Christian Life ...

Christian Life ...
Christian life is meant to be a life of bearing much fruit. What does that look like? How do we get there? This blog will record thoughts and meditations about living a life striving to be a fruitful branch.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Spirit of the Thief

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy" -John 10:10a


This ever-frequently shared tiny bible fragment is so poignant with meaning. But the idea on a literal sense is some what odd. What does it really mean to be a thief? What does it mean to kill? And what is destruction? Is this thief a real person? This is what happens with Christ's teachings. His use of parables, images, metaphor and stories rarely provide concrete answers but instead direct his students/listeners/readers/followers to think about and ask more questions. But with these word, the first thing I thought about was complete devastation. The thief's action encompasses the idea of the image of physical, violent loss, death and destruction that is shown above. The thief's actions if unchecked would lead to complete ruin... Still, it goes deeper than rubble like in the picture above.


In John 10, Jesus also uses the Good Shepherd metaphor. It's a Bible passage I always seem to come back to, because the idea that God would choose to be like shepard is astounding. He could be a king and he chose to be like a shepherd. Shepherding sounds like an awful job. Sheep smell bad, they can't defend themselves and some breeds of sheep literally need to be sheered or they fail to function properly. The weight of John 10 is found in the juxtaposition of the thief and the shepherd. Their attitudes reside on opposite poles of perspective.

Still, what triggered this thought-scape was the idea that there are simple facts of life that are the embodiment of this metaphorical thief. First, back in December I stumbled jogging into work at hit my head on the concrete. It wasn't terrible, but  I was diagnosed with a minor concussion and missed a day of work. Nonetheless, brain injuries, however small, can be life changing and are always to be taken seriously. Second, my brother in law recently received another all clear after his battle with cancer. He's been cancer free and well for quite sometime now, but it was still a striking reminder of how a healthy person could suddenly become so inexplicably ill.

There's a concept in Christian thought that the truly awful things of this world: pure evil, natural disaster, cancer, traumatic brain injuries, sickness and ... sometimes anything that may make some individual Christians uncomfortable... are the direct results of sin in the world. To say the least, this isn't my favorite way of thinking about bad things, because it's frequently followed by a sins of the fathers type idea, or statements like "this hurricane is happening because society is veering away from traditionally Christian morals". In my assessment, Christians shouldn't be saying these things because they could be down right, flat out, and our right false. Instead of theorizing about what evil deed resulted in a specific bad thing, I posit that diseases, injury, natural disasters and bad stuff, are all about good things having become twisted. These things are evidence that God's "Garden of Eden" created order has been stolen away, that pure and right relationships have been killed, and that perfectly good creation has been subject to destruction. Bad stuff happens because bad stuff happens. The fall happened. There was Eve, there was free will, and their was a serpent...

So there appears another common explanation in Christian thought for why bad things happen. Some equate them to the tangible acts of Satan upon the world. While it's not theologically false per-say, I think I've found a much more life guiding and productive way to think about it. Sometimes, if we think of the bad things, the evil things, or the ugly things of this world, as the work of Satan (or as previously mentioned, as consequences for the past sins of humanity) it suggests that its all of our hands. We can't free ourselves from sin. We can't dodge evil or bad things. This is true, but that doesn't mean confront them or mobilize against the phenomena. For that reason I find it more helpful to think of the evil, and bad things of the world as evidence of the spirit of the thief. This allows us to think of how we can combat that spirit. We can defend ourselves from the spirit of the thief and work in the Holy Spirit to fight against it. Since, the work of this thief is so at work in everyday life on earth, we as Christians must resolutely reject the spirit of the thief. Humans are sinful and have evil thoughts, that is not be argued against. But Christ has also one the war against sin, death and Satan and we have His Spirit within us to guide us and help us live a life in His strength where we are fruitful by His design for His purposes. To be a fruitful branch, the implication means we must reject the ways we choose to steal, kill and destroy and instead aim to do the opposite.

So that brings us back to that shepherd. Jesus, who is traditionally said to be the good sheperd incarnate. says in Matthew 5:22 "but I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, Fool!' will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, You moron!' will be subject to hellfire." This of course comes right after Christ upholds the law as governing, saying of course it is wrong to murder. Still, with this quote Jesus brings to light a higher standard. It's not only our actions point to our but our attitude. So it's not only our actions in the spirit of the thief we have to avoid but our attitudes as well

The attitudes behind stealing are vast. I hit on one idea here on this blog in the post Stealing from Our Creator. The idea being, by personally neglecting our spiritual growth we are stealing from God, because he has promised us that he will equip us for work in the kingdom. So an attitude of worry or selfishness or laziness could create the spirit of the thief. I think of work too. I once read a lent devotional by Dietrich Bonheoffer where he attested that there is a time for work and a time for prayer. Many time I find myself distracting myself from work by taking time to pray. This is a spirit of stealing from my work. This issue also applies to relationships. When we prioritize self or isolate ourselves, we are not only stealing from our own social well being but that of our friends and family.

