Love Listens

The spiritual journey to a new life which is both ours but not ours, at least in the way our life has been, is what Jesus gives. We can become more than we are in the mystery of a venture into the eternal love of God. Jesus spoke about this process as entering God’s Kingdom, coming to live in a whole other realm while still in this world.

All the transformation this entails happens in God’s divine love, which is why Jesus names love as both the greatest command and his new command (John 13:34). We receive and and learn to share this love which is not of ourselves, but which comes into us by God’s own gracious work.

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. Romans 10:17

In this statement, Paul is discussing the beginning of this spiritual journey for us. The message of Christ, which is about him and also from him, is what we must hear. Jesus is the way and teaches us the way. However, we might overlook the necessary role of love in the very inception of this journey, but it is present nonetheless.

Our first act of love is to pay attention. The word of Christ is a message about love, which comes to us out of love, and it elicits our initial response which is participation in the divine love through our hearing. We listen with intention and desire, which makes this an act of love. Love moves us to pay attention. Sometimes we hear but don’t listen, but in this instance we are talking about the choice and willingness to listen, and this is love.

Because our first step into the love of God is when that love draws from us enough love to pay attention, we ought to realize that this is the first way we too ought to love others as well. To love our neighbor begins with listening to them, just as our love of God begins in listening to God. We might think that to love their neighbors we must immediately tell them what we believe they need to know. We may be right about what they need to hear, but this is not where love begins. 

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Psalm 116:1

God loves us in the way we need to love one another. Often our cry is misguided, or our request foolish. Perhaps the mercy we cry out for is not the mercy we need, but God pays attention anyway. God hears us as an act of love.

God is always taking the initiative. God listens to us before we listen to him. God loves us before we love in return. God speaks to us because he has heard our cries, even if those were not specifically directed to him. If in the transforming love of God we become like him, then we too listen as an act of love before we speak. 

For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. John 12:49

We see this same pattern in the life of Jesus. He paid attention his Father’s voice because of his love. He listened before he spoke, and we have this as the way given to us. We won’t even know what love is unless we have first listened carefully to the love we are being given and shown, and recognize how we were lovingly heard as part of the love we were taught.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Human Potential

All things being good in the beginning, by God’s loving creation, is not the same all things being perfect. Too often we may read the opening scene of Genesis as describing a perfect world rather than a good one with potential. We ought to think of perfection as the state or condition that something reaches after its intended growth. This is why typically in scripture perfection is synonymous with maturity.

To illustrate this sense of the word, a seed is not “perfect” until it becomes the plant it was destined to be. A good seed will germinate, sprout, and grow, but a good seed has not realized its potential and its proper “end” until it is the mature plant. Perfection is when the goal is reached, and for us, that means the fullness of life in union with God.

One might ask, but were not Adam and Eve in that state of oneness with God in the garden? I would assert that the story portrays them being in proximity to God, but not in a profound communion with their Creator. This is why they were easily deceived into thinking that God was not acting lovingly toward them, and instead withholding good from them. They did not know God, and union with God, a mature relationship, must involve knowing God deeply.

We, like they, are created good with the potential for relationship with God, but we begin known but not knowing. We should think of ourselves as good by the creative grace of God, with all the possibility designed and willed by God, and yet certainly not having reached the end and goal of our own existence. We are somewhere in the process of becoming truly human, because humanity is created to grow into a harmonious fellowship with God.

But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. Ephesians 4:15–16

Jesus is the human we were created to be. To look at Jesus is to see our true destiny. He is the first and only one to actually be a human being through his growth “in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). The gospel is the joyful announcement that we may become in him, and through him, who we are being created to be. When we do, we become those who have Christ in us, and any self other than Christ simply does not exist anymore (Galatians 2:20).

This process of growth continues “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). He is the way into this perfection, the truth or reality of what it is, and conveys to us the very life that we seek to attain. This “in the Father and the Father in me” life that Jesus knew in this world (John 14:11) is the destiny, end, and goal of human existence.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Hierarchies: Good and Bad

In current discussions some are rejecting all hierarchies, declaring that they are based on abusing and exercising power in a way that elevates some and oppresses others. The claim is that the disparate power of people is exacerbated by such systems, and instead we should strive for thoroughgoing egalitarianism.

As people who seek to follow Jesus, we recognize that he opposed all types of arbitrary, power-based hierarchies. Jesus accepted everyone, showed no favoritism, but gave the same grace, love, and forgiveness to all. In doing so, he showed us that we should treat all equally. Some in his day accepted his openness while others did not, but he was resolute in his treatment of all with equal dignity, respect, and grace.

