Monday, September 30, 2013

I Own You

There comes that moment when the villain says those chilling words. Characters have either fallen under the spell of a charismatic tyrant or simply been enslaved by a horrific evil-doer. It has taken place gradually through a slow, unwitting letting go of control, or freedom has been violently stolen away. Whatever the case, there comes that moment of shocking revelation when what the characters have suspected is true is actually uttered out loud by the villain: I own you.

Whether in fiction or real life, the realization that one has given away or lost freedom and control is indeed chilling. Tragically, though, this happens to us regularly. We give away slices of freedom and chunks of control with each mindless consumption, with the ebbing away of our time, with relentless indulgences and untreated addictions, with every comparison of our life to that of another. Every day we give away ownership of our lives to ideas and things and actions and people who have no business with such control. And this determines our becoming as we slouch toward monstrosity. But there is only one to whom we truly belong. Yet that belonging is not the source of enslavement but freedom, not “I own you” but “You are mine." There’s a huge, eternal difference.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.
--Isaiah 43:1

“You are mine.” This is God’s assertion many times in Scripture. In fact, it could be considered an overarching theme. A golden thread running through the fabric of God’s revelation is that we are his—his creation, his image, his chosen ones, his people, his children, his redeemed, his dwelling place, his beloved. The back-and-forth of our story, faithfulness pushing and being pushed by unfaithfulness, is largely the result of the unwillingness to commit, or sometimes the inability to see, that we are God’s. Two aspects of this revelation are key to having it take hold of us and free us:

1) We belong to God and, thus, our lives are as secure as the life of God. No one can take your life from you any more than they can take away God’s life, kill God. No professional failure or shortcoming, no personal disappointments or rejections, no worldly circumstances, not even death, can take away your life. You will go on forever.

2) We belong to God and, thus, to no one and nothing else. We preach and speak against divided loyalties, against distractions that lead us away from God, against living for anything other than God and God’s will. But let’s not be na├»ve: living such a fixed and devoted life is fraught with difficulty. The temptation is always present—sometimes overwhelmingly so—to seek the approval of others, to define success and failure externally in accord with others’ values and expectations, to give over control to something material or numbing. This must no longer be. For you will belong to God—no other idea or expectation or agenda or person—forever. And God is Love, characterized by grace and mercy. Even his judgment is for setting things right, for setting you right…because you’re his.

“You are mine." God doesn't own you. No one owns you (unless you let them). You and God are one--that's very different. No one can pull you from God’s caring, guiding embrace. No one can give you more or less worth. You will accomplish God’s will only by becoming who God is making you to be. Which is to say, by focusing your life on becoming this child of God’s, you will accomplish his plan for you. This is God’s will, the becoming. There is nothing else. Lives touched, missed opportunities, disciples made, stumbles, work produced, failures, dying—all part of the becoming. First things first. And first, “You are mine…and I am the First and the Last.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

(Be)Coming Home

Home is born within us. As a son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, sibling and cousin, as a friend, then as a spouse and parent, we come to know more and more what it is to have a home…not because of where we’ve lived, but because of who we’ve loved.

As time passes, seasons of life come and go, and lessons are learned, we come to know more and more what it is to move out of ourselves, to commit to others, to sacrifice, to trust, to embrace, to risk, to love. Such is the movement of home.

We carry it with us when we’re away, thinking of those who make our home, working for them, sacrificing, longing, and learning to trust that they will always be our home, and we theirs. We anticipate as the time draws near for us to return to them, even at the end of a workday as we drive to the house we share.

We rejoice to enter and find our family. We rejoice to remember all we have shared with our loved ones, those who have shown us and built with us the home that we know. Not physical, for that comes and goes from structure to structure. But love, love is home. All that goes into home is all that goes into love—other, sacrifice, work, longing, trusting, returning with anticipation. Home.

Such is God’s kingdom born within us. We learn of it as a child of God, a sibling of and joint-heir with Christ, a Spirit-filled lover of God, a family member in God’s household--bride, body, beloved...not because of where we've lived, but because of the One who loves us.

It draws nearer as time passes, through seasons of life and lessons learned. The kingdom draws nearer as we draw nearer to the King…as the earth receives the kingdom and anticipates the return of the King. The process of redemption--our redemption and the redemption of all creation--reveals what it is to live in the kingdom.

We carry it with us, this kingdom, and it fills us with purpose while we are away from the King (though, of course, we are not truly away, and that is the mystery and the message). The kingdom is inside us as home is inside us, driving us to work and to sacrifice and to long and to trust. The kingdom seems stronger—more present—as we anticipate and draw near to the King. He is there among two or three gathered, among the least, at the Table, within those who faithfully love. He comes—with the Father in the powerful love of the Spirit—and makes his dwelling, his kingdom, within the lover.

