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.

 


Loving Local

One social justice issue that College Avenue Friends Church cares about especially deeply is hunger. You can see this in the many among us who volunteer at the local ecumenical food cupboard, in Jan Palmer’s Take Along Lunch program that helps hungry kids get through the weekend, and the Oskaloosa Summer Lunch Program that I especially want to highlight here. The Summer Lunch program was pioneered by a wonderfully Christ-like woman named Martha Comfort, who launched and directed the program on a volunteer basis for its first three years. It became a non-profit under the umbrella of the United Way of Oskaloosa and because of the high poverty levels in our community it is both fully reimbursed for every meal by the USDA, as well as is not required by them to ask the children for proof of their neediness. It now has twelve sites in the Oskaloosa area. Martha recently stepped down from the program as she graduated from a graduate program in social work and plans to pursue further ministry in the new doors God has opened to her in a slightly different direction.

At a Golden Circle program (a monthly small group for senior members) the winter before last, Martha came and told us about her program, and immediately I wanted to learn more about what it would take to become a site. College Avenue sits of course right next to the Friends Park, the shadiest park in Oskaloosa on a hot summer day, and its recently updated play structures and sand pit are the perfect place for large groups of kids to play. Historically CAF had its Jack and Jill preschool whose legacy is readily seen in our facility’s ample kitchen and nursery, which is a wonderful plan B location in the case of rain or bad weather.

After finding out all that was needed was a small about of food safety training and a few volunteers, and all we really had to do was show up and love on the kids and serve them, we started last year out as a smashing success. Lunches were served MWF from noon till 12:45 with a fifteen minute craft or game following. Martha brought a bunch of donated sand buckets to give the kids at our first launch last summer and the first day we had around thirty kinds having a blast in the sand box! I mostly did the activities and picked up the food, and got a chance to meet many of the kids in the neighborhood and minister to them. One child known by many of the neighborhood kids had died tragically from an allergic reaction to the anesthetic from a simple tonsil removal, and though I was not technically allowed to proselytize because of federal funding, the kids knew I was a pastor and I was of course free to respond to their questions.

I knew all of this work was worth it when I saw the kids enjoying hospitality together as equals free of the poor kid stigma I grew up with, as well as mothers enjoying each other’s company in a welcome break from the isolation that comes with small children. Also, many of these kids did come out in the fall for our movies in the park, and I remember one day walking over to the church when seven kids riding their bikes all greeted me gregariously shouting “Hi Pastor James!” when before, they might not have even realized a church met there for worship or recognized me at all. Seeds of love were scattered very thoroughly last summer, and I pray some of these relationships that started last year will continue to deepen and grow, and of course come to discover that Jesus is at work.

This year our Peace and Social Concerns committee at CAF is beginning to gear up for launch May 31st. This year, my wife Liz will be the head cook of the program, and we recently built a weatherized bulletin board in the park to help communicate to people in the park opportunities they will have to experience the love of Jesus at work among us. Liz is especially suited for this work and has been gifted to serve in the area of hospitality. Her degree from George Fox was focused on equipping her to start a restaurant, and she spent three years as the head cook of Barclay College. The amount of volunteers that showed up and worked hard to bless these children is truly inspiring and there are many ways to get involved for those who have interest.

God’s heart for justice is clear, but not all justice ministries need be perceived as overly political. I believe most what is needed is eyes to see those in need in our community and compassion to serve. There are many tangible ways of ministering to the hungry that are very practical and dead simple, and perhaps even fully funded in some cases. All that is sometimes needed is a space and a helping hand. Love has to be shared, and I believe, must be seen in the form of action. How might we as the church better share the love of Jesus with those who are hungry, and perhaps build relationships where their spiritual hunger may also be addressed? It is my conviction that the more one knows God, the more one recognizes His love for the least, the lost, and the last. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and it is the natural response to first loving God. When someone asked Jesus who was their neighbor, he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. Love is a verb, an action word. It is also a command straight from the mouth of Jesus. Let us pray for ears to hear and eyes to see what God might dream for our neighborhoods, and our world!

Agape,

James


Crash and Learn

Life goals and dreams of success might look different in different ages, but sometimes after we start our journey with Jesus we start to wonder, “What are you up to God? Am I missing out by being a Christian, and putting you first in my life?”

