God Has You Right Where He Wants You

“Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus.” -Ephesians 2:7, The Message

This morning I was reading Ephesians in Eugene Peterson’s, The Message, and I came across the verse quoted above.

Ephesians is one of my favorite New Testament letters for many reasons. But one reason is that it reveals how to thrive in God’s kingdom.

Oftentimes, we associate God having us right where he wants us so he can punish us or worse. We still struggle with a perception of God as an angry, wrathful, violent God who punishes our moral transgressions.

But that is not the God revealed in Jesus.

Jesus operated from a completely different framework. God was his loving “abba” Father. God was the world’s creator, lover and redeemer. God was the faithful rescuer of humanity and the world, willing to plunge to the deepest depths to restore his world.

And Jesus fully embodied this abundantly loving, compassionate, caring, healing, restoring, merciful God. As Hebrew 1:3 states, “He is the shining reflection of God’s own glory, the precise expression of his own very being.”

So when God finally gets us where he wants us, it’s to lavish us with his love. And God is using all the time in this age and the next to accomplish this.

This is the framework from which we must retrain our thinking regarding God. He is not an angry, vengeful God. He is the one, according to just the introductory verses of Ephesians, who blessed us, chose us, adopted us, redeemed us, revealed his plans to us, sealed us by his Spirit, and seated us with Jesus in the heavenly realms.

And Paul continues to pray that our very core is opened to this reality of God so that we may live and operate from it (Ephesians 1:17-23). For this is key to our flourishing in God’s world and being the ongoing voice, action and presence of Jesus as his Body.

Happy 23rd Birthday, Cathy!

 

Twenty-three years ago, and with dramatic flair, my oldest daughter, Cathy, entered this world and our lives. And she has brought such incredible joy and love to us. She has grown from a fiery baby to an intelligent, thoughtful, courageous, beautiful, strong, humorous, independent, creative and dare I say sassy young woman. She has a heart as big as the sun and loves deeply God, people and his creation. I am very privileged to be her dad and her friend and I am so very proud of her. Happy Birthday, Sweetie! I love you very much!

Betrayed By Jesus

“Give me a freakin’ break! I trusted him! I followed him! I left everything! He was supposed to be Israel’s king. And he went and got himself killed like all the other “messiahs” before him. Now you’re telling me that he’s alive? Give me a break!

“I know, Thomas. It sounds crazy. But we were there. We saw him.”

“I’m tired of this. Not again. I’ll tell you what. Unless I can see and touch his wounds, I mean actually shoving my hand in his side, I’m done trusting.”

I know I’ve taken some liberty and have embellished the biblical dialogue. But I want to highlight what I perceive to be the raw emotions in Thomas’ words.

Too often, our modern, rationalistic culture is projected onto Thomas as though he demanded scientific empirical proof. That’s unfortunate, because I think that perspective misses the point of Thomas’ experience. I believe he felt betrayed by Jesus. And roiling inside of him was pain, anger, hurt, fear, shame, and a whirlwind of other dark emotions that accompany betrayal.

Jesus claimed to be the Christ and Son of God — the King of Israel who was anointed by Israel’s God to vanquish the Roman occupiers, to restore the presence of Israel’s God in their Temple, and to make Israel great again. Jesus had convinced Thomas by his words, his deeds and his very presence to follow him. Sure, there had been would-be messiahs before. But Jesus actually seemed to be the one capable of succeeding where everyone else had failed.

Recently, though, Jesus seemed to be on a suicide mission. Thomas had told the group just before visiting Lazarus’ grave that if they went with Jesus, they would die with him. Jesus seemed intent to return to the places that wanted to kill him. Going publicly into these areas without any type of military force or strategy was simply tempting fate. Jesus had been lucky so far. But Thomas knew how things worked. Sooner or later, Jesus’ luck would run out and he and his followers would be captured and killed like all the other would-be messiahs before them.

What was Jesus thinking? How could he risk everything he had been building the past few years? How could Jesus be so cavalier with his and his followers’ lives? Sure enough, Jesus’ luck ran out. This past week he pushed too hard, too often. He got himself killed. The movement came to a crashing halt at the foot of a Roman cross. And now his followers, including Thomas, were at risk. The authorities would hunt them down and do the same to them.

It’s my opinion that Thomas’ statement was not unbelief. If he truly didn’t believe, I think he would have hightailed it out of Jerusalem under the cover of darkness soon after Jesus’ death. If he no longer believed, why did he stay with the threat of such peril?

I believe it’s because Thomas’ faith was crippled, not destroyed. And his proclamation about seeing and touching Jesus’ wounds was the mingling of betrayal’s pain and hope’s yearning.

And a week later, Thomas is still with the other disciples.

