against a passive, non-activist faith

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1:27

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

Menno Simons

So much of what I’ve seen in evangelical Christian faith is more than less totally about one’s individual relationship with God through Christ with an emphasis on being assured of eternal life, and the best of that, an emphasis on knowing God’s love in one’s own life. Most of that I’ve found good insofar as it goes. But it simply doesn’t go far enough if we take all the pages of Scripture seriously.

If we have the faith of Jesus, we’ll be active on the ground, and that, especially together. This is not a life any of us can live on our own, by ourselves, because the life of Christ is mediated primarily through Christ’s body, the church. In and from that, we can live honoring lives in the love of God and neighbor and enemy as well.

Let’s clarify a bit where that activity nowadays should be. To be concerned about all the injustice that has been meted out and remains even to the present day. To let it be known that this is not acceptable. To do the necessary work in which we’ll mostly be unseen, with the willingness to work in changing systems, in many cases advocating for something entirely new. And all of this simply the natural outworking of our faith. An expression of who we are in Christ.

Yes, we’re totally loved, completely accepted, and helped in every way possible in our life in Christ, and that especially so together. Even as we do struggle due to our human limitations and ongoing resistance by the spiritual and physical principalities and powers. But our faith is active, in good works for the poor and mistreated, not just to bandage the wounds, but stop all that is wrong and work to bring about new beginnings, as well as reparations in the quest for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

Yes, we have the hope that Christ will return. But a major part of being ready if I understand all of Scripture correctly will to be about our God’s business right now, which means a passion to see that light of Day make needed differences in the here and now. That as I understand it is what the true evangelical faith looks like.

imagining a new world even in the here and now

Do not remember the former things
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?

Isaiah 43:18-19

In the context of this prophecy, it’s not at all about some kind of dispensational, “Jesus is coming back” theme. No, it’s about a present to that time matter concerning Israel and Babylon, and suggests an end to the violence endemic then.

Fast forward to the present time, and we again are reminded that indeed, something is quite wrong in the present “law and order” way of doing things. And one of the tragedies is that somehow for probably a multitude of reasons, we can’t imagine any other way of doing things. And worst of all, Christians are often at the forefront of advocating a heavier hand in threatening violence with an unhelpful black and white law paradigm which really ends up not only not helping the problem, but exacerbating it, making it worse, so that more jails are needed. That’s the fictional world which in horror we’ve brought to pass, if only we could see that.

Why instead can’t we imagine a new world, a better world in which we’re all in this together, yes, with wonderful personal freedoms, but also with the merciful accountability and help we all need? In part it’s due to heavy handed poor paradigms we live in, quite apart from the dream God wants us to see and live out.

Most change will take time, and it’s not like there can never be backsliding and even complete loss. Let’s take one example: What I would call the good overturning of patriarchy in different movements which help us see that women indeed are not called to be subservient, but are instead wonderful partners, also gifted in unique ways. That has been a revolutionary thought in the past, and is still rejected by some of the most popular Bible teachers, who in my view are grossly misreading the Bible and life itself. Because of this wonderful new change and awareness, a light has shined in the world which can never be taken back, unless dark ages come which snuff it out. That unfortunately happens. There are always forces of darkness at work in the world which do all they can to push back the light of Day.

Yes, we who have the hope in Christ know that the new Day cannot be held back and that it is coming when Christ returns. But in the meantime we do no one any favor at all to imagine in an astounding lack of imagination that important changes can’t be made now. As I am taught by those who know much more, such change will come only with hard, painstaking, plodding work, and will be incremental. But we must not let up, especially those of us who name the name of Christ. We must hope and pray and envision and work for a much better world now. Desiring the best for all nations and peoples everywhere. Knowing that someday at long last all the darkness will be lost forever in the light of Day.

devotion to prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.

