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

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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.)

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Overcome!

Revelation: Revisited – Symbols And Codes

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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

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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

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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

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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.”

Waxing Nostalgic – My Blog

The Offramp Splash PageAs my time at the Vineyard and professional ministry drew to an end in 2003, I began blogging. Originally, several of us who left the Vineyard and started a faith community started blogging through our new community’s website, “The Offramp.”

Some of those blogs remain, untouched for several years. I keep them on the righthand bar and visit them occasionally. They bring memories of good times with good friends. For example, here’s a post by Debbie from June 2008. It highlights a walk she had with Chris, who was eight at the time. Reading it again reminded me of simpler times with younger kids, being part of their lives as they discovered and interacted with the world around them.

I have enjoyed my blogging experience. Back in 2010, I wrote this about my blog:

“I began this blog in March 2003 as our family left professional ministry and embarked on a journey of theological exploration. This blog has recorded our joys and struggles as we explored a different form of Christian community. It has allowed me to deconstruct and reconstruct my theology and wrestle with my new identity outside of professional ministry. It has marked special events in our family’s life. And recently, it has recorded our family’s journey into the Holy Orthodox Church.”

That post in 2010 was my last post on this blog. Or so I thought.

After joining the Orthodox Church, I struggled with what I should post on this blog. Entering the Orthodox Church signaled the end of our faith community and our exit from the Emergent Church/Home Church conversation. I was also experiencing difficulty with some aspects of Orthodoxy, but didn’t feel it was appropriate to openly post those struggles. As an Ortho-newbie, I became aware that I had less and less to say.

I was also struggling with depression, unable to reconcile years of calling, training and experience with no longer being in ministry.

So I sensed the need to go silent, to immerse myself in Orthodoxy and to let God bring some much-needed healing.

So after much prayer and thought, I said goodbye to my blog in May 2010.

Two years passed and I began sensing the need to write again. So in April 2012, I revived this blog. I will admit that I haven’t posted consistently the past four years. Months would pass between posts. Life had changed and its ebbs and flows would drift me back to this blog and then pull me away again.

I know my decision in 2010 was the right one. But looking at that two-year gap brings pangs of regret. There were significant moments that I wish I had processed and recorded on this blog.

There were vacations, celebrations, holidays and daily life. My firstborn, Michael, graduated high school in 2010. This was one of the proudest moments of my life. And it symbolically transitioned our family into a new phase as our first child stepped across the threshold into adulthood. Dan died in December 2010. I miss his voice and laugh. Danielle entered high school. Michael was admitted to the emergency room with a collapsed lung, which scared the hell out of me. Maribeth moved from California, and our family still misses her dearly. Chris saved and bought himself a bike. Michael, Danielle and Chris generously collected their monies and bought Cathy a bike for Christmas. And at the end of 2011, our family bought our first house, packed over 20 years of our life and moved to Pomona.

The other night, our family had a fun dinner at a local restaurant. As we were leaving, our kids walked out to the car ahead of Debbie and me. As we strolled out behind them, she leaned over and said, “Everything’s changing.”

This is something I’ve been sensing for months and has only been heightened as my fiftieth birthday draws near. I’m sensing the need to prepare for the next phase of my life and for whatever it brings. As I pray and ponder, there seem to be a couple of important facets to this preparation. First is redeveloping my intimacy with God. I mentioned in an earlier post about this urge for intimacy that occurred earlier this year during Lent and has only grown.

The second is remembering my past. I have started reading through my old journals as well as rereading my old blog posts and those of my friends. I believe I’m compelled by more than nostalgia.

White KeysThe recent activity on this blog is the expression of those two facets. I’m making room to pray and reflect. The activity and noise from daily life easily obstructs the internal currents of the soul. Writing clears the debris and increases my sensitivity to my inner life. It’s not always a pretty picture. But it is a necessary task.

I genuinely don’t know how this blog will develop in the months or years to come. Thirteen years of my thoughts, my reflections, and my life have been recorded here in over 700 posts. In some ways it has become an important part of me. And if I’m right, it will play an important part of my future. We shall see.

Sighing Is Praying

My oldest son told me a joke the other day:

Question: “What’s heavier — 200 pounds of feathers or 200 pounds of bricks?”

