Authority

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(This is the eighth and final installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Thanks for walking through the season with us! To view the entire series on a single page, click on the Lent 2015 tab above.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 7:13-29

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

He had redefined the law. Fulfilled it.

Love. Unbridled, unconditional. Counter-intuitive, upside-down, inside-out.

Love that puts the welfare of others ahead of self.

Love that places no burden on others. Love that sees through God’s eyes.

Love that sees through God’s heart.

The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Their religious leaders had gotten it so wrong. It was so easy for them to condemn the imperfect and unclean. To protect their comfortable traditions, their strict legalism, their cozy doctrine…that, Jesus said, was a wide and easy path.

Anyone can cling to those things that benefit oneself and exclude those who don’t measure up. Anyone can call others to conform to their self-interest.

Anyone can love their friends and hate their enemies.

But this way of love, a love that gives and sacrifices and humanizes even those who would do us harm…this way is narrow. This way is hard.

This way is life.

Repent. Reorient.

Discard the way of false truth that destroys life on its way to self-salvation.

Real truth reveals itself in real love. Real peace. Kindness, patience, generosity, gentleness. Against these, there is no law.

Bear good fruit, Jesus says. Not the bad fruit of the Pharisees and religious elite that poisons and kills, but the fruit of love that nourishes and flourishes.

You can call out my name all you want. Use me to declare your own power and righteousness till you’re blue in the face. But unless you love, you’ll never know me.

Good news. Kingdom news.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

Follow.

Love is the way to life. Love that respects the God-breathed humanity and dignity of each other person. Love that blesses the undeserving.

It had to be true. No other “truth” could measure up.

There was authority in these words, in this man, like none they had witnessed before.

It was as if their leaders, the ones who claimed God’s truth, who called them to follow God’s law, who confidently declared who was “in” and who was “out,” didn’t really know God at all.

To truly know God, to be citizens of his kingdom, was to truly understand that love alone fulfills the law.

This was a kingdom worth living for.

This was a kingdom worth dying for.

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Judgment

Pearls before swine old quotation from bible

(This is the seventh installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 6:25-7:12

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Love your enemies. Treasure what God treasures. Pray for love.

Their worldview was fully unraveled now. This was Israel. Chosen nation. God’s own people.

Tied together by legal codes that specified who was and was not in God’s favor.

It was all about getting from out to in. From unclean to clean. From excluded to included.

These were things worth fretting over.

But even this, Jesus says, is not as it seems.

Why worry? Isn’t God in charge? Either he is or he isn’t. See these birds? They work, but only to be what God made them to be. See these flowers? Each one beautiful, not because it chose to be beautiful, but because God created it beautiful.

You are blessed. From the highest and greatest to the lowest and least. Blessed.

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Righteousness. There’s that word again. Not the righteousness of the Pharisees, of the law-enforcers, the status-quo-protectors.

The righteousness of God.

You have heard it said…but I tell you….

Anger, contempt, indulgence. Objectification. Dehumanization. Condemnation.

Splinters and logs.

You must see others for who they are. Created by, loved by, cared for by the One who created, loves, and cares for you.

Condemnation blinds. Only love can see.

It was all so hard to hear. So hard to accept.

Particularly, perhaps, for those most threatened by it.

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

This Kingdom is dangerous. Love is dangerous.

Be perfect, Jesus said. Repent. Reorient.

But if even the Pharisees and teachers of the law have missed the point, how then could these outcasts and misfits access this love Jesus proclaims?

Ask. Seek. Knock.

Grace.

It cannot come from human will alone. Only God has that power.

But God, it seems, is willing to share it with his children.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your strength.

And love your neighbor as yourself.

This is it! This is the law!

Love God fully. Love others fully.

Trust God, pray to God, to give you power where you have none. To see as God sees.

Not through eyes of distrust or condemnation or judgment.

But through eyes full of the light of love.

Next: Authority

Treasure

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(This is the sixth installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 6:1-24

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Love perfectly, Jesus said. Respect the worth and dignity of each person. Even those with whom we disagree.

Even those who would do us harm.

Lofty words. High ideals.

But how?

If the Pharisees in their righteousness cannot instruct us, what does it look like to put this perfect love into action?

I lift my eyes unto the hills. Where does my help come from?

The religious leaders make a great show of their piousness. Their worthiness is obvious.

