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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review Learning to Breathe Fire by J.C. Hertz

Learning to Breathe Fire is the story of the work-out phenomenon known as “Crossfit.”  It is written by J.C. Hertz, a writer for Rolling Stone and a crossfit devotee.  Hertz offers the reader a history of the movement that is designed to celebrate all that crossfit is.
My sense of this book is that if one is already favorable to crossfit, then he will love the book.  If one if predisposed to disinterest regarding crossfit, he probably won’t be swayed toward the fitness movement.  In order to promote the benefits of crossfit, the author has to denigrate other fitness practices (treadmills, weightlifting, yoga).  Her argument for crossfit is convincing.  I read her enthusiastic promotion and find myself wondering if I ought to try it.  Her dismissal of other techniques is off base.  I know people who have in fact gotten in shape on Stairmasters, who benefit from doing yoga, and whose bodies have dramatically improved through weightlifting plans. 
The simple truth is there are a lot of different effective work-outs and fitness plans.  Crossfit can be great, but it is not the only thing that can be great.  If you are not interested in crossfit, I don’t think this book will change your mind.  After a while the stories begin running together and the further into the book the reader goes, the more it sounds like an agenda and less like a story.  If you are already interested in crossfit, you might love the book.  But, you’re already going to boxes, so do you really need to read it?
I do not recommend this book.  It is not terrible.  The writing is fine.  My low-grade is undoubtedly tied to my own lack of enthusiasm.  This is not because crossfit is bad.  It just is not for me. 

Disclaimer - I received this book for free from WaterBrookMultnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:1-5:2)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

          Imagine you are in the city of Ephesus on the west coast of what today is the nation of Turkey and you are looking out over the Aegean Sea.  It is 60AD.  You feel good because it is Sunday.  There will be a guest speaker, one familiar and beloved in your church.  His name is Tychicus.  He has traveled with the great apostle Paul.  Today, he will share something Paul wrote, a message about life in Christ.
You smell the bread that has been baked for the Lord’s supper.  Everyone in the church is a dear friend of yours and you all sit close together in the courtyard of the house.  People have mocked you for your faith in Jesus.  Some say he is a weak god or no god at all.  Some dismiss you for taking this time on Sunday to worship.  Some accuse you of distorting Judaism and preaching bizarre doctrines.  It is not always easy to live in this town as a Christ-follower, but you and your friends in the church have leaned on one another. 
The church is not perfect.  Sometimes a new member wants to be both Christian and pagan and it is uncomfortable when he has to be confronted.  Sometimes traveling evangelists accuse you of being too Jewish; other say your Ephesian church is not Jewish enough.  Much of the time, you aren’t sure.  There have been arguments among the members.   But you love each other.  Through the turmoil, you all huddle together, build each other up, and now are her together again on a Sunday.
Tychicus has promised that this word from Paul will bring clarity to the divisive issues.  What he will share, will show the church how to live as the people of God, to be human the way God always intended humans to live.  Everyone is here for this.  Friends have greeted each other.  Songs have been sung, prayers prayed.  Now as Tychicus stands to speaks everyone leans in. 

(And we pick it up in Ephesians 4).

Ephesians 4-5:2 (NRSV)
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
    he gave gifts to his people.”
(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended[a] into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19 They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 That is not the way you learned Christ! 21 For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c] Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us[d] and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

