“Our Healing is in our Obedience”

Pieter Aertsen 1507/08 – 1575 The Healing of the Cripple of Bethesda

Pieter Aertsen 1507/08 – 1575
The Healing of the Cripple of Bethesda

“Our healing is in our obedience.”

I’ve been musing on this phrase ever since Rich [Hagopian, for those of you who don’t know my pastor] said this during this past Sunday’s message on the healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda in John 5:1-15.

The basic story is that Jesus comes upon this man who he has learned has been in this condition for 38 years. It was believed that if you could get into the water when it was stirred, you could be healed.

Jesus asks him, “do you want to be well?” The man never answers this searching question. Yet it had to be asked–you can get accustomed to being sick, having others care for you and so forth, to the point that healthy life is the scary thing.

Instead, the man gives the many reasons why he could not get into the pool before others. This provokes all kinds of questions and one wonders if this is a pretty lame excuse.

Jesus neither questions the answer or re-asks his original question. Jesus doesn’t blame or judge him. Instead, Jesus simply tells him to get up and take his mat with him. The man does what Jesus says, and in so doing, in the moment of obedience, finds himself healed. His healing is in his obedience. In doing what Jesus says, he finds he is able to walk.

It seems to me that this speaks to those critical moments where we face the choice to trust and follow Jesus in some critical area of obedience, or not. On the one hand, we often can come up with many reasons why we haven’t been able to follow up until now. On the other hand, we sometimes want all kinds of assurances and proofs that Jesus will heal us, help us, be with us, before we follow.

And like this incident, there will be times where none of it matters.

The only thing in those moments is, will we trust that Jesus knows what he is doing enough to do what he says? Sometimes, that is all he will give us and we can only find whether he is true by obeying him.

Probably in my own life, the area where I’ve most been challenged by this is in the matter of giving. It seems crazy, mathematically at least, to set aside a portion of my salary each month for kingdom purposes and to somehow believe that what remains (especially after Uncle Sam gets his chunk!) will be enough. There is no way to know that will be the case before you do it! Yet the crazy paradox is that it is the times when I’ve not been faithful in giving where I’ve felt the most financially stressed. Leaning into giving and generosity, as crazy as it seems, has been the thing that has helped heal me from being obsessed about having “enough.” My healing in the areas of worry about money has been in obedience.

And God has taken care of us through 36-plus years of marriage, and sometimes miraculously, such as the time when we were facing $2000 in unreimbursed medical bills, and the same day we added this up we received a gift of $2000 from someone who said God had told them to send us a check.

I continue to face these moments where I simply have to decide, will I trust Jesus enough to do what he says, laying aside my excuses and not asking for any proofs (which really don’t make obedience easier).

What about you? It might be that the place where you find it hard to trust and obey is the very place where Jesus can bring healing as you obey. What does “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” look like for you?

This blog also appears on Smoky Row Brethren Church’s Going Deeper blog.

No Wine Before Its Time

By Sujit kumar (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sujit kumar (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“We will sell no wine before its time” was a famous tag line from a series of commercials featuring Orson Welles in the 1970s. There were a number of “untimely” occurrences in the wedding at Cana incident where Jesus turns water into wine, which we considered this past Sunday in our pastor’s message on John 2:1-12:

  • The wedding wine was running out, an embarrassment to the bridegroom and his family.
  • When Jesus’s mother tells him about the problem, he responds, “my hour has not yet come.”
  • Mom ignores Jesus’s words and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says.
  • Jesus tells the servants to fill up six 20-30 gallon containers used for hand washing with clean water and then take some to the banquet master.
  • The banquet master upbraids the bridegroom for his “untimely” saving of the best wine for last.

So what time is it when Jesus does these kinds of things at a wedding? What most impressed me was that turning ceremonial cleansing water to wine is considered the first of seven signs John records to point us to how Jesus will give life to those who put their trust in him. The question is: what is the reality toward which this sign points?

The ceremonial water pointed toward the Jews awareness that they were a people set apart by God and that they were to live this in all of life. Cleanliness really was next to godliness for these people–it represented outwardly what they wanted to be true inwardly–to be a people for God, to worship God in community with all the others who share in this solemn promise called a covenant.