Jesus also taught his disciples to pursue an egalitarian relationship with one another, disavowing the leadership hierarchies of both the Jewish (Matthew 23:6-8) and Greek cultures (Matthew 20:25-27). The church has only poorly taken his words to heart, though some, such as St. Francis of Assisi, have insisted on fidelity to Jesus’ actual instructions.

Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. Matthew 23:10-11

We may be puzzled by this saying of Jesus, because immediately after telling his disciples not to adopt titles that would foster a hierarchy, Jesus uses the language of some being “greatest” . . . which implies a hierarchy. What is going on? If Jesus doesn’t want there to be hierarchies among his followers why talk about some being greatest?

I think we can make sense of what Jesus is saying when we understand that not all hierarchies are the same, nor are they all based on the same mechanism of power in their ranking. Some hierarchies are indeed about power and result in the subjugation, disempowerment, and mistreatment of the many by the few. When we see hierarchies based on gender, ethnicity, class, or some other similar criteria, these are often about subjugating others. Jesus forbids his followers from adopting or creating such structures. Paul even forbid creating a hierarchy based on gifts of the Spirit, instead arguing that each person is equally important to the body. The greatest gift is love, which all have from the Spirit.

However, not all hierarchies are based on power. Some hierarchies are those which make distinctions on the basis of growth, not on who wields power. These are not about gaining or holding position, but describe the process of change and transformation.

In the verse quoted above, the one who has learned to serve is “greatest” but this is not a position of power from which to subjugate others. That person is simply farther along the path of growth, and Jesus highlights this. The individual who has made himself or herself the servant of others is more attuned to the way of Jesus than those who have not.

If we were to dispense with all hierarchies, not just oppressive ones, mislabeling patterns of growth as socially constructed abusive structures, then it becomes impossible to talk about progressing spiritually. We all recognize the hierarchy of human development from infancy, to early childhood, adolescence, and so on until one reaches mature adulthood. This is not to say that adults are of greater value than children, or that adults may exercise oppressive power over children. We name these stages to seek to grow through them.

We must recognize how some structures and hierarchies have been oppressive, based on pride, position, and power, and reject and abandon those. To deny that ungodly and hurtful human systems exist is to fail to align ourselves with Jesus, for he always opposed them.

Instead, we must be able to discern stages of maturity and immaturity, particularly within ourselves in light of the teaching we have received. We can truthfully say that Christians who reject power hierarchies are more spiritually mature then those who do not. To identify and reject hierarchies that are based on the exercise of power, one over another, choosing instead the role of serving one another, is to grow in Christ according to a hierarchy of spiritual development.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Power Redefined

Jesus is well known for his inversion of the status quo, as either we expect or perhaps desire it to be. The first are last, and the last, first. The greatest is servant of all. The way to find our life is to lose it, and we ought to become as little children. The beatitudes assert the same radical view, challenging us in our typical aspirations. Do we really want to blessed if these are what it means?

There are many ways we see this in what Jesus says. He speaks about the irony that some are blind because they claim to see, but if they were blind, then they would see (John 9:39-41). Paul too expresses his own insight into the same paradoxical nature of reality when he states that when he is weak, then he is strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). This principle has implications far beyond the immediate matter he was discussing.

If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him. 1 Corinthians 8:2–3

The apparent “strength” of thinking one knows, belies an actual “weakness” in the realm of knowledge. Conversely, the one who knows he or she does not know, knows more than the one who thinks he knows much. Paul is clear that awareness of our own finitude is a far greater grasp of reality than comprehension of other matters, and thus self knowledge of our limitations is the grounding truth of all knowledge.

We need to begin in the humility of not knowing, and then, as Paul states, true knowledge is relational. Within the interpersonal dynamic of God and a human being, an interaction rooted in selfless giving toward the other, there is true knowing and being known.

It is interesting that the current postmodern perspective, the emerging worldview that is replacing and will inevitably subsume the modern mindset which has dominated in the West since the Enlightenment, takes seriously the paradox and irony of what Jesus taught – the power of powerlessness. Unlike the modern age, postmodernity embraces and seeks out these inverted possibilities.