          What jumps out at you?  Upon hearing this, what do I carry that empowers me to obedience and effectiveness in my own witness?  What sticks with you?  What will you remember?
          Fortunately, we live in the 21st century.  There weren’t pens available in 60AD.  There was not a lot of paper.  You could not sit and take notes.  Tychicus did not have copies of the letter from Paul to pass out to all in attendance at the Ephesian church.  Today, we have enough Bibles for everyone to have multiple copies.  You can, on your own, go back and read and reread Ephesians 4 and I think doing so would benefit you greatly.
          One thing note is where Paul discusses the reason we are given spiritual gifts.  In Verse 11, he says some are gifted as prophets, some apostles, and evangelists, and pastors.  Most people are not any of those.  This is an incomplete list as are the lists of spiritual gifts in 1st Corinthians, Romans, and 1st Peter.  The point is everyone who is in Christ is gifted by the Spirit – but why?
          In verses 12 and 13 it says our gifts are meant to build up the body of Christ.  When the members of the church are using their gifts in harmony with others also using the gifts, the church comes to fully know Jesus.  When we live in our gifting and those around us live in theirs, all of us help each other become mature in Christ. 
          I also like verse 24 which says for us to clothe ourselves with the new self.   This is similar to Romans 13:14 where we are told to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and Colossians 3:14 which says “above all, clothe yourselves with love.”  How do put on the new self and put on Jesus and love as if we were putting on a shirt?   This is hard.  We still get tempted in sin.  Keeping our focus on two realities is essential.
          First, we look to Jesus, not the cultural values of the world around us.  Ephesians 4:17 mentions Gentiles.  Here ‘Gentiles’, means people without God in their lives.  In v.19 it says of them that they “have lost all sensitivity.”  In other words, they have completely lost the ability to feel sin. 
Whenever we want to be acceptable to our peers outside the Kingdom of God, and whenever we long for pleasures that are not Godly, we begin to rationalize.  It’s OK to have sex without marriage.  It’s alright to watch videos that are dehumanizing, lewd, and violent.  It’s OK to smoke things and drink things that blur our vision and kill our brain cells.  It’s OK to hoard goods for our pleasure.  We stretch the categories so that what was a sin yesterday is seen as acceptable behavior today. 
Jesus did not fall for this because he was always focused on the Heavenly Father.  He was always driven to show people what Kingdom life is like.  One example is in how Jesus used power – the power of God.  Andy Crouch describes Jesus as being incredibly disciplined.  He went away for silence and solitude.  He fasted for 40 days.  He always observed Sabbath.  He is a role model when it comes to living a spiritually disciplined life. 
Yet, Crouch also points out where Jesus allowed himself to be interrupted.[i]  One telling example from Mark chapter 5 is when Jesus went to heal the daughter of Jairus.  Jairus was the synagogue leader.  Healing his daughter would be a high profile miracle, sure to garner much credibility for Jesus. 
Along the way to his house, a woman with uncontrollable bleeding, stole behind him in the crowd.  She believed if she just touched him anonymously, she’d be healed.  She was right, but she did not count on Jesus knowing.  He immediately felt the power go out of him.  He summoned her in front of the crowd.  He was on a very important mission of healing for a very important man and he just stopped so he could heal an unclean woman, a nobody.  He gave attention.  He called her “daughter” so everyone could hear. 
In the delay, the daughter of Jairus died.  Still he went and he raised her, but behind closed doors.  Only Peter, James, and John and her parents witnessed Jesus bring the girl back to life from death.  He ordered them not to talk about it (Mark 5:43). Jesus performed an act that would do very little for his reputation, the healing of the bleeding woman.  He did this in full view of the public, showing them that this cast-off person was an image bearer, a child of God made in the image of God.  The healing of the powerful man’s daughter was done in private because Jesus does not seek public acclaim.  He did not court influence.
We read Ephesians 4:20 where are chastised to not succumb to the gradual degradation that comes from continually minimizing sin and justifying sin.  Rather we are to walk in the way of Christ.  Ephesians 5:1-2, “be imitators of God [and] live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”  To be mature in Christ is to realize that the power and the influence and the fame and the wealth valued by the world is nothing to God.  But worship and building up the church and restoring the image of God in broken people is everything.
First we look to Christ.  This includes staying constantly connected to Christ through prayer and worship.
Second, we realize our weakness.  We cannot be faithful; we don’t have the will power.  But the Spirit at work in us can do all things.  To stay in step with the Spirit, we have to make Spiritual disciplines a way of life. 
This is hard.  I fall into stretches where I lead a spiritually undisciplined life.  In those seasons, I don’t think God is far from me.   I believe the Spirit is always close and also whispering God’s love to me.  But most of the time, the Holy Spirit will not compete for my attention.  In a relationship, we give the other – a friend, a parent, a spouse, the Holy Spirit of God – our attention.  We don’t squeeze in a few minutes here and there for those we love.  Too often in my life, I have crowded God out, only squeezing in a few moments.  God is speaking, but I miss the message because I am only half listening.
Spiritual disciplines open us up for what God is preparing to do in us.  God empowers us to walk in the way of Christ.  Spiritual disciplines tenderize us and make us receptive to God.  The disciplines remind us how much we need God.  And though disciplines may seem challenging, when we step to the challenges we step toward blessing – the ultimate blessing of seeing, hearing, and feeling the very real presence and love of God in our lives.
I am starting again.  If you have tried disciplines before and it did not seem to work, try again.  If you want ideas or someone to just pray with you and for you, come see me.  I mean it.  This time, I have started small.  I am giving something up, completely, something that has sucked up way too much of my time and emotions.  And I am doing some modified fasting.  It kind of feels like Lent in September, but not really.  It is my awakening that to live “in Christ” and to grow to maturity in Christ, I have to give him more of myself.  I simply must. 
Look to Christ.  Practice spiritual disciplines.  Living in your spiritual gifting.  There is a lot more in Ephesians 4.  Read it throughout the week.  As you pray read it, waiting to see God will do in your life.
We are now at the end of a journey that really does not end.  Since June, we’ve focused on the idea of life in Christ.  Go back and again read Colossians, 1st John, and Ephesians.  Maybe reading those letters and praying in those letters is your first step in the disciplines.  Read imaginatively, placing yourself in Colossae and in Ephesus.  Imagine you are a first century Christian hearing these messages for the first time.  Listen closely and allow God to speak through word, as He draws you to himself, and shapes your life.
We are in Christ.  We close with a word from Ephesians, chapter four, verse 4-5. 

