21 January 2015

discipleship and the experience of god

A friend of mine serves as a military chaplain, and has found himself in some harrowing situations as a minister of the gospel. Having surveyed the eyes of young men and women, many the furthest they've ever been from home, he concluded about his work: My mission is to prepare men and women to die. Some might say that is rather stark but, in a very real sense, there is truth in his words. I wondered how true that it is for any who would work in the field of ministry. Then, as I am prone to do, I thought about the inverse – what if it is our role to prepare men and women to live? Perhaps we will uncover other aspects of our role by examining from that direction.

These two assertions demonstrate two real pieces of Christian mission. The whole, however, must be located within the context of discipleship – Great Commission stuff, making disciples of all nations. One of the challenges this has presented to the church throughout the years is defining discipleship – what parameters are contained, and what work does it entail? The two perspectives listed above – that we prepare people to die, that we prepare people to live – are simply aspects of a larger story and mission. Discipleship is primarily about preparing men and women for an experience of God, and this is an important reality for the church to consider.

Scripture has many eschatological metaphors and images, but only two fates for humanity regardless: some will be granted eternal life and some will face eternal destruction. It's that simple, and repeatedly so. But the end of all things is centered around the return of Christ and the coming of God to his creation – the restoration of heaven and earth to what it was always supposed to be. So, we can rightly say that the world is heading towards an experience of God. Which then means that the work of discipleship is to prepare men and women for an experience of God.

If we take the exodus event seriously, then we ought to notice that what happens is because of a direct encounter with the divine presence. "On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD" (Exodus 12:12). Although it is often casually commonplace to think that the Passover was the moment when some sort of angel-of-death goes through Egypt, but the biblical account knows no such entity. In reality, it is the presence of God himself that goes through the land – holiness meeting with unholiness, bringing destruction on that which is impure (at least, in a limited sense to the firstborn in this instance). The same presence which destroyed evil brings release to the children of God – if they have the blood over their homes.

The same theme runs throughout Scripture, and is true of our lives as well. We are all heading towards an experience of God which will either destroy us or give us life. This should give shape to the work of discipleship if the church is to be serious about preparing men and women for an experience of God. There are two levels at which this works:

First, discipleship is about making Christ known. When speaking of Jesus it is necessary to give a complete picture. This means that we must include the parts that are difficult to explain, that are hard to live with, and which are almost offensive. Although every culture would seek to wish certain aspects of Jesus away, we must encounter him as he is found in the Gospels, despite our own desires and sensitivities. He speaks not only of love and forgiveness, but of judgment and consequence. He comes with a challenge and a message that is life-giving, and life-demanding at the same time. We cannot make disciples of Jesus if we do not present the Jesus of the Gospels. The commitment of faith is the first step in following Christ.

Second, discipleship is about moving individuals towards Christlikeness. Every person exists in relationship to the Cross of Christ, and the main objective of discipleship is to move individuals closer to the cross. I doubt that an adequate definition of discipleship can be any more precise than that. This will allow for grace and salvation to work together as well, for what may be a significant move for one person might not be a fruitful step for another.

I once spoke with a woman who worked with at-risk youth, spending a great amount of time with girls who were in poor socio-economic and familial situations. Having built up a relationship with one particular girl for some time, the youth worker challenged her on some promiscuous activity. After some time went by, the girl returned and said that, because of her relationship with Jesus, she had decided that she would only have sex with one person, if they were truly in love. Although many would think that this wasn't much of a commitment, for her it was a breakthrough in her spiritual journey. And discipleship happened ... because of a commitment to Christ she moved towards Christlikeness.

This is the faith and fruit of discipleship – to know Christ and to be shaped into his presence with each new day. In this way we relive the exodus narrative with each life – being protected from destruction, delivered into a new freedom, and then shaped into the people of God. We will move through deserts and stop at mountains of God, growing and failing along the way. Before us is the promised land of a new heavens and earth, and the presence of Almighty God. To this end we make disciples of Jesus, the Lamb who makes the story possible.

06 December 2014

nativity: 8

Signs and Salvation.

One particular thread of this story takes its shape, as many stories do, a long time ago in a far and distant land. Although we cannot always go all the way to the very beginnings of this grand story, we do need to look back a long way in order to capture the true meaning of what has been passed on to us today. This piece calls us to step into the ancient city of Jerusalem – a long time before Christ was born.

