the center of God’s work

God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

Ephesians 1:20b-23; MSG

There’s not many concerned citizens in the United States who aren’t biting their nails right now. If you pay attention to the news, you know some of the many reasons why. And what happens in those places is important. We don’t do well to shrug it off and say for one reason or another that it doesn’t matter.

But we don’t do well, either, if we think or at least act as if that’s all that matters, specifically what people are doing in these civic and political affairs. We may advocate for good, important causes, raise legitimate concerns, and have our feet on the ground, somehow active in the political process. And there might well be some good that comes out of that.

But unless we remember where the center of God’s work actually is, we might become lost in all of that. Lost in not having the proper focus. Of course I’m talking about those of us who are Christ-followers.

I think we would do much more good if we made a concerted effort to focus on just where the center of God’s work is. It’s in Christ no less. And on God’s grace and kingdom present in him, found now, or at least primarily evident in the church. So that whatever we are about and do has both its vision and energy coming from that.

This doesn’t mean for a second that we should disengage in neither paying attention to events, nor failing to do anything. But it does mean that our passion and effort needs to come from the center of God’s activity: Christ himself. As the church, the body of Christ in the world, made up of all believers in local expressions of that, we need to center ourselves in that space and reality to find our place in what God is doing today.

This will help us be concerned about what God is actually concerned about, and less on what so many others, including many Christians, really, any of us might be concerned about. For example, it’s not about the preservation of human constructs, whatever good they might represent or accomplish. Nor for that matter are we about trashing such. Instead our focus is on God’s revelation and will found in Jesus. That brings a vision we gather from Scripture, fulfilled in Jesus, in God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus. So that no matter what might happen elsewhere, that remains intact in our faith, because in actuality it will. But our participation in that will depend on our focus and response.

This hopefully can help us learn to relax more, fret less, and do what God has called us to do in Christ. Simply be who we are: together, Christ’s body in the world. Under Christ’s rule, who alone is sovereign over all things. Realizing that God can bring about more good through our prayers, love, and good works than we might imagine, or compared to just being even fully engaged in the political process. We want to follow Jesus, the politics of Jesus, and participate in God’s good work in and through him.

waking up Christian love in each other

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

A little bit can go a long way. We may think what we can do isn’t much. But when it’s done as an expression of love, it can indeed be a lot. People can be moved from near despair to being lifted in needed encouragement, with a feeling and sense of being loved and belonging. Love and good deeds beget love and good deeds, at least having the potential to do so.

We in Christ are all in this together. It’s not each person all out for themselves. We need to watch out for each other, regularly meeting together, keeping track of one another, particularly during hard times. And really just ongoing love expressed is surely underrated and a largely missing element in our church lives nowadays.

Some of us will need more encouragement than others. But we all need it, each and everyone of us. None of us are excluded. And we need to express genuine appreciation for others, for God’s gift in them, and for their gift to us. And in practical, down to earth ways, thoughts and prayers certainly not excluded. In and through Jesus.

one note often missing in church life: we need each other

No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Ephesians 4:14-16; MSG

From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:16

In our individualistic culture, we Christians too often look at church as being by ourselves in silence before God to hear a good message from God’s word, from Scripture. That’s good. But what might be more vital than that for our spiritual growth, our growth in grace is the realization that we’re in this together, that we need each other, and that God designed it to be that way.

After all, we are one body in Christ, the body of Christ. We get our life and directions from the one head, Christ, by the Spirit. But that’s intended primarily to be experienced together. But it really seems hard to crack that nut in today’s individualistic culture. And sadly to some extent western missionaries have imported something of that culture all over the world, though much of the world does better in this.

What is needed is not some great knock out message, or someone greatly gifted, though those things are good in their place. But what’s essential week after week, on a regular basis is the growing awareness of the reality that we’re all in this together, no one excluded. That we all have our part, even if it is “just” a smile and silent prayer.

