Gaining a Vision beyond the Virus

These are troubled times. As of today, there have been 453,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Though that represents “only” 64 people per million worldwide, it would be hard to find anyone, anywhere, who does not feel that this outbreak has profoundly affected their way of life. Stores are closed, people are laid off, events are cancelled, and we are urged to stay home if at all possible. Though the current global death toll of 20,000 is still less than the average annual number of Americans who die from the flu, we daily watch that number climb as the news speaks of little else. Though, a month ago, news headlines were inundated with American politics and pipeline protests, today we watch helplessly as our way of life transforms before our eyes. To me, the sense of dread we feel bears a striking resemblance to feelings expressed by characters in Gone with the Wind – as they faced imminent defeat at the hands of union soldiers. Their way of life would never be the same. Yet, they did their best to live and love while the world around them fell apart.

Is that being a little melodramatic? Maybe. But, feelings are real, and should not be invalidated. They are part of a natural process of responding to the events of life. Recently, some have shared charts like this one, below, which explain the Process of Grieving based on the Kugler-Ross Model:

Applied to the current situation of widespread lockdown, these stages might look like this:
Shock: Emotional shutdown/suppression
Denial: Discrediting sources of information and refusing to change (flight)
Anger: Feeling cornered, like there is no escape, lashing out and releasing bottled up emotion (flight)
– Bargaining: When change feels inevitable, trying to find a “middle ground” to still hang onto some things
– Depression: A sense of hopelessness and helplessness to stop change from happening
– Testing: Experimenting with new ways of life and new plans going forward
-Acceptance: Fully adjusting to the new reality, and learning to ruction again

Perhaps this can be illustrated most memorably with a scene from the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo expresses grief at the heavy task that lay before him. In response, the wise Gandalf guides him towards acceptance:

Gandalf adds an encouraging thought – that there are “other forces” at work in this world, and that what has happened to him was “meant” to be. Gandalf’s sense of a greater good, and a higher power gives Frodo encouragement that there can be meaning and purpose to everything in life, and that there is hope in a better future. Gandalf’s advice helps Frodo to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.

…to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.

In fact, his advice is not unlike Mordecai’s wise words to Esther, when he encourages her to take action in a time of trouble. Like Frodo, she needed to come out of hiding and recognize her opportunity to make a difference. Mordecai, like Gandalf, added meaning to her experience, and pointed to the greater purpose that she could serve.

Another interesting expression of this attitude comes in the form of Christian Spirituality. Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic writer, describes the “Paschal Mystery – A Cycle for Rebirth.” In light of Jesus’s comment in John 12:24 that a seed must die in order to multiply, Rolheiser proposes a model of following Jesus through death, resurrection, adjustment, ascension, and pentecost – for our personal spiritual transformation. That may sound a little strange, but considering Christ’s call in Luke 9:23-25 to carry our cross, follow Him, and give up our lives to gain new lives, Rolheiser doesn’t sound far off. Moreover, Paul’s description of baptism in Romans 6:3-7 sounds quite similar – of joining Jesus in death and finding new life.

In light of this, Rolheiser offers a 5-step model for spiritual transformation:
1.) Good Friday: “the loss of life – real death
2.) Easter Sunday: “the reception of the new life
3.) The Forty Days: “a time for readjustment to the new and grieving for the old
4.) Ascension: “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling
5.) Pentecost: “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living

While this is not identical to Kuber-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief, it shares the idea that grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed. For this to happen, one must acknowledge the death of the old, and welcome what is new.

…grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed.

However, if this process is not embraced, then we can get stuck in the past, and left behind. Jeremiah, the doomsday prophet of the last years of the kingdom of Judah, repeatedly warned his fellow countrymen of the approaching invasion – allowed by God to discipline His people, and turn them back to Him. Time and time again, he called his own people to surrender to their invaders, promising them that God had good plans for them in exile, and would one day restore them to their homeland (29:1-14). Yet, each successive king refused to give up what little control they had. They would rather stand against both God and the greatest empire on earth than relinquish their crumbling kingdom. They wanted to know the word of God from Jeremiah, but were unwilling to obey it; they were more fearful of change than of their impending doom (38:14-28). They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.

They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.

For our church, we have lost some things that are dear to us. Being a smaller size, we cherish the warm fellowship, and face to face contact of Sundays. Not that we’re an exclusive clique – we actually enjoy a beautiful diversity of culture, age, and background. And the wonderful opportunities for personal mentoring and practical service will be missed during this time of the virus. Just weeks ago, we were preparing a rotation of Sunday school teachers to lovingly teach our children; we were selecting new missionaries to support; we were approving our ministry budget for the coming year; we enjoyed a celebration meal with Daycare staff. My, how far we’ve come since then!

Yet, with loss, comes newness. We have embraced new technologies, like Zoom, which enable us to continue face-to-face interaction online. We’re learning to pick up the phone and call each other more, to check in and catch up. And we’re turning back to the Word for advice, and to God in prayer.

So, how might this time of crisis lead to positive change in your life? In this world?
What will come to an end?
What will take its place?

One change that has resulted from the crisis is that some people have gained a lot of free time.
Whether people are laid off or working from home, there are new spaces in our schedules.
With what will we fill them?
What new habits will emerge from this time?
How can we be intentional about the new lives we’re forming through this?

Others have experienced another change: more time at home with family. With schools closed and people working from home, new routines are required. Family members may have more time, but less personal space.
Will we learn to get along through this?
Will we grow through this to deepen our relationships, or will we “hold on until it’s all over?”

We need to develop a vision for life beyond the virus. If we do, then our actions can be informed by that, guided and empowered toward a new way forward. If we can move through the stages of grief, and accept the new reality, we can come to see this time as an opportunity to learn and grow in new ways.
Rather than “grinning and bearing it,” fighting against change, or hiding from it, we can welcome change, and approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times.

…approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times

Where do we go from here? How do we actually process grief in the midst of change?
What words can express what we’re feeling?

I’d encourage you to look to the Psalms, where David and other writers are doing just that – expressing their grief to God, and moving through it to a new reality, firmly footed on faith in God.

Psalm 143

A psalm of David.

Lord, hear my prayer,
    listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
    come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
    for no one living is righteous before you.
The enemy pursues me,
    he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
    like those long dead.
So my spirit grows faint within me;
    my heart within me is dismayed.
I remember the days of long ago;
    I meditate on all your works
    and consider what your hands have done.
I spread out my hands to you;
    I thirst for you like a parched land.

