Reflections On A Request

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 2 Timothy 4:13

When Paul made this request of Timothy, we was imprisoned and quite alone, others having left for various reasons. In his trial of isolation, forced social-distancing, all the while being restricted in his activities, Paul sought the companionship of Timothy and asked that he bring some personal items Paul had left in Troas. In difficult times, when we are struggling with our own imprisonments, quite against our will, Paul’s request speaks figuratively about what we may do spiritually in such circumstances.

When a trial comes upon us uninvited and unwelcome, our comfort is in relationships. We also recognize who offers true companionship, those who are of shared faith. We realize too that something we left behind, not because it was not valuable but maybe due to the necessities of what we were doing at the time, now is crucial. We retrieve resources which are needed now, knowing that God has providentially foreseen just such a time. We are motivated by a new urgency to sort through what it is we are carrying with us, and to see with new clarity what we truly need.

The current disruptions, forced changes, and challenges call for such a rethinking. What is our cloak, but to be clothed with Christ (Romans 13:4, Galatians 3:27), which is the same as saying that we are to be wrapped in love (Colossians 3:14). To counter our hardships we seek intensely the love of Christ. We have never actually left Christ in some other city, but perhaps during easier times we have not been as aware of the necessity of this being clothed in Christ, and we must reclaim our identity in Him more intentionally.

As Paul asked for his books and parchments, we too harken back in our mind and heart to earlier learning as well as looking forward to new endeavors. The books contain what had shaped and helped him in the past, but the parchments were writing materials . . . and Paul wants to keep writing. Being in the midst of such a difficult time is really this type of middle place of sorting, where we understand with new purposefulness what from the past is truly important, and what will be significant in the future. Our trials and struggles are not times to withdraw from activity, to close in on ourselves and wait out the storm, hiding in our forced isolation. Instead, we need to write something new from where we find ourselves. What we will write is through the service we offer to the world, words not written with ink but on human hearts and “read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:2).

The life of faith is lived from wherever we are, and not from where we wish we were. Searching for the resources that God has provided within the arc of our own story, along the way of our collective journey, is to rediscover the grace that has been given. The gifts that will sustain us through months of imprisonment are found in the fellowship of others of shared faith, our life within Christ, sustained by the teaching we received, and through the way we will discover to write from this new circumstance. All this God has provided.

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Suffering and Prayer

In the midst of our current numerous difficulties, we are all suffering. The pandemic has revealed our vulnerabilities, that despite our confidence in our great advances in many fields, a simple virus has uncovered our weaknesses. Compounding the impact and threat of the disease itself is the blow that has struck so many businesses, threatening people’s livelihoods, and unfortunately some of the impact may be yet to come. Ever-present racial wounds have bled afresh. While some dismiss the notion that inequity exists, others plead for us all to acknowledge that we have never been the land of the free for everyone. 

If these oppressive, collective sufferings were not enough already, inevitably they are seized opportunistically by those who covet political power. Our burden of suffering is increased as the health crisis, economic hardship, and racial inequities are used for gain by individuals and groups longing to increase their own influence and control. 

Clearly, our collective suffering has not been a uniting experience, but tragically, one that has made even more apparent the divisions that exist among us. Ironically, though these are shared and common problems, we turn against one another, rather than toward a shared and common good. 

Are any among you suffering? They should pray.  James 5:13

Given all the turmoil and stress that we are experiencing together, to make no mention of many situations and sources of grief and hardship that exist for each individual, how can James’ instruction not sound simplistic and trite? We could retort that we have prayed! We have been praying for months, for years, and yet here we are. What can James mean by urging  us to pray when we are suffering?

One possibility is that James is saying we need to “return” to prayer so that the current sufferings will cease and not reoccur. This is what so many seem to imply by citing 2 Chronicles 7:14, that our present difficulties are either punishment or, at the least, the consequence of not being prayerful. This view makes us responsible for our own suffering, and scolds us for bringing it on ourselves. I do not believe this is what James means. We are not suffering because we failed to pray.

