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

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:


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:


Winter Break

house-in-the-snowThis quick post is simply to say that I will be taking a short break until the new year. Nothing big. My goal is to spend quality time with my family, reading, writing and taking photos — all the things I love! I’ll be back sometime in early 2017, God willing. Until then, have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Here’s a short excerpt from “The Akathist of Thanksgiving” that my youngest son, Chris, found and sent me. May your holidays be filled with awe, love, thanksgiving and worship.

Glory to You, Who called me to life,
Glory to You, Who have shown me the beauty of the universe,
Glory to You, Who have opened before me the sky and the earth as an eternal book of wisdom,
Glory to the eternity of You, in the midst of the world of time,
Glory to You, for Your hidden and evident goodness,
Glory to You, for every sigh of my sadness,
Glory to You, for every step of my life, for every moment of joy,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

The Vocation Of Image-Bearing

at-peaceWhen we read Genesis 1 through the worldview of an ancient Israelite, we discover that it is an account about the functional origin of creation and not necessarily about its material origin. As such, creation functions as God’s temple. He creates it out of his incredible love as a place where he will dwell and rule, merging heaven and earth. And he chooses to reign over creation through humans, who are created in his image.

Humans occupy an unique place as image-bearers. But what does this mean? Genesis 2 provides some striking answers. Where Genesis 1 was an account of the origin of function, Genesis 2 is an account of the origin of identity.

As in my last post, I won’t lay out the detailed arguments presented by Dr. John Walton. Rather, I will simply state a couple of his findings and discuss their implications.

Genesis 2:15 states, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Walton concludes that the Garden is the place where God walked and dwelt with Adam and Eve. Therefore it is not simply a “garden,” but rather it is sacred space. Also, the Hebrew words for “work” and “take care” are better translated “serve” and “protect.” These words mean more than simply “gardening.” Instead, they hint at a priestly vocation.

In other words, Genesis 2 is detailing humanity’s vocation as God’s image-bearers. They are a royal priesthood within God’s temple, that is creation. In communion with God, humans are to serve and protect this sacred space where heaven and earth merge. They are to be a royal priesthood through whom God lovingly reigns and cares over the rest of the world (the royal part) and through whom all of creation’s worship is gathered and offered back to God (the priestly part).

N.T. Wright describes the vocation of being image-bearers as an “angled mirror.” Imagine an L-shaped hallway with a room at each end. At the bend rests a large mirror that allows occupants of each room to view down the hall and around the corner into the other rooms. In a similar way, that is the vocation of an image-bearer. God can reflect his love, care, justice and stewardship into the world through humans. The rest of the world can praise, worship and express thanksgiving to God through humans. When human care for the world, they are doing so as God’s royal representatives. When humans worship God, they are doing so as Creation’s priestly representatives. Through us, the two dimensions of heaven and earth see and interact with each other.

But this vocation was distorted through idolatry and sin. Abraham and his family-nation were gifted with an unique covenant, law, land and temple in order to be God’s royal priesthood, a kingdom of priests among the rest of the nations. But they also failed. But in faithfulness to his covenant and love for the world, God gave his Son as the true Royal Priest. Jesus’ crucifixion broke the power of idolatry that has distorted our vocation, restoring us back as God’s true image-bearers within a new world order launched at Jesus’ resurrection.

N.T. Wright puts some feet on what our image-bearing vocation looks like in our world:

“Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom.”

The Cosmic Temple

almost-sunset-srgb“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” -Genesis 2:2-3

One of the fascinating theological perspectives I have experienced over the past few years is Dr John Walton’s explanation of Genesis 1.

In my Revelation: Revisited series I stated, “False expectations can lead to incorrect interpretations.” This has surely been the case with Genesis 1 through decades of modern biblical interpretation. Probably the biggest false expectation we have brought to Genesis 1 is reading this chapter as an account of the material creation of the world. Christians are then compelled to find some explanation that syncs what they perceive to be an account of the material creation with scientific discoveries regarding the age and processes of the cosmos as we currently understand them. This has led either to stretching the biblical text beyond its original intention or concocting some crazy scientific options.

However, John Walton rightly encourages us to read Genesis 1 from the worldview of an ancient Israelite. When we do, we discover significant clues that help us understand what the author was originally communicating.

The primary clue occurs in the verse mentioned above — God “rested” from all his work. For anyone in that time period and worldview, it meant one thing. This has been a description of the creation of God’s temple. In that ancient worldview, gods “rested” in temples because temples were built for the singular purpose for gods to “rest.”

In this context, “rest” doesn’t refer to relaxation and leisure. It refers to getting on with one’s real purpose now that the preparations are complete. So when God “rests” on the seventh day, it means he’s entering his temple to sit upon his throne and to begin reigning and ruling over the cosmos. Bottom-line, the temple is where God “rests” upon his throne, which means to rule.

I’m not going to lay out all the arguments here. If you’re interested in examining this perspective in detail, I would point you to John Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis 1 or encourage you to search Youtube for any of Dr Walton’s lectures by the same title that summarizes his position.

Suffice it to say, this perspective of Genesis 1 is an exciting take on this text for a few reasons. First, it reads this chapter from the worldview of its original audience, which is the first step of proper biblical interpretation. Second, it navigates a thoughtful path through the treacherous landscape of debates between faith and science. And third, it adds a vibrant dimension to the ongoing saga of God’s work of bringing about his New Creation within this present creation as well as humanity’s role in this drama.

So Genesis 1, from an ancient Israel perspective, is not about the material creation of the world, but about how God is configuring the world to operate and function as his temple. From this perspective, physical temples were the place that connected to the heavenly temple. In other words, the temple is the place where heaven and earth merged. And within the physical temple where heaven and earth met, rested a statue that was the earthly, physical image of the heavenly god.

The author of Genesis 1 is providing a startling take. Israel’s God, the true God, has configured the entire world to function as his cosmic temple where the dimensions of heaven and earth merge. And within this cosmic temple he has created human beings to function as his living and breathing image. With his final greatest configuration of humans as his living image-bearers in his cosmic temple, God now “rests”, i.e. rules the cosmos. And he reigns over the cosmos through his living image-bearers.

Abandoning Anxiety And Becoming A Blessing

In Luke 12:13-34, Jesus is asked to arbitrate a property dispute between brothers. He responds with a warning agains all kinds of greed, followed by a parable about the “foolish farmer” whose plans to build larger storehouses were interrupted by his own mortality. Jesus follows the parable with further teaching about not being anxious, climaxing with the famous saying, “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Jesus’ words cuts through real life, whether it’s the first century or the twenty-first century. Anxiety over material provisions seems to be a common human experience regardless of time, place or culture. But Jesus’ words are more than an exhortation to live a care-free life. They cut cross-grain with his original audience’s understanding of God.

God gifted Israel with the Torah, Temple and Land in order to train them to be a nation that would be God’s presence in order to rescue and bless the other nations. But like the foolish farmer in Jesus’ parable, they turned these overflowing gifts inward upon themselves rather than lavishing them upon their surrounding neighbors.

So the man that requested Jesus’ intervention in the property dispute was attempting to cling to his small portion of the Holy Land, a familial toe-hold in his ethnic identity and therefore his place in God’s special people. Possession of the land had mutated from a gift to bless others to a symbol of one’s secure placement in God’s family. This man, and his fellow kinsmen, had become like the foolish farmer who was selfishly consumed with his own personal economic and religious security.

But Jesus quickly moves from this one man’s individual case to the core of humanity’s shared experience. The anxiety that consumed this man regarding his property consumes all of us. Remember that most of Jesus’ original audience had just enough for that day. And the reality of not having enough for tomorrow always haunted them. A serious illness or injury would mean instant destitution. So anxiety and the compulsion to store a little more for one’s security is an authentic human need in their world and ours.

blossomsAnd so Jesus points to the birds and flowers, reminding us that “Life is more than food.” He’s not waxing poetic or being a dreamy-eyed hippie. He’s confronting the core of broken human experience with the reality of God’s kingdom. As the world’s King, God lavishes his love and power upon his creation, so that we, his image-bearers, may relax in his abundant and sovereign provision and do the same.

Humans are created to bless. It’s part of being God’s image-bearers. He’s a loving and blessing God, and were are designed to do the same. But anxiety short-circuits our ability to bless. Anxiety disconnects us from our blessing God and pulls us in a deepening spiral inward when our vocation is to be outward.

Jesus’ words are not an encouragement to live a care-free and happy life. It’s not a 1st century version of “Don’t worry. Be happy.” In fact, on the crazy-difficult chart, this ranks up there with “Loving and forgiving your enemies.” This is counter-intuitive to the common human experience.

But that’s usually true of God’s kingdom. Jesus said elsewhere that his kingdom is not from this world. Therefore living in it requires an entirely new way of life, one that doesn’t make sense from a mere human perspective.

While the intuitive approach to life is to first focus on providing for ourselves and family, save enough to be secure, and from that bless others, Jesus summarizes life in God’s new world order, “Seek God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.” In other words, turn our focus to our loving and blessing God. Direct our primary efforts to becoming like him, to being his image-bearers.

In practical terms, we are to become “blessing machines.” We are to become people who naturally and automatically lavish love, generosity, compassion, encouragement and hospitality upon others. Make blessing others our “career.” Bless others with our presence, our time, our words, and our resources. And then rely on God to provide everything we need. And as we pursue our vocation in God’s kingdom, reflecting his image into the world as a constant source of blessing, we can securely relax in God’s sovereign care like the birds and flowers do.

This doesn’t come naturally for many of us. We have to develop these kind of habits, so they can become natural reflexes in our lives. In his short book, Surprise the World, Michael Frost encourages Christ-followers to learn new habits. One of these core habits is blessing others. He encourages us to develop this habit by intentionally choosing to bless at least three people a week. He defines blessing as “strengthening another’s arm.” In other words, we are to proactively choose three people each week that we can strengthen in any way that relieves their burden, lifts their spirit or alleviates distress. It can be anything such as an encouraging word, a kind act or a gift.

Again, the point is to become “blessing machines” that naturally churn out blessings for the sake of others. And be doing so, we restoratively reflect our loving and blessing God into our world.

Thus God’s New Creation is a Reality absent of anxiety and filled with blessing.

A New Creation Way

As I reflect on this past US election cycle, I’ve made a couple of observations.

I apologize now. I’m putting on my old preacher’s cap and I’m going to speak to my fellow Christ-followers. So if you don’t want a sermon, please turn away now. Also, I’m preaching to myself as well and not singling out any person or group.

My first observation is that our behavior during the past several months is symptomatic of a serious problem as Christ-followers. (And again, I’m speaking to myself about this as well.) The fact that we either joined in the endless arguing or stayed on the sidelines confused and befuddled only shows that we have misplaced our trust in our democratic system. So when faced with candidates with little moral integrity, we fell into the trap of voting for the one who would do the least amount of damage or keep the other “monster” out of office and from destroying our country.

I suspect that with the best intentions, all of us believed we should do something, but couldn’t determine the best course of action that resonated with our conscience and values. So most of us compromised in one way or another.

And that leads me to my second observation. Most, if not all, of us have no imagination about how to actually be God’s New Creation in the here and now. It’s true with politics and probably in other important areas of life.

orthodox-crossLet me back up and summarize. Christ died to defeat all the evil powers enslaving humankind and restore us ontologically (our nature) and vocationally (our roles) as his image-bearers. The immediate consequence of that victory was Jesus’ resurrection. This launched God’s future New Creation, when God would fully and finally merge heaven and earth, the two spheres of his good creation. But Jesus’ resurrection launched that future reality in the here and now. Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost then “sealed the deal.” In his ascension part of “earth” — Jesus’ human body — is fully at home in “heaven” and part of “heaven” — God’s empowering Spirit — now dwells on earth in our human bodies.

St Paul tells us in 2Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Messiah, new creation!” That person has both entered God’s New Creation and is God’s New Creation in bodily form.

So everything God accomplished in Jesus is now carried onward by Jesus’ followers. We are his New Creation and we continue his New Creation.

I’ve used this metaphor before, but becoming the New Creation is like training for the marathon. It’s not something that comes naturally. One cannot “Just do it!” Or to shift metaphors, living in and being God’s New Creation is like learning a new language. You may be able to initially fake a couple of words, but it takes time and effort to speak fluently in that language. Or to use another metaphor, living in God’s new world order and embodying his new world order is like learning to play the violin. We can all probably make it squeak and squawk. But to learn and master the instrument in order to play a fine classical number with passion and nuance takes discipline and diligence.

I’m sure you get my point. The fact that most of us either joined in the incendiary pre-election conversations (and I use the word “conversations” in the lightest way possible) or wrestled with almost paralyzing uncertainty about how to vote shows that we have not trained properly to be God’s New Creation. We were not ready to be and act as his New Creation.

So how do we move forward from here? Here are some suggestions that I plan to prayerfully follow.

First, we must learn what it means to be God’s New Creation and how to become it and live in it in our present daily lives. This means growing in our understanding and imagination about what the New Creation is. It also means being formed into Jesus’ likeness so we can be and act as God’s image-bearers.

Second, we must do this in community together. Jesus’ people, as a community, are his Body. We must share in life and in His life together. Regardless of our traditions, we must come together with the common goal of being with Jesus in order to learn from Jesus how to be like Jesus.

