A Call for Deepening our Christian Community 

Self reliance is a wonderful thing, however God calls us as his body to grow beyond merely what we can do on our own. A good friend once put it something like, “If I can do it all myself, that means I am not doing enough. God wants more for the church than what I can do by myself. If I am doing it all myself I am not raising up leaders or making disciples.” To be the community God intended requires us to practice forgiveness and grace, take loving risks—and really—it requires truly a covenant, where we are truly committed to God and each other in service and sacrifice. The ties that bind us together in Christ, must become far stronger than those forces that would tear us apart.

Fear of legalism or abuse is very real, as many a personal experience of those who have left church behind could testify to… but I wonder at times how much greater the impact the church as a whole could have as salt and light to our society if we could reclaim a more “corporate” model of faith. We were never created to be alone, to feel isolated or to feel alienated. We were created to share love, and that seems to take more than one actor to be a lived reality. Love is a verb, an action word. Love, by its very nature, seems to require expression. It is a gift that cannot be kept under a basket, but must be shared.

Proverbs 27:6 says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And sometimes sharing love requires someone to love us enough to risk offering guidance and correction, not from a “holier than thou” place of judgment, but from a place of humility and love and freedom. I have recently had a few people show me this kind of love and for me, as awkward as it can be, it is also very freeing. It offers a place for the rubber to meet the road in my spiritual journey. It helps me to realize I have not “arrived” and still have a lot of room to grow along the path of Christ-likeness I am walking, but it also helps me see that I am not walking alone, that others care enough about my growth to invest time in me.

Somehow by God’s design, the human eye has a blind spot our brains tune out, right at the very center. We tune out that blind spot so well because we have two eyes, and many of us have long forgotten our blind spots exists and can’t even make themselves see it again. Community puts us in that place where inevitably we have to confront our blindness. It puts us in a place where we see the limits of ourselves and recognize that we need each other, that with more “eyes”—more spiritual gifts and talents—we better become the body of Christ come alive, and better become alert to the needs of our world. We each have our perspectives, our piece of the puzzle that is our part of God’s tapestry-like story of the redemption of the world. In the spiritual community the voiceless is voiced, the blindness finds its sight, as we find our place in the body and we discover our calling and where we thrive in service to the kingdom of God.

I know I am not perfect. I know I make mistakes. I know I need God’s grace. I know at times I need to stop and ask for forgiveness or offer it to others. And I know I am not alone in this reality that others are struggling in their own ways. And also, that they are finding victory in their own ways. I want to encourage you, as we enter this spring season, to think about the role community plays in your life, and the role you play in your church community. We all have our issues, our unique obstacles to overcome. We all have our unique mix of strengths, weaknesses… passions and drudgery. But to be the body of Christ, we need to learn to trust and rely on one another… we need to learn to work together as a team, and hold our pieces of the puzzle loosely in the face of God’s will being revealed to us.

Walking together means walking in vulnerability, humility, and ultimately freedom. But we can’t forget we make the path by walking together. In our holy nudgings toward discomfort and growth, we also gain a greater sense of God’s peace and a better understanding of ourselves. If I have learned anything as a disciple of Jesus it is that ignoring hard truths is a path leading only toward destruction and death, not the new life that God offers us.  But I have also learned that Jesus IS present and active in community—in his body—and that where all our blind spots converse honestly, God not only gives grace; He gives freedom. “Those the Son sets free are free indeed,” but we each make the decision of how free we will let ourselves become. Often our fear of vulnerability robs us of the blessings God wants to give us. It robs us of the body, functioning fully as a body. It robs us of perhaps our best way of seeking the future; by doing it together.

Agape,

James

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Save Us!

In our journey with God there is a “now and not yet” quality to it. We have a foretaste of our salvation, but we do not yet have it in its fullness. We have the story of Jesus’ first coming, but there is still a lot of mystery about the time He comes again.

Psalm 80 hearkens back to the frustration of those who waited for the arrival of Jesus, who cried out to God, begging Him to send His Messiah in the midst of sorrow, anger, and suffering.

17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,

the son of man you have raised up for yourself.

18 Then we will not turn away from you;

revive us, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, Lord God Almighty;

make your face shine on us,

that we may be saved.