The problem with washing your hands is that you have to do it over and over again–and cleaning up my outsides doesn’t necessarily clean up my insides. And this is the wonder of what Jesus signifies in this sign–that he is the giver of the new wine that replaces the ceremonial water. We drink of him and it transforms us from the inside out.

But wine does something more. As Psalm 104:15 says, “Wine gladdens the heart.” The wine Jesus gives replaces ritual adherence with the joy and celebration of the bridegroom who has come!

There is one other element of “time” to consider here–Jesus’s statement that his hour had not yet come. What’s that all about? It seems that what Jesus is acknowledging to his mother is that it is not yet time for him to die for the sins of the world and that what she is asking will actually put him on the path that ends at the cross. The sign of wine reminds us of the cup we drink in communion that signifies and ushers us into the blood-bought intimacy with God we enjoy.

Rich concluded with a question and statement that I am pondering this week.

The question: Do we drink deeply of Jesus?

The statement: Most often, what we need most of Jesus is Jesus himself.

This challenges me in the busyness of life, and even my “religious” busyness–am I still over at water jugs washing my hands or even fretting about all the things “running out” in my life? Or am I coming with all this to drink deeply of the wine of Jesus? How about you?

Double Vision

IMG_2270Double vision. We usually do not consider this a good thing. A friend of ours suffering from MS could not drive for a period of time because of problems with double vision. Double vision resulting from crossed eyes (strabismus) in children is treated surgically as early as possible so the brain does not become accustomed to seeing double.

At the conclusion of our pastor’s message this week, our pastor spoke of the importance of a certain kind of double vision that not only appraises and celebrates where God has brought us thus far, but also looks to the future and the good that God might do among us. His message was a kind of “review” for our congregation that explored both where we are, and where, under God’s grace, we might go.

I was also struck that there is another kind of “double vision” that was evident to me in this message. It is the double vision that looks both at our congregation and our community. I was grateful for the reflection upon each and the model of “watchful brooding” over both, the kind of watchfulness shepherds exercise that watches both the flock and the surroundings, both for good pastures and possible threats. Here are some of my own responses to each:

Congregation (Who We Are): One important insight that Rich shared was our “highly-leveraged” character. For the most part, it is not a challenge to get us to “do more” and I am grateful that this is reflected in a recognition that we don’t need to add more things to our programming or congregational calendar. Most of us see our “ministry” as something that happens outside the church walls and our impact isn’t necessarily reflected in church growth so much as in the various workplaces, organizations, and informal networks we work in. There is a kind of hiddenness in this that seems attractive and is contrary to the ABC of “attendance, budget, and campus” that serves as the metric of success in American Christianity.

Two reflections in this regard: 1) It might be fun to “map” our involvements and explore the question, “if this is how God is gifting and calling each of us, how might he be calling ALL of us?” 2) It seems that what happens in our gatherings on Sundays, in Life groups and other gatherings in some way sustains and equips us for a good deal of ministry on the outside.  What was shared about having a “contextually appropriate strategy for deepening the spiritual transformation, the growth of discipleship” for our congregation really makes sense!

Community (Where We Are): I so appreciate the continued dreaming our pastor and so many are doing about serving the community that is northwest Columbus now. We have a Governance Team that really serves us well! One interesting insight for me, though, from the message, is that our building and property really is a key interface between our congregation and the wider community.

What is real for the community that encounters us is a place located at 7260 Smoky Row Road. It is a place where food is stored and distributed by caring people. It is a place where students, who traditional schools have been unable to help, have another alternative. It is a place where people grow fresh food while children play on our ark. It is a place where singers rehearse in our worship space, using our chairs and piano and lighting, while glimpsing the tangible signs of our life together as they come in and out. It is a place where people vote, and experience welcome as they do so.

So, while it doesn’t seem glamorous and seems “institutional” to pay attention to buildings, what struck me from what Rich shared is how many “flesh-and-blood” human beings interface with our congregation through the building and grounds at Smoky Row. As was noted, we’ve made lots of headway over the last years in improvements. But this realization also helps me see how urgent it is to pray for someone with the skills and passion needed to lead our stewardship of this place God has given us that is such a crucial interface with our community.