Here we find the king of the southern nation of Judah, standing alone against the impending armies of Assyria. They had already poured over the nation's borders, but were yet unable to take the city of Jerusalem. Surrounding Zion, it stood there as a stronghold, kept by the promise of God that they would not be overcome by the foreign invaders. And there, in the middle of the city, alone in the palace, was one man – King Ahaz. This was his moment of decision, his pivotal stand in history. So far, he was floundering in the face of this crisis. He was not like his predecessor, Uzziah, who had stood firm in his kingship against the armies that would have destroyed Judah. Instead, Ahaz was presiding over a time of failure of faithfulness of God's people, and hope was struggling to stay alive.

As a second wave of invaders, with new resolve, came rushing across the border, the prophetic voice came to King Ahaz, assuring him that this conflict would not be decided by military might or political cleverness. This battle would rest upon the Lord's people to trust that he would accomplish what he had promised. We find this part of the story in Isaiah 7, where the prophet meets the king at the end of the Upper Pool, an aqueduct that was part of the survival plan for the impending siege on the city.

Those closest to the king wanted him to play politics, to make an alliance with those who were threatening the country – an appeasement. Even to the north, Israel and Ephraim had joined with the Assyrians, and the king's advisors told him that it was time to either join with them or die. Enter Isaiah, who emphatically reminds the king that this is not the path which Israel's God has made for his people. They are to find their security and salvation in him alone, not in their own military power or political gaming. The word of the Lord is that the surrounding nations are nothing more than smoldering stubs – their combined might would soon be stamped out. The issue is not one of politics, but of faith.

In his attempt to persuade Ahaz to do nothing (politically), Isaiah instructs him to ask the Lord for a sign – to look heavenward and see that God is indeed in this moment: Ask for his assurance, to know that the words of the prophet are true. But Ahaz will not do this, claiming that he will not put the Lord to the test. He hides behind religious-sounding language, appearing to understand the stories of Israel. His piety is a politician's show, and God calls him on this and provides a sign even in the face of Ahaz's failed trust. The sign is that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a special child (we have no reason to think that this prediction has anything other than 'natural' means of conception in mind). This child would be special, not because of his mother's circumstances, but because he will be the renewal of David's kingship in Israel – he will be (read on through Isaiah 9) known as Mighty God.

This child will be born into humble circumstances, sharing in the poverty of his people. But, he will rise to great prominence and power, and enact the dominion and dynasty of Israel's covenant and God's kingdom.

Unfortunately this sign does nothing for Ahaz, who continues on with his political gaming, all the way to disaster. He quickly discovered that some people simply will not be appeased, and some enemies are not to be trifled with. He grabs the tiger by the tail and pays the consequences. Nevertheless, God remained true to his word, and to the sign which he gave through Isaiah. He kept a remnant of his people and raised up other kings before Israel finally succumbed to destruction and exile, where they would remain for quite some time.

Into this story Matthew casts the hope for the people of God. He introduces a righteous man named Joseph, who was devout and upright and steadfast in the story of Israel – like his predecessor Ahaz. He was respected and well-known, and thrown into a story of disgrace and shame. Lying in bed that one night it the angel of the Lord who reminds him of the sign that was given to the people of God. Our very-familiar thought of virgin conception must have been overwhelming the first time he had to consider Mary's circumstance. In realizing that God's fulfillment of his promises is always greater than our expectation, Joseph remembers the significance of salvation that comes from this God-given sign, and the importance of trusting in the God who spoke it.

He embraces the story, and Matthew wishes for us to embrace the magnitude of what is happening. This is why he recalls the ancient words spoken by the Upper Pool in Jerusalem's time of distress – the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel (which means 'God with us').

This is more than a nice religious bumper sticker or kitschy holiday art pointing us to the interestingness of Jesus' birth. This is the long-awaited sign from heaven, given to a people in great distress and uncertainty, that God would be faithful to this promises – he will guide and guard his people. Centuries of reading Isaiah never quite expected this child to be divine (at least, not in this sense). But this is the work of God in the world doing incredibly more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.

This child is Emmanuel. God with us. And this is how God came to be with us, breaking heaven into earth in a strange and powerful new way. This God with us enables us to approach the throne of God with great boldness, accepting the forgiveness of sins, and become children of God ourselves. The sign that has come has become the salvation of the world.

23 June 2014

of fads and harvest

There is a point in life where one is probably taken in to some sort of fad or trend - one which connects us to some larger culture around us.  For certain people, keeping up with trends is a way of life, something that they do naturally and as a part of their daily routine.  For others, fads are ridiculous and are to be avoided at all costs.  (Here is a catalog of fads found online)

I might suppose that most people aren't too caught up in fads and trends (at least, not consciously), but that every now and then something simultaneously catches our attention and a wider popularity.  And off we go.

