyes and touched the love of God with his hands. Near the end of his life he tells us plainly, “God is love.” We could be comfortable enough with these words because they require only that we become recipients of what God has done. 
Perhaps most surprisingly, this lifetime-disciple of Jesus encourages us with the astounding possibility that because we follow Jesus, the love of God can be perfected in us. How could this possibly be so? Most of us have been trained to recite the depravity of our hearts as the daily mantra spoken before we ask for forgiveness. Yet John suggests that a lifetime of following Jesus can result in perfected, fearless love. He calls us to participate, to steward, and to complete what God starts in us. To limit our lives as only the resting place of God’s love is to bury the treasure in order to give it back to him later. 
Was John serious? What?!? Perfect love--in me? Today I can offer two suggestions to start us down this path. 
First, since God is love, we cannot manufacture the real thing on our own. All true love originates in him and flows to us. We cannot love apart from his empowerment.
Second, we become stewards of the love of God, both in ourselves and toward the world around us. God-love cannot be made complete unless we ourselves because like Jesus in this world. The fullness of his love depends on us.
We can know and rely on the love he has for us. Who knew we could also become complete in it? Apparently John knew: and now so do we.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Making Disciples Makes Me

The astounding news of the gospel of the Kingdom is that we’ve been called to look like Jesus. 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 of 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.
Following Jesus means discipleship. It’s the path to Christlikeness. Part of this path is the change worked in us when we pour our lives into others: both will find themselves changed day-by-day into the image of their common Master.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Hungry are Filled

I’ve heard people say, “God’s kingdom is an up-side down kingdom.” In truth, his way is right-side up: we are the ones standing on our heads.
In the West, rich people go to the head of the line. Money buys a seat even when the house is sold out. Money bends the will of those desperate to feed their families. Wealth, in the hands of natural men, is no blessing: it is a curse to themselves and others.
In less developed nations, the ruthless take the head of the line by force. Strength emboldens the heartless; they impose their will on the weak. Corruption diverts food and water away from those in need. Selfish human strength betrays the purpose of strength itself.
It’s the way of the world, and the world is weary in the way.
Beneath the clamour of getting and spending, fighting and struggle, I heard the voice of a young girl singing. Listen:
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
   and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1: 50-53)
From inside an empire filled with wealth and brute force a teenage girl proclaimed the way of God. Mary whispered the words that toppled the kingdoms of this earth. God honors hunger, and we can all be hungry.
The teenager’s baby heard his mother’s song. When he was grown he sang, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Hunger is the equity that draws on the bank of heaven. No one is disqualified. We can all be hungry. An old woman with vaginal bleeding was hungry for God’s touch. Five thousand people hungered for his words more than food; they were all given plenty to eat. A foreign woman pretended to be a dog just to get a scrap of the children’s bread.  Desire is the first requirement, and we can all possess the currency. In his genius, insight and wisdom Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” When is the last time those were the words of our heart? Those who are full never ask to be fed.
This week’s meditation is two simple, difficult questions. When was the last time I was hungry? What am I hungry for?

On January 1st 2012, Students of Jesus moved to a new address.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Tension of Love and Mystery: Why we don't have to know it all

