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.)

[Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]  [Part 4]  [Part 5]  [Part 6]  [Part 7]

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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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.)

[Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]  [Part 4]

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.)

[Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]

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.)

[Part 1]   [Part 2]

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

“Jesus was a socialist…”

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It the first day of a week-long seminary intensive course on the theology of John Wesley. I found myself in a classroom in central Kentucky viewing a satellite feed from another classroom in Orlando where our professor was conducting his lecture.

We were less than an hour into the class, having gone through brief introductions from everyone on both sites. Then, out of the blue, the professor dropped the bomb.

“Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

If a seminary classroom ever had a collective, unspoken “WTF?” moment, this was it.

Of course, the professor intended to create a stir. His statement was as much for shock value as anything…he was not making a political statement so much as he wanted to capture our attention and point us to something beyond what we’d mostly always been taught.

To a large degree, the church in America has hung its hat on the idea that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Our fight for liberty from an oppressive monarchy was, we’ve been taught, both right and righteous.

And as we drafted policies to protect our freedom to express our religious beliefs, that naturally grew into all sorts of other freedoms that were necessary to protect the foundational freedom of religion.

But as those freedoms have become more and more ingrained, an uglier side of them has emerged. We have gone from protecting ourselves against subjugation to the point where the rights of individuals have, in many cases, overridden the common good.

What was supposed to be freedom from oppression has become freedom to oppress.

Case in point: the current debate over vaccinations. There can be no question that childhood vaccination against diseases like measles and polio is beneficial to the vast majority of people and to society as a whole. Yet, in our staunch political defense of individual choice, we have allowed an illness that was once virtually dead in this country (and much of the world) to now create a public panic.

Which leads to the question: Have our freedoms enslaved us?

And, perhaps more to the point, to what extent is the church complicit?

For centuries predating the founding of America, church and state were effectively the same thing. From the time Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, religion and governance have gone hand in hand.

And while the American project, with its explicit constitutional separation of church and state, ostensibly rebelled against extant Christendom, nothing really changed.

The predictable result, as history has shown over and over, is a rather unholy alliance where the agenda of the state invariably infects the agenda of the church.

And so as America grew in its love of individual freedoms and protection of our rights to make choices contrary to the common good, so the church became equally enamored of those freedoms.

Which is what made my professor’s statement so provocative.

Somewhere along the line we managed to turn a movement based on radical inclusion and sacrificial love into a hackneyed champion of the sovereign self. We have become so consumed with exercising what we perceive to be our individual “rights” that we can no longer distinguish where one person’s rights begin and another’s ends.

But the Jesus we claim to follow was no respecter of persons. Everything he did and said laid bare the claim that, while individual rights and freedoms are indeed important, the most free a human being could be was in setting aside personal rights in favor of the other…even to the extent of loving our enemies.

The radical claim of Jesus is not that we are so much free from something—oppression, marginalization, even sin or death—but that we are free for something.

And that something is the terrifying prospect of being able to love in the ultimate way…unconditionally and sacrificially.

The reason most of my classmates were shocked at my professor’s statement was that they have bought into the idea that our sociopolitical protection of individual rights is somehow a biblical concept. They immediately equated Christian socialism with political Marxism…which was not at all the claim the professor was making.

To claim that Jesus was a socialist is to claim that Jesus valued others above self, community above individuals.

21st Century America is arguably the most individualistic society ever to exist on the face of the earth. It is so much a part of our DNA that we don’t even realize it. The idea that we would sacrifice individual rights—even the right to ignorance—is not only completely foreign to most of us, it is downright offensive.

But the kind of love Jesus represents requires a vulnerability that flies in the face of militant protection of individual freedoms.

That’s why it causes me no grief at all to echo my professor’s provocative statement: “Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

It’s not a political statement. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with being a free citizen of this free country.

But we have to realize how often our personal rights and freedoms come explicitly at the expense of others.

The question for the church is, do we have the courage to repent?

Have Yourself a Compelling Little Christmas

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The gospel is compelling, not coercive.

Is there a statement that more fully embodies the Christmas story?

In a time when Christian denominations offer a fragmented picture of the body of Christ, when self-appointed gatekeepers impose narrow definitions and restrictive requirements for what is and is not acceptable, and when fear is wielded as the primary motivator of faith, we as the church would do well to be reminded of the compelling nature of God’s entry into our winner-take-all existence.

The ancient Hebrews spoke of God’s hesed love. Hesed is most often translated as “loving-kindness,” eliciting mercy, loyalty, faithfulness and compassion.

