My Son’s Wedding

This weekend my oldest son, Michael, got married. He married his best friend and the love of his live. And we are so thrilled for them!

Due to circumstances, Michael and Frances chose a courthouse wedding. The courthouse would only allow one person to accompany them as a witness. They bestowed that wonderful honor to me!

During the sparse ceremony, many of the elements we associate with a wedding were missing — church, priest, music, flowers, a best man and maid of honor, a father to give away the bride, a room filled with family and friends.

But the essential core to a marriage was there — two people committing to a life of self-giving, self-sacrificing love to each other and the presence of our loving generous God in whom we live, move and have our being.

So alone under fluorescent lights and in front of a desk surrounded in plexiglass, Michael and Frances committed themselves to each other and to a life together. And within a few minutes, the ceremony was over.

St Paul calls the marriage between a man and a woman a mystery, a sacrament. This sacrament is living and growing. Elder Aimilianos describes this living sacrament:

“Marriage is a journey of love. It is the creation of a new human being, a new person, for as the Gospel says, ‘the two will be as one flesh’. God unites two people, and makes them one. From this union of two people, who agree to synchronize their footsteps and harmonize the beating of their hearts, a new human being emerges. Through such profound and spontaneous love, the one becomes a presence, a living reality, in the heart of the other. ‘I am married’ means that I cannot live a single day, even a few moments, without the companion of my life. My husband, my wife, is part of my being, of my flesh, of my soul. He or she complements me. He or she is the thought of my mind. He or she is the reason for which my heart beats… in marriage, it seems that two people become together. However, it’s not two but three. The man marries the woman, and the woman marries the man, but the two together also marry Christ. So three take part in the mystery, and three remain together in life.”

The living sacrament of marriage is a journey of learning to embody self-giving love and mutual submission for the good of the other person within the loving tutelage of Jesus.

And in the sterile environment of the courthouse, my son and his wife committed to a life of this kind of love. It will be a life filled with joy and laughter mixed with sorrow and pain. But each moment together will continue the emergence of this new person.

After the short ceremony, Michael and Frances walked out of the courthouse.  They may have been alone inside, but outside Debbie, Cathy, Mike, Danielle, and Chris eagerly awaited them. We received them, celebrated with them, and loved on them. And we embraced this “new person” and wished them well on their new journey together.

Lovingly Butchered

My youngest son has embraced his musical aptitude. He has learned the ukulele, guitar, and bass. Recently, we’ve started having occasional jam sessions. We’ll project the words and chords to songs on our TV and then play and sing together. I haven’t touched a guitar in about ten years. I’ve retained enough guitar and singing skills to lovingly butcher some of my favorite songs. Each jam session always seems to incorporate John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” And when we hit the chorus, it’s no holds barred in both strumming and harmonies.

I do a lot of reading and thinking about theology and spiritual formation. And I try to practice what I’m learning in loyal faithfulness to King Jesus. Frankly, I think my apprenticeship to Jesus is at about the same skill level as my guitar playing and singing. I know what it should sound like in my head, but what actually comes out falls short.

It’s easy to beat myself up over my failures in spiritual formation.

But then I think about my strumming and singing. When my son and I finish a jam session, my fingers hurt and my voice is strained. Slaughtered melodies linger in the air. But I never feel bad about my skills. I’ve had a great time! I love my son! I love playing guitar and singing with him. We sing and laugh through the cracked voices and inconsistent timing. It’s just fun being with each other.

So when I start feeling bad about my failures in my apprenticeship to Jesus, I try to remind myself of why I do it. I love Jesus! I love his presence and living life with him! I love the human vocation to bear his image into his good world and to be a positive presence for the good of others. And even when I stumble and falter and get in my own way, my attempts are my way of loving him with my heart, mind, soul and strength.

Having been a Christian for almost 30 years and intentionally practicing spiritual formation for over twenty years, I wish I were much further along than where I am. But I’m not following Jesus because I’m trying to master a skill or acquire a status. I follow Jesus because he first loved me and I absolutely love him! I follow Jesus because he’s everything to me and he’s leading me to the place of his likeness — genuine humanity as God intended for all of us. Our true home.

So who’s ready to lovingly butcher another chorus?

Country roooooaaaads! Take me hoooooome! To the plaaaaace! I beloooooong!!!!

Suddenly the Judge Shall Come

“Suddenly the Judge shall come and the deeds of each shall be revealed.” 

This is a line from the morning prayers I say. When I first became an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I used to emotionally cringe at this line. It played into my old juridical perspective of God, depicting God as pounding his gavel and declaring me guilty. Or worse, it played on some of my deeper distortions of God as a deity hiding around the corner, waiting for me to do something bad so he could jump out and catch me red-handed. 

But that isn’t the God revealed in Jesus. He’s a good, loving, generous Father who desires us to enter the true human life and vocation as his image-bearers, ambassadors, and priests.

So now, I see this line more therapeutically. A judge determines what is real and true. Like a doctor touching an area on our body in order to diagnose, the pain that we experience reveals disease or disorder that needs to be addressed and healed.

So it’s for our goodness and health that the Judge comes and reveals our deeds. It reveals what is real. And that honest revelation is always a gift, and never a curse.

But how does the Judge come and reveal? I find in my life it’s through pressure and suffering. When circumstances become stressful, that’s when the Judge reveals, when the Doctor diagnoses. As part of the process, the crap that I’m fairly good at burying during normal times is exposed. Anger, anxiety, fear, impatience, gossip, pride, self-centeredness, control, self-preservation, and so much more are flushed into the open.

And that’s when I’m reminded and invited again to trust in and follow my Shepherd. In him I lack nothing. In him I am safe. In him I am sustained. In him the fractured and frenzied pieces of my life are being reintegrated and restored.

I write this because yesterday morning as I prayed that line, I choked when I realized how the past couple of weeks have brought the Judge so powerfully. I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt so overwhelmed, to the point I feel physically ill and emotionally strung out. And what’s being exposed isn’t good. It feels like all the spiritual formation over the past several years has evaporated.

I’m not writing this to invoke pity. Rather, it’s a reminder that true and genuine honesty is a gift, not a curse. If I let God do his work, then what I’m experiencing is ultimately for my good. Suddenly the Judge comes and it is a good thing, even though it hurts so much.

Trust, Worship, & Care

As a resident of California, things have been changing rapidly over the past week in regards to COVID-19. And as I’ve watched and listened to family members, co-workers and the public, I’ve been pondering how I will live during this unique time.

These kind of thoughts always take me back to Psalm 23. This has been one of the core passages for my faith and spiritual formation the past couple of years. “The Lord is my Shepherd, so I lack absolutely nothing.” Whatever issue is facing me, this first line always confronts me with a choice. Is it mere poetic sentiment or is it ultimate Reality? If it is ultimate Reality, then my circumstance, large or small, is simply a passing shadow, like a storm cloud temporarily eclipsing the ever-shining sun.

The ultimate Reality is that God is good. He created a good world. And his reign and purposes for this world and all who live on it are good. So we are safe in this ultimate Reality.

That means COVID-19 did not catch God by surprise. It didn’t wrestle any control of his world away from him. Nor did it alter any of his good intentions and purposes for his creation at large and for you as his child in any way.

I’m not trying to minimize the incredible stress and uncertainty that comes with COVID-19 and it’s societal impact. Without going into any details, job loss, risk of exposure, dramatic changes at work, and even death are close to my extended family.

But again, Psalm 23 keeps confronting me with the question, is this sentiment or Reality. Is God truly the Shepherd-King of his world and all who live in it? As I’ve been learning during my training with God’s Spirit over the past couple of years, it is Reality and I can trust him.

Our trust must then move toward worship. In his commentary on Revelation 4, NT Wright says the difference between the worship from creation in general and the worship from humans is the word “because.” In Revelation 4, the four creatures around God’s throne, representing creation as a whole, worship God with an amazing declaration of who he is. But the twenty-four elders, representing God’s people, worship by using the word “because.” Their worship states that God deserves all worship because he has created all things. They worship because of his ultimate Reality

Our trust in God and his ultimate Reality must lead us to a worship that is immersed in and reflects upon that ultimate Reality. This is so difficult when our news feeds constantly bombard us with everything but that Reality. They fill us with fear and anxiety so our worship is more a reactive cry of desperation than a reflective declaration of trust and love.

Now there’s nothing wrong with cries of desperation. But they shouldn’t be the core of our worship of God. We need to ask, is my worship driven by my news feeds and fear or by my immersion and reflection on the ultimate Reality he’s revealed to us?

Our trust and worship should then lead us to peaceful care of others. If God is truly the Shepherd-King, then we don’t need to turn to hoarding and armed protection like I’ve some Christians proclaim. We follow the Prince of Peace. And like his followers throughout the ages, we’re called to care for others, even at the risk to ourselves.

Yes, we should prepare and even stock up on supplies, but with the intention of giving them away to those in need. Yes, we should practice social responsibility by staying physically away from people, but only until they need our support and help.

I know this has gone long, but I want to share a recent incident. I normally don’t share these kind of personal moments, but I think it highlights how simple care can make a difference in this current situation.

Debbie and I were in line to enter a grocery store. We had finally moved to the front of a substantial line. An older gentleman walked up to the employee monitoring the entrance and asked if he could go in to just get two items. She said no. He said he had to take the bus to every grocery store, but she insisted. He turned and began to walk away.

Debbie overheard the conversation and asked if we could let him in front of us, but I said that wouldn’t be fair to all the people behind us. She asked what if I grabbed the items for him. I agreed and she ran to catch up to the man while I entered the store. One of the items the man wanted was limited to one per customer. It was something I was going to buy for our family, but I grabbed it for him instead.

When I finished shopping and left the store, I gave the man his two items and Debbie told him they were a gift. He started tearing up.

Simple care. That’s all it takes. My wife is the queen of this kind of love.

Trust in an ultimate Reality that leads to reflective worship and other-centered care. Whether it’s a pandemic or just normal circumstances, this is the way of life as Jesus’ apprentices.

Missing Mom

Today marks the first anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. I wrote the following on Facebook soon after her passing, but wanted to share it again.

“Yesterday, my beloved mother-in-law passed from this life. Often you hear about people who embody heroic portions of kindness to all people. We had the rare privilege of living with one. Leslie impacted so many people through her sheer kindness, gentleness and sacrifice. No matter who you were, you were always accepted and cared for. Others were always more important than herself. Whether it was a plate of food, an extra $20 to help meet the bills, or a kind word, she genuinely gave to everyone. She gave like she was the richest person on earth. And quite frankly, I think she was.

“As long as I knew Leslie, her heart’s desire was to ultimately be in Jesus’ presence. Yesterday, she was rewarded with her greatest desire. I can only imagine her joy of seeing her Friend and Savior welcome her with his loving arms and whisper, ‘Welcome home my good and faithful daughter!’”

A year has passed and it has been a difficult one. We have celebrated birthdays and holidays, but they have not been the same without her. And it pains me that my family will celebrate new and significant milestones without her. 

I miss her smile and her voice. I miss the small things she would  do. Just yesterday, I saw a woman eating a donut the way mom would hold her food and I felt the pang I’ve felt throughout this past year.

I miss you, mom.

Update: After posting this, Debbie left a beautiful “first year in heaven” tribute to her mom on Facebook. I wanted to include it in this post because it provides such a beautiful image of Leslie and expresses the immense hole in our lives that her absence has created.

“It has been one year since my Mama was welcomed into Heaven. We miss you Mama! We miss so much about you. Your sweet voice, your loving hugs, your smiles and funny jokes. We miss how much you made us feel loved and lovable. We miss your singing out praise songs and hymns throughout the day. We miss you “getting our honey”, that always made us smile and laugh. Nobody could soothe me better when I was sick; it was like you had the best recipe for toast and tea. Thanks for all the times you made baby tea for us when we were little and needed some special treatment. I have never met a more compassionate and giving woman. I have seen you give of yourself over and over without a complaint and yet I haven’t learned to be enough like you. I will keep trying to learn from your example.”

“Until we meet again, sweet Mama, we will remember you and the love of God that you have shared with us. We will remember that you taught us to trust and follow Jesus. We will remember that you taught us to pray and sing hymns and praises to God all through the day and when we wake up at night. You are often in our thoughts. In our selfishness we wish you were here but we know that you are in a much better place. Happy first year in heaven!”

Traveling Alone

Early this morning, our family took Chris to the airport. 

During our July 2018 visit to St Herman’s Monastery, the Abbot told Chris that the next step in exploring his calling to monasticism was a two-week visit to the monastery. Chris decided to wait until he finished his AA degree, which he accomplished this past August. So now, he’s taking a solo trip to the monastery. This is both his first time traveling alone and his first time on a plane.

I am emotionally torn about Chris’ calling. As his dad, I don’t want to lose my youngest. Imagining a life without him is too heart-breaking. Frankly, I’m already struggling with the prospect of two weeks without any contact with him.

But I’m also filled with joy and excitement for him as he learns to follow God into his unique life-calling. As someone who had a similar calling into professional pastoral ministry, I know that joy firsthand. I know what it’s like to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose in this world.

And as one who is no longer pursuing that calling into professional ministry, I also know the inner turmoil, self-doubt, and even depression that accompanies not fulfilling a calling.

I wish I could join Chris on this trip. But this next step, and all the subsequent steps, can only be walked by Chris alone. The monastic life is a solitary life. Chris will not be able to find solace or affirmation from family and friends. He must learn to trust God as his Good Shepherd. Because of this, my role in Chris’ journey has changed since our trip together in 2018.

I’ve done all I can to prepare Chris for this trip. And I will help him with any future trips. And if possible, Debbie and I will one day walk him through the monastery gates and entrust him finally to his abbot.

But now my role is to pray for him continuously and coach from the sidelines when appropriate as my son travels alone.

Happy Birthday, Debbie!

Today is Debbie’s birthday. She is my wife and my best friend. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve such an amazing person as her with whom to share my life, but I am sincerely and eternally grateful.

