the Good News

I cringed inwardly. “Even if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would have died just for you.” Why did this sit so poorly with me? The speaker was only reiterating things I have heard all my life. In the week that followed, Easter “media” echoed his message again and again. Facebook posts, blogs, worship songs. “Jesus died for me!”

Yet somehow this familiar refrain left me terribly uncomfortable. An inner voice kept crying, “This is all wrong. Jesus’ death was not primarily about ME. I am not the center of this story!”

My Sunday school training quickly kicked in, “No, of course not. It’s about Jesus.” But somehow even that answer didn’t satisfy.

Then it occurred to me that Jesus wasn’t even then center of His Own story.

A recent conversation with a friend echoed in my mind. “You know,” she said, “We have so personalized and individualized the gospel today. But it wasn’t always the case. The message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the disciples was that the Kingdom of God was coming. That was the good news.”

In describing His mission, Jesus often said that He must proclaim the Kingdom of God. Many of His parables began, “The kingdom of Heaven is like…”, and much of His teaching introduced a new way of living, a new way of thinking, that was out of step with the norms of his society—guidelines for citizens of a new Kingdom.

Jesus did not live to glorify Himself. He didn’t come to earth so that we could see the Father. Nor did He die so that I could be forgiven, have a personal relationship with Him, or live eternally.

He came, quite frankly, to turn the universe on its head; to bring about a new world order; to defeat evil once and for all and establish a Kingdom full of righteousness and peace.

In the process did He receive glory? Absolutely. Did those who saw him catch a glimpse of the Father? Of course. Did He provide a way for us to be cleansed of sin, live in loving relationship with Him, and never die? Thank God—yes, yes, and yes. But these are all small brush strokes in a bigger picture.

In His 33 years on earth, Jesus lived for something greater than His own personal story. In return, He invites each of us to live for something bigger than ourselves. The fact that we are given a part in the divine Story—invited to be citizens of this eternal Kingdom—should fill us with awe and wonder. It should make us feel small and humble and throw us to our knees in all-out worship.

Instead, we make Jesus’ time on earth about ourselves. This is understandable, in one sense, since His death is my only hope of life. But to distill the the mystery and magnificence of Jesus’ sacrifice down to simply what it means for me personally is to cheapen it, to miss the bigger picture, and to live small. Quite frankly, it is not Kingdom behavior.

As I walk away from Easter this year I am challenged to lift my eyes to something bigger than myself. I want this world to fade and become insubstantial, as I catch glimpses of the new Reality that Jesus brought about. I am hungry to learn more and more what it looks like to live each day as a citizen of this Kingdom.

Life

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ sermon/essay “The Weight of Glory,” which opens with these lines:

“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.…”

His ideas were still rolling around in my head during a discussion at church this past Sunday.

We were studying Leviticus, and the focus was on blood and the regulations surrounding it. With broad brush strokes through the Old Testament, we concluded that, to the best of their understanding at the time, life resided in the blood. The literal Hebrew phrase in many passages is, “its life, its blood”—which led to the translation “lifeblood” in some cases. To lose blood meant to lose life—in other words, to die.

Of course the discussion propelled us forward into the New Testament, to Jesus, His death, the impact of His words as he held aloft the cup at the last supper, solemnly proclaiming it to be His blood, inviting us to partake.

I can’t adequately reproduce the breadth and richness of that discussion in these few lines, nor could our words then fully explore the depths of this holy mystery. But many were struck with the conviction that we, following Christ’s example, were called to death.

This is very true, and very biblical. Die to ourselves, to the world, to the flesh.

But something nagged at my mind. “This is my blood, poured out for you.” Lifeblood. Life. Life poured out for you.

What if we were to look at our Christian walk, not so much as dying, but as pouring out our lives. I know it might be semantics, two sides of the same coin, but what a difference it makes in my outlook.

One seems inward focused, the other outward. One seems like a truncation, an ending; the other a beginning with limitless potential.

Our lives are not, indeed, meant to be preserved, protected, held in reserve. Instead, we are to pour them out into others, into the world around us. Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t begin and end in His death at the cross. The gospels record again and again that He poured Himself out continually into the lives of those around Him. Yes, He gave His life, and that process began years before Calvary.

What’s more, we aren’t even called to give out of our own resources. The truth is, on our own we have nothing to offer. If we try to pour out life in our own strength and wisdom, we will ultimately be depleted, offering only death and disappointment. But Jesus, as the source of all life, once again offers His Life to flow through us to others. In relationship with Him we are tapped in to the limitless spring of Life, which will never run dry.

“This is My blood, poured out for you.” Take it in, drink deeply of My Life. Then pour out Life to others.

I think C. S. would back me up.