(Psalm 80:17-19)

This is a Psalm of lament crying out Yeshua, crying out for God to intervene now, to save us. Yeshua is Jesus’ name in Hebrew. In light of what we know now about God’s salvation, it seems so fitting that Yeshua is both the giver and the gift we are waiting for. This Psalm repeating “save us” over and over again was whispering Jesus’ name in mysterious ways the human author could hardly have imagined. It is a cry from the heart for God to break back into our stories, to rescue us from the inescapable trap of the sin of the world.

The Psalmist cries RESTORE us! Knowing you are in need of restoration is to know that you are missing something without Jesus in your life. It is that longing to be complete, to find the peace we are searching for. To find God filling that “God-shaped hole” in our lives, or as Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” May we find ourselves recognizing this Easter season that plastic eggs and grass—even spending time with our families— as wonderful as these things as are, are never be enough to satisfy our yearning for something more in our relationship with God. So often the peripheral things can eclipse the focus on Jesus’ resurrection. May we find the answer to our deepest desires in remembering that the empty cross and empty tomb point us to our coming of our savior, knowing that the best is truly yet to come as we stand before God face to face.

Another cry of the psalmist is REVIVE us! A part of us is asleep without Jesus; purposeless, and adrift. Even if all the pieces are there, sometimes we need that spark from God to fan our hearts aflame once again. When someone is passed out drunk to the point that they might as well be in a coma, there is an expression for that I often heard on the construction site. We call a person in that state “three sheets to the wind.” It means they are so out of it that they don’t even notice they have lost some things that matter. For some of us, three sheets to the wind might describe our spiritual walk. We are unaware of how God is moving in us and around us.

We had this big window in a house I lived in, and birds would not see the glass and try to fly through the house. We would hear this big THUNK now and then, and know that a bird had hit the window. There was a big fat cat outside just waiting to hear that noise. Sometimes the bird would break its neck and die instantly, but we noticed that if we went outside and rubbed the bird’s feet it would sometimes be revived the bird and it would fly away to safety.

Jesus picks us up like that. He wakes up the sleeping parts of our souls and gives us new purpose, and new direction. Sometimes our salvation isn’t from a life like mine with a propensity for self destruction, it is a salvation from wasting our lives. From sleepwalking onward…just going through the motions of a mediocre life. It is salvation from a ‘low-stakes spirituality’ where ultimately we never put ourselves in a position to trust God, where we mistakenly think it is all up to us.

God’s story of salvation for the world is the story of an all-out rescue mission. We can see the gospel hinted at in the first verses of this song:

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,

you who lead Joseph like a flock.

You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,

shine forth 2 before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.

Awaken your might;

come and save us.

This is a prayer for the great Shepherd of Israel, to come out from the holy of holies and get His hands dirty. To enter into the brokenness of the world and make it right. To come like the mighty right hand of God’s justice and lift us out of desperate struggle we find ourselves in. This psalm is a prayer that reached far beyond the imagination of the Psalmist. It pointed us to Yeshua, to salvation embodied in Jesus Christ. It pointed us to God’s great story of redemption that was nothing less than the God “enthroned between the cherubin” awakened in a human body and coming to save us in the flesh. This prayer was answered, but not without a lot of hoping and waiting for the fullness of God’s plan to be revealed.

Hopefully this Easter season and approaching Pentecost, we can recognize our need for God, our longing for God to save us in one form or another. The psalmist references the story of Joseph in the Genesis. He says, “you who lead Joseph like a flock” All throughout the Old Testament story of Joseph he has some pretty big setbacks along the way. He gets thrown in a hole, threatened with death, sold into slavery, thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet God is behind the scenes pulling the strings, putting Joseph into a position of power he never would have imagined for himself.

Near the end of his life, Joseph is reconciled with his brothers who sold him into slavery. He has this moment of revelation where he realizes that God’s hand was behind it the whole time, that all of this was orchestrated by God to save his family from famine… He says to his brothers, what you intended for evil, God intended for good. What a wonderful foreshadowing of the Easter story!

Having God as our shepherd does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It doesn’t mean we will never lament, or shake our fist at God. But it does mean that in the end we will see God’s purposes in it. We will see how God used even the lowest points in our lives for His glory. Salvation isn’t just about having arrived. Sometimes it means slowly moving in the right direction, but moving with God rather than against Him.

The Psalmist also points to the future glory of Jesus. He writes:

“Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,

the son of man you have raised up for yourself.