Not only is she stunningly beautiful, but Debbie has an incredible depth of character. I can honestly say that I have never met another person who is so God-centered and other-centered like she is. Having been a pastor and a theology student, I have heard and read my share of people talk about what love is. Debbie’s life cuts through all the verbiage with the actual thing. Her default setting is to think about the good of other people. Then add to that her brilliance, her charm, her wit, and all the other envious qualities and you have this astounding woman.

And, every morning, I wake up thankful and stunned that she wants to spend her life with me. And every night, I go to sleep grateful I’ve shared another day with her.

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.

Rejecting Formation By Feeds

Yesterday, I deleted or deactivated almost all of my social media accounts — 500px, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. 

Removing myself from these feeds was a difficult decision, especially Facebook. Having been on that platform for years, I have so many people from my past and present that I enjoy following. I have watched them and their families grow, laughed at their memes, cheered at their successes, cried in their tragedies and even deaths, and prayed for them as they shared their life events.

I’ve also enjoyed writing anniversary and birthday messages for my wife and kids. My greatest joy is being Debbie’s husband and being Michael’s, Catherine’s, Danielle’s and Christopher’s dad. I want the world to know how much I love and cherish them and how highly I think about them.

There were a number of factors that played into this decision, but two stand out. One reason is I didn’t like how I turned to my social media feeds during down-time moments. Rather than turning to images and posts, I want my internal default to turn to activities like prayer, reflection, reading and writing. And I also want to be more aware of God and people in the moment. That’s very difficult to do when I’m staring at my phone.

Another reason is too much noise has accumulated in my life. It seems like everything is a rapidly scrolling feed of images and ideas, competing for attention before it’s quickly replaced by something else. It’s like standing at the top of a waterfall and trying to focus on the objects quickly passing by and plummeting over the falls. And if I had anything to contribute, no matter how important or meaningful it might be to me, it was simply swept away among the other items.

I remember when blogs were “the thing” twenty years ago. When I received a notification that someone I followed had posted, I would carve out some time and slowly read through their post, mulling over what they had written. Yet over the last several years, it seems like this has been replaced by rapid-fire sound bites, links to videos and news articles, memes, and the like. While many of these items may be important, their meaningfulness is drowned out by the dizzying frenzy of hundreds of items spinning by. I found I had no time to enjoy and reflect on everything bombarding me through my feeds. This is the primary reason I have left my friends’ blogs on this blog’s navigation panel. While they’ve been silent for years, I like to return to them and reread their posts.

Add to that the hacking, advertisements, changing algorithms and the impending election cycle, I’ve decided that I’ve had enough. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not a comment about anyone who remains on Facebook or the other social media feeds. This is something I need in my continual formation into Christlikeness. Everything forms us. And the formation from my feeds seemed to be contrary to the formation I’m pursing.

So, is this a permanent decision? I don’t know. At this point I want to say it will be permanent. But I don’t know what the future holds. I’ve taken short breaks from social media in the past and found the experience to be refreshing and refocusing. But I always knew these hiatuses were temporary. This feels different.

I have deleted my 500px and Flickr accounts, so they’re permanently gone. Because I have more personal history invested in Twitter and Facebook, I simply changed my password, logged out, and deleted the apps on my phone and bookmarks on my browsers. And I’ve decided to remain on Instagram (although I’ve deleted the app from my phone) and Youtube since I still draw some inspiration and instruction from those platforms for my photography. But I may eventually remove myself from those platforms as well.

My goal is to revisit this decision in 9 to 12 months. If this decision has made a positive impact, then I will probably permanently delete my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Moving forward, I will invest my activity into my two blogs — this one and my photoblog. These are slower-paced opportunities to reflect and write. I don’t have any desire to increase engagement here. These blogs are simply a quiet, obscure corner of the internet where I can record the things rumbling around inside of me as well as the important moments of my life.

And hopefully when I look back on this decision, I will have discovered that rejecting formation from my feeds contributed significantly to my ongoing journey home.

Facing Regrets & Anxiety

So today is my birthday. I don’t know if it’s my age, but I find myself frequently facing two personal demons — regret about the past and anxiety about the future. Like ghosts, past words, deeds and decisions hauntingly whisper during the quiet moments of my life. What if I raised my kids differently? What if I had spent more time with them than at work? What if I had stayed in professional ministry? Did I somehow miss or disqualify myself from God’s calling on my life? And if given too much room, regrets can turn into paralyzing despondency. But thinking about the future can be no better. Rather than facing ghosts of my own making, I face wraiths of what might yet come. Loss of job, loss of family, loss of security, loss of… well everything. These in turn can cause paralyzing fear and panic.

The thing about regrets and anxiety is that we wield no control over them. Nothing we do can change what has happened. And while we may think decisions in the present may somehow govern what happens in the future, it’s a false sense of security. We have as little control over the future as we do changing the past.

That’s when the serene, yet solid words of Psalm 23 calm the raging storm. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing” and “I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Jesus is my caring and compassionate Shepherd. He is always intimately and protectively present. And in him, everything I need for life in his kingdom within this world is provided. There’s no need to fear any evil, including regrets and anxiety, for Jesus’ real, tangible, interactive presence eclipses everything.

It’s within this reality that St Paul’s words make so much sense, “Rejoice always. Pray continuously. Give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” God’s will, desire and intention is that we live in Jesus’ intimate and interactive presence. As we do, the natural response will be continuous joy, prayer and gratitude. Fueled by the reality of Jesus’ ongoing shepherding presence, their continual flow from our lives will vanquish the voices of regret and anxiety.

I used to get Paul’s words backwards. I thought it was my responsibility to muster up continuous joy, prayer and gratitude. But I’m finding the more I discard the false realities of how I see the world and immerse myself in the solid REALITY of Jesus’ interactive presence as the Shepherd King of this world, I’m naturally filled with joy, prayer and gratitude.

Photo credit: My best friend and awesome photographer, Mark Feliciano

The Story Behind The Story

A local photography club in which I participate assigned a project. We were to create a still life image. I love stories, so I started gathering the props to tell a story of a traveling musician who missed his family while on the road. The props had a modern feel. For example, I was going to use a ukulele and a photo of my wife and kids from several years ago.

I decided to ask my kids to help gather some props and they eagerly jumped to the task. My son came out of his room with a battered violin he found at his grandparents’ house. The thing looked incredible! My daughter emerged from her room with a pocket watch and what looked like an engagement ring. And we found some old black and white photos of my kids’ grandma when she was young. 

Suddenly the story took on a new twist with the introduction of these awesome props. We started building a scene about a man who chose fame and wealth through his music over the young woman he loved. He had bought her an engagement ring, but never proposed because the dream of fame and wealth was far more enticing. Now years later, he carries the ring and photos of her on his musical travels.

The story is laced with regret, melancholy and a desperate hope that he can return to her. But we know the odds of their reunion of love are slim.

I love the story we created. Storytelling with one image is what makes photography so rich. But even more, I love the story behind the story. In this case, the collaboration with my kids was a fun and memorable time. And the images are as much theirs as they are mine.

It makes me think that there might be a Story behind that story…

Thoughts On Suffering

I’m on vacation. After ending work on Thursday, I went to my favorite coffee shop and then took my coffee to my favorite park for a stroll. I love to end my day with this routine. It allows me to pray, reflect and unwind. 

It was then that I was hit by the full realization that I was starting several days of vacation. I actually got a little emotional. I hadn’t realized how taxing work had been on me. I am so thankful that even though I have a very stressful job, it allows me to take breaks so I can step away for several days. 

As I was praying, I started thinking about those who are undergoing intense struggle and suffering with no opportunity to step away. I know friends and colleagues, not to mention people that fill our news feeds, who are suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually with no relief in sight. I don’t know how they can endure such long-term and life-crushing pain. 

I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child and face an unfathomable well of grief. Or to lose one’s entire savings and confront the daily panic, despair and regret. Or to hear the doctor’s diagnosis and know one’s life is forever altered.

Scripture verses, advice, and platitudes don’t help in most of these situations. The pain is too deep and unending.

But on behalf of those who are suffering in any way, I pray, “Lord, have mercy” and know our God — our loving, kind and compassionate king and shepherd — hears and is present.

Relaunching Images From The Journey

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a photoblog in 2009-2010 that was an offshoot of this blog. 

The primary reason I entered photography was to stop and discover the innate beauty of God’s world — to explore the “extra” in the ordinary. The photoblog was a place where I could reflect on some of these images.

Ten years later, my life is full. And in its fullness, I’ve neglected the habit of pausing, observing, and reflecting. It’s time to make a change. As part of this change, I’m restarting the photoblog.

St Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” My hope is the photoblog will become that place again in my life.

So why use a photoblog and not just use social media? I currently post a lot of photos on both my professional and personal Instagram accounts. But social media is designed for self-promotion and images stream quickly by in one’s feeds. 

A photoblog seems to be a more conducive platform to slow down and reflect. And while this might seem sappy and overly romanticized, I like to see my blog posts, both here and in the photoblog, as similar to messages in a bottle in the vast ocean of the internet. I don’t know if anyone will ever see my posts. But perhaps a serendipitous Google search may bring someone here at just the right time in their life’s journey. 

So I’m relaunch the photoblog. If you’re interested, you can find it at imagesfromthejourney.com. I’ve also created a link in the “My Photography” page of this blog.

Life’s Transactions

Ten years ago, I tried my hand at a photoblog. I took up photography as a hobby because it helped me to stop and see the world in a way that my busy life normally prevented. The photoblog was a small place on the internet to post the images I created along with short reflections.

Not having any photographic technique, my entry-level camera was set to automatic. But taking a great photo wasn’t the goal. The goal was to pause and glimpse a glimmer of beauty that I would normally miss. And in the process, I hoped I was becoming a slightly better person for it. I can’t remember why I ended the photoblog, but it lasted about a year. 

About five years ago, I began to take photography more seriously. I bought a better camera, set it to manual and began learning ISO, aperture, shutter speed and the nuances of lighting and post-processing. In that process, I still searched for beauty. But the goal of my photography subtly shifted from pausing and pondering to creating a better image. As my technique developed, I began posting on various social media platforms not with the purpose of reflection, but of exposure. I’m still finding beauty, but I’ve almost stopped reflecting. I’m pausing to find the subject for an image and process it to emphasize its appeal, but I’ve ceased ruminating on the subtly of its attraction.

Now looking back over the last several years, I feel I’ve lost something in order to gain something. 

These kind of transactions occur throughout our lives. We make certain decisions and start a journey rarely knowing its true trajectory. With a healthy dose of hindsight that only time provides, we realize the true cost of those transactions.

We are finite beings, so money, energy, passion and resources invested into certain areas of our lives often means other areas won’t receive the same kind of attention. Most of the time, we weigh our options and choose what seems best in the moment. Sometimes that can be a good thing. But other times, not so much.

Fortunately, if caught soon enough, some of these transactions can be refinanced. Resources can be redirected to nurture an area that has lain fallow so that over time new growth may emerge.

There’s a word for this process of refinancing our life’s transactions — repentance. Try to hear that word without any of its religious connotations. When Jesus used the word, it did not have any religious meaning. It meant “think about it.” Think about what you’re doing in your life and the repercussions of your actions. And in that process, consider that there might actually be a better way. And once you’ve weighed the options, choose the better way. That’s repentance. That’s refinancing those costly life transactions.

We often think of applying repentance to much larger things. But sometimes repentance needs to be applied to some of the “smaller” areas of life. For example, not spending regular time in quiet reflection can exact a huge cost over months and years, shaping us into a certain kind of person.

But whether it’s a large or small area of our life, God’s Spirit invites us to “think about it” and to empower us in the process of refinancing our life transactions. And through it, we experience the vast richness of God’s power and presence.

The Core Of The Good News

Occasionally, I like to simplify everything back to its core. I especially like to do this with the idea of The Gospel, which we are to live and communicate.

The Greek word for “Gospel” means good news. When a new Roman emperor was installed during ancient times, messengers were sent into the outlying territories proclaiming the gospel of that emperor. It was the good news that Rome had a new emperor and because of it, Rome’s citizens would experience peace, prosperity and salvation.

The four New Testament Gospels, in narrative form, are doing the same thing about Jesus. They are bearing witness that Jesus is Israel’s long-awaited, representative king. As such Jesus has fulfilled the covenant that God made with Abraham and his family to be God’s blessing to the nations, he has launched God’s future new creation concurrent with this creation, and he is installed as the world’s true Lord. That is the good news of Jesus! Jesus is the true King and Lord!

The implications of that gospel for every person who loyally embraces Jesus’ kingship and follows him is freedom from all of the destructive powers in our lives and the restoration of our human vocation (and here I’m blatantly stealing from Bishop Todd Hunter) “to be God’s cooperative friends who are learning from him how to live constant creative goodness for the sake of others in the power of God’s Spirit.”

With Jesus as our true King, we lack nothing and thus can learn from him how to build strong, unshakable lives like his, able to risk everything for the sake of God and neighbor. 

This is reality of Jesus’ kingship. And it is the ultimate Good News!

To Be Continued…

DSC02335As I read and reread the last couple of chapters of Revelation, I’m struck by the idea that this is not the end of God’s Story. I think we’ve been formed by our culture to read Revelation 22 as though it ends with an assumed “And they lived happily ever after.”

As the book climaxes, all of God’s plans come to fruition. Evil is vanquished, humanity and creation are restored, and God dwells with his people. The New Creation launched by Jesus in his resurrection completely arrives on earth. The dimensions of heaven and earth are finally merged. God’s people will have their resurrected bodies, animated and energized by God’s Spirit. And they will be fully formed into the likeness of Christ.

But that’s not the end of God’s Story. Rather, Revelation 22 seems to indicate that the next phase of God’s Story is ready to begin. There’s an interesting description in Revelation 22:

“Then he showed me the river of the water of life. It was sparkling like crystal, and flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either bank of the river was growing the tree of life. It produces twelve kinds of fruit, bearing this fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

In symbolic language, St John describes the core of life on God’s renewed earth —the Tree of Life, fed by the Water of Life. And the leaves of this Tree are for the healing and therapy of the nations. It sounds like there’s still work to be done in God’s New Creation. This is different from the popular vision of living among the clouds, reunited with loved ones, in complete bliss.