My help comes from the Lord, creator of heaven and earth.

In secret. Jesus says to do it all in secret. As if one hand doesn’t even know what the other is doing.

It’s not about how others perceive your deeds of kindness, your acts of sacrifice, your stirring words of prayer.

You don’t need their approval.

For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Whether in public or in private, pray like it’s just you and God.

Father…Your kingdom come. Make our lives like yours.

Show us how to love the way you love.

Feed us your very self.

Make us forgivers so we can experience your forgiveness.

Protect us from the trials we will face. Deliver us from persecution.

In this prayer, God’s way becomes our way.

This is no chant or charm, no formula for getting what we want.

It’s a door to a relationship. Where what we want becomes exactly what God wants.

What do you treasure? Your comfort? Your convenience? Your morality? Your power?

All these are so easily lost. In a moment, perhaps. Over time, certainly. Slowly, imperceptibly disintegrated by forces unseen.

But love. Love. There is a treasure which cannot be destroyed.

A heart of love sees things as they are. Undarkened by self-aggrandizement. Undimmed by self-indulgence.

Pure reality, bright and clear.

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.

There is but one way to pursue Kingdom life. One reality to which to pledge our allegiance.

On earth as it is in heaven.

Next: Judgment

Perfect

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(This is the fifth installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 5:38-48

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus was wrecking their worldview. Declaring them blessed. Imploring them to be salt and light. Challenging the authority of their leaders.

You have heard that the law is all in all, he said. But I tell you that it is how you think about others, how you treat them, your heart toward them that matters.

What could it all mean? What would he say next?

You have heard to seek revenge commensurate with the offense. But I tell you, when you are offended, return favor to your offender rather than harm.

But don’t our offenders deserve our revenge? Are we simply to roll over and accept it when we’re attacked?

We can’t appear to be weak.

Someone has to pay!

It was too much. But he wasn’t finished yet…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies.

Love our enemies? Love them?

It was one thing not to retaliate. Avoid them, maybe. Tolerate them, at best.

But love?

This is how the Kingdom works. The radical, righteous, upside-down-rightside-up Kingdom.

Empty yourself of self. Respect the dignity and humanity of others. Give freely. We are all created by the same God, loved equally. Remember how you thought you weren’t blessed? Why should your enemies be any less blessed?

Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return.

Equal under sun and rain alike, our enemies and us. Beloved by the Father. Whether we are brother or sister, tax collector or prostitute.

Blessed.

This Kingdom law, it seems, is not a behavior management program. It is not the righteousness of the Pharisees, which declares who is and is not worthy.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If the Pharisees and their version of the law are not perfect, then what is?

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Anyone can love those who look like them, think like them, sound like them, act like them.

But you, O Israel! You are more than that!

Be perfect.

There’s only one way to live into a law like that.

Love must become devoid of self-interest. It must be filled with concern for the other.

It must become as the love of the Father.

Sun or rain, brother or sister, friend or enemy…the Father sees all through just one lens.

Love.

Perfect love.

Next: Treasure

Indulgence

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(This is the fourth installation of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 5:21-37

You have heard…but I say to you….

If the righteousness of the Pharisees is not righteousness, then what is?

Jesus is challenging the very core of what they had been led to believe. Striking at the heart of what their leaders had taught for generations.

Murder. Adultery. Divorce. Swearing oaths.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were very clear about these matters.

Or were they?

Dig deeper, Jesus says.

Don’t murder, yes. But what leads to murder? Anger, condemnation, unforgiveness. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already murderous.

Don’t commit adultery, yes. But what leads to adultery? An attraction triggers a thought, a thought triggers a fantasy, a fantasy triggers objectification. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already adulterous.

Divorce? You make it too easy, says Jesus. You indulge your selfishness and dehumanize your spouse. Has she no more value to you than your crops or livestock? Do you care so little for her as to drive her to a life of poverty and indignity?

And those vows you make? Why must you swear by heaven or earth, or anything else for that matter? Is your word not enough? Are you so insecure that you need to manipulate others’ opinions by the power of your oaths? Have they no humanity of their own?

Indulgence.

We indulge anger and we murder.

We indulge lust and we commit adultery.

We indulge selfishness and we objectify.

We indulge insecurity and we manipulate.

This, he says, is the righteousness of the Pharisees. Obey the rules, period. You will be measured by your behavior and your behavior alone.