18 Then we will not turn away from you;”

This future son of man who sits at the right hand of the Father is Jesus, the one who saves that would be lifted up before a watching world. He would come under the power and authority of God himself and save His people once and for all. He would bring a salvation we would not turn away from… He would come and do for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is the big story of redemption. It is the story of God stepping into human history to save a people crying out for restoration.

It is sometimes easy to lose our focus in the holiday seasons—and this is just as true for pastors—to drift away from what matters. To misplace our hope in hopeless things, yet God, like a Shepherd, nudges us back into the right direction. He restores and revives us. He challenges us to become fully alive and fully recreated in God’s image.

As we wait for our fulfillment of the promises of Easter, do still we look for the Lord’s face to shine on us? Where are we still restless because we are not resting in Him? As we find ourselves celebrating and waiting, it is always worth asking ourselves if the focus of our waiting is on the hurry and hassles of minor things, or the richness of the promises we have in Jesus and His resurrection.

Agape,

James


Glorifying God in the Midst of Conflict

When we think about peace, unfortunately, what comes to mind is the opposite of war rather than the rich imagery of human wellbeing and harmony that is the Hebrew understanding of shalom. And yet, before we could ever begin to approach the implications of a biblical model of peace when it comes to something like war, perhaps we followers of Jesus might take a deeper look at what tools God has given us to address conflict among ourselves. Many of the leaders of College Avenue have recently done a study through Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, and I can say our group has had a truly transformational experience as we wrestled together with what God’s word has to teach us about repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Sande’s interest in biblical conflict resolution draws from a wealth of experience serving as a Christian lawyer, who at many points found himself  sincerely desiring God’s best for many of his Christian brothers and sisters who thought civil court was their last hope.

Ken’s presentation style is personal, practical, and unflinchingly faithful. Ultimately, he and some others founded Peacemaker Ministries to better serve and assist God’s people to work through conflict in a way that gives glory to God and strengthens the credibility of our Christian witness. Our hope as the IAYM Board of Christian Social Concerns, is to challenge our Yearly Meeting churches to consider making their way through this 8 week study. To do this, what is needed is a pair of facilitators with the time and passion, and a book and study guide for everyone in the class. While some might not choose to purchase them, there are also wonderful video resources designed to augment the study with teachings by Ken, and many illustrative short skits or “parables” that go with each lesson that truly bring these principles to heart. While not required, these video resources are recommended, and could perhaps be a shared resource among our various quarterly meetings. Peacemaker Ministries also has youth and family books and resources you may be interested in taking a look at, to make God’s best for us accessible to all.    

We know that not every IAYM church has a Peace and Social Concerns Committee, and some that do aren’t very active, but if your church has a pair of co-leaders who are passionate about being peacemakers, you would be well on your way to facilitating a study on your own, as we did. But if your church is close enough to drive to College Avenue, and you are willing to make the trip, we are planning on starting two fresh courses: one on mondays at 6:00pm (beginning Feb 26th) that will be taught by Mike Fogle and Bill Blake, and a second wednesdays at 6:30pm  (beginning February 28th) taught by Mike and Deb Moyer. The second will even have soup a half hour prior! We also have two additional pairs of co-leaders lined up to offer additional courses this year, with one potentially being in the summer. We at College Avenue invite those who would to join us, with the hope to empower you with practical tools and inspire a passion for interpersonal peacemaking and biblical conflict resolution. We as Christians have such a foundation to draw on when it comes to living by God’s principles. Often, it is putting God’s best into practice where we struggle. Our hope as a committee, and my hope as a pastor, is to equip Christ’s church for faithful service and witness in the world. This study is not political, and not primarily about addressing the violence of our broken world. What it is, however, is a starting place to come together and earnestly seek God’s will when it comes to the things that so often divide us. And from that common frame of reference in God’s word, learn to walk together toward maturity to the glory of God. Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers. Let us seek that blessing together in 2018!

Agape,

James Tower

Book https://www.amazon.com/Peacemaker-Biblical-Resolving-Personal-Conflict/dp/0801064856/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515651190&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=The+Peacemaker%3A+A+Biblical+Guide+to+Resolving+Personal+Conflict+DVD

 

Kit with DVD’s  http://peacemaker.christianbook.com/peacemaking-church-small-group-study-kit/pd/444488?event=CPOF        


Come and Save Us

God’s story of salvation for the world is the story of an all out rescue mission. We can see the gospel hinted at the beginning of Psalm 80:

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,

you who lead Joseph like a flock.

