It Starts And Ends With Intimacy

As a young Christian, one of my favorite worship songs was Maranatha’s version of “As the Deer.” It’s basically Psalm 42 put to simple music:

“As the deer panteth for the water,

So my soul longeth after Thee.

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship Thee.

You alone are my strength and shield

To you alone may my spirit yield.

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship Thee.”

I have cherished memories of being alone with God, playing the chords on a piano, and singing my heart to him.

Ever since meeting Jesus, he’s been my heart’s deepest desire. And that intimacy and longing has been the core of over 30 years of journeying with him. Now as a not-so-young Christian, the same intimacy for Jesus is the driving force in my life.

And while intimacy with Jesus launched my journey with him, I think it has matured into much more.

Recently, I read a short post by Bishop Todd Hunter describing the purpose of his parish, Holy Trinity Church. He wrote that Holy Trinity Church “is engaged in a straightforward and plain journey: we seek intimacy with Jesus and transformation into his likeness, becoming his cooperative friends… for the sake of others.”

That simple sentence captures the goal of intimacy with Jesus — a personal and communal vocation of spiritual formation into God’s royal priesthood for the sake of others. This is the calling of God’s people, His Body — to be a community of people gripped by deep intimacy with Jesus so that it transforms us into his likeness so we can be like him, live like him and work with him for the sake of everyone around us.

This is why the local parish exists. And all of its theology, liturgy, sacraments, programs, administration, and other aspects of its life must direct its members toward this singular goal — a transforming, loving, others-centered intimacy with Jesus.

But the vocation only makes sense when it’s first and foremost fueled by deep intimacy with Jesus. That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends. And that’s what gives everything in between its shape and meaning.

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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!

Life-Giving Liturgy

“The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” -St John of Kronstadt

gospel-book-2In my early years as a Christian, it was easy for me to dismiss liturgy as being ritualistic. Unfortunately, there are too many anecdotes that validated my belief. As I matured over the years, I observed two things. First, many who dismissed liturgy as ritualistic only replaced one form of liturgy with another, albeit a much simpler one. For example, at the Vineyard, we had an unspoken liturgy that we followed at virtually every service — 30-45 minutes of singing, announcements, sermon, altar call, and then prayer time. Similar liturgies were performed in other churches and denominations I attended.

The second thing I observed is that liturgy is truly life-giving. Within its well-thought movements, a community can commune with God. That’s because liturgy is a divine “drama,” an embodied story infused with God’s grace that is grounded in time and space and simultaneously spans across time and space.

Grounded within time and space, liturgy at its best, engages the entire person and community. As expressed in the quote above, God uses “everyday” tangible elements within the liturgy to transmit his presence to his worshippers. Simple things like bread, wine, oil, water, incense, and pictures combined with physical activities like crossing oneself, lighting a candle, and kissing an icon or the Gospel book join us with this grace-infused drama. Our entire being enters into worship and communion with God. And we experience this together as a community, young and old, carrying the entire spectrum of human thought, emotion and experience.

Transcending time and space, liturgy at its best, unites us with God’s family through the ages, generations who have come before and the generations who will come after. And it also unites us with our past younger worshipping selves as a child or young adult and with our future older worshipping selves. And ultimately, liturgy is a moment when God’s future New Creation manifests within the present creation. It’s when the “now and not yet” of God’s kingdom becomes tangibly more “now.” It’s that special moment that the Bible calls “kairos” when the New Creation manifests itself concretely within the fabric of history.

But all of this can be easily missed when one attends liturgy. Instead of flashing lights, one sees the flickering of candles. Instead of peals of thunders, one hears the quiet refrains of “Lord, have mercy.” Instead of a majestic vision of God’s throne room, one watches a humble priest praying for God’s people. Instead of saints glowing with glory, one sees normal people stretching their aching backs, fighting distraction, shuffling their tired feet, praying, bowing, crossing themselves, and eating bread and wine in reverence and devotion.

And through it all normal people receive Life as they commune with God, each other and all God’s worshippers through time and space.

Misguided Zeal

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. -Luke 9:51-55

This is another moment in a string of episodes demonstrating the inability of Jesus’ followers to truly understand the scope of his mission. Sometimes, I think we’re so quick to judge Peter for his many missteps, that we forget James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples, blundered as well.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for his ultimate demonstration of God’s love. Yet, two of his closest followers want to call down divine judgment upon a village because the villagers won’t welcome their entourage. You can almost hear the slap of Jesus’ palm on his forehead.

Warning PoleChristian history is replete with this type of misguided zeal. A serious problem occurs when protecting the fidelity of the Faith eclipses the actual values of the Faith. While we may not literally call down fire, we resort to other tactics. We’ll label ourselves and others so that it creates an “us” vs “them” dichotomy. We’ll denounce others who are not in our group while we exalt ourselves as being genuine Christians. We’ll resort to “straw man” tactics or compare our group’s best with their group’s worst.

Every group has its overzealous members.

When I was a young Christian in Calvary Chapel, I remember some speaking of Roman Catholics as adherents to dead ritual, implying that they weren’t really Christians. And they described mainline denominations as “liberal” with a similar insinuation.

During my short involvement with YWAM, the organization’s evangelism efforts were focused in middle eastern countries like Turkey. I remember hearing some stating that Eastern Orthodox Christians needed to be evangelized because their religion was dead.

As part of the Charismatic movement, other Christians were viewed as not having the Holy Spirit and being spiritually dead. I remember some stating about non-charismatic churches, “If God didn’t show up to their church on Sunday morning, no one would notice.”

When I was part of the Emergent/House Church movement, I heard some speaking suspiciously of professional pastors because they actually made a living from pastoring.

As part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I hear some using words like “heterodox” and “heretic” too easily to describe non-Orthodox forms of Christianity. Quite frankly, some of the Protestant-bashing I’ve heard in my limited experience in Orthodoxy is sickening.

I’m familiar with these incidents because, to my shame, I’ve participated in this misguided zeal.

It’s taken more time than necessary, but I’ve finally learned that Evangelicals have no more of a personal relationship with God than Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainline Christians. Nor are Charismatics any more Spirit-filled than their other siblings. House churches are no more genuine than their institutional counterparts. Eastern Orthodoxy is no more truer, enlightened or faithful than any other form of Christianity. Everyone needs to be evangelized with God’s Good News.

In the midst of all this zealous craziness, Jesus demonstrates God’s love for everyone by dying upon a cross. Three days later, he bursts from the grave to launch God’s New Creation for all.

I’m not saying everyone simply needs to embrace a wishy-washy undefined faith. Quite the opposite. Our faith must develop, mature and become well-defined. As such, distinctions will always exist. But the more mature our faith becomes, the more it should align with the actual values of the Faith — faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, holiness, compassion, humility, repentance… I think you get my point.

Jesus’ followers defend the faith by living the faith.

Part of living the faith means living in loving communion with all of Jesus followers — valuing each other and each other’s tradition so we can talk with and learn from each other.

Earlier this year, I wrote the following “classified ad” but never had the courage to post it on social media:

“Wanted: A small group of Christians who gather regularly with the sole agenda of becoming Jesus’ apprentices through spiritual formation. This group would welcome Jesus’ apprentices from all traditions — Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. It would not be affiliated with any organization nor would it replace anyone’s local church or parish. Rather, it would be a group of friends committed to learning with and from one another about how to follow Jesus. This group would discuss Scripture and supplemental writings, pray for one another, support one another and learn from each other’s traditions, theology and practices in the ultimate effort of becoming like Jesus for the sake of the world.”

I would love to be part of a community whose members are learning to carry the cross rather than calling down fire.

Struggling In Prayer

Unto My Words-sRGB“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there.” -Romans 15:30-31

I have to be honest. After being a Christian for over 30 years, prayer is still a mystery to me. There are certain aspects I understand. For example, I know prayer is relational conversation with God. And in that conversation, I pour out my heart, be it praise, thanksgiving, remorse, confession, desperation, or petition.

But prayer is also more than that. So there are other aspects of prayer that are shrouded in mystery for me, even after all these years. The passage in Romans is one of them. How does one “fight the battle” for another in prayer? Is this just dramatic imagery for simply praying for a person’s needs? Or is there something more?

Throughout my Christian life, I’ve participated in groups that had their particular answer to these questions. I’ve been in some prayer meetings where praying was spiritual warfare performed by audibly “binding and loosing” spiritual powers influencing situations.

I’ve been in groups where lists of requests were gathered and a small group would pray over the various needs.

I’ve been in groups where the participants would physically lay their hands on a person and wait for the Spirit to bring specific prayers and prophetic messages to mind.

I’ve also been in groups where prayer is quietly whispering a liturgical prayer and lighting a candle for a person, requesting God’s mercy and presence in their life.

I suspect Paul and the early Christians understood something that is often missing in our modern concept of prayer. Too often we see prayer as petitioning God and expecting an answer. What if that isn’t necessarily the prayer’s primary purpose. What if prayer is more like training — learning to wait on God, sense his leading, praying appropriately, then rinse and repeat.

In most Christian traditions, the “Lord’s Prayer” is the model for prayer. But Jesus wasn’t giving us categories or words to pray. He was showing us how to become “mobile Temples,” how to become God’s presence where heaven and earth are stitched together through love.

What if prayer is like working out on an exercise machine at the gym. In this example, we don’t do a few reps and expect to have fully developed muscles. It takes months or years of training to hone our muscles.

So perhaps prayer transcends mere petition and answer. Perhaps prayer is working out in cooperation with God so our interior life is reshaped and renewed into the place where heaven and earth are joined and then expressed naturally through our exterior life.

So what if Paul’s request is similar to Jesus’ model prayer. Surely he needs their prayers on his behalf. And immediate answers would be greatly appreciated. But he’s a pastor. He knows there are tensions between between Christians and non-Christians. And there are tensions between the Roman Church and the Jerusalem Church.

So perhaps, Paul’s request gives the Roman Christians the opportunity to continually pray for both “unbelievers” and “God’s people” in Jerusalem so they may train into God’s love toward these people.

One of my earliest memories as a child was learning to swim. Every week, my mom would take us to Ms. Christie’s house for lessons. I remember clutching the side of the pool. Ms. Christie stood in the water several feet away, beckoning me. I would let go of the side, struggling with each stroke to reach her. But she always seemed just out of reach. With every few inches I achieved, she would move away from me. When I felt I couldn’t go any further, I was suddenly in her safe and secure arms as she quickly closed the distance between us and grabbed me. Over and over, we would do this. And I learned to swim.

Perhaps that’s what prayer is like. Perhaps our needs or our loved one’s needs force us to struggle toward God. But in love, he always remains slightly out of reach. By doing so, he’s helping us to grow into love, into the embodiment of his New Creation. And just when it seems like all is lost, we’re in his safe and secure arms. Perhaps we don’t have the answer we desired. But we have his presence and the transformation he intended all along.

So if love is the embodiment of God’s New Creation, then prayer is the exercise that develops it in our lives.

Not Chosen By God

PassionsThe other day I was reading Acts 1:21-26. This is the episode when the Apostles replace the fallen Judas as one of The Twelve.

Twelve is not just a nice round number. Twelve Apostles are necessary to continue Jesus’ work. Jesus is restoring Israel, God’s people, around himself. As the twelve tribes followed God’s presence in the pillar of fire, the twelve Apostles followed God’s presence in Jesus. They are embodying God’s renewed plan for Israel, so twelve Apostles are absolutely necessary to move forward.

So after a vetting process, the eleven Apostles find two qualified men — Mathias and Justus. And with a cast of lots, God chooses Mathias… and doesn’t choose Justus.

And the story quickly moves on. But I can’t.

My thoughts keep returning to Justus. Who was this man? What did he think and feel to be one of the two finalists to join The Twelve, only to watch God choose the other man?

Scripture provides us very little. He was known by three names — Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus.

Church tradition fills in some biographical gaps. Justus was a son of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, from his first wife Salome. In other words, Justus was Jesus’ step-brother.

Now some people may be scratching their heads and asking, “Wait a minute. You’re saying Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, was married to someone else before Mary?” Yes. The image of a young Joseph and Mary depicted in our modern Christmas story is incorrect.

According to Church tradition, Joseph was previously married to Salome. They had four sons and two daughters before she died and left Joseph a widower. These are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the Gospels and include James (author of the Book of James), Jude (author of the Book of Jude), and Justus.

What about Mary?

Dedicated to God by her parents, Joachim and Anna, Mary grew up as a little girl in the Temple. Young women could not live in the Temple once they reached puberty. An elderly Joseph, now a widower, is selected by lots to become young Mary’s husband-caretaker. After birthing Jesus, Mary remains a virgin the entirety of her life. Joseph and Mary never had any children together.

So back to Justus.

Justus was among the original members of Jesus’ ministry. He was eventually chosen by Jesus to be among The Seventy, who were sent out as part of his ministry (Luke 10). Justus ultimately became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis and died a martyr. So we know that he faithfully served Jesus and his people his entire life.

Beyond the biographical information, Church tradition is as silent as Scripture regarding Justus’ thoughts and feelings at not being chosen by God.

At this point one can only speculate. I think it’s safe to assume that Justus was like any other person. So I wonder if he experienced disappointment, doubt or depression. What was going on in his head? One cannot be passed over by God without asking introspective questions. Was I not worthy enough? Did I do something wrong? Am I disqualified? Why him and not me? What now?

I also wonder if inactivity increased the volume of that inner voice. Jesus had instructed his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Father (Acts 1:4). And so they waited and prayed in the upper room. What did he feel when he saw Mathias now huddling with the other eleven Apostles? What were Justus’ prayers like? What was he saying to God? Was he repenting of envy over his friend’s new position? Was he praying for clarity over why he was passed over? Or was he praying for strength, safety and wisdom for his friend? From personal experience, I think his prayers were a mixture of everything.

Mere days later, God’s wind and fire would rest on Justus along with the other hundred-plus believers. In that moment, perhaps Justus’ thoughts and feelings of rejection are swept away in this amazing flurry of excitement and activity. Perhaps his questions are answered as he and the astounded community of believers realize they are now empowered to continue what Jesus had started. Regardless of position, there was new work to be done by all.

In a short reflection on Justus, NT Wright states, “Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.”

Knowing that Justus’ ultimate trajectory was to become Bishop and Martyr, I would like to think he quickly grasped that truth and found his fulfillment in whatever God placed before him. While God didn’t choose him to be one of The Twelve, he knew God had chosen him for service. And by embracing that vocation, he faithfully served God’s people and ultimately followed his Savior’s example, sacrificing his life in love.

And centuries later, Justus’ life still serves as a quiet example for all who feel they haven’t been chosen by God.

Father, some mornings I wake up wondering if I completely failed you and have been disqualified from your work. May Justus’ faithful life be an encouragement. There’s always work to be done in your kingdom. Keep my focus on that. And when necessary, remind me that whatever work you place before me, it is neither “great” nor “small”. It is work for which your Spirit has called and empowered me to do. May Justus remind me to be faithful to the end.

Being Before Behavior

Hands b&w-sRGB“A Christian is: a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.” -St Augustine

St Augustine’s quote is a beautiful expression of an incarnational life, a life that genuinely embodies Jesus so that he naturally lives through that person.

An incarnational life expresses itself in behaviors, habits, thoughts, attitudes and feelings that naturally reflect Christ. But it doesn’t originate there. The incarnational life first and foremost embodies Christ in our very being. The fancy theological word for this is “ontological.”

Fr Stephen Freeman has written an article on the ontological approach to understanding salvation that provides the proper context for discussing life in God. I would highly recommend reading his article. This ontological perspective is one of the primary theological perspectives that attracted me to Eastern Orthodoxy.

God is the only true Being. God gives us being and is the continual source of our being. His goal is for us to move toward “well-being” and ultimately to “eternal being” in communion with him.

Cluster of GrapesIn this light, right or wrong is either the path toward eternal being or non-being. Or to borrow Jesus’ imagery, it’s either remaining connected to the vine and naturally thriving or being cut off and naturally withering.

In contrast, the popular, yet distorted theology views right and wrong from a legal perspective of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment — behavior and consequence. Sin is seen as immoral behavior and death its punishment while salvation is viewed as obedience and living forever its reward.

But from an ontological perspective, life or death are not the reward or punishment of our behavior. Life and death are about our being. In this light, salvation defines life — salvation is life and life is salvation. And death defines sin — sin is death and death is sin.

So life is well-being and ultimately eternal being as one remains in communion with God, the Source of Being and Life. Death is sub-being and ultimately non-being as one severs communion with God.

This is the framework for understanding Christian life. The incarnational life, a life that naturally embodies Jesus, is first and foremost God’s life in our being that naturally expresses itself through my will, mind and body into my relationships and world. From this perspective, St Augustine’s vision of incarnational life is an expression of life and well-being and not only behavior.

Too often, the discussion of Christ’s likeness centers only on behavior. In other words, a person is considered to be like Christ if he or she avoids certain negative behaviors like drinking, smoking and lying and adhering to positive behaviors like feeding the poor, attending church, acting lovingly, and praying for people. From this perspective, I expend my energy modifying my behavior to adhere to a list of appropriate behaviors, usually determined by the specific faith community in which I live and associate.

But as good as that behavior might be, by itself it isn’t necessarily Christ’s likeness. Again, the incarnational life that naturally embodies Jesus is ontological. The core issue is being, not behavior. From our being, and thus our well-being and eternal being, springs behavior.

So I should expend my energy cooperating with God in the transformation of my being — to choose the ongoing path of life and well-being in intimate communion with God.