Tag Archives: Love

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.


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


Resolving for More

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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


Lenten Journey Of Justice: Maundy Thursday

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read: John 13:1-34

Devotion

Many of us feel a special kinship to Peter, a man who both shined brilliantly and failed mightily. His example give us who stumble hope, and us who are a bit cocky a needed does of humility. As Peter comes before Jesus with all his pride and frailty, it reminds us of how we all are before God; well intentioned, and yet ignorant of even what we do not know. Peter was oblivious to the work of the devil, oblivious to the ways his pride had shut up his ears and eyes to the call of Jesus to the mutual submission and annihilation of hubris that is taking the role of the servant.

Jesus would show a radically new way of being King in washing the disciple’s feet. It was a way of kinship that showed love through service, forgiveness and grace. It was a way of kingship that involved mercy, humility, and submission. Peter speaks for many of us with his gut response “No, you shall never wash my feet.” And then again, after realizing he has shot his mouth off with, “Then Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” We struggle to recognize our need for cleansing; our need for a savior. Like a dirty kid we are comfortable in our filth, and at first unwilling wash our filthy hands before supper. Next Peter overcompensates, asking Jesus for an entire bath, and Jesus points out that this is not what is needed.

At times dramatic cleansing is needed, but sometimes we just need to be freshened up by God’s forgiveness for small things. I think this speaks to relationship. There are times for radical redefinitions in a relationship, such as a proposal, but other times it actually undermines commitment and faith in the relationship to behave as if every day would result in a monumental change. If one proposed say every day, especially if one was unfaithful the next, this would not be a healthy relationship. Yet some of us come to God thinking everyday will be a radical transformation, like every day we should experience radical forgiveness and grace. At times we should trust in the grace we have already received, and we should submit to the routine opportunities for cleansing God sends our way. To do otherwise is to pretend to be greater than our Master.

We each come to God in need of cleansing, reluctant to receive it, and reluctant to offer service to others in humility. Obedience is a struggle for all of us, but it is through obedience that we demonstrate our faith in and love for God. Peter looked disobedient but came to be realigned with obedience, Judas looked obedient but was not where it counted the most. Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin biblical text where Jesus say “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Faith, love, and obedience intertwine in us, yet the example of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet shows us that these things intertwine around service and humility, the service and humility in following the example of our Servant King.

Fast, Read and Pray:

As you fast one meal today, reread John 13:1-34. Consider how Jesus’ Royal Law of Love works itself out in obedience, service and humility in your life today, or how God might want it to look anew with a bit of washing.


Tuesday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Fear in the Fields”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Reread Mt 20:1-16

Devotion:

Generosity and jealousy go hand in hand. When work is scarce; animosity and fierce competition can rear its ugly head. As desperate circumstances mount, dehumanizing hatred can set in. Yet in Jesus’ common story with an uncommon ending, it is the pecking order of status that is challenged. Economics and the bottom line matter far less than the Vinedresser’s care for the workers of his fields. We are a people steeped in economic fears and worries. We have become a people who have no idea what Jesus talked about when he taught us to pray for “daily” bread. It is easy to let fears fuel the oppression of people, to let economic power bring about exploitation of people who are in desperate need. Yet in the kingdom of God one sees generosity to all, equality of all, regardless of merits earned. Is this socialism? Trickle down economics? Trickle up economics? No, it is generosity.

Jesus said we should make sure we pull the log out of our own eye before we help our neighbor pull the speck from their eye. It is a log in our eye that would have us see generosity as no longer a virtue. It is a log in our own eye that would have use look down on a person because of their ethnicity, their skin color, even their country of origin. In God’s economy there is enough for everyone’s need. There is plenty of meaningful work to be done, and there are enough resources that generosity and equality can be the experience of all.