You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,

shine forth  before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.

Awaken your might; come and save us.

This is a prayer for the great Shepherd of Israel, to come out from the holy of holies and get His hands dirty. To enter into the brokenness of the world and make it right. To come like the mighty right hand of God’s justice and lift us out of desperate struggle we find ourselves in. This psalm is a prayer that reached far beyond the imagination of  the Psalmist. It pointed us to Yeshua, a name shared by Jesus with Joshua, and which means means “rescuer” or “deliverer” and ultimately to the salvation embodied in Jesus Christ. It pointed us to God’s great story of redemption that was nothing less than the God “enthroned between the cherubim” awakened in a human body and coming to save us in the flesh. This prayer was answered, but not without a lot of hoping and waiting for the fullness of God’s plan to be revealed.

This advent, an advent celebrated by a world in turmoil, may our circumstances do us the kindness of helping us recognize our need for God, our longing for God to save us in one form or another. The psalmist references the story of Joseph in the Genesis. He says “you who lead Joseph like a flock” All throughout the Old Testament story of Joseph he has some pretty big setbacks along the way. He gets thrown in a hole, threatened with death, sold into slavery, thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet  God is behind the scenes pulling the strings, putting Joseph into a position of power he never would have imagined for himself.

Near the end of his life, Joseph is reconciled with his brothers who sold him into slavery. He has this moment of revelation where he realizes that God’s hand was behind it the whole time, that all of this was orchestrated by God to save his family from famine… He says to his brothers, what you intended for evil, God intended for good.

Having God as our shepherd does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It doesn’t mean we will never lament, or shake our fist at God. But it does mean that in the end we will see God’s purposes in it. We will see how God used even the lowest points in our lives for His glory. Salvation isn’t just  about having arrived. Sometimes it means slowly moving in the right direction, but moving with God rather than against Him. The Psalmist also points to the future glory of Jesus. He writes:

“Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,

the son of man you have raised up for yourself.

Then we will not turn away from you;”

This future son of man who sits at the right hand of the Father is Jesus, the one who saves that would be lifted up before a watching world. He would come under the power and authority of God Himself and save His people once and for all. He would bring a salvation we would not turn away from… He would come and  do for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is the big story of Christmas. The gospel is not only about the resurrection, it is about the incarnation. It is the story of God stepping into human history to save a people crying out for redemption.

It is easy for us to lose our focus, to drift away from what matters. To misplace our hope in hopeless things, yet God, like a shepherd, nudges us back into the right direction. He restores and revives us. He challenges us to become fully alive and fully recreated in God’s image. But He will not give if we don’t ask, He will not open the door if we are unwilling to knock. If we pretend we have no need for a savior, how can we expect to be ready for the rescue? As Augustine puts it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”

As we wait for God’s fulfillment this Advent, do still we look for the Lord’s face to shine on us? Where are you still restless because you are not resting in Him? Part of our preparation for God’s ultimate arrival is to acknowledge our need, and not in a way where we throw up our hands in despair…but where we turn again to the Shepherd of our souls and once again say, “Come Lord Jesus. Come and save us.”

Agape,

James

PS Merry Christmas in advance from all the Tower family!

 

 


Some Thinking on Thankfulness

While not a very religious holiday, Thanksgiving is still my favorite one to celebrate. This has to do with my love of gathering loved ones around a table in fellowship. It truly is the great American love-feast, and often comes the closest many of us ever experience in our culture to the table fellowship of the early church (or for that matter the holy feasts of the Old Testament). There is something holy in the love that our green bean casseroles were made with. There something holy (and wholesome) about dedicating a day to spend together with family thanking God for His providence.

Thanksgiving seems to break through our individualistic culture and provide a sorely needed excuse for togetherness. In our fragmented and disconnected world, there is something that food and fellowship around a table provide, that I believe, is sorely needed. It gives us an opportunity to invite in that weird uncle or aunt or neighbor who sees the world so differently than we do, and to love them where they are (not as we want them to be). As Quakers, we believe that everyone is imbued with the image of God; that all people have value. At Thanksgiving, many of us put that commitment to love our neighbor to the test! We need this grace to us more than most of us are willing to admit.

