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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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!