On the topic of pre-millennialism

Recently, I had occasion to apply for a job as a particular kind of grader for the class, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. If you are not yet aware of this material and course, it is well worth your time. It is without a doubt the best material on missions I have ever been privileged to study. But I digress.

As part of the application for this grader position, I was asked my thoughts about the doctrine of pre-millennialism. Amongst two Christian groups, the esoteric and the nerdy, this topic is all the rage and has been for a good 100 years. I could not tell you why, but I can tell you that as a young Christian, I did get caught up in the wonderment of the topic and did a lot of reading. I was pretty convinced and sure the position I held was the right one. Most people tend to believe that of their own opinions. But, again, I digress.

I wanted to give a fair assessment of where I am on that subject now, so I spent time stewing over it, contemplating it, wondering who I would offend (esoteric, nerds, or both) in the process of positioning myself on this hot topic, as I took my time with the application. Yet, honesty is the best policy, so I jotted down my thoughts. I believe it to be true and accurate to my current way of thinking.

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, I am a student, but more readily identify myself as a pastor. My ministerial bent has always been toward education with the goal of spiritual well-being and the pathway of holistic growth.

So here is what I think on the issue of premillennialism:

I have not come to a firm conviction on any type of millennialism. In some ways, I believe that the whole discussion of the millennium is a distraction to our ethic and purpose. With regard to ethic, we can become so absorbed in the debate of this topic that we completely lose our composure and posture of love toward those who believe other than ourselves. With regard to purpose, when we focus so intently on the mechanics of the Second Coming, we forget that our task is to glorify God in the here and now, to be His hands and feet, to partner with God in establishing His kingdom, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with Him (Malachi 6:8), and pour ourselves into the “least of these,” whether we agree with them or not (Matthew 25:31-46). When I was a teen and young man, I voraciously read up on end times theology; as I journeyed in faith, I found that, for me, this discussion leads to asking the wrong questions, interesting though they may be.

Scripture itself conflicts internally as to the how (and when) of Christ’s return.* For the most part, though, I believe the meta-narrative about the second coming is the message of compassion (pastoral care, if you will) to a people brutalized by the occupying forces of the day. ‘There are dark days now,’ the scripture tells us, ‘and even darker days to come, yet Christ is the Victorious One, who will create a new heaven and a new earth, and you will be a part of it. This is the new family, the new kingdom, this is what we are about now.’ That, to me, is what the end times narratives are about. It speaks timelessly to all people of faith in Christ, the Crucified One, and yet the Resurrected One. And in many ways, I believe our limited understanding of the second coming is parallel to that of the misunderstanding of the coming of the Messiah — it is a little arrogant and presumptuous of us to claim to know the mechanics of the second coming of Christ better than the Hebrew scholars of old could grasp the coming of the Messiah.

There are many concepts over which we nerds and esoterics like to wage war. To fight battles over issues such as this while a desperate and dying world watches hungry and yearning for the experiential knowledge and love of God, is a fruitless endeavor. The simplest — and yet hardest to grasp — truth is found in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, [if you really get that in the core of your soul] you will be saved.”

 

*for instance, compare 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with Revelation 19:11-19, both referencing the return of Christ, but significantly differently. Matthew 24 and 25 are yet another view. It is tempting to try to make the narratives mesh, but that pursuit takes us down a rabbit hole.

Speak your truth, please

Oprah made an ear-grabbing speech in response to her life-time achievement award at the Golden Globes ceremony last week. In it, she implored all of us to be bold to speak “your truth.” That resonated with a lot of people, and it made others gasp. Particularly, conservative Christians bristled at the idea that we would all have our own truth. According to scripture, only God is truth.

When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he was met with silence. Perhaps Jesus did some quick math in his head and decided there were not enough hours left in that day to reveal it all to the Roman governor. Perhaps he didn’t have the energy. Perhaps he thought Pilate could not handle the truth. We will never know on this side of glory.

But the idea I want to suggest is that we, as people who long to engage in the hurts, woes, joys and realities of the lives of others, need to be asking of others, “What is your truth?”

Because here is what we are asking. We are asking to step into the holy ground of someone else’s reality. This is reality as they know it, based on experience of life. To ask of someone’s truth is to look past outward appearance. It is to look past socio-economic or political postures. It is to look past even what one might say they want to believe. It is to look upon the operating modalities that are pure expression of the soul.

Fundamental to the way we act and present ourselves is the set of values, our rational and sometimes irrational understandings of that which is good, better or best, from which we shape our choices. Underneath that, if we were to peel back the skin of our adopted values, are the beliefs that shape those judgments. I can say I treasure or value something, but I will not really act consistently with that stated value if I do not truly believe there is merit to it. We have to believe something, or in something, for it to have value. Our behavior is merely an act if it does not reflect the values we hold dear. And our values are only made concrete when we fully embrace the principles that engender those values. I can say I want a super nice car, but unless I really see the value in it, I will not put my hard earned money into it. And I won’t see the value in it if I do not fundamentally believe it is worthy of my effort to get it. On the other hand, the things we believe will shape our values, and ultimately our behavior. For example, I believe a good home provides stability for myself and others. That is worth pursuing. So I strive for it.  Beliefs drive our values, and these in turn motivate our behavior.

But there is something even deeper within us that shapes our values, and our beliefs, and that is our worldview. Whether we know it or not, we each have one. Worldview is how we conceive of the world, and how we conceive of ourselves in that world. It asks very fundamental questions: am I safe here? can I trust? are the gods (for polytheists) or is God (for monotheists) operating for me or against me? is there any sense to reality/is there any god(s)-purpose at all? can I move through the world freely or is reality a stormy sea or shifting sand or an island adrift? do I have a purpose? do I have a contribution to make, a vision to quest after, an Odyssean destiny to fulfill? what is my worth, where do I find it?

This is our truth. Looking at these ponderings, there are both nature and nurture components to these worldview questions. Our experience from womb to tomb shapes our perception of these musings. There are cultural forces that play into these, as well. And the amazing fact of it all is that for as many people there are on the planet, there are that many different lives of experiences. That many worldviews. That many truths.

