Monday, July 24, 2017

God’s Use of and Delight in ‘the Least of These’

“Who would make good helpers, do you think? Clever ones? Rich ones? Strong, important ones? Some people might think so, but I’m sure by now you don’t need me to tell you they’d be wrong. Because the people God uses don’t have to know a lot of things, or have a lot of things — they just have to need him a lot.”
— Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible
NOT great things. Ordinary things, by definition. Banal things. Boring. Unattractive. These are the things of the Kingdom. They hold no attraction for those setting their sights on nobility. Those with lofty goals, who may not have read Jeremiah 45:1-5 recently.
I know that too often I am one of them. A person who covets too much to be used ‘greatly’. And each time I do I miss the sense of truth that God uses ordinary people like you and me every day, especially when we’re unsuspecting. We can be, and are, the least of these when we relinquish the chase.
To be used greatly is to shun the limelight. Where we place ourselves in positions where we’re easy to reject. And there are many of those situations. Actually, we cannot avoid them. We only have to have been a Christian for a little while to see how worldly Christians can be, notwithstanding the world that would diss us without a thought or care. Perhaps we’re more covetous than ever, but our humanity would suggest there’s nothing new under the sun.
God will use the rejected much more than he will use those who are favoured in this world. Think of situations where people might not reach out the hand of compassion. Their condemnation is in their own choice.
So far as the Kingdom is concerned, God uses greatly only those who are both destitute and those who serve the destitute. One is used as an instrument for sifting the righteous from the unrighteous. The other is used as the hands and feet of Jesus. Forget the glamour of ministry with a million likes and a church of hundreds or thousands, being an iconoclast leader. That desire will melt away as vanity before His glory in eternity, and be shown for what is was; the sinful nature emblazoned at the height of its pride.
One thing the destitute and those who serve the destitute have in common: they need God a lot.
Whose is the Kingdom? Those who are poor in spirit. (Matthew 5:3)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

How Must It Feel to be ‘Welcomed’ But Not ‘Affirmed’?