We can’t make it ourselves, indeed we’re not intended to. Or at least we won’t do nearly as well, and we’ll be like fish out of water in trying. This is why commitment to the church really amounts to commitment to each other. It’s not just something we confess or acknowledge, but something we need to put into practice. And when that’s beginning to happen, we’ll begin to see the difference and grow up together in the way that God intends. In and through Jesus.

thinking about Bonhoeffer in today’s situation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war because of his resistance against Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. He saw through Hitler and at least as early as 1933 criticized what was happening in Germany, specifically the rise of authoritarianism as seen in emphasis on submission to one leader. Bonhoeffer found himself at odds with the German (Lutheran) church early on. And even with the Confessing Church which had split from it, but later mostly caved in to Hitler’s demand for full allegiance. Even my tradition, the Mennonites in Germany at that time gave into that demand, offering full support to Hitler and that government, even couching it with Christian language.

For Bonhoeffer, faith and God being in the center were assumptions from which he operated, everything else subsidiary to that. Bonhoeffer was not in the least an evangelical, if you’re thinking about today’s American evangelical. I would say not even close. But you have to start reading his material including his letters to his good friend Eberhard Bethge. You’ll find thoughts about religionless Christianity, as well as his feeling more at home with non-Christians than Christians. Bonhoeffer was certainly more than disillusioned by the Christians of his day, and didn’t see in their faith any following of Christ whatsoever. Remember that in one of Bonhoeffer’s seminal works, Discipleship or The Cost of Discipleship he commented extensively on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and wrote that when Christ calls someone, he bids them to come and die.

If Bonhoeffer were alive today, I think he would look at what’s happening in the United States with a similar concern which he had early on in the 1930’s in Germany. You have the rise of neo-Nazism in the US and elsewhere, white supremacist, and nationalistic groups. And you have the majority of white evangelicals in the United States backing the regime, I call it, which these groups support. This is not a good time. Christians are sullying the name of Christ today to do what Bonhoeffer said the German church was all about doing in his day: preserving themselves. How often do we hear today Christians up in arms over their perceived loss of religious freedom to the point that if it ever would happen, people would think they were crying “Wolf” again. And their concern for the possible loss of their status and place in their world, as minorities increasingly are influential in America, actually being the reason the recent (2020) US presidential election turned out as it did. And speaking a lot about reversing Roe v Wade, which may or may not happen. Remember that Hitler made the performing of abortion a capital punishment offense. That certainly didn’t make Hitler “pro-life,” although it would seem in today’s world that he would be called “pro-life” for that reason.

Bonhoeffer deserves a careful reading, as well as reading what historians have gathered about him. Do avoid any versions which don’t depict him as he truly was. He was complex, not easily understood, or pinned down. Some would consider him to the left of Karl Barth. But no doubt a man in whom the Spirit of Christ was alive and active. And who lived out his convictions even through his own mistakes and the awful circumstances of his time to the end when by grace he embraced the way of Christ fully. I write this far from being any expert on Bonhoeffer, but as one who sees his writing and work as more than worth considering given the time and circumstances in which we live.

finding common ground

He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’

Acts 17:25b-28; MSG

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.

Acts 17:16b; MSG

We see part of Paul’s response to the Athenians, particularly those who did what so many Athenians did at that time, philosophize and listen to philosophy with whatever large and small talk that was done. But what stood out to Paul was just how wrong and how lost they were in their concept of God, or lack thereof, including their pantheon of gods of their own making. When you read Scripture you’ll find that along with idolatry comes not only the loss of loving God, but also not loving one’s neighbor. All is dependent on the latest thoughts floating around.

And we see something of this in our world today. People living in fear for this or that reason with maybe some legitimacy. We all have deep concerns today, no matter who we are and where our disagreements lie. And there are some things which for the follower of Christ are non-negotiables. We can’t set aside love for our neighbor which goes hand in hand with our love for God. And followers of Jesus even include love for our enemies.

Paul looked for common ground, but that which could ultimately undermine and replace the idolatry all around him. Instead of attacking them and their gods, he appealed to the altar of “THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS” (Acts 17:23; MSG).