As a believer in Jesus Christ as the son of God, the redeemer of creation, I want to hear your worldview, I want to hear your truth. Because only then can I truly understand you well enough to speak kindness and act justly in your world. Only then can I share the profound love of God with you, a love that celebrates your triumphs and weeps with your hurts. Only then can I share in the grace that he has offered to all of us, and connect with it in the deepest parts of our souls together. Only at that level can I speak the healing into your life, that was so convictingly spoken into mine, that will bring about lasting holistic change. I want to share with you and demonstrate to you that you have worth, because God has given you worth. That can never be taken away. But I can only experience these moments with you if you share your truth with me.

And I want you to hear mine. Because I need kindness. I need firmness. I need to celebrate with others, and for sure would rather weep with someone than to weep alone. I want my soul to grow, and I want it to grow in community with others. I want to sense my worth.

In all humility, though, let us all acknowledge together this over-riding reality: Your truth is too narrow, too small, and so is mine.

There is so much to learn from each other. In the community of Christ-believers, there is a saying: Where two or three are gathered together in His name [that is to say, with Christ-likeness in mind], God is in the midst. I truly and fully believe that. It is truly holy ground to share at the soul level. With each other. With God.

So please, let me speak my truth to you. Hear me at the soul level.

And by all means,

Speak your truth, please.

What’s Love Got to Do With It? (pt 1)

I know the title invokes the song made famous by Tina Turner. But frankly, I only remember three lines from that song: “What’s love got to do with it?”; What’s love but a secondhand emotion?”; and, “What’s love but a sweet old-fashioned notion?” I am tapping my fingers and biting my lower lip as I hear the tune in my head. The question is a good one. It has only one answer.

I am in mind of this as I think back on the many roles I have played in fellowships through the years, as a trustee, deacon, children’s Sunday School teacher, Adult Bible study teacher, youth leader, Small groups director, Bible study coordinator, etc. Not all at once, but many overlapping. The question also rolls around in my mind as I think of my role as a father and husband, as a business man and a person participating in various ways in my home community. Why do I participate in the ways that I do, and more importantly, how do I go about it? What is my aim? What character do I present? And I think about this as I wonder how the people of Christ move forward in the next few years, especially here in the US.

As these things tumble around in my head, I cannot help but think of the larger narrative of 1 Corinthians, say chapters 11 through 14, where some really significant things are laid out to help us navigate faith.

What We Should All Know About Corinth

Before we get to the main passage, though, we need to look at the backdrop to this writing.

Here’s a little bit on the history of Corinth: by the time of the New Testament writings, what was known as Corinth was now the third iteration of this city over a 2,000 yr period. Each time, it became a fabulously wealthy city, probably due to its geography – it was a town blessed with two shipping ports, it had lots of trade, lots of wealth. In its heyday, there were close to 200,000 freemen and 500,000 slaves in the city. By this time, it was a hot and happening place, filled with traders, potentates, clergy of all stripes and military types used to the ways of the Roman world. It was also a sparkly, glitzy, flashy town – the Vegas of the region. Like typical Roman cities, activity centered around the busy market area (agora – as in agoraphobia) and the bema, the judicial platform where Paul defended himself in Acts 18. With all the foreigners passing thru there, they liked to hold debates there. We might think Monte Carlo, with all its international flavors.

Though it was not known for leather (some of you older folks will catch the reference), it was known for pottery and Corinthian brass (a combination of gold, silver and copper – sort of like rose gold now). Yet we should remember that it was best known for its temple to Poseidon, on the hill known as Acrocorinth, where there were notorious

temple games

high rollers coming in for the games

temple priestesses

The Acrocorinth was so entrenched in culture that there was a term for those who rolled fast and loose, Korinthiazomai; temple priestesses were so hot that they were often the main attraction. I mention this because it plays heavily into how this 1st Corinthian letter came to be. Their willingness to participate in, umm, “worship” made the temple a popular place to go and exercise, umm, “faith.” Any fellowship, faith system or cult, seeking to grow, would fall into the trap set by looking at that and asking the questions, “how can we get that kind of popularity? how do we make our worship more engaging? how do we attract non-followers? how do we dominate the culture?” Age-old questions that the church asks even now.

Of course, when Paul first gets to Corinth, there is not yet a fellowship of Christ-followers that we know of. It is mentioned in Acts 18 that Paul comes and ministers here for about a year and a half before he moves on. He sets up a house church. Paul is well-travelled and not at all shocked by what he sees. He is not shocked, but he is afraid. Acts tells us God speaks to him there to reassure him. Paul knows he’s got his work cut out for him. I can only imagine.

It is in Ephesus that he writes to them to handle some growing issues. It appears to him they have fallen into the trap. First Corinthians, in large part, addresses that that trap. The beginning of it seems to be a response to news Paul has heard about them, and he is not happy. But then the pace and structure changes, to what appears to be a set of responses to specific questions. The tone of these responses is dripping with a mixture of remorse, disgust and rebuke.

At this point, before we get into the heart of the question, it is important to reflect on a number of thoughts. What are the Acrocorxnths in the broader culture that affect our worship and function as the body of Christ? What social norms are not reflective of the character of God, yet have seeped into our practice anyway? As individuals, do we seek to have a full and complete worship experience, or do we seek to be entertained? As a church, are we seeking to dominate a culture, or usher in the kingdom of God?

I have not yet gotten to the main question, what’s love got to do with it? Of the roles that I have played to date, how many of them have I done out of love and how many have I done for lesser reasons (duty, responsibility, the desire to look good, or because no one else will step up)?

As long as things are getting done properly, why even bother with the question?

Hi, I’m Paul. I’m an Ortho-Evangelical

I am thinking of calling myself an ortho-evangelical.