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.


[i] Crouch, Andy (2013).  Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  IVP Books, Downers Grove, IL, .242-245.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rooted and Grounded in Love

            You have a worldview.  So do I.  Everyone does.  The worldview is the lens through which we see … everything.  Often, we are unaware of our worldview or that we even have one, but we do.  How we see is colored by our family, our culture, our heritage – so many things.  It is extremely hard to change one’s worldview.  But every worldview, and there are many, evolves out of human culture which is tainted by sin.  In this sense then, we are born in sin because we are born into sinful systems – all of us.
We need to change our worldview, if we want to walk in the way of Christ.  We have help.  The Holy Spirit, the church (when it is a healthy community), the Bible, and the traditions of Christianity all equip us to see from the point of view of the Kingdom of God. 
            Imagine a 26-year-old young woman.  She has achieved an undergraduate degree in business from an Ivy League school, worked a year or two in Charlotte, and spent the last two years at the Kenan-Flagler business school getting her MBA.  Her upbringing, her socio-economic class, her education - everything that shaped her comes out of a worldview than in turn creates her worldview. 
The soil in which she has grown is Western liberal arts education.  The foundation on which she stands is the profitability of the business where she will work.  Neither is inherently evil, but the culture does not promote seeing the world through kingdom-of-God lenses.  The Western education encourages academic excellence.  The middle class American life encourages a certain standard of living.  Success in business encourages profit.  All can be good things, but none in and of itself promotes the gospel. 

            If her soil is education, business, North Carolina, what soil has produced you and me?  Family; culture; nationality?  We are rooted in something.  What?  And, on what foundation do we stand?  What’s supporting us?  What can we count on?
            The Apostle Paul wants to influence our world by inviting us to take up root in new soil and stand on a new foundation. 
His words in Ephesians 3 make up a prayer.  “I bow my knees before the Father” (3:14).  “I pray that according to the riches of [the Father’s] glory that you may be strengthened … with power through his Spirit” (3:16).  “I pray that you may have the knowledge … to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge” (from vs.18, 19).  If these prayers are answered and the riches of the Father’s glory indeed strengthen us with the power of the Holy Spirit and we have knowledge of the unmatched love of Christ, I believe it will result in us seeing everything – everything – with a Kingdom-of-God worldview. 
Paul hopes Christ will dwell in our hearts as we are rooted and grounded in love.  Agape is the word used for love in verse 17 and again in 19.  This is selfless love, put-the-other-first love.  This is love that seeks no benefit for the giver but is given freely and abundantly for the good of the other.  This love makes up the soil in which disciples are grown. 
We see it in the gospel of John with passages like “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son;” and, “They will know that you are mine by this; that you love one another.”  In the essay entitled 1st John, chapter 4, we read God is love.  In Galatians 5 we read of the fruit of the Spirit.  That fruit grows in the soil of love.  We are rooted in love.
We stand on love.  The well-known love passage, 1 Corinthians 13 says love never fails.  Three remain, faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.  No matter what comes along in life, love drives our responses.  Fear causes overreaction.  Fear leads me to yell at my wife or become defensive or shout out curses.  Fear leads me to react and I end up hurting myself and others.  Love helps us endure difficult things.  Rooted in love, standing on love, I can respond to anything in a measured, calm way, with bundles and bundles of grace and mercy.   We can count on the love of God in Jesus Christ.  It never leaves us and always guides us.  We are grounded in love. 
Rooted and grounded in love – this is the way of the gospel.