If we are to pursue, as Jesus teaches, powerlessness, then we need to recognize that power takes many forms. Knowledge can be power, and the same with social or authority positions. When weakness is strength, and powerlessness is power, then knowing our ignorance and being the servant are, ironically, where true power is. We are not to think that old-style power is hiding there, but that real power is not at the top but at the bottom. Jesus is revealing to us a different reality that shows our common conceptions are mistaken.

John says that faith is what overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). This only makes sense if one accepts Jesus’ perspective on power from the bottom. The world traffics in force and control, ways of having power “over” things or people. Faith, a trust which abandons one’s own agency in order to depend on God, is a powerless posture which asserts no control over anything. Faith submits to Love and admits personal powerlessness.

The conviction that the world can be overcome through faith means risking everything on being last and weak. To live by such faith is to forsake the world’s ways for their opposite, and to discover that living is found in dying.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Worship & Service

The primary life of the church is worship, but that does not mean inside church buildings or even when gathered together. Worship, though corporately expressed in what we call a church service, is more fundamentally a posture of reverence that informs and shapes every moment of our lives. We worship always and in all things if we hold a love and desire for God deep within our hearts. To be mindful of the presence of God is the essence of worship.

From within this love of God, expressed in thankful attention and homage, the church engages its secondary life of ministry to the world. We do not through serving learn to worship, though ministering to others may enhance our sense of worship to God. Instead, through worship we learn to serve because we esteem the God who serves.

The imitation of God is the expression of love for God and is always nurtured in and through a posture of worship. If we were to ask ourselves what comes first and gives rise to other expressions of our relationship with God, the love, which is God’s, generates a responsive love in us. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Our love for God is love for One who infinitely exceeds us, and in that love we experience the “awe” which is so frequently described as “fear” in the Hebrew Scriptures. But to be absolutely clear, we fear God from love, not love God from fear. The latter is not even possible in a genuine sense, but only as a feigned love.

The profound sense of the immensity of God leads us to humble ourselves before him in worship, all within the full assurance that this One to whom we submit is himself, love. To know God is to love God, and to love God is to know him. True knowledge of God produces worship, and worship becomes imitation through service to the world God loves.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Story We Believe

The future depends on how truthful we can be about the past. This is to say, the genuineness and authenticity that will characterize our lives as we move forward, and whether there will be increasing wholeness rather than brokenness, is directly proportional to our ability to be honest about what has already happened. Particularly significant is whether we will accept our own blameworthy involvement in past events.

We have no choice whether to move forward or not. The next day dawns relentlessly, in this world or the next. The only choice available to us is how to face the next moment. We may either step bravely into the future with the truth, or attempt to convince ourselves and others of a false version about what has already transpired. When we tell a fabricated story about the past it has one of two overarching general forms, that we are either hero or victim. It is untrue to the degree that we portray ourselves as wholly or largely innocent, and the hero and victim are both about innocence.

Being truthful about the past entails taking responsibility for our own lives when we would often much rather ignore, deny, justify, rationalize, or somehow gloss over and dismiss our misdeeds. We do not need exhaustive self-understanding, but enough self-awareness and courage to acknowledge the reality that our own life includes wrongdoing. Such truth sets us free for a different future.

The familiar saying that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it, is especially true in our inner lives. Maybe we truly do not know some things about ourselves, the blind personal spots and the whole truth about certain events, but we all know enough to get beyond the hero/victim simplistic versions where we are innocent and others guilty. The honest reality is that we all have some good and some evil in us, and consequently in our past. We are not virtuous heroes or innocent victims.

The hardest account of our past is the honest one where we admit to ourselves and God, and to others when appropriate, that we have sometimes acted as villains. Without being truthful about our past, and that means especially acknowledging where we have been wrong, we will condemn our future to be a repetition of another chapter of the same story.

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. Matthew 16:25

One way to think about the life that Jesus tells us we have to lose, is that it is the one in which we are either a hero or victim, but always innocent. Others have done harm. Others have acted with malice, but we tell ourselves that we have been sincere enough, even when not totally right, to excuse our imperfect actions. However, if we could tell the whole truth about our past we would enter into the kingdom of God immediately.

God is truth, that is, reality. God’s reign is one where all is forgiven, but we have to let it be forgiven by naming our sins for what they are. Held close, denied in a story which rationalizes our wrongs, we keep ourselves outside the fullness of a kingdom in which truth sets us free.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Seeing the Direction

When we listen to Jesus in the context of what had been written and discussed in the spiritual life of Israel before his time, the perspectives we have recorded in the Old Testament, we begin to see a pattern. Jesus picks up certain themes, theological threads, and motifs from the past, while ignoring or even criticizing others. Who is God, what does God do, what command is greatest, will there be a resurrection, how are the commands of God to be understood, what does it mean to be righteous, and why do evil things happen to people, are just a few of the questions being disputed in his day.