Peter was the bold disciple, the one who swore he would follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to the grave if need be. He was the one who kept stumbling onto the truth. He was the leader, when the group was talked about it was often talked about as “Peter and the 12.” This was the guy who walked on water with Jesus. The one Jesus called the Rock. And yet when the chips were down Peter had abandoned Jesus, he had denied him three times. And though Jesus had risen and Peter was overjoyed, his joy probably very quickly brought him full circle back to shame. Everyone knew his boldness had flickered. The group was in serious need of restoration, but Peter probably needed it more than anyone else. He had failed as a leader, and he had failed as a follower. It was probably pretty tempting to just go out on the water, turn off your mind, and return to the simple life of fishing. This is where we see Peter in John 21:1-19. After Jesus has died, Peter goes back to fishing… but Jesus was fishing for Peter’s restoration.

Jesus showed up again. He came once as a stranger, and pointed the way to the fish, the way to the catch of a lifetime; a catch so big the nets were breaking. And it is almost like Jesus and had Peter started over, full circle back at the beginning. All through the story Peter is called Simon Peter, or simply Peter, the name Jesus had given him, but now Jesus calls him by his former name, Simon son of John.

Jesus almost pretends he doesn’t know Peter anymore. Yet he brings Peter back to restoration! In almost a reversal of the three denials, Jesus asks, “do you love me?” and by the end of it Peter feels hurt. Jesus asks him to show his love for him, not by being a fisherman, but by serving as a shepherd. Scholars argue about what Jesus means by “these” when he asks Peter, do you love me more than “these.” Some think it is the boat and the life of fishing, but the best answer I could find is that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples. Peter once had claimed boldly that even if the others would fall away from Jesus that he would not, but instead he had fled… along with the rest of them and after denying Jesus three times.

You have probably heard a sermon on this text that speaks about the different Greek words for love, and their basic differences. It is true that Jesus uses agape here, a word that is often used to describe the selfless love of God, and that when Peter answers back he is using phileo a different word for the love of a friend, or brotherly love. There is a difference in these words and John clearly means for us to notice the difference here, but the difference in the words is not as extreme as people used to think. Contrary to what you may have been taught, agape has been used in some ways that might seem surprising to us. It is at times used to speak of false love, or even the love of the world, and phileo has been used even to speak of Jesus’ love for the Father. These words are in many ways synonymous at times, and not as radically different as many people have often been told. Peter does respond in a slightly softer way than Jesus asks him to, but this is not Peter denying Jesus all over again. There is something specific here about the word choice, and I believe John uses this choice because Jesus and Peter are talking past one another, but this is kind of a subtle thing.

As we come before God with our need for restoration, it is true that we can—even in our relationship with God—talk past one another. It is true that God asks for a deeper love than we are sometimes willing to give. Our priorities about the love of God can sometimes get confused. But I think most importantly what this story teaches us is not to be found in the difference in lexical meanings of Greek  words about love, but in the example of love Jesus shows us in how he approaches Peter’s restoration. Jesus makes them breakfast when they come in to the shore! Though he comes to them as a stranger… we see love shown in the hospitality of Jesus to make them something to eat right there on the shore. We see the patience of Jesus as he waits through all of Peter’s waffling… as his questions start to break Peter’s heart and get him to see his need for his savior. We see Jesus’ compassion in his seeking out Peter to take care of the unfinished business of Peter’s reconciliation and his restoration to his calling…

How many of us would do the same to someone who turned their back on us in betrayal, while we had suffered and died? No… the love of God is not about the definition of Greek words, it is about the love of God going all the way to the cross, and all the way back to the banks of the lake where Peter, James and John had started out at when Jesus first called them. Now they were all together again, to be called away from the water again, to be fishers of men and nothing else. They were once again presented with the decision to be committed to the cause of Christ.

When Peter said before he would not fall away even if the others did, that he would be willing to lay down his life with Jesus, he had not lived it out. He had run away from the questions of even a lowly servant girl. But now he was right back to square one, right back to where it all started, and he could have a second chance at radical obedience. He could chose again to follow Jesus, knowing exactly how much it could cost him.