Answer, “The feathers. Because you also have to carry the weight of what you did to the birds.”

Without going into details, there’s a lot of heavy “stuff” happening in my life right now. Each thing by itself is common to normal life. But everything together forms a heavy weight.

So, I’ve noticed myself sighing a lot lately.

In an essay on “sighing” in the Bible, Arther Pink writes:

Maturing“The groanings of the believer are not only expressive of sorrow—but also of hope, of the intensity of his spiritual desires, of his panting after God, and his yearning for the bliss which awaits him on high (2 Corinthians 5:2, 4).”

I think that’s a good description of the internal forces inside me that express themselves as sighing. It’s an intermingling of stress and faith, of sorrow and hope, of loss and love. It’s a longing for what currently is to be shaped into how things should be.

St Paul writes a poignant portrayal of groaning in Romans 8. Creation groans. God’s people groan within creation. And God’s Spirit groans within God’s people. Like a woman in labor, everything is sighing and groaning toward the hope of God’s New Creation being birthed.

What Paul describes on a cosmic level, each of us experiences at a very personal level. All the little details of life — marriage, singleness, parenthood, friendships, careers, spiritual growth, societal justice, and so much more — are the contractions in which New Creation labors to be born in us and through us. And even though we may articulate prayers that petition God’s will, the deepest and most genuine prayer may be a sigh.

Before this season passes, I know there will much more sighing… and groaning and tears. And they will be my prayers.

Waxing Nostalgic – Our Home

I’ve lived in many places. Most of them have been in southern California. But I’ve lived in different homes.

I spent my childhood in La Puente and West Covina.

After high school I lived in Irvine for my first year in college. I then moved to Hawaii for about six months when I joined YWAM for their Discipleship Training School.

When I returned to southern California, I lived with my parents in West Covina for a couple of years until I was married. During the first few years of our marriage, Debbie and I lived in two places in Azusa and two places in West Covina. Currently, my family lives in Pomona.

IMG_6513The largest amount of time I lived in one place was in Glendora. Debbie and I moved to Glendora when Michael was about a year old. We lived in the same four-unit complex for almost 20 years. We started in a two-bedroom 1-1/2 bath unit from mid-1993 until late 1999. Then we moved into a three-bedroom 2-1/2 bathroom unit until February 2012. This home and city will always hold a dear place in my heart.

It was in this home that Debbie and I raised our four young children. We made friends with wonderful neighbors. We had a caring and generous landlord. The front lawn and courtyard became the playground for our kids and their friends. We would laugh and shout and sweat through rounds of dodgeball and tag and hide-and-seek.

And like any home filled with family life, there was a mixture of memories spanning the spectrum from momentous to mundane. We have memories of first steps and first days of school. We have memories of the mundane like homework, washing dishes, watching TV, and illnesses. We have memories of joy, laughter, giving and loving. And we have memories of arguments, timeouts, tears and tragedy.

As our children grew, Glendora was a small enough and safe enough town to let our children begin walking to friends homes, to the library, and to the park. In this safe environment, our children learned to stretch their wings and venture beyond our home on their own.

Debbie and I moved into our Glendora home as a young couple with a toddler and dreams of life and ministry together. By the time we left that home, we were an older couple with four adult children and twenty years of full life and invaluable family memories.

When I look at photos of our apartment, I can’t believe we fit six of us in that space for so long. It must explain why we love being together so much.

IMG_9374I remember our moving day on January 28, 2012. It had been difficult packing twenty-plus years of life into boxes and then a truck. It was simultaneously exciting and sad.

We visited the apartment in the following week to clean the unit and hopefully receive our security deposit from twenty years prior. Our landlord was visibly saddened to see us go and promised the full deposit. When the cleaning was finished, we visited each room and said good-bye to our home. Chris even said good-bye to the timeout corner. And then we stepped out and shut the door on twenty years of a blessed and fantastic life.