Truly, I am a Christian evangelical. Have been since I was about ten years old. For me, I am looking for a new way to categorize myself. I would call myself an evangelical, but for all the evangelicals I know or know of who, frankly, I find to be an embarrassment. I am not comfortable with Christian, for two reasons: first, Christians are too commonly associated with horrible, imperialistic, crusader-ish acts of brutality through time; and second, the very word “Christian” has essentially lost any clear meaning because of abuse, misuse and nominalism (professing Christians who have utterly no concept of what that means on any historical or practical level). And to be honest, I find that my passion for the good news of God seem to be more in line with many I know and love who would not call themselves Christian, often for the reasons stated above.

I am left with having to come up with something clever. I am leaning toward ortho-evangelical for a number of reasons. I do like the prefix there. It is kind of officious, but yet there are a couple of really valuable meanings to it. One is the idea of correction. As in orthotics, or orthoptics, or orthopedics. For many complex reasons, somehow evangelicalism has gotten off-track, somehow tunnel-visioned into getting people into the church, down the aisle and into the baptismal font. According to Ralph Winter, in an article entitled The Three Mission Eras, this started around 1900. This kind of church mission is only a fraction of what the kingdom of God is all about. (Really, read my book.) So the vision of current evangelicalism is too narrow for my tastes. For me, it needs correction.

The other ortho- meaning I draw on with this is the idea of rightness. As in orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, in my mind, is a doctrine that leads to rightness. In this context, I envision rightness as just, kind, loving, compassionate, gracious, firm, whole and even beautiful. This is a rightness that restores, that mends, and heals. This kind of rightness not only holds a standard, but moves us toward that standard. It’s redemptive.

I am a bit dissatisfied with evangelicalism because it is not particularly good news. It wields a blade that screams, “Not good enough.” It clamors, “Get yourself to church.” It might get me in the door, but it leaves me at the altar. Hoping that Jesus sacrifice was enough. It is well-intended (for the most part) words meant as a clarion call. Turn or else!

Yet we are invited into so much more. Prior to 1900, there was a wedded understanding that to bring people into the community of God necessarily meant we had to engage people in the difficult circumstances of living, whether those people lived next door, or on the opposite end of the earth. To share in the good news of God’s kingdom meant also sharing in the joys and sorrows of others. It meant working alongside others. It meant lavishing kindness and nurturing upon others. Teaching to read, to build a sustaining life, to make meaningful relationships, to comfort the sick and heal when possible, to develop sources of clean water and healthy food, to value the participation of those who are not like ourselves, to share the teachings of Jesus and our experiences of him; these are all historic practices of sharing the good news of Jesus. And when in my own experience I have had opportunity to engage others in such ways, I have been overwhelmed to the point of being humbled. For me, that is living life more abundantly than I could imagine. The kingdom of God is so much bigger than our own agendas, and we are invited into that.

There is a movement afoot to bring back those historic kingdom-mission practices. This is a much-needed correction. It is only right. And in that rightness, justice, kindness, compassion, beauty and all the rest, are reshaping us even as we participate in them. At least I know that to be true for me. I like the idea of being ortho-evangelical. Seems right to me.

The King of Kings

Tis the season we celebrate the birth of Jesus. And for some of us, it is the season we sing — perhaps in the shower, or the car or if we’re lucky in an organized Messiah-sing — the Hallelujah Chorus. For those who would like further reference, it is by GF Handel, part of the Easter portion of his great (both in popularity and length) oratorio, The Messiah. If by chance you are one of the ones who has never heard the whole thing, it is worth a listen. There are great choir numbers as well as some rather odd solos and word usages. The kind of things that will leave you scratching your head, asking, “What is he, what is he, what is he, going on, going on, going on, what is he going on, what is he going on, what is he-e-e-e-e going o-o-o-on about? What is he going on about?” (If you don’t get the reference, listen to it for about 20 minutes, and this will become clear to you.)

In the Hallelujah Chorus, that most famous of choral works, the assertion is made that “He shall reign forever and ever, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” We sing it, or if we are not singers, we tap our toes to it in agreement, yet I wonder if we get the significance of that phrase, king of kings.

A king is sovereign over his holdings. (Same with queens, but that is not in the Hallelujah Chorus.) It is he who decides what goes on in the kingdom, what the lifestyle will be like, how it gets along with its neighbors, how disputes are settled and how the great events of life are acknowledged and celebrated. He dictates protocol in the courts, including the law of the land. It is the king who decides how allegiance is to be expressed to him. How the knee should bend, how the head should bow, what tributes are to be paid. He may stick with the tradition of his fathers, or he might find that it is time for new traditions. It is the king who ultimately has responsibility for his people. All this (and more), he dictates within his own land. It is his land, his people, his government to do as he pleases. The kingdom may prosper; it may fail.

Next door, there may be another king, whose vision of how kingdoms should be run may or may not conflict with his neighbors. And it may also be that the land upon which his kingdom sits endures hardship, gets over-stressed by weather, or over-worked or over-grazed. It may be that he needs resources found only in another kingdom. It is in these situations that kings find themselves in competition. For resources: water, land, talented people, skillful warriors and diplomats. Kings have to know how to get what they need for themselves and their people. They can be great allies to each other, or they can be rivals.

It is upon this backdrop that we understand the expression, King of Kings. Actually I like it best as King of kings. This is a king that the other kings look up to. This is a king who perfectly negotiates the needs of his kingdom. He is also a king who perfectly leads his people. This is the King whose very nature compels allegiance — kind of like “to know him is to love him,” but even moreso, to know him is to become like him. (But that gets more toward lordship, so I won’t go there at the moment.) The King of kings is that one figure that, when the kings meet together to discuss issues of mutual importance, all the lesser kings bow in deference. This King is wisdom and vision personified, justice and compassion perfectly weighed. This is the King to whom the lesser kings offer tribute, a sacrifice of the bounty they themselves received from their own people. Imagine a king in a small realm receiving tribute from his people and perhaps collected altogether it comes to one small box of gold coin. The more powerful king, the one with the larger realm, would receive a larger box of coin. The King of kings is the one who receives, and rightfully so, tribute from these lesser kings; and in offering tribute to the King, the kings recognize and offer the allegiance of his people.

