Something to Remember

Here is what I wrote in November 2016 after that election. I believe it is worth revisiting.

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While some are hopeful, others are frightened by the outcome of this year’s election. Many have tried to convince us over past months that this political contest has been a struggle between good and evil . . . light and darkness. Who and whose policies were to be labelled which, well, that has depended on the ones trying to persuade us.

The temptation, and I use this word with all the malicious connotation it should invoke, is to be deceived by the promise that anything less than Kingdom of God will be the means of the good for which we long in the Spirit. If misled, we may easily misplace our hopes in systems, structures, people, and processes, which are neither the flesh and blood enemy to be fought nor the midwife of heaven’s ways on earth.

As Jesus-people, we know that the incarnation is what saves us, not only as a reality for us, but when the divine-flesh Oneness is in and through us. The Body of Christ is the resurrection of our Lord within this world at the present moment. Though the context may change, and be sometimes more, sometimes less, a difficult place to share the risen life through love, our vocation is unchanged.

We are still called to love our neighbors (even our enemies), to do what is just, to love mercy, and to walk humbly in unity with God. We are to uphold the cause of the powerless, to support the mistreated, and to place the interests of others above those of ourselves. We are to forgive all things, whether requested or not, to pray for all people, and to seek the welfare of the society in which we live. We are to struggle to be witnesses of what cannot be birthed in this world, except through Christ Jesus and God’s Spirit. With a hope that can neither be met by the politics of our world, nor defeated by them either, we seek by faith an unseen home as if we are foreigners.

If the election has made you feel less a foreigner in this land, you are placing too much confidence in what is not truly your source of comfort and rest. If you feel more like an alien after this election, thank God for the grace to recognize your true identity. While we are aliens and our citizenship is in heaven, we also recognize that our King has posted us here as ambassadors who share with all others the blessings of his coming reign – which will ultimately sweep up and obliterate all our failures and miserable enterprises, and instead grant us the home for which we have longed.

In such moments as this, we have the opportunity to testify to another way, truth, and life . . . which sustains the weary when all else fails. Do not mourn what was less than true hope, and do not rejoice in what will not actually satisfy. Continue to embody the presence of the risen Christ through holding to the one new humanity created on the cross, a single race formed in suffering love, as we are directed into the love of God and steadfastness of Christ (2 Thess. 3:5).

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Christ’s Life In Us

The Christian life is what naturally occurs when Christ is living in us by his Holy Spirit. This life is not generated from our belief in true doctrines, our practice of spiritual disciplines, our faithful worship, or our loving service to others, but from Jesus himself being present within. All these visible, outward characteristics are clearly the fruit of the life of Christ, and may actually shape and nurture that divine life when intentionally engaged, but they are not the source of that life. The Christian life does not come form our godly beliefs or actions, but from the abiding and real presence of Jesus within us. The Christian life is the manifestation of Christ himself since he is the life of every person in whom he dwells.

When Christ takes hold of us (Philippians 3:12) we are increasingly diminished, such that our life shrinks away as darkness receding before the light. This is the crucifixion of which Paul speaks, death to oneself, and union with Christ, so that the space within us is filled with the presence and Spirit of Christ. 

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

The very nature of this new existence is that it flows from faith, that well-spring of our trust in the God who loves us. This is Christ, in us and through us, loving and being loved by the Father. His love draws each one of us into the same mutual love and care that is eternally the love of God.  This love makes its home in us. Christ gives himself for us and to us, ultimately supplanting our own self with himself, so that we lose our lives but gain Christ.

The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. Romans 6:10

Christ’s dying and living becomes our constant dying to sin and being alive to God. Christ is living to God in each of his followers. In Jesus we are alive to God because he is alive to God, and is now living in us, having become our life.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Romans 6:11

We must realize the difference between the authentic life of Christ welling up within a person, through the Spirit he gives, from a manner of living which is humanly constructed out of beliefs, pious demeanor, copious good works, and committed church affiliation. Such a manufactured religious life has faint hallmarks of the life of Christ, but lacks the Author himself. 

We must wait for Christ to come since only he can bring himself into us. When all has been spoken and tried, we return to the simple truth that the Christian life is Christ living his life within us. Everything else prepares us to receive that life, or is the manifestation of it. Only Jesus himself, living in us, is the mystery of eternal life.

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The Appearing One

Jesus did not start a movement, but he himself is at once the movement of God toward us and the movement of humanity toward God. The grace of the first is the fulfillment of God’s benevolent love and longing for fellowship with us, while the grace of the second is God generously doing what we would never and could never do on our own. Christ is the One who comes, God to us and us to God.

