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.
“I usually don’t get too political…” How many times have we seen or heard this phrase from our friends as of late. And what follows is usually some rant or expression intended to bend our ears or our hearts to their cause or stance. And I’m sure it’s pretty much effective 99% of the time, right? It almost seems that every one these days is a political expert and with so many experts it’s mind boggling to think that our society isn’t more healthy. I mean we all know the right answers to fix everything so why isn’t everything fixed?
During Jesus’ days his opponents would often try to find ways of tripping him up or engaging him in some debate. And they didn’t shy away from political discusssions either. At one point they even questioned Him about paying emperial taxes and Jesus’ reply was ingenious. He asked to see a coin, examined the image, and “Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesarʼs, and to God what is Godʼs.”” -Matthew 22:21. This has been interpreted a myriad of different ways but it’s probably best thought of in this light. Jesus was saying to his opponents, “Let Caesar have his money and his power and his way of doing things. God has His own way of getting things done.” And that has always been the case. God’s Kingdom does not operate according to the systems, laws, means, and methods of this world…it’s different; an alternative Kingdom.
But so often as of late it seems we in the church have forgotten this. We enter into the political arena with the same tools, the same weapons, the same words as those who are not a part of the church. In his epistle, John puts it this way, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” – 1 John 3:18. So what does that mean? If you’re pro-life, then be pro-life by adopting babies, supporting foster agencies and single mothers or by sponsoring a child overseas. If you care for the widow, then volunteer at an assisted living facility or find a shut-in to help out. If the homeless tug at your heart then head down to your local mission. If caring for the earth strikes home then start a recycling program and help educate others. If you care for refugees then find a local agency and find out how to volunteer. The Kingdom of God is about action, but not the action that we do often see on display that belongs to Caesar. Our action is love in action and it enacts God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get political.
Lately I feel as if I am surrounded by noise. And I’m not talking about the loud rambling oilfield trucks that plague our suburban streets. I’m not even referencing the fact that there are four kids in my house who must all have inside voice issues. I’m actually making reference to the multitude of voices in our world today that feel the need to make sure that they are heard, they are understood, they are perceived as being right and that they solicit change. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t matter on which side of which issue someone is speaking about it all has begun to blend together and just become noise…and I’m afraid I have even been guilty of adding to the noise. And so today I say to you and to me…’shhhhhhh’.
Often when I am plagued with some seeming societal ill I try to look to the testimony of Jesus to see how best to address what is going on around me. There are a couple of interactions that Jesus has in the gospels that have always perplexed me. It comes after Jesus has spoken some very unpopular/polarizing words and it doesn’t go over so well (I’m sure none of us can relate to that as of late). The first is in Luke at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” – Luke 4:29-30 The other instance takes place in John 8 after Jesus is forced to stand in the way of the religious elite on behalf of a woman caught in adultery and then speaks about His being sent by the Father. “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” – John 8:59 Notice what it doesn’t say here, “Jesus kept arguing the point with his opponents until they were forced to concede and admit defeat.” No, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. He realizes the crowd will no longer listen, has gotten past the point of listening and so He walks through their midst. Jesus just steps away.
Of course Jesus doesn’t walk away and have a pity party. No, Jesus gets back to doing what He does best…enacting the Kingdom of God. In Luke He begins casting out unclean spirits and in John He heals a blind man. Jesus realizes that His argument is best made in enacting that which He is speaking about. There is no greater defense of one’s position than positive Kingdom action that will at once pull you away from pointless arguments and eventually silence your naysayers. Jesus knew this and trusted His work to it. Why? Because He knew the value of silence and He trusted the mission. Here as well we must seek to model Christ of whom we read these words just a short time later in Luke, “ But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” – Luke 5:16 Maybe we need to pull away from the noise. Maybe we need to withdraw. We certainly don’t need to add to it. Maybe it’s time for a little more shhhhh and a lot more action for the Kingdom.
