Tag Archives: Truth

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

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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


On Gathering and Scattering

golden-gate-bridge-690264_1280When the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 BC, and also at the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, both of these events displaced massive numbers of Jewish people from ancient Palestine and scattered them around the Middle East and Mediterranean. These scattered Jews became known as the Diaspora, and often for much of Jewish history, there were more Jewish people outside of Israel than in it. The Apostle Paul, born in Tarsus, was one of these people, and it pushed him in a direction God was able to use powerfully. He was a Jew, even a Pharisee. But he grew up in a Pagan dominant setting, and was also a Roman citizen. Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles, a people he understood, sent out from the Jewish people, whom he also understood. Paul was a bridge between two worlds. He became effective in what God was calling him to do, in some ways, because his people were scattered, because they felt so rootless and had to find a Jewish identity they could take out with them as they navigated the world as they found it.

This may seem like ancient history to a lot of people, dull and dusty, but I feel on many levels that I can relate to Paul’s attempts at bridge-making for God. I am sometimes thought of as a member of Generation X, that missing generation that is rare to find in churches. Whatever demographic labels, Generation X,Y, Z, or whatever you want to call young people these days, I am painfully aware that for a whole host of reasons young people in great numbers are not exactly showing up in droves at most churches in America. I am painfully aware also of how people under 50, and especially under 30, do not seem to value being a part of a worshipping community. I can’t speak for the church before my time obviously, but I have very rarely seen a church that seemed to represent people anything near equally across the spectrum of ages. And as a church leader who loves the church and feels called to try this work of bridge building, the future looks pretty bleak. The anchors of faith in the older generation are really not connecting or seem to be anything close to holding with the strength it takes to bridge the gap.

The people of this time are like a modern diaspora. Those who have an identity in Christ seem to be struggling to keep that identity, in the same ways keeping a Jewish identity in a Pagan nation faced an uphill battle. The young, both in and outside the church, are scattered; especially in the summer where countless options present themselves, anything from vacations to Pokemon Go to disc golf. The things that bind people together in relationship seem to be more strained than they ever were. So many people have divorced parents it is almost the new normal. People today struggle with the very concept of what it means to be part of a community, let alone a worshipping community. Even a sense of place or roots are challenged, as many seek to find jobs after college far away from their families and places of origin.

The digital world has connected people in ways that seemed unimaginable; but as much as I see evidence of what it connects I also see how it dissects. The digital divide is one more bridge, one more dimension of being a bridge maker that is crucial to engage in; one more factor of relationships in America that seem “a mile wide and an inch deep.” These last few months I hardly know which half of the church I will get to see on a given Sunday morning. Or how many will grow apart and never find their way back at the end of this high energy season.

As a young pastor, in all honesty, trying to bridge these worlds has not made me feel like the most  savvy and effective leader. It has brought me to a place of brokenness. It has made me well aware of the importance of relationships, and really, what is the church if it is not a spider-web of relationships, built around the gospel and a common connection in Christ?

As I attempt to engage this world as a “bridge builder for God” or an “apostle to the Americans,” Paul offers a great example to be emulated. He used every tool in his toolbox to be all things to all people. We see from scripture how he navigates and leads change in the face of division as the church boils in turmoil during the Jewish/Gentile cultural conflict. Paul plays his Pharisee card, and his Roman citizen card with great wisdom. He writes amazing letters to help guide the church. He debates with stoic and epicurean philosophers, and is familiar enough with their culture to engage it and point them to God using things they find familiar, even to the point of quoting poets. He points to an idol “to the unknown God” and declares boldly about the God who created the heavens and the earth. He raises up leaders like Timothy, Silas, Epaphras, Phoebe, and Lydia. He traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, had high profile engagements with government leaders, planted numerous churches, and fanned into flame the things the Holy Spirit was up to in holy obedience.

Like many young Christians, I look at what I see in the pages of the book of Acts, and I look at the state of the church today, and can’t help but ask the question, “What happened?” I believe that God is still the same, still desires the same things of us and still has plenty of power through which to act. I think a lot of why we don’t see God moving is because we have given up on seeing the importance of the work of bridge building. Rather than place the blame at the feet of older people, or younger people, I think it falls on all of us really. Each of us. When something is “everyone’s job” it can easily default to “no one’s job,” but really the burden rests on each of us to do that work. People across generations young or old, cannot expect the other to come to them. They must invest in relationships themselves, both inside and outside the church community. I know of an older couple and younger couple from the church who like, of all things, professional wrestling. They used that as a bridge to develop a relationship. Being “all things to all people” can look like that in this time. It has to look like something.