Third, in community, we must prayerfully seek and then in faith develop strategies for being God’s New Creation in every facet of life. Remember, God’s New Creation is an entirely new world order that requires rethinking and reimagining how to live in all of its facets.

In some ways, we need to backwards-engineer God’s New Creation. With thoughts and imaginations formed by a biblical vision, we must ask what steps must we take as individuals and as a community to see it birthed and matured in our lives.

For example, what character and behavior needs to be developed in my life and what spiritual disciplines, sacraments, prayers, and activities is God calling me to practice in cooperation with his continually forming process?

Or, what areas of need, pain and injustice exist in our neighboring community that our faith-community can engage with God’s love, compassion, power and healing? And how do we go about doing that?

Or, how do we address the real grit of daily life as God’s New Creation? How to be single as his New Creation. How to be married as his New Creation. How to be divorced as his New Creation. How to be a parent as his New Creation. How to be in business as his New Creation. How to be in ministry as his New Creation. How to be in education as his New Creation. How to deal with injustice as his New Creation. How to engage in politics as his New Creation. The list goes on and on and on.

And none of this comes naturally. It’s fueled by intimacy with Jesus and formed in cooperation with Jesus. And it must be done in community.

But the hard work must be done. Frankly, it’s confusing and painful work. As a reminder, look to our King’s suffering upon the cross and his followers’ confusion at its foot. Look to his followers’ confusion at the empty tomb and subsequent encounters with the resurrected Lord. Look to his followers’ uncertainty at the ascension. Look to the onlookers’ befuddlement at the Spirit’s gifting. Look to the early community’s fumblings as they learn together how to live together. Look to the early messengers like St Paul as they, with much persecution and suffering, contextualized and embodied God’s New Creation in new territories and cultures.

St Paul says in Romans 8:19, “Yes: creation itself is on tiptoe with expectation, eagerly awaiting the moment when God’s children will be revealed.” That day will finally and fully come. But it began when, through his death, Jesus restored us as God’s image-bearers and then launched God’s New Creation so that we may carry it onward until the day when God completes his good work.

How Jesus “Fights”

img_1904The scene unfolds in mere seconds. In the deep darkness lit by a several torches, a crowd approaches. Their intentions are clear. They’ve come to arrest Jesus and his followers. Where moments before the torchlight of his friends had lulled Peter to sleep, the torchlights of this hostile crowd snaps him awake.

He reacts. A glint of metal. A scream of pain. Malchus, the high priest’s servant, unsuccessfully dodges the swipe. The sword grazes the right side of his head and tears off his ear. He grabs his head as blood spurts between his fingers.

Jesus’ voice cuts through the anger and chaos, “That’s enough!” He reaches out, touches Malchus’ head and heals him.

Jesus and Peter face the same hostile crowd. But they operate from two completely different kingdoms. Jesus would soon tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Peter does battle from his kingdom. In anger he lashes out, sheds blood and runs.

Jesus does battle from his kingdom. In peace, he reaches out, heals and surrenders.

As the saga moves toward the climax of the crucifixion, both Peter and Jesus would continue to act from their respective kingdoms. For Peter, the same fear that compelled him to attack and flee forced him to deny Christ.

But Jesus continues to “fight” in a manner fitting of his kingdom. He embodies the non-violent strategy of his own teaching in Matthew 5 — turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, give your shirt and coat. NT Wright summarizes, “He would stand there unresisting as people slapped him and mocked him. He would be compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry his burden all the way to Golgotha. He would find his clothes stripped off him and divided up. And, as he died, one of those very soldiers would declare that he really was the son of God.”

Notice the irony. A soldier, a trained killing machine of the most brutal kingdom on earth, upon witnessing Jesus’ “fight” declares that Jesus was the “son of God,” the true Caesar.

To quote NT Wright again, “When God wants to take charge of the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the poor and the meek.”

You see, Jesus always confronts the love of power of this world’s kingdom with the power of love of his New Creation kingdom. That’s how Jesus fights for a world worth fighting for.

A Thanksgiving Thought

colors-unseenHere’s a thought today as we celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S.

“True gratitude both for the present world and for the world to come is the deepest and truest form of worship… When you bow down before the living God and thank him from the bottom of your heart for what he’s done and for what he will do, it is as though you are a priest in the Temple, offering the purest, most unblemished sacrifice. Only much, much more so. That is the privilege of the being a follower of Jesus the Messiah. That is the life to which our fiery God now calls us.” -NT Wright, Hebrews For Everyone

God’s On His Throne

As Election Day in the US approached, I noticed several posts along the lines of, “Whoever is elected, remember that God is still on his throne.” I know these statements were offered with the best intentions, reminding us that God is still in control.

Usually, this sentiment is offered when circumstances are difficult, chaotic, and completely out of our control. It’s an encouragement not to worry and to trust God’s sovereignty during tumultuous times. And surely, God is in control. His sovereignty covers our world so that we may truly relax in the knowledge that God is in control. However, the sentiment can imply an incorrect level of passivity.

blessed-with-work-srgbIn Revelation, when God is depicted on his throne, it actually conveys a high level of active participation in his reign. Simply put, God’s sovereign good plan for his creation is for his son to save a royal priesthood, to restore the human vocation of being image-bearers and to restore Israel’s vocation of being a rescuing blessing to the nations. Thus, God is on his throne, so we, his royal priesthood, have work to do. 

Because God is on his throne, he is implementing his good plan for his creation. Because God is on his throne, he has saved a royal priesthood who will accept the image-bearing, nation-blessing vocation. Because God is on his throne, Jesus’ followers must be the New Creation in human form. Because God is on his throne, the Church must grapple with being expressions of God’s kingdom, implementing compassion, healing and justice. Because God is on the throne, Jesus’ followers must overcome and learn to be like him, the place where heaven and earth merge for the life and sake of our families, relationships, places of work, neighborhoods, nations and world.

Because God is on his throne we can get back to work.

Nobody Has Ever Seen God

Coming off the Revelation: Revisited series, I was intrigued when I read 1John 4:12. John writes, “Nobody has ever seen God. If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is completed in us.”

all-our-realities-are-backlit-by-something-greaterDoes that phrase sound familiar? John used a similar phrase in John 1:18, “Nobody has ever seen God. The only-begotten God, who is intimately close to the father — he has brought him to light.”

John 1:18 and 1John 4:12 are parallel ideas — nobody has seen God. In John 1:18, nobody knows God until they gaze upon the sacrificial love of Jesus. In 1John 4:12, nobody knows God until they gaze upon the sacrificial love in Jesus’ people.

As Jesus’ people embody Jesus’ sacrificial love, they make the invisible God visible just like Jesus did.

I was reminded of Genesis 28 while listening to a lecture the other day. During his journey, Jacob lays down for an uneventful night in an indeterminate location. But his dreams reveal the merging of heaven and earth and God announces his promises and plans for him. He awakes, his perspective completely altered and proclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” And he called the place, “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”

When I heard that verse, I thought, “That’s exactly what I want my life to be!” I want every facet of my life to be for others what Jacob experienced in that mundane strip of desert, the house of God, the place where heaven and earth meet.

I want my wife and kids to experience this in my daily love for them. I want my friends to experience this in our friendships. I want strangers to experience this in chance encounters with me. I want people who stumble upon this blog to experience this in my writing. I want people who view my photography to experience this in my images.

I want my ordinary life to reveal God to people as though they were waking from a dream and realizing there’s something more at work. And this happens as I learn to embody Jesus’ sacrificial love.

This is John’s message in Revelation. Revelation 5 portrays Jesus as the victorious Lion who carries out God’s plan through the Lamb’s sacrificial love. Each of the seven churches is called to victory by embodying the Jesus’ sacrificial love. Victory through sacrificial love, a love that always suffers. In other words, Jesus won the victory through suffering sacrificial love. Jesus’ followers carry on the victory through the same suffering sacrificial love. The victory won on Jesus’ cross continues through our cross.

Sacrificial love forms the core of our eternal vocation as God’s royal priesthood. It implements God’s plan to restore creation, vanquish evil and establish his reign on earth. It’s the thread that stitches heaven and earth together. Sacrificial love turns our lives into the house of God, revealing God to others in the most mundane unordinary moments of life.

Nobody has ever seen God, until they see Jesus… and hopefully us.

To Live Or Die… Or Something More

cabrillo-cemetary3I’m waiting eagerly and full of hope, because nothing is going to put me to shame. I am going to be bold and outspoken, now as always, and the king is going to gain a great reputation through my body, whether in life or in death. You see, for me to live means the Messiah; to die means to make a profit. If it’s to be living on in the flesh, that means fruitful work for me. Actually, I don’t know which I would choose. I’m pulled both ways at once: I would really love to leave all this and be with the king, because that would be far better. But staying on here in the flesh is more vital for your sake. Since I’ve become convinced of this, I know that I will remain here, and stay alongside all of you, to help you to advance and rejoice in your faith, so that the pride you take in King Jesus may overflow because of me, when I come to visit you once again. – Philippians 1:20-26

This passage from St Paul, among a few others, has served as a diagnostic tool for most of my life as his follower. Early on, as a young Christian, I remember rashly thinking that I could easily die for Jesus. My zealous idealism had found it’s purpose in Christ. I would die for him if necessary. I could easily be a martyr, or so I thought. I even had a gun put to my head after a Bible study and was told, “I could shoot you right now.” My response was “Go ahead. I’m not afraid.” Spoiler alert… I’m still here decades later.

Sometime later, I heard someone say that dying for Jesus was fairly simple. But living for Jesus was difficult because you had to die every day, even every moment. While I didn’t understand it fully then, that statement has proven to be true.

Many years have passed since Jesus called me to follow him. And while the overall trajectory of my life has been in faithful service to Jesus, the shiny, sharp zeal of my youth has been dinged and dulled over time. Like the extra physical weight one easily puts on as the decades pass, accumulated comfort and compromise have weighed me down spiritually. I have transitioned from a single teenager with little responsibilities to a married man and father with a career, possessions, responsibilities, stress, and obligations. And in this place, I realize that neither dying nor living for Christ is particularly easy.

Paul’s declaration stands in contrast to my life. His declaration was neither the uninformed zeal of immaturity nor the regret-filled reflections of middle-age. Instead, it’s the rock-solid maturity of a man whose imagination and daily life are shaped by both an intimacy with Jesus and a vocation in his new world order. He is a man in love with his God and equally in love with the men, women and children in his care.

He is a man so intimate and enamored with King Jesus that his personal desire is to die and be with him. And he is a man so intimate and enamored with King Jesus that he equally desires to live and serve him in people’s lives, even when that service will result in further suffering and humiliation as he’s already experiencing.

So I have to believe there’s something more going on here rather than just living or dying. Paul is trying to encourage the Philippian Christians during his current imprisonment. He’s not sure of its outcome, so he’s informing the Philippians that he’s okay with either dying or living.

And that’s kind of the point. His statement is an autobiographical window into his heart, motives and the ongoing reality of his life — his intimacy and devotion to King Jesus. He loves Jesus so much that he equally longs to be with Jesus and serve Jesus in people’s lives. When given the choice, he’s torn between the two. Everything else falls aside.

In the previous post, we saw how Jesus told his kinsmen to pay Caesar in his own coin, cold metal currency stamped with his image. But we are to pay God in his own coin, lives of loving devotion stamped with God’s image.

Paul demonstrates that martyrdom and service are the two sides of the same coin of love. And while he knows that circumstances aren’t determined by the random flip of the coin, he is content whichever side the coin lands. That’s because both his life and death are expressions of the same love for King Jesus.

And it forces me to look at my relationship with King Jesus. While I believe I love him, the personal difficulty of either living or dying for him reveals that my love has far more to grow.

Similar to Paul’s declaration, John Wimber used to say that he simply wanted to be the coins in God’s pocket, to be spent any way God chooses. That’s my desire to. Well at least I want to want that.

Flip Of A Coin

coin“Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not? Should we pay it, or shouldn’t we?”

The question is not a neutral inquiry. It’s a loaded question, a well-conceived trap.

This is a very dangerous moment for Jesus. His kinsmen recognize that he is leading a kingdom-of-God movement. They interpret it as a revolution, a push for Jewish political independence. Similar attempts had been made by others in Israel’s recent history. This is what the Messiah was supposed to do, so the crowd’s expectations were high. One way these revolutions declared Jewish independence was to stop paying taxes to Rome. But Rome did not tolerate revolutions. People had been executed for previous anti-tax revolutions.

So the question is meant to flush out Jesus, to make him go public either as an anti-tax, and therefore an anti-Roman revolutionary, or as a compromising leader who doesn’t truly oppose Rome and therefore is not truly the Messiah.

Almost everyone in the crowd hoped he would declare an anti-tax stance. For some, this would give them the evidence needed to report him to the authorities. For others, they longed for a leader who would deliver them from Roman rule. And opposing Roman taxes is exactly what the Messiah would do. Regardless of the motivations, Roman justice would be swift and Jesus would be killed. And his enemies would finally be rid of him.

But if he didn’t oppose taxes, it would prove he wasn’t the Messiah and he risked losing the people’s loyalty or worse. So this was a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenario.

All it would take is the wrong statement and the trap would spring. But Jesus recognizes the game they’re playing. He knows this volatile moment requires a pithy proclamation, not a lengthy lecture.