I offer three worldviews that I think a lot American Christians have; these are undoubtedly inherited, not chosen.  Yet, these are not Jesus-first worldviews.  And any time Jesus is not first, determining how we see everything else in life, then we are not oriented toward the Kingdom.  That love Paul prays for is not driving us.  We’re driven by something else, something that ultimately ungodly.
The first of these competing worldviews is the enlightenment.  We are products of the enlightenment.  We know the Earth goes around the sun and the not the other way around.  We know of molecules and atoms and particles smaller than that.  Even people ignorant of the methods of science live by what science produces.  This is true of discoveries that lead to cures.  It is true of  the technology that is responsible for how we produce food, entertain ourselves, and fight wars.  We have grown in the soil of scientific advancement.  This has created in us a cold, unfeeling worldview– the antithesis of the self-sacrificing love we see in Jesus. 
This is does not mean science is evil.  Our church is full of people who are in different fields of science.  Their discipleship is lived out in the pursuit of new discoveries and a love for knowledge.  One way they serve the Lord is in their research.  But disciples who are scientists acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.
When the thirst for more knowledge takes over and we become rooted in curiosity instead of being rooted in love and we stand on intellectual achievement instead of standing on love, then science becomes an idol which dictates what we can and cannot think and say.  Followers of Jesus practice the various scientific disciplines with a commitment to excellence, but stay rooted and grounded in love.  In this way we are witnesses who tell about the Kingdom He will establish.
Science produces one competing worldviews.  A second contributor is capitalism.  Our democracy is a capitalist nation.  Just as the science produced by the enlightenment contributes to human flourishing and thus can be done in service to God, our capitalistic democracy is an environment in which we can flourish. 
Our system is based on money and we find ourselves rooted in money, standing on what we have – houses, cars, insurance plans, retirement accounts.  Nothing is wrong with this, but unless it is all seen to be in service to God, ultimately owned by God, it begins to take over.  Greed becomes the soil where we are rooted.  The acquisition of more stuff and newer stuff and upgraded stuff takes over.  This constant craving for more, newer, and better becomes an idol that demands everything from us.  Faith is pushed to a small corner of our lives, which shrinks and shrinks until God has no place at all. 
We need to be wise in the ways of money.  Root and grounded in love, our capitalistic democracy affords us unique opportunities to practice New Testament generosity in our own community and around the world and we use money in this way, as a tool to advance the Kingdom.  In this way, we give witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If we find ourselves rooted in money, greed takes over and the gospel is crowded out completely. 
We are enlightened people, products of science.  We live in a republic where democracy truly speaks and capitalistic motivations drive us.  The enlightenment would have us rooted in science.  We, rooted in love, appreciate science but in service to God, not at the expense of our faith.  Capitalism would have rooted in money.  We use money and strive to make more of it.  But we are rooted in love.  We stand on love.  Money is a tool to help us spread the good news of Jesus.  A third force that would root us in something other than the soil of love is our nation – America.
With pride I say I am an American.  We envision ourselves as rooted in freedom.  Somehow though, this has evolved and we think it means we are entitled to do whatever we want whenever we want.  Freedom has become this sense that our desires ought to be met all the time. 
What foundation supports this self-centered notion?  Power.  Rooted in a distorted sense of freedom, we stand on what we believe to be the irrepressible power of the United States.  The terrorist attacks of 9/11 shocked America, but here 13 years later; our nation still had a sense of invincibility.  We still act like there will never come a time when America is not the most powerful country on earth. 
As Christ followers, we cannot put our confidence in a government, not even the American government.  We love our country.  We vote, in serve in the military, and show our devotion in numerous other ways.  We want to be good Americans.  But our rooting is not in the red, white, and blue.  This may be the soil in which we were born.  But in our baptism, we were transplanted and transformed.  We are now rooted in the love that Jesus showed when he went to the cross. 
For too many people, Christianity is a cultural expression, not a testimony that God has done a new thing in Jesus.  In Christ, we truly are different from the culture around us.  Enlightenment thinking and discovery, democratic capitalism, and American power – these forces lead to a worldview in which we see ourselves as smart, free, and powerful.  But the wisdom of God is lacking, we are slaves to sin, and our power is an illusion.
In Christ, we live in a worldview where God is in control, not us.  God, the creator of all that is good has a plan to redeem and renew his creation.  Ephesians 3:15 says every family in Heaven and Earth takes its name from God the Father.  We are all made in God’s image.  We are all fallen in sin.  And the greatest bond humans can enjoy is unity in Christ, which only comes when Christ is first in all things.  Paul prays in verse 19 that we would be filled with the fullness of God.  Once filled, we cannot be filled with anything else.  No other love can define us. 
            A young professional woman living several states away from the town where she was raised attends worship.  In this church, she has been welcomed, loved, and made to feel at home.  On this particular Sunday morning, she hugs the older lady, the one who reminds her of her grandmother.  Her Bible study leader leads a prayer time in which she hears her classmate’s requests and her heart goes out to them.  In the worship time, one of the songs ignites flames of deep love for God in her heart.  And the entire experience is rooted in Jesus’ love.
            Upon leaving at the end, she does what she does every week.  She ask God to empower her so that in her profession, work she does very well, she can be light – the light of the Gospel.  She prays God will make opportunities for her to point people to Him.  She prays God will make her ready when those opportunities come.  She can pray this prayer because in this church, she really believes God hears and answers prayers like this.  The love of God in which she is rooted is also the foundation on which she stands. 
            Love – the apostle prays that you and I would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and be filled with all the fullness of God.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What Can you Imagine?