ALLEGIANCE. Swap faith in the sentence ‘salvation by faith alone’ to allegiance — salvation by allegiance alone. Self, this is a thesis by Matthew Bates. It reminds me of a chunkier more concrete way of loyalty for the gift of grace — I give Jesus my allegiance, reminiscent of His own imperative, “Follow me,” as I reciprocate His love by doing just that: I follow Him. As Andy Stanley might say, the acid-test is on me, the Christian. All non-Christians are absolved.
What is a disciple of Christ, but a learner? They cannot help but be open to learning, for they’re following Jesus. The extension of following Jesus is I don’t know where He’s taking me; my allegiance truly is by faith, knowing He is absolutely trustworthy. He, the Word, is the lamp to my feet. Every single step. As a repentant sinner, I’m helpless without Him, yet spiritually invincible with Him. And in following Jesus I’m to follow no other.
So often as a ‘follower’ of Christ, however, I forget how much Jesus included those whose lives were running off the rails. He sought them out. He risked His life to talk with them and to help them. He spent time with them, reclining and eating of all things, in a culture where eating with people said so much about how you felt about them. He healed them repeatedly, and often Jesus found in the broken person a receptive heart — a heart just waiting to be loved, to be sought out, to be redeemed — a heart ready to give allegiance. The allegiant person is spiritually poor, and it’s only the gospel of Jesus that flips many realities — hence, the poor in Jesus are infinitely and eternally rich. The Jesus I follow isn’t a rhetorician nor a lobbyist nor a spin-doctor. I might ponder Him as a rabbi, but the truth is, He transcends description. And, as the gospels seem to have it, His love always flew in the face of the religious elite whose piety was so off-course.
Now I come to an issue that has bamboozled me a long time: people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex. One step further and we’re into the same-sex marriage debate. Don’t worry, I’m not going there!
A Christian frame-of-reference is the well-worn term, ‘welcoming but not affirming’.
‘Welcoming but not affirming’ seems to have become a mantra from the book by the same title by Stanley J. Grenz. In some ways, the mantra has skewed over time what appears to be the original intent of Grenz. It has come to be used as a way of discriminating in terms of discipleship, at least it’s seen that way by those affected, not simply to disaffirm same-sex unions.
Over time God has put me into dialogue with a few (doesn’t have to be many) individuals who fit either loosely or tightly in the LGBTQI community. Not through what they said, but more through what I felt, I sensed them experiencing the conditional love in that turn-of-phrase, and the outworking of conditional acceptance, that I doubt could ever be a reflection of God’s love for them. I have heard some say they couldn’t set foot in a church that brandished such a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ vision. I think we need something better, more loving, more unifying, and more Christlike, than welcoming but not affirming. Sorry, I don’t have the answer. I feel God bringing me again to a place where the complexities perplex my urge for simplistic answers. And I cannot suppose churches aren’t very well intentioned in coming to that theological position. After all, many expect churches to state their purposes; to come to a landing on where they stand.
I sense that a person in the LGBTQI grouping takes ‘welcoming but not affirming’ to mean, ‘we welcome you, but we do not affirm you,’ instead of what it’s supposed to mean, ‘we welcome you, but we do not affirm of your lifestyle.’ I know that if I am welcomed, but part of me is unwelcome, I do not feel welcome. So much can come down to dichotomies of view regarding sin. And there’s the issue: something so central to another person is viewed as sin. For them it’s more than an insult. It’s damning, and it offers them no semblance of hope. It’s damning, and for many people in the LGBTQI grouping Christianity might as well be damned as a result. I can begin to understand. It saddens me when the church does not reach people for Christ.
As a church, I think we need to do better than say we welcome but do not affirm — and leaving it open to confusion. On the surface, it appears well-thought-out, as a direct response to the issue of marriage that departs from the biblical ideal (man and woman). I think the common person sees right through it, however, when they begin engaging with someone whose life is affected. Sure, it fits with biblical sensibilities, but it isn’t the fullest measure of the love of Christ, which is a love that trusts that the Holy Spirit works best when I get out of the way; when I focus on how loveable the other person truly is, in the sight of God; when I worship God by how devotedly I love others. Others argue that truth is part of love, that tough love is part of love, and I can only agree. But there is also much more to love than that.
When I place myself in the situation of the person who has lived their whole life wondering if they’ll ever be ‘worthy’ of love outside their minority group I’m saddened. I begin to think of this kind of person who, like me, is made in the image of God. The person whose life hangs by the thread of acceptance, only to be severed by the scissors of rejection the moment they have the authenticity and courage (or audacity, if I feel threatened) to be honest. The person in dire need of Christ, Whose love is the only saving love they’ll ever know. The person God has put in my midst to love, when I may struggle to muster such compassion, even though that’s my job (as an allegiant one) to issue compassion to ‘the least of these’. This is not easy. I’m on a journey to somewhere better — for them, for me, for God.
What about the son or daughter, the husband or wife, the father or mother, the brother or sister who has wrestled with their reality for years, if not decades, and in some cases their entire lifetime. Would I quietly cast them off — out of the family or community or friendship circle? Or, as with so many, do they begin to challenge my perceptions? Is God working within my repentance (for I can only do my own)? The theodicy is that they wrestle, like those with chronic pain or a grief that never ends, for how many of them would not otherwise choose to be ‘normal’? (This is not said as a slight on anyone who identifies as one within the broad LGBTQI grouping.)
That’s my question of myself… how must it feel to be welcomed but not affirmed? I think I have some vague idea, because I’ve experienced somewhat the unbiblical exclusivity of church, but nothing like the person who feels estranged not just from church but from much of society as well. What such a person — every person — needs, is the church. The church should be the sanctuary of peace for all persons. A place where all persons, no matter their particular brokenness, can be discipled with grace.
As an allegiant, surely it beckons me most to love without condition.
As an allegiant, could it be that God is asking me to ponder what it might feel like to be a bearer of His image and someone of LGBTQI orientation? I think so. That my care might rise to the worthiness of love. That no matter the nuance of my theology that I’d be affirming of an LGBTQI person, as they are, and in that way, be accepting of them.
And I also found this video that I find directs me in the way I should think and act.
Just as I was finishing this reflection I wondered how I could illustrate the topic. I looked outside my window and saw a man practicing walking a tightrope. God provides. I went over and asked him if I could take and use the photo above. He had no objections.
I find being Christian in this age of same-sex marriage, and the linking of LGBTQI issues, akin to walking a tightrope. What I need most is balance.
Jesus, please give me the balance of wisdom to love the marginalised well. Amen.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Best Parts About Becoming an Old Man