Four years later, we have transformed our Pomona house into a home. It doesn’t have the same kind of memories. It never will. And that’s okay. The new memories are a continuation of our full family life. We now have memories of sitting around our dining room table for dinners, laughing to the point of falling out of our chairs. We have memories of the two rescue dogs that have joined our family. We have memories of deep conversations about relationship, church, God and life. And most likely, we will eventually have memories of saying good-bye to our kids as they continue to grow and venture into a new life in the world beyond the safe haven of our home.

God, thank you for our homes. Thank you for the safety of four walls and a roof. And thank you for the life, love, and joy that continually spills out of those four walls.

Happy 19th Birthday!

Today, my youngest daughter, Danielle, turns nineteen years old. It’s her last full year as a teenager.

Zahariades Family 2001As a young girl, I loved watching her run around the house, her curly hair bouncing with each step. Her young infectious giggle made me laugh. Her tears broke my heart. She loves her sister and brothers. As you can see from an early family portrait, she absolutely bursts with personality.

Dani has grown into an amazing young woman. She is a fiercely loyal friend and cares deeply for those she loves. As a friend, she has your back. I wish I could have had a friend like her when I was a young man. I’m not sure if her friends know what a special person they have in Dani. But I do. And God does.

She is also very creative. I’m astounded by what she can do with needle, thread, and yarn. For the past several years, I would watch her spend hours hand-crafting beautiful and imaginative gifts for her friends during Pascha and Christmas. I don’t think her friends realize how much time and care Dani put into each gift. But I do. And God does.

Dani is extremely committed. When she puts her mind and will to something, she perseveres for the long haul. Years ago, Father Patrick assigned her “hand maiden” duties during Sunday services. And every Sunday since, I watch Dani quietly attend the candle box unnoticed and with no fanfare. She carefully tends the candles as an act of worship. I’m not sure anyone notices. But I do. And God does.

Danielle Wedding PortraitDani is an incredibly strong and courageous person. I don’t know if people ever see how the occasional stress and heartbreak chip away until there are tears. And then the resolve returns. But I do. And God does.

Debbie and I are so proud of our gorgeous, bold, creative, compassionate, strong, capable, faithful and amazing young woman. I don’t think anyone can love her more than us. And then I remember…

God does.

Authentic Sainthood

Peter's DenialI first saw this icon in a Facebook post by St John the Evangelist Orthodox Church.

I absolutely love this icon. For me, it captures a level of authenticity unlike other icons. This is an icon of Peter’s denial.

Four things immediately grabbed my attention when I saw this icon:

First, is the accusatory gaze of the rooster. If a bird ever looked at me like that, I would ring it’s neck. Or at least throw a rock at it. But Peter didn’t do either. Because in the sound of its crow and gaze of its eyes, he heard his friend’s voice, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

Second, is the despair on Peter’s face. This is a man at his absolute worst. Despite his bragging and posturing, he completely failed his friend. He has failed the movement. And as far as he knows, he has completely disqualified himself from everything Jesus spoke about and worked for. There are some failures from which you cannot recover, and this is one of them. And now, stared down by a lousy fowl, he’s curled into a shell of a man.

Third, is the smoldering fire. It’s barely burning, almost reduced to wisps of smoke. But those wisps ascend to heaven and are noticed by God. I think it’s very symbolic of this failed man. It reminds me of Isaiah’s prophecy, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Fourth, is the halo. In the midst of failure, accusation, and despair, the halo remains. Peter doesn’t know it yet, but hope and holiness still shine in the darkness.

Peter was pretty familiar with failure. It seems to be one of the Gospels’ subplots. If it wasn’t so tragic, we would confuse Peter as the comedic sidekick to Jesus’ heroic journey. He’s brash. Quick to speak. Quicker to misstep. Sinks like a stone in the water. Called “Satan” by Jesus. Confuses flailing for swordsmanship and cuts off Malchus’ ear in an attempt to defend Jesus. And now, when his devotion counts the most, he denies Jesus three times.

But where any of these failures may have driven most men to quit and return home, Peter never walks away. Well… not until after his denial and Jesus’ torturous death on a Roman cross. At that point, it’s all over. Messiahs don’t get crucified. They don’t die at the hands of the army they’re supposed to rout.