The sin, says Jesus, is more than our behavior. It is a heart that refuses to honor the humanity of others. That places more value on “me” than on “you.” And, by extension, on “we.”

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

If you think that life is all about you and how you behave, you’re missing the point. You might as well be blind or maimed, because that’s basically how you’re going through life as it is.

So what is righteousness? What does true righteousness look like?

Next: Perfect.

 

Righteousness

Hellfire and Brimstone Preacher

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(This is the third installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 5:17-20

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The righteousness of the Pharisees.

How could they ever expect to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? These were the nobodies that nobody wants to be around, these crowds who had gathered to hear Rabbi Jesus speak. “Righteous” was never a word anyone used to describe them.

The Pharisees, though. Righteous through and through.

Don’t believe it? Just ask them.

The gatekeepers of the law. Judges of what is clean and unclean. Constabularies of thought and action. Arbiters of what fulfills and what abolishes Torah. Self-appointed authorities of binding and loosing.

And yet, these nobodies—the unclean, the unlawful, the unrighteous—Jesus calls them “blessed.” Theirs, he says, is the Kingdom of Heaven.

But a kingdom, it seems, they cannot enter unless their righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the keepers of the law.

Wait…What?

Did he really just say that?

Could it be that the righteousness of the Pharisees is no righteousness at all?

Surely this is not the Law of Moses.

But…I have come not to abolish Torah, but to fulfill it.

What is this new teaching? Surely this is not what they have always heard, what their traditions have always taught.

But what if?

What if the teachings and traditions have missed the mark?

What if this Kingdom is not one of clean and unclean, of legal and illegal, of in and out?

What if fulfilling Torah is not about being right, but about being light?

Repent. Reorient.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Righteousness.

Where there is harm, there is no righteousness.

Where there is discrimination, there is no righteousness.

Where there is  exclusion, there is no righteousness.

Where there is marginalization, there is no righteousness.

The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is no righteousness at all.

Want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus asks. Don’t act like them.

Don’t harm. Don’t discriminate. Don’t exclude. Don’t marginalize.

Heal. Accept. Include. Embrace.

Love.

Righteousness.

They thought Jesus was turning things upside-down. But now, they are beginning to see, he’s turning things rightside-up.

Next: Indulgence

Blessed

beggar-peddler-broadway

(This is the second installation of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 5:1-16

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them.

Who is blessed?

The knocked down, the kicked at, the spit on. The lost, the overlooked, the forgotten. The soft, the tender, the pleasers. The losers. The nobodies that nobody wants to be around.

Who is blessed?

The ones who never feel blessed. The ones who think “blessed” always refers to someone else—someone richer, someone prettier, someone smarter, someone popular.

Blessed. Even these, Jesus says, are blessed. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

There it is again. Kingdom.

The crowds who had just experienced Jesus’ healing touch—the diseased, the sick, the suffering, the demoniacs, the epileptics, the paralytics—now being told they’re something they never thought they could be.

Blessed.

Blessed? Why? What has changed?

Healing. Kingdom. Jesus.

But what does it mean to be blessed? What is blessing for?

The sin of Israel had always been its insistence that it was blessed just because it was Israel. Rather than share its blessing, it coveted it.

Israel was blessed—chosen—not to rule the world, but to fulfill a purpose. A vocation.

Salt and light.

To add richness and flavor to the life of the world. To shine God’s love on its neighbors.

But when the salt has lost its flavor, when the light has been hidden, then what?

Repent. Reorient.

But how?

Blessing. Healing.

Be blessed, Jesus says, so you can fulfill your purpose.

Be healed, Jesus says, so you can live Kingdom life.

You who feel un-blessed have been restored. You’ve been touched by the Kingdom.

You’ve been touched by Jesus.

You’re empowered to be who you were meant to be.

This is good news!

(Next: Righteousness)

“Delmar’s been saved!”

Some interesting conversation emerged over on my Facebook page after my last post about American individualism and its infiltration into the church.

One of the things that jumped out at me as part of that discussion was the popular notion that Christianity is primarily about our personal relationship with Jesus, and that “salvation” is something that is made available to each of us as individuals as we make a choice to enter into that relationship.

I want to be careful here. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is indeed a key tenet of Christian faith. Not only that, I believe it to be integral to my own identity. I believe it is, as theologians say, salvific. That is to say, it is at least in part what saves and is saving.

