Tag Archives: Jesus

Thy Word: A light through the darkness

In my late teenage years, I spent many of my summers at our local Christian summer camp.  Camp Columbia was nestled in the forests of Thetis Island.  It was more run-down that rustic, but I enjoyed much of the time I spent there.  One summer, my role was to help with the Leadership Training program.

One evening, the group decided to wander up to Pride Rock.  Pride rock was a clearing in the forest,  where you could sit and look at the stars.  As I was finishing some duties at the main house, I told the group that I would meet them later.  It was only 10 minutes or so before I was walking up toward Pride Rock in pursuit of the group.  My journey, however, did not go as smoothly as I would have liked.

There were two reasons why the trek to Pride Rock did not work in my favour.  Firstly, it had grown dark. The sun had long ago set behind the horizon and the stars were beginning to come out.  This meant that a pathway through the forest was nearly impossible to see.  Furthermore, the deeper I got into the forest the less I could see.  At one point it was close to pitch-black.  I was convinced, however, that I knew the way.  I had been to Pride Rock several times before; I was confident that I could find the appropriate pathway and meet the group.

Secondly . . .I didn’t have a flashlight.

The lack of a flashlight proved to be disastrous for me. At one point in my journey through the forest, the path zigged where I thought it zagged, and I went tumbling down a hill, landing in a bed of thorn bushes.  I did not hurt myself, beyond a few scrapes on my legs, but now I had a new problem; I was deep in the forest, unable to see, and unsure which way I should go.  I was disoriented and confused.  And I couldn’t see anything!   I called out to the group yet no reply came.  Had I taken the wrong path?  I tried to walk back up the hill, but with no visibility I could not make any progress.  I tried to step in different directions, but it seemed that each way I moved brought me deeper into bushes, thorns, and scrapes.  I will be honest, at one point panic started to set in.

Then I saw it.  The light from the main House.  I could see the light of the House cutting through the darkness of the forest.  While I still could not see a defined trail, or the house itself, I could see the light, and I knew the light meant safety.   Walk towards the light, I told myself.  I began moving in that direction. With each step thorn bushes cut into my legs, but I had to keep going.  The light was always before me, despite all the darkness and scrapes.  I kept moving toward that light, and eventually, emerged from the forest and into the clearing by the main house.

The Psalmist declares, “Thy Word is a lamp unto our feat, and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).  The Psalmist is not thinking specifically about the pages of scripture, but about an inner dynamic.  When we live in relationship with God, we have the privilege of experiencing the voice of God spoken to us.  Sometimes we may ‘hear a voice’, sometimes we may have a feeling; but like a light shining in through the darkness, God’s voice beckons us forward in our Christian lives.  God guides our steps.  God illuminates the way.  God directs our path.

Of course, this does not stop us from experiencing some cuts and scrapes along the way.  The word of God is not the voice of easy street.  As we journey through life, we will still fall down hills, or experience the zigzaging paths. This is simply part of being imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  Yet with God’s light shining before us, God will continually direct us into the places of life where we experience his presence, power, and healing.  Even though the Psalmist is not thinking about leather bound books with gold-trimmed pages, we have the benefit of the Bible to aid us in in hearing the voice of God. Prayerfully reading scripture mediate’s God’s voice to us.  The gift of scripture is that God’s voice is always open to us.  When we read the text on the page, we hear God’s voice spoken into our hearts. God is always speaking.

Now we can turn to the light of God’s voice in two ways.

We can turn to the word of God when we find ourselves lost.  Like falling down a hill in the middle of a forest, there may be times where we find ourselves in a situation that we are ill equipped to handle.  In these times we can turn to God’s word as that light that breaks through all darkness.  The light of God’s voice, spoken through scripture, becomes the way we journey through the unexpected tumbles of life.  Of course, this does not stop us from getting hurt along the way.  There will always be difficulty in life, and even with the light of God’s voice before us we may still find ourselves scraped or bruised.  Yet God’s voice proves constant and faithful, and it will lead us out of the darkness.

There is nothing wrong with this approach to scripture.  In fact, the very Psalm that lauds God’s word as a lamp and light speaks about the sufferings of Psalmist.  When we find that life zigs where we zagged, when we fall down the hills of life and find ourselves knee-deep in some type of obstacle, we are encouraged to turn to scripture for guidance, healing, and wisdom.  God’s voice is spoken in those times to protect us, to lead us, and to rescue us.

Still, it is one things to look to God’s voice as a distant beacon when we find ourselves in need of direction; it is quite another thing to carry a flashlight.

When we turn to God’s word as a flashlight – when we carry it with us daily – we find that we are able to avoid some of the pitfalls of life.  When we carry God’s word with us, we walk in God’s will with every single step.  We avoid the snares and traps that lurk in the darkness, and who can say how many hills we do not tumble down, simply because we are able to the right path clearly.

God’s voice is always there for us.  It is a lamp unto our feet.  It is a light to our path.  God’s word provides direction when we are lost, healing when we feel battered by life, comfort in times of stress or panic.  The faithfulness of God’s word is never in question.  The only question we face is ‘how will we approach God’s voice?’ Will God’s word be a distant voice, turned to only in times when we need rescue? Or, will we take God’s voice with us as a cherished guide for each and every step, allowing God to illuminate where, and where not, we should step.