“Bring me a coin,” Jesus requests. And someone produces one. It’s not an ordinary coin. It’s a Roman coin. A hated, despised coin. For stamped on the coin was the image of Caesar and the inscription proclaiming him as “son of god” and “chief priest.” Jews were not supposed to possess images of humans or gods. Yet someone did, as did most in the crowd.

“This image and this inscription. Who do they belong to?” Jesus almost spits it out, disgusted at the coin in his hand. A false ruler professing to be a god.

“Caesar,” is the crowd’s answer.

“Then pay back Caesar in his own coin.” He pauses. “ And pay back God in his own coin!”

The crowd gasps! They know what he’s implying. For each of them has been taught from childhood that they bear the image of God.

And like a flip of a coin, Jesus flips the conversation on the crowd. They were expecting an uncompromising Messianic revolutionary, one who would stick a fist in Rome’s face. But he was exposing their own compromise. Their idea of a revolution was to withhold money from Rome, money they shouldn’t even possess or use. Yet, they carried the despised money in their own pockets and pouches. A people who once declared “God is our King” now lives comfortably under a false king pretending at being a false god.

The real revolution isn’t about withholding. If Caesar wants his despicable coins back, then give them to him. They’re his to begin with. And you’re already inwardly compromised and enslaved to his system for having and using the coins.

The true revolution that needs to occur comes about by giving. So more importantly than giving Caesar his coins, give God his “coins,” your lives that bear the stamp of his image. That will change you and then that will impact the world around you. That’s how the real revolution takes place.

You see, Jesus’ answer wasn’t a safe dodge. He was a revolutionary. Just not the kind everyone expected. He knew he was on the road to a crucifixion just like the anti-tax revolutionaries of his past. But his revolutionary world-altering death would be on his own terms. He would not die like those before him, locked in the conventional power struggle with Rome. No. That’s not how false powers are overturned.

When, in loving loyalty, God receives his due — the human “coins” stamped with his image — then the true revolution can begin, a revolution of sacrificial love.

That’s when things really flip.

Human Anger & God’s Justice

we-like-to-bite-srgbThe news on both traditional and social media the past several months continues to remind me of a very poignant truth. James 1:20 says, “Human anger, you see, doesn’t produce God’s justice!”

I get it. There’s a lot of injustice in the world and in our neighborhoods. Civilians and law enforcement officers are being slain. The brokenness of our justice and political systems is more apparent than ever. Our democratic system has devolved into people preparing to vote for a presidential candidate that they believe is less dangerous to our country than the other. We’re prepared to vote for the less of two evils rather than for a candidate we trust and believe in.

We live in volatile times. People are justifiably frustrated and angry. And the abounding click-bait, memes, conspiracy theories and extremely biased reporting are like stones thrown at an already aggravated wasp nest. People are screaming at each other and genuine conversation has stalled.

People want justice. And the primary avenues are social media, voting polls, or demonstrations, all of which fan rage rather than forge resolutions.

But what was true 2000 years ago is still true today — human anger doesn’t produce God’s justice. Rather it produces misunderstanding, dehumanization, violence, and vengeance. It’s like vigorously shaking a can of mixed paint hoping the colors will separate. That’s not how it works. And the fact that it’s not working angers us further.

Ironically, anger is one of the most potent human emotions, yet is completely impotent in implementing lasting justice.

At the risk of sounding extremely simplistic, God’s New Creation, launched by Jesus, is our world’s only hope. But this New Creation requires an entirely new way of living as human beings. It’s neither a christianized version of the Democratic nor Republican platforms. It’s not about legislating morality or Christian values. Most of the Church’s political endeavors have been embarrassing distractions at best and societal calamities at worst.

Jesus said his kingdom is not from this world. It doesn’t use the world’s techniques. But Jesus’ kingdom, while not being from this world, is for this world. In other words, his completely new world order and the requisite new way of life originates from outside our world systems and doesn’t use our world systems to implement its transformation.

So, the first step in embracing God’s New Creation is embracing Jesus as King of this world. While discussing this isn’t the point of this post, it’s the primary step to being part of Jesus’ revolutionary world order and way of life.

Let me just say that we’re talking about something far greater than the modern Christian idea of “asking Jesus for forgive you so you can go to heaven.” That is a foreign concept injected back into Scriptures. Jesus didn’t come to dole out personal forgiveness in an effort to rescue your disembodied soul to a distant and disconnected heaven. Rather, he came to embody Israel’s God on earth. By doing so, he climaxed Israel’s generations-old story by establishing Israel’s God as King, vanquishing evil and launching God’s New Creation. In order to be part of this, he’s requiring you to give him your full allegiance as King (faith) and to follow him in order to learn to be like him and to carry on his project for the sake of the world.

This then requires learning to implement his transformation without engaging in the techniques and tactics of this world, especially anger.

If Jesus’ followers are serious about cooperating in God’s New Creation project, we must simultaneously rout out our broken internal sources of anger and disconnect ourselves from external sources of anger. Frankly, based on just my Facebook feed, I think many of us need to take a long hiatus from politics.

Let me put it this way… anger is dehumanizing. If you always believe you’re right and are angry that people don’t see things your way, then you’re dehumanizing people. If people in a different political camp always anger you, then you’ve dehumanized them. If you’ve embraced conspiracy theories about the “other side” or view them as opposing God’s agenda while viewing your group as champions of God’s cause, then you’ve dehumanized them. Absolutely none of this is part of God’s kingdom or part of the restorative transformation his kingdom brings.

In a recent post, we explored how the Church, as Jesus’ Body filled with God’s Spirit, is to be a giant version of Jesus. Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is a strong and sober multi-faceted character expressed in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. So this is a description of “giant Jesus.” This is the character that Jesus’ Body should embody if he is truly our King.

So in Jesus’ Body, there is no place or excuse for the anger and rage prevalent in our society. We must stop participating in it and contributing to it. Rather than achieving justice, it only perpetuates injustice.

Human Government & God’s Kingdom

150525-mt-rubidoux-park-57-of-65I’ve remained fairly silent in regards to the upcoming U.S. presidential election. I’ll be honest, I don’t find affinity with any of the presidential candidates. So I’m not voting for any of them.

The arguments that I’m wasting my vote and my wasted vote will put a candidate into the White House who will then appoint Supreme Court justices doesn’t hold water for me.

That’s because I don’t think God’s kingdom is affected in the slightest by whichever person sits in the White House or any other branch of government. As such, I don’t think voting is a Kingdom obligation. It’s an American right. But that shouldn’t be confused with a Kingdom obligation. What matters to God’s Kingdom is how Jesus’ followers live.

In that light, I’m not against anyone voting or participating in the democratic process. I just don’t see it as having much weight in God’s Kingdom.

In fact, I believe human government should be viewed similarly to how Jesus viewed divorce in Matthew 19:8, “Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.’”

In a similar way, God permitted human government among his people because their hearts were hard. Remember in 1Samuel 8 how Israel asked for a king? God told them that they were to have no human king since God was their King. But because the people kept insisting on a human king, God relented.

But the original intention was that God would be King over his people. They were never to rely on a human government like the surrounding nations. In addition, God’s Laws should not be viewed as other societies’ laws. While providing a semblance of governance to God’s unique society, they were actually to be used in conjunction with his other gifts — Land and Temple — to train God’s people into the embodiment of God so they could restore Adam’s fall and bless the nations.

But human government is a reality. So how should we deal with it? Let’s look at Jesus, Paul and John.

How did Jesus deal with human government? He confronted it by embodying God’s New Creation in human form. He was launching a radically new world order that required a radically new way of being human. As he embodied, demonstrated and announced this New Creation, it naturally confronted the old order and false powers.

And when push ultimately came to shove, the old order and false powers killed him. That’s what false powers do. Death is their ultimate weapon. But God resurrected Jesus! God’s last word, his final confrontation with the old order and false powers is the launching of his New Creation smack-dab in the middle of this old broken one. The resurrected King Jesus now holds the keys to the old order’s ultimate weapon, death and hades (Revelation 1:18). By his death he has trampled down death.

How did Paul deal with human government? He planted outposts of God’s New Creation, communities of King Jesus’ followers throughout the greatest Empire at the time. Wherever he went, he proclaimed a counter-Caesar message right under Caesar’s nose. Jesus is the world’s True Lord and King! Give your allegiance to King Jesus! Live his New Creation life! And Paul lived it himself even to the point of house arrest and ultimate martyrdom.

How did John deal with human government? He encourages the communities of King Jesus’ followers with an incredible vision to overcome temptation, seduction and persecution. He pens a brilliant prophetic image-scape showing God on his Throne and King Jesus implementing God’s plan to rescue and restore Creation by being the sacrificial lamb. As King Jesus’ followers embody the Lamb’s sacrificial life, God ultimately confronts the world’s evil powers, restores creation and establishes his reign. Through the faithful living of King Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is answered and the New Creation comes in its fullness.

The U.S. presidential election will come and go as it has every four years. When the dust settles this year, someone will be sitting in the White House. Whoever wins, one side will proclaim victory and the other side will prepare to blame the state of America on the imminent folly of the new president. That’s how our broken system works.

But let God pull back the thin veil between heaven and earth so, like John, you can peer into earthly circumstances from a heavenly vantage. God is on the throne! All creation worships him! King Jesus is worthy of carrying out God’s restorative plan for creation! King Jesus holds the keys to death and hades! So embody sacrificial lives in allegiance to King Jesus! As a community, let our counter-Caesar, New Creation-launching lives stand in stark counterpoint and confrontation to broken human government.

A Giant Version Of Jesus


I was listening to a recent interview with Greg Boyd and he said something that really gripped my imagination. He said the Church is supposed to be a giant version of Jesus.

As his body, the Church is the ongoing incarnation of Jesus. Therefore, our role is to be a “giant Jesus.”

Does this sound like too haughty of an expectation? I think Jesus himself held a similar expectation:

“However, it’s the truth that I’m telling you: it’s better for you that I should go away. If I don’t go away, you see, the helper won’t come to you. But if I go away, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong on three counts: sin, justice and judgment. In relation to sin — because they don’t believe in me! In relation to justice — because I’m going to the father, and you won’t see me any more. In relation to judgment — because the ruler of this world is judged.” -John 16-7-11

How will the world be confronted in regards to sin, justice and judgment? Through the work of the Spirit living and working in Jesus’s followers.

Jesus’ followers will receive God’s Spirit. The Spirit, who is Jesus’ living presence in each of them, will transform the community of Jesus’ followers into a giant version of Jesus. Through the radically counter-cultural, post-resurrection, New Creation-launching life of this Spirit-filled community, this “giant Jesus,” God’s Spirit confronts the world and its false powers in three substantial ways — in relation to sin, justice, and judgment.

First, the Spirit-filled lifestyle of “giant Jesus” proves the world wrong in regards to sin. The world is heading in the wrong direction and thus “missing the mark,” which is “sin.” The Spirit-filled life of God’s New Creation embodied in Jesus’ followers points in the right direction.

Second, the Spirit-filled lifestyle of “giant Jesus” proves the world wrong in regards to justice. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s ultimate act of justice, of putting all wrongs to right. The Spirit-filled life of Jesus’ followers continues to confront the world’s passive ignoring and active implementing of injustice.

Third, the Spirit-filled lifestyle of “giant Jesus” proves the world wrong in regards to judgment. The “ruler of this world,” who is at work behind all governments, institutions, and powers, has been judged by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Through Jesus, God has been made King and Lord of Creation. Therefore, “giant Jesus” continues to live the Reality that God is King and continually judges the “ruler of this world.”

This is only one passage that depicts God’s work through the community of Jesus’ followers. There are so many more that are as equally captivating to the imagination.

So I would encourage you to take a moment and imagine what our country would be like if the Church in America were actually a living giant version of Jesus. What would that actually look like? How would that change the activities and discussions currently taking place among Jesus’ followers? What hindrances and sins would we need to throw off so we can run this race set before us (Heb 12:1)?

I’m Not The Hero

The other day, I was reminded of some good news.

I am not the hero in the story that is my life.

Think about that for a moment. This is really good news!

shadow-peopleOur culture has encouraged us to view our lives as our personal stories, our narratives. From this perspective, my story is what defines me as an unique individual. As such, I am the master and commander of my life. And some of us can get pretty creative and fluid in writing our life’s narratives.

As Christians, it’s tempting to piggy-back on this idea and talk about “joining my story” to “Jesus’ Story.” While this is often taught with the best intentions, I believe it begins with a faulty premise.

In my life, I am not the hero of the story. In fact, it’s not even my story. Therefore, I can’t join “my story” to “Jesus’ Story” since it’s not my story to begin with. Rather, my life IS Jesus’ Story. He’s the leading character, the protagonist, the hero.

The Gospels present Jesus as Israel’s royal representative, the Messiah. Israel, in turn, was humanity’s representative in God’s unfolding story that climaxed in Jesus. Therefore, every human being’s life is not that individual’s story, but an unique facet of Jesus’ story experienced by that individual.

This subtle difference results in dramatic applications to how we live our lives.