But I also believe that the notion of “salvation” as a strictly individual transaction is not, in fact, the primary message of the gospel…and the Western church’s insistence that it is may be part of what is currently tearing at the fabric of society in our world today.

These modern times

Bear with me a moment for a little philosophical background…

We live today in the shadow of the Enlightenment, the mid-17th through early-18th Century movement most famously embodied by Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”). It was a time when humanity began to see the possibilities that science and reason could provide rational explanations for everything, including our very existence.

The modernist movement spawned by the Enlightenment period began to reject religion as a source of meaning in favor of a belief that only knowledge—not religion—could be certain, objective, and good…and that only reason could ultimately lead to truth.

This required a radical commitment to freedom of individual thought over against collective religious certainty.

Predictably, the church of the time responded with fear and defensiveness. Fresh off the reformation, both Catholics and Protestants were scrambling to assert authority over their flocks. While the church was saying it was the ultimate arbiter of truth, modernism said humans could essentially take the place of God by attaining ultimate knowledge through science and reason.

“Delmar’s been saved!”

As James K.A. Smith points out in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” (pp59-61), a great contemporary representation of the clash between religion and modernism can be seen in the Coen brothers’ cult classic “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

In the clip above, we see a philosophical clash between George Clooney’s character, Ulysses Everett McGill, and his rube-ish cohorts Pete and Delmar. For Everett, it’s a modern world where the quest for individual knowledge is the path to utopia. His bumpkin friends succumb to the irrational superstition and magic of religion…even to the point where Delmar believes Pete has been transmogrified by the demonic sirens in the river (“We…thought…you…was…a…toad!).

But what’s interesting is how, in the span of about a hundred years or so, the church actually began to appropriate modernist thought patterns. Even while railing against scientific knowledge as the basis of truth, it acquiesced to the notion that the individual was the most sovereign expression of humanity.

As Western societies developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, so Western Christianity ran a parallel path. In its fight against modernism by rejecting science itself through invoking a literalist reading of scripture, the fundamentalist movement (which emerged to counter the liberal social justice theology of Catholics and mainliners in the mid-late 19th Century) chose to fight that battle in the heart and mind of the individual.

And thus the goal of Christianity—just like the goal of modernism—became personal conversion.

“Jesus was a socialist”

I have to admit to a bit of gratuitous click-baiting in the headline of last week’s post. The point was not to debate or defend socialism as an institution, but to point out that the gospel of Jesus soundly rejects any notion of the value of individuals over the value of community or collective humanity.

And so when we make the central claim of our faith to be about a personal relationship with Jesus, and we pursue intellectual assent to that principle (and call it “salvation”), we miss the point of Jesus’ message.

Again, I want to be careful. It’s not that Jesus’ message is not about a personal relationship. Even though that specific phrase is found nowhere in scripture, there is abundant evidence that personal relationships were of critical importance to the Jesus event.

My point is that Jesus’ message is indeed about personal relationship, but it’s also about much, much more.

Evacuation theology

Modernist Christianity (most specifically—but not exclusively—embodied in the fundamentalist and evangelical camps), with its stress on individual conversion/salvation, more or less follows the proposition that: 1) I am “saved” by intellectual assent and personal confession; and 2) I am called to love you; therefore I want you to be “saved” by whatever means necessary.

Also, our post-Enlightenment approach has suffered from a misdiagnosis of what Jesus actually means by “salvation” by making it all about the eternal disposition of one’s disembodied soul after death.

Again, I’m not arguing that a continued postmortem existence is not part of the message, but it’s not the whole message. Jesus’ promise of “eternal” life is as much about a quality of life here and now as it is about an ongoing quantity of life once our mortal flesh ceases to exist. “Eternal” in the early languages of the Bible connotes the life of God or the life of the ages. It is a present, as well as a future, reality.

So when we talk about salvation as something strictly individual that results in the transport of our immortal souls to some other-worldly “heaven,” we miss the point Jesus makes that the kingdom of heaven is sprouting up all around us, here and now, as we share his radical program of unconditional love in the times and places we find ourselves as human beings.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is not just a cute phrase in a memorized prayer, it is the actual goal Jesus has for God’s kingdom.

Salvation as holistic

I do indeed believe Jesus wants to save us all as individuals. But the modern Western church’s notion of salvation as primarily an individual transaction misses the larger biblical context for what salvation is really all about.

