Live Like We’ve Made It

The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy to lead them. — Isaiah 11:4, JB

Looking to a perfect future is something religion typically “comes with.” In the Christian faith, prophecies are often read with eyes forward, waiting patiently for the day God sets everything straight. The trouble for me is that I am an “in the moment” kind of man. I don’t really know what to expect if/when the world comes to an end, Jesus returns, or I die, but I do know that I am alive right now in a world that could always use a little more light.

Fortunately, the prophets would have agreed with me! Prophecy in the Bible is less about predicting the future and more about the natural outworkings of our current problems. The prophet’s job is to call people to repentence immediately, forcing us to face the pain and suffering of the world and our part in it.

When reading Isaiah, it becomes clear early on that Israel is in very real trouble and God isn’t happy with them. They are criticized for their unjust practices and false piety, faced with invasion and destruction, but also encouraged by a vision of the possible future (should they decide to get it together).

Now some see such visions as pipe dreams used to provide “hope fuel” for the oppressed. I, on the other hand, view them as instructive, especially when I consider the teachings of Jesus, which emphasize living with the “Kingdom of God” in mind. The images of a final judgment and celestial utopia were not there to simply be believed in, but to give us a target for which to aim every day.

So when we see passages like the one above from Isaiah 11, or the “swords into ploughshares” verse that declares “there will be no more training for war” (chapter 2), it would be wise to see these as a goal rather than an eventual guarantee. Whereas the latter might only prompt us to “hold on tight,” the former is actually a call to action.

Such teachings should serve as ideals for which we strive by living as though they have already been realized. If we hope for a world of peace, we must in turn lead lives saturated with peace. If we dream of a future of equality, prosperity for all, and justice, our daily activities and interactions should reflect such things.

Am I dismissing the hope of some future manifestation of the Kingdom of God? Not necessarily. I just trust that God has such things in hand. What I am advocating for is turning our eyes from what could happen to what is happening, looking for opportunities to live out the future for which we hope.

Peace be with you!

On the Way

Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.” — John 14:6, REB

Being a follower of Jesus was once referred to as The Way, according to the biblical book known as Acts or The Acts of the Apostles (9:2, for example). In the Letter of James, faith is a way of life, demonstrated by what one does (1:22), for without a change of lifestyle, all the belief in the world is for naught (2:14). In all of God’s revelations, all of Jesus’ teachings, every epistle and apocalypse, there is always a behavioral component. All of these things are intended to amount to a change in the way a person lives.

When we look through the revelations of God from Eve and Adam to Jesus and beyond, every single one of them pointed to the way humanity and the Divine can achieve and maintain unity in a way that positively impacts the world. It’s God’s stated desire from the beginning that those in covenant with Him would be a blessing to “all the peoples on earth” (Genesis 12:3). Relationship with the Source of all life and being is meant to produce a way of living.

So why are we so caught up in belief?

Yes, beliefs tend to show in our actions. I’m not saying they aren’t important. But at the same time, the amount of death, destruction, and vitriol that has resulted from our obsession with metaphysical truth claims and our awful need to be right is pretty striking. Christians have gone to war with non-believers and each other over their understanding of God, even when there weren’t that many practical differences to separate them.

Even today, different denominations judge and condemn each other because one has a pope, the other won’t baptize infants, and another one believes Jesus is coming back to Independence, Missouri at the end of days to save only their congregation.

No, I didn’t make that last line up. I wish I had.

My point is that the obsession over “right” beliefs has gotten in the way of actually living out the point of those beliefs. If our metaphysical claims get in the way of loving, forgiving, and sharing of ourselves with others, we’ve become the very thing Jesus and the prophets criticized. Christ didn’t come to establish what amounts to another reason to mistreat people, but a way of life that provides healing to those we encounter, regardless of whether or not we agree with them theologically, politically, or otherwise.

The neat thing about practicing the Way of Jesus is that doing so renders worrying about orthodoxy unnecessary. Being the “faithful servant” of Christ puts us in a good position should the world be renewed by fire and brimstone, signaled by the angel’s trumpet, as some believe. It ensures a heavenly reward for those worried about afterlife issues. The Way is pleasing to God, whether He be explicitly Triune or not, and it affords us unity with Him according to the pattern set in Christ, making Him (directly or not) our Lord and Savior. Further, imitating Jesus and His Way requires continual connection to the Source of that Way, listening for what It has to say to us each day, so the relational component is accounted for.

Every theological concern and “belief box” is checked by walking according to Christ’s Way. The added bonus is that it comes with none of the damage that is caused by prioritizing doctrine over people. Arrogance and selfishness are nipped in the bud while we honor the truth revealed in Jesus. It seems like a win-win to me.

Peace be with you!

 

The Cost of Change

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.Hebrews 9:22, NRSV

Yeesh, this is a verse that is uncomfortable for a lot of people. The Letter to the Hebrews itself is often a bit… shaky to those uncomfortable with “bloody sacrifice” language who assume Jesus’ life and teachings remove the need for such things. I find, however, that if we look beyond the means of expression we will find a wise and necessary teaching.