Although I think technological gadgetry is quite magical and cool, and I am a self-diagnosed bibliophile, I can honestly say that I'm not really a trendy sort of a person.  I don't rush to the movies just because everyone else tells me to; as a rule, I ignore the "best sellers" that greet you in stacks at the front of the bookstore; and I am quite leery when it comes to trends within the church, mostly out of a conviction that marketing and gospel can quickly be at odds with one another.  So, I get a bit concerned when fads masquerade as spiritual moments and victories, all of which are (by their own devices) short-lived, leaving little impact in their wake.  The Christian entertainment industry seems to be the primary driver of these sorts of fads in our current culture, though pastors and other church leaders have certainly perpetuated the problem.

So, what am I saying?  Do I have a problem with The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof, God's Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind(s) etc?  Well, yes I do and no I do not.  It is not so much that I have a problem with Christian content being made into movies for either artistic or entertainment purposes, but these happen to be examples of Christian marketing outpacing the initial spiritual statement that was being made.  We poured out our collective souls during The Passion, made our marriages Fireproof, made our intellectual assertion that God Is Not Dead, and proved that Heaven Is for Real, all while telling everyone how they should not be Left Behind.  It seems that we have made quite the rounds in the Christian entertainment industry, yet very little (perhaps we might make the case that nothing) has changed as a result.

My point is that we have created these great marketing-based movements around a Christianized idea, which has relegated the core of the gospel to a fad.  And the gospel is no fad.  It is not something to be made hip for a while and then put away in some box of memories.  The gospel is dynamic and life-changing, and should be a foolishness that confounds the clever tricks of worldly wisdom.

I am confronted with one simple argument: Yes, but aren't we at least planting seeds?  What is the harm in placing the Christian message into the world?  To the latter, nothing - until it falls prey to the here-today-gone-tomorrowism of fads.  To the first question, aren't we setting the bar rather low for the power of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ?  It seems that there is a great amount of time, energy and resources given to the lowest-common-denominator of expectation here, and perhaps is the root of why our evangelicalism has become so shallow.  In other words, we do not have because we do not ask (Jas. 4:2), here applied to the dynamic and transformative power of God.  We do not truly experience God in our evangelicalism because we have not truly asked for his presence - we are aiming for the lowest level instead of living by faith.

Furthermore, I wonder about this notion of planting seeds, which again speaks to the lowest-common-demoniator of the gospel.  I fear that it has become commonplace for evangelicals to settle with planting seeds because we simply do not wish to do any more for the gospel than to throw money or sermons or books and film at our surrounding culture and call it a day.  This is the path of least resistance and least commitment, and we cover our lack of missional service with the spiritualized phrase of planting seeds.  Interestingly, Jesus told us that "the harvest is plentiful, but the  workers are few" (Mt. 9).  While we are supposed to be asking the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers to gather in the fields, we have instead decided that we needed to plant more seeds on top of the readied fields (because we know what our culture needs more than the Lord of the harvest).

Instead of seeing our cultural engagement as planting seeds, perhaps we should work at bringing in the prepared harvest.  There are many other spiritual and religious options that are not holding back from drawing people to themselves, and yet evangelicalism is so worried that this work is beyond what we can (or should) be doing.  This makes certain sense, if indeed we have surrendered our faith in the power of the gospel to transform.

In the end, this post is not a blanket dismissal of the church's engagement with culture that comes through the means of media.  I find that some of it is good and profitable for its various purposes, and there are many people who produce such things with sincere and humble hearts (and there are those who are simply making a profit for the sake of making a profit, which is exploiting Christian belief for monetary gain, but that can be addressed another time ... ).  My point is that we as a church ought to keep things in their rightful place, whether it is a piece of Christian entertainment, regardless of its value of edification, or our vocation as the people of God who hear his voice calling us to the fields ready for harvest.

23 May 2014

worship in observance

So that I might not be misunderstood, let me say at the outright that I believe worship is a living sacrifice, and that discipleship is an endeavor of active participation.  The comments that follow are not to discourage either of these notions.  Simply stated, I have increasingly come to realize that there is more to our worship than the things that we are doing - saying, singing, swaying.  There are moments that come to us, in some seasons frequently and at other times sparingly, when we have an opportunity to embrace a true worship of our Creator simply because we were aware of the moment.