So the question I have is, “What will the human vocation as God’s image-bearers and kingdom of priests look like in the New Creation?” What will life and work be like for a worldwide community of people with resurrected, Spirit-empowered physical bodies, who are formed into genuine competent love for the good of the world?

Scripture implies there will be some level of continuity between this creation and the New Creation. If so, what will the various elements of human life and community look like — politics, education, technology, economics, travel, art, communication, research, and more.

I realize this is absolute assumption on my part. And I’m not trying to speculate about some “sci-fi” utopia. Rather, I want to envision what human life and community might actually look like when it’s fully formed into competent Christlike love and completely empowered to express it. Because that is what Jesus modeled during his ministry. He competently loved the people and expressed it powerfully to heal them, teach them, feed them and lead them. What will that look like in God’s New Creation when all of God’s people are able to love like that?

St Paul implies this very thing in 1Corinthians 15. After providing a detailed instruction about the physical resurrection, he ends with the following encouragement:

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Because there is a future physical resurrection when God’s New Creation is fulfilled, keep doing the Lord’s work of competent Christlike love in this present creation. That work will not be worthless. In fact, that work forms the building blocks that God will incorporate into his New Creation. We live God’s future now in anticipation of that future.

God’s Story doesn’t end just because the book ends.

Perhaps we need our imaginations sparked with the ramifications of God’s greatness and goodness filling the earth and our lives, not only now, but also into his eternal future.

Perhaps every Bible should end with “To be continued…”

Lacking Nothing

Since reading Dallas Willard’s posthumous book, Life Without Lack, my imagination has been reinfused with a vision of the with-God life. So in an attempt to keep that vision always before me, I’ve made praying Psalm 23 a daily spiritual discipline.

As I pray this psalm, I’ve realized its words are filled with tremendous meaning in light of Christ’s life and teaching. So I thought I would share how I understand Psalm 23 as I use it as a prayer.

The Lord is my Shepherd. He is my King and my caretaker. Because he is the good shepherd, I live in a good world created and ruled by a good God who gives every good and perfect gift. Therefore, I lack nothing. Because God lacks nothing and because he’s abundantly generous, I lack nothing. I know that as I make his kingship and covenantal justice my first priority, everything else I need will be provided. So I can be fully loyal, faithful and abandoned to his kingship.

The Lord is training me to be satisfied and sustained in him alone. I no longer need to be fed or nourished by anything other than him. He is the Bread of Life and the Living Water. I no longer need to hunger or thirst for anything. Like a sheep that is already full and content, I can lay down in green pastures rather than roaming around eating. This is the secret of being content in any and every situation. My soul, which has been fragmented by the frantic and frenzied pursuit of meaning and satisfaction, is being healed. He is restoring my soul, binding and restoring the shattered fragments into his power and life. 

Living constantly in him and lacking nothing, God shows me how to take up my human vocation as his image-bearer and royal priest. He guides me into a cooperative friendship with him so that I can participate in his righteousness, that is, his covenantal justice in the world. I am now a partner in his reconciling, renewing, and redeeming work in this world. And I do this in his behalf and in his name. I represent him, learning from him how be like him in order to embody, demonstrate and announce his restorative good news.

And I can engage in this redemptive vocation without fearing any evil. When this vocation takes me to the brink of death, destruction, or loss, I will fear no evil. God is with me. He protects me. Nothing can separate me from him and his love. In this constant Reality, I am comforted by God, knowing he works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. 

The vocation of covenantal justice takes me into places where the world hurts and groans. Because God is generously abundant and gives me all things, he plants my life in the places of pain, even where people might seek my ruin. And yet, I do not need to fear my enemies. I am safe in the care of a good King and Shepherd with his life and power sustaining, nourishing and providing all I need in every moment. Therefore, instead of fearing my enemies, I can bless them. I can invite them to enjoy God’s abundant anointing and blessings in my life without fear of lack or loss. The abundant with-God life allows me to give to everyone — strangers, enemies, friends, family, and loved ones.

Therefore God‘s presence and character exudes from my life everywhere I go and everything I do. His goodness and love are the exhaust of this mighty engine of restoration and blessing. And each moment of my life today and into the infinite future is spent in God’s intimate presence where heaven and earth are merged and restored into his New Creation.

More Present Now

Last weekend, our family visited Oak Glen, a favorite location of ours. This visit was unique because a thick fog rolled in, altering the landscape. So during our visit, I took several photos with my phone. One of the photos was a reflection shot of the pond in the botanical garden. When I took the photo, I thought the image was free of fellow visitors. But when I got home, uploaded the photo to Lightroom and expanded it, I noticed there were a couple of people in the image. The larger screen and software enabled me to see the scene better than when I was actually standing there.

That photo came to mind this morning while reading John 14:12-21. In this passage, Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon be returning to his Father. While at first this sounds discouraging, he informs them that they will actually be able to do greater works than what he’s been doing because he’s going to the Father. And that’s because the Father will give his followers the Holy Spirit. 

I think many of us believe that Jesus’ original followers had it much easier than we do simply by the fact that Jesus was physically with them. But according to Jesus in this passage, the opposite is true. If we think about the original disciples, they seemed to constantly misunderstand Jesus’ words. They found themselves misinterpreting events. Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied him and the rest scattered at his arrest.

Here’s the remarkable truth of John 14: Christians today are in a far better situation than Jesus’ original followers during his lifetime! Jesus is actually more present to his followers in this new mode than when he was physically present.

When Jesus talks about going to the Father, he’s not just talking about going to heaven. He’s referring to defeating evil, idolatry, sin and death through his crucifixion. He’s referring to launching God’s New Creation through his resurrection. He’s referring to merging heaven and earth through his ascension. And he’s referring to being fully present and empowering by the Spirit through Pentecost.

Because of his accomplishments through the process of “going to the Father,” an entirely new world lies before us. And in this new world, Jesus is with us far more fully than he was with his original disciples — renewing our minds and energizing our lives with his LIFE to do greater works than Jesus ever did.

The Flowers Of The Field

One form of photography that I enjoy is macro photography. When I take macro shots of flowers, the process allows me to enter into, observe and capture a world of beauty that often goes unnoticed. It also allows me to capture the fragility of that beauty. Most of my subjects only exist for a short time. A strong wind and the dandelion’s seeds are blown away. A child’s playful step or a short heat wave and the flower’s petals are crushed or withered.

Macro photography also offers me a glimpse into the faith Jesus had in his Father. During his life, he witnessed thousands of different flowers growing in Galilee. The fragile beauty took away his breath and reminded him of his Father’s generous provision and love. It fueled his knowledge of his Father’s goodness as this world’s Creator. It strengthened his perspective that his Father’s world was a good and safe place.

“And why worry about what to wear? Take a tip from the lilies in the countryside. They don’t work; they don’t weave; but, let me tell you, not even Solomon in all his finery was dressed as well as one of these. So if God gives that sort of clothing even to the grass in the field, which is here today and on the bonfire tomorrow, isn’t he going to clothe you too, you little-faith lot?” Matthew 6:28-30

I remember hearing about a conversation someone had with Dallas Willard. Willard said if he had to describe Jesus with one word it would be “relaxed.” Jesus was absolutely happy and content in his Father because he knew from experience that his Father excitedly and energetically loved his creation and cared about beauty, life, food, clothes and the other good things inherent in his world.

So here’s Jesus’ invitation to his friends then and now:

“Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33

The cornerstone of Jesus’ faith and therefore the key to the training he gives his friends is to make God the priority, not the beautiful elements of his creation. Creator, not the creation. 

The key is to seek God’s good, generous, loving kingship and his “righteousness” — the good covenantal way of life that is in sync with God’s kingship. The implication is that we yield our “kingships” and “queenships” to God’s and embrace and learn his way of life.

God has made his world with incredible and wonderful things to experience and enjoy. But those things are fleeting. So when we put those things first, we give ourselves to that which will quickly fade. And then we commit ourselves to a way of life that tries to obtain more and tries to prevent it from fading. Our failed priorities are called idolatry and the way of life that tries to sustain it is called sin. And this life is ultimately riddled with stress, worry, anxiety, pain, brokenness, and corruption. The joy, beauty, excitement and wonder that we’re pursuing evaporates away.

One way to assess our idolatry and sin is to examine our natural inclination to worry. For many of us, worry is like breathing. It’s our default status through daily life. But Jesus didn’t worry. And he taught his friends that they didn’t need to worry. This wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky wishful view of life. This was the actual reality of Jesus’ faith and daily living. And his friends ultimately found it to be true as well (Phil 4:4-7).

We simply need to admit that Jesus’ faith and life are far better than our current experience. When we learn to see, experience and trust our Father like Jesus does, then we can actually enter into the same kind of fearless, joyful, happy and worry-free life he had.

So take a moment and look at the flowers of the fields and let your faith in your Father soar.

Cleaning My Paint Brush

After painting a room the other day, I had the “privilege” of cleaning the paint brushes and rollers. If you’ve ever had this privilege, you know how long this process can take. After some cleaning, the brush looks clean. But the moment you squeeze the bristles, more paint oozes out. So you clean and clean. Again, the brush looks deceptively clean. But then you squeeze the bristles again, and more paint seeps out.

Spiritual formation can be like this. It seems I’ve been trying to clean the paint brush of my heart for decades. Unfortunately, I have let the paints of anger and anxiety saturate deep between the bristles. So even though I may seem calm and cool on the outside, sometimes all it takes is a stressful circumstance or a jerk… uh I mean a fellow human being… on the freeway, to squeeze my deceptively clean-looking brush and those stark colors bleed out again.

But each day I have a choice to make. In frustration, I can give up. I can simply let anger and anxiety rule my life. I have some semblance of control over them, so they wouldn’t cause too much damage.

Or I can keep following Jesus, confident in him, his life, his teaching, his power, his brilliance over all aspects of human existence and life. Ultimately I have to remain confident in him even though my brush doesn’t seem to be getting clean.

During Lent, I read Dallas Willard’s posthumously released book, Life Without Lack. First, I need to say that I miss him. He was a wonderful gift to the Church. Second, the vision in his book of a “with-God” life based on Psalm 23 has been so refreshing. This “with-God” life is what Paul speaks of when he says:

“In every possible situation I’ve learned the hidden secret of being full and hungry, of having plenty and going without, and it’s this: I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power.” -Philippians 4:12-13

In God’s New Creation, I don’t need to experience anger or anxiety. Sure there will be stressful circumstances and people. But by training with Jesus into his likeness of living a “with-God” life, I can have his unshakable confidence in an abundantly good and generous Father who has created and rules over an abundantly good and generous world. And this confidence can allow me to completely die to myself, my passions, and my desires, completely safe in my Father’s abundant goodness and generosity. This then allows me to expend my life fully on seeking and willing the good for others.

One of the shocking realizations I had from reading Willard’s book is the implications of Psalm 23:5, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

A “with-God” life, confident in God’s abundance, steeped in death to self, and fully focused on the good of others allows even my “enemies” to join me at and enjoy the benefits of the table of my “with-God” life.

The last part of Willard’s book forms the practical application of how to live a “with-God” day that will over time form a “with-God” life.

So I think the choice remains clear. A “with-God” life, no matter how long it takes to form, sounds exceedingly more appealing than a life of anger and anxiety. So no matter how long it takes, I’ll keep cleaning my paint brush.

Letting Go During Lent

I don’t think I need to convince anyone when I state that our lives are filled, perhaps overfilled, with activity. Usually from the moment we awake to the moment our bodies drift to sleep, we are doing something. And many of those activities have formed our identity, reinforcing and energizing those activities.

One of the invitations of Lent is to let go of some of those activities in order to create new space within our lives — space for the potential of beauty, space to be alert to God and others, space to examine some of the shadowy parts of our inner lives.

I read a statement by Richard Rohr that might be helpful. He says, “We become free as we let go of our three primary energy centers: our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem.” I think every person struggles in some way with these areas and Lent invites us to become a bit more aware and perhaps to learn how to let go.

The beauty of Lent is that it doesn’t demand, but invites. There is no obligation to participate in Lent. It doesn’t make God love us more nor does it necessarily make us better people. God loves us and is pleased with us whether we have a laser-focus during Lent or if we choose to “give up Lent during Lent.” But that same lavish, unending love is both the invitation to and the environment within which we engage in Lent.

To put it simply, Lent is Love. It is God’s love that invites us to Lent. It is God’s love in which we experience Lent. It is God’s love through which we may be transformed in Lent. And it is God’s love in which we may fail in Lent.

Recently, Bishop Todd Hunter likened Lent to the R&D department of a company. It’s a unique time each year where we can, with a childlike and an almost playful spirit, let go, make space, examine, and engage God regarding oft-hidden aspects of our lives within God’s deep and unchanging love for us.

So I would encourage you to hear and answer God’s invitation to let go and experience his love during Lent.

The Paint On Me

There’s a line from a Sister Hazel song that has haunted me since I first heard it. It goes:

“But the paint on me is beginning to dry and it’s not what I wanted to be.”

I’ve observed recently that as people grow older, we seem to become caricatures of our former selves. The paint on our inner lives, our character, dries and hardens almost to a point of exaggeration. Worriers worry. Complainers complain. Gossipers gossip. Ragers rage. Gluttons glut. Lusters lust. There’s almost no nuance left.

When I was a younger man, my life ambition was to be someone great for God. I wanted to do amazing things for God and change the world in his name. A couple more decades of life altered that goal. Ambition was replaced with a desire to become like Jesus, to have my inner world shaped into the likeness of Jesus’ inner being so good toward others would flow naturally.

I jokingly told a colleague that after my recent observation, I’ve lowered the bar to just not becoming a person that makes my wife and kids miserable when they’re around me.

I’m very aware of my character flaws. And the thought of those flaws permanently hardening to form “the real me” over the next few decades scares me to no end.