Christ's words in the fifth chapter of Matthew hit directly on how the idea of killing can be extrapolated into the realm of attitude. When we curse others, wish them harm or experience rage, it's not much different. Curses, and anger directed at someone are as good as murder by Christ's explanation of the law. This attitude could also be extrapolated to other facets of life. Killing productivity, cutting off productive conversations, the concept is almost endlessly applicable. The attitude of destruction follows suit. We can sabotage, or tear down the work we are doing in the Kingdom with destructive attitudes. In short the thief steals away fruitfulness, kills our livelihood (spiritual or otherwise), works to destroy whatever we have built. These attitudes can be directed at ourselves, at God, or at others, and do nothing but inhibit our efforts toward sanctification and the advancement of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The attitudes of the thief are completely anti-kingdom. We all face them daily, if not ever few minutes, and we must be mindful to catch them before lead to actions. There is a sickeningly pleasant feeling that we can get when we get wrapped up in the attitudes of the thief. These attitudes taste sweet to us. When we indulge in these attitudes it can fill us up, we think only of ourselves and our desire, we feel powerful, we feel rich. Christ never thought of himself once. He laid down his life. All the time he was looking away from his self interest. He looked only to God and only to his fellow humans. When he did feel the fear and the weight of death in the garden of Gethsemane he feel on his knees in prayer, again looking only to God. Christ lifted petition to God in the garden of Gethsemane, but it was still in the heart of submission not out of self interest.

Let us remember the selfless work of the shepherd. The down and dirty effort to care for the flock. Let us not savor the sweet taste of the attitudes of the thief, but spit them out when they touch our tongues. The world holds enough of that attitude within itself to allow it inside of us. This year, as a type of new year's resolution, I aimed to make an effort to be more mindful. That can be a touchy subject in Christian circles because some mindfulness techniques are based off of eastern meditation, or new age theory. Still, I am a firm believer that humanity can teach us a lot about how, as Christians, we can relate to God. It's helped me. Simply making an effort to be more aware of what I feel is key to knowing what's really going on inside of me. It has seriously helped shorten the effects of the bad attitudes I get trapped within.

But now as a month and a half have gone by, I need more. I need more than just to be mindful. I need to be prayerful. I need to be aware of what I feel and be bringing it constantly to God. How can we be like the good shepherd and combat the attitudes of the thief? We must seek the source of all good in the world. We must be alert to the spirit inside of us and be mindful not only of our emotions, sensations and actions, but also our attitudes. From that mindfulness, we must practice to turn it into prayer. With this mindful+plus+prayerful attitude, we can open ourselves up to hearing from God and relating to God more like Jesus did. Without it, we are constantly susceptible to the ways of the thief who wriggles and worms his way into our process to steal, kill and destroy. With it we can do the opposite. We can provide for people, share, heal, encourage, build up and cultivate. This can help us to become a fruitful branch.



Monday, November 5, 2018

Sword and Shield

Spiritual life is filled with us and downs. The trials and triumphs are a part of humanity. We all feel the weight of life and the effects of sin in the world to some extent or another. But one of the most visceral and universal of it's effects of this on any individual soul, is self defense. Human nature tells us we fight for what we have. Then we defend what we have and what we do. The idea that we are self made. It's what makes us fight and why countries start wars with each other.

A general review of the Old Testament reveals God trying to instill the fact that He is in control into the consciousness of his people. One of the best examples of this is the story in Exodus 17 when the Israelite's were fighting against the Amalekites and only when Moses kept his hands in the air did the Israelites did they even stand a chance. They may have been the people fighting, but God was defending them. If Moses set aside his prayerful posture the homeless wandering travelers he was leading, predictably, did not fare well against an army. But Moses lifting his hands held high to God (which he even needed help with) was enough for the Israel to overcome the Amalekite forces.

From this story I pull some applications. As a child of God, he is in control. While I am not personally fighting a war, I can still know God as my defender. At least, I can know that He will continue defend the me that He created, that is to say the me that is in right relationship with Him.

