Tagged: Christian Life

Jesus’ Words of Life

wordsWords kill, words give life;

they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

Proverbs 18:21 

One of my favourite stories in the Gospel of John is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. Jesus is left alone with this woman and the disciples are off to find food.

What we quickly learn is that Jesus is not only talking to a woman, but a Samaritan woman, and not just any Samaritan woman, but a woman who’s “been around town” and most likely has no friends. We’re told that she was getting water at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, alone, which is weird, because in the ancient world, women always traveled in packs and the time for hauling well-water for the day was always in the early morning, not at the hottest time of the day—everyone knows that!

So Jesus talks to the outsider. The loner. The ex-communicated. Which is encouraging because we are all in some way or at some time been this woman.

But something else happens:

“Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.”

Shocked. Couldn’t believe. That kind of woman! Their faces showed it. I wonder how awkward this would have been for the woman. Jesus speaks words of life to those who only hear death.

Isn’t Jesus still leading his followers into these shocking, uncomfortable places? I wonder if we’re not given her name on purpose, because every reader of the story is challenged to think of the Samaritan Woman that Jesus is pointing out to in our own life.  Or perhaps a certain kind of person—the kind I would normally avoid. I wonder if there’s a “Samaritan Woman” that is in close proximity to me that I need to pay attention to.

I shared this with our youth this past Friday and they could all relate to the story. They all know what it’s like to be the Woman at the Well. They also know what it’s like to be the uncomfortable disciples when that person is suddenly in my friend group. Teenagers know first-hand the difference between “words of death” and “words of life.”  We learnt that Jesus is calling us to a way of life that takes words very seriously.  We left challenging ourselves to be intentional and attentive to any woman at the well that Jesus is asking us to talk to this week, with words of life. We ended with this prayer:

Dear Jesus

It wasn’t that long ago that we felt like an outsider, it wasn’t long ago that someone made fun of us. Not long ago, we felt worthless. But you welcomed us into your family and showed us a new way to live. No matter where we are, please help us speak up for people who do not have a voice and to use words of life to those who are hard to love. In Jesus’ name we pray.

AMEN

Reflections on Gratitude and the Holy Supper

gratitude

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 1 Cor 10:16

Eucharisteo is the Greek word for gratitude.

The posture of thanksgiving is what the biblical narrative points to as the proper posture of the imago dei in man. This stands in contrast to our North American culture of excessive hoarding and addiction through the gratification of insatiable desires. Hans Boersma makes the observation that this is quite understandable since our words is astonishingly beautiful: “When we smell, when we taste, when we hear, when we see, when we touch—the pleasure that follows can be overwhelmingly powerful.” But the purpose of our lives is not for increased gratification of the instinctual sort. What separates us from animals and what makes us rightful candidates of the imago dei—that uniquely human calling to image the Creator—is a posture of eucharisteo: gratitude. But not just any gratitude, but the kind that leads to self-giving, the kind that recognizes that all of creation—all that we can taste, touch, smell, hear and see—is merely a gift to be offered back to God.

In response to Jesus’ instructions, christians have made what has come to be known by countless names (holy communion, eucharist, holy supper, etc) as the definitive marker of the Christian identity.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. Then word “communion” refers to the greek word, koinonia, which is also translated as fellowship, and participation. This special Christian act is precisely that: fellowship, participation, a unique and unexplainable mystery of entering into the Trinitarian life. And as we enter into the life of the Trinitarian God, we are launched into a life of eucharisteo.

To be authentically human, according to Christian faith and practice, is constituted by the posture of thanksgiving that leads to self-giving.

Paradoxically, and in opposition to everything we’re told by a culture of rampant consumerism, a life of gratitude is the life that is most satisfying of all.

Studies have shown that gratitude in itself is a healthy posture, and daily practices of expressing gratitude will contribute to happier life. But who are we to thank? How we answer this question will determine whether or not we will move from thanksgiving to self-giving.

Pray: Learning to be Present to Jesus

pray
For you created my inmost being;
     you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
     your works are wonderful,
     I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
     when I was made in the secret place
     when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
     all the days ordained for me were written in your book
     before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:13-16

One of the hardest parts of prayer is the act of being present to Jesus while doing it. Yes, Jesus is always present when we pray, but we’re great at multitasking, especially when praying. I could be praying and simultaneously thinking about the next book to read, idea to ponder, or email draft that needs to go out. (I confess, I have an unnatural desire to plan ahead in such a way that takes me from “being in the moment”).

Instead of simply being, I want to be doing.