As an Osky transplant, I am blessed with a newcomer’s perspective. I see the many things about this community that are amazing. For me, it has been kind of like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, in a very good way. I think as a community we have a lot of things to be thankful to God for, and that joining together in worship to celebrate God’s rich bounty is something that is worthwhile. While there may be theological differences and a variety of ways people experience God in worship in this community, I bet one thing we could all agree on is God’s goodness to us. This one brute fact should inspire us to live out our love modeling Christ’s example. If God truly loves us–US–warts and all…that should fill us with excitement.

In my Quaker values class I teach regularly about simplicity, something I like to define for a largely secular audience as “saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things.” I regularly do an exercise where I have the students physically stand in the left, middle, or right side of the classroom to show their response (agree, unsure, or disagree) to an intentionally vague statement. This really gets people talking because they have already made a statement in their walking. For the week on simplicity I pose the statement “having lots of money will automatically make a person grateful, happy, and enjoy a meaningful life.” I am always surprised with how this exercise reveals. Some, see money as giving a person the freedom to pursue a life of meaning unhindered. Others, resonate with money’s power to magnify good or problematic areas of a person’s life. They acknowledge statistics about high levels of suicide among lotto winners, and recognize that in many ways, massive wealth could undermine the things in life they value the most.

This is a crucial step in the class’ journey of exploring the intersection between simplicity and gratitude, something few of us wrestle with openly. To get the class moving in this direction, I read a quote from Robert Fryling’s book The Leadership Ellipse that asks such an important question:

“…Gratitude is the involuntary response of the heart to all aspects of life and ultimately to God. It is not based primarily on circumstance. Some of the most grateful people in the world are the poorest, while many that are rich often are characterized by their lack of gratitude as they seek to acquire more money or fame. If this is the case, what then makes us grateful, or how can we be more grateful people?”

I think how we answer that question powerfully shapes the direction of our lives.

It is easy for many of us to always focus on what we have not attained, to be driven (consciously or not) by our fears or pride, or other people’s expectations. Few of us ever stop and be grateful.

One girl, who warned me on the first day of class that she struggled immensely in all of her attempts at religion classes, ended the course having a spiritual awakening and getting involved in a local church. As she presented her journey of exploring simplicity, she found such freedom that as a part of her relationship with God, she had someone to be grateful TO for her many blessings and the beauty of creation. This, among many other extravagant luxuries, are easily taken for granted by us Christians. But at the end of the day–each day–so much of how we see the world is shaped by where our focus lies. We daily have a choice of what we choose to focus on–the blessings we haven’t yet received, or the ones we have. We can allow gratitude to fill our hearts…or jealousy. The only one who chooses this, is you or me.

How DO we become more grateful people? I think grateful people focus less on the negative aspects of their current circumstances, and more on their many blessings. It is easy to fall into the same trap as the nightly news which is basically to focus only on the terrible or controversial things that happen in the world, and to do so until we find ourselves ever torn between reeling in fear and addicted to outrage. There is a story of three couples–freshly moved to town–who encounter an old man on a bench. In separate encounters, he asks each of them, “What was it like where you came from?” One couple said everyone was always gossipping and backbiting, another that people were always looking down their nose at others as they kept up with the Jones’, and the last said that there were many wonderful people with friendships that had deepened over dozens of years. The man on the bench responded to each couple with the exact same answer, “You are going to find a lot of that here too.”

As Christians we are going to find a lot of what we are “looking for” as well. We may see slights or grace, good or evil, the fallenness of people or the faithfulness of God. Whatever we want to see more of we will find. But we seem to need extra grace to do as Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8,

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” How might Thanksgiving be an opportunity to see God’s value in all people? How might some food, fellowship, or even board games around a table be an opportunity to share God’s love? That table of old where Jesus sat with his rag-tag disciples transcended the differences between a radical zealot and his nemesis a tax collector. It brought together rough and tumble fishermen, and even had room for a traitor like Judas. There is something about Thanksgiving that connects us to the table Jesus shared long ago, and reminds us of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. I believe it is there to find for us, if we are willing to let God give us the eyes to see it.


Stay Hungry

Have you ever trained for something? Whether its music or sports or preparing for a final exam, training takes a lot out of you. It can be exhausting. But some of us, who have had our passion inflamed, who have felt a clarity of our callings, find a love that sustains us even as we train. Training takes a certain kind of obsession to be effective, because training is work and work takes energy and time.