Another possibility is that we need to ask more for God to remove these very different evils. The virus a “natural evil” of a disease, racism a “moral evil” of our inhumanity to one another along with the sin of greed of those who would use our suffering to advance their own interests. However, I do not believe that James is talking about petitionary prayer, that is, begging God more fervently and frequently to remove these.

I understand that James is talking about prayer as the way in which we hold ourselves close to God. We know that God is always close to us, closer than we are to ourselves. But for our part, we easily slip into a negligence that impoverishes our spirit, and diminishes our participation in all that God gives. Suffering cannot be avoided. When we find ourselves in the midst of individual agony or collective pain, James says that we need to especially focus on attending to our closeness to God. In Christ, we have seen that  our God suffers with and for us, One who is intimately familiar with all our hardships and far more. We persevere through trials and temptations by drawing close to God, and that through centering, contemplative, constant attentiveness to the One who grieves with us and is our Savior. If ever there was a shoulder to cry on, it is God’s.

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God’s Love For Us

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8

Often we hear the statement that Christ died for us, but what does it mean to say this? A common interpretation is that “for” means “instead of”. The dominant idea in many Christian’s minds seems to be that we should be killed by God for our sins, but Jesus volunteers to take our place, and so God kills him instead. But this makes the death of Jesus as much for God as for us.

Often we have been led to believe that the death of Christ changed the situation for God. We may think, mistakenly, that God could not forgive us until Jesus died, as if his torturous death on the cross is so that God will be able to forgive. I am confident in saying that nothing changes for God because of the death of Jesus, but everything changes for us. God does not on the cross make his own forgiveness possible, but shows us his love and forgiveness. The death of Jesus reveals the God no one but Jesus truly knew, the one who does the unthinkable, in love, for his enemies.

Paul says that this death for us occurred even while we were weak, ungodly, and sinners. Though one might, he suggests, consider offering oneself for someone good, the idea of self-sacrificing love for wicked people is unheard of. Paul’s declaration is that this unthinkable kindness toward sinners is how God “shows his love for us”. Christ dies to show us God’s love, and this is for us.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

John makes the same point in this very familiar passage as he quotes Jesus. The “so” should not be understood as short for “so much”, as if he is indicating the magnitude of love. Instead, both the meaning of the word in Greek and the fact that it is the first word of the verse in Greek, indicates that Jesus is saying “in this way” or “Thus God loved the world, that he gave his only Son . . .“ How God loves the world is through the giving of the Son, just as Paul states that the death of Christ for us while we were ungodly shows God’s love for us.

The death of Christ being for us certainly means for our salvation, our redemption, our life in God, our reconciliation to God, and all the other ways we could describe how we benefit from God’s love and grace. The claim is that Christ died to help the helpless, as a demonstration of God’s love. It was for us and not for God that Christ died. God remains the same forgiving and loving God from all eternity, but the cross changes everything for us because God reveals himself as the suffering and selfless One.

The death of Jesus on the cross demonstrates the love and forgiveness of God that has always been his unchanging nature. God needs no mechanism to be able to forgive. God does not need a sacrifice to forgive. We need the sacrifice of Christ to finally see the love of God. No other sacrifice is needed, nor are any others effective in doing anything about sin (Hebrews 10:4). The incredible self-sacrifice of God for a throughly sinful and underserving humanity shows the depth and free gift of love that has always been the well from which God’s forgiveness flows.

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The Making of Mankind

Something surprising happens in the epic story of creation. Everything God creates is spoken into existence, commanded to be as God desires, whether light, the sun, moon, and stars, the land and all that grows from it, or the animals of all kinds. Every time God says “let there be . . . and it was so.” 

However, the very final act of creation, the making of us, is remarkably different. Now the wording is not a command, an imperative, but a subjunctive which means it expresses “what is imagined or wished or possible.”

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.”  Genesis 1:26

The scripture does not say, “God said, let there be man . . .  and it was so.” Why the difference? Why does God not simply command us to be as he wishes, and why choose to say God “makes” us?

The account of creation does speak about the forming of human bodies which are given life through God’s breath, but that is only the beginning of their “being made”. The implication seems to be that the “making” of humankind is a process which begins on the sixth day but is not finished immediately. We might say that the rest of our scriptures are describing how that process takes place, how God continues to form us in and toward his image and likeness.

