Stop imposing your politics upon Jesus

Between the last election and these midterms, I’ve noticed an increase in certain memes being posted on social media asserting God is on a specific side.

For example, one meme has asked, “If Jesus were on Earth today, would he be at a Trump rally or in a migrant caravan?”

I understand and can appreciate that the purpose of such questions and posts and hypotheticals are meant to elicit or provoke a contemplated response, however leveraged it might be. The underlying framework of such assertions, however, concerns me.

Such assertions are presumptuous. Regardless of agenda, they put demands upon Jesus. They insist that Jesus think like we do or that we know what is best for Jesus to do.

Politics were tense in Jesus’ day, also. Responses in the region varied. Some groups decided to retreat to the wilderness to avoid what the world had become and wait for God’s Messiah to appear and set things right. Other groups believed it was important to remain amongst the world, but only while following the Law and a labyrinth of added clauses in order to maintain purity against the world’s influence. There were other groups who believed violent revolution against the Roman occupation was the best course of action, while others believed reaching political agreements with the Romans was the best option for peace, and power.

When rumors began to swirl that Jesus was God’s long-awaited Messiah, each of these groups believed they knew what Jesus should be doing. They would test Jesus with questions he would always turn around and use as teaching moments. They would invite him into their homes which he would again use to demonstrate God’s will. When messengers would be sent to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah, he instructed them to compare his work to Isaiah’s imagery of the Messiah’s work and decide for themselves. On one occasion, when he realized a crowd wanted to make him king, Jesus walked away.

Jesus was not willing to let himself be manipulated or made a puppet dancing on someone’s strings. Jesus would not allow himself to be used for someone’s agenda because Jesus had his own agenda.

If you look at some of the disciples Jesus chose, there was a revolutionary and a tax collector. There were some who were with John the baptizer in the wilderness and there was a man who believed money made him powerful. And there were common men who tended to their trades, families, and local synagogues. Each brought with them their own sense of what was right. Rather than catering to any of their sides, however, Jesus’ instruction was “Follow me”. Jesus knew this divisiveness they were accustomed to was characteristic of the Fall’s disharmony, and that following him would cut through the chaos’ tangled web and move into a Way that is Truth and Life.

We cannot follow Jesus while insisting he follow us. We cannot conform to the image of Christ while insisting he conform to ours. We cannot worship a King we demand should be worshipping us.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about the things that we do. It’s that Jesus has already established the way God is going about dealing with all things.

The question for us is whether we will continue upon the way of fragmentation or follow Jesus upon the way which, through his cross, is already making all things new.

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The Lamppost of a New World

For some time, the street in front of our church building has been under construction, but it has finally been completed. While stopping by there one recent evening to drop some papers off, I looked up the sidewalk, and standing tall on the corner was a new streetlamp. Not an average wood pole and light, but a decorative, vintage-looking lamp.

I strolled up the sidewalk to get a better look; with our church building illuminated behind it, I laughed quietly to myself.

Yes, I thought of Jesus’ statements that his followers are the “light of the world” who are to let their “light shine before others”. But there was something also that stirred my imagination.

One of the most popular series in modern Christian literature is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s first and most famous novel tells the story of a young girl, Lucy, who playfully steps into a wardrobe and discovers within a strange and magical land. Her first few steps bring her to a London-style lamppost located amid a wintery forest. As she gazes in wonder at this sight, a woodland creature named Mr. Tumnus, a Faun with his own complicated story, happens upon her. It is at this lamppost their friendship begins, and ultimately incites an adventure leading to the salvation and liberation of Narnia. Later we learn the lamppost was planted there at Narnia’s beginning, grew from out of Narnia’s newness, and has since emitted an eternal flame to remind all of the Life and Song with which it was imbued.

While I may just be making something out of nothing, that’s what landmarks do. They serve as reminders that something happened here, and we can be better for it. The lamppost in the Narnia story can serve to kindle our church’s imagination for her purpose every time we see the newly installed lamppost on our street corner.