I’m moved by this message that as I pray for our church, I need to pray with “double vision” not only with regard to our past and future, but also with regard to praying both for our congregation, and for the community in the midst of which we gather and who we are called to serve. Our pastor gave us a great model of paying close attention both to what is going on inside our church and in our community. I hope I can imitate that as I pray for our life and mission.

These are the things that particularly encouraged and challenged me. How about you?

Going Deeper Questions: If you are from Smoky Row, what most encouraged you and what most challenged you from Rich’s message?

If you are someone else following the blog, what would it mean to have “double-vision” for your church and your community? What do you see as you look at each in your context?

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper blog.

Stranger Danger!

Source: _chrisUK at http://www.flickr.com/photos/_chrisuk/6500365853/. Used under Creative Commons License.

Source: _chrisUK at http://www.flickr.com/photos/_chrisuk/6500365853/. Used under Creative Commons License.

From the time I was young, I was taught to fear strangers. “Don’t talk to strangers!”, “Don’t accept candy from a stranger”, and “Never get into a car with a stranger.” That was good advice then, and still is–at least for our children. But will the fear of “the stranger” govern all my relationships with strangers as an adult? Will that fear keep me from being a neighbor to a needy “stranger” and stand in the way of that stranger becoming a beloved neighbor and friend?

Those were the questions posed to me from the message this past Sunday on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.  In case you are unfamiliar with the story, a man, presumably a Jew, gets mugged on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Both a priest and a Levite (really respected religious types) cross over to the other side of the road to avoid him. Even at best, this would make them late and “unclean” for their religious duties. At worst, it could be a trap and they could be mugged as well.

Then a “despised stranger”, a Samaritan comes along. In contrast to the others, he does seven things, at least whereby he becomes a “neighbor” to this Jew in distress: he takes pity on him (he sees his distress and allows it to move him), he goes to him (rather than crossing to the other side), he bandages his wounds, he pours on wine and oil to soothe and disinfect, he puts him on his donkey (which means the Samaritan walks), he cares for him at an inn (giving him shelter and time to recover), and he pays for an extended convalescence and guarantees his room fees. “Loving the neighbor” means sacrificing time, money, comfort and possibly putting himself at risk–and he does this for someone who, in other circumstances, may well have hated his guts!

It is interesting to think about who might the “Samaritan” be if Jesus were telling the story to us. I could easily envision this person being someone from the LGBT community. Perhaps Jesus would cast the person showing care as an undocumented immigrant. It might be that the person extending care would be a Muslim. Or maybe an atheist. Maybe it would just be that guy down the street who throws large parties attended by some unsavory folk. Would it change me to be on the receiving end of compassion from such a person?

Taking it a step further, does it required being cared for by the “Samaritans” in our lives to see them as beloved neighbors rather than hostile strangers? Must the “other” take the first step? Or might this story of Jesus challenge me as one of his followers to be the one who begins the “neighboring” process?

Doing this is scary. Our pastor spoke of the fact that this is risky business that involves courage. And it will change us. We could get hurt. We might be taken advantage of. And fellow believers might misunderstand us (“What, you are making friends with them?”).  What this calls us back to is the only safety any of us can really count on, the love of a God with whom we are completely secure.

We might also see a stranger become a beloved neighbor, if not a fellow believer. I have no idea where this can take you or me. What I do know is that if Samaritans can be neighbors, then anyone qualifies. Unlike the teacher of the law who delimited “neighbor” to his extended kin or maybe his own ethnic group, Jesus story breaks all the boundaries.

Questions for going deeper: Who is the “Samaritan stranger” in your world? Who are the “Samaritan strangers” for your church? What invitation might the Lord be giving you to be a neighbor and what practical step can you take?

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper blog.