So perhaps Peter’s failure was needed at that moment. I think Peter may have been brash enough to attempt to continue Jesus’ movement without him. And in doing so, he would have interfered with God’s far greater plan. So Peter’s ultimate failure in the courtyard when confronted by a young girl was the necessary breaking point in a man both to get him out of the way as well as to prepare him.

So disillusioned and stripped of self-confidence and grandiose plans, Peter returns to his life before Jesus called him to follow. Or so he thought.

I love how the scene plays out in John 21. Peter is trying to forget Jesus by immersing himself in his old life and work. Jesus appears on the shore and does the exact same thing he did the day he called Peter.

And Peter gets it.

His immediate response is still brash. But it’s a brashness similar to the prodigal son, a story Peter must have heard Jesus share many times. It’s a brashness that compels him to run to Jesus’ side. Well, actually swim, not run. I wonder if Peter thought to himself as he was struggling to the shore, “Now would be a great time to walk on water, Jesus.”

But there would be no divine assist this time. This time Peter needs to struggle to Jesus himself. Sometimes God needs to stand back and let us exercise our will and devotion.

What a morning that must have been for Peter. Breakfast with the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was not covered with bruises and blood like he was barely alive and somehow survived his torture and entombment. No this was a living, healed and vibrant Jesus.

And after breakfast, Peter takes a personal and painfully therapeutic walk with Jesus. He relives the failure from three days prior. And like his friend who was lain dead in the grave and now walks next to him with new life, Peter’s failure is resurrected and transformed into a commission.

Prior to his denial, Peter probably had the audacity to continue Jesus’ movement in the wake of his perceived failure at the hands of the Romans. Now commissioned, he is empowered to be the initial spokesperson and leader of Jesus’ movement in the wake of his glorious ascension forty days later.

And Peter’s transformation would not have been possible without crushing failure.

God does not extinguish the smoldering wick. In God’s New Creation, the smoldering wick can become the shining star.

Waxing Nostalgic – My Kids’ Baptism

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 9.01.22 AMThis October marks the ten-year anniversary of one of the most remarkable moments of my life — the day I baptized my kids.

I posted my thoughts about the event HERE a few days after it happened. You can also watch the short video HERE. On that day I offered my children to God and to his family. And while it was a dream come true for me as their dad, it was also a frightening moment.

During the worship that morning, I realized that my children would face a painful world without me. I couldn’t be with them during most of the moments of their daily lives. And as they matured, they would face a harsh and painful world without their daddy’s protection. But God cut through all of this by reminding me that my children were his. And then I heard his voice whispering “I will be there.”

Ten years later, as I reflect on God’s faithfulness to that promise, my heart wells with incredible gratitude. Thank you, God, for being there with them.

God has both protected them and formed, for which I am deeply thankful.

Ten years ago, my children’s ages ranged from 7 to 14. I understood each was making a commitment to Jesus at their personal level and that their commitment to him that would continue to grow and take new expression as they matured.

I don’t come from a Christian family. My parents became Christians after me, so I don’t have the personal experience of a faith handed down through generations. Passing down my faith to my kids has been a learn “by the seat of my pants” endeavor. But one thing I know from watching the Faith passed down in other families, it looks different in each generation. One generation’s values and preferences differ from the prior’s. But at its core, the faith in Jesus, the loyal commitment to him and his cause, is the same.

It’s fascinating to see how each my kids’ personal relationships with God have developed. It’s also a little unsetting. Their faith development doesn’t parallel mine or Debbie’s. So they don’t hold all of the values we hold. I’m learning how to coach and advise them from the resources of my personal faith. But most importantly, I’m learning to be content with that.

The important thing is that they belong to God and to his family that stretches time and space.

From personal experience, I know God will continue to speak to them and work through every part of their lives. Their faith will continue to change and develop, influenced by God’s Spirit, people’s influences and life circumstances.

As I look out upon the unknown of the next ten years and beyond, God’s promise to me for my children still rings true, “I will be there.”

The Love Of My Life

As I’ve revisited various aspects of my life, change has been the constant theme. On the cusp of my fiftieth year, it seems everything is different. My kids have grown up. Some friends have left. Some have died. We’ve left our home of twenty years. We have changed churches and tried different forms of Christianity. Careers has changed. Everything has shifted… except for two things.