I think in our day people value talent, but loath training. Talent is valuable, but the truth is, it can get in the way of training because people feel like they have arrived. Raw talent is an inspiring thing, but it is just that: raw. And some people who already have it feel like they have nothing left to learn, no new heights to obtain, and as the old saying goes the good can be the enemy of the best.

Paul writes in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” One of the blinders that needs to come off in the spiritual life is the blinder that tells us, “We have arrived. We have attained. We have taken ahold of what Christ has for us and now we can stop training and get comfortable. We can cash in our chips and punch out for the day.”

But as the Body of Christ we are a Body in training. We have not arrived, we still have a lot of work to do. The question before us isn’t simply whether we will do this work or not. The question before us is, have we lost our passion? Our focus? Are we missing the fuel that will sustain us? The clarity of calling? The hope of arriving someday? Paul points this out in his words: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Renowned scholar N.T. Wright translates this: “No, I am hurrying on eager to overtake it, because King Jesus has overtaken me!” I like his translation because it fits better with the theme of racing, a theme Paul is really emphasizing here.

Paul had Olympic running in his day, and like the Olympics of our day it was a worldwide competition. Not every country got to compete, but you can bet the Jews of Paul’s day followed the Olympics and knew the outcome. I love his illustration of running because running is all about forward progression. In the spiritual life, we cannot keep looking back, we must look forward for what God has for us next. We must keep an eye on the prize, but with the other eye we have to keep watch on the road before us. We can’t look back, or we could wander off course, or hit a pothole. We could miss the next obstacle and get hurt and have to quit the race.

I love the Friends church. I love our history and heritage. I love our stories of dauntless missionaries and saints. But perhaps the biggest problem with our denomination is that we have such a wonderful heritage we can end up making that the focus. But we can’t be effective runners if our heads are spun around the wrong way. We have to keep one eye on the prize. One eye on chasing Jesus sure, but we have to keep the other eye looking down where our next step is about to land.

We cannot be distracted by side issues. We cannot always be people who look back. We should keep our eye on the prize of reaching out and raising up disciples. That is the main thing and the real reason the church exists. It is the work each of us, in our own way, is called to.

We have a wonderful building. We have a beautiful church family. But we can’t, like a runner who finds himself in 1st place, stop straining on. A race isn’t over until it is finished. We have to work hard not only to keep what we have gained, but gain even more.

We can’t get comfortable, but should live into our vision and values statement that says: “College Avenue Friends exists not only for its own sake but also for the sake of those outside our walls that Christ calls us to love and serve. We are committed to pushing beyond the status quo and being a light to others in our daily walks of faith.”

The real treasure we seek in the Christian life is Jesus. It is not even the reward of heaven, but of being with Jesus. Heaven is not the goal, He is the goal. God calls us heavenward, but He calls us not only to heaven, but to Himself. And He calls us to be with Him on a journey, a heavenward journey. And Paul goes even further, from preaching to meddling as it were, as he challenges us in verse 15 “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you… Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”

We might not always agree about what the next steps will be, but we need to take them together, trusting that God will make it clear for us as we walk together. As we cling to the truth that we have so far… as we cling to that bit of gold we have that God is still refining in us, God will reveal even more to us.

There is a maturity in knowing not only what we already know, but what we don’t know. It was said of Socrates that he was the wisest person in Athens, not because of how much he knew, but because he knew how much he had left to learn. Those of us with real maturity have a humble maturity, one that comes not only in acknowledging our strengths and successes and our victories in the spiritual life, but also in acknowledging our fumbles and foibles and failures.

A maturity that comes in the form of recognizing how far we have yet to go in becoming like Jesus, but seeking it together anyway. So, we live the Christian life as I have said so far, with one eye on Jesus. One eye off in the distance, filled with hope and keeping our eye on the prize. But we also keep one eye down at our feet, looking to overcome the next hurdle. Looking to keep what we have already attained.

Eric Liddell, the Olympian who inspired the movie Chariots of Fire, was a man of intense discipline used mightily by God. As a runner, he refused to run on Sundays, even when it cost him greatly. May we live purposeful lives willing to risk for God. Liddell once said, “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.” It is my belief that the glory he was talking about was God’s glory not Eric’s glory, the glory revealed in us as God’s creatures, as we run the race He has before us. There are limits God gives us, limits like sabbath rest. And we do God’s kingdom little good if we work ourselves to death. But for some of us the greater danger is in letting our training regimen go… neglecting our prayer and bible reading and fellowship together. Sunday morning service was never meant to be the beginning and end of our spiritual nourishment, but the overflow of what God has been doing in our lives all week. Let us bring our best even there.