Firstly, my life isn’t about me. Granted, I play an important part in that I’m experiencing everything through my body, mind and spirit. I’m thinking, feeling, acting, relating and living everything. But the narrative of my life is an unique first-person viewpoint about who Jesus is and what he’s doing from the unique perspective of my life. Paul puts it this way:

“I have been crucified with the Messiah. I am, however, alive — but it isn’t me, it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” -Galatians 2:20

Paul hasn’t simply merged “his story” with “Jesus’ story”. His life IS Jesus’ story. He lives it and experiences it through his body, but it’s Jesus’ life, Jesus’ story. We must not confuse our unique first-person perspective with actually being the main character. Jesus is the hero, not us.

Secondly, this is true for everyone else as well. So when we bump up against other people, we need to see Jesus’ Story unfolding in them. Mother Teresa once said:

“I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”

Every person’s life is Jesus’ Story experienced from their unique perspective. Because we see everything from our first-person viewpoint, it’s easy to forget that the person in front of you in the grocery line is also living Jesus’ Story. It’s also true for the person taking forever to drop off their child at school in front of you; for the guy who almost clipped your car on the freeway; for the co-worker who’s in a bad mood; for the friend who betrayed your confidence.

All of them are living Jesus’ Story. He’s present in their lives as he is in ours. By recognizing Jesus’ Story in their lives, we can be more patient, merciful and compassionate, knowing his Story is unfolding in their lives.

Thirdly, we still play a very active role in Jesus’ Story in our lives. We’re not passively being carried along by the plot. While we may not be the main character, we do play an important supporting role. We are to cooperate with Jesus. In our supporting, cooperative roles, our thoughts, feelings, decisions and actions matter. They matter a lot because we don’t naturally cooperate with Jesus by default.

Jesus’ Story is about him unleashing an entirely new world order upon this broken creation. This new world order, God’s New Creation, requires entirely new ways of thinking, feeling, acting and relating. So Jesus’ Story in your life is about unleashing this new world order around you, in you and through you. But it requires you learning from and cooperating with him in order to become the living embodiment of this new world order.

Fourthly, anything that happens to us is actually part of Jesus’ Story unfolding in our lives. Even if the circumstance is not at all good, it is still incorporated and transformed into Jesus’ Story in your life. The accident or close-call, the failure or success, the unkind word or complement, the betrayal or support, the tragedy or good fortune — all of it is absorbed into the unique first-person perspective of Jesus’ Story in your life. And then through your cooperation with him in his Story, it becomes another substantial moment in Jesus’ narrative of your life.

So your life is a story. It’s just not your story. Nor are you the leading character. And that’s okay.

Revelation: Revisited-Concluding Thoughts


rr-conclusionThe more I read and reflect on Revelation, the more excited I become about its story. I’m not excited because I believe I’ve unravelled all of its symbols and nuances. In fact, the opposite is true. I feel as if a vast ocean of mysterious imagery and allusions lays before me to explore and learn. But rather, my excitement for Revelation is that it calls me and every Jesus-follower to participate in God’s unfolding plan for his good creation.

Remember John’s vision of God’s throne room in Revelation 4 and 5? This is an awesome revelation of heaven’s perspective of present earthly circumstances. Yet too often we domesticate this revelation into the simple platitude, “God’s on his throne, so he’s in control.” While this is true and can comfort us in overwhelming circumstances, it is almost a caricature of the real vision.

Revelation 4 and 5 reveal far more than God “being in control.” He is the Center of all and the worship of all! And in his covenantal faithfulness, he is achieving a wonderful plan for the good of his creation!

Unfortunately, no one is worthy to “open the scroll,” to take on God’s project. Humanity, God’s image-bearers and caretakers of his creation, have failed. Israel, the family through whom God would rescue creation, have failed. No one is left.

Except the Lion of Judah! Jesus, who is both Israel’s kingly human representative as well as Israel’s God in person, is worthy! But wait! When John turns to view the Lion of Judah, he sees a sacrificial lamb.

Israel’s King (the Lion), ascends his throne when he is nailed upon the cross (the Lamb). At the crucifixion, “Jesus of Nazareth — the King of the Jews” as Pilate’s sign proclaimed, is truly enthroned. The principalities and powers are overcome. God is King!

On that fateful Friday, the sixth day, God fulfills Israel’s Story — through Israel, God would rescue creation from the clutches of corruption and evil. “It is finished!” declares Israel’s King, the Lion-Lamb upon the cross. And on the seventh day, God rests in the tomb.

Jesus’ victorious enthronement on the cross now allows God to begin the next phase of his good plan for creation. On the “first day of the week” according to John’s Gospel, God resurrects Jesus and thus launches his New Creation. For Jesus’ resurrection and the New Creation it inaugurates are the immediate results of the victory accomplished by Israel’s King.

Jesus’ victory accomplishes a second result. It also makes us “kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). We are now a royal priesthood who will continue to implement the victory Jesus won in the manner as he won it. N.T. Wright states:

“The Messiah [Israel’s King and representative] is to come into his kingdom through a horrible death; and those who not only follow him, but are called to implement his work must expect that their royal task – for such it is – will be accomplished in the same way, by the same means.” How God Became King

Through our sacrificial love, even to the point of martyrdom, God is enthroned, the powers are overcome, and New Creation is birthed in this present creation. In other words, the plan successfully implemented by Jesus not only established God as the True King and inaugurated New Creation, but rescued us so that we would continue to implement this victory through our faithful lives and sacrificial love.

Revelation excites me because it reminds me that Jesus didn’t rescue people FROM this world. He rescues people FOR this world. Revelation isn’t a story about how God will rescue me away from this world one day. I’m an active cooperative participant in God’s plan for this world, not a passive helpless spectator that’s whisked away. My life and how I live actually matters. Revelation’s story is relevant for the hear-and-now of everyday living, not a projection of some weird far-fetched future.

Revelation excites me because it tells a story that Jesus is King and is rescuing people, including me, to carry out his plan to renew this world. And even if my small part in that story is to love, suffer and perhaps die in faithfulness to King Jesus, God will be faithful and renew this world and complete his project and will rescue me even from death so I may live with him in his completed New Creation.

Revelation excites me because it reminds me that Jesus’ reconciling death and the new world order launched at his resurrection gives me a new human vocation to practice wherever I am and will carry me into and then onward in God’s final New Creation.

My daily responsibility is to be a faithful member of God’s royal priesthood, engaging and winning the world not with the love of power, which is the world’s strategy, but with the power of love, which is God’s strategy.

Who wouldn’t be excited about that?

Revelation: Revisited – Telling The Story (cont.)


Following the throne room vision, John introduces the first of three sequences — the seven seals. The seventh seal introduces the next sequence — the seven trumpets. Visions following the seven trumpets finally unveil the ultimate source of evil and its earthly agents — the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea and the Beast from the Land — and those who defeat these monsters. This then leads to the final sequence — the seven bowls.

The three sequences — seals, trumpets and bowls, and their associated visions — are not chronological nor sequential. Rather, they are different angles of the same complex reality of God’s plan to restore his broken creation. All three sequences are simultaneous perspectives of the fullness of evil being confronted by the fullness of God’s kingdom. And in each sequence, God is establishing his rule through his people who loyally embody, demonstrate and announce the Lion-Lamb.

The seals symbolically reveal that to restore his good creation, God must expose and extract the full extent of humanity’s arrogance and wickedness while ultimately bringing his people safely through the crises.

The trumpets symbolically reveal that to restore his good creation, God must let the forces of destruction do their worst so that he can then establish his kingdom fully over the world.

The bowls symbolically reveal that to restore his good creation, God must inflict horrific plagues upon the wicked world. Like the plagues of Egypt, God will rescue his people and ultimately confront and vanquish the dark powers that have enslaved them.

And through all the sequences, Jesus’ people, God’s royal priesthood, implement the Lion-Lamb’s victory through their faithful and sacrificial love, even unto their death. Since King Jesus holds the keys to death and hades, they can trust him to carry them through death and into restoration.

These three sequences result in God eternally conquering the powers of evil and ushering in the final vision. This final vision unveils the climax to God’s project — the full renewal and merging of heaven and earth, now filled with God’s glory and presence among people.

It’s important to note that the closing scene of the Bible is not of God destroying his current creation and replacing it with something new. Rather, he renews rather than replaces. It’s the “old order” that passes away. His creation has always been good. In this final vision, as God takes up residence in and with his creation, creation’s “goodness” is fully realized as it becomes the good receptacle of his glorious presence.

Also, the closing scene of the Bible is not about human beings going up to heaven as many people imagine. Rather, it’s about the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth. It’s the answer to the Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” And humans now dwell on God’s renewed earth fully merged with heaven and full of God’s glory.

And there is work to be done in God’s New Creation. Jesus’ people remain a royal priesthood. That does not end with the New Creation, but finds it’s fullness. From the New Jerusalem, which is the Lamb’s Bride, the Lamb’s people, flows healing to the rest of the world. Jesus’ followers will continue to be stewards over creation as from the beginning, implementing God’s mercy and healing to all of his creation and its inhabitants.

As with the initial vision of King Jesus, the vision of the New Jerusalem is equally intimate and majestic. God, who has mightily confronted and destroyed evil steps down from his throne and tenderly wipes away every tear from people’s eyes. This remarkable intimacy is the core of the entire Revelation — humans in community with God and with one another.

This final vision of God’s New Creation is of its consummation, its fullness and finality. This same New Creation was inaugurated at Jesus’ resurrection. John uses Revelation to help us hold these two moments in our imaginations. The images of the resurrected Jesus in chapter 1 and God’s throne room in chapters 4 and 5 are the vision of Jesus initiating the New Creation. The images of the New Jerusalem and the New Heaven and New Earth are the vision of Jesus completing the New Creation. We, living between these two events, are God’s royal priesthood. By embodying the Lion-Lamb’s sacrificial love, God is moving everything from the first vision toward the second. Therefore, we must hold both visions before us so we are not distracted, disillusioned or discouraged. Amidst the dark and deadly powers, our faithfulness is strengthened and reinforced by the visions of God’s New Creation so that we may overcome. And by overcoming, God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as in heaven.

Revelation: Revisited – Telling The Story


John’s ultimate purpose for Revelation is to encourage seven specific churches that are struggling within the Roman Empire to overcome through faithful living and sacrificial love. He accomplishes this task by creatively crafting a prophetic literary work based on an apocalyptic vision he had received. This literary work draws from hundreds of Old Testament allusions and contemporary imagery from the surrounding Roman culture to create a symbolic world that both provides a countercultural imagination and communicates how the church’s faithfulness is viewed from a heavenly perspective. And being that “seven” is a significant symbol for “fullness,” John’s use of seven churches expands to include all the churches.

In Revelation, John is revealing a world reborn. He is showing how God’s New Creation, inaugurated by the Risen King Jesus, is confronting the false and dark powers in the world and establishing God’s rightful reign through those faithfully loyal to the King.

This is how Revelation’s story unfolds:

John opens with an equally intimate and majestic vision of the Resurrected King Jesus. Jesus, embodying the Father’s incredible and terrifying glory, is the world’s true King and is confronting all the counterfeit tyrants and thrones. In fact, King Jesus holds the keys to Death and Hades, the ultimate weapons of false rulers. And this same Jesus is intimately walking among and interacting with his churches, speaking to and strengthening his people. John’s plan for Revelation is to evoke the faith and courage to live aligned with this vision of Jesus.

The vision of King Jesus shifts as he addresses seven specific churches. By addressing “seven” churches, John demonstrates that Jesus’ words both address unique issues specifically in seven churches but also symbolically in the entire Church.

While each church’s struggles are unique, Jesus’ encouragement is the same — overcome. By loyalty to Jesus expressed in sacrificial love, the Church continues Jesus’ incarnation, embodying the place where heaven and earth continue to meet. The call to overcome is the rallying cry for the struggling churches to continue what Jesus had started.

Next, the thin veil between heaven and earth is pulled away and John is allowed to see our earthly experiences from heaven’s perspective. This is the True Reality Jesus’ people must hold in their thoughts and imaginations. Behind life in ancient Turkey, behind the threats of Roman rulership, behind the seduction of false prophets, behind the struggles and temptations of ordinary life stands the heavenly throne room where the Creator and King eternally reigns. This vision is essential for Jesus’ people to make sense of everything taking place around and among them.

As we gaze into the throne room, we see God’s creation, embodied by remarkable creatures, worshipping him. Creation’s worship is magnified and given fuller expression by humanity’s worship. But amidst the praise, there is also a problem. No one can be found worthy to implement God’s plan for his creation, symbolized by the scroll. From the beginning, God is committed to run the world through humans. Humanity’s failure didn’t change his plan. God is committed to rescuing the world through Israel. Israel’s failure didn’t change his plan. Who, then, will open the scroll?

When all seems lost, John is told to behold “the lion from the tribe of Judah.” Here is God’s worthy and victorious King! But when John turns to view the lion, he sees a sacrificial lamb. The Lion, which symbolizes ultimate power and rulership, is now fused with the Lamb, which symbolizes vulnerability and weakness through sacrificial death. The two are the one and the same. God’s ultimate sovereignty is accomplished through sacrificial love. The Lamb’s sacrifice is the Lion’s victory.

In this startling revelation, the churches’ unique struggles as well as King Jesus’ encouragement make sense. We continue the Lion’s victory through the Lamb’s sacrifice. Through our sacrificial love, we overcome and are victorious like Jesus. In other words, Jesus implements God’s plan contained within the scroll, rescuing people to be a royal priesthood in order to carry out the Lion-Lamb’s worldwide victory.