Trying to translate this today in the mess we’re currently in is no small challenge. Maybe just the thought here can help us imagine ways this might be achievable to some extent. I think of our common humanity which I believe comes from our common origin, yes through evolution, but ultimately by the hand of God. And in that, being made in God’s image. We are all made in God’s image, regardless of our beliefs, or how we see life. We need to start there.

And then we need to inquire and search for just who this god might be. For some of us it may seem mostly a stretch to imagine such. For others, we were raised in that tradition, and have hardly ever had a doubt. Regardless, it’s good to begin to understand at least the uniqueness of us as a human species, and then wonder why, where that uniqueness came from. 

What we’re referring to now should be more basic to us than anything else. But out of that will come a shaping of our thoughts in every way conceivable. For us who are followers of Jesus, that is shaped by Scripture, and ultimately Jesus and his fulfillment of it. And only in Jesus do we see God.

We will continue throughout this life to have our different perspectives, and won’t see eye to eye on everything. After all, it is said that even we Jesus followers see through a glass dimly and only know in part (1 Corinthians 13). What we do end up with is something of the sacredness of human beings. We need to appeal to the best, what’s good and beautiful. And find unity in that. 

Yes, through the good news in Jesus, and his death, all division is ultimately broken. Humanity becomes one in him. But we’re not there yet, though that’s supposed to be becoming evident in the church, and ultimately that’s true in what actually is church. We in Jesus want that grace to touch us and everyone. In the meantime we are thankful for God’s common grace which can help us live respectfully together in spite of whatever differences we have.

For us Jesus followers, we’re going to have to take the way of the cross. In sacrificial love finding what is most basic, what should center all of life. And living together with other Jesus followers in that. Always honoring the oneness we have as human beings in creation. As we live in the new creation in and through Jesus. 

 

against “success”

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

I wonder what Jesus would say to us today if he were present in person. We can leave that to our imaginations, and I’m sure many would just think that he would basically rubber stamp whatever agenda they’ve embraced. But would he? Wouldn’t we all have to face his penetrating gaze? Though we don’t really understand him all that well, if at all, he can see right through us.

I wonder if what we consider success nowadays would be seen as success by Jesus. It is often seen in worldly power, or the power of the state, pushing agendas through. Unfortunately when we major on that kind of power, it seems to me anyhow, that we’re clearly leaving behind what Jesus taught his disciples here, and what he would tell us today.

There certainly is a tension between wanting to see good laws and policies, and accepting and learning to live with the reality when what we consider less than good is in place. And of course no political power of this world is part of God’s kingdom in King Jesus.

I like to think that this is not my problem, but I do have a certain view of success which I need to question and bring to God in prayer. It may be good in some ways, and yet still fall short of what the Lord’s description of it would be for me.

It is set here in terms of taking up our cross and following Jesus, yes, to death. Success in the Lord’s eyes seems quite the opposite of success as the world sees it, or as we would naturally expect.

For Jesus it was a rejection of what the world holds dear. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not on his priority list. Peter must have expected the Messiah to meet messianic expectations of that day. To at least fulfill the prophecies of their Hebrew Scripture in something like was anticipated, an actual physical rule that put worldly empires in their place. Actually the Lord was going to do that, but in precisely the opposite way of what Peter imagined. It made no sense to Peter, but the Lord put him in his place in no uncertain terms. It was either the way of the cross, or a mere human, Satan-inspired way. There was nothing in between.  It was one or the other.

To the present, while I may not care about power politics where I live in the United States, and though I do participate in the democratic process here, I don’t think I have any desire to be a part of a dominant political party. I do have concerns in how the political process plays out, the impact it has on the world, on people, locally, nationally and internationally. I don’t think participation in such a process is necessarily contradictory to our Lord’s teaching, though it could be. It all depends both on what our goal actually is, and also how we think it should be achieved.