If you have ever tried to change… anything, you know that it isn’t easy. Whether it’s a move, a job switch, or *shudders* personal growth, the process of transitioning from one state of being to another can be uncomfortable, if not painful. Imagine, then, the difficulty involved in seeking to live a Godly life, a life beyond our own needs and desires, a life like that of Christ. To change from an inherently selfish way of being (taught and encouraged by the world) to one that is more selfless isn’t easy.

It costs something.

The sacrificial culture of ancient Judaism wasn’t about a disdain for animals or the need to see gallons of blood every day. To sacrifice a living creature to God for purification, for one’s sins and those of the community, sent a clear message about the gravity of our choices. Sin costs life. Holiness requires giving up sin.

While we may not need to spill a poor goat’s blood to bear this in mind (yaaay), it’s a message that is worth repeating. We see movies, read books, and hear stories about people who seem to gracefully and inspiringly turn their lives around. We know we have aspects of our lives that deny who God created us to be, and I believe many of us want to make the changes necessary to be a more faithful, compassionate, kind, and positively productive version of ourselves. There’s just one hiccup.

It’s hard as hell.

We humans fear uncertainty. We love familiarity, and we are creatures of habit. To change, even when we know it to be necessary, is a frightening prospect because the roots of who we are, the habits that define us, will need to shift, and that is not an easy ask.

But it is entirely worth it.

Jesus’ life highlights how painful it can be to seek to do the will of God in every situation. Indeed, persecution and the inevitability of walking the road to the cross make for quite the challenge. Yet the power of transformation, of the healing and resurrection that come with such a life overshadow that difficulty.

The freedom to live a life unhindered by addiction is worth the withdrawals and shadow-work needed to address one’s unhealthy coping habits.

A love life unstained by one’s relationally catastrophic past is worth the facing and acceptance of uncomfortable truths about what happened “back then.”

Leaving work knowing you positively affected the lives of others is worth the horrifying step of leaving a comfortable yet unfulfilling employment situation in search of meaning.

The peace of mind that you and/or those who depend on you are safe because you made that petrifying phone call to end an abusive situation is worth it.

Whatever the specifics, it is true that it is difficult and scary to transform your life according to God’s will for you. It means giving things up that we think we need. It means sometimes accepting unpleasant truths about ourselves or others, and it means surrendering those things that keep us from acknowledging “that of God” in everyone.

It’s also true, however, that what we give still pales in comparison to the effects of that change. To align ourselves with Christ, to walk in the way of selfless love and action, is worth the cost. His way is one of unity with the Divine and each other, and that’s something this world is in desperate need of.

Sure, we don’t have to use blood-soaked Levitical language to describe the difficulty of change. It may be enough to say that transforming into more Christ-like people is exceedingly difficult and requires that we give up certain things. But I think the severity of the author’s words in the Letter to the Hebrews is a great acknowledgment and reminder of what’s at stake in our choices.

After all, to walk in the way of Christ will cost our life as we know it, and I for one am so glad.

Peace be with you!

Guided By The Spirit

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the lawLuke 2:27, NRSV

We live in a world that is entrenched in its ways. Everyone has their political party, their religion or philosophy, their opinion, their tribe. Humans tend to like a fixed way of thinking that informs all the other aspects of their lives; a “home base” if you will.

The problem with this is that inevitably, our tribe becomes our idol. We close ourselves off to new ways of thinking or being because those novel opportunities scare the part of us that needs “home base.” As a result, we miss the chance to be a part of what God is actively doing in the world today.

This is where Simeon from Luke 2 comes into play. Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (2:25). Simeon’s connection to God’s Spirit enabled him to be guided by it, allowing him to see God’s salvation (2:30) when so many after him would be too blinded by their own expectations to experience God’s movement in the world.

For us today, Simeon’s lesson is all the more revalent. Our religious, political, or social “certainties” might make us feel safe and “right,” but they also narrow our sphere of influence and understanding. This in turn prevents us from loving our neighbor as Christ commanded, because the love of Christ defied the boundaries of the world in the first century and continues to do so today.

Jesus is the path of salvation no one saw coming (and by “salvation,” I mean unity with God). A poor carpenter’s son of no real worldly value or standing is actually the embodiment of the love of God and perfect unity with His will. To follow this Jesus is not to stake one’s self to a singular understanding of God.

Instead, discipleship is the acceptance that God is the One who said, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). As such, we must be ever on the lookout for God’s teachings and activities, dismissing nothing (and no one) out of hand, for we don’t know where He may appear. This is what it means to be “guided by the Spirit,” and it’s the only way we can break our narrow-minded bonds and experience firsthand the unity with God that Jesus exemplifies.

Let us free ourselves from “certainty” and open our minds and hearts to each other. In doing so, we allow God’s Spirit to do its work and guide us to the places we need to be in order to do what we need to do. Is it scary? Yes. Uncertain? Of course. Worth it? Without a doubt.

Peace be with you!

In Your Heart

No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.Deuteronomy 30:14, NRSV

The most fights I have seen between individual and congregated Christians has been about “what to do.” A topic is somehow brought up and bickering ensues about what single response God has to the slew of possible human complications faced by believers today. Someone pulls a verse or chapter, someone else appeals to tradition, and another parrots what the pastor said over coffee that one time.