Hesed love is not conditional. It is not a love that wavers with our commitment or diminishes in the face of our disobedience. It is not love that pushes us to change in order to be acceptable.

Hesed is love that comes to us in a story of the poor and oppressed, of the despised and reviled. Of a baby born in dirt and filth to an unwed mother, whose coming was announced not to kings or religious leaders but to untrustworthy field workers and immigrant astrologers.

It is no coincidence that hesed is by its very nature incarnational. It is love that comes to us not as a warm and fuzzy feeling of attraction and excitement but as something that comes alive and takes shape in us and through us.

It is not just something that is delivered to us, but produces something in us, something new and surprising.

Something faithful and compassionate and merciful and just and beautiful.

There is nothing coercive about this kind of love. Nothing about it screams, “accept me or else!

But could there be anything more compelling?

Is there anything else, any other power in the universe that so captivates us? That grabs our imagination and makes us ask, what if life could REALLY be like this?

That’s the answer that Christmas gives us.

The compelling story that life really CAN be like this. That there is a love that reaches past our sorry commitments and our disobedience. That brings the incarnational beauty of hesed alive in us and unites us.

This Christmas, may we truly embrace the hesed loving-kindness of God through the incarnation of Jesus. And may we, like him, become a compelling force for mercy, love, justice, and compassion.

Happy Christmas!

Faith Not Fear: A story of inspiration

FNF_01

Dear fellow Conspirators for Awesomeness,

As a seminary student and someone seeking to discern a call into vocational ministry, I often find myself in conversations about discovering our purpose in the world. Often, we find ourselves talking about how we’ll know what God’s will is for our lives.

What I’ve come to believe is that, more often than not, God’s not so much directing us to a particular activity or position as he is encouraging us to find something that ignites our passions. Maybe, rather than waiting to hear what God is calling us to, we should do what excites us most and allow God to bless it.

A few months ago my friend Allie started a new venture called Faith Not Fear Apparel. FNF sells inspirational t-shirts as a means for people to start meaningful conversations, and gives away a portion of all sales to help empower others.

I wanted to feature FNF here on TheAwesomnessConspiracy.com both to help spread the word about their products as well as to tell Allie’s story. I think it’s a shining example of finding that place where your gifts and talents intersect with your passions, and watching God go to work with it in spectacular ways.

I recently had a chance to ask Allie to share the story behind FNF. And while many are rushing stores today for Black Friday deals, I thought today would be a good day to feature a possible alternative for your Christmas shopping.

What inspired you to start Faith Not Fear? 

Faith Not Fear Apparel was born out of a desire to “do more” to encourage people’s faith. After coming back from a life-changing mission trip to Haiti, I knew I couldn’t go back to sitting behind a desk, looking at the computer screen all day, when just a few days prior I put shoes on the feet of impoverished children, handed out Bibles and prayed with strangers. While sitting at my desk I kept wondering what I could do to make a difference here…as Mother Teresa said, “love begins at home.”

FNF_02Why t-shirts?

America is not a third world country and is privileged in many, many ways. But it’s a land full of hurting people, people who need Jesus. However, as a Christian it’s sometimes hard to start a conversation about God with strangers (or even friends!) − how do you bring it up a topic like that to that person behind you at the grocery store or that mom waiting to pick up her children beside of you. A t-shirt − that is was it! I decided that that was the way I could try to make a difference in my own community. It is our hope that by wearing a Faith Not Fear Apparel shirt that someone might ask you about it and give you the opportunity to share a little bit about faith/God/church with them. As a company, we strive to develop shirts you would be proud to wear and that have a simple, powerful message.

You said your trip to Haiti was life-changing. What was it about that experience that motivated you to do something like this?

With the root of the idea being planted in Haiti, 10% of the sales price of what we sell goes to support the ApParent Project, a nonprofit I visited there. The ApParent Project provides opportunities for Haitians to have steady employment. Haitian artisans learn skills, which enable them to provide for their children rather than send them to an orphanage due to extreme poverty. The Apparent Project distributes Haitian recycled, or “upcycled” items, which have become beautiful products including jewelry, home décor, pottery and more! They are making great strides in empowering Haitian people and keeping families together. To learn more about this heartwarming organization visit them at http://www.apparentproject.org

What’s in the name, “Faith Not Fear?” Is there a story there?