The first is God. He has remained consistently awesome, good, loving, holy and comforting through everything the years have brought.

DebbieThe second is Debbie. I cannot state enough how rock-solid she has been throughout the years. While each year brings challenges and changes, she has remained a continual source of strength, love and joy.

Frankly, I’m still amazed that she chose me. Her positive outlook on life is astounding. I don’t understand how she hasn’t been completely crushed by my cynicism. Instead, her solid character has transformed me.

I could go on about her beauty, creativity, intelligence, wit, compassion, courage, generosity, imagination, gentleness, humor, faith and so many other qualities. But what astounds me the most is that by embodying Jesus to me for all these years, she has made me a better man and saved me from myself.

Debbie is the greatest expression of God’s love to me. I absolutely know he loves me because she chooses to be my wife. Any likeness to Christ that I exhibit is because of her — her steadfast faith to Jesus, her daily commitment to be my wife, her prayers for me, her long-suffering and endurance as my wife. I’m ashamed to say that she has seen me at my absolute worst. Not only seen me, but been hurt and wounded by me. I’m sure she carries unseen scars that will form her martyrs crown.

And despite everything I’ve put her through, she chooses to love me and say “I do” to me every day. And she can still give me a smile that I’ve never seen her give another person. That, my friends, is God’s love in the flesh.

BrideToday is our 27th anniversary. Twenty-seven years ago, I cried in front of a couple hundred people as the church doors opened and this amazing woman walked down the aisle to join her life with mine.

Recently, I’ve been nostalgic about so much in my life. However, I’m not nostalgic about my relationship with Debbie. Old photos and memories don’t make me long to return to something that’s changed or missing. Like I said, her love has been so rock-solid, that there’s nothing missing from prior years.

We have shared 27 wonderful years together. I love who she was when we started our journey together. I love her even more today. And I know I will love her more in our golden years and all the days in between.

I actually feel sorry for anyone who has not met Debbie and experienced the expression of God’s love that she is. She is the absolute bestest thing in my life. And like God’s grace, there isn’t a single thing I did to deserve her.

Debbie, I love you! I loved you more than I could imagine 27 years ago when we said “I do” to each other. And today, I love you even more! It fills our unknown future with hope and thanksgiving because I know whatever we encounter, we will love each other even more with each passing day, month and year.

IMG_6518

Why Are We Here?

The standing congregation sings the Cherubic Hymn. “Let us lay aside our earthly cares that we may receive the king of all.” The tune is accentuated by the chiming of each swing of the deacon’s censor. Fragrant incense fills the room. Icons of saints look on. This is a holy moment.

Then the harmonies are disrupted with the dissonant crying from a discontented child. This pulls my attention back to my surroundings. As I glance around, I notice people shuffling tired feet and stretching aching backs. Others, both children and adults, look distracted. One heads to grab a tissue. Another exits toward the bathrooms.

I wonder to myself, “Why are we here?” Why do we gather every week? What brings us together like this? Shouldn’t we ask that question before each service?

Maybe someone is here looking for absolution for a word or deed they regret. Or perhaps it’s to find the love of God. Maybe it’s to be embraced in the comfort of friends. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to serve God and others. Maybe it’s simply out of cultural obligation. Perhaps it’s to impress parents, friends or a potential suitor. Maybe it’s to express thankfulness for a joyful event this past week. Maybe it’s to soothe the pain of the past week or to prepare for the demands of the coming week. Maybe it’s to be a good example for ones children. Perhaps the fires of spiritual renewal need to be answered. The answers to the question are as varied as the people in the room.

Body & BloodAs the hymn draws to an end, the iconostasis doors open and the Great Procession begins. The priest carries Jesus’ body and blood into our midst. HE IS PRESENT RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!

That’s why we’re here. The life and love of Jesus. His presence breathes onto all that we have carried into this place as he offers himself to us. Come. Eat and drink. My life for yours.

And we respond by offering him our lives with all of our joys and sadnesses, faith and fears, commitments and distractions.

In this holy moment he sweeps all of us and all we are and all we bring into a moment when heaven and earth kiss.

In the quiet, a mother near me hands her distracted toddler a graham cracker. She excitedly coos, “Coooookie!”