Like Narnia’s lamppost, the Church can mark the bridging of the world as it is, and the better world God is making through Christ. Like Narnia’s lamppost, the Church can also bear witness to the Life and Song as it was in the beginning, and as it will stir and ring out again. Just as with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, the Church is where relationships can begin, and reconciliation is made possible. Finally, as seen at the novel’s end when Lucy again encounters the lamppost and returns to the wardrobe and to her world, the Church marks the end of old stories that are also the beginning of new chapters.

Beholding the lamppost then as if for the first time, Lucy declared “It will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern, either we shall find strange adventures or else some great changes of our fortunes.”

I hope those who encounter our church may also echo Lucy’s daring in their own thoughts. I hope that our church may be such a “light of the world” letting our “light shine before others” that those who enter our midst may experience in our community the deep magic of a world being made new.

 

 

 

 

A bulwark through the bleakness (Psalm 8)

Psalm 8 is a hymn I regularly turn to stabilize my internal disruption.

In prayerful adoration the psalmist both begins and concludes the hymn “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

These words are the bookends for the psalmist’s contemplation of how God’s majesty encompasses the whole of this world. Between those bookends are natural expressions by which we perceive and experience God’s otherwise immeasurable majesty.

Firstly, he says “You have set your glory above the heavens”. It is a statement we readily relate to considering how frequently we, like the psalmist, “look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established”, and praise God for his cosmic creation. Our imagination has always been captivated by the faraway glories of stars and sunsets, our eyes and minds dancing to the beauty and elegance of their movements.

Our thoughts cannot long linger here because the psalmist immediately turns our attention away from the skyward splendor to a more average scene down on earth where another majesty resides. Across the luscious landscape, human beings dot the terrain. Though they be frail, they are formidable. The psalmist is astounded that of all God’s creation, he is most mindful of humankind (vv3-4). The psalmist also acknowledges and appreciates that, having been made a little lower than the angels, God has given humankind dominion over his creation (vv5-6). They are a marvelous majesty.

But the psalmist is also aware there is ugliness. That this sacred dominion has been beaten into weapons we frequently wield against one another. It is into this ugly array the psalmist names a much more intimate expression of this majesty: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”

A bulwark was a piece of a wall or tower that extended outward to provide a greater measure of security to the city’s defenses. Standing tall, it raised the city’s occupants and defenders above the noise and threats of the enemy. But how can the voices of the young offer such forbearance?

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is in jail awaiting trial when a mob of men arrive one night to lynch him. Tom’s lawyer, Atticus, is also there to dissuade them. They’re facing off when Atticus’ children suddenly run up to the jail porch. Despite Atticus demanding they leave, they stay. The situation is at an impasse when Atticus’ young daughter Scout sees Mr. Cunningham, the father of a school boy she once bullied, then befriended. She begins talking to him about his own young son as if nothing is going on around them. Mr. Cunningham’s head is bowed, and the other men feel awkward as well. Suspecting she’s crossed some line, Scout stops and apologizes, at which point Mr. Cunningham comes to his senses, speaks to her courteously like a gentleman, then goes home, telling the other men to do the same. Life was right in front of them, but their single-minded rage could only envision death. It took a young girl’s innocence to restore them to a sense of dignity and decency.

While our violence, smugness, and exploitation cloud our view to the majesties God has instilled all around us in the form of creation and each other, suddenly, from out of the prattling, atheistic noise, the psalmist points the eyes and ears of our hearts to the innocence of the young breaking through the bleakness like a bulwark emerging in the morning fog. We who are made a “little lower” than the angels, but often elevate ourselves as gods, need these lowest versions of ourselves to remind us of the simple majesty our existence already satisfactorily expresses.

As you hear these innocent infants or babbling babes bellow out what Jesus himself would later refer to as praise God has prepared for himself, receive it as sacred majesty meant to “silence the enemy”, as well as our own nitpickings, and restore us to worshipful awareness of GOD at work in this world.

And if any words must be spoken, let them echo the psalmist by praying “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

How do we discover and develop spiritual gifts—(1 Corinthians 13:1-8)

Once Paul has established and clarified that the gifts are various Spirit-shaped, Grace-expressive enablings by which the Church community equips one another with Christ-like maturity, in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, he states a conundrum—not every believer has the same gift. Not every follower has the same function. It’s a conundrum that can create some concern within one’s soul. Do I have a spiritual gift? How can I discover it? How might I develop it?