FNF_03Dave Willis, a leading expert on building strong Christian marriages, said, “There isn’t enough room in your life for both fear and faith. Each day, you must decide which one gets to stay.” This quote really stuck out to me − fear is something so many people (including myself) struggle with, it’s something the devil uses to paralyze us, so as the quote says, each and every day we have to make a conscious decision to squash those lies and choose to believe the promises from God.

How have other people spoken into your vision for FNF? Was it important for you to hear other voices? If so, why?

I have received a lot of encouragement from others to continue down this journey and each time I start to take a step back, God puts someone, even strangers, in my life at the right time to continue to push me! People have shared their heartfelt testimonies with me, and shared the reason they want a shirt whether it to be wear themself or to give it as a gift to encourage someone else. I love the way people want to shine God’s light on others using Faith Not Fear Apparel as a vehicle to do so. 

If we could fast-forward to a year from now and you could call FNF a success story, what would that look like for you?

I would love to walk down the street and see people wearing my shirts! I would also love to be able to send significant contributions to the ApParent Projects and be able to see the wonderful ways they will put the money to good use! 

What dreams do you have for the future of FNF…both in terms of product as well as mission?

I hope to expand the product line to include more designs and possibly a workout line of apparel. My main goal will continue to be to think of ways to shine God’s light on hurting people and find ways to help encourage people’s walk in faith.

To learn more about Faith Not Fear apparel, visit their fully-featured online store at www.faithnotfearapparel.com.

 

A prayer for Ferguson

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I’m praying for Ferguson today.

Not just in that semi-sincere “Christian-ese” way that feels sorry for someone and says, “Oh, I’ll be praying for you.” I am literally on my knees. Praying. Begging God to make things right.

I’m praying that your city will find peace, and that neighbors can learn to live alongside one another without fear. That your people who desired nothing more than a nonviolent protest in response to a devastating announcement aren’t further victimized by criminals who used your pain as an excuse to loot and pillage, and your peaceful attempt to be heard as a cover for their selfish actions.

I’m praying for Michael Brown’s family. Your loss is insurmountable. And regardless of what the grand jury said, regardless of the evidence they saw, or maybe didn’t see, you deserved better than a cheap explanation from a slick politician.

I’m praying for Darren Wilson and his family. You have experienced something awful. You made a decision no one should ever have to make. You too are a victim of sorts. A victim of a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality that makes deadly force your first instinct instead of a desperate measure of last resort.

I’m praying for justice. Not revenge. Not retribution. Those are different. I’m praying for real justice, the kind that brings reconciliation, the kind where something beautiful grows out of something horrible.

I’m praying that we can stop calling killing of any kind “justifiable.” I understand self-defense. I get that “kill or be killed” is a real, powerful, primal instinct. But because it’s understandable doesn’t make it justifiable. Again, that word implies that justice was somehow achieved. It’s more than semantics. Words matter, and we need to be less careless when our words are this important.

I’m praying that we can stop promoting and elevating fear as a motivation for our actions. The more we do that, the more superficial the things on which we base our fear…to the point where we become afraid of each other based on something as ultimately superficial as the color of our skin.

I’m praying that our news media will honor its responsibility to inform citizens, discover truth, and uncover corruption rather than selfishly escalating viewers’ emotions and inflaming conflict in the interest of selling more of its product.

I’m praying that white Americans can begin to empathize with the different perception our black neighbors have of life in our country. That we can recognize our privileged position in society and admit that we are able to live without much of the daily anxiety African-Americans must endure every moment of every day. That we can stop deflecting the argument toward so-called “black-on-black” violence. Or the notion that had Darren Wilson and Michael Brown been of the same race, their confrontation would have never made headlines. Those are cheap excuses that keep us from confronting legitimate issues.

I’m praying that the people of Jesus, who should be best equipped to bring about the kind of change that can end violence and injustice, will worry less about the silent voices of invisible imps and demons tempting them to misbehave and worry more about the systemic sin of an industrial/political/military complex that stirs fear and mistrust in order to protect its wealth and power and privilege. I’m praying that we will take seriously the call to stand up for the poor and oppressed and marginalized and stop defending those who oppress and marginalize.

And finally, I’m praying for love. Not a soft, sentimental emotion, but a love that has the power to burst through horrifying events to create communities of genuine affection and caring. A love that refuses to fear and insists on kindness, respect, dignity, and the common good.

A love that breaks down barriers and exposes our mutual humanity.

That’s my prayer for Ferguson. And for all of us.

Amen.

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.