Bad Fruit and Bobble-Heads

One of the most engaging books I read recently was J.K Smith’s You Are What You Love.  It was in reading Smith that I first came across the term “Bobble-Head Christians.”  A Bobble-Head Christian is someone who has a head full of information about God but an underdeveloped body.  That is, while the individual may know a lot about the bible, faith, or points of theology, he or she does not live out those truths in their lives.  Their bodily existence, or witness, does not match up with what they say they profess.  Smith’s overall point in this is that our actions point to our primary love – that which we value above anything else.   Right knowledge makes no difference if it does not trickle down into right living.

Jesus says something like this in the gospel of Matthew.  Jesus points to the discrepancy that can exist in some people between what that person says and what that person does.  Jesus illustrates this point by pointing to the connection between a tree and its fruit.  He says;

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit, you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.”  (Matthew 7:15-20)

Here, Jesus highlights the fundamental truth that our actions point to who we are.  Like a bad tree producing bad fruit, our actions testify to our inner nature.  While Jesus begins by singling out the ‘false prophets’, his point is more generalized.  You are what you love, and your actions point to that upon which your soul is set.  Thus, all of us should take care to ensure that our actions are in line with our Christian values.  The gospel has no room for Bobble-Heads.

However, is that all Jesus is saying?  Is Jesus’ message above, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, akin to a call to smarten up?  Often, when commenting or preaching on the above passage, this is usually the point made.  Our actions count, we preach.  Thus, if our actions do not line-up with what we say we believe, we should all just smarten up and make sure that we living rightly.  This is not a bad message, per se; but it does not address the deeper issue to which Jesus is speaking.

See, Jesus is speaking about the tree, not about the fruit.  Yes, bad fruit is bad, but more than that, it points to that which is faulty about the tree itself.  The fruit of the tree reflects the inner nature of the tree.  Thus, if one wants to produce good fruit one must address the heath of the tree itself.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of this again when he says “I am the Vine, you are the Branches . . . Apart from me you can do nothing.”  We abide with Jesus so that we can be healthy inwardly.  As the Spirit of God in the inner selves nourishes us, the fruit of our lives (our outward actions) will naturally reflect that deeper reality.  If the tree is healthy, the fruit will take care of it self.

You are what you love.

The question posed in this passage, therefore, is not ‘How do we address the fruit of our actions?’ but ‘How do we address our inner health?”  We are to allow Christ to shape us, to form us, to become that overwhelming reservoir of love in our souls.  We are to be people formed in the love of Jesus above all else.  Only as we abide in Christ can we make sure that we will be bearing the healthy fruit produced from spiritually healthy lives.

How do we go about this?  A portion of Psalm 119 contains a perfect prayer for the deepening of our faith.

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
that I may follow it to the end.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
How I long for your precepts!
In your righteousness preserve my life. (Psalm 119:33-40)

What would it look like for you to pray this prayer every day for a month?  How could this prayer help you open up the inner part of your self to Jesus?  How is Jesus calling you to produce good fruit through addressing the deeper formation of your heart and your soul?

Is Lent really just about treats?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, heralding the beginning of Lent.  Typically, this liturgical season involves adopting a devotional activity to mark one’s observance.  Often, this involves some type of fasting.  We ‘give-up’ something for the 40 days of Lent.  What are we to give up?  Well, that’s the question.  Too easily does Lent become a time of merely stepping away from the treats enjoyed in regular life – the coffee, the chocolate, the candy.  In our media-saturated world, it is becoming popular to give up Facebook or other Social Media platforms. We take our 40 days away from posts and shares, likes and comments.  We boldly proclaim that we are ‘signing-off’ – and then we live our lives with near-regular routines.

We feel good about these treat-based fasts.  We move through the 40 days of Lent seamlessly.  After all, we know the routine.  We know what to expect.  We have felt the coffee withdrawals, or the hunger pains, or the sugar-crashes.   These Lenten observances hold nothing new for us.  They are, in the grand scheme of things, fairly easy.  The ease of these fasts may be more pronounced if we give up the same thing year after year.

Has our Lenten disciplines become little more than easy exercises in self-righteousness?  Does giving up my treats amount to an external observance without an inner change?  If I give up the same thing year after year, then where is the transformation?

I’m not against giving up our treats per se.  All of us would probably do well to step away from the idolatrous grip of self-satisfaction and consumerism.  Maybe giving up our treats signifies a dislodging of our idolatries. Perhaps our intemperate love for the treats of life is a deep sign of our spiritual off-centeredness.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe we give up our treats because we know it’s manageable and easy and doesn’t impact our lives all that much.  After all, do candy bars and potato chips really get in the way of our relationship with Jesus?

“Sorry Jesus, I’d love to spend time with you, but I’m too busy eating a Kit-Kat!”

In order for our Lenten journey to be truly transformative, we must push past these easy observances.   Lent involves a journey to the cross, a journey that is not paved with the treats of modern life.  This journey to the cross, realised in the celebration of Good Friday and Easter, is marked by our longing for divine closeness.  In his 1st letter, Peter reminds his readers that ‘Christ died for sin once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (3:18).   The truth we re-hear at Easter is the truth we long to embrace today, that Jesus ushers us into the heart of God.