As a Christian I find myself constantly drifting a little bit here and there from my avenue of growth to becoming my-heavenly-self. While, I'm not fighting for my life or wandering through the desert, that sometimes does sound like a pretty good metaphor for my faith journey. While the Israelites grumbled because they didn't know where they were going and they didn't fit in anywhere, I grumble mostly because a deep-seeded desire to be understood. Frequently, when I feel misunderstood I get defensive.

One summer, I gifted a Catholic Miraculous medal at a inter-denominational church camp. A young Catholic man had just shared his testimony of God's faithfulness and he gave them out in handfuls to everyone who attended his seminar. This challenged me. Hearing truth about God from a from a theological point of view that differs from one's own is always challenging. Simply put the medal was almost too much. If you don't know a miraculous medal is a charm to be worn as a necklace. It has been, for lack of a better term, baptized by Catholic priests in different bodies of water and prayed over, so that the one who wears it would carry with them prayers of safety and well being. I wear it most days now not as a miraculous charm that will keep me safe and well, but as a symbol of the power of faith and prayer. and a reminder of my safety and security in Christ.

These days I wear this on the same string as an old cross necklace formed in the general shape of a sword. This specific charm was given to me by my aunt and, by her report, could date back to 16th Century England. It's really dense and heavy. I first started wearing a cross in the shape of sword years ago. The charm was store bought and cheep and look more like a sword. At that time it represented the sword of the spirit from Ephesians, where Paul uses the metaphor of the armor of God and in it the sword, the offensive weapon represents the spirit and Word of God. I saw the cross in the shop and thought of that passage and what it would mean to where a symbol of my savior, his identity and words around my neck and resting against my heart and it was really compelling.


It's somewhat funny that even though I know the symbolism of these charms around my neck and put them on almost daily that, recently, I have failed to live my life taking their sentiments to heart. I don't believe that a symbol can magically make me well or defend me, or compel me to think in any special way, but I'd forgotten the purpose of wearing the necklace. It's internal. It's the way I think. It's they way that I posture myself. It's my attitude.

Fear and anger are constants for everyone. They frequently, one way or another, go hand and hand. The Israelites were scared as lonely desert wanderers and because of that, they got mad at God. When I become afraid that I'm misunderstood, or for some reason un-understandable, I put up my defenses. I raise my sword and shield. When we as humans feel afraid, we react to attack, defend or isolate. In my own daily life, I battle the choice to grumble and revolt. I want to clench my fists and fight more than I'm proud to admit. I hate when people are in pain. I hate when I feel that passion is being misconstrued or that I am being misunderstood. I raise my shield and draw my sword. I close myself in isolation and I push people away. These attitudes are like poison to the idea of being a fruitful branch.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, I am not my own defender. I am not meant to fight all of the battles in the world. I shouldn't fear misunderstanding, but simply do my work and live my life with integrity, as a follower of Jesus. God is my defender. He is my sword and shield.

Lord, help me to take my place as Your servant. Help me to see as You see. Help me to serve the people I meet. Lord, help me to forget defensiveness and aggressiveness as a reaction to fear or frustration. Instead, give me wisdom, Lord, to find the right words to speak and the right steps to take. You are my shield and defender. I lay down my emotional desire to fight and life my hands to You. Amen. 


Monday, September 17, 2018

The Veiled World Seen Rightly

In Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest devotional for September 12th is about going through spiritual confusion. As I read this, I was struck by it's resonance with my spirit. It was odd to me because I don't feel particularly confused at this point of my life. I'm newly married. I've held the same job for nearly four years, my church is vibrant and growing and things are really quite good. Here's the post which can be found at utmost.org:


September 12th
Going Through Spiritual Confusion
by Oswald  Chambers
There are times in your spiritual life when there is confusion, and the way out of it is not simply to say that you should not be confused. It is not a matter of right and wrong, but a matter of God taking you through a way that you temporarily do not understand. And it is only by going through the spiritual confusion that you will come to the understanding of what God wants for you.

The Shrouding of His Friendship (see Luke 11:5-8). Jesus gave the illustration here of a man who appears not to care for his friend. He was saying, in effect, that is how the heavenly Father will appear to you at times. You will think that He is an unkind friend, but remember— He is not. The time will come when everything will be explained. There seems to be a cloud on the friendship of the heart, and often even love itself has to wait in pain and tears for the blessing of fuller fellowship and oneness. When God appears to be completely shrouded, will you hang on with confidence in Him?