We all have an intrinsic desire to produce, to be useful and effective, to have satisfaction from our work, and that’s not a bad thing (in fact, I’m totally for productivity, and I wrote a post about a tool to help you with that here). But most of our work is driven by a sense of self-importance, wondering “if I don’t send out that email and make that work schedule, who will?” It may be true, but why is it that in the midst of those activities, we rarely have the urge to sit still and be quiet before Jesus?

We live scattered lives, driven by the stress we complain about and go to bed thinking, “I should pray more.”

One of the things that has helped me with feeling scattered is the practice of silence. Not just being quiet, but quieting your mind, stopping yourself from thinking about what needs to get done, and reflecting on a word or phrase, like “Jesus” or “God is love” or “you are good.” I’ve been going through a book by Peter Scazzero called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Day by Day, which contain two short devotionals for every day. Each devotional begins and ends with two minutes of silence, stillness and centering before God, with a short reflection on scripture in between. I rarely expect this kind of thing to make an impact on my days, but I’ve seen it happen. I feel lighter, more aware of God’s continual presence, with a new courage to face who I really am and oppose being driven by the dictates of others.

The practice of silence is a like a workout for your brain. Returning to the gym after missing a few days will feel painful on your body. Likewise, when I miss a day or two of silence and reflection, I notice the impact when I pick it up again. With practice I’ve grown stronger in my ability to silence my mind and when I am consistently being present to Jesus in those small moments, it changes the rest of the day and every ounce of self-importance struggle to defend my dignity slowly dissipate into a weightless shadow. As I learn to be present to Jesus, I, like the psalmist, begin to know the true me.

Discipleship is More than You Know

Discipleship

Over the last half-decade of church work I have wrestled with what it’s supposed to look like for churches to practice discipleship.

The models of church that I’ve seen most are built on the idea that discipleship means accepting ideas about God.  The more “truth” you know about God, the greater disciple you are. But discipleship is not about having information, because if it is, the disciples weren’t really disciples after all. Let’s just say they didn’t have their systematic theology in order. For the disciples, and for us, discipleship is more than you know.

At the180 we are looking at how there are moments in life that we need the courage to unlearn the bad habits we’ve picked up on our journey. Jesus often calls his disciples and listeners to unlearn something—which is hard, scary, and takes courage.  The sermon that kicked off our series on unlearning reminded me of how we tend to reduce the Great Commission to “coming to church to be a christian”, instead of “going out to make disciples.” The church at large has come to the conclusion that disciple-making means giving people a list of things to believe and then making them do the same.

But Christian discipleship is much more than some heady acceptance of ideas about God.  Jesus didn’t commission his disciples to make us into great consumers of ideas or “absolute truths.” This discipleship thing has to do with our hearts, heads and hands.

Here’s something: discipleship is a word Christians use but it’s not something only Christians do. Discipleship happens to every human. Every person is being discipled all the time—something is drawing us into its way of life, teaching us a way of living that we believe will bring satisfaction. Another word for disciple is learner, but not the kind of learner that sits in a classroom to receive ideas, the kind of learner that follows a person in the way that he/she handles life, relationships, people, money, everything. Ideas play a small part.  Apprenticeship might capture what discipleship entails—being with someone long enough to become a lot like him or her. And it always happens in communal spaces, like with friends around a dinner table or a sports games.

“It’s about life!” my professor Rikk Watts is know for saying. Discipleship is about life in the most comprehensive sense. It’s about being with Jesus in order to do what he does. It’s asking the question (thank you Dallas Willard) “what would Jesus do if he was me?”

One of the things we talk about at the180 is how the church is made up of those who are “called out of the world to go back into the world.” If discipleship is more than cranial consumption, if disciples is more than you know, and discipleship has to do with the way we live, then the church needs to be more than a dispenser of ideas. The church learns to be “the called out ones” in a sacred space to rehearse the life of the kingdom through the practices of singing, eating, and sharing together around a common Lord. And it’s in this space that we learn to be disciples together–learning to live the Jesus-life–so that we can go out and make disciples.

 

 

The Dusty Ones, by AJ Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda’s The Dusty Ones is about the reality of wandering. All humans wander through life, figuring out who they are and where they fit.

Contrary to what many Christians seem to project about God and the Christian life today, Swoboda wants readers to know that Christianity makes sense of human wandering not because it provides an escape but because it tells us why it happens and what it’s for.

Swoboda draws heavily on the biblical narrative as a whole, highlighting the wandering-like stories of Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel. The people of God have always been a wandering people; indeed, it’s the experience of wandering in the proverbial desert that constitutes the real saving of salvation.