Lent is a time to look at the relational closeness between ourselves and our Lord. Where do we need to grow closer with Jesus?  Where do our actions, our habits, or our attitudes, get in the way the call to faithful living?  After all, we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  This means that we still struggle with the likes of sin and waywardness.  You sin.  I sin.  We sin.  This sin occurs in a myriad of ways.  We sometimes care too much about ourselves than our neighbours; we take up self-indulgent appetites; we live out of anger, or frustration, or doubt; we act uncharitably or unkindly; we forsake justice and fairness.   Lives lived in these ways step outside of the relational closeness with God for which we were created, and into which we are continually invited.  Does giving up Facebook do justice to our struggle with sin?

If the cross brings us close to God, then our journey to it calls us to look for whatever obstructs this closeness in our lives.  Our Lenten observance should address the habits, false worships, and misplaced loves and keep us from experiencing the gracious intimacy with God.   It is only as we address these areas, and not the popular treats we enjoy, that we can fully enter the celebration of Easter as transformed people.

Our journey through Lent is a time to think about how we can further enter divine closeness. Christ died to bring us to God.  Christ died so that we, in this moment, can experience the liberating power of his salvation. Christ died, and was raised to life, so that we can step away from all that is spiritually destructive.  Through the resurrection, and the forgiveness it brings, we are called into a life where we are reminded, by divine voice, that we are the beloved of God.   May our journey through Lent grasp this vision of divine closeness, as we turn away from those places where we fall short of God’s call, seeking ways to more deeply enter the loving heart of God.  Amen.

 

Requiem for my mother

On the last day of this year, just hours before the flipping of the calendar, my mother died after an extensive fight with Cancer.  The road had been long and painful, but the death itself was relatively quick.  Time after time my mother had shown her resolve, living even in her last moments with a desire to care for those she loved.  Since her death, the family has talked in length about her self-sacrifice, her love, and most importantly, her faith.

A few days following her death, I took some time alone.  I sat in a coffee shop with my journal, and began to write whatever words flowed out.  I wanted to put to paper the myriad of thoughts, memories, and emotions that whirled within me.   As part of this time, I began to reflect on my mother’s faithfulness.  Here is what I wrote:

All the stories of her selflessness, her constant desire to put others before herself, to bless them, this was drawn from her deep love for Jesus.  It was because she fed herself constantly on the grace of God that she could, even in her most painful of days, look to the blessing and betterment of others.  She longed to put on Christ, to serve as he served, to bless as he blessed – to be a witness and a sign to the very kingdom in which she lived.

As such, her faith was not an escape.  It did not shield her from the difficulty of life – it provided no retreat from the torment of cancer.  Her faith did not make the road easier – for in some respects it led her more deeply into her own suffering.  It highlighted the home she longed for – the mansion to which Jesus would lead her.  She embraced those painful days knowing she was embraced by the one who walked his own suffering road.  She sat and cried knowing her tears were matched by the one who wept blood in the darkness – but over whom the darkness would never prevail.  And so she could, in the midst of all pain and hurt, live in faith and hope.

With her eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of her faith, she grasped the eternal hope rooted in his victory. Where, O Death is Your Victory?  Where O death is your sting?

And now she resides in blessed rest, experiencing the fulfillment of the longing of her soul.  She breathes in full  the grace and joy only partially experienced in this fragile world.  She is embraced in the loving arms of Jesus where she again weeps – not in sorrow or sadness – but in joyful eruptions of delight at the vision of the Lamb upon the throne. Her eternity is one of rejoicing for she spends it in the very activity she loved here on earth – the praise and worship of her Lord and Savior.

And so even in this loss we can join in her song and say Hallelujah.

The Flip-flopping of Eugene Peterson; highlighting the logs in our eyes.

If, like me, you are someone who lives at the intersection of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Facebook’, you probably have come across reports about Eugene Peterson’s views of same-sex marriage.  Yesterday it was reported that Peterson, a stalwart in the Evangelical world, had ‘changed his mind’ on the issue, and is now in support of same-sex marriage.  Today, this statement was retracted.

As Christian people, the reporting on Peterson’s views is something we need to pay attention to.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not interested in teasing out points of theology here.  This post isn’t going to get into what Peterson is reported to have said (each time), or whether we should agree with him on this but not that.  What I am more interested in is how the news of Peterson’s flip-flopping was received and promoted in those online forums we Christians love to frequent.   It is here where I believe that the Peterson reports are instructive for us.

When the first report came out yesterday, it was immediately shared all throughout cyberspace.  It was shared one of two ways.  Like me, you may have seen both expressions. . . . multiple times.

Peterson changes his mind – the end is coming!

In one of the forums I belong to, the report on Peterson’s change-of-mind was simply posted with an array of exclamation marks and weepy-emoticons.  The implication was clear: This was a blow to the conservative agenda or ‘real Christianity.’  Satan obtained another foothold and the rapture was just around the corner.  Well, not quite.  But in the battle of theology, it was deemed that one side ‘lost’ a major player, while the other ‘team’ gained one.  However, such comments weren’t simply about what side of the theological fence Peterson was on.  Peterson’s change of mind seemed to mean that he left the faith all together.  How could someone who believed in same-sex marriage accurately reflect the truth of the gospel?