For those who want to win, there can be no looking back. There can be no pining for days gone by. There is only striving, a striving that melts away all our complacency. Where we want to be where Jesus is more than anything else. We are not looking at the distractions around us, the fool’s gold in our midst. We are not settling for our past successes… we are striving. Striving for even more growth on our journey with Jesus. There will be a time beyond the striving, a time victory is complete. But this is not yet that time. For now, the race is on.

Agape,

James


Stretch Marks

The church Jesus founded, built by God (Mt.16:18), has grown, matured, and changed since its historic inception. Is it an institution? An organism? A hybrid of both? At the Nicene and Constantinople Councils, the church looked again at it meant to be the church, at what it meant to represent Christ in their context and culture, and how the church was essentially different than the non-church. In the formulation of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, four historic marks were identified; the church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. At the time of their formulation these marks were perhaps clear, even unchallenged as the church wrestled primarily with the boundaries of the nature of Christ and the Trinity, yet what these boundaries are to mean to us in our context remains awash in challenges. This is a cursory re-examination of the historic marks of the church in light of its contemporary challenges, many of which those at the Nicene and Constantinople Councils could never have anticipated in their bare-bones fourfold set of marks.

One
The Apostle Paul develops the theme of the church as Christ’s body, a body that is essentially one and particular (1 Cor 12:12-26). Likewise, Ephesians 4:4-6 emphasizes a church united, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Yet those who claim Christ in our day lack a great deal of credibility in claiming to be one church in light of Protestantism’s constant fracturing as seen in its ever more numerous denominations and non-denominations. On the other hand, unity does not require uniformity or unanimity to achieve God’s purposes; for God can use division where healthy multiplication remains to be sought. Despite its many challenges, there is a growing ecumenical movement seeking reconciliation. Despite the ecumenical movements’ theological hurdles and its various institutional incarnations, the church “militant” is becoming more globally connected than ever before. While the church of our day may have its own form of Dissociative Identity Disorder, effectually saying with its many divorces that, “Because [you are] not a hand, [you] do not belong to the body,” this does not, in a sense, make it true (1 Cor 12:15). It simply reflects the sinfulness of the church, a reality that also must be both acknowledged and dealt with.

Holy
At its best the church is holy, set apart for God’s purposes and obedient and responsive to God’s commands. At its core, holiness stems from love, for God is love (1 John 4:8). The church as a representation of the Trinity, and as the body of Christ, is called not only to return God’s love, but also to share God’s love with others; to love God, love others, and in doing so follow Jesus (Mt. 22:36-44). The church—like Jesus its founder, is called to love the world enough to do something about its plight (John 3:15-17). Holiness is more than a list of shoulds and should-nots—where one by legalistic zeal might embrace a checklist approach to life, it is a call to the highest good; the highest love one can attain with divine assistance, giving glory to God.

The main challenge to this vision of a holy church is the church’s own sinfulness, a sinfulness that is demonstrably real and must be accounted for. Luther’s understanding of the church as simul justus et peccatore, or “simultaneously justified and a sinner,” is helpful for describing the paradox of the church’s “now and not yet” struggle with sin. Luther’s perspective affirms the reality of the sin of the church, yet also allows that God’s sanctification is in fact at work and progressively enacting real change in the hearts, minds, and actions of those who allow the Holy Spirit’s work to continue unhindered in their lives; i.e. those who are working with and not against God’s plan of redemption for the world. The Holy Spirit, with and in spite of the sinfulness of humans, is leading the church to be remade from within into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, presenting all that we are as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God as an act of love and worship (Rom 12:1-2).

Catholic
Jesus’s church, while particular as “one,” is also catholic or universal. All believers are essentially part of the same body, that of Christ. Just as God as Trinity has many facets, so does the church. Though essentially one, the church is profoundly complex, encompassing the full range of those who have fellowship with Jesus. This fellowship is global consisting of numerous people, cultures and even ages. It consists of uniquely gifted people who each reflect God’s image, yet the church is more than the sum of its parts. Within the church’s unity is not uniformity, but room for the truest of freedoms, for in being remade in the image of its creator we are encouraged to co-create with God. The church reflects the character and nature of God from its smallest subunits to the local church as a congregation, and even the global context of the church at this moment. One of the greatest expressions of the catholicity of the church is the biblical metaphor of being the Bride of Christ (Eph 5:25-27; 2 Cor 11:2). In marriage, there is more at work than merely a covenant between two people, there is an expansion into all the familial possibilities and descendants that will arise from that covenant. Though this union is between the finite and the Infinite, the covenant is to all who participate in this human/divine romance; it also stretches beyond time extending to when the whole church becomes “triumphant” at the great wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9).

