Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ultimate Reality

We have just entered the most significant part of the Church year. This past Sunday we renewed the most amazing and powerful proclamation that Christians can make: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

When we delve into the text of the New Testament we find that the Resurrection is far more than a “faith statement.” It is not merely something cognitive to be endorsed mentally. It is not something only “religious” to be celebrated liturgically. The Apostolic thrust of the Resurrection is something that changes reality, and one’s understanding of reality is the basis on which one lives all of life.

It is right to call this ultimate reality. It is a complete paradigm shift, much like the total revolution in cosmology when understanding shifted from Ptolemy’s earth-centered universe to the sun-centered solar systems of Copernicus. For all practical purposes, the earth had changed for people living in that time. It is no less so for people who believe that the Son of God is risen from the dead.

This was the perspective out of which the New Testament was written. This is the reason a few men who had no earthly power — no esteemed education, no special position or prestige, no great wealth or powerful armies — could turn the Roman Empire upside down. But one thing was clear to those early Christians: the sum total of reality had changed because Jesus had risen from the dead.

Once a person sees the truth of that, he cannot look at this world and day-to-day life the same way. It is like someone who gets news of a terminal illness. Once a person knows the end of life is near, the amount of time remaining is lived with a new perspective. A dying person sees, hears and values in a new way.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ offers the ultimate reality that this world — this life we now have — is not all there is. The death of Jesus Christ is actually a judgment on life lived as though this world is all there is.

This is why Jesus says such up-side-down things in the Beatitudes such as Blessed are those who mourn and Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake...

This is why timid Peter becomes the bold Apostle on the day of Pentecost, charging his hearers with the death of Jesus and later telling those who crucified Jesus, We have to obey God rather than men.

This is why St Paul tells the Corinthians thing like this in his first letter: For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and then later, let those... who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it, for the form of this world is passing away.

Paul gives the other side of the coin to the Colossians: If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. This is why he goes on to exhort them to put earthly passions to death, not to get angry nor speak with foul language and not to lie, but rather to forgive others and to embrace things like kindness and even lowliness.

This is why John wrote what he did in the Apocalypse. While he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos he was writing and warning of even worse things to come to God’s people, and yet with those serious words there is a tone of victory and an encouragement for Christians to remain faithful. How can this be? How can we dare to live in contrast to the world’s greatest values? It is because Jesus has died for our sins and is risen from the dead — and in God’s time He is going to return, bodily and visibly, and make everything new.

You see, when we know that Jesus Christ has died for judgment on sin and has risen to open a whole new level of existence, it affects the way we live in this world. This is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Two Realities of Easter

Easter does not make everything right, at least in the context of our temporal existence. The day before Easter Sunday was the memorial service of a dear friend, 58 years old and the heart of his family, who was much too young and needed — at least looking from this world’s point of view.

The last two weeks have brought a heaviness to my family that deepened the bitter-sweet realities of Good Friday and Easter. We live in a world that does not always cooperate with our desires, even when we believe our desires to be good and grounded in our prayers.

There is an intensity of spiritual battle for those who seek to live fully unto God in everything they do. Hell does not like the witness of such a life. And even though we live “in the Resurrection,” there is the truth of what theologians call “the already and not yet” — we already know Jesus has won, but the fullness of the consummation is not yet ours. We on earth are still among the Church Militant, not yet with the Church Triumphant.

But the Church Triumphant is the greater reality. That is the nature of faith. Jesus is risen from the dead. Sin and death are defeated. Christians have a hope beyond this world.

Still, we live in this world, and we love the good gifts from our heavenly Father which are part of this world. I also believe that the more attuned we become to holiness, the more the pain of this world becomes, at times, excruciating — one more way we enter into the sufferings of our Lord.

What do we do? Keith Green once did a song that said, “Just keep doing your best, and pray that it’s blessed, and Jesus takes care of the rest.” When we obey the Lord as best we know and trust His mercies in our lives, it also means we can indeed trust Him with the things He allows to fall across our path. There is much we cannot control, but we trust the One who controls all things.

And He is risen from the dead. Alleluia.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Fool's Wisdom

Today is Good Friday — the crucifixion of our Lord. Paul once wrote to the Corinthians that his message was nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He wants the Corinthians to know exactly what he means by that (see 1Cor 1:18–2:5). We need to understand it too.

Paul says there is a choice to make: human wisdom or what God has done through the cross of Jesus Christ. Either we embrace human wisdom or we embrace the cross; it is impossible to do both.

What is wrong with human wisdom? In the context of which Paul is speaking, human wisdom leaves God out. It is based on a distorted human perception of reality. It deals with life in this world as though that is all there is. We want security, comfort, pleasure and prestige, but we lose the perspective of a very temporal existence. We do not want to face the fact that we will all die. We will not carry our possessions with us. We have little control over whether our end will be painless or painful, and what others think about us will not matter so much when that time comes.

