Christianity

I’m not teaching today, but if I was…

Picture: Alex Coppel. Source: HWT Image Library, Herald News Sun.

I’d talk about acceptance. As we in Springfield join in the emerging reality of post-Christian America, where Christian faith is no longer an assumed fact and no longer enjoys its preferred status, we who are people of Christian tradition and faith need to explore new ways of expressing our ethics and convictions. “I believe” is a statement that rests solely in our own experience and existential reality. We cannot expect anyone to respect or join our truth simply because we believe it.

At The Community Church, we have been working through the book of James for the last several weeks. I believe that this letter is James’ attempt to bring the teachings of Jesus to a livable level when dealing with persecutions and trials that serving Christ in the 1st century entailed. James’ central theme is that faith is best expressed through external behaviors. In other words, if you claim to follow Jesus, do good things and don’t be a jerk.

One of the ways we can do good things is to accept people. James used the example of favoring the rich over the poor to illustrate this point. If we extrapolate the truth to a 21st century context, who do we give a favored seat to? The wealthy, the influential, those in agreement? James echoes the teachings of his half-brother, reminding his readers that Christianity’s acceptance of others is based on “whosoever will.” Anyone, ANYONE, who wants to come to the Kingdom is invited. For our church, we hope that anyone who is seeking truth and is safe to the community has a place.

I’ve been taught great lessons on acceptance since coming to Springfield. Acceptance only exists in diversity. Acceptance is not the same as compliance. Acceptance means staying different and existing together. Acceptance requires listening and learning, not talking and teaching. Acceptance is a grace given and a grace received. 

I may never convince someone of my truth, but I can demonstrate that, just like me, God accepts them for no other reason than that they exist.

I was in an Anglican church in Oxford a few years ago. One of the staff members told us a story of a homeless man and his dog who had wandered into the sanctuary of this stunning, centuries-old church. A worker moved quickly to get the man and his dog out of this hallowed, sacred space. The pastor stopped them, saying, “I love the smell of dogs in church.” Whosoever will.

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Book Review: Primal by Mark Batterson

(My first book review. Landmark moment)


Book Rating:

3 out of 5 Tanks

Mark Batterson’s latest, Primal, reaches quickly into Restorationist tones, asking, “Why isn’t our Christiantiy like the Christianity we read in the Bible?” Using the Great COmmandment as a paradigm, batterson outlines a hopeful return to the primal (hence the title) nature of Christiantiy, the true faith.

Primal is Batterson at his best. While not theologically dense, it does provide a challenging and inspiring call to a passionate Christianity. Laden with illustrations, he paints a contrasting pattern of what is and what can be when we tap into the essence of Christian faith. Utilizing pithy (and sometimes cliche) axioms, he keeps his message tight and simple.

While it will never rise to the heights of Celebration of Discipline or Mere Christiantity, Primal doesn’t need to. It fully accomplishes its mission, reminding us that there is always more to discovery in our faith, and that those mysteries are there for anyone who wants them.

You can find Primal here.

Thoughts on Hebrews

A few weeks ago, at the church I work at, I preached a sermon on Hebrews 10:19-25. That began a moving in my heart to discover some of the other spots where the author uses a formula of “since-then-let us” teaching propositions. I like this construct because it bases reasonable models of ethics and morality on divinely revealed truths.

In this particular passage, the author gives two revealed truths:

  1. We have confidence to enter the the holy places because of the work of Christ
  2. We have a great high priest (Jesus) over the house of God

What is your confidence level when it comes to God? Many people struggle with the idea that God even knows they exist, let alone loves them. We view God as the one person we can never please, who we’re never good enough for, and with whom we can’t get anything right. Our understanding of God is constricted by fallen leaders, despotic rulers, and invisible fathers. People think that God is either limited, cruel, or simply not there. This view of God gives no one confidence to bring an ingrown toenail to His attention, let alone a broken life and spirit.

One of the things Christ came to do was change our view of God. The Jews of the First Century world saw God as theirs alone, and that absolute legal perfection was the only way to please Him. Christ came and re-imagined the idea of grace, that God would take care of the Law, and we would simply trust Him. Christ give event the worst of us the hope that we can come before God, to whom we can give nothing, and receive everything we need. This is not because of what we have accomplished, but because of what Jesus did in His redemption role.

So what do we do with these truths? Let us:

  1. Draw near with a true heart
  2. Hold fast the confession of our hope
  3. Consider how to provoke love and good works

Don’t ever stop walking towards God. Many times in my own life, when I perceive God’s disappointment or displeasure towards me, I run and hide from Him. I still go to church, preach my sermons, keep my counseling appointments, and teach my classes, but there is, as Dave Matthews puts it, “a space between.” Grace reminds me that failure, hurt, or fear, are the best reasons to run to God. I can draw near to Him; I belong in His presence, because the work of Christ on the cross lets me in.

