This morning I was getting around a bit early only to end up behind due to technological issues well beyond my knowledge, though not beyond my hopefully not too destructive patchwork. It reminded me of how life seems increasingly to be, as I get older. I live in routine more than ever, but life all around me, including parts of it which affect what I have to, or end up doing, seems often to be in upheaval.

Those are the times in which we live, times of upheaval, so that one will ordinarily have many different jobs in the course of their career. On top of that reality, we run into changes due to health or personal or family crisis. Sometimes we think we are on the edge of something not so good, in fact oftentimes that can be the case. Change of any kind can seem ominous, especially when we are settled into a comfortable, or what we consider good routine.

So life in this world has a certain element of uncertainty, indeed instability. In fact I find it amazing just how stable life actually ends up being, at least in my case.

I think amidst all the unpredictability and upheaval of life, we need to set our sights on what is stable, fixed and sure, even within its dynamic quality. Things will change, people come and go, etc., but one truth remains constant: God in Jesus is faithful and at work in our world, and through us in the world by the Spirit.

We have to get more or less used to the surprises, indeed disappointments, as well as unexpected joys which come our way. Life by nature is changing. But we also need to become more and more fixed and indeed rooted like a tree in streams of water. Unmoved from God’s word, from his revelation to us in scripture and in Jesus. Indeed rooted in God’s himself.

So that while we may be battered from time to time, we will end up standing firm in our Lord, together for the world.

not trusting in the elites

I recently read from Eugene Peterson that the ones from whom we will learn of the walk in Christ will generally be the marginalized, interestingly I believe he added artists to the mix. I get his point, though in my life there are at least two noteworthy exceptions to that.  Now we have a book that seems hotter than its subject matter, Rob Bell’s Love Wins. And we, I believe, wisely await its assessment from people more learned and wiser than ourselves. And so far the result is a daunting, even rather perplexing mix, from those who see nearly nothing good in the book, to those who see it basically as good with a flaw or two, along with others some where in between. Add to that one quite learned whose wisdom I highly respect, who may not have the most positive view of the book, but called the controversy over it “a tempest in a teapot.”

As I’m rereading the entire book now, I do so enjoying it more now than the first time. I have to get used to Rob’s writing. Being limited in reading time, I maybe have read only one of his books in the past. And I certainly appreciate the thoughts I’m gathering from those who have studied and read more. And I await more of that. But I too will give my take, certainly influenced by others. In the end the unity we must have will not come from a bunch of people who agree on every point, or have the same perspective. Impossible. And yet we must take in serious consideration the contribution of each person in processing the whole. And I take all the more seriously those who are gifted in their thinking and more learned than I.

But we must be careful, because our learning can get in the way of what God may be doing. This happened over and over again in Jesus’ time. The Jewish religious leaders were more learned–formally speaking–than Jesus himself, and yet they couldn’t see the forest because of the trees, or the trees because of the forest–their view of it–for that matter. Rob Bell does seem a bit loose in his handling of scripture from what I personally thought during my first read, which has been confirmed by some scholars who have reviewed the book. But as a friend reminded me, is their largely accepted exegesis completely foolproof? When I think of how the apostles in the New Testament handled the Hebrew Bible, I have to wonder. It may end up leaving me with more questions than answers, which in itself might not be all bad. Do we really have to answer every question? And have we said more, and drawn more lines than what scripture does itself? But this does not mean we cease working on the exegetical aspect of this, seeking to discern what God’s word teaches.

Rob Bell is not a trained, professional theologian. It does appear that he had a number of people read a draft, whose feedback he found helpful.

In the end many of us will have to agree to disagree both on specifics and maybe on the whole. Some of us will be more positively inclined toward the book, while others will not be so disposed. We try to judge everything in the light of scripture, both in the details as well as in its overall scope, the entire Story given. And we consider carefully what everyone says, noting the differences even among the learned. And we have to make our own judgment, even if it ends up being a judgment of simply not knowing and then dropping the matter altogether. Being open to whatever is good from the book, and the entire exchange. Even if it is simply in our own reappraisal of our understanding of the faith. With counsel to others to remain true to what we do see clearly from scripture. I do plan to do an upcoming final (for now) take on this book. I think what Rob is getting at has some important considerations we need to take as God’s people in mission today. Even if we would not state it or see it precisely in the way Rob seems to see it.