The Shadow on His Fatherhood (see Luke 11:11-13). Jesus said that there are times when your Father will appear as if He were an unnatural father— as if He were callous and indifferent— but remember, He is not. “Everyone who asks receives…” (Luke 11:10). If all you see is a shadow on the face of the Father right now, hang on to the fact that He will ultimately give you clear understanding and will fully justify Himself in everything that He has allowed into your life.

The Strangeness of His Faithfulness (see Luke 18:1-8). “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Will He find the kind of faith that counts on Him in spite of the confusion? Stand firm in faith, believing that what Jesus said is true, although in the meantime you do not understand what God is doing. He has bigger issues at stake than the particular things you are asking of Him right now.

Still the ideas of this devotional resonated so deeply in me as mysteriously as pure truth. To be a fruitful branch we have to abide in Christ. That's the pure and simple idea of this blog and this text expresses how God's ways may sometimes be a mystery to us. We may be shrouded in confusion. We both may feel that God is far from us.


When look back at my past I remember how the veiled plan of God, the delayed answer of prayer, appeared to me. The limitation of my understanding drove me both to crippling fear and doubt. But the picture above reminds me of a turning point. It was around March, about five or six years ago, and I found myself in a major funk. I got up on a day off, shaking the metaphoric dust off my feet, to go on a cold walk around Lake Harriet near my home in South Minneapolis. I remember just sitting on the cement behind the iconic band-shell, looking out onto the foggy frozen lake. At the time it was a stunning replica of what I felt my future looked like, cold, grey and uncertain. Cross country skiers and winter winds had carved vague paths through the snow covered ice that winded out into the foggy oblivion with destinations uncertain. From hindsight, this is a good memory. The image of that foggy vista struck me in my spirit and called to honest prayer. In that moment, the season of spiritual confusion changed from being a hindrance to my spiritual growth to being fuel for it. As Chambers would say I hung "on with confidence in Him". Recently at Resurrection Minneapolis Church in South Minneapolis, Pastor David Berge gave a sermon on doubt. Take a listen here if you wish, its content definitely informed some of the base for my processing of this post. The idea at an absurdly basic level is that it is critically wrong to think of the church as a doubt free zone. Faith and doubt are not directly exclusive of each other.

 

Based on this, I come to this question: what is spiritual confusion? It's not just when negative stuff happens to us, or when we are in a period of doubt. The craziness about the life in Christ is that there is power in both good and bad to distract the people of God form kingdom work. Like Chambers said, "it is not a matter of right and wrong", but of God using circumstance to mold us into greater understanding. To put it plainly, during this season of my life in which I find myself so content, there's danger that I may fall into the spiritual confusion that I am in control.
 
This is where the picture above is a bit misleading. Using fog as an image of spiritual confusion elicits thoughts of fear. It's mysterious, constraining, and therefore naturally aligned with the forces of evil and chaos. It's not individual. It just happens and humanity has to deal with it. The words Chambers chooses  in bold headings of his text are, shadow, shroud, and strangeness. These images are metaphoric to our perception of God. The last part is where the truth comes in. God is God as we are not. Our sin separates us from him and he is strange to us.


We don't see the world like God sees. We don't have his vision. We see the world through a veil. It's a part of the human condition that our vision is imperfect. However, how it's how we think about that veil that leads us in how we react to spiritual confusion. We can misconstrue our limited vision and understanding as a shroud that is meant to constrict us, or we can carry on where we are as people created by God, limited in our very existence. The idea of a veil brings to mind another symbol. That of marriage. In the bride bridegroom relationship of the church and Christ, it makes sense that we the church are veiled. We are covered and we have the promise that the will of Christ the bride groom that when he returns to earth we will be made one. The concept allows us to think of this veil of human limitation and our earthly frustrations as fleeting and temporary. It's the concept of one of my favorite hymns: Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. "And the things of earth will grow strangely dim" doesn't completely mean that the time we spend on earth is not worth our consideration but instead that it will pass.



In reading the Text from Oswald Chambers, I am struck by how even through now there is so much good and positive in my life, I have been seeing the world and misjudging my own spiritual need. I've not sought God's word with the same fervor as when I was in darker times. Instead in my comfort I've fallen into an unexpected state of spiritual confusion. I find myself grumbling again when little things don't go my way. This text has called be back to the right understanding of my veiled perspective. Even in this good time, I am not good or responsible for the gifts of security and joy giving relationships I have been given by God. Instead I come to the same conclusion as when I walked home from the foggy and frozen lake. Lord, You are in control. I will seek You still. Lead me in Your ways, for the good of Your Kingdom. Amen.