Reading Bishop Todd Hunter’s book, “Our Character At Work,” has reminded me again that who I’m becoming is far more important to God than anything I accomplish. Hunter writes regarding the context of leadership at work:

“What if my work is not the most important thing? What if I cannot be reduced to my work? Maybe from God’s view my work is not his work? Maybe I, the kind of person I become in carrying out my leadership, am his work.”

These words remind me that work, home, church, hobbies, relationships and all the other areas of life in which I find myself become the soil from which my character is formed for good or bad. In the midst of daily life I can choose to recognize Jesus’ brilliance into human nature and learn from him how to be like him. Or I can let my broken, hurt and corrupt nature continue to dry and harden into something I didn’t want to be.

Where Past And Present Overlap

Back in February 2017, I decided to become more intentional with my photography. So virtually every weekend, I would buy a cup of coffee and go to Finkbiner Park in Glendora, CA. I would walk around sipping my coffee and taking photos of compositions that caught my eye.

Why Finkbiner Park? This was a place that my kids visited frequently in their childhood and still holds a fondness in my heart and memories. I would regularly take them to this park and they would innocently play and laugh as children.

Now my kids are adults. They face adult struggles and stresses. They have adult dreams and goals. But when I stroll through Finkbiner Park, I can still see and hear them as little children. For a short time every weekend, I’m flooded with memories as my past and present overlap. I relax in all the thoughts and emotions that surface. And I take photos.

I never had the intention of making my weekly trips to Finkbiner Park a photography project. Ever since I took up photography, my goal has been to use this art form to force myself to see ordinary things from unique perspectives and hopefully see something beautiful that I and others would normally miss. But over the past year, I’ve amassed a couple hundred photos of the park and surrounding neighborhood. I used different cameras, lenses, photography styles, and editing processes to capture some of the beauty of this small local park.

I have uploaded all of my Finkbiner Park photos into a Flickr album if anyone is interested in looking at the images. There are some good photos, same mediocre ones and some bad ones. But, they all form a special visual memoir of this past year. I also post a lot of my photos on my Instagram account if you’re interested in following me there.

I think the image at the top of this post captures this experience. Time is like the gate that has closed upon a stage of my life very dear to me, a time when I watched my four children experience life with innocence and wonder and play. The playground in the background is like my memories of my children — colorful, dreamy and slowly fading out of focus.

I absolutely adore my adult children and who they’ve become. But, I painfully miss my little children and the life we shared together. And for a little sliver of time each weekend, I get to capture images of the present as my past swirls around me.

Fascinated With What Others Don’t See

I just viewed a beautiful photo and read some wonderful thoughts by Zeb Andrews. View his photo here. And here are his thoughts:

“I think one of the greatest gifts of photography is the ability to be fascinated by something as seemingly mundane as an empty parking lot. Ok, in all fairness it wasn’t simply an empty parking lot, but rather the reflection of light at night across the shiny surface of a wet, empty parking lot. But that is still fairly mundane. Not many people are sitting at home and think to themselves, “You know what I want to do tonight? It’s not dinner, it’s not club hopping, it’s empty parking lots.” Not many people, but I am willing to be a vast majority of the people who do think such things are photographers. Because that’s what photography does for you, it gives you the tools you need to notice such things and strengthened sense of creativity to appreciate them.

“I don’t know about you, but I really appreciate that. For me then, it isn’t even about being able to make an interesting photo of such things, but rather simply the noticing of them. I think this image is alright, I doubt I will ever print it, it’s interesting enough to post along with this short essay here on Flickr, so that counts for something. But the value that came from this experience was all in the experience itself, standing there in a big, open parking lot that was a few hours removed from being packed with cars and people, that was noisy with human activity and had become silent, the play of the different color temperatures of light across its reflective surface, and the speed at which the clouds were traveling on the stormy breeze through the skies above.

“All in all, it was a good moment to be in and one I doubt I would have ever found without the benefit of photography.”

What is true in photography is even more true in spiritual formation. I think we’re all aware that technology has reduced our culture’s awareness to simply swiping up, down, left or right to see the next new thing that tickles our senses.

But spiritual disciplines like silence, solitude, prayer, repentance, and fasting force us to stop and look. We cannot simply swipe left when confronted with personal or society’s brokenness. Nor can we simply swipe right into Christ’s likeness. God’s movement in our lives is not a social media feed through which we can casually scroll. Spiritual disciplines compel us to stop, see and become fascinated with the Spirit’s work like a photographer is fascinated by light, color, and reflections.

Simply Being God’s Presence

I mentioned last time that I want to live by a very simple focus. I want to have an intimate, trusting relationship with Jesus so that I can learn from him how to be like him so my life can somehow participate in his work in the world. I want to be his trusting, faithful apprentice; to be his ongoing presence doing his work in his world.

So what does this look like? Again, in an attempt to maintain a simple focus, I want to capture being Jesus’ apprentice in three ways.

First, I want to live thankfully in God’s presence in the present. In other words I want to learn from Jesus how to still my mind and feelings, which primarily live in the past and future, and bring them into submission to my heart, the core of who I am. From that place, free from the regrets and guilt of the past and the fear and anxiety of the future, I want to live thankfully in the present with the awareness of God’s presence in that moment.

Second, I want to see the unsurpassable worth of every person. I want to view people without labels and categories. I want to see them as God’s creation, each person worth the death and resurrection of God’s Son to forgive and free them from all destructive idolatry and sin and into their true human vocation as his image-bearers.

Third, I want to focus my life on doing good to and for others. Whether engaged with work, family, friends, strangers, or hobbies, I want all I do to produce good for others. I want my life to be God’s goodness to others.

That’s it. I want to be Jesus’ trusting and faithful apprentice — to be with him in order to become like him in order to work with him as his ongoing presence on earth.

The Easy Life

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting old or something else, but I find myself wanting to live by a very simple focus. I want to have an intimate trusting relationship with Jesus so that I can learn from him how to be like him so my life can somehow participate in his work in the world. I’m finding myself evaluating every aspect of my life through this simple goal. And eliminating things that get in the way of it.

I think about what Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-29:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus invites us into a life that is restful, easy and light. It’s a life in which we are “yoked” to him and learn from him how to be and live like him.

This is for what Jesus lived, died and was resurrected. Jesus lived to model and invite us into the restful, easy and light life of our true human vocation of reflecting God’s good, loving and wise character into our world for the good of others. Jesus died on the cross to vanquish the idols and forgive the sins that enslaved us and prevented us from entering into our human vocation. And Jesus was resurrected to launch God’s New Creation, this world renewed and transformed into a world fully managed by God.

Now we are God’s children, co-heirs with Jesus, saints who are set apart by God for our renewed human vocation, and God’s temple who are filled and empowered with God’s Spirit to learn from Jesus, to become like Jesus and to participate with Jesus.

I understand that there will be some difficulties and hardships associated with Jesus’ restful, easy and light life. But those difficulties originate from relearning how to do life. It’s tough letting go of a life managed by stress, anxiety, greed, lust and reputation. Part of us wants to let go, but another part wants to remain in control. Like learning a new skill, there’s the initial difficulty of training our mind and body to think and act in new ways.

And I understand some difficulties originate from the conflict of the various kingships out in the world. Every human being has his or her own kingship that they exercise in cooperation with or opposition to God’s kingship. And there are dark forces that, although they have ultimately lost, still try to cause as much damage as possible during this time they’re allowed to run amuck.

But bottom-line, Jesus’ life should be restful, easy and light. We have to take him at his word. And our church communities should be the place where this is discussed and taught. We should be learning how to follow Jesus into his restful, easy and light life of the human vocation. We should be learning the simple disciplines that make our lives increasingly present in God’s reality. We should be encouraged to grow in our intimate love and trust of Jesus’ invitation to enter into his life. We should be reimagining the Reality of God’s New Creation around us. We should be discussing ways to bring our family, our work, our hobbies, our resources, our time and our lives into restful, easy and light participation in Jesus’ work in the world for the good of others.

It Starts And Ends With Intimacy

As a young Christian, one of my favorite worship songs was Maranatha’s version of “As the Deer.” It’s basically Psalm 42 put to simple music:

“As the deer panteth for the water,

So my soul longeth after Thee.

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship Thee.

You alone are my strength and shield

To you alone may my spirit yield.

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship Thee.”

I have cherished memories of being alone with God, playing the chords on a piano, and singing my heart to him.

Ever since meeting Jesus, he’s been my heart’s deepest desire. And that intimacy and longing has been the core of over 30 years of journeying with him. Now as a not-so-young Christian, the same intimacy for Jesus is the driving force in my life.

And while intimacy with Jesus launched my journey with him, I think it has matured into much more.

Recently, I read a short post by Bishop Todd Hunter describing the purpose of his parish, Holy Trinity Church. He wrote that Holy Trinity Church “is engaged in a straightforward and plain journey: we seek intimacy with Jesus and transformation into his likeness, becoming his cooperative friends… for the sake of others.”

That simple sentence captures the goal of intimacy with Jesus — a personal and communal vocation of spiritual formation into God’s royal priesthood for the sake of others. This is the calling of God’s people, His Body — to be a community of people gripped by deep intimacy with Jesus so that it transforms us into his likeness so we can be like him, live like him and work with him for the sake of everyone around us.

This is why the local parish exists. And all of its theology, liturgy, sacraments, programs, administration, and other aspects of its life must direct its members toward this singular goal — a transforming, loving, others-centered intimacy with Jesus.

But the vocation only makes sense when it’s first and foremost fueled by deep intimacy with Jesus. That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends. And that’s what gives everything in between its shape and meaning.

God Has You Right Where He Wants You

“Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus.” -Ephesians 2:7, The Message

This morning I was reading Ephesians in Eugene Peterson’s, The Message, and I came across the verse quoted above.

Ephesians is one of my favorite New Testament letters for many reasons. But one reason is that it reveals how to thrive in God’s kingdom.

Oftentimes, we associate God having us right where he wants us so he can punish us or worse. We still struggle with a perception of God as an angry, wrathful, violent God who punishes our moral transgressions.

But that is not the God revealed in Jesus.

Jesus operated from a completely different framework. God was his loving “abba” Father. God was the world’s creator, lover and redeemer. God was the faithful rescuer of humanity and the world, willing to plunge to the deepest depths to restore his world.

And Jesus fully embodied this abundantly loving, compassionate, caring, healing, restoring, merciful God. As Hebrew 1:3 states, “He is the shining reflection of God’s own glory, the precise expression of his own very being.”

So when God finally gets us where he wants us, it’s to lavish us with his love. And God is using all the time in this age and the next to accomplish this.

This is the framework from which we must retrain our thinking regarding God. He is not an angry, vengeful God. He is the one, according to just the introductory verses of Ephesians, who blessed us, chose us, adopted us, redeemed us, revealed his plans to us, sealed us by his Spirit, and seated us with Jesus in the heavenly realms.

And Paul continues to pray that our very core is opened to this reality of God so that we may live and operate from it (Ephesians 1:17-23). For this is key to our flourishing in God’s world and being the ongoing voice, action and presence of Jesus as his Body.

Happy 23rd Birthday, Cathy!

 

Twenty-three years ago, and with dramatic flair, my oldest daughter, Cathy, entered this world and our lives. And she has brought such incredible joy and love to us. She has grown from a fiery baby to an intelligent, thoughtful, courageous, beautiful, strong, humorous, independent, creative and dare I say sassy young woman. She has a heart as big as the sun and loves deeply God, people and his creation. I am very privileged to be her dad and her friend and I am so very proud of her. Happy Birthday, Sweetie! I love you very much!

Betrayed By Jesus

“Give me a freakin’ break! I trusted him! I followed him! I left everything! He was supposed to be Israel’s king. And he went and got himself killed like all the other “messiahs” before him. Now you’re telling me that he’s alive? Give me a break!

“I know, Thomas. It sounds crazy. But we were there. We saw him.”

“I’m tired of this. Not again. I’ll tell you what. Unless I can see and touch his wounds, I mean actually shoving my hand in his side, I’m done trusting.”

I know I’ve taken some liberty and have embellished the biblical dialogue. But I want to highlight what I perceive to be the raw emotions in Thomas’ words.

Too often, our modern, rationalistic culture is projected onto Thomas as though he demanded scientific empirical proof. That’s unfortunate, because I think that perspective misses the point of Thomas’ experience. I believe he felt betrayed by Jesus. And roiling inside of him was pain, anger, hurt, fear, shame, and a whirlwind of other dark emotions that accompany betrayal.

Jesus claimed to be the Christ and Son of God — the King of Israel who was anointed by Israel’s God to vanquish the Roman occupiers, to restore the presence of Israel’s God in their Temple, and to make Israel great again. Jesus had convinced Thomas by his words, his deeds and his very presence to follow him. Sure, there had been would-be messiahs before. But Jesus actually seemed to be the one capable of succeeding where everyone else had failed.

Recently, though, Jesus seemed to be on a suicide mission. Thomas had told the group just before visiting Lazarus’ grave that if they went with Jesus, they would die with him. Jesus seemed intent to return to the places that wanted to kill him. Going publicly into these areas without any type of military force or strategy was simply tempting fate. Jesus had been lucky so far. But Thomas knew how things worked. Sooner or later, Jesus’ luck would run out and he and his followers would be captured and killed like all the other would-be messiahs before them.

What was Jesus thinking? How could he risk everything he had been building the past few years? How could Jesus be so cavalier with his and his followers’ lives? Sure enough, Jesus’ luck ran out. This past week he pushed too hard, too often. He got himself killed. The movement came to a crashing halt at the foot of a Roman cross. And now his followers, including Thomas, were at risk. The authorities would hunt them down and do the same to them.

It’s my opinion that Thomas’ statement was not unbelief. If he truly didn’t believe, I think he would have hightailed it out of Jerusalem under the cover of darkness soon after Jesus’ death. If he no longer believed, why did he stay with the threat of such peril?

I believe it’s because Thomas’ faith was crippled, not destroyed. And his proclamation about seeing and touching Jesus’ wounds was the mingling of betrayal’s pain and hope’s yearning.