It is part of the concept of “glory.” When we read in Revelation 19:6, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the  Almighty, reigns; (7) Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to him…” (NASB) the reference to glory is not some intangible, ethereal offer of nice things to think or say, it is a promise of tangible, hard-earned contribution to the treasure-trove of the King. To offer glory, as it is suggested here, is more than just a nod to one who is more significant or important than oneself, and then moving on with our days as if having never had an encounter with One so powerful and compelling. It is rather a physical act of allegiance — offering the best of what one has in order to be part of the great things this King has going on.

The Hallelujah Chorus echoes what we find in Revelation 19, the “Lord our God” is that “King of kings,” as expressed in the persona of Jesus Christ. It is his birthday we commemorate in this season. Though he came to us as vulnerable as any newborn, he is seated now and forever at the right hand of God in the throne-room of heaven. This is the King of kings, whose very name inspires every knee to bow and every tongue to confess that he is Lord.

We have lots of lesser kings in our lives, competing kings, kings that would lead us away from the King of kings. These lesser kings would have us put more emphasis and concern on lesser things, things that don’t matter in the long run. More toys, more stuff, more distractions, less meaning, less impact, less goodness. And these lesser kings would direct us toward a kind of servitude, a droning kind of life cycle, that leaves us empty and uninvested in the world around us.

We commemorate the birth of the King of kings, Jesus the child born in Bethlehem, whose very nature, whose wisdom and vision, justice and compassion, calls us to become more like Him, and moves us from

distraction to engagement

disillusionment to joy

disinterest to Love.

It is my prayer, for myself and for my friends, that we would hear the call of the King of kings this season. That we would engage tangibly in the things that matter to this great King. That we would celebrate life together, in ways that pay tribute to the very nature of this King.

King of Kings. To Him be the Glory Forever and Ever.

 

Creatively Challenged

It’s that most wonderful time of the year. Or not. I get excited when I think about lights, decorated trees, Christmas choral concerts, or Pops concerts – in fact, I was invigorated just last night by going to see the Baldwin Pops Band Christmas concert – and when we get all those wonderful updates from friends far away, their annual Christmas letters. I lose that excitement when I think about shopping.

It’s not the shopping itself, the trudging through the malls or gift shops, the lines at the register, the mis-marked pricing, and all that is part of the annual routine of binge shopping, that sucks the joy out of Christmas. As well, budget plays no part in this – it has happened this way for me whether I was recently flush with cash, or whether I was flat out broke on less than a student budget. For me, the problem is thinking up what to get people. The endless internal questions:

what do they need?

what do they want?

what do they expect?

what gift sets the right tone for the relationship? what if the person receiving gives me a gift at a different level of significance?

should this person get a fun gift? or a meaningful gift? or a practical gift? is it possible to find one that fits all categories?

she says she wants this gift here, but she lights up when she ponders that one there — what should I do?

At Christmas, I drown in a sea of misgivings. I am confronted with the fact that I am just not a creative guy. I should be honest to myself about that. When I am playing bass in a worship band, I can create a line that supports the harmonies and offers rhythmic drive. When I am playing baroque flute music, I have no trouble creating passionate and fun ornamentation over the written notes. I have been known to create and deliver a decent sermon or small group lesson; for that matter, I can usually find more than one way to teach someone a new approach to solving flute problems. I’ve even been called into situations to help people creatively resolve personal problems. Some people think I have a quick wit. Somewhere in all that there is evidence that I can be a creative guy.

So it is maybe that I am just not a creative gift-giver, and it eats me up. I envy some of my friends who, off the top of their heads, can think of 6 or 7 great ideas to give just the perfect gift. I am smiling in wonderment at how they do it, and the joy they get from it. They look forward to gift-giving. I can’t imagine that. It flows quite naturally from their pores. At least it seems that way to me.

I am not a Scrooge. I like to give gifts. I love it when someone really understands why I gave them that gift, and I relish it when that same person truly enjoys the gift and the moment of receiving; the smile, the hug and thanks expressed give me great satisfaction. For that reason amongst others, I like the idea of gift-giving even more than the actual gift-giving. Every year, I fantasize that when I go out shopping, this year will be the one where I go out joyfully and come home triumphantly.

It never happens that way.

Every year, I stumble into the season because the first time I go out joyfully, I come back a jumbled mass of twitching nerve endings. Heaven help me, I don’t know what to do – again! And every year, it slowly comes to me. I make a trip here and there, I search the internet, I ask questions about likes and dislikes, wants and desires, and slowly gather the intel I need. I feel bogged down, but a seed is germinating. Something is creating inside me.

At the right time, it hits like a ton of bricks, and I am moved to action, filled with ideas which then become gifts to be given. I am suddenly bursting with creativity. Its not so much panic that is driving it, but the desire to be joy-filled and happy. And to share that experience with the people that matter to me. For me, it’s all very organic and unscripted. Though I would wish it otherwise, it is not an orderly process, but rather a wild one that feels out of control. The image of a volcano comes to mind, with its internal seething leading to eruption of activity. (Only not quite so violent, which is good news to the shoppers around me.) At the right time, I am able to move with the flow of ideas – not fixed ideas like a shopping list, but ideas which lead to more ideas as joy overtakes caution and questioning.

And that’s when the Christmas becomes fun to me again. Joy has overtaken caution; love has overtaken fear.

I believe this is how God creates. God broods on existence, like a mother eagle brooding over a nest of eggs, and then, at the right time, creativity bursts from him. At the tone of his voice, at the touch of his breath, newness happens. Caution is thrown over; fear gives way. Joy and love become. It is all very organic, unscripted, even wild. In the midst of the chaos of creativity, joy and love are to be experienced and shared.

I admit that I am creatively challenged, especially when it comes to gift-giving. But I do love it when it finally comes bubbling out of me. That’s when I am in the best position to share the greatest gifts of joy and love.

Kingdom Politics

I am disheartened by the ever-increasing incivility of our governance. I am sure I am not the only one. I see myself getting disengaged from the process. I vote, but I find that I rarely discuss politics with anyone with whom I am sure I do not fully agree. On more than one occasion, I have seen friends drift away when they found I was not “right” enough. And I have also experienced the same kind of drift from those who feel I am too right. I feel sad about that.