 

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Towel or the Crown

“Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him." -John 13:12b-18 (ESV)
Foot washing is an intimate and disgusting business. There are many times when I am hesitant to wash my own feet much less someone else's. Feet get stinky and gross quicker that other parts of the body. I'd rather pass.

This past Sunday, July 15th, 2018, Matt Anderson, new Associate Pastor of Discipleship and Local Mission at Resurrection MPLS, in Minneapolis, MN spoke and in his message, which should up loaded for listening on sound cloud if you follow Resurrection MPLS, he talked about a major problem in the church: a lack of discipleship.

Matt referenced Dallas Willard who calls this folly in the church the Great Omission, referring to the how missing the mark on discipleship goes directly against the great commission after all Christ called his disciples to make disciples of all nations.

Do what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ. Pastor Anderson opened the question up to the congregation and the answers were, student, following, or devoted follower. He defined a disciple as an apprentice.

That to me is an interesting angle. An apprentice follows around a master of a craft and learns from them by following what they do. If we are to also be disciples of Christ what does this passage say about how we should posture ourselves.

As Christians in this day and age we have to be aware of the different influences we have around us. We have influences of our surrounding culture and psychology that effects the way that we behave. On major force in our culture and its psychology is the enlightenment and it's emphasis on knowledge. For that reason, this era in the church is all about studying deeply and feeding the spiritual intellect. With our subconscious guiding our focus to knowledge, we can lose sight of the mission and heart of the matter. In seeking after knowledge we align ourselves more as a disciples of the Pharisees who Jesus sparred with than Christ himself.

In John 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet and they are completely stunned. He uses it as an example of how they should be too. He tells them to serve others to pick up a towel. There's tons of commentary and thought about his passage of scripture, regarding Peter's response and what Jesus was saying to his disciples for this this purpose right how, I just what to apply this to what it means to be a follower of Christ today.

At the Project Timothy conference I wrote my last post about, a leader talked about choosing to reach for a towel instead of a crown. So much of the time when we are striving for knowledge we are really seeking recognition. Or we get turned off to the nudgings of the spirit because they don't seem to be the great things we feel called to do. Seeing a crown is seeking recognition or seeking self elevation, and Christ has none of that. When he picks up a towel and moves to wash his disciples feet he's doing the work of a lowly servant and he explicitly calls his disciples to do that same workIf we are to be disciples called to disciple others we must actually practice doing what Jesus does. That's what an apprentice does. They watch what the master does and then they work on their craft until they figure it out. A lot of the time we find the spirit calling us to do something, start a ministry, pray for a person, help this person with what they need, and we miss it. Maybe it feels like too much of a hassle or it would disrupt our schedules. Maybe we're afraid that we'll look foolish or the experience will be awkward. It's as if we are so special that we cannot be bothered by the problems of the other. Instead of reaching to take  action we reach up to adjust the crown on our heads that may have been knocked crooked by suggestion that we should alter our course.

I know I'm guilty of that.

Christ did not for one minute think about his own good, instead he always looked to the Father for direction which always lead to look to the other first. We must practice reaching for a towel instead of a crown. We have to be okay with letting our plans get changed when there's work to be done and people the spirit prods us to serve. We can't allow the awkwardness or the fact that we may not be well received turn us away. That's just stinky feet. It's part of the business.

Lastly, as apprentices, we are not masters and when we are called to create disciples I hit a bit of a barrier because it seems pretty evident that we are looking at the blind leading the blind situation if I step up to action. Leave room in your practice for grace. We learn from scripture that church leaders are not perfect. Paul literally murdered Christians and admitted to a thorny hindrance that bothered him until death. Peter denied Christ three times and had numerous experiences where he totally misunderstood the scope of the mission of Christ. As apprentices of Christ we are never done learning. Paul says,"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1), and that should be our aim as disciples that make disciples. While we seek Christ we seek to look to others to lead them to Christ.

So in our everyday life let us remember that practicing our faith is truly all that we can do. We must look to Christ and the Spirit within us to alert us to a moment when we have the option to reach for a towel or a crown. Let us follow Christ, and lead others to him by acting sacrificially, wrapping the towel around us, humbly stepping into the role of a servant, and, though it may be stinky, doing the dirty and personal work like washing feet.