Colossians 4:2

“Thoughts and prayers” especially over gun violence with no change in sight, or desired change even from those who offer that, comes across as mere sentimentality, though I don’t doubt the sincerity of most of them. But is that enough? Of course not. For prayer to make any difference or be real prayer one’s entire being must be involved in it, and for it to have its intended effect, it must be in accord with God’s kingdom present in Jesus. I think of what is most often called “the Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer Jesus taught, and am reminded of just how down to earth that prayer is. It seems to me that the right heavenly perspective is an earthly perspective, and the right earthly perspective will be influenced by a heavenly perspective. I’m borrowing a bit from the discussion our church fellowship had yesterday.

We cannot be too devoted to prayer, individual prayers and prayers together. Prayer is too often treated like an add-on or even mere formality if it’s remembered at all. But it’s really at the heart, and we could say the heart of what we Christ-followers do, even our very existence. Our dependence on God is most evident in prayer, asking- even crying out for God’s help and all that we and others need from God. And God does listen to sincere prayer through Christ, even if Christ is not understood as part of the equation.

Praying is a matter of faith. If our faith is small or nonexistent, we won’t even think of praying, much less do it. But if we’re struggling to grow in faith, if we have faith at all, then it will become evident through our desire to pray, or willingness to do so, to at least be led in prayer. Our prayer habits and life are an important indicator of the health and strength of our faith. Other factors are involved such as spiritual warfare, which can make it difficult to pray, and still other factors, which together can result in prayer being more like wrestling or quiet groaning when we don’t have adequate enough words to speak.

In it all, we need to be devoted to prayer, not letting up on it. God will help us far more than we might think or can imagine as we do so.

the desire for the Christ-life

Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my salvation. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way but that by my speaking with all boldness Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet I cannot say which I will choose. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that, by my presence again with you, your boast might abound in Christ Jesus because of me.

Philippians 1:15-26

The book of Philippians catches an important connection, note, indeed song in God’s story: the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ, and the Christ-life or life of Christ that is in the middle of that. There was nothing more important to Paul than this, both on a personal level, and in ministry in service to others. This was the heart and passion of Paul. So much in Philippians is so powerful, helpful and good in our quest as individuals and in community to be followers of Christ.

Why do we want to live? As believers and followers of Christ it should be similar or related to what Paul was talking about. Christ is in the center of that, God’s good news in him. And it’s about Christ’s life existing and being lived out in us, God’s people in him. And it’s a life not only for eternity, but for the life of the world even now. If this Christ-life doesn’t result in good works and a passion for the world now, how can we really imagine that we care much if at all for the eternal good of all?

This is what we’re to be devoted to. Because of Christ, centered in him, God’s will and the good news in him. We want to be devoted and have our part both as individuals and together in community in that. That is why we want to live, even our very life.

Advent and freedom

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:31-32, 36

Advent is the hope as in the anticipation of Christ’s coming to set God’s people and actually in the end all humanity free, liberated. And in Jesus’s time, this was certainly on the minds of his people who generally probably wanted nothing more than to break loose from the yoke of Rome. They may have felt like exiles in their homeland.

But Jesus pointed out to them that the slavery humanity needs to break away from, yes, even them, God’s people, was sin. And sin in the sense of violating love of neighbor which is the marque expression of love for God. In scripture this involves breaking away from all that binds us, be it human rules thought necessary for life, as well as powers holding sway over nations, peoples and individuals.

Advent is anticipation of Christ’s coming when we will truly be free at last, ultimately and forever. The beginning of that freedom is present through Christ’s first coming when by faith people can enter into something substantial of this very same freedom, meant one day to free all of creation, all humanity.

In the meantime, we need to be aware of what binds and blinds us. Cultic thinking is not confined to what is popularly called cults as in false ideologies, teachings, philosophies and religions. It is found anywhere anything is imposed which is insistent that only by adhering to this ideology, way of thinking and way of life that freedom will be found. That false insistence is coupled with the idea that all who don’t adhere to their movement are enslaved or in danger of such.