Workers out in the field, especially migrant workers, face a tough life of few opportunities. Before a man name Caesar Chavez began to fight for equality and justice for these neglected people few thought deserved much of anything, the civil rights of those who do some of the most backbreaking labor of our country were not even on the radar. Like Jesus, Caesar Chavez walked among and lifted up the poor, the least, the lost and the last. It is only when we see a person as an equal that we can fully see the injustices they face. It is only when we can put people over profits that generosity can even be an option for us. But the generosity needed the most is not the sharing of coins or bits of paper with dead presidents printed on them, it is the generosity of love kept dammed up in the human heart; dammed up by the blindness of logjam. May the Lord unplug our eyes that justice can be done.

Watch: The Life of Caesar Chavez

Pray for eyes that see opportunities for generosity. Eyes that see the unseen with love. Eyes that are more concerned with the status of our own inward condition than with the arrogant eye of a fault finder, looking for reasons we are better than another, looking for reasons to not to love a person made equally in the image of God as we are.


Thursday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Releasing with Joy”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read John 3:22-36

Devotion:

John the Baptist was considered by Jesus to be the greatest man “born of women.” This would be quite radical to a Jewish ear for whom patriarchs like Abraham, or the great receiver of the Torah himself, Moses, would have been the heavyweights of obedience to God. No doubt, despite our mental picture of John the Baptist as a wild eyed firebrand, this scripture points us toward a person who was also tempered by a great humility. John knew his place, he was the forerunner who prepared the way for the one who would now be eclipsing his work and ministry. Yet John also rejoiced in fulfilling his God given purpose. He was not sad when Jesus came on the scene, he was elated. But he also understood the nature of this new epoch. John knew that he must get himself out of the way of what God was doing. As he wrote,  “He must become greater; I must become less.”

To work toward justice with God is not even a remote possibility without humility and boldness, just as John exemplified. It takes boldness to speak truth to power and call out hypocrisy. It takes boldness to to do new works of ministry like preaching and baptizing. Especially work that departs from the traditionalism of religious practice. But while many would see arrogance as a shadow side of the prophetic role, there is a certain humility to being a herald of the gospel, and there is humility to holding  loosely the momentum of a nascent movement, and even letting Jesus take over your role as the discipler of the best and brightest God has brought your way. The reason John the baptist was so great is because he did not mind being made small. He let the plans and purposes of God have their way in his life so completely that he fully lived into his role as coming in the spirit of Elijah. He was more than ready to simply accept the testimony of Jesus; he was ready to let the Spirit work unencumbered. This is justice is to be sought in the Kingdom of God. It is a justice in tune with the Spirit of God whose ministry is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is a justice that is only possible if one follows the example of God of  loving the Son and placing everything in his hands.

Instructions for Fasting:
Fast one meal. Let your emptiness or even boredom be reasons to connect with rather than disconnect with God. During the time of the meal 3:22-36 considering John’s example with your own struggle navigating the tension of boldness and humility, truth telling and telling the truth in love. Close in a prayer asking God for help in one area of your live you need to decrees so that Christ may increase.


Wednesday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Breaking the ‘Found’ Barrier”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Wednesday Gathering Instructions:
This exercise is best done in a group, but since many of you are following this as individuals it is designed to be accessible in either context.

Read Luke 3:1-21

Devotion

The two most important bridge people between the Old Testament story and the New are Mary and John the Baptist. John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, a voice –like many of Israel’s former prophets– that called the people to repent and come before God ready for a fresh start. Repentance is where the rubber meets the road between those who are serious about letting God’s will be done in their heart, and those who only like to tell others what they want to hear. Metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, surprisingly had its start as a money changing term. When a person left one kingdom and entered another, money needed to be converted to the currency of the new kingdom, it needed to be exchanged. Repentance has the idea then of “turning” one thing into another–one thing that no longer works for one that does– and in light of Jesus’ proclamation  about the kingdom of God this speaks of exchanging the “currency” in our lives for what works in the economy of his kingdom.