The arc of this whole story finds its culmination in Jesus. The travails of Israel illustrate that mankind, though bearing the image of God, fails to grow fully into his likeness. But in Christ, the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9). Only God himself can complete this work which he began. 

When Jesus says from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he refers to more than his passion, ministry, or mission, but to the “making” of humanity. In Christ, the first fully human being, all humanity has reached what God intended when the words were spoken, “Let us make man . . .” 

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Loving the Real

The love of God for the world, the love for humanity and creation, is not for a perfected human family or world. No, God’s desire and affection is for the real, present versions. God loves all just as everything and everyone is right now, despite all the imperfections, sin, and corruption. This is the great affirmation of familiar passages such as John 3:16. God does not love us for who we might be, or will be, but as we are. The world for which God undertakes his extraordinary demonstration of self-sacrifice is the same one which is treacherously ungodly, in diabolical opposition to him, and thoroughly set on destruction.

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Romans 5:10

Some have said that God’s revulsion for sin means he cannot bear for sinners to be in his presence. They are wrong. If this were true, then either Jesus did not come into this world or Jesus is not God. Think about that. How can God the Son be around sinners when some claim God the Father cannot? There is only one God . . . and he ate with sinners.

It is a distortion of the gospel to claim that God loves the world but cannot tolerate having sinners in his presence. The idea that true holiness cannot fellowship with sinners seems more at home in the thinking of the Pharisees than in the actions of Jesus. However, this false depiction of God is a necessary premise if one wants to change the crucifixion from a demonstration of love to an act of redirected divine wrath. The cross should be the symbol of selfless love, not a reminder of how much God hates sinners and what God would be right to do to each of us. 

I suspect that only when we ourselves cannot fathom loving the unlovable do we misconstrue God in our own image, alleging that God is repulsed by our sinfulness and he separates himself from us. The gospel proclaims the opposite: that God rushes toward us, becoming one of us, precisely because of our sinfulness! 

If indeed God loves the world as it is, and not simply as it will be through his working and grace, then we ought to love the real world and real people too, just as they are and not only when they are “good”. I have no problem loving the lovable. God, however, loves the unlovable and calls me to the same deep compassion and affection which I am to express in concrete acts of service and selfless prioritizing of the needs and interests of others.

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Our Imitation of God

Central to living in a way that is meaningful, that offers peace and joy within the uneven human experience of life in this world, is the imitation of the only authentic human, Jesus. To take Jesus as our model of true living is to take no one less than God himself. Whatever we are commanded to do is what God himself does, or perhaps we should say, “who God is.”

Certainly, there is much that is true about God that we are not able to imitate, such as knowing all God knows, being sinless, or in judging. We are never told to be like God in these ways. However, even in these matters we do recognize that we are to imitate God in kind but not degree. We are to grow in knowledge (2 Peter 3:18) even though we will never attain to the knowledge of God, as we are to put to death the works of the flesh (Colossians 3:5) though we are not able to succeed in being sinless. Even in judging, we are not to pass judgments on others (Matthew 7:1) but to make judgments, one of which is that we recognize and agree that we cannot judge, a judgment in itself.

But to return to the statement that whatever we are commanded to do is what God himself does, one may wonder if indeed everything we are instructed to do is truly an imitation of God. Immediately, we may think of confession and repentance of sin. Clearly, it is necessary that we do both, but how is that an imitation of God? 

Let me suggest that at its core confession is speaking the truth in humility. God is humble (Philippians 2:8) and is always speaking the truth. While God has no sin to confess, when we confess our wrongs we are imitating God by humbly saying what is true. Additionally, is not repentance initiated by sorrow for sin, what is even called “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10)?  God is sorrowful about sin. Our repentance begins with sharing in the sorrow of God about sin and then moving by grace to turn from it. Though initially we might think confession and repentance cannot be the imitation of God, on further examination we discover that both are very much what God does.

My final reflection is that our individual imitation is as part of a whole. None of us can imitate God sufficiently alone and as individuals. I should do everything as Christ, but I cannot do everything that Christ does any more than I alone can be the body of Christ. I am a member of that body, and the body as a whole and with us individually as parts is engaged in the imitation of Christ who is head.