This is truly a holy moment.

Fulfillment

Friend-sRGBI read somewhere that there are two groups of photographers.

One group are professional photographers. They are spending only 10% of the their time shooting and the other 90% hustling, marketing, selling and servicing their clients.

The other group of photographers want to go pro because they imagined they would be spending 100% of their time doing what they love — shooting photos.

Both groups talk about how their current lives don’t allow them to do what they really want to do. An amateur thinks becoming a professional would allow you to practice photography full-time. And a professional realizes that it doesn’t.

Fulfillment doesn’t occur when one crosses the line into professional status. Rather, it’s develop a life that takes risks and makes room for that which fulfills.

I want to once again thank Mark for starting my love for photography and Debbie for helping me to make room for it in our lives.

Oh. And in case you missed the point. Making room for that which fulfills applies to pretty much everything important in life and not limited only to photography.

A Tough Question

YouI want to ask a tough question. “What’s God doing in and saying to you right now in your life?” I told you it’s a tough question. I’m not sure I could provide a stellar answer right now.

Sometimes the phrase “personal relationship with God” can become sterile and abstract. But ultimately, that question is the rubber-meets-the-road reality of an intimate and personal relationship with God.

Having to pause and think when I’m asked that question is a symptom of something amiss in my relationship with God. It shows I’m not aware of his work and voice, which is a constant in our lives. It is an indicator that my personal relationship may not be so “personal.” And in those moments, I can either honestly admit that or fabricate an answer in the attempt to appear more spiritual.

It would be similar if you asked me, “So how’s Debbie doing?” As her husband and friend, I should know. Not knowing is an indicator that our relationship may not be very personal at that time. The same is true for God.

A person that influenced my spiritual formation was Jean Pierre de Caussade. Here are a few quotes from him:

“The soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.”

“The present moment is always full of infinite treasure. It contains far more than you can possibly grasp. Faith is the measure of its riches: what you find in the present moment is according to the measure of your faith. Love also is the measure: the more the heart loves, the more it rejoices in what God provides. The will of God presents itself at each moment like an immense ocean that the desire of your heart cannot empty; yet you will drink from that ocean according to your faith and love.”

“Those who have abandoned themselves to God always lead mysterious lives and receive from him exceptional and miraculous gifts by means of the most ordinary, natural and chance experiences in which there appears to be nothing unusual. The simplest sermon, the most banal conversations, the least erudite books become a source of knowledges and wisdom to these souls by virtue of God’s purpose. This is why they carefully pick up the crumbs which clever minds tread underfoot, for to them everything is precious and a source of enrichment.”

A personal relationship with God is living aware of what God is doing and saying in the present moment. This doesn’t come naturally and requires us to develop a few skills.

Observation — We must learn to look around. We must develop eyes that look for God in everything.

Attention — We must learn to pay attention. This goes deeper than just looking. It’s looking at the details. It’s looking at the big picture. It’s noticing what may not be immediately apparent.

Reflection — We must learn to ponder and pray about what we see and notice. Many times we may see things that require us to then look at our own heart and ask tough questions.

Observation. Attention. Reflection. I know this is corny, but we need to take up our O.A.R. if we want to properly guide the raft of our lives through the rapids. Otherwise, we remain adrift and at the mercy of any random or destructive current.

God is moving and speaking constantly to us. His voice may come through a sermon, a Scripture, a song, a conversation, a circumstance, a whisper in our heart. Or sometimes simply in the silence.

A good place to begin practicing these skills are with the major movements in one’s life. Have you just experienced or are ready to begin a significant event? What might God be saying? Are you experiencing depression, stress, loneliness, or other pain? What might be God be saying in the middle of it? Are you in a life-changing relationship? What might God be saying? Did you hear a sermon that grabbed your attention? Are the ideas in a particular book captivating you? Did someone say something to you that keeps banging around in your head? Is there a Scripture passage that keeps grabbing your attention?

God is present in every facet of our lives. There’s not a single part in which he is absent. As we learn to sense his movement in the major moments, then we hone our skills to sense his presence in the more minute and mundane areas.

In every life’s detail, O.A.R. are skills that enable us to become more aware of God’s gentle movements and voice.