If human wisdom is not a good choice, then there's a second question: Why is God's wisdom “foolish?” This is really one more way to see why human wisdom is so wrong. The folly of human wisdom is that it calls God's wisdom foolish, when in fact it's just the other way around. One of the great themes of the Scriptures is the great reversal. In words Paul uses a bit later, God uses the things that are not to nullify the things that are.

What are "the things that are?" They are the things we see, things we recognize as being important in this world. And "the things that are not?" That is harder to explain because we are trying to see and understand the very things the world says are foolish — the things which do not even appear to be true except by faith.

So what is the issue of fool's wisdom? The short answer is: life and death. That is the crux of the cross.

And how should we present our faith to the world? A big theme among some Christians today is how to “market the church.” How did God show his wisdom? What did Paul understand the message to be? His answer is we preach Christ crucified. When God needed to show His ultimate wisdom He did not enter into a debate with the best minds on earth or pander to people’s expectations. God has more power and wisdom than we can fathom, but when God did His ultimate act on earth it was something that human reasoning calls sheer stupidity.

God's wisdom — and our message, if we are in tune with God — is Christ crucified. Maybe we have heard that so much we have lost our sensitivity to what it means. According to human wisdom, one either has a messiah or a crucifixion — not both. For the world, having a messiah means power, splendor and triumph. A crucifixion means weakness, humiliation and defeat. Human wisdom says why not preach a message that will attract the sign seeker? the lover of wisdom? or the one who wants comfort or pleasure or prestige or security more than any other thing in this world? To ask that question is to miss fool's wisdom.

To embrace fool's wisdom is to take an awful risk. It is to turn away from everything that our ties to this world would tell us are most important. All we are left with is the essence of faith. We either trust God, believe that life can come from death and so be saved, or we keep our pretensions and perish —pretensions that this world, our place in it, and the things we have are somehow immune from the death that is already all around us.

Before we are anything else, if we are faithful Christians, we are people who both follow and model our lives after a Man who died a criminal's death in public execution. It is only by faith that we call that a victory; the unbelieving world certainly does not see it as such. But that is what we are offered today — either the way of the world with its outward respectability, or the way of the cross with a call for us to come and die. That is the wisdom God offers.

We are in a marketing war for our very souls. On one billboard there is a collage of pictures. They show life as a well ordered experience with nice homes, shopping malls and restaurants, and well-dressed, happy people. On another billboard is a lonely Man who claims to be the king of the world, only His crown is made of thorns and His life seems to have ended in failure. To this day it looks like the world on the other billboard is actually winning. I only ask this one thing: Whose commercial are we believing?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


As we soon go into the Easter Triduum I find myself haunted by one of the saddest lines, for me, in the Scriptures. It is rooted in the context of the ongoing battle between bowing to the God who created (and redeems) us and the human autonomy that chooses to seek its own way — something initiated in the very first act of disobedience.

As Jesus stood before Pilate, the people who for hundreds of years had been God’s people cried, “Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

And then those awful words: “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered (Jn. 19:15,16).

The desire for temporal security.... the possessiveness of a pathetic piece of personal position.... an insistence on self-righteousness.... all these things (and they each deserve our extended reflection) so blinded the very people on whom God first had chosen to give his Kingly rule that they turned away and sided, not only with the powers of hell, but with the very earthly tyrant they so despised. Such is the deceitfulness and destructiveness of sin.

In our world today, we cannot give Jesus first place and at the same time give ourselves to compromising demands. Neither “national security” nor personal comfort and convenience can be the first concern of a faithful Christian. We are (supposedly) following the One who said if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it (Lu 9:23–24). Jesus is our King, and he asks for our total allegiance.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Seek me with all of your heart... This is God’s invitation to us along with the promise that in seeking we will find Him.

What does it means to seek God with “all of our heart?” There is one sense in which we are incapable of that. I cannot seek God so fully that, by myself, I can find Him. Seeking is not a “work” that God rewards if we do it good enough. Unless God graciously chooses to reveal Himself, no one can find Him. The Good News of Christian Faith is that, not only has God chosen to reveal Himself, God has both revealed Himself perfectly in Jesus Christ and — through the death and resurrection of Jesus — removed every barrier that would get in the way of having intimacy with Him.

And yet, as part of this revelation, we have the invitation-exhortation: Seek me with all of your heart. What is it that God is wanting us to do? Some Christians want to argue “nothing,” that Jesus has done everything and there is nothing for us to do but “accept” what He has done — that anything else is “adding works.” While it is true that Jesus has done everything necessary to save unto God a people for Himself, being one of God’s people means responding to God. That is why God created us — to live in response to Him, and one way we respond to God is to seek Him.