Wandering, the desert, is for God to meet you.

In every chapter, Swoboda confides in the diverse Christian tradition; from John Calvin, Marianne Moore, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He refreshingly draws on poets, singers, novelists, and theologians from every corner of the Christian tradition without prejudice.

Swoboda writes with pastoral candour; you can almost hear him preach what he writes.  His anecdotal style of writing is vulnerable and engaging; he speaks of his own wandering as a pastor, father, and husband. The book itself is a sort of experiment in the art of wandering, frequently offering nuggets of insight on the Bible, singing songs, and  the goodness of a simple life drawn from Swoboda’s own experience.

Swoboda’s honest and vulnerable expression of the slow and mysterious qualities of wandering will make you appreciate the transforming power of being present in the mundane; be careful, he may even convince you to start your own garden and raise your own chickens.

The Dusty Ones will challenge readers to let go of the clean box used for God and to enjoy the wandering mystery of the desert; the place where God encounters his people.

 

Can We Know God’s Will for our Lives? Part 2

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In my last post, I suggested that a Christian should be able to answer the questions, what is God saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it?

Unfortunately, some Christians feel they need to discern God’s will about what they eat for dinner. What we eat for dinner is not something that God is really concerned with, provided we eat with gratitude. An important reality, often overlooked in our anxious searches for God’s will, is that many life decisions are left for us to make freely. Some Christians walk with an enormous weight of uncertainty, worrying about every jot and tittle of their lives, when God has allowed a certain degree of freedom.

Through Scripture, we know enough about God to make most decisions. Some questions have been answered with a “no” and others with a “yes,” while many other questions are left to up to us. Imagine God gave you a watch. Would you honour him more by asking him for the time or by looking at the watch? I know that I ought to practice kindness and patience towards my wife, and I know that I ought not hate or judge my brother. However, what I eat for dinner is my choice.

Still, some decisions require more than logical reasoning and biblical knowledge. Some decisions we face beckon us to slow down and listen carefully to God’s direction. Maybe it’s prioritizing tasks for the week in order to make decisions well, or considering a career or relational opportunity that might change the direction of one’s life completely. There are certain matters we know the answer to, other matters in which we are free to choose for ourselves, and still other matters that require thoughtful and prayerful discernment.

Let me illustrate:

Pretend a coach of a soccer team has drafted you into his team. When it’s game time, it would be silly to ask about the rules of another sport, or whether or not you should try to work as a team with the other players. The first question is irrelevant and the second is obvious.

Likewise, to fret about God’s will for my dinner or whether or not I should be “kind” to my neighbour misses the point of discernment. In the first instance, we’re asking a question that has nothing to do with the game or even the sport, and in the second instance we’re ignoring the rules of the game we’ve already been given. There are also moments in the game when passing the ball to player A or player B will be your choice, and to ask the coach for his instruction in that moment would be detrimental to the game.

I know the rules, I know the point of the game, I know that there will be moments where I must depend on my reflexes and choose accordingly. In this way, we can understand “God’s will for my life” as referring to my position on the field and how I can best use my strengths to win the game according to the strategy.

In order for me to play well I will ultimately need to know myself: how am I built to play this game well? This is the task of discernment.

Seeking God’s will for my life does not dismiss everything he’s already revealed in Scripture, but seeks to understand my fit in it. What are my “gifts” in the context of the team and the strategy already given?

The particular will of God we seek is in the context of our participation in the life of the church.

One of the early challenges the church had to wrestle through was individual gifting, or vocation. Every individual equally contributed to the life of the whole, just like every part of a body contributes to the life of the body. And that body, being the church, exists for the common good of society. The question is: what is Jesus saying to me personally (now comes in the individual, the parts that make up the whole), in the context of our calling to be the church in our world.

We must learn to listen to the voice of Jesus for ourselves, but not apart from our team. So how will we do it?

Here are five voices we must be listening to in the dance of discernment:

1) We listen to Scripture, which speaks not only to our heads, but to our hearts as we contemplate its stories and teachings. Scripture has an authoritative power, not because it has special secrets about how old the earth is, but because it has a special way of igniting faith, hope, and love in us. In an overarching sense, Scripture tells us of the gospel news of God’s rescue mission to bring the world to its intended harmony. It tells us the rules of the game and the strategy for winning. But to know how we fit in the game we need to learn to read the Bible personally: how is a passage, a verse, a story speaking to you, in this moment?  When we take the time to slow down, listen, and contemplate God’s word, it has a special power to speak to us in a personal way, because the Bible always brings us to the person of Jesus who is the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes this means sticking with one word, one verse, one parable or psalm or story that sticks out to you, and letting it resonate with you until your heart catches guides your head. Perhaps you’ll receive a picture, an invitation, a sense of gratitude, or a memory. This isn’t an easy discipline, but a very rewarding one.

