Archives for the month of: November, 2013

Grace is thrown around all the time. We are reminded it is not us, instead it is the grace of God that saves. These words have crisscrossed our nation and gone into all the world. And this is good news. Our salvation does not depend on our activity or our social location or our gender or wealth. It is truly grace, but grace is more.

I think I was in 6th grade when the Magic Eye books hit the market. These books were received with great excitement. I hear these abstract images gave way to a 3-D image of a horse or a lion or three crosses or whatever. I wonder if this was a well-marketed practical joke because I never saw anything other than the original image. Try as I might, I could not adjust my view to see the “magic” image.

Even though the “aha” never came with the magic eye books, I have been witness to new things from old. It is the beautiful thing about life and language. Something that has turned almost wooden or rote can spring to new life.

This happens all the time as I practice dwelling in the word. I was taught dwelling in the word in a Master’s Program at Rochester College. This way of reading with others has a way of opening us to God. The second semester we focused our dwelling on a familiar text, Philippians 2:5-18. As we read, I was drawn into a phrase I’d heard all my life, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

That text washed over me and I started to recount, to work out my own salvation. The people and the stories and the activities and the sacraments. Moment by moment I remembered. I guess I had never taken account of all this but to reflect was an act of grace. Memories of many kinds. Landmark decisions, small almost inconsequential moments. Sad moments and joyful ones. This was grace.

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 We read from Job at church a couple weeks ago. “I know that my redeemer lives.” The words echoed through the service. Again and again we turned to those words. “I know, I know that my redeemer lives.”

Those words transported me back to a packed hospital room. We had far exceeded the ICU visitor limit, but no one seemed to care. The gathering was full of familiar faces. Faces that helped raise my brothers and I. Those who Mamaw and Papaw had shared life with. Dad and Mamaw stood on the right side of the bed. Mamaw held Papaw’s hand, as the song dashed out our tears.

We sang the chorus as loudly as our grief would allow. “I know, I know that my redeemer lives.”

These are the moments where my salvation was worked out. The daring speech of Scripture gave us the ability to stand in an ICU and declare life. “I know, I know my redeemer lives.”

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 Last week Miroslav Volf’s Facebook status got me to thinking. He said, “When suffering comes, sometimes we see only the dark abyss of nothingness, but sometimes through the darkness God’s face shines on us.” This truth is what continues to draw me back to the Christian story.

If I told you I never had doubts, I would be lying. Actually, sometimes the doubts are so strong I can barely bring myself to pray. The doubts take different forms. At times, it is the logic of it all. I just cannot find solid footing in the arguments. Other times questions about suffering and pain spark doubt.

Still other times it is the dark abyss of nothingness Volf describes.

The Avett Brothers have this song called “Winter in My Heart.” They play on the oft-used winter imagery to unpack a gray, cold moment in their life. I know what they mean. If our souls have seasons—and I believe they do—this has been a winter season for me. The most difficult part, which The Avett Brothers agree, is “I don’t know what the reasons are.”

But the reality of grace is even in the dark abyss, even God’s face shines. God finds us in the great and the gloomy. The praise and the lament. Volf’s Facebook message is one way I am being saved. It caught me and it was grace for me.

God’s salvation is happening; we are being saved. This activity must be shared. It is more than grace for our individual souls. These are the stories we must tell, so together we can work out our salvation.

So may you live in the reality of how you are being saved. I hope you reflect on the moments, the great and the small, of salvation. May they cover you as the water covers the sea.

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Stories can take many forms. Some are straightforward narrations of life and others are imaginative tales likely full of vampires or zombies. The powerful thing about a good story is it can work regardless of the material, yet a good story must know the core of its being. Breaking Bad played well because Vince Gilligan and his team of writers knew what they had and they were faithful to the story. It made sense and was compelling from the first to the final frame.

I think this is an issue for the church today. We are unsure what kind of story we are a part of. It is easy to lose sense of the ongoing narrative in day to day, but it is the most important task of the church. We must be drawn into God’s past, present, and future to ground ourselves for life.