And a week later, Thomas is still with the other disciples.

Much like the paralyzed man who had relied on his friends to carry him, to rip apart the roof, and to lower him at the feet of Jesus, Thomas needed his friends. Like true friends, they carried a crippled Thomas and tore down the roof of betrayal’s pain and lowered him to Jesus’ presence.

And there Jesus met and healed Thomas.

And Thomas’ faith surges.

“My Lord!” Thomas’ faith extends to where it was before. Jesus IS Israel’s king. And “My Lord” is how you would address your king.

“My God!” Thomas’ faith launches into new uncharted territory. No self-respecting Jewish man would ever associate divinity to a human being. We must remember that even the title “Son of God” was a Jewish term for Israel’s human king. It’s normal use never associated divinity to its bearer.

Yet, in that healing moment between Jesus and Thomas, Thomas’ faith expands to a place no one else has yet contemplated. Jesus is Israel’s King. And somehow, Jesus is also Israel’s God.

And with Thomas’ remarkable declaration, the Gospel-writer, leads his readers to a startling conclusion. John’s Gospel has revealed a New Creation, a New Temple and a New People of God. And he uses Thomas’ declaration as a rhetorical exclamation mark to highlight that these new realities of God’s New World require a New Faith — a faith exclaimed by a man at his lowest and darkest point, ravaged by feelings of betrayal, anger and fear.

My Lord and My God!

Training To Bless

For the last several weeks, the global Christian Church has been engaged in Lent. During this time, we focus on three primary spiritual disciplines that, when practiced properly, can train us into our vocation as God’s royal priesthood. The three spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting and giving.

As we’ve seen previously, prayer is our primary form of standing in the overlap between heaven and earth. As God’s image-bearers and royal priests, we are embedded within the world that God loves and that groans in travail as a woman about to give birth to new life. And embedded in us is the Holy Spirit, who is in turn interceding with wordless groaning. And between the two, we live and groan. We groan in empathy to the world’s pain and in cooperation with the Spirit’s intercession. Our groaning is the place where pain is transformed into prayer. Like Jesus on the cross, we too are suspended between the dimensions of heaven and earth, absorbing and transforming the world’s groans of pain into the groans of prayer so God’s New Creation may be born from the old.

So during Lent, spend a little bit of time each day talking with God about the world around you. Take a ten-minute break each day to take a walk or to sit down on a bench and pray for the people you see. Pray for God’s blessings upon your part of his world. You can also adapt the content of one of Paul’s powerful prayers into your context:

“I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of King Jesus our Lord, the father of glory, would give you, in your spirit, the gift of being wise, of seeing things people can’t normally see, because you are coming to know him and to have the eyes of your inmost self opened to God’s light. Then you will know exactly what the hope is that goes with God’s call; you will know the wealth of the glory of his inheritance in his holy people; and you will know the outstanding greatness of his power towards us who are loyal to him in faith, according to the working of his strength and power. This was the power at work in the king when God raised him from the dead and sat him at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and above every name that gets itself talked about, both in the present age and also in the age to come.”

The second spiritual discipline is fasting. Traditionally, the Christian Church fasts from meat and dairy during Lent. You may hear Christians discuss what they’re “giving up” for Lent. However, Lent is about self-denial, not giving up something. And there’s a big difference between the two.

“Giving up something” can easily play into our culture’s narcissism. The focus still remains on myself. I’m giving up chocolate, or I’m giving up meat, or I’m giving up social media. But self-denial is learning to shift the focus off of myself in preparation for something greater.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice there are three components of being Jesus’ apprentices, of which self-denial is the first. Fasting, when correctly practiced, cooperates with the Holy Spirit in learning how to not focus on yourself by learning to ignore your impulses and appetites. Those impulses and appetites may be natural and good. But learning to abstain from them shifts our natural and automatic inclinations to care for ourselves to something better — carrying our cross and following Jesus.

This leads to the third spiritual discipline — giving. Or as Jesus states, taking up your cross and following me. As we learn how to pray — groaning in the painful overlap between heaven and earth — and how to fast — denying our natural impulses and appetites — we can learn how to give as Jesus gives. Giving is the essence of the cross — self-sacrificial love for the good of others. It is the heart of the royal priest that embodies his or her King — the Lion of Judah who has overcome as the slain sacrificial Lamb.

The spiritual discipline of giving can be practiced by giving away money, time, resources and words. But inherent to this spiritual discipline is learning to intentionally make space within my life to give. This is why self-denial is so important. We have to learn to not automatically respond to our own agendas and appetites in order to make the appropriate space for others in our lives.

So while the spiritual discipline of giving will involve giving money and resources to your local church or to someone in need, it should far exceed it. Giving is blessing, a primary task of God’s royal priesthood. Ultimately, giving is embodying the aforementioned spiritual disciplines so our very lives begin to naturally reflect God’s care and love into our world. It involves, but far exceeds, acts of mercy and charity. It’s a life that blesses by being and living. It’s a life that flows from our core and expresses itself in our attitude, our facial expressions, our posture, and then into our interactions with others. And when appropriate, it’s a life that offers money, time, resources, and counsel in order to express God’s loving care to the world.

I’m learning the hard way that I cannot give or bless if my default reaction to people or situations is anger, anxiety, fear, suspicion, jealousy, retaliation, shame, sarcasm, apathy, or the many other defensive and offensive modes I naturally evoke to ward off the world and protect myself.

And that’s why the spiritual disciplines are so essential. While we may be able to muster moments of prayer, fasting and giving, it’s almost impossible to embody this life, Jesus’ life, without spending time training with God’s Spirit through the disciplines. In this way, training leads to transformation. And cooperating with his Spirit, we become by grace what Christ is by nature for the sake of this world.

Cosmic First Responders

I ended the last post by stating that the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all. What does that mean? What does that look like?

rescueThe other day I heard Bishop Todd Hunter describe followers of Jesus as “God’s cosmic first-responders.” I really like that image. Those who follow Jesus are being formed in his virtues and trained in his vocation so that they can rush into the places of the world’s pain in order to bring God’s comfort, restoration and healing. This is what it means to be God’s blessing.

This is also a great image of Romans 8, which we have explored in previous posts. Like a set of Russian stacking dolls, God’s Spirit is in us and we are in the world. In this “middle position” suspended between heaven and earth (remember that Romans 8 is an image of the cross), we echo the world’s anguished groans with our own travail. And God’s Spirit groans within us with intercession. We become the place where heaven and earth meet. We become the place where the world’s anguished cries are shaped and transformed by the Spirit’s anguished intercession into real human prayer through us.

So what does this look like? I believe Paul’s imagery in Romans 8 finds real-world expression in his short letter to Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon, a partner in Paul’s ministry, about Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave who ran away from Philemon’s household. After his escape, he somehow meets Paul and is ultimately converted to follow Christ.

Paul stands between these two men, embodying God’s gospel of reconciliation. He brings together two men — master and slave —  and offers his own livelihood to cover any loss so that they might be reconciled and restored.

“So, anyway, if you reckon me a partner in your work, receive him as though he was me. And if he’s wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, put that down on my account. This is me, Paul, writing with my own hand: I’ll pay you back (and far be it from me to remind you that you owe me your own very self!).” -Philemon 17-19

This is Romans 8 in action — self-sacrifice in order to bring about healing, restoration and unity.

In fact, I would venture to say that unity among Christ’s followers is perhaps Paul’s greatest real-world expression of the Gospel. Unity is “proof” that the Gospel is real. Think about how much Paul talks about unity throughout his letters. It’s both a central theological and practical theme in all of his writings.

For example, Paul states in Colossians 1:27, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I believe the popular reading of this verse is misleading — Christ in me is the hope of my glory. Rather, the “you” is plural. And glory is God’s restorative reign on the earth, through his human image-bearers. So Colossians 1:27 is more likely to mean, “Christ in all of you in unified community is the hope of God’s full restorative and healing reign upon the creation, which will be through his unified image-bearers.” Simply put, Christ-indwelt unity among Jesus’ apprentices is the sign and hope of God’s fulfilled New Creation, which will ultimately be implemented through Jesus’ apprentices.

If that’s the case, then the Church’s role of being God’s blessing means to embed ourselves in the pain and anguish of disunity and division in an effort of embodying God’s love and reconciliation. Like an EMT specifically equipped to intervene in tragedy with life-giving care and skill, Jesus’ followers must be formed in theological imagination, character, and skills in order to help birth God’s New Creation from the pain of the old through love and reconciliation.

We’re not talking about a mushy “Can’t we all just get along?” bandaid approach. That won’t bring healing in the midst of abuse, racism, poverty, suspicion, entitlement, narcissism, consumerism and the many other forms of injustice that divide and enslave.

And if Paul’s example to Philemon provides any indication, the primary character and skill needed is sacrificial love — love for both parties that lays down one’s life and livelihood to help them reconcile.

I’m astounded at Paul’s approach with these men. He reminds them to follow Christ. He reminds them of his love for both of them. He reminds them of their value to each other. He reminds them that their relationship in Abraham’s family supersedes any societal relationships. And he offers himself as the bridge between both to make reconciliation impossible to ignore.

Sometimes Paul is critiqued by modern readers for not confronting societal injustice such as slavery or women’s rights. But in this letter, he is doing just that in a very subversive way. By encouraging Philemon to reconcile and receive Onesimus back as a brother rather than a slave, Paul is undermining the master-slave structure so central to Roman society. That’s because true unity and love in people’s lives have more Gospel power and transformation than shouting at a structural juggernaut.

So we need to ask ourselves, what is needed to bring understanding, love, care, compassion and unity to divided people and relationships? What is needed between those of different values, sexual orientation, political ideologies, religious beliefs, cultures and other polarizing factors?

Just from personal observations, our society seems more polarized than ever. Social media has become the monkey cage at the zoo, each person zealously flinging their own verbal poo at each other in an attempt to out-shout and out-shame those who disagree. Very few are willing to talk, listen and understand those who hold different values and beliefs.

But Jesus’ followers must be different. We must embed ourselves into real relationships. And with formed character and trained skill, we must work at bringing unity and reconciliation, whether between two people or two groups or two countries depending on one’s level of influence.

This is dirty and painful work. Remember, we’re embedded in a world that is groaning in travail. The world’s pain will be our pain and we will echo their groaning with our own. That’s part of the redemptive transformative work of the New Creation. Like Jesus’ New Creation work on the cross, we too will bear the world’s pain, anguish and wounds. The work of the cross will always bear the wounds of the cross. There’s no avoiding it.

New Creation Communities

waiting-with-candles-srgbOne of the consequences of the over-simplified biblical story is the distortion it creates regarding Christian community. If the story that is told and retold is “Jesus died so that God would forgive my sins so I can go to heaven when I die,” then the Christian community is virtually stripped of its true biblical purpose. The simplified story only addresses conversion and after-life, leaving an “awkward middle” between baptism and grave.

When paired with our consumerist and narcissistic culture, Christians become “consumers of religious goods,” to borrow a popular phrase from Dallas Willard. And our local churches quickly alter their true purpose to fulfill the perceived need.

When I left professional ministry in 2003, I wrote a rather scathing and non-nuanced critique of this phenomenon called “Detoxing from church.” While I would probably say things differently today, I still believe the critique stands. The shrunken popular story contributes to the average Christian viewing the local church as they would a supermarket or restaurant — shopping for programs and services that “meet their needs.”

In contrast the full biblical story as we have been exploring compels Christians to form communities as we see in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus has faithfully fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and thereby rescuing the nations into the renewed Abrahamic family and their vocation as God’s royal priests within his inaugurated New Creation. The early Christians understood that through Jesus, God had rescued them into a family and that family’s business. They were part of a community with a vocational purpose.

The local church is to be a colony of God’s New Creation. Remember that Paul states in 2Cor 5:17 that if anyone is in the Messiah, that person is the New Creation. So the local church’s members share their lives — the meaning of koinonia or “fellowship” — as both the benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation in the world. They live together with the singular purpose of LEARNING to be like Christ in order to actually BE Christ together in community and in the world.

This purpose should then shape the church’s practices. The local church should be a community of worship, key to the biblical human vocation of God’s image-bearers. It should be a community of sacrament, experiencing God’s presence and grace in special ways. It should be a community of apprenticeship to Jesus, learning from him how to be like him in both virtue and vocation. It should be a community of vision, telling and retelling the biblical story so that the community is continually renewed in this counter-cultural vision of God’s kingdom. It should be a community of unity, where all human sociological boundaries are eclipsed by membership in God’s covenantal family. It should be a community trained to rush into the places of the world’s pain as both the prayer and presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

And all of the church’s practices should be in the life and power of the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ presence in every individual member of the community. The Spirit is the animating force of all the church’s work toward God’s New Creation.

The natural outflowing of the local community’s life should be a community of royal priests, bearing God’s image into the world for the sake of the world. This outflowing of the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all.

Slowing Down

I look forward to my weekends. And for me, this photo summarizes one of the reasons why. On Saturdays and Sundays mornings, I try to make time to walk and take photos. Like everyone, all week I’m rushing and working. But for an hour or so on the weekends, I slow down, look around, and try to see things I normally wouldn’t notice.

This photo is an example. As I walked through a local park I saw a discarded softball in an empty field, a leftover abandoned after a team practice. I don’t know how long it lay there or who else noticed it. But there was something tranquil and poignant about this scene. So I kneeled down on the red dirt and snapped a couple of images.

The next morning, a softball team was practicing on the field. The ball was gone, probably thrown into a trashcan, forever forgotten. But life moved onward.

I get it. It’s just a softball. But this photo reminds me that I had the privilege of seeing a small part of God’s creation in a way that maybe no one else on this planet did. And I just didn’t see it. I got to get my knees dirty and enter and engage that special moment in order to capture it, to memorialize it.

I think part of our role as God’s image-bearers is to notice. We have to first notice in order to care, love and bless.