Paul’s solution is to cut through the confusion with a simple, but excellent way forward. It’s called Love.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

In these sledge-hammering comments, Paul clarifies that if the giftings are not expressed in and through Love, the gifts will not facilitate the common good the Spirit meant to manifest. If our gifts are not channeled by Love, the Spirit will be unable to use His graces-in-us to shape a Christlike community. With the efficiency of the giftings appearing to depend on whether Love is present, it would then seem that Love is both the way of discovering our giftings and the means of disciplining ourselves for their use.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

A careful look at Paul’s famous Love passage here suggests at least two aspects of Love that relates to the discovery and development of our spiritual gifts.

One, this Love is interactive. “Patient…kind…not boastful…” are things that require interacting with others in order to be properly practiced. Since spiritual gifts are interactive by nature, Love gets us to where we need to be, both spatially and maturely, to use the gift. People won’t be blessed by the Spirit’s gifts in us if we’re not willing to interact with them, and we won’t interact with them if we aren’t willing to Love them. Love shapes in us the willingness to interact with one another so the Spirit can shape through us His Grace in that other.

Second, this Love is holy. This Love does not bend to whatever wind it’s blowing in; this Love remains rooted in the deliberately distinct and disciplined nature that brought it forth. Holiness seeks to use interactions as transformative encounters that yield “the common good” the Spirit desires to manifest. One might have the gift of godly knowledge, but if they don’t teach with patience and kindness, they cannot affect the “the common good”. If Christlikeness is the destiny, holiness is the fuel that makes Love go.

How might this all be generally applied? Look around your congregation. What people, situations, services, or needs are opportunities to practice this list of Love? Start small and simple; experiment and go from there. Over time, pay attention to how your maturation and ministering efforts overlap with the encouragement and growth of others; within that overlap may very well be an enabling by God’s Spirit to express His Grace.

Why do spiritual gifts exist?—(Ephesians 4:7-13)

In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul states “To each [brother and sister] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. When you look at how Paul frames this verse, he begins with individuality, moves towards an encounter with the working of God’s Spirit presence, and ends up with anticipating a community characterized by God’s goodness. Paul’s framework here and throughout the chapter emphasizes the spiritual gifts are for the benefit of the body of Christ.

In Ephesians 4, another significant passage on giftings, Paul employs this same corporate language; in that passage, however, he frames it within the broader framework of Christ’s kingdom rule and how the Church exists within that royal reality; one we must be familiar with if we are to understand why the giftings exist.

Paul’s goal throughout his Ephesian letter is to animate his audience with the exultant reality to which Christ has been resurrected, elevated and enthroned to reign over. The conclusions and implications he draws out for the Church all stem from the fact that Christ reigns with glory and power. In Ephesians 4, Paul begins his discussion of the gifts by first briefly ruminating on the bookends of Jesus’ life in a motif that is rich with royal politics.

“But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 

“Descended” encompasses Jesus’ incarnation into a world gone wild, his kingdom-establishing ministry amidst that world, and the accomplishing of a restorative righteousness by his crucifixion. “He ascended” refers to the Father’s recognition of Jesus’ righteousness by the resurrection and exalted elevation to the heavenly throne. This gospel motif is the imagery of a crown prince who, having demonstrated and received recognition for his worth, is deservedly and triumphantly coronated as King over the Kingdom. It is a celebratory moment of elation and rejoicing for a good and wise King is once again in charge. The restorative righteousness the King accomplished must now be implemented across the breadth of the wild world. How? Those loyal to the King shall live strewn about the wide wild world as colonists whose lives are lived together as colonies reflective of the King’s righteousness and character. In order to fuel and energize their restorative efforts, the King regularly distributes and supplies his colonies with gifts of provisions.