That drawing near allows me to hold on to my confession of hope. I love that this is a confession of hope rather than a confession of truth. Hope just seems better than truth sometimes. The amazing thing a bout Christianity is that the truth is full of hope. I can be better, I am saved, I can look towards the future.

And then I need to do great things with this truth and encourage other people to do them too. The word that the ESV renders as “stir up” carries a nuance of “provoke.” I love this. I laugh at the idea of Christians, full of God’s grace-filled truth/hope, provoking the best from each other instead of the worst. What would our influence in the world  and on history be if instead of bringing out all of the anger, bitterness, and discord we carry, we demand and expect love, peace, and joy?

Voices of the Revolution

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. It’s not exactly the kind of place I would normally go to for Christian inspiration, but bear with me. The four-day festival in the fields of Max Yasgur’s New York farm became the iconic event for a generation seeking freedom, equality, and peace.

For the most part, the event went off wihout major incident (two people died, one of a heroin overdose and one from a tractor accident). This is due in no small part to the work of The Hog Farm, a hippie commune from California, who worked to feed the 400,000-plus attendees, help people navigate drug overdoses, and generally maintained the positive goals of the festival. One morning, while the Hog Farm workers and other volunteers were distributing a granola breakfast to the mud-covered, rain-soaked attendees, Wavy Gravy announced over the PA system, “We must be in Heaven, man!…There’s always a little bit of Heaven in a disaster area.”

There’s always a little bit of Heaven in a disaster area.

Few secular voices have ever managed to speak more profound words of grace.

Because of sin, because of pride, because of arrogance, our world is a disaster area. Whether the global community or our own lives, we are embedded in a world of chaos and pain, defined by selfish, vain deceits that draw us away from the best things and binds us to the worst.

Romans 1-3 remind us that we walked away from the love of God and defiantly choose self-rule. Adam led, and we all blindly follow. We tried to run the universe, and we drove it right into the ground.

Into this disaster area comes Romans 5:6-8, 6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Into our disaster area, Christ inserted his heavenly reality. Love came and stood against the selfish, destructive pursuits of humanity, and changed history.

I look at the disaster areas of my life, and many times I wonder where God is. I have a dear friend who has suffered great tragedy in his life. In reflecting upon the loss of his father to disease, he once told me, “We are all casualties in this war.” We are not the natural enemy in this war. We all have to choose our allegiance. Satan chose a scorched earth policy, destroying everything good in creation in a desperate attempt to create hate towards God in us. But Christ has come, and he has demonstrated heaven in our disaster area, by giving his life for us.

What disaster area needs your view of heaven?

Hitting For Average

I follow a blog out of Seattle called USS Mariner. It contains some of the best insights into baseball that you will ever read.

One of yesterday’s posts centered around the cliches baseball uses to explain normal statistical patterns. (I know, only in baseball.)Things like, “His arm’s getting tired,” or, “He’s not used to playing everyday,” or the all-encompassing, “162 games is a long season.” The truth is, if a lifetime .250 hitter has been crushing the ball at .400, and now he’s scraping out .100, that’s not a slump, the guy’s just coming back to average.judge_smails_138

I think of the times in my own life when success comes easy or when failure is the pattern. As Judge Elihu Smails once phrased so majestically, “It’s easy to grin / when your ship comes in / and you’ve got the stock market beat. / But the man worthwhile / is the man who can smile / when his shorts are too tight in the seat”…ah-ha-ha-ha. OK, Pookie, do the honors.” We think success is mostly our effort, while failure is mostly something else’s fault.

Is it ever appropriate to look at life as a average pattern over time? Would that help keep us humble in victory, and encouraged in defeat?

In baseball, you’re pretty much guaranteed 54 wins and 54 losses. The difference in the making the playoffs or early September elimination is what happens in the other 54 games. Life transformation over time is an exercise in averages. Too often we focus on streaks and slumps, and view ourselves and each other in light of a period of time rather than a lifetime.

I don’t want to be a streak hitter, I want to be a man, who overtime, improves and sustains the average good and the average righteousness in my life. I want to see my streaks as seasons of blessing, see my failures as momentary setbacks, and recognize the gradual process of loooking like Jesus.

Grace Revolution 5

revolution |ˌrevəˈloō sh ən|
noun
1 a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.
• a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it : marketing underwent a revolution.
2 an instance of revolving : one revolution a second.
• motion in orbit or a circular course or around an axis or center.
• the single completion of an orbit or rotation.
ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French, or from late Latin revolutio(n-), from revolvere ‘roll back’.Washington

In the truest sense of the word, a revolution is not an innovation, the creation of something new, but rather a “rolling back.” The revolutions of the 18th century (American and French most notably) were the result of Enlightenment thinking’s desire to return to the heights of Roman Republic, the golden ideal of equality and human dignity. Revolutionary heroes such as George Washington were cast in the mold of Republic heroes such as Cincinnatus. In the revolutionary minds, the hope was to return things to what natural law demanded; man ruling himself, in community with each other.

