accepting the tension of life

But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped from his hands.

2 Corinthians 11:21b-33; NRSVue

Yes, this is Paul, but Paul does tells us to follow him, his example, as he follows Christ. The wear and tear of life are telling during a day, during a lifetime. Sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled into an undertow from which there’s no coming back. The tension can be palpable. We could chalk that up to spiritual warfare, weaknesses we have which need to be worked through- like in my case over the years, anxiety, whatever it might be. But there’s no doubt, life has ongoing tensions related to responsibilities, challenges, problems, concerns, even dangers and tragedies. Life on planet earth is not for the faint of heart.

I’ve found over and over again that when I accept the tension of life, I gradually usually sooner than later start to sense help from God, and in time a nearly unsettling peace because it seems unreal, settles in. But life goes on with all the conundrums, with our own weaknesses. I wish we could live in that unsettling settled peace, and maybe if I live long enough, I’ll find that I live much more there than now. I can say that I do experience that peace more than in years past. But life isn’t easy for any of us. Just consider only for a moment what we’re facing today, and you can cut through the tension that easily comes with it, with a knife.

It’s not easy to accept the tension of life. It’s one thing when you’re on the other side where’s there’s at least some blessed relief, quite another when you’re in the thick of it. But that’s part of our calling in Christ, to live in that very same weakness in which Christ lived. In that we’ll find Christ’s strength and not just in our own lives, but in us together in this experience in Christ.

your doctrine doesn’t matter (or maybe it does) compared to your life

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged in accordance with the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight but the doers of the law who will be justified. When gentiles, who do not possess the law, by nature do what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, as their own conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God through Christ Jesus judges the secret thoughts of all.

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what really matters because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, who teach others, will you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by your transgression of the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you.”

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if the uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then the physically uncircumcised person who keeps the law will judge you who, though having the written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the written code. Such a person receives praise not from humans but from God.

Romans 2:12-29; NRSVue

No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.”

Luke 16:13-15; NRSVue

Paul does not downplay correct teaching or as it’s called, doctrine. All is about or connected to the good news in Christ. And Jesus’s teaching is a core part of the meaning of the coming of God’s good news and rule, though it’s often downplayed or ignored today. I for one believe that many who don’t know the name of Christ are in, while many who do profess that name may be sadly out. What I’m trying to say is that what we hold to in our understandings, be they religious or otherwise is actually less important than how we live. How we live ought to affect our thinking so that we would be open to someone who lived, taught, indeed died like Jesus did.

The common “turn or burn” teaching is basically your ticket, or as someone said, barcode to heaven if only you will believe. But just what are we hearing from those teachers? And I mean all of it. Perhaps their teaching like the religious leaders of old ends up being suspect. Why? Because their lives are suspect. And just perhaps that’s little if at all realized since after all, they have their religion or Bible understanding in order. But even if the teaching might be in apple pie order, does what follows give the lie to it?

Give me an atheist anytime who actually expresses concern for others, and attempts to live it out, and I’m sure Jesus would say that they’re not far from the kingdom of God. But take a professing Christian who gives little thought to any of that except to be assured of their eternal life while embracing values antithetical to Jesus’s life and teaching, and you have another story. Yes, well meaning people consign multitudes to everlasting torment whose lives might actually show more grace, and often do, than many of the former.

Regardless of the accuracy of what I say here, I think the point stands. It’s our lives that matter now and in the end. Christ is the fulfillment of what life is meant to be, how it’s to be lived. Emphasis on correct doctrine enters into what James warns is deceptive. Do it, or sadly, perish (or, it will be a hard row to hoe).

confidence in rulers, politicians, presidents, etc., or in God?

Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”

1 Samuel 10:24; NRSVue

I guess it never ceases to amaze me how excited people get over elections, especially presidential elections in the United States where I live. I’m not suggesting that elections of local, state and federal offices are not important, as well as issues voted on. Not at all, because I consider all of it quite important. On a certain level. And democratic processes. What I’m referring to is the status and high place certain people are accorded, and even the hope that they’re like the savior long awaited.

I’m amazed too that what I’ve seen over the years is nothing in comparison to what’s going on now, and that older people who ought to know better are falling for it. I don’t care what party or politician you’re talking about, every single one of them have feet of clay, limitations, indeed faults. It seems like you have to have a certain kind of charisma and populist appeal to be electable nowadays. Beware if you sound intellectual in the least. You have to play down to the constituents. Instead, one running for office should try to explain the hard things, be honest and real as to what can be expected, even why they’re there.

I doubt very much whether Abraham Lincoln or George Washington who are venerated by all Americans today could win an election now. At least it would be close. Both would understand the times and know what to do. But Washington was not a public speaker, probably not much charisma, and Lincoln would have an uphill climb given his total lack of the combative approach that is seemingly required of most any politician nowadays. I’ve seen exceptions, and I’m thinking now of a present day Republican, and I have to take my hat off to them.