I begin by saying that until a second ago, it was pouring rain outside.  It has now lightened up to a bit more than a sprinkle – but still raining.  I only point that out because I went on two weather websites, one national and one local.  Both had down for our zip code at this hour a 0% chance of rain. 

We (“we” being humans) don’t know much!  I have no idea what weather forecasters do.  I don’t know how they decided to type in on The Weather Channel website “0” for % chance of rain.  It may be an impossibly hard job, like trying to call the block/charge in an NBA game.  Impossible.  We humans simply are lacking in knowledge.

Even more, we lack wisdom.   All the craziness in the world – Al Shabaab in Somalia, Islamic State in Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Vladimir Putin in Russia; there is suffering all over the planet.  There is violence right here in the United States.  We are a nation born of immigration now trying to put a cap on immigration.  The hypocrisy in our attitudes to immigrants, especially Mexican, is unspeakably cruel.

But wait!  I intended this to be a positive post.  I start with rain and bad news; and the declaration that humans do not know much, are sadly lacking in wisdom, and sorry in our failure of compassion.  Alright!  That’s off my chest.

Maybe the biggest failure is my own lack of creative thinking.  And this leads me to two of the wonderful verses in all of scripture.  I hasten to add my recommendation that you read this in the NIV.  I don’t often recommend that version, but I am convinced that in this case, the NIV gets the spirit of the verse best.  Other versions may offer a better technical translation, but the NIV captures the essence, I believe. 

The passage is Ephesians 3:20-21, a doxology.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

It seems simplistic to say it, but God can bring rain when the weather people say there no chance, zero %.  God can bring peace even into a world of Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Islamic State.  God overwhelm people with joy as they meet Him in the Holy Spirit.  I feel like a child, like a simpleton, but I believe it is true.

These verses are a statement of glory raised to God.  He is glorified (that is what a ‘doxology’ does; it speaks a word of glory about God).  Ephesians 3:20-21 is appropriately used when the words are read in worship, corporate or private, as an act of praise.

But, notice what is embedded in the praise: theology. 

First, a theology of limitation dominates.  “Immeasurable” is unacceptable for business men and researchers alike.  God’s deeds cannot be counted and rational thought really does not tolerate that which it cannot measure.  I do not think enlightenment or reason is antithetical to God or faith in God.  But I am certain God, while speaking to us in our rational processes, goes way beyond what we can observe, count, measure, and describe.  God goes immeasurably beyond. 

We are limited in our view of God.  We are ridiculously limited.  God delights in our praise of Him, but does not need it.  We need to praise God so we can realize with certainty God is God and only God is God and we are not God.  I know I wrote “God” in that sentence six times, but it was not enough. 

People may think they can without boundaries.  When Han complained about rescuing Princess Leia, Luke promised that her riches would bring a handsome reward.  Han pressed Luke wanting to know how rich she was.  Luke said she had more than Han could imagine to which Han replied, “I don’t know kid.  I can imagine an awful lot.”  So we think.  God is so much more.  In fact, it is nonsensical that I would even try to convince my readers of God’s greatness and vastness and magnificence.  In doing so, I am trying to make the case for something that’s immeasurably more than I can ask or imagine.