Much like the paralyzed man who had relied on his friends to carry him, to rip apart the roof, and to lower him at the feet of Jesus, Thomas needed his friends. Like true friends, they carried a crippled Thomas and tore down the roof of betrayal’s pain and lowered him to Jesus’ presence.

And there Jesus met and healed Thomas.

And Thomas’ faith surges.

“My Lord!” Thomas’ faith extends to where it was before. Jesus IS Israel’s king. And “My Lord” is how you would address your king.

“My God!” Thomas’ faith launches into new uncharted territory. No self-respecting Jewish man would ever associate divinity to a human being. We must remember that even the title “Son of God” was a Jewish term for Israel’s human king. It’s normal use never associated divinity to its bearer.

Yet, in that healing moment between Jesus and Thomas, Thomas’ faith expands to a place no one else has yet contemplated. Jesus is Israel’s King. And somehow, Jesus is also Israel’s God.

And with Thomas’ remarkable declaration, the Gospel-writer, leads his readers to a startling conclusion. John’s Gospel has revealed a New Creation, a New Temple and a New People of God. And he uses Thomas’ declaration as a rhetorical exclamation mark to highlight that these new realities of God’s New World require a New Faith — a faith exclaimed by a man at his lowest and darkest point, ravaged by feelings of betrayal, anger and fear.

My Lord and My God!

Training To Bless

For the last several weeks, the global Christian Church has been engaged in Lent. During this time, we focus on three primary spiritual disciplines that, when practiced properly, can train us into our vocation as God’s royal priesthood. The three spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting and giving.

As we’ve seen previously, prayer is our primary form of standing in the overlap between heaven and earth. As God’s image-bearers and royal priests, we are embedded within the world that God loves and that groans in travail as a woman about to give birth to new life. And embedded in us is the Holy Spirit, who is in turn interceding with wordless groaning. And between the two, we live and groan. We groan in empathy to the world’s pain and in cooperation with the Spirit’s intercession. Our groaning is the place where pain is transformed into prayer. Like Jesus on the cross, we too are suspended between the dimensions of heaven and earth, absorbing and transforming the world’s groans of pain into the groans of prayer so God’s New Creation may be born from the old.

So during Lent, spend a little bit of time each day talking with God about the world around you. Take a ten-minute break each day to take a walk or to sit down on a bench and pray for the people you see. Pray for God’s blessings upon your part of his world. You can also adapt the content of one of Paul’s powerful prayers into your context:

“I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of King Jesus our Lord, the father of glory, would give you, in your spirit, the gift of being wise, of seeing things people can’t normally see, because you are coming to know him and to have the eyes of your inmost self opened to God’s light. Then you will know exactly what the hope is that goes with God’s call; you will know the wealth of the glory of his inheritance in his holy people; and you will know the outstanding greatness of his power towards us who are loyal to him in faith, according to the working of his strength and power. This was the power at work in the king when God raised him from the dead and sat him at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and above every name that gets itself talked about, both in the present age and also in the age to come.”

The second spiritual discipline is fasting. Traditionally, the Christian Church fasts from meat and dairy during Lent. You may hear Christians discuss what they’re “giving up” for Lent. However, Lent is about self-denial, not giving up something. And there’s a big difference between the two.

“Giving up something” can easily play into our culture’s narcissism. The focus still remains on myself. I’m giving up chocolate, or I’m giving up meat, or I’m giving up social media. But self-denial is learning to shift the focus off of myself in preparation for something greater.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice there are three components of being Jesus’ apprentices, of which self-denial is the first. Fasting, when correctly practiced, cooperates with the Holy Spirit in learning how to not focus on yourself by learning to ignore your impulses and appetites. Those impulses and appetites may be natural and good. But learning to abstain from them shifts our natural and automatic inclinations to care for ourselves to something better — carrying our cross and following Jesus.

This leads to the third spiritual discipline — giving. Or as Jesus states, taking up your cross and following me. As we learn how to pray — groaning in the painful overlap between heaven and earth — and how to fast — denying our natural impulses and appetites — we can learn how to give as Jesus gives. Giving is the essence of the cross — self-sacrificial love for the good of others. It is the heart of the royal priest that embodies his or her King — the Lion of Judah who has overcome as the slain sacrificial Lamb.

The spiritual discipline of giving can be practiced by giving away money, time, resources and words. But inherent to this spiritual discipline is learning to intentionally make space within my life to give. This is why self-denial is so important. We have to learn to not automatically respond to our own agendas and appetites in order to make the appropriate space for others in our lives.

So while the spiritual discipline of giving will involve giving money and resources to your local church or to someone in need, it should far exceed it. Giving is blessing, a primary task of God’s royal priesthood. Ultimately, giving is embodying the aforementioned spiritual disciplines so our very lives begin to naturally reflect God’s care and love into our world. It involves, but far exceeds, acts of mercy and charity. It’s a life that blesses by being and living. It’s a life that flows from our core and expresses itself in our attitude, our facial expressions, our posture, and then into our interactions with others. And when appropriate, it’s a life that offers money, time, resources, and counsel in order to express God’s loving care to the world.