And let us remember, to do all things in love. Love for God in all our being and doing, and love for our neighbor as ourselves–as we carry on in God’s mission in Jesus for the world.

usefulness does not determine worth

“In solitude we discover that our worth is not the same as our usefulness.” -Henri Nouwen

This quote from our pastor Sharon’s Facebook profile was making me think last week, after I posted this. Especially perhaps we guys think of our worth in terms of our usefulness. In our culture it seems like one of the first questions people ask others is what they do.  I for one have long struggled, especially in the past over what I do. I have been in factory work now for twenty-five years. I now serve in a good ministry doing that. But I had thought I was called to be a pastor. Now I’m wondering if long ago I should have pursued some teaching gig. But all of that now is of little or no value. One has to pick up and go on from where they are. We are the people we are through grace and in the accumulation of the lives we’ve lived. Hopefully broken before God so that our confidence and trust is more  and more in him.

But as Sharon has pointed out in different ways, our worth before God is not based on what we do. We are deeply loved and accepted in Jesus. And what we do or fail to do does not add to or diminish that, one iota.

If you know my inner life, and my wife in large part has, because I’ll express it out loud at times to her, then you’ll know over the years that I at times can berate myself under my breath, and often with words that should not be repeated in public. And that can become a habit, maybe even a part of how the brain takes in reality, of course one’s perception of reality.

But Henri Nouwen’s thought made me think, and more than that, began to seep a little into my bones. And a bit into my heart, I think. Yes, I’ve known this. But I need to be held accountable to believe it as the truth of God in Jesus. And if I believe, to then let it change me from the inside out, as well as from the outside in.

I noticed over a few days after this that I had not said one disparaging word, or put down concerning myself in my thoughts or under my breath–that I can recall. I definitely noticed a change, albeit small, and yet large, when you consider the matter at hand.

Is what we do, and our place, or role in God’s Story in Jesus important? Of course it is! But to properly understand that in right perspective, we need to understand before God that we are worth not only God creating us in the first place, but coming as one of us to redeem us and bring us into the new creation in and through his Son.  Yes, God dearly loves each one of us. And God loves each person in the world as I see from John 3:16 along with other passages. We need to remember that, and hold on to it. Knowing through Jesus we are accepted completely, completely loved. And because of Jesus’ Sacrifice the offer of complete forgiveness is extended in God’s love to all.

So let us live in that grace of God in Jesus. We are worth much to God in ourselves. Whether we seem useful or not.

Sharon Garlough Brown’s “Sensible Shoes”–a sacred journey

I want to give the highest commendation to Sharon Garlough Brown’s book, Sensible Shoes. First of all, we are blessed at our church to have a husband and wife pastoral team, both our pastors, and each do well in all pastoral work. Jack does a good share of the preaching, and Sharon the pastoral care, but actually they each do all the above. Sharon has what I’ve witnessed to be an unusual prayer ministry, both in leading us in prayers on Sunday morning, and in praying one and one with us after service. And she has a passion for knowing God and being known by God through what has often been called spiritual disciplines, practices that are ancient in the church, and which can help us become open to God and God’s working in our lives.

The book actually came from a group of women who have met at our church weekly for years now. And even the title is rooted in reality, as there is a real “Sensible Shoes” group. In fact though this book is fiction, it rings so true to life, that not only do the characters become as real as people we do know, but I easily identified with them, or identified them with people I have known. We see the journeys of a number of women, along with a man (or two) added.

We find a group of women whose individual stories are striking and interesting, but no more so than the stories that each one of us have. They struggle or are lost to some extent in one way or another. An array of issues as different, and interesting as each person themselves. One, Hannah, is a pastor who is buried in her work, and finds her identity in that, but is largely lost in understanding that she is loved and known just for who she is as a daughter of God through Jesus. Meg has suffered a lot from a rather mysterious (to her) troubled childhood which holds her mother in a denial which results in Meg not knowing the truth of what happened, has lost her devoted husband who died in an accident, and simply feels out of place and out of step with the world.  Charissa has her act together all the way around. She is a perfectionist to the nth degree, who does quite well in everything she puts her hand to. That includes her Christianity. Mara is the one whose classmates always chose for games, only because she was the only one remaining. In fact she remembers vividly the time she was invited to a birthday party only to be told later that she couldn’t be included–maybe next time.

Interestingly, as the story would have it, we begin to look at each of these people because they end up coming together at a spiritual retreat center for a retreat. We enter into their inside worlds, and outside. We see them as they are, and begin to enter their world in such a way, that we long to see what happens next, and what will happen over time in each of their lives. In some ways I could identify with each of them, but especially so with one I think. It is interesting to meet them all, and then see how in halting, difficult, and really true to life ways, they change over time through God’s working.