Dallas Willard once said, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life, for hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our world today.” It’s almost impossible to be God’s image-bearers without noticing. And it’s almost impossible to notice without removing hurry from our lives.

Photography reminds me to slow down and look. It reminds me that there is far more to life than my worries, my struggles, my dreams, my agenda. There are moments and lives into which I can enter if only I slow down and notice.

New Creation Wounds

hands-bw-srgbOur vocation as God’s renewed people is to embody Christ’s covenantal-faithfulness for the sake of the wider world. Jesus’ crucifixion is the ultimate revelation of that faithfulness — fully loving God and fully loving people through sacrifice. Jesus’ cross and resurrection launched the New Creation. Therefore, Jesus’ cross becomes the pattern for our New Creation lives.

But what does that look like? Romans 8 offers us a mysterious, yet crucial answer. Here is the basic flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 8.

As people who are enlivened and led by God’s Spirit, we are adopted as God’s children. Being God’s children was Israel’s vocation. So Paul is saying we are now part of Abraham’s renewed family entrusted with their renewed vocation. As God’s children, we are co-heirs with Christ. This inheritance is our vocation. It is to share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may share in his glory, which is his renewing and restorative reign over God’s world as the true image-bearer, the true human being.

We are adopted into Abraham’s renewed family as God’s children in order that we may share in Christ’s vocation — creation’s renewal through Christ’s and our suffering and his and our consequent glory and reign.

Creation waits for its liberation as the New Creation, groaning with labor pains. Within groaning creation, the children of God live and groan as well. And within God’s children, God’s Spirit — given as the firstfruits of their glory and reign — intercedes with groans. Creation groans. God’s children groans within creation. God’s Spirit groans within God’s children.

This is the core commission of Abraham’s renewed family as God’s royal priesthood — living in the midst of the world’s pain, suffering and groaning with the world, and transforming it into prayer that is in sync with the Spirit’s own groaning.

The image of Romans 8 is the cross. But rather than Jesus being on the cross, Paul is depicting God’s people on the cross, suspended in the groaning world, ourselves groaning and the Spirit groaning within us. All for the sake and renewal of God’s world.

And here’s the clincher:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

In all things, especially through our groaning, suffering and pain, God is working for the good of those who love him. We are being conformed into the image of his Son, living cross-shaped New Creation lives, knowing that the ultimate goal is to be glorified — sharing in Christ’s renewing and restorative reign over God’s creation.

In other words, we — who are adopted into Abraham’s family, who are enlivened and led by the Spirit, and who are patterning our lives after Christ’s covenantal-faithfulness through sacrificial love to God and others — are the umbilical between the groaning world and the groaning Spirit. The New Creation is birthed from this creation as we join groaning creation with the groaning Spirit through our own suffering and groaning.

As revealed on the cross, New Creation is birthed through suffering and sacrificial love. So the answer to Jesus’ prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” required the wounds of the cross. Likewise, as we take up our cross and become the living laboring link between the world around us and the Spirit in us, we will be wounded in order that God’s New Creation may be birthed.

So, What’s The Point?

bookstore“What would be the good of learning without love — it would puff us up. And love without learning — it would go astray.” -St Bernard of Clairvaux

So why spend the last several posts exploring the biblical story in contrast to the popular story? Regardless of the theological details, isn’t the bottom-line of either story to “love God and love people”?

Let’s imagine you wanted to travel from New York to Los Angeles via plane. Wouldn’t you expect the pilot to make necessary in-flight course corrections in order to keep the plane on course? In a similar way, we need to tell and retell the biblical story to avoid “drift” in our lives.

Or even more drastic, what if you boarded a plane heading in a similar direction but bound for a completely different destination than expected? What if you thought you were flying from New York to Los Angeles only to discover that you were actually heading to Las Vegas. You would be flying in the same direction but would fall short of your intended destination by a few hundred miles.

This was my experience almost 20 years ago when I realized the popular version of Christianity that I embraced was forming me into a person far short of the biblical vision of humanness.

So let’s look at a quick summary of both stories. First the popular, yet distorted version:

“Jesus died for my sins and gave me his righteousness so I can go to heaven when I die.”

Now the fuller biblical version:

“Jesus lived and died to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel in order to rescue humanity from enslavement to idolatry and sin and restore us back to our vocation as God’s image-bearers within God’s renewed creation that launched at Jesus’ resurrection and will be ultimately completed at his appearing.”

If you live by the first story, you will miss the second story. But if you live by the second story, then you will get most of the first story as well. That’s because the first story shrinks the actual biblical story and only highlights certain aspects.

shrinkRemember, shrinky-dinks? They were plastic art pieces that one would color and then bake in the oven. They would shrink as they baked and their colors would become more vibrant in the process. That’s what the popular version of the biblical story does. It colors certain parts of the story while ignoring others and then shrinks so the highlighted parts become more emphasized, thus distorting the actual story.

So from a very general perspective, the goal of both stories is to “love God and love people.” But the actual biblical story provides the proper context and definition.

In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus has a conversation with one of the teachers of the law. Asked by the teacher “Of all of the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replies:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus “is this: ‘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 mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is not simplifying or abstracting Israel’s ethical code to “just love God and love people so you’ll be okay with God.” Rather, Jesus is summarizing with pinpoint accuracy the covenant God made with Abraham. This is Israel’s vocation in a concentrated amplified form. This is how Israel was to be faithful to the covenant for the sake of the world. If one would worship God with every aspect of human life, pouring everything into glad worship of God and if one would love his or her neighbor with the same respect, care and devotion we show ourselves, then heaven would come to earth!

Jesus condenses the entire Abrahamic covenant, Israel’s vocation as God’s royal priesthood, into a dual-edged purpose that would actually merge heaven and earth.

If we want an example of what this kind of “love” looks like, then we need to look at the cross. For on the cross, Jesus, as Israel’s human representative king, did for Israel what Israel couldn’t do. He fully loved God and fully loved his neighbor as THE Faithful Israelite. He fulfilled Israel’s covenant with God and died in Israel’s place so that they would be rescued and renewed. And through the fulfilled covenant, the rest of the nations and ultimately all of creation would be rescued and renewed.

And on the cross we see Israel’s God, embodied as a human, expressing his full love and faithfulness to his covenant to Abraham and his family. He is faithful despite their unfaithfulness and rescues and renews them so he can rescue and renew the nations and the creation he so loves.

On the cross we see:

The true Image-Bearer

The true Royal Priest

The true King of Israel

Israel being faithful to their covenant with God

God being faithful to his covenant with Israel

The forgiveness of sins

The end of exile

The redemption from idolatry

The vanquishing of evil

The trampling of death

Creation reborn

Humanity is now restored to its original vocation by being received into Abraham’s family and thus God’s fulfilled covenant with Abraham. We are now part of Abraham’s renewed family. As such, we are God’s royal priesthood. We are God’s true image-bearers. We are truly human. We are both benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation. Our vocation is now to follow Jesus into his virtue and vocation — into his faithfulness to the covenant. We are people in whom God is at work according to the pattern of the Messiah for the sake of the wider world. We are learning to live and love like Christ, so we too can embody the covenant-faithfulness of God. To borrow imagery from Revelation, we follow the Lion of Judah (Israel’s and thus the world’s True King) who is also the slain lamb (patterning our lives after his sacrificial life).

In this light, Jesus’ statement, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” is actually about our vocation more than self-denial. His cross is the pattern for our New Creation lives.

Every act of loving God and loving people that embodies Christ’s love as revealed on the cross builds the material through which God will ultimately fashion his New Creation at Jesus’ ultimate appearing. We are like vegetation that merges the carbon dioxide of this creation and the chlorophyll of Christ’s love, transforming it into the oxygen that God will use as the very atmosphere for his New Creation.

This is why after a lengthy discussion of the resurrection, which is the inaugural moment of God’s New Creation, Paul encourages us with, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Shrinky Dinks image from midwesternmoms.com

Understanding The “Forgiveness Of Sins”

flowers-through-a-fenceIn light of last week’s post, how do we understand “forgiveness of sins”? Jesus says in Matthew 26, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

This is a prime example of the importance of reading an ancient text from the original audience’s context.

In popular Christian parlance, “forgiveness of sins” usually refers to the personal experience an individual has when one repents and asks God’s forgiveness for wicked deeds committed or good deeds omitted. The modern understanding of “forgiveness of sins” is primarily about one’s personal morality and relationship with God.

Within the biblical narrative, “forgiveness of sins” includes this aspect, but is far, far more.

First, “forgiveness of sins” has a primarily Jewish dimension. God’s covenant with Israel warned that idolatry and sin would eventually lead to their exile from the Land he had given them. Israel’s continued idolatry and sin lead to an invasion by Assyria and the northern Kingdom of Israel being led away into captivity by 722 BC. Around 586 BC, Babylon invaded the Kingdom of Judah, destroying the Temple and leading the rest of Israel away into captivity. Like Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden, Israel is exiled from their Land and Temple.

A generation later, a small remnant returns to the Land and eventually rebuilds the Temple. But God’s glory never returns to the Temple as promised and Israel remains under foreign domination. By the time of Jesus, most Jews understood that while they had physically returned to their land, they were still in exile.

God’s covenant with Israel clearly expressed that exile was the result of Israel’s sins. So the return from exile would be God’s “forgiveness of sins.” This phrase virtually became a technical term for Israel’s return from exile. The phrase meant God’s faithfulness to his covenant as he would restore Israel by forgiving their national sins, driving out their foreign oppressors, and returning personally to their Temple. This is how Jesus’ audience heard the phrase.

Second, “forgiveness of sins” has a global dimension. Within God’s covenant with Israel, Israel’s vocation was to be God’s royal priesthood. Through this amplified and restorative version of humanity’s vocation as God’s image-bearer, Israel was to ultimately undo Adam’s sins and rescue the nations from their enslavement to idolatry. So with Israel’s restoration, the “forgiveness of sins” also has a global dimension as the nations are now free to turn from their idolatry, turn to Israel’s God, and be included in God’s restored people. As Psalm 47:9 states, “The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.”

It is within this Israel-centric and global understanding that “forgiveness of sins” has a personal dimension. Because God has forgiven Israel and therefore forgiven humanity, we may now experience God’s forgiveness of our personal sins. That means Jesus has rescued you and me from our idolatry and sins that continue to enslave and dehumanize us. Jesus has rescued you and me back to our vocation as God’s image-bearers. Our enslavement and exile are over so we may turn from our idolatry and sins and serve the living God as his royal priests in his New Creation.

All of this and more are contained in the phrase “forgiveness of sins.” I’m going to quote heavily from N.T. Wright’s book, The Day The Revolution Began, since he says it far better than I could:

“The larger reality is that something has happened within the actual space, time, and matter, as a result of which everything is different. By six o’clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically. Heaven and earth were brought together, creating the cosmic ‘new temple’: ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah’ (2Cor 5:19)…

“Within that new reality, the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name of a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailer has already been overpowered. As Paul said, if the Messiah is not raised, ‘your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins’ (1Cor 15:17).

“‘Forgiveness of sins,’ for the first disciples, was now to be seen as a fact about the way the world was, a fact rooted in the one-off accomplishment of Jesus’ death, then revealed in his resurrection, and then put to work through the Spirit in the transformed lives of his followers. Forgiveness of sins became another way of saying ‘Passover’ or ‘new Exodus.’ Or, as in Isaiah 54-55, following hard on the heels of the kingdom announcement of chapter 52 and the ‘servant’s’ work in chapter 53, it would come to mean ‘new covenant’ and ‘new creation.’ The gospel was the announcement of this new reality.”

Wright continues to say that this new reality, was designed to find its ultimate fulfillment in the imminent new creation, the new heavens and new earth in which Ephesians 1:10 describes as God’s plan to unite all things in the Messiah, things in heaven and on earth. He then continues:

“The final scene in Revelation (chaps. 21–22) spells it out: the new heavens and new earth function as the ultimate Temple, the new world in which God will wipe away all tears from all eyes. First Corinthians 15 describes the accomplishment of this final reality under the image of the messianic battle: Jesus, having already conquered sin and death, will reign until these and all other enemies are totally destroyed. Romans 8 describes it as the birth of the new creation from the womb of the old, weaving into that great metaphor a powerful allusion to the events of the Exodus, so that creation itself will have its own ‘Exodus’ at last, being set free from its slavery to corruption and sharing the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified. That is the ultimate hope.

“All of this is the ‘goal’ of God’s rescue operation accomplished through Jesus. All of this is in direct fulfillment of the ancient hopes of Israel: it is all ‘according to the Bible’—though it was quite unexpected.”

So while forgiveness of sin has an extremely important personal dimension, it is wrapped up in a new reality that is deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Israel and transforms the cosmos. And thus our personal lives are swept up into the God’s larger story and purpose for his creation.

Biblical Soteriology-Our Vocation Restored

one-dayBiblical soteriology is a huge topic, one that we cannot begin to fully address in a single post. Suffice it to say, it is utterly essential that we keep the entire biblical narrative in mind when studying soteriology. As we’ve addressed in previous posts, when extracted from the biblical narrative, and especially from Israel’s story within that narrative, salvation becomes terribly distorted.

We must keep in mind that Jesus is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. This is key — God’s only plan to put the world right is to do so through Abraham and his family. God called Abraham to reverse Adam’s sin and all of its effects. Abraham and his family were to undo the problem of Adam and therefore the problem of evil within the world. They would do this by being God’s royal priesthood, an amplified version of humanity’s vocation as his image-bearers.

Even though Israel fails in their vocation and is unfaithful to the covenant, God remains faithful to his covenant. Through Jesus, God rescues Israel, through which the rest of the world would also be rescued. This is why Paul says in Romans 1:16 that salvation comes “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” Jesus is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and then as a result, rescuing the world.

But Jesus is also Israel’s faithfulness to God. Jesus is Israel’s King, their Messiah, their representative. While Israel as a nation had failed, Jesus as Israel’s representative King was completely faithful to the covenant. He was THE faithful Israelite. So when he proclaimed on the cross, “It is finished!” he was declaring that Israel’s long story was finally fulfilled and completed. Through Jesus, God was faithful to Israel and through Jesus, Israel was faithful to God.