At the end of the passage, when it talks about another dressing you and leading you where you are to go, the word for dressing really means girding. It is not the usual word for dressing, but the usual word for binding. On the cross, Jesus was pierced with nails, but nails alone would not be enough to hold a struggling crucifixion victim on the cross until their death. The arms and legs of people on crosses were also bound by cloth or ropes, they were girded. The death John points to that Peter would experience was not the death of an old man, in his senility and perhaps poor vision, being lead around and dressed by others.

According to early church tradition from ancient church historian Eusebius, Peter’s example of commitment and sacrifice did end up being radical. Peter would be martyred in a time of intense persecution under the oppressive emperor Nero. But according to Eusebius, Peter requested to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die in the exact same manner that Jesus did. Peter would be restored, he would live up to his name as a rock, he would follow Jesus in radical obedience, even knowing it would eventually cost him his life.

The question God has for us today is not what kind of witness we will bear in death, but what kind of witness we will bear in life. Where there is boldness and passion, people will follow. Steve Jobs, the innovator behind Apple, had tons of followers. He believed in himself and he believed in his product and his mission. Jack White might be the greatest Rock Star that ever lived, certainly the greatest of our time. People follow him because of his passion, a passion that matches his talent. Marshal Mathers believes he is the greatest rapper of all time, and because he believes, other people believe it, and follow him.

Peter was a passionate guy. Enough so he stripped his clothes off and swam to shore when he heard Jesus was there. His boldness was shown in many places like his sermon in Acts where he defied the religious leaders of his day saying, “We must serve God rather than men.” He was willing to face—like Jesus—death on a cross.

Are we inspired by Peter’s passion? Do we have the courage, the passion, to bear witness for Jesus,
not dramatically in our death but today in our life? People follow other people with passion… Do we have passion? Are we passionate about Jesus? Are people following us to Jesus? God may not ask us to die for Him, but he does ask us to live for him. He asks us to suffer for Him; to serve with Him. He promises we will reign with Him.

Some of us might be a bit gun shy. Some of us need some restoration. God knows what we need, whether that is hospitality and patience, or a swift kick in the pants to now and then to fire up our passion. But either way God is still searching us out, still trying to show us the depth of His love, still getting us to see we can trust God to provide for us as we walk with him. That he could fill our nets so full they might break, or call us to a cross, and that either way we can trust Him. Sometimes it takes a second chance to get things right, and God—in my experience—has always been faithful to provide one. But often we do not see that opportunity until we have come full circle and notice that Jesus is there, calling us once again to follow Him.

Agape,
James


Paths Through the Desert

In Job we get to see something interesting about how God uses suffering to reveal what is in the hearts of humans. Job, a righteous man, suffers immense tragedy at the hands of Satan. While God ultimately restores Job, his “friends” keep coming around telling him he must have done something. His friends are saying God is not protecting Job because he must have messed something up in his relationship with God. “You got your troubles by your own mistakes Job, because God would have protected you if you were really righteous,” they argue.

A while back we went through 1st Peter, another book that reveals how God uses suffering to refine us, to identify us with the sufferings of Christ. God sometimes uses fiery trials to re-form us closer to the image of Christ, the God who suffered for us and suffers with us. This book was written for an audience who was experiencing intense persecution and yet, it kept pointing them back to the example Christ. This experience was not lifted up as something God would protect them from and help them escape, it was seen as an opportunity to be refined.

The fact is God can use suffering, and does use suffering. He uses it to refine us, and every now and then it’s actually good for us. It can shake us out of our complacency and turn us back to God. It can purify our motives. Suffering can draw us closer to God in ways that comfort can actually get in the way of. As John of the Cross reminds us, when we are comfortable, often the first thing to suffer is our relationship to God because we begin to forget how much we really need Him.

The truth is, God seems more likely to use suffering to refine us than we are comfortable with. God is not in the business of handing out golden parachutes, but in raising up true disciples who like Job can weather even the biggest storm this life can throw at us and have our relationship with God remain intact. We might freak out a little bit, but the center holds. God holds us together though the mess. Sometimes God draws us to a desert experience so that we would thirst for Him…to show us we have been drinking from other places than the water of life. Like Jesus in the wilderness God sometimes calls us to travel the way of the desert: The way of trusting God on an unfamiliar path.