We’ll conclude Revelation’s story next time…

Revelation: Revisited – Creative Storytelling


I think many people may be surprised by the following quote by NT Wright:

“The Book of Revelation tells the same story that the Gospels tell. It is the story of how Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, conquered the power of evil through his death and became the Lord of the world. The New Testament is not about how Jesus, on the one hand revealed he was divine, and then died so that we could go to heaven. That’s halfway to Gnosticism if you’re not careful. They are about how Jesus acted as the embodiment of Israel’s God to overthrow the usurping forces of evil and to establish through his death, resurrection and ascension God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.” -NT Wright, “Revelation and Christian Hope: Political Implications of the Revelation of John”

When Revelation speaks for itself, we find that John’s “story” aligns itself with the overarching “story” of the Gospels and the New Testament — through Jesus’ embodiment of Israel’s God, God vanquishes evil, restores his creation and fully establishes his kingdom on earth as in heaven. Revelation is the natural continuation of the Gospels’ story, that Jesus’ people are continuing his incarnation as his body and therefore continue what he began. John creatively tells this story by combining three literary genres — apocalyptic, prophetic and pastoral.

At the heart of Revelation is an amazing vision given to John. In this vision, mysteries and secrets known only in heaven and not know on earth are revealed to John. Key to understanding this revelation is remembering that “heaven” and “earth” are two dimensions of the same reality. So the thin veil between these two dimensions is pulled back and John is shown present earthly reality from heaven’s perspective. And what’s revealed is God’s plan to restore his creation, fully and finally merging these two dimensions.

This is the apocalyptic genre of John’s book.

John is also a prophet and knows that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s Story. He understands that this vision is the supreme culmination of Israel’s vast prophetic heritage. Israel’s prophetic story has led to Jesus’ kingship and this vision reveals that his reign is continually established through the Church’s life as they live and struggle. So John creatively communicates his vision in a way that proclaims God’s intention to God’s people. As Richard Bauckham states:

“Revelation is a literary work composed with astonishing care and skill. We should certainly not doubt that John had remarkable visionary experiences, but he has transmitted them through what must have been a lengthy process of reflection and writing into a thoroughly literary creation which is designed not reproduce the experience so much as to communicate the meaning of the revelation that had been given him.”

The prophetic role is to communicate meaning. Knowing his vision of Jesus is the climax of Israel’s prophetic heritage, John imparts deep meaning to his vision by saturating his work with over two hundred allusions to the Old Testament. He never directly quotes the Old Testament, but relies on his readers deep familiarity with its complex themes. John ties off the multiple threads of Old Testament prophetic themes to their fulfillment in Jesus and now being implemented in the ordinary lives of his people.

This is the prophetic genre of John’s book.

John is also a pastor. He takes his startling vision of heaven’s perspective of earthly events, crafts it into an amazing counter-cultural symbolic world in order to communicate God’s purposes and then applies it directly to specific situations faced by the churches that he shepherds. And he does so in a startling way.

Pastoral epistles were usually written to a specific church or intended to be a “circular” epistle passed on to several churches. If an epistle is written to a specific church, it usually addressed situations specific to that church’s context. Therefore, readers outside that church would have greater difficulty finding direct application to their own situations. If an epistle was “circular” and intended for many churches, it was usually more generic and didn’t address the specific situations in one particular church.

John does something very creative. He addresses Revelation to seven specific churches experiencing very different situations. Some are being persecuted. Some are in danger of compromising with the surrounding Roman culture. Some are rich. Some are poor. But each portion addressed to the specific church ends the same way — overcome! This is a military word for victory.

In other words, each church has it’s own experiences and obstacles. John’s pastoral word is “keep fighting the good fight because by doing so, God is vanquishing evil, restoring creation and establishing his reign.” This will look differently for each church. For some it will mean persecution and martyrdom. For others it will mean resisting temptation. For others it will mean not compromising with Roman culture. But for each church, it’s their part in a larger “cosmic” battle of establishing Jesus’ kingship in direct opposition to all the other “kings” vying for power and control.

And John’s seven pastoral encouragements to overcome are drawn into his one final encouragement to overcome at the end of Revelation. Those who faithfully participate in the battle for Jesus’ kingship through their faithful living will ultimately inherit the coming New Creation to which all of their efforts have been contributing.

But wait there’s more! John’s use of “seven” is a significant part of the symbolic world he’s creating. Seven represents fullness. So while John is addressing seven specific churches and their unique situations, he’s symbolically addressing the entire “full” church and all of her people’s unique situations. He’s not only pastoring seven specific churches, but providing encouragement to the entire church! And that encouragement in all situations is the same — overcome!

This is the pastoral genre of John’s book.

John weaves these three literary genres together to create a visual story to strengthen and encourage Jesus’ people to look beyond their culture, their puzzles, their pain, their temptations and to embody his sacrificial love in the midst of a world filled with calamities, monsters and chaos.

Revelation: Revisited – Overcome, Not Escape


Revelation is a rallying cry for Jesus’ people. Despite the many false kingdoms that both tempt us to compromise or threaten us with persecution, God is on his glorious eternal throne and Jesus is worthy to implement God’s plan for his Creation. But that plan is implemented through Jesus’ people as they sacrificially live and love in the midst of the roiling conflict.

Revelation reveals that God’s plan to vanquish evil, restore his Creation and establish his full reign is being accomplished through his people as they live in the midst of the chaos. To put it another way, Jesus’ people is how God is answering Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Early Christians believed heaven and earth met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and that his followers continued this project. We immediately discover in the opening verses of Revelation that Jesus has made us “to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev 1:6). As we move through Revelation, we are reminded repeatedly that we are a royal priesthood and an important part of God’s unfolding plan.

As NT Wright states:

“This book in fact offers one of the clearest and sharpest visions of God’s ultimate purpose for the whole creation, and of the way in which the powerful forces of evil, at work in a thousand ways but not least in idolatrous and tyrannous political systems, can be and are being overthrown through the victory of Jesus the Messiah and the consequent costly victory of his followers.” -NT Wright, Revelation for Everyone.

So the underlying message of Revelation is “overcome.” This is Jesus’ message to each of his seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. We are God’s royal priesthood through whom God is performing his grand work of bringing heaven and earth together.

I think the idea of a Rapture has dominated the interpretative landscape of Revelation. So many Christians reading Revelation assume God will rescue his people from the chaos and conflict when actually he will rescue them through the chaos and conflict. In Revelation 1:18, King Jesus is holding the keys of death and hades. In other words, death has lost its power. Even though sacrificial love may lead Jesus’ people to death like their king, death is never the final answer. Jesus’ people will be rescued and raised through death.

As Jesus proclaims in Revelation 21:7, the person who overcomes (the same word to the seven churches) inherits the New Creation for which he has given his life and will be God’s child.


Revelation: Revisited – Symbols And Codes


Perhaps both the beauty and mystery of Revelation come from John’s staggering use of symbols. As we read Revelation, we should not expect its symbols to act as codes. Symbols and codes are very different. Codes assume a direct one-to-one correspondence. Symbols do something much more powerful. They encapsulate powerful stories, often in ways that transcend words.

Every culture has symbols. For example, the American flag is a symbol. It doesn’t have a one-to-one correspondence to anything. Rather, it conveys a spectrum of images, emotions and values such as bravery, courage, sacrifice, and loyalty. Within that symbol are “codes.” The fifty stars represent the fifty states. The red and white stripes represent the original thirteen colonies. But the symbol of the American flag transcends any one-to-one correspondence. And its power is that it transcends words. It enforces deep emotions, values and a worldview. That’s why candidates from different political parties can use the American flag as a symbol in their campaigns, even though their agendas and priorities differ. They’re relying on the power of symbol to communicate beyond words.

We must keep the power of symbol in mind as we read Revelation. Richard Bauckham reminds us that Revelation creates “a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they live transformed.” This symbolic world provides a “set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.”

Revelation’s symbols are charged with perception-altering power because they draw from the original readers’ context within Roman culture as well as their vast familiarity with the Old Testament to create a “complex network of cross-references, parallels, contrasts, which inform the meaning of the parts and the whole.” Just like a country’s flag waving on a field of battle can strengthen weary troops, Revelation’s symbolic world stokes faith and courage for Jesus’ people to overcome in the midst of temptation and persecution.

So within this vibrantly visual world, we shouldn’t feel compelled to find a one-to-one correspondence for everything John writes. We don’t need to look for comparisons between Revelation’s symbols and current events in the news. Rather, like the original audience, we should let Revelation’s rich symbolic world shape our imaginations. This requires effort in learning the cultural symbols and Old Testament allusions familiar to John’s audience. But the rewards of immersing oneself in John’s rich imagery is worth the effort.

Revelation: Revisited – Biblical Inspiration


I think many people believe that the Bible is “inspired” because they assume God dictated his message to human authors. So when we read Revelation, which is a remarkable prophetic vision, we easily assume that John is simply scribbling down his vision as quickly as he’s seeing it.

But that’s not how biblical inspiration works. God works with the biblical authors. And every biblical author shapes the “story” he’s telling in order to accomplish a particular agenda.

A good example of this is the four Gospels. The authors of the three synoptic Gospels— Matthew, Mark and Luke — take the “raw material” available of the Jesus story and shape it with a theological and pastoral agenda. So these three Gospels include, revise or omit certain stories or details to communicate different agendas. John’s Gospel stands out from the other three because it’s crafted more creatively than the others. Have you ever noticed that the Jesus in John’s Gospel has long and complex speeches while the Jesus in the synoptic Gospels speaks in short pithy statements? The synoptic Gospels also have Jesus giving longer “sermons.” But in those Gospels he uses parables and short statements rather than more complex theological reflections in John’s Gospel.

All four authors are sharing the story of the same Jesus. But their theological and pastoral agendas are guiding how they portray Jesus.

The same is true for Revelation. John receives an incredible vision. But he then shapes that vision with a specific pastoral and prophetic agenda. This is especially apparent in the word choices, Old Testament allusions, and literary devices that he uses throughout Revelation. The final product of his literary efforts is work of great depth and reflection. His work is a well-crafted, well-thought piece of literature with a very unique purpose for ongoing Christian discipleship, not forecasting the future.

This is important because if we expect Revelation to be only a recitation of a glorious vision, than John is relegated to the role of observer. But if we let Revelation speak, we discover that John, both a faithful steward of God’s vision and a faithful shepherd of God’s people, works with God in communicating a beautiful symbolic world filled with Old Testament allusions and counter-cultural imagery to strengthen the faith and courage in Jesus’ people so they will follow him in a world filled with temptations, threats, persecutions, pain, sorrow and struggle.

Revelation: Revisited – False Expectations


Based on a friend’s recommendation, I recently read Peter Enns’ book, The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It.

This book reminded me of a truism about reading the Bible that I find relevant to Revelation: “False expectations can lead to incorrect interpretations.”

For example, many people read the Gospels as though each account was an attempt to prove Jesus’ divinity and demonstrate how a person can “be saved” and “go to heaven.” That false expectation distorts the authors’ intentions.

The same is true for Revelation. Due to popular theology and the highly symbolic nature of the book, many people assume Revelation is a roadmap to the future. They either ignore the fact that it’s written to seven historical church or they “symbolize” those churches to represent stages of the Church throughout history. Either way, they view Revelation as the result of John peering into the far distant future and trying to describe what he sees from his ancient perspective.

It is essential that we try to set aside our presuppositions about Revelation and let it speak for itself. I remember how difficult this was back in 2005 when I studied the book. As I read and reread the book, the futurist interpretation from my early Christian formation kept whispering in my ear.

But any serious Bible reader must practice “exegesis” as best as possible. Exegesis means “to draw out.” This allows the author’s intent, and not our expectations, to determine the book’s agenda

Unfortunately, most of us are guilty of the opposite, which is “eisegesis,” reading into the text. This is understandable. Most of us have heard other people’s interpretations and those voices accompany us as we read. We just need to be aware of this and keep trying to let the text speak louder than the other voices.

I had mentioned in my first post in this series that I no longer accepted a futurist interpretation of Revelation. That’s because such an interpretation is blatant eisegesis. It requires a “dispensationalist” interpretative grid that is foreign to anything John intended.

When we set aside the false expectation that John is describing future events, John’s actual intention becomes clearer.

Revelation: Revisited – Introduction


Recent conversations have rekindled my interest in Revelation. Back in 2005, I took a serious dive into this mysterious book and emerged with a very different understanding than what I held in my early Christian years. I was excited to discover that Revelation was immensely relevant to life and apprenticeship to Jesus.

(If you’re interested, I’ve consolidated the posts from my 2005 study into one document. You can get that document here: blog-posts-on-revelation-2005.)

Rereading my posts from that time has excited me about Revelation again. So I decided to do another series called Revelation: Revisited.

Where the original posts explored more of the details in Revelation, the goal in this series is simply to unpack some thoughts on Revelation. I’ll be upfront right now. I completely reject the futurist interpretation of Revelation made popular by dispensationalist theology. Except for the last two chapters, I don’t think Revelation is an outline of future events. Therefore, I do not believe in the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium and all the other aspects of that interpretation.

I know this can be controversial for some. I apologize right now if I offend anyone. That’s not my intent. Nor is it my intent to engage in arguments nor to defend my stance. I simply want to unpack how I believe we should approach Revelation as well as its overall message for Christian discipleship.