If Paul was alive today, he would be where the people are. He would be at our local racetrack that roars every Wednesday night with fair weather. He would use YouTube, Twitter, and modern communications effectively.  He would be actively raising up people to reach the world on its cultural terms…however sprawlingly complex and fluid. But more than that he would anchor the work of being a bridge in the solidity of deep relationships. That is the tricky part, especially in an age where it is so hard even to get five people’s schedule’s to align. The thing is, God didn’t send the “great at everything” Paul the Superstar. He sent me…and he sent you. And the work of reaching out to the world with the love of Christ as witnesses is the work of every Christian. This work is so worth doing it is worth doing badly… until we can learn what we need to learn to actually do it well. I feel like “badly” is all I have to offer right now…

My prayer lately is that God would gather us. We seem hopelessly scattered as the church of our day. We come from a culture that has a weak sense of place, a rugged sense of individualism. And one by one, things like worship, accountability, striving together to live lives of holiness, all seem not even make it anywhere near the “top ten” list of priorities we actually do. Don’t get me wrong, God can do great things with scattering. He can use it in amazing ways to turn even a former religious terrorist into the writer of over a third of the New Testament. But to truly learn the lessons of scattering does not mean finding comfort in isolation and disconnection, and learning to be happy in the midst of that desert. It does not mean each of us in our brokenness, pick up the pieces alone. I believe that we must also experience being gathered as the Body of Christ. We must tear down and uproot as much as build and plant. We must bridge the gap of spending time together regularly, not just sending emails and texts, or even phone calls. These are meant to be ways to bring us together physically, not as a substitute for actual human interaction.

And I think we should repent of wasting so much time on everything else. Older people, do not let discouragement let you justify not reaching out to busy young people. Younger people, do not let older people’s feeble attempts at showing love and cultural insensitivity to the reality of your rapidly changing world discourage you from lifting your voice. Do not criticize your worshiping community while refusing to be a part of it. Christ died for more than just a Sunday morning ritual, but we are all the church. When we think of the church as completely separate from ourselves it is a short step to casting the first stone.

If the church is ever to have revival, or awakening, unity has a role to play. It truly takes the whole body working together as one.

But in our scattered world, how can we have unity without first doing our part to fight for connection? If you feel lost and scattered in the wind, whose steps lead you there? Are you resistant to being gathered? If your only times of gathering are between nine to noon on Sunday morning—if you feel like it— are you resisting being gathered? Or scattered?

Dietrich said “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls.” Solitude and community need each other. Gathering and scattering need each other. Young and old need each other. And all of this requires us to think like bridge builders. A suspension bridge has pillars, but it also has deep pilings and strong tethers. It needs all these dimensions or it will collapse in a heap. As the cultural chasm widens and deepens, the work of connection becomes even harder, and even more important. We need to think like Paul would. He did not go to the Areopagus with hundred year old hymns in an archaic he did his best to take what was familiar to the outsider and pour the gospel in it. Seeking understanding without being willing to stand in the gap is not enough. We need prayer, but we also need presence. My question to you is will you be that presence?

Being a leader means I have to take an honest look at the future, and accept reality as it is. Nothing has made me cling more to the cross. Pray for me as I engage in this work God is calling me to, but I need more than that. I need colaborers. The only way to speak life into a scattered world is to not be scattered. But to be connected, and invested in this arduous labor of love God calls us to. I see fruit. I see signs of hope. But I also need to see now and then that I am not fighting alone.


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.


Saturday Lenten Journey of Justice: “On Loving Mercy”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2
Dear Reader, I apologize for the lateness of this post. The needs of the last 24 hours have been especially demanding. Please keep me and the Body here in Oskaloosa in prayer.

Devotion:

As I reread Micah I am struck by two things. The first is that it is hard to tell at times if the voice of the prophet speaks from his own perspective or from God’s perspective. As the prophet speaks of offering his son for his own transgression–one can quickly assume it is the voice of the prophet speaking for God in his own words. Yet one doesn’t need to go that far out on an interpretive limb to see an allusion to the need for an atonement that transcends the blood of animals and the sacrifices from the fruits of the harvest like that envisioned in the book of Hebrews. And one is struck by the language of personal cost that resonates with the same kind of cost God would incur in offering his one and only Son to a people who had replaced rituals with relationship. As Paul would later put it, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Justice comes at great personal cost, even to God–in fact especially to God. As we ponder what costs we might be willing to pay for justice, we should keep in mind the costs God did pay.