Repentance and forgiveness are not exactly the same thing. Forgiveness could be envisioned in light of the previous example, as granting someone’s request to help make this exchange happen. When someone does wrong, damage is done. And just as if someone came from a rival kingdom that had been an enemy of our own, if they came into our bank where we hold all the rights to all the legal tender contained there, and where we hold all the cards–when someone wrongs us we have the choice before us as to whether we will let them complete the transaction they seek, or whether we will take advantage or refuse to help.

God’s example, as demonstrated in John the Baptist’s ministry, is to take all sincere comers and give them the fresh start they desire. John takes them down to the river and helps their outsides become clean to match the new work God is doing within them. In Jewish culture, this would be the opposite of say someone tearing their outer garments and putting on sackcloth and ashes to show the world how they were feeling by making their outsides match the brokenness in their hearts. John helped the crowds that came seeking a fresh start to realize physically and externally what God was doing with them spiritually and internally. And John’s baptism was one that looked forward to Jesus and the ultimate baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit to come at Pentacost. Wherever God’s Spirit is at work walls of division are broken down, whether that means socio-cultural and language barriers as was realized at Pentecost, or the barriers of repentance and forgiveness that were crossed on the banks of the Jordan.

At the last group activity we broke some ground on the importance of repentance. Repentance is important for justice to be realized, but so is its counterpart: forgiveness. Sin causes relational damage to the individual and to the individuals relationship with God, but also the direct recipients of our wrongs and even echoes out into the community. Forgiveness is often accepting this exchange and letting it happen, but it is also about providing the grace of a way back to restoration. Repentance without forgiveness by the community is not what God desires, nor is forgiveness without repentance that undermines justice and cheapens grace. Yet no one can force forgiveness. We have the choice to cling to our unforgiveness, or let go of our claims for bounty in the currency of another kingdom. As we stand, like a banker before a person from a former rival kingdom seeking refuge, by God’s grace we can learn to see them as human and accept their “exchange” with humility, fairness, and grace. We can choose like John the Baptist, to aid God’s work that had led them this far, and give them helpful advice about how to live in the Kingdom of God. Some damages cannot be undone, but as those who walk the path of restoration through the 12 steps know, sometimes the only way you can make amends for the past is to break the cycles of the past, and walk a new direction in freedom with God’s help.

In your group of on your own, share/reflect on a time you received forgiveness after coming to that place of repentance. If you can, share briefly one story of your experiencing mercy and grace from another. Afterwards, if you have time, share one experience of forgiving someone who has wronged you. If anyone is still resistant to choosing forgiveness in some are of their life, pray for the Holy Spirit to break down this barrier and bring about restoration. Close in prayer.


Tuesday Lenten Journey of Justice “Hearing the Minority Voice”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read Luke Chapter 2

Devotion:

Women play many vital roles in the gospels. It is Mary who is seen as essentially the first believer in the Messiah as we just read yesterday. And it is Anna the prophetess who waited patiently and prayed night and day to see the savior of Israel come, and even understood that his ministry would be outward focused. As Jesus grew in stature and understanding, likely other women shaped and formed the experiences he had that lead to the example we find in the gospels of a man who  would include women in his circle, teaching them at his feet as a rabbi would teach a disciple. Jesus spoke to women across cultural and ethnic lines as we see at the well in Samaria, and more than that released that woman to bring the gospel to her village. It was women who discovered the tomb was empty and it was women who brought word of the resurrection back to the male disciples.

Jesus had great compassion for the lived reality of women. He stood up to the teachers of his day who taught it was acceptable to take advantage of vulnerable women by marrying them and then looking for a fault somewhere where they might send them away disgraced and deflowered, rather than honor the responsibilities and good faith in marriage. Jesus even stood up to those who brought a women caught in the act of adultery, people who were quick to stone the woman but not name the man in their midst who was equally guilty of the crime.