But in Christ we’re free even now, free to live fully in God’s will for us today, away from all that binds and would bind us, yes, even today. Anything insistent on their way or the highway is cultic, and actually does the very thing they’re telling people that they’re victims of. Such cultic thinking of any and every kind simply binds and blinds. Only in Christ are we set free. And we await the full completion of what is present now when Christ returns.

Advent: hope for a broken, breaking world

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:13-14

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:13-14; KJV

Advent on the Christian church calendar is a season of hope, remembering the anticipation of Christ’s first coming as we long for his second coming when at long last this weary world rejoices.

Most all of us are tired, weary and worn, even as we enjoy the gifts and blessings of this life. But we long for more, much more, and for good reason, considering all the world’s ills. We desire that promised “peace on earth, good will toward men.” According to what’s considered a better textual reading, “peace among those whom he favors!”

Given the evil found all over the world, it seems sadly that the only way shalom, or peace is possible is through final judgment. Judgment comes from grace and precedes salvation. We have to be saved from something threatening or hanging over us, victimizing us and others, to be saved to something better, the full restoration of humanity and creation as God intends.

This is at the heart of the hope of Advent. We know the best that can be accomplished in this world can’t measure up to that. Though part of this Advent hope includes a willingness to try to find God’s light in this darkness to address issues such as war, famine and starvation, climate change, the disparity between the rich and the poor, etc. That is if we follow the concern and passion found in the Bible. Otherwise we might settle for a Platonic salvation in which heaven is what ultimately matters since this world is to be burned anyhow.

Instead we need to see that God’s care is for all creation, indeed that God loves all that God has made. And that followers of Christ along with the rest of humanity should work towards a better world. And that what we do now somehow in God’s will makes a difference that ends up being eternal since matter is just as much a part of the world to come as is spirit.

We who are followers of Christ bear witness to the hope promised, that the God who made all things in the first place, has promised to remake all things in Christ, which actually is beginning even now. Advent a wonderful season to reflect on that.

the necessity and blessing of self-control

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

2 Peter 1:5-6

I almost entitled this “the necessity and blessing of good old fashioned self-control” but thought better, since what we’re referring to here is not some stoic (as we mean that nowadays), self-made operation or effort. God’s grace underlies all, as seen clearly in this passage (click link).

But I would like to highlight self-control in a way which puts an emphasis on it. A good friend pointed out to me that it is not self-control, but God’s control which we’re after. Okay, I get the point. But I would counter with something like this: God’s grace and work, and if you want to put it that way and surely this has validity if understood correctly- God’s control, under all of that, we have to exert self-control.

And it’s not like we don’t have opportunities to do that. They are surely multitudinous, many. Think of whatever it is that can get us offtrack: Worry/anxiety, fear, greed, jealousy/envy, lust, anger, harsh words, and rabbit holes of many kinds. You name it. In all of that, in all of life we have opportunity time and again, over and over to exercise self-control.

And we especially need to do this when we feel dead inside, and when all of our impulses would move us otherwise. That may seem like an us-thing and not a God-thing, but self-control is self control. Yes the Spirit can and will help us in this, as it is listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit which in essence is love (Galatians 5:23). But I want to once again emphasize: This is something we do yes with God’s help, but we still do it. We’re not automatons; we do this one might say in cooperation with God. Yes, God’s grace underlies all, every good thing is a gift. But we still end up having to do what is not automatic in and of itself.

In the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament and I think carried over into the New Testament, God seems to expect people to do better, and over and over again takes especially God’s people to task for doing otherwise. We need to hear this and take it seriously. We will fail along the way, but then we need to exercise self-control then as well, and get out of that ditch through confession and doing what needs to be done to do what is right and good.

