Once upon a time I prided myself on being a prompt person. I was the guy who believed 15 minutes early was on time, being on time was pushing it, and if you were going to show up late, you might as well not show up. And then I met my wife… That’s not to say that she is late for everything; it’s just that arriving on time didn’t seem to be as much a priority for her. And then we had kids…and then we had more kids…(4 in total!) I have learned a whole new form of departure/arrival schematics that would make your head spin since the advent of children into our lives. I sometimes feel I am the only one in my household who holds appointment arrival times in high regard. And this is just the half of it. I actually believe my 6-yr-old daughter may be a charter member of what we refer to as “the slow club”.
My wife and I learned about the existence of the slow club a number of years ago while attending a youth convention. The keynote speaker, Mark Yaconelli, spoke about his young son and how they would be trying to get somewhere and all of a sudden he realized his son wasn’t walking with them anymore. He would turn around to discover his son mesmerized by a rock, a twig or a flower; just caught up in the moment. And I have come to realize that my flower picking, roly polie catching, cloud gazing 6-yr-old princess is also a member of the slow club. She is just able to move at a different pace than the rest of us. And I am doing all I can to realize that maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. After all, I think God may be a member of the slow club as well.
Now before you jump down my throat about the attributes of God let’s hear these words from the second letter from Peter.“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:8-9. Time is different for the one who stands outside of it. When all of eternity is before you, what is one year? And so often we think of God as not acting fast enough, not bending to our prayers quickly enough or not intervening on our time table…but maybe God is in the slow club. Maybe His divine patience and grace make space for things to take place that just can’t make any sense to us in our limited scope of space and time. I know I am so thankful for his patience with me and perhaps I need to learn to extend that same patience with others and with God. Maybe having a daughter in the slow club isn’t such a bad thing after all…even if I do sometimes have to stop and take a deep breath. So may you and I find ourselves taking a deep breath today and learning to be patient, for our God is.
Lately I’ve found myself spending a good deal of time in the gospel of John. I’m currently teaching a Sunday school class on the “I am” statements, working our way chronologically through John in a Sunday evening Bible study and even the Lectionary has us encountering Christ through John. So needless to say I pretty much live there. The central theme throughout the book of John is that of belief. This belief and it’s benefits are spelled out pretty quickly in the prologue, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” – John 1:12 Even the most often quoted piece of the entire Bible contains this theme as well, “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 But what does the gospel writer mean by belief?
I can’t help but think of the scene in the story of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell is poisoned by Captain Hook. In order to resuscitate her the audience (as this is the play version I am thinking of) must say they believe in fairies and clap their hands. As the audience claps, Tinkerbell is restored to life in the presence of their “belief”. But is this the “belief” that the gospel writer is referring to? The Greek word used throughout the book of John is the word pisteuō and William Mounce defines it as, “to believe, put one’s faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow”. And I think that this last portion of the definition is where the gospel writer is taking us…and rightfully so.
The thesis of the gospel of John is quite simple. He writes so that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Belief that Jesus is the Son of God cannot in any way, shape or form be separated from what one does with that belief. It cannot be a statement of mere vocal expression. Because when one says that Jesus is God’s son, one is saying that Jesus fully embodies the Divine force that created every speck of existence and therefore that which he enacts and commands for us carries that same weight. In his trilemma, C.S. Lewis put it this way, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.” So truly I tell you, there is no such thing as ‘just belief’. To say one believes that Jesus is the Son of God must transform one’s very existence and therefore create in each and every one of us an entirely new way of living. So where is your belief taking you today?
This past Monday evening my wife and I entered into a phenomenon which we had yet to experience, but which I have heard occurs rather frequently. Our oldest had been registered to begin soccer and then our 6-yr-old decided to give gymnastics a try and lo and behold, they were both on the same evening. And so all of a sudden we were scrambling, heading in different directions with the kids split up and even all grabbing dinner at different times/locations…and I thought it was terrible. For a day my family simply felt like we were all roommates under the same roof and it just felt so disjointed. You see our usual routine of the day culminates around one table where we share a meal and our days with one another. We get to see what each other experienced throughout the day and offer up encouragement and affirmation to each other as we conclude the day. And yet, I am led to believe that what we experienced on Monday has simply become more of the norm for a majority of households in America today. And it kind of makes my heart sad.
An often quoted Proverb in and around the church goes something like this, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” – Proverbs 22:6. And we often use this as justification for getting our kids to church or praying with them or occasionally reading scripture with them. And this is good, but this isn’t the whole picture. What kind of precedents are we setting for them? Are we allowing space for them to still be children? Are the expectations that we place on our kids and spouses realistic? Where is our space to just exist for a moment as a family? In our pursuit of what we often think is best for our children we have begun chasing after things that are ultimately unrealistic/unattainable and leave us and them drained. In commenting on our pursuit of empty things, Jesus had this to say in the Sermon on the Mount, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” – Matthew 6:32-33 Now before you say that this doesn’t relate, let me extrapolate a bit.