So, as we draw near in a daily life of worship, in service to another, in quiet moments of adoration, and finally in death, we anticipate the warming fires of home, the familiar voice calling us lovingly by name, love itself washing over us and holding us safe and assuring us.

The kingdom is where the King is. Home is where Love is. All are inside us and nothing can take them from us or stop their progress in enveloping us in the embrace of the One who is all—King, Home, Love—and whose likeness we bear more and more clearly and faithfully day after day, season after season, through life and lessons learned. And so, in the end, we find that we have somehow been home all along, and we have become home along the way.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Killing the Fame Monster

Fame, makes a man take things over
Fame, lets him loose, hard to swallow
Fame, puts you there where things are hollow
--from David Bowie’s “Fame”

Lady Gaga said that her album The Fame Monster was based on reflections regarding the downside of fame. Yes, another celebrity complaining about all that money and power and adulation (though Gaga seems smart enough to have a pretty good perspective on it). The album followed, appropriately, her album titled The Fame. It’s tough to have one without the other—fame without the fame monster. But could it be that the fame monster is a creature of our own making? Of course it is! The more we feed the fame, the more monstrous it becomes…the more monstrous we become.

This is my confession as one of the many Christians—lay and clergy—who have been tempted by the call of our culture’s current #1 god: fame. We have allowed ourselves to slide with the cultural gravity toward the desire for the approval and acclaim of lots of people, if not for our own accomplishments then by association with someone famous. Christians resist so many gods, only to find ourselves unquestioningly facedown, worshipping in cults of personality.

We drop names of celebrity Christian musicians and writers, celebrity pastors, even celebrity theologians, with whom we have rubbed shoulders. Does anyone else see how screwed up this is? I’m sure I’ve done it. But now, when I hear a brother or sister offer a humble-brag about how much they’re “blessed” by being in the presence of some well-known Christian, I want to say, “And I am blessed by the 82-year-old woman in my church who has spent 60 years teaching the Bible to children and making quilts for pediatric cancer patients. What an honor to be in her presence!”

But we want fame, just like the world has. What’s worse, we want more approval and acclaim than our peers have. So, not only is there this lust that feeds on others and is totally self-centered and evil, but this lust is insatiable as long as there’s someone else getting “more.” And that “more” has to be qualified with quotation marks because it is utterly abstract and indefinable.

What this all adds up to is unhappiness. If fame is our M.O., then we can never be at peace or joyful because there is no limit, no moment when we’ve arrived. Oh, there’s a day of joy here, a weekend of peace there, when we’ve received some sort of acclaim or taken a step up some non-existent ladder. But then we realize someone else has more—or might soon have more (how sick is that!)—and it’s back to square one, back to the bottom rung on a new non-existent ladder.

I’m taking the liberty of directing our attention to this as a battleground on which we Christians—especially leaders—need to be launching a campaign. In short, I’m inviting you to a fight. The key arena is the mind, keeping our motives in check. Why do you really want those readers, listeners, numerous church attenders? The same way we can’t allow our thoughts to go down the path of anger or gluttony or sexual lust, we also can’t allow our thoughts to go down the path of fame lust.

We must do those things and entertain thoughts that cultivate peace and humility in mind and life. We must do what will edify others, even at the cost of our own recognition or popularity or approval. We must learn to enjoy the simple things that fly away and are remembered no more, noticed by no one, treasured only in secret places. Mostly, we must nurture and feed our life hidden with Christ in God, enjoy what God enjoys and seek God’s fame—glorify, testify, magnify the wonder and beauty and power and matchless worth of God alone.

Will we be known? Possibly. Whether we’re pastors, musicians, writers, teachers, artists, butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers, the intention is typically to share what we do with others. We are the light of the world, a shining city on a hill. It does us no good to hide, for we truly were made to “shine like stars in the world” (Phil. 2:16).

But what kind of “stars”? If we’re seeking fame, and especially if we’re using God to gain fame for ourselves—aka “taking the LORD’s name in vain”—then hiding is certainly a viable option, at least until we can bring that idolatrous fame lust in check. At the end of the day we are either feeding or fighting the fame monster. It’s impossible to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:1-6) and also use both hands to nail together a platform of vainglory.

In the end, may our legacy not be our accomplishments or creations or even good reputations of character and godliness. May our legacy be the lives we’ve helped along the kingdom path, perhaps with no real memory or knowledge of who was that one who journeyed with us?...only the knowledge that somehow God is with us and we’re farther along.