At the risk of being redundant, our Western/American arrogance and pervasive individualism get in the way of our ability to see what Jesus is doing and saying because we have 200+ years of indoctrination into the modernist primacy of the sovereign self.

What God has been about from the beginning has been the redemption of all things (Rev. 21:5). To me, that suggests that salvation is not meant to be individual, but holistic. And that it’s not about being swept away into the clouds when we die, but about a redemption and regeneration of the created cosmos, with love as the creative force that binds it all together.

So instead of saying, “I’m in and you’re out; but I love you and want you to be in, too,” a holistic approach is more like, “I’m a part of something, not apart from it. And if I’m a part of a greater whole, it’s only by the salvation of all things that my own salvation has any meaning.”

The longer we continue to put ourselves as individuals at the center of the salvation narrative, and the more we assert our rights as individuals over against the rights of others in our pursuit of our own salvation, the further we get from what Jesus actually intended.

Our challenge is to recapture that holistic sense of belonging, to become radically committed to the well-being of others, and to extend that commitment beyond our tight circles of those who look and think like us to those who disagree with and even persecute us:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (The Message)

Worship or warfare? A tale of pens and swords.

Feather sword and letter

You may have noticed that I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately.

As a writer I’ve learned that sometimes we go through these dry spells. Times when it’s just really hard to process and coalesce any thoughts that seem worth articulating.

It’s not that there haven’t been things I’ve wanted to write about. In fact, I have about a dozen rough drafts saved in a folder on my laptop. Stories I’ve started to write but couldn’t figure out how to end. Most of them were responses to occurrences where it seems the church is failing to seek justice and act mercifully in light of current events.

But somewhere in my effort to write pieces that try to critique in a helpful way, I crossed a line.

When I read through those rough drafts, I don’t find the voice of someone searching for truth and justice. I find the voice of a self-righteous jerk.

I find myself becoming exactly the kind of Christian I was criticizing.

And so I had to try to step back and take an honest look at what I was doing.

And in reading back through all those unfinished, unpolished, discarded drafts, I started to see a pattern.

And behind the pattern I found the problem.

Somewhere along the line, my writing stopped being an act of worship.

One of the scary things that happens when your creative work starts to get noticed is that, well, it gets noticed. And getting noticed carries the weight of expectations…those you perceive from your audience, and those you place on yourself in response to that perception.

My best writing, or at least what I consider to be my best writing, is the stuff I write that comes out as an expression of how I’m experiencing something of the divine. It’s the stuff that articulates a deep relationship with Jesus…whether that comes through a day on a trout stream or a season of wrestling with difficult scriptural texts or a conversation with another human struggling to navigate life on planet earth.

It’s the stuff that takes a hard and honest look at what we’ve become as a church and tries to find a way back to The Way of The One.

And that’s worship. When we pour ourselves out in love and awe as a result of how we experience the reality of Jesus.

It doesn’t just happen in gilded buildings on Sunday mornings. It happens when we hand a homeless man a dollar or a cup of coffee. It happens when we give up a Saturday afternoon to help a mom & daughter move out of an abusive household. It happens when we fix meals or build houses or buy toilet paper for people who, for whatever the reason, can’t do it for themselves.

It also happens when we stop to hear the morning songs of the birds in the trees, when we listen to grandparents’ stories of their youth, and when we watch four-year-olds eat ice cream.

And for some of us, it happens when we make music or mold sculptures or paint images or even write sentences and paragraphs that express a reality we can’t explain any other way.

If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, it can’t simply become a sword. It must serve a higher purpose.

So that’s what I’m trying to get back to.

Writing is a gift, and with it comes a responsibility. It’s not a weapon to wield in the destruction of opposing ideas, but—hopefully, at least—a conduit by which I can help you connect to your own unspoken realities.

Yes, at times that requires honest critique. If the church is to be a vehicle for justice and mercy in this world, it must be open to regular and constant self-assessment and adjustment. Our abuses usually come out of sincere desires to help, but sometimes we get in our own way by putting the wrong things first.

And this is where you come in. I need you, my readers, to keep me accountable. To keep the right things first.

It’s easy to get on a bandwagon when you connect emotionally with a particular argument or issue. It takes deep discernment to find the most helpful, loving, transformative ways to create dialogue.