If you have come to this you have undoubtedly felt an overwhelming presence - a warming of the heart, perhaps - in which an experience became more than the sum of its parts.  A recent moment for me was watching my seven-year-old at her school's spring concert-show.  Watching her, along with other children sing and dance for the joy of doing so - and since this is a Christian school, they were songs of praise - ushered in a moment where I felt as though I was truly thankful and blessed.  I think this comes to us more as we learn how to soak up life more than speed through life, as we learn to treasure more than we check off one experience to start searching for the next.  There is wisdom and beauty in this, for it is a life that is increasingly open to the still small voice of the presence.

Added to this, I have noticed for some time that I am touched when I watch congregations of people worship.  Perhaps some of this is from my experience of being one of the 'up-front' people for much of my church life, as part of the music or pastoral ministries.  There is a joy and an awe that most people never experience - one that I consider a blessing to myself - which is watching the Spirit of God move within a body of believers who together are watching heavenward.  And there is worship in the observance, if we have eyes to see and ears to hears what the Spirit is saying to his own.

I have not spoken in tongues, and my worship is seldom a charismatic experience, in the common use of the word.  But I have heard the voice of heaven speak in my heart and have been moved the very real presence of the living God through the stillness of my heart when I am not so much caught up in the responsibilities of worship as the watchfulness of the moving Spirit.  I do not discount these other endeavors, but seek only to encourage those who seek God to become still and expectant of these moments that take us far beyond ourselves and into his presence.  He will not force us to pause over them, for that is not his way.  But we will be utterly transformed if we allow ourselves to linger in that presence for its few fleeting moments, tasting and seeing.

12 May 2014

a brief reflection on cheap grace

see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (chs. 1-4)

“In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that man, or this or that Church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants from us.” These words are appropriate introductory remarks on the subject of discipleship. There are many competing voices in the modern church, each claiming correct understanding of the gospel. This has become familiar and commonplace in American evangelicalism, perhaps to the point where we have allowed a need-for-novelty to shape the identity and work of the church more than Jesus himself. Yet, at the end of it all we must remember that we are called to Christ himself, which is a journey that walks through sacrifice and surrender. In other words, the true nature of discipleship - the kind to which Bonhoeffer speaks - is necessarily separated from spiritualities that are designed to feed our own ideas of accomplishment and identity.

This is where the idea of cheap grace enters - namely, that we would use the gospel as a means of affirming our own decisions of self-worth. Cheap grace both initiates and is perpetuated by various layers of tradition, theology and doctrine that, in reality, keep us from experiencing the unsettlingly dynamic presence of Christ. Instead, Jesus has been reduced to a caricature of our own ideas of morality and virtue; the Son of God is viewed as a non-threatening projection of our own ideals for humanity. As a result of viewing Christ through the lens of cheap grace, believers today are left uninspired and unchanged, for they have not encountered the powerful presence of holiness that is found in the incarnated Lord.

Perhaps there are two opposite errors in correcting this rather benign approach to Jesus. The first is to make Jesus even more approachable still, a savior-friend whose entire existence rests upon a sentimental relationship with the individual. Here is an all-affirming Jesus that seeks to heap blessings upon his own without asking for anything in return. The second is to make a reemphasis on the holiness of the Son of God that become doctrinally overbearing, which leads to an unknowable God and an inapproachable Jesus. This results in a judgmental and condemning priest who never leaves the sanctity of the temple.

Neither of these approaches work because, as is foundational to Bonhoeffer’s words on grace, the real person of Jesus is divine holiness made accessible through the incarnation. This leads to an experience of discipleship that is both unsettling and edifying throughout. The cost of discipleship is the surrender of one’s life to the call to follow Christ. “The cross is laid on every Christian.” The natural human difficulties with a surrender-all discipleship is, in reality, a problem with Jesus - it is Christ that we choose to follow or reject.

Until the church can reclaim the presence of Jesus as he comes to us through the Spirit and the Word, we will continue to play around with the novelties of worship and discipleship programs, missing out on the transformative power of the risen Christ. The need for a renewed vigor in biblical discipleship is evidenced in the current state of our evangelicalism. We have created a more comprehensive church subculture than human history has ever seen, yet the shallowing of American Christianity is increasingly problematic. We have access to more Bibles, sermons, services and studies than ever before in the history of the world, and yet committed disciples have become difficult to find - leaving our culture to spiritual rot and decay as a result.

It appears that evangelicalism has done everything to be Christian except to die to Christ. This is a sad reality, and a powerful challenge for the church. However, the discipleship of which Bonhoeffer speaks is indeed happening in some parts of the world. This is our great encouragement and, hopefully, our inspiration to join with the church of Christ in the work that brings all people closer to his presence.