The provisions of this motif, I suggest, are analogous to the gifts Paul proceeds to describe: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

Remember the old saying “It takes a village to raise a child”? Whether a butcher, a baker, or candlestick maker, everyone in the village had roles which contributed to the corporate livelihood of the village. Within this framework of Christ’s royal realm, Paul’s list of giftings are roles whose positions and functions are meant to establish and nurture Kingdom culture. If our churches begin to view ourselves as Kingdom colonies whose culture is a reflection of the King’s character, perhaps our fellowships will actually result in the holy community that is perceived by the neighboring world as good news.

What are spiritual gifts?—(1 Corinthians 12:1-7)

From the outset of 1 Corinthians 12, the primary text on spiritual gifts, Paul does not actually use the word gifts. In v1, gifts is implied as the noun possibly being described by the adjective spiritual, as if Paul were saying “I don’t want you to be ignorant about those things or realities that take shape deep in our spirits”.

In vv2-3, Paul continues that, as former pagans, idolatrous influences were what had taken shape in their spirits. But since those idols were simply stone or wood, their spirits had just been responding to what was not actually calling or leading. It was incongruent, off-balanced living. In Christ, however, God’s living Spirit was now taking shape in theirs. In God’s Spirit, they had stepped into a life of congruence between who God was or what God was doing, and who they were now becoming. It is in the consistency of this congruent reality that special spiritual things, like cream rising to the top, begin to emerge.

When Paul eventually uses the word gifts in v4, its built on the root word for grace (charis) and the suffix used to indicate an end result (-ma); thus we have the word charisma, which here means an end result or expression of grace, or as sometimes interpreted, a grace-gift. One might even call these gifts “graces”. Given how our consumer culture conditions us to think of gifts as something we’re entitled to (Christmas/birthday lists) or as something we’re free to do with whatever we want, this aspect of grace helps keep our perception of giftings properly framed. This could shape our view of the gifts in at least two ways.

One, it clarifies these gifts are not ours to own. In vv4-7, Paul emphasizes four times that whatever the gift, the activity it enables, or function it serves, these gifts are rooted in, activated through, and governed by the Spirit. These gifts have their essence and being in and of the Spirit. They are His specialty, fashioned and given purpose in the depths of God’s personhood. They are functionary reflections of God’s Spirit. These graces of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing abilities, miracle working, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretations we receive are inherent and natural to God’s Spirit. While our spirits are specially enabled, they remain as expressions of the Spirit’s essence.

Two, by receiving in part what is the Spirit’s entirely, these grace-gifts are essentially loans. Since God’s freely given Grace possesses a nature that necessarily correlates with God’s holy nature, our receipt of this Grace comes with the condition that we preserve its holy nature in the way we maintain it. His Grace-in-us is thus partially expressed as loans, or giftings, we have been entrusted with so that, as with Jesus’ parable of the talents (Mt25), when it comes time to settle accounts with God, we will have shown ourselves faithful and fruitful trustees of His Grace.

The spiritual gifts, therefore, are the resulting expressions of the Grace God’s Spirit is enabling into our spirits. It is how we choose to physically express these expressions of God’s Spirit that will determine if they are be a gift that keeps on giving God’s Grace.

An Attempt to Recover a Biblical Sense of Blessing

I must confess to being long frustrated with many popular concepts of blessing.

Sometimes bless is used as a positive sentiment at the end of a speech or greeting card. There’s the polite, and superstitious, “bless you” when someone sneezes. There is the more material aspect of blessings we either count or hope we experience as health and wealth; Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:45, however seem to frame material blessings as something God has given humans general access to, depending on available resources, fair processes, favorable circumstances, promising opportunities, and industriousness. There is also the calculating usage of quid pro quo (if you do X, you will be blessed). Whatever the intentions of these usages, their substance seems in want of the weightiness actual blessedness should bring. If limited to these usages, the concept of blessing will continue to be an unremarkable one. Thankfully, Scripture points to a blessedness of far greater substance.

Ephesians is probably Paul’s most exultant letter; understandably since his entire attention is captivated by Christ, resurrected and raised to the heavenly throne “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is not, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph1:21). It is Paul’s desire to animate his audience with resurrection reality (Eph2:4-7).

He does this from the letter’s outset, contemplating the abundance of God’s blessedness: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph1:3).