God’s grace sustaining us on the desert way—puts us in a place to see things as they really are: We see ourselves, and our relationship with God with new eyes. We see the end of ourselves. We see our dependence on God. We see our utter need, but we also see God sustaining us in ways we never believed were possible. God doesn’t just give us new eyes to see ourselves, He gives us eyes to see our tethers (the things William Penn called cumber). We see the things that control us for what they are…and as they are unmasked we learn to be free of them once again.

Like the children of Israel before the exile, we can limit God. We can mentally trap Him inside a building on Sunday morning, we can even trap Him inside the Bible, if we read it in unbelief that the Spirit is still moving and still leading us today. The children of Israel had a way of seeing God that was bound to the land. It was bound to the Temple, the monarchy. It was bound to the shadow of mount Zion. They would point to the promises of God, but their actions were no longer rooted in the character and nature of God. They no longer depended on God, but on external things. They pointed to the blessing God promised them, but they ignored the warnings about their own part of the covenant. All their encounters with God were past encounters, because they had long since gotten comfortable with their sin separating them from God.

So God called them to Babylon. He would no longer protect them from themselves. He would strip it all away to show them something new. He would show them how as Creator, He was unfettered and free. He would keep His promises on His own terms, not on their terms. He would show them that outside the protections of their armies. Outside the protections of the Promised Land. Outside the elaborate Temple system and blessings of the priests. God was there, even in Babylon. God was not limited by the limitations they tried to put on Him…

God is still trustworthy to sustain us. The same God who parted the Red Sea would also make a way through the exile. After all these things were stripped away, the one thing they would know they could count on would be the promises of God. They would one day get back these blessings they were about to lose. They would one day return to the land they knew, but first a lot of chaff would be stripped away. God had to make them thirsty for the right things once again…

Isaiah writes:

“Look, I am about to do something new. Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it? Yes, I will make a road in the desert and paths in the wilderness.  The wild animals of the desert honor me, the jackals and ostriches, because I put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness, to quench the thirst of my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so they might praise me.” (Isa. 43:19-21)

After a long experience of God stripping me down, revealing the good and the bad motivations for ministry still kicking around within me, revealing the parts of my mind still needing to be held captive by Christ. I went through a long process of letting go all control, and trusting God to lead me once again. It was a process that brought me here, and a process still at work within me in some new ways. Maybe you’re in that place. It is messy to watch something we love fade. To mourn it. And to wake back up to the hope of God resurrecting something new in its place…

We have been through quite a time of testing these last few months at College Avenue. It has been hard to lose so many people we love and walk with them through various trials. These last few months I feel as I have come to the end of myself, and yet broken through to that place where God’s presence floods back in, bringing beauty to the brokenness. God’s Spirit has sustained me recently in ways I could never begin to describe. And as Isaiah reminds us, we can come out the other side of a desert experience with hearts filled with praise. I long for that, for me and for you. I long for God to bring about something new and wonderful, bearing fruits only He can bear in us. We bear these fruits only through being connected to the Vine. Sometimes nothing reveals that like the desert. May our many trials make us thirsty for God, and help us trust Him to satisfy our thirst as only He can. May we learn to trust Him in these uncertain times. May we be grateful for His streams in the desert, filling our hearts with hope and even wonder at the journey. God wants his people to be freed from slavery, and sometimes that means trusting God through the desert, and then finally to the Promised Land beyond it. Let us keep walking, keep hoping, and keep dreaming for the new things God wants to do among us.

Agape,

James

 


God and Country

scalesAs a Christian leader in a time of great division, I recognize the dangers of being too specific about the things that are going on in the world. But I believe in truth, and I believe that the church should be a place where God’s people do not settle for the superficial, a place where deep questions of meaning and purpose are pursued, and where how faithfulness in our world might take shape is held loosely. I believe in the truth, and that our relationship with God is a journey toward not only knowing the truth of God, but truth about ourselves, and our world.

While there is great division and a great need for healing in our world, true peace can never be found in sweeping problems under the rug or walking on eggshells. As people seeking to know and show the love of Jesus with the world, we cannot let fear have the final say. While the church of Jesus Christ shouldn’t simply go around grinding a political axe or adding “public policy” to the gospel, we also cannot ignore the truth. I believe in humility and grace, that the church should be one place where the world can see how people who love Jesus are truly transformed and can “disagree agreeably” and speak the truth in love to one another. Unity is not uniformity, but where people of all stripes join together around Jesus.