N.T. Wright was once asked his opinion about John’s gospel. He stammered around a bit and finally confessed, “I feel about John like I feel about my wife; I love her very much but I wouldn't claim to understand her.” Precisely: love and mystery trump understanding every time.
If you’re the kind of person who needs to figure everything out, perhaps the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not for you. Too bad, because he’s the real deal: he’s the one who spun galaxies off of his fingertips, who calls forth the starry host one by one each night. He’s the one who has no problem turning the tables on the rich and self-confident by raising the humble and poor.
Students of Jesus live within a healthy tension between revelation and mystery. We are in relationship with a vast, imponderable, transcendent, infinite Creator who also desires an intimacy with us closer than our next breath. It’s the kind of math that makes quantum physics look like child’s play: infinite God plus finite human equals eternal relationship. No amount of smarts can balance the books, but a willing heart can thrive forever.
In Luke’s gospel one chapter in particular bursts at the seams with the tension between revelation and mystery. Chapter seven contains at least four imponderables, waiting like snares for the sure-footed religious expert. I have tripped on these four often:
1). Jesus is not easily impressed, but faith can cause him to marvel (Luke 7: 1-10). When a Roman soldier is satisfied solely with the words of Jesus, the Lord tells all Israel they have something to learn from a Gentile. Jesus called the religious intellectuals of his days “blind fools.”  Those who claim to have things figured out automatically disqualify themselves as guides for spiritual formation; those who place their trust in God without reserve become examples for us all.
2). The Creator of the universe is moved by compassion (Luke 7: 11-17). Jesus raises a dead man for no good reason--unless we count the tears of a widow as reason enough. This strange paragraph is almost a throw-away passage. We are offered no explanation other than the Eternal One is apparently always unhappy with death. Do we hold the same view?
3). The Greatest Teacher in history is pleased to speak mysteries (Luke 7: 18-35). Is there any more complicated question than the fate of John the Baptist? John is the first to recognize the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; yet from prison he is filled with second-guesses and questions; finally, this servant of God loses his life on the whim of a dancing teenager. Jesus is pleased to call our attention to John’s example, but offers us one of the strangest sayings of his ministry, “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children” (verse 35). I’ve pondered those words for decades and I’m still no closer to finding a clue as to their meaning. What about you?
4). Boldness and worship impress the God who needs nothing (Luke 7: 36-50). When a woman ruined a dinner party with tears, perfume and love, Jesus jumps to her defense. The host merely thinks a critical thought, and that alone is offensive to  Jesus. The rich are sent away empty and the social outcast becomes a model of devotion. By the final verse of the chapter tears, perfume and love have become sufficient testimony of faith. No creed, no orthodoxy, and no propriety are enough, but the party-crasher goes home justified while the host is made a fool.
Each of us should strive for understanding because we are commanded to love God with our minds. Jesus rewards those who turn their thoughts and intellect his way, yet he is not impressed by my intelligence. The qualities of wonder, love and relationship are the foundations on which our study must be built.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Healing Scars

I once met a woman who carried her scars like a crown a thorns. Twenty-five years before, she said, a gay man had tried to poison her with AIDS. I knew it wasn’t true, but she believed it was. And more important--her body believed it was.

She wandered through life like the Ancient Mariner, looking for still another soul to hear her story. Day after day, for twenty-five years, she had grown progressively more ill with everything except AIDS. She lived in chronic pain, had developed a cancer that became her identity, and she could not answer the question, “Do you want to be well?” Her pain had become her trademark. She wanted to tell everyone how she had suffered.
In contrast, I also met a man who carried scars from his past life as a sign of hope. He had conquered death and the grave, but still bore the marks of torture in his hands, his feet and his side. He bore no ill-will toward those who had killed him. In fact, before he died he prayed on their behalf. After rising from the dead he decided to keep the scars as a source of hope for others.
We are all scarred by life. The question is whether we will use our scars to redeem others.
The miracle of the resurrection is more than Jesus simply coming back to life. The power that raised him from the dead reshaped his body as well. He appeared to Mary in the garden and she thought he was the gardner. He walked Emmaus Road with two old friends who could not recognize their Rabbi. His resurrection body defied the confines of everyday life: fear-locked doors could not hold him at bay. He was, quite literally, a walking miracle.
Yet he chose to keep the scars of his crucifixion. Have you ever wondered why? When the good news was too good for his friends to believe, Jesus showed them the scars from his past. The hole in his side brought Thomas to his knees in worship. The nail prints in his feet and hands reassured the disciples.
Jesus demonstrated that the things which have hurt us the most can be a source of hope for others. His scars testified to the reality of his past--he did not ignore the past and he did not try to hide it. He used his scars to bring peace to others.
Through radical trust in the Father and forgiveness toward others Jesus transformed the wicked acts of evil men into life and hope. Although his death and resurrection are unique, he is still our example. What about us? Can our past set others free? Can the harm inflicted upon us bring peace and hope to our friends? Or will we--like the unforgiving woman I met years ago--use our scars to buy sympathy and attention for ourselves?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Favorite Reality Show