The second thought I want to leave you with is the command to “love mercy.” It is not here enough merely to “do justice,” we are also required to love mercy. Making love a requirement or a command seems strange to us with our ideals about freedom from coercion, but what does not seem strange is that we would need that kind of “strong word” from God to get us up off our seats and on with the business of actually doing it. The way I read it, to love mercy is essentially to offer grace. In a sense, justice is fair, but mercy is unfair. It requires us to go beyond the requirements of fair. If it was earned… it would not be mercy–it could not be–by definition. To love mercy is one of the clearest calls from the Old Testament toward what we refer to in the New as Christ-likeness. To love mercy is to follow Jesus’ example of loving even enemies, of turning the other cheek, of walking in a kind of pre-forgiveness, and to dying to ourselves for a people who did not deserve it.

The very heart of God is one that loves mercy. To be a people after God’s own heart requires us to not only “be” merciful, but to let God reshape our hearts into hearts that love mercy and practice grace. It calls us not only to sacrifice and “give until it hurts,” but to love to do so. In our human understanding, justice and mercy are opposites, yet in God’s understanding they can become two halves of the same coin: love.

Take 10 to 20 minutes in solitude to remember ways you have given and received mercy. What are the struggles inherent in loving mercy? How would seeking after a love strong enough to include mercy help the justice of God be seen and felt in our world?


Peering Out and Pressing On

telescopeBinoculars are one of my favorite things to take on a hike. The magnification lenses, focus, and the entire design of binoculars is geared toward one ultimate aim: to look out on the horizon for where one intends to go. But the view gained does a number of things. It helps us see not only where we are going but how to get there. This gives us valuable perspective that helps us keep on track. And, depending on what the goal is, it can help us see the importance of every small step we might take on the journey. When we see the big picture–rather than just the next patch of trail our feet are about to land on–it can break the tedious monotony of all the steps along the way. As the people of God, we follow the steps of Jesus and are shepherded by him, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to the journey before us.

Proverbs 29:18 reminds us, “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.” Vision is the bridge between the present and the future. Getting ourselves into a good position to get a big picture view can take a bit of work, but the fruits of what we gain from clarity can help us avoid obstructed paths and spare us from suffering needless dangers. Straining the journey metaphor a bit further, I want to clarify the difference between vision and goals: If from a good lookout point one could see the vision or ultimate aim of the journey, one might also survey the path that leads there. Goals are like touchstones or trail markers along the way. Hikers might use a checklist of landmarks to help make sure that the steps they are taking really are leading toward that big X on the map. Goals are simply the things we strive for that keeps us on the path. They change along the way, but help us know we are continuing to chase after the vision guiding it all.

We have been looking at vision– many of you know–ever since I have arrived. Even before I arrived here I wanted to learn who College Avenue Friends Church is, what we value, and how we fit in God’s vision for our neighborhood, local community, and the William Penn University community here where we serve. The elders (M &C) and I have taken great strides in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the church. We have used tools like World Cafe style meetings to hone down and put into words the vision and values of our church. This work was distilled and refined into seven key statements we display proudly both on the wall and on the web. But this journey of discovery was never intended to end at a bit of ink framed on the wall, or filed away in some dusty archives. Like a set of binoculars, our vision and values statements were made for a journey. From this conviction our monthly meeting challenged our body to put all this work to a tangible expression; to use these statements–in some way–to connect and unify the ways we will live out our calling, and as a tool evaluate and refine our goals annually. Here are those statements that were produced from this intensive process of listening for answers to questions about who we are, and the vision and values we are striving toward as the Quakers of the Oskaloosa community God has called to this place:

OUR VISION AND VALUES STATEMENTS

  1. College Avenue Friends exists to be compassionate examples of Christ bearing God’s message of love to the world with not only our words, but also with our deeds as lived out by the Friends Testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. We believe we are called to “let our lives speak” as a demonstration and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  2. College Avenue Friends exists to be a Christ centered fellowship that stays true to our heritage as Friends. Hence, we are committed to a listening spirituality allowing room for the inward experience of Christ. We believe God’s living Word, Jesus, will always lead us in ways that are consistent with His written word of biblical revelation.
  3. College Avenue Friends exists not only for its own sake but also for the sake of those outside our walls that Christ calls us to love and serve. We are committed to pushing beyond the status quo and being a light to others in our daily walks of faith.
  4. College Avenue Friends has always existed to serve as a light to William Penn University including its students, faculty, and destiny as God leads.
  5. College Avenue Friends embraces a spirit of hospitality that shapes our worship. This calls us to an inclusive vision that makes room for new members to find their place in our family and allows them to grow in Christ using their gifts and talents.
  6. College Avenue Friends embraces the fact that we are an intergenerational church committed to a balanced approach that embraces this diversity in our worship planning for music, preaching, and other worship activities.
  7. College Avenue Friends strives for good stewardship of our gifts and talents, our time and finances, and our energy and creativity. This view of stewardship extends even to the environment God created for us to live in as Ps 24:1 states, “…the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

up mountain

As we are about to have a Clerks meeting around taking a deeper look at the ministries of our church, and intentionally connecting them to how we see them fitting into our larger vision, it seems fitting to reflect on the importance of vision and specifically on how having a common vision and more openness about how we are trying to live these things out can help us more effectively be the hands and feet of Jesus in our world. Vision is important because it embodies the principle of simplicity in a crucial way. To navigate the uncertainties of the time we live in, we must live and lead from our authentic selves, both individually but especially corporately. We cannot do all things. We only have so much energy and time. We must–to offer vibrant ministry to those God has put in our lives–say no to some things in order to say yes to the right things, which ultimately means to answer faithfully the unique yet shared call of God for our church. This call of God is a call to collaboration, a core component of what making disciples requires of us. All the listening in the world–all the information about values and spiritual gifts–without collaboration toward a common call, is just casting seed. It takes hands and feet and heartbeat to connect a vision to reality. It takes every part of the body of Christ to move from the mechanisms of organization to the organism that is the church body made fully alive and energized by the Holy Spirit.

I firmly believe a shared vision calls us to simplicity and sanity. If vision truly is the bridge between the present and the future, we would do well to look up from the present now and then. We church members are often overloaded, busy and it seems always trying to scrape up the energy to clear the next hurdle. In all the chaos of making it through the week, it is all too easy to lose track of the vision, even the goals. We can begin to wonder if climbing up a hill here or there to get a better view is even worth the work at times. Yet perhaps this sort of sentiment is a symptom that we have overlooked this crucial connection between our calling and our actions for far too long. If the forces of chaos are making headway in our lives and we find ourselves disoriented by a great deal of business and hurry personally, as a committee, or even as a church body, it is a sign that we might need to take some time to refocus on what God is calling us to do.

Goals, if we are not careful, can come from a vacuum. They can be more reactive than proactive. They can become knee jerk reactions rather than the dance of a smiling Bride led by Christ. With the new year comes a new start. A re-commitment to faithfulness. A scripture that has meant a lot to me in light of Martina’s passing is Philippians 3:14, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Pressing on is work. I heard a story once of a dog chasing a rabbit. As the dog chased the rabbit other dogs joined in. These new dogs ran and ran but eventually gave up and lost interest. But the dog who had actually seen the rabbit kept striving long after these other dogs had given up. This is what vision can do. It can help us see the “prize of the upward call of God.”

Many gifted and talented people work very hard in their ministries at College Avenue Friends. Many feel that it is hard enough simply to keep doing the important things that need to be done, and if we take our eyes off the balls we struggle to keep in the air–even for a second– bad things will happen. But I feel a deep conviction that unless we know the why of what we are doing and see how it is connected, it is all the more hard to help others see it and catch the vision. Unless we look out into the future and think through how we will navigate it together, we might be juggling with a limp rather than fanning into flame the gift of God we share. Vision frees us to even greater fruitfulness and faithfulness; it is not a means of control but a way of pruning vibrant ministries that will be sustained on the long haul ahead. May we learn to walk in rhythms of grace, connected to God and to each other, as we focus on the path God is calling us to walk together. May we be energized, equipped, and empowered to press on for another year of looking at what God is doing around us and in us. And may we fully enter in with surety of foot and eyes open to that vision that connects our each and every action, however seemingly mundane, to the one who calls us on this journey with Him.

 Agape,

James

 


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