2) We listen to people in our lives who can help us see our blind spots. Who are we reading the Bible with? Who are we worshiping with on Sundays? Who knows you enough and loves you enough to be honest with you about who you really are? But beware of people telling you what God is telling you: they may be able to guide, to advise, and even to offer an opinion, but only you can know the inner witness of the Spirit.

3) We listen to the friendships we find in the church, the local and the historical, the present and the past. Scripture has a personal and concrete word for us, yet keeping ancient friends from our Christian heritage will help us keep from making Scripture fit our own designs. Let the creeds of the church be the boundary markers of the soccer field, telling you if you’re in, or if you’re out. The creeds can also help you make sense of where you are on the pitch, providing you with an orientation that helps you know if you should pass or shoot. Our forefathers were at a different level in their prayer lives. Find an old prayer book to help you discover  new ways to foster intimacy with God (Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favourites).

4) We listen to our circumstances: how has God provided the context you are now in? Pay attention to the circumstances of your life. How are you to be faithful in your current circumstances? What do you like or dislike about your circumstances that you would like to change or not change? These questions force us to be honest about what is possible and what isn’t. But don’t eliminate the apparently impossible option, because God may indeed be calling you to something that in this moment, feels impossible. This listening is merely a matter of seeing clearly how God has been at work in your circumstances. Oppositions and obstacles need to be considered, but don’t be quick to take them as signs that this isn’t what God wants: God may very well be asking you to walk through a closed door.

5) We listen to our emotions, which help us identify what we love and what we dislike.   We tend to be suspicious of emotions, for fear of emotionalism, and end up putting too much weight on our rational abilities. However, Descartes was wrong when he proposed that humans are merely thinking beings. We are thinking, loving, and acting beings, far more complex that what Descartes suggested. Emotions are at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human and in order to properly discern the voice of Christ, we need to develop the capacity to articulate what is happening to us emotionally.

All of these activities happen in the context of a life devoted to prayer. Prayer is the glue that helps us make sense of each sphere of our lives. Prayer is our response to God’s initiation; in prayer, we are always responding to God’s YES to us in Christ. Prayer is constant dialogue with the coach, cheering and guiding us on as we play the game.

Seeking the will of God is not as simple as a question and answer session. Discernment is a process, it is a game, or a dance or like being part of an orchestra. We attentively listen and watch the conductor move his baton towards a harmonious composition. As we learn to play in sync with the voice of the coach, God’s team defeats opponents not by beating them but by winning them over to a new way of playing.

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences on discernment and seeking God’s will below.

Mirror Dimly

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We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 1 Cor 13:12 (MSG)

In the “love chapter” Paul provides a beautiful metaphor to explain our earthly limitations. As long as we await Christ’s second coming, life is experienced as through a mirror dimly.

Paul is talking about the different parts of worship that revolve around scripture; singing, tongues, prophecy, preaching. These are gifts to the church to foster and serve love.  If love for God and for one another is not the motivation and goal of worship, then it is nothing more than a clanging cymbal; an out-of-place and misleading distraction.

Paul goes on to say that we see through a mirror dimly because we are still infected by sin, despite our standing with Christ. The metaphor calls attention to the act of seeing, not to the mirror itself:  we do not see a “dim mirror.” It is the act of seeing which is limited by dimness-a foggy overcast that beckons us to humility.

A mirror is used to see a reflection–of yourself, of others, of what’s around you. Scripture is the mirror that we see in order to know God and to know ourselves; it is the breathed out words of God that are without error and profitable for training in righteousness. But my reading of Scripture is faulty and broken, and until I come to grips with this reality, I will not serve love. Without an awareness that I am unable to know and interpret Scripture in its entirety, I will be a clanging cymbal.

Today, Christians are bombarded with skepticism around Scripture. We are told not to trust the Bible because it’s archaic and erroneous. The temptation will be to defend the Bible’s reliability in ways that ignore human limitations-we insist on the certitude and clarity of Scripture; we simplify what is complex and ignore the impaired capacity of a dim vision.