Love and Lostness

The parable of the prodigal in Luke 15:11-32 is among the most famous Jesus told. Rembrandt did a famous painting of this story that has moved many. Yet to read the parable is always unsettling. I wonder why on earth a father would give half his estate to a son he knows is planning to squander it? That just does not seem like good parenting. It also doesn’t seem fair that this son receives such a lavish welcome on his return without even having to grovel! At least a part of me is with that older brother in pitching a fit and staying away from the party.

One of the insights from our pastor’s message this past Sunday that really helps me is to see how both of the sons are lost. What they share in common is that both are lost in selfishness. In different ways, each is a prisoner of his own self-absorption. They are different only in the way they express it, which might help explain why the older brother is upset. Down deep, I suspect the older brother was confronting the reality of his own selfishness in that of his brother, but didn’t want to see it.

Rembrandts-The-Return-of-the-Prodigal-Son1

Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son

Both brothers are absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of any concern for either their father or their other brother and for the future of their family. The younger brother essentially wishes his father dead and wants the present value of his inheritance now, not willing to share in his older brother’s labors that might have enhanced it. All he cares for it seems is maximizing his pleasure in the moment. Even his approach to his father, as repentant as it is, masks a shrewd appraisal that he might do better as a servant in his father’s home than he is feeding the pigs.

The older brother is lost in self absorption as well. He is absorbed in his personal rectitude and his resentment of the younger brother. Seeing his father’s distress, he makes no effort to find his younger brother. And when the younger brother finds his way home, he seethes in anger both against his brother and his father for not throwing him a feast, when he could have had this at any time!

There are so many ways I can be lost to the captivity of selfishness! There are so many ways I create a cosmos that revolves around closing myself off to God and others! In the end we dehumanize ourselves, whether in unrestrained hedonism or an ugly self-righteousness that is both angry and envious toward those who don’t match our personal rectitude. I vacillate between “I want what’s mine!” and cries of “It’s not fair!”

Rich pointed out that it is easy in this story to try to identify which brother we are most like. But identifying the kind of selfish we are can do little to liberate us from being lost in selfishness. The only thing left for us is to stop focusing on ourselves and rather on the Father who is truly extravagant in love. Both sons lived in a “zero sum game” world. By contrast, the Father is one who is extravagant in love, who always has enough to go around and who would much rather throw parties for those liberated from lostness than leave either son on the outside.

I’m struck that in Christmas, we celebrate this extravagant, prodigal love. The birth of Jesus reflects this collusion of Father and Son to rescue us in all the ways we are lost in self-absorption. Jesus becomes the truly loving and righteous Elder Brother and Father’s Son who rejoices not in condemning people in their failure but in finding lost people and restoring them to the Father.

Christmas is rightly a time of parties. It rightly reflects the parties of heaven over the lost who are found by the Savior whose birth we celebrate. The question for each of us is will we turn from our own forms of self-absorption to join the Father’s party or will we remain on the outside, a party of one in a cosmos centered around self?

[This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.]

Crying Out Day and Night For Justice

I never saw this before.

This past Sunday, I preached on the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8. I’ve often heard others preach, and have myself taught the message of this parable that we should “always pray and not give up” (v. 1). I’ve thought in terms of things like seeing people come to faith, praying for the sick, praying about needs related to our work and our lives. I don’t think that is wrong, but as I studied this parable I was struck by the fact that the widow was seeking justice from the unjust judge (v. 3). Furthermore, in Jesus’s own application of the parable verse 7 says, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” Verse 8 reinforces this theme: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

One of the basic things I learned about Bible study years ago was to pay attention to repeated words. They are a clue to what the writer or speaker considers important. Clearly in this passage, one of the things Jesus considers important is justice, and praying for it.

In recent months and weeks, we’ve been inundated with news stories about the death of a young black man in Ferguson, a black youth in Cleveland, and an older black man in New York City. In two of these cases, local grand juries refused to charge police with any wrongful death and there has been a great outcry in the press and in social media either decrying the injustice of these decisions and the deaths that occurred at the hands of police, or in defending the police officers, who often put themselves at risk in protecting public safety and have to make split second decisions that, if wrong, may cost them their lives or the lives of others.