Our goal should be communication, not condemnation.

Worship, not warfare.

Here is the church, here is the steeple…

steeplefingers

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“…Open it up, and see all the people. … Hey! They look just like me!”

I’m in the middle of a seminary class this week on leading change. “Change” is a big word in church circles these days. It seems like everyone is either dying for it or dying to avoid it.

I’ve been part of church change conversations in a variety of contexts over the past several years. I’ve been part of internal change movements and have tried to help others either facilitate or manage change.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about change in churches:

1) Almost everybody seems to know they need to change. The alternative to changing is to fade into non-existence.

2) Almost everybody is terrified to actually implement change. They understand the consequences but simply can’t bring themselves to endure the uncertainty that comes along with it. By doing so, they essentially choose a slow but sure diminution into non-existence.

3) Those who want change generally want something specific. And what they want is for the church to change to be more like them.

It’s that third thing I want to focus on.

When I was part of a change movement in my church several years ago, I had a vision. At the time, I thought that vision was for a more vibrant, more lively, more “relevant” expression of the church.

In hindsight, what I now realize is that what I wanted was a church made in my own image. One to suit my wants and desires and perceived needs.

I arrogantly assumed that everyone would (or at least should) want the same thing. And even if they didn’t know it yet, that was the kind of church that they really desired to be part of. Once they could experience it, they’d surely come around.

Now that I’ve spent some time seriously studying the church in its various expressions and various movements, both historically and contemporarily, I’m coming to the realization that that’s pretty much what everyone wants.

The best church, we assume, is the one that’s most like us.

And so we embark on these Quixotic change missions, trying to make the church what we want it to be, laboring under the assumption that what we want is really what everyone wants. More hip. More traditional. More welcoming. More stable. More conservative. More progressive. More evangelical. More missional. More straight. More gay. More “biblical.” More “spiriti-led.” More diverse. More homey. More young. More multi-generational.

What you seldom see or hear in these conversations is probably the one thing that maybe we should all be striving for.

Instead of a church that’s more like us, maybe we should be seeking a church that looks more like Jesus.

Of course, our immediate response to that is to say, “That is what I want! JESUS WANTS EXACTLY WHAT I WANT!!”

Really?

Here’s the thing: The church of Jesus almost never looks like what we think we want.

Because Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus calls us into those places that make us uncomfortable, that challenge our preconceptions, that stretch our imaginations. The church we think we want, the one that looks and thinks and acts just like we do, does none of those things.

And do you know why?

Because Jesus is all about LOVE.

Sound oversimplified? Think about it. Really think about it.

Love is anything but simple.

Love makes us uncomfortable. Love challenges our preconceptions. Love stretches our imaginations.

Love—real, authentic, unconditional, life-giving love—is the hardest thing we can do.

Love calls us to die so that it can rise up in our place.

We cannot continue to box ourselves into our labels and categories and preconceptions and preferences, and love like Jesus loves. It’s not until we abandon all of those things that we can even begin to glimpse what that kind of love is like.

It’s only in utter surrender that we can find true freedom.

In Wesleyan theology we talk about the idea of “Christian Perfection.” That’s a pretty hard concept to get your head around. We all know instinctively that we can never be “perfect.” But because of that instinct, we never really give the idea an honest try.

What John Wesley meant by “perfection” wasn’t an error-free existence. What he meant was that we could—at least conceivably—actually love other people and the world around us the way Jesus does.

Bob Tuttle, one of the most brilliant professors I’ve had the privilege to study under, defined it like this:

“Love devoid of self-interest.”

The love of Jesus, the love he calls us to as individuals and as his church, is a love that does nothing for its own benefit and everything for the sake of others.

Everything.

So whatever our agendas are and as noble as they may be, unless they are founded on that kind of utterly self-sacrificing, thoroughly generative love, they fall short of the best life Jesus calls us to.

So what kind of church do you want. Really want?

If you want one that’s just like you, I guarantee you’ll find it.

I hope we can choose the riskier path.

Where moth and rust consume

Moth

istockphoto.com

Nobody ever believed in Jesus because they lost an argument.”

I wish I could remember the name of my seminary colleague who said that in class one day. I’d gladly pay him royalties for the number of times I’ve quoted him.

In today’s contentious church environment, I think it’s a salient reminder.