As I thought about this today, I came across a short blog post on Richard Beck’s blog. The simple post is a reflection on the Pope’s embrace of a man with severely disfigured man. Above his reflection is a picture of Pope Francis as he hugs the man. This is no small action; it is reminiscent of the way of Jesus. Prior to this, a little boy made national news when he ran on stage to greet Pope Francis during a speech, and it was with great care that he welcomed the little boy. Pope Francis is a man who understands the story he is a part of. The life of the Crucified Messiah is in his imagination.

A good storyteller must have an imagination. They must be so immersed in the thickness of their narrative world that they are able to transport the listener or reader into the new reality.

Last night, I read an article about Stephen Colbert’s writing team. The 15-person team works hard every night to hold to the shows vision. The success of every bit and each joke is weighed against the backdrop of the world of Colbert. They must have a working imagination of life on the Colbert Report. If their writing falls outside of the arc, the show and its narrative disappears. The show does not work if the writer draws on something outside of the narrative’s core.

This is what I think we are. We are a collection of writers in the ongoing, unfolding story of God. It is God’s activity that sets the vision and shape. Our task is to be so drawn into the imagination of the unfolding Christian story that we are able to speak and perform the story. We must know the sweeping moves or we will get lost in the minutia or worse “jump the shark” all together. It will be like a narrative that spends far too long describing the bookshelf in the main characters home office. The description might set the room nicely, but will likely be lost on the reader.

I like what Doug Foster says in Seeking a Lasting City. “Our story is the story of Christ. If anything has to be kept straight, it’s who Christ is and therefore who and what the church is. Christ’s identity and nature define his church as redeemed people who, like Christ give themselves for others.”

The Church is a collection of people who are at their best are constantly reminded of the story in which God has called us into. We need to always be reminded this story is about a God with a jealous love for the world and plans to put all things back to right.

The text for one of my first sermons was Romans 12:1-8. You might know the opening line or two from memory. It reads,

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The sermon was not great, but one thing stuck with me from my time of study. The whole text is built from what proceeds it—note the therefore. The call for a radical life comes on certain grounds. A life lived well is drawn from the view of God’s mercies. Now this is the brilliance of Paul’s letters. He spends the first 11 chapters painting a picture of God’s mercy, love, and salvation. God’s grace informs our grace. God’s mercy, our mercy. This is not a new idea, but it is crucial to our way of life.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about Christian hope, but this hope is much more than a feeling in my mind. It is bigger than cognitive expectation. It is that which I live and move and breathe. My imagination of hope calls me into a particular way of life. I think it does for all of us. This is why it is so important to have a broad imagination of Christian hope.

As mentioned previously, Christian hope is often related to the individual. We are people that are called into life with the living God. This reality is described in different ways all over Scripture. In Christ, we are made new. Part of what it means to be saved is we all are welcomed back into relationship with God. The prodigal son story becomes our story. Although we all left for the far country, the faithful God welcomes us back. Even more, 2 Peter says we can become participants in the divine nature.

This means we live as children of God. Paul calls us to participate in the faith of Jesus. A faith that relies on the will of God—even in the uncertain moments. The garden moments of our life are when our prayers are more let this cup pass, than make this happen. Christian hope calls us to serious trust in God. A trust I often have little interest in.

But Christian imagination offers much more than a simple individual faith and practice. Much of the salvation imagery is related to a communal life that moves beyond our comfort zone. Jesus models this way of life as he eats with sinners, touches the untouchable, and welcomes the outcast. Learning to be participants in the faith of Jesus demands a similar way of life. Each week we celebrate a table that is for all and this hope must come to life. A major part of the good news of God and one of the ways we are being saved is by a gracious embrace of others. Living out this kind of hope means sharing what we can with the world. It means opening our homes. It means loving the unlovable. It means narrowing the divide between the haves and the have nots. It means welcome the alien, stranger, and enemy.

This is no easy practice because if we are really driven by this kind of hope then we do not just volunteer with the least of these every once in a while. The practice of hope calls us into a neighborliness that calls us outside of our control. Christian hope is more than random good deeds; it is a consistent commitment to loving others where they are. This kind of life for the oppressed, broken, alien, and poor is not driven by piety, instead, it is driven by an imagination of God’s kingdom. A new world where there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are made new by the renewing of the Son.