Apostolic
The church is apostolic, both in the sense of being stewards of the apostle’s teachings, as well as in its mandate to be “sent forth.” The relationship between these two specific senses of “apostolic” do not stand in contrast to the other. Both are intimately connected, for in the great commission “go” and “teach” are a part of the same imperative command. The church—like Jesus its founder, is called to love the world enough to do something about its plight: it is to bear Christ’s message as witnesses to a watching world. As a sent people, we image (or in a sense incarnate) God just as Jesus did, by both a proclamation and demonstration of the gospel with our whole selves, wherever we are, and wherever we are called to go. Yet the greatest challenge to this is that the message of an incarnate God, suffering and dying on a cross, and sent on a divine mission of love, is a hard one to accept; especially as sin is increasingly viewed through a different lens in our post-scientific clinical psychology enamored world.

There are also great challenges arising from human evolution to a historical Adam, and thus it is hard for people who see the story of humanity’s fall as non-historical to accept the biblical rational for a savior. Moreover, the “now and not yet” quality of the church is not satisfying to some who see Jesus’ noble work as an enterprise that seemed to capture the hearts of many, yet still left sin both alive and well in the world, and alive and well in the church. One must humbly accept the reality Nietzsche pointed to as he wrote, “for me to believe in their Savior: his disciples would have to look more redeemed!”

Apostolic Revisited
In an American context where the “church hour” is one of many options in a sea of social activities and nonprofit organizations, what does it mean to be sent? In a time when people are more concerned about “this world” answers than afterlife concerns, what might the gospel look like contextualized for our time? I think the church should reevaluate its understanding of apostolicity in light of Pannenberg’s understanding of election as “for service,” not merely for salvation. A practical application oriented approach is needed which focuses on making a difference in this world, especially in seeking out the marginalized and oppressed, and expressing God’s love tangibly to a world that is hurting.

The work of witnessing is not merely the work of marketing the message of Jesus and the kingdom of God, but enacting it. I do not—like many social gospel or liberation theology proponents—believe this can be done without an explicitly connecting these humanitarian efforts to the glory and message of Jesus. This work cannot be done at the expense of the message of a God who loved the world enough to come and save it; it must be more than merely disseminating information and hoping for transformation. For the church to be sent, it needs to reevaluate where it is being sent, lest faith become a mere “Jesus stamp” on what we were already going to do anyway, like perhaps finding a comfortable life in the suburbs.

Psychology and social sciences are helpful, but the church needs to get past merely helping people feel relieved about their future experience in the coming afterlife. As Cavanaugh demonstrates, there are very real dangers inherent in seeing the church as a mere “shepherd of souls,” (relegated only to the realm of the spiritual) while leaving the physical world behind. Like God in the incarnation, the church needs to be sent—to be among the hurting, and get its hands dirty. We should fearlessly ask, if Jesus is our model, why do we look so tame? If this is supposed to be the Kingdom of God, why does it look so much more like the rotary club instead? Sin is a tangible thing, a universal experience. A big part of being “sent ones” is not sweeping sin under a big warm blanket of denial, or helping people find the right therapist, or feel better about or manage their sin—but to contextualize the hope we find in Jesus even there: to break free of the superficiality that prevents us from being transformed, and engage the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

The historic marks of the church are still with us, though challenged on nearly every side. The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic in ways both old and new. We, in our day, may never get a chance to expand upon the historic marks of the church in a way that becomes widespread. Though we may desire to propose some more marks of the church, and in certain contexts would benefit from remix and reinterpretation, holding new global church councils to create new benchmarks or theological parameters seems beyond the realm of feasibility. Perhaps what is needed is even more grace and humility. Through the patchwork spider web of the church’s brokenness; its particularity and universality, its sinfulness and holiness, its mission and message; may we weigh all of it under “Paul’s rule” of glorying (boasting) in Christ.

 


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