Because of my different interpretation of Revelation, I’ve learned to avoid conversations about Revelation over the years. It’s tough answering questions like “Do you believe in a Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulation Rapture?” when I don’t believe in the Rapture or the Tribulation. But saying that raises issues that are even more difficult to discuss in casual conversation. Conversations about Revelation always felt like a form of  “culture clash.”  I felt like a British citizen trying to discuss “football” with my American friends. We were using similar words, but discussing completely different games. And trying to explain the complexities and nuances of the game was too demanding.

But Revelation is too important for life to ignore. As I’ve come to understand its message and how its literary forms work to communicate its message, Revelation inspires me to follow Jesus in the here and now as much as the Gospels and other New Testament documents. So I hope this series will encourage others to revisit Revelation and experience the relevancy I’ve discovered in its pages.

BTW, a couple of books that have provided support in my original dive into Revelation in 2005 and in this series are:

  • The Theology of the Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham
  • Revelation for Everyone by NT Wright

Both are short volumes. But don’t let their size fool you. They are explosive in their content.

Life-Giving Liturgy

“The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” -St John of Kronstadt

gospel-book-2In my early years as a Christian, it was easy for me to dismiss liturgy as being ritualistic. Unfortunately, there are too many anecdotes that validated my belief. As I matured over the years, I observed two things. First, many who dismissed liturgy as ritualistic only replaced one form of liturgy with another, albeit a much simpler one. For example, at the Vineyard, we had an unspoken liturgy that we followed at virtually every service — 30-45 minutes of singing, announcements, sermon, altar call, and then prayer time. Similar liturgies were performed in other churches and denominations I attended.

The second thing I observed is that liturgy is truly life-giving. Within its well-thought movements, a community can commune with God. That’s because liturgy is a divine “drama,” an embodied story infused with God’s grace that is grounded in time and space and simultaneously spans across time and space.

Grounded within time and space, liturgy at its best, engages the entire person and community. As expressed in the quote above, God uses “everyday” tangible elements within the liturgy to transmit his presence to his worshippers. Simple things like bread, wine, oil, water, incense, and pictures combined with physical activities like crossing oneself, lighting a candle, and kissing an icon or the Gospel book join us with this grace-infused drama. Our entire being enters into worship and communion with God. And we experience this together as a community, young and old, carrying the entire spectrum of human thought, emotion and experience.

Transcending time and space, liturgy at its best, unites us with God’s family through the ages, generations who have come before and the generations who will come after. And it also unites us with our past younger worshipping selves as a child or young adult and with our future older worshipping selves. And ultimately, liturgy is a moment when God’s future New Creation manifests within the present creation. It’s when the “now and not yet” of God’s kingdom becomes tangibly more “now.” It’s that special moment that the Bible calls “kairos” when the New Creation manifests itself concretely within the fabric of history.

But all of this can be easily missed when one attends liturgy. Instead of flashing lights, one sees the flickering of candles. Instead of peals of thunders, one hears the quiet refrains of “Lord, have mercy.” Instead of a majestic vision of God’s throne room, one watches a humble priest praying for God’s people. Instead of saints glowing with glory, one sees normal people stretching their aching backs, fighting distraction, shuffling their tired feet, praying, bowing, crossing themselves, and eating bread and wine in reverence and devotion.

And through it all normal people receive Life as they commune with God, each other and all God’s worshippers through time and space.

Misguided Zeal

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. -Luke 9:51-55

This is another moment in a string of episodes demonstrating the inability of Jesus’ followers to truly understand the scope of his mission. Sometimes, I think we’re so quick to judge Peter for his many missteps, that we forget James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples, blundered as well.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for his ultimate demonstration of God’s love. Yet, two of his closest followers want to call down divine judgment upon a village because the villagers won’t welcome their entourage. You can almost hear the slap of Jesus’ palm on his forehead.

Warning PoleChristian history is replete with this type of misguided zeal. A serious problem occurs when protecting the fidelity of the Faith eclipses the actual values of the Faith. While we may not literally call down fire, we resort to other tactics. We’ll label ourselves and others so that it creates an “us” vs “them” dichotomy. We’ll denounce others who are not in our group while we exalt ourselves as being genuine Christians. We’ll resort to “straw man” tactics or compare our group’s best with their group’s worst.

Every group has its overzealous members.

When I was a young Christian in Calvary Chapel, I remember some speaking of Roman Catholics as adherents to dead ritual, implying that they weren’t really Christians. And they described mainline denominations as “liberal” with a similar insinuation.

During my short involvement with YWAM, the organization’s evangelism efforts were focused in middle eastern countries like Turkey. I remember hearing some stating that Eastern Orthodox Christians needed to be evangelized because their religion was dead.

As part of the Charismatic movement, other Christians were viewed as not having the Holy Spirit and being spiritually dead. I remember some stating about non-charismatic churches, “If God didn’t show up to their church on Sunday morning, no one would notice.”

When I was part of the Emergent/House Church movement, I heard some speaking suspiciously of professional pastors because they actually made a living from pastoring.

As part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I hear some using words like “heterodox” and “heretic” too easily to describe non-Orthodox forms of Christianity. Quite frankly, some of the Protestant-bashing I’ve heard in my limited experience in Orthodoxy is sickening.

I’m familiar with these incidents because, to my shame, I’ve participated in this misguided zeal.

It’s taken more time than necessary, but I’ve finally learned that Evangelicals have no more of a personal relationship with God than Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainline Christians. Nor are Charismatics any more Spirit-filled than their other siblings. House churches are no more genuine than their institutional counterparts. Eastern Orthodoxy is no more truer, enlightened or faithful than any other form of Christianity. Everyone needs to be evangelized with God’s Good News.

In the midst of all this zealous craziness, Jesus demonstrates God’s love for everyone by dying upon a cross. Three days later, he bursts from the grave to launch God’s New Creation for all.

I’m not saying everyone simply needs to embrace a wishy-washy undefined faith. Quite the opposite. Our faith must develop, mature and become well-defined. As such, distinctions will always exist. But the more mature our faith becomes, the more it should align with the actual values of the Faith — faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, holiness, compassion, humility, repentance… I think you get my point.

Jesus’ followers defend the faith by living the faith.

Part of living the faith means living in loving communion with all of Jesus followers — valuing each other and each other’s tradition so we can talk with and learn from each other.

Earlier this year, I wrote the following “classified ad” but never had the courage to post it on social media:

“Wanted: A small group of Christians who gather regularly with the sole agenda of becoming Jesus’ apprentices through spiritual formation. This group would welcome Jesus’ apprentices from all traditions — Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. It would not be affiliated with any organization nor would it replace anyone’s local church or parish. Rather, it would be a group of friends committed to learning with and from one another about how to follow Jesus. This group would discuss Scripture and supplemental writings, pray for one another, support one another and learn from each other’s traditions, theology and practices in the ultimate effort of becoming like Jesus for the sake of the world.”

I would love to be part of a community whose members are learning to carry the cross rather than calling down fire.

Struggling In Prayer

Unto My Words-sRGB“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there.” -Romans 15:30-31

I have to be honest. After being a Christian for over 30 years, prayer is still a mystery to me. There are certain aspects I understand. For example, I know prayer is relational conversation with God. And in that conversation, I pour out my heart, be it praise, thanksgiving, remorse, confession, desperation, or petition.

But prayer is also more than that. So there are other aspects of prayer that are shrouded in mystery for me, even after all these years. The passage in Romans is one of them. How does one “fight the battle” for another in prayer? Is this just dramatic imagery for simply praying for a person’s needs? Or is there something more?

Throughout my Christian life, I’ve participated in groups that had their particular answer to these questions. I’ve been in some prayer meetings where praying was spiritual warfare performed by audibly “binding and loosing” spiritual powers influencing situations.

I’ve been in groups where lists of requests were gathered and a small group would pray over the various needs.

I’ve been in groups where the participants would physically lay their hands on a person and wait for the Spirit to bring specific prayers and prophetic messages to mind.

I’ve also been in groups where prayer is quietly whispering a liturgical prayer and lighting a candle for a person, requesting God’s mercy and presence in their life.

I suspect Paul and the early Christians understood something that is often missing in our modern concept of prayer. Too often we see prayer as petitioning God and expecting an answer. What if that isn’t necessarily the prayer’s primary purpose. What if prayer is more like training — learning to wait on God, sense his leading, praying appropriately, then rinse and repeat.

In most Christian traditions, the “Lord’s Prayer” is the model for prayer. But Jesus wasn’t giving us categories or words to pray. He was showing us how to become “mobile Temples,” how to become God’s presence where heaven and earth are stitched together through love.

What if prayer is like working out on an exercise machine at the gym. In this example, we don’t do a few reps and expect to have fully developed muscles. It takes months or years of training to hone our muscles.

So perhaps prayer transcends mere petition and answer. Perhaps prayer is working out in cooperation with God so our interior life is reshaped and renewed into the place where heaven and earth are joined and then expressed naturally through our exterior life.

So what if Paul’s request is similar to Jesus’ model prayer. Surely he needs their prayers on his behalf. And immediate answers would be greatly appreciated. But he’s a pastor. He knows there are tensions between between Christians and non-Christians. And there are tensions between the Roman Church and the Jerusalem Church.

So perhaps, Paul’s request gives the Roman Christians the opportunity to continually pray for both “unbelievers” and “God’s people” in Jerusalem so they may train into God’s love toward these people.

One of my earliest memories as a child was learning to swim. Every week, my mom would take us to Ms. Christie’s house for lessons. I remember clutching the side of the pool. Ms. Christie stood in the water several feet away, beckoning me. I would let go of the side, struggling with each stroke to reach her. But she always seemed just out of reach. With every few inches I achieved, she would move away from me. When I felt I couldn’t go any further, I was suddenly in her safe and secure arms as she quickly closed the distance between us and grabbed me. Over and over, we would do this. And I learned to swim.

Perhaps that’s what prayer is like. Perhaps our needs or our loved one’s needs force us to struggle toward God. But in love, he always remains slightly out of reach. By doing so, he’s helping us to grow into love, into the embodiment of his New Creation. And just when it seems like all is lost, we’re in his safe and secure arms. Perhaps we don’t have the answer we desired. But we have his presence and the transformation he intended all along.

So if love is the embodiment of God’s New Creation, then prayer is the exercise that develops it in our lives.

Not Chosen By God

PassionsThe other day I was reading Acts 1:21-26. This is the episode when the Apostles replace the fallen Judas as one of The Twelve.

Twelve is not just a nice round number. Twelve Apostles are necessary to continue Jesus’ work. Jesus is restoring Israel, God’s people, around himself. As the twelve tribes followed God’s presence in the pillar of fire, the twelve Apostles followed God’s presence in Jesus. They are embodying God’s renewed plan for Israel, so twelve Apostles are absolutely necessary to move forward.

So after a vetting process, the eleven Apostles find two qualified men — Mathias and Justus. And with a cast of lots, God chooses Mathias… and doesn’t choose Justus.

And the story quickly moves on. But I can’t.

My thoughts keep returning to Justus. Who was this man? What did he think and feel to be one of the two finalists to join The Twelve, only to watch God choose the other man?

Scripture provides us very little. He was known by three names — Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus.

Church tradition fills in some biographical gaps. Justus was a son of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, from his first wife Salome. In other words, Justus was Jesus’ step-brother.

Now some people may be scratching their heads and asking, “Wait a minute. You’re saying Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, was married to someone else before Mary?” Yes. The image of a young Joseph and Mary depicted in our modern Christmas story is incorrect.

According to Church tradition, Joseph was previously married to Salome. They had four sons and two daughters before she died and left Joseph a widower. These are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the Gospels and include James (author of the Book of James), Jude (author of the Book of Jude), and Justus.

What about Mary?

Dedicated to God by her parents, Joachim and Anna, Mary grew up as a little girl in the Temple. Young women could not live in the Temple once they reached puberty. An elderly Joseph, now a widower, is selected by lots to become young Mary’s husband-caretaker. After birthing Jesus, Mary remains a virgin the entirety of her life. Joseph and Mary never had any children together.

So back to Justus.

Justus was among the original members of Jesus’ ministry. He was eventually chosen by Jesus to be among The Seventy, who were sent out as part of his ministry (Luke 10). Justus ultimately became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis and died a martyr. So we know that he faithfully served Jesus and his people his entire life.

Beyond the biographical information, Church tradition is as silent as Scripture regarding Justus’ thoughts and feelings at not being chosen by God.

At this point one can only speculate. I think it’s safe to assume that Justus was like any other person. So I wonder if he experienced disappointment, doubt or depression. What was going on in his head? One cannot be passed over by God without asking introspective questions. Was I not worthy enough? Did I do something wrong? Am I disqualified? Why him and not me? What now?

I also wonder if inactivity increased the volume of that inner voice. Jesus had instructed his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Father (Acts 1:4). And so they waited and prayed in the upper room. What did he feel when he saw Mathias now huddling with the other eleven Apostles? What were Justus’ prayers like? What was he saying to God? Was he repenting of envy over his friend’s new position? Was he praying for clarity over why he was passed over? Or was he praying for strength, safety and wisdom for his friend? From personal experience, I think his prayers were a mixture of everything.