That’s not the point here.

As I watch social media discourse about the coming elections, the debates and the current hot-button issues that press upon us, I grow more convinced that people of faith are being distracted from the commission to which we are called. That’s a loaded statement that needs to be studied.

Our current political climate is ushering us into polarized viewpoints. Republican-Democrat, rightwing-leftwing. Immigration, healthcare, abortion, taxes – the list goes on almost ad-infinitum. It is both exciting and toxic. We feel energized and involved when we have blissful conversations with our friends about how the other side is wrong, deluded, perhaps even evil. Some of us love to get in heated discussions with those on the other side – gets the blood going, the heart pumping.

Years ago, I attended a church that was in the process of a split. Divisive pastor, rancorous laity, people loved to come to church to spout off. They felt involved, that they were making a difference, all the while they were shredding the church and losing all credibility in the community around them. Our next church had just survived a split. We got there in time to get the lay of the land, to learn the issues and observe the last of the disenfranchised leave to go elsewhere. In the final meeting, during which the last few “losers” (those on the losing side of the ‘who gets to stay in the church building?’ battle) said their sad goodbyes, it became clear that the body had lost its way. It was way more interested in the infighting than it was is in its mission. People had become more enamored of fighting each other than of finding ways to reach out to an impoverished community together. It was exciting to fight. It made the people feel alive. All the while the church was killing itself.

I fear that people of faith have allowed the political process to create a sense of purpose – a feeling of being alive – that is other than what it is called to practice. We have jumped in with full armor, to beat down the opposition, to vanquish the enemy, to win the victory. And we fear that if we do not win the fight, then we can’t be the Christians we want to be. We have forgotten that to be a person of faith is to live out the love of God regardless of circumstance. We have forgotten what it means to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. We have forgotten what it means to be a good neighbor – to live with the sense that we are to be a blessing to others. We have forgotten that to live that life of blessing we are to live sacrificially. We have forgotten that victory comes with surrender.

I am convinced that I do not need national, state or local politics to settle out the way I want, in order for me to live as a Jesus follower. I believe that I can live with the peace of Christ ruling my heart (Colossians 3:15) regardless of political circumstance. And I believe that I can be a blessing to others in the midst of difficulty, that I can be kind, loving, compassionate, and influential for the sake of the kingdom – no matter what or who is in power at any given time (Romans 8:38-39).

I know it is exciting to get caught up in American politics, but there is a deception we must watch for: earthly political discourse (no matter what national forum) is not the same as kingdom activity. Primarily,

“we are …His kingdom as we move together in His grace. The kingdom is not built on land and possessions, what we have gathered, where we’ve been, and who we were… It is built on community with the living God and with each other, proactively sharing that community…” (pg. 17 Glimpsing Into the Kingdom)

As a person of faith, that’s the kind of citizen I want to be.

Suffering for Joy

Phil 2:1-11

Read text: 2: 1-11
The Takeaway: If we want to embrace a life of joy, we have to accept the invitation of God to suffer for his sake.

Now you can take a nap

We’re going to do a bit of a word study with this text to get some of the flavor that is washed out in the English. Before we do that, we need to recap some things, fill in some history, and follow up on some threads that Phil has begun in this series.

I am, and have always been, in awe of this passage. It is one of the clearest declarations of Christology from the earliest church that we have with us today. Christology is how we understand and explain the personhood and working of Christ; we express a Christology anytime we try to express what we believe about Jesus. In the early church, they were trying to wrap their brains around what had been happening in the world of faith around them. Ongoing today – we are still trying to figure out the Messiah.

As Jesus was wrapping up his public ministry, he said some confusing things. One of the most confusing was “some of you will not taste death until I return.” Like texting brb, only way more layered. That’s a nice thing to hear when you know the Messiah will be right back. But well, time has been moving on, and still no sign – and lots of good community members are tasting death, so what gives?

The letter to the Philippians was written some 25 years after the event of Jesus. A couple years after the resurrection, a young man named Saul was out doing his duty – defending the faith by killing folks who did not agree with his agenda, heretics – when he himself was confronted by a blinding vision of the risen Lord. We know that Saul changed his ways, changed his name, changed his agenda. He became pivotal in the formation of the early community of believers. At that time, they were known as the people of the Way, and just a short time later, they became more organized as “the church.” According to the NT scholar Ben Witherington III, Paul was not a successful recruiter to the cause, not at first; people did not trust his conversion, and his message was rough, unpolished. It was as if, like the rest of us, he is trying to wrap his soul around who this Jesus is, and struggling to put his understandings to words. At one point early in his ministry, he makes such a mess of it, Witherington suggests, that he has to be lowered out the window before the community of believers puts a hurting to him. Really, Jesus is a hard guy to understand.

That is the environment that surrounds these letters. They are organic, not frozen in time, but written in response to real and credible confusion and even doubt. There are practical concerns – we see that especially in Corinthians and Galatians, but also here in Philippians. Of course, the big concern in Philippi was the growing factionalism over issues of faith and practice. It is familiar to us even now. We’ll come back to this. But at the heart of all these questions was the concern, how do we exhibit a life of faith in the absence of Jesus, waiting for his return? We continue to ask the same question.

Pastor Phil has pointed out that Philippians mentions joy more than any other letter. He has pointed out that Paul has come to realize that suffering is to be his lot in life. Phil also saw that at the heart of Paul’s life-experience, and at the heart of Paul’s faith experience, is this powerful statement, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. In the greco-roman world, this idea was foreign. It was not normal then; it is not normal to us even now.

In Rumors of God, by Whitehead and Tyson, they make the point that we have rather subverted that thought, so that we live more like “to live is gain, and to die is Christ.” I think we work, we practice faith, we do family and community, in ways that keep us as secure as possible, to be comfortable, or perhaps even to get ahead of the game a bit. We play it safe. It is a passive and even backward way to approach faith – faith is no longer faith when the agenda is to stay out of trouble. We do it anyway, because we want to be with Jesus in the end. To live is gain, and to die is Christ. It is a two-fold blessing for the faithful. Sadly, that is not how it reads – and if Paul is anything, he is careful about how he puts things.