There seems to me to be a lot of concern these days for unity. Whether it is unity in our families, in our communities, in our churches or even in our nation, there is apparently a lot of room for improvement. However, it also seems that when most of us are speaking about unity we ultimately are referring to the other person coming around to seeing things the way we see them. It reminds me of the old Beatles song, We Can Work it Out, “Try to see it my way, Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?” But therein lies the issue. We always want others to see it our way before we put forth the effort to see it their way. In Harper Lee’s classic ‘everyone must read this book in high school’ masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is talking to young Scout when he says this, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” I guess the best way to define this action is empathy. And empathy is the only way we can ever find our way forward into true unity (or trunity).
The example of course for empathy is an incarnational example. The apostle Paul is speaking to the church in Philippi when he has this to say, “…not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” – Philippians 2:4-7 The example for us in empathy is set by a God who set aside all the power of the universe and unlimited ability to become like you and I. And so Paul asks us to behave in our relationships with the same mindset. Unity is only accomplished when we learn to look at life, conflict, relationships, stances, principles, etc. from the other’s point of view before feeling the need to defend our own. And in order to do this…well, we kind of have to get to know the other person.
This is where it gets kind of tricky. Online exchanges do not count as getting to know another person…even the makers of eHarmony know this. Text messages do not enable you to see the world through another person’s eyes…no matter how many emojis you use. The only way we truly can begin to empathize with another person and their way of seeing the world is through life lived together. Perhaps it begins with coffee. Then maybe it’s a meal.Then perhaps you actually begin to be friends and you start to see that maybe their way of looking at things isn’t so backward after all. The ancient church fathers used to say ,”To know all is to forgive all”. And maybe that is what this life is about after all. We are learning to live together here so that eternity is just a continuation of the unity that we have begun while together on earth. May God grant us the ability to see one another as He sees us and move us forward in becoming one.
Don’t make me repeat myself. I’m sure many of us have heard this phrase before. I imagine that some of us as parents have even used this phrase. And yet, it seems as if repetition is built into the very fabric of our lives. Especially in our own household where there are four kids…I imagine many days my wife and I sound like broken record players. But repetition isn’t bad in and of itself. In fact, it can be quite good. Repetition is the motor behind much of our learning and habitual practices. Just take a moment and google the word repetition and be as amazed as I was in terms of the research and studies dedicated to repetition and its effect on the human brain. If repetition is such a powerful tool then it goes without saying that things that have been repeated before us bear our attention. I would even say things often repeated in the Bible probably should grab our attention. Did you know that the most often repeated sin we are warned about in the Bible is the sin of idolatry? So perhaps it demands a little more of our attention.
But Idolatry is an outdated concept. You don’t see people making sacrifices to idols in today’s world…or do you? The first time we are told explicitly what idolatry is in the Bible is probably in the giving of the Ten Commadments. The second commandment goes like this, “make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Exodus 20:4-5a But what is an image or a form? An what does it mean to bow down? The word for form in this passage is tĕmuwnah which translates as representation or idea. The word for bow down is shachah and can be translated as worship or give reverence to. So the second commandment is reminding us not to worship any idea/concept/form that ultimately is not the God revealed through the story of scripture. And you may still feel like you have this covered…at least I do most of the time.
But what is worship? Sure you could talk about what we do in churches on Sunday, but worship is more about giving God the appropriate place in our lives. Worship is also abou making sure we haven’t turned anything into an idol…maybe even our thoughts of God at times. You see the reason idolatry was so dangerous is because idolatry meant you coul control that which you worshipped. If you could make an image of it or picture it just the right way, then you could dictate how that deity worked. So when things like sports, fitness, ambition, money, fame, popularity, body-image, etc. become our idol it makes sense because these are things that in theory we can control or manipulate. Sometimes we even do this with God when we tell Him how he should act or when He hates the same people we do or cheers for the same teams we do. We can take God and make an image. We can manipulate the God whose name was, “I am who I am” – Exodus 3:14 This naming itself say to us that God can’t be made into something we can control or manipulate because He is whatever He will be.
So perhaps there is something to this repetition thing after all. And perhaps there is some idolatry we might need to examine in our own lives. The best thing about idols though…they are made to be broken.