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A Human Life Defined

“For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of the human consists in beholding God.” Irenaeus of Lyons. (130 – 202)

In this succinct statement from his work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus is defining what is weighty, magnificent, and glorious about God. He claims that the immensity of God is revealed in a living human being, that is, in us, we who bear his image. But the totality of what he is saying extends beyond the simple fact that God created us. Irenaeus also envisions our re-creation because he defines that human living really means beholding God. To understand what he is saying we need to start with what Moses was told about beholding God.

But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Exodus 33:20

Irenaeus has drawn us into the paradox that true living is found in dying. If a human life consists in seeing God, and seeing God will kill us, then the glory of God is in the living because-we-have-died human existence. Such a person is only living again because of the work of God. The glory of God is the living human being who was created in the image of God and has been recreated, redeemed, and lifted from our fall into sin and corruption. God’s glory is apparent in all those he has rescued from sin and death.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8

Jesus promised this those listening to him on that mountainside, knowing full well that they all were familiar with God’s words to Moses. We are going to have to do some dying in pursuing a pure heart. If we are willing to die to be cleansed in heart, we will see God. This is true life.

Jesus is not speaking of the physical demise which will be the end of this mortal life, but of giving oneself to God. We know how much Jesus spoke about dying to ourselves, taking up the cross, denying self, and losing out lives. We have not lived until we see God, which means that we have not lived until we have died to ourselves. We cannot see God unless we die, just as we cannot be alive unless we die. The work of God which brings us to purity of heart, beholding him, is his glory.

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Not of This World

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” John 18:36

Jesus made the clear statement that his kingdom is not of this world and many have apparently thought he expressing regret. They have strenuously attempted to establish his kingdom in the manner of kingdoms of this world, as if that is what Jesus wanted. However, the gathering of his people into a community under God’s reign, which Jesus built through his corss, can never be like the kingdoms of this world for several reasons. 

First, to truly be the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed it must hold to all, and not only some, of his teachings. If we try to create an earthly realm, be it a small town or a whole nation, to embody the kingdom of God, then all its practices and ways must adhere to the way of Jesus. But the biggest problem is that fundamentally what Jesus teaches is a way of faith. This means that only those who choose to trust and are willing to participate become part of this community. 

All kingdoms of this world require and compel people to abide by the laws and ways of that particular society. This is why Paul observes about earthly systems that they “bear the sword” (Romans 13:4). Force and coercion are by nature what kingdoms of this world use, but such is completely foreign to God’s Kingdom and the opposite of living by faith. As soon as a group trying to make a city or country into God’s kingdom, institute an obligation for people to live a godly life, under threat of punishment or penalty, it ceases to be of Christ. It is no longer of faith and cannot be Christian no matter how much the laws and rules embody some of Jesus’ teaching.

No one should be compelled to follow Jesus, and so a society that wants to follow his way cannot require anyone to live according to its ways by force or threat. But we know that obviously no earthly society will be able to function if its rules are not compulsory, if the citizens may do whatever they desire. For this reason, no earthly society of any size, a town or a nation, can be truly Christian, following all the teachings of Christ and requiring nothing so all may live by faith.  

And that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith. 2 Thessalonians 3:2

Of course, some may say if we cannot form a society to be the kingdom of God and require others to conform to heaven’s way, then we will simply move away and start a community where only those who have faith are willingly participating. However, to do that we would have to leave the world, something that Jesus specifically said that he does not want his followers to do and St. Paul repeats reiterates this. 

I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. John 17:14-15

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people, not at all referring to the immoral of this world or the greedy and robbers or idolaters; for you would then have to leave the world. 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

In the end, the followers of Jesus can only be faithful to his teaching by staying in the world, being aliens, sojourners, and a minority who are God’s presence of light and salt. We should not be trying to make earthly societies into the Kingdom of God, but living as ambassadors of heaven’s love within the world. The church is an alternative to worldly kingdoms for those who desire another way to live, and who come in faith.