In being this movement within himself, with both the divine and human fully expressed, Christ reveals the eternal love of God and embodies the response of faith and obedience of our true human nature. He unveils a reality, new to us, but present within the mind of God from before the beginning of time. Jesus did not claim to haveor that he was giving us a way, truth, or life, as if he were initiating an earthly social movement, but he claimed to be all of these (John 14:6). Jesus does not give us life, but becomes our life.

In Christ, the real contours and essence of our relationship with God, and God’s unfailing disposition of mercy, emanating from his uncreated love, shine brightly as light in the darkness. Christ is the gospel, and the actual proclamation we commonly refer to as the good news is nothing more than describing this dynamic of his being. That God is coming toward us always, is Christ and the gospel. That we, in the Son who is our life, are in union with the Father, is Christ and the gospel.

Certainly a “movement” of believers has arisen in the world, raised up by God himself through grace, but all of its institutions, outward organizational expressions, the doctrines and spiritual practices, rites and traditions, are not the coming of Christ to us nor our being drawn toward God through him. That coming together is what occurs in Christ, while all the trappings of a social movement of people in the world are the necessary and helpful means of our participating together as the body of Christ. 

When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:4

Paul is not only speaking of a single future event, which may be far off, but the constant reality that we experience. Christ is our life and we are united with him, becoming as he is. The final consummation of this lies ahead, but the movement of God to us and us to God is happening within us now.

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The Coming One

During Advent we anticipate the coming of Christ. At first this may sound strange because one might ask, “are we not remembering his coming, the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem long ago?” Another may answer that what we are anticipating is his second coming while we are celebrating his birth 2000 years ago. However, Advent is not really about thinking of one past coming, or a future coming, which may be far off, but welcoming the continual coming of Christ.

The question is not when is Jesus coming, but more how his coming is occurring and how we should seek it. This time of Advent encourages us to wait and be watchful, ready not for some possibly far off event which will be the conclusion of everything, but how in a faithful manner to be always looking for the One who is forever coming. We live in expectation of a continual arriving, moment by moment, daily, and in everything.

Jesus has revealed God to be One who is coming to us, who is always moving toward us, for our good, as if we are lost sheep. Jesus proclaimed, provoking the ridicule of the religious leaders, that Abraham saw his day and was glad (John 8:56). What did he mean except that God’s coming to Abraham, which happened in numerous ways, was his coming. Paul writes that the rock from which Israel drank was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). In fact, every time when we can point to God’s merciful and loving work, point to it because we recognize it, this too is the coming of Christ, for the Son is One with the Father.

I do not need a single coming of the Lord, but a gracious in-breaking within my every concern, undertaking, and struggle. The Advent of our Lord teaches us that God did not become our Emmanuel on the night that Mary gave birth to a son, but that God has always been with his people even if his people did not always perceive that to be the case. After all, God was identified as Emmanuel first by Isaiah to King Ahaz, 700 years before Jesus was born (Isaiah 7:10-16).

Everything eternally true about God has been made ever more clear in Jesus the Christ. The love and mercy of the Almighty, the grace of the Father, the suffering of God in order to rescue and heal us, and the coming of the Lord, just to name a few, are and will forever be true about God. None of these are rare events but constant realities of the benevolent stooping low of the Divine to draw us into eternal life.

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Seeking Advent

Do not worry then, saying, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided to you. Matthew 6:31-33

Jesus draws a contrast between two possibilities, one of which we inevitably will seek and which will become the focus of our energies and efforts. More commonly, as Jesus says is notable among the nations (Gentiles), is a preoccupation with supplying one’s own self with all that serves our earthly life. Food, drink, and clothing are representatives of all which is involved in the physical human existence.

The less frequently chosen focus, the one which Jesus describes as seeking the reign and righteousness of God, is essential with regards to our aspirations for the season of Advent. If we desire to grow in hope, peace, joy, and love, while awaiting the coming of the Lord, our attention cannot be on the most basic and physical or material aspects of human life. Hope, peace, joy, and love will never be ours through sufficient or even excessive and abundant amounts of material things.

The hope that we need will not come from an adequate supply of our physical needs. Our peace is not derived from an absence of struggle in earthly matters, nor is our joy a happiness flowing from favorable circumstances. In love as well, we must be focused on what flows from God’s gracious rule over those who seek. Our Advent hope, peace, joy, and love spring from within the Divine presence which we strive to encounter. In all the ways in which we do abide in God, this becomes in us a richness indefatigable despite all challenges and struggles.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the question of what is at the center of our lives, around which and toward which we direct our attention and intentions. If we fix our energies on earthly things, no matter how necessary they might be to our present lives, the eternal virtues which truly sustain and elevate a human being will remain unclaimed. Only by risking inattention to the earthly do we gain what is of God himself. 