Mere days later, God’s wind and fire would rest on Justus along with the other hundred-plus believers. In that moment, perhaps Justus’ thoughts and feelings of rejection are swept away in this amazing flurry of excitement and activity. Perhaps his questions are answered as he and the astounded community of believers realize they are now empowered to continue what Jesus had started. Regardless of position, there was new work to be done by all.

In a short reflection on Justus, NT Wright states, “Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.”

Knowing that Justus’ ultimate trajectory was to become Bishop and Martyr, I would like to think he quickly grasped that truth and found his fulfillment in whatever God placed before him. While God didn’t choose him to be one of The Twelve, he knew God had chosen him for service. And by embracing that vocation, he faithfully served God’s people and ultimately followed his Savior’s example, sacrificing his life in love.

And centuries later, Justus’ life still serves as a quiet example for all who feel they haven’t been chosen by God.

Father, some mornings I wake up wondering if I completely failed you and have been disqualified from your work. May Justus’ faithful life be an encouragement. There’s always work to be done in your kingdom. Keep my focus on that. And when necessary, remind me that whatever work you place before me, it is neither “great” nor “small”. It is work for which your Spirit has called and empowered me to do. May Justus remind me to be faithful to the end.

Farewell To Best Friends

img_6688Around 6pm tonight, Debbie, Chris and I watched our family’s best and dearest friends, Mark and Barbara Feliciano, drive away to begin a new phase in their lives in Idaho Falls. I’ve been dreading this day since October 1, 2015 when Mark and Barb shared with us the potential of moving to Idaho.

Almost a year later, that day has arrived. And our friends are gone.

I am so thankful that God brought our lives together twenty years ago. Who would have known when they first visited the Glendora Vineyard how deep our friendships and how entwined our families would become?

We worshipped and served together at the Glendora Vineyard. Some of my fondest memories were times of worship as the drummer on Mark’s team. Mark and Barb were an encouraging presence when I experienced burnout. Later, we would work together to create an experimental community at the Vineyard where we and dozens of others would explore authentic community and discipleship. Mark and Barb were also a light and comfort during our challenging last years at the Vineyard.

After leaving the Vineyard, our families launched a little faith community in their home and explored simply being God’s people together. We started a business together. And most recently, we joined the Orthodox Church together. But these are just milestone moments in our shared lives. Equally meaningful and cherished are all of the little details of life that filled in the nooks and crannies of our friendship together.

img_6772Mark and Barb’s home was like a second home to our family. My children were always welcome and  enjoyed authentic adult friendships from an early age. Our families have shared more meals, conversations, dreams, laughs and tears than I can count. And our family has benefited in untold ways from Mark and Barb’s wisdom, generosity, compassion, mercy, encouragement, and prayers. They have been such a constant source of love in our lives. Even as the last boxes were being loaded onto the trailer by the moving company, we shared a final meal filled with laughter and joy in their empty living room.

I always assumed we would live close to each other the rest of our lives. I imagined regular meals together, talking about life, looking forward to what God would do next, and slowly growing into our golden years together. But that is not meant to be.

img_6773As we helped Mark and Barb pack their last few belongings into their car, hugged them good-bye and watched them drive away, I was crushed by the reality that they will no longer be a few minutes away. Their home that was once filled with warmth and love is now an empty husk. There will be no more times of sharing stories from the past week, no more talking face-to-face about God’s activity in our lives, no more impromptu dinners, no more Super Bowl parties, no more hanging out and just being together.

Yet as much as my family and I will miss them, we are extremely excited for them. Not only are they beginning a new adventure together in a new home in a new city in a new state, but they will be surrounded by a strong and supportive network of family members. Now others will get to experience the joy, generosity, wisdom, and beauty that Mark and Barb embody. Their new home will become a place of love. Many will be blessed by spending time in their home, sharing meals, celebrating, conversing about God and life, and all the other relational gems our family has enjoyed for years. Mark and Barb embody God’s life in a precious and unique way and I’m glad others will now benefit from what God has created in them.

I am grateful beyond measure for the years we have shared with Mark and Barb. Our friendships are the closest thing to the New Testament idea of “fellowship” that I have ever experienced. And I love them more than I could ever express.

goodbyeA beautiful piece of our lives drove away today. There is a gaping hole in our hearts and I am sad beyond belief. We will miss them dearly.

Father, I cannot fully express my thanksgiving for joining our lives with Mark and Barb’s lives for all these years. Through them you have loved us, encouraged us, challenged us, and comforted us. Our family has experienced your amazing love in countless tangible ways through them. Be their companion, guide and protector during this new phase of their life. Fill their new home with your love and presence. And may many others receive the blessings our family has enjoyed through the years.

Present In The Moment Through Photography

I have quoted Zeb Andrews on this blog several times before. There are many photographers that inspire me to become a more skilled photographer. But there are a select few who actually inspire me to become a better person through photography. Zeb Andrews is one of those unique photographers.

One of the original reasons I fell in love with photography was because it helped me see normal, everyday things from a different perspective; to see details that I would have ordinarily overlooked. Photography has helped me to become more aware. And in the process of becoming aware, it helped me to become more thankful.

Yesterday on his Flickr account, Zeb posted the following image and reflection that shares my original passion for photography:

roundabouts-zeb_andrews_2016“Roundabouts” by Zeb Andrews

“I have said this before, but I have no problem talking about it again because good things have a tendency to come back around… and around… and around.

“I try not to be a photographer to do things. I mean, my goal isn’t to take photos. It isn’t even to make photos. It just so happens that in my normal course of photography that I make lots of pictures, but I see this as a side benefit. I am a photographer to be things, not do them. I want to be creative. I want to be inquisitive. I want to be attentive. I want to be in the moment and I want to be hopeful of the future. I want to be fascinated and awe struck at the myriad subtleties to life and the world. I want to be aware of the fact that no matter where I go or when I am that there are so many things that are different than where I came from… and there are also so many things that are the same. I want to enjoy the pattern that a leaf makes skittering across the road in a gust of wind. I want to look back in uncertain curiosity at that cat crouched in the windowsill watching me. I want to spend some portion of my life wondering about the coincidence of that red car parked in front of that red house with the bush full of red flowers right between them. Who thinks these things up, after all?

“Because then, regardless of whether photos come of the moment or not, I get something vastly more rewarding.

“Take revolving doors for a moment. This is a revolving door I have walked past countless times. It is a door I have barely noticed. I have never felt a shred of curiosity about it. I have never walked through… never been tempted to walk through it… never had a reason to be tempted to walk through it. But this is what photography helps me to be… curious, with reason and cause.

“I am well aware that there is a vast gulf of things we are blind to in our daily lives, things we take for granted or fail to notice. I know I never can, but I want to notice it all. I want a revolving door to be as fascinating as an ancient church in France.

“Anyway, that is what this image is really all about.”

Chris Turns Seventeen!

Chris' Seventeenth Birthday

Today, Chris turns seventeen. Being the youngest of our four children, he has carried the moniker “Baby of the Family” all his life. But he’s not the baby and hasn’t been for years.

Chris is a remarkable young man. He’s handsome, intelligent, witty, creative, perceptive, and compassionate. If there’s a Bible verse that summarizes Chris, it would be Micah 6:8, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

From an early age, he’s possessed a strong moral compass as well as compassion for people. He’s a deep thinker and continues to startle me with his thoughts and perspective. He also takes his relationship with God very seriously. And can that kid make me laugh!

Honestly, I wish I had a friend like him when I was growing up. And those who consider him a friend probably don’t know how fortunate they are to have someone like him in their lives.

As with all of my kids, I look through old photos and videos and wonder how they grew so quickly. But because Chris is our youngest, I think the nostalgia is felt more deeply. It seems like only yesterday that I was holding him in my arms. And now he towers over me both in physical and spiritual stature.

As a senior in high school, he will soon cross the threshold of graduation into a more adult world. But I’m confident that he will find his way, walk with God and do very well.

Chris is awesome! I love him and I am very proud of him! I love being his dad and his friend and he brings so much joy to our family.

Father, thank you for Chris. Thank you for creating him to be such a delightful and wonderful man. Please draw him close to you so that he may experience and know your abundant and intimate love. Continue to shape him so that his life is a living Gospel to all around him. Show him your ways so he may walk with you all his life. And thank you for the absolute privilege of being his dad and his friend.

Kids At Play

DizzyThis past weekend, I took a walk in Glendora and passed by Finkbiner Park. This park is filled with great memories of my children playing together. It reminded me of how much I loved watching my kids play when they were younger. I remember them playing tag at local parks or gobbling down their food and rushing to play on the slides, tubes and ball pit at McDonalds.

Walking past Finkbiner Park reminded me again of how blessed I am to have four kids who loved being and playing with each other all their lives.

And it’s something I miss now that they’re adults facing adult responsibilities, schedules and stress. I miss the anticipation in their body language as our car would approach a park, the youthful exuberance as they tumbled out of the car in their rush to the play equipment, the delight in their eyes as they gave themselves completely to whatever game they played.

This is probably one of the reason why I loved Pokemon GO when it was first released. Over the summer, I saw the old spark in their eyes when they would go to Claremont together. They would walk and scooter around the downtown area and explore the Claremont colleges together as they hunted these virtual critters. And they were playing together again.

Chris. Portrait-UCLAI enjoyed joining them on these excursions. Debbie and I would walk with them, watch them scooter ahead to scout for Pokemon and come zipping back with excitement.

And for a little window of time this summer, I got to watch my kids play together again.

Over the next few months, our family faces a crushing schedule, one that will pull all six of us in different directions. It’s my goal to create some space where we can just be together and maybe just play.

(Here’s a video I created in 2004 of my kids playing.)

The Air We Breathe

When we read Jesus’ words about forgiveness, it becomes shockingly and frighteningly clear that God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness to others are linked. Simply put, my unwillingness to forgive others prevents God from forgiving me. Matthew 6:15 and Matthew 18:21-35 are two prime examples.

This is very confusing to those taught that God can and will forgive us for everything. Apparently, that’s not the case.

NT Wright says the following in a commentary on Matthew 18:21-35:

Clouds over Horse Ranch-sRGB“Forgiveness is more like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly. Whatever the spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs may be (we sometimes say ‘the heart’, but that of course is a metaphor as well), it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other.”

This makes complete sense from the “ontological” perspective I discussed in my last post. If you remember, death isn’t the consequence of sin, but the very definition of sin. In other words, sin isn’t the breach of a rule and then death its punishment. Rather, sin is severing communion with God who is true Being and thus the path toward non-being.

In this light, withholding forgiveness from others is not “bad behavior” punishable by God withholding his forgiveness from us, like some cosmic tit-for-tat. Instead, forgiveness is the very air we breathe in our communion with God, the consistent and automatic inhalation and exhalation of God’s Life and Being to us and through us.

The moment we hold our “breath” we suffocate ourselves. But the moment we breathe out, we are able to fill our lungs once again with the sweet life-giving air of God’s forgiveness.

Being Before Behavior

Hands b&w-sRGB“A Christian is: a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.” -St Augustine

St Augustine’s quote is a beautiful expression of an incarnational life, a life that genuinely embodies Jesus so that he naturally lives through that person.

An incarnational life expresses itself in behaviors, habits, thoughts, attitudes and feelings that naturally reflect Christ. But it doesn’t originate there. The incarnational life first and foremost embodies Christ in our very being. The fancy theological word for this is “ontological.”

Fr Stephen Freeman has written an article on the ontological approach to understanding salvation that provides the proper context for discussing life in God. I would highly recommend reading his article. This ontological perspective is one of the primary theological perspectives that attracted me to Eastern Orthodoxy.

God is the only true Being. God gives us being and is the continual source of our being. His goal is for us to move toward “well-being” and ultimately to “eternal being” in communion with him.

Cluster of GrapesIn this light, right or wrong is either the path toward eternal being or non-being. Or to borrow Jesus’ imagery, it’s either remaining connected to the vine and naturally thriving or being cut off and naturally withering.

In contrast, the popular, yet distorted theology views right and wrong from a legal perspective of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment — behavior and consequence. Sin is seen as immoral behavior and death its punishment while salvation is viewed as obedience and living forever its reward.

But from an ontological perspective, life or death are not the reward or punishment of our behavior. Life and death are about our being. In this light, salvation defines life — salvation is life and life is salvation. And death defines sin — sin is death and death is sin.

So life is well-being and ultimately eternal being as one remains in communion with God, the Source of Being and Life. Death is sub-being and ultimately non-being as one severs communion with God.

This is the framework for understanding Christian life. The incarnational life, a life that naturally embodies Jesus, is first and foremost God’s life in our being that naturally expresses itself through my will, mind and body into my relationships and world. From this perspective, St Augustine’s vision of incarnational life is an expression of life and well-being and not only behavior.

Too often, the discussion of Christ’s likeness centers only on behavior. In other words, a person is considered to be like Christ if he or she avoids certain negative behaviors like drinking, smoking and lying and adhering to positive behaviors like feeding the poor, attending church, acting lovingly, and praying for people. From this perspective, I expend my energy modifying my behavior to adhere to a list of appropriate behaviors, usually determined by the specific faith community in which I live and associate.

But as good as that behavior might be, by itself it isn’t necessarily Christ’s likeness. Again, the incarnational life that naturally embodies Jesus is ontological. The core issue is being, not behavior. From our being, and thus our well-being and eternal being, springs behavior.