Despite the equality with God seen in the act of creation at the beginning of the bible, despite the prophecy of Joel being fulfilled in Peter’s early speeches in Acts, and despite Paul’s teaching about how there is now no longer male and female in Christ: the church still struggles at times to grant women equal status. Men, often ignorant of their positions of privilege, can unfairly dismiss and tune out the contributions of women, devalue their work, and limit their opportunities to do the things we see so readily in the scriptural example of Jesus radically including women in his traveling ministry. Jesus had deep spiritual friendships with women; he used his power to heal them physically, and to advocate for them socially.

The video  following this devotion might be somewhat controversial due to its language and explosive subject matter, but its ability to help men and women understand the different realities women face are unique and worth the risk in my opinion. It is truly a powerful and unflinching look at the world women inhabit, and I believe one that unmasks privilege and gives us a chance to see the world from a gender reverse perspective. But be warned, you might be offended at some of the language and content. The short video below is in French and its title in English translates as Oppressed Majority.

Query: Where does your striving for humility and Christ-likeness give room for the minority voice? How do you challenge the ways the world receives or rejects you that stand against the God given equality of others as children on God?


On Callouses and Callousness…

Where the church isI love the church. I see it as a way that God has blessed the world. For all its (our) flaws, it is such a wondrous thing that God uses us. It is amazing that God sees us as His Bride, veiled in white, without spot or blemish. For many of us, this metaphor about the church seems strange. I think especially men struggle with the thought of being a bride. But it is interesting to think about how the various New Testament metaphors work together to show us something of our calling, anything from the “bride” and “body” metaphors that reveal something of our union and unity with Christ, to the “the people of the Way” that emphasize following the example of Jesus. No one metaphor or even Greek word captures the concept of the church in all its fullness, so what we see in scripture is something like the many facets of a diamond. Each side shows us a bit more about this mysterious role we play “co-missioning” with God.

There are many biblical names for the church, a primary one is ecclesia meaning “called out ones,” a term borrowed from the Greek city state governing tradition. It once meant a meeting place where the citizens could speak their minds and try to influence one another in the political process. The early church borrowed this term and filled it with new meaning, getting back to the “called out ones” definition it implied. Within the church, however, I think it always kept that communal and participatory spirit. One can see this dynamic in our monthly meeting for business. As God’s set apart or “called out” people, we come before God together seeking leadership, but also bringing ourselves into the process of how God’s will will be carried out among us.

Of all these descriptions and metaphors for the church, perhaps the most forgotten one is its most mundane: workers. While lacking a bit in the “romance” department, there comes a time in any relationship where we come face to face with the realities of the ordinary, what Wendell Berry eloquently describes as the art of the commonplace. Many of us can remember fondly a time of our first connection with God, the initial “falling in love” side of our relationship. Like any good marriage however, our relationship with God can take love into some new areas of our lives as our relationship deepens. Yet often love requires work, it requires us actually taking our own baby steps toward the place our relationship with God is going. In the gospel of Matthew we find this short description of Jesus leading His disciples by example—almost daring them to follow Him into a new place, a place it seemed that was full of work we might share with Him:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Mt. 9:35-38)

In our day, work can be so overwhelming. It spills beyond the healthy boundaries we want it to, like a river flooding beyond its bounds. Technology like smartphones has brought the office even to our dinner tables, it would seem. Yet in the sea of opportunities for work that hem us in on every side, how can we keep our eyes open? Jesus saw these people God had put in His life. His eyes were open to their poor state and He had compassion on them. He challenged His disciples to look around at all the work God wanted to do in bringing these people spiritual leadership. He asked them to be willing to be sent out like workers in the fields.

I worked on a farm a bit in Kansas, and I know that there are different stages of farming, stages like planting and cultivation, not just harvesting. When the harvest comes though the work kicks up into high gear. I like many of you, have worked literally from sunup to sundown—for weeks on end—trying to bring the harvest in to be stored away in safety. In farming, as in life, there are seasons. Seasons for planting, cultivating, and harvesting; times of starting new works, developing these works to maturity, and completing them. This works exactly the same in spiritual leadership. There are no shortcuts, and there is a lot of work to be done before we will ever see a hint of fruit. Yet we must keep the big picture in mind. We must be in tune to where we are at in the cycle, and be responsive to the needs of this time. As Jesus reminds us, sometimes the biggest contributions we bring are not our skills, or even our gifts and talents. It is our willingness. It is our eyes of compassion that can see beyond the urgency of the present moment, beyond the ordinariness; eyes to see the ways where we can use our own two hands to make a difference in the lives of those God has put around us.

