How to behave?

“…people tend to go in one of two directions when they think of how to behave. You can live by rules, by a sense of duty, by an obligation imposed on you whether you feel like doing it or not. Or you can declare that you are free from all that sort of thing and able to be yourself, to discover your true identity, to go with your heart, to be authentic and spontaneous….What are we here for in the first place? The fundamental answer…is that what we’re ‘here for’ is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by ‘following Jesus.'” N.T. Wright, After You Believe

We Continue to Matter

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When we keep alive the memory our loved ones who’ve passed away, we’re not just keeping our ability to remember them strong, we actually enable their personhood to have the last say, not nature, not death. Who they are, their personhood, lives on and has significance. Their life continues to matter. That’s what we’ve been learning since Karen’s passing. Karen is still a part of who we are. She matters.

We have our being in communion. In other words, we are not just isolated individuals, we’re shaped and exist in a context of relationships. In fact, our brains actually change physical shape from our interactions with others. People leave their imprint on us, literally. To be a person, is to be in relationship. There is no such thing as a person apart from relationships. We really matter to one another. People in our culture try to live as if this is not true, but that doesn’t change the reality of it. We must treat as sacred our relationships – the living and the dead.

To cherish our relationships, both living and dead, is to say that love has the last word, it’s to say that humanity is far above the animal world, it’s to say there is a God and we are loved. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about Karen or include her life in our conversations. This is most natural and right because her life is a part of us. People often get funny when talking about the dead, there’s a kind of awkward morbidity. I’m not sure what this is, but as Christians it should be different for us.

This agnostic take on death, so prevalent today, has affected how even Christians conduct funerals. The modern funeral only celebrates the past, and then afterwards the person fades from memory. But as Christians we don’t believe that death has the last word. We don’t believe that the person is extinguished. We miss them and grieve our loss, but our grief is fused with hope and a continued celebration of their life. We know our lives have been, and continue to be, shaped by them.

As Christians, we celebrate the present (that the person is part of who we are now), and we celebrate the future (that we’ll be reunited with them and continue our relationship).  1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.”

The Bible uses the word “sleep” to talk about a believer’s death. That’s because death is not a final state – it’s kind of like sleep. The person is there, but they’re not animated in our presence, they’re sleeping. Karen exists, she is not gone, but she is not animated in our presence. The reality of her life is kept alive by our memory of her and including all that she was into our lives. Let us remember her, let us talk about her, let us continue to allow her life to shape us. And one day, we all will awake from a sleep, and the journey we’ve begun here with each other will continue.

“When the eucharistic community keeps alive the memory of our loved ones – living as well as dead – it does not just preserve a psychological recollection; it proceeds to an act of ontology, to the assurance that the person has the final word over nature, in the same way that God the Creator as person and not as nature had the very first word.”  John Zizioulas

A Holy Meal

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I recently read A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church by Gordon T. Smith. This books reflects on the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion or the Eucharist, depending on your background). The author uses the seven motifs of remembrance, communion, forgiveness, covenant, nourishment, anticipation, and Eucharist to illuminate various truths concerning the Lord’s Supper.

The first couple chapters reflect on the significance of symbols and sacraments in the life of the Church. Gordon Smith artfully compares a symbol to a sign and a photograph. A sign communicates another reality, whereas a photograph reflects meaning.

“What makes a symbol unique and special is that while it points to another reality, as does a sign, it also allows us to participate in the reality, much as with a photograph.”

Gordon Smith points out that ritualistic practices are important, not only for what they symbolize and communicate, but that we as a community practice them together.

“A symbol has even more significance when it comes to communal ritual activity. What makes a ritual a significant symbol is that we participate in it together.”

“Ritual action enables us to be connected not only with the reality symbolized, but also with one another.”

The author goes into explaining the Lord’s supper through seven motifs:
1. Remembrance: The Lords Supper as a Memorial.
2. Communion: The Lord’s Supper as Fellowship with Christ and with one another.
3. Forgiveness: The Lord’s Supper as a Table of Mercy.
4. Covenant: The Lord’s Supper as a Renewal of our Baptismal Vows.
5. Nourishment: The Lord’s Supper as Bread from Heaven.
6. Anticipation: The Lord’s Supper as a Declaration of Hope.
7. Eucharist: The Lord’s Supper as a Joyous Thanksgiving Celebration.