However, God would have me do it because the second aspect of theology seen here is a theology of partnership.

The doxology says that he who does more than we can ask or imagine has his power “at work within us.”  Furthermore, the glory given him is given in the church.  This unreachable God reaches to us, fills us, works with and through us, and calls us His own.  Maybe the most unimaginable reality is that the solution to the problems caused by the terrorists and dictatorial governments I referenced earlier – the solutions will come from God working his love into the earth through His people the church.

I just had a conversation today with a friend whose wife had been a senior pastor but now is out of church altogether.  The church she was leading was such an unhealthy community, she had to get out.  I trust her calling, so I believe she did the right thing.  But here she is, someone with almost a decade of experience, a seminary degree, and a calling from God, and she is out because the church wounded her so badly.

This is where (and in whom) God’s power is at work?  In the church?  Seriously?

Absolutely – yes.  It makes no sense.  But I think that was Paul’s point in another of his letters, 1st Corinthians.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” 

The wisdom of God makes no sense in the eyes of a world that is actively rebelling against his rule.  We have the Spirit of God in us when we are in Christ, so we see differently.  We realize, going back to the Ephesians 3 doxology, that God always intends for human agents acting in unity, His church, flawed as we are, to be His representatives to the dying world. 

Unimaginable?  Oh, yes.  Of God?  Most definitely.

So, I wrap this up by thanking God. 

God, my Father, Savior, Redeemer, and Lord, thank you.  Thank you for the people who make up the church, warts and all.
Sustain my friend while she prayerfully seeks you in this time away from preaching and pastoring.  Convict the people in the church who hurt her – break their hearts that they might repent and turn inward to You.
Protect the Christians in the path of evil – those in Nigeria and Syria and Iraq and other places.  Protect them with your presence.  Through their witness, work miracles.
In my life, fill me with compassion that is unmistakable so that when people are doused by the compassion that pours from me, they will not even see me, but look to you, Oh Savior God.

That is my prayer.  It has stopped raining and is way past my bed time.  Good night.

Monday, September 15, 2014

One Humanity (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Sunday, September 14, 2015

            Well … it has happened again.  This week a story was shared with me and it got me very upset.  A man in Minnesota was waiting for his kids to get out of school.  The school meets in a business park of some sort.  While he waited someone harassed him.  A nonviolent conflict ensued, police were called, and he ended being tased. 
            He had not broken any law.  He was a man waiting to pick his kids up from school and he reacted negatively as you or I would to being harassed for no reason.
            He is black.  All the officers are white.  Much of the confrontation was recorded.  I heard and watched it.  I was upset.

            This is the place where real life, your life and mine, and the Bible and the Holy Spirit of God collide.  It all comes together.