Sharon introduces her readers to a number of spiritual practices, called disciplines, some of which I’ve had the privilege to participate in the past few years such as the labyrinth, lectio divina, praying the examen, praying with imagination, confession. The explanations of these practices directly and in the story are clear, concise and thus quite helpful, and all the more so as we see them come to life as the story of these real people unfolds.

It is wonderful in the end to see how God brings these people into a renewed fellowship with him, and within that brings them all together. There is a sense of community within this new living hope, the kind that God always brings about in Jesus. A community of joy and togetherness in the way of Jesus, which means a community not existing only for itself, but for the world.

As one who has the privilege of knowing the author, that only adds to my enthusiasm for the book, but the book stands well on its own. Sharon really lives out what she shares in the book. And the women in the story, though certainly women, ended up not detracting me from being able to identify with them from my male perspective. The book is not a book for women, but for the entire Body of Christ. And the book is not mere psychological ploy. It is rather the transformation that comes through Christ by the Spirit changing lives of people with issues like we all have.

Sharon is working on the second book of what I’ve heard is to be three books in this series. I look forward to the books to come. And I think someday, I hope I live to see it, her husband our other pastor, Jack–who went to Ohio State University with Hollywood film directing in mind, before the Lord intercepted him in grace, and called him to the ministry–that someday he will direct a film which I’m sure will be first rate, telling this excellent story. In the meantime I pray this book, and more to come will be to the blessing and transformation of many lives in and through Jesus.

N.T. Wright on the change Jesus brings

Jesus did not come to “teach a new ethic.” Nor did he come to teach people that everything they’d ever thought about human behavior was wrong and that they should begin again from the beginning. Nor did he come to show us how to keep God’s Law, or, for that matter, to warn us that we couldn’t do so even if we tried, so we’d better come to him for forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come, in other words, to reinforce any of the normal ways in which Western Christians–and Western non-Christians, too–have thought about “behavior.” He came to inaugurate God’s kingdom, in his life and public ministry, and through the climax of both in his death and resurrection. He came to rescue Israel, to rescue humankind, and thereby to rescue creation. And, with that, everything is different.

Jesus came, in fact, to launch God’s new creation, and with it a new way of being human,  a way which picked up the glimpses of “right behavior” afforded by ancient Judaism and paganism and, transcending both, set the truest insights of both on quite a new foundation. And, with that, he launched also a project for rehumanizing human beings, a project in which they would find their hearts cleansed and softened, find themselves turned upside down and inside out, and discover a new language to learn and every incentive to learn it. God’s kingdom was bursting in to the present world, offering a “goal” the like of which Aristotle had never imagined. Human beings were called at last to rediscover what they have been made for, what Israel had been created for. They were, after all, to be rulers and priests, following Jesus’ ultimate royal and priestly achievement, and they would have to learn from scratch what that meant. They were to practice virtue–virtue of a kind never before imagined. And in this, as in so much besides, the first great theoretician among Jesus’s followers was that tireless, restless, lovable, and often puzzling man named Paul.

N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, 133.

prayer for the third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

aren’t we related?

Roger E. Olson who is becoming one of my favorite theologians, writes about the rift that is occurring and actually has already occurred in evangelicalism in the new fundamentalism. I hope there’s more overlap and time yet to bring the two together. Some would say two factions, though from my perspective there is one side that has been factious. Th0ugh I all too easily can fall into this sin myself!

I am ecumenical in a Christian orthodox sense. I am “in Jesus” and to be “in Jesus” means to be united not only with Christ, but with all others who are “in Christ.” So I’m one with many many Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestants, all who name the name of Jesus, whose sins have been washed away through Jesus, who have received new life by the Spirit.

We are all many expressions of Christ’s Body in the world. We each individually are expressions of Jesus himself by the Spirit, and together in our various fellowships throughout the world are expressions of Jesus as a Body. In fact the latter is in some ways more fundamental to what God is doing in the world than the former. In Jesus is not only an individual matter, but it is at heart, community oriented.

God loves it when his people in Jesus get along well. When we don’t, such breach is a serious matter, even sin, though we often explain it away. When the Corinthians sinned at the Lord’s Table, their sin was not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Those well to do were arriving early at the meal, leaving little for their poor brothers and sisters who arrived later. They had failed to treat each other as family, as the family they are in Jesus.