Answer me quickly, Lord;
    my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
    or I will be like those who go down to the pit.
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
    for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
    for to you I entrust my life.
Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,
    for I hide myself in you.
10 Teach me to do your will,
    for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
    lead me on level ground.

11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
    in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
    destroy all my foes,
    for I am your servant.

On the Coronavirus and Cancelling

It was Christmas Day, 1996. In Victoria, BC, it was -8.1 degrees Celsius, a record low. It had been snowing there for 3 days, and people were enjoying their “white Christmas.” But the snow didn’t stop – four feet of it fell between Dec. 27-29, and the city experienced the third-highest snowfall in a 24-hour period, of any Canadian city on record. Quite an accomplishment for the city with the lowest annual average of snowfall in the country. The city became paralyzed; roads were impassable, ferries were docked, airplanes were grounded, and doors were blocked by the mounds of white powder. It was said that the city became so quiet, that you could hear sea lions barking on the shores from several kilometers away.

Yet, in the stillness and silence, Good Samaritans came out of the woodwork. Donning cross-country skis, they delivered food and medicine to shut-ins, and shoveled their walkways. Then they shoveled them again – and again. For Victorians, snow is often seen as a temporary inconvenience that disappears in a matter of hours or, at worst, a few days. But when the city found itself unprepared for the storm of 1996, it brought people together in never-before-seen ways. In fact, for some, it was the best Christmas ever. (See Vancouver Island Book of Everything, p.90)

Now, in 2020, we have the Coronavirus outbreak. As of this moment, there have been over 155,000 cases, and 5,000 deaths. See live updates here. Now, I’m no expert on this issue, but I find it interesting to observe the social effects and ask what we can learn. Here are a couple thoughts:

  1. Facts are Easy to Miss
    We read headlines. We hear soundbites. But there’s a good deal of good information out there, if we look for it.
    It has been said that, though we have no vaccine ready for this virus, the death rate is relatively low (compared to other such outbreaks) and that it primarily concerns those whose health is already compromised. But, this doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It is a tragedy that so many seniors are dying from this, and we need to protect them. Yet, encouragingly, the growth curve has decreased drastically in China and Korea, where the outbreak first began. Counter-measures are working, as can be shown here.
    Moreover, given that the virus spreads through bodily contact and transmission of fluids (through the mouth, eyes, etc.), people have been advised to wash hands, avoid touching their face, and restrict contact with others. This is essentially what people already do to avoid the common cold and the flu, which kills many more people annually than this virus.
    Yet, this has been declared a “national emergency.”
    It is certainly serious, but how should we respond?
    Here are some practical steps that churches can take:
    And some more informed, balanced advice:
  2. The Power of Fear
    I have never before observed such widespread panic in response to such a threat. Perhaps people who are older than me can compare this to the nuclear scares of the cold war, when people lived in fear of an atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets (see this article quoting C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on this). But for me, after seeing various wars, terrorist acts, and more deadly virus outbreaks occur on our planet, this time feels different.
    People have been panic-buying toilet paper – of all things. One person has stockpiled hand wipes and is making a fortune. Stock markets are plunging. These seem like overreactions – especially given the data mentioned above.
    Public advisors have wisely called for gatherings of 250 or more to be cancelled, in order to decrease the virus’s spread. As a result, major sports leagues have paused their seasons, school assemblies have been cancelled, and large churches have closed their doors on Sundays.
    I have no objection to these recommended safety measures. But what about smaller gatherings, like school classes, social gatherings, and even small churches? My own church has needed to face this question.
    No one wants to be labeled as the “bad guy” and be held responsible for spreading the virus. But I have visited malls, grocery stores, parks, and restaurants that remain open, though they accommodate more people than my church. Daycares and schools have continued, due to the low risk for young people. If they cancelled, much of society would come to a standstill. Healthcare providers, who are well-trained in sanitation, continue to treat patients in hospitals, clinics, and dental offices. So, should I still host my birthday party? Should my child go to music class? Should a small church still meet? Is it offensive if we do? Can choices be left up to individuals?
    Sometimes, in this “age of outrage” in mass social media, it feels like the greatest thing to fear is the toxic reactions of those who are offended.

Now, to change gears a bit, how then shall we live?
What can be learned and gained from this?

What is Lost
For the moment, we have lost large public gatherings. Not long ago, we were wondering whether or not the Toronto Raptors will get another long playoff run, whether the Maple Leafs will finally win a playoff series, and whether the Canucks will finally see postseason play. At this point, they all appear unlikely. There are also no concerts, no school assemblies, and no large church services. A large void has been left. Is that good or bad? Without large church gatherings, is this the end of Christianity as we know it?

A Historical Perspective
After instructing a course in Early Church History, I can’t help but think of the incipient church as it existed in the context of the Roman Empire. Christianity was officially illegal, so Christians gathered in homes, in catacombs, and public squares. Christian gatherings had to fit into their everyday routines and the common places of life (see the book of Acts in the New Testament for more on this). Yet, before it became Rome’s official religion in AD 380, before priests wore fancy robes and led services in opulent cathedrals, the young church grew rapidly, as Sociologist Rodney Stark calculates:

And how did the church grow?
Rodney Stark also shares some ideas about that. Apparently, during plagues in 161 and 251 that killed up to a third of the population, the Christians were known for staying in urban centers in order to care for the sick. They also became famous for saving abandoned infants, who were usually female. Not only did this add children to their numbers, but it demonstrated their value and respect for women in general. These factors, in addition to their willing martyrdom for their faith, added weight to their message. Considering this, one might wonder what was lost when the church became wealthy and politically powerful. For more on this, look at St. Antony and the beginning of the monastic movement.

I have often told my church that buildings and pastors are “temporary luxuries” that we enjoy and use in this particular time and place in history. They can be useful tools for strengthening the church and serving the world, but they are not essential to it. Moreover, legal status and tax exemptions should not be taken for granted. If they are ever removed, along with the ability to hold large gatherings, what would be left?

One need only to look to countries like that today for examples. Who would have guessed that Iran would have the highest Christian growth rate in the world? Yet it is doing so “without buildings and central leadership.” Afghanistan is second highest. Moreover, the growth of the church in China has become well-known, despite the difficulty of many churches to gather publicly.