Waxing Nostalgic – Worship

Pink Rose copyBut may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!” -Psalm 40.16

During Lent this year, I sensed an inner urging to draw closer to God. While I prayed and read Scripture virtually every day, I have become less intimate with God over the past years.

So during Lent, I decided to listen to my old worship music.

Hold on… a little context. Throughout my entire Christian formation, worship was a constant and dominant aspect of my life. Early in my Christian formation, I was taught that worship was far more than singing songs to God. Rather, it was a deeply intimate interaction with a loving and mighty God.

I loved worship! I loved worshipping at church. I loved worshipping personally using CDs. I collected virtually every worship CD I could. I owned every single Hosanna! Music and Vineyard release. I bought a wide-range of CDs by Delirious, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Lincoln Brewster, The Passion Band, Darrell Evans, and Kent Henry. By the time I was in the Vineyard, I attended worship conferences and participated in the congregation for a few live recording of worship albums.

I had tried futilely to learn guitar several times in my youth prior to becoming a Christian. As a young youth pastor, I remember asking God to let me easily learn the guitar so I could glorify him through worship and by leading others in worship. Coincidentally or miraculously, I quickly learned guitar soon after that prayer and vowed only to play guitar in worship to God.

When things went terribly wrong at the Vineyard where I was the Associate Pastor, I left professional ministry. The wounds were so painful that I could not listen to worship music without feeling betrayed and depressed. That dark season lasted several years, until this past Lent.

The urge for deeper intimacy with God carried with it a need to reconnect to intimate worship again. So I began listening to my worship CDs during my commutes to work and home. The first couple of days were emotionally difficult. But then something happened. The negative feelings evaporated and were replaced with a newfound intimacy. But the intimacy was much different from what I previously experienced in worship.

The familiar songs brought to mind memories of past worship experiences. I recalled moments during worship conferences when thousands of worshippers sang their hearts to God in deep unity. I recalled worship team practices at the Vineyard with my friends. I recalled times of worship in children’s ministry, youth group, and home group settings. I recalled shouting and singing at the top of my lungs. I recalled moments of holy silence as God’s presence filled the room. I recalled recording worship songs that I had written at my friend’s home. I recalled God’s intimate and healing presence in worship during the darkest days of my burnout in professional ministry. I recalled promises he whispered, sins he convicted, wounds he comforted, delusions he lifted, and resolve he strengthened during countless moments of worship.

The familiar songs and fond memories brought a different kind of intimacy with God. The songs had become stones that fashioned a memorial like the ones ancient Israelites would erect to remind them of important events with God. This “memorial” of worship songs compelled me to remember those intimate moments with God experienced alone and with others. By doing so, it renewed my thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness through the difficult years; for God’s beauty in the midst of ugliness caused by others and myself; for God’s majesty transcending and transforming my personal pain. In all of it God is AWESOME.

I’m so thankful that God has allowed me to experience the joy of worship again. And the fond memories accompanying this renewal are some of the dearest to me. Now that I’m part of a Christian tradition that doesn’t practice that particular style of worship, I am even more mindful of how special and precious those moments were and will carry them reverently the rest of my life.

A Ray Of His Presence

What Is A WeedHere’s a quote from Archbishop Anastosios worth mulling over:

“The critical question for a mission in Christ’s way is to what extent others can discern in our presence something, a ray, of His own presence” (Mission in Christ’s Way).

The Gospel, the royal proclamation that Jesus is the world’s true king, requires embodiment. It is not enough to simply tell someone the Gospel. Nor is it enough to simply invite someone to church in the hopes they will hear or experience the gospel.

If we follow Jesus as his apprentices, then we must continue his mission in the same manner as him — we must incarnate or embody the life and love of God. We must go beyond actions and words. We must BE the Gospel.

I used to tell my kids, Jesus was the will of God even when he was doing mundane things like eating and sleeping. He didn’t just proclaim God’s will and do God’s will. He is God’s will. He IS God’s will, word, life, love and presence. We must learn this as well.