While I personally have decided that it is fruitless to raise my voice on one “side” of this discussion or the other in social media, I will say a couple things. One is there is something wrong with this pattern with so many dying in the streets, some at the hands of police. It is clear to me that we still are a racially divided society. If nothing, the vehemence in the outcries on both sides of the discussion reveal we are a long way from what Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned as “the beloved community.”

It seems to me that in the predominantly white church community (the one I know best) we either resort to attempts at personal justification (“I’m not racist” or “I’m personally colorblind”). Or we attempt to join and justify one side of the outcry, and, from what I can see, simply perpetuate and deepen the divisions in our society.

None of this is to say that the bereaved and their communities shouldn’t pursue justice nor that police shouldn’t be supported in their hard work. In fact, in a society where the rule of law is upheld, our legal system should be the place where these things are adjudicated, and it is right for those who believe that justice is denied to continue to pursue it via legal means. It’s not a perfect system, but the best we humans can devise in a fallen world.

But the parable (remember the parable!) also exhorts us to prayer to God for justice as well. For those of us who are Christ-followers, obedience to Jesus means that we keep praying for justice. Our first work in these matters is to seek the Lord. But the parable also says it is to be our persisting work. And this is where I fall down. I see advances in civil rights. I see a president of African-American descent in the White House. I mistake progress toward King’s “dream” with fulfillment. And I stop praying.

What the succession of events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York do is challenge me to renew my efforts in prayer and become aware that this is an area where persistence is vital. As I look for God’s answers, such praying can also change me. Praying helps me listen both for God’s invitations to join him in pursuit of the “beloved community” and opens my ears and my heart to listen to other voices than simply the ones that most resonate with me, voices that need to be heard if real reconciliation and not simply self-justification are to occur.

I’ve concluded that I need to persist in crying out to the Lord to bring justice (all that that means) into the racial divides in our country. I pray the Lord’s prayer each morning and night. As I pray, “Thy kingdom come” I will include in my prayers the coming of Jesus’s just rule into our racially divided land. It occurs to me that I could be praying that the rest of my life. I hope not, but Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” What sustains our persistence over that “long arc” is the promise of a God who will grant justice, who will bring a kingdom of shalom.

Going Deeper question: For what do you believe God wants you to persist in prayer? How is a concern for justice a part of that?

This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.

______ and Believe

Are you curious about the missing word in this title? It is a word we often associate with “turn or burn” street preachers. It’s not a word we tend to use in “polite company” (whatever that is!). It is the word, along with “believe” that distinguished the tax collectors and the prostitutes from the religious elite that our pastor talked about in a message on the parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32. It is the word “repent.

The tax collectors and prostitutes are likened by Jesus to a son who refuses to work in his father’s vineyard but then changes his mind and goes to work. The religious elite are compared to a son who says he will go and work in the vineyard but never shows up. I can personally imagine the religious elite railing on Jesus saying, “Look at all we do. We lead worship, we teach the people, we work hard in maintaining the building whereas all these people did was change their minds and believed in you after living really seedy lives. And you have the nerve to compare us to disobedient sons!”

I can sympathize with these guys because I don’t often think about how hard it is to admit that I’m on the wrong path and change my mind and embrace a different way of life, or even a different way of thinking. That’s what both John the Baptist and Jesus were saying to both the “sinners” and the “religious elite.” That’s what it means to repent. It means doing a 180 degree turn in my thinking and actions. This was brought home to me recently when I read a post on “Books that changed my mind.” I had to honestly admit that I couldn’t think of a book that “changed” my mind, although I can think of books that have influenced my thinking and that I’ve deeply appreciated. For that matter, how many of us have changed our minds about our politics, or even what our favorite pizza is?

I can imagine these religious elite folks hearing John the Baptist or even Jesus and going through the motions of repenting and believing and calling up the appropriate religious emotions. After all, “repent and believe” was a part of the religious lingo they’ve learned from Moses and the prophets. But they refused to hear and believe the invitation in “repent and believe” that urged them to give up their elaborate religious system to welcome their King and come to his parties (actually, they did sometimes but mostly to find fault).