So as Paul moves into this part of the letter, he has pivoted on this idea, to Live is Christ and to die is gain. And what he develops from there is both profound and mystical. And it demonstrates just how difficult it is to articulate the nature of the Lordship of Jesus, and how we connect to Him. Paul is addressing this body because they are in a bit of a conflict; they don’t agree on how the blessing of God comes across to, and through, the church. They don’t agree on this whole “new covenant” idea. So what we see in this first section of Ch 2 has far-reaching consequences for how we approach faith as a body of believers intent on living out the purpose of God in the world – it impacted them, it impacts us.

Let’s look at the passage carefully. Read 1-4

We see this in Vs. 1: in English, these characteristics come across as almost passive or even inconsequential, as if by happenstance– if you feel this way, or just in case you have this feeling… encouragement/consolation, comfort, fellowship, tenderness and compassion. It’s the “if” that is misleading, perhaps even tongue in cheek. In the Greek behind the English, the language is more firm, no if about it– now read verse 1

encouragement: paraklaysis, both refreshment and exhortation
consolation: paramoothion, persuasive address; is neither a doorprize or a moment of being consoled – it is movement from one position to another, it is active persuasion, as if Paul is suggesting, as Christ has moved you from a previous place to a new place of action; an old understanding, to console someone is to move them from say sorrow to joy
fellowship: koinonia, is active participation within a group,
tenderness: splangchnon, bowels, guts, the heart of hearts
compassion: oyktirmos, to us, a stirring deep in the heart, moving to action – a stirring of the gut, longing, impassioned heart for something – it is to truly desire something.

V. 2: then make my joy complete – in this moment Paul is going to bridge two very different ideas, one not often joined in the Roman world, or the Greek world, or even our world. It is the conjunction of joy and suffering. This thought started in Ch 1: 29, For it has been granted to you on behalf of CHrist not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him. This is a tough sell. We might respond, Say what? I don’t think so. Or, Now this is worth signing onto – NOT. How can it be? Joy and suffering in the same breath?

Remember this letter is being written to a community. It is an open letter. Paul is exhorting the community of faith – we need to be of one mind here, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose; being united: soom-psuchos, in one spirit in Christ, to be a body focused on the desires of Christ, this word is only used here in the entire New Testament.

Vs. 3-4: this all hinges on two concepts, first, “selfish ambition”; second, in “humility consider/regard others”
selfish ambition: erithia, partisanship – addressing the factionalism within the Philippian church; interesting word history, only James and Paul use this word, and prior to NT times, only Aristotle used it, to describe politicians or parties who cheat their way to the top, a strong admonition to people who would manipulate a church toward their own ends; a difficult thing in church leadership is to be tempted to believe you are in that position because of some special wisdom or ability; Paul says that leads us down the wrong path. As he goes forward in this passage he describes what keeps us on the right path.
Empty conceit: kenodoxia, used only here in Philippians – Paul is really driving a point here; this kind of seflish ambition, this false leadership, is nothing but empty pride based on puffed up self-esteem; it is not spiritual at all; in Ecclesiastes, it would be stated as “vanity and striving for the wind” – vapor, gas
humility: tappy-nof-ro-soo’-nay: to have a sense of one’s own littleness; this is an absolutely foreign concept in the Greco-Roman world, where self was elevated to godly levels; this sentiment echoes today, even in the Christian world, where we can get so taken with our own spiritual ambitions and accomplishments, to the detriment of others; or where believers look down on the pitiable estate of non-believers; this is not some co-dependent sense of worthlessness, but rather a position of strength, truly seeking to offer the best to those around us; and without humility of this sort, we cannot do or be what Paul suggests next
regard: haygayomai; now we get to a pivotal word: this takes us into deep waters; to regard others as he is describing here is to look at others from a princely point of view, and yet still consider them more significant than oneself or one’s own agenda; the opposite would be condescension, where we, from our lofty spiritual heights look down on others with pity, work with them by tolerating them, and hope they don’t rub off on us
to haygayomai is to fully believe, fully trust, and fully act on, that this other, or these others who don’t look like me, think like me or act like me, are just as significant to God and his kingdom as me and my peeps. No place for cronyism in the body of Christ.

In that spiritual space, the mandate of v.4 becomes much more enjoyable, and remember joy is a central thread in this book – it is always easier to invest in something or someone when we perceive that it is of benefit to us; to invest in others who are not like us is to grow beyond our self-imposed limits, and to stretch toward God as he calls us forward.

So if we were to rephrase the beginning of this passage, we might consider it as follows:

1. As your union with Christ compels you, as his love moves you, as you participate with the Spirit, as the deep places of your hearts are stirred,
2. I find I am overflowing with joy, as all of us together are fully focused on the desires of Christ, in mind, in love, in spirit and in purpose.
3. Selfish bickering, partisanship and vanity are not our way, but rather we humbly seek to offer our best to those around us, recognizing the significance of others over our own needs and agendas.
4. As we continue together united in Christ, we balance our own concerns with the concerns of others.

About joy – one thing this passage makes clear (esp from 1:29 through here) is that if joy is our central pursuit, then our experience of it is fleeting, perhaps not really joy at all, but the shadow of it that we call happiness. However, as we will learn, if Christ-likeness is the pursuit, joy is the reward. We tend to get that backwards – we like happy experiences, we shop for them, we ingest them, we spend hours in front of the computer or game system or tv seeking it out, like watching sports for instance, only in the end to feel umm deflated. Perhaps only 11 out of 12 of us feel that way.

What does it look like to pursue Christ-likeness? This is the question that points to messiness and holiness, suffering and joy. It is the mystical heart of the text ahead of us.

From 5-11, Paul is quoting the text of one of the earliest of Christian hymns. Rarely do we get a glimpse of how a whole community perceives Jesus – usually we get the point of view of just one or two. But in presenting this text, Paul lays out a nearly unbelievable concept, one that is at the heart of everything we say or do or are about.