So, back to the question – when we lose large gatherings, what is lost? Have we placed too much emphasis on Sunday gatherings, while neglecting our more basic calling to discipleship and being good neighbors?

What is Found
Perhaps, rather than worrying about what is lost in the case of a pandemic, we can look for what opportunities come through this.
With the loss of professional sports and other large forms of public entertainment, a void has been created.
What will fill that void?
Will we binge-watch shows on Netflix?
Or, just as in the snowstorm of ’96, will we look up from our own affairs and look to our neighbors?
Now that we are forced to stop many things, will we discover that we never really needed them in the first place?
Will we, in the quiet, in our free time and enforced space to ourselves, find that God has always been there, waiting for a moment like this, to connect?
I’ve sometimes found, in moments of enforced stillness (computer crashes, car breaks down, bus is missed, a meeting is cancelled), that they come just when they’re needed most. And periods of extended rest can often be wonderful times to reconsider our life priorities!

So, in this time of great anxiety, as we feel a sense of loss and lack of control, what will fill the void? Where will we turn?
What opportunities will God bring, and what is He saying to you?

Psalm 62
Truly my soul finds rest in God;
    my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
    he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

How long will you assault me?
    Would all of you throw me down—
    this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
Surely they intend to topple me
    from my lofty place;
    they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
    but in their hearts they curse.

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
    my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
    he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
    he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
    pour out your hearts to him,
    for God is our refuge.

9/11: A Turning Point

17 years ago, as a 17 year old, I heard the news of 9/11 over the radio on my way to school. My English class sat silently, as the news developed, as the world as we knew it changed.

Today, it occurred to me that prior to that day, my focus of study was on Math and Science. And since that day, I’ve studied History, Philosophy, International Relations, and Theology.  I’ve applied myself toward understanding this world and its people, with hopes of making a positive difference

It’s been a switch from certainty to story, from problem-solving to balancing and tension – an exploration of mystery.
And through it all, there has been a constant. The words of Psalm 46, written a few millennia ago, still ring true today:

1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

7 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

8 Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Acts 1-8: A Pattern of Spiritual Growth

What’s wrong with the church?
What should it be like?
What was it originally like, in the time of the apostles?

Have you ever pondered these questions? 
It seems to me that this sequence of three questions, or something like it, has probably entered every thoughtful churchgoer’s mind at some point.  When things seem to be going wrong, at least from our view, we wonder what we’re missing, and our thoughts go back to the early church.

Kenneth J. Stewart, an author to whom I am related, has noted that many evangelicals are looking to Catholic and Orthodox churches for more “authentic” or “original” experiences of Christian worship.  However, he argues that it is not tradition, form, or succession of leadership that defines the true church, but biblical doctrine.  Staying true to the authority of Scripture, the need for personal faith, and the practical living out of that faith is what has historically separated the true church from its variants.  Ever since apostolic times, there has always remained a stream of faithful believers who hold to these convictions.

Ok, but what would this look like today?
How can a church gather and worship, practically living out their faith in a way that is faithful to Scripture?

Many people look to the book of Acts for answers, trying to find a formula to follow, or a model to replicate.  Acts 2:42 might be the most popular verse to be used for this purpose:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Of course, this list of activities are to be recommended and practised by churches today.  But this verse was not meant to be a complete blueprint for the church of all ages.  Acts 2:42 is actually one of many point-in-time snapshots of the early church, as it developed.  Using this as a timeless model would be like trying to replicate Martin Luther’s lectures, John Wesley’s “holiness groups,” or the Azusa street revival in our present time without any regard for our particular context.  Moreover, viewing this point-in-time as ideal would be ignoring the process of how the church developed to that point, and how it developed from there. 

When you read Acts as it was written – as a narrative – you can see a fledgling group of Jesus-followers develop into a united fellowship, then into a mature organisation, and then into a global movement.  It is this pattern, I believe, which we have seen repeated in other places and other times over history; it is this pattern that we can hope to replicate in our own context, in its own way.

I’ve reflected further on this in a short sermon series.
Or, here are some brief thoughts, below:

Acts chapter 1 may be one of the most forgotten chapters in the New Testament.  Readers and preachers may be eager to get to the story of Pentecost in chapter 2 – but what led up to this?  After Jesus resurrected, and before He ascended, Jesus instructed His followers to wait for the Holy Spirit, Who would empower them for their mission (Acts 1:1-8).  So, the apostles and other followers of Jesus, numbering 120, gathered in an upper room to pray.  And as they continued to meet, we see something completely ordinary happen – they open the Scriptures, and seek God’s will together.  This, it appears, is the seed of the church – a “small group Bible study & prayer time.”  Before any public gatherings, programs, or missions developed, these 120 disciples of Jesus committed to meeting together, united in worship of their Savior and Lord.

How much effort to churches and church planters put in to attracting large gatherings?
Didn’t Jesus shy away from these sort of things, in order to prioritise time to disciple the few? 

He knew that He would never physically reach every single person – so He started a multiplying movement, commissioning His disciples to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).  And as the story in Acts continues, we’ll see how this worked.

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends, fills the disciples, and empowers them to proclaim the good news to a multicultural crowd in their own languages.  The result is an instant mega-church – three thousand new believers were baptised, having repented of their sins and believed in Jesus.  This is where we arrive at the famous snapshot in verse 42, mentioned earlier.  And certainly, it could be seen as a description of the pristine, ideal church gathering:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Devotion to Scripture (the New Testament is the apostles’ teaching), to fellowship, eating together/celebrating communion, praying – these, of course are essentials, and serve as a good model to follow.  But the description of this early church goes on – the church also had miracles, communal possessions, daily worship gatherings and meals, favour in the community, and daily conversions.

How did they have time for this?  What motivated them to such a courageous and committed lifestyle?
The closest I’ve come to this is youth group, where I was part of a community of people with a lot of time for each other, and a lot of energy to spend on behalf of others.
Acts 2 was a special time.  Pentecost had just happened, which was a one-time event, birthing a new era among God’s people.  It’s not that we shouldn’t expect these things in our church, but we must recognise this as a step in the journey – a journey that can be taken again and again by God’s people, but never exactly the same at every time or place.

By Acts 6, the church had grown by the thousands, and the apostles were beginning to bend under the weight of the practical needs that came with such a large flock.  Offerings were being given, and needed to be redistributed fairly – particularly to the widows among them.  The church had become culturally diverse since Pentecost, and conflict emerged between Hellenist and Hebraic Jews.  Note that at this point, the church is still basically Jewish – those are the people who had come to the Pentecost celebration, and that is the nation who had been awaiting the Messiah, Jesus.  But some Jews, especially those who were dispersed around the Roman Empire, had adopted some Greek customs and certainly spoke the Greek language.  It was these newcomers who were feeling neglected by the widow-relief program that had begun.

People complaining in a church about favouritism …sound familiar?  What to do?
This is a point where we see the church grow and mature as an organisation.  The apostles create a new level of leadership – a sort of middle-management.  The congregation nominates Hellenistic “deacons” or “ministers” to oversee this practical need, and the apostles affirm them, so that they can be freed up to focus on prayer and Scripture (remember how it all began?)  So the apostles keep the main thing the main thing, and the church is beginning to run its own ministries.  Finally we have a healthy, fruitful church…

And then Acts 7-8 happens.  Stephen, one of the new ministers, is martyred.  The church scatters.
All is lost…or is it?

Just as we can overly-idealise the organic, pristine, ideal fellowship of Acts 2, we can also fall into thinking that when you get to Acts 6, you’ve arrived – big numbers, functioning programs, appointing leaders – this is the dream of every church leader, right?

But what was their mission, again? 
Why did the Spirit come, again?
Acts 1:8 tells it pretty plainly:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Just when the church was getting comfy, enjoying growth, stability, and favour among the people, it gets scattered.  But as the believers scatter, they begin to fulfil the mission to which they were called in the first place:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:4)

And as the story continues, we see the gospel spread from Judea to Samaria, and the ends of the earth – embracing all peoples into God’s family.  We see that God saves people to send them; He calls people to commission them; He blesses people to make them a blessing.

In light of the whole story, we see the purpose of each step along the way.  The church begins with a gathering of worshippers; that grows into a thriving community; that develops into an organised ministry; and that multiplies into a global movement.
I believe we can see this process in individual people’s lives, as well as in the development of churches (see how Rick Warren described church ministry in The Purpose Driven Life, below).

Does it relate to you and your church?
If so, what stage might you be at? 
What step might God be leading you to take?

 

 

Gospel of Luke: There are 2 Kinds of People

This past Sunday, we just finished a 6-week journey through the Sermon on the Mount together.  Jesus says all kinds of startling, earth-shaking things in that famous address, re-defining how His followers would view the world, their lives, and Him.  But, He is not just giving some food for thought.  He closes His remarks with a challenge to respond: we must pick a side – are we in or out?

In Matthew 7:13-27, Jesus makes a similar point in four different ways: There are two kinds of people.  People can take broad path with the crowd, or the narrow path with Him.  They can listen to false prophets, or to fruitful, faithful teachers.  They can say they believe, or they can live it out.  They can build their house on the sand, or on the Rock of His words.

Jesus wasn’t just a nice teacher, or even a miraculous healer – to be accepted  as much or as little as we’d like.  He is the Son of God, Who calls us to believe in Him.  While this makes Him the greatest source of unity we could ever hope for,  this also makes Him extremely polarizing:
Based on their response to Jesus, people are divided into two categories.

Perhaps nowhere else have I seen this point more clearly than in the Gospel of Luke.  When our church traveled through the entire narrative of the Bible together in 2017, we spent a month in Luke.  That’s not a lot of time for such a “thorough account” of the life of Jesus, so I knew I needed to focus on a theme.  Having already reflected on the “Words of Jesus” from the Gospel of Mark, I approached the book of Luke from a different angle – examining Jesus’s impact on the people He encountered.  It was these “Encounters with Jesus” that really illustrated His polarizing effect on humanity.

Early in His ministry, Jesus clearly states that His purpose is to preach the good news of the kingdom (Luke 4:43) and call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).  The immediate response is remarkable: Matthew, a tax collector, the worst of sinners, responds to Jesus’s call, and holds a great banquet at his house to celebrate. The religious leaders notice that the banquet is full of sinners and, rather than celebrating along with Jesus, they complain.  Jesus is moving the goalposts, redefining righteousness as something based on repentance of sin and faith in Him, rather than outward appearance.  In response to this encounter with Jesus, sinners throw a party, and religious leaders complain.  Sinners are entering the kingdom ahead of religious leaders (Matthew 21:31).

Perhaps even more surprisingly, we see a similar contrast between the Jewish elders and a Roman centurion.  The centurion’s servant is gravely ill, and he sends some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal him.  A Roman ordering around Jews – so far, it sounds pretty normal for the occupier-subject relationship.  But then, the situation is turned upside-down.  The Jewish elders plead his case, claiming that the centurion “deserves” this favor because of his good deeds.  The word in Greek is axios, literally meaning “equal in weight,” and often translated as “worthy.”  But as Jesus approaches, the centurion sends friends to ask Jesus to not trouble Himself to come – but to simply give the word, and the servant will be healed.  The centurion actually considers himself undeserving of a visit by Jesus (hikanos = insufficient) and unworthy (axios) to approach Jesus, Himself.  In response, Jesus is amazed (thumazo).  Nowhere else in the gospels is this word used to describe Jesus, other than Mark 6:6, when He is amazed at the unbelief of His hometown, in response to His miracles.  Here, Jesus is amazed at this centurion’s faith – which was greater than any He had seen in Israel.  This foreigner, who considered himself unworthy, was actually more worthy than any of God’s chosen nation.

Moving on, Jesus later visits some friends – Mary & Martha, who were sisters of Lazarus.  Martha gets busy preparing a meal, while Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to His teaching.  Martha gets upset, but Mary is affirmed.  This well-known story continues to irk well-meaning Christians, who find that they relate to Martha’s work ethic rather than Mary’s more passive demeanor.  But is this story merely about two different personalities?  No.  When Jesus says “Mary has chosen what is better,” He is talking about a conscious decision on their part.  He is not saying that one personality type is more holy than the other; He is saying that “only one thing is needed,” and we need to decide what that “one thing” is for us.  Martha was “worried,” and she took it out on everyone around her.  This was not an example of joyful, overflowing, or humble service; she may have been trying to earn Jesus’s favor.  In contrast, Mary offered her eyes, ears, and implicitly, her heart.  She acknowledged that she needed to receive from Jesus, not vice-versa.  And this would not lead to passivity; surely, practical service would result from whatever she heard and received from that encounter.