If change is so hard, I wonder then why the tax collectors and prostitutes were so willing to change and to believe the invitation to enter the kingdom? I can’t help but wonder if part of this is that they know their lives aren’t OK and perhaps long ago had given up hope that they’d be included in any plan of God other than their destruction–and then along comes this astounding figure of Jesus (and John before him) who said that being part of God’s kingdom was for them if they’d stop doing life their way and trust in Jesus’s way of doing life.

One of the things we say about those who get older is that they become “set in their ways.” Guilty as charged! There are patterns of life, of speaking, of thinking, and yes, patterns of self-seeking, and sin that are part of how I do life. Yet the truth of the matter is that I have the temerity to serve in a Christian ministry, even in a leadership role in that ministry! I desperately need the word of “repent and believe” or I can easily start thinking that my religious performance, my years of service, my degrees and recognitions, or even the size of my library (!) are what make me special. I can be that religious elite!

Repentance and belief do not mean the radical transformation of all these patterns overnight or even by the end of a life. Rich helpfully observed that the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented may not have been able to leave their work, particularly the prostitutes who might be enslaved to a pimp. The tax collectors had obligations to Rome. A change of mind may not always mean a change of situation and it may be that the first changes Jesus wants to work in us may have nothing to do with the things we think need changing! It may mean that I become more gracious toward the failings of others having faced the failings in my own life!

Am I tolerating or excusing sin by saying this? I could be, but repentance is to embrace the obedience that trustingly follows Jesus and mourns my sin. And belief is daring to trust in an acceptance into God’s kingdom that rests not on religious performance or “sin management’. How repentance changes things is that I stop pretending to be better than I am and admit that I am probably worse off than I think, and yet for all that radically loved and accepted by God because of Jesus.

I guess if I had to choose a way to be “set” in as I get older, it is the way of repentance and belief! How about you?

This blog first appeared on my church’s Going Deeper Blog on November 19, 2014.

The Mystery of Growth

James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pastor Rudy preached this past Sunday on one of my favorite parables. It is brief and so I will quote it in full:

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29, NIV)

One of the things Rudy observed was the unusual character of Jesus ministry. If he was going to introduce the “kingdom of God” into the world, he seemed to have an odd way of doing it. He calls a group of followers from the margins of life–working class guys, tax collectors, zealots–not the best and the brightest by worldly standards. Instead of marshaling political power or training a militia, Jesus preaches the fulfillment of God’s covenant law and promise to Israel in his person, and exemplifies it through healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and caring for those on the margins. He succeeds in forming a ragtag group of followers and so provokes the powers that be that they kill him. What kind of growth strategy is that?

It’s the strategy of someone who trusts in the mystery of growth, who knows that he is sowing good seed, and that it will result in a harvest. Jesus knew that the words that he had sown, his investment in the Twelve, and the sowing of his own life (cf. John 12:24) was good seed. As crazy as it seemed, as mysterious as the growth process might be, growth and a harvest were inevitable.

Rudy explored our anxieties about growth in the life of the church. At times we can be fearful where we see decline or nothing seems to  be happening. Sometimes we lose heart and just circle the wagons with the few and faithful. Equally, our anxieties can move us to driven and frenetic activity that assumes that if we do the right things, we can make the church grow. Neither is appropriate for people who have the good seed of the good news of the kingdom.

Rather, like good farmers, we keep sowing, and keep tending the farm. We understand what our part is and what is God’s part in this growth process. There is a place for both faith and faithfulness. Good farming involves hard work and yet no farmer considers a harvest guaranteed simply because of having done the hard work. Harvest comes through the mystery of growth. I’m struck with the phrase, “whether he sleeps or gets up.” Farmers know they have work to do in the day, and trust the process of growth as they sleep each night. And they are watchful. They expect a harvest and watch the crop for that moment when it reaches the proper ripeness.

This is a word I need in several ways:

1. I’m actually part of a “growth” initiative in the ministry I work with. I need to remember that the message of the kingdom of Jesus is good seed and that the strategies we pursue reflect faith and faithfulness in looking to God for growth. This frees us from the pressure of “making it happen” that releases us to the faithfulness of hard work and the trustfulness that rests in the mystery of growth.