I believe that we lose touch with this, that we get so caught up
in the shoulds and oughts of faith, the doing of fine deeds, the hashing out of fine doctrinal points, the making sure that somebody doesn’t get their feelings hurt, or that someone (else) is doing their job and not dropping the ball, so many ways we lose sight of this central belief of who we are…

We are so much like the Philippians. They were just 25 years removed from the presence of Jesus, and impacted so hard by his life and ministry they were left wondering “did anybody get the number of that bus?” Confusion is everywhere, but one thing remains true

So here Paul lays out, in no uncertain terms, this manifest of Jesus, the man, the Christ, the Son of the Living God

Read 5-8 again, then go back and then highlight these words::

formmorph, form and function, no mere image but the full reality of, have no doubt
regard: there is that princely regard again,
grasped: this is a strange term, harpagmos, and only used here in the entire Bible; it is to rob, to steal booty; Barclay suggests that Paul or the whoever the hymn writer was, was making a parallel to the first Adam, who we learn in Gen 3:5 is trying to be like God upon eating the fruit, essentially robbing God; Jesus we see is withdrawing his hand from the that which would be robbery, to claim equality with God is something even he would not do

As a result, he is found in the likeness of men; here we see a powerful, early articulation of the doctrine of Christ, fully divine, fully human – we don’t make this stuff up, God reveals it to us

How does Jesus deal with that? In a fully realized state of humility, always choosing the state of slavish obedience, even to death.

This is tough for us: we want our rights! Pick an amendment, we want that right to be ours. But the obedience that Jesus displays is antithetical to our chronic grasping for rights – his is the choice
to set aside his rights,
his rights to justice,
his rights to truth
and even divine right,

He makes this choice as he regards, from his princely position, the needs of others. Oh that we could demonstrate that much love. The humility of Christ is to take on suffering in a profound new way. It is to be invested and involved in the messy needs of others. And while that does not sound like fun to me, it is the way of joy.

What we see in vs 5-8 is the activity and personhood of Jesus. Can we get our heads around that?
Fully divine, the very form and essence of God
fully human, found in the likeness of humanity
emptied
selfless
humble and willing to endure unspeakable suffering

for the sake of        US

How does that engender joy? Because of the response and activity of God: read vs 9-11
for this reason: dio – does not mean, if you do this now, this will happen later, but rather, as this is ongoing, God responds
highly exalted: huper-oop-so’o, to set to a place above all others, only ever used here, and only ever used to describe the finality of God’s activity in Christ.

This phrase “the name which is above all names” – in that day, in that world, where caesar is god, this a concept that would bring a hush and a shudder – to say this is to imply that in all of creation, in heaven and on earth and even under the earth (aside: this is a cosmological reference whose meaning we can only guess), there is a name that brings everyone to silence, there is a presence that humbles even the mightiest of heroes, even the worthiest of enemies, a name so great, that at this name
every knee will bow
every tongue will confess

Now there’s an interesting word to use here – confess: exomologe’o; it means to profess joyfully; really? Everyone? I believe yes and no. I believe it is like in Lord Of The Rings, when the One Ring that holds evil dominion over middle-earth is destroyed, and the top of the mountain is blown off. The first, gut – down in the bowels – reaction is to celebrate. The evil one is vanquished! Only moments later does one realize the price paid, the suffering of those held dear. For the believer, there is the shocking full realization of the cost to Jesus. For the impenitent, those who just have chronically refused the love of God, the knee will bow, the tongue will confess, even joyfully, but moments later, there will be the realization of all that has been lost, and the question will come to mind, but what about me?

But here, the promise is sure: the form of Jesus, fully divine, fully human, fully obedient, humbly emptied of self to the salvation of others, brings a hush and a shudder, and at his name, every knee will bow, every tongue will confess

to the glory of God the Father.

Can we wrap our hearts around that? Have we lost touch with that?

Are we so busy doing and working and grasping and condescending and seeking our own private joys, that we have lost touch with the author and perfecter of our souls?

Are we so busy seeking the moral high-ground and the rights we hold so dear, that we have forgotten our need for humility, to regard, from our blessed and lofty positions, the needs of others as more important than our own?

Have we forgotten how to bend the knee and confess with the tongue, that this Jesus is Lord?

Our joy is found in this: that we are invited into the sufferings of others; that we are united with the spirit of Christ; that to live is Christ, and only Christ, and to die is gain; and that only when we engage in his suffering do we experience his joy.

This is the calling of God to his people: we are to suffer for joy.

In this, we humbly seek to serve one another
In this, we join God in elevating the name of Jesus above all others
In this, we bring glory to God

For many of us, faith is about walking a line. It’s about following the rules. It’s about tolerating that which doesn’t make us happy, and grasping the blessing that we think is coming to us. Yet Jesus is calling us to something different: to humility, to suffering for the sake of others, putting aside our own selfish partisan ambitions, to truly seek to embrace those who are struggling.

Like the Philippians, we are called to make this Jesus central again – to fully embrace him again. I am still trying to wrap my brain and heart around what this means in my life. The invitation to all of us is to ask ourselves, where do I fall short? How have I been condescending, how have I been selfish? How have I disregarded those who don’t look like me, act like me or think like me? How have I written people off as less important or significant than me?

Reject frantasm

How do we pull together faith, joy, celebration, well-wishing and gifting? By compressing it into the most pressure-packed, angst-inducing flurry of frantasm we can possibly create.

My spell-check wants me to know that frantasm isn’t a word. It should know that it wasn’t a word until just now, when I needed it to be. Frantasm is a protracted period of frantic, spasmodic activity. There are two key elements to this state: the longer one is engaged in it, the more difficult it becomes to break free of it; and the more extreme the episode, the more likely one is to deny the pain of it. To be clear, joy and denial are two very different things.

In case one is wondering where this is going, it is headed straight at Christmas. Or at least how we often “celebrate” it. We place tremendous expectations on ourselves and others to make Christmas great. To do it up right.