Noticing a pattern, here?  As people encounter Jesus, they are distinguished by each other not by their religiosity, culture, or good works, but by their faith in Him.  A child of God is simply someone who believes in who Jesus is and receives what He has done for them (John 1:12).  He calls us to repent, believe, and follow Him – acknowledging our need for forgiveness,  trusting that His death and resurrection takes care of that, and committing our lives to His leadership and care.
Notice what these requirements exclude?  Outward religiosity, cultural background, impressive works…get the idea?  No wonder He was so polarizing.

Take a look at the rest of Luke,
and notice also how, in Jesus’s parables, people are divided into two groups.  At God’s great banquet, there will be those who respond to the invitation, and those who don’t (Luke 14:15-24).  There are those like the Prodigal Son, who repent and return to the Father, and those like the older brother, who judge others and stay out of the celebration (Luke 15:11-32).  There are boasters who will be humbled, and the humble who will be exalted as righteous (Luke 18:9-14).  There are those who leave everything and enter the kingdom like humble children, and those who hang onto their wealth (Luke 18:15-30).

As Jesus’s birth drew near, a priest was muted for lack of faith, while a young virgin was commended for hers (Luke 1:1-38).  As Jesus’s death drew near, one disciple betrayed Jesus and met his demise; another denied Him, regretted it, and was reinstated (Luke 22:47-62).  One ruler acknowledged the innocence of the King of the Jews, and the other mocked Him (Luke 23:1-38).  One criminal on a cross beside Him joined in the mockery, while the other repented, believed, and was saved (Luke 23:39-43).  The final chapter tells of His resurrection when, finally, two people are together and agree!  Jesus encounters two men on the road to Emmaus, and reveals to them that His life, death, and resurrection have fulfilled what the Scriptures promised.  Before long, His followers will be given the Holy Spirit and sent to the world with this good news! (Luke 24:13-49)

Who do you relate to, in these encounters with Jesus?
How do you respond to Him?  Who is He?  What does He mean to you?

Gospel of Mark: 3 Simple Steps

Where do you go to find healing?

Last spring, I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering nearby in my city.  The group was looking for a new place to meet, and one of their members invited me to check them out.  I watched as 40-50 “Gen-X” young adults shared from the heart about their struggles, failures, hopes, and milestones on their journey to recovery.  There was an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and openness.  They held fast to the teachings in their “Big Book,” and religiously followed its 12 steps, of which the first three are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

I was impressed by the mutual support between the members, and the personal drive each of them showed to climb out of their addiction.  I was filled with hope for these people, who sought so eagerly for a “higher power,” but couldn’t help thinking as Paul thought in Athens when He stood up and proclaimed:

People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. 

The Aeropagus in Athens, where Paul spoke in Acts 17.

Paul went on to explain that God was not out of their reach, and wanted them to seek Him.  They were trying so hard to worship and seek God in the right way, and just needed to know that God didn’t need their help – He was ready to help them! (Acts 17:22-23)

Our church happily welcomed the AA group to use our building twice a week, and looked forward to developing a cooperative and healthy relationship.  After 9 months, it has been great, and a few of their members have sought for the “Higher Power” with us on Sundays too!

Last fall, several months after AA came under our roof, our church launched Freedom Session – a Christian 12-step program that explicitly names Jesus as the Higher Power who will bring us healing and growth.  This was for two reasons – first, so that we could offer the good news of Jesus to people of the recovery community who were seeking answers.  Secondly, because we as a church had a lot to learn from the recovery community – about opening up and becoming more authentic with one another.  Freedom Session would be a step in that direction.  Perhaps both sides could learn from one another!

Freedom session is designed for people to deal with any issue (abuse, addiction, behavior, etc.) and its corresponding coping strategies and “drugs of choice.”  It also follows the same 12 steps as AA, with some slight changes in wording.  Here are the first three:

  1. We admitted that, in our own strength, we are powerless to rise above our hurts, resentments, unhealthy behaviors and attempts to control.   Our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that God exists, that He loves us deeply and that, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we can be healed and fulfill the purposes for which we were created.
  3. We made a conscious decision to turn our lives, our pain and our will over to the care of God and the leadership of Jesus Christ.

Coincidentally, as we trained and prepared to launch Freedom Session, I was preaching through the Gospel of Mark in September.  With only 3 Sundays to work with after the Labour Day weekend, I decided to focus on identifying the main message of Jesus.  This I found in His opening remarks in Mark 1:14-17:

  •  Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”  As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

In this summary of Jesus’s Gospel message, He begins by stating the fact that the kingdom has come.  God’s promise to come and save His people was coming true.  Jesus’s name meant that He would save people from their sins.  He was also called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.”  God’s kingdom was being launched on earth – a movement of people who trusted and followed Jesus.

Jesus then asks for a response in 3 simple commands: Repent, Believe, and Follow.  We are to have a “change of mind,” as the Greek word for “repent,” metanoia means – and this should result in a complete reorientation in our life.  We must turn from our wrong ways, and turn toward a new way – believing in Jesus as our Savior.  And for believing to bear fruit, it must translate into action – following Jesus.   This will result in us becoming able to “fish” for others – to share what we have.

I couldn’t help but notice that these 3 simple commands corresponded with the 3 steps of AA and Freedom Session.  It is well-known that AA has Christian roots – and we can see it today!  One must confess that there is a problem, come to believe in a source of hope, and then decide to follow through.  If only it was clearly understood who that Source of Hope was, who originally gave us these 3 steps!

Going on in Mark, I preached on the Parable of the Sower.  I hadn’t planned it this way, but it was fascinating to see how this parable illustrated the same 3 steps!  The seed is the good news of Jesus, and the soils are the hearts of different people:

  • The hardened soil on the path failed to take step 1 – to confess/repent, and be open to receive the message.
  • The shallow, rocky soil failed to take step 2 – to believe and endure through adversity.
  • The thorny soil failed to take step 3 – to follow through and set aside distractions.

Only by taking all 3 steps can we expect “fruit” – change, recovery, and healing!

My last message was Jesus’s encounter with Blind Bartimaeus.  Here, we have a real-life example of someone taking these steps.  Bartimaeus admits that he is blind, and calls out for help: step 1.  Then, Bartimaeus demonstrates faith by specifically asking Jesus to restore His sight: step 2.  Finally, having been healed, Bartimaeus uses his newfound eyesight to get up and follow Jesus: step 3!

I share this as an encouragement to all – God is not far off or out of reach – in fact, He has been reaching out to us all along!  He has sent Jesus as our Savior, Who calls us to 3 simple steps: Repent, Believe, and Follow! 

May we find hope and healing in Him.

 

 

Between You and God: A Review of Surrender to Love

Surrender to Love: Discovering the  Heart of Christian Spirituality
by David G. Benner.

What does God think of you?
Do you relate to Him with fear or trust?
How does that affect your life?

David Benner, a professor of psychology and spirituality, summarizes the Christian life in his title: Surrender to Love. He recognizes our longing for love and connection – indeed, it is our life purpose – yet we are hesitant to be vulnerable.

The book contains only five chapters, and is not burdensome to read. It takes the reader through a progression as follows:

First, he poses the question, “what do you think God feels about you?” He encourages us to think if God as the Father of the prodigal son – loving us despite our sin. He also points out that Jesus, God incarnate shows us that God is love. The problem, however, is that many people know this, but don’t feel it. They need to experience it.

Second, Benner addresses fear. Some people relate to God in this way, as if God only offered His gift of Love “at gunpoint.” And, living in fear, we seek safety by seeking to control ourselves and others. Only knowing the safety of God’s uninventable, inconceivable gracious love can free us from fear, to vulnerably receive.

Third, he argues that obedience to God, which leads to our well-being, needs to be in surrender. We can’t strive to obey by our own strength; we must abandon control, and trust His love. Obedience should be restful, like flowing in a stream, rather than striving by our own strength. It is preferring His way, and saying “yes” to Him – only possible if we trust His love.

Fourth, Benner outlines the transformational journey this involves. It begins with conversion, which involves repenting or turning from our sin, to God. This requires trusting His love and reorienting toward Him. Next, one must receive the love in vulnerability – only then can it truly transform us. One may know the truth, but they will not be able to change by sheer willpower. Finally, after opening oneself to God, one must “leap beyond belief” and truly experience His love. Only God’s love can truly satisfy, and only His love is perfect enough for absolute surrender; but our love can partially reflect it enough to partially enjoy this transformative love in a human context.

Fifth, Benner addresses how we can “become love.” He points out that conversion involves a death and rebirth of the self. And to become new, it involves meditating on God’s love, rather than trying to mimic it. But, one must experience this love through the cross alone – recognizing our sinfulness and need, and receiving His gift. From there, we lose ourselves and become others-oriented; we become love, in the image of the One Who is love.

What can I say about this book?

If you prefer practical, hands-on, formulaic, how-to ministry manuals, this isn’t for you. Yet, in a way, it does present us with very simple and clear instructions on how to benefit from God’s love.

Perhaps, you may wonder, ‘How can Benner, or anyone for that matter, speak of such things? Aren’t these issues private, between us and God?’

No. Read the Psalms. Read the Bible! We need to talk more about our relationship with God. Yes, it is individual and unique, but it is strengthened in community. Benner doesn’t have the complete view, but neither does anyone else. Yet, we can learn from one another, and I dare say we should learn from what Benner shares here.

So, by all means, check out this book, read it with an open mind, and take from it what you can!

“Know Thyself:” An Introduction to the Enneagram

Navel Gazers 

The ancient Greeks are known for their philosophy – almost any idea can be traced, or connected in some way, to the preserved writings of their famous thinkers.  The phrase in the title, “Know Thyself,” or γνῶθι σεαυτόν in Greek, is a well-known aphorism, attributed to various ancient philosophers, but famously expounded by Socrates, who concluded, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

While this idea may sound like self-absorbed navel-gazing to a Christian, the value of introspection is not foreign to Biblical and later Christian writers.  For example, King David’s words in Psalm 139:23-24 are still repeated by Christians today, as part of what is called the Prayer of Examen:

Search me, God, and know my heart; 
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

Such a prayer makes it clear that, while a Christian’s primary pursuit would be to know God (Philippians 3:8-10), a healthy and reciprocal relationship with our Creator will involve learning about ourselves from the One Who knows us best.  Perhaps the greatest example of this in later Christian writings would be Augustine of Hippo, who practically invented the genre of autobiography.  After his long search for meaning and truth brought him back to the faith of his childhood, he confessed:

For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. 

Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. (Confessions)

Centuries later, Paul wrote to the Roman church, instructing them on the essential beliefs of the Christian faith.  Then, he closes his letter with practical instructions on how to get along and function in relationship to one another:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.  For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. (Romans 12:3-6).

For Paul, a self-awareness of one’s personal identity in Christ, and of one’s personal gifting, is crucial for healthy participation in Christ’s community. While many later writers have built on this idea, one notable example from recent times would be Henri Nouwen.  In his book, Reaching Out, he argues that one must come to peace within themselves in order to reach out to others:  

It is there that our changing relationship to ourself can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings.  It is there that our reaching out to our innermost being can lead to a reaching out to the many strangers whom we meet on our way through life (65).

Again, one last time, this idea should not lead to self-absorption.  For Paul, knowing one’s unique gifting comes after surrendering oneself to be transformed by God and conformed to His will (Romans 12:1-2).  It is in relation to God that we find our true selves.  Jesus states, even clearer, that we must give up our lives in order to truly gain them (Luke 9:24)  As C.S. Lewis states in Mere Christianity,

But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away “blindly” so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him…Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

So, as we proceed to explore the Enneagram, may we do so with an attitude of openness to God, joining David in saying, “search me, O God.

The Enneagram

I recently finished reading Discovering Your Personality Type: The Essential Introduction to the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson.

As the title indicates, this would be a good first book for anyone wanting to learn about this fascinating and useful personality indicator.  It contains introductory materials, a 144-question survey to indicate your type, an explanation of each of the 9 types, and some guidelines of interpretation.

As with any good personality indicator, the results should seem intuitive.  This test should put into words what a person already feels and observes.  And, equally important, it should give language to what we observe in others.  The enneagram has become widely used in business circles, counseling, and faith communities in order to gain insight into our personal, relational, and spiritual dynamics.

Underlying the mechanics of the enneagram is a belief that everyone has a basic type.  While nurturing factors can affect the way that we develop, relate, and act outwardly, there is an assumption that, deep down, we all have an inborn nature that affects the way we experience life.  As far as this paradigm is concerned, our “type” is  irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or season of life.  Rather, those external factors may affect other aspects of the enneagram.  No type is better than another; rather, each type has its own corresponding vices, fears, and levels of health.

While many personality paradigms present binary choices, and simply provide people with a static label, the
enneagram is more dynamic.

First, rather than binary, it is tertiary.  All people are divided into one of three triads, based on their “centre of consciousness:” thinking, feeling, or instinctive (gut).  These three categories essentially express how people make decisions.  Then, within each triad are three sub-sections: one assertive, one dutiful, and one withdrawn.  The result is that each person has two characteristics, assigning them one of nine basic types.  There are additional levels that psychologists have added, further dividing each type again.

Perhaps most uniquely, the enneagram is dynamic.  Not only does a person stand solidly within their “basic type;” but there is also conditional movement between the types.  When a person is stressed, they tend to act like a specific other type; when they are secure, they tend to act like another type.  People also tend to have a “wing,” or secondary type that is adjacent to their main one.  Thus, the enneagram accounts for the diversity we experience, and provides an explanation for human development and regression when experiencing consolation and desolation.

In short, the enneagram explains a lot.  And the more familiar one becomes with it, the more insight one can gain into personal, relational, and spiritual dynamics.  We can gain language to explain why we feel, think and do things, why we clash with certain people, and what wholeness and health looks like for us and others.  The enneagram does not rank types in comparison to each other, but provides a framework for seeking maximum health within one’s own type.

So, if you are curious to explore your personality dynamics further,
or if you are inclined to openly approach God as David did in Psalm 139,
or if you are ready to heed Christ’s call to turn your life over to Him for transformation, consider using the enneagram as a practical tool!

Is Your Church is Too Safe?

Just over a year ago, I was called by Parkdale Evangelical Free Church to join their family and serve as Pastor.  God had led me through a searching year of letting go of where I was and what I was doing – and now He had shown me the next step.  God provided us with a ministry calling, a home, and a loving community to join.  We moved on September 1, 2016.

Since then, people have often asked me, “How’s it going at Parkdale?”  I tell them that I am very grateful to be part of such a healthy, loving family of believers.  I appreciate that our gatherings can provide a time and place for people of various generations and backgrounds to unite in worship and warm fellowship.  It is a family that likes being together – whether it be cheering on their softball team, building homes in Mexico, or enjoying a barbecue lunch.  Parkdale is a community that I am glad to share about with others, and when they visit, they speak of it’s warm atmosphere.

Not long into my time as pastor here, a senior member of the church showed me a photo directory of Parkdale, from the early 1980’s – before the time that I was born.  What struck me most was not the odd hairdos, or the lack of ethnic diversity that are characteristic of that decade – it was simply this: that less than a handful of the people in this directory still attended the church!

This is not to say that there are no seniors at Parkdale.  Thankfully, we have a good cohort from that generation.  While some from the 1980’s directory have passed on to glory, there are many who have not.
So, where are they?

Some people leave.  It can be connected to a pastor’s departure – three have left since the early ’80’s.  It can also be for personal reasons – a crisis of faith, a personal conflict, or a new chapter in their life journey.  But, for every “leaver,” there is usually a “comer” – someone leaving elsewhere and coming our way for a similar reason.  So, what do we do when they come?

Some people move.  People don’t keep jobs and careers like they used to.  And when one member of the family moves, it can start a chain reaction, as others follow to support or be supported by living closer together.  And yet, Victoria is not de-populating.  On the contrary, Victoria’s population has grown from 64,000 in 1981 to 85,000 in 2016.  Over the same time, Saanich has grown from 78,000 to 109,000.  People leave and people come.  Are we reaching those newcomers?

This is where the conversation gets a little uncomfortable.  It is wonderful to enjoy and participate in a loving church family.  But times change, and people don’t always stay forever.  Therefore, unless new people are welcomed into the fold, it’s only a matter of time before every church will go extinct.  Fortunately, in Parkdale’s case, the departure of 90% of the people from the early 1980’s has not resulted in the extinction of the church.  It lives on!

What does this mean for us, today?

Well, for one, the church is not all about us – nor is it all about the people who are in it.  Just like a family, there is an understanding that we are living, gathering, and serving for others – for the lost who will be found, for the next generation, who will rise to take our place.

Second – safety, stability, and even unity are not our goal.  They are wonderful to have, but are fruits of something else, something deeper: a common mission of following Jesus Christ.  In church, there can develop a “Noah’s Ark” mentality, of creating a safe place to gather and visit – safe from the world and its evils.  But, pursuing safety leads to exclusivity, and stagnation.  We fear people who are different, who might hurt us or influence our kids badly.  We hesitate to try new things, or to be too generous.  We shrink back from doing anything together outside of the walls of our building – for fear of being seen, tested, and rejected.  And, as a result, the life is drained from the fellowship.

If, however, our goal is to follow Jesus, and to invite His transformation of our lives, then safety takes a back seat.  Jesus calls us to give up our lives and trust that He will give us a better, truer, eternal one.  Paul tells us that God’s will is our sanctification and wholeness.  He is working through all the challenges of our lives, to make us more like Christ.  As we give up our old lives, our new lives are being restored back into the likeness of our Creator.

This transformative journey can involve discomfort.  We may experience turbulence.  But, strangely, there is nowhere where we will find a deeper sense of safety than in our Heavenly Father’s arms; there is no more stability than in being part of God’s eternal plan; there is no truer unity than the fellowship of following Christ together, being one in Spirit and purpose.

Where have you experienced these things?  For me, it is when I know that I am in the centre of God’s will for me, exactly where he wants me, doing what He has created and called me to do.  Whether that be on an overseas mission trip, or feeding the downtown homeless, playing with my children, or praying with church members, there is safety, stability, and unity in following Jesus together.

What is He calling us to do?

Not long after I began serving at Parkdale, I invited the church to read a book together: Your Church is too Safe.  Perhaps the title turned some people off; but, evidently, the title attracted some – before long a group was gathering to discuss it.  The author, Mark Buchanan, had pastored on the Island for 17 years, and this was his 7th and final book – a last word, before he moved on to teach at a Seminary.  The book was full of stories – funny stories, inspiring stories, challenging stories.  Together, our group caught a vision for what church could be:

In the world:

  • Venturing into middle ground to meet people
  • Offering compassionate presence, not just money
  • Being hospitable guests, not just hosts
  • A fellowship of travellers, not tourists
  • Break down walls: free the captives

Not of the world:

  • Both attractive and relevant, by loving well
  • Utterly dependent on God, embodying faith
  • Full of grace and truth
  • Attractive and magnetic, unified community
  • Build walls: distinguish selves

Overcoming evil with good:

  • Transforming, not avoiding what is unclean
  • Reflecting God’s risky generosity
  • Turning the world upside down

Over the past year, it has been encouraging to see God at work among us at Parkdale, in some of these ways.