St Paul tells Timothy:

So, then, my child: you must be strong in the grace which is in King Jesus. You heard the teaching I gave in public; pass it on to faithful people who will be capable of instructing others as well. Take your share of suffering as one of King Jesus’ good soldiers. No one who serves in the army gets embroiled in civilian activities, since they want to please the officer who enlisted them. If you take part in athletic events, you don’t win the crown unless you compete according to the rules. The farmer who does the work deserves the first share of the crops. Think about what I say; the Lord will give you understanding in everything. -2Tim 2:1-7

All three images used by Paul illustrate the need for focused discipline and effort. It requires determination and work to become the kind of person that can embody God’s presence like Jesus did, even just a ray of his presence. A person doesn’t magically drift into the incarnational life. There are no shortcuts or hacks.

Waxing Nostalgic – An Old Friend

IMG_6490This is another post in a short series that began HERE and continues HERE.

The other day, I reconnected with an old friend. We haven’t seen each other for about 10 years. But like any good friendship, when we reconnected it was like no time had passed.

Ok. I’m kind of misleading you in that my “old friend” isn’t a person. It’s my preaching Bible. It’s the Bible I used especially when I delivered my sermons. I loved this Bible because the text was in a one-column format and didn’t contain any study notes that would clutter or distract me when I was reading Scripture during a sermon.

When I pulled my preaching Bible off the shelf and opened it up, I was thrilled to find my last two sermons tucked into the cover. That’s when the memories flooded back.

I loved telling stories, showing videos, and using object lessons in my sermons. One of my fondest “preaching” memories is when I brought Michael up during a sermon to help with an object lesson. It took only a couple of moments, but has remained one of those cherished memories for both of us.

When I prepared for a sermon, I would always use a digital Bible. I would then type up my sermon outline with Scripture references. But the final and most critical phase of my workflow was to allow a “simmer time.” This was when I would pray, reflect and let the Scriptures and main points “seep deep” into me. I would read the Scriptures in my preaching Bible during this essential phase.

You see a sermon wasn’t authentic to me if it wasn’t a part of me. I never wanted a sermon to simply be a speech or a study. It was a time when the family of God gathered to hear and obey God’s Word. So I believed it was my greatest responsibility to give a part of myself as the messenger. I was always exhausted and drained when I was done preaching.

Having found my preaching Bible, I’ve been enjoying times of reading Scripture from the page rather than the screen. I love and rely on my digital resources. But there’s something special about unplugging and reading Scripture from a book.

I’ve heard that we read differently from paper than from a screen. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it feels true. Reading Scripture from a book seems simultaneously more leisurely and less distracting. I feel more focused and can stop to reflect without sensing my mind being pulled in different directions.

I remember another object lesson I used in a sermon. I wrote out some  Scripture on a transparency. I then held it up before me to demonstrate that as we read Scripture, it should pull our focus through the text and onto the One standing behind the text.

That’s what I feel has happened since finding my preaching Bible. Reading Scripture from a book actually seems more intimate and relational. Reconnecting with my “old friend” seems to have added a missing dimension of intimacy with my True Friend.

Theology Of The Demons

If You're Going To Search For Something, It Might As Well Be Love“Theology without love is the theology of the demons.” -St Simeon the New Theologian

The other day I discovered that someone felt a comment I made on Facebook was unkind. I find this ironic (I think I’m using the term correctly) in that I was trying to demonstrate that a video was wrongly accusing Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church of calling Lucifer “God” in one of its Paschal hymns. I simply stated some historical facts and then called the video “shoddy reporting.” Frankly just a little bit of historical research, which is what a reporter is supposed to do, would have clarified everything. But clickbait always uses dramatic headlines and aspersions on a person or group.

But the quote from St Simeon was used during Sunday’s homily and caught my attention. I know I am guilty of loveless “demonic theology.” I was once told, that whenever I’m asked a question, I respond with a dissertation. That’s my personality and seminary training at work. By amassing an overwhelming counter-argument, I win.

And that’s my problem. There shouldn’t be a “winner” in theology. Being right doesn’t make me right, if that makes sense. Theology must be infused with love, which is willing the good for the other person. Sometimes the “good” might be correction. But correction doesn’t come by “winning” an argument. It comes incarnationally, by being and practicing good theology, which is ultimately love.