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Judgment Will Save Us

We have frequently heard the language of judgment as if it is synonymous with everlasting condemnation from which there is no hope for return, room for repentance, or forgiveness. Judgment, in this popular conception, is portrayed as the final act of God casting away the disobedient and sinful. In this understanding, God runs out of patience, mercy, and love, and is not interested anymore in restoring or correcting . . . but only in punishing. However, when we look at the language of the prophets and poets of Israel, a different picture emerges.

God takes His position in His assembly;

   He judges in the midst of the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly

   And show partiality to the wicked? 

Vindicate the weak and fatherless;

   Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.

Psalm 82:1-3

These opening lines of Psalm 82 envision God as the true judge who addresses the failures of those human leaders who should be themselves judging well, but are not. God, who speaks truthfully and upholds what is right, criticizes these earthly leaders for not doing as he himself does. Their judgments are not godly. 

The point becomes even more pronounced when God says what at first seems improper, calling them “gods”, but God’s point is that they should be imitating him.

I said, “You are gods,

   And all of you are sons of the Most High.

Nevertheless you will die like men,

   And fall like one of the princes.”

Psalm 82:6-7

When God says “you are gods” it is parallel to “you are sons of the Most High.” The rulers and leaders of God’s people are supposed to be sons of their Father, “gods” as it were. In other words, they should be authentic representatives of the One True God. They are acting like mere men, not as men should be, in union with God bearing his image and likeness, but as we tend to be in our waywardness. To be “gods” is to be sons of God. The emphasis is on imitation, of being minsters of God’s love and grace. Be small lights of the the true Light (Philippians 2:15, Ephesians 5:8). Act as shepherds like the Great Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4).

But this is where we come back to the role of judgment. God is making a judgment here which shows the leaders where they are wrong, not to condemn and cast them off forever, but to warn and direct them toward the right path. Therefore, the psalm ends with a call for God to come judge the earth! 

Arise, God, judge the earth!

   For You possess all the nations.

Palm 82:8

The psalmist is not pleading with God to come and punish all the wicked forever, but to set right what is wrong and show us the right way through judging us. Our only hope is the judgment of God. Judgment is the remedy and part of the process of setting the world back to goodness. When God teaches us what is right and true, a restorative judgment, then we will be saved.

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A Parable of Sorts

I was raised in a religious environment that imagined ourselves, if not the only ones going to heaven, certainly those who were far more correct in matters of faith and practice than all other Christian traditions. An undergraduate degree in theology and philosophy helped reduce this thinking considerably, and graduate studies further eroded the mindset. In fact, exposure to the world of academia and scholarly studies might lead one to think the old sectarianism was once and for all obliterated.

So when we went to Africa in 1991, I was fully ready to leave far behind divisiveness, self-righteousness, and judgmental attitudes toward Christians from other traditions. In fact, I would have easily passed for an accepting and open-minded believer toward all others within the various Christian traditions, willing to welcome all in an ecumenical spirit. As proof, I participated in interdenominational devotionals, worship, and mission efforts. Unlike the way I was raised, close friends and colleagues were believers from diverse Christians traditions. I valued and grew much through their friendships and faith.

And yet, as I worked out in the rural areas, in numerous villages, I would often hear about the poor methods of other churches and mission efforts. How others acted in ways not reflecting the Spirit of Christ. How they were weighed down with institutional concerns, or offered what amounted to a poor presentation of the gospel and practice of faith. Unlike what we were doing, their theology was uncontextualized and not communicated in the tribal language, the venacular. Many of their expressions of faith were imported American or European forms rather than an expression of indigenous theology. Hearing of misconduct, poor practices, and negative accounts, I thought about how inferior these efforts were to our own.

This was the case right up until the day, several years into the work and after dozens of congregations had been established, that some of our church leaders told me the wild and unfounded stories that were circulating about us. About what we believed, what we did, and things that were being said about me. Immediately, I thought how ridiculous these unfounded rumors were, and almost in the same moment, realized that I had eagerly believed similar disparaging stories about others.

Divisiveness, sectarian thinking, and the competitiveness that goes with it, is not easily rooted out, even from a willing heart. Though buried under layers of higher education, it may still survive . . . continuing its harmful work.

Those who have ears, they will hear what the Spirit is saying.

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On Being Insignificant

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Luke 12:32

If only we actually believed Jesus we would have no fear. As were Jesus’ first disciples, we are often afraid because we are a little presence in the world, few and seemingly under threat. We do not like, in general, to be insignificant, small, and of no appreciable influence. We labor and sacrifice for the exact opposite, to gain power and importance, and to develop relationships with those who promise it. We easily fall into the trap of thinking we would not be afraid if we were many, if we held the reins of power, if we ruled the world. In contrast, Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth and, here, that the Father gives us the kingdom in our littleness, fewness, and powerlessness in the world.

Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33

Jesus immediately encourages his disciples to divest themselves of what we might use to secure our own lives. These are false saviors, though we might hope they will stave off fear, and are inherently liable to decay and destruction. The ultimate price we pay, for pursuing what the thief and moth snatches away, is that we lose the kingdom as well. 

Jesus constantly spoke of the strength of smallness, the surprising effects of what seems insignificant, how the last is first, and the greatest is servant of all. But so many who embrace his teachings continue longing for being first, possessing influence and significance in the all the ways of this world, and so fail to witness to the truth of the gospel and the cross. There is no coexistence possible between the cross and the ways of the world, but only absolute incompatibility. 

Jesus was no winner by any earthly and familiar measure. And yet, here we are, following one who fails most spectacularly, crucified publicly, but raised privately. As the risen One, he appears only to the few who believed and not the world. 

May we stop longing for what God will not do, for it would be to capitulate to the ways of the world, not as he created it, but as we would foolishly wish it. In being the little flock we die to the grasping for worldly power, we sell what others scramble to accumulate, and we receive what the Father gives.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:34

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Ending With A Question

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11

With these words, a question posed by God, the story of Jonah closes. The response that Jonah has clearly given through is own actions, is, “No, you should not be concerned about them and neither am I!” But God, fortunately for Jonah, is exactly as Jonah has feared. He is merciful.

He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Jonah 4:2

I say that God’s mercy, which enrages Jonah, is fortunate for him because he himself is guilty of rebellion against God, obstinance, refusal to do as God commands, and defiance. If God were not merciful, Jonah himself would be severely punished. But he is not. He too is shown mercy, just like the people of Nineveh. Ironically, Jonah hates the mercy which he needs as much as those he considers wicked and unworthy of God’s concern.

The real Nineveh, the citadel and fortress of wickedness, was not the Assyrian city to which Jonah was sent to preach, but the prophet’s own heart. The book of Jonah is not about the repentance of the capital and leading city of an evil empire, but God’s attempt to penetrate a far greater bastion of darkness, the self-righteous and condemnatory attitude of Jonah himself. 

Perhaps by ending with a question and not an answer, we are left to ponder our own willingness for God to be outrageously merciful. We must wonder, if we perceive the sinfulness and wickedness of others to be irredeemable, are not our hearts the real empire of ungodliness?

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Letting Go of Dreams

The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction. This, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.

But, as it is written,

‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

    nor the human heart conceived,

what God has prepared for those who love him’. 1 Corinthians 2:9

Once we become aware that our attempts at control are killing us, spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally, if not always physically, letting go is the only way to live and find everything that we wanted and sought. Did we not try and gain peace, joy, and love in our misguided efforts to order every aspect of our lives? These were the very things we wanted and set about to acquire through our efforts. If inner peace, unconquerable joy, and soul-refreshing love could be had in this way, surely many would have found it by now. We are chasing after the wind.

Not only do we need to relinquish our attempts to control, we need to let go of our ideas of what peace, joy, and love are. We are not in control of what these are. If we remain intent on receiving from God what we believe and imagine these will be, how will we become participants in what, as Paul says, we have not conceived? Should God give us, and heal us, in ways we were not expecting, we may not even notice what he has done because we were so sure we knew how it would be.

These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 1 Corinthians 2:10-11

Paul goes on to say that the inconceivable gifts that God is giving are revealed by the Spirit of God, for only the Spirit can know the deep things of God. He speaks of these things as having been revealed, not because they have been once for all made known and nothing remains to catch us by surprise, but because he is reflecting on how no one was expecting the cross.

None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 1 Corinthians 2:8

God dying at the hands of people, without vengeance, wrath, condemnation, or anything but love and forgiveness, was outside everyone’s imagination. If what God has done in Christ is so incomprehensible, extraordinary, and world-altering, should we not expect that all God continues to grant through Christ will be just as unforeseen by human wisdom?

When we let go of our specific conceptions of the good we seek, and ask only for God to grant the good that only he knows, we remain present in the moment and expecting the unexpected. The goodness that God is giving is plentiful in the midst of this pandemic, as it was abundant before this virus infected any humans. The marvels of God’s blessings are ours in Christ no matter what happens regarding the governance of our country, the result that will leave many disappointed whatever limited imagination they held about what would be good. 

To live beyond restricted human expectations, the impoverished dreams we are able to dream, happens when we let go and the Spirit sweeps us into more than we could have hoped for. Abandoning our dreams is how better ones shine through.

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