“Not of This World,” But We Do Try

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. — John 17:16, NRSV

I hear the phrase “In the world, but not of it” quite frequently when it comes to the Christian faith and its adherents. This idea comes from John 17, in which Jesus is praying for His disciples before entering into His Passion. It’s true that the image of the Cross depicts a King and a Kingdom unlike any we have ever experienced on this earth, but how do we, His people, match up with this vision?

Not long ago, a senior official representing the United States implied that God sent President Trump to save the nation that calls itself Israel, and this merely echoes what many voices in the president’s base have been saying since he initially ran for office.

Churches often base success on “the numbers.” If there are a lot of people buying in, tithing, and attending, we must be onto something.

We individuals, when life is going well, use words phrases like, “I’m blessed,” and “God is good.” When things take a turn for the tragic, such phrases tend to fall to the background and we begin to question the goodness of God. We avoid images and descriptions of Christ that “fall short” of His triumphant resurrection and ascension, believing the crucifixion was just a moment of temporary embarrassment before His intended glory.

So what’s the problem?

All of these circumstances align prosperity, ease of life, and power with the Gospel’s main character. As humans, we naturally find these things desirable and positive, yet that’s not exactly the message of the One who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted” and those who are reviledĀ  and persecutedĀ because they believe in Christ (Matthew 5:1-12).

It’s perfectly natural for us to crave security and pleasure in life, but too much of this can lead us to portray God as a character in our own story rather than understanding that we are a part of His. When that happens, we are able to justify a lot… even if it actually takes us away from the Good News Jesus imparts to us. The Gospel urges us to look at our darkest and most painful moments with the knowledge that God is there.

This is why the cross is the primary symbol of the faith. It has nothing to do with guilt, shame, or depression. Rather, it is a reminder that we don’t need to “look high” for the presence of God. He is here, with us when it hurts and when following in the footsteps of Christ ends up costing us all the power, prestige, security, and comfort we seek so desperately.

Because it will.

Yet this is not something to resent or fear. It’s a joyful connection to our King, who Himself gave all that He had that we might know what it is to love and to fully, intimately know God. We will not always act in accordance with this truth, but the power of transformation is revealed in our efforts and our openness to regular reminders, often the most accessible of which being communal worship and the Eucharist.

When the disciples were concerned about power and greatness as the world sees it, with the “great ones” who “are tyrants over them,” to which Jesus responds “But it is not so among you” (Mark 10:42-43). The Church, the people of God, are not meant to live as though Jesus were just another king with just another kingdom, with all of the power-hungry politics of this world. Rather, we are meant to realize that all of these things, the institutions, the powers that be, will all eventually fall away and be no more. The Kingdom we are a part of, the One we serve, is something… other.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t written to lay a burden. It’s written as a reminder, first of all to myself. We are not required to live perfectly, only to consistently make efforts toward following the path Jesus sets before us. He will walk with us and though we stumble, He will not let us fall headlong (Psalm 37:24). God is not our tyrant, nor is He the sanctifying force by which we may do whatever want. God is the One who walks with us, guides us, corrects us, redeems us, and forgives us. Above all, He is the One who loves us instructs us to imitate and share that love. If we follow His lead, we will truly be a part of something “not of this world.”

Peace be with you!

 

 

Right Place, Right Time, Weird Day

Trust in him, and he will help you; make your way straight, and hope in him — Sirach 2:6, RSV

As an Episcopalian, I read the Scriptures according to the Catholic canon, which include books like the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, quoted above. In fact, I was reading this particular quote when a truly powerful moment came upon me at a local Catholic Church. It was a moment I needed, and God, in God-like fashion, provided so much more than I could have asked for.

I have made it a habit to go sit in the sanctuary of this church when I have down time between personal training clients. It’s somewhat “out-of-the-way,” darker, and very quiet. Say what you will about Catholics (unless it’s unnecessarily rude), but they tend to leave the doors open more than anyone, and they also know how to craft a sacred space. On this particular day, I found myself drawn to theĀ Pieta statue, depicting Jesus in the arms of His grieving mother, Mary. I didn’t know why, but I just followed the feeling and took a seat, pulling out my Bible and journal.

I read my “secondary canon” book in the afternoon, so I turned to the chapter of Sirach I was on and read.

For the past few days, I had been vexed. Was I doing enough with my life? Am I really doing anything to change the world for the better? Has my past rendered my present and future minimally effective? These questions had been plaguing me, but as I arrived at the quote above, I closed my eyes in prayer, and a thought came to me.

Jesus didn’t set out to change the world. He focused on what was assigned to Him, what was in front of Him. The only thing I am responsible for is dealing with what’s in front of me in a Christ-like manner, and the rest is for me to entrust to God.

This powerful teaching came upon me, and as I opened my eyes, I kid you not, a woman was kneeling a few rows in front of me, crying. I felt the pull to go and offer to pray with her.

Now.

I also felt the pull to be my usual introvert self and keep to my own business. “I can just meditate like I planned and pray for her from here, ” I thought. But something kept tugging on me, and I realized that this is always the temptation, to help from a distance, not spending too much time actually being with people in their suffering. So, reluctantly, I got my awkward butt up and walked over.

I offered to pray for this sniffling woman, and she immediately broke down and made space for me to kneel beside her. We exchanged names, and without being prompted, she shared a heartbreaking story about the divorce she was suffering through. Many tears and tissues later, we prayed together. She likened her experience to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus with a kiss, and I gently reminded her that this was not the end of the story. We reminded each other that the image of Jesus suffering on the cross is there to remind us that God knows our pain, and we are not alone.

After this powerful moment of mutual ministry, we prayed again, I lit my usual candle (with a new name attached to it), and I left.

The truth is, it is not all up to us to make the world ideal. We are not strong enough to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, but God is. Our role in this story is to keep our eyes in front of us, as Jesus did, making our way through our lives and interactions with Christ-like love and humility, trusting in God to do what He does best. As Jesus teaches, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow with be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34).

I don’t know where you are on your journey. Maybe you feel like you don’t have what it takes. Maybe you are wondering if you even matter. Perhaps you’re unsure if you have any bearing on the course of the world or if you have anything good to bring. Allow me to share God’s answer on the subject.

You do.

Peace be with you.