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