One reason I like watching “reality shows” is that my life seems pretty squared away compared to those people. It’s too bad there aren’t any shows like that about churches, so I could compare the “reality church” to my own congregation. But wait--actually, there is a place observe struggling churches filled with reality stars. It’s the New Testament. It shows us plenty of insane situations complete with greedy people, religious crazies, hurt feelings, and racial prejudices—and these are the good guys! It’s one of the reasons I love the scripture so much: it casts a cold hard stare on its subjects.
Take the church in Corinth--please.  It was a crazy mix of spirituality, worldliness, excess, and beauty. In others words, a church very much like yours. The church in Corinth started off with a bang, when God himself spoke to the apostle Paul in a vision: “Don’t be afraid, and don’t give up on this town. I have a lot of people here.” (Acts 18: 9-10)
So the Apostle Paul unpacked his suitcase and became Pastor Paul for a year and a half. Can you imagine having Paul of Tarsus, that towering colossus of Christianity, as a pastor? Paul invested 18 months of his life in these people. Imagine the quality start the church in Corinth received: a year and a half of the very best in ministry, miracles, and teaching. This church must have been a model church right? Well, not exactly.
After he left, Paul got a note from the folks who meet at Chloe’s house: “Ummm, Paul? There are few problems here we’d like to ask you about.”
A few problems? Let’s make a partial list:
• Believers in Corinth were choosing sides concerning who was the best spiritual leader: some said Paul, some Peter, some Apollos, and the really spiritual people said, “I only follow Jesus!”
• A regular attendee of the church was sleeping with his father’s wife (yikes!). Everyone who attended the church knew about it, but no one was doing anything about it.
• Church members were racing each other to courts of law because they couldn’t settle their disputes inside the church.
• There were major arguments over who should eat what kind of food, and why.
• People were getting drunk at communion and church pot luck dinners (I know that sounds hard to believe, but you can look it up: I Corinthians 11: 20 -21).
• And we haven’t even touched on problems like worship services that were pretty strange: spiritual gifts, spiritual pride, arguments about dating, and strange views about resurrection!
I don’t know where you go to church, but even the worst church in my town doesn’t come close to this list of problems in Corinth. If I want to gawk at a bunch of immature believers, I don’t even have to leave home. I can just open up my Bible and read about the church in Corinth.
You might think that Paul wouldn’t have anything good to say to these believers. He had labored hard for a year and a half, and this was the fruit? Yet, here's what he said:
“I always thank God for you . . .”
“You have been enriched in every way . . .”
“You do not lack any spiritual gift . . .”
“He will keep you strong until the end . . .”
And these words are just from the greeting in the letter—the first nine verses. Perhaps Paul was just being diplomatic—except I don’t think the scripture contains polite white lies.
What lessons can we learn from a terrible church?
For one, Paul didn’t give up on them. There was a lively correspondence that lasted for years. Paul was committed to them the rest of his life.
Second, even though they questioned Paul’s position and authority, Paul responded with a passion that reflected his true fatherhood. “You really are my children,” he said. Even though they were unfaithful to him, he remained faithful to them.
Next, Paul continued to teach patiently. Even the greatest church-planter in history had things to fix. If someone like Paul can produce a church like Corinth, perhaps we should cut some slack toward pastors who don’t rise to the level of super apostle?
Finally--and this is the most challenging to me--Paul let them continue to operate even though they were making mistakes. If I had started a church that later went crazy with spiritual gifts, I think I would have been tempted to write to them: “Everybody stop! You’re doing it wrong! Just cut it out until I get there, then we’ll talk about it.” But Paul said, “Tongues are good, prophecy is good, and don’t forbid them.” Even though they were doing it wrong! The answer to the misuse of spiritual gifts isn’t to shut them down; it is to teach them up.
The church in Corinth is reality TV. If they can go down in history as a church God loves, a church to whom God speaks, and God nurtures, why can’t our churches be the same?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Our Greatest Need

