versus

It’s something we learn from an early age, the myth of us versus them. As kids it is often for sports, competition or play. As we grow older sometimes the distinctions that we make become more serious with age. It’s no longer about the games we play or the sports teams we cheer on (although sometimes these rivalries are pretty serious), but we begin to make distinctions based on race, regional affiliations, philosophies, gender, etc. the list could go on forever. And although sometimes these differences are naturally observed, the damage we allow them to do at times is quite unnatural. When we operate out of the paradigm of us verses them we begin to rob ourselves of what God may be trying to do through us.

You see, these distinctions do not belong to God. In the beginning we read this about God’s creation of humanity. “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1:26-27 Here we read that all of mankind is made in the image of God. All of mankind bears God’s image, God’s touch. So when we create these divisions, these categories, we limit our ability to see the “other” as someone who is also made in the image of God. And ultimately the way in which we treat them as a bearer of the image of God is a reflection of our love for God. If that love is limited by sweeping divisions and categories, we are not truly reflecting the love of God for His creation.

In his essay The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis comments on our interaction with fellow image bearers in the following way, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” One might say that our sweeping categorizations of people much like ‘nations, cultures, arts, civilizations’ are mortal as well and limit our ability to see each other as immortal beings. What would happen if we were able to drop the us versus them mentality? What would happen in our families, relationships, encounters, etc. if we were able to simply see each other as made in the image of God? May you see those around you in a new light today and truly embrace your neighbor as a bearer of the image of God.


present

Sometimes I hate my smart phone. I guess it really is more of a love/hate relationship, but I hate what I allow it inadvertently to do to my other relationships. And don’t act like you haven’t been there either. It can pull you away from meaningful conversation. It occupies time that would otherwise be well invested in the lives of those closest to you. It becomes a distraction from what could or should be termed as real life. It keeps you from being present. In fact at times I feel like I just have to take a sabbatical from it in order to be a better version of myself. Presence is something we as humans really seem to struggle with.

Fortunately for us this is not an issue for God. Although, the way we talk you might think it were. Sometimes we behave in ways as to insinuate that God isn’t present in a place. Or other times we allude to the fact that God is present somewhere when He hasn’t been before. But the apostle Paul has this to say about the presence of God, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” – Ephesians 4:3-6 Did you catch that last part? ‘One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’. Whether or not we recognize it, God is always present.

And I think the problem with us and sensing God’s presence is not a God problem. It’s a you and me problem. Much like our inability to be present with our friends and family with distractions like smart phones, we often allow other things to get in the way of us perceiving the presence of God. Paul says to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through peace. So when we allow ourselves to be distracted by other influences and expectations and divisions, we won’t sense the presence of God. Even when we expect God to only be present in ways we have experienced His presence in the past, we are limiting our experience of who God is. The very giving of God’s name in Exodus 3 should keep us from doing this when God tells us, “I am what I am” or even better, “I will be what I will be”. (Exodus 3:14)

There is a worship song that was written a few years ago that I think helps us to see our responsibility in the presence and action of God that I think we would all be wise to give ear to today. The bridge simply says this, “Let us become more aware of Your Presence, Let us experience the glory of Your goodness” (Holy Spirit by Bryan and Katie Torwalt) Today, may we realize that God’s presence is all around us and that we are called to experience that presence with Him and to share it with those around us.


love

I’m not sure how most of your homes work, but ours has always had a division of labor. Certain tasks fall to my wife and certain tasks fall to me. With the exception of rocking infants, one of my tasks has always been the bedtime ritual. I imagine a large part of the motivation of this division is due to my wife’s exhaustion after handling the kids most of the day, but it is a task I have gladly accepted. This usually includes making sure teeth are brushed, pajamas are on, stories are read, prayers are said and kisses and hugs are distributed equally. Last night as I was putting the bigs (this is now the affectionate term given to the two older kids) to bed I leaned over to hug my daughter and she blurted out, “God loves you, God loves me, God loves the whole world and God loves grandmother” (I’m still not sure why my maternal grandmother gets her own line, but if you knew her you might understand that a bit more). But I was touched by her innocence and the profoundness of that assurance that she had.

I think sometimes we think differently about God’s love. Maybe we feel it is something that we have to earn. Maybe we feel sometimes we think it is something that we aren’t deserving of. Maybe sometimes we think it is meant for someone else and not for us. Maybe sometimes we get that turned around and think of others as unlovable by God. But I come back to this again, “God loves you, God loves me, God loves the whole world.” We find this declaration in one of the most often quoted passages of scripture in the whole of the Bible. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16. It doesn’t say that God loved a certain portion of the world. Or that God loved the people that look like me, act like me, dress like me, etc. The text says that God loved(s) the world…This is why he came. This is why he gave his life. Because he loves us all.

I have read many books about theology and Biblical thought in my scholastic career and in my time as a pastor. But I really think that sometimes we forget how simple this message is for you and for me. Sometimes I like to sing the following to myself as a little reminder:   Jesus loves me this I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

“God loves you, God loves me, God loves the whole world”. If you get nothing else from this today, I pray that you are able to rest in the love of God. A love that was not passive, but gave everything to redeem you. A love that is never-ending, unstoppable, always and forever, divine in nature, looking beyond my faults and calling me his own kind of love. This is the kind of love God has for you and for me.

 

 

 


hate

I’m tired. I’m really so tired. I’m tired of not having the right words for a world that is in such desperate need for hope. I’m tired of my friends and family trying to make sense of senseless violence. I’m tired of living in a world that seeks to give meaning to tragedy by labeling the victims or the oppressors with grandiose terms that simply go further to divide us. And I’m tired of the church responding in silence or worse yet responding with the same malevolence that leads to atrocities like that which just took place in Orlando…Orlando. A city that is usually synonymous with childhood excitement and imagination. The city of Mickey and the Magic Kingdom, Seaworld and Harry Potter and Universal Studios is now most closely associated with the worst mass shooting on US Soil of the 21st century. Orlando; a name that means ‘famous throughout the land’ has now become infamous for all the wrong reasons.

Many times when I am trying to make sense of hatred and violence and how the church is called to respond in our modern age, I look to the prophets of Israel. Prior to the birth of the church, the role the church was intended to play for the world (revealing God and his love for mankind) belonged to Israel. Unfortunately they at times did not understand how to fulfill that role either. And so the prophets resonate loudly in our world today. Hate is a word that I am not too fond of and yet one of the prophets uses it to help us make sense of the world in which we find ourselves in. Amos was a prophet called to critique the disconnect between hollow religious worship and societal injustice in Israel. Speaking the heart of God to those assembled he has this to say, ““I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” – Amos 5:21-24

When it comes to the word hate, it is not used for people groups or individuals, but rather for worship that is not connected to justice for the least of these. Israel had been oppressing those they deemed unworthy and therefore God looks down upon their worship with disgust…hatred. When we look to the prophetic voice to see that which God truly hates we see it is our hollow assemblies where we gather for worship but forget that our fellow man is made in the image of the same God that we gather to worship on a weekly basis. We have to stop labeling. We have to stop distancing people from us because they are not like us. We have to become active in sharing the love of Christ everywhere. In light of this most recent tragedy perhaps it is in giving blood or donating to the Red Cross or giving to a church in Orlando that is fulfilling the call to be light in the darkness. But we cannot allow our worship to be disconnected from compassionate action anymore. Our worship cannot be separate from God’s justice and righteousness anymore. We must find ourselves shining like light in the darkness and realizing that hate and fear and apathy are never the answer.


plows and swords

Last night I arrived to our Wednesday night Discipleship class and we were taking prayer requests before we began. Someone then mentioned UCLA and I was completely clueless for a moment. Then someone mentioned a murder/suicide shooting that had taken place and I was frustrated once again by violence happening in a place that is supposed to be safe…a place of higher learning. And this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in the national spotlight in the past year. Umpqua, San Bernardino, and Chattanooga have become familiar names in the news headlines because of similar incidents.

Truthfully it’s no surprise that I didn’t know about the shooting last night as most of the time I try to refrain from being too involved in the news. I usually will read one news email a day and then tune out a lot of the other stuff that is going on. But when I do tune in, I am always shocked and saddened by the amount of violence going on in the world. Bombs, shootings, drones, murders, etc. flood the headlines of any news outlet. I like to think and hope that we can do better. As stewards of God’s creation (which includes each other) I know we are called to do better. I find myself resonating with the prophetic hope that is so strong it is found in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” I love the imagination behind this hope. The weapons that are used for attacking/defending what is mine or what I want to be mine are turned into tools of provision for my neighbor.

I recently saw a post online that referenced a conversation that took place on the show Louis between Louis C.K.’s character and his daughter. I’m not sure this is a show one would usually reference for wisdom, but this quote on fairness was powerful. “The only time you should look into your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look into your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have…as much as them.” Mahatma Gandhi said something similar many years before. “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” I believe the problem with much of the violence in our world today goes back to the original violence done right outside the Garden of Eden. We have forgotten that we are our brother’s (sister’s) keeper. We are called to ensure the well-being of all of creation as we are stewards of creation. I’m not sure that this is the answer to all of the violence in the world, but maybe if we start to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks we just might start to see some of this violence redeemed.

 


safe

In his now classic allegory The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis begins the process of introducing the Christ-figure character of Aslan to the children in the following fashion. “Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”  Lewis chose to portray his Christ figure as a lion and so it should go without saying that he isn’t ‘safe’, but what holds up his Kingship in the eyes of all Narnians is that he is good. Lewis allegory that ran throughout the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia always had a robust way of seeing God. Through the image of Aslan we never however see him as safe, but as wild and free and good. I makes me think that sometimes we may have reduced our image of God in the way in which we live our lives today.

Before Christ ascended into heaven he made a promise to his disciples in the book of Acts. The writer Luke puts it this way, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” –  Acts 1:8 This verse of course refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but there are two terms I think we need to pay closer attention to. The first is the Greek word dynamis which means “the power to carry out a task”. As you can see it is where we get the word dynamite. The second is the word martys which refers to a witness in legal matters or one who tells their story. Strangely enough, this is where we get the modern word martyr. Stop me if I am off a bit, but putting those two terms together doesn’t seem very safe.

To me the wonder of Pentecost and the birth of the church was the movement from safety (at least relative perceived safety) to the disciples being willing to lay down their lives for that which they had experienced. They had been in hiding from the authorities until receiving this power and then all of a sudden they were willing to risk everything to tell their story. And now 2,000 years later we have at times reduced the gospel of Jesus to something that promises safety and comfort and very little risk to your current way of living. I’m not sure this is what was intended when we were promised power to share our experience with the world around us. In fact, I think we need to be reminded that we are not called to safety and comfort but to share that which we have been given in a real and true way. Ours is the story that has called apostles to confess before the coliseum of death, martyrs to share Jesus to the bitter end, missionaries to travel at risk to family and friends and saints to pursue bringing others to Jesus above any worldly comfort.

This same power is available to you and I today…we just have to be willing to give up feeling safe. May you embrace the risk and adventure of walking in The Spirit today.

 


50 days

In our household we have a tradition that at some point began with our firstborn. I guess you could call it the Birthday countdown. Somewhere in the calendar between birthdays it becomes necessary for my wife and I to do the math prior to the next child’s birthday and then the countdown is on. It has started with as many as 200 days, but usually doesn’t get serious until around the 30 day mark. In the meantime plans are made, presents are wished for, the day is marked out with incredible expectation and then all that there is left to do is wait somewhat patiently as the countdown marches on. Although patience is usually not the key expression of this countdown. But on the upside my wife and I have gotten really good at knowing how many days are in every month.

During this season in the church calendar I can’t help but think about the Birthday countdown. We are currently in the 50 days between Passover and Pentecost or more appropriately between Easter and Pentecost. In fact, the name Pentecost literally means fiftieth. This is the time in the church we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit and we remember the waiting of the disciples. This to me is the most incredible part. The disciples, although living in fear of what might happen to them were hanging onto Jesus’ last promise before his Ascension. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 And then when the day of Pentecost came, the world was turned upside down. This power that became present in the lives of the believers transformed everything.

Sometimes I think we as the church still find ourselves in the waiting period; the countdown. We are waiting on God to do something in our midst. We use words like revival, renewal, refreshing, etc., but the problem is, we aren’t called to wait anymore. You see, the original waiting/countdown was Jesus’ promise to those disciples who gathered in that upper room. And when the day of Pentecost came, the waiting game ended. We believe that since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit is present, living and active in the lives of believers everywhere and yet sometimes we find ourselves waiting. But for what? This is the same Spirit that transformed terrified fishermen into bold and defiant preachers. This is the same Spirit that transformed a Pharisaical terrorist into the church’s first missionary. This is the same Spirit that led believers out of hiding and into a willingness to die in a Roman arena. And we think something special has to happen for The Spirit to be at work. Wake up church! The Spirit is at work and moving and bringing new life and we need to stop waiting and start moving in step with God.

This Sunday we will commemorate and celebrate Pentecost. But it’s time we live out of the power of The Spirit and stop waiting/counting days for whatever we think might ignite the Spirit’s presence within us. The Spirit is already ablaze, let’s not be the one’s to quench it with our waiting.


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