We notice a direction in the movement of these thoughts. Israel’s society had been changing, albeit slowly and not always consistently, under the influence of the prophets, from being more stratified and segmented to being less so. The outcasts and marginalized, whether women, orphans and widows, foreigners, and those with diseases, were being brought increasingly into the full life of the community.

There was movement from seeing no further than the letter of commands to perceiving and acting in concert with the spirit of what the commands were getting at. The clearest example is how Jesus says that all the law and the prophets are really aimed at one truth, that we ought to love like God.

The movement was incomplete, but continued more and more during the centuries of prophetic work, and was taken even further by Jesus. The whole shift is presented to us as the working of God’s Spirit who filled the prophets and was the source of Jesus’ own anointing (Acts 10:38).

A particular question, that is relevant for us today, is to ask if we should expect the direction and trajectory that we see in Christ’s emphases to continue in the church today. The church had its beginning in the community birthed on Pentecost from the life and teaching of Jesus. Was that new gathering of believers who looked for life in the risen Lord, the full and complete reality of the Spirit-led transformation of human existence that had been happening all along? A quick survey of the letters of the New Testament shows clearly that the new Christian community was is the throes of finding itself under the Spirit’s leading, and that in many ways the journey was just beginning.

A tendency throughout the history of the church has been to point backwards to some previous time when the church is believed to have reached its intended state. That may be pegged to the first, fifth, tenth, fifteenth or some other century. Every time we focus on some previous era as the one when the church became all it should be, the perspective shifts from moving forward as the Spirit leads, to looking backward in an effort to maintain what has already been realized.

For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. . . . When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all. 1 Corinthians 15:25 & 28

The reason we ought not fall into this “maintaining” mode, rather than to ask forward-looking questions about how the church may further live into the direction set by God, is Paul’s vision of the journey ahead. He saw Christ as reigning, subjecting all things and defeating all enemies until the very end. At the culmination of the long trajectory of this divine work, God will be all in all.

We ought to see ourselves not as keepers of some long ago received form of the faith, diligent to keep it the same, but living into a future that continues to unfold through God’s Spirit. This future grows from what has been revealed and continues to depend on God to draw us into new understandings and expressions of the faith we have in Christ. We hold the ancient faith in the awareness that it’s also continues to blossom with new revelations as we anticipate the culmination of Christ’s reign.

Just as Jesus himself was the surprising fulfillment of what had been spoken centuries before, the meaning of what has been written often surprises us with what it means for being the body of Christ today. God has more light yet to shine forth, for he is not yet all in all and we have not yet grown into the fullness of Christ.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our Father of Sparrows

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Matthew 10:29

Following our celebration of Easter, we reflect on the meaning of the resurrection. This statement by Jesus is one that I believe gets to the heart of what the empty tomb means for us, about who God is, but first we need to explore the ambiguities of the verse.

The version I cited is a literal translation because Jesus simply says that a sparrow does not fall, that is, die, “apart” from your Father. Many translations add further elaboration by saying “without Your Father’s consent”, “permission”, or “will”. Translations like these are taking this bare statement as implying that the Father ordains or decrees the death of birds. The translators seem to think that Jesus is emphasizing that God controls all events, and so the inference for us would be that your Father will decree your death as well.

Other translations say that a sparrow does not fall without your Father “knowing”, which is I think moving in a better direction than inserting ideas of control. But even better still is the NIV which says that a sparrow does not fall “outside your Father’s care”.

The various versions reveal the ways the translators think about God, either as the sovereign God who directs every occurrence, the God who is all-knowing so that we is always aware, or finally the God who loves and cares for the littlest creatures. I am confident that this third option is the one which reflects what Jesus is telling us about our Father. He says “your” Father when he could have said “the” Father, or “God” in a less personal way. This is who “your” Father is, and if he cares about small insignificant birds, how much more he must care about you!