Insights:
I like the way that Gordon Smith goes into the many facets of the Lord’s Super and its significance in the life of the Church. Growing up Catholic, the Eucharist was an important part of the Mass, if not the most important part. As a Catholic when you are receiving Holy Communion you are actually receiving Christ. Although communion was participated with the Church, it was more of an intimate moment between you and God. Although I like some aspects of the personal nature of communion from my Catholic background, I really liked how Gordon Smith explained the significance of Holy communion being a celebration together in the life of the Church, and how this celebration is a declaration of our hope in anticipation of Gods Kingdom to come. The celebration is a celebration of the present in light of the future.

I have often struggled with 1 Corinthians 11:27-29: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in and unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

This was never a favorite scripture of mine because I viewed the table of God as the table of judgment. I would look at my life and see so many ways which I sinned or violated love. So it was always with fear and trepidation that I approached communion. Gordon Smith helped me to see that Paul wasn’t focusing on individual sins as a concern, but a lack of seeing the body of Christ through a paradigm of mutual fellowship. He says:

“There is no holiness without unity in the body of Christ. The irony is that the very text of Scripture that calls for an appreciation of this unity has been turned on its head and used to cultivate an individualized, often legalistic, perspective on holiness. What makes the observance of the Lord’s Supper unworthy is not so much moral failures as a lack of mutual fellowship and mutual regard. The great danger is that we are not at peace with one another.”

This helped me to see that “eating and drinking” without discerning the body isn’t so much about “personal holiness” as it is about being a “tenacious circle dweller”. Being a tenacious circle dweller means recognizing the body of Christ and being at peace and in unity with one another and not allowing unresolved conflict, prejudices, or unforgiveness to exist, but to work through the issues in order to maintain unity in all my relationships.

Reading this book has opened my eyes to seeing God’s gift of Himself and my brothers and sisters and what it means to partake of this wonderful meal together. God’s table is a table of forgiveness, hope, and redemption; something we participate in “not to get to heaven” but to help us understand a little bit of what “heaven is like”.

I highly recommend this book by Gordon T. Smith.

Grace Makes Me Reverent and Not Afraid

I had one of those experiences this Easter you get when you buy a new car and then start seeing that same model on the road everywhere, whereas before you never noticed. My daughter was beautifully singing Amazing Grace, while our string orchestra accompanied, and in a flash I started to see the power and meaning of the lyrics like never before. I must have sung or heard Amazing Grace hundreds of times over the course of my life. I’ve enjoyed the lyrics, but they didn’t impact me as profound. That all changed this Easter.

I think I know why this “Amazing Grace” epiphany happened on Sunday. Firstly, my concept of grace has been transformed by understanding the gospel, and indeed life in general, in relational terms. It’s all about relationships and communion. The gospel has too long been seen through a legal paradigm. Justice, righteousness, and salvation have been explained to Christians primarily using legal terms and concepts. The focus has been having a clean moral slate and seeing God mostly as a King who must maintain legal justice. Sin is talked about as missing a mark, a violation of an abstract standard. The Bible’s emphasis is very different. God is portrayed primarily as a Father and righteousness is about wholeness in relationships. Sin is not mainly a violation of a standard, but a violation of relationship. In light of this, grace is more than just “unmerited favor”, although that’s true. Grace describes a disposition of openness, vulnerability, and love. It’s the fuel of intimacy.

It’s unfortunate that grace has had to contend with legal barnacles. Instead of transmitting the warmth of mutual fellowship, its legal baggage has made it seem like grace is all about being pardoned for a crime you’ve committed. While that is a wonderful reality, it’s not likely to produce a lover. The miracle of grace is that God is tenaciously pursuing a warm, intimate, and shared life with us. He isn’t being legal, He is being personal. And this is where the lyrics of Amazing Grace have blown me away.

The verse that caught my attention says, “T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved.” In other words, God’s pursuit of communion, His openness, vulnerability, and love towards me has changed me to become a person who can love back and live a life of wholeness (reverence). “Grace taught my heart to fear” – to be reverent, to regard God and others as precious. I’ve fallen in love with God and man. And part of this is having my disordered, self-focussed fear of loss to be done away with. Knowing this kind of God draws my attention away from my own survival and allows me to live generously – “and grace my fears relieved”.