Because of this apparent change of mind, the value of Peterson’s ministry, teaching, and writing became quickly discarded.  How do I know this? Well, because people said as much.  The report was followed by statements such as ‘well, I guess I need to toss his books!’ and ‘I guess he likes popularity more than truth.’  In comment after comment, grace was no longer extended to Peterson.  Those who previously would have championed his works now ripped Peterson apart.  So much for specs and logs.

Peterson changes his mind – Take that you evangelicals!

Just as there were those who decried Peterson for a change of mind, there were equally people who applauded Peterson for this growth.  Peterson was now being praised for his insight, compassion, and obvious Christ-likeness.  It proved evangelicals were wrong about everything; if they would only become more enlightened, they too would change their minds on this matter.  Again, specs and logs . . .although I guess this time it is more acceptable as people happen to like these logs and specs.

The internal spiritual attitude driving this response, however, is the same as the previous one.  Just as Peterson was being rejected by some for no other reason than what the report claimed, he was conversely also being accepted for no other reason than what the report claimed.   Those who posted the article with comments of ‘about time!’ and ‘This is MAJOR news’ did not care about his ministry, his books, or his character.  All that mattered was whether ‘Eugene Peterson’ belonged to our camp or theirs.  It is as if a particular stance on same-sex marriage (i.e., the one I agree with) is the litmus test for all faithfulness, all goodness, and all compassion.  But is this really the way of Jesus?

All of these comments were floating around Facebook and other forums.  We, as the Christian community, either loved or hated Eugene Peterson.  His change of mind was either the best thing to happen in the likes of the church or the worst.  To make it worse, there was no stopping it.  Unless, of course, it wasn’t true.  And just like that the conversation flipped.  Again, this news was taken one of two ways.

Peterson doesn’t change his mind – he is such an idiot!

When it was revealed that Peterson didn’t change his mind, those who previously heralded Peterson’s growth and Christ-likeness now began to unleash a tirade of criticism.  Appeals to Peterson’s intolerance, bigotry, or shallowness we continually employed.  In just the span of 24 hours Peterson went from being the hero of the church to its villain. His intellect was attacked; his character was defamed; and his works were decried.   Those who posted and shared the news with the greatest of fervor now retracted all their support.  After all, why extend Christian love to someone who thinks differently than us?

But isn’t this the same as the first group, who rejected Peterson for his apparent change of mind?  If a hard-hearted rejection of someone for agreeing with same-sex marriage should be called out as uncharitable and graceless, isn’t the hard-hearted rejection of someone nor not agreeing with same sex marriage the same thing?  What does this say about what we truly value in our relationship with our Christian brothers and sisters?

Peterson doesn’t change his mind – we knew he wouldn’t desert us!

So, what happened with those who were so horrified that a popular evangelical author may agree with same-sex marriage?  Well, now the comments relating to his lack of theological change described a sense of relief over Peterson’s steadfastness in the faith.  Those who attacked him now endorsed him.  Peterson was again seen to be a true and righteous man and his works endowed with a sense of spiritual authority.  Peterson hadn’t left the evangelical ‘team’; once again he could be embraced and accepted.

Such a response, however, wasn’t based in humility.  There was no regret over having misjudged a man, or acting so horribly to suggest the burning of his books.  There was no request for forgiveness. No, the new-found heralding of Peterson seemed to be based in pride.  It screamed messages like ‘we still have him’ and ‘I knew he agreed with me.’

So what now?

I’m sorry, none of these ways expresses the way of Jesus.  Accepting or rejecting Peterson based solely on whether he agrees with our understanding of human sexuality betrays an internal shallowness for which we should all be ashamed.   Those of us who critiqued Peterson for his flip-flopping (wherever the flip happened to be), did we not notice how we flip-flopped in our reactions to Peterson? Shouldn’t our own flip-flopping cause us to seek forgiveness and an amendment of life?

After all, why should it have mattered if Eugene Peterson changed his mind, either to agree with same-sex marriage, or to not agree with it?  Why would we, as people who live in the Kingdom of God and are called to be expressions of God’s love and grace, change our behavior toward Peterson simply because of what was reported? Furthermore, shouldn’t the fact that our behavior did seem to change sicken us?  Shouldn’t we be horrified by the thought that we may just be interested in being right more than we are interested in being in the way of Jesus.

This flip-flopping nightmare is important for us in the church because it highlights that we are all sinners in need of grace.  None of us has a claim on moral superiority.  None of us can assert more righteousness than the other.  We all need to forgive each other, and we all need forgiveness from each other.  This whole event shows us how easily we can succumb to the worship of our own perceptions.  Instead of looking upon Peterson through the eyes of Jesus, we could not see past our disagreements and controversies, and it tainted the very essence of our Christian unity.

Perhaps next time we can try a new tactic:  Let us love one another, for love comes from God.

Leaping wombs: Does Elizabeth hold the key to being church?

For liturgical churches, such as my own, May 31st celebrates The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth.  It is not a celebration we normally think about, except maybe as a forerunner to the Magnificat as the Gospel of the day includes Mary’s exultant song.  Obviously, thoughts and reflections normally reside here.  And why shouldn’t they.  The song is beautiful, powerful, and triumphant.