2. Like the farmer, I need to remember that growth takes time. I’m struck that it is easy for me to be tempted to give up too soon when I don’t immediately see growth. Instead of faithfully tending the work, it can be tempting to try the latest “new thing.” Sometimes this is like plowing over a field just when seedlings are emerging. Similarly, the Word takes time to grow in people. It sure has in me!

3. Finally, this parable raises the question of expectancy. Am I looking for the growth of the kingdom, whether it is the ripening understanding of the gospel that results in a person coming to faith, or the growth of a community in the depth and breadth of its work as it listens to and enters into the words and life of Jesus?

We all live toward some vision of the good life. Rudy’s message encourages me to live toward the mysterious yet inevitable growth of the kingdom of Jesus that challenges me to the hard and expectant work and the carefree rest of someone who trusts the good and powerful King.

This blog also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog.

Everything Matters

Rich, in his concluding message in the series on “The Christian and…” this past Sunday began the sermon with the assertion that everything we do as Christians matters and ended with the question, “does my life matter or not?” My immediate response to this is “of course!” And it makes me wonder why we have spent a whole summer considering as a church how all of life matters and how becoming more like Christ relates to every aspect of our lives. It seems to me that this should be as plain as the nose on my face.

Except that it isn’t.

Why is that? I think there are two reasons. The first is one basic to our nature as fallen creatures whose ingrained habit of living is to close God out of our lives except when we are really desperate. There is a part of me that resists God’s gracious overtures to make sense out of my life and to fashion me into a “little Christ” who is at the same time the unique person God intends me to be. Sometimes, the visceral response to these overtures is one of “sez who?” or maybe slightly more politely, “I can do it myself”. Sometimes I even pursue the really mixed up strategy of trying to meet the radical demands of following Jesus without his radical help. Call it being the male macho cowboy or whatever you will, I keep wanting to limit the places I let Jesus  into when he in fact is saying, “it all matters to me”. Too often, I only realize this only when I royally screw up!

The other reason is an external one. The “water we swim in” is a society that has made sharp divisions between public and private, secular and sacred that confines the expression of our faith to the private parts of life. Have you noticed how some recent public discourse no longer talks about freedom of religion but “freedom of worship?” There is a subtle message in this that says, “you may practice your faith in the privacy of your home, your car, and your church, but don’t let it intrude into any part of public life.”

In the university setting where I work, I sometimes ask graduate students if they ever stop to pray when confronted with a tough research problem or give thanks when they have a breakthrough. Do they pray about a seminar in which they will present, or for students as they grade their papers or prepare for office hours? Sometimes, I’m confronted by a blank stare that says, “I never thought of this before.” I suspect at least part of this is that we are all tempted to “go into secular mode” when we arrive at work.

Rich’s “principles and practices” seemed to me to offer helpful ways to lives as someone for whom everything matters that deal both with my resistance to following Jesus and with the false dichotomy between sacred and secular in our society. He challenged us to the principles of an integrity where the private and public part of our lives are consistent with each other, to be wise in recognizing that Christ does not call us to a life that defies the capacities and competencies he has given us, to allow Christ rather than the cultures of family, workplace, community or even church to shape us, and to rely on the resources of God in scripture, Spirit, and Christian community to live Christ-shaped lives. And he challenged us to the practices of examining our use of our time and claiming it for what matters, to creating routines that sustain us, to being defined in relationship to Christ rather than giving our identities to persons or forces like our jobs to shape us, and to live attentively.

This last one has seemed particularly important to me. Dallas Willard often advised those who sought his advice on living well to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” from their lives. Hurry seems to me to be what keeps me from living attentively to both my insides and my external circumstances and the life Jesus is inviting me into in all of life. When I am hurrying through my life, I stop asking questions like “is this something that really matters to Jesus, something he wants me to do?”, “how does this matter to Jesus?”, “how might I act as someone whose life and character matters to Jesus?”

Reality for followers of Jesus is that our lives and everything we do in our bodies in this life matter deeply to him. It seems that it all comes down to whether we will live in the shadow worlds of secularity and human rebellion or the bright and good reality of Jesus where everything in our lives matters.