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Divine Abandonment

The opposite of faithfulness is abandonment . Unfaithfulness toward something is to forsake it entirely, while faithfulness is to keep something, to be loyal, and to be constant. The nature of our present lives is such that to be faithful to one thing always means abandoning something else. We cannot have it all. We make our choices, and pay our prices. As in the traditional marriage vows, both pledge to forsake all others and stay faithful to one another. 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Jesus refers to this pairing of faithfulness and abandonment when he states that a person cannot serve both God and worldly possessions, for we will cling to one or the other, and love one or the other (Matthew 6:24). He uses the strong language of hating one’s own family members (Luke 14:26), not because he actually wants his disciples to hate other people, contradicting his command to love one another (John 13:34), but because he is referring to how faithfulness requires abandonment. 

Faithfulness and abandonment are inseparable, two sides of the same coin. When Jesus calls on his followers to lose their lives for his sake, he is speaking about this reality again. To take on the way of Jesus is to utterly abandon any competing agenda for our lives. To follow Jesus requires a choice: to what will I be faithful and what must I then abandon?

If we think about the numerous statements concerning God’s faithfulness, we may rightfully ask what does God abandon in order to be faithful? Or does this not apply to God?

I believe that God forsakes himself in order to be the ever-faithful God to us. God abandons any thoughts or concern for his own best interests, what will benefit himself, and completely pours his whole being and energy into this extraordinary love for his creation. Nothing is held back. Because of the totality of God’s divine self-abandonment, we can confidently proclaim that his faithfulness endures to all generations. In an exquisite paradox, the divine self-abandonment is also faithfulness to himself. God is true to his own selfless love, and in this sense is faithful to himself by abandoning all concern for himself.

The fullest demonstration of God forsaking himself is the cross. I do not mean to suggest the Father forsakes the Son in that event, or then we would have to conclude that Psalm 22:24 is untrue, the very psalm that begins with the words Jesus speaks from the cross. No, I mean that the cross shows how the Son, in union with the Father who loves him as the One and Only, demonstrates total selflessness for the sake of the world and our salvation. He for-sakes his own life for-the-sakes of our lives. 

We are called to exactly the same faithfulness and abandonment in imitation of God as revealed to us in Jesus. God is faithful, period. Abandoning us is not in his nature, for his has abandoned himself. If abandoning occurs, it will be because we choose to be faithful to something else, but God waits still.

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Eugene Peterson wrote a book on discipleship entitled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. The title alone offers a clear description of the essence of following Jesus, and a pointed reminder of why we struggle! Any publicly-traded company is under the tyranny of the quarterly earnings report. Investors want to know every three months what their return is. We like our food to be fast, our banks and pharmacies drive-thru, and our packages delivered in two days if not faster. If discipleship could be microwaved we would love it.

. . . in your faith supply virtue, and in your virtue, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness . . . 2 Peter 1:5-6

In the sequence that Peter offers us, we begin with trust, to which we must add virtue. We cannot grow in virtue without knowledge, and knowledge is of no use if we are simply out-of-control. Therefore, we must add knowledge and self-control. Once we have understood what is good and managed to act accordingly through self-control, we need to stick to it. Here is the long obedience, the steadfastness, or what we call perseverance. 

We may mistakenly think we are changed as soon as we know something in a better way. However, knowledge is only a renewing of our thinking and understanding, and part of, though not all of, the transformation of the person (Romans 12:2). Knowledge may come quickly if we are searching and willing to learn, but the long obedience which is based on that understanding still lies before us.

Jesus spoke about perseverance in the Parable of the Sower. The rocky ground he likened to the person who does not persist when troubles come (Matthew 13:20-21). His parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids waiting for the wedding party (Matthew 25:1-13) and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) also emphasize this theme. Consider also his invitation to “follow me”. This call implies a continuing and long-term involvement. The rich young man asked what “good deed” he might do (Matthew 19:16), and Jesus replies, saying, “follow me” (Matthew 19:21). It sounds like the young man wanted something easily accomplished but Jesus invites him to a long obedience.

In discipleship, slow progress or barely perceptible change, is not a sign of failure but the norm. The journey is long, but we take it in the company of others.

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. James 1:12

Settle in for long journey. There is nothing about following Jesus that is instant . . . except perhaps the realization this will not be quick nor easy.

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