But I think we should be able to be specific at times, and despite its controversial nature, I believe there is a movement among the people of God to consider how to lovingly engage the issue of immigration and how we as believers seek justice for the “stranger and foreigner” in our midst and in our world. One of the clearest themes of scripture is caring for the marginalized. Countless scriptures show us God’s heart for the liberation of people who are being oppressed and mistreated, and how God’s righteousness calls us to treat “sojourners” seeking refuge among us (Lev 19:33 among others).

As we explore this issue of immigration together, I want to express first off that I have no intention of using the trust and influence of my position merely to further any kind of earthly agenda or cause. I also want to express that while some may write my concerns off as naive, that I am on an earnest quest to seek the truth with God, and am open to your wrestling with me in that. If you disagree, please help me understand where and why. That being said, I do especially have a concern for the needs of two groups of people in our world today, refugees from Syria and Iraq, and DREAMers.

First, refugees from Syria: I want to begin by acknowledging that though the lines of Syria were redrawn in their final form after WWI, Syria is an ancient place with a rich biblical history. It was Antioch of Syria that followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:25). This ancient hub of Christianity is home to many Christians to this day, who are now desperately facing some of the worst persecution of our time, fleeing terror and tyranny in a refugee crisis at a scale that the world has never seen. In scripture we see it is in fact the church of Syria–who in the face of a famine that spanned the Roman Empire–exemplified extravagant generosity by sending all the money they could muster to help their struggling brothers and sisters facing starvation back in Judea (Acts 11:28-30). Right or wrong, it is our government that destabilized Irag and Syria, and that put our current Christian brothers and sisters in their desperate situation. I understand deeply held concerns about our own security, and have my own, but my greater concern is that if fear of terrorism justifies a refusal to help those fleeing ISIS, have we not let the terrorists win? Are we not, as Christians, obligated to refuse to let fear tell us what is right and what is wrong?

Secondly, the DREAMers: While many people have broken our countries laws and entered illegally, and it is easy to find justification that they should be deported, DREAMers are different. These are people who were brought across the border as children by their parents. Many of them have no connection with their former country, and have only known America as their homeland. Under DACA, these immigrants made a deal to register themselves with the government and even paid their own money to balance out the cost of processing their applications for this low risk status. Now they are quite understandably fearful that they will be the easiest targets for deportation, because of their attempts to seek official status and come out of the shadows.

It is my understanding that Quakers in Iowa long ago found themselves in a similar situation with the hot button issue of slavery: people–who were trapped in a vulnerable position not by their own choice–and who because of the letter of the law, were not accepted as people of value. It was many Quakers who, at great personal risk, stood up to these unjust laws by harboring slaves on their way to Canada, our forebears civil disobedience answered to Christ’s law of love and not popular opinion.

I want to conclude with this: I do not have the answers to these big questions. But I do know that Jesus cares for “foreigners and aliens” and that according to Mt 25, if the Lord blesses us with a tangible way to serve them, it is actually a way we serve Him. The examples of the Syrian church and of the early Iowa Quakers give me great hope that God may once again awaken and “unleash” the church to meet big needs in our day. But if the Lord is awakening His people to meet these needs–and I believe He is–instead of thinking “politically,” let us seek the truth prayerfully. Let us trust that God will present His will, if we have the courage to seek it faithfully together.
Agape,
James Tower


Sacrifice Made Alive

turkey-sacrifice-feastI once heard a friend describe how his experience following Jesus seemed to require two conversions, in one Jesus became his savior and in another, Jesus became his Lord. I had never heard it described that way before, but it fits with my experience too. I came to Jesus on my own terms, and despite knowing I needed salvation, I was not in any big hurry to give Jesus all the keys to all the doors of my life. I still had some skeletons out there. I still had some places where my prayers, though unspoken, were like that of St Augustine who famously described the misery of an inappropriate relationship and his wrestling with God’s call in his prayer, “Lord deliver me, but not yet!”
For me, accepting Jesus as Lord was a call to obedience, to integrity. It called me to look at my actions, and look at what I said I believe—what I wanted to believe—and the reality of my falling short. The reality of where there was a disconnection between what I said and what my life had to say I really believed. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12 puts this kind of spiritual growth where we step out into faith and learn to walk in the ways of God like this:
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I may have come to God on my own terms, but eventually I began to grasp his mercy. I started to see my story in light of God’s gospel story, and the Holy Spirit frustrated me with a kind of Holy frustration. I came to God on my own terms, in a way, but faith started to get a hold of me and meddle with my life. I knew I needed a Savior, that was the easy part. The hard part was dying to my rebelliousness and submitting to Jesus as my Lord.
I think a lot of us like the gray area. We like to have Jesus be our Savior, but we hold back. We do not want to submit. Instead of letting God get a hold of us and have His way in us, we approach life through the lens of what I like to call Jesus+. Jesus + what I was already going to do anyway. Jesus + the career I had already chosen… Jesus + a wife and 2.3 kids, and a comfortable life in the suburbs somewhere. I will follow Jesus, but only if it leads me to where I already want to go. Instead of letting our minds be transformed, we try to transform the things we give God permission to tell us. We want to have it both ways, Jesus as Savior…but not really Lord.