  • When an AA group asked to use our building, they were welcomed and accommodated.  We opened our doors, knowing that hospitality also means vulnerability.  What will come of this?  I hope and pray that our new friends will discover Jesus as the Higher Power.
  • When COBS Bread asked for charities to distribute their leftover bread, our people jumped at the opportunity.  Each week, bread is gathered, bagged, and given to those in need (even of just some cheer).  Gathering and bagging takes time and energy.  Distributing it takes courage.  What will come of this?  I hope and pray that it will create common ground with others and facilitate fruitful conversations
  • When I asked if there’d be an interest in beginning Freedom Session at our church, again, the response was positive.  This ministry will involve confession.  It will involve openness.  It will involve accountability.  But, I trust, it will open the door to healing and spiritual growth in our lives, and the lives of others who we reach.

Are we still too safe?  Perhaps.  Who knows what steps of faith Jesus will call us to take, as we follow Him?  How can our worship, our fellowship, our Daycare/Preschool, our homes, our jobs, and our social lives become instruments for His glory?

But I am grateful for the steps we’ve already taken together on this journey together.  Let’s be listening for His voice as we proceed.

 

Seeing People with God’s Eyes

I remember the fascinating and ground-breaking 1999 movie, The Matrix.  Neo, the protagonist, is living in an artificial reality – a dream-world created by robots who’ve conquered the earth.  Most humans have been reduced to dormant power-generators for their mechanical masters.  At some point, Neo is awakened from his slumber, and comes into contact with a few humans who have been liberated from the blindness to reality.  Their leader, Morpheus, enlightens him, beginning with the now-famous question:

“What if I told you everything you knew was a lie?”

Actually, no, he didn’t say that.  That line summarizes the main idea of the story, but much ink has been spilled in discussing and clarifying that this now-popular meme did not exactly originate in the matrix.  See discussions here and here and the movie clip here.

But this just strengthens the point.  Neo was deceived into believing in a false reality, and so were many of us.  I was one of many who, before writing this post, would have agreed that the quote above was spoken by Morpheus.  But it turns out to be a fairly common phenomenon – we often fail to see things as they truly are.

If there’s one thing I could say about Jesus’s teachings, it would be this:
More thank correcting our doctrine, deeper than cleaning up our behavior, Jesus is interested in completely transforming our entire worldview.

Jesus calls for repentance.  In Greek, the term metanoia literally means to change one’s mind.  We need to understand things differently.  When He says that He is the Light of the World, He means that He is the Source of truth, the embodiment of Truth, the One Who can reveal how things really are.  C. S. Lewis put it this way:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Many of Jesus’s teachings were difficult to accept.  He repeatedly turned people’s world upside down, affirming returning prodigals over self-righteous servants (Luke 15), affirming repentant sinners over prideful religious leaders (Luke 18:9-14), and assuring all that our reward from God is a result of His grace, not our work (Matthew 20:1-16).  He affirmed attentiveness over busyness (Luke 10:38-42) and indicated that earthy fortunes may be reversed in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-30).  In light of this different worldview, He began His Sermon on the Mount this way:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

Wow, what a different way of viewing the world!

Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that Jesus’s earthly brother, James, should teach along a similar vein.  In a previous post, I’ve already shared how James seeks to give us perspective in the midst of trials.  In 1:9-11, he reminds us that the current state of both rich and poor is transient.  Therefore, we should learn what we can from present trials, and realize that God is the solution, not the cause, of our problems.

Now, in chapter 2:1-13, James addresses a practical issue: showing partiality.  For those who hold faith in Jesus Christ, there should be no partiality shown.  Then, just as Jesus illustrates a deeper point by giving practical instructions on how to throw a party, James illustrates his point with instructions for seating at an assembly: do not distinguish between rich and poor when you gather to worship.

Why not?  

Because showing partiality does not correspond with the new reality that we see in Jesus Christ.  No doubt remembering Jesus’s words from Matthew 5 quoted above, James reasons:

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

The truth of the matter is that the poor may actually be rich, and the rich might actually be poor.  As became quite evident in Jesus’s ministry, it is the “poor in spirit” who tend to receive the kingdom of God (His reign in their lives).  It was the Rich Ruler who rejected Jesus’s invitation, prompting Jesus to remark,

“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! (Luke 18:24)

It is difficult because the rich are tempted to trust in their things, rather than God.  Their things might be financial savings, educational credentials, social reputation, dwellings, life insurance, etc.  To the extent that they give in, they are cheated from experiencing the joy of growing in faith through trials (1:2-4), and knowing God as the Giver of everything good (1:16-17).  in chapter 2, James is even harsher, claiming that it is the rich who oppress you and blaspheme the Name by which you were called (2:6-7).

After denouncing what is wrong, James points us to what is right: the “royal law” of loving our neighbour as ourselves.  Showing partiality is antithetical to this simple and all-inclusive law to love.  A person who keeps the whole law, but fails at this point is as guilty as someone who broke the whole thing (2:9-11).

So, what should we do?  James concludes with this exhortation:

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Verse 12 summarizes how we are to operate in this world.  If we view the world through worldly eyes, we will operate under worldly laws of how the world works.  We will pragmatically show partiality, in order to win the favor of powerful friends.  We will judge others to raise our own profile.  But if we view the world through God’s eyes, we will operate under the “law of liberty” that sets us free from the trappings of backstabbing competition, working for everyone’s approval and grasping for security.

When we realize that “every good and perfect gift is from above,” and we receive His “word of truth,” we are “brought forth” as “firstfruits of his creatures” (1:17-18).  Born again.  New Creation.  Believing and receiving the truth makes us children of God – adopted into a new family, with a new identity.  Old lines of division are wiped away, and we are united together as we are united to Him.

When we operate under the “law of liberty,” we are putting our faith in Jesus Christ, who set us free from the guilt and power of our sin.  We are believing that “mercy triumphs over judgement.”

So, James says, if you view the world this way, then “so speak and so act” like it!  Show the mercy to others, that you’re counting on receiving from God!