Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Undivided Devotion

There are a multitude of distractions that can keep us from undivided devotion to God. Sometimes when I sit down in the morning to pray and read, instead I check my email, then start worrying about something at work, then go to ESPN.com, then read and reply to a couple emails, then look at pictures from some hikes my wife and I have taken. (Not that those things are intrinsically bad, but sometimes they can be a distraction from that laser focus on God.)

Undivided devotion is difficult to achieve. Trying to practice loyalty shows us how unloyal we are. In both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians he talks about undivided devotion to God, which so happens to be the first commandment: “You must not have any other God but me.” Exodus 20:3 (NLT) 

Since righteousness and wickedness do not go together, and light and darkness do not go together, and God and the devil have nothing in common, Paul says, “…let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body and spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.” (2 Corinthians 7: 1) This is not a “both, and” option, but rather an “either, or” option. We cannot worship and idolize other people, places and things and God at the same time. ("Worship" does not mean bowing down to something, and "idols" does not refer to wood carvings- instead they refer to affections, thoughts, attentions and intentions of the heart and mind.)

Worshiping God allows us to enjoy other things even better.All people, places and things, when seen the right way, are means to give thanks to and enjoy God- and enjoy the people, places and things as intended. For instance, the beauty of Yosemite Valley becomes more rich and full when thank and praise God as we gaze upon it.

In 2 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul says he is jealous for the Corinthians with the jealousy of God Himself. He says in 11:2-3: “I promised you as a pure bride to one husband- Christ. But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, but as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent.” 

I think, one of God’s coolest characteristics is jealousy. This is not like the kind of jealousy we have in our hearts, and are therefore familiar with, but one that exudes love. Timothy Keller preached a sermon called The Furious Love of Jesus which was about how desirous God is for us. “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” (Leviticus 26:12 Ezekiel, 37:27) conveys God’s magnificent jealousy. 

How did I compromise my loyalty to God today? I asked myself that a little bit ago and came up with a lot of junk (sins). Ask that question before God and turn away from whatever compromised your loyalty (and call it was it was...an idol of your heart), and turn to God confessing it to Him, accept His forgiveness and wallow in His unfailing love. Repeat as often as needed. God is faithful to forgive and will not reject a contrite heart.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jayber's Insights

This is an insight from the fictional character, Jayber Crow (by Wendell Berry), who was the barber in the small, rural township of Port William, Kentucky community he lived in in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s:

"I have got the age now where I can see how short a time we have to be here. And when I think about it, it can seem strange beyond telling that this particular bunch of us should be here on this little patch of ground in this little patch of time, and I can think of the other times and places I might have lived, the other kinds of man I might have been. But, there is something else. There are moments where the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or for worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things."

Isn't it sometimes hard to embrace our particular bunch? (There's always may be a better or different bunch.)To feel like our particular little patch of ground is adequate and good? (There are always better patches of ground.) Isn't it easy to romanticize of other times and places- to make them out to be more and better than the time and place we occupy? Don't we wonder why we are who we are, and why we are not other kinds of men or women we seemingly, just as easily, could have been? (There are always better men and women than ourselves.)

Here is another excerpt describing the Port William community from Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, which dovetails nicely with the first one: 

"It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community much always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. Any yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another's love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace."  

Aren't Berry's observations timeless and place-less? Meaning, haven't they been true for every community, everywhere throughout time?

Perhaps, in our day and age, our workplace or job is the equivalent of Jayber's "membership" in the township of Port William. Many of us spend half of our waking hours around and with the same broken people who need love, compassion and forgiveness. We are all far from perfect, but need love we don't deserve. Love makes us beautiful.

What a graceful view of people, community, space, time and place. I think such insights  are often left un-thought and/or inarticulated, yet the are deepest observations of the lives we live. It seems like the most profound and intense things in life are destined for muteness. Perhaps, music song or words can mirror the unspeakable profundities of life, but only life itself gives a voice to what is voiceless.




Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Phases of Change Part IV (final part)

There is a disparity in beliefs among the church about what God accomplishes in us and for us in the first phase of change. Therefore, there is a disparity in beliefs about what the second phase actually is. An understanding of the first phase gives us a better understanding of the second phase, what it is and what it is not. 

To clarify what God does and what we do: I can do as much to be born of God (1:3), declared innocent, and have His Holy Spirit as I can to stop the planet from orbiting the sun. (Similarly, we did not choose to be born by our human parents.)

Likewise, I can do as much to raise myself from the dead and transform my body as I can to stop the planet from orbiting the sun. He makes us “like him” (Philippians 3:21, 1 Corinthians 15:49) we do not “make ourselves like him.” What will we do when God “gives life to our mortal bodies,” except passively undergo the transformation like a caterpillar undergoes their transformation? 

But, we can “strive,” “let,” “follow,” “get rid of,” throw off,” “put on,” “seek,” “work,” “repent,” “pray,” “love,” in the current and strenuous phase.  

Believers are addressed as a people who “are sealed with a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13), a people who sin and death has lost its power over (Romans 6), people who will be guarded by the power of God (1 Peter 1:5), as a people who have undergone a “circumcision made without human hands (Colossians 2:11), as a people who “live with great expectation” and “have a priceless inheritance kept in heaven for us beyond the reach of decay,” (1 Peter 1:4) people “who believe and will not perish” (John 3:16), people who cannot be snatched from Jesus’ hands (John 10:27), and a people who have “passed from death to life (1 John 3:14, John 5:24, Ephesians 2:6). 