“Even our own feeble hands ache to seize the crown you wear,” sings James Taylor in his “New Hymn.” The world doesn’t need you or me, though in God’s hands we become useful. The crown is not ours, though our loving Lord crowns us with the beauty of holiness. But we strive for the fame that belongs to God alone at our peril—not because God will zap us, but because we just might get what we’re after.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Give Peace More Than a Chance

Give Peace a Chance. It was a song for John Lennon, a rallying cry for tumultuous times, and now a nostalgic throwback to the good ol’ days and heady times, man. Like “All You Need is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance” is either a gross oversimplification or a small step up a huge mountain. I’m opting for the latter. But either way, it’s only a beginning. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Mt. 5:9). I think this covers significantly more ground, because giving peace a chance is a good start. But making peace requires a lot more of us.

It is a vital skill, peacemaking, increasingly lacking in our culture and world. It is such a vital skill that Jesus—the Prince of Peace—commends it as a chief characteristic of God’s children. If this is so, then why aren’t we as the church working harder to be those blessed peacemakers?

Interesting that Jesus’ instructions when sending out the Seventy (Lk. 10:1-12) are to, “…first say, ‘Peace to this house!’” I wonder how much better the church might do in reaching the culture if our initial orientation is one of offering peace. How much more vital might our presence be—might God’s presence through us be—if we were known for peace and hospitality rather than judgment, alienation, and divisiveness.

Jesus’ further instructions seem to be to: 1) Fellowship and build relationships; 2) Demonstrate God’s healing, restorative power; and 3) Proclaim the presence of God’s kingdom. That’s it. Certainly the message of the kingdom will cause conflict as it challenges other powers, including our own self-righteousness and entitlement. And Jesus acknowledges that there will be those who reject the ministry of kingdom peace and, thus, heap judgment upon themselves. But as much as it’s up to the Seventy, they are to be messengers of God’s peace.

There’s an overarching theme in Jesus’ instructions not to waste time with those who aren’t receptive, characterized by those who reject peace. And undergirding the ministry is a full reliance on the presence and faithfulness of God—praying for the Lord to send laborers, living with simple provisions, relying on the hospitality of others, and proclaiming only the message of God’s power and kingdom. Here we see a life of peace with God propelling the mission of peace.

Later we see Peter reaffirming the message of peace intertwined with the message of the kingdom: “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

The context of Peter’s words is the good news coming to the Gentiles. Peter precedes that line by affirming that “God shows no partiality…” In this it appears that Jesus is a bridge-builder, God’s agent of peace between God and people, and people and people.

So, again, the gospel we preach—as much as it is the true good news of the kingdom—is primarily a gospel of peace: peace with God and peace among people, “by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” This is the cross-shaped ministry of reconciliation that Paul commends to us (2Cor. 5:16-21). It all rests in Christ’s lordship. Because Jesus is Lord of all, there is no person outside of his lordship. And, thus, there is no one who should not be approached with his peace. It binds us together and should begin within the church and extend outward. So why doesn’t it?

I’m sure there are a number of reasons for the church’s failure to be those blessed peacemakers, but I’m going to focus on two, beginning in the church and extending outward.

First: rampant individualism. Our consumer culture has resulted in individualism running rampant through the church. From church shopping to church hopping to church a la carte (i.e. “What programs do you have for me?”), church has become all about the individual and has lost one of its chief characteristics, namely people living in community under authority.

Someone upsets us, we leave. Leadership takes us in a direction we don’t like, we leave. Expectations for growth and involvement get too high, we move on to somewhere that will let us just be spectators. And with every move, every shirk of responsibility or abdication of commitment, we lose our ability to make peace.

Thinking in terms of military engagement, I dare say retreating, or especially abandoning a post or going AWOL are not the same as making peace…not the same at all. But that’s exactly what you would expect from someone who puts self over corps and country. Yet we have somehow gotten the idea that self is more important than church, or that church is just a collection of interchangeable selves. While the church certainly ministers to the individual, and we would never encourage someone to stay in a destructive situation, nevertheless the church is more than the sum of its parts. We’ve forgotten this. So when peace needs to be made, we just take our football and go home…leaving the team behind.

Second: culture wars. The phrase says it all. In the name of values that we have been told by secular media are Christian, we have been swept into a war on the culture. What hope can there be to make peace when we are bombarded with the message that we are to make war? If this is the case, Jesus’ instructions might be more like, “When you engage people, first offer them peace…unless they vote for a different political party or watch different TV channels or question that this is a Christian nation or say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ We’re at war with those kinds of people!”