I can’t believe I missed the meaning of that verse all these years, but I’ll take an epiphany of God’s love even if it means singing a song hundreds of times. I have to also thank our liturgy, reading the Bible as a narrative, and our corporate study of the arts for helping me understand this song. But I’ll have to leave that subject for another post.

We’re Right…And You’re Not

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Recently we had a visit from two religious workers, from an organization which will remain unnamed, who suggested we distribute their literature to our “young people.” The pair’s organization is not considered to be an orthodox Christian group and they don’t consider our fellowship to be part of the true church. This might not seem that unusual, but they came right up to our office (in the heart of “the enemy’s camp”) to do their proselytizing. This must have been a thrilling and bold mission for them. For me it was a lesson in smugness.

After politely telling these ladies that we were not interested and that we have obvious disagreements with them, the leader of their team, not to be put off, proceeded to ask others in the office if they would personally want the material. After another round of polite rebuffing the couple left. What struck me, beside the sheer audacity, was that the feeling they gave me was similar to the impact some Christians have had on me, in particular those Christians that know they are right and know they have the truth and know that you need what they have. I searched for a word to describe this feeling and “smug” came to mind. “Smug” sounds so negative, but after looking it up in the dictionary, I had to admit that it captured perfectly the attitude of those with the, “We’re the ones,” mentality. Smug means contentedly confident of one’s ability, superiority, or correctness. We’re right, and you’re not.

Confession time: I have been smug more times than I’d care to admit. I’ve also met a lot of smug people in my life. Maybe one of the clues that shows us we’re smug is if we think we’ve never been. You’ve got to wonder how God puts up with us. But my point here isn’t to show how un-smug I am now, but to express grief and encourage a little humility. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of our problems come from thinking too highly of ourselves.

Perhaps those on a truth crusade genuinely realize that if someone is embracing lies it will be destructive to them. And with that I say a wholehearted, “Amen.” But why aren’t truth crusaders kind? Shouldn’t a love of the truth make us more gentle and generous? Is the real motive behind truth crusading to make myself feel superior? That would explain why warmth and kindness seems to be lacking in many who feel they must convert or correct you. The ultimate truth is love.

I’m not getting wishy-washy in my old age. I’m just seeing that God is more generous than I ever conceived and the world is bigger than I ever imagined. I also realize that if I have not love, I am just a noisy gong and clanging cymbal. Truth should transform us. It should make us more like Christ. Yes, truth divides. Yes, truth is worth standing up for. But let’s understand that the ultimate demonstration that we’re committed to truth is through our deference and humility. As Harry Conn used to say, “True education humbles a person, not puffs them up.”

Is God Mission?

What we think about God has a crucial impact on how we order our life. To think about God is to think about the ultimate. As the “ultimate” God becomes our model. We emulate what we think He is like. Whether consciously or not, we will seek to follow His example. If we see God as an overbearing authoritarian, there is a good chance we’ll act like an overbearing authoritarian when we’re in a leadership position. Many husbands betray their view of God when they demand submission from their wives (God never demands submission). In light of this, having a right view of God becomes very important for us.

There has been a trend in theology since the mid-twentieth century to think of mission as an attribute of God. In many ways this was a reaction to the emphasis of mission being thought primarily as an activity of the Church to help lost individuals find salvation. Mission as an attribute of God, sometimes referred to as the missio dei (the Mission of God), gives us the concept that mission isn’t the Church’s idea, but at the very heart of God. God, in sending His Son into the world, is a missionary God. He is the initiator of mission and we participate in His initiative (this is a woefully brief explanation of missio dei). Today this emphasis is found in the missional movement. Honestly, I fear to tread into this territory, being quite aware that so many smarter than me have written and thought extensively about this. But having some experience in mission (nine years as a missionary) and thirty years living in community I have a few thoughts about this matter.

I am not sure it is helpful to think of mission as an attribute of God. Of course, I agree that God is the initiator of relationships and compassionate outreach to others, and that Jesus’ incarnation manifested the self-giving, self-sacrificing, status-renouncing love of God (Phil. 2). I also agree that the Church should not be a closed cultural ghetto, indifferent to the context and fearful of the stranger. But the Bible is pretty clear that the central definition of God is love, not mission (1 John 4:8). Like the Eastern Orthodox teach, God has His being in communion. God is not just a giver, He is a sharer.