Since all these are true we are on to the next thing, so to speak…building for God’s Kingdom as God renews the cosmos.

By shirking who we are in Christ we are not being humble, but failing to acknowledge the totality of God’s work for us and in us. There is nothing arrogant about boasting in the marvelous, permanent state of a believer because it is no credit to that person, but all to God. Nor is there anything humble about saying that a believer’s first phase of change is not final or certain, because at that point it is God’s word, His vows and seal, not ourselves, we are not trusting. The radical language in the New Testament means, as Bryan Clark put it, “there is no old us to go back to.” 

By this radical language we can see “salvation” is not a ticket we can have and then hand back, rather the “old me has been done away with and the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and God has invited us as His People to be fellow agents in redemption right now. Therefore, we do not think of our middle and current phase as a phase to work to gain or keep God’s approval through means of obedience, grace or works- rather something that God has Himself established and will “protect by his power.” (1 Peter 1:5) 

If we have indeed undergone the first phase of change, we are the people listed above as we enter into the second phase of change- the growing and building phase.

How we are not to think of this current phase of change? 

Growth itself is not to be sought and pursued- it is an inevitable byproduct of loving God by following Jesus. If we pursue transformation alone we will not be transformed. Transformation is not God. We are transformed through repentance, service, leadership, love, grace, God, fellowship, prayer, obedience, community, disciplines, humility, correction, and peace among others. Transformation can take us down a stressful road if we are constantly checking our progress, because we probably grow in centimeters over years and decades. An unhealthy fixation with progressive sanctification/transformation can lead us to bondage instead of freedom.

How are we to think about this current phase of change? 

“So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) 

Right now, “time is of the essence.” This is a unique age…we have underwent the first transformation phase and are undergoing the second one while we eagerly await the final one. 

John Mellencamp’s song Your Life is Now, he sings, “this is your time to do what you will do,” which meets us at this point. Pastor Dustin Rogers said, “As Christians, we are ticking by a totally different clock. We should have a transformed view of time.” Gordon Fee said, “Those who have a definite future and see it with clarity live in the present with radically altered values as to what counts and what does not.” 

In this phase, with our bodies (our hands, our feet, our mouths, and our minds), God compels us to work in the present to impact His future. God honors the present. He puts extreme value on the present- we aren’t here so we can “go to heaven when we die,” but so that we can share in God’s large project- building for the coming Kingdom. We are “called to implement the new creation as new creations.” (N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope

Wright wrote, “What Jesus was doing and what we do goes beyond the immediate into the ultimate future. The present and ultimate future not unrelated…The present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it.”

“The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising for the future. And what He was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way of the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose- and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project.” (Wright)   

In Conclusion 

I have felt like an arrogant hypocrite writing about growth, because I often refuse transformation. My faith is fickle, circumstantial and non-active. We can glean some knowledge about what to expect from this growth phase from the mature C.S. Lewis from what he wrote in his poem “to” his wife after she died, As the Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

The Lord “knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.” (Psalm 103:14-15) Psalm 69:5 says, “Oh God, you know how foolish I am; my sins cannot be hidden from you.” 

A mature Paul said in Romans 7:18-21, “And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.” 

This doesn’t bode well for our progress. Growth seems like a moot point, right?

Many times, transformation in this life including, “putting off the old self,” seems like a pipe dream- a misspoken operational order. But, by the Spirit’s power we can put off the old self. If we say growth is a moot point we have to ignore and neglect many scriptures...“Put on your new nature, created to be like God- truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:24) and “…you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy.” (1 Peter 1:15). 




Saturday, March 17, 2012

Owning Beck’s “Lost Cause” while Leaving Las Vegas

(*I’m taking a break from Phases of Change and will post part IV soon.) 

Many, not all, of the most weighty, impactful, memorable and profound moments of my life have not been moments of enthusiasm, gusto and cheerfulness, but moments of heavy-hardheartedness and stoicism- almost apathy. 

In 2004, I remember flying to Lincoln, Nebraska from Las Vegas in a window seat when it was pitch black outside except for the very sporadic and tiny lights from what I assume were residences on the land below. The lights on the ground looked like stars in the sky. I listened to Beck’s song “Lost Cause” on repeat for the entire flight. The words in the song resonated with me so much I immersed myself in all the pitiful thoughts that come with feeling like a lost cause- and believing deep down that’s what I was. I was despairing at my own existence. 

I remember thinking that night how much I felt like the vast blackness outside of my window seat. The lights were tiny and so few and far between on the silent empty plains. I recall not wanting my being to have to occupy the next day, because what would it bring except more despair? Why did I have to go on, and for what? Here are some of the lyrics: 

Your sorry eyes; they cut through bone
They make it hard to leave you alone
Leave you here wearing your wounds
Waving your guns at somebody new

Baby you're lost
Baby you're lost
Baby you're a lost cause

I'm tired of fighting
I'm tired of fighting
Fighting for a lost cause

There's a place where you are going
You ain't never been before
No one left to watch your back now
No one standing at your door
That's what you thought love was for

Sometime on that flight I felt like there was a reason for my misery- a purpose to it. This was interesting because, there is no reason for a lost cause, right? A lost cause does not have a reason- that is what makes it a lost cause. If Beck’s chorus resonated with the deepest parts of me, how could there be a reason? In hindsight, the inside hopeless despondency met its ideal counterpart in the outside bigger purpose or reason. 

This reason, for lack of a better word, seemed to press on me the idea that things would get better…that where I was now was the bottom of the pit- the lowest I could go, and the only place to go was up. I suppose there’s comfort even in the lowest pit if you think there's a chance of climbing out. This subtle reason was grounds perhaps, to not despair so deeply.  Perhaps, there was an outside chance at a bigger idea besides of the gospel of, “I am a lost cause, tired of fighting, lost, and do not want to go on.” 

The weird thing about the despair is that although it may have "changed colors," for lack of words, it remained while the reason intruded…the despair wasn’t replaced, rather it felt like it colluded with or synthesized with the bleakness. I still felt and stoic, which seems odd. I still do not know what to make of this. I do not know why I was not ecstatic at a new-found chance, hope and reason.  

In retrospect, that night I know my thoughts and attitudes were being rehabilitated by the uncaused cause, who does not create lost cause's. God is a counselor and therapist. I cannot say I was seeking God that night, rather I was running the other way, but God curtailed my despondency. God is a pursuer. I know I was (am now and will be) spared much pain and many bad actions by God's intervention. I thank God for rescuing me from the pit- for being there and caring. 


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Phases of Change Part III

The Greek word Auxano is used 23 times in the New Testament. It means to cause to grow, augment, to increase, become greater, to grow, and increase. It can refer to plants, infants, multitudes of people, and also inward Christian growth (Vine’s Concise Dictionary). Auxano is used in all those ways, but I want to highlight its use for “inward Christian growth.” 

I have truncated the following scriptures in order to include them. They urge us to grow: 

“I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding…May you always be filled with the fruit of you salvation- the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ- for this will bring us glory and praise to God.” (Philippians 1:9, 1:11)

“Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.” (Colossians 1:10) 

“Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you. You live this way already, and we encourage you to do so even more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1)

“Dear brothers and sisters, we can't help but thank God for you, because your faith is flourishing and your love for one another is growing.” (2 Thessalonians 1:3)

“Indeed, you already show your love for all the believers throughout Macedonia. Even so, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you to love them even more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:10)

“And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12) 

“…we hope that your faith will grow so that the boundaries of our work among you will be extended.” (2 Corinthians 10:15)

Is the idea of growth a Pauline phenomenon, as the verses above may lead us to believe? 

I worriedly wondered this, because I am most familiar with the concept of growth through effort and yielding from Paul. Perhaps, we should tread lightly because conceivably, Paul although a direct mouthpiece for God got a little carried away...right? (After all, God did not demolish the personalities of the authors of the scriptures.)

The idea of growth and transformation are not Pauline phenomenons- they are literally as old as the first humans. To realize this we ask, “What is the most foundational undercurrent in growth and formation?” It is the consolidation and fusion of our will and God’s will…which should happen in increasing amounts. When sinful humans turn to a good God they will be changed…for the better. Knowing God is growing. This is not rocket science.

God Himself is the same transforming power which He has used to carry people and proclamations since humans came on the scene. Plus, the transformation/formation of a person within society through intentional practices, celebration of God, suffering, joy, obedience, pleading/crying out, hoping, trusting, waiting, Bible reading, meditation, community, fellowship, encouragement, praise, self-examination, prayer and other disciplines are as Jewish as it gets- they are ancient and historically rooted. 

Certainly, because we are all different we will be inclined to some "means" and practices more than others. The point is we ought to try to fill our lives and times with those because they are the best things...again, not to imply that they lead us to God- they enhance our lives and make them rich with fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer.

So, personal growth and formation are not merely a contemporary Western Christian phenomenon based on personal piety which dovetails nicely with our highly individualized culture and our innate selfishness. Neither are God’s tools for growth which He has gifted to us intrinsically legalistic, as it seems necessary to mention. Neither is our urge to grow prefaced with “because you will be judged, have to give an account, and all your secrets will be brought into the light,” but rather a reminder that God’s People are God’s People and the only right, God-empowered, response to God who freely loves us is to love God and others. 

OK, back to the idea of growth. Jesus parables’ and “sermons” are loaded with the expectation of growth. When God plants us in Jesus it is clear He expects a yield, which implies not staying the same, but progressing.

Jesus addresses growth which probably seems like a round-a-bout way to us, because we look for abstract sound bytes, that is, a verse or two which we can memorize and easily make sense of, which we can easily get from Paul and others. We like to extract (and sometimes warp) Bible verses, whereas the Jews take a different approach. They memorized the entire scriptures, which were categorically in story form in the Old Testament. 

Jesus follows suite with His Jewish roots and  tells stories and parables which evoke imagery, concreteness, and an “experimental-ness” that Greek thought does not. Frankly, I often find that Jesus’ parables don’t jive with my category of thought. This is because I, and probably you, have been raised to think (mostly) Greek, just like I, and probably you, have been raised to speak English. It can be like learning a different language for our brains to think Hebrew, that is in story form, with an “experimental-ness” that Greek doe not utilize as much. It think this is why location, culture and context is so important to understanding the parables. 