As a result of this culture war message ubiquitously washing over masses of evangelical Christians, any talk of peacemaking has become synonymous with hippie-dippy liberals and abandonment of the truth and downright unpatriotic (which, of course, equals un-Christian). Make war, not love.

Yet Jesus’ instructions to his sent ones—that’s all of us, by the way—are to first, offer peace. Jesus’ description of the blessed children of God is that they are peacemakers. The message of the apostles, after serving a three-year intimate apprenticeship with Jesus, was about the “peace of Christ, the Lord of all.” This being the case, today’s church would do well to Give Peace a Chance.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Cultural Gravity

Our lives conform to a vision. If we are not intentional about fixing our vision, the world is perfectly capable of fixing one for us. There’s a cultural gravity that draws us toward a center, a center of consuming, mostly—a center of self. This is the vision we are naturally pulled toward, a default vision of self.

We start sliding this way so we buy into it: buying, envying, loathing, comparing, more buying, doubting, fearing… All these confusing, downward feelings come with the vision that has been given to us. We don’t know who we’re really supposed to be, so we keep looking around, comparing ourselves to others, buying what we think will make us realize that vision, loathing ourselves when we fail to conform to it, buying something else, moving from false vision to false vision, all spiraling downward toward an empty self, which is empty because it is detached from its true vision found only in God

It is life in the Trinity where we discover our true vision. Sprawling, colorful, electric—the Father, Son, and Spirit are the vision. It plays out differently for each of us, that’s how vast it all is—billions of differences…it could be trillions and never be exhausted, because it’s infinite, this Trinity-life. But it is an expansive vision, where the self is reductive. It moves us outward, grows us, forever.

Bondage vs. Freedom

A key difference between self-life and Trinity-life is bondage vs. freedom. To live according to that cultural gravity, we have to hold on tight. That image cultivation has to be carefully managed, meaning we literally become care-full. We have to put others in their place—either exalted or brought low as needs dictate—so we can better carve out our own place.

The desperation of it all, the grasping at control, has our fists and teeth clinched tightly. What’s really happening, though, behind the ever-tempting illusion of control, is bondage. Those clenched fists are really bound behind our backs.

The vision of the Trinity is liberation! It liberates us by grace. It is the Father who made us, not the culture, and the Father loves us desperately, and knows and wants what’s best for us. We learn to trust his love and this trust is freeing.

It is the Son who frees us, not more buying. He bought us with his own life, so there is no more we can do to get free. Nothing more we can buy, do, copy, even sacrifice. It is accomplished.

And it is the Spirit who guides and empowers us, not the dictates of cultural gravity. He guides us toward the intimacy and image of God—which can’t be bought or envied or otherwise attained. It can only be realized in the power of this love working in us. It’s there, a vision awaiting discovery, awaiting perfection.

We grow, not in goods, but in grace. Our prize is the knowledge and love of God. This is both the means and the end. Fellowship fuels fellowship as union fuels union as glory fuels glory…and it is the Lord who does this. Our striving need only be toward him, a striving toward a greater experience of freedom and a truer vision for our life.

No product, no celebrity, no job or status or riches of any kind can ever grant us such freedom and meaning and life. All one can do with a vision so glorious is to live into it…to break free from the pull of cultural gravity and to fix our eyes on God’s darkness, God’s light, God’s unending embrace. "To all who received him...he gave power to become children of God" (Jn. 1:12). Yes, here begins a vision worthy of a child of God.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Home Anywhere

And I’ve seen by the highways on a million exit ramps
Those two-legged memorials to the laws of happenstance
Waiting for four-wheeled messiahs to take them home again
But I’m home anywhere if you are where I am
--Rich Mullins, “Here in America”

Of the many kingdom paradoxes given us by Jesus, a key one is the expansion of life by reducing it. It is foolishness in the eyes of our culture to have no place to lay one’s head or to “let the dead bury their own dead” (Mt. 8:18-22). By cultural standards, an expansive abode and an extensive network are part of the definition of “the good life.” But Jesus, as usual, redefines the good life by bringing it in line with the kingdom life.

The kingdom life is not defined by where one lays one’s head or by family status or connections. Instead, by reducing to the point of eliminating these (and other) boundaries, our lives expand to find home and family with God. As we let go of our possessions and connections, our embrace widens to the invitations of Jesus to “inherit the earth” and to be “sons and daughters of God.”

Of course this likely doesn’t mean that we move onto the street and alienate our family and friends. On the contrary, we become better stewards of possessions and relationships when we let them go to the disposal and cultivation of the Maker and Father of all. Then we learn to work alongside the Master to till the soil of our lives and our place with no thought for our own gain, only to find that we end up gaining everything. We learn that “I’m home anywhere if you are where I am.”