I would even suggest that the sense of this verse is that a sparrow does not die “apart from your Father’s sorrow” or “grief”. I believe that Jesus is revealing throughout his ministry that our Father is the One who suffers with us. God bears our burdens, feels our pain, and tenderly cares about us in our distress. Death is a way of talking about all our vulnerability and hurt.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. Hebrews 2:14-15

In telling us about sparrows Jesus addresses our deep fear of death. If our Father cares about the death of sparrows, will he not also care about us since in his eyes we are so much more valuable than sparrows? Jesus is not saying our Father ordains the death of sparrows and will decree the time and manner of our death as well, which is hardly comforting. Such a view portrays God as a grand administrator rather than a loving, suffering-with-us Father. God is not the Grim Reaper.

Jesus himself trusts in his Father who cares for sparrows, and so entrusts himself into his Father’s hands on the cross. Easter’s empty tomb is the demonstration of what Jesus claimed to be true about his Father. Our Father is anything but stoic in the face of his children’s suffering. Too often we imagine an emotionless Gpd, even while saying he is love. Instead, he enters into every tomb, the pain and suffering incased within, and raises us up from the grave.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

God In This Moment

How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? Hebrews 9:14

Our conscience, if well-developed, is acutely aware of the sins which are the “dead works” which we have done. The transgressions themselves weigh on us, but also the memory and awareness of them plague our conscience. We are burdened with death.

For our sakes, and through God’s mercy on us because of our sinfulness, God gave Christ for us, which is also God giving himself to us. In this outpouring of divine love, his reconciling, atoning, and redeeming love, God removed our sins and also cleansed us of the misery of constant consciousness of our sins. We are now renewed so that we might in this freed state “serve the living God” with living works rather than dead ones.

We are not to think that what is spoken of here is a form of “cheap grace” by which we may continue as before and that somehow dead works will become life-giving. Instead, we ourselves are changed so that our works are not inevitably dead. With practice, new and living works from a clear conscience can become more and more our daily experience.

Because Jesus is risen from the dead, and sin and death are defeated, the possibilities for any given moment are now extraordinary. We have been raised from death to life, and God has granted us a whole new world filled with participating-in-God opportunities.

To move within the present moment with God, we must begin by faith, trusting what has been declared to us even before we start to perceive that we are actually in this new reality. We hear the gospel of our salvation, and we believe it (Ephesians 1:13). We do not believe because we see, but see because we believe, having eyes to see and ears to hear.

The disposition of faith, a posture of reliance on the good message we have received, of cleansing from both dead works and a conscience burdened by them, opens this world to us. What really matters is faith expressing itself in love (Galatians 5:6) because trust in God, and desire for union with God, is the foundation of our new existence.

Now every moment has the potential of the eternal because Christ raised has freed us from dead works. To live in the radically new existence birthed by an empty tomb, is to now know that the risen One is with us always, in every moment, with astounding possibilities for the “age to come” to enter through the Spirit in us into this present time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Time We Will

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. John 16:12-13

We may be surprised that Jesus readily admits his own limitations, that even though he is the Son of God, he cannot get his disciples to understand some things he says. Obviously, the limitation isn’t really Jesus’ but theirs. However, he cannot overcome it, but trusts that later the Holy Spirit will complete what he is not able to accomplish.

Fortunately for us, Jesus never said that only those who can understand well, or comprehend his teachings, can be his disciples. He did say that without the willingness to let go of one’s own life, to strive to love, and to take up the cross, no one can not be his follower. But understanding fully what Jesus teaches is not a prerequisite to being his disciple. Our learning takes place over time, and is often gradual, building more and more toward what Jesus desires we know.

Sometimes I will say, while teaching the things which I believe are important, true, and crucial, that those listening “do not have to agree with me”. Am I saying that what I practice and teach is actually not essential? Not at all. Actually,, I am assuring any who might not yet have come to a particular understanding of some matter of Christ’s teaching, that they are not therefore disqualified from being disciples. Agreement is not necessary right now, even if I know everyone needs to believes this. Anyone who is willing, but falls short of grasping particular truths, need not fear being ousted from among the faithful.

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Philippians 3:15-16

Paul tells the Philippians that if they don’t agree with him at this time, that is okay. They are still disciples, Christians, believers, and followers of Jesus. He is not saying they must accept and agree immediately and fully with what he has written, though we recognize his words are inspired scripture!

Does this mean that Paul does not consider his words important or even essential? Of course not! He has just spoken about striving forward to take hold of Christ, who has taken hold of him. Everyone ought to agree with what Paul is saying, but realistically, not everyone will agree at first. Paul believes that God will bring them, in time, and through what will be the work of the Holy Spirit, to understand what he is teaching. They don’t have to agree, but they should. By grace, they will.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment