Don't Worry, Be Happy!

In his commentary on Matthew, NT Wright begins his observations of Matthew 6:25:34 by asking a question that startles me every time I read it:

“Has it ever struck you what a basically happy person Jesus was?”

Sure there were times of stress, grief and anger, but as Wright states, “But these are the exceptions, the dark patches painted on to the bright background.”

When Jesus spoke of God’s care for the birds and flowers, this emanated from his “strong, lively sense of the goodness of his father, the creator of the world.” This was Jesus’ knowledge and experience of God and life.

So when Jesus invited his followers not to worry about tomorrow, he led by example. He was able to completely live in the present, aware of and celebrating his father’s goodness in the moment.

In addition, when Jesus instructs his followers to make God’s kingdom and the covenant life of creative goodness and sacrificial love for the sake of others their highest priority, he’s inviting them into a twofold reality.

First, God is the source of beauty, energy and excitement, not food, drink and clothes. God is the creator who infuses his world with his beauty, energy and excitement. So his people can find their source first and foremost by loving and trusting God, who is always close to them.

Second, because God has saturated the world with his beauty, energy and excitement, it doesn’t mean that food, drink and clothes don’t matter. Jesus isn’t telling us not to enjoy these things, but to enjoy them in their proper priority. For example, Jesus attended parties and ate and drank so that his enemies accused him of being a glutton and drunk. And when he was crucified, his tunic was such high quality that the admiring soldiers gambled for it rather than tearing up such a valuable item. So Jesus isn’t saying to avoid these things.

Rather, Jesus is inviting his followers to enter a life of different priorities and values than what the surrounding world offers. When one puts God’s work and life first, beautiful and wonderful things like food, drink and clothes are provided. So the aspects of our lives like work, relationship, possessions, and hobbies should be enjoyed. But we don’t have to anxiously strive after them in order to find happiness and fulfillment. In this life Jesus is inviting us, one doesn’t have to worry about tomorrow because we know our creator God and good Father is near, caring and providing.

So let’s return to Wright’s introductory question, “Has it ever struck you what a basically happy person Jesus was?” Imagine what his inner life was like. Imagine his deep, trusting confidence in God’s love and goodness. Imagine his ability to live in the present, loving and celebrating God’s goodness in that movement, task, or relationship. Imagine the utter lack of anxiety and worry about what the next hour, day, week or month would bring.

Now hear his joy-filled, anxiety-free voice inviting you to share his knowledge and experience of life:

“Are you having a real struggle? Come to me! Are you carrying a big load on your back? Come to me — I’ll give you a rest! Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me, I’ll be gentle with you! The last thing in my heart is to give you a hard time. You’ll see — rest you need, and rest you shall have. My yoke is easy to wear, my load is easy to bear.” -Matt 11:28-30

Visiting St Herman's

Back in July 2018, Chris, who is my youngest son, and I visited St Herman’s Monastery near Platina, CA. We took this journey together because he feels called to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I wrote the following reflection soon after the trip, but never posted it. I’ve decided to post it now because immediately following this upcoming busy holiday season, Chris will leave for an extended stay at the monastery as the next step of pursuing his calling. I assume I will be posting reflections over the next year as he moves forward in the process. So it seemed like the right time to post this initial reflection from our first trip to St Herman’s.

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It was the final moments of a long trip. I was sitting in the dark on the bus with my youngest son. 

The trip to the monastery was fourteen hours. Then three days of physical, emotional and spiritual intensity. Then fourteen hours back home.

Chris and I visited St Herman’s Monastery on a quest, a pilgrimage. For some time, Chris has felt called to monasticism. In many ways I see a bit of my young self in him. I was in my late teens when I became a Christian. Passionate to follow Jesus, who gave me a new life, I sensed a calling to ministry.

Now my youngest senses a call to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. And where I had no one to help me explore my calling, I have committed to help Chris explore his calling as best as I can.

If monasticism is his vocation, his call is more severe than mine. If he chooses to become a monk, his vows will sever him from our family in order to embrace a lifetime of ascetical hardship and suffering. Chances are I will rarely see him again, maybe never. As his dad, this absolutely crushes me. The thought of him never being present in our family’s life, never seeing his face or seeing him smile or hearing his voice shatters me to the core.

So I don’t want him to make this decision by himself. I will travel this road with him as best and as far as I can to help him determine what God is calling him to do with his life.

My role on this trip was simple — to help him get to the monastery and back, to support him in any way possible, and to pray for him. Most of my trip was spent praying for and talking with him. We discussed various aspects of the monastic calling and what it meant to follow Jesus in any context. I tried to help him understand Scriptures, to answer questions, to process his thoughts and to pray. And pray. And pray.

Chris has such a beautiful heart toward God. He truly wants to give himself fully to God and to be shaped into his fullness. My greatest fear is such a life might be wasted in pursuing the wrong thing. If he’s not called to the monastic life, then he will endure great pain and hardship in isolation when he could have made an impact for God in the marketplace and in our family. But if he is called to the monastic life, I lose my son.

Our trip was a success. It was one step in a journey. Chris met his expectations for the trip and I met mine.

So sitting in the dark on the bus, pulling into our final destination, I listened as Chris spoke with a young woman. She had asked about our trip and Chris tried to explain our journey to the monastery. She responded by saying, “That’s a really long trip to take.” And Chris’ response broke through my fears, my ache, my fatigue….

“I would have been lost without my dad.”

I know his statement was specifically about our trip. But, for me, I hope it speaks prophetically about the journey that lies ahead for him… and for me.

Reflecting Our Father

Jesus calls us to follow him and to learn from him how to be genuinely human. It’s a journey of transformation by grace into what God is by nature. In this way, we reclaim our original human vocation as image-bearers, reflecting God’s character and love into the world. So when Jesus says the following, our ears should perk up:

“That way you’ll be children of your father in heaven!” -Matt 5:45

In what way will we actually be like our Father? This is how:

“I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you!” -Matt 5:44

We are like our Father and reflect him into the world when we become people who embody a fresh, creative love to everyone. This is a life so free from toxic idolatry and sin that one’s first inclination toward personal offense and violence is not anger and vengeance, but a patient, generous, sacrificial love.

And Jesus’ summary statement is preceded by three examples that make a profound point about this kind of life — you cannot fight insult, violence and injustice with more insult, violence and injustice. Darkness does not overcome darkness. No matter who comes out on top, darkness always wins. God is light and love, so his people, his children must embody and reflect this into all situations.

Unfortunately, we are surrounded by people who have placed their self-interest before others. It may be the person who just cut you off on the freeway, barely missing your car. It may the person in the express checkout line at the store whose purchase far exceeds the fifteen item limit. It may be the co-worker at your job who just threw you under the bus in order to look good in front of your boss.

Our response in these frustrating and even dangerous moments is to embody what Jesus embodied throughout his life. He healed people. He told stories that made them see life and reality differently. He fed people. He cared for people. He challenged people to become truly human. And when his enemies escalated the stakes, Jesus received the pain of the beatings. He carried the beam upon which he would be executed. And while excruciatingly hanging upon the cross, he prayed for them.

He was truly his Father’s child. And he invites us to learn from him how to be the same.

Hearing And Not Understanding

When Jesus explained his parable about the receptivity people have to his message, he likened one type of people to seed falling on a hardened path:

“When someone hears the word of the kingdom and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.” Matthew 13:19

These people don’t understand what he’s saying and that lack of understanding allows the Satan to easily steal away the message. This is a very frightening prospect.

I wonder what keeps a person from not understanding Jesus’ message? In Jesus’ historical context, he was speaking to his fellow Israelites. Their lack of understanding was not caused by a lack of intelligence. They were as smart then as we are today.

Rather, I think Jesus was speaking from a different story, a different narrative that didn’t make sense from the story they had embraced their entire lives.

Israel believed that their God was the one true God. If this were true, then they shouldn’t be ruled by pagans. They believed their Scriptures that one day, God would make everything right by ultimately becoming king of the entire world.

But many in Israel believed they were to bring about God’s kingdom through violent revolution, overthrowing their pagan oppressors. The problem was they were fighting darkness and violence with darkness and violence.

Jesus was calling Israel to turn back to their true calling as God’s covenantal people, who were to restore the nations and God’s creation through light and love.

Jesus was inviting them to follow him on the path of self-sacrifice and self-giving love, even to one’s enemies and even to one’s death. This message made absolutely no sense in the context of the other stories where Israel was to be the supreme nation above all others.

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that actually made me cringe. It said, “My three loves: God, Guns and Country.” An ideology that would even associate God with either Guns or Country is absolutely ludicrous. But it’s a prevalent one among Christians in the US. And this is only one of several false preconceived ideas about God that Christians embrace.

So it’s our false ideas of God that actually get in the way of understanding Jesus’ true message of God. In this way, someone who thinks they’re close to God is actually far away. And someone who thinks they understand God and his kingdom is actually not understanding at all.

And Satan is right there doing his work.

A Framework For My Life

I realized the other day that during my commute to and from work, I frequently remind myself of some basic truths with which I try to align my life. Like the infrastructure of a building, these truths form the framework for my life. My daily activities, thoughts, and words may not always sync with these truths, but I trust Jesus to continue training me into more consistent alignment.

One. God is truly good and has created and rules over a good world. As I seek to live in his reign, he generously provides everything I need. I truly lack nothing and can be content in God’s provision whether I possess little or much.

Two. Jesus is the model of genuine humanity. He is a human being the way God intended. Everything he did was as a human being living fully in God’s reign.

Three. Jesus invites us to follow him in order to learn from him how to be genuinely human in God’s good world and reign. By learning to live in God‘s reign like Jesus, we will discover that the way we live, work, and lead will be completely and radically different from the common experience around us. We won’t need to make things happen. We won’t need to hurt, push, bully, or manipulate people. We can live from a place of peace, faith, generosity, grace, and compassion and know that God will work out everything.

Four. The human vocation is to be God’s image-bearers into his good world. In this way, we cooperate with God by embodying his character and wisdom. We are his royal priests, his ambassadors and representatives that only say and do what we hear and see the Father saying and doing. Through the power of God’s Spirit, we do creative goodness for the sake of others and creation. 

Five. Our actual lives is the gymnasium for our formation into Christ’s likeness as he trains us. All circumstances, regardless of their place on the spectrum between suffering and tranquility, are opportunities to learn from Christ how to be a genuine human in God’s reign for the sake of others.

Six. Jesus fulfilled the covenant and thus 1) broke the power of idolatry and the life of sin that empowers it, 2) restored to us the human vocation as God’s image-bearers , and 3) launched his Father’s New Creation in the midst of this one. When we accept Jesus‘ invitation into an intimate relationship of following and learning from him, we become part of the New Creation both in what God is doing in us and through us to the world.

Chris Turns Twenty!

Chris turns 20 today. This young man has brought so much joy to our lives. The day he entered our lives was amazing and every day since has been an absolute privilege. His devotion to God and care for people are a  delight to experience and continue to challenge me to be a better person. He serves people wholeheartedly and selflessly. He is extremely witty, intelligent, and creative. He has grown from being our “baby” to being an extraordinary man that I admire deeply and I am proud to call my son and friend. I can’t tell him enough how much I love him and how proud I am of him. Happy Birthday, Christopher!

Faith Fulfilled Through Works

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“But supposing someone says, ‘Well: you have faith, and I have works.’ All right: show me your faith — but without doing any works; and then I will show you my faith, and I’ll do it by my works! You believe that ‘God is one’? Well and good! The demons believe that, too, and they tremble! Do you want to know, you stupid person, that faith without works is lifeless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by his works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You can see from this that faith was cooperating along with the works, and the faith reached its fulfillment through the works.” James 2:18-22

Many modern Christians struggle with James’ teaching on faith and works. They believe that James and Paul are somehow at odds with each other. First, we need to get that out of the way. James and Paul say the same thing. Here are a couple of quotes from Paul:

“You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. This is the explanation: God has made us what we are. God has created us in King Jesus for the good works that he prepared, ahead of time, as the road we must travel.” Eph 2:9-10

“For in the Messiah, Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any power. What matters is faith, working through love.” Gal 5:6

Second justification does not mean salvation. Biblically, salvation is the deliverance from our idolatry, the life of sin that supports and empowers it, and the dehumanization, disintegration and death that ultimately results from it. And salvation is the deliverance to the restored human vocation as God’s image-bearers in his creation. 

Justification, on the other hand, is a term from the law-court. The image is a law court where the Christian is on trial in order to determine if they are actually a member of God’s covenantal people. In the Old Testament, covenantal membership was based on ethnicity. Israel was God’s chosen people, receiving both the covenantal blessings (land, law, and temple) and responsibilities (to rescue and restore the nations and God’s creation).

This ethnic-based membership was summarized by the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” Deut 6:4-5.

Ethnic Israel was God‘s chosen people. Yet, Jesus, Israel’s true king, redefined covenantal membership, opening it up to the nations, and redefined the covenantal vocation.

James is dealing with Jewish Christians, who seem to continue using the Shema as the basis of their covenantal membership and vocation and thus excusing themselves from caring for the poor and needy.

In this law-court image, James is saying let’s look at the evidence. As Jewish Christians you are presenting the Shema as your evidence. You loyally declare and adhere to the statement that God is one and you love God with your heart, soul and strength. Well, first, even the demons believe that God is one, so that doesn’t take you very far. 

And second, the Shema is adhering to only half of the covenantal vocation as redefined by Jesus, Israel’s true king. The Shema is the old standard. Jesus’ royal law is to love God with all of your heart, soul and strength AND to love your neighbor as yourself. If you are loyal to Jesus, then you must be loyal to his redefinition. And loving others is practically expressed through the loving care for the least in society — the poor.

These works, says James, are the true evidence that he’s a member of God’s covenantal people. The ethnic declaration of loyalty is no longer valid evidence for covenantal membership and vocation. The true evidence is loyalty to God demonstrated by love for him AND acts of care and kindness to others. These works demonstrate loyal adherence to Jesus’ redefined covenantal vocation as expressed in his royal law. In this way you are justified, declared “right” in God’s law court, that you are truly a member of his covenantal people.

Faith must leap into action through service. Serving others is not optional. It’s why we have been saved and invited to join Jesus’ covenantal people — to do creative, beautiful and sacrificial goodness for the sake of others. In this way our faith reaches its fulfillment through our works.