I’m learning the hard way that I cannot give or bless if my default reaction to people or situations is anger, anxiety, fear, suspicion, jealousy, retaliation, shame, sarcasm, apathy, or the many other defensive and offensive modes I naturally evoke to ward off the world and protect myself.

And that’s why the spiritual disciplines are so essential. While we may be able to muster moments of prayer, fasting and giving, it’s almost impossible to embody this life, Jesus’ life, without spending time training with God’s Spirit through the disciplines. In this way, training leads to transformation. And cooperating with his Spirit, we become by grace what Christ is by nature for the sake of this world.

Cosmic First Responders

I ended the last post by stating that the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all. What does that mean? What does that look like?

rescueThe other day I heard Bishop Todd Hunter describe followers of Jesus as “God’s cosmic first-responders.” I really like that image. Those who follow Jesus are being formed in his virtues and trained in his vocation so that they can rush into the places of the world’s pain in order to bring God’s comfort, restoration and healing. This is what it means to be God’s blessing.

This is also a great image of Romans 8, which we have explored in previous posts. Like a set of Russian stacking dolls, God’s Spirit is in us and we are in the world. In this “middle position” suspended between heaven and earth (remember that Romans 8 is an image of the cross), we echo the world’s anguished groans with our own travail. And God’s Spirit groans within us with intercession. We become the place where heaven and earth meet. We become the place where the world’s anguished cries are shaped and transformed by the Spirit’s anguished intercession into real human prayer through us.

So what does this look like? I believe Paul’s imagery in Romans 8 finds real-world expression in his short letter to Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon, a partner in Paul’s ministry, about Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave who ran away from Philemon’s household. After his escape, he somehow meets Paul and is ultimately converted to follow Christ.

Paul stands between these two men, embodying God’s gospel of reconciliation. He brings together two men — master and slave —  and offers his own livelihood to cover any loss so that they might be reconciled and restored.

“So, anyway, if you reckon me a partner in your work, receive him as though he was me. And if he’s wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, put that down on my account. This is me, Paul, writing with my own hand: I’ll pay you back (and far be it from me to remind you that you owe me your own very self!).” -Philemon 17-19

This is Romans 8 in action — self-sacrifice in order to bring about healing, restoration and unity.

In fact, I would venture to say that unity among Christ’s followers is perhaps Paul’s greatest real-world expression of the Gospel. Unity is “proof” that the Gospel is real. Think about how much Paul talks about unity throughout his letters. It’s both a central theological and practical theme in all of his writings.

For example, Paul states in Colossians 1:27, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I believe the popular reading of this verse is misleading — Christ in me is the hope of my glory. Rather, the “you” is plural. And glory is God’s restorative reign on the earth, through his human image-bearers. So Colossians 1:27 is more likely to mean, “Christ in all of you in unified community is the hope of God’s full restorative and healing reign upon the creation, which will be through his unified image-bearers.” Simply put, Christ-indwelt unity among Jesus’ apprentices is the sign and hope of God’s fulfilled New Creation, which will ultimately be implemented through Jesus’ apprentices.

If that’s the case, then the Church’s role of being God’s blessing means to embed ourselves in the pain and anguish of disunity and division in an effort of embodying God’s love and reconciliation. Like an EMT specifically equipped to intervene in tragedy with life-giving care and skill, Jesus’ followers must be formed in theological imagination, character, and skills in order to help birth God’s New Creation from the pain of the old through love and reconciliation.

We’re not talking about a mushy “Can’t we all just get along?” bandaid approach. That won’t bring healing in the midst of abuse, racism, poverty, suspicion, entitlement, narcissism, consumerism and the many other forms of injustice that divide and enslave.

And if Paul’s example to Philemon provides any indication, the primary character and skill needed is sacrificial love — love for both parties that lays down one’s life and livelihood to help them reconcile.

I’m astounded at Paul’s approach with these men. He reminds them to follow Christ. He reminds them of his love for both of them. He reminds them of their value to each other. He reminds them that their relationship in Abraham’s family supersedes any societal relationships. And he offers himself as the bridge between both to make reconciliation impossible to ignore.

Sometimes Paul is critiqued by modern readers for not confronting societal injustice such as slavery or women’s rights. But in this letter, he is doing just that in a very subversive way. By encouraging Philemon to reconcile and receive Onesimus back as a brother rather than a slave, Paul is undermining the master-slave structure so central to Roman society. That’s because true unity and love in people’s lives have more Gospel power and transformation than shouting at a structural juggernaut.