But is there anything in the visitation itself that can be of aid in our spiritual lives?  After all, I’m willing to bet that we will never come across a pregnant young woman carrying the Christ child?  And, speaking personally, I’m pretty sure that no baby will leap within my non-existent womb.  So what might this passage say to us as today?  Does this visitation have something to teach us about what it means to be a community of faith?

Luke records the visit in Chapter 1, verses 39-45.  When we boil this interaction down to its basic premise you see a meeting between individuals:  Mary visits Elizabeth.  In this moment, however, the Holy Spirit descends upon Elizabeth empowering her to both bless the person before her, and rejoice in the magnitude of God.  It is not just her child the responds to the presence of Jesus, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth herself respond to Christ in her midst.  Well. . .  it’s more than that isn’t it?  The Holy Spirit prompts Elizabeth to respond to the presence of Christ within Mary.

Could we see, in this interaction between Mary and Elizabeth, a model for what it means to be a church community?  There are two lessons we may learn:

Firstly: We recognise the presence of Christ in the other.

As a community of baptised people we recognize certain truths about who we are as human beings.  For one, we recognize that each person, regardless of who they are, are made in the image of God.  This is fundamental to our identity as people, created in God’s image.  For those within our community we add to this the understanding that each person bears the presence of Jesus.  There are many different ways that we can talk about this; having Jesus in our hearts through faith, receiving Jesus in baptism, being ‘alive’ in Christ Jesus.  But whatever language we use, we are called to recognize that those within our community of faith are themselves Christ bearers.  They have the presence of Jesus within them.  This is what St. Paul claims in his letter to Colossians when he states that the mystery of the gospel is ‘Christ in you.’  This may not mean we agree with everyone, or even like everyone, but it does mean that we boldly and faithfully affirm the presence of Jesus within that person, and thus within our midst.

What would happen if we allowed that to be the basis by which we interacted with others in our church community?  Would some of the petty disagreements end?  Would fellowship be enhanced?  Would our witness become more effective?  How do you think we would feel internally, if we chose to see each other as Elizabeth viewed Mary on that day of visitation?

Secondly: Elizabeth rejoices in God and blesses Mary.

What a fabulous visit!  This visitation is not seem as just happenstance, a meeting of the minds, or a polite gathering of individuals.  Elizabeth sees the visit as a profound moment of God acting in the world.  The visit testifies that God is active and doing something.  Elizabeth’s exuberant exultation is a song of praise itself.  Yet intermingled with this song of praise, testifying to her reception of God’s work in her midst, Elizabeth also recognizes the activity of God within Mary, and so she pronounces a blessing over her.  Simply put, Elizabeth reinforces God’s work within Mary thus encouraging her in her faithful acceptance of God’s word over her.

Of course, Elizabeth’s response to Mary wasn’t simply drawn out of her own effort.  She was empowered by the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth and she responds to the visitation (this instance of community) in a two-fold of act of rejoicing and blessing.

Being Elizabeth: A model of Community

While we may find such a descent of the Spirit prior to Pentecost a unique instance within scripture, we live our lives on the other side of Pentecost.  Scriptures continually testifies to our assurance of the Spirit’s activity and leading in our lives.  Our baptismal liturgy links the rite of baptism with the reception of the Holy Spirit, and thus, as a community of baptized people, we assume we are a community of ‘Spirit-filled’ people.

So what if we acted like Elizabeth and chose to see each ‘random’ instance of community as a divinely appointed action?  How might the Holy Spirit within us call us to respond to the presence of Jesus within the other?  How might we go about blessing each other, and affirming the work of God deep within them? How might the community be affected, or formed, if we actively lived our lives in such a manner?

This demands that we live our lives with a sense of openness and submission to the spirit of God, yet there is to be a beautiful complementarity in this way of community.  While we respond to the presence of Jesus in the other person – through blessing, rejoicing, and encouraging – they too would be acting in similar fashion towards us.  The Holy Spirit in the other person would cause the other to rejoice in God’s work in our lives, and thereby bless and encourage us.

This almost sounds if we would all be in one accord.  Behaving like Elizabeth in this way will only lend itself to the strength of the community of faith, and the effectiveness in our witness and mission.  Christ would be glorified, not as a distant theological abstraction, but as a tangible manifestation of our common life.  If we could just choose this pathway, as a community, than who can tell what beautiful, powerful, and triumphant songs may be sung in our communities.

A 3-step way of understanding Spiritual Formation

Every month my Spiritual Director gives me a passage of scripture to sit with throughout out the month.  For this month he gave me Galatians 6:14-18.  Just four small verses, but they are packed with content.  So, this morning I thought I would spend some time in prayer and reflection on this passage.  I went into the sanctuary of the church, sat with my bible open and my notebook in hand, and proceed to go through the movements of Lectio Divina on this passage.  I would love to say that I had some earth shattering revelations take place; that the heavens pealed back and the Spirit of God descended upon me in overly-charismatic way.