You Are My Coffee Shop

Mar18

a modern Psalm—to be read with a good cup of coffee

You are my coffee shop,
A haven of delight in a crazy, noisy world.
You are the soft lights that welcome me,
You are straight, graceful lines and rich, dark wood.
You are the easy chair that embraces me,
You cushion my back and invite me to sink in, to rest.
I inhale deeply, wearily—
Your aroma permeates the air.

selah (take a sip of coffee)

I reach for You, You warm my hands.
My eyes feast on Your lush loveliness.
I lean in closer, longing.
My face flushes with the heat of Your nearness.
I can resist You no longer, I must be one with You,
Have You in me, filling me.
You burst over my senses—
Sweet and bitter, sharp and smooth,
rich and deep and ever so satisfying.
You captivate me completely,
Body, mind, and soul engaged in experiencing You.

selah (take a sip of coffee)

I drink long. I drink deeply.
My thirst increases and I know I’ll never get enough.
Even so, You are too much for me. You overpower me.
Kindly You pour Yourself out in cup-size portions,
or I would be undone.

selah (take a sip of coffee)

Fondly I linger—
Your taste on my lips, Your warmth in my belly.
Your life courses through my veins.
I will carry You with me out into the chaos,
Which I could not face without You.
But rest assured, I will soon return to this sacred ground
To drink of You once again.
For You are my portion and my cup,
My coffee shop in this troubled world.

Busyness: the Pursuit of Happiness

Nov7

The final lie that I believe keeps us running at a frantic pace is the notion that happiness is our highest purpose. And by happiness we mean an absence of pain, anger, or sorrow. And so, instead of stopping to deal with the inevitable wounds, disappointments, and failures of life, we run. We numb ourselves with activity and distractions. We skip like a stone along the surface of life, knowing that if we slow down we will sink into the murky depths below.

Because at heart most of us are filled with fear. We are haunted by ghosts of the past and the monsters lurking in our own souls. We are too afraid of the voices in our own heads to be alone and quiet with ourselves. We dread the darkness too much to accept it as a normal part of life.

Our Christian heritage, unfortunately, reinforces these lies. Spouting verses such as “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials…” and “In everything give thanks…” we mask our inner turmoil with brave smiles and fever-bright eyes. There are certain emotions that mature Christians are not supposed to feel—be it anger, fear, doubt, despair—and so we do our best deny their existence. We look askance at those who aren’t living in “victory.”

The tragedy of this deception is two-fold.

First of all, we rob ourselves of the very thing we want: true, lasting, deep happiness. It is as if, instead of facing the pain of pulling out a splinter, we choose to leave it in. And so the offending sliver continues to fester, prick, irritate, infect.

This gives me new insight on the beatitude, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” What a strange “blessing.” Nobody wants to feel the gut-wrenching pain of grief. But the point is that grief will come, and unless we allow ourselves to mourn truly, deeply, authentically, we will never experience genuine comfort.

One man who was struck with huge tragedy reflected later that, “…the quickest way to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west chasing after it, but to head east into the darkness until you finally reach the sunrise.” (Gerald Sittser, quoted in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero) Unfortunately, many choose the dim haze of twilight over the black darkness of night, and thus never get to see the dawn.

Secondly, by denying certain parts of ourselves and our existence, we actually rob ourselves of a deep relationship with God. Throughout the ages theologians have asserted that a true knowledge of God is dependent on a true knowledge of self, and vice versa. In The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner explains that “…people who are afraid to look deeply at themselves will of course be equally afraid to look deeply at God.”

God is truth, and requires that we be authentic with others, with ourselves, and most of all with Him. He wants us to, as C. S. Lewis writes, “…lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” He wants us to give ourselves to Him fully. Fully. That means even the ugliest, nastiest, most wounded bits of us. This requires time, and honesty, and courage. But imagine the joy when we open our darkest corners to His light and find ourselves fully loved. Fully. Without performance or pretense.  Our truest happiness is obtained; we need run no further. And we are one step closer to really knowing God.

Freedom

Jul5

I have been back in the US for about six months now, and I have been surprised to detect a distinct lack of freedom. I am not talking about rights violations or a heavy-handed government. I am referring to a stunning sense of slavery in many Christians with whom I talk.

When I tell them we are taking a year to stop and seek God, I invariably get a response something like: “Must be nice. It would be impossible for me…” or “ Wish I could do that, but I could never…” or “Sure, I’d love a year off. Like that’d ever happen!”

And as I hear this theme repeated again and again, I realize that many people feel trapped. They feel demoralized, enslaved and out of control.

And so, in the spirit of this independence holiday, here’s what I’d like to say to them.

1. You are free.

Deuteronomy 5:15 says, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.”