As a Mennonite, back to my Anabaptist roots, while I should pray for them, I can’t fully support all they do, such as the President being Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. But I still make decisions in voting. But my point in this post is that it is foolish to put one’s hope in either a politician, a person, or a political party for that matter. We so easily cross the line of putting confidence in someone in a way that should only be reserved for God. Yes, we measure people’s character, ability and positions. But even the best of them are not saviors. Never.

In grade school I could repeat the U.S. presidents in order, and knew basic things about them. I was fascinated with that and American history in general. But the ones I consider the best now, and Lincoln and Washington would be the top two, neither of them were saviors. Washington’s humility and desire to not rule the people like some wanted was commendable, even while he tried to make slavery work, in the end giving up, and Lincoln accepting a most terrible war to save the union while freeing slaves, was not a savior, either. Though certainly both men were gifted in character and ability and filled an important role for their time.

What is dangerous today is the confidence professing Christians are putting in certain ones, who according to the flesh, just seem outstanding to them. What happened in Israel of old was like that. Saul seemed to be the epitome of the king they wanted to rule over them, handsome and head and shoulders taller than all the rest. No one like him in Israel. But it didn’t take long for Samuel to see through Saul. And Samuel knew all along that this enterprise was actually a departure from faith in God, and essentially or at least easily idolatrous. No different today at all, though so many professing Christians will beg to differ since they’re getting what they want.

Followers of Christ have actually only one Lord. America has some remarkable things about it, the first modern state democracy, and a lot of good in some of its ideals, though I would say unfulfilled in significant ways to this day. But to put such confidence in any nation or political party or politician for that matter is a complete mistake. Even the best of them are limited and a mixed bag. That’s not to say that they can’t do some important good. But it won’t take long if you dig a little to realize that they’re all flawed.

When are professing Christians going to put their full confidence only in Christ? Followers of Christ do that, and are open to needed correction when they don’t.

the central importance of self-control

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith…with self-control…

2 Peter 1:5-6; NRSVue

There are few things more important than self-control, in fact we can say that’s it’s on the first level of needed virtues to make our way in faith in this world. To understand it within the Christian or “in Christ,” following Christ framework, we must never consider self-control on its own. As in the passage from 2 Peter above, it’s attached to faith, and in the end, love. Our consideration of self-control here is not about self-control by itself, though that surely has its place in the world. But considered within our faith, it becomes a life saving and we might even say life giving component.

We must exercise self-control in the midst of doubts and difficulties, even disappointments from happenings. Yes, no matter what the thought, self-control must prevail. Of course it’s not alone. Reading the passage above as a whole, that’s quite evident, just as we’ve already hinted:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and excellence. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with excellence, and excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is blind, suffering from eye disease, forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.

2 Peter 1:3-11; NRSVue

So this call for self-control like any other place in Scripture requires context. And when you consider our culture, just as much so. After all, self-control would be the epitome of the celebrated rugged individualist “can do” attitude which can overcome all odds. So says the narrative we’ve been raised on. But that’s not the self-control referred to here. It means the same, but in an entirely different context. We are self-controlled in and from our life in Christ, a life together in Christ’s body, and then in our own activities in the world. Again, entirely different.

This is vitally important for me. I have suffered with anxiety, a sense of not feeling well, glass half empty, however else you might describe it, syndrome for years. Maybe related to all the head injuries I’ve had starting as a boy. But whatever the case may be, this is especially important for me to keep in mind since so often in my life I’ve felt on edge. But really, for all of us, for everyone self-control is a necessary part of the whole package of virtues we’re to keep in mind and pursue day after day in our life in Christ.

the spiritual battle in which we’re in is down to earth

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm. Stand, therefore, and belt your waist with truth and put on the breastplate of righteousness and lace up your sandals in preparation for the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Ephesians 6:10-20; NRSVue

In case we haven’t received notice, we’re in a spiritual battle whether we realize it or not. This battle, while spiritual definitely has ramifications on the ground. It addresses principalities and powers which not only engage persons, but systems. At the heart of it is Christ and the gospel of Christ, which actually is what the whole armor of God is tied to. God gives strength to that end. And that good news is about freeing all who are in bondage, the bondage of sin, and also giving the freedom to follow Christ in this world.

Any system which is not of this good news in Christ, not tied to or a part of God’s kingdom and rule in Christ is suspect. In fact systems which seek to impose standards of virtue and goodness and mark characteristics that are not supposedly good, short of working at stopping violence, are worse than suspect. They are indeed part of the problem, oftentimes with religion backing them, in our own context: church and state.