Here’s a disturbing trend in the Christian blogosphere: we would much rather talk about other people than ourselves. When I post something about the church at large, the number of visitors to this site soars and comments pour in. Everyone rushes to the table where the state of the church is sliced, diced, and analyzed in detail. With the mere mention of a Christian celebrity I can purchase hundreds more visitors to my site.
If, however, I post something about our individual need to wait for God in silence, or our personal destiny to become conformed to his image, I get the internet equivalence of chirping crickets. Nothing. Like a busker singing at the  Metro, everyone hurries by. And why not? Christianity is way more fun when we’re talking about other people. Following Jesus isn’t such a joyride if he wants to talk to me.
I am one of us as well. I would much rather pontificate on the issues facing Christendom across the continent than listen to the still small voice addressing the secrets of my heart. I would rather do significant things. I want to be a part of important conversations.
Recently I found the private notes of a world leader who longed to hear the whisper spoken to him alone. This man held a position of national significance, no, wait--historical importance. Yet he was a man who positioned himself in the quiet place and waited for his best friend to come and sit with him.
My heart is not proud, O LORD, 
       my eyes are not haughty; 
       I do not concern myself with great matters 
       or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul; 
       like a weaned child with its mother, 
       like a weaned child is my soul within me.
 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD 
       both now and forevermore. (~ Psalm 131, a psalm of David)
God took a boy out of the shepherd’s field and put him in the palace, but not before embedding the hillside, the breeze, the night sky and the quiet times into his heart. The Biblical histories of Samuel and Chronicles will tell you the palace was a place filled with intrigue, politics, war and power--and it was. The Psalms and Proverbs will tell you that David took time to climb the stairs, shut the door, and pick up the harp.
Our greatest need--my greatest need--is the daily presence of the Holy Spirit. When David knew he had stepped over the line, claiming power and privilege as some sort of birth right, he repented before the Lord and begged that the presence would remain:
Create in me a pure heart, O God, 
       and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence 
       or take your Holy Spirit from me. (Psalm 51: 10-11)
At the end of each day my Father won’t be impressed with my intellect or insight. He’ll be concerned with the beat of my heart. In the quiet (if there is quiet) he will want to know if I lived a whole-hearted life that day. Did my actions spring from the well of the Spirit or the treadmill of importance? He will be concerned with these questions because he knows that spiritual formation happens each day. The only question is: what have we formed?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Honorable Order of Experience

Just a mile up the road is Green River State Park. Like most locals, I never go to the lake, except to take visitors cliff-jumping.
We park the car in a gravel lot and take the trail out to a secluded spot overlooking the man-made lake. The shale stone cliff is only about twenty feet above the lake, but I’m fond of telling first-timers it’s forty feet, minimum. In the woods near the point are the remains of campfires and beer bottles. We tell the newbies to keep their voice down, otherwise the park rangers will run us off, because cliff jumping is not authorized. Too dangerous.
I’m a safety-first kinda guy, so I ask one of the young bucks in our party to first climb down the cliff and swim the waters to check for submerged logs or anything that could cause injury. I watch the first-timers peer over the edge and watch the swimmer below. You can see them do the math about jumping: is it really 40 feet? How often are there submerged logs? Is this really safe?
I know what you’re thinking: This is a post about taking a leap of faith. Nope. This isn’t a metaphor about faith: it’s about experience. Nothing replaces it. 
The word “faith” has been virtually ruined in our discourse. It can mean intellectual agreement with various propositions. It can mean superstition regarding any number of moments in life. Even among Christians, faith is frequently reduced to the mere teaching of bullet points and making sure everyone is on the same page doctrinally.
That’s why cliff jumping is so refreshing: cliff jumping requires the jump: you can walk the path, swim the waters, climb the rocks, but eventually you must jump. Nothing else will do. You can go along and watch. You can correct my estimate of how many feet you will fall. You can watch others all afternoon. But if you’re going to be a cliff jumper, eventually you have to jump.
It doesn’t matter how you jump. Hold your nose and close your eyes. Put your arms in the air like a roller coaster ride. Scream like a little girl. Now you’re a jumper, and sailing through the air trumps study or song. You’ll return home with a new experience and a souvenir memory. You are a member of the Honorable Order of Park Ranger-Defying Cliff Jumpers. You know whereof you speak.
Knowledge and theory are overrated. Experience is underrated. We need experience: it’s the kind of knowing the scripture describes when it urges us: 
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
   his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
   as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:3)
I want to feel him like the rush of my first jump. Like the wind in my ears. Like the crazy sound of the water when it covers my head in an instant. I want to know him in the twitching of my leg muscles in the night when I go to bed and remember the first time I jumped.
I want faith that grabs him in the middle of the jump and never lets go. I want Paul’s prayer to be answered in me: 
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 Lord’s holy people, 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 3: 16-21)
I want words to fail me. I want the fourth dimension. I want faith that grasps his love. Then I’ll go study, because only then will he be with me.