            How many more times in our country must a black person be assaulted by the police who are supposed to protect us?  I read of someone who had been an American citizen for 4 decades.  She moved from Miami to Georgia and someone posted on Facebook, “make sure you bring your flag.”  The reference was to an unfortunate phrase, “Would the last America to leave Miami please bring the flag?”  The inference is that people who look like Cubans, whatever that means, are not as American as white people. 
            Then there is a video, a farce, where a white man, a jogger, sees another jogger, a woman with Asian features, in the park.  Both are stretching.  He says, “Hi,” and she responds.  Then he says, “Where are you from?  Your English is perfect.”  She says, “San Diego.  We speak English there.”  He says, “No, where are you from?  Where are your people from?”  He proceeds to ask dumber and dumber questions. 
            Then she turns the tables on him.  She asks this white guy, “Where are you from?”  He names an American city and she says, “No, where are your people from?”  He says, “Oh, well, I am just a normal American.”  But she presses him until he says, “England, I guess.”
            Aren’t we all just normal Americans?
            When I led a youth group in Arlington in the late 90’s, nearly every kid in the group was either Hispanic or Sudanese.  The Sudanese were actually born in Sudan or in refugee camps in Kenya or Egypt.  Every single one of those tan skinned Latino kids were born in Arlington, Virginia.  How much more American can you be?
            But they didn’t see it that way.  If they discussed a friend at school they might say, “She’s American.”  I’d say, “What do you mean?”  They’d say, “You know, white.  Not Spanish.”  I though not Spanish.  These kids had parents who were Costa Rican and Argentinian and Salvadorian, but some of the kids, Hispanic kids, could barely speak Spanish themselves.  Yet in their minds, a normal American is white.
            Sometimes,  I will meet a person who is Asian or Hispanic.  I will ask, “Where are you from.”  I ask the same question upon meeting someone who is white or black.  It is a way I show interest in the other person.  I want to connect.  Regardless of what they look like, I expect to hear “I am from Detroit or I am from Wilmington or I am from Georgia or I am from St. Louis.”  I see the other as American, but she responds, “I am Korean.”  She doesn’t trust that I see her as American.
            Why should she?  If she has been hit with subtle prejudice or outright racism over and over, why should she believe that this white guy will be a nice one who sees her as a beautiful human being, who wants to celebrate her uniqueness, who wants to hear her story?  Why should she believe my good intentions?  She’s been hurt too many times by people who look like me.
            In the case of the Hispanic youth group kids this is a matter of self-identity.  In the comedy video, it is how we see others.  In Miami, it is a matter of some people deciding that individuals who they think “look Cuban” and probably want to be in this country so much they fought to get here are somehow less American looking than those who had the fortune to be born here.  For the black man who was tased in Minnesota, it is a matter of extreme embarrassment in front of his kids and the unsettling reality that he cannot trust the police to be for him.  In the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the racism that plagues us as a people turned out to be deadly. 
            I said earlier, this where real life, your life and mine, and the Bible and the Holy Spirit of God collide. 
            Ephesians 2 is seen against the backdrop of divided people.  Those called “the circumcision,” the Jews were distinct.  Jewish males were circumcised.  Gentiles males, all men who were not Jewish, did not get circumcised.  Jewish people lived by the Law of Moses.  Those who were not Jewish did not live by the law.  The Jews observed Sabbath.  Perhaps this distinction was the oddest to the Gentiles around them.  Why don’t the Jews work today?  Everyone else does?  What makes today so special?
            These distinctions marked the Jews as separate, holy, the people of God.  But they also marked all non-Jewish people as being not included in the people of God.  Gentiles were vile, unclean, and cut-off.  The division was as dramatic and pregnant withthe danger of violence as are the divisions between people in our country today. 
            It cannot be so for we who are “in Christ.”  Paul would not tolerate two churches – a Gentile Church and a Jewish one.  He insists that in Christ Gentiles are “no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19).  Were Paul to step onto the scene today, he’d tell churches that divisions are antithetical to the Gospel.  Even if our worship styles are different, we are to be one.  Even if my grandparents persecuted your grandparents, I am to confess and repent, and you are to forgive.  We are to be one in Christ.  Even if our peers don’t seek unity and love, as followers of Christ you and are I commanded to seek unity and love in Christ. 
            In Ephesians 2, Gentiles by virtue of being Gentile are separated from God.  “Remember,” we read in verse 12, we who are Gentiles, “were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  However, in Christ, by the blood of Christ, we are now brought near.  Jesus, is our peace.
            This word peace is central.  I specifically wish individuals in law enforcement would have the inner drive to seek peace and the imaginative creavity to find peaceful solutions to conflicts.  I am sure in a confrontation a policeman feels disrespected.  And if they don’t respect him, he will lose the authority he needs to do his job.  I am sure that’s how he feels.  It is hard.  There is pressure.  I am sure he feels he must show his strength in order to be respected by. 
But, the effort to project strength is resulting in policemen and policewomen doing awful things like shooting unarmed teens and tasing Dads who wait to pick their kids up from school.  I wish more people wanted peace and worked for it.  In Ephesians 2, the word peace is mentioned in verse 14, 15, and twice in 17.
            Jesus is our peace.  “In his flesh, he made both groups into one and” broke down the dividing wall of hostility.  We cannot stop others from hating or giving in to fear.  But we can offer a new story.  We can help break down the wall of hostility through prayer and acts and words of love which include a willingness to listen as others tell the stories of when they were wounded by racism.  With humble patience we listen as much as the other needs us to listen.  What better act of love is there than to value another by affirming his worth as we listen to his story?
            We have to keep faith in Jesus at the center of this because He is our peace.  Without him driving our words, any steps toward peace come up short.  I know religion is a source of division in the world, but that is bad religion, religion built on the destruction of other.  In Christ, our posture is open, humble, inviting, God-focused, Spirit-powered, and aimed at love and unity. 
            This is why Ephesians 2 is so intent on destroying circumcision as a qualifying mark.  This is why Ephesians 2 insists in verse 15 that Jesus has abolished the law.  In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and it is true.  Everything the law intended to accomplish in creating people who worship God and live with each other in peace is accomplished in and through Christ.  So in that sense, Jesus in fact fulfills the law completely.  But when the circumcision and the law are markers that identify some people as insiders and others as outsiders, then law and circumcisions no longer serve God’s purposes.  In that sense, Jesus does away with the distinctions. 
Therefore we see in verses 15-16 that Jesus “creates in himself one new humanity in place of the two, making peace and [reconciling] both groups to God in one body through the cross.”  The next verses insist that Jesus proclaims peace and peace means that we all have access to God.
In Christian faith we see this in Baptism and Communion.  Baptism tells a story that ends with an invitation: I was a sinner, I died in sin, Jesus rose from death, and because I am in Him, I will rise from death; and you can too if you receive Jesus into your life and follow Him.  He came that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life as children of God.  Communion is a share meal and the only requirement for coming to the table is the willingness to acknowledge sin and our powerlessness to defeat sin.  We come to the communion table as everyone comes to it: dependent on God for everything.
Our one humanity is not homogenous and I would not want it to be.  In other letters, Paul brags about his own Jewish credentials.  He is a Jewish man, not an everyman.  In Ephesians 2, he does not want Jews to stop being Jews.  He is not in search of the generic disciple.  There is no such thing.  Our relationship with God is always particular, always personal.  There is no general Christianity.  Christianity is always the story of you, an individual, walking with Jesus, living as his disciple.  It is even inaccurate to say, “The story.”  I cannot tell “the story,” but I can tell my story.
The world becomes beautiful when we hear one another’s’ stories.  I will never say, “Well, black people and Hispanics and Asians and whites – we’re really not all that different.”  We are.  We are beautifully different, but united in Christ. 