The problem with seeing mission as an attribute of God is that it makes God more like a benefactor than a person in relationships of mutual love. God having His being in communion means that mutual fellowship, giving and receiving, defines who He is. Trinity says that the ultimate characteristic of the universe is communion. A benefactor is one who has an abundance giving to one who lacks. The receiver becomes an object of generosity. The benefactor remains in a position of power and doesn’t enter into a relationship of mutuality with the recipient, which is a requirement of love. If the advent of Jesus taught us anything, it is that powerlessness is God’s way.

The impact of this “missional concept” is that it will make us think that the Church serves the utilitarian purpose of mission rather than is a reflection of the being of God manifested through the relationships of its members. When you put purpose above people you get a society not a community. The Church doesn’t need a useful mission to justify its existence. Its existence is its mission; love experienced and expressed reflects the nature of God. Our outreach to the world around us may not be accomplished through an attractional model, but it is accomplished through fascination. Like the nation of Israel, the Church is to be a city set on a hill. As I heard an engaging speaker say recently, manifesting glimpses of the coming Kingdom is the only way to overcome the skepticism of people rooted in their idolatrous desires and struggles with the problem of evil. Put simply, only by living out mutual love with others do we have any hope of convincing people that Jesus is Lord.

“As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:18-21.

Good Samaritan – Bad Husband

“I want to argue that loving one another well as the people of God for the sake of the world is the game we are supposed to be playing. It’s not a waste of time, it’s not naval gazing, it’s not self-absorption. It’s actually how we are able to function as the incarnate body of Christ on earth. More than we know it, the world is watching and the world is hungry for the gospel to be truly good news. Jesus said ‘by this all will come to know you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ I will show myself to be a disciple of Jesus not by my personal piety or faithfulness, but by my love for my brothers and sisters and theirs for me. The corporate demonstration validates the witness. That’s quite astonishing. If we don’t love each other, it would be kind of like following the Good Samaritan home and discovering that he beats his wife! That might be a bit dramatic, but you get my point.” Debbie Gish, Church of the Sojourners

Thinking like a Christian

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“A Christian worldview should remind us of our multifaceted dependence on God’s goodness, which should foster humility within us. Thus, humility is an important indicator of whether we are progressing toward conformity with God’s story. The same could be said of becoming more loving toward God and others or living a life characterized by gratitude toward God. Both not only provide a partial answer to our first question – ‘What should we expect from a Christian worldview?’ – they also address the second question – ‘What are the indicators that we are growing toward the ideal, represented by God’s story?'” Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford, Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives

Say True, Stay True

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What makes relationships work? Whatever it is, it has to be one of the most important things to know because the meaningful and important things in our lives have to do with relationships. For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his relationships – especially those key relationships like family and friends. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple: honesty and commitment.

Relationships are built on trust and trust demands honesty. Honesty seems to be the essential virtue in the parable of the sower and the seeds (Luke 8:15). When we are the same person on the outside as we are on the inside we invite people to trust us. This kind of honest integrity makes people feel safe and allows them to truly know us, to truly have communion with us. If on the other hand you play your cards close to the vest, showing me only a poker face, how in the world can I entrust myself to you, and why would I? I don’t want to be manipulated. I want to be loved.

Relationships, and life in general, are full of ups and downs. We are going to disappoint each other and life is going to be hard. I need to know you’ll be there for me even if I fail. And you need to know that I’ve “thrown away the key” and will stick with you through the thick and thin. Commitment is what allows us to build our relationship on a solid, immovable foundation. It enables us to relax and be ourselves and weather the changes because there’s something unchangeable that holds us together. If I know you’ll be there tomorrow, I can be myself today. If I know your friendship won’t change tomorrow, I can endure the changes of today.

Good relationships are what everybody wants. Close relationships are what everybody needs. We can have them if we want, but we must choose honesty and commitment. We must say true and stay true. Relationships, like everything else in this universe, follow a set of rules. If we practice honesty and commitment our relationships will blossom like the seed yielding a hundredfold.  And that’s worth the world if you ask me.