So I should expend my energy cooperating with God in the transformation of my being — to choose the ongoing path of life and well-being in intimate communion with God.

Fifty Years Of Memories

50th MemoriesLast week for my 50th birthday, I took on a personal project. On my birthday, I took a vacation day and visited several of the important locations from my past. For three hours, I visited my old homes, schools, churches and other important places.

I was flooded with memories at each locale. Most made me smile. Some brought tears. And a few made me cringe. All of these memories formed a mental tapestry that I’m still enjoying.

As I’ve reflected on this experience, I’m aware of three very vibrant threads woven into the tapestry. While my reflections aren’t profound or earth-shaking, they are very dear to me.

The first thread is love. Each location brought strong memories of being loved. Love fills my first memories all the way through to my present experiences. My parents were a source of constant love. Even though they had very little money, they loved my brother and me in generous and sacrificial ways.

I remember my mom spending long hours preparing homemade spaghetti or fried chicken. These meals mean even more to me knowing that as a Korean woman, she learned to prepare these meals in order to give my brother and me an “American” upbringing. I remember the occasional trips to McDonalds or Pompeii Pizza for special meals, even though we couldn’t afford them. I remember my special gifts like my first watch, my model train set, my telescope and my microscope. There are so many tangible memories of my parents’ love, that I risk boring you with too much.

I also remember the love of my small extended family. I have distinct memories as a little boy of my grandma taking me to a little diner for lunch. Even now, I can remember the aroma of burgers and sitting at the counter with her. I remember my grandpa buttering my toast for breakfast when I slept over. And as a new father, I remember him tenderly holding my babies.

My parents, grandparents, and aunt and uncle would gather weekly for game nights while my cousins, my brother and I would play together or watch TV. The adults would have bowls of chips and us kids would get one large bowl to share together. Our small extended family gathered regularly for birthdays, and every Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas to eat, laugh and celebrate each other.

I also remember a couple of special teachers at Temple Elementary School — Mrs. Haraguchi and Mrs. Roeneke — whose care still brings fond memories decades later. I remember various swim coaches— Bob Mount, Kevin Reynolds, Mike Gautreau and Ed Spencer — who believed in me and challenged me to excel. I remember good neighbors throughout my life like the Reyes, the Yamadas, the Hardwicks, and many others. I remember so many members of the various churches I worked at — the Azusa First Baptist, the San Gabriel Valley Japanese Christian Church and the Glendora Vineyard — who generously loved my family in both small and great ways. I remember the members of our small faith community in Mark and Barbara’s home that constantly expressed their love — Mark, Barbara, Gary, Anne, Jennifer, Angela, David, Alan, Maribeth, Carol and others.

And for the last 27 years, I have been loved by the most amazing woman in the world. It takes a very special woman to join her life to a 22-year old boy trying to finish college with the hope of being a pastor and potentially poor the rest of his life. Yet she did and demonstrates her love to me and our kids virtually everyone moment of the day.

I am overwhelmed with the amount of people who have loved me and my family over the years. It’s absolutely amazing that God would surround me with such amazing people.

The second thread is loss. Time, by its very nature, brings change and loss. Each of the places I visited are now just memories because the people and, in some cases, the places are gone. For example, Industry Hills Aquatics Club, where I spent most of my free time training as a swimmer, has been completely razed to the ground. What was once a beautiful swimming facility filled with young dreams and hopes for excellence is nothing but a dirt field.

I felt loss as I visited my parents’ homes in La Puente and West Covina and experienced volumes of memories with my parents and brother. Even after all these years, it still seems weird that strangers are living in my homes.

I felt loss at my parents’ pizza parlor, Marvel Pizza, where they served pizza and Korean food. My parents poured their energy and hope into this small business. It garnered a small following, but not enough to remain a viable business. Now it’s an empty space in a strip mall waiting to be leased by a new generation of hopeful business owners.

I especially felt deep loss when I visited my grandparents’ home. Their home was my first home. My mom immigrated from Korea a week before my birth. She and I lived in my grandparent’s home until my dad returned from his military service and bought their own first home. My grandparents’ home was a part of my life for almost 50 years. I have so many memories of overnighters, holiday dinners, and family game nights. When my grandpa died in 2001, the extended family gatherings began to diminish. By the time my grandma died in 2014, they were virtually nonexistent. My dad and aunt sold my grandparents’ home in 2015. As I stood in front of their home, strange cars in the driveway, I was deeply saddened that this part of my life is forever gone.

And I felt crushing loss standing before my Glendora home, where Debbie and I spent almost 20 years raising our family.

There have been many other losses. At fifty, the wounds seem more tender than before.

The third thread is faith. As I visited my different homes, I was staggered by the memories of faith. I didn’t become a Christian until high school. But even at the home where I lived as a young boy, I remembered moments of faith, even if they were someone else’s. I remembered my great-grandma, who prayed for me and hand-crafted simple gifts of God’s love. I didn’t appreciate this as a child, but cherish it now as an adult.

I remember as a young elementary school boy contemplating the reality of death and weeping at its sheer finality. Even at a young age, that was the catalyst in my personal journey to find that Something or Someone out there.

As a young teenager, I remember attending a Southern Baptist Church because my mom felt a Christian training would be helpful. I remember hearing for the very first time that Jesus was returning and we needed to be ready. While I didn’t fully understand it or the implications to my life, I knew at that moment that Jesus was real and I needed to respond to him. Thus began a several year journey of discovering Jesus and finally giving him my life.

As a young husband and father, I remember Debbie and I trusting God for the most basic things. We learned to trust him for finances to make it through the month or to pay for repairs on our car. I remember a harrowing episode as a parent of two little children without insurance. Catherine was only a couple years old and had been coughing terribly. We went to a local clinic where the doctor informed us that she had bronchitis and was on the verge of pneumonia. We couldn’t afford any medicine, so they gave us a handful of samples to give to her. In that dark vulnerable moment, all we had was faith and the goodwill of strangers.

I remember when our growing family needing a larger car. Debbie, who led our family in faith, kept praying. And someone at church approached us to give us a van.

As I visited each home, I was flooded with memories of trusting God for finances, health, jobs, tuition, relationships and other aspects of daily living.

These memories made me examine my current faith, which seems to be just a shade of its former self. Not that it was that great before. But there’s something… missing. And I’m not quite sure what it is.

Even though this post has gone on longer than necessary, it’s only a sampling of fifty years of memories — memories of love, loss and faith. And woven through this tapestry is another thread — God’s faithfulness throughout my life. I have lived a good life, a blessed life, an undeserved life. I don’t know why I’m fortunate to have this life while others have so much pain and tragedy. But I am grateful beyond words. And these memories stoke my heart to worship God and to become a better person.

Not Worthy Of Them

“The world was not worthy of them.” -Hebrews 11:38

What a wonderful epitaph to have proclaimed over one’s life. The writer of Hebrews declares this after a lengthy list of people popularly called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

Cloud of WitnessesOne of the beautiful aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy are the icons of the saints. The saints are those whom the Church recognizes to have lived a full life of actually enduring to the likeness of Christ. Most are apostles, martyrs, church fathers, and monastics. But for every recognized saint, there are thousands upon thousands of unknown and unmentioned saints.

These unknown saints are the ordinary men and women who lived daily lives of faith, love and piety. They worked ordinary jobs and performed ordinary tasks. They are the “jars of clay” containing the unsurpassable treasure of God’s presence.

The other day, I heard a woman describe her 89-year old mother as a “saint” because she never drank, smoked or cussed. While I don’t doubt that her mom is a saint, I take issue with her measuring rod. A person is not a saint simply by adhering to a set of regulations or morality. A saint is someone who is set apart for God through his or her personal and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause — to transform and renew this world into his Father’s New Creation.

Like a stubborn toddler resisting and fighting against bath-time, this world resists God’s renewal. Unfortunately, the world fights back with far more destructive and violent forces. And those committed to the world’s renewal suffer. They lose reputation, friends, jobs, homes, health and frequently, life.

But they endure. They endure with grief, sadness, pain and loss merged with an indescribable peace, joy and hope. They endure because the one who will transform and renew the world has already begun the process in them. And so, they carry in themselves the promise of God’s future here in the present. And so they trust him and follow him. It sets them apart. They are saints.

Saints aren’t perfect. They struggle, sin and suffer. They are real people. They have different color skin. They speak with different accents. They hold different values. They raise their kids differently. They attend different churches. They enjoy different movies and books. They prefer different genders. They have different life goals. They manage their money differently. They have different political views. They have different scientific views. They have different spiritual views.

But they have one thing in common. They love God. They’re loyal to Jesus and his cause. They are being renewed by God’s Spirit, tasting a bit of God’s future today. As such, they are beneficiaries and agents of God’s New Creation. And for this they struggle to live by the life of God’s future world here and now and suffer as the world around them resists.

Upon completing his “Faith Hall of Fame,” the writer of Hebrews makes direct application:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Certainly this vast cloud is filled with those who have gone before us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women who drew close to God and lived a life of intimate and loyal faith.

But the cloud also contains the aspiring saints around us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women we encounter daily. They are our spouses. They are our kids. They are our friends. They are our co-workers. They are the single man or woman living a life of purity. They are the mom who works long hours to support her family. They are the dad who comforts his sick child in the late hours of night. They are the grandma who quietly and consistently prays for the people on her street. They are the cashier at Walmart smiling at every person. They are the UPS driver faithfully delivering our packages. They are the policewoman on patrol. They are the waiter at our favorite restaurant. They are the guy that cut us off on the freeway. They are the kids playing Pokemon GO.

Because God’s family overlaps the past, present and future, the great cloud of witnesses includes those who have successfully endured the struggle of loyal faith to Jesus and his transformative project, those who still struggle and suffer in their endurance, and even those who will yet endure.

And you and I are surrounded by this great cloud, this awesome community. We’re surrounded, because we are part of it. So, let’s throw off everything that hinders and entangles and run that race marked out specifically for us, with a deeply intimate and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause.

Waxing Nostalgic – Finale

Orthodox CrossThis post concludes a short series that includes the following posts:

Waxing Nostalgic

Waxing Nostalgic – Raising Kids

Waxing Nostalgic – An Old Friend

Waxing Nostalgic – Worship

Waxing Nostalgic – My Kids’ Baptism

Waxing Nostalgic – Our Home

Waxing Nostalgic – My Blog

The future is a scary place. Some people love the unknown. I don’t. I can admit it. It frightens me terribly.

However, the past is not a safe place either. Certainly it’s familiar. But not safe.

I’ve never seen the Mona Lisa, but I’ve heard the bulletproof glass protecting this treasure also distorts it. When you gaze upon the famous portrait with the enigmatic smile, you also see your face and everyone else’s reflected in the glass.

Nostalgia is like that glass. It distorts the past with phantom reflections of ourselves. It twists old photos and journal entries into a fake reality of the “good ole days.” And when faced with the frightening unknown future, it’s tempting to lose oneself chasing this will-o’-the-wisp.

I mentioned in a previous post about Debbie’s comment to me, “Everything’s changing.” Those two words haunt me.

So perhaps it’s serendipitous that the Dormition Fast, in which we honor Mary, the birth-giver of God, overlaps with the writing of this series on “Waxing Nostalgic.”

Imagine the moment Mary heard Gabriel’s proclamation that she would carry and give birth to the Son of God. I know this sounds melodramatic, but time must have stopped in the silent moment before Mary responds. You can almost hear creation drawing and holding a collective breath in excited anticipation. God’s entire plan from Adam onward lay on the shoulders of this young maiden.

In that silence, what was going through Mary’s head? Although only a teenager, she knows what happens to unwed mothers — the gossip, the rumors, the spurning and the potential death.

But from a young age, her parents, Joachim and Anna, told her that she was a promise from God. She had lived in the Temple most of her life, dedicated to God. But she hadn’t expected her devotion to escort her into the disgrace and stigma of an unwed mother.

Then she breaks the silence. Facing an unknown and frightening future, she whispers. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Time restarts and the angels and creation let out their breath knowing God’s mysterious plan moves forward.

Imagine how thrilled and delighted God’s heart was at that moment?

Mary said “Yes” to God and became a home for Christ. She’s not an incubator, randomly chosen from Israel’s women. No. She’s a person in whom God finds favor. She has learned to say “Yes” to God all her life.

And God finds favor in each of us. He calls us to a similar destiny in his kingdom. Saying “Yes” to God, we become a home for Christ and “birth” him into our world as we embody him, becoming like him by grace.

“Waxing nostalgic” the last several weeks has been a wonderful experience. I have a life filled with fantastic memories and precious relationships. I know I am a rich man. And I am a tremendously thankful man.

The experience has also been fruitful. I’m learning that we prepare for our future by reflecting on and learning from our past. Too often, I’ve said “No” to God. I want to understand why. I want to grow in grace so that I naturally say “Yes” to God. I want Christ to live in me and through me.

I’m choosing to end this series on my fiftieth birthday. While this series ends, the process won’t. I’m sure there will be more posts reflecting on the past to prepare for the future.

The terrifying unknown future looms before us. God is next to us encouraging us to step forward. And he’s in the midst of the unknown calling us to him. His destiny, to bear Christ in the world, awaits us.

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”