We want people to know we appreciate them – a range of investment that varies from full-hearted love to passing acknowledgment of their existence – and at this time of year, that means gift-giving. This is not an easy task – to find the right level of investment (gift-cards are not one-size-fits-all) with the tastes of the recipient in mind requires a lot of thinking and planning. Thinking and planning takes time. Time is the one thing we don’t have. The stores are jammed, the parking lots are overflowing and the traffic to get there insurmountable. Gift-giving morphs from kindness to frantasm in a matter of days. Unless you are one who waits to shop all at once – then it is a matter of hours.

Or we express appreciation by spending time with others. Where our social calendars through the year are best described with a story that starts with, “Guess who I bumped into at Starbucks?” at Christmas we become maniacally intentional. “We have to go to Bill’s party. He is Chuck’s roommate’s friend from college.” The office Christmas party is mandatory – if we are not there to receive the bonus, by the same amount our checks will be reduced next pay period. And isn’t it interesting how as time goes by, more and more office Christmas parties fall on the same day/evening as the church presentation of the nativity story. Or does it just seem that way to me? These gatherings require the appropriate outfits, the proper reindeer headgear, the embroidered sweater, and the fruitcake entryway gift – that can all add up. And so can the frantasm.

On special Christmas occasions, for added frantasm, we get to enjoy both the gift-exchange and the time spent with one another. It doesn’t get any better than that. There is something oh so special about being dressed up in an elf outfit while watching a loved one inspect and ultimately disapprove of a gift over which we labored. It is no wonder that therapists make bank after the holiday frantasm is over. (The good ones break through the denial, and real connection can occur – the kind of exchange that is a blessed gift to both giver and recipient. It’s a kind of delayed Christmas gift that leads to a much happier new year.)

I am so thankful when, in the midst of all the frantasm, I find a kindred spirit with whom to share a quiet moment. When I am able to find a quiet space to share a hot cup of tea with a friend or one of my family. When I can crack open my Bible to the opening of Matthew or Luke and read the nativity story – or perhaps read what the great spiritual thinkers through time have had to share about it all. When, in the middle of mayhem, I look across the way and see two friends sharing a good laugh or celebrate a shopping score. When I witness a kindness shared with someone in genuine pain and need. And I am especially thankful when I can turn on radio or tv and enjoy great presentations like St. Olaf’s choir.

These things keep me grounded. Over time, as I have found gift-giving to be more and more central to the Christmas season, I have lost touch with the other parts of it. I enjoy wishing people a merry season, I like the occasional party, but the frantasm of it all has washed away so much of the joy and faith. So much of Christmas has become “getting through it.”

So my prayer this year is to reject frantasm. My goal is to embrace the peace and good will of the Christ-child. To do justice. To love mercy. To walk humbly. To engage openly. To share a smile or a laugh. To be vulnerable. I have a need to get grounded again in the nativity, to reconnect with the God-Child, who came to reconnect with us. Sorry if that means you won’t be getting a gift. While you may see me out and about, know that I will be seeking those moments of grounding. I would be happy to share one with you. You look like you could use it.

Endurance and Hope

It started with going to pick up my son, to drive with him back to Massachusetts from Alabama, where he goes to college. Actually, I should back that up a month, to when a spiritual mentor died. Or perhaps I should go back a step further to early Spring, when I was asked to facilitate/officiate my sister-in-law’s memorial service.

Gail and I did not always see eye to eye, so I was surprised when I was asked to do this. In the end, I found grace to be bountiful through the time of commemoration, and the time with extended family and friends I never knew was both enlightening and restorative. I don’t think I ever really knew my sister-in-law.

It was not unexpected that Clara, at 96, would pass on. But it was sad that it happened so quickly – in church one Sunday, as always greeting folks and offering to send letters to people she may or may not have known, but then dying just a few short weeks later. I was not ready.

The trip from Alabama was only redemptive in having extra time to hang out and enjoy the company of my son. The ride itself was harrowing. Two broken axles while driving through the mountains of central PA – not at the same time of course, since misery is best spread over longer periods of time – was as if the car had been demon possessed. What was supposed to be a two day trip, ended up being four, with lots of stops along the way.

It was only a couple of weeks later that my mother passed away. She had been living with us for the last year and a half, as she dealt with cancer of the colon. She, like Clara, had been getting along fine, until the moment she was no longer fine. The end came quickly. She came home from a short hospital visit straight into hospice care. It was difficult to watch and to help in what little ways I could. As painful as it was, I would not have traded the in-home hospice experience for anything.

There were great moments of family and friends gathering again, which went on for about 3 weeks, into July. And with that, the issue of starting to deal with her estate. While I was POA for her, thankfully I am not executor. As adults, my brothers and I have had only rare occasions to meet and to actually work as a team on anything. If there was serendipity in any of this journey, that was it.

Five days after my mother’s death, my sister nearly died giving birth prematurely to her daughter. Both are fine now, but not without the stress and struggle that is so common with such vulnerable infants.

At the end of the only 3 day vaca I was getting this summer, our dog died. In a shocking, heart-breaking way, she stressed and needed to be put to sleep. It was a profoundly sad moment when all of this swirl of hurt came down on all of us – myself, my wife, my sons and daughter-in-law.

And yet amazing things have been developing through it all. Some of them are tangible, some intangible. The joy of reconnecting with extended family, of experiencing the tender kindness from my faith community, of falling into the compassion of so many generous caregivers, cannot be measured. As well, through it all, we have steadfastly moved forward with plans to do mission work in Kenya next month – the tasks ahead of us are becoming concrete and exciting. Sales of Glimpsing Into the Kingdom continue to be steady, and that without much marketing. Churches and home-study groups are starting to use it as a book-study. In an exciting turn of events, very cool marketing things are taking shape, not the least of which is the book signing event I will be doing at a Women of Faith conference in December. Look for me in Westbow Pess booth on Dec 6.

This year has been a whirlwind. And it has been hard to push to follow through on the life-commitments I have made. But I continue to look for the redemptive aspects of all this, to find the restoration that is promised to us not just in the future but in the present as well. So much of this has been hard to endure, but in the enduring I have found hope to be more than wishful thinking; it is both a tangible and intangible encounter with the Divine.

And so it is with God I keep moving forward. Some days, that is the absolute best I can do.