Variations of the word bless occur three times in this verse. The first time frames the Father as the One from whom all blessedness flows; the second time identifies us-in-Christ as the eventual recipients of the Father’s blessedness. The third time names the heavenly places, where Christ reigns, as the locale of the Father’s blessedness. This blessedness, put simply, is the exultant reality emanating from Christ’s reign which we-in-Christ are elected to receive and participate in as his royal people.

If that explanation sounds a bit starry-eyed, Paul proceeds to elaborate on five finer-pointed features of this blessedness the Church experiences in Christ.

First, we-in-Christ have been blessed with adoption (Eph1:5-6). Upon enthroning Christ as King, the Father expands his household to those who recognize sin for the homelessness it is (Eph2:19), and instead choose to allegiantly dwell in the home of his holiness (Eph2:21). Wherever you are, whatever you perceive, in Christ you are of the Father’s household. Let that blessedness be as a signal banner waving in your mind. 

Second, we-in-Christ have been blessed with forgiveness and redemption (Eph1:7-8a). A part of the blessedness belonging to the Father’s household is forgiveness. In Eph3:18, Paul measures out the unfathomable “breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love. Forgiveness requires these vast dimensions to cover sin’s wide spread. In addition to unburdening our souls of sin’s shame, this blessedness also brings us back to something better, a redemptive reality for which we were always designed.

Third, we-in-Christ have been blessed with an eschatological hope (Eph1:8b-10). While many end times or apocalyptic discussions often focus on more nightmarish imagery, here Paul finds blessed assurance that in Christ, all things, in heaven and earth, are being brought into submission to Christ’s cosmic rule. Whenever we look around and exasperatedly lament “What is the world coming to?”, this point of blessedness boasts that God is sovereignly moving all history towards a good future in which Christ has the last word in everything.

Fourth, we-in-Christ have been blessed with a heritage of holy ones (Eph1:11-12). Right relationship with God isn’t restored simply so we can dispense with living in right relationship with others. Within the Father’s household we have been blessed with family. In Christ, we’ve been given the gift of each other. This Church community gives visible expression to restored harmony with humanity. As the earthly body of big brother Jesus, we are God’s resurrection people, worthily embodying the kind of community that demonstrates to the world what reconciliation to God, creation, and each other is supposed to look like. Holiness in a vacuum is always incomplete; holiness is harmonized in the blessedness of being with and belonging to each other.

Finally, we-in-Christ have been blessed with the presence of God’s personhood (Eph1:13-14). It is the head of the household who sets the standard and tone for what that household will be about. The Holy Spirit is the living dynamic by whom the Father perpetually puts His household in holy and harmonizing order. Throughout Ephesians Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as the presence that provides us access to the Father, the power that strengthens our own inner spirit, the mediator through whom Christians are unified and Christian living is aligned, and the outfitter who clads us in the protections of Jesus’ person. By shaping in us ever-maturing personhood of Christ, the Holy Spirit is the blessing through whom all God’s blessedness is continually conveyed.

How might this concept of Biblical blessing impact the Church?

First, it establishes in our minds and hearts the foundational fact that, in Christ, we are already blessed. Many of the other popular usages nurture an anxious waiting and wanting for a blessedness we are prevented from realizing we have already received in Christ.

Second, it presents God’s blessedness within a framework that promotes wholesomeness rather than fragmented or compartmentalized living. This blessedness begins as the heavenly reality God’s Spirit shapes in our spirits on Earth, then gradually correlates into the physical and emotional expressions we all deeply desire to experience as humans—assurance, actualization, affirmation, community, hope, purpose.

Third, it stirs us to active engagement. Continually waiting and praying for a blessedness we’re unaware we already possess in Christ passively undermines the Church’s witness and mission. Realizing we-in-Christ are already blessed moves us away from our passivity of perceived lack and empowers us to actively live from out of the abundance of God’s blessedness.

My prayer is, not that God would bless you, but that you would awaken to the blessedness God has already abundantly poured out in Christ—a home made of His holiness, a belonging made of each other, a redemption restoring humanity, a view to the blessed end, and a presence that permeates and empowers for His purposes. May it be the foundation from which your faith is lived forth.