There is a phrase in our society we hear sometimes about, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ (I kind of feel for anyone with that last name). But it’s an expression about attaining to the status that our neighbors have achieved. So if their kid is in three sports, then my kid needs to be in three sports. If there kid is on the honor roll and a master of violin, then my kid needs to be. If they are holding down two jobs to hang onto the mortgage for the house and the car payments that they can’t afford, then by golly I need to as well. And if there family is falling apart and their marriage is a sham because they rarely have time for each other, then I guess it’s okay if mine is too. What example are we setting for our kids? Where is the space left for our families and our marriages to succeed? Maybe today we need to realize just how precious little the time we have is and find space for our families and for God to make the most of who He has called us to be.
One of my favorite table top games to play is Jenga. However I do not recommend playing this game with a 6-yr-old as their frustration with a loss can be a bit intense. For those of you not familiar with Jenga, it is a game with a tower involving multiple layers of 3 small wooden planks. In order to play one must remove a wood plank from the lower sections of the tower and stack that plank on top; forming a new layer. The game gets progressively unsteady as the tower is reshaped and eventually topples over to reveal the person who loses (Now you can see how a 6-yr-old might get upset…but it’s hilarious when daddy loses). I reference Jenga today because sometimes I think we often think of our faith walks in terms of a Jenga tower…but one in which we can’t ever remove any planks for fear of losing the whole construct. And then there are other people who seem to want to remove planks all the time and we wonder how their tower even remains upright. In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s narrative voice the Rev. John Ames speaks to this a bit when he says, “It seems to me some people go around looking to get their faith unsettled”
I think the issue in this discussion lies with how we think about our faith. For many of us faith is something that must be iron-clad, unwavering and rationalistic proof of what we believe. And so even the slightest chink/change in the construct of what we believe could bring the whole thing tumbling down. For others of us our faith is a bit more fluid and we allow change to enter into the ebb and flow of what we believe. One might even find comfort in the words of Anne Lamott, “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty.” But wherever you find yourself on this continuum, the one thing that we must all admit to ourselves is that what we espouse as far as belief is faith. It is hope in the thing we cannot prove upon which we stake our entire lives, will one day come to fruition. And that is difficult to comprehend sometimes.
The writer of the epistle of 1 Peter in the new testament encourages us with the following, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” – 1 Peter 3:15 Sometimes we think about this “answer” as needing to be proof of our faith…some way to rationalize our belief to those we come into contact with. But truly the answer is evidence for our reason to hope. And how is this lived out? By staking our lives on that which we believe. We believe in God the Father almighty. And in Jesus Christ his only Son who made a way for our redemption. We believe in the Holy Spirit that sustains us and gives birth to the Church that is the hope for the world. And we frame our lives around these core beliefs. Perhaps other planks may come and go with our faith walk, but we have staked our life on these essentials with aren’t shaken and create in us hope for tomorrow. Rupertus Meldenius’ quote holds more truth to us today than ever before when it comes to our faith in an ever shifting cultural landscape, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Faith rests upon the essentials. This is where our hope is realized. And we give our hope to the world with gentleness and respect (love) and we begin see the world transformed.
As a parent of an elementary school student you sometimes find the dusty corners of your academic history needing to be swept. All of a sudden your child is coming home with work and arithmetic that you haven’t even attempted in ages. Most recently I have found myself brushing up on my multiplication tables and division for my fourth grader and I was probably a bit more dusty than I thought. And for some reason he is really struggling with division. The concept behind multiplication sticks, but for some reason the dividing of the whole just isn’t computing all that well. Which I must admit is a little odd to me…not so much for him, but just because division is so explicitly expressed in our society (I’m pretty sure launching into a philosophical discussion will not advance his math prowess, but it helps us in looking at ourselves).
We are quick to divide ourselves. We have so many different versions of ourselves. There is the professional, the personal, the spiritual, the familial, the sexual, the moral, the religious, or even the political self. And strangely enough we tend to draw dividing lines within ourselves to be able to balance out who we are in each and every scenario which calls for the appropriate self to be called upon. We even draw dividing lines against one another based on each other’s expressions of these personas and this is just as damaging. The writer of the epistle of James has a unique way of expressing this and a solution as well. “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” – James 4:8 The word for double-minded is dipsychos and it is best translated as double souled…or split souled.* We allow the fullness of who we are to be divided into categories which should be captured by the whole. And the writer has a very harsh critique of what this ultimately is…sin. How do we repair this? We draw near to God.
When Jesus was quizzed as to what the greatest commandment was he answered with the full spirit of the law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:37-39 To love God with all that you are basically means that you refuse to let yourself be divided. Your personal, professional, spiritual, religious, political, sexual selves disappear into yourself as you are simply you and that same you is fully dedicated to God. These categories fade away as you become fully devoted to God and consequently expressions of yourself in these categories are expressions of your belief in God. Throughout the gospel of John the writer continually refers to sin as unbelief. The rationale behind this is that belief, true belief, brings about change in one’s self. Does this change exist in you? Is your heart, soul, mind and strength one within Christ and not divided in double-minded fashion? Maybe you need to look at your life and see if you are being honest with yourself and God today and stop dividing yourself and others in a way that God never intended. Maybe division is something we shouldn’t be good at?
*Much of the thinking behind this concept comes from John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping
The month of my birth isn’t the most glamorous of months. Sure February has Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day and my birthday, but I think all those things are there to distract us from February itself. And this month was always much more difficult when I lived in the great white north of Michigan. And regardless of where you live it is still a difficult month for so many. You look outside and what do you see…death. Dead grass, dead trees, dead shrubs or you can’t even see it because it is buried under snow. The one thing I did appreciate about this latter reality I experienced in Michigan was that you knew that this dying of nature and the frozen landscape that seemed to be overwhelmingly depressing was laced with promise. The promise of spring and summer was about the only thing one could hold onto in the dead of winter in Michigan (see, they even call it the dead of winter). But nature has a funny way of revealing to us truths about God and our experience. St. Francis saw everything in creation is a reflection of the Creator. Bonaventure taught that everything is a fingerprint or footprint of God (vestigia Dei). And perhaps even what we experience in Winter is cause for Divine reflection.
As Jesus was coming closer to the end in the book of John he was speaking with His disciples one day and he said, “ Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” – John 12:24 In fact, in many of Jesus’ and even Paul’s allusions to the Christian life, the image of death is used quite often. But we don’t like to talk about death. We don’t like to think about death or loss or anything attached to the idea of separation from what we know and experience. Yet it is in the death of a seed that a harvest comes. It is in the death of Christ that we receive our freedom. It is in death itself that we pass on from this life to the next to be with God. Jesus came into this world to redeem death and even show us how metaphorical death to self leads to life and yet we hold on so tightly to elements of life that I think we often miss what God is getting ready to do.
Since Michigan came to my thoughts earlier in regards to Winter I think it also fitting that I reflect on a story 20 years in the making. 20 years ago just before Christmas eve Flint Central Church of the Nazarene burnt to the ground. Everyone saw this as a great tragedy, as it was, but God also saw it as a new beginning. Out of the ashes and death of what the church had been God was busy giving life to something newer and greater that now impacts the city of Flint in a way the old church never could have. Flint Central is now one of the largest Nazarene churches in the US and has empowered countless people in ministry fro the Kingdom. Out of death to life. Maybe this is something you need to hear today. Maybe you are having trouble letting go of your expectations or memories or old ways of doing things and the whole time God is there waiting for you to die to the old so he can bring forth the new. Death is still scary. But God is in the business of redeeming death and bringing about new life.
Come closer…just for a second. I want to tell you something..
God loves you.
That may not seem like the most earth shattering thing you will hear today, but I want to contend that perhaps it should be.
God. The infinite source of all life. The space in which space takes shape. The ever expanding reality from which galaxies spin into existence. The creative spark that gave birth to light, sound and energy itself. The imagination that hewed mountains and rivers and planets and stars. The same God who intimately looked into our world and gave life to flowers, trees, animals and man. The mind that dreamed into existence all that is. This same God loves you.
The God who understands the fathomless depths to which all knowledge can go. Who holds together the smallest atoms, cells and ultimately the universe itself. The God who takes delight in the quirkiness of platypus’s (sp?) and tarsiers, yet engineers a world that delivers breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. The God who can comprehend everything that is instantaneously without sleeping or slumbering or even batting an eye. This same God loves you.
How do I know this? It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery that this same God would choose to love us in our brokenness and ineptitude. It’s a mystery that this same God would choose to enter into our situation; being born like us, growing up like us and even dying at our hands. It’s a mystery that this is the limitless bounds to which God’s love would go. That God, the infinite, incomprehensible reality loves you and I so much that he would move death and hell itself to restore relationship with us. Paul made it known in this way, “…the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” – Colossians 1:27
So what does it mean to say that God loves you? Does it mean that all your problems will magically vanish in this reality? On the contrary…God’s love doesn’t magically change the brokenness of this present age; that part is on us. It rains on both the righteous and the wicked. But God’s love does promise this…if I live into and out of the grace that God extended through His love, then the story does not end here. There is a promise attached to that love. One day, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…[God is] making everything new!”- Revelation 21:4-5 So while we may not be promised riches or fame or power (it would probably be best if we avoided these) we are promised a mystery beyond this life that makes no sense.
So maybe hear these words again and allow them to flow through you today in a new way…
God Loves You.