We have nothing to fear in Christ, in the good news in him. It will prevail after all else has failed or has been judged in the end for what it actually is. We are together in this, it’s not only an individual, daily matter, not even primarily, though it does include that. This directive is addressed to the church, very much for today, yes on the ground, down to earth where we live. God’s victory in Christ ultimately the winner.

we are weak, but Christ is with us

This is the third time I am coming to you. “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not be lenient— since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed. But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth but only for the truth. For we rejoice when we are weak but you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may be restored. So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

2 Corinthians 13:1-10; NRSVue

When you look at Jesus’s teachings, for example to the rich young ruler, and all the rest, it really leaves you in wonder, awe, and really left falling short, like hardly being on board at all. That doesn’t mean that there’s not the desire to be, though that can become beaten down as well when reality sets in.

All of this can lend itself to the false idea that we should throw in the towel and give up. That we’re really not followers of Christ after all. But Christ doesn’t tell us to make it work ourselves, but just to follow. I’m reminded of when Jesus told Peter at the end of John’s gospel not to worry about whether or not John would remain until his return, that he simply should follow Jesus. That was talking about post-Pentecost, so there is indeed a way in which we are called to follow Christ now.

We are weak indeed, but if I read the end of 2 Corinthians along with the rest of that letter correctly, that seems to be a prerequisite to being followers of Christ. We are this in our individual lives, but together as well, the essence of our being, in Christ and with each others in Christ’s body.

Christ calls us to the same weakness he carried, in which he lived. It is never our own strength, religion, position of power, whatever. It is always in him, and it turns out that being in weakness.

And so there is the greatest hope after all, in fact this new reality for us to live in, in Christ.

(I currently am unable to hyperlink on these posts. An article I read which largely contributed to the thought here was by Walter Brueggemann entitled, “The Unending Work of Contradiction” on the “Church Anew” blog.)

how are we victorious?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us.

Romans 8:35-37; NRSVue

The context of Paul’s words quoted above is about living in danger and weakness. And strictly speaking, it is addressed to people together. The point is that in everything, no matter what, we are more than victorious through him who loved us. Our victory is in and of Christ. And thinking even this small portion through a bit, it’s a victory that is not on our terms, but on Christ’s, in the way of Christ. The way of being loved and loving, yes even our enemies. That is how we’re victorious even in this present life.

loving the wrongdoer while hating the wrong

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:38-48

To be human is to hate what is inhumane as in cruelty and evil. To cozy up to what deserves hate is to become less human, ultimately inhuman.

So what are we left with? On the one hand we have to hate all that is wrong and unjust, but on the other hand we’re to love the perpetrators of such? That’s more than a tall order, but that’s what we’re called to, as followers of Christ.

Left to ourselves, at least I would say that we’re not built for this, that we’re limited as human beings, that it’s asking too much. But Christ has come and not only shown us the way, but actually is the way. In Christ together and then individually we can begin to really live this out.

Of course it won’t be easy. But we can learn to see through exteriors to the humanity underlying that. Even while we insist on addressing what is a violation of love for God and neighbor.

Jesus an activist who taught and practiced soul-care

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

Mark 1:35

The apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

Mark 6:30-32

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

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

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

Psalm 23

Jesus was an activist in kingdom of God work. Of course it was work which involved everything: inside out, but in a deft way, certainly not at all in the way and ways of the world. However we parse that, there’s something else absolutely necessary for us to keep in mind. Jesus did not run on empty, but kept himself full in the presence and fellowship of God. And he taught his disciples to do the same. Of course any good apprentice or follower of a rabbi as in those days, will want to do what the rabbi tells them to do, and will want to imitate their life.

What about us today? Some of us are activists in one way or another for God’s kingdom in Christ, for the good news of that kingdom in him and what that might mean today. And all of that’s a tall order. It isn’t easy, particularly when there’s so much resistance, often entrenched, unyielding, and even from religious folks just like in Jesus’s time.

We must take care. “Self-care” or maybe a better way of putting it so that we avoid some of the baggage of that term, “soul-care” hopefully having less if any baggage. Just to rest, yes physically, but for us in Jesus much more. To rest in God’s presence, to just be still and come to know in that way, yes, that God is God, that certainly neither we nor anyone else is, that while what we do is important, we are not left on our own, that God wants to help us. And most important for us as followers of Christ, we want to be caught up into God’s kingdom work no less. But that can wait for now. We need times, intervals of just sheer rest in God.

are we really ready to follow?

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9:57-62

Now large crowds were traveling with him, and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Luke 14:25-33

It’s one thing to pray a prayer, ask Jesus into one’s heart, and then believe you’re eternally secure, bound for heaven someday. That is a summary of what many believe. But it’s quite another thing to commit oneself to follow Christ and then follow through, do it. Those are worlds apart.

What you’re going to find when you commence to follow Christ and keep going is that there will be a number of things you won’t like. There will be hurt and problems which you otherwise would not have. But Christ will be present, and that makes all the difference.