FIFTY. Sounds old. Is old. Should feel bad. But, doesn’t. Incredible. Compared with turning forty. What a paradox.
Without any doubt, the fiftieth year has been the most challenging. I’ve been reduced to the boy more this past year than any other adult year — I think. I’ve had to let go of pride. No great loss. Made better for surviving a series of trivial humiliations. Letting go of things that were never mine. Letting go of other things that were only mine yet should never have been.
I had my midlife crisis at forty. Two months of depression leading up to the day 40 came. My poor new wife had no idea who I really was. Frightening for her and I alike. Kicked in the pants by a shrewd therapist (which was what I needed) on August 9, 2007. Then God put the lights on again through Proverbs — an eighteen-month adventure of mystery and discovery that created within me the passion to write. Haven’t stopped since. And all I did was read Proverbs eighteen times. But one thing I’ve learned: never say never, though I’ve had to learn that again and again. I’ve had to accept, in some areas, I’m a slow learner; an early adopter, but a slow learner.
The period of the past 343 days or so has encapsulated a massive excursion of reflection — of positive cognisance of who I am, rather than what I hadn’t achieved (which led to the calamity at 40). God took me out of the arena for such a time as this has been, and He plunged me into another, the Refiner’s fire. It’s like turning 49 was serendipitously the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I still cannot explain it. It’s how God works in my life; the miraculous is blissfully inexplicable, often borne through the bowels of pain.
I promised myself I’d get in shape. My diet has changed a lot during the past twelve months. Some patterns for health established. But more than that. I’m in better shape for the things I’ve had to do that I didn’t want to do; for the times I’ve found myself at the end of myself, with no empathy for the pathetic shadow I’d become. Each time though, without knowing how or why, God resurrected me, without my even anticipating it. I didn’t get what I deserved. (I deserved dirt.) I ended up so much better off. Each and every time.
I’ve read and listened to a lot of Richard Rohr, Paul Washer, Jean Vanier, David Platt, Eugene Peterson, A.W. Tozer, Charles Swindoll, Henri Nouwen. A diverse range of voices. I’m trying to let go of my dualistic thinking, living more intentionally for eternity. But I still judge too quickly, too often. Yet I accept that if I’m not there at fifty maybe I’m not meant to be. And still I’m becoming more aware.
I’ve learned to place my mind in environments my mind doesn’t like. To heal my heart of its predilection for comfort I’ve come to learn something. I’m becoming healed by enduring the humiliation of the things I hate. Healed by being immersed in what I’d prefer to reject. Voices of others I don’t like. Bearing them. Views of people that are opposite to mine. Appreciating them. Learning a grace that only God can give me. A peacemaking grace. The grace of taking my time, of others taking their time, of suffering the indignity of patience. Pouring contempt on my not-so-inconsiderable pride.
Over the past decade, God has shown me the importance of holding my death near. Having a young child has accelerated the urgency to stay alive. I think about my eternal destiny more now than ever, about when I’m gone, but my quest for making the most of the living moment has also been an undulating journey. The beauty in a thought-free, sensual consciousness, where God exists and that’s all that matters.
So, with just 22 days until I become a quinquagenarian I’m comfortable in my body, mind and soul. Comfortable in my discomfort. Contented in my little story.
Mystery awaits. Hope abides. Ignorance allowed. Serenity remains. Amid letting go.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Brief Discussion On the Cost/Benefit of Discipleship

FROM whom great things are required, boundless rewards are offered, if the One who makes the rules is just. That is what every disciple of Jesus Christ has agreed, by faith, is the case. But we inevitably fall short. And still the rewards are unfathomably good:
“Anyone who counts the cost of discipleship has completely failed to grasp the greatness of the reward.”
— Francis Wright Beare
And yet discipleship — to follow Christ; with persistence and perseverance; growing in faith and repentance; all the years of our lives — demands everything we have and all that we are. A cost no less than this bears heavily on the graveness of the decision we first made; the ignorant precedent-for-faith that cast the die for the thousands of decisions to come; or, the fully-informed and well-intentioned decision made by the unction of the Holy Spirit.
Consider the fact that with each decision there’s the continual threat of our unfaithfulness.
And yet none of that matters, because of what Christ has done. None of our obedience matters, due the grace of God that saves us, yet it all matters, because we’re saved by grace through faith; not works per se, but true faith is visible through the fruit we bear.
Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13 confirms it. Only the seed sown in good soil produces a crop that manifests abundantly, one hundred, sixty, and thirtyfold yields.
The desire to be fruitful connects with discipleship. Belief in the ends secures the means.
Discipleship is not seen as a cost for the person who’s had their heart transformed.
That’s the fundamental difference and benefit between God’s seed sown in good soil versus His seed sown on the rock-hard path, in rocky ground or thorny soil.
The cost of discipleship is in so many ways only a consideration for those who are still wrestling with the benefit of discipleship. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit we never have our relationship with Christ so much together as to never count the cost. The fact is discipleship does cost. Perseverance is always required; to the end (Matthew 24:13).
We count that cost most when life is especially tough — when we’re growing most in Christ. Yet, there’s also a time when we’re humble enough to thrive on tests because we don’t consider ourselves better than for testing. But pride is known to rise, and counting the cost is normative for our writhing flesh.
A disciple of Jesus is someone who knows who they are, in Christ, but also in reality. They keep both truths in the forefront of their mind. They treasure both truths in their heart. That knowledge convicts them, because who they are about is holiness and sin. It convicts them toward change and transformation because of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Why You’ve Never Lived Until You’ve Been Undone By Loss