I have the feeling that so few of us have embraced the part of our relationship with God that helps us see life as workers, not because we don’t love God or have compassion, but simply because we are so busy. In our world today, each day comes to us with a smorgasbord of opportunities, whether they be for work or play. Yet the church is essentially relationships; with God and of course others, both those who know and have yet to know God. If we fill our lives too full, we may well be workers (and working ourselves to death in fact), but we can too easily be workers for the wrong harvest, pouring all our time and energy into things that do not allow us any time for our roles as messengers of God and spiritual leaders who point to Him. Like many of you, I am in the same boat. I have kids and a car payment, and seemingly endless hurdles to jump and deadlines to meet.

How do we discern which opportunities to pursue and which to say no to? We have to say no to some things… or our relationships with God and each other will become dilapidated and we may well even drive ourselves mad. I think Jesus points us to an answer, though it is not an easy one. We have to suit up and go to work. We have to go out into the fields and do what we can, even in the face of more work than we could ever do. I heard a story once about an ocean storm that brought thousands of starfish out of their habitat and onto the shore. As thousands lay dying like “fish out of water,” one small boy started throwing them back one by one. A cynical man nearby tried to tell the boy to stop, that what he was doing didn’t matter in the face of all that need. The boy said, “It mattered to that one!” and “It mattered to that one” and kept on flinging starfish for as long as he could.

Even at our best, there is no way we can fix the urgent need of our world for God. We can only do our small parts, yet these parts matter. They utterly and truly matter and it’s easy to forget that. The part we play as workers of the field is important, for we become the hands and feet of Jesus that touch people’s lives. But like the man in the story we can become cynical in the face of the great needs of our world today and this cynicism can paralyze us. The thing is though that we are not trying to do it all by ourselves. We are workers working together… working for the same Master and working on the same harvest. How can we be a church that seeks to live this out? How can we resist the cynicism that paralyzes us and the business that fragments us?

The church is often likened to a sporting event: lots of people in the stands who desperately need exercise… watching a few people on the field who desperately need a break. In our day with all its busyness, a lot of people have not even felt like investing the time of coming to the stands. The problem with all of this is that it misses the point of “co-missioning” with God. Church was never supposed to be mostly something we consume from the stands, it is supposed to be about following Jesus, becoming like Him as disciples. Like it or not, this takes work. It takes risk. It takes us prioritizing our time not merely around worship on a Sunday morning, but around strengthening our relationships with God and each other. Some things, many things in the spiritual life, cannot be done for us. Change starts first in the heart of the one who seeks it. But first we must ask ourselves how badly we want it. May we pray this week that God would give us eyes to see what God wants to do in us and through us. May we see our daily walks with more compassion. May our willingness grow, not merely our skill.

Agape,

James


Lowering the Pedestal

pedestals2Many of us fear confrontation. We often look at the escalating tensions that are created in confrontation as immediately divisive, and generally destructive. Quakers are known for their peace testimony, and at times this can degenerate into a permissiveness that can result in the death of peace itself. Yet true peace can never come from sticking our heads in the sand; it can only come when dialogue has taken place, issues are resolved, people are held accountable, and a mutual understanding prevails. Rather than deal with a situation immediately, at times we allow it to fester until it turns into something much larger and harder to deal with than it should have been. Rather than do the pruning work of confrontation when is like an easy shoot to pick off with our thumbnails, we can–through neglect–allow it to thicken until a chainsaw is needed.