But what about your heart?

While Deuteronomy is a re-iteration of Jewish law, this teaching from chapter 30, verses 11-14 indicates that what is “right” needn’t be difficult to determine. In fact, if we pair it with Jesus’ understanding of the Law and Prophets, namely that honoring these is to simply and selflessly love God and all others (Matthew 22:34-40), we have the perfect guide for discipleship.

If what we decide to do is rooted in the love of God and others that challenges us to look beyond ourselves, chances are it is right and good. We need not cross the sea or ascend to heaven, nor do we need to obsess over stone tablets, parchment, or texts. When we connect to that of God within us and seek that of God in everyone, we are believing and acting rightly.

For today, let us allow the love of God to penetrate our hearts. Let us connect to the image and Spirit He has already gifted to us since our creation. Finally, let us act in accordance with the law that is on our hearts and lips to observe, loving God and respecting the Good He has placed in every person.

Peace be with you!

God, Help Us

Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.Hebrews 2:18, NRSV

Believe it or not, you’re being tested. So am I. All of us are.

Life is an assortment of tests.

When we encounter people with whom we disagree, we are being tested.

When we are faced with the choice of being generous or closing our hands, we are being tested.

When the world is full of hunger and poverty, and when people are suffering at and within our own borders, we are being tested.

Testing from God is often viewed negatively, as though God is waiting for us to slip up. However, according to Hebrews 2, God’s will is to help us in the midst of testing. It’s not that God sends us means by which we may fall, but those occasions come naturally and God, in Jesus, gives us a blueprint by which we may emerge victorious.

God desires for each of us to be successful in the imitation of Christ’s love, especially in those moments where it may be all too tempting to choose a more selfish path. The love of Jesus led Him to the cross rather than saving Himself at the expense of His message that honoring God and all His children is a cause worth dying for. Salvation in Christ is unity with His will, empowering us to follow in His footsteps when temptation strikes.

The faithful are charged with the responsibility of acting differently in the face of adversity. Like Christ, we are to forgive when affronted, and we are to actively care for those whom the world has forgotten or cast aside. We are to love those we’d prefer to hate, and we are to make our voices heard in the face of injustice.

So take heart. Yes, we are surrounded by tests, but God would prefer us to see these temptations as opportunities to witness to the Divine’s insurmountable love. When faced with a choice in which we are tempted to serve ourselves, let us look to Christ and remember that how we treat others is indicative of how we relate to God. I pray we all may fight the good fight by feeding the hungry, advocating for those in prison or immigration detention centers, forgiving our enemies, and trading love for injury.

We have help in God. We are never alone. Let us look to His grace and share it with one another.

This world cannot bear for us to do any less.

Peace be with you!

In Hot Pursuit

The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but he loves the one who pursues righteousness. — Proverbs 15:9, NRSV

I used to think being transformed by God’s grace was a passive act. Time after time, mistake after mistake, and prayer after prayer I would wait for that magic moment that I would no longer be subject to my bad habits. I believed there would be this “place” in life that would signal my spiritual maturity and official station as a disciple of Jesus.

Welp.

Needless to say, that is not the experience I have had, and I thank God for that. I was denying my agency in life, missing my part in God’s story, and setting myself up for failure in trying to hit a “moving target” of salvation that doesn’t exist. As the well-beaten Emerson quote says, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and the same is doubly true for the life of faith in Christ.

Scripture speaks often of pursuit. The Scripture above from Proverbs expresses God’s approval for those who pursue righteousness. Psalm 34:14 encourages us to “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” In Philippians 3, Paul speaks of “straining forward to what lies ahead” (verse 13). Jesus exhorts His followers to “strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). This theme of effort, pursuit, and striving is consistent throughout all of Scripture, and it is a vital lesson for us today.

The quality and holiness of our lives depend not on all we manage to achieve, but all that we decide to pursue with our whole heart. Faith is a journey that takes us to the end of our time on this earth. Salvation is the way in which we live, and not a static place to stand. If we spend our time chasing after accomplishments and accolades while remaining complacent in our faith life, we have veered off course and lost “the narrow path.” However, should we decide to pursue God in every moment, and if we see ourselves, each other, and all this world has to offer as sacred, we will be re-oriented toward God’s kingdom, and we will hasten its coming.

This is not a check-list, finish line kind of race. It is one of endurance, one that will have many obstacles and pit-falls, one that will sometimes involve us getting lost and needing to be re-calibrated. But it is also a journey of transformation. In making the effort to recognize what George Fox called “that of God in everyone,” and in striving to live a Christ-like life, we do actually change and grow in our connection to God. This in turn has a positive impact on those with whom we interact, creating a chain effect that makes the Kingdom of God a current reality.

We all have a part to play in God’s story. We all have the freedom to choose what to do with the love of God and the relationship He offers us. I pray that as we go out into this, we will choose to act on that love, honoring it in our thoughts, our words, and our various doings. In this way, we both pursue and live out our salvation.

Peace be with you!