This blog is also posted at Going Deeper, a blog reflecting on messages at our church each week.

Worked to Death

I never had a father-in-law. My wife’s father passed away a few months before we got engaged. Her uncle walked her down the aisle. Listening to my wife’s stories, I wish I’d had the time to get to know him better. He was a blue collar worker in a manufacturing plant in Youngstown. He retired early on disability. In many ways, work took a severe toll on his body, and he died within a few years of retirement. It didn’t happen to everyone, but it is the story of many men in his generation, subject to physically demanding work and exposed to numerous chemical toxins before we knew the effects they could have.

Rich’s sermon this past Sunday explored the ways that work and death have been intertwined since the “crash”, as Rich put it. Adam and Eve refused to work God’s way by working to be like gods through partaking of the tree instead of working in trusting dependence upon God to sustain their lives. Instead of work being a kind of joyful and playful tending of God’s delightful world, it becomes hard and toilsome. Work itself wasn’t “the curse” but work came under the curse of a fallen existence running down toward death.

Work was a good thing that got messed up. Down inside us we still have this drive to use skill and intelligence to do something really well, whether it is to repair an automobile or mobilize a community service project, to write elegant computer code or to intelligently manage an organization. Yet even our noblest efforts seem fraught with difficulty. I work in a collegiate ministry I love with a wonderful team of students and colleagues. Yet death in various forms intrudes: a colleague or their spouse faces a serious illness, we subject ourselves to destructive anxiety in juggling competing demands, miscommunications and misunderstandings arise that gnaw at the pit of your stomach, or a piece of office hardware dies just before an important conference.

I was also challenged by the thought that our work may be part of a system that contributes to the death of others. As Ben noted, the computer I am writing this post on may have been made under terrible working conditions, as is much of the computer and communications technology we use. In some cases, the factory conditions have been so bad and the constraints on workers so great that some have concluded the only way out is to take one’s own life. It’s complicated sometimes–maybe the major thing we can do is communicate our concerns with vendors we most work with. I have known faculty who chose lines of research not funded by defense budgets or that had applications that could contribute, as far as they could tell, to killing.

Yet I also think we need to exercise care and humility as we talk about this with thoughtful Christians in the military, defense-related work or who serve as peace officers. For many, their work is focused on preventing war or guarding the law-abiding so far as that’s humanly possible in a fallen world and protecting the innocent when it is not. One of the things I wonder about for those of us in the ‘peace church’ tradition is how we might engage with thoughtful Christians who believe they are fulfilling their calling in Christ in defense or police work, even if we believe we may not join them. How do we deal with the fact that we may benefit from efforts we cannot in good conscience engage? It seems that we cannot help but be implicated in these systems that arise in a fallen world. Sadly, the tragedy of the intertwined nature of work and death is that even our best attempts often end badly and technology designed for good may nevertheless by used to kill. We might cut our losses (and should), but we can’t fix this thing. We need salvation in the ultimate sense!

Rich pointed out that we live between the world that is and the world that is to come. He concluded with some thoughts about working in light of the world to come. I wonder if one of the things this means is the recovery of the joyful, playful, and creative aspects of our work wherever possible in ways that bring the blessing of God to others. It can be joyful and fun to leave a generous tip at a restaurant, as Rich mentioned. It can be creative and life-giving to find ways in the company we work for to ensure that all our workers get a living wage. I wonder sometimes for those of us who seek to address the problems of the world whether an over-seriousness betrays inordinate and death-dealing anxiety. Where is the place for joyfulness and playfulness in these efforts? Isn’t there joy in any work done that saves or brings life? A simple example for me is the joy and laughter I’ve often experienced at our food pantry as we’ve sorted food we haven’t worked for and help people cart box loads of that food to their cars. Hunger and poverty are serious yet our joy and laughter point to the generosity of a God who meets us at our place of need and brokenness. And don’t we mimic the Creator when we pause after a work-day, or a performance, or when we’ve completed a piece of work that has gone well, and just savor the goodness?

By this we say that death doesn’t have the last word in our work, but the life of the world to come.

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper Blog