So again, what does this mean? Is “seeking” merely something we initially do to “find God” (but once having "found God," do we put “seeking” in the “been there, done that” category)? I hope the question, put that way, shows the folly of such a thought.

Is seeking God something we primarily do in times of crisis, when we become aware that we need God in some fresh and powerful way? Who would want to say that God only desires sporadic attention from His people?

Is seeking God something we do only at “ordered” times of the day? The Lord used “ordered prayer” (The Liturgy of the Hours) to renew my life in Him, but learning the discipline of ordered prayer — having consistent “devotions” or “quiet time” in Evangelicalese — is meant to provide a foundation for ongoing prayer and trust. Seeking God is not limited to our specific but time-limited spiritual exercises.

So, how do we seek God with all of our hearts? I would like to offer that it is an attitude we bring to every situation of every day. When we are perplexed (over relationships, finances, health, etc), we seek God and affirm our trust in Him. When we are hurting or grieving, we seek God and affirm our trust in Him. When we are comfortable and relatively happy (or even ecstatic), we seek God and affirm that all our blessings come from Him.

Seek me with all of your heart.... This is something we do all day, every day. Seeking God takes a lifetime. And when we do it, the reward — through His grace — is an eternity of continuing to live unto our Lord.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tests of Faith

I hardly know where to start. The past couple of weeks have been a roller-coaster. The time with the people at St Jude Church was an incredible high. The Presence of our Lord was palpable. The people were so gracious and affirming and responsive. Our hosts were delightful beyond description. Libby and I came home in the joy of verification from the Spirit that our unexpected and, to many looking on, puzzling journey is not some “bunny trail” (or again, to some) abomination. The week following the mission was as low as the previous one was high. Sharing just a bit of our joy within our closest circle brought, from some, deep criticism and even attack.

This initiated a week of deep prayer and reflection. Being maligned by some of those closest to you is unsettling. Either they do not understand or we have followed a wrong leading. All Libby and I know for sure is that we are seeking God and are honest before Him as much or more than anytime in our lives. If we are not seeing something that is wrong on a cognitive level it is not because our hearts are being disobedient. Again, we are embracing a spirit of obedience beyond anything ever before.

It is almost amazing how Scripture can be used to attack. To some I am a “fool” because Paul described people as professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.... It does not matter that we, in contrast to the context of Paul’s indictment, are seeking — with all our mind and heart — to glorify him as God [and give] thanks to him (Romans 1:21,22).

I have thought a lot about what it means to claim to “know God.” First of all, Christians know we can claim such a thing only through Christ, who has both revealed God and, through his death and resurrection, made it possible for us to be friends of God instead of enemies. Based on this, “knowing God” begins to bear the fruit of becoming “like God” as Christians are transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ through his Spirit. The effect of this is the “fruit of the Spirit,” and again, every day I pray for my life increasingly to be marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Those who interact with me daily — my children, my closest friends, and especially my wife — say they see this, and have seen it growing intensely over the past few years of this most recent phase of my faith pilgrimage.

Knowing God.... Who would claim to know and model the fullness of God’s Truth?! Also in his letter to the Romans, St Paul exclaims: Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Who has ever been his counselor? The evidence of knowing God is not that we all have a common understanding of the nuances of doctrine. The evidence of knowing God is not that we all have the same experiences. The evidence of knowing God is not that we all practice our faith by focusing on the same forms and practices. The evidence of knowing God is that, in turning our hearts to Jesus, we are becoming more and more like him.

This past week brought much of this into focus for me through the lives of two men in my past. One had been involved in vocational ministry and was retired with his wife of more than forty years. His confession of faith was always about “being clothed in the righteousness of Christ” (in contrast to saying much about piety and personal holiness). The other was a family man who, over the past fifteen years, had responded to a crisis with a young-adult daughter that has left her permanently handicapped with severe limitations. Over the past two years he himself has fought an aggressive cancer. This latter man grew in grace over the years, confessing a trust in our Lord that was being tried by the fires of tribulation and, in that, modeling a joy of heart as he served his family. Most recently, that trust and joy was even more evident as he fought the specter of encroaching death.

The latter man died yesterday with his family surrounding him and as I looked on. Some of his final words were “I am not afraid.” The first man, on the other hand, has left his wife for another woman. I do not know but what his theological confession is even part of his rationalization — that we are so sinful there is nothing we can do but be forgiven.

Jesus said, By their fruits you will know them. I know that my prayer — my hunger and thirst — is to be like my Lord.

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