For there to be a Grace Revolution, as the title of these posts demands, there must be a return to what grace was meant to be. As I posted a few weeks ago, grace is the gift of relationship. It is a return to the Garden Reality, where God and Humanity enjoy unhindered community.  That model of grace is embedded throughout the Old Testament, revealing itself in every aspect of Hebrew history.

It is under this premise of a revolution being a “rolling back,” that Christ’s words in Matthew 5.17-20 come into play.
(Bloggers Note: At this point I want to state that the worst grade I ever received in college was for my final Hermeneutics paper that covered this exact passage. In light of that revelation, feel free to ignore anything you are about to read. – Brian)

Mt. 5.17-20 (ESV)
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The more I read this, the more I become convinced that Christ’s journey is not a “new” plan, but instead a return to the original. Jesus did not come to get rid of the Law and to create a new strategy, but rather to remind us of what the plan was and to get rid of all the things we add to grace.

The Law and the Prophets (a euphemism for the Old Testament) served to bring humanity into relationship with God, albeit in a limited and finite capacity. The work of Christ in Heaven and on Earth served to bring fulfillment, which is not necessarily the same thing as an end. The grammatical construct here could be used to imply an historic event with ongoing effects. Christ’s sacrifice perpetually fulfills the need of punishment for sin, thereby allowing us enduring access to the grace of relationship. The Law and the Prophets existed as Divine constructs and as such did not need to be destroyed. What needed to be destroyed was what we made.

Humanity tends to complicate the simple. God’s simple plan exists in two commands; love God, and love each other. We in turn create a labyrinth of do’s and don’ts, of expectations and demands, hat give us mastery over God’s plan. Instead of focusing on being, we focus on doing. Christ came to destroy that. “The righteousness of the Pharisees” was code morality, an ethic of doing the right thing, with little regard for being. Pay attention to the one rejected from the Kingdom, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.”

So Jesus started a revolution, a rolling back towards simple grace. Love God, love each other, and find hope. Viva La Revolución!jesus-people-time-magazine

Grace Revolution 4

I once heard a preacher make the statement, “The reason that here are no Gospels in the Old Testament is because Gospel means Good News, and there is no good news in the Old Testament.”

That man, to put it delicately, is an idiot.jerry-seinfeld-george-costanza

Let’s ignore the fact that “Gospel” is a Hellenistic literary form that wouldn’t emerge until after the last Hebrew prophet is recorded. That’s like saying nothing funny happened before 1989 because “Seinfeld” hadn’t been invented yet.

To understand the Good News of the Old Testament, it is important to define what the good news really is. What is the essence of the Gospel Message that found its fulfillment in Christ? Playing off the theme of my last post, I believe it is this: God provides a means by which we can be reconciled to Him.

The Old Testament, the collective record of Hebrew spiritual experience and truth, is rife with good news. From the opening verse of Genesis, to the last encouragement/warning of Malachi, God is letting us know He loves us, and working things out to get us back. In the Restoration Plan of Genesis 3, God’s immediate response to the Fall, He hints at the death of Christ. With Noah and the Ark, we see that even when we deserved it, God refused to completely destroy humanity.  Time and time again, God shows the lengths He is willing to go in order to keep us afloat (sorry for the pun), until the window for Christ’s Advent arrives.

Even The Law, those obscure passages of Scripture that Protestants run away and hide from, communicates the Good News. Remember that the Fall of Man left creation in a chaotic, primal state, where man committed abominations towards God and atrocities to each other. Into this chaos God brings the Hebrew tribes, and gives them simple laws. Keep your camps clean, so I can dwell with you. Don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you, simply because you’re more powerful. Don’t murder anybody. Take care of your parents as they get older, don’t leave them on a rock to die, or kill them for your inheritance. It’s pretty basic stuff now, but revolutionary for the day.

The Law of Moses fences in man’s primal state and his basest urges. Without these basic laws, the ancient world was a brutal, violent, and harsh reality. God’s commands, which we often deem as legalistic and cold, elevated the dignity of human being and began to teach them that life could be enjoyed, not just survived. Women had rights; oppressed ethnic groups had hope. Later violations of God’s social justice provisions towards the fatherless and the widow brought judgment on Israel.

God wanted Israel to reflect the reconciliation that He had created for them. The death of the animals at the altar taught them of a truth that would become universal in Christ. God was willing to provide a scapegoat, a proxy for our sin wage. Eventually, that scapegoat would be His only begotten Son.

For me, the stellar example of the Old Testament Gospel is found in Jeremiah 31. After the judgment of Babylonian conquest and Exile, God speaks to His people to remind them of the ultimate plan of reconciliation. Jeremiah 31:33 (ESV), “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The Good News is there. We will be His and He will be ours. We will be a community of grace, given the gift of relationship with our Creator, and the damage done by sin and failure will be restored once more.