What about us? Do we treat each other as family, or not? Does this mean we have to agree on everything? We know we will see things differently at times, even disagreeing. But how do we disagree? That is the question. Do we do so in love, as family members? As brothers and sisters who love each other? Sadly we know all too well how family members can squabble, not get along, and even separate.

But God not only has better things for us in Jesus, but better things for the world through us in Jesus. We show to the world God’s love when we are united, and in that unity in Jesus live out God’s love and truth in big and little ways. We do that together, we don’t leave others in Jesus behind. If we leave others behind, in a sense we leave Jesus behind. And we fail to show to the world the full expression of who Jesus is through his Body here and now.

When we work through our differences to acknowledge our relationship in Jesus together, in God’s love through Jesus, and we put first things first, including our unity in Jesus which is offered to all as a gift to be received by faith, we then live out who we actually are: Jesus’ Body for the world. But we first must answer the question, and answer it well.

the element of uncertainty in faith

Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins has brought to the fore a number of considerations, the nature of faith being one of them. Rob Bell’s message to many seems to be at heart lacking the certainty that scripture says is descriptive of faith, in some translations faith seeming to have a life of its own in that in itself it holds proof, or even is proof. While I don’t agree with that assessment concerning Rob and the book itself, it does raise an important issue.

There is existentially, or in our experience a sense in which faith indeed does carry an element of uncertainty. Faith by nature requires trust in the midst of what can bring doubt. One question often asked: Is doubt a part of faith? It would seem on the surface not so. Certainly living as though God’s promises in Jesus are not true could be living out of a doubting that has nothing to do with faith, lacking indeed the commitment that faith requires.  However it indeed can be an exercise of faith to struggle through the doubts that one has in life. Akin to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, just before he was to meet his brother Esau, who had wanted at a certain point to kill him. Jacob according to the account and scripture became a different man afterward.

God has given us enough to live, but not enough to live on our own. The nature of his revelation given to us in scripture through Jesus does not answer all our questions, nor does it eliminate all danger. God essentially tells us in his word to simply trust him in the midst of all the possible wrongs which may occur. And when those possibilities overtake us. And when questions remain unanswered (see the Book of Job).

God’s promise in Jesus is not that he’ll take us out of trouble, but through trouble. Of course we in Jesus will be spared from his judgment to come. But more characteristic is the promise:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

And we are told that no evils in this life, including death itself, will be able to separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. And we pray not only for us, but for the world:

your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

So faith requires a trust which in this world can indeed seem to be a leap in the dark. But a leap into the arms, the everlasting arms of our God. Which we receive for ourselves, and seek to live out together in Jesus for the world.

fighting the urge to fold tent

Folding the tent can be a metaphor for simply giving up on life in the sense of thinking that one does not matter. Of course we all matter to our loved ones, and they matter to us.

Within each of us is placed a desire to make a difference in life. When we get to the place where we think we no longer are contributing anything, or much to speak of, we can easily “fold tent” and end up going through the motions, not caring about anything special we might contribute because we think to care about it, little matters anyhow.

When one is down for this reason or another, one can be assailed with the temptation to despair. This is not good, unless we can move into a posture of holding out our hands toward God in faith, looking to God for his salvation in our lives through Jesus.

We know we can be replaced. None of us are indispensable, so to speak. And yet this is our time in God’s Story. We each have our special gift from God. We need to make the most out of it, out of love for God, and for our fellow humanity. This is our time, each of us, together in Jesus for the world.

don’t let it get to you

How often in this life will something be building over time bringing pressure, or another thing will blindside us. And we are cast down, or as we say downcast. We need to learn the wisdom of not letting something get to us.

At times, and especially at certain critical moments and hours, we simply must resist the temptation to react and say or do what we’ll end up regretting and having to take back as in confession, with damage done.

We can instead, live or walk in the Spirit so that people might catch a glimpse of Jesus through our lives, by learning to live well through such times, even under duress. But for this to happen, we must learn not only to resist the temptation to react, but we also must instead do the good that is called for. Praying for one who is perhaps acting as an enemy, or is annoying. And seeing what we can do to help them.

Time itself we say–of course God working in it–is a great leveler of so much that needs correction. And all of us need correction. None of us are the measure by which others are to be judged. We find that only in Jesus. We are in this together. Let us proceed in God’s love through Jesus. Praying for what we see is not right, or healed yet. And clinging for dear life to a life of following Jesus together for the world.