But Jesus+ doesn’t cut it; we need to live a God first life. There is no real growth until we give God all of us. Paul describes it in the form of offering our bodies. It is not how much money you put in the offering plate; it is whether your life is in the offering plate. It is whether your hopes, your dreams, your actual body, are completely in the tank for Jesus. Someone once said God gives where He sees open hands. I think that is true. At the end of the day, God gives us what we really want, not what we say we want… but what we really want. If we want to serve Him, we will find our lives reflecting that. If we want to put on a mask and have a faith that is only skin deep—and not much use for God, we will find that too.

And there is no growth without sacrifice. Jesus calls us to put on his easy yoke, but he also calls us to daily take up our cross and follow him. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice was meant to represent your very best. Not the animal that was going blind, the animal in its prime. It was costly. There are all kinds of stories that show us this, Eli’s sons offering strange fire… Malachi rejecting the people giving sick and lame animals as sacrifices, Ananias and Sapphira wanting the glory of giving it all while lying about holding back… God doesn’t want our leftovers, our leftovers are not worthy of God, He is worthy of our very best. He gave his very best for us. He gave us blessings to his dying breath, and beyond. He offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that paid the ultimate price… and in response to that we are to set our lives apart for him as a living sacrifice. We may die for Jesus…but he asks that we live for him instead.

I know some of you may feel differently than I about prosperity. I believe there are many benefits to righteous living, but there are also dangers. Jesus calls some of the righteous to suffer persecution in his name. I think a lot of people think being a Christian means God will be on your side and give you everything you want. That following God is nothing but rainbows and lollipops, if you just put God first in your life. I believe that is only half true. My experience felt more like Jesus wrecking my life until I understood what God was trying to do!

I think the closer we walk with God the more he changes us to want what he wants, to care about what he cares about. I think when we give our lives to God he takes it and gives our lives back. He takes our plans and then shows us his plan. Our lives become more about sacrifice and service, than about bucket lists and our already decided Jesus+ plans.

This is what worship was always meant to be, not just going through the motions in empty ritual or kept in the box of what happens on a Sunday morning. Worship takes your whole life, not just a few hours one day a week. We have to worship God with everything, our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength.
Only when we put some skin in God’s game do we begin to know the heart of God and his desires for us and our world. Only when we hold our plans loosely, and submit to God’s will… do we truly become a living sacrifice. Sacrifice has to be made alive in how we live our lives.

There are a lot of people who live as though their bodies are their own, as if there can be a disconnect between their behavior and their beliefs. I know it because I did it myself. Sometimes we want a savior, but still want to be masters of their own destiny. We would rather “reign” in hell, so to speak, than “serve” in heaven. But there is a part of faith that is more than simply knowing the right answers; it is about living into the truth. There is a part of growing deeper in God where we have to say, like Isaiah in response to God’s call, “Here I am Lord, send me.” Where we let God renew our minds… where our every action can be an acceptance of Jesus or a rejection of Jesus… where we come to the end of ourselves and humbly come before God as an empty vessel asking to be filled.