It seems everywhere we turn, church people are fighting. Not just with non-Christians but, even more frequently, with one another. Don’t believe it? Google “Christian blogs,” pick one, and go to the comment section.

In fact, let me save you some trouble. Just go check out one of my favorites, Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Pick any post. You won’t have to scroll down far before you see the vitriolic responses starting to fly.

Who’s selling out to who?

In a recent post, Evans notes that the most frequent argument levied against liberal/progressives from the conservative/evangelical camp is that we are “selling out” to the culture around us. We compromise the truth of scripture in order to win friends from the “world” so that we can appear to be “relevant” or even “cool.”

But, Evans pointedly notes, the very same people who voice those accusations are also very often the first to “sell out” to the “worldly” notions of retributive violence, economic elitism, racism, sexism, and secular class warfare:

“And I am concerned that the Church is indeed conforming to the world—every time it preaches violence as a way to achieve justice, every time it glorifies celebrity and success, every time it reduces womanhood to subordination and manhood to power, every time it justifies cruelty or unkindness in the name of proving a point.”

Treasures in heaven

Not surprisingly, Jesus has something to say about all of this. In addition to the rather obvious issue of splinters and planks (Matt. 7:4-5), there is a somewhat obscure and almost universally misunderstood passage wherein our favorite itinerant Galilean rabbi challenges his followers to a radically different perspective:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. […] No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

—Matthew 6:19-20, 24 (NASB)

Contrary to popular belief, Jesus really isn’t talking about money in this passage. Nor is he advocating some kind of pious “investment” in a distant, post-mortem future. Those interpretations take the passage out of its context as the climactic words of what we now refer to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

In the buildup to this statement, Jesus is encouraging the marginalized amongst his followers and admonishing the religious watchdogs of his day. He tells the oppressed and disenfranchised that, contrary to social convention, they are blessed. He tells the religious leaders that their scrupulous adherence to the law falls far short of its intent.

“Treasures on earth” doesn’t necessarily refer to wealth itself, but to the the trappings of power, influence and status. Because those things often accompany wealth, it becomes an apt metaphor for anything other than Jesus to which we attach value.

“Treasures in heaven,” similarly, are not good deeds which we store up in some sort of religious bank account to cash in when we…well…cash in. Instead, it is a call to treasure Jesus himself and to embrace his way of being.

Righteousness of the Pharisees

Early on in his sermon, Jesus informs his listeners that their righteousness must surpass “that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Matt. 5:20, NIV). A bit later, he tells them to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

Jesus is not laying down a new, more stringent legal code to follow. He is challenging his followers to integrate his life into theirs. In doing so, he directly contrasts that kind of life to that of the “Pharisees and teachers of the law.” The religious elite. The self-appointed gatekeepers.

The Pharisees were not evil people. They were convinced they were doing what God had commanded of them. They were adamant that legalistic morality, even at the expense of those who were thoroughly unable to achieve it, was the path to realizing the kingdom of heaven.

Unfortunately, they were missing the big picture.

Radical reorientation

Throughout his discourse, Jesus’ whole point is not for his followers to try to obey some set of behavioral mandates. It’s to reorient their lives around him and the kind of radical, unconditional, thoroughly inclusive love he displays…especially to those who seem to deserve it the least.

The “treasures on earth” Jesus rebukes are the systems and structures that oppress, objectify and dehumanize others at the altar of self-righteousness, exclusivity and superiority. Systems which, incidentally, the Pharisees had embraced in their behavior-management-based righteousness.

“Treasures in heaven,” then, are not deposits on some cosmic ledger, but an orientation toward love as the highest universal value. Not just love as a touchy-feely emotion, but as a radical, forgiving, inclusive force that rejects all manner of self-interest for the benefit of others.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not a place or even a way of life. It is the ultimate reality, where love reigns and rules, and which he embodies.

Moths and rust

The Pharisees were sincerely trying to do what they thought was right. The problem was, they were misunderstanding the story God was telling. In their zeal to be holy, they had sold out to the worldly systems and structures of status and power.

And Jesus’ message to them is that their earthly treasure—as noble as they believed it to be—was ultimately unsustainable. In fact, he tells them, it will consume and destroy them.

The church should pay attention.

When we obsess over our arguments and the defense of our particular beliefs, we are falling into the same trap. And eventually, it will consume us. And we’ll miss the kingdom reality Jesus is offering.