Jesus seemingly conceptualizes the same things in a different way than Paul (who was also a Hebrew of Hebrews, of unmixed Jewish blood), perhaps in a more Jewish way. It seems Paul used a more Greek approach appealing more to our abstract thought, reason, logic, and rationality. Paul was from "Tarsus was also the seat of a famous university, higher in reputation even than the universities of Athens and Alexandria the only others that then existed. Here Saul was born, and here he spent his youth, doubtless enjoying the best education his native city could afford.” (http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/paul.html) No doubt this background formed Paul’s approaches, philosophies, thought style and writing style. 

The Parable of the Talents, The Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed, The Parable of the Growing Seed, The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus talking about Inner Purity, Jesus on letting our Light Shine before People, Jesus on Love for our Enemies, Jesus on not Judging others, Jesus on Loving God and others, and Jesus about Money and Possessions, all entail and take for granted progress, stewardship, responsibility, multiplication, intensification, compounding…in a nutshell “growth.” Building for God’s coming Kingdom in the present is an emphasis of Jesus.’

On a related side note, it is interesting and counter-intuitive how this growth phase is not so much a matter of attaining what we do not have, but rather living according to what we already have. This goes against our ideas of growth, which usually refer to apprehending or possessing something we do not yet have, but “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life.” (2 Peter 1:3) God has given us what we need, yet, as J.C. Ryle wrote in Holiness, “A man may be a believer and have his feet on the rock, and yet live far below his privileges. It is possible to have “union” with Christ, and yet to have little if any “communion” with Him.” 

Part IV to come.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Phases of Change Part II

The present phase, for those born of God, is the hardest of all phases. It is the growth/transformation (progressive sanctification) phase. “The caterpillar is always hungry, and spends most of its life eating and growing.  It grows to fast that it outgrows and sheds its skin several times.” That runs parallel to the life of a Christian. 

The Bible teaches we cooperate, both passively and actively, with God to grow. We mature and develop by collaborating with God who addresses us a responsible, culpable people able to make free choices. (We do not strive for growth for the sake of personal piety, but rather living the life God has called us to and made us for…to love God who loved us first). 

This growth/transformation admits degrees of increase that neither the first (born of God) and last (new-bodied resurrection) phases of change do. Also, unlike the first and last phase, degrees vary from person to person. Even at that, no one’s growth/transformation (progressive sanctification) is perfect in this life. (Of course our faith and vigor may vary greatly at different periods in our life too, but the Bible says there ought to be a general increase because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.) 

When J.C. Ryle spoke of a person “growing in grace” he meant this: “That a person’s sense of sin is becoming deeper, his faith stronger, his hope brighter, his love more extensive, his spiritual-mindedness more marked.” (Holiness) We could say "growth" is having, in increasing measure, gospel-transformed views.

To be sure, God allows us to have free will to exercise, which we would not have if it was not for God, which is ironic. So, once again we are utterly dependent on God and His working in us, even to grow, yet He graciously allows us to grow through our choices as free people. He makes our efforts successful. John S. Feinberg wrote in No One Like Him, “Commands addressed to believers and nonbelievers seem inappropriate if humans do not have freedom to respond positively or negatively to them.” How could God command things to us if they were not possible? We have to use put to good use our free will to grow.

We are both passive and active during this growth phase. Here are some of the adjectives used to describe the Christian’s life in the New Testament: yield (passive, Romans 6:13), strive (active, Hebrews 12:14), abstain (passive/active, 1Thessalonians 4:3), make every effort (active, 2 Peter 1:5), work hard (active, Philippians 2:12) We are also told to obey, have self control and self discipline, have humility and to love- and many more.

Even in “yielding,” which we would tend to think of as passive, we exert ourselves and expend ourselves by giving ourselves, which are active things. Likewise, even in striving, which we would tend to think of as active, we submit, obey and abstain, which are passive things. Point being, passivity and activity work together in such dynamic ways we cannot put them in separate silos, so to speak. 

Hebrews 13:21 is a good example of this passive/active bond: “May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him.” Philippians 2:13 is similar: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Italics mine) God causes us to want His will and them empowers us to do it. 

Certainly, God works apart from our deliberate choices, maybe sometimes despite them and not because of them…this is compatible with the fact that we cooperate with God through our deliberate choices too. God often works great things out of our poor choices.

I suppose we cannot “nail down” the nature of change in the current phase as much as we would like, because God works in ways we do not even realize, which then we cannot articulate except maybe with thought, “that was a God-thing.” Yet, even though God works in ways we are not aware of, He works in and through clearly recognized and specific “means” as well. 

The Bible is adamant about God-appointed “means,” as specific catalysts for growth. The Bible says certain methods are instrumental in our development and formation, and since our growth and formation are God’s will it’s a good idea to implement those methods, which are first and foremost gifts, not duties. 

Perhaps, it would be shallow to call them mere “channels of grace” as if grace is something dispensed like soda out of a machine, yet, in a way, they are channels of grace because they stir and provoke us- and they put us in communion and connection with our Creator and Redeemer. 

Here are some of the specific “means,” God’s gives us. These are particular things we can do for the edification of the body and our edification, which are one and the same. I have only included some examples and only a few examples of each.

Reading/meditating on God’s Word- Psalm 1:2, Psalm 119, Matthew 4:4, John 17:17
Prayer- Philippians 4:6, Ephesians 5:18-20
Worship- Psalm 97, 98, 99, 100, 101
Fellowship- Hebrews 10:24-25, Acts 2:42-47
Encouragement- 15:2, 1 Thessalonians 4:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, 1 Timothy 5:1-4

 Part III to come.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Phases of Change Part I

We undergo phases of change like a caterpillar, which becomes a butterfly. 

I am going to simplify “the doctrine of the application of redemption,” into three categories: 1) born from above/born of God, which I am lumping with adoption, regeneration, acquittal, right standing, new creation, and positional or initial sanctification 2) transformation/growth, and progressive sanctification 3) new-bodied glorification, resurrected bodies, and perfected or final sanctification. 

It's not as complicated as it sounds. In a nutshell we are born of God, then we grow, and lastly we get new resurrected bodies.

In reformed theological circles, the categories above are drawn with exacting grid-like precision. For instance, there are sharp distinctions between conversion, repentance, faith, election, predestination, glorification, adoption, imputation, regeneration, imparting spiritual life, call, justification- not in that order. I am not going to try to do this, because I believe soteriology is more blurry and organic than some have made it out to be. At the same time, I think "labeling" our "phases" of change can help us know and praise God better and also help us understand how God actually works in reality. 

It has been said, “We were saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.” (Perhaps, we could add “was being saved” too.)  We can also say, “We have been changed. We are being changed and we will be changed.” 

We can use the analogy of a butterfly to understand better how God works. A butterfly that is born has little to nothing to do with its conception…“The story of the butterfly begins when the female lays her eggs on a plant that the young insects will use as food. From each eggs hatches a tiny larva called a caterpillar.  It is hard to believe that this worm-like creature will turn into a graceful butterfly." (butterfly quotes are from the online article How are Butterflies Born? At http://mindjourney1962.wordpress.com/2010/03/18how-are-butterflies-born/)  

On the other hand, a butterfly has something to do to aid its growth and development… “The caterpillar is always hungry, and spends most of its life eating and growing.  It grows to fast that it outgrows and sheds its skin several times.  When the caterpillar has reached its full growth, it is ready to turn into a pupa.” 

Lastly, a butterfly does little to nothing when its wings emerge… “The caterpillar spins a button of silk on a twig or leaf and hooks itself to the button.  Hanging head down, it sheds its old caterpillar skin.  The pupa’s soft skin hardens to form a case called a chrysalis. Protected by the chrysalis, the pupa changes into a butterfly. After about two or more weeks, the chrysalis spills open and the adult butterfly emerges its limp, moist wings spread and dry.  Then it flies away.” Although the caterpillar (butterfly) preps for its transformation (spins a button (pad) of silk on a twig or leaf and hooks itself to the button) it does not try to grow wings, instead the wings “happen” to it.

The butterfly undergoes becoming an egg and “sprouting” wings, more than it does exert itself to achieve those states. Our (spiritual) lives are like this. Just like we did not choose to be born by our parents, we did not plan to be “born from above,” (John 1:13 and chapter 3) it is something that happened to us- something we underwent.

Dr. Payne of Denver Seminary called this spiritual conception/birth “monergistic,” “mono” meaning God was the sole one doing the work. Dictionary.com has a Biblical definition of monergism: "The doctrine that the Holy Spirit works independent of the human will in regeneration." 

Note the emphasis on God’s doings and our lack of doings on the scriptures below:  

God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” (Romans 5:8) “He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:6). God brought us near to Himself (Ephesians 2:13), Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:6, 5:8), God makes us friends with Himself (Romans 5:11), and He loved us first (1 John 4:10). (Italics mine)

The Bible teaches that God, not us, pulls back that thin curtain and reveals Himself to us. Furthermore, God adopts us by His adoption. In addition, we are called “new creations” (Galatians 6:15, 2 Corinthians 5:17).

New creation, justification, “sainthood,” right standing, acquittal, regeneration/new birth, Sonship/Daughtership (belonging in God’s family) do not admit degrees- they are all the same in all Christians and need no improving or progress… because we are already “complete through our union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority.” (Colossians 2:10.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

When we look on Life

Looking on our lives and the lives of those we love we see what we wish we did not. When we look we see absences of what should be there in ourselves and others, for instance, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, humility, selflessness, love, grace, and truth. We see hardness, selfishness, greed, impatience, resentment, lies, blame and pride. All those things invariably contribute to our collective problems, hurts and issues.

Seeing the discrepancy between how we wish things were and how they can be difficult to cope with. Yet, it seems to me, no matter how many pains there are we tend to strive against reality for the purpose of appearing "happy" to others, and ourselves...God forbid we be brought down by life and think of ourselves or have others think of us as "unhappy." Perhaps, we associate "happiness" with strength. Don't we then seem to communicate to those around us contemplating suicide, going through divorces, losing babies, and struggling with addiction..."life is good," (for no other particular reason other than I want to believe that myself and I want others to believe I believe that) which is a great disservice to our friends and society? 

I think, many times this "happiness" is a front, and I think it is driven by fear- a quiet unspoken fear that comes from knowing "all I have," "all I can get," "all I know," "all I stand on," and "all I am" can be gone in "one fell swoop."