So we need to ask ourselves, what is needed to bring understanding, love, care, compassion and unity to divided people and relationships? What is needed between those of different values, sexual orientation, political ideologies, religious beliefs, cultures and other polarizing factors?

Just from personal observations, our society seems more polarized than ever. Social media has become the monkey cage at the zoo, each person zealously flinging their own verbal poo at each other in an attempt to out-shout and out-shame those who disagree. Very few are willing to talk, listen and understand those who hold different values and beliefs.

But Jesus’ followers must be different. We must embed ourselves into real relationships. And with formed character and trained skill, we must work at bringing unity and reconciliation, whether between two people or two groups or two countries depending on one’s level of influence.

This is dirty and painful work. Remember, we’re embedded in a world that is groaning in travail. The world’s pain will be our pain and we will echo their groaning with our own. That’s part of the redemptive transformative work of the New Creation. Like Jesus’ New Creation work on the cross, we too will bear the world’s pain, anguish and wounds. The work of the cross will always bear the wounds of the cross. There’s no avoiding it.

New Creation Communities

waiting-with-candles-srgbOne of the consequences of the over-simplified biblical story is the distortion it creates regarding Christian community. If the story that is told and retold is “Jesus died so that God would forgive my sins so I can go to heaven when I die,” then the Christian community is virtually stripped of its true biblical purpose. The simplified story only addresses conversion and after-life, leaving an “awkward middle” between baptism and grave.

When paired with our consumerist and narcissistic culture, Christians become “consumers of religious goods,” to borrow a popular phrase from Dallas Willard. And our local churches quickly alter their true purpose to fulfill the perceived need.

When I left professional ministry in 2003, I wrote a rather scathing and non-nuanced critique of this phenomenon called “Detoxing from church.” While I would probably say things differently today, I still believe the critique stands. The shrunken popular story contributes to the average Christian viewing the local church as they would a supermarket or restaurant — shopping for programs and services that “meet their needs.”

In contrast the full biblical story as we have been exploring compels Christians to form communities as we see in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus has faithfully fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and thereby rescuing the nations into the renewed Abrahamic family and their vocation as God’s royal priests within his inaugurated New Creation. The early Christians understood that through Jesus, God had rescued them into a family and that family’s business. They were part of a community with a vocational purpose.

The local church is to be a colony of God’s New Creation. Remember that Paul states in 2Cor 5:17 that if anyone is in the Messiah, that person is the New Creation. So the local church’s members share their lives — the meaning of koinonia or “fellowship” — as both the benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation in the world. They live together with the singular purpose of LEARNING to be like Christ in order to actually BE Christ together in community and in the world.

This purpose should then shape the church’s practices. The local church should be a community of worship, key to the biblical human vocation of God’s image-bearers. It should be a community of sacrament, experiencing God’s presence and grace in special ways. It should be a community of apprenticeship to Jesus, learning from him how to be like him in both virtue and vocation. It should be a community of vision, telling and retelling the biblical story so that the community is continually renewed in this counter-cultural vision of God’s kingdom. It should be a community of unity, where all human sociological boundaries are eclipsed by membership in God’s covenantal family. It should be a community trained to rush into the places of the world’s pain as both the prayer and presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

And all of the church’s practices should be in the life and power of the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ presence in every individual member of the community. The Spirit is the animating force of all the church’s work toward God’s New Creation.

The natural outflowing of the local community’s life should be a community of royal priests, bearing God’s image into the world for the sake of the world. This outflowing of the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all.

Slowing Down

I look forward to my weekends. And for me, this photo summarizes one of the reasons why. On Saturdays and Sundays mornings, I try to make time to walk and take photos. Like everyone, all week I’m rushing and working. But for an hour or so on the weekends, I slow down, look around, and try to see things I normally wouldn’t notice.

This photo is an example. As I walked through a local park I saw a discarded softball in an empty field, a leftover abandoned after a team practice. I don’t know how long it lay there or who else noticed it. But there was something tranquil and poignant about this scene. So I kneeled down on the red dirt and snapped a couple of images.

The next morning, a softball team was practicing on the field. The ball was gone, probably thrown into a trashcan, forever forgotten. But life moved onward.

I get it. It’s just a softball. But this photo reminds me that I had the privilege of seeing a small part of God’s creation in a way that maybe no one else on this planet did. And I just didn’t see it. I got to get my knees dirty and enter and engage that special moment in order to capture it, to memorialize it.

I think part of our role as God’s image-bearers is to notice. We have to first notice in order to care, love and bless.

Dallas Willard once said, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life, for hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our world today.” It’s almost impossible to be God’s image-bearers without noticing. And it’s almost impossible to notice without removing hurry from our lives.

Photography reminds me to slow down and look. It reminds me that there is far more to life than my worries, my struggles, my dreams, my agenda. There are moments and lives into which I can enter if only I slow down and notice.