God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel climaxes with rescuing Israel from their exile. In turn through Israel, God was now blessing the nations by rescuing humanity from their exile and allowing all to enter into Abraham’s family. As Paul states in Galatians 3:29, “If you belong to Christ (Israel’s King), then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”

All of this, and more, are essential to understanding God’s salvation for us as part of the true biblical story. Remember, in Genesis 1 and 2 God created this world to be his temple in which he would dwell and flood with his glory. He created humans as his image-bearers — reflecting worship to him and reflecting his wise care and rule into the world. But humans rejected this vocation. Thus, the primary human failure is a failure of worship. Humans began worshipping aspects of the created world rather than God. This “feedback loop” of idolatry gave the power and authority of our God-given vocation to those created forces.

Because image-bearing is our very humanness, idolatry causes our humanness to unravel. Sin, then, is the ongoing dehumanizing process in which we try to live within and benefit from this corrupted environment. But our sins only enslave us further to these forces. Idolatry and sin lead to subhuman and eventually nonhuman existence, which the Bible calls death.

As discussed in previous posts, God’s ultimate goal for his creation is the New Creation. This is the renewal and merging of heaven and earth into his ultimate temple, which he would flood with his glory and presence. And within his New Creation, humans would once again be God’s image, his royal priesthood, through whom he would run the world.

Jesus’ death, as the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Abraham, accomplishes all of this! His death completely defeats all of the dark forces, sin and evil that enslaved Israel and humanity. Free from its enslavement and exile, humanity is restored back to its vocation! This is our salvation! John declares in Revelation 1:5-6 that Jesus “has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father” (cf Rev 5:9-10). And Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates God’s New Creation in which we may now serve.

Unlike Jesus, who fully embodied God’s New Creation in human form, God’s New Creation in the world as well as our renewed vocation have been inaugurated, but are not fully completed. We must learn to embody God’s image. Since Jesus fully embodied God’s New Creation, he was the true Royal Priest and Image-Bearer. Therefore, our salvation is an ongoing process, a journey of growth into Jesus’ likeness — into his virtue and vocation. By worshipping him, following him and learning from him, we may grow into and ultimately embody his character and ministry.

Both virtue and vocation are key. Our vocation as image-bearers relies upon our growth into Jesus’ virtues. The virtues are the load-bearing character-strength necessary to engage in and sustain the image-bearing vocation. God has revealed himself as a self-giving, sacrificial, loving God. As his royal priests, we cannot adequately reflect this into the world in a renewing and transforming way without actually embodying it.

I view the interrelation between virtue and vocation in the following way: Imagine heaven and earth as two pieces of fabric. The healing and transforming image-bearing vocation is to stitch heaven and earth together within the areas of our influence in the world. The thread that binds together these two aspects of creation, as revealed and embodied by Jesus upon the cross, is self-giving, sacrificial love. Our lives are the needle that winds this thread through the two realms of heaven and earth and brings them together. Learning from Jesus how to embody his virtues is what sharpens and strengthens the needle of our lives so it can adequately stitch heaven and earth together.

Thus our salvation is continually growing into Christ’s likeness — his virtue and vocation as image-bearers and royal priests in God’s New Creation — so we can worship him and reflect his sacrificial, self-giving love in all we do.

Biblical Anthropology-Our Human Vocation

In “The Day the Revolution Began,” NT Wright states:

“In most popular Christianity, ‘heaven’ (and ‘fellowship with God’ in the present) is the goal, and ‘sin’ (bad behavior, deserving punishment) is the problem. A Platonized goal and a moralizing diagnosis—and together they lead, as I have been suggesting, to a paganized ‘solution’ in which an angry divinity is pacified by human sacrifice.”

In the previous post, we looked at how the biblical goal is not “heaven” but God’s New Creation, where the two current dimensions of heaven and earth are fully renewed, joined and filled with God’s presence. Creation was intended to be God’s Temple, the place where he dwells and heaven and earth are merged. The New Creation is the ultimate goal of God’s purpose for his creation.

Within his creation, his temple, God fashioned men and women to be his image-bearers. We are to be the living embodiment where heaven and earth interact. Image-bearing is a royal priestly duty of reflecting the world’s worship to God (priestly duty) and God’s order and care to the world (royal duty). As such, image-bearing is to serve, protect and expand “sacred space” throughout the world. Fr Thomas Hopko states:

“As the image of God, ruler over creation and co-creator with the Uncreated Maker, man has the task to “reflect” God in creation; to make His presence, His will and His powers spread throughout the universe; to transform all that exists into the paradise of God.” -Fr Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Vol 1 – Doctrine and Scripture

Only through worship of God are humans able to bring God’s care and order to his world. Humanity’s failure then is the failure at this vocation, namely idolatry. Rather than reflecting worship to God, humans reflect worship back upon creation and then become enslaved to the created forces they worship. Sin is the result as enslaved humans attempt to live and prosper within this corrupted and distorted reality. Sin then produces injustice, introducing further distortion and corruption into creation.

All of this leads to the deconstruction of one’s humanness. Humans are humans only as they are God’s image-bearers. When a human stops bearing God’s image through idolatry and the subsequent sin and injustice, they undergo the process of becoming non-human. So while there is a moral dimension to humanity’s failure, the moral failure is symptomatic of a greater failure, the failure of vocation.

This is Paul’s diagnosis in Romans 1:18-25, which he summarizes in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” His word choice  for “sinned” means “to miss the mark.” All have missed the mark and fallen short of God’s glory, which is genuine humanness as his image-bearers. Paul’s diagnosis, while containing a moral dimension, is primarily vocational. In other words, humanity’s moral problem (idolatry and the consequential sins) is wrapped up in our larger vocational problem (failure to be God’s image-bearers).

youre-so-negativeThis stands in stark contrast to the popular version of biblical anthropology. In this version, God tells humans to keep a moral code (don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil). Humans fail morally and are punished with death.

In this story, Israel repeats this failure. They are given a moral code, the Law, but fail at keeping it. As a result of their moral failure, humans are destined for death and hell. However, Jesus is able to obey the moral law perfectly. Therefore, his death pays the penalty for the rest of humankind. Now Jesus’ moral righteousness is imputed to any who believe in him.

Contrary to this popular version, humans are created to live within God’s heaven-and-earth creation as worshipping stewards, image-bearers, a royal priesthood. New Testament passages such as 1Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:5-6, Revelation 5:9-10, and Revelation 20:6 press this point.

Paul also addresses this biblical anthropology in his own life and ministry. In 2Corinthians 5:18-21, Paul states that Jesus’ death has restored the human vocation, which he eagerly embraces and embodies through the “ministry of reconciliation.” This ministry is the royal priesthood in action.

This vocational focus helps us understand large portions of the New Testament that has been popularly viewed as moral or ethical teachings. Again, while there is a moral dimension, the primary focus is vocation.

For example, Paul states in 1Timothy 6:11-16:

“But you belong to God, so you must run away from all this. Instead, chase after justice, godliness, faith, love, patience and gentleness. Fight the noble fight of the faith, get a firm grasp on the life of the coming age, the life you were called to when you made the noble public profession before many witnesses. I give you this charge before God, who gives life to all things, and King Jesus, who made the noble profession before Pontius Pilate: be undefiled and blameless as you keep the commandment, until the royal appearing of our Lord King Jesus, which the blessed and only Sovereign One, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at its proper time. He is the only one who possesses immortality; he lives in unapproachable light; no human being has seen him, or can see him. To him be eternal honor and power, Amen!”

Or 2Peter 1:3-8:

“God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. The result is that he has given us, through these things, his precious and wonderful promises; and the purpose of all this is so that you may run away from the corruption of lust that is in the world, and may become partakers of the divine nature. So, because of this, you should strain every nerve to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge, and your knowledge with self-control, and your self-control with patience, and your patience with piety, and your piety with family affection, and your family affection with love. If you have these things in plentiful supply, you see, you will not be wasting your time, or failing to bear fruit, in relation to your know ledge of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

Such passages seem to focus on “ethics.” But, rather, they are addressing our vocation as royal priests, the living embodiment of heaven-and-earth interaction. The point of passages like these  is not simply to learn to be good and moral people since Jesus has forgiven our sins. Transformed character matters not as an end to itself, but because it’s required to reflect God into the world. So “ethical” passages exhort us to prepare for and engage in one’s vocation as the royal priesthood in service to Jesus the King.

Our restored human vocation is to be formed into Christ’s likeness so we can live our lives as though Christ were living our life. Jesus is the true Image-bearer and the true Royal Priest. So we learn and train into his likeness — his character and power — so we can reflect God into our world as he did through beauty, justice, compassion, reconciliation and healing.

This is why we were created and, as we’ll see next time, this is why Jesus died.

Biblical Eschatology – Our World Renewed

blessing-of-the-watersPerhaps one of the life-altering discoveries I encountered in biblical theology is in eschatology, or the study of “last things.” For years I accepted the popular version of Christian eschatology — Jesus’ followers would go to heaven when they died or when he raptured them to heaven while God would punish the rebellious and destroy the physical world.

In other words, in the popular version of Christian eschatology, the ultimate hope was a place away from this world called heaven.

However, Jesus summarizes the biblical eschatology in the Lord’s prayer — Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the Bible, heaven is not a future destiny, but the other hidden dimension of our current ordinary life. So in biblical eschatology, God will renew both dimensions of heaven and earth and fully join them together as the New Creation.

So, true biblical eschatology is in this world, not away from it. Simply put, true biblical eschatology is the New Creation, the renewed heaven and earth that were launched by Jesus at his resurrection, implemented in the present by his followers and fully established at his appearing in the future. At Jesus’ appearing, the same power that resurrected and transformed his physical body will do the same for ours as well as all of creation. And within this New Creation, Jesus’ followers will physically live and serve as God’s royal priesthood. For the New Creation, this world renewed, is the place where heaven and earth are joined — God’s Temple.

This biblical eschatology is a major theme begun in Genesis and continuing through to the last chapters of Revelation.

The first chapter of Genesis describes God fashioning the material world into his temple, a place in which he dwells and where the two dimensions of heaven and earth merge. Within this “cosmic” temple, God creates humans as his image, to be the points where the two dimensions of heaven and earth interacted.

Despite humanity’s failure in their vocation, God continues his project of fashioning this world to be his temple. After calling Israel, he gifts them with the tabernacle (and subsequently the temple). The tabernacle was a mini version of what creation is to be. God dwells upon the mercy seat, the place where heaven and earth merge. And Israel is called to be God’s royal priesthood, a nation commissioned with an amplified image-bearing vocation.

Ultimately, Israel fails in their vocation, God’s presence leaves the temple and Israel is exiled from their land. Later a remnant of Israel eventually returns to the land and rebuilds the temple. But God’s presence never returns.

Generations later, Jesus begins his ministry as Israel’s Messiah, their king. He realizes that his vocation is to replace the temple. He is the embodiment of God. He is the place where heaven and earth merge.

Jesus trains his followers to be living embodiments of the temple. He teaches them to pray and live their lives as the place where heave and earth interact — where God’s name is hallowed, God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is the climactic moment in history where God’s New Creation is launched in the midst of this present creation.

The Book of Acts documents Jesus’ followers as they learn to be the royal priesthood in God’s inaugurated New Creation. They create communities where heaven and earth merge through their worship and witness.

God’s New Creation is a constant theme in Paul’s writings. He declares in Ephesians 1:10 that God’s purpose is to sum up all things in Christ, things both in heaven and on earth. In Philippians 3:20-21, he states that we await a Savior from heaven, who will come to earth to transform his people. In 1Corinthians 15:28, Paul declares the ultimate goal is that God will be “all in all.” He also states in Galatians 6:15 that the New Creation trumps the now-irrelevant discussion of ethnic boundary markers.

Finally, Revelation 21 and 22 depict the ultimate Christian hope as the New Creation that began at Jesus resurrection is fully and finally completed. Heaven and earth are renewed. The New Jerusalem, which is the Church, links together the dimensions of heaven and earth. Absent in the New Creation is a physical temple, for the New Creation is God’s Temple as he fully dwells within this renewed world. And God’s people continue their vocation as the royal priesthood, God’s image-bearers, taking God’s life and healing to the nations.

An Attempt At Summarizing The Biblical Story

church-windowLast time, I likened understanding the Bible’s story to piecing together a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. In order to properly assemble the puzzle, we need to work from the correct image on the puzzle’s box cover.

Here’s my attempt at providing the correct box cover from which we can assemble the multitudinous pieces of the biblical story arching Genesis to Revelation:

God designed the world to function as his “cosmic” temple, a place where the two dimensions of creation — heaven and earth — would merge and interact. Into this temple, God created mortal human beings, tasked with the vocation of bearing his image — reflecting the world’s worship to God and reflecting God’s loving care and order into the world. Through his image-bearers, God would reign within his cosmic temple for the sake and care of the temple’s inhabitants.

God placed Adam and Eve within a sacred space, the place where God interacted with them. The image-bearing vocation was to serve and protect this sacred space, so that its order would ultimately expand into all the earth.

Unfortunately, humanity failed in their vocation. They relinquished their vocation through idolatry, turning their worship of and dependence on God toward creation. By doing so, they handed over the power and authority of their vocation to forces within creation, enslaving themselves to these forces. The consequence of their vocational breach was exile from the sacred space. As humanity lived enslaved to idolatry, sin and disorder filled their lives and their world, corrupting and devolving their own humanity and creation.