Nothing like that happened.  What I did experience was the gentle prodding of some important questions along with insight into a possible model of Spiritual Formation.  Could this passage speak to how we engage in formation as the body of Christ?  Could we look to this passage as a possible ‘three-step’ model of how we may grow into deeper Christ-likeness?  First, let’s look at the passage.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

As I said, this passage is filled with great content and there are many different places where one can sink into deep reflection.  How often do I boast in something other than the Cross of Jesus? What does it mean to ‘bear the marks of Jesus’ in my own body?’ These were some of the thoughts and questions that turned around in my mind and heart as I went through the Lectio movements.  Yet the majority of my inner reflections centred on the two ways Paul references himself in relations to crucifixion.  Paul seems to be suggesting that the cross of Jesus brings about a two-sided crucifixion for the Christian person.  Or, to put it another way, the cross has two cruciform effects.

  1. The world has been crucified to me.

Christian life often runs at odds with the systems and values of the world in which we live.  This is what Paul experienced in his own world, as the Christian Gospel was naturally at odds with both the political and various religious sensibilities of the Roman Empire.  To see the world as crucified was to see the world as having no power or pull upon the Christian life.  Thus, like Pilgrim in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one can step away from practices contrary to the living out of Christian faith, because Christians belong to an alternative kingdom.

The obvious question is: How do we see the world as crucified to us?  How do we step away from the cultural messages of individualism, relativism, and moral obscurity?  What does it mean, for example, to refrain from boasting about our own status or earnings when we live in a culture of ’15 minute fame’? Christ calls us to interact with the world in a different way, from a different grounding.  We are not at home in the kingdom of the world.  To switch biblical authors, we are sojourners here.

  1. I have been crucified to the world.

When we see the world as crucified to us, we can easily develop a sense of smug self-righteousness.  If we are not careful we can begin to see ourselves as ‘better’ than those around us.  While others belong to such a flawed and faulty world, we are more evolved – more holy.  Yet the cross of Jesus is not a leans through which we see our own superiority over the world and its inhabitants.  We are crucified as well.

In reality, we can only see the world as crucified if we see ourselves as crucified as well.  Formation isn’t just about recognising the false narratives of the world around us, we also expose the false narratives that lie deep within.  Where do I lack humility?  Where do I boast in my own accomplishments or status?  Where have I acted in frustration, in anger, in selfishness?  The crucifixion of the self is an important step in this for it essentially is that which allows Jesus to become the still point of our lives.

I mentioned that I wondered if this passage could be used as a three-step model of Spiritual Formation.  We have just looked at the first two steps.  Step one: The crucifixion of the world to us.  Step Two: The Crucifixion of us to the world.  So what is the third step?

  1. The New Creation/Walking by this rule

Paul makes a point of saying that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mean anything, but what matters is a new creation.  Circumcision – and by extension non-circumcision – indicated a certain status to be claimed.  It was a merit that could be held up and boasted in.  In this way, it could easily be seen as more important than one’s active participation in the kingdom of God.  We hear echoes of Jesus’ statements to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and his criticism of their hypocrisy.

The danger is that we merely replace circumcision with ‘the new creation’ thereby making it just another status symbol.  Yet the life of Faith is to be one of constant walking.  We live our lives in the very context of our relationship with Jesus.  Faith is not something to be held up and boasted about, because our faith is the very way that we live out our lives.  So we do not just claim the world is crucified to us, or that we ourselves have been crucified; we actively live out this reality in the world.

This means that our formation in Christian life is an ongoing process, and never one that we can claim for ourselves, or boast about.

Many grapes or healthy grapes?

A few weeks back, my wife and I journeyed to BC wine country for a few days of rest and vacation.  For four days we lounged by the pool, walked amidst the vineyards, and visited wineries.  The highlight of our trip was a private tour of the winery where we were staying.  Our guide, Sophie, took us throughout the winery, explaining the process of hand harvesting, gravity-fed fermentation, and barrel toasting.  We saw the large steal fermentation tanks, the temperature controls, and the hundreds of barrels of wine lining the cellar walls.  Sophie was incredibly knowledgeable, filled with wisdom about the art of vinification.  As she spoke of the particular climate of the area, she mentioned how the vineyard will occasionally reduce the yield of the harvest in response to temperature of the season.  “We will green-harvest the grapes, thus allowing the nutrients of the vine and increase the health of the remaining grapes.”

So it is more important to have a healthy harvest than a large harvest?  Exactly.

I couldn’t’ help but wonder if this has any sort of application to the life of the church today.  We all know that denominational numbers are on the decline.  Studies have shown that less and less people are coming out to church these days.  Membership in mainline denominations, such as my own –The Anglican Church of Canada – tend to skew toward the middle to later in life, with a noticeable absence of the teenage through young adult years.  Sometimes this has been termed “The missing generation.”  When we talk about this reality in the church, it often comes with a tone of fear and anxiety.   We fear that we are losing the battle, or that we are failing at church.  “Who will be there after we are gone?”  “How will the church ‘survive?’”  Underlying these statements is a certain belief, never articulated but there nonetheless, that bigger equals better; a larger yield is a more blessed yield.  This keeps us focused on the number of individuals we have coming through our doors on a weekly basis.  And if our numbers today are not as large as yesterday then something is amiss.  Because the most important things is having more and more grapes, right?

But what if that’s not the case?  What if there are times where the yield of individual grapes within the church actually needs to go down in order to ensure the health of the entire vineyard?