A great opportunity for us.

keeping your eye on Christ means what?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2

We’re told in Hebrews to keep our eye on Christ as we run the race set before us. The thought quoted above is that Jesus is the pioneer as well as perfecter of faith, I think as much in setting us an example as in helping us in the way Christ opened. For many of us this amounts to our own spiritual growth and witness to others, and that pretty much sums it up. But considering the context of Hebrews 11 and the witnesses of faith there, of course culminated and we can say completed in Christ and Christ’s example for us, I think there’s much much more.

In the way of the cross, the way of love, we have much to do in what we’re supposed to be and what we actually are, yes, in this life. Often I hear and read the thought that we’re not to look at the things that are visible, but what is not seen (Paul) and that we’re to set our heart on heavenly things, not earthly things (again, Paul), as if all that matters is heaven someday for ourselves and everyone else, and this world, its problems and tragedies are secondary, and hardly worth considering, certainly not worth dwelling on in comparison to the big call. Many of you will recognize that given the passages from Paul, that’s a misreading of him.

I dare say that this flies in the face of the biblical witness, of God’s love and what that amounts to and means for us, and not the least- the callings we can find even perhaps beyond the humdrum job we feel stuck with, callings not only in but for this life. We need to be about finding God’s will and living in that will fully, a will that will be for the temporal as well as eternal good of others in the love of God and neighbor. And yes, definitely within that witness will be the sign and hope of a better world to come when at long last all conflict and war will cease and all people will flourish in community together as sisters and brothers, one family of God.

where is God present perhaps more than anywhere else (individually and corporately)?

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.

Acts 9:11; NIV

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.

Acts 4:31

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words.

Romans 8:26

We really don’t know what we’re doing when we pray (the same holds true when we read scripture), because it is really quite over our heads. It’s as they say, a God-thing. God is in it. And I am referring to real prayer.

When we have a sense of being caught up in that, it’s wonderful, or at least we have the sense that it’s more than just ourselves. But even when we feel lost, oppressed, and it seems like we’re doing nothing, we still do well to make the attempt, to continue in prayer. Real prayer is not dependent on us, but on God. However we have to make the attempt. From some scripture, I have to wonder if God doesn’t count the tears and cries of people in trouble as prayer. I think so, but whatever may be the case in that, we do well to lift up our hearts, thoughts and concerns to God. God meets us there. God is very present there.

This is blessedly true in our individual lives, and we should make a daily practice of this. But it is all the more true in our corporate “church” life. When we pray together, maybe we can say Christ is not more present, but all the more present. It’s as if that Presence becomes exponential from our hearts being joined together, part of what is central in God’s will.

Yes, God is quite present in our prayers. Poor as they may be. And most of mine are. And the ones that may not seem to be are only from what God gives me. God is with us in Christ and by the Spirit. And especially in our prayers.

Note: God is present everywhere, but in this post I mean God’s manifest presence. Where God’s presence is somehow made known.

what does the Incarnation mean for us as Christ-followers?

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

The Christian teaching, the Incarnation is simply the idea that God became flesh, fully human in Christ. God never ceased to be God, yet also became human. Mystery.

But on the ground here on planet earth where that occurred, what does that mean for Christ-followers and for that matter, for everyone. It surely ends up meaning a number of things a mile wide and a mile deep.

God comes to live right where we live. And not only that, but God becomes one of us. One of us. In other words we humans are already in identification with God through the Incarnation.

And so we can know that God feels our pain in a human way, since God has become human in Christ. God understands our limitations and mistakes along with all the rest since God limited God’s self in the Incarnation while yet somehow remaining God.

Among the many things the Incarnation means, it surely includes at its heart that it’s about us living fully present and engaged in life on earth. Seeking to find and do all of God’s will as best we can understand it, individually and especially together as the church. And that plays out in the gospel accounts. Jesus didn’t set up a monastery and isolate his followers. No, he fully engaged in the present, proclaiming in word, deed and life the good news, the gospel of God’s good rule.

We the church are now Christ’s body on earth. To live out the same life he did in thoughtful, reflective and healing ways. All because of the Incarnation itself.