Matthew 18:15-16 reminds us how we are to deal with confrontation in the church:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

If someone refuses to listen, treating them like a tax collector or pagan is not a rejection; it is a call to go back to square one if you will. It is a call to treat them as an unbeliever, which calls for an extra measure of grace. This scripture calls into question our usual practice of avoiding the person with whom the conflict lies and seeking out other people as sounding boards for us to vent our frustrations. This can quickly become what Edwin Friedman called “triangulation,” an unhealthy third-party relationship built by an overly anxious person to vent their anxiety on anyone other than the very person who is causing that anxiety. Nothing good will ever come from this type of avoidance. Jesus, in a sense, calls us to “conflict;” a constructive form of conflict that aims to restore our relationships. So often we settle for something less than full restoration, and Quakers are just as guilty of it as anybody else, especially when it comes to confronting those in leadership positions.

Our next covenant statement reminds us, “We will address conflicts with our pastor and each other in a direct and loving manner.” Not to go kicking the hornet’s nest here, but I will admit as a pastor I hardly get any feedback. At all. About anything. Sometimes no news is good news, but when you don’t get any feedback for a while often people will begin to  wonder, “is something wrong? Are people afraid to talk to me?” Pastor’s are regular people, they wrestle with fear just as every other person does.

I personally like that the Covenant statement uses the word “direct.” One of the biggest frustrations in the church is the illusion that communication has taken place. We are not mind readers, nor are we expected to be. We can expect that other people realize how much their actions affect us, yet if we don’t actually communicate with them, we shouldn’t be surprised at their amazement when our emotions finally explode. What is expected  of each of us is not that we would walk around on eggshells afraid to offend one another (pastor or no) but that we would have clear communication; that we would have strongly rooted relationships that could withstand the risk of confrontation, and that we would actually live as if this were so. Communication–especially communication that could lead to confrontation–is a messy thing; it calls us to demonstrate grace to one another, to offer forgiveness to one another, and to be honest with one another. Though challenging, the fruits it brings are worth the work involved. There are no shortcuts to this kind of fruit, and there never will be.

Our covenant statement calls us to settle for nothing less than a real relationship; a relationship where we hold one another accountable and make our intentions and frustrations known. Conflict can actually be constructive, because often needs and expectations are finally communicated clearly rather than bouncing around in our heads magnifying resentment.  It can be an extremely creative force in a loving community.

I for one do not want a superficiality in my relationships at College Avenue Friends that allows ticking time bombs to keep ticking out there in the dark. I expect people to be direct with me, whether tactfully or untactfully so. I am human. I am young. I am learning how to be a pastor. I am bound to make mistakes. I am bound to miss the mark, just as everyone else is. Seminary training does not make me a superhero. At times, I like everyone else, will need the truth spoken to me in love. Do not let the fear of not having the perfect words rob you of the opportunity to bring the truth back into the focus of your pastor.

In a Friends church there is zero theological basis for putting someone up on a pedestal.  The “mantle of authority” that other denominations put upon their pastors does not go along with the radical Quaker understanding of the priesthood of all believers. This understanding of a pastor from within (we are all pastors) means no one should ever fear confronting a pastor who has missed the mark out of fear of “raising their hands against the Lord’s anointed.” While I still believe serving as a “pastor among pastors” is a high calling, and I believe I am to live a life that strives for being above reproach, that does not mean I will never fail at anything or will never need growth in some areas. Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking for trouble. I am not trying to invite a bunch of nit picking or hair splitting by asking you to hold me accountable and keep me humble.

Ultimately, I am not inviting criticisms of performance related issues, though there is at times a place for that. What I am asking, and what Matthew 18 calls all of us to demonstrate, is confrontation based on extending faithful action where there is unfaithfulness, to send love where love has been lacking. I am inviting you to examine the spiritual fruits of my life, not necessarily to judge me. And when (not if) you find fault, I invite you to confront me directly. I hope you can love me enough to do this, and I hope–when the tables are turned–that you will recognize the heart behind it when faithfulness requires I do the same for you.

Agape,

James


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