Some are afraid of the uncertainty of what I am proposing. Don’t we want people to be confident in the reliability and authority of Scripture? Yes. But what is the purpose of the authority of Scripture but to form God’s people into who they were called to be? What I want for Christians is to trust in the power of Scripture to shape their lives; and that we don’t need to know all the answers for that to happen. Perhaps the power of the Scriptures–its authority to shape our lives–is only effective when we approach it with humility. Uncertainty is what compels faith, and it is in the uncertainty–in the dimness of our vision–that God encounters us and we begin to really, and truly see. That alone will serve love.

Thoughts on Art, Salvation and Being Human

creative

The question of vocation has loomed over my head and heart for many years. I’ve heard that most people don’t discover their true vocation until their mid 30s, likely because they’ve reached a certain degree of self-awareness. I’m in my late 20s and fighting to discover where my heart is. I’ve heard it said that God calls us to things we love, and makes us love the thing he calls us to. Joy is a big part of the process. Someone asked me recently: when did you last experience joy? Sadly, I couldn’t remember. As I thought about it, I realized that one thing that gives me great joy is helping others discover their creative potential, whatever that may be.

A few months ago I taught a two-part series on salvation. The first part was more of a doctrinal survey, and the second part asked the question: what does salvation have to do with culture? What are we saved for? With help from Andy Crouch, I discovered that salvation has a lot to do with restoring our human, creative calling. Man’s ability to create was not lost at the Fall, but his motive for making was marred. After the Fall, Mankind explored his creative powers for his own glory—for violence, oppression, idolatry. Christ, the true Culture Maker and Redeemer, transformed a cultural symbol of violence and evil—the cross—into a symbol of victory, power, forgiveness and redemption.  In our being reconciled to God, we are being restored to our original human calling as co-creators with Christ in this great drama of redemption.

I am thrilled to help others find their creative gifts, move past the insecurities that inhibit them, and watch them flourish as they contribute to what God is doing.  Let’s move past the typical stereotypes of who an artist is and what art is.  If you’re a human, you are made in God’s image, and you were made to create–you are an artist. Cultivate those creative impulses and put them out into the world in a way that glorifies God—and by that I mean, in way that reflects his plan for a New Heavens and New Earth—one in which suffering, oppression and injustice are wiped away.

Schmemann on modern escapist spirituality

“Tired and disillusioned by the chaos and confusion he himself has brought about, crushed by his own ‘progress,’ scared by seemingly triumphant evil, disenchanted with all theories and explanations, depersonalized and enslaved by technology, man instinctively looks for an escape, for a ‘way out’ of this hopelessly wicked world, for a spiritual haven, for a ‘spirituality’ that will confirm and justify him in his disgust for the world and his fear of it, yet at the same time give him the security and the spiritual comfort he seeks. Hence the multiplication and the amazing success today of all kinds of escapist spiritualities—Christian and non-Christian alike—whose common and basic tonality is precisely negation, apocalypticism, fear and a truly Manichean ‘disgust’ for the world”
– Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, 84.

The Dark Night of the Soul

darknight 

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

– Psalm 13:1-2

I have felt a longing which is difficult to put into words and yet which I can no longer restrain from articulating. It feels as though this longing has been with me too long. It feels like years long. It feels like a longing for the clarity of day, or for a satiating breakfast after sleeping in. I long for vision to see, imagination to create and courage to love. Perhaps it’s a longing for true intimacy, a longing for God himself, to be awakened by his Word, his Church, and his work in the world.

His Kingdom.

I know that God is not silent nor distant. But I, on the other hand, am deaf and blind, hearing only quiet tremors and seeing brief glimpses of his Kingship. I am listless, visionless, and shrouded in darkness. A deafening thunder and worrisome cloudiness drown out the tremors and glimpses of God’s person and work.

Do not be fooled, the Dark Night of the Soul lasts much longer than a night.

But, despite the failed attempts, the feeling of fatherlessness, the certitude of being unable to get through to God, the dark and the nights are for our benefit. St. John of the Cross calls it “sheer grace,” singing,

O guiding night!

            O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

            the Love with His beloved,

Transforming the beloved in her Lover

Prolonged night and darkness are meant to strip away the distractions that provide us with illusions of light and day—illusions of vision and hearing. The sights and sounds that we credit as meaning-giving are revealed for what they are—illusions. But with time, the illusions no longer satisfy the depths of our longing, or better, we realize that they never have.

So, God lovingly draws us into the dark night of the soul that we may see and hear him more clearly. And together with the Psalmist, we pray:

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

    because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

– Psalm 13:5-6

Amen.