For me, success often looks like something I’ve more or less embraced all my life: working hard, providing for family, giving to the church, hopefully helping others, all good things in themselves. But just maybe the Lord wants me to pick up on some things which he considers success which are all but out of my line of vision. Maybe for me it’s more like giving up concerns and pursuits which might not be bad in themselves, but crowd out the better. And to quit thinking that it all depends on me, my effort, which deep down I know is all from God, since actually everything that’s good is a gift from God. Maybe in my pursuit for things which are good in themselves, I’ve lost sight of the greater things. Justice, mercy and faithfulness were called major priorities by our Lord (Matthew 23:23-24). Maybe I’ve seen success in too much of the way the world sees it, by my own effort and poor attempts at loving. Maybe I’ve lost sight of depending less on myself, and more on God. Do I really believe that I can do nothing apart from Christ? Do I make my relationship with him the priority it needs to be? Do I see my relationship with other Jesus followers as central to both their growth and mine, all of us being in this together? Do I embrace humility, and really value others as more important than myself?

Just some thoughts on a subject in which I feel like a mere beginner. But want to learn and follow Jesus.

incarnational communities not popular

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.

Isaiah 53:2b-5; NLT

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

1 John 4:16b-17; NLT

This prophecy refers to Christ of course. But some application can be carried over to Christ’s body in the world, the church. Christ alone saves us, but today this is done in significant part through the church. What Christ was in this world, his body is supposed to be now. This involves taking our crosses and following in God’s love for all. Again, it is Christ who saves. We participate in the outworking of that salvation through living out the message and sharing it with others.

The church is supposed to be Christ’s body, not something else that might be more popular to the masses. And actually the church is Christ’s body. We are ordinary, with glitches and struggles, sometimes erring. But present for each other, and for others, for the world as God directs our participation in that.

To be God’s incarnational presence in the world in Christ means to be human and the more Christ-like, the more fully human. We want to be the light of Christ in this world in love and good works. It’s not about programs, even lights out preaching and teaching, great worship music, none of that, although any of it might be good in its place. No, instead it’s about Christ’s presence among us and through us to each other and to the world. In and through Jesus.

first things first

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

I too often have the experience of getting through one thing or another that troubles me, finding inward peace with the freedom to think beyond troubles, only to be assailed by a new problem. I think there’s some serious wisdom in seeking kind of a monastic existence apart from the cares of this world. In my case it would be a married monastery. Yet in having to go through the extra difficulties one can grow in faith and wisdom. I suppose if I were to choose, unblinkingly I would take the former. But I am stuck in the latter, at least for now.

There’s a good word for us from Paul that relates to this, I think. Paul had plenty of serious concerns, but they were all more or less related directly to the kingdom of God. He filled his mind with good things, which is more than evident in his writings. And remember when he said in what is allegedly his last letter that he wanted the parchments and the scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13). He was a reader, or he had someone read to him due to what seems to have been an eye condition. At any rate, he kept himself occupied with truth, knowledge and beauty both from God’s revelation of Scripture, and from other sources as well, evident in the terms used here.

For me that means I need to major on what is major, do my best to take care of the rest, but not let go of what’s most essential. In fact even in addressing problems, we can do so hopefully through ways which will actually add to our well being, instead of tearing us down. While we don’t let go of what is helpful and edifying, from Scripture, and from other sources, all part of God’s revelation, as we sift though those things.

And we must act. Paul says to look at his life, and do what he does, to follow him as he follows Christ. That is so important. We need people who have learned, or at least are learning to walk the walk. To learn from them over time, just to be around them. Sadly the way it is, church life is hardly church life at all in so many good places. You have to really take initiative in looking for small groups, maybe even a house church, and develop relationships. I’ve gained a lot from that in recent years, even though it has been limited in the numbering of gatherings. Faithfulness to Christ in love for God and for others in God’s grace must be lived out, yes in our imperfect sometimes broken ways. But that must be our priority, indeed passion.

So we need both commitments: To occupy our minds with good things. And to live in the faith God gives us, following the good example of others, that we might in turn be an example. In and through Jesus.

“we all need a home”

Someone recently told me that. It is wonderful, the family settings we can live in. But even the best of them is not without some hurts and wounds along the way, even with some cracks and brokenness. And tragically, sometimes those fractures are not mended and there can be a parting of ways. Home together as family does involve a commitment.