We must look hard at the lines we’ve drawn and, in God’s strength and wisdom, begin to erase them…that he might truly be our God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Don't Believe the Hype!

Flavor Flav is a hype man…the hype man. He is fun, crazy, entertaining, and even a bit talented. With his shades and grill and goofy hats and that giant clock around his neck, Flav is a standout in the pioneering hip-hop group Public Enemy. He was the comedic foil to Chuck D’s intense stage presence and politically charged raps, working the crowd and punctuating Chuck’s lyrics. He’s even an okay rapper; but a solo artist, Flav is not. No one goes to a show to watch Flav jump around and yell “Yyeaah, boy!” for two hours. Without “Fight the Power” and “Rebel Without a Pause” and “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Flavor Flav is just a classic fool.

Many in the church have become hype men (and women). We have taken on the role of getting people “pumped up” about God, pandering to the potential audience to get them in the doors and jumping up and down. And it works. I’m not talking about good Christian people who are excited about sharing their faith. I’m talking about pastors and church leaders who have drunk the Kool-aid, jettisoned the challenging—even off-putting—leading of God, and are becoming fools in the process. But I’m here to urge us, in the words of Public Enemy: “Don’t Believe the Hype!”

We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. How much energy do we in the church spend on a shakable kingdom, to the neglect of the unshakable kingdom (Heb. 12:18-29)? We obsess about buildings and productions and numbers (we call them “metrics” to sound businessy), comparing and competing with each other over nothing but hype. We ignore walking the path of God’s darkness, God’s light, and God’s union. But this is exactly the path that the church should be walking, the path into God’s mystery, into God’s revelation, and into life in the Trinity. All other paths are dead ends.

What if our efforts in the shakable kingdom—for surely we must give due attention to some externals—were all for the sake of the unshakable kingdom? How might the church do everything, not with thought and motives for attracting people, but all motivated by leading people into God’s mystery and God’s revelation and God’s abiding presence?

The domain of nominal Christians and anxious leaders—of shaky churches and shaky pastors—is, naturally, the shakable kingdom. Those who lead the church with a mind and heart for attracting people might do just that. How impressive! But last time I looked, “go into all the world and attract people” is not Christ’s commission. “But it’s evangelism,” they say. “We’re preaching the gospel to them.” To which I say, “What gospel are you preaching?”

The gospel of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with attracting people. I dare say Christ repelled far more people than he attracted. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about transforming people…to the glory of God alone. Can the externals be used to point to this Triune God—the shakable kingdom a pathway to the unshakable? Oh, they can and they should! But only that—all things pointing to this God and life in him. We must move on from the shakable kingdom as soon as possible. Yet the tendency of many is to move in there permanently.

The trend for more than a generation has been the opposite of moving from shakable to unshakable. We have used people’s hunger for God to be the means, and attracting them to our buildings and productions and swelling organization has become the end. (Read that again.) We say, “Well, we’re just attracting them to the church.” But is it really the church they’re coming to? No, we are attracting them to themselves.

Not enough people seem to be genuinely hungry for God, so we’ve started serving up platefuls of what more people are naturally hungry for: entertainment, affirmation, being part of a large organization that is better than the competition, superficial connection with others who are like us…a shakable kingdom.

Let’s be honest. There’s a line we must walk. We certainly want to offer our best to God—our architecture, our arts, our organization, the stewardship of externals. And we do want people to be part of the church…lots of people…every person! There’s nothing inherently holy about being aloof or small or old-fashioned or superficially ritualistic. On the contrary! There is no “right” set of externals that make up the unshakable kingdom.

It is only the mysterious, illuminating, abiding presence of God that makes up the unshakable kingdom. What that looks like on the outside is vast and varied. The only right externals are those that point to God and his kingdom. Any church must figure out what those things are, finding the harmony of orthodoxy, mission field, tradition, culture, etc. But they cannot do this by following trends.

We must stop turning the church into a Cosmo-girl, seeking superficial advice on the latest fashions and “how to attract a man” and “getting noticed in 7 easy steps.” The church and her leaders are unnecessarily anxious, hurried, shaky. But in the end, only the unshakable will remain.

God’s kingdom doesn’t need another twitchy hype-man. God’s kingdom needs devoted leaders who are fixed on the Trinity. God’s kingdom needs churches that exist only to follow God into darkness and light and union, where everything—from the building to the finances to the worship to the people—points in that direction. God’s kingdom needs God. The circus of the shakable kingdom might attract people and dazzle audiences and sell books. The fools might be entertaining. But don’t believe the hype…yyeaah, boy!

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s ...