NOT everyone who reads the title of this article will agree, and many will disagree with its content. But I write out of experience, and my experience is pretty much a Gospel experience; one that millions have come to attest to in their experience.
I don’t title the article glibly or proudly. For me, it’s a statement of fact. I spent my first thirty-six-years-and-six-weeks oblivious to this reality. I was a shell compared with who I am now.
This article is inspired by this one. One of the most truth-filled articles I’ve ever read. I would commend you to read that one before you read further, here. But it’s up to you.
Here goes. You will understand this if you’ve been wrecked by loss. You will not understand this if you’ve not yet suffered the anguish of something you cannot fix, ever.
Paradoxically, this article is written not for the person who already knows, but for the one who may yet one day experience that which turns life from day to night as a precedence for the dawning of a brand-new day, a majestic solstice.
Loss obliterates the life that entertains it has control over life.
That is the purpose of loss — to bring us headlong before an incontrovertible truth. Until we’re power-slammed by the grief outbound of loss we don’t understand the true depths and heights of life; until then, we evade reality. And even as we faceplant the bitumen and are dazed by severe realities we couldn’t previously predict were possible, something truly remarkable may occur, if we descend the cavernous abyss with courage enough to place our faith in God.
Loss teaches us that we do not control life. This is an essential lesson to learn; the earlier in adult life (preferably) the better. But, with loss must come a faith that something makes the loss meaningful. It’s not a faith that believes it’s enough simply to get through the grief, but it’s a faith that says, “I believe God will eventually show me more of the life there is, here in this physical world, as I endure this pain; as I accept it even through occasionally resenting it; as I come to the end of myself, again and again, over and over.”
Suddenly, out of loss, we read our Bibles with focused lenses, ever more spiritually attuned to the words that God has breathed His fresh life into. Those lines read differently and the themes spring forth. Suddenly the Old Book has immortal value.
Loss challenges every single assumption we ever made. It overturns the theology we had come to understand and realigns it with the great biblical narrative that we hadn’t until now recognized.
Until I had suffered the compendium of losses that I did in 2003 I had no idea, and had no real care, for the levels and the extent of suffering that pervades much of the world. Loss taught me compassion. It broadened my horizons. It taught me a deeper dignity for life. It created within me an interest in life that had not until that time been there. It sparked something in my consciousness; it honed my conscience. It was the redeeming of my heart and my mind, making me to feel and to think as the Redeemer would have me to feel and think.
Loss also taught me that everyone suffers. If not yet, some time soon. Loss catches up with every single soul. And it always comes as a shock, rudely entering at the most inopportune time, taking no prisoners. Reflecting on this truth breeds within a thinking person great empathy for the human condition. We’re born into this life and grow and develop in ways that produce great joy. But life is also full of great sadness and unknowable sorrow. The heights of life and the depths of loss — the enigmatic range between them — are impossible to comprehend.
Loss takes us into mysteries that can never be explained. It forces us to mature. When our hearts shatter, our eyes and ears are opened. Our ignorance is challenged and our arrogance is stymied. Loss humbles us. It makes us realer persons. Praise God.
Our modern way has been to shun anything that kills our pleasure; that inflicts pain. But the way life works in this world isn’t like that at all. We cannot bear misery, but the fact we have misery shows that God has made a way beyond it. Jesus came to show us.
This fact ought to encourage you: life begins (again) at loss; God’s compensation for what we must go through. Not a life the world considers a life. Not that ‘life’. It’s a life characterized by the capacity to bear raw reality. That’s life — not pleasure, but to live it real.