I often forget what stage we are in- “the valley of the shadow of death” phase. This is the hard part. The world we live in is experiencing all kinds of pain and death and this ought not to be. We use often use sterile phrases to describe the real, living, active and cutting pain we experience. I almost feel like when I go to work I have to “put on” a different person- one that loves the world and all that goes on it. I know that when I feel like I have entered into the world where intense pain and struggle are present; it is really difficult to carry on in a job/culture that seems to loves itself and all its endeavors. 

If we cling to the hope the world manufactures we are bound to celebrate it when we should be mourning it. Our hope came into the world, but is not of the world, so our hope is in the world in a sense, but in another sense it is outside of the world. When we lack an honest assessment of the "present evil age," because we are trying to muster a slogan, i.e. "life is good," we deceive ourselves. Indeed, life is better than good- it is more magnificent than we know, but for no other reason than "we have found the Messiah" just like Andrew and Simon (Peter) in John chapter 1. It would be a huge help to all agree as to why we think "life is good." Our dishonest assessment, or honest misdiagnosis, functions as a blindfold. It seems to me like if the world was on the same page as far as declaring this era corrupt and passing away, it would clear up a lot of things and perhaps we would be more inclined to look for real help.

It is unfortunate, but it seems to me in order to function in our jobs we are seemingly thrust out of the brokenness we are called to live in. Not that we should leave our "societal" vocations for the sake of the "greater" "spiritual" vocation (followers of the crucified and risen Messiah), but that we should integrate the two. There is no duality between the two "vocations," (of spiritual and non-spiritual), nonetheless it is difficult to integrate them, because, it seems to me to function in our culture, we have to abandon or sugarcoat the heaviness of life. If we train ourselves to abandon or sugarcoat the heaviness of our lives, we train ourselves to believe we don’t need a real, active, living Savior.

I don’t think many of us really feel the weight and pain of life like we are supposed to. I know I often elude and evade it. I think we can be sure if our Christianity removes us from the mess of the world it is not Christianity. On the other hand, we can be sure if Christianity is constantly putting us in the mess and pain of the world it is Christianity. 

“The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God.” (N.T. Wright in The Challenge of Jesus

Our elusion and evasion is probably multifaceted and deeper than words can describe. But, I know I need to shed my superhero cape and put on sackcloth, so to speak, more often than I do. We are not “super-Christians” to the rescue; we are weary travelers out of supplies who desperately need sustenance to live- that sustenance being God, who has conquered and will conquer our foes and humanity’s foes. 

I like how N.T. Wright puts it in The Challenge of Jesus “…we are cracked vessels full of glory, wounded healers. God forgive us that we have imagined true humanness, after the Enlightenment model, to mean being successful, having it all together, knowing all the answers, never making mistakes, striding through the world as though we owned it. The living God revealed His glory in Jesus and never more clearly than when he died on the cross, crying out that he had been forsaken.”





Wednesday, March 7, 2012

“Believing” in Jesus in the same way we “Believe” in Bananas and Hitler

“Do you believe in Jesus?” was a question that bothered me severely when I was about 23 years old, because I thought I “believed” in Jesus, but I was unsure in what sense I “believed” in him. Did I believe in Jesus like I “believed” in bananas and Hitler- merely consenting to their existence? “Believing” in Jesus in the true sense of the word, does not mean “believing” in the concept or theory of Jesus, or even “believing” his teaching. The New Testament says that even demons "believe that there is one God" (James 2:19) and "the demons knew who he (Jesus) was..." (Luke 1:34). If even demons "believe that there is one God," and "know" who Jesus is, what distinguishes our "belief" from theirs?

What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus?    
                                                       
In The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight writes, “According to the Gospel of Mark, the every fist expectation of Jesus for a disciple is this: “Repent and believe the good news!" McKnight adds: Faith and trust are what Jesus wants, and these express a relationship to Jesus rather than moral perfectionTo “believe” is to have “faith” and “trust…” Relationship will inevitably create good, moral persons…Believing in Jesus is a dimension of love...Faith is an ongoing relationship…Faith is best understood when it is seen in action in the real world.” 

The type of “belief” in Jesus that McKnight mentions is a far cry from “believing” in Him like we would “believe” in a banana and Hitler. Admittedly, I do not think of "belief" as an ongoing relationship, but...

The nature of relationship is more organic than transactional. McKnight writes, “When two people begin a relationship, they come to know one another mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, financially- and the list goes on. The relationship of a disciple of Jesus also has its dimensions.”

True faith is relational in nature. “Because I trust Jesus,” is the answer to these multi-topical/multi-dimensional questions: Why did you go to India, or help your neighbor? Why did you give that much money away? Why did you treat that person like that? Why do you act like you do? Why do you value what you do? This shows us that our “trust” in God is organically connected to, not detached from or unrelated to, our activities. 

Perhaps, we can diagnose all of our resentments, stubbornness, pride, fears, insecurities and anxieties as failures to have faith in God, which surprisingly, is a relational problem in nature. Our relationship with God is not a matter of doing this to get that, as if we work hard so that we get a return from Him, as if our actions are disconnected from our relationship with Him..."it is much more like working at a friendship or a marriage in order to enjoy the other person's compay for fully." (N.T. Wright says in reference to rewards.)

When we give our trust to Jesus we give our very selves away. Giving ourselves away is costly because it includes our hearts, its affections and its confidences. (Likewise, God gave His very self, not some commodity detached from Himself.) David said, “I will not give to the Lord that which will cost me nothing.” Mere cognitive affirmation of Jesus costs us nothing, but putting our confidence(s) in Him costs us everything. The first expectation of a disciple of Jesus, according to Jesus as recorded by Mark, is to “repent and believe.” 

Many things inspire trust and confidence. Money inspires trust because it can give us a sense of security, wealth, and the things we want. Praise and recognition inspire trust because they make us feel valuable and important. Power inspires trust because we like the feeling it gives us- the list goes on. (The closer they are to the real thing, the better counterfeits they are.) But, only God is worthy of our trust.

The great and confounding truth about “believing” in Jesus, in the true sense of the word, is that it heals us.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

How does your Body Feel Today?

…is a question I often ask my clients at the beginning of our training sessions.

I can mean my question, “How does your body feel today,” in two ways:

1.   How is that wretched corruptible shell of flesh that your soul will one day shed and forever leave behind while the “real you” (your soul/spirit) goes off to a disembodied existence feel? 

2.   How is your glorious human bodily form- an idea conceived in the mind of God, which God Himself valued enough to become? How is your body that may one day be raised physical, immortal, magnificent and much more substantial and authentic than it is today? How is your body, which might be raised in God’s power and transformed to be made like Christ’s resurrected body in all the glory and splendor God will dress those “in Christ” and indwelt by the Spirit with?

I have often asked the question, “How does your body feel today?” with option #1 as the underlying question. I have assumed that when people answer my question they are answering #1, not #2, so that is the answer I hear. I have not asked my client how their gloriously God-created body is, I have asked them how that wretched machine they are wearing feels today.

Thomas Merton wrote: “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, thought it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, will all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race…I have immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this!...There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.”

Merton’s view may sound more poetic than biblical, more romantic than scriptural, but he is in line with God’s view of the human body and personhood. 

Why did Jesus heal people’s mere physical bodies if they are something to be diminished in comparison to the soul/spirit? If the human body is a bad merely physical thing to one day be shed, when we "go to heaven," wasn’t Jesus wasting His time and energy on matter which ultimately doesn’t matter?

I have assumed, from my misinterpretation of the scriptures and Christian authors, an apparent “Christian” view of physicality/non-physicality, which may be more Platonic than Orthodox Christian.

In Surprised by Hope N.T. Wright wrote, "We have been buying our mental furniture for so long in Plato's factory that we have come to take for granted a basic ontological contrast between "spirit" in the sense of something immaterial and "matter" in the sense of something material, solid, physical...We know that bodies decay and die; that houses, temples, cities, and civilizations fall to dust; and so we assume that to be bodily, to be physical, is to be impermanent, changeable, transitory, and that the only way to be permanent, unchanging, and immortal is to become nonphysical."

Have we assumed the non-biblical view that the physicality of our bodies is something to be thankfully shed "when we go to heaven," rather than to be enhanced in the new heavens and new earth? Wright says, “…there will be a new mode of physicality, which stands in relation to our present body as our present body does to a ghost. It will be much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit.”

We become more Buddhist in our thinking than Christian if we suppose we escape our curse of physicality when we die. The creation was both physical and good, it became enslaved, and God is making it good again already by adopting His children who will comprise the People of His coming Kingdom ("the new creation is on the loose," as some people have already been "born from above," and "born of God"). We have also become more Buddhist or Gnostic in our thinking if we think that there is an evil earth and a good heaven, and we are therefore waiting to leave the earth so we can go to heaven.

The idea of Earth being good, yet still in bondage making this a corrupt age, while awaiting its liberation (Romans 8)- for God coming Kingdom- is a view the early Christians took. Admittedly, this goes against my presupposed ideas of “eternal life,” which Wright says “does not refer to a nontemporal future existence but the life of the coming age.” We talk as if “heaven” is the ultimate goal, but Wright says the early Christians used the word "resurrection" to refer to “life after life after death.”

“The New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband…As in Philippians 3, it is not we who go to heaven, it is heaven that comes to earth; indeed, it is the church itself, the heavenly Jerusalem, that comes down to earth. This is ultimate rejection of all types of Gnosticism, of every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven.” (Wright)

"Transience acts as a God-given signpost pointing not from the material world to a non-material world but from the world as it is to the world as it is meant to one day be- pointing, in other words, from the present to the future that God has in store.” (Wright)

There is a marriage between physical and permanence in the Bible. “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.” (Romans 8:11, italics mine) Wright writes, “It will be a body but it will not be subject to mortality. An “immortal body” is something most people find so strange that they don’t even pause to wonder if that’s what Paul and the other early Christians were talking about.” 

“Immortal body” sounds like an oxymoron in a culture that has associated immortality with nonphysicality. When we associate immortality and physicality, Christ’s resurrection takes on new meaning: when we look at Christ’s resurrected body as the first and only prototype of “incorruptible physicality” we see a picture of how God weds heaven and earth- how God makes something physical immortal and imperishable. If God will give life to our “mortal bodies” shouldn’t we associate immortality with physicality and not like Gnostics and Buddhists look forward to the day when we are just spirits or energy or reincarnated?  

The physicality of our bodies is not intrinsically sinful like our sin natures which have been "cut away," rather it must be good because God made them physical in the first place. The Bible teaches that our bodies are going to be transformed and raised imperishable. (See 2 Timothy 1:8-12, 1 John 3:2-3, Matthew 13:43, Matthew 17:1-2, Daniel 12:2-3, Romans chapter 8, 1 Corinthians chapter 15).

That which is sown in the Spirit will be raised imperishable. Even what is sown in the Spirit in the present carries with it a promise of transformation to incorruptibility. That which is sown in the weakness of the flesh, that which is attained by the natural attainments of man, that which is done in the weak power/human nature of the unregenerate person, is perishable/corruptible physicality. “Turning away from the worship of the living God is turning toward that which has no life in itself. Worship that which is transient, and it can only give you death."(Wright) On the other hand, what has been united with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection will pass into God's Kingdom, thus last forever.

(Wright makes sure to point out God’s “act of new creation...is not smooth evolutionary transition, in which creation simply moves up another gear into a higher mode of life. This is traumatic, involving convulsions and contractions and the radical discontinuity…” He also points out that there must be continuity as well as discontinuity. God’s act of new creation is not consistent with the human invented myth of progress, which believes the human race can advance and achieve, by their own efforts and progress, to a utopia or perfect state.)

The life-giving Spirit of God which has freed us from the power of sin and death (Romans 8:2) and raised us up is presently carrying us into God's future for humanity and the cosmos. On this account, our bodies are more like buildings that will one day renovated in a fresh and powerful way, not like condemned buildings to be abandoned in order that we might one day become (disembodied) spirits in heaven. 

Wright wrote, “Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess.” So, our striving, our efforts, our loving, our obeying, our worshipping, our ministering, our going, our staying, our serving, our praying and our hoping are not in vain. If what is done in the present will be wasted in God’s future we have no reason to do any of those. 

Those "in Christ" are joined to the present, physical world in a new and unprecedented way and joined to the permanency of God's coming Kingdom. We are indwelt by, will be transformed and raised by the energizing power of the Spirit.

When God restores us now, for instance, he does not take a woman who idolizes her own appearance and change her so that she will instead like to knit, God restores and heals her relationship with her looks. Similarly, a personality that is being transformed, is not totally scrapped, but transformed as it is. Personality is not intrinsically bad, but the good can be corrupt and tainted. So too, “Redemption doesn’t mean scrapping what’s there and starting again from a clean slate but rather liberation what has come to be enslaved.” “The new is the transformation, not merely the replacement, of the old.” (Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright) 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Loving God vs. Trying not to Sin

There’s a reason Jesus said the most important commandment in the Law of Moses is to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NLT) There’s a reason why the most important commandment in the Law of Moses is “do not sin.”

I, for one, sometimes treat not sinning, fighting sin, and being aware of sin as if it were the greatest commandment instead of loving God. But, the more we focus on loving God first and foremost, not sinning and fighting sin will take care of itself. 

If our chief aim is "abiding in" Christ and sharing our days with Him and not “abstaining from sin,” we will get “abstaining from sin” thrown in. But, if we focus mainly on “abstaining from sin” alone we may not get “abiding in” Christ thrown in. (When we are at our worst it seems abstaining is the best we can do. Reluctant duty and joyful obedience are called upon right now. It is probably sometimes true that reluctant duty ( and plain sin-fighting) leads to better, more sincere behaviors too.)

As our love for God increases, our aversion for sin naturally increases. But our distaste for sin does not always increase our love for God. A person can diagnose, referee and dislike sin (to an extent), try not to sin, and not know God at all. But, if we don’t know God it is impossible to love Him.

In trying not to sin only, it is easy to serve and seek first our self-righteousness and pride. Plus, desires against sin that are not coupled with or motivated by love for God is not love for God, thus, it breaks the most important commandment. Loving God and trying not to sin go together…but only when they are together. I think I often try to fight sin and am frustrated by it when I am focused on it instead of God.

My friend Brian said, “I still find that my best deterrent from sin is being fascinated with God.” Delighting in God is sin’s nemesis. It is impossible to sin when we are enamored by God, because we are busy being enamored with God. 

How then are we supposed to conjure up being enamored with God? Philippians 2:13 tells us: “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” It is who God Himself who gives us the desire to know and love Him more. 

So, really we depend on God and undergo His work in us in order for our love for Him to increase…and for our distaste for sin to increase. So then, we can know if our distaste for sin is not paired with love for God it does not arise out of love for Him, therefore it has not been cultivated by Him, but by human effort. (How much confidence are we to put in human effort? See Philippians 3:3) C.S. Lewis said something to the effect that many great sins have been overcome by people who think they are above them, that is by pride. 

Because we are all wired differently being enthralled with God might look a little different for all of us. Maybe some of us are fascinated by nature and this kindles praise and admiration of God, maybe it’s through study or learning something new about God. Maybe it’s spending time with a good friend or animals, being out in the country…or in the city, or gazing at the stars, or listening to music. Whatever it might be, we ought to intentionally enter in surroundings, environments or states of mind where we are most prone to be fascinated with God.

We are looking forward to the day when we will be once and for all free from our fallen tendencies and never affected by them again. Then we will delight in the Lord and whatever He has in store for us…without hindrances. 

*Some of the ideas in this short essay are from Brett Byford and David Watson. Thanks guys.