Grace is a wonderful thing, and God’s grace abounds, but that doesn’t mean we can have a faith that asks nothing of us. I think it is easy to make fun of people from bible times that worshipped statues made of rocks or sticks. To wonder, why would anyone ever do that? I will tell you why. Rocks and sticks ask nothing of us. It is easy for us to fall into a kind of empty Christianity, where we go through the motions… show up and listen to preaching or hear the songs, or just sleep in… expecting that we can come to the living God, and yet hold back—to be warmed by the fire of his holiness and yet not let ourselves be fully consumed. To pray that prayer of Augustine, “Deliver me Lord, but not yet.” I will follow you later Jesus, after I have made my life everything I want it, and all the big decisions have already been settled. Like the rich young ruler, our comforts sometimes are too heavy to drag with us after Jesus…

But let’s get real, where do you hear God asking for sacrifice? Where is God getting your best? Are you holding anything back, and if so… what is that anchor, what is that chain God wants to break you free from? There can be no real growth without all of you on the altar, your whole life in the offering plate. There can be no real growth if your faith has no room for sacrifice.
Agape,
James


Resolving for More

newyearseve1

It has become traditional for many of us to reflect on our lives in the twilight of one year fading and the next approaching. Often most of what guides that thinking is regrets we want to learn from, or goals we want to strive for. Unfortunately for many who have reflected on their lives, despite the best of intentions, New Years resolutions often burn out before winter even begins to thaw. The Quaker view of simplicity as I understand it has a lot to say about how one might approach this time of reflection. At its core it is about evaluating what produces addiction in us; what controls us. Often we find that we can bend who we are around how we want others to see us, or what pleasures we might lose ourselves in. But the goal of simplicity is not merely sin management, pleasure seeking, or knocking things off our “bucket list,” in short it is more about getting in touch with our truest convictions, and living from them, than it is about “resolving” to add something new to our lives.

One of my growing convictions is that I was made to tinker and create. This does not mean I am not called to be a pastor, but it does profoundly shape how I approach serving as a pastor and how I spend healthy time at play. When I say creativity is one of my convictions, I am not saying creativity is something I value as much as I am saying that I “cannot not” create. The way my mind works and my passions are orientated necessitates I do the life giving work of creating, whether than means writing, building a project in the garage, or developing new skills that help me grow to my potential. Lately I have been playing with metal casting, building a forge, designing an anvil, and learning French. But none of these endeavors have anything to do with resolutions for a new year. They each in their own way, fit into my convictions about living a simple life, as surprising as that might be to hear.

My hope and prayer is that each of you makes space in your life for your convictions to thrive. So much of our lives can easily become more like slavery to a multitude of obligations than growing into who God is calling us to be. As Christians, we have a robust theological understanding of being the body of Christ, and this understanding means our strengths come from our unity and diversity. Indeed we were created to be different on purpose, and yet were each made to work in unison to the glory of God. As our lives lose touch with the wisdom of simplicity, instead of saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things, we often say yes to too many things and only say no when we are drowning. Yet God has a much saner and life giving way for those who would take on the yoke of Christ. If we are hoping to attract others to the way of Jesus we must first demonstrate that the way of Jesus has something more to offer than the hurry and stress of a secular life! As Jesus said, we must examine the plank in our own eye….

While I find myself disagreeing with John Piper about a great number of things, he has an interesting understanding of doing what we were made for he confusingly calls “Christian Hedonism.” Piper defines that as briefly in his statement “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” What Piper means is that as we grow into who God is calling us to be and take on the mind of Christ we will naturally enjoy good Christian things. These things are not limited to prayer and bible study or regularly attending worship, though those are all good things. What I mean is that God will create in us desires for good things, and also a deep satisfaction in doing the things we were made to do. At its core, I think this speaks to the heart of simplicity.

As we approach a new year, let us do more than settle for fleeting convictions fast forgotten. Let us go deeper into the lessons this last year has been trying to teach us about how to be satisfied, not as an end to itself, but as a byproduct of living out our calling and finding the freedom of desiring the will of God to reign in our hearts and minds. A simple life is a life seeking righteousness, earnest faithfulness, and the Holy Spirit convicting us not only of our sins, but of about righteousness (John 16:8). While it may not be the soundest argument about the overall thrust of that verse, I do believe God brings convictions into our lives about how we are to live free from sin, but also how we are to let the righteousness of Christ shape how we live our lives. Paul describes his way of living out the gospel among the Thessalonians as one stemming not “simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). May we strive to live out our faith to those around us in touch with God’s leadings, and in touch with the truest things God is creating in our hearts.

Agape,
James


%d bloggers like this: