Archive for May 2013

God So Loved The Cosmos

This weekend, I am with Great Plains Yearly Meeting, who are gathering for their annual sessions in Wichita, Kansas. The theme of the gathering is ecological stewardship, and in our Bible study we are exploring Paul’s vision of cosmic restoration in Jesus Christ. Especially because many Christians still associate the environmental movement with New Age spiritualism, it is good for us to engage with the ample biblical witness that calls on us to care for God’s creation.

How could we ever have missed it? From start to finish, from Genesis to Revelation, God has consistently revealed that the wages of sin is death – not just for us, but for all life. We learn in the story of the Fall that humanity’s choice to turn away from God is directly connected with the twisting and destruction of the creation. Throughout the Old Testament God repeatedly reminds humanity that the earth belongs to him, and that we are merely tenants in the land. And in the Book of Revelation, we are warned that God will destroy those who destroy the earth!

God has so much more love than we usually imagine possible. Not only does God love each one of us, and all of humanity, with unceasing faithfulness; he loves the whole of his creation just as much! Sitting in Bible study today, the part of the Scripture that spoke most powerfully to me of this immense love was John 3:16. Yes, I know: This is the verse that men paint on their chests at football games. But seriously, look at it:

For God so loved the world [kosmos] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

In this verse, the word world is a translation of the Greek word kosmos. Kosmos means the whole of creation, including humanity, but not limited to it. It is this same creation that has been groaning in labor pains for the redemption that comes from God.

Jesus has come to bring healing and fullness to all things! He has come not just for our personal salvation, nor even for the redemption of human beings alone. As followers of Jesus – as children of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – we have the opportunity to share in Christ’s mission of cosmic restoration, speaking peace to the whole earth.

We can feel in our bones that something has gone terribly wrong, not just with our own human existence, but with the entire kosmos. Though it is painful to accept, deep down we know that we are responsible for this disorder, the social and ecological destruction that we have been witnessing for as long as there have been human beings and which in our generation is reaching even greater depths. We know that climate change, environmental degradation, war and disease are all results of our decision to turn away from God and insist on having our own way, on our own timetable.

We know this, both through the revelation given through Scripture and through Christ’s immediate guidance in our lives. We are without excuse. The question is, as it always has been: Will we turn back towards God and allow our lives to be transformed? Will we receive those things that make for peace, wholeness and reconciliation for all of creation? Will we look beyond ourselves and see the boundless love of our Creator, who longs to take us under his wings?

 

I Surrender All

Desire is endless. There are so many things in my life that I have wanted, yet when I obtained them, the satisfaction was fleeting, at best. So many times the thought has passed through my mind, If only I had this thing, I would be completely satisfied. How many times must that line of thinking prove to be untrue before I am able to completely root it out?

It would be easier if this cycle of desire and disappointment only applied to bad things. If this were so, I could focus on only desiring the good things, and then I could be satisfied. Instead, I have found that some of the most insidious temptations come clothed as angels of light. Even the things of God – the Bible, the Church, works of mercy and justice – can all too easily become idols. Anything that takes my eyes off of Jesus leads me astray, and that can include the very ministry that I believe he has given me to do!

It is easy to be deceived. When a person is addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography or ostentatious wealth, the problem – and its solution – is often clear: Get sober; stop watching; share your resources with others. But how about when my addiction is the approval of the church community, or the good feelings I get from feeding the hungry? What if the warm fuzzies I get from worship become a habit-forming dependency? How will I recognize when the good things in my life become a stumbling block in my walk of discipleship to Jesus?

For me, this is a matter of daily discernment. Rather than looking around at all those things I desire, all the good deeds I want to accomplish, I pray for the strength and humility to turn my heart to God in each moment: What would you have me do, Lord? How can I best embody your steadfast love and healing power? When I am truly present with him, awake to the beauty of the moment and the possibilities of love, I find the peace, joy and contentment I was looking for all along.

 

I Must Decrease

When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I was pretty miserable most of the time. For years, I flailed around in search of meaning and purpose for my life. I explored and studied, seeking to find meaning in some philosophy, political system, or great idea. I thought I was willing to sacrifice anything for the truth. Yet, throughout my experience of darkness, loss of meaning and despair, I never let go of the illusion that I was in control of my own destiny. The fortress of my life may have been burning down around me, but I was king of the castle!

When I made the decision to follow Jesus, I encountered a whole new kind of fire. I began to perceive that my choice to surrender my life to God would involve a kind of agony I had never allowed myself to experience before. Startlingly, when I told Jesus that he could have control over my life, he took me up on the offer!

One moment that drove this reality home for me was a conversation that I had shortly after committing to become a disciple. I had done something thoughtless. I was careless with the feelings of another person. I acted selfishly. And when they confronted me about how my actions had been hurtful, I wanted to shrug it off. It wasn’t such a big deal, really, I told myself.

Then came the words I’ll never forget: You talk so much about Jesus, yet you act this way!

At that moment I knew that I could never make excuses again for my own bad behavior. As those words hung in the air, I realized that my life was no longer my own. I now belonged to Jesus, and any silly, stupid, selfish thing I did to hurt another person reflected not just on my own character, but on his. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was capable of denying the resurrection through my own faithlessness.

Since that pivotal moment years ago, God has continued to reveal the darkness within that I don’t want to see. I am really good at fooling myself, at pretending that my motives are pure when in fact I am behaving selfishly. God reveals this, shining light in the dark places, showing me the ways in which my thoughts and actions betray Jesus.

This is a strange, humbling process. While I do have the sense that God is making progress with me, I am also regularly reminded that there is so much refinement yet to be done. I still hurt others through my self-centered words and actions; I am still a cracked and tarnished mirror who fails to reflect the full radiance of Jesus’ character.

Though at times transformation feels unbearable, I remain committed to the process. Just as John the Baptist explained, as Jesus continues to manifest his presence in my life, he must increase and I must decrease. The fulfillment of my life is to become a reflection of the radiant love, mercy and justice that we encounter in the face of Jesus. There are times when this does happen, and the joy and power this brings is inexpressible.

But, more often, I fail to live up to the full measure of Christ’s love. Far too frequently, I let my own self-centered desires get in the way of how God wants to use me. I can get so fixated on what I think should happen that I wear myself out trying to control the flow of living water. Why do I still sometimes resist being moved by the Spirit, allowing her to fill me and blow through me as she heals our people and restores the creation?

God, please forgive me for all the ways that my half-baked faith has served as a stumbling block for others. Jesus, please help those whom I meet to look past my own failings and to see who you are – to see the work that you are doing in my life, in spite of me. Holy Spirit, come and fill me with your refining fire. Burn down all the strongholds that distance me from the fears and pain of others. Let my life – with all its weakness and limitations – become an instrument of your loving, transforming, reconciling power.

 

A Gospel For Hungry People

This Sunday at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 10:1-24, the story of when Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples to go ahead of him into Samaria and share the good news: The kingdom of God has come near to you.

Jesus sends his followers out in utter vulnerability. He instructs them to take nothing with them for the journey – no money, no supplies, not even shoes! We know from the previous chapter that Samaria is not a safe place for the Jewish disciples. Rejection – possibly even violence – is a realistic expectation for these missionaries being sent into cross-cultural ministry. Jesus sends them out in pairs, so at least they have each other, but they’re basically defenseless.

As disciples of Jesus who find ourselves called to live in the midst of Empire, there is a great temptation to look for ways to protect ourselves. We live in a culture that is constantly retelling the story of domination: Money makes the world go ’round. Might makes right. You get what you deserve. It is an enormous challenge to remain open, to see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst. And even when we can see it, the way of peace that we find ourselves called into by Jesus is so intensely counter-cultural that we have to wonder: Does following Jesus mean becoming a social outcast?

If Luke’s story is any indication, walking with Jesus will not make us popular. Our society’s mainstream is defined by those in the center – those who possess the most money, social influence and intelligence. These are the somebodys who run governments, direct economies, lead educational institutions and program the computers. Most of us want to be these people – to feel important and respected by the culture we live in.

Yet as followers of Jesus, we are called to move away from the shiny, important center and instead to inhabit the margins of our society. Our God scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their thrones. He fills the poor with good things but sends the rich away empty. We follow the homeless Messiah who was born in a barn with animals and was rejected and murdered by all the important people of his day. We worship the God who pronounces woe to the rich, self-satisfied mockers who live at the center, but who announces blessing on the poor, hungry and those who mourn.

One of us at Capitol Hill Friends recently asked if our community is destined to be a fringe group, or whether there is a way for us to communicate the good news in a manner that appeals to the broader society. I think that this is a very good question, because there is a real tension about this in Scripture.

On the one hand, Jesus says clearly that his way is a narrow path that few will choose to walk in. Jesus models a hard-core prophetic ministry that few of us have the stomach for. On the other hand, Jesus calls us to share the good news with the whole world. He commands us to make disciples of all nations and to invite others to participate in the community that the Holy Spirit gathers in his name. So, which is it? Is the kingdom for a few, or for many?

The upside-down kingdom of Jesus is hard for a lot of folks to accept, especially those of us who who identify more with the prestigious center of our culture. Yet, despite the barriers that hold us back from accepting Jesus’ counter-cultural message, all things are possible with God. Even in the face of our natural tendency to shy away from his disorienting challenge, the Holy Spirit is working on our hearts and changing our lives.

As a community gathered around the radical teaching of Jesus, is Capitol Hill Friends ever going to be mainstream? From the perspective of the prestigious center, the answer is clearly no! As friends of the crucified Messiah, we are called into the margins and abandoned places where Jesus heals the sick, casts out demons and teaches the people. As followers in his way of gospel nonviolence, we are inevitably led to join him outside the gates of the city.

As friends of Jesus, we will necessarily be marginal from the perspective of the big shots in our society. Many respectable, mainstream people will consider us fringe. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we cannot have a big impact. The early Church in Jerusalem was a group on the margins – and it was also a thriving community of many thousands of people!

Then again, numerical growth is out of the question for a radical group like ours if we choose to play into the narrative of the mainstream culture. The good news of Jesus usually doesn’t sound very appealing to those in the center. But, to those on the margins, it is a breath of fresh air! How can we take this message to those who are ready to hear it?

We encounter hungry people everywhere we go. In every neighborhood and workplace, in every classroom and restaurant, there are those who are aching for the love, justice and power that Jesus offers us. Are we awake to it? How can we become more attentive to the signs of spiritual hunger and curiosity in those that we meet? How can we demonstrate the inexplicable love of Jesus to those around us, inviting them to come and see? What would it look like for us to get out of our comfort zone and take the good news to those who are ready to receive it?

 

Do You Believe?

I belong to a faith tradition that highly values action. Drawing on the broad witness of Scripture, Quakers are convinced that the sign of true faith is that it is lived out in daily life. Reciting a creed, affirming a statement of faith, or even reading the Bible, is no guarantee of faithfulness. We can say, “Lord, Lord,” all we want – but if our lives do not demonstrate the content of our faith, our words ring hollow.

For many of us, this begs the question: What is the point of having shared beliefs at all? If the whole point of the gospel is right action, could it be that intellectual beliefs are superfluous at best – and, at worst, even harmful? In a world with numerous competing belief systems, holding firmly to a particular set of beliefs – for example, about who Jesus is – might seem exclusive or narrow-minded. In this environment, why not just focus on loving others as best we can, without all the barriers that belief often seems to present?

This is a fair question. For far too long, most of the Christian community has put overwhelming emphasis on intellectual assent to propositional statements. We have often cared more about whether members of our community believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, or have prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, than about ensuring that our lives demonstrate the radiant character of our holy, loving and just God. Too often, our theological systems and narrow definitions become more important than practical efforts for justice, mercy and reconciliation.

In spite of all this, I am convinced that shared beliefs are important, both for the individual disciple and for our communities. While we have often over-emphasized the intellectual component of our faith, having a shared set of understandings about who God is, and who we are called to be, is deeply important. As we come together as one body, it is vital that we have a shared understanding of the shared mission that the Holy Spirit is calling us to.

Speaking of one body, let’s consider the role of belief in a marriage relationship. A married couple does not have to share identical beliefs on every subject. For example, one spouse may have different ideas about aesthetics for their home, the best way to spend money, or the food they like to eat. In all of these things, communication is required and compromise is often necessary, but these differences in belief are not necessarily deal-breakers. A major part of deciding whether or not to get married in the first place is to determine if there are any differences in belief or lifestyle that would make the marriage simply unworkable!

There are matters of belief that are so important that the marriage simply cannot function without agreement. For example, a shared understanding about what constitutes marital fidelity is crucial for the success of the relationship. If both partners believe that their only romantic involvement should be with their spouse, things are much more likely to go well for the couple. But if one does believe this and the other one doesn’t – watch out!

Our life as a community gathered in Jesus shares a similar dynamic. When it comes to the core assumptions of the community, shared belief can make the difference between united action and muddled confusion – or even division. What is the content and character of the gospel that we have experienced and are called to share? Who are we called to serve? What is our mission and mandate as a community, and how does each individual’s unique gifts fit in? The process of faithfully answering – and acting upon – these questions builds a shared understanding of our faith.

For those of us who are a part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, we have agreed to a small set of shared commitments that help us to frame our life together as friends and disciples of Jesus Christ. This brief document contains elements of both belief and action, each informing the other as we grow together and listen for God’s living teaching. We accept that this short statement of commitment is not perfect; words are incapable of entirely capturing our experience of God’s love. Nevertheless, it helps us stay centered on the life that Jesus calls us to live, and on the work that he calls us to do.

What is your experience of the dynamic between belief and action? How does one inform the other? What impact does it make on our shared life when both are brought together?

Eyes To See

Human beings are amazingly imaginative, inventive creatures, and nowhere do we demonstrate more creativity than in our quest to impose a sense of meaning, order and control over our lives. We eagerly develop worldviews that help us understand our existence, seeing the world through our assumptions and systems of meaning.

Some of our ways of perceiving the world are helpful; others are harmful. But all of our worldviews have the potential to become destructive when we make the mistake of placing them at the center, in the place of God. Rather than allowing our worldviews serve as a lens that makes it easier for us to see what the Spirit is doing the world, we often begin to worship the lens itself. We begin to assign ultimate meaning to the eye rather than to the light that allows us to see.

One of the most powerful worldviews we find ourselves enmeshed in today is that of the money economy. Even 2,000 years ago, Jesus taught of the dangers of pursuing and accumulating wealth. The lure of wealth, power and security is immense, yet Jesus warns: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

At another time, Jesus declares: It is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Quite understandably, his disciples were greatly astonished and asked Jesus:Who then can be saved?

Jesus’ answer is worth chewing on: With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. When left to our own devices, our eyes are inevitably darkened by the worries of this world and the deceitfulness of riches, by all the ways in which we seek to protect ourselves and make sure that we come out on top. Self-preservation and self-centeredness are hard-wired into us at the deepest levels. Our vision is often darkened by short-sighted, selfish motivations – whether consciously acknowledged or not.

Jesus teaches us that the eye is the lamp of the body. If our eyes are healthy our whole body will be full of light. Unhealthy eyes, though, fill the body with darkness! The only way for us to see anything clearly is to look past the eye of our own understanding and see the light of what he is doing in the world. When our eyes look up at him, rather than down at all the conflicting demands of our lives, Christ will fill our whole bodies with light and set us on a straight path.

It is by watching Jesus, keeping our eyes set on his living presence and activity in the world, that we are able to walk with confidence through the many challenges of life. And when our sight is focused on him, our lives will grow to bless those around us, reflecting his radiance to fill the eyes of others.

We live in a world that works 24/7 to devise distractions to capture our attention, drawing us away from the light that Christ shines on us. How can we awaken from this gloomy way of life, instead making the self-giving love of Jesus our reference point? In a world that is obsessed with consumption, social status and financial advancement, how can we keep our eyes fixed on the one who created everything for a greater purpose? What kind of power would be released if we could truly perceive the power of him who provides for the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and all living things? What will it take to open our eyes?

Are You Lonely?

I recently read a post by Suzannah Paul, in which she reflects on her own experience of living in a culture of isolation. She describes the present era as one in which our common experience is intense loneliness, where genuine community seems always out of reach. Of course, most of us have become quite adept at hiding our anguish. Judging by photos on Facebook, one would imagine that almost everyone has dazzling social lives! The illusion that everyone else is doing great only intensifies the alienation we feel. Paul writes:

I suspect that there’s more of us [lonely, isolated folks] than we realize. Digital connection bridges some divides while camouflaging–and widening–others. Is loneliness the ironic, invisible thread connecting so many?

In my city, we are constantly surrounded by people, and yet the social emptiness can be almost palpable. Most of us self-medicate, in one way or another – typically with a burnout-enducing cycle of overwork and substance abuse. It doesn’t help that many DC residents are transient professionals who expect to be in the region for only a few years. Why bother putting down roots if they’ll all be ripped up the next time you switch jobs?

Suzannah Paul’s description of kids in her youth group sounds pretty familiar:

Getting [them] to come to stuff is harder than it used to be… They keep their options open, never committing; they’re averse to taking social risks.

In our city, social interactions are often transactional; even our friendships can come to feel like thinly veiled commerce. At the end of the day, what does it matter whether we are trading in money, influence, pleasure, or even the illusion of genuine care and friendship? Business is business. There will be time for real friends after the next move – right?

In a society where so often we are judged by our résumés, productivity, and reputation, unconditional love is unspeakably precious. Our hearts yearn for an experience of the economy of love that real community makes possible. Yet, this kind of love is impossible as long as we stay locked into the race for personal excellence. So long as we are held captive to the fear of missing out – of being left behind – we will never be able to truly meet one another. Real friendship is impossible as long as we relate to others as obstacles to be overcome or resources to be marshaled on the way to success. Could we discover a way life that is less about winning and more about giving?

I believe that answering this question – not just with words, but with lives of love, presence and generosity – lies at the heart of our mission as a community gathered in Jesus. How can we be truly present to those around us? What would it look like to step off of the success treadmill and embrace a life of service to others? How can we become agents of the kingdom where loneliness will be no more?

If we are to live fully into these questions, we will be forced to accept that we can no longer keep our options open. To live in love means to embrace limitation, to be made vulnerable, to take risks. Suzannah Paul writes that everyone long[s] for someone to reach back. Rather than waiting for others to reach out first, what if God is calling us to preemptively engage others with love and presence? What if, instead of looking to have our own loneliness cured, we focused on speaking to that same loneliness in the heart of another?

When we live into this kind of love and presence for others, we can be sure that we will no longer be alone: Christ will be in the midst with us.