Now I’m not suggesting that God, the true Gardner, is actively keeping people away from the church, or that we no longer have the mission to share the good news of Christ.  But it is an intriguing question isn’t it? Could this time of numerical decline, rather than speaking about a failure of the church, actually speak to a process of pruning?  For us who remain in the vine, could God be using this time to draw us more deeply into the richness of his life-giving spirit?   Remember, Jesus himself said “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2) The act of pruning is done so that the remaining grapes are able to receive more life, more health, more nutrients.  Sometimes we look to this verse and think that ‘fruitful’ means ‘more grapes!’  But what if fruitfulness speaks more to health than number?

What I am suggesting is that God desires us to be a healthy church rather than a large one.  After all, is it actually the case that God wishes every church to become a mega-church?  Like a wine-maker that is only interested in the number of individual grapes, could this understanding of the church’s mission actually work against the overall health of the entire vineyard?

I believe that we in the church today should shift our focus away from the primacy of numbers.  Just as knowledgeable winemakers cares more for the health of the vineyard rather than the number of grapes per yield, we need to stop looking to the size of individual churches as the testimony to overall healthy and stability.  Instead, we need to look to how we are engaged in the ongoing process of being formed in the image of Christ Jesus.  How are we being united to Jesus, through devotion to the Apostles teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers?  Do people actually read their Bible?  Are people’s lives being touched by the Spirit of God?  Are church members becoming more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, or more patient?  The answer to these questions cannot be found in an appeal to the number of people attending church on Sunday.  These questions expose what is really going on within the church and speaks to the church’s health and vitality.

For any winery, more important that the number of barrels it produces each years is the health of the wine within those barrels.  It is the health of the wine, not the number of grapes, that makes or breaks a vineyard.  Similarly, for any church, more important than the number of people lining the pews on Sunday morning is their spiritual health and Christ-likeness.  This is the heart of our mission, our witness, and our Christian life.

 

3 hints when practising Lectio Divina

Recently, Facebook reminded me that we have been doing the practice of Lectio Divina at the church for over one year.  Since that time, many have asked me to come and help them explore Lectio Divina further.  As one clergy-friend remarked; “Lectio Divina is your thing!”  I’m not complaining, I love this discipline, and I love encouraging others to explore it.  I have spoken at several churches, and lead various small group in the practice of Lectio Divina.  I have also received several emails asking me about various dynamics this discipline.  Thus, I thought I would offer three helpful hints which may serve to encourage others in their exploration of Lectio Divina.  I have found these hints profoundly helpful in my own practice of Lectio Divina.  These hints pertain to three spiritual attitudes we would do well to keep in mind whenever we attempt the discipline of Lectio Divina.

Spirit of Boldness If you think of it, Lectio Divina is really quite radical.  It is not a quaint or timid discipline.  One begins the practice of Lectio Divina in the radical assumption that scripture will speak into our lives.  We boldly claim the promise that ‘the word of God is living and active.’  You can think of this spirit of boldness as involving three different affirmations.  Firstly, we boldly affirm that we gather in the presence of God.   This may seem like a silly thing to write, however unless we believe that our heavenly Lord surrounds us, then there really is little point in practising the discipline.  The goal of Lectio Divina is intimacy not information; it is fellowship, not facts.  We are called to affirm that Jesus is present with us as we go through the movements of Lectio Divina; through the Holy Spirit, we can interact with him.

Secondly, we affirm that God speaks into our lives.  Again, there is little use of Lectio Divina if we don’t believe that God will speak to us.  In fact, throughout Scripture, this is one of God’s fundamental critiques of idols.  Idols are mere objects crafted by human hands, with no eyes to see, ears to hear, or mouth to speak.  In contrast, God’s word does not return empty.  The word is not only spoken, but it is also incarnated in our lives.

Lastly, we must boldly affirm that God’s voice can be recognised.  We simply must believe that, if God has a word for us, God will speak that word in a way we can discern it.  After all, Jesus says ‘My Sheep know me, they listen to my voice and they follow me.’   This is the grounding of Lectio Divina.  The distinguishing characteristics of God’s voice can be identified; we can become familiar with the cadences and rhythms of the Lord’s words.

Spirit of Intimacy:  Lectio Divina is not about results, it is about intimacy with our Lord.  In prayer we attend to the voice and the presence of the one who made us and redeemed us.  It is important to remember this fundamental goal of the discipline.  Often, when people begin Lectio Divina, they find that it produces a ‘spiritual high’; a hearing of God’s voice in some profound way never experienced before.   This encourages them to continue on in the practice.  Yet, as time goes on, they find that the practice doesn’t produce the same experience.  Frankly, this can seem upsetting, even disturbing, to some.  We need to remember that Lectio Divina isn’t a spiritual ATM machine dispensing products for our consumption.  Our relationship with God has ups and downs, ebbs and flows.  There are times, in God’s own purposes, that we hear the activity of God’s voice clearly and profoundly; similarly, there are times where, in God’s love for us, we sit silently together.  This doesn’t mean that Lectio Divina ‘failed’ or that we did something wrong.  In Lectio Divina, we open ourselves to experience God’s presence in whatever manner God wishes that to occur.