When it comes to church, we Christians at least here in America I think have some difficulty seeing it as family or being comfortable there. Why? It could be in part because of our own experience as family. And churches in our society are like a dime a dozen. Unlike days of old when there were parishes, and you had your church according to your location, in which you may well attend and be part of for a lifetime, now people so to speak go shopping for church. Wherever it’s the right feel, or serves the needs of one’s family, or their own needs, we stop and shop there. Maybe for a few years, maybe more, but often less. Until we move on to our next church and church experience. The older I get, the more I value the practice of those who have been in one church for decades, even entire lifetimes. Unfortunately not true of myself. Though there are times, sadly, to leave a church.

But the church in Jesus is meant to be our primary family, in a certain sense more family than our own family. Though of course each have their unique special place. Jesus made it clear that his sister, brother, and mother were those who did God’s will. And we find in the New Testament letters an emphasis on a community held together in the bond of love in Christ, with the fruit of the Spirit moving that fellowship, and the gifts of the Spirit helping it, all toward growth together into maturity in Christ.

We need a home where we don’t have to perform and have it all together. Where we can be our honest, even broken selves. I’m not saying at all, excusing our sin. But really being honest with ourselves and others. Just that sense given to us together by the Spirit who leads us to the broken body and blood of Christ for us individually and in our relationships with each other.

We need a place where we’re at home. Where people really care for us. Grace-oriented, so that by and by we can start measuring up, but not at all about measuring up, even while there is loving accountability. Where we realize that we’re all in this together, that when one suffers with whatever, we all suffer. Where when one rejoices and is happy, we all are happy for and with them. The sense that we’re indeed not in this life alone. But we’re present and in place for each other. And together for a broken world. In and through Jesus.

the Anabaptist (Mennonite) difference

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncs

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

For some time on my spiritual journey, really beginning around 2000 or so, I’ve been nudged back toward my Anabaptist, specifically Mennonite roots. Now no church or denomination or tradition has got it all right, in fact I prefer to insist on the thought that none is better than another. And that we’re all in this together, for better or for worse. But the Anabaptist tradition has a history to appreciate, and I would like to say, a difference, too. Not unique to itself in that it has never existed elsewhere. But stamped all over its origins.

Back at the time when the church and the state were essentially one in the “old country,” Anabaptists and especially their leaders were persecuted, specifically, executed either by drowning, or being burned at the stake (or even racked, I read) by both Catholics and Lutherans. Yes, it was a different time, and this was the punishment then for “heretics.” The Anabaptists learned the wisdom of being explicit about their acceptance of the creeds of the church. But the hot button issue was their refusal to submit to the baptism of babies. All who lived in a nation then had to submit to that, at least for the most part. And the Anabaptists would not fit an exception to the rule.

The picture above is that of Dirk Willems, a Dutchman who escaped prison, but rescued the one chasing him who had fallen through ice, only to be tortured and executed. This epitomizes the heart of Anabaptism in the best sense of its tradition: Seeking to follow the way of Jesus come what may. As some like to say, not just the religion about Jesus, but the religion of Jesus. With an emphasis on the way of the cross, love for one’s enemies, love for all.

So I’m getting back to my roots: Mennonite. Yes, it’s not exactly the Mennonite I was raised in the first seventeen or so years of my life. But probably with more of an emphasis at being distinctly Anabaptist in a Sermon on the Mount kind of way especially with the distinctives of love for one’s enemies, and never resorting to violence. As well as seeking to be peacemakers. But minus the emphasis on rules of what was thought to be literal obedience to Scripture such as distinctive dress. And more, I’m sure. I have some catching up, and actual learning ahead.

Certainly on many things we are in agreement with the Church. That our salvation is through Jesus in his incarnation, life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension, and promised return. The promise of the kingdom of God in the new creation. Whatever tradition, through faith and baptism we are all one body in Christ. We’re in this together, in spite of what differences we have.

I’m thankful for my upbringing, and now would like to end there. In that expression within the full body of Christ. In and through Jesus.