In order to rescue his creation, God calls Abraham into a covenant of vocation. The purpose of the covenant was so that through Abraham’s family God would rescue humans and then through humans God would rescue creation. Through Abraham, God would undo what Adam had done. Israel was blessed with an unique covenant of vocation to be God’s royal priesthood — an amplified version of humanity’s image-bearing vocation. As part of this covenant, God gifted Israel with the Law, guiding people and society to become the royal priesthood. God also gifted Israel with the tabernacle/Temple, which was a microcosm of the cosmic temple — the actual place where God dwelt and heaven and earth merged. Within this tabernacle was the mercy seat, the sacred space where God would interact with his royal priesthood. God also gifted Israel with the Land, a base of operations where the royal priesthood would grow and from which God’s presence and life, similar to the original Garden, would expand to the nations. God’s life within the land would ultimately be the remedy to the death resulting from humanity’s expulsion from the Garden. Through his royal priesthood, God would rescue the rest of humanity, bringing them into Abraham’s family and thus Abraham’s covenant and vocation. Then through this restored Jew-plus-Gentile humanity God would rescue creation and ultimately come to renew and reign within his cosmic temple. As part of his covenant of vocation, God encourages Israel to choose life over death, warning them that sin would ultimately result in exile.

Israel grew and experienced its heyday under King David. King David intended to build God a permanent house, a Temple. But in a remarkable switch, God tells David that rather than David building a house for God, God would build a house for David through one of his royal descendants, who God would call his son.

Unfortunately, Israel falls into the same plight as humanity and fails as God’s rescue party. Their story parallels humanity’s original story. They breach their vocation as God’s royal priesthood through idolatry and become enslaved to dark forces. Enslaved, Israel devolves into further sin, ultimately resulting in exile from their Land and Temple. Israel’s idolatry and exile radically deepen the human plight as the rescuers now also need rescuing.

Decades later, a remnant returns to the Land and rebuilds the Temple. But God’s presence never returns to his Temple. And Israel remains oppressed under a series of foreign powers. The Old Testament ends with a dark shadow hanging over Israel.

By Jesus’ time, Israel was longing for their Messiah, the promised King from David’s lineage. They believed this mighty King of Israel would valiantly drive the foreign oppressors from the Land, return God’s presence to the Temple, and establish Israel as a great nation once again. These accomplishments would mean that Israel’s sins were forgiven and their exile had ended and that Israel’s God had been fully established as King. When all this happened, this corrupt old age would end and God’s New Creation, where heaven and earth are finally renewed and merge, would begin with the inaugural event of the resurrection of God’s faithful.

As Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins, backed by the powerful signs and wonders of healing and restoration, it seemed Israel’s Messiah had finally come. But enslaved to idolatry, Israel continued turning their vocation inward upon themselves. Their expectation of God’s presence, the end of exile and the coming of God’s Kingdom was perceived to make them great again over and above the other nations. God would rule the world as Israel would rule over the nations.

So where Israel expected Jesus to confront the Roman oppressors, Jesus knew he had to confront the dark enslaving powers behind all of humanity — n0t only behind oppressive Rome but also behind misguided Israel. But he would do so in a startling twist from Israel’s nationalistic expectations. Jesus understood from Israel’s scriptures that the end of Israel’s exile and ultimately humanity’s exile (i.e. the forgiveness of sins) must be accomplished by means of suffering, sacrificial love and death. This was ultimately Israel’s vocation and calling. So as Israel’s representative King, Jesus knew it was his vocation on behalf of his nation. So everything Jesus did was to call and convince Israel to repent of their nationalistic agenda and to follow him as their Representative king back to Israel’s true vocation to bless the nations. After Jesus’ initial accomplishment, Israel and those who would ultimately join Abraham’s family from among the nations would continue to implement this vocation in the same manner.

Jesus was the true embodiment of Israel, the true Royal Priest, who would suffer and die as Israel’s representative in order to rescue them and the rest of humanity they were commissioned with rescuing. And being the embodiment of Israel, which in turn represented humanity, Jesus was the true embodiment of humanity, the true Image-Bearer. But Jesus was also something much more. He was not only the fulfillment of Israel’s story, but also the fulfillment of God’s faithfulness to his covenant. Jesus was also the true embodiment of Israel’s God, able to do what only Israel’s God could do!

Jesus, the embodiment of humanity, the embodiment of Israel and the embodiment of Israel’s God, walks the lonely road to his death in order to confront all the dark powers enslaving God’s creation and all the evil and sin they can amass. In that darkest moment, we see God’s love shining forth brighter than a thousand suns. And they kill him.

And at 6pm on that day, as Jesus’ corpse hung on the cross, the world would never be the same. Just before dying, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.” He knew that with his death, Israel’s story was finally fulfilled. Israel’s and humanity’s exile had finally ended. The enslaving dark forces were defeated. Humanity could step out of its idolatry, sin, exile, and death and into their renewed image-bearing vocation, communion with God, and life.

Exile was over. God was finally established as King.

So the next logical step would be the end of this present age and the beginning of God’s New Creation, starting with the resurrection of God’s faithful Israel. And three days later, another startling twist occurs. God launches his New Creation with the resurrection of THE Faithful Israelite. But what was expected to have happened fully at the end of this present age to all of God’s faithful, occurs partially within this present age to God’s Faithful One.

Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates God’s New Creation in the midst of this present age. Forty days later, Jesus returns to the hidden dimension of heaven in his earthly body. Ten days later, God’s Spirit comes from the dimension of heaven to powerfully fill the earthly bodies of Jesus’ followers. And the renewed vocation of merging heaven and earth begins! Paul declares that those who are in the Messiah, are the New Creation!

What Jesus inaugurated, his followers are to now implement as the renewed image-bearers and royal priesthood within God’s cosmic temple.

Revelation declares that Jesus “has freed us from our sins by his blood [ended our enslavement and exile] and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father [renewed our vocation].” -Rev 1:5-6

Peter links our renewed vocation with the covenant of vocation God created with Israel, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” – 1Pet 2:9

And the final chapters of Revelation depict the hope and goal to which the entire biblical story has been moving — heaven and earth are renewed and merged, God fills and dwells within his New Creation, and God’s people reign and serve as God’s royal priesthood in his new world.

From this summary, we can now begin reassembling the pieces that the popular version of the story has tweaked — eschatology, anthropology and soteriology.

Piecing Together The Story

img_0472I ended my last post by stating that the consequence of the three-layered mistake outlined by NT Wright — a Platonized eschatology, a moralized anthropology and a paganized soteriology — is that we live in a distorted story that seems to be supported by portions of Scripture, but that is actually not the biblical story at all.

Understanding the Bible’s overarching narrative and its details is similar to assembling a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It can be a daunting task for most people. Inside the box are hundreds of small pieces, all seemingly interrelated, yet frustratingly disconnected.

The common strategy most of us use is first to spread out all the pieces on the table. That’s a good start. If we only worked with 25-30 pieces at a time, we would never move forward. So putting the entire mess before us is good.

Next, we usually gather up all of the “edge” pieces we can find to assemble the border. Again, that’s a good move since it’s fairly simple. Having a border gives us some context upon which to assemble the remaining puzzle.

Then using the photo on the box, we try to gather related pieces by color, texture or transition. One pile of pieces seem to depict the roof of a house. Another group resembles the flowers in the garden. Another pile are pieces to the clouds.

But what happens if someone has accidentally replaced the box cover with a similar-looking, yet altogether different box cover? Look at these two similar box covers for jigsaw puzzles:

puzzle-boxes

In this analogy, the puzzle’s box cover is the story we tell and retell. And the actual puzzle pieces are the details to that story. But when we attempt to assemble the detailed puzzle pieces based on a similar-looking yet completely different box cover, we end up with a frustrating mess. We try to jam pieces together that shouldn’t be together. Or we may assemble small portions of the puzzle, but try placing them in the wrong sections of the overall puzzle, misled by the wrong box cover. Or we simply ignore pieces that just don’t seem to fit the picture with which we’re working.

We can usually tell when we or someone else is not living in the correct biblical story. Years ago, this happened to me as I realized that I had to ignore portions of Scripture or extract certain passages from their original context to support my version of the biblical story. At that time, I remember coming to the realization that my version of Christianity was foreign to what the Church of the first several centuries had believed and practiced.

So I began a long journey of trying to understand the biblical story and its supporting texts within the original writers’ and audiences’ worldview. For the past 15 years, primarily as a “hobbyist” theologian since I’m no longer in professional ministry, I have tried to learn the correct biblical story so that it can reshape my theology, my worship and my life. The effort has been worthwhile. The full biblical story now makes sense and all the pieces of Scripture actually fit nicely together.

A Distorted Story

colored-reflectionsIn last week’s post, I tried to retell the popular, yet distorted, version of the Christian story as I have heard it since my conversion into Christianity. Unfortunately, virtually all of that story is wrong.

I’m currently rereading NT Wright’s latest book, “The Day The Revolution Began.” This book is a treasure trove of theological resources and will probably be one of my theological “go-to” books for years to come.

Wright summarizes why the popular Christian story in general and specifically the popular understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion is wrong:

“In other words, in much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore.”

In other words, the popular version of the Christian story makes three crucial errors that distorts the actual biblical story. First, it substitutes the biblical goal of God’s New Creation with “going to heaven when we die.” Second, it substitutes the biblical human vocation of being God’s image-bearers in his cosmic temple with being morally righteous or unrighteous. And it substitutes the biblical salvation of being rescued from idolatry and restored to our human vocation with Jesus dying to satisfy God’s wrath for our personal sin so we can be considered righteous and ultimately go to heaven.

I also believe that these three mistakes lead to a fourth mistake — we have consumerized our ecclesiology. We have replaced the biblical community of being shaped into Christ’s likeness in order to bless the world with organizations programmed primarily to cater to the community’s expectations and needs.

Please take a moment to watch this introductory video featuring Dr. John Walton:

To steal Dr Walton’s words, I believe one of the primary causes for our distortion of the biblical story is that we continue to “impose our own questions, our own culture, our own agendas, our own issues on the biblical text and demand that it address our situation.”

Our questions, culture, agendas and issues that we impose on the biblical text focus on how to be right with God and ultimately get to heaven. This then reads the biblical text in a way foreign to the original authors and audience and forces the text to say things it never tried to say.

Because each of the mistakes that Wright mentions — eschatology, anthropology and soteriology — are intimately entwined, a tweak of one torques the other two, resulting in a comprehensive distortion of the biblical story.

Consequently, we try to live in a story that seems to be supported by portions of Scripture, but is actually not the biblical story.

The Way I Heard It

fanaticThe title of this posts steals the title from one my favorite podcasts called “The Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe.” If you haven’t listened to his podcast, do yourself a favor and head over to Mike Rowe’s website  and have a listen. Each episode is short and is an interesting story about a historical figure.

While I’m stealing the title from Mike’s podcast, this post is neither short nor as interesting as his material.

Having converted into Christianity during my last year in high school, I was immediately immersed in the popular version of the Christian story.

So this is the way I heard it:

God created the physical world. Into that world, God created a man in his image named Adam. God gave Adam the responsibility to rule over the world. To help with this endeavor, God made a woman named Eve from one of Adam’s ribs in order to be a helper for Adam. God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and to rule over the earth.

God placed Adam and Eve in a Garden. Within this Garden, God placed two trees — the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God gave Adam and Eve one moral instruction — don’t eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But the devil, in the form of a snake, tempted Eve, who then tempted Adam. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. At that moment, spiritual and physical death entered creation. Now under a curse, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. They and the all of their descendants were forever guilty of their transgression and would be unrighteous. Being morally bankrupt, there was nothing they or the rest of mankind could do to change their standing before God and were destined to hell and eternal separation from God.

The rest of the Old Testament was a lengthy example of humanity’s unrighteousness, focused primarily on Israel. God chose Israel to be his special people. But Israel continued to demonstrate their unrighteousness through sin and idolatry. Eventually their sins brought them to the point where God had to expel them from the Promised Land.

But through Israel’s sordid history, God dropped occasional prophecies to them about how he would come and rescue mankind from their sins.

And he ultimately did! God became Jesus. He was born to a virgin named Mary, who was randomly selected by God’s grace to bear God in her body. Jesus, being God, performed amazing miracles and told people that through his death, everyone could have their sins forgiven, have communion with God again, and eventually go to heaven when they died. He also taught people how to live after they received forgiveness from their sins.

The New Testament reveals that God cannot stand sin. Therefore, only righteous people can go to heaven when they die and unrighteous people are destined for hell when they die. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, every human is guilty of sin and objects of God’s wrath. It’s like each of us has a huge moral debt in our heavenly bank accounts. Therefore, every human being is unrighteous and destined for hell and there’s absolutely nothing any human could do about it. Any good a person could muster wouldn’t satisfy his or her moral debt let alone anyone else’s. In addition, the consequence of sin is death. Death is part of the punishment for sins. So each person is condemned to die for their own sins and then go to hell, forever separated from God.

In order for a person to go to heaven, someone else without sins would have to die in that person’s place. So a sinless human had to die in order to rescue all of humanity. But there’s no such thing as a sinless human because everyone is guilty of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and also have committed their own sins in their lives.

But Jesus overcame this obstacle because being God, he could become a sinless human being. Being sinless allowed him to take God’s wrath on our behalf. So Jesus endures death on a cross for each of us, taking the “spiritual bullet” meant for us. He then returns to life three days later as proof that he was God. Shortly after that, he returns to heaven to await the time he would return and take his people to heaven in the Rapture and finish God’s plan.

From Jesus’ death onward, any person who accepts his gift of forgiveness is now saved. They are fully forgiven, no matter what they’ve ever done or will ever do. Jesus’ righteousness is now their righteousness. This allows them to have communion with God and to go to heaven. In addition, they can also be filled with the Holy Spirit so they can worship God, live a good life, and share with everyone else the good news that if they also accept Jesus’ gift of forgiveness, they can be forgiven and go to heaven.

And Jesus’ people are commissioned to do this until they die or until the Rapture, when Jesus will rescue his people to heaven and complete the final events of God’s plan which is to punish evil-doers, destroy this earth and take those who are saved after the Rapture to heaven as well.

And that’s the way I heard it.

The problem is that virtually all of it is wrong.

P.S. I’ve tried my best to retell the story as i would have genuinely told it 20 years ago and not as a caricature. To make my point, the day I wrote the first draft of this post, I went out to lunch and found the following tract at my table in the restaurant:

tract