Often we focus on the miraculous activity of Jesus, but the powerful action was more than supernatural. It was found in the openness to the other. Christian hope, while individual, calls us beyond our self-centered concern toward a life for the other. God’s grace is more than a transaction that makes us residents in heaven, it is way of noticing and embracing the other.

Central to the Biblical imagery is peace. From Isaiah to the Gospels to the Epistles, reconciliation is central. Christian hope envisions a world where division is replaced by unity. As participants in the faith of Jesus, we are to model a different way of life. Hope invites us into forgiveness and away from retribution. The Christian community should be a place where people come together under the name of Christ. The kingdom comes as we learn to live out peace. We participate in salvation when we accept someone who has wronged us with a full embrace. This kind of action is what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5. He calls us into a partnership with the living God. We are called into the reconciling work of God. Salvation happens as we learn to live peacefully with the other.

Hope is not just a part of belief. It is  the way of God; it has a practice. A robust hope finds expression in the now. It means we take seriously the lives of people now. It means we take care of the poor, the outcast, and the prisoner now. It means we take relationships seriously. It means we take identity seriously. Not because taking care of the poor is a fine thing to do or forgiveness is a moral quality or because peace is better than war. These practices are born from a robust Christian hope. It the way we participate in the faith of Jesus and live as ambassadors to the living God.

I read Donald Miller’s Blue like Jazz years ago. It struck a chord like it did for others my age. The book caught me at the right moment. I still remember a few lines of the book. Bits and pieces here and there. The line I remember  most clearly comes from the opening page. It reads,

“I am early in my story, but I believe I will stretch out into eternity, and in heaven I will reflect upon these days when it seemed God was down a dirt road, walking toward me. Years ago He was a swinging speck in the distance; now He is close enough I can hear His singing. Soon I will see the lines on his face.”

It makes me smile as I think about the jagged pen mark drawn under the section. (I like to mark up books that I read, but I cannot seem to draw a straight line. Wise friends have encouraged me to use a book mark as a guideline, but who uses a bookmark? So a jagged line under the text of my book is a line of love. A sign of approval.)

I have always loved the image Miller paints here. Oh, it might not be the perfect theological picture. Salvation is more than a personal relationship with Jesus, and yet it is personal, and the image of Jesus coming towards him is beautiful. It leans toward the belief that Jesus is pursing us. Ours is a suffering with God; God dives right into the middle of our situation. This is the good news of the incarnation and the cross. For God so loved the world. . .

The book is a spiritual memoir of sorts. Don narrates his dealings with Jesus along the way. The highs and lows. The thing I loved about this book was the language it offered my situation. It helped me name my doubts and understand hope differently.

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Each Sunday we close communion with a congregational prayer. In the prayer we thank God for the mysterious food just received, and we end the prayer with the phrase “world without end.”

The phrase catches me each week. The beauty and expectancy of it all. Its hopeful note settles deep in my soul. The way a good song seeps past your mind’s eye towards your belly, full of warmth and richness.

This short phrase draws me into the good news of God. The good news that remains well beyond the misery where real people live. I think of the powerful lion lying down with the lamb. Even more I think of the child playing near the Cobra’s den. What a beautiful image in a society where Sandy Hook is a reality. Where danger lurks for too many children.

I think of our mighty weapons of war being turned into plowshares. The hope that speaks in the face of chemical weapons, terrorist attacks and preemptive strikes.

The promise of reconciliation and newness crosses all over the Bible. A world where unity replaces division. Where walls are replaced by long tables full of men and women, the rich and the poor, the lazy and the hardworking, the disabled and Crossfit champion, the hipster and the not-so-hipster and everyone in between.

And I think about Don’s image. The moment when I will see the lines on His face.

Each week we say “world without end.” Some weeks these words find me high and some weeks they find me in a low moment, but they find me and I am reminded of the depth of our hope. It is much more than a place for eternity. It is a world put back together by creator God and this is good news. World without end.