Spirit of GraceLectio Divina includes a lot of silence, a silence that we might not be used to, or comfortable with.  Because of this, as we begin to quiet ourselves down and attend to the presence of God, we can end up experiencing a wandering mind.  Henry Nouwen called this dynamic ‘jumping monkeys on a banana tree.’  Despite our desire to listen and pray, our mind seems to jump from one thought to another.  When we experience this wandering mind we either A: condemn ourselves for our lack of spiritual strength; or B: begin to fight against our wandering mind.  Either action leads us away from the discipline of Lectio Divina.  After all, if we spend our entire time meditating on our wandering mind, then we are not meditating on God’s voice.  The ancient writers on prayer stress that the way we push through the wandering mind is to acknowledge it, not fight it.

In Lectio Divina, we claim grace.  Grace is the very atmosphere of the discipline.  The fact is, everyone experiences a wandering mind in prayer; it is but a dynamic of being an imperfect person, living in an imperfect world.  So if your mind wanders, don’t beat yourself up.  It’s ok – You aren’t failing at the practice.  Simply acknowledge that your mind has wandered, and go back to your meditations.  This is why it is good to have a candle lit, or a cross placed in the centre of the room. These things are reminders of God’s Lordship and presence, but they are also aids for us if we need to refocus our minds.   Similarly, if there was a word or a phrase that seemed to have more weight to it (as you began the practice of Lectio Divina), repeating that word or phrase can help you focus on the presence of God. Even if you spend 9 minutes out of 10 with wandering thoughts, the grace of God is such that God rejoices in that one minute of heartfelt, meaningful, meditation.

None of these hints are earth shattering by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, I have found these hints beneficial for me as I have practised Lectio Divina.  Ultimately, Lectio Divina is never a skill that you master.  Our goal should never be to get ‘good at’ Lectio Divina.  We are labouring to hear God’s voice, spoken into our lives through the pages of the Biblical text, and it is to that end that these hints can prove helpful.

Living the Beatitudes

Does anyone else feel that the world is spinning out of control?  The inauguration of the US president, and the opening days of his rule, has turned the world on its head – or perhaps it is better to say that what used to lie simmering beneath the surface of contemporary life has now broken into the daylight.   Even in our country here, the quaint land of Canada, we have begun to see some of this.  And so there has descended upon many of us a sense of unrest, anxiety, and fear.  What will happen in the future?  What horror will we face next?  Will this ever stop?

I find that these are days where we need to hear the Beatitudes in their truest context.  I am reminded that the Beatitudes are not simple pie-in-the-sky statements of blissful morality.  They are not naive descriptions of world-peace, or the plea for us all to ‘play-nice’.  No.  Jesus is teaching the disciples, and the crowd around him, about what it means to be an alternative community of people.  Jesus calls us to live out the kingdom of God, often in opposition to the messages and values of the world around us.  The Beatitudes, and the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount for that matter, is perhaps Jesus’ most ‘political’ of sayings.  Yet for me, the power of this lies in the fact these politically, socially charged statements are radical precisely because Jesus doesn’t issue a diatribe on politics and social ethic.  Rather, he calls people the reality of God’s presence, and the blessing of God that surrounds them.

Think about who Jesus is speaking to.  These are the down and out.  They are the people who have been waiting, longing, praying, and crying out for a touch of God’s hand in their life.  These are the people that have been on the wrong side of power.  But instead of stating how wonderful it would be if everyone would just help one another, Jesus points them to a deeper reality than the alternative-truths of the Roman Empire and the powerful elite.  Jesus reminds them, and us, that the blessing of God – the activity, favour, and power of the one who created all things – is met precisely in their questions and the fears.

Jesus calls them to better kingdom.  “Blessed are the peacemakers”, he says.  Yet peace is not found is simply becoming the biggest kid on the block.  Replacing one tyrannical ruler with another tyrannical ruler does not make for peace, it just means we are in control.  And this way of life is as much steeped in the rhetoric of power and dominance as the script that tells others to build a wall and kick out the foreigners.

Jesus calls us to stand against the ethic of power, but not in violence or usurpation.  The kingdom of Jesus not a better kingdom because it is bigger or stronger.  It is better because it is a kingdom of  self-sacrificial love.  The call to mercy is the willingness to step outside of the cycle of violence and hatred – to be the one who will extend the hand of peace and forgiveness.  Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says ‘You have heard it said ‘love your neighbour, hate your enemies – but I say ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’

Living in the Kingdom of God calls us to be a people of hope.  We believe that we can see the movement of God in this world for no other reason than Jesus has promised it to be so.  We are to have the hope that, despite the alternative-facts promoted by those in power, God actually is in control of this crazy world of ours; God will bring healing, peace, justice and righteousness to the earth.  The community of people that Jesus inaugurates on the mountain is a community of people who are so filled with hope that we they choose to their lives as if the Kingdom of God was a full reality around us.

Can we be this community?  Can we be a community, not of critique but of compassion – and by doing so allow our compassion to provide the necessary critique to the scripts of denial in this world of ours?  Can we let the love of Jesus so fill our hearts that we turn our cheeks and go our extra miles, even to the people who use power to dominate and oppress?  This is not easy, which is probably why Jesus concludes the Beatitudes by speaking to the reality of persecution and rejection.  But we aren’t in the kingdom of God for ease, or clout, or to push through our manifest destinies.  We are in the kingdom of God because the radical love and peace of Jesus is the only thing that can stem the sin of hate and pride in us, and in each other.

This is what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is what it means to be a people who are blessed by God, and who live in the loving Kingdom of Jesus.