I pastored in Arlington for 9 years and I got into a group of friendships with single people or young couples prior to having kids.   Once kids come along and grow into school age you don’t hang out with friends very often.  Everything in life is geared toward baseball practice and orthodontist appointments and PTA meetings.  By the time it is all done each day, you can’t go out to clubs or sports bars.  For one thing, you’re too tired.  For another, it would be irresponsible to leave the house with your children in bed asleep and go out for beers. 
But, years ago, I did have that life and I had my crowd.  We’d go out to eat at Dupont Circle or go to movies in Adams Morgan.  One of the guys in that crowd is married to a woman who is not Caucasian.  I say it that way deliberately because for years, I did not know her ethnicity.  And I was scared to ask.  She is very outspoken, politically far, far to the left of me, and I thought if I ask, “What are you,” fiery laser beams would come out of her eyes and pierce my skull.  So I didn’t ask.
We were part of the same circle, though.  We all even traveled to Honduras together in 2004 when one of our group married a Honduran woman.  So I was around her a lot.  I now don’t remember the conversation, but I remember her figuring out that I had no clue about her ethnicity.  She liked that I didn’t know and that she knew I was uncertain of how to ask.  After teasing me a bit, she finally told me she was Korean.  She had been adopted by a Caucasian family in Ohio.  They had 4 boys and her mother wanted a daughter badly.  So they adopted a Korean girl.
If you go deep enough with people and listen long enough, you get past the uncomfortable issues that plague our world, like the race conversation.  People will find you are safe and they can share their stories with you.  And they do because we all want to share our stories.  And when they do, then the race conversation is no longer uncomfortable.  It is beautiful.
Janessa and I were friends and so when Candy and I were getting ready to adopt, I could talk to her.  I could ask, “Now you are an adult.  What is it like, your relationship with the parents who adopted you?  What do I need to do to make sure my children will want a relationship with me when they are grown?”  And she helped me. 
Maybe it sounds like I am way off topic here.  I have been discussing unity in Christ especially among people of different races and I have wandered off on this tangent about my old crowd in DC.  But this is the point! Janessa and I remained as white man and Korean woman, but as we listened to one another and came to that safe place in friendship, we became something more.  We became brother and sister in Christ, people who listened to one another’s stories and helped each other. 
This is the other story, the alternative narrative.  Ferguson, Missouri is a reminder that there’s a lot of hate in the world.  The body of Christ has another story to tell – the story of the gospel bringing us together, making us one.