When we become Christians we are set free from so many things. From sin, from death, from the laws of this fallen world. We are not slaves of anything, including our circumstances, our finances, our schedules, or our jobs. The book Sabbath Keeping says it like this:

“To keep sabbath is to exercise one’s freedom, to declare oneself to be neither a tool to be employed—an employee—nor a beast to be burdened.” (pg. 43)

I hear the objections starting already. “But we have to be responsible. Hold down a job. Pay bills.” Of course. God not only commands us to work, He is honored when we are productive. But neither money nor work is to become our master.

Remember, God brought the Israelites out of slavery “by a mighty hand.” He is strong enough to provide for our needs when we make seeking Him and His kingdom our top priority. In fact, He promises to do so.

2. You are not a citizen of this world.

As I observe what keeps people oppressed and harried, I see that many are racing to live up to the expectations of the world around them. These cultural norms and demands are so second nature—they have been taught to us from birth and permeate even our church culture—that many of us never question them.

But as Christians we need not live by these rules. As citizens of the kingdom of God we are free to march to another drum, to seek another way of life. In fact, we are obligated to do so.

Colossians warns: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (2:8)

We must stop and re-think the way we live in light of what the Bible teaches. Why is it necessary to achieve that? Who says I need to have this to be happy? To be socially acceptable? To be secure? Where does my definition of success come from? And if we find that the “traditions of men” run contrary to the values of Christ—whether in our secular or sacred cultures—we must have the courage to rebel. To claim our heavenly citizenship and refuse to live under the laws of a land which is not our true home.

I know this is revolutionary talk. It is inflammatory and subversive. But as those who—being slaves of Christ—are truly free , we must never bow to any law or master other than Him.

What do you want from Me?

Apr9

He must have been disappointed.

The paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof to get to Jesus was probably not expecting to hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven.” Really? After all this effort? Don’t you see me lying here on this mat? That’s not quite what I was hoping for…

What do you want from Me?

I always sort of wondered why Jesus asked that question, when the answer seemed so obvious. The blind guy wanted to see, the lepers wanted to be clean, the lame guy wanted to walk.

Your sins are forgiven.

And then it began to dawn on me. Jesus didn’t actually come here to heal physical ailments, give the grieving their dead come to life, feed the masses. If easing human suffering had been primary His aim, he could have been the most popular, most sought-out man of His day.

But no. He came to shed light on a dark world that didn’t want its evil deeds exposed. He came to challenge a smug and complacent religious system, to tell the pious leaders they were walking graves. He came to die so that many could experience spiritual life.

What do you want from Me?

I think He was looking for someone to actually get it. To say, “You know, all these physical things, the day-to-day stuff—I don’t actually care so much about that. What I’d really like is to be truly alive spiritually. Would you please make my soul whole and healthy so that I can walk through this life in close relationship with the Father?”

You can almost hear Him pleading with those who followed Him. “Why don’t you ask Me for Living Water that will bring life to your soul?”  “Don’t follow Me for the bread that just fills your stomach, but hunger for the Bread from Heaven that gives eternal life.”  “Seek first the kingdom of God, and these other things will be given to you as well.”

He must have been disappointed.

Fortunately for the paralytic, there were pharisees in the crowd with snarky attitudes, thinking, “Who does this man think he is, going around forgiving sins?” And so Jesus said, “So that you will know that I have authority to forgive sins, pick up your mat and walk.”

And that’s what the miracles were all about. They were not the end in themselves, but the means through which Jesus showed that God had come to earth in the flesh. He said repeatedly, “If you don’t believe My testimony about Who I am, believe the works themselves.” The miracles attested to the fact that Jesus was truly the Son of God, the Messiah who was to come.

Your sins are forgiven.

When I accepted Jesus as a child, I knew that was the first step. Today, we understand a bit better that Jesus came to forgive sins, and to give us eternal life. But what about that time in between salvation and eternity? I must admit that most of my requests are more along the lines of the blind, lame, and leperous. Focused on temporary, physical things my prayers run something like, “Please make my life more predictable, comfortable and secure.”

What do you want from Me?

I think Jesus still asks that question today. And now, as then, I think our answers often disappoint Him. What would it take for you, for me, to say, “You know what? Forget all that other stuff. I want a spiritually vibrant life more than anything else. Do whatever it takes to make my soul whole and healthy, my relationship with You deep and rich, the establishment of Your kingdom my life’s greatest goal.”

It’s a bit scary to think about uttering those words. It means giving up control (which we don’t actually have), letting go of safety and security (which are, in truth, only found in Him) and sacrificing dreams and desires (of which He is the deepest fulfillment). When you look at it like that, what’s keeping us from taking that step? I don’t know where such a wild leap of faith might lead, but one thing I’m sure of…

We won’t be disappointed.